Having been to Trieste while my consort was shooting caffeine for National Geographic, I know coffee tasting is an art, but it ain’t pretty. His photos of the experts at Illy sniffin’ and spittin’ make the action at the Trois Glorieuses in Burgundy look refined. So it’s all the more mystifying why Zabar’s would force shoppers in line for the cashiers to watch Saul himself go through the stomach-churning motions on an endless video. Maybe it shows how carefully the store’s beans are chosen, but it just made me want to buy Illy saliva-free in the tin. And I’m really glad Zabar’s does not carry Cheney sperm.
The $8,400 slipcover she mistook for a dress is not the only sign Mrs. Chimp is morphing into Marie Antoinette. Troops are dying three a day on average in Iraq, her stubborn simian has not a clue on how to get them out and we’re hemorrhaging money along with their blood, but what is top priority at the White House? Finding her a pastry chef. What’s that old saying? Let ’em eat spun sugar? With Xanax, it must be an essential nutrient.
Just when you think it’s impossible to feel more disgusted, the Chimp up and decides to imitate a designated driver who has had eight margaritas and thinks just one more will do the trick. And he’s not picking up the tab. Maybe what this country needs is MAPP — Mothers Against Power-drunk Presidentin’.
Now that Alain Ducasse is auctioning off his own private Versailles, I hope he is at least thinking in echoes of Norma Desmond. He’s still big. It’s New York that got small. Even I can’t believe how tame the food scene has turned since he opened in a blaze of ridicule only six years ago. You can get all the steak you want, but try to get excited anymore. The dulling of Manhattan has to be due partly to the epidemic of greedism — the obscenely rich are always ridiculously timid about investing their ill-gotten gains in daring food, while creative chefs have to cross the water to pay the rent now that virtually every block has a two-bank minimum. But if the world’s most acclaimed chef actually does reopen, I have one word for him: Burgers. Over-bonused louts love ’em. Stuff them with foie gras, charge out the ying-yang and he could even get away with serving them with a selection of silver mustard-spreaders, purse stools on the side.
Call this defining celebrity down: A cruise line is offering classes at sea with a lineup of “renowned guest chefs” that includes two obscurities whose only claim to fame is having “challenged” a couple of marquee names on “Iron Chef.” Imagine a week on the water with any of them, glittery or no. You’d be hoping for gastroenteritis for excitement.
Speaking of misguided touts, I spotted an elevator sign while coat-shopping at Lord & Taylor that was advertising “our infamous toasted ice-cream sandwich.” Who did it kill? And then there was the special I passed, posted outside some overpriced dive on Amsterdam: Mediterranean cheese roulette. Need any more proof that real Russians use sushi?
Prix fixe is a term that seems to addle even the restaurants that use it, but it was still funny to see how the new Blue Point crepe joint on Ninth Avenue translates it — not as the usual “price-fixed,” which sounds faintly Enrony, but as “the French fix,” which seems alluringly druggy. No wonder so many Fleet Week sailors were stopping to study the menu.
Given everything we now know about salmon, a certain ode to the one-source smoker in New York should have been titled: Garbage in, garbage out. The fact that such an influential publication would blithely promote farmed fish would seem amazing if not for other bizarre touts for anti-Pollan ingredients lately. What’s oddest is how this became a story when smoking is the one affordable way to make wild salmon fit for travel. I guess if it’s bad for you, and the environment, it’s good for twaddle by any name.
This has been lying on my desk for almost a month, but I’m still confused. A story in amNY quotes from “The Itty Bitty Kitchen Handbook” to billboard this: “Use a trouser hanger as a book stand.” That almost makes Diana Vreeland look lucid. And I want whatever that copy editor was smoking.
A bizarre video popping up around the internets shows a couple of creationists attempting to prove the existence of America’s allah by fondling a banana and pointing out how intelligently designed it is, right down to the pop-top to open the skin and extract the fruit. But the banana is nothing compared with the avocado, which may be English for tree testicle but never seems lurid when handled. Not only is it the perfect food, with myriad nutrients, but it looks absolutely gorgeous. And every time I see the poster for the new Pearl Jam CD around town, I keep thinking back to a dinner we went to recently where the organizers did not seem to realize they had a gem on their hands and worked it so hard they turned it into costume jewelry. Why in the world would you griddle an avocado and top it off with foie gras brulee, for dios’s sake? Or deep-fry an avocado? Or whip it into dessert? This is nature’s most sublime food in its most unadorned state. If you want to knock someone’s socks off, serve a single slice of dead-ripe avocado with a little sea salt. One bite and you’ll see god — and not look like an ape eating.
Call it a kernel of confusion: Blathering about alternative fuels, the Addict in Chief announced that “you just got to recognize there are limits to how much corn can be used for ethanol — after all, we got to eat some.” Dude, you don’t eat that kind of corn. (Well, maybe you would — embarrassing photos do exist.) But then again, the useful idiot has a point. If we all gave up high-fructose corn syrup, and corn-fed cheap beef, we wouldn’t need to get out and walk.
One of the best things about living in the Northeast is tripping over history everywhere. Just taken to lunch by friends in Connecticut, in fact, I realized how great it was that we fought a Revolutionary War. It made the world safe for a Fife & Drum restaurant.
Why is not surprising to learn that the Tantrum-Thrower in Chief uses his decider powers to order baby food (peanut butter and honey sandwiches) for lunch? The bigger mystery is why the chef his wife canned, and the Wall Street Journal, would think anyone really wanted a recipe for the favorite dinner of the most reviled president since Nixon. A Saddam stew would be more appetizing at this point.
In other weirdness in Mrs. Chimp’s kitchen, the Washington Post reported that the Chinese president was not only subjected to heckling, jerking around and other diplomatic gaffes but was also served “butter heirloom corn broth.” This is America. Type English, damn it.
The NYTimes freelancer inquisition is a classic case of closing the barn door after all the cash cows have gotten out. I see some bylines and wonder: Written anything that resulted in a lawsuit? Does a hefty libel judgment against your check-cutter count? I see many others and wonder: Taken any junkets in the last two years? Does the Pope poop in the Vatican?
Earth to 43d Street: You can’t demand high-end advertising copy if you won’t underwrite high-end editorial excursions. Not everyone is lucky enough to have other ways to see the world. And clearly, not everyone worries about facing the mirror in the morning. . . .
I won’t soon forget my consort’s face when I told him over dinner on his first night home after a week off tending to his mom that I had a terrible confession. But then I couldn’t have been more ashamed if I had actually cheated on him as I admitted: “I ate a patty melt. In Macy’s Cellar.” I don’t know which sin was more mortal: eating ground beef from who knows where in the age of mad cow, or doing it in a department store basement. Luckily, Bob is almost never judgmental and I could explain that I had gotten to the store starving, and I can always be led into patty melt temptation for two reasons: 1. My last summer in college I worked as a waitress, and the fry cook always made them special for me, without the nasty onions. 2. Loudon Wainwright has a song about being out on the road and wondering “how many patty melts can one man eat?” In Manhattan, not many.
So how was it? Grim. The meat actually tasted decent and was cooked right, but the cheese was not melted onto it, and the bread was square, not rounded, so there were huge expanses untouched by the grease and meat. Don’t ask about the fries, just realize that you have encountered them in any restaurant with a freezer. I felt sick afterward, even though I should have known I would get screwed, and not by the Fedex guy.
This is why consultants get the big bucks. An apparently well-intended promoter is urging New Yorkers to “pig out at one of our Dining for Darfur participating restaurants.” Wouldn’t it have been more direct just to say: “Feel their pain — binge and purge”?
After all the much-needed publicity Myers of Keswick was showered with just for having a cat trapped in a wall, I wonder how long it will be until Del Posto drops a baby down a well.
I’m confused. Michael Pollan had to hunt down and kill a wild boar for his supper, but it’s perfectly okay to do your Easter foraging under the fluorescents in the industrial pork aisle of the supermarket? What would Jesus reheat? Typical modern parent, though: Awesome, Dude would rather be a self-indulgent smart-ass today than leave a clean environment for tomorrow. At least he paid his penance by kissing celebrity butt. Personally, I would rather pull my own teeth than extract recipes from a chef who believes his own PR. Especially if I had to go with non-Niman Ranch ham in hand, reeking of Smithfield sewage lagoons.
I thought Porkette could be just another name for the usual mystery-pork-is-cool cliche, which is Spam, but my footloose friend Dgroff had a better idea: It sounds like a blog.
So the NYT has finally started demanding full disclosure from freelancers. My first thought was of someone who must feel so lucky to be grandmothered in. Tony Luke’s again? What, are there euros in those pizzini?
Speaking of environmental head-in-the-sandism, the attitude of some chefs in the Journal’s exemplary story on growing their own produce was astoundingly clueless. Some of these guys admit they bring seeds in for fruits and vegetables they taste overseas, and while a couple said they had no idea it was illegal, one said he flouted the law because he “decided his seeds would cause no harm because they were to be planted by only one farmer on a small plot.” Has he never heard why all the indigenous corn in Mexico is getting wiped out? It’s called genetically modified pollen crossing over. If I were the nasty type, I’d say get your head out of your Greenmarket ass and rent “Darwin’s Nightmare.” The reality of one little imported fish eradicating all the native varieties in Lake Victoria will leave you fetishizing boring asparagus.
Overall, the food page in the Saturday Journal did not make chefs come off as the most seasonally sensitive souls. Alain Ducasse’s aide-de-New York actually offered a menu featuring both morels and tomatoes. I know where to find the former, for $40 a pound, but we are a very long way from the latter. Even Ducasse must know money can’t buy you ripe.
File under, No, You Haven’t Heard It All: On our second bottle of wine in a restaurant I won’t glorify by naming, the waiter asked the three of us to describe the taste to him, “so I’ll know what to say to the next people who order it.” A little lit, we were a big help, throwing out conflicting descriptives like fruity and dry, and then my consort thought to ask: “Don’t they let you taste the wine you sell?” And he actually said no. Ordinarily we would have offered him a glass, but this was like being served by a squeegee guy — you can’t encourage that behavior. Maybe the owners should do as Daniel now proudly does, and buy the stuff in a box. Why should the uncorker be the last to know?
I got an e-press release the other day touting “Dungeoness” crab. Isn’t that what they serve at the Cheneys’? Or is that just Lynne?
Over brioche and watery cappuccino at Georgia’s, my friend the literary agent was bemoaning the publishing world’s obsession with celebrity lately and wondering when the cycle had to peak, although she agreed it was not likely to be anytime soon when a flash in the bedpan like Rachael Ray can sell 600,000 copies. I walked home depressed, then picked up Good Housekeeping and felt instantly better. It quoted Christie Brinkley on the “healthy substitutions” she makes in putting food on her family: low-fat cheesecake made with Splenda, and baked sweet potatoes dipped in ketchup (a k a high-fructose corn syrup). If this is what the famous are actually eating, let’s face it: Unlike the poor, they will not always be with us.
One detail in a particularly disgusting little-lost-white-girl crime story made me think it’s not just knowing that a chimpanzee who believes in the Rapture has his hairy finger on the button that is convincing people we’re heading into the end of days: As part of his arsenal, a wannabe cannibal bought a meat tenderizer to do the deed. Yes, a meat tenderizer, for distinctively puffy American flesh. Not only is this a sign of an over-accessorized civilization on the brink. But apparently one scumbag did more planning for one killing than Rumsbag did for countless thousands. Allah help us all, but maybe the Halliburton contracts should have gone to Williams-Sonoma.
The only thing that got me through a week of Rudy the Moralizer being back in the news was remembering a particular product I noticed in so many macelleria windows in Venice. Some people might have looked at that grandstander wallowing in 9/11 and thought old “I Didn’t Know She Was My Cousin When I Married Her” was presidential material. I saw Wudy, the Italian hot dog.
It figures that Time would decide Molto Ego was worth a huge spread just as a big agent and a big newspaper were saying he was well down the road to Roccodom. This is the same publication, after all, that thought Ann Coulter was a cover story, and even that “brand” hadn’t stooped to pandering to NASCAR. To me it says it all that the same writer was chosen to fellate both subjects at great length. He certainly took to the task with more enthusiasm than a freewheeling friend of mine on the other coast who knows the vain one from well before the Coach connection and who emailed me after reading the blow job to make it clear that she had had some issues with his heft and hygiene and “didn’t fuck him.” After so many Gael confessions, that was refreshing to hear. Obviously he’s over and out.
For all the evil the Liar in Chief is doing to this country, he may actually accomplish some minuscule good. Maybe one day Americans will start to get the message that everything is suspect. And then the American Pork Board will have a harder time running an ad for Rovian-sounding “niche pork” with a “farmer” toasting a chef with a wineglass grasped in a smooth and perfectly manicured hand. One thing about lying down with hogs. You do not get up with shining-clean nails.
Speaking of dirty little realities, it was fascinating to see the New York restaurant industry’s response to the report documenting how overworked and underpaid kitchen workers are more likely to bleed in your food. Here was a chance to push for the end of the tip system and the beginning of health care for everyone, but instead platitudes worthy of Scott McClellan flowed out, starting with, “Food safety is the No. 1 priority of restaurant operators.” If you believe that, someone has a health savings account to sell you. This is America. It’s all about the bottom line. Only the countries we scorn — like the land of Freedom Fries — seem to understand a Band-Aid and a rubber glove are not much protection for anyone on either side of the plate. Not to repeat myself too often, but never forget that Typhoid Mary was a cook.
Life is so flimsy it’s probably a waste of thinking to pick on it, but you have to wonder how the food contributor gets away with hyping a book he co-wrote. Mr. $25 & Under must be borrowing a page from Dick Cheney: Need a brunch topic? Look around and realize the best candidate is yourself.
The most fascinating thing I’ve read in months was the NYT letter to the editor from two women photographed for that months-late, dollars-short Page One “news” on centers where moms go to fix a week’s worth of meals because it’s just too much trouble to put food on their families from their own freezers. They were adamant that they “will not be returning to the franchise.” Translation: Busted. It’s one thing to go off and do something so uncool the Times recognizes it. It’s quite another to have the world see you’re feeding your kids Stouffer’s without the packaging.
Given how much newspaper real estate is devoted to the great American crisis at the dinner table lately, though, it’s sobering to walk into a wondrous show from the New Orleans Museum of Art at the AXA Gallery at the Equitable Center and come across two stark photos by Lewis Hine that should stun you into thinking it’s the editors, not the kids, with ADD anymore. One depicts a ragged boy about 8 years old, the other two little girls, one no more than 5, the other maybe 7 or 8. The photos are gripping as documentary work, but what kicks you in the stomach is the captions. One reads, “cannery worker,” the other, “oyster shuckers.” Both were taken in 1911. In less than a century children have gone from near-slaves to pampered princes whose guardians are so busy chauffeuring them from soccer practice to Condi lessons that they barely have time to nourish them, let alone socialize them. At least if you believe what you read in the papers. Somehow I kinda doubt obesity and hyperactivity were big issues in canneries and oyster depots. And I wonder if the mantra of those factory owners was that exploited little kids were just doing the jobs Americans would not.
Better observers than I can tell you about all the movin’ and shakin’ allegedly going on at the Food & Wine “best new chefs” party. I was more impressed with the space, the Battery Maritime Building where the city has proposed creating a market to rival Ferry Plaza in San Francisco. That seemed silly until we stepped out of the dazzling new Staten Island ferry terminal and saw how accessible the gorgeous old place actually is. It would be a spectacular food hall, especially with that veranda looking out onto the harbor, straight to the Statue of Liberty. The exterior is already under renovation by the city; the interior, raw as it is, has the grand potential to outdo Ferry Plaza. And maybe that’s why the party was underwhelming, despite the 600 invites that went out and despite the usual head-shattering music by one of those onanistic deejays who think the last great songs are circa “Stayin’ Alive.” In such cavernous surroundings, even the four Best Old Chefs looked a little small (Laurent Tourondel deserved a fresh award for his food, though). One thing was undeniable. As the best man said at the fanciest wedding we ever went to: “This had to cost a fucking fortune.” If the building benefits, it was a worthy cause.
One of the many reasons to see the insidiously brilliant “Inside Man” is the chance to watch Julian Niccolini get his five seconds of comeuppance. Even better, he spends his mini-moment with Denzel Washington, who responds to the imperious, “May I take your hat?” with a dismissive, “Get your own.” If only the Four Seasons were so dramatic in real life.
I should be mortified to admit this, but my feet seem to be taking me into the dread TWC more and more often. I have no control over them, clearly. Most recently they dragged me all the way up the escalators to Bouchon when I was running out of options for a fast lunch after walking far west from PT. I did dissuade them from stopping at the cafe itself when I saw how grim it looked — a detention center in a sterile mall under a huge Samsung sign, and with no wine to boot — but they won when I realized I could not walk any farther than the takeout counter a few limps away. If that had been my first taste of Thomas Keller, I would have thrown out his two cookbooks. None of the sandwiches looked either interesting or irresistible, especially not the ridiculous $6.95 cashew butter-and-jelly assemblage. I settled for roast beef and Fontina, waited a short eternity to have it “pressed” and settled for undistinguished cold meat and half-melted cheese. It was enough to stop the whole silly “pressata” craze even before Dunkin’ Donuts starts pushing “stuffed melts.” I still have warm memories of lunch at the French Laundry, but one bite here was more likely to send me trotting straight to Amy’s Bread than to Per Se. This is New York. If you’re going to make it here, you have to make sandwiches an art form.
Apparently there’s great joy in Blogville these days: Fatter Guy has struck out. Something to do with ethics, my e-correspondent who nicknamed him implies. The only shame is that this is not the high colonic the org really needs. Given its history of character assassination, its motto really might as well be: “Integrity, my ass.”
Would you buy an airline guide from this site? Oag.com has a bright little tout up for the new Cafe d’Alsace that includes the advice: “Be sure to try the classic dessert choucroute garnie; it is one of the signature desserts.” Really, there’s nothing like sauerkraut a la mode.
