Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Thanks for playing

March 31

For the past two weeks I've been asking Food Writer's Diary readers to guess about what percentage of Dunkin’ Donuts’ revenue comes from donuts.

Here’s how many of you guessed what:
12 percent: 10 (26%)
28 percent: 19 (50%)
53 percent: 8 (21%)
82 percent: 1 (2%)

The answer, according to recent information from Dunkin’ Donuts, is 12 percent.
So now you know.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Beard handicapping ’09

March 29

I’m writing this blog entry, a few days later than I should be, from the Rome airport. The nominations for the James Beard Foundation Awards always seem to come out when I’m out of the country, meaning I’m late in telling you who’s going to win them.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit arrogant. In the past two years I’ve guessed 7 out of 19 awards correctly, each year, which doesn’t exactly make me Nostradamus, but if you put it in baseball terms it's batting 368, which is pretty good.
My predictions are based basically on the fact that I cynically believe that the Beard awards are a popularity contest based not on the winners' abilities but on whether or not the cadre of journalists and past winners who vote for them feel good about them on some other level. So my predictions are knee-jerk reactions based on the buzz that’s in the air about the chefs, restaurants and other nominees in question, except for a couple which are just flat-out guesses.
In no way, by any stretch of the imagination, should anyone infer that the people I’m guessing will win are the people (or restaurants) I think should win. All the nominees that I know are terrific people (or restaurants), consummate professionals and every bit as worthy of recognition as anyone else.
And now, my predictions:

Outstanding Chef:
José Andrés
Dan Barber
Tom Colicchio
Suzanne Goin
Paul Kahan

Outstanding Restaurant:
Fore Street
Highlands Bar & Grill
Jean Georges

Outstanding Restaurateur:
Tom Douglas
Keith McNally
Richard Melman
Drew Nieporent
Stephen Starr

Outstanding Service:
Emeril’s New Orleans
La Grenouille

Best New Restaurant:
The Bazaar by José Andrés,
Momofuku KO

Outstanding Pastry Chef :
Gina DePalma
Kamel Guechida
Pichet Ong
Nicole Plue
Mindy Segal

Rising Star:
Nate Appleman
Sean Brock
Johnny Monis
Gabriel Rucker
Michael Solomonov
Sue Zemanick

Wine & Spirits Professional:
Dale DeGroff
Merry Edwards
Garrett Oliver
John and Doug Shafer
Julian P. Van Winkle

Outstanding Wine Service:
Bin 36
Blackberry Farm
Le Bernardin
Picasso at Bellagio

Regional awards:
Great Lakes:
Koren Grieveson
Arun Sampanthavivat
Bruce Sherman
Michael Symon
Alex Young

Isaac Becker
Gerard Craft
Colby Garrelts
Tim McKee
Alexander Roberts

Rob Evans
Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier
Michael Leviton
Tony Maws
Marc Orfaly

New York City:
Michael Anthony
Terrance Brennan
Wylie Dufresne
Gabrielle Hamilton
Gabriel Kreuther

Cathal Armstrong
Jose Garces
Peter Pastan
Maricel Presilla
Vikram Sunderam

Hugh Acheson
Linton Hopkins
Mike Lata
Bill Smith
Bob Waggoner

Zach Bell
John Currence
John Harris
Douglas Rodriguez
Michael Schwartz

Paul Bartolotta
Sharon Hage
Ryan Hardy
Claude Le Tohic
Andrew Weissman

Jeremy Fox
Douglas Keane
Loretta Keller
David Kinch
Daniel Patterson

Maria Hines
Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez
Ethan Stowell
Cathy Whims
Jason Wilson

By the way, I did considerably better at predicting this year's nominees. I got a full three-quarters of them right, which doesn't show how smart I am, but how predictable these awards are.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Only time for a photo

