One of the more self-worshiping culinary columnists (notice how no one says “food” anymore?) has apparently finally met his match, which undoubtedly means we can all look forward to the usual tales of the blessed events, written in his arch and stilted style. First will come the arduous search for the ideal caterer for the wedding, with the winning candidate of course trading nuptial fare for publicity. And next will be the “my baby eats like me” pablum. Is it just me, or do all conventionally happy food writers type alike?
I barely passed chemistry in high school, but I feel pretty certain Splenda is not a substance that occurs normally in nature. That hasn’t stopped a cluster of name chefs from happily jumping on the money train to promote this calorie-free sensation and its “sugar blend” cousin. Most puzzling is Michel Nischan, who is such an articulate advocate of good food and real food. Hasn’t he heard the Evil Dick talking about how to make money in this new economy? Get on eBay and sell those old Heartbeat menus. It might not be as lucrative as a living-worse-through-chemistry check, but it’s gotta be easier on your soul.
What if you gave four stars and nobody cared? This was like a pedestrian evaluating a Maserati by typing one deep thought repeatedly: “It looks cool and goes really fast.” (To be fair, maybe the whole embarrassing ooze got more insightful after the jump. I wouldn’t know.)
Why it’s dangerous to write your own epitaph: By all accounts, Arthur Schwartz stormed off his longtime prattle gig on WOR because he was worried about “journalistic integrity.” And then he apparently went straight home and posted this on his web site: “I leave you with a wonderful recipe that I developed for a promotional program I was going to do with Food Emporium and WOR.” What was the problem? They wanted him to shill for D’Agostino’s?
This was one of those rare scenes that give you hope for the future of New York food at a time when the official entree appears to be a nonthreatening burger: I was waiting in line at Mani Market in my neighborhood when a woman in full dress (Indian? Pakistani?) came in with her young son and asked the two cops getting sandwiches if there might be a good restaurant nearby. The owner and the cops first made sure she didn’t just want McDonald’s (she didn’t crack a grimace) before suggesting the diner up the block. She pressed them for something ethnic and they all thought and debated and finally came up with what really was the best recommendation: Saigon Grill. As I was paying, I noticed she was clutching a Zagat guide. What an uplifting feeling to know you can fool some of the travelers some of the time, but the savvy ones know two cops on a coffee break are worth a whole volume of suspect ratings.
Philadelphia and I go way back. I went there first while on a job tryout at the Wilmington newspaper in 1978, and I moved there later that year, to work at the Bulletin. The next three years meant glory days for restaurants, and while the city has had far more sorry downs than transcendent ups over the decades, it has always been about so much more than the reflexive cliche hauled out by food writers from every other city. Most recently the Wall Street Journal devoted half a page to documenting the novel notion that cheesesteaks are not all you will find there, and I could only wonder: Where have you been eating? Philadelphia has never had a “one-dish image” except among “experts” who have never explored it. I don’t get press releases from Stephen Starr, but I also have to wonder at how much of a gourmand draw a rooftop bar with swinging chairs and stuffed ponies really is. Kobe cheesesteaks with Brie, maybe.
Big points to the Journal, though, for the excellent story on the Soup Nazi who refuses to go by his TV name or play by the rules of the sellout game. Al Yeganah made his franchising deal with partners who agreed to his demand to omit all social niceties from pitch letters: no dear or thank you for Mr. Surly. More important, he’s insisting on total control over his product and image even though self-designated wiser heads snidely point out that he is moving from the soup business to the marketing business. The whole tale leaves you rooting for a man you would not want to have to dinner (and whose soup you’ve never even tasted). What a concept: the food is the thing.
One of the more entertaining time sucks is poking around in foreign web sites translated into something struggling to be English. Sometimes they’re no less nonsensical than you might read in big papers whose reporters and editors can’t tell a tortilla from a taco and think a poussin is a game hen. Other times they’re so silly they border on lyrical. My current favorite is the cyber-speak by the Montpellier twins, the three-star Pourcels at Le Jardin des Sens. “The thin slice of net of roast pigeon on the bone, its crystallized and frozen thigh, ragout of corn to morels, juice of pigeon to the crystallized grottes statement of liquorice” is one example. But “the zucchini in puffed up flower crawfish tails, sparkling bubble with the truffle juice” is just as tantalizing. My favorite, though, was “young people asparaguses.” It’s bad to laugh, though, because just the other day I saw “masculine salad” on menupages.com. And New Yorkese is ostensibly its first language.
No wonder the Bush handlers think this election will be a cakewalk. Apparently this is a country so dumb Williams-Sonoma expects people to spend $16 for a jar of “turkey brine blend.” It’s mostly salt, for Chuck’s sake. And the “simply add water” instruction says it all.
Talk about an invitation you can’t refuse. Little ortolans keep telling me a well-known if not high-profile restaurant reviewer who is marrying a writer who also covers the food scene has asked a cluster of select Manhattan chefs to provide refreshments for the blessed event. And this is no intimate affair — the guest list is said to be 200 strong and thirsty. At least it’s an easier way to earn stars than writing a book blurb.
Playing the class card: A Wall Street Journal story about the products voters associate with the dueling presidential candidates included a pissy comment by a Republican pollster who was “skeptical about portraying Mr. Bush ‘like mac ‘n’ cheese to Mr. Kerry’s penne alfresco’.” As my consort said, “That doesn’t sound very French.” (And it’s just as silly as those surveys showing most people would prefer to have a beer with Bush over Kerry. They never seem to remember the cowboy can’t drink, unless it’s O’Doul’s, the breakfast of wimps.)
In an unprecedented moment of humility, Bobby Flay has admitted he doesn’t know enough about Latino food to carry out the concept he announced for the old JUdson Grill. Instead he’s going down that well-traveled Larry Forgione road, with American regional cribbed from his TV scripts. Funny, since nothing stopped him from faking Spanish.
Details, details: The Wall Street Journal weighed in on the crumbling of the Krispy Kreme scam (oops — empire) but chose to illustrate it with a cake doughnut. Maybe the newsroom didn’t get enough dropoffs of freebies to know the chain sells only grease and air. And the NYT really should run any food reference through one of those online sense-checkers. A snide little convention item on the “essential food groups” at one party wound up with this combination: “cherry-glazed roasted figs with mascarpone pistachios.” Is there an “and” missing or did the reporter/backfielder/copy editor not realize the Italian cheese is not an adjective? Unless it’s eaten Alfredo, of course.
My wanderlustful friend Don Groff forwarded a release I would never get: an announcement of a fear-of-flying support group’s meeting at Calle Ocho, “one of the most remarkable restaurants in New York City.” Given that I haven’t eaten at that “spectacular” joint since three co-workers called in green after a pre-review meal, it might be just the place to cure what ails that crowd. Taking off couldn’t be much scarier than sitting down to “braised short rips” followed by “pollo criollo fufu stuffed Cornish hen.”
My consort, who seems to spend half his life on planes, came home outraged at having to buy food for the first time, on a long American flight to Denver. Eight dollars for an Au Bon Pain corn muffin with yogurt does sound like airborne robbery. But at least, I thought, it’s better to have the airlines cutting corners on food rather than fuel. Unfortunately, the Journal reports pilots are flying on tanks so low they have no spare to wait out a storm or divert to a more far-flung airport. As Bob said, it’s not either-or at all. They’re scrimping on all fronts. Maybe we should all be meeting at Calle Ocho.
Julia Child is barely cold in the California ground and already the frenzy to cash in has begun. A woman who almost alone in the food business never sold her good name for a cheesy product endorsement has just been named as the marquee attraction for the James Beard Foundation’s next orgy of self-celebration. And of course the announcement includes the requisite list of all the “underwriters” that make the extravaganza one big TV commercial. She probably never realized the monster she was unleashing in suggesting buying the home of the biggest shill in culinary history. Let’s hope her own will stands up to protect her — and us — from a Julia Child Front.
I want to blame Republicans for this somehow, but I think it’s just another sign that Manhattan is becoming the Mall of America: A Capital Grille opens and gets press all over town. The same people who mock Olive Garden are falling over themselves to plug a chain steakhouse with no national profile. Maybe if we hope real hard we’ll get a Wolfgang Puck place one day. Or an Emeril. Now that would be front-page news.
Walking past a Village restaurant I’ve seen countless times but never really noticed, I was reminded of that old Gary Larson cartoon of the deer with a bull’s-eye on its side (caption: “Bummer of a birthmark, Vern”). La Scatolina might have seemed like a charming choice for a name, since it means “the little box” in Italian, but its root sounds suspiciously Greek. Or, in the words of our inimitable Orator in Chief, as quoted in Newsweek: “All human beings begin life as a feces.”
Don’t expect corrections, but the NYTimes is on a details roll. 71 Clinton Fresh Food was described as “Wylie Dufresne’s restaurant.” And an article about a protest near the mayor’s homestead said the demonstrators had brought Krispy Kreme doughnuts while the photo clearly showed . . . a Dunkin’ box. It’s those little things that can add up to a Wen Ho Lee. No wonder it feels safer to keep shucking that Silver Queen corn.
Krispy Kreme has its own issues lately, trying to blame its mess of a quarterly report partly on the low-carb fad, which is clearly fading if you read the LATimes. As the Toronto Star pointed out in a great scathe, Dunkin’s sales are certainly not falling. All those boxes and boxes of gross doughnuts showered on newsrooms everywhere could help KK keep up the charade only so long. Eventually a reporter had to snap out of the sugar haze, and investors were sure to follow.
Let’s say you’re a major American newspaper, one that considers itself the noblest in the land while still licking wounds from an ethics scandal. You obviously need a story on how open tables are likely to be during the invasion of the Republicans into your hometown, a time when the base is fleeing for the bridges and tunnels, a time when restaurateurs could wind up as lonesome as they did for four days in Boston. And so you find just the right contributor to send to the phones for a truly fair and balanced report: yes, the one who wrote the promotional cookbook for the tourism agency that so desperately needs a positive spin going into the lockdown. You know. “One of the most respected food writers in the country.” The one allegedly sharing the proceeds with the very organization she’s covering.
A friend seized on something else strange about the story: For the first time in her memory, a restaurant roundup did not mention the usual saint, Danny Meyer, who just happened to write the “foreward” to the book with NYC & Company prominently named on the cover. She wondered if it meant he wasn’t “hot” anymore, and we both agreed that could not be the case since he has this fall’s big project opening at MOMA. Have he and the 800-Pound-Gorilla-turned-Op-Ed-pontificator had a falling-out? Was he unavailable for defensive comment? Or is it simply that everyone is overcompensating for the lost Montrachet star by overquoting from Myriad? (Did someone say not hot?)
As odes to the French Chef continue to pile up on the internet, in the cyber-equivalent of the garish shrines that sprout everywhere for dead princesses and drive-by shooting victims, a telling detail has emerged. A surprising number of the great woman’s disconsolate admirers don’t seem to know her name. They love her so much they call her Childs.
Wouldn’t the plural of crudo be crudi? (If so, the first vowel should be short.) Or can an adjective be made plural in English?
Jean Carper is usually one of the rare voices of reason on the subject of eating to beat Methuselah, so I guess I should blame anyone but her for the packaging of her latest feature in USA Weekend: “The 6 Healthiest Recipes in History.” I can only imagine the poor sucker who also had to compose “The Best Religious Movies Ever Made” just lost it when it came to the food and went straight for “spinach and berries with nonfat curry dressing.” Faced with “The Passion” in a full-page ad, who wouldn’t think only five other dishes were that good for you in just the 11,000 years since sheep were domesticated.
No matter how long you live in Manhattan you can never underestimate all the ways a restaurant can ruin the out-of-house experience. I went back to Nice Matin with a friend after one impeccable lunch and of course the I-don’t-see-you service was back, too. Which would have been painful enough, but all the windows were thrown open to the street when a truck pulled up outside, the driver stuffed a hose into the basement and the most hellacious sucking racket ensued. The sign on the truck didn’t say anything about rendering, but I suspected the worst. When my friend asked the waiter on one of his rare visits what was going on in the middle of lunchtime, he just shrugged and then, when I blurted, “They’re pumping the grease out,” smiled and walked away. Suddenly the French fries didn’t look so appetizing.
Wherever the guy whose name the Cowboy in Chief never mentions anymore is hiding, let’s hope he cannot get his hand on what I just spotted at Barnes & Noble. As a symbol for a society gone brain dead and vulnerable, could there be anything more damning than a whole cookbook on deviled eggs? You take the yolk out, you stuff the yolk back in, you use your imagination. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told an idea for a book is only worth a magazine article. Deviled eggs should merit no more than a Hellmann’s label.