Everybody seems worked up over the cloned pigs that are allegedly going to save our bacon, healthwise. I find the whole idea no more absurd than any other Big Food innovation lately. Quaker is marketing oatmeal cookies for breakfast. Chips Ahoy are “whole grain” now. Wonder Bread is softer and whiter than ever but even more nutritious, the Journal tells us. Why indict a ham sandwich as the new lifesaver?
This is why cellphones on airplanes will be the end of the world as we know it. I stopped into Rosa Mexicano uptown for a very early dinner and had the great luck to be seated at a table next to an expensively dressed, hypergroomed black guy who was working out a very nasty-sounding family situation in the happy hour din, one that involved “cutting a check for $10,000 immediately to shut her up” and “subpoena” and “keeping Leeshie under control.” Every call started with, “Can you hear me?” when they could probably hear him up at Columbia. People at tables all around him were turning to gawk, and he kept bellowing, staring out the window intently as if we couldn’t see him if he didn’t see us. My favorite line was, “We need to get right on this or our shit’s gonna be all out on the street by Monday,” and I resisted pointing out, “Buddy, your shit’s all over this restaurant.” I guess I could have asked to be moved, but instead I ate my excellent crab enchiladas as fast as I could and walked out happy I was earthbound. If this had all transpired at 30,000 feet, I would have had to beat him to death with a molcajete.
I see the owners of Cafe Loup are complaining that the unending construction chaos on 13th Street is destroying their business. I’m sure it’s not helping, but last time we inched our way through the mess to meet a friend for a glass of wine, I certainly didn’t get the sense anyone cared about our particular business. The place smelled, it looked seedy, the bartenderess was neglectful to hostile and the whole feeling was like wandering into an Elks lodge without a membership card. It was the antithesis of happy to serve you. They can blame the Big Dig, but it’s more likely connected to the lint that has been dislodged in my cranial sieve — all I can think about is that awful “Look What They’ve Done to My Song” back in high school and how every time the caterwauling started on the radio my friend Henry would say, “What do you mean, they? You shit in your own nest.”
Maybe it’s a Village thing, though. We braved Pearl Oyster Bar early on a Saturday night and were faced with a 45-minute wait in a packed room and stepped outside to have a drink. Right next door is Le Gigot, but the bitch at the bar all but threw up a crucifix in a garlic braid to keep us out. “It’s an eating bar,” she said, even insisting the cushions in the window were not for the comfort of mere drinkers. No matter that the bar was completely unoccupied, of course. We just took our $20 and spent it down the block at Palma. And when we left Pearl a couple of hours later after an excellent lobster roll and halibut on cabbage with bacon, half those same barstools were sitting empty and sad. The funny thing was that Le Gigot had been my back-up plan if Pearl was impossibly zooey; if we’d been allowed to check in, we might not have checked out. So I look forward to the day when the owners complain to the City section that their business is dying. They can blame their own big chill.
The cookbook reviewer for a revamped home design magazine is starting to make a name for herself: disingenuous. One month she’s contending she doesn’t know how small a small jalapeno might be, the next she’s insisting that “hard-to-find ingredients are not my thing.” Someone had better alert the husband. It’s what he sells.
Just back from Italy, I’m ready to turn around and go back. For our first meal close to home, I chose a difficult place where the chef knows me and reflexively reserved in my consort’s name, then hung up and wondered: “Why did I do that?” And Bob immediately said, “Because you want to be treated like shit.” We actually weren’t, but we were seated next to the kind of fat braying cretins you never hear in Europe and had to finish our food in defeated silence while subjected to the trashing of a soon-to-be-ex-wife, one who “needs a guy who makes real money, like $100,000 a year.” And at our second outing, to Blaue Gans for brunch, the host came over and told Bob that if he wanted to shoot in the bright and lively room, he had to “ask the people.” This was after an apparent tourist across the room had blasted our table using a flash with no objection. The guy was nice about it, but I had whipped out my little PHD in countless restaurants in several cities with no hassle from anyone. And I walked out wondering how often “the people” at Daniel and Jovia and every other Manhattan restaurant are asked before they are videotaped. This is America. Your every move is monitored.
Then there was the official welcome home. We flew Delta, an airline so bankrupt it can apparently only afford plastic flatware in child size, and that terminal at JFK feels one step below Third World to begin with. But we were shooed over in the passport line to a booth where a very large, very mean-looking functionary snapped at us that he was closed. Of course he was. He was busy trying to open a bottle of Pepsi by slicing off the top with a huge Bowie knife. I guess we should be glad he wasn’t using a prison dog.
The best sign I spotted in nine days was at L’Osteria di Santa Marina in Venice: “Water is a precious gift. Drink wine.” They meant it, too. My two glasses of pinot grigio totaled 3 euros. The bottled acqua was 2.60.
Our last night in Venice was a trip down the rabbit hole to the new Italy, a country where you can now eat a splendiferous lunch and see an Asian chef walk out of the kitchen. I think we were 20, after the TPW “Water Color” slide show, so we were all herded across a canal to one very long table in an osteria called 40 Ladroni. The food, pre-ordered by a fussy eater with a brilliance for crowd control, was big platters of what every American fantasizes about finding in a watery wonderland: polenta with baby shrimp; mussels and clams in spicy brodo; calamari fritto; risotto with another kind of shrimp; gnocchi with crab and tomatoes. But what made it surreal was eating under the deliberately averted eye of a gray-haired woman standing regally at the back of the front room, in a Venetian hat and a long gray cloak, seeming very time-warpy except for the Band-Aid slapped across one bony cheek. Then there was the cheery waiter, who looked and sounded Irish. And the kitchen, which was a veritable model UN, or at least a page out of Benetton. We could have been in Kansas. And I don’t think even John Berendt could make it up.
I also seem to recall sitting across a table from Rande Gerber and Frank Rich one night. I think Susan Anspach turned up somewhere, too. But that was all outside Venice and will need a while to assimilate. Meantime, I’m off to bake some beans since time is getting tight to cook the bunny for Easter. Food writing really is the last refuge of scoundrels.
Walmart help us if Costco ever decides to open in Manhattan. One Dining section might not be big enough for that advertorial. Besides the fact that it’s so provincial to get so lathered up over a chain selling processed food, pandering to a prospective advertiser feels unseemly. The crossover has become so pervasive, though, that when someone called to ask me the best way to get in touch with Molto Ego I could only say: “Call the New York Times. Ask Frank Bruni.”
Jon Stewart’s opening skit at the Oscars reminded me again of the search for a new president for Enron on 12th Street. Rumor has it that not even Mr. Moviephone will take the job.
Predictably, techno-chefs and their groupies are up in arms over the NYC health department’s decision to crack down on sous vide, the technology that seems to carry more cachet than grass-fed beef anymore. Maybe bureaucrats are erring on the side of caution, but for once I’m happy to see them step in a little more aggressively than government seems willing to do on mad cow. One of the most unforgettable lessons of restaurant school was how easy it can be to kill someone: All you need to do is forget sauteed onions under a tight cover on a warm grill. By morning you may have created something completely new, and it isn’t trendy. It’s botulism. And it’s just as lethal in clear plastic. Since cooking has finally become brain surgery, those boys with toys should be making the authorities nervous. Who’s minding the Seal-a-Meal when kitchens are a continent apart?
I like the food coverage in New York magazine and really want to trust it, but I choked when I saw the choice for best sandwich in the whole city. That nasty attempted Hot Brown at Bar Americain would be scraped into the closest trash can in Louisville. Just for starters, the real deal is never made with what tastes like French toast. The travesty is about as good as pastrami would be on challah with mayonnaise in Kentucky.
Was anyone else not at all surprised to find that the shock heard ’round the world was yet another mendacity, the one about the girl who died after kissing a kid who had eaten peanuts? Once upon a time, back when I started in newspapers, a cynical editor would have ripped that report off the wire and tossed it straight in with the Flayed Hot Brown. Now, if it lies, it flies. Allergy advocates need to get a grip. Cry WMD often enough and no one is going to take the death threat seriously. You can’t have your lactose intolerance and eat Haagen-Dazs, too.
I wish I could learn to let sleeping sluts lie. A friend goaded me into reading a certain excerpt of a certain memoir, and I’ve been trying to flush the images out of my cranial sieve ever since. I can’t forget the first young chef whose skin was still crawling when he told me the only way to get a good review was to sleep with the reviewer. I thought he was just being cruel. But no, now it’s out for all the world to read. My consort often accuses me of having an overactive imagination and I guess he’s right. Lately I keep conjuring another critic with weak ankles wrapped around the clogged one. This might be a Drano moment.
An anonymous quote in a guide to Venice sent by a friend we will be meeting there shortly seems particularly apt in the wake of the breathlessly awaited Del Ego review. The silly assumption that Panchito became an expert in Italian food just by being posted to Popeville was floated out once again to try to give a little credence to another episode of condescension from 43d Street, this time from a guy who could very well have spent his expense account at the McDonald’s on the Piazza della Rotunda. As the good book says, “Traveling makes you witty, but he who departs dull will return dull.”
The review may have been an anticlimax after the wild foreplay Panchito gave the Batali empire so long ago, but it did get me thinking back to the night my consort and I ate at Esca with the poor guy’s esteemed predecessor and his wife. I don’t remember much about the food, beyond an underwhelming fritto misto, but the image of the other B on the team circling the room and greeting every other table but ours is as vivid as if happened last night. It was such an obvious tipoff that he knew he had a critic on the premises, and that subtlety is not his strong suit. And maybe that explains the scruffy one’s statement in the vastly entertaining NYObserver takeout on the lease troubles at the Italian Versailles: “Somehow my partner Joe’s signature got on a piece of paper that maybe he hadn’t looked at.” These guys could be working at the White House.
My new favorite saying is “hype goes before a fall,” but it’s still odd that New Yorkers seem to be gunning so hard for Morimoto’s backer to fall on his multimillion-dollar face. Haven’t they noticed that the Stephen Starr of Manhattan seems to be stumbling, even with Eric Ripert to hold onto? Barca 18 is now offering a 20 percent midday discount. And to paraphrase Yogi Berra: If people don’t want to go there, nothing is going to stop them.
A bizarre item in the NYSun could be seen as a chronicle of cheese foretold. Once upon a time, maybe 15 years ago, the news was always that bread was getting better, that more and more idealistic New York bakers were working seriously hard to produce loaves better than you would find in Europe. Then everyone started to take the stuff for granted. No one even remembered the bad old days when the rumor was that the Mafia controlled restaurants to the extent that the bread basket could contain nothing but cotton in a light crust. And now apparently extraordinary bread has become such a given that a New York City writer could actually produce, and have published, a piece touting — you won’t believe this — Pepperidge Farm frozen bread. “Hearth Fired Artisan Bread” at that. Apparently the only redeeming value is the aroma of baking bread. And if that’s the model, one day not so long from now Kraft will be talking artisanal and selling farts.
“I am about to encourage you to buy and cook a fruit that is probably not available in your grocery store” is the food story equivalent of “It was a dark and stormy night.” Except Snoopy never went on to pat himself on the back for making prosciutto and fresh thyme available to the masses. I think I just heard the sound of one kumquat condescending, especially since I write for a supermarket magazine that definitely wanted the k word in a recipe this winter. Earth to 43d Street, too: America is not always the great unwashed. Even the soap in our hotel room out in Athens, Ohio, was culinarily correct, with a label boasting grapefruit and sage. But I guess it deserves scorn for not evolving to extra-virgin olive oil yet.
The real news you can use was not the story that supermarket beef might be the scariest food you can put in your shopping cart, and not just because it’s now being treated with carbon monoxide. If anyone still thinks it’s a good idea to buy anything but a D’Artagnan chicken out of the average store’s butcher case, I have some farmed salmon I could sell. No, the best thing I read was in the Journal’s Pursuits section, on wild man David Burke starting to raise his own beef. One solid trend story made the excellent point that even American idols like Niman Ranch can lose their cachet when they sell out to fast food. And it also demonstrated that real change in the food world is induced by the people who make it happen, not the ones who simply sit and write. Forget that and you might as well take me to the finger bowl and drown me in the shallow water.
Some bar in Las Vegas is serving a “liquid fortune cookie,” made with cream, Bailey’s and Amaretto pistachio cream. I think I can guess what the prediction is, too: Very shortly, you will puke.
Speaking of the blabble (that’s blog rabble, you know), I have to say one thing I’ve learned in 22 years is that the hardest part of reviewing cookbooks is coloring inside the lines. A technique may sound a little off, an ingredient may seem dispensable, a pan size may look interchangeable, a whole dish may read like a recipe for disaster. But if you don’t follow directions, you can’t blame the map when you get pathetically lost. Now I think I’ll go try a Marion Cunningham omelet without egg yolks and see what that does for my credibility.
You may never encounter so much as a bag of peanuts on a plane anymore, but it’s encouraging to know the airlines have not thrown out all their amenities with the pillows and blankets. Delta, the Wall Street Journal happily reports, is going to start stocking its lavatories with “antibacterial ‘lemon grass wasabi’ hand wash” to “satisfy health-conscious customers.’’ I don’t know which is scarier: the Roy Yamaguchiesque fusion, or the idea that microscopic bugs are more dangerous than the little outburst lately of hungry, thirsty, leg-cramped and wigged-out passengers trying to open doors in mid-flight. But it could be worse. They could be trying to update the lasagne.
While Dining was going all ethno-trivial on us, the mighty Cuozzo was breaking news and naming names. His piece on remote cameras spying on dining rooms was a piece of work that demonstrated yet again that the best decision he ever made was throwing away his critic’s notebook to engage in that increasing rarity, reporting. I just hope the voyeur down at Zoe does not take it as an excuse to install a camera in the Jovia men’s room under the guise of checking on the toilet paper his employees neglect. No wonder Americans are rolling over and playing dumb at the Chimp’s illegal surveillance. They already know we live in a White Castle world, with a camera on every transaction except the ones that matter, the devious dealings in the bunker where GoFuckYourself eats puppies for bar snacks and washes them down with snake oil.
My favorite restaurant pro is risking never eating dinner again for free in this town. In officially blogging his latest hostage situation at Enron on 12th Street, where meals go on for weeks, he details some bizarre encounters during an event with a particularly craven choice of a chef from a nothing resort (I guess the grill guy at Applebee’s was booked). On the way out he also gets a waiter to lament the decline and fall of both the cooking and the clientele in that self-described temple of high-end cuisine. No longer is the food “extraordinary,” with guests showing “reverence,” he says; now they “gorge themselves on Champagne and are drunk by the time dinner starts.” It can’t be an accident that he then notes that the menu included “Florida stone craps.”
If all the yellowcake-rattling by Iran lately is not scary enough, now comes a true sign that the apocalypse is upon us. Ten Speed Press is publishing a Twinkies cookbook. With recipes by real people, it says, for stuff like “sushi.” For dessert. But it gets worse. The cover of the publisher’s catalog actually showcases an elaborate cake made of Twinkies apparently encased in marzipan. Aspiring cookbook authors everywhere should just hang it up and let Hostess do the writing; I’m sure there must be 50 ways to use a Ding Dong, too. The occasion is actually a commemoration of a food spawned in the Depression, though, so maybe it’s just right for our times. But what’s most appalling is that the book comes with cover blurbs, making it very clear it’s way past time for Jane Stern to hit the road. And what’s saddest is knowing that “news” outlets everywhere will jump on the PR campaign. Bogus food always goes down easier than reality out of Iraq or New Orleans.
Funny to see the chef at the new Ruhlmann’s boldfacing Tavern on the Green on his resume. There once was a time when earning two stars there was enough to get you banished to Switzerland, as a chef I knew in the mid-Eighties was by Warner LeRoy, who was outraged that the NYTimes came up two short. And for the last many years the place couldn’t even get arrested. But now I wouldn’t be surprised to see it popping up on brunidigest. We can’t count on Mimi’s wisdom anymore, only the comfort of Panchito’s wiseass.
A raw milk rebellion seems to be simmering out in America, but my cynical side suspects cheese makers who want to do their European best have an up-Everest road ahead of them. Right now this country is going backward on flavor and nutrition and quality, not forward, with industry foxes positioned at most every henhouse where artisanal ideas might be hatched. Take New York City’s decision to outlaw regular old whole milk in public schools. As Nina Planck pointed out at the press lunch for her forthcoming book “Real Food: What to Eat and Why,” kids don’t get enough calcium from skim milk, and they have trouble digesting it. They need the real deal. (And as she also noted, if obesity is the problem, the solution is more what Connecticut announced in the very same news cycle with its ban on sugary drinks in schools.) Somehow I think serious dairy will be struggling as long as the lobbyist most in the news besides Jackoff is the one working for Kraft.
I read somewhere that when Americans are asked if they voted in the last election, 91 percent will say yes. But I also notice the same relationship with reality surfaces when the morbidly obese are quizzed on what they eat in a given day. I just spotted an interview with a Hastert-size woman who says breakfast is coffee and an egg sandwich, lunch is Diet Pepsi and leftover Indian chicken and dinner is grilled shrimp and a big salad and more Diet Pepsi. Not only that, one of her favorite kitchen tools is her George Foreman. So I guess it’s true what I always suspected. Aspartame and greaseless grilling do make you fat. Either that or lying is not just a presidential trait anymore.
If ignorance is truly bliss, there are some stunningly happy people on 43d Street. Every time the Greenmarket is addressed, the letters go astray. Who goes there? “The chefs, the foodies and the graying hippies,” Metro says. What is the unifying look for those who sell there? “Worn overalls and dirty fingernails,” City says. Maybe a couple of editors need to take off their green eyeshades and actually go take a look at a modern market. But I guess that would require a little more imagination than simply letting clichés run amok.