March 27

I am in Italy, prisoner of the Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani, a horde of crazy U.S.-based Italian chefs who go to Italy one week a year and eat like they're never going to see food again.
Okay, maybe that's a bit unkind. Actually, it's totally inaccurate, the ramblings of someone trying to jot a few words before slipping into a food coma. The GRI is a group of charming and quite interesting restaurateurs, their friends and assorted others who choose one of Italy's 20 regions to visit each year and check out the food and wine there. I am one of their guests, along with some other journalists etc. The week's almost over and I doubt very seriously that I'll able to go into much detail about the adventure that has been my trip to Puglia (the heel and lower calf of the great Italian boot) before boarding a plane in Brindisi that will take me to Rome, where I will board a plane and fly home to New York.
But I wanted to check in with you, say hello, and let you know that I haven't forgotten about you, dear reader. I'll let you know of my adventures as soon as I can.
In the meantime, please enjoy this picture of an Adriatic monkfish.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Best of luck to Salma Abdelnour

March 19

I think a special bravery award should go to Salma Abdelnour, who yesterday gave notice to her bosses at O magazine, where she’s food editor, that she’s quitting to be a freelancer.
That’s right, she’s leaving a job in publishing of her own free will.
So, congratulations to her and best wishes; sometimes you just have to stare right in the face of danger and leap into the chasm.
Salma was at the Beard House last night along with the rest of an A-list of food writers that included Kate Krader from Food & Wine and The Great Melissa Clark, who was there armed with pictures of her adorable five-month-old daughter, Dahlia Beatrix.
Pat Cobe from Restaurant Business was there too.
It really was an impressive gathering for the Beard House, orchestrated by the Hall Company, who represent Zaré at Fly Trap, a restaurant in San Francisco that bills itself as serving Mediterranean cuisine with Persian influence.
But some of the Persians at the Beard House last night said a lot of the food was straight-up Persian, though I'm sure the grilled Alaska king salmon with toasted fregola, chermoula and raita was not.
That fish was served with a Tempranillo wine from Rioja (a 2000 Lopez Heredia “vina bosconia.”)
We were celebrating Norooz, or Persian New Year, which is on the first day of spring.

What else I ate:

hors d'oeuvres:
Marinated chickpeas with eggplant, Italian parsley and baby grapes
Roasted Italian eggplant with sundried yogurt and walnuts on toast
Pistachio meatballs with harissa-honey-pomegranate glaze
2000 Yarden blanc de blanc sparkling wine from the Galilee, Israel

Smoked trout with Persian cucumber “linguine”, trout roe and dill crème fraîche
2008 Sigalas Asyrtiko from Santorini, Greece

Ash é Reshteh — a stew of winter greens, beans and root vegetables
2006 Darioush Russian River Chardonnay

Kufteh Tabrizi: A double Niman Ranch lamb chop, preserved lime and turmeric broth, all encased in a giant kufteh-style casing, like a giant meatball, but with bones sticking out of it, served with an Iranian version of chutney and pickled string beans
1999 Château Musar Cabernet-Cinsault-Carignan, Lebanon

Maast é Keysehe — Yogurt panna cotta with white truffle honey and olive oil biscotti
2003 Clos du Papillon Savennierres

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Breakfast with Wolfgang

March 17
5:30 p.m.

Wolfgang Puck says a recession is, in fact, a great time to open a restaurant, because it requires that you be a great manager and provide great food and service (My colleague Mark Brandau points out that Anthony Bourdain more-or-less agrees).
Of course, it helps if you’re Wolfgang Puck and you get to pick and choose which of the offers for partnership that come in every day you accept.
One such offer he accepted was from the investors in the restaurant atop Dallas's Reunion Tower, who spent $20 million renovating the place, according to Puck, so he could open a restaurant. That restaurant, Five Sixty (named for its altitude), opened a couple of months ago.
Puck says they wanted him to open a steakhouse, but opening another steakhouse in Dallas seemed silly. Besides, Puck’s not going to sell steak that isn’t USDA Prime, and even though the price of Choice cuts are coming down, he said Prime prices are still insane, and now is not the time to open an uber-expensive restaurant.
Instead, Five Sixty is a riff on Puck’s Chinois on Main concept, with Shanghai lobster risotto and Sichuan peppercorn steak, a robata and sushi bar. The check average is around $60, which isn’t cheap, but it’s not steakhouse-expensive, either.
Puck was holding court at breakfast this morning, speaking of many things, ranging from his son’s college career (he’s a sophomore at my alma mater, Tufts, and just switched from the engineering school to the college of liberal arts, where he’s studying Russian literature and goodness knows what else) to the new bistro concept that he has opened in North Carolina (outside of Charlotte), and in Los Angeles (one downtown, another in Westlake Village), to the new 11-inch pizza line he is launching in supermarkets this month, replacing the nine-inch.
The bistro is fast-casual by day, full-on table service by night.
I learned other things about Wolfgang Puck, too:
• The first restaurant he remembers eating in when he arrived in the United States in 1973 was La Grenouille, in New York, immediately dispelling the myth then popular in France that there was no good food in the United States.
• The most successful concept in his restaurant empire is the cafe in the Denver Airport (at the United terminal), which grosses more than $4 million annually.
• Three years ago Puck realized that he didn’t like the music in his restaurants and wondered why he used the fish he liked and the cutlery he liked but let someone else handle the music. So now he picks the music himself, and it turns out that he is a very big fan of Pink Floyd.
• Puck consulted with American Airlines for awhile, but he could not convince them when making a Caesar salad not to use the outer leaves of the Romaine lettuce. This was a cause of consternation for him.
• Last night the Pucks had dinner at Corton. They said it was terrific.