Is it just me, or do jokes about foam sound as tired as foam itself did even before Biff Grimes retired?
In one of those little ironies of pack journalism, newspapers and magazines are busting out all over with syrupy odes to heirloom tomatoes just when reality bites. Buying heirlooms this weird, rainy summer is increasingly a crapshoot, even now that the price has dropped to $2 a pound and every Greenmarket has them by the crateload. The fat yellow-streaked ones that were so luscious the last few summers have been half-mushy, half-woody half the time. All the dark red ones have too often been not a lot more intense-tasting than the regular old field-grown specimens from Cherry Lane Farms at Union Square. My cynical side also notices even growers I respect are suddenly selling bloated plum tomatoes labeled “from Polish heirloom seeds brought over by a friend of the family.” Plum and Polish are two adjectives that don’t exactly harmonize with tomatoes, but then more and more “heirlooms” seem to be nothing more than Olympic-pumped beefsteaks, bred for the long haul. It’s a sad summer when you need Paffenroth bush basil to make a tomato taste like seasons past.
Funny how people who think Martha Stewart should have gone straight to jail without passing a judge (“the law is the law”) are now defending Whole Foods for sneaking a wine shop into a supermarket. The law in New York State may be an ass, but it’s pretty clear about the separation of booze and food. At least down the line something good could come from this brazen flouting, though, as more supermarkets realize how easy it is to bend the statutes and just have discrete entrances at street level, as Premier does in that bastion of innovation, Buffalo. Why should a Manhattanite have to descend to Whole Foods for one-stop shopping?
Aside from the occasional scan-scam, I don’t often get taken on groceries. But the other day I was in the express line at the Food City when I noticed a tempting strip of packets of spiced peanuts labeled cacahuates Sabritas and just assumed they were imported. They were only 25 cents each and so tiny they could not possibly be American — nothing in this country is ever packaged in .62 ounces when a half-pound will do for one serving. I actually hesitated before taking a bag, though, because there have been so many stories lately about lead from chilies in candies from across the border. And of course the joke was on me. The threat was not from the spicing but from big business — after eating the whole little bagful, I read the back label: “Made for Frito-Lay.” What does it mean that we now face snacks of Mexican deception?
When good restaurants go really, really bad: Since 1999, I’ve eaten at Cafe Frida probably more than at any place on the Upper West Side. I’m an asking-for-it sucker for Mexican, but this kitchen consistently turned out great guacamole, nuanced salsas and superb quesadillas. A couple of times it might have hit a few bumps, and the noise could be painful, but otherwise it was the quintessence of old reliable. Ever since it renovated, though, putting the bar up front like every other tequila hustler in town, Cafe Frida has deteriorated to the point that my consort could only mutter two words on smelling the fajitas landing at the next table: Chi. Chi’s.
The whole place now reeks of those bogus moneymakers. The service is so lame that describing it as bumbling would be a compliment (a table that arrived after us got our order, and after it was finally delivered to us a third waiter immediately arrived to whisk it away). Seating on the banquette in the former bar area is as stifling as the Sonora desert. And the guacamole is no longer an indulgence but a penance. There is no way bounceable avocados and supermarket tomatoes will add up to anything worth dipping, especially when the mixer apparently is paid by the molcajete and churns it out as fast and as grossly as Taco Bell. Parting insult to lasting injury, the check arrived with a tip chart that inflated every percentage. The couple to my left was from across a river, the couple to my right from over an even bigger body of water, of the Atlantic variety. Buena suerte to Cafe Frida in trying to make a go of it on those frequent diners.
How do you know when you’re turning vintage? When you’d rather drink than inhale. All the coverage of the new-age Breathalyzers in clubs certainly left me feeling hopelessly old-school. I can see skipping the liquid part to cut the calories, but any grownup knows you spend 20 minutes over a drink for the taste, too. Of course I’ve never had a Cosmopolitan, so maybe I just don’t know the nastiness I should be vaporizing.
The brouhaha over Mike Wallace’s arrest by the TLC actually illuminated a Leslie Revsin insight. He went bonkers while his takeout meatloaf dinner was going cold in his limousine, and I could only think: All his fame and fortune and he settles for Hamburger Helper? In an interview with a trade magazine, though, Leslie explained it all. How are the rich different from you and me? Given a choice between Roquefort beignets and Caesar salad, they’ll go for the bore every time. No wonder it’s so hard to get anything seasoned to life on the Upper East Side.
One thing you might get in that restaurant wasteland is a half hour’s worth of entertainment, at least if you stop for lunch at the bar at Payard. I had a respectable potato and mushroom tourte with salad while listening to a cross between eBay and a chat room, with the bartender working deals to sell a brother-in-law’s car and assorted ravaged patrons trying either to assuage hangovers or impress said bartender. The shades-adorned dolt next to me, who ate his soup while complaining about how his daughter’s boyfriend wanted to be a writer but didn’t know what a hyphen was, was bragging that he had eaten “Grand Marnier souffles and Parma ham at every meal in Spain,” which led the bartender to recall a paella scene in a well-known movie. “Ah, yes, ‘Dona Flor’,” the guy said pompously for all the bar to admire. “That was written by Giorgio Amado, a very famous Brazilian writer.” (My friend Don Groff had the perfect reaction: “Actually, it was Jorge Armani.”)
After 20 years of typing about the most ephemeral art form, I’m the first concede it ain’t easy coming up with new ways to describe food, but a little item in the Daily News struck me as hitting the formulaic gong particularly hard. The lead gave corn the old explain-the-exotica treatment: “This sweet vegetable, whose teeth-like kernels are nestled in rows along a woody ‘ear,’ is native to the Americas . . . . ’’ Never let this Pinball Wizard come in contact with a potato, or a banana. But what do you expect of someone who starts a recipe for corn flan (serves a very manageable 10) with “clean the corn”? What the shuck is she talking about?
I should have known we were in for a surreal week when I woke up Monday to a consort reeking of dead snapper and bearing ominous news along with our three morning papers: “They’re shutting down the bridges and tunnels.” He had been up all night shooting at the Fulton Fish Market and had a question much on the minds there: “How are the food trucks going to get in?” Next morning I woke to photo-op evidence of the First Lady of Stepford and her evil twins having a fine time swilling coffee at one of the alleged terrorist targets and knew our elevator operator had nailed it from the git-go: “The only thing that scares me is Tom Ridge.” Unfortunately, Bob’s question is lingering like the fish stink. The absurd lockdown/campaign stunt was a fair warning of what convention week will be like. And much as I hate to think like a bureaucratic threat-monger, I suppose he’s right about stocking up on canned beans and pasta, the staples that got us through the blackout. Help may be on the way, but meat and fish will probably be waylaid in Jersey for security reasons.
Washington could take some lessons in scare tactics from Procter & Gamble, whose motto seems to be “the only thing we have to sell is fear itself.” AmNY took the bait in touting the new Dawn Wash ‘n’ Toss dishcloths with: “We’ve all heard about all the bacteria living in our kitchen sponges.” Of course we all should be worrying about more silly disposables clogging up landfills, but there’s no money in that. And to paraphrase our misleader, who cares about the future? We’ll all be gone then.
You know the Olympic tie-ins have gone too far when the Greek wine poster in your local liquor store reads just like the headline in your hometown paper.
A week when the sky was falling seemed like a good occasion to go get a spiritual lift at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central, especially since I was already stuck in midtown at lunchtime. The place is so gritty and timeless and so wondrously New York you can’t imagine anything bad happening as long as it — and the gorgeous terminal — are around. It’s also one of the few places in Manhattan that is so democratic with its counters, and so efficiently old-style in its service. (My waitress was juggling orders from a Japanese guy, two French women, four businessmen and three lost souls with an American Girl shopping bag.) Unfortunately, the time-warp magic does nothing for the food. The Maryland she crab soup had big chunks of undeniable crab in it, but it was mostly white glop and celery that even sea salt and Tabasco could not shake to life. This is soup the way they made it when my mom was a kid here, back before cream was invented.
Note to Bar managers: It might be time to invest in some fresh dish towels for napkins, too. Nothing lasts forever.
One more indicator America is going to hell in a handbasket with no outside help: Land O Lakes is now wrapping its unsalted butter in wax paper rather than the foil that gave it the shelf life of an MRE (or of salted butter). For the second pound, what I tasted was right on the edge of rancid, despite the 11/04 sell-by date, and so I called the 800 number on the box. After a long wait, a nice chirpy voice informed me that consumers had insisted on the change, primarily because they wanted to put the butter in the microwave. On every level that’s a depressing explanation. Is it because they forget and have a meltdown? Are they too lazy to unwrap it? I’ve always been wary of microwaves — how obese was this country before Hungry Mans were ready in minutes? — but now I know they’re a menace.
I was shocked that butter was up to $5.49 a pound at my grubby neighborhood grocery store. Then I priced it at the sleek spot three blocks down Columbus: $6.79. No wonder I spotted a guy in a red Dagostino’s shirt in the checkout line at the Food City. It must be like Walmart: the help can’t afford to buy there.
Connect the dots in a web posting by a restaurant publicist who does it for free and you’ll see why it’s smart to have friends in the payback business. If you get sick the week you eat at one of their client restaurants, they’ll bring you restorative chicken soup from another one.
Whitehouse.gov almost rivals whitehouse.org with its web chat with the retiring pastry chef, Roland Mesnier. It’s not quite as patently bogus as the one with the show twins that could have been typed by simian androids, but the man has clearly learned from masters of deception. First he offers to “give you the smartest answers I know” and then he blows off a request for the secret to perfect creme brulee with “it would take too long to explain.” How do you get dough for cinnamon rolls to rise? “I would suggest a bicycle pump.” He also has a thing for Crisco, which you don’t want to overanalyze in that town. And he reveals Barney is like so many in the George II coterie: a bootlicker, although even that tale is suspect considering he says the dog comes to his shoes for the chocolate. Isn’t that a weapon of canine destruction?
The saga of the virtual cookie war will not end. Teresa Heinz Kerry has now come clean in saying the “nasty” recipe Family Circle ran under her name was not hers at all. No one is taking blame for it, but the magazine says its test kitchen could not get the recipe “she” actually submitted to work. Of course the glaring question in this latest episode of First Lady Fakeoff was not considered news fit to answer: What the Cheney are Yummy Wonders?
Someone should take “Laura’s” recipe for cookies — and “Teresa’s,” too, for that matter — and convert them to microfilm. And then just inadvertently destroy them. Otherwise so-called journalists are going to continue to squander energy and air time on an absurd spoon-fed debate over which is better, chocolate-oatmeal or pumpkin-spice, when each has about as much to do with the name attached to it as Alain Ducasse does with Mix. Laura Bush is firmly on record saying she does not bake. Teresa Heinz Kerry has obviously not been near a sugar canister since well before her ketchup dough started flowing to charity. Why do outlets like NPR continue to buy into this trivial charade? I know it’s just a tiny lie, but the last one the media allowed to mushroom is not exactly looking like a reality show these days. Why let falsehood reign?
Maybe I’m hypersensitive because the first bathroom I ever experienced was an outhouse, or because I grew up sharing one bathroom with two parents and six siblings, but I have a thing for clean toilets. Especially when food is involved. And I cannot imagine why any New York restaurateur would not be just as obsessive. There’s no turnoff like plumbing under siege, nothing that makes you think more graphic thoughts about the kitchen. But when I stopped into City Bakery the other day and decided to avail myself of the facilities, I would have sniffed a problem even if the woman waiting ahead of me had not warned that one of the two toilets didn’t flush. I had to leave, no matter how tempting the tortilla casserole looked on the way out. When I’m hungry, I don’t want to go home again.
The good news about Blue Hill at Stone Barns is that it’s not as dull as it sounded in print. The better news is that the one visionary you might conjure while eating there is not Alice Waters. Reine Sammut in Provence, maybe, or even Thomas Keller in Napa wonderland would be a closer inspiration. It helped that I was lucky enough to eat during previews with a Hudson Valley baby, one whose father (I was embarrassed to learn after dissing local wines) is a notable vintner, and one who was clearly excited about recognition for an untapped region.