Hearing that the NYTimes has outsourced its food service, contracting with Restaurant Associates to provide fodder to the gray ghosts, brought back some interesting recollections of what I called the Cafe Regret. Like the one legitimate sick day I took in 46 months, after eating a wrap that had clearly been festering. Like the bacteria bar, the salad option frequented by surprising connoisseurs (suffice it to say that surimi is not anything you will ever see promoted in a certain column). Or like the grill jockey who had the world’s best technique for keeping his workload manageable — he could take so long to desiccate a single burger you would be quicker running out to Joe Allen’s, but it did mean he never had to cook very many. Mostly, though, I remember seeing a stylish byline in late afternoon eating one of the scary little pizzas that were always the last offerings to sell. Knowing she had started to work there the year I started kindergarten, I could only look at her and wonder how many of those excuses for lunch she had forced down, and what better life might lie anywhere else. No wonder a friend I just had lunch with was thinking longingly of what the RA guest chef was serving as she and I sat in an abysmal French restaurant. Roast pork with fingerling potatoes is haute cuisine compared with that old steam table standard: “taco, Mexican-style.”
We may never see the photos of the Chimp embracing Jackoff, but I can no longer say this administration does not believe in transparency. In a bizarre move, the FDA is actually proposing that food companies list insects in their ingredients. Well, insect derivatives, anyway: dyes made from beetles. Of course some Americans are riled up about it, judging by the article that ran in the Wall Street Journal. What it failed to note is how much food already contains matter that matters to vegetarians and kosher keepers; there are “allowable amounts” of insects in everything from flour on. Bugs happen, after all. The only difference is that Pillsbury doesn’t have to admit it, but Good & Plenty may be forced to do so. Somebody needs a better lobbyist.
Before finding my first big-city newspaper job, at the Louisville Times, I had earned the best money of my life slinging patty melts in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of journalism school. After dropping out and trying waitressing in Nebraska, I found people will always tip a student better than a pro. But you don’t learn that playing queen for a week, which is why I had a rather visceral reaction to the latest national exhibition of falling standards at a newspaper that once prided itself on ethics.
Waiting tables used to be what aspiring journalists did to put themselves though college. Now the profession has become so elitist that a restaurant critic can afford to do it only for a story. I’m trying to remember the last time a real reporter was allowed to use a fake name and fake identity for the sake of ephemeral copy. I guess I missed that class. But then this was Sweeps Week in print. And who needs integrity when there is buzz to be had? Whatever goes on in women’s bathrooms is nothing compared with what must happen in effete offices anymore.
I have the best readers: They slog through minimalist attempts at prose so I don’t have to clutter my empty head. And usually they make excellent points. How can you talk about top chefs opening casual places in Paris without putting Joel Robuchon and his Atelier into context, especially since he is bringing the concept to New York? Unfortunately, that question made me go back and look at the atrocity in question and my jaw pretty much dropped. The perpetrator actually contends that American top chefs were first to start opening casual places and that the “trend” has “spread” to France. I hate to point out the obvious, but the Parisians were accustomed to baby bistros a good 15 years ago; I even ate in Robuchon’s way back when. But I had to stop reading after that silly sentence. It brought back too many memories of poking at ledes and having the logic collapse. Some “writers” should stick to recipes. And check them twice.
So I’m sitting at the bar at the newish Tintol, waiting for my consort to stand me up, and it’s just me and a couple of guys drinking quietly and four couples who in about 30,000 years might manage to evolve enough to pass for Eurotrash. They are foul on every level, throwing their coats and bags and crap onto more than enough stools for four, crawling into each other’s laps, braying, taking cellphone pictures of themselves and generally acting like scum from across the pond. I keep thinking the place is doomed if that’s what’s allowed to hang out there, with no one at the door to rein them in. But then they finally leave, the sleek and sophisticated place goes quiet and I hear the excellent bartender communicating her relief with the two guys, who apparently work in the neighborhood and ask: “So, have you had your first fight yet?” Meet the new Times Square. Grosser than the old one.
For some reason every conversation over every meal anymore seems to turn to the decline and fall of the American empire now that we have a White House inhabitant whose idea of unacceptable behavior is literal fellatio, and by a woman. So it came to pass that we were halfway through lunch at Gaetano’s in Red Bank when the forthcoming televised exercise in doublespeak came up and I of course had to mention that the guy must be drugged lately. “His jaw moves in that really weird antidepressant way, and he gets that strange white stuff in the corner of his mouth that my mom always did, and she was schizophrenic and on serious drugs,” I was spewing when I noticed the young, very pretty, wide-eyed waitress had stepped up to the table and knew exactly whom we were talking about. “Our president?” she asked incredulously. And of course I had to say, “You know he’s an alcoholic, right?” She nodded and said, “But drugs? Drugs?” She thought a second and added: “They do make your jaw funny….” Then she walked away, leaving us to wonder if she was off to call the FBI. Maybe we should have tipped more. Homeland security is a marvelous thing. You just don’t want to have to live with it.
Good thing Americans have been thoroughly indoctrinated into ignoring anything that happens overseas. They don’t need to worry that U.S. beef is now banned in Japan, just a month after the stuff was allowed back in, since mad cow fears have sprung up yet again, over there if not here. (Nothing gets between this country and its obscenely cheap burgers.) But just imagine if the government devoted half as much energy to spying on stockyards and slaughterhouses as it does on poor saps Googling nonsense. We still wouldn’t have Osama dead or alive, but we might be spared meats of mass destruction.
It’s no wonder newspapers have trouble getting ads anymore — in a Holy Foods world, the news columns will always pick up the slack. The last time New Yorkers seemed this worked up was when Krispy Kreme came to town. Now the mega-news everyone is atwitter about is the silly announcement that Trader Joe’s is incoming. I’ve only been in one, outside San Francisco, and was underwhelmed, so maybe I’m missing something. Oh, right. Manhattan when it had character, before it was overrun by franchises.
Every day in every way American journalism loses a little more credibility. The latest example might not be as bad as a reporter admitting taking money from a crook she met at church in return for writing favorable articles (and ratting him out only when he didn’t pay the full freight). But you have to wonder about the newspaper, the freelancer and the whole world when a woman who writes a book with a chef gets to turn around and blow her a big drooling kiss in print. Hope it sold some cookbooks. And maybe some takeout. But the price of integrity just keeps dropping. If the food is really that spectacular, someone with distance if not believability should say it. Otherwise the Jeff Gannons will have won.
Coming off a seriously good if weirdly delayed series on diabetes, the NYTimes went right back into stenographer mode in its story on the city’s program to get bodegas to start selling low-fat milk. Of all the evils bloating the poor in this town, it’s hard to imagine whole milk could possibly be worse than half-gallons of high-fructose corn syrup and shelves and shelves of sugar for cheap. Bodegas are disappearing in my neighborhood since Symphony Space went all high-rent on us, but I still know the few that remain are not about dealing milk. And the city would be better off getting the Snapple sugar water out of the public schools before it tries to shove light milk into the Red Bull cases.
The true disconnect between the series and the rest of the paper, though, was a story actually headlined “Corn Farmers Smile as Ethanol Prices Rise, but Experts on Food Supplies Worry.” Anyone with half a brain knows where the corn our tax dollars subsidize goes, and it is not into nutritious food. Besides, the whole idea that cars will burn so much as fuel that humans will go hungry ranks right up there with pushing low-fat milk into what amount to snack bars. Please, starve us of that cheap Coke.
The really big news lately is that city restaurant inspections have been expanded online, and I was so reassured to see that one place I know too well is staying consistent. Way back when, I remember rat scat in the sticky buns. Today there is just “evidence of live mice” in the kitchen. I guess those shortbread cookies deliberately left out overnight as a distraction are finally working, at least for the inspectors.
After nearly 23 years of eating for a living, I should be impossible to shock, but I have to say Nice Matin has just provided one of my most astonishing restaurant experiences anywhere in the world. It happened when I hooked up with a friend just as the kitchen was closing in midafternoon. She ordered pistou, I asked for a second to look at the wine-by-the-glass list and we never saw the waitress again. I had to flag a busboy and put his finger on the Arbois line to get my order, and we sat neglected for the next 45 minutes until we flagged another busboy in a vain attempt to get a check. My friend, in a hurry to get to an antiwar vigil by grandmothers in midtown, set down a five-dollar bill as a tip and I started to protest, then figured, “Well, she’s a great supporter of women and labor, and besides, I have no ones, so what the hell?” We went to the bar and told the bartender we needed a check, and he first dragged the waitress out of the liquid staff meeting, then said: “If you didn’t get service, don’t tip her.” My friend, though, pulled out a twenty and handed it over to the derelict waitress along with a penny for the $15.71 bill. In return she got $4 and the penny back, and both of us were too surprised to say anything. Then, as we turned to leave, the waitress lunged at us, brandishing the check folder and whining, “There’s no tip?”
I’m afraid I went ballistic: “You’ve got to be kidding me. We get no service, the busboy brings the wine, you cheat her out of 30 cents and you’re demanding a tip? Didn’t you even look on the table?” I stormed over to make sure no one had made off with the excessive five and then turned to leave with my poor friend. We were almost at the door when the waitress ran back with the five, folded over, saying: “I’m sorry. Take it back.”
My friend, to her eternal credit, just said: “Keep it. Let it be on your conscience. And remember it the next time a little old lady crosses your path.”
I kinda doubt I will ever be her when I grow up. But I will take comfort in the fact that you never see the same waitstaff twice at Bad Matin. The good ones, I’ve noticed, go on to great jobs. The lousy ones, I can only hope, go to hell.
Let bigger role models than I decide whether the new cereals are politically fit to eat. I’m busy squandering my life obsessing on how Wilford Brimley went from Quaker oatmeal icon to diabetes-accouterments shill. It’s like seeing the Marlboro man reincarnated with a pink ribbon. And it certainly makes me think a breakfast burrito is a better start on the day than Big Food’s nutrition nuttiness.
If W (the magazine, not the chimpanzee in chief) can be believed, maybe Princess Di didn’t have to die in a Paris smashup. Her rival the Rottweiler could have just done her in with a favorite dessert, the “Mars Fridge Cake.” With diced Mars bars, cookies, fruit and nuts chilled into some gruesome mass, it makes deep-fried Snickers bars look positively genteel. Come to think of it, though, Camilla’s concoction would have backfired as an assassin’s plot. It’s a bulimic’s dream.
For some reason the New York Sun has been surfacing on my doormat every morning along with the three other newspapers I pay for, and it’s been a revelation. Everyone on 43d Street should get it. On the bad side, it would make them realize how tangled-up-in-payback Off the Menu reads (if separating subject from verb were an Olympic sport, this would be golden), and how crammed-in real news feels (one adjective from Bret Thorn is like a cruise compared with those sentences I was always instructed to “unpack” when editing). But on the plus side, it might make misspelling potpie in display type yet again seem like a venial sin. The Kitchen Dish column actually referred to a chef who had been working in India at a restaurant in “Deli.” Is that somewhere near Coldcutta?
For anyone weary of Panchito, there’s no rest even in the parodies. Thanks to the brunidigest, I now have information I was protected from by not reading the most recent nonsense in the newspaper that doesn’t seem to understand why its local circulation is shriveling like Pinch’s nuts: The latest two-star does not take reservations. That is the most basic of amenities any reasonable person would expect. Next he’ll be busting into fragile restaurants barely open long enough for the kitchen to know its way around the walk-in. Too late. Color him witless.
More evidence that the fish rots from the empty head down: The Chimp breezes into New Orleans and actually recommends y’all bring the family. Weird, since our friends are coming back shell-shocked at how devastated that magical city is, and he’s saying come on down, the food’s great. But cluelessness does not stop with brush-clearing in this fearsome new world of homeland security. We walked into Macy’s for a 25th-anniversary party without the invite and stopped to ask the “security” guard where De Gustibus might be. He literally squirmed backward and admitted, “Everyone’s comin’ in askin’ that. I’m not sure.” And of course you have to wonder how safe you would be if those goldurn turrists decided to attack on the eighth floor and the guy at the front door did not even know where the commotion might be coming from. But I guess it could have been worse: He could have called FEMA.
If you had to spend one last night on earth, though, the De Gustibus party would have sent you out with visions weirder than 72 virgins. I will have a hard time clearing my mind of the sight of Jacques Pepin grabbing Alain Sailhac and dancing him across the stage, butt in hand, while a shy but accomplished accordionist played “Happy Birthday.” One thing about cheese-eating surrender monkeys. They do know how to have a good time in this life.
Here’s a trend guaranteed to send spasms down your colon: According to the food prognosticator in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Starbucks is testing variations of the Egg McMuffin.” With coffee and grease, go-cup could take on a whole new meaning.
For once Panchito’s (and his editors’) lack of judgment leaves me speechless. I can only quote one friend who thought his Freudian stunt was a “mischievous muddle.” And another who simply wondered if he would now be reviewing another mother-son situation in one clueless swoop: Felidia and Del Posto. (Maybe a real Italian mamma in the Village is wise to be heading out of town with the review on the way.) It all seemed very unTimesian, but then this is now a paper that has sunk so low to keep the stockholder/employees satisfied that it runs refers to ads. If it’s Thursday, it must be the Olay story.
The Christian Science Monitor discovers the food blogiverse and whom does it ask for comment? The most overexposed quote ho in the restaurant business, a guy whose idea of a clever insult is “don’t just stand there, go blog something.” It makes about as much sense as interviewing the Lumiere brothers about digital cameras. I never thought I’d say this, but it might have been smarter to call Tim Zagat. Hot air, breaking wind — what’s the difference?
Wondering who in the world would spend their own money on a trip to Libya? Read Michael J. Totten in LAWeekly: ‘“For tourists we have fish,”’ [a waiter] said. He did not give me a menu. I didn’t see a single menu anywhere in the country. In Libyan restaurants you sit down and eat whatever they give you.” And how was that fish? Served guts and all, “it smelled bad and tasted worse.” Geez, maybe someone could run the recipe.
Booze brand managers may be doing their jobs too well. A murder report over New Year’s mentioned the victim and his pals had been drinking vodka and cranberry juice. And not just any vodka but Grey Goose. Now that cops and reporters are on message, it could be a new ad campaign: Cosmos to die for.
Everything you need to know about Panchito’s power can be summed up in one little tale of two restaurants on New Year’s Day: A friend tried to go to Cafe Luxembourg for brunch and wound up at Compass by default. His two-star was her second choice. His one-star was packed. But at least this explains how the restaurant reviewed more often than Alain Ducasse without ever rising above “very good” has survived so long: location, location, spillover. It’s a celestial sump pump.
In the annals of idiotic inventions the Juiceator ranks right up there with Snackwells. It’s a special straw that kids can punch into an orange to suck the juice out. And what’s so dumb about that? It’s supposed to be the answer to childhood obesity. According to that big paper that seems increasingly easy to dupe, the guy who came up with this was “trying to think of alternative snacks to potato chips and soda pops.” Before he continues pointing fingers at “deep-fried foods from fish to pizza,” though, he might want to think of another reason Baby Huey would look small in a grade school today. It’s called juice. It used to be rationed, served in tiny glasses. Now it’s sold in gallon jugs and drunk like water. And when you take away the fruit, with a straw that blocks out the pulp, all that’s left is sugar in liquid form. Once again, the solution is as bad as the problem.
These are days of miracle and wonder. In the same week I found myself cooking from the Wall Street Journal (yes, the Journal) and dropping $95 on a ham, a food I once gave up eating for 30-some years. The latter was the more life-changing experience: Once you eat Heritage Foods meat, it would be impossible to go back, even to Kurowycky’s extraordinary ham. But the Journal recipe had the saving grace of roasting shiitake caps to use as a garnish, and they were sensational. It’s a good thing the sesame noodles they went with, from a chef whose name I didn’t clip, were not great, or that paper could be dangerous. I could find myself making Bobby Flay’s brunch. And hating myself in the morning.
Four of us, including an out-of-town chef, had a good laugh at the $15.50 roasted cauliflower at Telepan. The main ingredient isn’t even in Greenmarkets, for Alice’s sake. But now it looks like a deal. Del Posto, myriad sites say, is putting out entrees that run $200 and up. They’re meant to be shared, but even then the math looks fuzzy. Either Halliburton is doing the menu pricing or the joke’s on anyone who wants to risk table-size disappointment (prime rule of ordering is that a kitchen can handle one sautéed skate per table; more and it all sogs down). As the visiting chef said of Bill Telepan, though, “If he can get it, God bless him.” Let’s hope some other supernatural being will be taking care of Molto greed.
Given how desperate the Metro section seems to be for stories these days (I keep expecting them to run some I did back on a weekly in Iowa, like homeowners with four — count ’em — birdhouses for purple martens), it’s not surprising that V’s predictable demise warranted a big display. The mystery is why the closing of Ooze of all places was worth a mention in another section. That poor chef seemed to be shelling out to the wrong people to the bitter end.
Pity the poor restaurant critics. They have to suffer so much tuna tartare and organic chicken. Work is hell, and then December comes. The pink paper’s reviewer has just gotten the look-back-in-crankiness trend rolling for 2005, and reading her you can see what the problem is: that damn expense account. Try eating farther down the food chain from Alto and Perry Street; mix it up a little and you might appreciate all that grass-fed beef. You might even break the cycle of chefs churning out crudo because critics lap it up. And that might stop all the whining that all menus are alike.
The muted outrage at the latest madness of King George would be more surprising if restaurants had not already taken to spying on the unsuspecting. It’s gotten to the point that the Michelin men say there are so many cameras trained on New York tables that anonymity is impossible. And let’s not forget who the first big chef was to admit he had cameras in the dining room, and not to check up on his waiters. Funny to think of the guy paid by we the people having so much in common with a French control freak. Clearly the Chimp does not know the history of a certain homeland or he wouldn’t be taunting: Let ’em eat privacy.