Overcaffeinated with Wolfgang Puck

March 17, 5 p.m.

It’s St. Patrick's Day in New York, so many people are already drunk. Me, I'm overcaffeinated.
It’s hard to overcaffeinate me. I drink a lot of coffee, and usually the caffeine just tickles my dopamine receptors and goes on its way.
But one of the results of this lousy economy is that I have slashed my coffee budget and am making my own. I make delicious coffee — better than what I was buying, or at least more suited to my personal taste — but it’s strong, and I drank it with gusto on the subway this morning on my way to the Loews Regency hotel, where Wolfgang Puck was granting a 9:45 a.m. audience to journalists over breakfast at 540 Park restaurant.
People who know my habits will tell you that it is rare, indeed, for me to be seen in public at 9:45 a.m. If you need me to be somewhere early, I'll be there. I'll be there at 4 a.m. if necessary. Otherwise, I'd rather shake the morning cobwebs out of my head more gradually.
But if Wolfgang Puck's hanging out for breakfast, I’ll go ahead and hang out with him.
A lot of chefs stay at the Loews Regency. My colleague Paul Frumkin tells me that Mr. Puck has been staying there for decades, and I know I’ve met other chefs there, too, and no one can explain why it draws chefs. I asked Wolfgang Puck this morning, but he had nothing to say on the matter.
I think one such explanation might be the coffee, which is both rich and smooth, gently roasted to allow the subtle fruity qualities of the 100 percent Colombian coffee that they serve to come through.
So I drank a lot of it, and now I feel jangly in my nerve endings and really need a slice of pizza and a nap.
I also ate of the fruit plate set before me and had a miniature pain au chocolat and something like an almond croissant.
I learned a lot about Wolfgang Puck, but I think I’ll make a separate blog entry about that as a courtesy to visitors to this blog who might want to know about Herr Puck but could not care less about me. I respect that.
I will say that Puck and his wife, Gelila, drank several cappuccinos, but they sent one of them back, lecturing whoever on staff would listen that the milk was too hot. The Pucks managed to do that graciously, but with the confidence of people who knew how they wanted their milk steamed.
Gelila is from Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, and she roasts her own beans most mornings.
She said that the word “coffee” comes from Kaffa, an ancient kingdom in Ethiopia, which might be true. She also said that Ethiopians make coffee leaves into tea. First roasting them a bit and then steeping them in hot water for a few minutes.
I didn’t know that.

Restaurant week poll results

March 17

In my last poll, I asked a separate question for Food Writer's Diary readers who our restaurateurs than for those who aren’t. I asked restaurateurs if they participate in restaurant week, and non-restaurateurs if they go to restaurants specifically for restaurant week.
Just a few restaurateurs responded. Three said they participate, two said they don't, and one asked what restaurant week was.
In case that participant wasn't joking, Restaurant Week is a promotional event during which restaurants offer special menus at a discounted price in the hope that it will attract new customers. Take a look at Marly's comment for an assessment of the pros and cons of restaurant week.
Non-restaurateurs needed less convincing of its advantages, with seven out of the ten respondents saying they go to restaurants specifically for restaurant week.
I think I’m going to take a break from the polls for a little while, until I think of something clever to aks you about.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Cheap eats at Atria