The concept would have been unthinkable only five years ago. David Rockefeller has paid to have his family’s old barns turned into a beautifully designed gastro-complex where the kitchens rely on the fields and gardens right out the back door. (Eventually they will, anyway.) Dan Barber, one of the few chefs I run into Wednesday after Wednesday at the Greenmarket, is the designated sorcerer, and when his formula works he does make magic. One of my tablemates wondered if the countryside (that well-developed Westchester County countryside, even) is ready for “precious” food rather than big slabs of pork and potatoes, but it was easy to get caught up in the moment and hope for the daintiest.
My first course was certainly a bit fey: one spear of asparagus coated in sesame seeds and presented like topiary in a wooden block alongside a plateful of five or six halved spears sprinkled with hazelnuts, with a poached egg on one side and a gorgeous, tiny herb and greens salad on the other. Some of the food can be muted: a perfect little lobster claw just would not talk to the Jerusalem artichoke cannelloni on which it rested. And much of it can be sublime: amazingly flavorful Duclair duck was poached, a technique that transforms the meat, and teamed with a spaetzle gratin. All this was in rehearsal, so it’s unfair to judge it, even too kindly, I guess. But I would go back in a heartbeat if someone else were driving.
And that’s despite the potentially crippling flaw in the whole enterprise. Country restaurants tend to be staffed by country bumpkins. Anywhere else in the world, service is a serious profession. Here, it’s a way to make some change, and rarely enough to squander on a meal where you get to see how the other half eats. It was hard not to laugh after the driver in our group ordered a glass of San Pellegrino at the bar where we were shunted to wait until all six of us arrived and then someone materialized at the table 20 minutes later to plonk down the going-flat bottle with a curt: “You left this at the bar.” Then again, she might not have been a bumpkin but someone I’ve run into super-selling water in the city.
Who says there are no second acts in American lives? A chef once pegged with bizarre behavior in the kitchen is now shilling in a meditative pose in a fruit ad. I guess if a war president can become a peace president with just a change of speech, why shouldn’t a serial biter find his inner Dalai Lama for a fee?
If you thought anyone could be a restaurant critic these days, you could wind up with as much red sauce on your face as Republican convention organizers. In a rare fit of reporting enterprise, the NYT disclosed that Rudy Giuliani’s Top 10 list has been disappeared from 2004nycgop.org, where it had been posted along with similar favorites suggested by Bloomberg, Koch and Pataki (a real go-to guy for food advice). The official reason is “space reasons” (yeah, on a web site), but the Times noted the embarrassing reputed mob connection to Mr. Righteous’ No. 1, Da Nico in Little Italy. It made no mention, however, of the Village Voice’s earlier muckraking look at the Health Department inspection records for his hangouts. Somewhere in there is a message, and I think it involves vermin.
My candidate for the starring role in “Chefs Gone Wild” has to be the absurdly uninhibited guy at Counter, the sleek but overpriced vegan wine bar in the East Village (a k a the most odious restaurant neighborhood in Manhattan). Reading the menu is like tumbling down a rabbit hole: ingredient after ingredient after concept after concept. It’s mental whiplash — you’re riding along thinking cauliflower “risotto” sounds interesting and then you crash into seven other ingredients, none of which would ever talk to the other. Could this possibly be the same chef whose restrained food we had liked at Voyage in the civilized West Village?
Neither of us could make much sense of the endless array of printed choices and so we went for a couple of appetizer grocery lists the waitress rattled off as specials, including a mishmash that ended in pesto cremini (for $12). The slimy/grayish “eggplant caponata pizza” was not nausea-inducing although it was neither caponata nor pizza. But what I faced was surreal: four tiny (as in button) mushrooms filled with pesto and interspersed with dollops of a pure-heat sauce, all arrayed around a disk of something topped with four or five strips of cucumber. We chewed and chewed and could not determine what the crop circle might be, so we had the waitress come back and read the shopping list again. Weird how everything from olives to red onion to parsley to fennel can come together with undercooked quinoa to taste like none of the above. It can’t be just because we had just come from the excellent “Maria Full of Grace,” but my stomach felt as if I had swallowed 62 balloons of cocaine.
Call it “When Whores Collide:” The scene is a Champagne book party. The characters are two word people who think they recognize each other “from the circuit.” (Names and destinations changed to protect the guilty.) The dialogue overheard when one walks up to the other begins: “Nice to see you — how are the kids?” “I don’t have kids, just a wife.” “Aren’t you that editor at XXX magazine?” “No, don’t you work for XXXX?” “No, but weren’t you on that trip to Greece?” “No, but didn’t we meet on that trip to the South of France?” And on and on till you wonder how some junketeers have time to take a vacation. Let alone report back on it.
You can tell true believers in compassionate conservatism are coming to town when soup kitchens are forced to shut down “for security reasons.” The Daily News reports that the Church of St. John the Baptist is a little too close to Madison Square Garden for Republicans’ comfort, and so the 500 hardship cases it feeds every week will go without during the staged festivities. It’s one way of guaranteeing no reality is left behind for conventioneers to witness.
I’m at least 17 years late to the table, but thanks to my DVD junkie consort I’ve just discovered the world’s most underrated food movie: “Withnail & I.” Booze figures more prominently in the wildly funny plot, but even wastrels have to eat. And so there are great scenes with carrots and rabbit, not to mention eels and teacakes and uncles with unusual appetites. It’s worth renting for one interlude alone: the transformation of live chicken into roasted dinner. Why do I see the inspiration for Steve Raichlen’s overflogged beer can chicken in that same oven?
Out-of-touch promotional idea of the week: Fifty Seven Fifty Seven’s “Intermission Intermezzo,” a $38 dinner that includes a to-go packet for Broadway-bound diners. I hate to point out the obvious, but if a play is a stinker, water and macaroons are not what you’ll be wanting at half-time. There’s a reason theater owners get away with selling shiver wine at Four Seasons prices
Why do I look at those creepy Bush twins and think Prohibition could be coming back? Maybe because behavior acceptable for privileged Republicans always seems to be outlawed for everyone else?
Two observations from the illuminating memorial to Seymour Britchky: Dawn Powell lives. And Andre Soltner is either the nicest guy in New York or the best actor.
It was little odd to attend an homage to a man I knew only through his acerbic words, but I was honored to accept the invitation. There was no way I would have met him. Even 13 years after his last collection of reviews was published he remained a faceless voice (to the chagrin of his photographer wife) because he did not really mingle in the food world. His reward, judging by the warm but candid remembrances and the happy hour afterward, was more interesting and less snooty friends. A lively contingent of drinking buddies from Cafe Loup had tales to tell over Tommy Flanagan on the CD player, evoking the Villlage in the diaries, the one before Bradley’s died too.
The most revealing eulogy was by Soltner, who was charmingly frank when he said: “I look around and I don’t see any chefs here.” As he went on to point out: Chefs didn’t love the hypercritical Britchky, but they respected him — and they “couldn’t love him because we were not on the same side.” (One other chef did turn up, but I later heard he had talked of doing a book with Britchky as Soltner did.) With no notes, and at the end of a stressful day of moving from his longtime home above Lutece, Soltner was both amusing and seriously moving while inadvertently communicating as much about his own honor as his friend’s. And a lot more about an era before chefs’ blurbs were on reviewers’ books and restaurant flacks had critics on speed-dial.
All that made it even more ironic that a certain renowned reviewer whom I sat with was leaning on me to review her memoir. “I can’t,” I said. “I know you.” And suggested another food writer. “But he knows me, too.” “Yes, but he’d review you.” Yes, she said. He would.
My new Wednesday/Friday sport is guessing who the latest replacement for the renowned reviewer will try to channel, his straining-at-MFK predecessor or his gracefully witty one. Too bad he’s not the cook either of them is. He’d know what happens to mishandled cod. It does not turn rubbery. Except maybe on a canceled reality show.
Most likely it’s because the big-bucks competition is limping so badly, but the Daily News’ food coverage just looks better and better. The restaurant reviews are unfortunately not as ridiculously entertaining now that the regular critic has taken her LOL metaphors on maternity leave, but the expanded coverage on Friday and even Sunday’s silliness actually make you feel as if you live in a major culinary capital with thinking chefs rather than British natterers. It’s almost enough to make me forgive the paper for adding doom and gloom in the guise of health on Wednesday, the high holy day of food journalism.
The most recent high point was a chance to be virtually present at the re-creation of the top dish from the Pillsbury Bake-Off. I squandered more time on that page than on the whole Times magazine, fascinated by how inept the winner’s fluted pie crust was (made from a Pillsbury pre-fab), how un-New York the baker was in her matching oven mitts and adrogenous haircut and really how wacky the winning recipe was: a variation on pecan pie, with granola bars as the secret ingredient. (A helpful photo shows how to crush them in the package with a rolling pin.) That’s a recipe for Wednesday Health. Or for cooks who never met Quaker oats.
Eons ago I went to a Pillsbury Bake-Off for a magazine story, and I’m surprised it’s become so dull when there is so much more processed garbage that could be turned into prizewinners. Where are the chicken and chocolate enchilada quiches of yesteryear?
We can hide, but we’re still going to get hit. Even Americans who don’t travel will soon feel how worthless the dollar is becoming, judging by my surprise at the cheese case where I went to pick up a wedge of that industrial Brie sold in supermarkets in France that melts almost as well as Velveeta for chile con fromage. The chunk I used to get for $2-something is now $3-something. And having spoken earlier in the week with a spice processor who is cutting back on Hungarian paprika, I don’t think it’s inflation at work. It’s the euro kicking buck. Figures that the Brie brand is President.
Forget her cooking skills. Marcella Hazan must be one hell of a housekeeper. Her kitchen in the just-out Saveur looks as gleaming-new as the photos did when I wrote about it for House Beautiful at least five years ago.
It’s hard to tell what’s a bigger threat to national forests these days, Bush bankrollers or cookbook publishers. Did trees really have to fall for a whole collection of lavishly photographed recipes for grilled cheese? One not even titled “Melting for Dummies”?
Speaking of forests, the tree no one appears to have heard falling was the Beard timber in the out-of-towner’s column in the Daily News. Judging by the collective shrug, this had a real “there are no new stories, only new gossips” aspect. Maybe one day, and maybe soon, someone can definitively answer the question posed by so many chefs like the one I met in Charleston a few years ago: “How can it cost me $20,000 to put on a dinner there?” Or worse insinuations — after all, that much smoke cannot just be salmon. But at least in the short term, the foundation probably underestimates how much it benefits from a very well-positioned finger in the dike. And if financial shenanigans ever surface, it could not be blessed with a more appropriate name.
Compass, the restaurant that just can’t find its way, is now running a big ad touting cut-rate lunches and dinners “in addition to our acclaimed chef’s menus.” Not only that, it includes stars and blurbs from some of the kinder reviews published before said acclaimed chef packed up her knives and went home. If the owners had any sense, they would have just quietly waited it out, knowing a certain domineering editrix who has considered Compass her canteen since it opened as Marika would surely steer a malleable reviewer their way one more time. The fourth could have been the charm.
Maybe I’m too busy eating, but I never noticed Whoopi Goldberg was the Slim-Fast flogger until she lost her gig. Savvy advertisers could take a cue from that: Send a shill out to offend the notoriously sensitive ears of Cheney’s fellow Republicans, and you’ll get press you couldn’t buy. Not to mention a chance to shed spokesmodels who don’t exactly conjure the product.
One of the little ironies of the star-making machinery of the food world is that chefs have become so much more articulate just as their handlers are insisting on pulling all the strings. Half the time you can’t interview the guy who developed the dish, only the clueless publicist with the restaurant account. But a little item in the New York Observer made it clear why chefs sometimes cannot be trusted to speak for themselves. The pastry person at Union Square Cafe, promoting her appearance teaching kids at the Greenmarket about peaches and other stone fruits, went on the record as saying: “I’m a little nervous because I haven’t seen any yet at the market.” A good ventriloquist would have blithely promised pumpkins in July. Or at least asked the chef at a restaurant known for its “Greenmarket menu” to walk half a block east and take a look before she revealed how out of touch she was with a place where peaches and cherries have been on offer for weeks.
A charismatic Italian guy we spent a day with near Treviso was full of aphorisms, but one in particular resonates: “It only takes one dog to herd many sheep.” The dog in our town, I have just learned, is a web site that is really one click away from being a google ad. While old media pours endless ink into long-winded reviews with tempting photographs, and while restaurants struggle along as if not a word had been printed (can you say Marika/Compass?), it turns out all it took to ruin my attempt at a Tocqueville lunch was two incomplete sentences on a site whose url should be ovine.net. The flack says she worked hard to get the mention, and the restaurant was clearly slammed. Now that I know who gets the sheep in, even I’ll be logging on, if only to be sure my destination is not ranked as the bonbon du jour. You can never eat well in a pen.