The newest trend in food, at least in newspapers, is using stock photos with recipes. It’s more insidious than outsourcing journalism — why should the Wall Street Journal shoot a fresh creme brulee from a New Orleans chef when there are iconic images to be had for almost nothing? All cremes brulee are alike, no? All that matters in media anymore seems to be the bottom line, not credibility. USA Weekend in particular is apparently unaware that cooks like visual references — you can judge a recipe by its representation. So whom does it help to illustrate “sautéed cherry tomatoes with garlic & basil” with Stockfood’s No. 643668 “cherry tomatoes on a square yellow cloth,” especially when the pictured herb is anything but? Don’t they think anyone wonders why the prime rib with garlic and rosemary is sitting on red onions flecked with thyme? Or why the creamed spinach could have come from a Stouffer’s box? It would be one thing if these were supermarket handouts, but they’re newspapers. It’s the same phenomenon that gets op-ed pages to accept free propaganda catapulted by conservative columnists on the government take. You can only wonder why Turdblossom hasn’t thought of handing out food photos with hidden messages. Wait — that would be the Chimp in Baghdad with the fake turkey. Deception accomplished.
Speaking of images your brain could live without: creamed spinach “so rich you’ll think this vegetable sprouted from an udder.” Seriously. That line was in a major metropolitan newspaper. One that also described Bobby Van’s staff as “more strip joint than strip steak.” Why do I keep envisioning streaming green pasties?
I don’t often feel sympathetic to the tourists who lumber through Times Square clogging the sidewalks and thinking they’re in New York. But after a one-two punch of local hospitality and cuisine after an opening at ICP, I almost wished I could be so Bubba Gump’s naive. We started at Angus McIndoe just because it was close by on a bitter-cold night, and we got a table right away but absolutely no attention, even though the place was less than half-full. Worse, no one noticed when we finally did the non-Nebraska thing and stood up, put down our napkins and menus, picked up our coats and scarves and walked out to John’s Pizza right next door. That old church was almost empty, and it was soulless even after it half-filled up with large people. The legendary pizza was middle American, the wine box quality, the service about as personal as a flu shot. You know it’s bad when you start thinking longingly of Olive Garden. And worse when you want to kiss the floor of the C train taking you home and not to a hotel.
Considering this is the season for lexicographers to choose their words and definitions of the year, I’m surprised Mallomars did not make the list as “swallows of Capistrano, New York style.” It’s a Metro miracle. They’re back.
The American Taliban’s insanity in trying to claim the biggest shopping season of the year for Christians only is certainly making me wonder what Jesus would buy. So thank allah there are food purveyors like the one that emailed me with the best suggestion, one that truly shows what the holidays are really all about: “Nothing says Merry Christmas better than a bucket of XXX’s delicious popcorn.” In caramel, “cheesey” and butter flavors. Maybe Bill O’Reilly could put a five-gallon bucket where the felafel won’t shine.
The latest installment of T for Travesty was so full of retching excess it’s hard to know where to start feeling appalled. On the same day the front page was telling unconscionable tales of New Orleanians still living in their cars while 222 billion of our tax dollars flow toward destroying another country, the overwrought advertorial was letting the Queen of Sazeracs blather on about her 28-foot dining table and wall-size stove in an intact home. You never expect good sense from a shiny rag, but good taste seemed to have flown out the same window. Did anyone really taste those factory-farmed steaks before touting them and trashing heritage turkeys? If so, that $1,435 bottle of wine obviously went to his or her head. Let’s hope I missed something and it was really all just a parody. At least the Daily News had the grace to make the gold leaf in its cocktail optional.
When I think of Thanksgiving, I don’t think of Stove Top Stuffing, but then I could never run America’s obit pages. The way the death of one of its inventors was covered, you would have thought she was the Karate Kid of processed food, merely because she happened to shuffle off this mortal coil 11 days before turkey day, in that lull before the media could start whipping themselves into a frenzy over shoppers trampling each other in malls (malls with stores that advertise, of course). I could see it if she had been part of the team that patented the pop-up timer, or canned cranberry sauce, or even instant mashed potatoes. But the significance of her product is simply that it turned a celebratory food into an everyday indulgence and merely facilitated the fattening of America, giving lazy cooks one more starchy-greasy thing to serve instead of fresh vegetables. If anything good can be said about the whole sorry story, it’s that the scary scientists who came up with Peeps just got some inadvertent career advice: If you want to be immortal, kick off around Easter.
Stove Top Stuffing looks as healthy and natural as an avocado, though, compared with what one wingnut boasted about making with her kids for Thanksgiving: pies (plural) filled with instant vanilla pudding, canned pumpkin, chocolate chips and Cool Whip. Talk about transcending the Twinkie defense. This is the best explanation yet for why Asian commentators who advocate internment stand up for the unevolved Chimp and try to bash liberals with rabid foam. Real food keeps you sane. Chemicals make you batshit crazy.
I waste my share of food for no good reason, but I still got queasy hearing about a turkey-eating competition the same day the papers were all running holiday cries for help from food pantries warning that demand is up almost 50 percent from families in New York who are going hungry since the rich all got richer under the oil president. It’s not just that gorging has become a spectator sport but more that something is profoundly wrong when the winner could be declared with less than half of a 10-pound bird under her belt. Come on, there are amateurs in this country who put away four pounds of red meat at a normal sitting. Next year, the organizers should make this a true challenge. Insist the hogs gag down tofu turkeys. And sell front-row tickets to benefit Second Harvest.
The food people at the Wall Street Journal’s new Saturday edition are just the latest to kick a dining section when it’s down. Stories on restaurant cooking so far have been hitting the right balance of trends-you-can-use information and chefs-know-stuff-but-not-everything skepticism. A survey on secret spices and condiments in particular was worth five years of Minimalism. And not least because it never once mentioned the B word, let alone flashed a clog.
A business story in the hometown paper says more than five new restaurants on average open every week here. So what the hell was I doing back at Rosa Mexicano downtown when I wanted a fast early lunch with a friend and my consort after the Greenmarket? Hope springs eternal would be one excuse, but the reality is that I was honestly driven by form over function — the design is Broadway with a working kitchen. Unfortunately, the guacamole was pallidly seasoned and clumsily mixed (bland for one bite, all jalapenos for another). The chicken quesadillas were stuffed with tired meat and topped with pico de capon. I didn’t taste our friend’s flautas, just heard that they were soggy from sloppily dried lettuce alongside them, but I was tasting my crab empanadas for another eight hours. At least the waiter gets credit for asking if they were okay when I declined to take the leftovers home, but he gets points off for sniping, after I said they were not as good as uptown because the dough was greasier and the crab stringier, that “it’s all the same supplier.” I could only snipe back: “But it’s a different cook.” Given how fast the chain is expanding, the problem may be with the good kitchen, not the bad one. Mediocrity only succeeds when expectations are low. And a wall of water with divers could do wonders for Chi-Chi’s.
A bag of yet another high-end European salt has landed on my desk with a rather enticing suggestion on the label: “Add it to fries, after coked.” Or, as the Portuguese might put it, just say sim.
You could almost forgive New York magazine its morning-in-America all-white, all-hetero sex cover when you came to its pie feature (so to speak). Both graphically and information-wise, it kicked ass on how to make the overexposed seem seductively different. The Journal, by contrast, must have been socking back the same downers as those depressives on 43d Street. You don’t need an MBA to cook Thanksgiving. It’s the simplest meal of the year. The turkey is just an oversized chicken, and the menu is pretty much written in stone. If the problem is that companys coming, just follow the Piemontese path to bliss: Better one friend than a dozen relatives.
Having finally, finally caught up to “Mondovino,” I have now officially crossed over to the other side that believes wine coverage needs to be transformed. A guy who apparently all but keeps crocheted covers on his extra toilet paper rolls should not have so much control over the most taste-driven art. Even so, what popped up on a Philadelphia wine list, and was spotted by my geogroffica.com friend, is decidedly taking the lyrical impulse way too far. Native Blend 2001, Fourplay No. 1, is described as “4 promiscuous Sicilian grapes fornicate for your pleasure.” Call me old-fashioned, but I would go for the South African pinotage simply described as “complex and witty” if I wanted to respect myself in the morning. What happens in the winery should stay in the winery.
Sartre was mistaken. Hell is not other people. It’s other people’s Thanksgivings. I just spent more than a week up to my hip screws in turkeys, heritage and free-range, and by the end I was looking longingly at tofu. Which must explain what happened at the Wall Street Journal when it set out to shop for all those masters of the universe raking in the megabucks while pensions get trashed and health benefits rescinded. The final choices seemed so forlorn, so low-rent, even — the unforgivable sin — so cheap. Honey Baked Ham Co. for $64.95? Harry & David? Don’t they know about $200 tags on raw turkeys alone? With the right bird they could have fulfilled every CEO’s fantasy: You eat one and you shit gold.
The Food Network’s vision of Thanksgiving is just one more reason why I have never mastered the remote (my consort had to call from Beijing on 9/11 to tell me how to activate that dusty box in our living room). Only dinner with my no longer intact family could be as painful as watching “stars” induce vicarious diabetes with “honey-brined smoked turkey” and “Orange You Glad It’s Thanksgiving soup.” Did you have to ask? Of course Emeril is involved.
My favorite part of the Sunday papers is always the coupons, a scary glimpse from here in the land of recycling egg cartons from the farmers’ market into an alternate American universe where nothing is fresh and everything is overprocessed and mindless obesity seems to be the goal. Every week there’s another insult to taste and good sense, but the latest revelation of what advertisers think consumers want is the one pumping up the $1 off on plastic EZOvenware. It had to be a very dark corner of a huckster’s sick mind that produced a slogan so clearly describing this country’s attitude toward the world: “Bake it, serve it, nuke it, trash it.” Condi could not have said it better.
File under “nothing sacred:” The long-vacant Iridium space across from Lincoln Center is becoming the third P.J. Clarke’s. Funny how the new owners got such adulatory press when they “saved” the 1884 original not so long ago, and now they’re turning it into just another Houlihan’s. Which, without the skyscraper-holdout atmosphere, it really is anyway.
Funny thing about the new Michelin. Back when the Luteces and La Caravelles were all closing, everyone was declaring formal and French not just passe but extinct. Now that the stars have been strewn, the same “experts” are bitching that they skew formal and French. The whole week felt like a Monty Python routine. The frog is not dead yet. Really.
The Guides were all gone by the time I left the big to-do at the Guggenheim, so I can only hope Michelin does ratings better than it does parties. This thing was a scrum. Everyone was packed into the lobby, with one bar — it was like being invited to a mansion and getting shunted to the gatehouse with a keg. Worse, they poured the last of the Veuve Clicquot just as I got there, no more than 45 minutes into the evening. Worse still, there was almost no food, and some of it was chocolate-covered strawberries. Until they opened a second bar one level up after the speech, complete with recycled jokes from the coming-to-New-York party last winter, it was almost scary. If someone had yelled fire, the luminaries and the lowlifes alike would have been trampled. But that was assuming we could have heard the yell over the sound system, which was painfully blaring stuff like “Another One Bites the Dust.”
Among the many surreal sights was spotting Andre Soltner and Alain Sailhac waiting patiently in the long line on the sidewalk to be cleared by the check-in girls with their thick binders of names. Someone should have given the jejune types a cheat sheet of iconic faces. Even better was noticing the group photo being taken with Ducasse, J-G, Ripert, Bouley, Keller and Daniel all posing with Maguy and a model and a couple of lesser lights and, wedged into the very center of the shot, a smiling Todd English, his best jaw forward. I was standing next to Terry Brennan and played dumb: “Who’s that guy in the middle?” He didn’t respond, only snorted and eventually stomped off, so I asked the guy he had been talking to: “Is that Todd English? What’s he doing there?” And he responded: “Beats me. He’s not even in the book!”
Apparently I missed a bunch of famous visages myself, but I was surprised to see one who had been the subject of a rather scathing expose of his reviewing habits just that day. Considering I spotted a certain wine writer in a sidewalk cafe earlier in the week on the day after his daughter’s accusatory memoir was reviewed, I figured shame must be last year’s model behavior. But then I ran into my favorite straight-shooter from the most unlikely publication who observed: “Why should he be embarrassed? Everybody already knew he was the biggest schnorrer in the food business.” And on this night of all nights, that was saying something.
Am I the only bleeding-heart foie gras aficionado who finds it a little disconcerting that Chicago is so worried about ducks being abused that it is about to ban one of the small pleasures of our overfed lives? This big battle is going down while the Vice Chimp is arguing for the authority to brutalize human beings to win the war on the abstraction. If only the conscientious out in the heartland worried as much about destroying Muslims as they do about force-feeding poultry. This isn’t “Babe.” It’s “Battle of Algiers.” Apparently we need a Jonathan Swift to find a way to engorge human livers just to get help on the way to the new American torture chambers in Eastern Europe. And if that seems too radical, what about a mega-surtax on foie gras to be dedicated to rescuing earthquaked Pakistanis? I would rather pay that than fatten the Red Cross.
Our old friend Leslie Wong always said the most amazing thing about New York is that “the more people get fucked, the more they like it.” It’s what accounts for long lines and abusive service all over town. And now I see it’s why the gullible abase themselves to cram into Babbo for the pleasure of struggling to keep the chickpeas on the bruschetti while Maremma has a nice wide-open bar and superior food of the re-envisioned Italian variety. We got absurdly over-the-top treatment, and food, and wine, and the Marty Robbins soap-operatic songs from my childhood were almost as seductive, but even without all that I would have perceived that this was a serious restaurant. Funny that I’d been staying away because I assumed it was as tough to get into as Beppe. Funnier still that idiots waste their reviews on theme park jokes. Nice guys should not finish last.
My compliments to the candy corn flacks (imagine having that life’s work in your obit). The hoariest of Halloween pegs was deemed worthy of the NYT, Life, Time and who knows what other publications. Those Peeps hypesters should take a lesson. Nothing succeeds like cliche.
One of the real scandals of the Beard House is how New York’s lamest party photographer was able to start by donating his “services” (certainly not his skills) there and use it to build a career disrupting restaurant events everywhere. Now that he’s gone digital it’s even worse. Not only does everything have to stop while he poses and blasts his flash, but then he has to chimp — everyone waits while he checks the back of the camera and then inevitably and ineptly tries again. I know party pictures are the lowest of the low in photography, but there’s gotta be someone more talented out there. For want of a better Rolodex, every book celebration should not go by as a blur.
McDonald’s offering nutrition information on its packaging seems about as likely to end the obesity pandemic as adding calorie counts to Haagen-Dazs cartons has. But the Center for Science in the Interest of Public Relations still seems a little silly saying that it’s not enough, that customers “should not be expected to do the math” to know what’s good for them. I guess it is a little much to expect some waddler can’t figure out that the numbers on the heavily advertised healthy choice apple-walnut salad (310 calories, 13 grams fat) are bigger than on the hamburger (260, 9). Clearly it’s not the meat. It’s the stupidity.
I’m so old I remember when it was a scandal when a print reporter would cross over into television, which even before the plasma screen was always perceived as the shallowest of media. Even back in the mid-Seventies, though, no one ever dared leap the divide between church (newsroom) and state (ad sales). So how can a newspaper that makes so much noise about ethics send an editor out to do a dog-and-pony promo for kitchen advertisers with “celebrity chefs?” Maybe the $125 “VIP” tickets make it all okay, and maybe it’s not as bad as overstarring a friend, but really, doesn’t the place already have enough yellowcake on its face?
Everyone is piling onto David Burke for inventing his latest whimsy (or are they really resenting his promotional skills?) My feeling is that if furniture polish can come with sunscreen, why can’t food have deodorant? Personally, though, I would have waited until I was down to Olsen twin size before introducing something promising to “spray your pounds away.”
I know Chipotle Grill is supposed to be the anti-McDonald’s, but I still can’t bring myself to try it. Now it turns out my suspicions may be well-founded. On the menu my consort picked up in his travels about town, the chicken is described as “vegetarian fed.” Bad enough cows are raised on chicken manure. Who knew the henhouse trough was being filled with all those sprout eaters from PETA who have clearly been fighting for the wrong victims?
Homophobia is allegedly the nasty little secret of the chef scene in Manhattan, but something else comes wafting out of the closet when you flip through Time Out’s “superstar” issue. When I attempted a piece on New Orleans restaurants right after Katrina, it struck me how women ruled: Ella Brennan, Susan Spicer, JoAnn Clevenger, Mary Sonnier, Leah Chase. And that’s in a tiny town. Here, of the 48 shiny, happy faces in a huge spread, exactly three are attached to women: Zarela, Lidia and Gabrielle (Hamilton — it says everything that she needs the identifier). I know all the excuses (women need to raise kids, women can’t get financing, life’s a bitch and Chodorow owns it). But I suspect it really comes down to the reality that unless you can comfortably snap a kitchen towel across a big bare freckled butt, you’re on your own.
And apparently the only thing worse than being born with a vagina, by Time Out standards, is attempting cuisine in another borough. For all the hooah about great restaurants across the waters, including the Zagat absurdities (is that redundant?) involving the Bronx lately, not a single “superstar” cooks for the B team.
For some reason newspaper copy editors are expected to know about everything from business to sports to opera but are allowed to be complete nitwits about food, the one universal subject. How else to explain all the first-day news stories on the twin babies who died suddenly in their bed in Brooklyn that reported they had been fed “soymilk [or soy milk, depending on the desk] and cornmeal.” Having been raised on mush, I read that and thought it was pretty clear what did them in. Dry cornmeal will shut you down. It’s what private school parents put on their kids’ heads with the shortening to suffocate lice. Only on the second day, after the weirdness was repeated in a lede, did “porridge” appear after “cornmeal.” Of course the stuff was cooked. Didn’t anyone down the word chain think it was strange to be typing flour and meaning tortillas?
