One good thing about leaving the country these days: you can safely suspend your subscription to one big newspaper, sure in the knowledge that you’ll find the same same old in the food pages no matter when you get back. Carbs? Still over. Betty Crocker? Still mythic. Editorial idiocy? Still fathomless.
While the ideologues work themselves into a lather over Sandra Day O’Connor’s successor, I keep thinking about her next decision. If she has any sense, it will be 9-0, write a cookbook. Her enchiladas are renowned, and her law clerks were just on NPR swooning over the other Southwestern food she always made for them. Given how grossly underrepresented our home state is in bookstores, she could cross a whole new frontier, complete with TV show: “Justice in the Kitchen.” Soon enough, you know that will be a woman’s place again anyway.
Maybe I’m hopelessly cynical, but I don’t quite get how a bunch of carefree first-worlders partying on does anything tangible for the starving in Africa. Did no one think to pass a tin cup around at any of those Live 8 concerts? Anyone who marched against the Prevaricator in Chief’s war without end knows governments don’t listen to anything but fat checks and oil interests. To steal from Thelonious, singing against hunger is like dancing about architecture.
And did no one else notice how all this sudden Africa activism overlapped with the great feast days of America’s obscene new sport, competitive eating? July 4 now means it’s open season for world-championship gorging on hot dogs and pasta. Snap your fingers every three seconds if you find anything redeeming about gluttony in a time of famine.
Mocking our hometown paper feels increasingly like kicking a half-blind paraplegic, but some idiocies just can’t go unremarked. The one about the widening dearth of cheap restaurants in Manhattan was the latest jaw-dropper, flawed on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin (Bar Patti, you say?) Basing the economic “analysis” on Zagat rather than on prices in the paper’s own published reviews made my mind reel, almost as much as the complaining that a couple just can’t get out of a $25 & Under joint for $50 even with tap water instead of wine (untold millions of readers have been saying that for years, never having been informed by those in charge that the $25 refers only to two courses, no extries). And the carping about ethnic going upscale was particularly inane, not just because Devi is to Sixth Street as Rosa Mexicano was to Del Taco when it opened. Holding up Spartina as the lost ark also sounded bizarre without context. Does no one else remember an ill-advised uptown expansion and overextended chef? Greedy landlords aren’t the only villains in any piece. Maybe the whole thing was nothing more than it came off as, yet another pathetic defense of exile to Brooklyn. But I’ll still take Manhattan. And a pound of salt with my daily paper.
Look for a fair amount of coverage of a new restaurant opening over a car showroom in the Hamptons. It’s ferrying Manhattan stenographers out by Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Porsche for the press party, which should get it faster notice than Regional managed (blurbed in Time Out May 26, written up in both “dailies” a month after I first ate there). As for me, I’d rather take the AirTrain through Brooklyn than spend half my day on the LIE, even for a free meal with “unique Italian cocktails.” What part of oxymoronic does that phrase express best?
Maybe I’ve bitched my last about restaurants being too cheap to hire enough waiters and expecting mono-lingual busboys to pick up the slack. I now see there’s a bigger service issue. Some places have either no manager or the incompetent kind.
The latter was on full display at Pace, where we arrived 15 minutes early for a 9 o’clock reservation on a Friday night and were told by the two chirpy hostesses, “We’re right on schedule for 9 o’clock” even though several tables were empty on the sidewalk and I counted 13 deserted in the dining room — “We have people waiting for those.” Rather than join the lost souls languishing at the bar, we left the happy ho’s and walked over to the Harrison. Where the guy at the door immediately offered us a table in the bar that would have been fine. But the host he handed us off to said, “Wait a minute, we have something better,” and led us to a table by the window. And within minutes we had menus, bread and even wine and were on our way to a superb meal. The only thing that marred it was having to keep marveling how the same owners could create such radically different experiences.
Our attempt to try the new cafe at IFC was even more unnerving. Three of us stopped by around 9 on a Thursday after the resonant “Me and You and Everyone We Know” and found the room empty aside from two women at the long bar who had a bartender hunched over a menu with them. We meandered in, walked to the back of the room to check out the tent outside, looked around slowly at the sleek decor, scrounged at the service area to find a menu, read it over — and then meandered on out. Not once did any of the four guys in staff T-shirts even glance in our general direction. I started to say the Harrison should send one of its hosts over to Pace, but maybe this place needs one even more desperately. Name chefs don’t mean a thing if prospective patrons are fleeing across Sixth Avenue to the very busy Bellavitae to drink two bottles of wine and eat gnoccho frito as good as in Parma.
Who knew the “show me” state is really the “feed me” destination? Missouri is running a rather unfortunate tourism campaign focused on “world-renowned” barbecue and toasted ravioli etc. Considering most people who ever land in St. Louis come away stunned at how huge the human condition can get, you have to wonder at the geniuses who chose not just to emphasize the gruesome but even to suggest visitors “come back for seconds.” Just thinking of it I’m feeling fat — and not in the wallet.
At the risk of winding up on Karl the Antichrist’s enemies list of more than half the country, I have to say it’s too bad peace is not a fad nutrient. Judging by the multipage blur of advertising and editorial for whole grains in USA Weekend, the big bucks thrown at promoting the noble cause of bringing the troops home would be so irresistible that journalists would have to start reporting on just how good stopping the waste of lives — American and Iraqi — would be for the health of this country. But I guess Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats are a much more serious inspiration for stories.