It’s one thing for a hired biographer to swallow fish tales. But shouldn’t a reviewer for the peerless NYT at least raise a skeptical eyebrow? To quote just one absurdity: “Sirio was one of the first to fly in seasonal ingredients from around the globe, and it was Sirio who led the great gourmet cattle stampede to Las Vegas.” The first half of that sentence sounds pretty impressive until you remember there’s no need to fly in seasonal ingredients — they’re as close as the Greenmarket. As for Vegas, I believe a little nobody named Wolfgang was there as long ago as 1992, six years before braveheart Maccioni bet big. At least we know one restaurant critic is guaranteed a good last table at 50th and Madison. If not at the Ivy in London.
A flack whose client I spoofed has e-communicated to set the record straight. He is not just prostitutin’. He’s procurin’, too. Unfortunately, in laying out the dream team he has assembled to resuscitate a shortlived restaurant he didn’t impress me so much with how high he had reached as by how far the mighty had fallen to be within his grasp. And he does have me wondering why such a useful profession is so often dissed by its own practitioners. Really, if you can correctly spell the names you drop you don’t need to call yourself a visionary.
Note to the Wall Street Journal: Crockpots are like the poor. They will always be with us. And can they have a comeback if they never went away?
For four days I ate only my own cooking. On the fifth, after an editor spurned a recipe I had developed, I set out to recalibrate my palate. A friend was persuaded to join me for the Greenmarket lunch at Tocqueville, with a reservation in her name at 1:15 (1 was impossible). I showed up first to find the entry full of upended chairs, two annoyed customers ignored at the bar and a host nowhere to be seen. As I waited, I could see at least one table stripped clean and another yet to be bused. The host appeared, took my fake name, said how nice it was to see me again and let me go off to the bathroom. Which was occupied. For the next 10 minutes. As I perched on a windowsill and waited, my oversensitive antennae for trouble went into overdrive. The room did not feel happy. People were waiting for food at too many tables; a woman was trying desperately to pay her check as dessert dishes sat congealing. My instinct was to bail, and then a guy at the table closest to me called over a waiter to say he had ordered the wine pairing and had nothing as his first course was being cleared. Bladder still bulging, I went back to the front, collected my friend from the chair (not even the bar) where she had been deposited because she was “the first to arrive,” and we fled. Unnoticed by anyone.
That’s the trouble with a publicist doing a job too well in sending out a tempting press release: The press might actually fall for it. (What’s that old saying — you can lead a writer to lunch, but you can’t let it stink?)
Here’s a profession you never saw anyone aspiring to in a high school yearbook: “spokesperson for the launch of Perrier’s plastic bottle.” I wouldn’t brag about achieving it, but a real Aren’t His 15 Minutes Up Yet? character is.
Walking through the specialty food show at the Javits, it was hard not to see America as one country under nutritional siege, or maybe just home to 280 million invalids. About one in three products seemed to have been doctored to be low-carb, sugar-free, lactose-free, fat-free, low-calorie or gluten-free. The silliest was the lactose-free mortadella (sorta like gluten-free pastrami), but I even saw low-carb Chinese noodles, from the least likely old-line producer, not to mention “no-soy” fake caviar. For once I had to be very careful what I ate — I accidentally ingested a “less-carbs” tortilla chip and it took me half an aisle to get the chemicalness out of my mouth. Altered crap looks just like real food unless you read the fine print.
But at least it was easy to see all the silliness on display for a change — the crowds looked to be the thinnest ever for this celebration of nonessential nutrients. A friend at one booth said many other West Coast producers couldn’t afford to attend this year, thanks to that exuberant economic recovery we keep hearing about from the great pretender with the weakness for pretzels. Twenty-three of the winners for best product, in fact, were not even on the premises. Still, as food gets more and more political, the future may lie off in a whole other direction anyway. Everywhere there were booths offering to certify products as kosher, or organic, or fair-trade. In a country where down is up and fear is security, labels have never mattered more. Or truth less. Of course credibility should be for sale.
Right behind me in the badge line in the Javits press office was a guy who swore he had proper credentials. After all, he hosts a polka program on the radio. In Amish country in Pennsylvania. And “sometimes we talk about food.” He got in, of course. Press is press, and he could not produce a dumber report than any of those that proclaimed trends spotted among 60,000-plus products. Figs, salt and tea could as well be coffee, wasabi and pecans. The show is just a show, and very little of what is shown there ever turns up in any stores near me, let alone in enough quantity to qualify as “flavor of the day.” Roll out those barrels.
You can fool a lot of New Yorkers most of the time, but not many Italians even once. A big olive oil producer I met in Palermo was at the food show and still reeling from his dinner at Lupa. For eight people, he was staggered to say, the bill was $900 (and he was packing euros). Worse, the food was all wrong. Debasing-of-culture wrong, in fact. For the “meat rolls,” he said with a mix of mystification and disgust, “they put salad in them. On the inside.” At least he could take four Alka-Seltzers and get over the Carnegie Deli. That Batali burn lingers.
The surprise is not that JUdson Grill is closing. It’s that anyone would think the world needs more Bobby Flay. Or more bogus Spanish/Latino/macho. Comparing the Equitable building to the TWC is also pushing things, but then Metro editors looking to fill weekend pages seem to be becoming easily pushable, especially by marginalized hangers-on who could never get hired on staff.
Something weird has happened to Where magazine. The copy I picked up at the Javits actually had some restaurant coverage that didn’t seem irredeemably clueless. It’s either got a better class of advertisers to promote or the restaurant “reporter” I once met at a press lunch has moved on. (She was the one who bit into a shiitake and asked, “What is this, baloney?”) The best part is that its map shows no eating options north of Kitchen 82, leaving my neighborhood safe from Republicans. But I still wouldn’t pay $6 an issue for the thing, let alone $56 a year. Tourists who want to “plan ahead” should know there’s a bridge for sale here, too.
A Montreal restaurant roundup in a formerly prestigious publication actually included the phrase “screamed my taste buds to attention.” I know a prison in Baghdad that might be interested in that maneuver, and not for an oyster shooter.
My eagle-eyed if underemployed friend Heidi Yorkshire faxed along a great true confession from the designers of the first Kimpton to open in New York. At SilverLeaf Tavern, they’re promising a “netherworld ambiance.” Which is just what this town needs: more restaurant hell.
Speaking of which, I know there isn’t enough room in a whole book to tell a story the way it really happened. So I guess I’ll just have to take up valuable cyberspace to set the record straight. I went to Le Cirque first with a top editor at Allure and we got the Ron Galotti treatment: fawning to the point of slobbering by the circus jerk, spectacular food, lots of freebie extras, face time with Daniel, major fanny kissing on the way out. Snowed, I called for my consort’s birthday and was graciously granted a 9:30 or 10 o’clock reservation. We were greeted by CJ’s rather substantial posterior for some minutes on arriving, and the treatment went downhill from there. We had to wait forever at the bar for our table, then the waiter just stood tapping his pen on his pad and asking, “Didja come to talk or didja come to eat?” I remember nothing out of the ordinary on our plates, only the sight of chairs being upended around us and a vacuum firing up in the dregs of the evening. What went wrong at the Schrambling table was that it was in the wrong restaurant. Great ones honor reservations if they offer them around midnight.
The good news is that Kalustyan’s has closed its upscale cafe “for renovations.” The sad news is that the chef must be making breads for the store now. The usually excellent vegetable paratha could have come out of Otto’s pizza oven.
It’s been a long, hard contest, but I think I have found the very worst waiter in all of Manhattan, one right out of “Tommy.” I suffered him when Soho Cantina was brand new and figured he had to have been fired by the third night. But no, he’d somehow found his way back and was bumbling through lunch on a day with all of three tables in play. I stupidly stuck around to try the duck “confit” quesadilla and a glass of cava, which was ordering trouble, because he had me to repeat both, and his hand shook as his brain struggled to connect (it was like watching Bush try to sign his name). Then he stopped me on the way to the bathroom to ask again what I wanted to drink and I had to spell it out: Cava. Sparkling wine. Yes, white. A long time later a trough arrives with a large corn tortilla in it but not a shred of poultry. I flagged down the only animate being, the busboy, and asked about duck. D-U-C-K. Pato. He took it away and maybe 45 minutes later the real thing landed. And this was well after Witless had come by to assure me it would be right out at the very minute one of the three women at the next table was getting up in desperation to go fetch menus. Don’t ask how long the check and change took. He did wipe the $12 quesadilla off the bill, but the place is going to go bankrupt if all Cheney-ups are atoned with giveaways. The guy should be shipped off to Denmark, where anyone aspiring to be entrusted to carry food and drink has to go to school for three years. Not to diss the handicapped, but this is not a profession for pinball wizards.
The FCI is nothing if not sly. Its tiny front-page ad touting a new program — learn to be a restaurant reviewer — ran on just the day some readers might be wishing for Alan Richman.
Lately when I open my e-mail I can’t tell if it’s PR or if it’s parody. One day it’s a restaurant promoter boasting of a sushi chef combining eel and Boursin (even a shark would hesitate), and the next it’s a liqueur flogger insisting that celebrities I’ve never heard of are pouring the stuff in their hair for “extra richness and shine.” The Onion is paying the wrong writers. Flacks do it with a straight face.
Here’s how bold-face the Le Cirque party was: they let me in. A few stars did stud the many rooms, if you see luster in the likes of Joan Rivers and Rudy and Judi, but it was easy to suspect Sirio’s problems are not just with location and landlord these days. What one straight-faced guest called the In Crowd looks dangerously close to interment, despite all efforts at surgical denial. I’ve never seen so many tight faces over such sagging flesh (rule of decay: once your nipples graze your navel, you might want to cover your assets). I’ve always found the place a little gloomy for parties, but on this night it really had a “Shining” aura.
It was also no Gotham. The good stuff must have been far back in the kitchen, which I was never able to penetrate beyond the salt cod fritters and the zeppole by another name; closer to hand I saw nothing but little crab cakes and miniature quiches being passed and big steam tables with ravioli in one room and the dregs of a seafood soup in another. Aside from the hyper-efficient bartenders, who were apparently bent on emptying the Champagne cellar into flutes the size of tubas, the waiters had that patented dismissiveness bordering on contempt I remember so well from my last self-financed sit-down at Le Cirque, on 65th Street. “Watch your back” was as pleasant as they got.
The real lesson of the night is not to believe what you read in the papers. The Times, once again, comes off like the Chalabi Crier, helpfully passing along one side of the story for a restaurateur with a book to promote. (One article pays dishwashers $29 an hour, another tells you there might be a lower figure involved but you won’t be seeing it in the Corrections.) A fellow cynic had the best response when I threw out my second-hand insight that Le Cirque was limping because it had not had a bold-face chef or pastry chef for so long: “Maybe that was Sirio’s mistake: having name chefs in the first place.” Siegfried could have told him what happens when the spotlight shifts to the tiger.
In the frenzy of mourning and forgetfulness the Reagan Wannabe has had his underlings ordain batter-dipped frozen French fries as a fresh vegetable. Which would seem absurd until you consider that it’s actually good for Kerry. No one can eat freedom fries without that other compassionate Republican vegetable, ketchup. And Heinz is the one American brand still proudly displayed in just about every country we travel to.
Manhattan looked like the Reagan years over the weekend. Only this time the long lines for food were not at soup kitchens but at festivals, one Indian and one barbecue. Bypassing them both reminded me of one of the more disheartening experiences in my first go-round at the Times in the Eighties, the night a top editor had a meltdown over a story about congressional staffers driving around handing out sandwiches to the homeless. “We can’t run this,” he yelled. “It makes Washington sound like Calcutta.” Then as today, reality was not going to get in the way of morning in America.
Reverence for Reagan must also explain the bizarre clothing choices of so many patrons at Rosa Mexicano last week. Half the restaurant seemed to be wearing the same skimpy shorts and T-shirts all those slobs lined up to see the coffin with the frequent flyer miles did in DC. And anyone who thinks dress codes are silly has never tried to eat queso fundido while Stiltonesque flesh is bulging out of scraps of fabric all around.