March 13

I sure wish people would tell me when my collar’s sticking up. This would be such a good picture of me if someone had just tucked my collar back down, and I so rarely take a good picture.
With me is my new friend Sandra Fowler, a multi-talented woman with a background in the type of foodservice that most people find not so romantic but that I find fascinating. She’s a Yum! veteran and has also worked for Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. But at the moment she’s doing documentaries on sustainable food-and-drink production for PBS.
Sandra’s new to town, and my boss, Ellen Koteff, is one of her mentors, so obviously I agreed to meet her for drinks.
I suggested Atria.
Did you know that the bar at Atria, formerly know as Grayz, in the space that once was Aquavit, is a gin bar? That’s how they’re promoting it, at any rate, and they are fairly committed to expanding the horizons of vodka drinkers. Their key weapon: a gin, blackberry and mint number called The Bramble.
But there is other news coming out of Atria, too. This week they introduced a lunch menu and everything on it is less than $10.
Some examples:
Bratwurst and sauerkraut $7
Hummus, babaganoush and okra stew $8
Potato-leek soup with chervil $5
Hanger steak salad with peanut, radish and sesame-ginger vinaigrette $9
You can even get a can of Pablst Blue ribbon for $3

Eric Hara’s Oak Room dinner menu to debut next Wednesday

March 13

I’ll be continuing with tales of my adventures in dining soon, but the work is piling up here at NRN and it takes time to compose a thoughtful blog entry about the dining world in which I live.
But I don’t want to leave you hanging, so I have some news items for you.
People obsessed with the New York food scene already know that David Burke veteran Eric Hara is the new chef at The Oak Room, replacing Joël Antunes. (That picture, above, is of Eric).
I spoke with him today about his new dinner menu, which will be introduced next Wednesday.
“I think we’re going with more of an American style,“ he said, adding that he wanted to “keep it approachable.”
That’s not to say simple, or boring.
Among the menu items debuting Wednesday is a bone-marrow crusted scallop with cippolini purée, tomato marmalade and a bone marrow crouton.
He’ll also be doing veal cheek stuffed shells with chanterelles, a pecorino emulsion and sour cherries.
Also: brioche-crusted striped bass.
"It’s going to be a take on cioppino,” he says of the bass dish. It will include cherry tomatoes, fennel, mussls, clams and a cioppino broth poured at tableside.
Served with it will be a quenelle of crushed fingerling potatoes with rouille aïoli.
Appetizers will range from $12 to $18. Main courses will be $20 to $33, "and then Dover sole will be Dover sole."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Come on, eat out, take the leftovers home!

March 10

Not to harp on the doggie bag thing but restaurants are under fire as luxuries easily dispensed with.
CNN.Com’s “Quick Vote” right now asks the question: “What would you give up first to save money?”
And the choices are: car, cable service, dining out, cell phone and nothing.
Well, of course if you ask it like that, people are going to say they’ll give up dining out (as I write this, that’s what 70 percent of the respondents said).
But it’s not like a person must choose between dining out and not. There are lots of ways to dine out, lots of ways to economize in restaurants, lots of ways to slip out for a bite without blowing your budget, and restaurants are responding to customers’ needs for that in all sorts of ways. There are new prix-fixe menus (or combo deals, depending on the the fanciness of the restaurant or lack thereof), happy hour specials, cut-rate appetizers and entrées. It’s not like it‘s an either/or proposition.
I mentioned recently our upcoming April 20 report on restaurateurs reworking operations and pricing to fit customers’ current demands.
But there are signs that things aren’t all that bad in the restaurant world — at least not in the grand scheme of things. My colleague, NRN executive financial editor Sara Lockyer reports today on one analyst’s expectations for relative stability in the restaurant sector, because they fulfill the basic needs of eating and socializing.
Sara has more to say on the matter, too, which of course you would know if you’d just click on the link.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Yes, I want those three string beans wrapped up, too

March 9

I recently asked you, dear reader, whether you’re using doggie bags more now than you did a year ago. Most respondents said they aren't, but 40 percent said they are, which is certainly enough to say that doggie bag use is on the rise. Of course, these polls are unscientific, but interesting nonetheless, and the responses corroborate what restaurateurs are telling me, which is that doggie bag use is definitely on the rise (except at Capital Grille, where they say they haven’t noticed any such growth).
Okay, but who cares? Well, in our April 20 issue NRN we’ll run a special section on back-of-the-house strategies for improving guests’ experiences while managing costs. One article in that section will be on how to capitalize on the doggie bag trend (there are ways, oh, you bet your sweet maple syrup there are ways). Stay tuned.