What could be worse than shaking down chefs, demanding trips for free and rewarding cooperative restaurants with good reviews? Apparently, bitching that the comped hotel has no shower caps. As my e-source wondered, why would a guy need a shower cap? Maybe he meant a laundry bag for the cash.
And let’s have a moment of silence for the publisher of a nut graf on farmed venison that called it “a rare opportunity to taste something wild” (shiitakes do happen). The paper of Judy Miller has more to account for than mere silliness and Rachael-reverse snobbism (anyone remember the Galloping Gourmet, let alone the Frugal Gourmet?) One of the outrages that drove me off the national desk and into cooking school in 1983 was being told that a reporter sleeping with a congressman she covered was perfectly acceptable. But maybe that was a good thing. I could have been shifted over to the features copy desk, where I sometimes filled in, and become just another gray ghost on 43d Street. I would have thought everything the paper did was as fine and upstanding as re-editing and fact-checking a Moira Hodgson article on museum restaurants 14 times before it finally ran. For all my mockery, I have to say it’s sad to think that even restaurant reviews were taken so seriously way back then that Mimi Sheraton would stand over the copy editor with menu in hand and make sure everything under her byline was verifiable. Agenda-free was taken for granted.
Forget all the other signs of the apocalypse looming: the ceaseless hurricanes and the monsoons in Manhattan and the earthquakes and the Arctic conveniently melting for the oilmen. The true sign that the end is near is now on the menu at Red Cat: tempura bacon. My inner Mr. Creosote made me order it, but even I had to acknowledge that nothing says our days are numbered like an appetizer of deep-fried fat. No wonder this country urgently needed the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption law just passed in the caring (for Burger King) Congress. If the fast food can’t get you, the creative chefs will.
The Greenmarket is always a mood-elevating experience, and not just on a late morning when you’re there exactly as the clouds clear and the blue blasts back into the sky just 32 days short of New York building an ark. I stopped to buy buttermilk from a teenage girl in a stretched-tight XXL Aeropostale Phys Ed Dept. sweatshirt who was sitting behind a sign listing prices for quarts and pints, and it went like this: “Could I have a pint, please?” “Uh, is that the little one?”
This is why the crazies want intelligent design to be taught in schools. It’s gotta be easier than math.
I think I can predict a story everyone will soon be reading avidly, though: In a half-blind tasting sponsored by the inimitable Ariane Daguin, heritage and wild turkeys triumphed (especially over the capon and the goose thrown in as ringers). I would spoof the stunt, but I was totally into it. What was less surprising than the undeniable superiority of the holier-than-Butterball birds was how bad the supermarket choice was. (Luckily, the brand escapes me.) It was not just bad, but scary bad, to the point where you would have to wonder why more Americans don’t call in sick on the fourth Friday of November. Unfortunately, that will be the 49-cent-a-pound protein under the gravy on most tables next month. Maybe we should give up on universal health care and just try to figure out a way everyone can have good, clean food without risking the debtors’ prisons undoubtedly coming soon under a Halliburton contract. It’s not that the heritage turkeys are too expensive. It’s that the overbred, overfed, spongy-weird turkeys are too cheap, and deceptively so.
The whole experience also reminded me of what else is heading our way besides a pandemic of happy bird news: the usual warnings from the government to scrub down your cutting boards and cook the turkey into jerky for safety’s sake and, most important, don’t rinse the filthy fowl or it will spew bacteria all over your clean kitchen. Under this go-Cheney-yourself regime, it’s all about personal responsibility. Because that’s so much more effective than scrubbing down the food chain.
Maybe I went to the wrong La Masseria. When I saw it named one of Esquire’s best new restaurants in the entire country, I first couldn’t even place it, then remembered dragging a friend to an embarrassingly mediocre, and expensive, lunch back when it first opened. Things must be bleaker out in America than I’d realized if this is the second-best New York can do. I can’t believe Mariani is going to make me agree with Panchito. Next he’ll be raving about Tony Luke’s.
The best gossip from the turkey trot-out was that Julia Reed has apparently been disappeared from the Times magazine. “It’s unfortunate,” I overheard a very distinguished contributor saying. “It’s made the page rahther dull.” Actually, I don’t think that’s what’s done it. When “voyeurism” with recipes from Jupiter puts you to sleep, there’s a bigger problem.
I doubt it was intentional, but Food Arts has come out with the ultimate Halloween cover: It Came From Out of the Curing Room. What looks like Karl Rove, post-indictment, is somberly cradling what could be either a dead baby or an amputated shoulder with hook already attached. (The inside photos are more appetizing, and the DIY story is actually excellent.) I guess it could have been much scarier, though: only the hem of his shorts is showing, for once sparing us all the sight of those great pumpkin legs in clogs.
More than usual, I’ve had a hard time readjusting to life in a city where English is almost the dominant language. I kept reading reports of some typhoon in an espresso cup over a chef’s memoir and not understanding what in the name of Rocco all the hoo-ah was about. Leave it to the hometown paper to inflate it into big news without even hinting at what I now hear is the back story, something involving conflict of interest and on-line censorship (but don’t trust me on that — I still say “si” when someone asks me the time). At least the whole world now knows the shocking truth about buche-rolling: famous names don’t read the crap they effusively blurb. Next they’ll be revealing they don’t write it, either.
The new Balducci’s is so bright you have to wear shades. Otherwise, on a particularly sunny day, you may have a hard time seeing the prices and will wind up paying $1.50 more for Illy espresso pods or 50 cents more for a bag of pearl onions than the dumpy uptown stores sell them for. It is one stunning food hall, but for navigability it ranks right up with that bumper-car demolition derby at 74th Street. The takeout looks ambitious, especially big hunks of special suckling pig, but to get to it you have to risk knocking over towers of olive oil and Il Mulino pasta sauce. Or killing a stroller mom.
Don’t let those swarms of furs clogging the city and those braying boors storming high-end restaurants fool you. The Eighties have not returned, at least if you compare the bubble pricing in two leading national newspapers. Champagne for $24 to $30 is “how low can you go” in the paper of the hoi polloi, while Champagne for $27 to $37 is “mid-range” in the publication that caters to masters of the universe. Maybe the New York Post can do the fair-and-balanced thing and tell us where the $50 to $75 bottles fit on the Cristal scale.
In other developments on the intelligent design front, we learn that “pet feces” should not be composted (and over our morning toast, no less) and that Crisco is just a class thing and not a nutrition menace if rich friends of well-connected magazine food sycophants use it. And let’s not even get into the Michael Brown of restaurant reviewing. Isn’t there a Stylish corner of Judy Miller’s jail cell where news-deaf “editors” could be lodged?
One more reason to despise Gabriela’s: I don’t like being wrong. It’s closed, all right, but not for good. Instead it’s taking over the huge Fish Tale space around the corner on Columbus that has been sitting empty at least a year while high-profile chefs were rumored to be prowling the Upper West Side in desperate search of prime locations. The most ironic part is that I actually thought Gabriela’s demise would free up a bleak but good corner for a serious restaurateur. I never even considered that a better, bigger space would be taken over by a worse kitchen. Drew Nieporent, donde estaba usted when we needed you?
Here’s what happens when you parrot the wingnuts’ “up is down, black is white, war is peace” line too long: One day you run a photo of Katy Sparks with your requisite story on trans fats in New York restaurants and your caption identifies her as “of Quilty’s in SoHo.” But the chef’s jacket she’s wearing clearly reads Balducci’s. Okay, so it’s not quite on the level of the toppling of the Saddam statue. But I can still just imagine the NYPost’s defense: “Are you gonna believe us, or your lying eyes?”
(For the record, the text had her employer correct but her first name misspelled, along with the surname of the owner of the Doughnut Plant, and also misidentified Amy’s Bread. No WMDs were found, however.)
Maybe there is a Dios: The nasty uptown Gabriela’s is up for auction (while the downtown food poisoning dispensary remains “closed for renovation”). The only question is why it took so long to bite the green bullet from hell. Whenever I’ve succumbed in the last couple of years, I’ve suffered hair in my refries, appalling service, grease, blandness and worse. Now that the roach-ridden Tacocina has been converted into a kosher creperie, I can only hope three makes a trend with mediocre Mexican up here. That would leave Mama Mexico free to celebrate Day of the Dead soon.
My own private Week in Review: Quagmire in the Travel section. Cheese steak mystery deepens (maybe someone should follow the greasy money?) And if a blackout happens, blame toaster ovens struggling to do in 50 minutes what a grill pan would in 5 — even before the weather has turned.
One of the weirdest experiences I had all summer was encountering a flip-flopped young woman sucking an iced latte who stood staring at the cascading mountains of corn and squash and melons and tomatoes and basil and cucumbers and peppers at a stand at the Greenmarket in Union Square and could only say: “Doesn’t anybody here have asparagus? It’s so easy to grow!”
I don’t know what Ms. Climate-Challenged would have uttered on seeing buttercup squash suddenly turn up among the huge heirloom tomatoes at the best stand on 97th Street, but I felt a twinge. And I soon found I was not alone. After paying for some lemon cucumbers and bright red paprika peppers and one of those tomatoes, I was limping away when the bearded farmer himself materialized alongside me to pass me a heavy bag holding two enormous, gorgeous tomatoes, one striped yellow and one deep red. He said something along the lines of, “Here, take these, enjoy them while you can.” I was so surprised I could only blurt, “Yeah, you almost get depressed when you see the first squash.” And he just said: “You do? I was depressed two weeks ago. Winter’s on the way.”
Maybe he can spend it growing asparagus. I hear that’s easy.
The September Gourmet should have been polybagged with a little hash. I admire the out-there inspiration of an issue devoted to music and food, but the execution will leave you longing for whatever they were smoking up high in Times Square. Kitchen Confidentially Yours contributes the sleaze factor, exposing himself with a self-indulgent intro almost as queasy-making as those smirking subway pervs captured on cellphone cameras. Recipes inspired by song titles are literally silly (or should I say ridiculously obvious?) And a multi-page feature on country-western food takes the usual fake dinner party into a whole other dimension, if not parodyland. The musical “family” pictured is never ID’d, the deviled eggs are laid out across from a guy who might as well be milking a horse, and the whole thing was shot by a Sydney photographer. Who are those shining happy people, and what the hell do big sky and big Stetsons have to do with singing of the South? A “pre-dinner sip of pot likker” is not going to do it. Readers are gonna need some meth.
One more reason to resent the tricyclist down at what someone clever has dubbed the Lazy W: Danny Meyer tells the Financial Times the American artisanal cheese frenzy can be traced back to a confluence of “an explosion in writing on gastronomy” and a booming economy. And he is referring, of course, to the 1990s, under a guy who didn’t need no stinking Supreme Court to become president. Remember the good old days of peace and prosperity when people not only could afford to travel adventurously to eat but could do it without a strip search? Who moved our country?
Someone at the White House Office of Language Abuse must be moonlighting for Williams-Sonoma. Shake ’N Bake has a new name: Roasting Crust. It’s what you get when you mix panko with herbs and sell it to idiots for $9.50.
Odd that all the ethics finger-pointing at the Times right now is aimed at freelancers. Everyone knows even staffers with corporate Amexes can get too close for comfort with subjects and start seeing stars (and worse). Considering all the sound and fury is targeted at the 401k-free, though, I just got a smokin’ letter that I suspect should have been addressed to Byron Calame instead. From the sound of it, a certain Gulliver might want to be a wee bit more careful about covering her pampered tracks. You can fool some of the editors some of the time. . . .
Speaking of true confessions, if Mr. Creosote really acquired the “entire body of my knowledge” on “food, travel and lifestyle” by violating those vaunted guidelines, things are worse than we knew. Even McDonald’s will teach you something, for tripe’s sake, because money changes everything, especially when it’s your own. Or you can go seriously in hock to go to restaurant school. Into every career a few freebies must fall, as I’m the first to admit, but the great secret of freelancing is that you actually can afford to learn. You might not need that last tiny little thin mint comped.
I hate to have to read a Times magazine story once, let alone track back through it trying to figure out crucial details. How is it a guy can charge $150 a head for dinners in a field and still be down and out? Shouldn’t he be working for the Beard House?
Since the tipping “news” just won’t die down, I guess I have to chime in: The service fee is here already. At Napa Wine Bar at JFK, in the Air France terminal. It was 18 percent — $6.93 on a $38.50 dinner tab — and explained in four languages on the check. I paid it happily and left a dollar more, knowing I had seen the future and it looks European. Isn’t the five-week vacation already upon us?
I could have done without the asinine cover line and Molto Ego’s misdirection (if he thinks the Rome airport has the best cappuccino in the world he has not been to Trieste, or Capri, or into town), but the new Budget Travel has a surprisingly refreshing feature on where food people go for cheap eats. It’s not all about the usual suspects — you suffer Alice and Apple but also get Bill Niman and Gabriel Kreuther and the president of Maker’s Mark — and it does the unthinkable in a glossy, letting Chris Kimball recommend a place where “the food’s awful except for the pies” (you could say that about all of Vermont, though). It also includes a number of unwittingly revealing asides, as sometimes happens when the name-dropping gets competitive. My favorite (edited for snark’s sake, of course) was “Craig Claiborne turned me on.” It explains so much more than it should have.
Anyone worried about how the First Stepford Wife is dealing with the little unpleasantness of having a dead soldier’s mother camped in her driveway can now relax. Her priorities are firmly in order. After long deliberation, she has chosen a new cook and, the AP says, can finally start throwing those dinner parties she was cheated out of after 9/11. And look, it’s the first woman chef for the White House. See, her husband isn’t so bad.
All I can say is that Turd Blossom must really be distracted with fears for his own flabby fanny these days. There could not have been a more tone-deaf, let ’em eat lemon creme announcement in a month when 54 other mothers have already sacrificed their kids to the big lie and more Americans than ever are asking: If women are equal, and the cause is noble, when do the skank twins put down their margaritas and ship out?
For shameless clumsiness, not much could make you want to avert your eyes farther and faster than a food section trying to look timely by capitalizing on a newscaster’s death. Yes, he would have wanted us to eat. And maybe not smoke (our food), either.
It’s a sign of just how badly this country has been misled for the last five years that restaurateurs can get away with stunts like the one at the newest Mamma Leone’s. The waitress, on presenting the check, insisted it had to be signed “for security reasons.” How my scrawling my illegible signature on a fast-fading computer printout keeps us safe from that guy we were going to get dead or alive mystifies me. But I notice the receipt you always scrawl on had a new category of information, below card number and expiration date. And “research” gives me the creeps even if I did come up 12 zeroes.
I would have read right over the hometown paper’s predictable slap at Philadelphia cuisine as being only cheese steaks if I hadn’t encountered so much about that very gastronomic delight in its own pages so often in the last few months. Wasn’t it only four days earlier that valuable real estate was given over to the closing of a cheese steak joint in Manhattan? Forget the hip kids heading south. Follow the money. It’s not always in the “packed” restaurants.
Frieda Caplan always says there is no such thing as bad publicity, and she would know, having inflicted the gonad of the fruit world on produce sections everywhere. But even she might be impressed at how GQ’s embarrassing restaurant piece has brought a forgotten magazine back into circulation. Once Steve Cuozzo got his knickers in a knot over the idea that New York is not among “the four greatest food cities on earth,” and especially after he pointed out that Piedmont is not a city (details, details — isn’t that just a competitor?), who wouldn’t run out and pick up a copy just to see how ridiculous the other contentions were? Fortunately, my consort saved me the $3.95 by trash-picking an already-recycled one in our back hallways, because the actual feature is all fizzle, no steak. There’s nothing sillier than the flaccid trying to feign kiwis.
If you never had the misfortune to eat at Boulevard in San Francisco, get ready for the cookbook, coming in October. It actually gives overwrought a heavy name. The fried chicken recipe — which specifies babies, not full-blown Perdues — takes up three full pages in the galley, and you’d still be left with fried chicken. No home cook would bother; any restaurant chef would be underwhelmed. The one clever idea seemed to be a chocolate cherry shortcake, but then I slogged through the ingredients and instructions. The biscuits are meant to ooze, which would defeat the whole purpose of layering juicy fruit into rich flakiness. And anything whose primary allure is “making everyone’s pants fit a little tighter” says Ray Kroc more than Joel Robuchon to me.
Bin 71 could have been the greatest thing to happpen to Columbus Avenue since Nancy’s, but how can you have a wine bar with none of Aretha’s attitude? The space, formerly occupied by what the hometown paper described as a cut-rate florist but where I could never afford to buy, is absurdly tight, especially considering they’re trying to serve food, too. Even if you manage to wrestle your way to the bar and get a viognier, you have to retreat to a corner to defend your turf while unthinkingly socking back $10 worth. Wine needs attention even if you can’t manage respect. About the only redeemable attribute of this wasted opportunity, so close to two movie theaters, is that it’s a cosmo-free zone. I can only hope the Carrie wannabes get the message and flip-flop on.
Buy the new BelAria truffle butter and you should be shocked to see it contains 780 calories a serving — a serving being half the four-ounce tub. Some of us can’t even imagine having a steak big enough to spread that on. Probably neither could the crowd my consort and I saw clustering around a couple of tables in Harlem on the most recent brutally cold night. We thought they were thronging a vendor of some hot toy or DVD until we heard they were lining up for handouts of groceries. What made it more unsettling was passing them on the way to a party four blocks away at a new shop selling farmed caviar from Uruguay at $75 an ounce. What’s that old saying? The rich get tax breaks and the poor get children?
Even Hepatitis A is going upscale in this economy. The disease that killed people who ate at Chi-Chi’s has now broken out among patrons of Cafe Pinot in Los Angeles. And it figures that news stories are blaming it on lettuce. It’s a convenient way of ignoring the fact that as long as we continue thinking health care should go only to those who can afford it, sick people are going to be picking the mesclun and tossing the salads. And all the rubber gloves in the world — or fences along the Mexican border — are not going to be protection enough. The produce is not the problem. It’s the denial.