Kalustyan’s has hired a PR firm. Which makes sense since the store needs about as much help with exposure as Paris Hilton does. If it were me, I’d take that money and hire some chefs for its lame restaurants.
Panchito the new reviewer in town gets points for following the foreign correspondent script: stick with what’s already been printed. His sophomore effort on Five Ninth, though, left me wondering how far you can stretch a metaphor before the reader breaks (or just pupas out).
The Daily News has done away with the best thing in the Sunday paper, its details-only answer to the pretentiously silly Vows column. I loved reading what was on the menu at weddings — forget how they met; tell me what they serve and I’ll tell you who they are. Now the News sometimes gives the salient details, but the sappy stuff predominates. Don’t they know all happy couples are alike? It’s the cannoli cream filling in the tiramisu cake that makes them worth reading about.
Usually when I get back to New York I have to spend the first week or so breaking myself of acting pleasant. It says something about Copenhagen that I almost snapped at a waiter at the Neptune Room within four hours of landing at JFK. All he did was hand my consort a card, saying it was from a man at another table who had drawn a caricature of the two of us. Accustomed to street hustlers, I started to snarl, “No, we’re not paying — take it away,” when I saw the artiste himself walking out and smiling. Turns out he was from the neighborhood and does his little couples trick with the illegible signature just for fun. And he does it even though his wife, the waiter said, “knows the woman usually hates it.” Danes must live among us.
Everyone always wonders if the Beard awards really mean anything, and now there’s an answer. Cook for the awards dinner and you could wind up being discovered by the newspaper in your own front yard, years after you have made a name as a Latina genius with a fabulous restaurant and a solid book on chocolate. The down side? The headline will read as if it wandered off a trend story. And the address of neither of your places will be included in the big splash.
Look for the Dining section to complete its devolution into the old Living section very soon. The newly named editor sticks out strongest in this ex-deputy’s mind for pitching a story on fajitas. A trend story. In 2001. (The only wackier proposal came from a woman who was also an editor in Sports then, a huge one who rolled over one day to suggest something on how restaurant hosts always seated her where flies congregated. And that at least had the dramatic arc of cause and effect to it.)
Slow Food’s quirkily translated web site lists “local rootedness” first among the movement’s key goals. Which of course explains why crawfish will be served at the next Slow Food fund-raiser in New York. Last time I looked there were no bayous on this island, only hustlers.
The doomed restaurant space at 56th and Eighth has finally found a taker, after dying a lingering death as Tapika and a mercifully quick one as Cinnabar. Unfortunately, it’s one of those obscure new banks, and so many are opening around Manhattan anymore that a new S&L crisis has to be headed our way. (Remember when banks were closing and restaurants were taking over the spaces?)
Just when I was starting to think I was the only old-timer in town who expects an editor to be an arbiter of fairness and not a critic, I got an anxious email from a friend who had just had dinner at an ambitious restaurant opened by a friend of her husband. He was freaking out, she said, because the Diner’s Journal about his place had been so snarky. Wouldn’t that mean the reviewer would have to agree with the boss? No wonder restaurateurs are begging for Bruni, who is either still in Rome or all over town, depending on who’s gossiping. He’s gotta be better than a ramp with two hats.
The Washington Post apparently just retyped the press release for its report that Poste has a new chef from Guastavino’s, which was “awarded two stars by the New York Times under [his] watch.” How soon they forget Daniel Orr.
Considering how many chefs have cameras in the dining room, I’ve always wondered why more don’t bug the tables, too — imagine how much better they could do if they knew what diners were really saying. But then maybe they do. The other night I was telling friends how the chef where we were eating had once written me a four-page frothing letter objecting to a story I had done when he was working for a different group. Later he walked over and said: “You know that letter I sent you? It was bullshit.” I knew that. How did he?
Watching how the porn industry has responded to an AIDS outbreak has been enlightening: Because workers are tested early and often for sexually transmitted diseases, all filming was shut down as soon as two cases were detected. Contrast that with the food business, where poorly paid workers with no hope of health care are turned loose to toss salads and manhandle meatloaf. One prep guy with lethal hepatitis can conceivably infect hundreds of diners, and yet it would never occur to employers to monitor food handlers’ conditions. Typhoid Mary was a cook, let’s not forget.
The NYDaily News has added some surprisingly lively and shockingly high-end food coverage on restaurant-review Fridays. Maybe the competion should take a look. It’s a great way to pander to cretins on grocery-ad day and salvage your soul on going-out day — they may lie down with Cool Whip, but they don’t have to wake up with Red Lobster.
Just when you think things really can’t get worse, Time magazine reports that those Healthy Skies wordsmiths working for big business’s federal branch have decided to reclassify wild salmon to include farmed fish released into rivers. Just when Americans are waking up to the risks of farmed salmon, they will have no way of knowing what they are buying or eating. And more “wild” salmon, Time says, will be treated as evidence that stocks are increasing, which means 15 species could lose environmental protection. But hey, what’s good for the power companies is surely good for fish and us. We can always eat beef. Under this regime, if it can’t be tested we know it’s safe.
I’m still sorting out what to make of the Greenmarket after the public airing of its dirty laundry, but it was not encouraging to see Green Mountain Coffee Roasters on Union Square last time I was there. It’s hard enough to get New Yorkers to understand why there are so few local foods for sale in springtime. Why confuse them with patently commmercial booths? When I stopped and asked what the market connection was, I got a long rap about fair trade and how coffee can’t be grown locally and how noble goals can all be combined and how they were not selling but handing out free samples. It was every explanation but WMD and liberating Iraqis. But the whole encounter made me marvel yet again at what a friend in Portland, Ore., had emailed me: the three weekly markets she’s involved in had 233 vendors last year, and “we’re working on recruiting more (all our locations are technically ‘full’ — we’re just looking for more variety in every way).” New York, a city more than four times as big, has exactly 185 for 30 locations over seven days a week. Something’s wrong with this picture, and it’s not just all those nasty cookies and industrial breads for sale on 17th Street. If there’s room for do-gooder coffee, there should be space for a new crop of artisans.
A press packet for a series of food guidebooks included a wacky blurb from the inimitable grayest old lady at the old gray lady: Touting the Brazilian edition, she enthused that it “adds Ole! to the kitchen.” I guess I should be impressed that she didn’t babble in Latin, but don’t they speak Portuguese down Rio way?
More lost in translation: An Italian friend is in town and we drag him to a Theater District restaurant with an all-over-the-map menu but a good wine list. Because his mom runs a restaurant in Tuscany, he knows enough to be impressed by the prices: a Barolo here is half what it would be at home. But he is a little baffled by the food. What is fennel? he wonders, and I luckily conjure up the Italian (finocchio), to which he responds with a story of how that word also means gay, although he has no idea why. Monkfish he translates as pesce de monaco (fish of the monk). But then he spots something really tantalizing: beef salad. Actually, we tell him, that’s beeT, but he has no idea what the ingredient is and the word fails me. We both try to describe it (red, or yellow, which confuses the issue, and shaped like a turnip, which is another alien idea). The salad arrives and he excitedly digs around for the beeT. The yellow chunks turn out to be tomato and he’s soon excavating his greens. And when he spots the mysterious temptation, he just laughs: “Oh, barbabietola! Of all the vegetables, this is the only one I don’t like.” Leaving every slice untouched, he listens closely when we recount the tale of the salad we ordered once in France without knowing what a certain word meant, only to be served slices of gruesome cow muzzle. “Museau,” he repeated, clearly filing that one away with beeT, “a bad mistake but one never to make again.”
All the news that’s aged to print: When the Daily News weighed in on Chef’s Theater, it sent the drama critic and the restaurant reviewer right away and produced two adamant thumbs down. The newspaper not of record waited until Two Hot Tamales were on Broadway to weigh in on their predecessor, Tyler Florence, which is sorta like critiquing an entree after it’s scraped into the trash. Everyone knows the show is a bomb. Why describe the detonation and not the latest dud?
Just before a new restaurant is to throw its launch party, the kitchen catches fire and the flack has to send out an email suddenly rescinding the invites. Not one to miss an opportunity, he mentions that “Thomas Keller will agree that no, this is not a new trend in restaurant openings.” I was appalled, but damned if lazy “reporters” didn’t seize on that peg to run a little item, without even waiting for a third fire to make a trend. If the same guy is pimping for Pop and the Fino family, I can’t wait to read the release: Someone Is Offing the Obscure Restaurateurs of New York.
This is why New York needs 15,000 restaurants: You can’t go back to most of them. Places I think are great on first encounter just seem to fall apart on repeat visits. Paprika in the East Village was perfection once and Sardi’s poor on a second try — if the decor were not so distinctive, I would have been convinced we had wandered into the wrong room, or the revival of Candid Camera. Both pastas we tried were so lame I left wondering if the dishwasher and cook had swapped stations for the night. West Bank Cafe was another re-bomination. The risotto was by Uncle Ben, the Asian-glazed snapper was more like jerky and the special of monkfish on more risotto looked and tasted like spats of the sea. And then there was the Cub Room Cafe, where the Cobb salad used to be the very model of a California standard. This time it was mostly onions, light on the avocado and with slime cubes substituting for turkey. Luckily, I had my receipt to keep me mad: with a glass of wine, my pathetic little lunch came to almost $30. That I’ll remember if I ever get the urge to go back.
Two more signs retailers understand Americans are not getting any smarter: At Bloomingdale’s I spotted Salton’s “quesadilla maker,” a $30 electrical appliance complete with 18-page manual apparently designed for those dunces with no skillet, griddle or oven. And Crate & Barrel is selling an avocado masher. For the fork-deficient.
In a week when it was depressingly clear we’re becoming one world, I was happy to get a small sign of the light side. My regular email from “the largest Indian food site” not only offered lasagne recipes but also mentioned that the dish in question is a favorite of Garfield’s. Finding Italian in an alien place was no surprise. But I didn’t realize even the cartoon cat had been virtually outsourced.
The big argument in restaurants when I worked at self-proclaimed ethics central used to be over just getting a check. At BLT Steak they did something new: sent out extra appetizers and main course and free desserts but took them off the bill with a line marked “NYTimes discount.” Apparently the freebie has gone legit. And it brought back memories of the night a few years ago when I ran up a $70 tab at the bar at Jean Georges. I was with a woman who is rather recognizable in the food world, and the bartender wanted to comp us. I of course insisted, very pompously, “I have to pay. I work for the New York Times.” His laugh still echoes in my ear.
Never let it be said that the fat cats in Congress aren’t looking out for America at large and at war. Finally confronted with undeniable evidence that we the people are becoming the new dinosaurs, little tiny brains in huge lumbering bodies, our friends in high places have decided the most pressing need is to protect Krispy Kreme. Apparently if McDonald’s doesn’t have to worry about lawsuits over obesity and diabetes, all its patrons will suddenly acquire the Personal Responsibility the bill is named for. Suing Burger King because you weigh 500 pounds is absurd. But so is a Taco Bell burrito advertised as containing a full half-pound of meat and cheese. This is just big business as usual: Leave no campaign contributor behind.
And it’s too bad Congress will never pass a real Corporate Responsibility Act. What kind of company would stiff the caterer it contracted to provide meals to soldiers in Iraq, including the turkey dinner seen ’round the world? It wouldn’t be the one still paying Dick Cheney, would it?
The oldest question of which came first is not the chicken or the egg but the bad service or the skimpy tip when a woman is involved. Still, who would expect to ask it at Lever House, a place apparently so dependent at lunch on women (the scary kind with the old eyes in the tight-as-a-22-year-old’s sockets)? My poor hostess got her espresso before our dessert, had to beg first to have the table pulled out so she could slip in and then for a check and generally had to put up with the offhand to dismissive treatment that leads to perpetuating the stereotype. Maybe because she lives here only part time, she was livid. I thought it was just another meal in Manhattan.
The food was certainly nothing out of the ordinary. My cod was a nice-enough piece of fish sitting on a pool of sweet onions that looked like cat spitup and completely sapped the Alfredo olive sauce of its salty effect; the pear crisp needed a refresher course from Betty Crocker on the proper balance between crust and fruit (my teeth still ache). I’m glad I went, despite the callousness and the din, but really, it’s just another Kleenex restaurant: good for one use.
Lever House actually reminded me of another unanswerable question: Why do so many restaurants set out a bread plate with butter knife and leave it empty for an entire meal? Is it careless or is it calculated?