Now, I’d like to ask both restaurateurs and restaurant goers how they feel about restaurant week. if you want to comment more elaborately, feel free to do so in the comment section below this blog entry.

For posterity, below are the results of the doggie bag poll.

yes 13 (40%)
no 19 (59%)
Total votes: 32

Friday, March 06, 2009

Good news for the Daily News, AP and Channel 13

March 6

A 15,000-square-foot space at 450 West 33rd Street (at Tenth Avenue). the building that houses the New York Daily News, The Associated Press and WNET Channel 13, has a new lessee, according to restaurant consultant and broker John Harding, who brokered the deal and then e-mailed me to tell me about it. That lessee is restaurateur Simon Oren of the Tour De France Group (Pigalle, Marseille, Nice Matin, L'Express), Sushi Samba etc.
John says the space will house a bi-level American bistro, a self-serve cafe and a retail bakery.
So, there you have it.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

My Facebook

March 5

As with most people who love their jobs, my work and play are inextricably intertwined, and that’s reflected on my Facebook page, where my collection of “friends” range from family members to elementary school friends to work colleagues, fellow journalists, publicists and chefs. Some of my actual real life friends are on there, too.
I have found that Facebook is, in fact, a useful work tool, and when my status updates are work-related, the responses are sometimes useful.
The responses below are not especially useful, but I found them amusing.

In response to “Bret Thorn wishes he could think of something interesting and maybe a little bit newsy to say about rice.”

Matt Rodbard [from Metromix]at 4:14pm March 4
Breaking: Rice was found by US special forces growing in a cave in the Kohistān border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Jennifer Beck Baum [the publicist] at 4:15pm March 4
It comes in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes?

Suzie Amer [friend] at 4:16pm March 4
It may be the main course for a long, long time, should current economic trends continue?

Bret Thorn at 4:18pm March 4
Indeed, Suzie, I made sprouted brown rice for dinner last night because I got it for free. It was chewy and very satisfying.

Suzie Amer at 4:21pm March 4
See that? Do I have a nose for news, or what?

Marisha Morris [foodservice professional and NRN subscriber] at 4:29pm March 4
food cost ---rice bowls, not just, for yoshinoya and jack in the box, they'll be a home cooked meal.... I definitely agree w/ Suzie...... And I'll have to try 'sprouted brown rice' .... nothing beats having fresh rice from off the farm, with the hulls and all.... now that's chewy, lol. By the way, my grandfather was a farmer in Arkansas with 28 acres of fresh vegetables and fruits... mmm, good times :)

Anne De Ravel [food writer among other things] at 4:35pm March 4
red rice from Camargue? It reminds me of many, many years ago when wild rice was the cool rice but few people knew what to do with it. It's a similar here with this red rice, it's delicious but you rarely see past it's assumed "boil and serve" role. Not sure if it's exported in the US.

Bret Thorn at 4:50pm March 4
I was thinking of writing about wild rice, but technically it's not rice at all, but some sort of aquatic grass seed. It's tasty, though.

Alan Grant [friend, from my Bangkok days; great guy] at 7:30pm March 4
Bret old stick, I could wax lyrical about rice all day. You could explain the many differences and how annoying it is when they serve basmati rice in a non-Indian environment. Indeed, basmati may well be my least favourite rice even though I adore and consume Indian food on an almost daily basis. Interestingly here in Singapore, many of the Indian restaurants serve the more moist and delicious Thai jasmine rice if you order white rice, serving basmati only in byrianis, pilaus and the like.

Then there's our old favourite khao neow ...