The downside to going away is coming home and finding the two Killer B’s (Shrubya and his enabler, Panchito) still have jobs. Then things start getting entertaining. Your hometown paper lands on your doorstep and you see Tony Lucre’s cheese steak joint is boldfaced yet again (someone must be getting another gold-plated bidet). The creepiest Joan of Arc in history leaves jail and on her first day out is variously reported to be eating a steak dinner, eagerly awaiting a home-cooked meal and expecting her cruising husband to cook for her (but hey, if she could come out of 12 weeks’ incarceration with tidy bangs, why ask questions?) And then comes Steve Cuozzo’s throwing in of the starred side towel. He’s finished with reviews, he says, ranting about Potemkin restaurants and consistency being the hobgoblin of New York chefs and the general futility of trying to rate hype and smoke. His answer may not be the best — “we’ll tell you what’s happening at more than one place” — but at least he is aware of what that poor sap on 43d Street is not: the critics have no clout. They’re the Americans of the food world.
But nothing said welcome back better than the photo of the Reverend BS and his dining companion up in Harlem. Judging by the clenched fist and fear-factor face, that had to be the worst date since Bush the Elder went out with the Japanese prime minister and vomited in his lap.
Maybe the Chimp isn’t lying about the economy. Times are apparently so good that this winter’s Restaurant Week price is $3.95 more than last summer’s. But even that can’t get you into some restaurants on the peculiar list. Caviar & Banana and V Steakhouse are closed, and 2nd Avenue Deli seems about to be (just when I was hankering for a $17.50 tongue on rye). When $24.07 is presented as a deal for Mercadito, it’s no wonder they’re cutting food stamps. Who needs ’em in a 24/7 town?
If there is one thing you can count on in New York restaurants, it is that you will almost never have the same experience twice. Which is the fatal flaw in New York magazine’s ballyhooed “101 Best.” The most brilliant critic on the planet would be overreaching in ranking restaurants experienced over five years. Five months is an eternity in this town. Everything changes: the kitchen, the waiters, the ingredients, sometimes the whole concept. Throwing around stars by the handful generates more buzz than credibility, and didn’t Michelin just try that? No one who has tuned out Zagat for the last millennium cares about rankings. A restaurant is only as good as your last meal. Come to think of it, you can’t even count on that. The concept might not have looked as impressive on the newsstand alongside all the other “505 ways to change your life/diet/sex” cover lines, but “20 truly good” would have done just fine.
In those few days between Sharon’s strokes when news reports were cheerily insisting his health had nothing to do with his meating habits or his humongousity, an insidious message seemed to be emanating to the large who eat among us. We were at Bistro Cassis, crammed in as if we were dining at 30,000 feet, when our plates arrived and my consort tried to move his seat back just far enough to be able to lift his fork. The woman crammed behind him immediately took umbrage, yelping, “What are you doing? I can’t move. I can’t move.” I sorta looked over at her and saw the problem, and then she started yelping again: “I have boobs. I can’t pull my chair in.” Well, it was clear that the protuberance keeping her away from the table was not where she claimed. She was built like Humpty-Dumpty. But she was not going to give up one millimeter of space to a scrawny guy. Only after she left did he say what he had been thinking: “Lift those boobs up and put them on the table and we’ll all have room to eat.” But that would have been udder diplomacy.
Now that the Chimp in Chief is insisting eavesdropping on strangers is perfectly ethical, it’s less embarrassing to stop eating and lean right over to hear what the nice old couple at the next table is saying. I can only imagine what the federal snoops would have made of this, at Bistro Cassis, when the place was packed with the Medicare crowd that seems to be the bulk of Lincoln Center’s membership: A white-haired guy who would be at home in an A.R. Gurney play telling the sweet-faced old lady with him that “you put the cat in the box, and then you put in the poison, and when you open up the box, you either have a completely dead cat or a cat that will scratch your eyes out.” Funny, shouldn’t that have been overheard in the White House before the Iraq war?
I think it was Mark Twain who said you should always tell the truth — that way you don’t have to remember what you said. The clearest example of the risks of tripping over deception has to be the new Gourmet, celebrating 65 years by dredging up dusty correspondence allegedly testifying to readers’ fondness for and involvement in the editorial content. Call me hopelessly cynical, but didn’t magazines have trust-fund babies on staff in the Forties to type up treacly letters just as they do today? I can just see some cowpoke in Dallas in 1946 writing in to say he got custody of the magazine in the divorce. At least today we’re spared the charade of snarky-snappy answers. And now it’s easier to see how it works: What else could make those GE Monogram ads look like real life?
Just when the city was starting to appreciate how quiet it was with no buses, a lawyer had to start braying. I wonder how many restaurants that guy was forced to trek through during the strike before he found one willing to admit its clientele was solely of the sucker variety. Russian Samovar certainly sent a B&T message to Manhattanites when it sued on the ground that business was down 80 percent: tourist trap. At least there was entertainment value — The Daily News quoted a prediction that the lawsuit would be “tossed faster than a Cobb salad.” Which, of course, is composed.
Here are 12 words that should strike fear into either prospective participants or the operators of the Brazil cruise being offered by Enron on 12th Street: “a portion of this tour’s rates have been designated as a donation.” Considering fares start at $6,995 and go up to $13,895, they’re not talking Red Lobster change, as chefs got away with. But I guess that’s no more obscene than flying to poorest Salvador da Bahia to wallow in generic luxury on a boat offshore and, “in the most diverse country in South America,” as the brochure bills it, eat Union Square Cafe food. No wonder Fuck Himself broke the Senate tie on cutting food stamps. The rich are hungry for idiocy.
Why friends should not let friends write about strangers’ shopping habits: Only someone very privileged could be in Fairway and see some woman buying steak and crap and assume the latter was meant for her children. Not only do Gucci addicts eat junk. But step into a Food City checkout line sometime and you’ll notice not all the Nine Lives being charged on a credit card can be safely destined for a pampered pet. What made the effete silliness even lamer is that the fuss over feeding kids came in a week when yet another was beaten to death in another family with six siblings with assorted last names while a bunch of privileged white guys in Washington were arguing about the right to birth (the hell with life). Coming from a litter of seven, I can tell you it’s so much easier to put food on your family when the table accommodates only those mouths you can afford. What this country needs is a good cheap contraceptive. For women.
You have to wonder about the genius who came up with a restaurant recipe collection and called it 86. It ranks right up with that failed restaurant Nova: Spanish speakers took the name to heart and didn’t go.
One of the few drawbacks to dropping out of college and selectively self-educating is that you don’t always get intellectual references. That Cheney Wannabe I overheard at Bistro Cassis was apparently talking about either physics or Ian McEwan’s “Saturday,” because the cat in the box had to have been Schrodinger’s. There’s still no excuse for the neocons organ-grinding for the monkey, though.
Did you hear the one about the chef who was running with drug dealers by 19 and was saved by the kitchen in prison? Publishers must never learn, because the guy has a “significant six-figure” deal to tell his tale just the way it happened. With a million little sordid details, Oprah may even fall for it. The funny thing is that in some misguided circles these days the title — “From Cocaine to Foie Gras” — would indicate anything but redemption. Blasting gangstas is one thing. Fattening innocent little ducks’ livers is beyond the pale.
Walk into the new Balducci’s and you’ll be stopped cold, not by the displays in that gorgeous space but by the PR cojones. An easel just inside the door sports a big blowup of the NYPost article singing the glories of the chef and the takeout — written by the chef’s co-author of her cookbook. You know, someone you can trust to be absolutely impartial. At least Bloomberg has the sense to warn readers the puff-stuff it runs does not necessarily jibe with its opinions.
I know this is like kicking a lame ass, but I have another insight into why Panchito is the Brownie of restaurant reviewers. At an awards dinner the other night for a kids’ art contest my consort helped judge, a few people were talking about a gallery installation where a longtime critic had filled a room with announcements of shows she had seen over the decades, each card carefully inscribed with her reactions. Apparently it was a brilliant exhibition, but then, as one guy said, “All art critics are frustrated artists.” So that got me wondering how, if you have no passion for a subject, can you critique it? Oh. Right. By the seat of your pants. Sales of cushions must be up all over town.
Usually whenever I start feeling sorry for myself trying to come up with something different for Thanksgiving, a holiday that everyone really wants to be exactly the same, I think of all those poor souls who have to find a fresh way to announce that a pallid French wine has arrived, November after November, at least 15 years since anyone really cared. But my empathy has evaporated since being served this season’s release, on the cocktails designed to hype the New Coke of the wine world. This is where allowing the word mixologist to enter the vocabulary leads — a bartender has come up with something so supremely ill-advised as mixing wine with gin or vodka and simple syrup. It’s the dumbest drink since the smoked-salmon soda. But at least all those moms who undercook unwashed supermarket turkeys and let them sit around full of bacteria-breeding stuffing will no longer have to take the blame for poisoning untold relatives. Anyone who drinks a “nouveau martini” with gin, Grand Marnier and grape jelly in the latter half of November will know exactly what caused them to call Ralph on the big white telephone.
That keening sound you heard all over New York was not the alarm system being tested at the Indian Point nuclear power plant. It was one long, collective “Oh. My. God.” from NYTimes readers opening their paper to find not just a raw turkey but a specimen that appeared to have died a particularly unhealthy death. Food porn is ridiculous, but I’d almost rather see Dick Cheney naked first thing in the morning. (Well, Mary Cheney anyway.) The only entertaining aspect, beyond the “look west, young man” design, was that the eating disorders seemed to be section-wide. It brought back a memory of the production editor tossing a proof of a particularly absurd $25 & Under page on my desk one crazed Tuesday and asking, “What’s he been smoking?” This week everyone apparently had access to the same weed. Hoot, man. That Haitian grandma must have “developed” her technique on a trip to Barbados — everyone on Baxter’s Road does it with chicken. If the point of the autopsy shot and all the don’t-even-think-of-cooking copy was to scare a million-some subscribers into going out for Thanksgiving, all those wine advertisers threw their money down a turkey hole. Imagine a package that could make Sardi’s look tempting.
I know the turkey rots from the gorgle down, but I’m still confused. Am I supposed to quit braising, if not disinvite my Thanksgiving guests, because it costs too much to gas my stove? Am I supposed to casually drop $199 on a food processor while cadging free edamame? Or am I just supposed to lust after a $945 toy? Luckily, all I took away from the silly Stylish frenzy is new awe for my consort of going on a quarter of a century. Through my whole long hell of turkey roasting, 70 pounds in one week, he kept trying to cheer me up by mock-whimpering for turkey tetrazzini. And now we finally have a recipe. If only we could make it in a toy we can’t buy.
The new Rosa Mexicano in the old America space is everything the one next to the impending Houlihan’s is not. The David Rockwell wall of swimmers is stunning, and the service is so solicitous you almost pity the help (especially when she rattles off cabernet sauvignon as a white — a little Latin would help every server forced to memorize wine-by-the-glass lists to keep the prices away from prying diners’ eyes). But when I ordered the Oaxacan cheese tacos rather than the queso fundido to get more than intestinal shutdown, what arrived was just a little dish of melted-to-rubber cheese with peppers and nopales and a littler basket of tortillas. It seemed as if the menu had mentioned salad and beans, but who was I to ruin that poor girl’s afternoon? Strangely enough, when a friend met me a couple of days later at the uptown Rosa and ordered tacos she got a whole heaping tray of food. That’s the trouble with chains: They set up insane expectations of consistency. And this way mediocrity lies.
My consort is sitting at the sidewalk cafe at Ocean Grill when a middle-aged woman walks by screaming: “You know Dr. XXX? Queens Park? Fuck him! Fuck that asshole!” His date calmly says that “a couple of milligrams of XXX would take care of that,” which is clearly doctor-speak because my surgeon in Turin, when lambasted by a crazed museum worker, politely suggested that she “have some dinner, eat some Valium.” Change the prescription, though, and it would apply to whoever was responsible for the biggest downer of a food spread in New York magazine’s history. Talk about the gallery of regrettable foods — those holiday pages make T look hip and happy. Edgar Allan Poe is not who you want to think about when you see “the Perfectionist’s Thanksgiving,” let alone Betty Crocker with a major hangover when you consider “the Hedonist’s New Year’s Brunch.” Come to think of it, though, Bourdain with his hands on Mom’s “Joy of Cooking” might be what sent the art guys into a big-time depression to begin with.
If you weren’t “humored” by the T (for Twaddle) orgy of wretched excess as Paris burns, Chef’s Catalog has more evidence that it’s officially the season to buy idiotic kitchen gadgets. Maybe it’s not quite on the level of Sur La Table’s Batali orange cookware, but the catalog is selling a cylindrical basket you can fill with bread and aromatics to ram into a big bird and “remove in one easy motion.” They call it a “stuffing cage.” I guess “turkey tampon” wouldn’t fly.
In the weird mating of Steve Hanson and Eric Ripert, it’s now clear whose genes are stronger. Barca 18 is much more the spawn of Ruby Foo than of a three-star restaurant. First clue is in the hiring: Pretty is not a job skill. Someone needs to train the hostesses and the waitresses. Second clue is in the reception: Walk up to the desk for your humiliating 6:45 reservation made a week in advance and you’ll be told: “You’re the first. Check back when they arrive.” I could forgive the hostility that precludes offering to take my coat, or diverting me to the bar. But the bad grammar is a capital offense.
File under You Can Dress Them Up: A waitress at Silverleaf Tavern was passing hors d’oeuvres at the Chow magazine anniversary party, and she certainly looked splendiferous in strapless black. Then she had to go and open her mouth when I asked what exactly was in the piles on her tray. Seeming stricken, she hesitated, then said, “It’s that meat.” Long pause. “Prosciutto.” Then she added: “I get that mixed up with bruschetta.” Don’t let her loose with pancetta. And isn’t Barca 18 hiring?
I hate to break it to the Tom Delays of this world, but evolution is not a liberal myth. Just look in your mailbox. Even as the shop-happy Luckys and Dominos of the world are endangering the whole class of catalogs, Williams-Sonoma’s and Sur La Table’s seem to have started morphing into magazines. Neither has quite achieved intelligent design, but then adapting is a slow process. “Legitimate” editors have needed some lean times to realize advertisers’ wares could be embedded in stories and photo layouts. And look how long it’s taking one chimp to start acting like a human being.
Speaking of satire, not much could top McDonald’s new Farm to Table feature on its web site. This overwrought obfuscation takes the term “catapulting the propaganda” to a whole evil level. In the case of the buns, it starts with a textbook photo of wheat and segues fast into a Willy Wonka providing a new vision of hell: quality control taster for McDonald’s. To put it mildly, this boy is not svelte, let alone the picture of health. Don’t ask about the eggs, but apparently they do spend some time in a shell if not a henhouse before they re-emerge as rubber in a “muffin.” As for the beef, suffice it to say there are no cows to be seen grazing in the grass. The whole thing should be called Factory to Trashcan. But given that it takes so long to download, it’s not likely to do much harm or good. E. coli poisoning would be quicker.
Pity the poor chef who blew through his seed money on a smart PR company without heeding advice on his biggest liability. Now, with that great blast of opening buzz vaporized, he’s gone and hired another flack whose first bright idea was sending out a release (a print one, at that) misspelling the biggest name on his resume as Il Bulli. I guess you just can’t reason with someone who actually believes deep-fried blood sausage is what you want with venison in a Coke sauce. So let him live with a restaurant name that sounds like a symptom of a vaginal infection.
Did you notice the shameless Barca 18 promoter who thought the Spanish peppers were “pardons”? I think it was a Rovian slip.
Every day the Daily News devotes an entire page to some musty, dusty nostalgia story, and every day I wonder why it bothers. Who reads that old stuff recycled and re-recycled? But nothing felt like deja vu all over again as much as Dining did when a guy who was probably doing Jell-O shots for dinner 20 years ago became the designated driver down memory lane. I got as far as the Miracle on 16th Street and the Deification of Danny yet again and started wondering how much more entertaining any hoary tale Jay Maeder dredged up would be. Those 20,000-year-old noodles actually seemed fresher.
My consort had a good question, though: What are cloches? And what in the name of Alice do they have to do with restaurants? (Maybe there’s a new dictionary, because the officially sanctioned one does not even include an obsolete definition to help those “average” readers for whom the reviewer from Rome was chosen.) Maybe we’ll find out in the 30th-anniversary story of the Greenmarket, coming to a big newpaper near you next year. “Ineradicable roots,” my posterior.
I’m trying to be a good-heil citizen and think all Americans are safer when the government the conservatives swore to get off our backs is unabashedly listening in on phone conversations and opening mail from overseas. But when it’s mail addressed to my apartment, it gets a little queasy-making. My consort just received a small, exquisite box of chocolates from a grateful student in Italy that had been ripped open and sniffed through and unabashedly put back together, and we could both only wonder: What was the security risk involved? The poor kid had already paid off everyone he could on his side of the ocean that used to protect us, since there were at least 10 customs and tax papers enclosed to clear the way for the 10-euro gift to fly. But I suppose we should just count ourselves lucky we were not in some Pakistani village. We only had to endure having noses in our food, not missiles on our home.
You can’t believe what you read: We have post-movie depression at the thought of trying to find a decent glass of wine with small food somewhere on Columbus when we remember having ducked our heads into Loft as it was just opening, in a space that used to be a nasty bar with a rope out front. We get there and it’s got an empty bar and about eight tables occupied, none of them by kids, let alone cool kids — most of us are probably being stalked by AARP. Near us I recognize a Daily News food writer who, as she leaves, stops to talk to a couple of young girls who have just arrived and been given their choice of dozens of tables. Young asks Old if she’s covering it, too, because “I’m doing it for Thursday’s Hot Spot.” Let’s hope the recipe they run is more trustworthy.