More delicious irony: Just as even the Russians are saying they don’t want filthy American chickens, and as the rest of the world is waving crosses and garlic to keep out our weaned-on-blood mad cows, the U.S. government has banned all imports of French processed meats, from foie gras to sausage. Our protectors do care about clean factories, as long as they’re in Old Europe.
I go to press events when hope triumphs over experience, knowing most are exercises in emptiness. You leave overfed but underinformed, usually because the usual gaggle of food people shows up for some mutual back-scratching and talks over any presentation while counting on the press kit in the goodie bag to fill in the gaps.
But what Sue Torres organized at Suenos was that rarity: a seminar, not a circle-jerk.
No more than 20 people were there, all lined up as if in class, to watch eight chefs cook and teach. Nine little plates were served, most with a complementary single-village mescal, but each was preceded by a discussion and tasting of the key ingredients (five chile purees and the toasted pods they were made from; achiote paste and pozole; huitlachoche and nopales). The Del Maguey mescals were presented long with a clever pass-around card showing each step of the harvesting and distilling of the agave, which spared us the deadly slide show or Powerpoint. Sniffing, tasting and listening, I learned more in a couple of hours than I would have reading 12 cookbooks.
What was being sold was the whole idea of Mexican cuisine, not a single product, and it made a huge difference. As did the realization that chefs who are competing for the same margarita drinkers (Zarela, Pampano, Noche, Paladar, Zocalo, La Palapa and Lucy’s) were coming together just to elevate food writers’ knowledge of what it is they’re putting on plates, and why.
As I left, though, I decided who really should have been at the event: restaurant critics. The level of ignorance in most reviews in New York City is appalling (they mix up tortillas and tacos, complain when chilies are charred, love burritos beyond all reason). Now that anonymity is apparently off the table, why shouldn’t critics take lessons from the chefs they’ll be evaluating?
New York’s Greenmarkets are almost 30 years old, but I never knew they existed until the summer of 1984 or 1985, when my consort was assigned by New York Magazine to shoot photos for a gossip item on how the farmers there were allegedly price-fixing. I tagged along and came home with a big bunch of basil and tomatoes the likes of which I’d never seen before and I think some really ripe peaches (but that part I may be romancing). I’ve been hooked ever since, to the point where heading to Union Square twice a week is like going to church for me and where at the height of summer I’m in a market virtually every day, on 97th Street or up near Columbia, in Tribeca and in the West Village. Always, though, I remember the rabid farmers’ meeting I was once privileged to attend, one fall in the mid-90s when Barry Benepe persuaded me to donate some copy on squash for a brochure he was planning to distribute (never happened). It was like watching a rock overturning and the bugs crawling out, but with microphones. The place has been contentious as hell for as long as I’ve been shopping there, and the Taliban could not be as harsh on rules of behavior.
All of which makes the NYT op-ed piece by the Greenmarket’s recently canned director that much more fascinating. She let a lot more bugs out, but many of them were pretty harmless (anyone who goes to farmers for pies is making a margarine mistake, and it’s right there on the label). Some of her facts were shaky (it’s unlikely there were heirloom tomatoes on sale in 1976; the turkey farmer has not been in Union Square for years), but she is right that the market could be far, far better. Still, nothing she wrote justifies the reaction among what the Times would call “the food elite,” all the bluster about boycotting the market. Sure, you can find ramps for $18 a pound in the Chelsea Market, but it isn’t quite the same as coming across the first of the season on the west side of the Greenmarket for $2.50 a bunch one chilly morning in April when the only other green things come from greenhouses. Flawed as it is, the market is just the closest New Yorkers come to seasonal awareness. And as long as it’s not abusing little boys, I’m going to keep going there.
As for the companion piece in the Times, the head of Slow Food USA might want to read his organization’s own web postings. He argues that the hard-fought advice to eat locally should be abandoned in favor of saving livestock breeds by trucking them in from specialty producers in the Midwest until local demand grows. But in Buffalo, one of the most economically bleak places on the map right now, a farmer was persuaded by Slow Food to grow three heritage varieties of turkey last year and unloaded all 54 birds for gilded-pheasant prices. It can be done, now. The old arguments against long-haul food haven’t changed (including the fact that oil is squandered in the process). They’ve been joined by a new one: If you grow them close to home, they will sell.
The autopsy would have been a success if the patient had only been dead: The team the Times assembled in Arts & Leisure to dissect Rocco’s the Restaurant Wreck was almost as much a joke as the series itself. Try to find the logic in bringing together the Mamma Leone of theater district pub owners (and how many readers were surprised to learn there really was a man behind the logo?) with an off-the-radar restaurateur with much to say and little to impart and the oddly out-of-terroir California chef now turning out pasta to $25 & Under second-guessing. Finally, and most demanding of an email flood to the paper’s new public editor, there was the big-time restaurateur who left a particularly acidic trail across Page 6 with his opinions of the star chef well before this exercise in banality was ever conceived. No wonder the photo took up more room than their insights. The whole exercise plumbed new depths of vacuity.
But it was good for one reason. After going on 23 years in New York, I do sometimes idly wonder what it would be like to be living in Lincoln, Nebraska, again and fantasizing about the big city. This piece would have brought it home: you ain’t missing a thing. Although the editors certainly are.
In another sign of the decline of the gray empire, the Sunday magazine has now dropped all pretense that its food column exists except to attract the occasional token ad for Colavita olive oil. It’ll shove anything in that space, even cranberries in April. If it really cared about reader service, it would at least advise us to start freezing ramps for the November story.
While California almond and pistachio promoters were blanketing magazines with advertising and food writers with heavy mailings, the competition in the walnut groves went straight to where growers’ dollars really make a difference: what used to be the federal government. The FDA has just ruled that walnut packages can now carry a health claim, carefully couched and borderline meaningless but a health claim nonetheless: “Supportive but inconclusive evidence shows that eating 1.5 ounces per day of walnuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.” Substitute any nut in that nonsense and the same would probably apply (although not peanuts, despite the nattering about them on NPR — those are legumes). It almost makes you long for the days of oat bran. And Big Brother where it belonged: in the agencies overseeing food. (Don’t get me started on the beef processor who is forbidden to test for mad cow because it might hurt business for the big producers with the big bucks for “our” representatives.)
Newsday’s new handout amNY proved it was worth the price with a pickup piece from the Washington Post on chervil that was graphically illustrated with a sprig of . . . flat-leaf parsley. Must be the season, though: The blackboard in front of the bison stand at the Union Square Greenmarket had a sign promoting Sirlion Brisket. (Salute when you order that bizarro cut.) Another sign in front of a little place I passed on the Bowery called Orange Valve was touting Stir-Fried Frank Steak. (For a second I actually thought they meant a hot dog.) And what can you say about brand-namers who thought Effen sounded smart for a new vodka from Holland?
Buffalo is the last city where you might expect to find a hotel on the exalted level of the Mansion on Delaware Avenue, a lustrously restored private home from the 1860s with 25 rooms and three suites outfitted with just the right blend of antique and boutique, from fireplaces and a billiard parlor to whirlpool baths and Frette robes. The common rooms are so gorgeous you hate to leave for a day of Target and Tops. It has butlers who pour good wines; it has some of the best teas imaginable (and in silk bags to boot). Plus it hands every guest a little card with imprinted name declaring him or her “in residence.” Both the nights we slept there in the cheapest room I marveled at how far $145 goes in a beaten town.
Unfortunately, the Mansion had one weak link. Every morning the pool table was draped with swanky linens and arrayed with unripe fruit, weird little bagels, over-the-hill cream cheese and enough iced-thick pastries to send even passersby on the sidewalk into a diabetic coma. One day there was a cheesy flatbread encrusted with funky smoked salmon; the next there was a plate of tired cheese including past-its-prime St. Andre (to smear on the bagels, I could only guess). It was the kind of spread you keep going back to hoping for something, anything that will satisfy. Just why came clear when I heard a staffer on the phone, ordering “65 mixed pastries” from a bakery, and not an artisanal one like the excellent Dolci relatively nearby on Elmwood Avenue. This is a five-star hotel with a B&B mind-set in the morning.
Now Congress had better get cracking on a new law to cover the lardasses at all the women’s magazines who keep turning their pages into advertorials to promote the grossest foods in the supermarket, in combinations even the super-sizers would consider excessive. I would hate to see Comstock cherry pie filling left vulnerable to bonbon-addicted housewives’ lawsuits. Real Simple has been the worst offender, but even lowly Woman’s Day has a 1-2-3 Dessert feature that combines a ready-made chocolate crust with caramels and condensed milk and chocolate chips and whipped cream and pecans in a “no-bake truffle pie.” Each slice allegedly contains only 419 calories, but who among the most Personally Responsible can eat just a one-tenth sliver? (It’s the opposite of super-sizing: If you can’t keep the fat count down, up the servings.)
Not to keep kicking a limping newspaper, but did anyone else notice a weird similarity in the reviews of Hearth and Chestnut? Each included a graf on the warming effect of a drink at the bar. Call it “a feeling of well-being,” “a promising glow” or just what it is: a buzz. But chefs now know the secret: First you marinate the critic.
I have so many mildly offensive eating experiences that I sometime wonder if I could still discern a true abomination. I got my answer at Kalustyan’s new [and shortlived] Masala Cafe, where the menu promises “Indian-inspired cuisine with a French accent.” That’s a long way of saying travesty.
The place is quite sleek and good-looking (the designer did Tamarind as well). The service was exceptional. The wine list is a real wine list, and Champagne and prosecco by the glass are suggested when you sit down (both go surprisingly well with flavors never meant to touch alcohol). But the food was was not even decent enough to qualify as a letdown.
A friend and I split the trio of samosas, billed as one each of goat cheese, turkey and apple and potato. The goat cheese was awol, but it couldn’t be any better than the underseasoned other two. Samosas are one of the greatest things out of India, and why would someone substitute rice paper for the usual flaky dough? These were like spanakopita with all the grease and none of the pungency.
I don’t know what came over me when I decided to order the Indian bouillabaise. I’m not even crazy about the real thing. But this gets an A for abysmal: a medium-sized bowl of mostly mussels with a few shrimp, two bits of fish and two scallops adrift in a broth that had less character than canned. I had to ask for the cumin-cayenne aioli, and when even mayonnaise cannot come to the rescue, you know it’s bland. My friend’s whole fish, the special, came bones and all in a heavy crust and was surprisingly dull (the sauce with it seemed to be the same oniony red blandness that was with the samosas). Worse, the side dishes were broccoli rabe (Indian? French? Misguided?) and potato wedges that could have been fried, could have been roasted but were still about diner level. For $25. (Don’t you sometimes wonder if chefs just pluck prices out of the air?)
The one saving grace was a side order of fruity naan that was what everything else was not: inspired and well executed. Dessert was forgettable. Literally. With three glasses of wine and one tea, the tab was $57 a person.
Kalustyan’s is one of New York’s greatest markets. The selection, the quality, the prices are extraordinary. Why would it open a restaurant missing the essential ingredient? Before I tasted anything, I was actually feeling sorry for Masala Cafe for being doomed to be a $25 & Under thanks to NYTimes restaurant redlining. By the time I left, I was looking longingly across the street at Curry in a Hurry, envying the cab drivers.
So which is it?
February 27, 2004: “And for that alone, I might order a glass of sake, stay for the gougères, then feign illness and steal across Columbus Circle to Jean Georges for a meal that never disappoints.”
March 28, 2001: “Although I have always savored cooking for friends at home, a recent break-the-bank experience at a restaurant made it all the more appealing. (Valentine’s Day. Jean Georges. More than $600 for two. We split the check.) Who needs that kind of trauma?”
And by the way, when exactly is the season for miniature pattypan squash? Isn’t it the same as the one for “new” potatoes?
A waiter said it, not me: Mix is “Alain Ducasse on sale.” But who wants to eat in Filene’s French Basement?
Twenty minutes after my consort and I walked into the place, I started getting a Bastide feeling. One of the worst eating experiences of our long life together was inflicted on us at another Ducasse spinoff, Bastide de Moustiers in Provence, and that whole long, sloppy, abusive evening was flashing before my eyes on 58th Street. There’s no way I could face rabbit stew with only paws in it ever again. Especially if slovenly service was involved.
The inhospitality started at the door, where the coat check was a scrum: gouged guests forcing their way out and us trying to get in while one woman wedged way too many wool objects into far too small a space. The guy at the computer checked our reservation, assured us he was “checking the table” and shunted us off to the bar, where we stood and stood, staring at a half-empty, overlit dining room that looked a little like God’s waiting room. That was the first flashback, to my days selling shoes, when the only women who could afford the really expensive pairs were too old to do them justice. Mix is what Dorian Gray would have thought of as kicky and fun.