Todd Thorn [brother] at 7:56pm March 4
How come I have to run the vacuum cleaner over a grain of rice seven times to pick it up, but when the vacuum gets within six inches of a shoe, it sucks the lace right up? What about that, huh? No good? I know, but it really chaps my a$$!

Don Odiorne [publicist for Idaho potatoes] at 8:18pm March 4
Americans eat about 126 pounds of potatoes per capita, 35 pounds of rice and 25 pounds of pasta. I think you should write about potatoes instead. Just kidding. Rice doesn't make much of an exciting late night snack or appetizer though. My favorite rice dish was Mom's beef, tomato sauce and rice stuffed peppers (probably the recipe was right out of Better Homes & Gardens cookbook). Who eats more Chinese fried rice, the Chinese or Americans?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


March 4

The Marine Room in La Jolla is running a nice little promotion for restaurant kitchen workers throughout San Diego County.
Executive chef Bernard Guillas is extending the restaurant’s 50 percent employee discount to all back-of-the-house workers in the county and their friends and families for dinner on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the months of March and April. Make your reservations by calling 858-459-7222 and tell the reservationist that you are joining them for the back-of-the-house promotion.

The fine print: Discount valid on Tuesday and Wednesdays through 04/30/09. Valid for parties of 6 or less.
Proof of employment (i.e. current pay stub or business card) must be presented, one per table.
Alcohol and gratuity not included. Please remember to tip on the pre-discount total.

Chef Bernard thanks you.

