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, 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.