When we finally did get seated, it was on a long empty banquette, right next to a table that had not been bused yet (again, in a half-filled room with waiters lounging everywhere). We were soon joined by a geriatric-with-a-capital-G couple moved midmeal from a colder part of the room, him gumming and her braying, but we still had no menu, no water, no wine, no waiter. Those Bastide vibes were getting stronger. This could be a very miserable, very expensive death of an evening. After plastic menus were finally slapped down on the table, Bob didn’t hesitate when I suggested we bail. And as we pushed open the front door, Mr. Oblivious at the computer called out merrily: “Thanks for coming.”
That was at 7:55. By 8:15 we were drinking Champagne at a walk-in table in the bar at rm. We had bread, beans-and-olive spread, water, menus, waiters, and the place was packed on this Friday night. Spaghettini with lump crab and caviar in sea urchin sauce would have attoned for all sins at any rate, as would the bacon-wrapped cod with escargot on polenta cakes, not to mention the $45 Mercury.
Maybe the French just don’t get diner style. Jeans don’t fit three-star chefs anymore than peanut butter and BLTs suit them. And it’s not just Ducasse, who first tried casual Friday at his bastide (where our room was as luxurious as the dinner was a faux peasant disaster). Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Market in France had much in common with Mix when it first opened, but there we were too Americans-in-Paris dumb to leave.
Ducasse’s New York flagship may not have the most dazzling food I’ve ever eaten, but it did lay on the service, to the point of absurdity. Now I realize that’s what you pay for with him. And it’s what’s first to go when the markdown begins.
On another global front, consider this: While we’re in denial, the Indians are in the laboratory. Bushco is steathily editing global warming out of government reports. Indian scientists are busily developing a rice hybrid that can grow in salt water. Why? Because sea levels are rising thanks to a little phenomenon the oilman in chief would prefer to ignore. Remind me: Which world is the third one?
I know I should be appalled that Rick Bayless has sold his soul to Burger King rather than Taco Bell, just in time for Day of the Dead. I know I should think it’s a major scandal that he can actually say some scary-cheap chicken sandwiches fit with his “message” of “good, simple everyday eating.” But as long as there are chefs out there shilling for butter-flavored Crisco, and as long as Thomas Keller is paid to say California raisins are the greatest thing since butter-poached lobster, it’s tough to get riled up. This is America. Honor and integrity are mostly missing ingredients these days.
Exhibit A is a report by Patrick Cockburn in the Independent that starts off: “U.S. soldiers driving bulldozers, with jazz blaring from loudspeakers, have uprooted ancient groves of date palms as well as orange and lemon trees in central Iraq as part of a new policy of collective punishment of farmers who do not give information about guerrillas attacking U.S. troops.” It gets more depressing as you read on (search news.independent.co.uk). We’re talking food with deeper meaning.
At least Bayless is only sullying his own hyper-inflated reputation. What’s happening on those farms is being done in all our names.
A food writer trying to cover the Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center is like a blind person trying to describe an elephant. The thing is just too big. Three spottings of wasabi, or of white tea, or of honey might add up to a trend in the real world. In the sensory overload of a bulimic’s dream that is the food show, it might just be the tail or the trunk. Or the dung.
I managed to taste only 143 different cheeses, chocolates, bacons, mousses, nuts, tandoori sauces, cookies, confits, salmons, pates, peanuts, potato chips, dips, mints, bread spreads, salamis, marmalades, mortadellas, margaritas, ginger beers, lemonades, andouilles, olives, meatballs and romesco sauces in my six hours at the show. Usually I have more stamina, but this year the general nervousness of the country had crept into the air-conditioned nightmare of the Javits Center. Most everything had to be sampled off a toothpick or from a plastic spoon; the usual finger-free-for-all dipping and grabbing was not allowed. And it ould take two more hands than I own to juggle my glasses, my pen and my notebook and still be able to spoon artichoke pate hygienically onto a cracker fragment while being jostled by hungry hordes of hydra-handed cellphone users.
What was most laughable was overhearing sanctimoniously fastidious exhibitors and buyers monitoring the toothpick piles. As one said: “We’re concerned about our health here.” This from a guy who, like so many at the show, weighed a good 350 pounds. The morbidly obese have it all over on the mildly queasy: Calories don’t count. Germs do.
The coverup is now looking worse than the impropriety at the Times.
To the paper’s credit, it did finally run an Editor’s Note disclosing half of what the whole food world already knew about the blow job passing as a Spice Market review. But the followup sent out to readers who complained to the Times’ public editor was a piece of unartful dodgery worthy of the White House. An irate friend passed along the response she got secondhand from Dining. Boiled down, it said that Gray Kunz was omitted from the review for space reasons (by my count, his full name takes up less of a line than a single Vongerichten), and the blower simply “forgot” that one of the most important chefs in the country had given her a sappy love poem to splash on her book. No mention was made of the fact that the newspaper of record had never officially expunged Kunz; for all readers would know, what was reported exactly a month before was still true (J-G and GK “are the drawing cards at Spice Market;” the “two kitchen superstars have guided the restaurant’s menu”). And if, as the followup note said, the “restaurateur” who “risks his money” generally gets the credit in the Times, where were the licks for the Monsieur Moneybags without whom there would be no Vongerichten empire?
Really, this is the age of the internet and checkable facts as close as a click. Fudging should take a little more imagination than that. If only the Times held its staff to the standards it found the Clintons so lacking in for eight long years.
At some point the NYTimes is going to have to stop blaming Jayson Blair and just fix the thing. Hiring a real restaurant critic would be a good place to start. After two years of lethargy on the food front, seriously good places are opening all over, and they’re being graded by substitute teachers whose gold stars are worth about as much as their F’s. Imagine the Broadway theater critic’s job being treated so cavalierly for so long. Directors would be begging to have the butcher back.
What makes things so much weirder is that for the first time, the top cursor in the Dining section is also acting as a critic. I’m sure his editorial judgment would never be confused with his critical faculties, but the two hats do seem a little too close for comfort. And it has to put his fill-ins in a conflicted position. He comes out swinging for the potstickers, and what are they supposed to say? What we once overheard a drunken soccer fan telling a policeman in Hong Kong? You, sir, are a wanker?
Spice Market has brought the whole mess to a public boil, and not just because of the Rick Braggadocio prose (for starters, you’ll whiff more blood at Food Emporium’s Saran-wrapped butcher counter than on Ninth Avenue). I went in two nights before the review and saw a connected friend at the food bar talking up Gray Kunz in the kitchen, and she asked him to get the four of us a table with no reservation. Suddenly one of the harem at the reception desk materialized to say “the LATimes” could sit down at 8 o’clock. Things went wildly off the track after that, but it was very clear that Jean-Georges Vongerichten was not the only chef turning street food into Gold Card fare. Reading the review, Gray was the man who wasn’t there. (So was Stanley Wong, whose name is actually on the menu.) Guess the arbiter of fairness was distracted, rating cheesecake.
As an ex-copy editor, though, my favorite part of probably the most overanalyzed restaurant review since Ruth Reichl got conned by Sirio was the little matter of the alleged inscription on the maitre d’s T-shirt. On the same day the Times ran a correction on David Letterman’s marquee (not Late Night but Late Show), Dining readers were treated to two references to the former. Another reason to have a dedicated editor.
A tale of two waitstaffs: After lounging hungrily downstairs at Spice Market for at least an hour, three of us were a little looped and sagging toward passing out in the wasabi peanuts when we finally decided to bail. We got the $62 check, stuck my credit card in the folder and tried frustratedly to find our MIA waitress. Finally my consort stood up, stopped the next uniformed pretty person meandering past and said: “Can we pay this?” Even in a Greek diner a busboy would have grabbed the folder and helped us out. This blank creature just looked at Bob and said: “Who’s your waitress?” How would we know? They all look alike, and it had been so long since we had seen her.
A few days later we two stop at Petite Abeille in Tribeca at the height of brunchtime and the host comes out to us on the sidewalk and offers us a menu so we can be sure it won’t be eggs only. We’re seated almost instantly at a table for four in the jammed dining room and have water and menus right away. It did take a while for the waiter to get to us, but neither of us was bothered because we were agonizing over what to order. And after we did decide, he ran over and apologized profusely for taking so long at the table of seven next to us. When I asked for wine, he came back instantly with a brimming glass of $7 sauvignon blanc, set it down and said: “This is on me because you had to wait.” I could barely shut my mouth to eat.
Once again, I had to wonder if there isn’t a caste system for waiters. Those at the top are the thinking kind, empowered enough to keep the customers satisfied. Those at the bottom get to wear the cool uniforms, fantasizing that they’re superior to the people they rely on for alms.
I’ve had my first taste of Per Se, and it could be my last. This was at a party in Veuve Clicquot’s stunning new offices in the Starrett-Lehigh Building, where pastry chefs from five restaurants were plating desserts to go with the bottomless carafes of demi-sec. When I walked up to the Per Se table, the two young Keller acolytes behind it were determinedly studying super-tiny herb leaves to pluck the closest to perfection for what their sign said was Essence of Spring. I had a spoonful of one little orange mound without quite grasping the flavor and interrupted their mad-scientist intensity to ask: “What makes it spring?”
“What makes it creamy?” one responded distractedly.
“No, what makes it spring?”
“Apricots. And basil.”
But of course. Those are two ingredients you’ll find busting out all over the Greenmarket in March in New York. Even if they were seasonally correct, though, the Essence would taste less of spring than of Old Europe. The texture and the presentation felt as fresh as Escoffier.
Front-page news isn’t what it used to be. Case in point was the story about successors to Martha Stewart, all of whom insisted their phones were ringing off the cell with calls for licensing and TV deals. Unfortunately, the reporter drank a little too deeply at the hype pond he was led to. One of the smiling faces above the piece was of a woman who not only had or has products in Bed Bath and Beyond but also presided over a short-lived magazine, with Style in the logo where Living would be after her name. I developed the recipes for “her” Thanksgiving, as a matter of fact. K-Mart, get me rewrite.
Now that press agents are finally realizing you can write for a newspaper without moving to the town where it’s published, my mail is getting entertaining again. I just got what I thought was a parody — an invite to the opening party for a restaurant promising “Eastern European Cuisine with a touch of China.” (Isn’t Communism so over?) And another flacking firm tells me it has actually rented out Carnegie Hall (well, Weill Recital Hall, anyway) to promote reduced-fat “cheddars.” You get it, don’t you? “Moo-vements”? I want whatever they’re smoking: Who would bring together a chef from the Sea Grill, a chance to “see the meltability” of the stuff in a music venue and someone from a show called Cooking Thin at a time when protein is in? If they had to despoil a temple of culture, why not go where the fat ladies sing?
Lost in translation: Penelope on Lexington Avenue calls itself a “comfort station.” It may be meaning to conjure meatloaf and mashed potatoes, but my dictionary says that’s a toilet.
More bad ideas in restaurant promotion: A block association that clearly never sees what happens to posters in the subway has made the mistake of hanging a map on a lamppost at the 14th Street/Eighth Avenue exit, asking for write-in recomendations of restaurants in the meatpacking district. When I went by three guys were lined up waiting with pens at 12:30 in the afternoon. As they stepped away laughing, I could see not directions to Pastis or Markt or even Spice Market but vindictive scrawls like “go back to the ’burbs” along with the usual jocular obscenities. Never ask a New Yorker where to go. He’ll tell you.
While all the right-wing nut cases are haranguing the Spanish for being tapas-eating surrender monkeys, I’ve figured out how to show my support for their throwing their own lying bums out. I’m buying Spanish wines. The Muga Rioja blanco is particularly good if you want to drink to 77 percent voter turnout.
Dumb things come in small packages. The pocket guide to dim sum that landed on my doorstep is Exhibit A: a missal-size collection of color photos of dishes you might encounter on the rolling carts in a Chinese restaurant. Of the myriad ways to look foolish around Asian food, whipping out a book to try to tell the beef tripe from the shark fin dumpling may be one of the most guaranteed. I couldn’t imagine asking the impatient driver to hold up the cart while I flipped frantically through the pages and pages of explanations. Boning up in advance seems even sillier, since there’s so little chance you’ll find the foods you prepped for (shades of high school science tests). As squeamish as I can be, dim summing in Hong Kong taught me there’s only one solution: point and hope. I actually liked boiled pig’s ear before I understood what it was. Chronicle should do an American fast food guide for the Chinese now. I’d love to see the ingredients in a hot dog laid out so clearly.