Monday, March 02, 2009

A long day's journey into protein

March 2

For the past two weekends I’ve been driven south. Not driven as in forced by invading Canadians to flee with whatever possessions I could carry; driven as in someone with a car gave me a ride somewhere I wanted to go anyway.
Two weekends ago I was driven by Eric Scheffler to our friend Jonathan Ray’s 40th birthday party at Taberna del Alabardero in Washington, D.C. Jonathan lives in Silver Spring, Md., as he’s a professor at Georgetown, so the location was appropriate. He’s also an expert on Medieval Spain, so the cuisine was fairly appropriate.
Eric is a walking advertisement for exercise. He’s not a Chelsea-style body-beautiful guy, but an endurance runner. He and his wife vacation by going to a different city and running a marathon there. He ran for, I think, 19 hours straight across the Grand Canyon. His endurance limit doesn’t come when his legs give out or his lungs can't manage anymore, but when his body is so exhausted that it can no longer keep food down. He says he vomited trail mix during the Grand Canyon run and survived on some sort of sugar paste.
But he still inspires me, because when his system hasn’t completely shut down, he can eat whatever he wants. Every once in awhile, he says, he runs from his Scarsdale home to his Midtown office — 19 or 20 miles — and walks in with a garbage bag full of food.
Eric says you burn a bit more than 1,000 calories an hour when you run, which means if you run for four hours, you have to eat about three times what a normal person would eat just to maintain your body weight. He says it with a smile on his face and, it seems to me, a song in his heart — probably a head banging hard rock song, as that’s what he works out to.
And Eric loves to eat a lot of food. To top it off, he says: “I'm always happy and I sleep like a log." He’s also about as nice a person as you’d like to meet. Clever, too: In college at Colgate he decorated his room in his fraternity house with lace curtains and throw pillows and lovely pink things. He says it was a very successful chick magnet, and I see no reason to doubt him.
This past Saturday Birdman and I executed a long-awaited plan to go to Philadelphia for cheese steak.
If I lived in Philadelphia, I'd weigh about 400 pounds, because I would eat a cheese steak every day. It's just thinly sliced beef cooked on a greasy grill, plain or with a choice of onions, mushrooms and bell peppers, and a choice of cheese whiz, provolone or American cheese. It should not taste that great, and indeed outside of Philadelphia it doesn't. But something happens in Philadelphia that makes them sublime.
There are all sorts of theories about what makes a Philly cheese steak such a different animal from one anywhere else. Some say it's the soft Amoroso roll, some say it's the well-seasoned nature of the ancient griddles on which they’re cooked.
Personally, I think it's the onions, or the way the onions are made. Because the onions are diced and stacked in a huge pile on the griddle. If you order your cheese steak ”with,” or “wit” in local South Philadelphia dialect, meaning “with onions,” they stick a spatula under the stack of onions and mix some in. That means that some onions are burnt, some are raw, some are perfectly cooked and some are a little under done, giving you a really great combination of oniony goodness.
Birdman and I arrived in Philadelphia a little after 2pm and got in line at Pat’s, because it was closer than Geno’s, which was diagonally across the street.
Pat’s claim to fame is that it was first, founded by immigrants from Italy’s Abruzzo region — the same latitude as Lazio, where Rome is, but across the peninsula on the Adriatic side. Geno’s markets itself with a rabid jingoistic patriotism that I find kind of, well, juvenile. Sure America’s great, but if it’s that great you don’t need to brag about it. Better to be quietly excellent.
As for the cheese steaks, they’re about the same, and I think quibbling over which is better is like making a big deal about which vodka to have in your Bloody Mary.
Nonetheless, Birdman and I were of opposite opinions. He preferred Pat's, and I preferred Geno's.
Birdman’s a more discerning eater than I am, and he picks out subtle nuances that I miss. He also loves things that are older or original and so he would have a bias, conscious or otherwise, for the original cheese steak place.
I, on the other hand, was not immediately taken with Pat's cheese steak the way I usually am with cheese steaks, I think because we decided we’d get them with cheese whiz, which is the basic, standard cheese, the Ur cheese, for a cheese steak. But I like provolone better.
So I fully expected to like Geno's better, and I did.
We separated our cheese steaks by a couple of beers, and after Geno’s we went on to Tony Luke’s, which I’ve been told is the best cheese steak in the city. But really it’s a different animal from Pat’s or Geno’s, because it has a firmer roll, with more of a crust, and sesame seeds on top. That makes for a completely different experience. Birdman and I split one, because we were full, and I think I liked it better than the other two, but as I said it was a completely different animal and so difficult to compare.
I think my favorite cheese steak in Philadelphia is at Little Pete’s, which I have visited on previous trips to the city, but I’ve had it with provolone and only at 2am after a night of drinking, which makes it a completely different experience, too.
Obviously, it would have been nice if I had Eric Scheffler’s habit of long-distance running to process all of that food, but I’ve been more stuffed after a long media dinner than I was after two and a half cheese steaks and three beers (we went to the sit-down, inside part of Tony Luke's and had a beer with our final sandwich, also changing the experience, I know).
We were back in New York by a little after 8pm. We parked Birdman’s car near his Upper East Side apartment and took the cross town bus to 79th and Broadway, two blocks from the new Fatty Crab, which was having an opening party that night.
It was a good turnout — a bit crowded for people who had just eaten about 4,000 calories worth of cheese steak, but we found a good place to hang out, near the bar but around the corner from the long side of the bar, so we weren't in the way of people who wanted to get drinks. I drank a Rogue Ale — the beer company's sales person there called it a West Coast style red ale. It was thoroughly hoppy with a sweet bass note — until the one keg the company donated was gone, and then I switched to bourbon on the rocks. We were ensconced near the Rogue rep and also near my friends Julie Besonen and Sheri de Borchgrave. Akiko Katayama, who took me to Japan a couple of years ago to gain a better understanding of Niigata prefecture, swung by, too, and chef Franklin Becker. I broke away to chat with Will Goldfarb, who’s back in the New York food scene to open his sandwich kiosk Picknic for the season — although he’s still exploring the notion of setting up shop in Bali.
I'd seen Will just the night before at NYU, as he was an added speaker on the panel I was on last night. Blue Hill chef Dan Barber had to cancel at the last minute, but he was replaced by Will and Adam Kaye, Blue Hill's vice president for culinary affairs.
If I find the time, I’ll try to write a bit about the panel, but I don’t have time right now.
At Fatty Crab I also met Cabrito chef David Schuttenberg, who said business is good but no longer as insane as right after Cabrito’s Times review. It’s now possible to get in there.
I did eat a bit at Fatty Crab — a wing, some crab salad, a spoonful of chicken curry — but I was full and mostly in the mood to talk.
I was peckish after the party, however, and I noticed a Gray's Papaya near my subway stop. I realized I’d just gone to a whole different city to try its iconic food, but had never had this quintessential New York food.
So I had two hot dogs, and they were so good I had two more.
What’s wrong with me?