And you can’t believe what you misread: Looking for a new place for dinner after an art party in Soho, we listen to online noise about the new, hip-happening 24 Prince, which from the sound of it is the next La Esquina but which I think I can stomach for the sake of novelty. Not only did five of us decidedly uncool kids get a nice table, and comped appetizers, but it was anything but a Sunday Styles drool-fest. The macaroni and cheese spring rolls, in fact, were not even silly. Something is wrong when you get repectable food with no attitude. As one of our five said, the place must be doomed.
Lured back to Bistro du Vent, I had a little time waiting, while the hostess was on the phone, to try to imagine how an orgy ever took place in that little bar. Anyone who goes there would have to let his mind wander into the same gutter, which makes it all the less savory that the first thing I spotted on the menu was “Widow’s Hole Oysters.” Talk about organ meat.
Waldy just can’t get it right. His restaurant has too many seats, judging by how empty it always seems to be. But now he goes and opens a pizza place and guess what he forgot? If you’re going to serve three-foot pizzas with wine, and rip off Schiller’s “good” and “better” labels, wouldn’t you lay in more tables and chairs than a slice-and-a-Coke joint?
File under Automation Is Not Your Friend: Tarla Dalal’s mass emailing with her latest Indian recipes can only be described as unfortunate. With its usual perkiness, it starts off with how “everyone is getting into the celebratory mood that comes with the nearing of one of the most beautiful, colourful and enjoyable religious festivals in the world — Diwali.” Given the bombings in New Delhi the day before some computerized finger hit the send button, I think “everyone” might not be the operative word and “religious” the most telling. But of course only Americans have anything to fear from faith-based extremism.
Okay, I take it all back. The NYT does have a sense of humor. Could there have been a more brilliant self-parody than the Dining cover with what looked to be Panchito at table? The caption even captured what all New York seems to be saying: “A buffoon’s got to eat.”
Speaking of the most recognizable food critic since Ben Franklin in a yachting cap (to quote Mimi Sheraton at her cattiest), location, location is indeed the crucial consideration for a restaurant. But if that’s all there is to say, and say, about a place, maybe it’s not worth an agonizingly protracted Diner’s Journal. (Why do those things read like essay questions where he blew off the homework? Skimming them is like waiting for Il Papa to give up the holy ghost.) Context might be nice, especially since everyone I’ve mentioned Metropol to has had the same sad reaction: “La Metairie is gone?”
The Financial Times’ takedown of Per Se would have resonated even more if the reviewer out $580 had not referred to the cheesemaster at “nearby Picholine and Artisan” as Thomas Brennan. I can sympathize, though: A dinner lively as a wake can be hell on brain synapses. It is Daniel Bouley, isn’t it?
I can’t say I wasn’t warned, repeatedly, but I was still stunned at how profoundly mediocre the food is downstairs at BLTFish. How can a charming Frenchman who made his name with brilliant takes on seafood at Cello be doing so much better with meat these days? One clue can be found in Food Arts: Instead of minding the stove, he’s posing for an Illy ad. He may “live for moments of excitement and passion” on a motor bike, but some of us would settle for a piece of cod not cooked to slime on a bun.
Easily the most depressing news in hours is that produce marketers have seen the future and it’s tricked up. The Journal did a smart if bleak story on innovations in the fruit-and-vegetable pipeline intended to take advantage of the new “food guidance system” coming from the same administration that has brought us Clear Skies and Healthy Forests and Freedom on the March. One is a plastic clamshell to keep pears from getting squashed (when was the last time anyone bought a pear that wasn’t hard enough to withstand baggage handling?); another is sliced apples to be sold alongside chips in airports. The first may do what water in bottles has: turned a necessity into a fad, at huge environmental cost (cue Lenore Skenazy on toxic chemicals in plastic leaching into groundwater). And the second will just move pure food closer to processed crap — to keep apples from turning brown, some kind of additive will have to be added. Amazing that it’s taken a multibillion-dollar assault in the name of liberation to double malnutrition among Iraqi kids while the food industry can so easily have the same effect here with its relentless focus on better living through chemistry. Wrap it up. We’ll take it.
I didn’t coin this, but “butt-girl for Eli” has a nice ring to it. Especially since inquiring competitors are gossiping that all that tame salmon actually came from the same distributor. I’m sure it’s a spurious claim, but it does make you wonder why a cheese shop that hasn’t bought a certain blue for two years is making a fuss about listeria (among myriad unanswered questions). One more and it’s a trend: stories with holes big enough to drive a raw milk tanker-truck through.
Given the red tide rising in seafood markets around Manhattan in the last year, evaluating just which salmon is truly wild was a good idea, at least for readers who still bother with the Perdue of the sea. But was there a reason the biggest seafood retailer in town was not put to the test? This was like alleging that nearly all burger chains use horsemeat and not even mentioning McDonald’s. What’s that old ad sales word? Fishy?
Ever since newspaper copy editors essentially became Linotype operators, the “save-get” function on computers has been a brain-saver. Who needs to think when you can just tap a one-headline-fits-all button? I’m guessing that’s exactly where USA Today found this one: “NYC Chefs Lead Beard Nominees.” As stop-the-presses fodder, it ranks right up there with “Pope Still Dead.”
One more reason why Manhattan should secede: Hyper-obesity is the real threat to national security, and there are fat people out there in America. Scarily fat people. I just spent three days lurking in a hospital in Buffalo where way too many of the nurses, especially in the ICU, qualified as morbidly obese. Think about it. These are people who see better than anyone the consequences of carrying around an extra hundred or two hundred pounds, and they are still packing it in with both fists. They were Baby Huey huge. A surgeon would have to go elbow-deep in fat to hit a vital organ if they should need an operation; with my humbling in Italy fresh in my mind I can’t imagine how they would get around on crutches, not to mention on and off a bedpan.
Maybe it’s not all their fault, since the grim cafeteria with its Sloppy Joe steam table was heavy on desserts, and the vending machines were overstocked with Butterfingers as big as forearms, and I was put off the salad bar myself on seeing a particularly lumpen and rather grimy staffer hand-picking through the raw stuff. But there’s something about seriously unhealthy people taking care of desperately ill people that conjures a future I hate to contemplate. The larger half of the Road Food team can talk fat acceptance until she’s blue in the thighs, but too big is too dangerous. And a country that can only come up with Big John toilet seats that will support up to 1,200 pounds is coming at the problem from the wrong end.
So far I’ve resisted the cheesesteak invasion, but I did succumb to another high concept at the low end of the food chain: Anita Lo’s Rickshaw Dumpling Bar in Chelsea, directly across from the Outback Steakhouse, around the corner from yet another Chipotle Grill. Almost everything about it is spot-on: the industrial-sleek design, the open kitchen, the clever mix-and-match menu with soups and salads and edamame in addition to the namesake dish, the pricing, the patient service, the whole notion of a home-grown chain-to-be. Only one thing sucks: the dumplings. I just tried the Peking duck ones, fried and not steamed, but without my receipt I would not have been able to tell what the filling was in the greasy, sodden pile, let alone that the dipping sauce was hoisin. And the whole problem can be summed up in one sentence: In the time it took me to pick up my crutch and water cup and move from the cash register to a table, a distance of no more than 15 steps, my dumplings were fried and boxed and ready for pickup. It was like fast food in a cartoon; I could almost hear a giant whooshing sound. Call me antediluvian, but I would rather wait another minute or five and get something worth converting to body fat.
No one could envy David Kamp, saddled with reviewing the latest book of Ruth for the paper she apparently disses, facing a future when he will need goodwill at Gourmet. But I do hope he gets a little more familiar with “the American food world” before he puts out a book-length embarrassment. For starters, he might want to learn the difference between food writer and restaurant critic and then rethink the supposed shame of the former. Maybe I’ve been hanging with the wrong crowd for the last 22 years, but I can’t recall coming across too much “self-abasement.” Arrogance, sure. Obliviousness, even more. But for any number of P reasons (passion, pomposity), anyone who obsesses on food as a profession usually takes the topic deadly seriously, given that eating is the second most important thing in life (after breathing). Sounds like one newbie is feeling just a little insecure himself. Mom must have wanted him to marry a doctor.
As hard as I’ve tried to swear off health writing, I can be suckered into any nutrition backgrounder at the drop of a swizzle stick. Or at least that was my excuse for signing right up for a lunch presentation on what the new USDA dietary guidelines say about alcohol consumption. This looked to be information with life-and-drunk implications. The fact that it was scheduled at the revivified Aquavit didn’t influence me at all.
Even though the pouring stayed well within the official recommendation for good health (about two drinks a day, rather than any more or, far more dangerous, none at all), it was worth the schlep on a rainy Monday. The food was apparently designed not to compete with the usual painfully lame PowerPoint presentation (why don’t they just tell us, not show us?), since the fingerling potatoes were as undercooked with the sublime gravlax in the first course as the striped bass was in the second. But the space itself is everything the old Aquavit was not: inviting, intelligently designed and more like a refuge than a cavern (the alcove with image-restoring mirror next to the coat check is a luxury every restaurant should afford). And I can’t wait to go back and indulge in a couple of shots of amazingly smooth white-cranberry aquavit at the big new bar — for my health, of course. Finally, the government prescribes something right.
Next time I overhear someone at the Greenmarket at Union Square asking where the lemons are, I’m not going to laugh. Hyper-hip New York magazine looked just that clueless with its requisite homage to Whole Foods, the new Krispy Kreme with the media here. We’re at least a month away from even the first asparagus, and some comparison-shopping reporter thought the grab basket should include tomatoes. Don’t taunt us. The Daily News did a much more seductive job with its colorful report on all the local seasonal ingredients lined up for takeoff, although the wacked-out morel item must have originated where a dealer in far eastern Oregon once told me all wild mushrooms do: Spores. From outer space.
Food & Wine’s BEST NEW CHEFS party is one not to miss, if only to admire the culinary Ponzi scheme of honoring New York cooks one year to persuade them to cater the next year. It always has the feel more of Golden Globes than Oscars, but the tradeoff for heavy advertising payback is usually a better than average crowd to mingle with. Unfortunately, this was my third event in about a month where a sparse crowd in a vast space led to empty bars. And when it’s so easy to get a drink you tend to get too many.
More than the wine, though, I blame the noise. The invitation made a big deal of a deejay from the Ellen Degeneres show, but I kept thinking that if we had to listen to TV, couldn’t they at least have given out remotes to mute it so we could talk? Best food of the night: Gabriel Kreuther’s chorizo-encrusted cod with coco bean puree. Worst: anything passed by servers from the anonymous cook slaving far from the klieg lights. Only a freak show from Barnum & Bailey could love foie gras fried like a corn dog.
The definition of news has eroded a little further since two leading newspapers chose to report on something that could best be described as micturating into the breeze. The scoop? A group of women chefs wrote a letter proposing that one of their gender be hired for the thankless of job of cooking for the Chimp in Chief and his wastrel women (when are those skank twins going to get jobs?) Even worse, the press stunt cited Condoleezza Rice as a model promotion. Does no one remember what a perfectly manly job she did overseeing national security? Put her in the kitchen and she’d be stewing over Russian dressing stored at room temperature while a gas leak was about to blow up the stove.
A very respected American institution refers to the letters of introduction it writes for employees heading overseas as “dago dazzlers.” The faux Italian Bond 45 has the opposite idea going with a menu item labeled “Pantondo: First Time in America.” At $22, it can only be called a Rube Ripoff. I got taken because it sounded like focaccia col formaggio, one of the best things I have ever eaten in Italy but have never found done right in New York. I was even willing to wait the 45 minutes the waiter warned it would take. Ten minutes later the right notion was on the side table — thin bread encasing oozy cheese — but the dough was rubbery, the filling was watery and the whole experience was as depressing as a Corner Bakery cappuccino. Still, this is New York, where, as an exiled friend used to say, the more people get screwed, they more they like it. Pantondos will soon be the talk of the food columns. Already the price has gone up $4 since the Post mentioned what really is a quesadilla by a stupid name.
I must not be keeping up with the latest in pretentious kitchens. A company I associate with vacuum cleaners struck me as a strange sponsor of a Food & Wine event until I saw the thing was going to be at a casino. And Bobby Flay was going to be a star attraction. No wonder Electrolux is behind it. It has to suck.
Next they’re going to tell me there’s no tooth fairy. Here I was thinking Pollo Campero was some South American chicken chain propelled into the papers every day by popular demand, and I come to find out that of course a very Krispy Kreme PR campaign is pushing it there. The frijoles were spilled once the top fish had been safely netted, the one who might be last to the “news” but gets the biggest return. (“Big stacks of boxes of chickens” went back to the office after the photo shoot, a peripheral flack said, but I don’t think it stopped there.) Probably the scariest detail is that, after hearing how many thousands and thousands of chickens had been sold, I asked who the supplier was. Answer: Perdue. Which makes sense. If you’re going to do chicken big, with high-paid press, you can’t do it right.
The latest issue of Wegman’s slick magazine Menu includes a recipe for Fruit Lassie. For some reason, the instructions don’t say: Yogurt, come home. Or even: Copy editor, get help.
Old Original Bookbinder’s in Philadelphia is reportedly back, and promising to do better by the food this incarnation. But you have to wonder when you read the criteria the chef tells the Inky he’s using as he taps into his self-described “expanded knowledge of the modern market in seafood.” The bouillabaisse will now be made with New Zealand mussels and mahogany clams — not for their flavors or textures or even cachet but because one is “brighter in color” and the other complements the wood in the dining room. I’ll have to remember that the next time I shop for fish: How will it go with the walls?
Having officially informed readers it is not the newspaper of record, the New Sex Times seems determined to do away with any association with news at all. In the space of three days readers were treated to two reviews of mediocre old restaurants revealing that neither had gotten any younger or any better. And the point was?
One day I’ll learn never to go grocery shopping without my glasses. I picked up Goya’s canned black beans with what looked to be a redesigned label, and only when I got home did I realize I had been swindled with the low-sodium option. I knew there was a catch, as there always is with nutrition-nazi-approved food: they’re seasoned with potassium chloride along with salt. Don’t google that or you’ll realize it’s not just chiefly used to produce fertilizer but was also Timothy McVeigh’s last shot.
Feeling like Mrs. Magoo is also not the best way to approach Whole Foods. I finally braved the new one out of professional duty, and it makes Fairway look navigable. Allah forbid there’s ever a disaster or a blackout. Unmazing your way from the mangos to the checkout is tricky enough with all the lights on confession-high.
My consort has been racking up the frequent-flier miles with shoots in places where you won’t want to eat even vicariously. Usually he comes home with purloined menus; these trips it’s just scary stories. My favorite was about his stop in the DFW Airport for sustenance before a late flight home where he resorted to Chili’s. And where he was informed they couldn’t serve “real food” because it would require cutlery, as in maybe a butter knife, which they said has been banned for “security” reasons. Never one to eat quietly, he asked how the kitchen cut up the chicken for a salad. “They use a sharpened spatula,” the waitress actually responded. Now that should make you feel safer on boarding. When you can’t have a knife, of course you make a shiv.
One of the countless great things about the Greenmarkets in New York is how democratic they are. The one nearest me does a boom business with food stamps, and on nice Fridays you can barely get between the vendors and the jazz trio for all the open-mouthed schoolkids coming through on field trips. Even the one in Union Square would not be so lively or so long-lived without gawkers galore.
By contrast, if you believe what you read, San Francisco seems hellbent on perpetuating the image of farmers’ markets as elitist, for the precious few worthy of such a noble experience. Apparently there might as well be a sign at Ferry Plaza reading: “Consciousness-raising for residents only.” No wonder so many Americans give up and think apples at McDonald’s are a huge step up the food chain.
File under “Vince Foster was murdered by Socks the cat”: Two stories making the rounds are so dripping-juicy they can’t possibly be true. One is that a certain glitzy supplement is half the size it was on its debut because a certain editor is feeling so overwhelmed as advertiser masseuse. The other is that an Editor’s Noted narcissus has had a bizarre flash of modesty in complaining that his overseer is not exactly up to her task. “It’s like putting me in charge of the business section,” they say he’s saying. Of course there can’t possibly be a shred of validity to either wild tale. Everybody knows Hillary did it.
Sometimes the typo is more tantalizing than the real thing. The FT’s bizarre tout for Todd English’s homage to Roots mentioned “bugatini.” Which is not a drink, but maybe it should be.
Whatever else I might eventually decide about Bar Americain, already I can tell it’s no Gotham. The opening party was a Baghdad zoo, with waiters struggling valiantly but usually futilely to get hors d’oeuvres from the kitchen to the hordes and throngs and mobs in the disorientingly redesigned dining room. (The most comfortable bar and most dramatic space in midtown, where sunlight would shaft down on the likes of Susan Sarandon at lunchtime, has become cosmo central.) What I tasted was pretty good, though, especially a potato chip with blue cheese dip/soup/fondue. And looking around at the crowd, I could see why the emphasis was on the liquid. It was like a Karen Carpenter-with-silicone convention. Whom do they think they’re fooling when their dresses are back-free to show off their emaciated ribs and their fronts make you wonder how they can walk without tipping over face forward?
Exposes have been busting out all over this spring, with the Journal publishing two good ones in a single week. Even I didn’t understand the extent of the chef shilling and soul-selling going on out there. (Taking 500 fillets of farmed salmon for free to serve colleagues and restore a maligned ingredient’s image might be the nadir.) Luckily, NPR weighed in with a superb look at how the game works, starting with the substitution of bacon and eggs for coffee and toast as America’s national breakfast. I guess I feel better knowing the media have been helping force-feed the gullible for 100 years now. But the Pretenders (“Get Close,” track 8) should be required listening in cooking schools.
The food pyramid may be a tax-squandering travesty, but at least it works well as a polygraph. When five chefs were asked to detail their daily intake, guess which one laid out the shortest and healthiest list. Right. The only well-upholstered one. Of course that also shows how hard it is for media to find a high-profile woman chef to throw into the lineup of usual suspects. In this country, you’re nobody till some TV producer promotes you.