Maybe the secret to life is just showing up. I called Crispo a week in advance for a reservation and was told the only one available all night was at 6. A friend strolled in that evening at 7:30 and was seated immediately. Spice Market tells me the only opening it has for any night for the next month is at 11. And the same friend says the place did not fill up until after 9 when she ate there on a Friday. It reminds me of the old Jerry Della Femina story about a restaurateur who turned away all reservations for the first week or so in business just to make people crazy to get in. There’s no lure like the word no.
These are surreal times, and not just because they’re making low-carb ice cream. The other day I overheard a woman getting professional diet counseling in a pizza place, from a guy with two slices and a Coke in front of him.
When my lunch date picked up the menu at Stella Osteria, she immediately put it down in dejection. “It’s the same one,” she said. Turned out there were some slight twists, but she was basically right. All the usual tired suspects were there: the same salads, the same pizzas, the same pastas. And I had the same flash I did after stopping to read the lunch menu at the new Landmarc after having just read the one at old Odeon: There must be one central factory somewhere cranking out menus. There’s so little variation anymore. And if you’ve read roast chicken once, you’ve read it a thousand times.
Amtrak has improved so radically that getting to Washington is probably the best part of the trip (actually, no, that part would be getting home). My Wednesday afternoon Acela was SRO, and I could only wonder why they don’t just add a dozen more cars and turn a profit. Who wouldn’t rather travel without a strip-search at the airport and no bathroom privileges over Shrubya’s air space? Who wouldn’t rather conserve a little oil while kids who joined the Army for college are dying for it? On the ride back to Penn Station, though, I decided Amtrak may be on its own route to profitability. The cafe car now sells a half-bottle of Meridian chardonnay for $8, uncorking included, as an alternative to those little quarter-bottles of shiver wine that have always characterized Metroliner (and airliner) misery. Add another dollar and some real food and David Gunn won’t have to go begging to Congress ever again.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Chiquita has ’fessed up to paying protection money to terrorists in Colombia, source of 9 percent of its crop. Don’t we have a war on? Or did someone say you’re either with us, or you have no bananas?
Spice Market is much easier to get into for lunch, but daylight is not kind to the room — as my art director friend said: “It looks like Pier One.” At least the bathrooms have a whiff of authenticity. My other lunchmate said her stall “smelled like Southeast Asia.” A toilet seat was yanked loose in another stall. And not only did one sink have an out of order sign on it but the supply closet was open with a stack of more cards, a hint that the problem might be not be an aberration. I don’t know from bars in Bangkok, but you expect a little nicer from Jean-Georges.
Sometimes when you know the chef you get gefilte fish (a special; don’t ask). And sometimes you just get weird stuff.
Two friends and I are finishing up a very long dinner when the chef ambles across the nearly empty dining room and asks: “Who’s lonely and horny?” We laugh uncertainly and he wedges himself onto the banquette and proceeds to regale us with tales so far out of the kitchen you wonder what planet you’re drinking on. Suffice it to say that the story of his wrestling days when he had to go body to body with an opponent “with a dick as long as a stethoscope” was the least of it all. It was bizarrely amusing, especially with comped ice wine to wash it down, but maybe that’s only because it was the capper to an evening that started with an old man leaning over constantly to ask, “Are you girls going to eat all that?” and peaked with another old man accompanied by three bosom-enhanced bimbettes nearly croaking on a shoestring fry and getting Heimliched by Breasts No. 3 (“She’s a nurse,” the headwaiter later told us — not mentioning a nurse in “Debbie Does the Ward”). No wonder “Chef’s Theater” is bombing. You can get dinner and a show anytime if you know who’s cooking.
Gotham has never been one of my favorite restaurants, but the birthday party it threw itself was a rousing testament to why it’s reached the ripe age of 20 in a business notorious for abbreviated life spans. The usual huge bar was supplemented by two others pouring limitless pink Champagne while waiters with the agility of tightrope walkers were moving through the room with trays loaded with ambitious hors d’oeuvres (baby octopus, Kobe beef with onion rings), and unlike at so many parties, they were able to get five steps beyond the kitchen doorway without locusts descending, so the food just kept coming, from all directions. Someone said 800 people were either invited or attending, and it was hard not to conjure images of the Happyland Social Club (although with worse music and dancers — the “I Will Survive” vocalist and band were the only misstep). At least that made it easy to wriggle past the snubbers (and be relieved you will never again have to suffer a sloppy kiss from the mad cow husband of one in particular) and easier still to move from conversation to conversation with fun people, like Andre Soltner, sweating his Broadway debut, and Drew Nieporent, wondering which guest was Frank Bruni, and Peter Poulakakos, escorting his dad Harry and talking of his own expanding empire. My two favorite moments, though, transpired when a couple of guys with those bizarre bug eyes that can only come from legal drugs found each other across the crowded room and were soon deep in conversation about . . . Claritin, and when one of the contortionist waiters was jostled while holding a tray with a bowlful of silver forks high over his head. It was like a scene out of “Kill Bill,” but in true Gotham style, he let the entire set shower tine-first over his forehead without so much as a flinch, then, as his compatriots dove to pick up the mess, he calmly touched his face to be sure no blood was spattering his crisp white shirt and glided on his professional way. Now that’s a waiter. Give the place 20 more years.
Okay, so it’s not the paper of record, and only its readers think it is. So why do its news pages persist in erroneously explaining the obvious (guy in Mexico hacks up a friend and turns him into tamales: “a popular dish of chopped meat wrapped in a softened corn husk”)? Or spelling out the wrong role for a spice (turmeric is not “the principal ingredient of curry” — wouldn’t that be ginger or cumin or mustard seeds)? Coming soon: The Judy Blair Cookbook (or should it be the Jayson Miller Yellow Cake Mix Doctor?)
Dead men tell no recipes: Food Emporium is now carrying a line of Ernest Hemingway marinades. The brand appeal eludes me, but at least the tacky marketers have shown a modicum of taste. None of the four sauces are hot enough to be labeled suicidal.
Reports of the death of French dominance are greatly exaggerated. No one in New York seems able to report on the closing of Lutece without nattering about the decline of the Gallic empire. But isn’t just about every top restaurant in the city French? Can you say Daniel or Jean Georges or Le Bernardin or even awful Chanterelle? What does Thomas Keller cook that doesn’t owe its origins to Escoffier? Even the second-rung places shamelessly ape old Paris: Artisanal, Balthazar, Pastis, the new Cassis. Quenelles may be over, but we’ll always have gougeres.
The other absurdity of all the overwrought obituaries was the reflexive interviewing of a “restaurant consultant” who really should be identified for what he is: a quote whore. Curious about exactly what restaurants he consults on these days, I Googled his web site, and I’m happy to report that he actually may be the best go-to there is on the subject of restaurants that swim with the codfish. Two of the most prominent names on his client list are the Russian Tea Room and Sign of the Dove. Now there’s a track record.
The other favorite quote ho of lazy reporters came through with this brilliance on Gage & Tollner: “I think it’s very sad. There aren’t that many restaurants that go back to 1879.” Who outside the Oval Office could have given such a scintillating insight? I could see it in quotes in the Zagat, as a matter of fact.
Lutece, to me, has been a dead restaurant limping for years. Maybe if anyone but engulf-and-devour Ark, the Disney of dining, had bought it it might have had a second life (imagine a Wylie Dufresne in that minuscule kitchen), but the place was really the chef. Gage & Tollner is a much harder loss, and not just because there aren’t that many restaurants that go back to 1879. I ate there for a story for the Times right after 9/11, and it was magical at a moment when the city itself seemed on the brink of disappearing. The gaslights were glowing, the wood was gleaming, the waiter wore a coat with decades’ worth of service ribbons (someone else’s, it turned out, but impressive nonetheless) and the food was far better than it had any right to be. The place was also so packed we had to eat at a cramped little table in the bar, which is why it may be one of the few restaurants not to blame 9/11 for its fate. I’m sorry it’s gone, and I’ll be sorrier still to see it turned into an Outhouse Steakback like the rest of New York. Maybe we should all go eat at Keen’s and Bridge Cafe while we still can.
Dining, get me Metro: Having served two sentences at the Times, I should never be surprised when one section apparently hasn’t talked to the other (or when even the staff hasn’t read the thing). But it was still pretty funny to come across the Union Pacific review wondering whether Rocco the Wonderboy wasn’t spending too much time on the set he calls a restaurant after having just read an article saying he was being sued for . . . not spending enough time on the set he calls a restaurant.
These are tough times for foie gras. First California proposed a ban on the production and sale of engorged livers, on the ground that forced feeding is “an inhumane way to be dealing with our fine-feathered friends,” to quote an addled lawmaker who probably went off happily to a Perdue chicken dinner without a second thought of the scarifying conditions 59-cent-a-pound fryers are raised in all over the country. And then Madrid chef Sergi Arola came to New York with a tapa that can only be described as an inhumane way to be treating guests at a Spanish wine and food event at the Rainbow Room. He was sending out cubes of foie gras enrobed in cotton candy. The experience was like liverwurst at a county fair, just before the roller-coaster. Even this Mrs. Sprat would almost vote to ban the stuff after that.
No wonder the Times is taking its strange time choosing a new restaurant reviewer. The gossip I heard at a press lunch promoting Australian food was enough to make any employer quail. There’s the notoriously pretentious food writer who “never eats — or if he does, he purges.” There’s the venerable reviewer who went vegetarian for a spell and let his boyfriend pass judgment on all meat items. There’s the legendarily caustic British reviewer who can drink nothing stronger than coffee anymore. There are the two magazine critics who, if a self-anointed “visionary” flack is to be believed, allow a restaurant to designate which of them will weigh in. But the greatest sinner, according to a big restaurateur contributing to the dish, is the kind of critic who takes a poll of other eaters before dissing or praising a place. And apparently they’re as common as cockroaches.
Read “The Pedant in the Kitchen” and you’ll see why the rumors about Julian Barnes as the new critic were so absurd. Real writers write.
In a week when you couldn’t open a paper, turn on the radio or click on pol porn without your head spinning faster than Linda Blair’s over the bald-faced BS on WMDs coming out of the Bush bunker, it was still stunning to come across this lead, and not in the Onion: “With panic over avian influenza crippling the chicken industry in Asia and fear over mad cow disease in the United States sending beef eaters to the poultry department, the time may never be better to be an American chicken producer.”
Up really is down in this country these days.
The story went on to detail — as uncritically as a press release, of course — all the amazing innovations on display at a poultry trade show in Atlanta. They ranged from a machine that could shoot antibiotics into 3,500 birds an hour to an advanced recovery system that extracts everything but the cheep from a flock of chickens (especially the foul parts that can be fed to . . . cows).
I hate to rain on the fecal parade, but chickens are scary. I grew up with them in the backyard. Even as free-range as those were, eating their fill of whatever worms and bugs they could find, they are always risky business. Raise them in a factory and you take your health in your own hands. Does the word salmonella ring a bell? How about campylobacter, the leading cause of food poisoning in the United States, the bacteria the CDC says is found in more than half of all chickens? Does the world really need the kind of machine that will do for chickens what the mad cow strippers have done for beef?
But then I guess if Americans can lull ourselves into lassitude over a president lying about so much more than a little lip service, we can certainly delude ourselves into thinking commercial chicken is homeland secure. The only good news is that mad cow takes forever. Campylobacter is quick and dirty.
Just when I was starting to lose faith in food as art, with a new dinner theater/circus act announced seemingly every week, along comes “Kitchen Stories.” This small Norwegian film has more to say in its own quiet, lyrical, beautifully styled way than any Broadway production ever could. And it does so by staying true to the essence of food as so much more than nourishment.
That spinning sound is Orwell in his underground bunker: Just when you think Bushco can’t get any more desperate to skew reality, along comes a proposal to change the description of fast food jobs from “service” to “manufacturing.” Finally admitting burgers are factory food is a step forward. But who ever walks into McDonald’s and says, “Make me a cheeseburger”? (Or even, “Make me fat?”) If you take jobs out of column A and put them in column C, you still wind up short a couple of million. Maybe the Village Person in Chief should dress up in a Burger King jacket and stand in front of a “making the economy healthy” sign and see if anyone salutes.