The weapons of mass deception campaign never ends with these guys. Did the gorge-and-live-longer study really have to be released the same day as the pyramess? Terrorists are starting to look less threatening to protracted life spans than government-induced confusion.
As a Greenmarket junkie, already going three times a week even though the flashes of green are still pretty sparse, I should be embarrassed to admit what happened when I stopped to buy a potted hyacinth at Renewal Farm’s stand on 97th Street and decided to add on a bunch of arugula and a bundle of garlic chives. As the vendor laid both into the same bag as the plant I started to say, “Hey, don’t put my food in with the dirt.” Luckily, I can shop there again because I stopped to remember: Where did those greens come from, anyway?
Impressed as I am by the operation rescue started for the dear and departed chef at Porcupine, I do wonder why anyone would have to flirt with a lapse in ethics to help him find a new job. Why not just borrow a web page from the savetoby.com playbook? A bunny’s life could not be more precious than a chef’s career.
Apparently Tom DeLay has joined the Beard board. The foundation with the ex-president charged with making off with Congressional-quantity piles of cash actually has the cojones to schedule a forum on ethics for journalists. Is it just me, or is that like Enron giving an accounting course?
The scene is Gotham Hall, the old bank near Macy’s that is now one of the most stunning party places in New York. The characters are a Michelin employee with sore feet and a food writer with a hollow leg. In the first act, the Times has announced that the Red Guide is moving into New York. In the anticlimax, Mr. Michelin himself (not the Man, the heir to the company) has just reported the very same thing. Now the Michelin staffer is confessing that “the leak” had been “carefully arranged” with the Times. And then she looks stunned as the Champagne aficionada says: “But I’ve been reading about this online for months.”
Those Freedom inspectors may have to run a little faster to keep up with chat boards and food blogs in New York, but chefs seem happy to help them out, especially if it means serious competition for the faux democracy of Zagatstan. This was the rare party when boldface names outnumbered bylines, and many of them were spotlighted in front of a video camera giving advice and compliments to what should be the enemy. But then maybe the famous faces are just more noticeable at a surprise party when 200 guests are expected and fewer than half show up to see the cat out of the bag.
The sensation of worlds colliding was even more jarring later that night at Gaby, in the Sofitel off Times Square, where we decided to avail ourselves of French talent in what I recall as a pretty mediocre kitchen. Nicole Fagegaltier of Vieux Pont in Belcastel was doing what had to be the most affordable dinner in the D’Artagnan anniversary series, so I can’t really complain that the ideas far outpaced the execution. Most courses at least communicated, especially the chestnut cappuccino and the duck with the best touch of squash this winter: deep-fried ribbons that were airy, crispy and still squashy. The price was right — $45 for three courses, $9 for the soup — and the waiter was exceptional. But the tarte tatin was pretty klutzy, and I cannot get the image of veiny duck liver draped with sad apples (allegedly in confit) out of my mind. You can lead a Manhattan hotel cook to foie gras, but you can’t make him deft.
The other Sudan that dares not speak its name is the food additive the Brits are in a stir over. The cancerous dye from India has wound up in processed crap in 15 countries, but you’ll be hard put to find a word about it in the American press. I guess we just can’t be distracted while we’re worrying about the sky falling onto Social Security (or manacles onto the world’s most famous Spotted Dick). Even if this turns out to be just a tempest in a Worcestershire bottle, now might be a good time to think about what exactly you’re buying when you reach into Big Food’s freezer case.
The new game in town seems to be “Where’s Webster’s?” Half my correspondents have been in high dudgeon over Panchito’s unfamiliarity with the French language in a section that also misspelled Gordon Ramsay’s name in display type. I was more saddened at seeing I had wasted 46 months of my life trying to get that desk to learn potpie is one word (or even: You could look it up). But the most disconcerting realization was that someone there might actually think “amuse bouche” means “foot-long hot dog.” More than a mouthful is too big.
Now they tell us McDonald’s is behind Chipotle. Next they’ll be breaking the news that Campbell’s bought Godiva, or Gallo makes Red Bicyclette, or Morton’s owns La Baleine. Stop those presses before they shock again.
Great moments in gullibility: A NYPost stenographer says the boy wonders behind Spotted Pig “asked British chef Jamie Oliver to head the kitchen, but he wasn’t available.” Right. And Gordon Ramsay was just busy washing his hair, too.
Give Waldy Malouf credit for sticking to his wood roasting through crudo and foam. But judging by his brunch menu, it might be time to give the gimmick a rest — he’s now offering “wood roasted balsamic bloody Marys.” Is his something from the oven the vinegar? The tomato juice? The drink itself? Who needs the booze when you can get this addled just ordering?
Teuscher truffles are not supposed to make you conjure Gloria Swanson, especially on a Hallmark holiday. When Bob first bought them for me, early in our consortium, both of us thought they were the greatest thing since real Champagne. This VD, partly for old time’s sake and mostly because the little shop is around the corner from a chamomile grappa dealer, I cabbed over to pick up half a pound (for $32) and got a letdown almost as big as the Sherry-Lehmann clerk volunteered the Dining section is anymore. I hate to think the truffles really devolved into small potatoes. More likely we just know there’s a bigger world of chocolate.
Buffalo is the canary in the American coal mine. Every time we make a flying trip up to my consort’s birthplace it seems sadder, but this foray brought home just how grim things are really going to get nationally, thanks to Shrubya’s cut-and-spend attitude. Rather than raise taxes, local leaders are planning to close parks, reduce road patrols, limit library hours and otherwise do away with everything that makes a city a community. Which made it all the more fascinating to find an enlightened piece in the Buffalo News by Jennifer Wilkins of Cornell pointing out that the federal government is dictating healthy eating even as it dispenses subsidies for industrial crap/crops like sugar and high-fructose corn syrup and soybeans rather than fruits and vegetables. Washington, she noted, showers all of $1 million on nutrition education. Not surprisingly, about the only businesses with signs of life on the lakefront were General Mills and ArcherDanielsMidland. Call it your tax dollars at insidious work.
In the 23 years since I left, Philadelphia has been to hell and partway back. It’s still a great city, but as my consort observed, it is clearly not being governed. There’s also a “Grey Gardens” aspect to it, with the people who live there seemingly oblivious to the fact that the place is crumbling around them. (How could a tourist city ever let its streetcar system die?) A book we spotted through the window of one of the myriad barbershops on South Street on the way to dinner one night summed up the feeling in Center City: “American Apartheid.”
For all that, though, Philadelphia deserves endless praise for keeping the Reading Terminal Market not only alive but thriving. It’s right in the heart of convention center sterility, anchored by a Hard Rock Cafe, yet all the stalls are local and independent, with not a Starbucks to be seen, let alone a McDonalds or a KFC. Some upscaling is perceptible, as at a stand selling more nouveau Italian, but you can still eat at funky counters and buy all the smoked meat you can carry from Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Which makes it all the more embarrassing to admit what I succumbed to for my second breakfast, the day after we had had snotty attitude but decent eggs and pancakes at the Down Home Diner. I hate to go back anywhere, and we were in a big hurry on a frigid morning, so we ducked into the Corner Bakery. Stupidly, neither of us realized the scrambled eggs were from a steam table, and I certainly didn’t understand that the cappuccino would be a travesty. For $16 we wound up with two plates of airport food — cold airport food — and scorched coffee. I was so depressed I couldn’t eat, or drink. Bob saved me from a breakdown by taking me to buy a lemon poppyseed muffin at Le Bus and a cappuccino to go from Old City Coffee. In the market.
We had the art museum virtually to ourselves on a Wednesday afternoon, which seemed sad, but then our travel-writing friend took us to see the new WXPN complex near the main post office with its bar/restaurant and a big World Cafe theater, which seemed promising. Probably the strangest experience was lunch at the Continental Midtown, in the space that was a Casual Corner back in the Seventies, followed by a quick tour of Barclay Prime, in the hotel on Rittenhouse Square where we always used to stay when the city seemed more together. Both restaurants verge on overdesigned, but the steakhouse was stunning: timeless in the bar and a marriage of 1920s Philadelphia and 2005 Tokyo in the dining room.
What was most fascinating was the reaction to our lunch at Vietnam, which had been recommended by a chef. I suspected it was silly to eat Asian outside New York, but the place was close to the hotel when we needed food fast. Bob said it looked like a restaurant he would have experienced in Vietnam, so that and a bottle of hot sauce got me through a big plate of blandness. But that night friends recoiled when I mentioned the name. As one said, there is much better Vietnamese outside Chinatown these days. Maybe there’s hope for a city that was once a wonderland.
Some weeks you just get lucky. I had no idea when I succumbed to Jell-O shots at a too-persuasive friend’s party that Knox had become not just socially acceptable but actually au courant. Now I see she should have called them gelees and insisted we ingest them with our pinkies raised. Even that would be preferable to making stock on a 100-degree Wednesday, let alone serving vermouth with a bloody mary garnish. I hear they’ve discovered another planet. And I suspect it’s on 43d Street.
No wonder the Chimp is hellbent on installing Batshit Bolton at the UN. It keeps him from dealing with a much more crucial job opening. The Washington Post just reported “he was trying out a prospective White House chef” the other night, one who was not identified but seemed to be about as suitable as every other candidate Turd Blossom chooses anymore — the audition dessert was described as “chocolate mango-tango tart.” Sounds like something the physically fit but mentally deficient would eat right before toppling over on their bikes.
If you want to know where to eat in Philadelphia, you might not want to ask Gourmet. Its hot spot is the very same place Philadelphia Weekly savaged in a review that started nicely enough: “Here’s a statement that will have zero effect upon the universe. The revamped Bookie’s is bad. Really bad.” Apparently “only the lobster passes muster” while “dessert is shameful.” Somehow I doubt the owner will be sending Ruth the same email the paper reported the truth-teller received: “I guess a blowjob is out of the question?”
Rocco’s enabler should skip printing his new “cookbook” and just sell the slick promo. If it’s not a parody, it’s the closest thing since the brunidigest. The flack note says she is “thrilled to share this with you” (as deadpan sarcasm, that alone would be worth $26.95). The premise is “5-minute flavor,” which is apparently what you get when you glop up microwaved storebought brownies with peanut butter, peanuts and ice cream. The cover has the stuntmuffin in bling with a lid-off jar of Thai sauce, while an inside shot shows him fondling something strange in the chicken nugget aisle of a supermarket with an open bottle of Martinelli’s sparkling cider in his cart (spiked, we can only hope). The introduction talks about him growing up in “the ‘hood” (cq on that misdirected apostrophe). If this is what he considers “exploring the good life,” give that man a TV series. And call it Whack-a-Mole. He’s starting to give chameleons a bad name.
In other flack news, the race between 7-Eleven’s and La Esquina’s seems to be running neck and neck — you can’t turn on a radio or open anything in print without being inundated with coverage of marginal openings in Manhattan. I never thought the day would come when a Slurpee would sound more alluring than a restaurant, but now I see you can never misunderestimate Sunday Styles.
I might skip the opening of an envelope, but if there’s an uncorking of a wine bottle, I’m there. Which is how I found myself with a friend in Riverside Park on a weekday afternoon, waiting around while three judges decided which example of campfire cuisine from five amateurs was worth $10,000 plus a $5,000 donation to the national park of the cook’s choosing. Apparently it was no easy decision, because we had plenty of time to determine that Redwood Creek is really Gallo by another label and that only a winery so huge and shrewd could employ a design director who could make a dog run look like a safari happy hour. All the aesthetics in the wine world, though, could not have made the food any more enticing. The winning dish was bratwurst chili with chickpeas, if that tells you anything. And it really was the closest to edible, if that tells you anything more. If you could judge a cook by his schtick, the ponytailed, tale-spinning inventor of the funky trout flop would have his own magazine by now. If not a wine column in a bigger magazine.
Belfast is the saddest place I have ever been, and my consort and I were there around the last time the IRA was seriously threatening to quiet down. We went not because my mom was born there but because a London restaurant critic I met persuaded me Northern Ireland was an overlooked culinary destination, literally worth the journey with a Michelin one-star. Roscoff was California-good, and gorgeous, but it was hard to see why it existed in a such a grim, grim city. On our first walk after leaving the monastic B&B I stupidly chose in those unenlightened years before the internets we were passed by a tank, fortified more heavily than any in Iraq today, full of soldiers holding real guns, and that was in a very leafy residential neighborhood.
Between the checkpoints and the surveillance towers everywhere else, it was hard to imagine how Berlin at its worst could have had a bleaker streetscape. Just to go into a store, we both had to have our bags dumped out and rummaged through, and even leaving the country I underwent the most humiliating search with patdown at the airport. Fear and hate were almost palpable, along with the root of so much evildoing, that clear divide between the haves and the have-nots, with religion cloaking all the craziness. I never felt luckier to be an American than I did when we got the hell out. We don’t have to live like that, I thought so smugly. And now we do, and maybe they won’t. George Mitchell, come home. The food is good.
After a week in a country where everyone is not presumed guilty until proven innocent, even after bomb scares shut down train stations in Paris and Marseille on Bastille Day, I had a certain sense of trepidation on re-entering the land of the free and the home of the brave, what with all those big signs at passport control warning furriners they would be fingerprinted and photographed, indignities not inflicted on Americans by the cheese-eaters at Charles de Gaulle. Ever since I paid duty after one Columba Bush spree, I worry I’ll be flagged no matter how little I’ve spent overseas. And so I walked up to the customs agent at Kennedy fully expecting to have to unzip my bag and let my less-than-fresh underwear fall where it may (my consort’s great trick for discouraging searches). But the guy just looked at my declaration card and asked, “What kind of food are you bringing back?” It took me a second to remember: “Um, salt. And pistou . . . .’’ He stopped me, fast. “Salt?” he yelped. “You brought back salt?” And then he waved me through, incredulously. “It’s great stuff,” I tried to say. “I’m not saying it isn’t,” he responded. He was still shaking his head when I pushed through the doors back into the land of Morton’s.
I guess it’s a good thing that servant of the people didn’t ask about my worst sticker price shock in Paris. He would have been as surprised as I was that it was not the 100-euro lunch tab at Joel Robuchon’s Atelier, or even the 71-euro whopper at Allard (did I really drop 51 dollars on one piece of sole and four little potatoes?) No, the check that actually floored me was the last, for lunch at Le Comptoir, where superb foie gras, brandade, two glasses of rose and a cafe creme came to exactly 27 euros. If this is the new Paris, you can have Manhattan.
My first night in Paris fell on a Sunday, which is a fate worse than Omaha, which is partly why I agreed to meet a newfound friend for dinner. She was staying in a Right Bank hotel where the Michelin says rooms start at 600 euros, and she had a concierge. Little did I know he would cough up exactly one suggestion: Right here, at Cafe de la Paix. Right here was right across the glitzy lobby, a nearly empty overwrought dining room where the scent of geriatric fish was unmistakable. I should be embarrassed to admit we wound up down the street at Le Grand Cafe, cousin of Le Procope and Au Pied de Cochon, but then it should have been mortified to send out my duck after so long under a heat lamp that the breast, ordered rouge, was crusted like a scab while the potato gratin was carbonized. At least we didn’t get sick from the whelks. And I didn’t feel so bad retreating to my amenity-shy hotel, close to real restaurants.
If not for one surly bitch at the one internet cafe in St.-Remy, I would have thought I had landed in any country but France. People were so friendly everywhere it made me anxious. My pidgin Francais was not just tolerated but apparently understood (a kir royale may have arrived in a martini glass at one cafe, but the components were right); a bookseller actually wanted to chat in English, and even the postal clerk picked the proper euros out of my hand with no perceptible disgust. In the market in Arles, vendors handed out samples with abandon and even leapt into camera range whenever I picked up my point-and-shoot. And in St.-Remy, the waitress at our first dinner stop snapped a photo for the table next to ours, something that would have been as likely as Velveeta on a cheese tray on our first trip to France back in the Eighties.
The mystery of it all was solved when I stopped by my favorite artisan in Paris for an earring fix and she said: “This is the first year the Americans are coming back.” With the whole world blowing up all around us, it’s so reassuring to know they won’t hate us for our chimp as long as we bring our Mastercards.
Jet lag alone can’t account for other weirdness. When I opened my hometown paper on my first morning back, I was sure one logo had been changed to the Diving section — that huge photo was just a little too pubic for comfort. Then there was the real estate story that referred to “designer wines” on Columbus Avenue (would that be ones with labels?) But the thing that really had me scratching my head was a piece on the Op-Ed page that I read all the way to the end, then went back and studied the headline and billboard to see if they might be able to summarize what the hell the contributor with the book to promote was saying. I guess Joe Wilson has scared the editors straight out of publishing clear thoughts, but you still have to wonder how a statement like “a burrito is nothing more than a delicious disguise for inelegant leftovers” ever made its way into international print.
I grew up calling burritos burros, which is what my family’s Mexican neighbors in the poorest part of a tiny Arizona town wrapped them up as. Lola, next door, made her own flour tortillas and kept them soft in a big pot on the stove, and she filled them not with the luxury of leftovers but from scratch, with not much more than pinto beans enriched with lard. Bean burros were lunch and dinner and sometimes breakfast on a street where the whole debate over farmers’ markets vs. supermarkets would sound like so much static from Mars even today.
I’m all for trashing Holy Foods. But get your peasant facts together before you romanticize Western Beef. Then maybe come up to my neighborhood Greenmarket sometime and see how easy it is to buy cilantro, chilies and quelites when Mexican women waving food stamps have gotten there first.
Another surreal sight on returning home was a news photo of bottled water being delivered in Phoenix to some of the hordes of homeless stranded in a lethal heatwave. I can see Evian in tsunami land. But what ever happened to drinking fountains in America? No wonder people are dropping dead. The shriveled soul of Grover Norquist rules.