Usually an ingredient is newsworthy when it has such distinctive flavor it needs nothing but a fork to appreciate. So what to make of a quarter-pound of one that is best cooked with five (5) cloves of sliced garlic, a cup (1 cup) of sliced onion and a weirdly dainty tablespoon of pine nuts, not to mention a finishing splash of balsamic vinegar? The only thing missing was half a pound of foie gras and a little truffle oil to bring out the exquisite underlying taste. Someone must have been thinking of that old stone soup recipe, but I guess the snoot markets with checkbooks don’t carry rocks at $16 a pound.
You know you’ve lived in New York too long when you’re happy to see a Sam Hazen operation open, at least when it means a seemingly indestructible grossness is finally gone. I never understood how Charlie O’s in Shubert Alley could stay in business when I managed to serve two sentences just a block away without ever having more than one drink (not even a meal) there. Tourists must be more transient than anyone ever knew. But after picking up our TKTS (did you know nonmusicals are now labeled with a P on the LED board?), we made our way to Bolzano’s for a quick drink and walked into what can only be described as rosemary Sensurround with popcorn. Seriously. The place has a popcorn machine at the door, and the food seems to be herby-lusty to the max. I might even go back, considering the bartender was hyper-efficient, the wines were good at good prices and I’d never see those people pushing around their meatballs again.
Long ago I decided Americans in SUVs are really the new dinosaurs: little tiny brains in great big bodies. But now I’ve noticed the label on my Hain canola bottle warns: “All oil will burn if overheated. If oil smokes, reduce heat.” Even we mentally superior pedestrians are an endangered species if we need that advice.
I walk into a book party and there’s no ID inspector, just a chirpy young culinary student who instantly offers “a glass of Champagne.” Of course, I say, and ask: “What kind is it?” She stammers as she tugs a bottle out of the ice bath to show me the label, admitting, “I’m not sure. I can’t pronounce it.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her it’s easy. It’s “prosecco.”
I like Zardetto. Just call it what it is.
(Things have been worse, though: Four of us ordered prosecco in a bar in Pollenzo and were actually served Freixenet. Insult to injury: in glasses etched with the logo. At least it came with the traditional Italian potato chips.)
Menupages.com used to seem like the greatest innovation since the internet itself. Who needs that bogus Zagat when there’s a cyber-gazetteer with not just addresses and phone numbers but hours and actual menus? Unfortunately, it’s starting to ruin my life, if not what remains of my reputation. Whenever I have to choose a restaurant to meet a friend, especially one who does not eat with abandon for a living, I come down with paralysis of analysis, flipping through menu after menu and agonizing over prices and entrees and then mentally factoring in ambience. And inevitably, I order wrong.
Case in point: I need a place for Saturday lunch/hangover rehabilitation somewhere between the Greenmarket and the Port Authority. My instinct says Mesa Grill, one of the few possibilities where real food is served at evil brunchtime. But menupages brings up $13 eggs. I worry my up-from-DC friend will freak, so, with Southwestern on my mind, I remember Rocking Horse, where the online menu looks as if it has everything, and reasonable. I wind up paying $11 for eggs. Bad eggs. And he pays $13 for three teeny tacos, with fish laid into them apparently with tweezers. The music is annoying, the waiter even more so. And I can’t apologize enough for choosing it. I could not have done worse if I had relied on Panchito.
Food Arts used to have some of the most stunning covers on select newsstands — I can still see the Dean & Deluca one, and that was at least 15 years ago. But lately they’ve been going by in a literal blur. I keep studying the newest, allegedly illustrating “a toast to the American table,” and trying to discern what the fuzzy art means when only a water pitcher is in focus, and in the lower left corner at that (my point-and-shoot does a better job of finding the point to shoot for). Someone needs to invest in what a friend saw a woman following into Book Expo: a Seeing Eye pony. And somehow I don’t think it’s the readers.
Press release writers struggling for hyper-superlatives often stumble over words like penultimate (no, it’s not beyond the best). The latest popped up in an announcement of a winery trip that included a stop to buy a farmstand’s “infamous” pies. Apparently Sweeney Todd lives, way the hell out on Long Island.
When I served time in Iowa, on my first “real” newspaper job, we never wrote about the corn crop until we made an expedition out to a few farms with a photographer to get a gauge of how things were coming along. And even then we knew a tornado could wipe out every field in four counties. But life is much more predictable here in the big city. Reporters can be certain the best corn last year will be just as good this summer. Ditto for the tomatoes and berries. Obviously, when olive cafes can be photographed with customers before they even open, what newspaper needs to wait around for news?
That old saying about vino and veritas is ringing truer than ever. I always knew Holy Foods had a streak of Enron in it, and the forced closing of its wine shop has finally brought it to the surface. Selling booze in a New York supermarket, even the noblest supermarket, had to be patently illegal. I’m no fan of the moronic liquor laws in this state, but it’s nice to know everyone has to play by the same rules, even the Texas chain gang enshrined in the mall.
Some menu writers should quit while they’re ahead. At Jovi’s in Buffalo, one of the seafood items was “stuffed orange roughly.” The pork chops could be “grilled to temperature.” And the lasagne was described as “an Italian classic that needs no description.” But I guess I shouldn’t have expected precision from a place that calls itself an Italian Grille and does not mean the front end of a Ferrari.
The best hotel in Buffalo — and one of the best anywhere I’ve ever been — is still struggling with the most important meal of the day. For our last stay at the wondrous Mansion on Delaware Avenue, the usual diabetics’ morning nightmare had gone stale. For three days I tried sugary pastry after bagel after pastry and felt more like a geologist than a hedonist. And with no comment cards, there was no delicate way of suggesting to the owners: If you can’t cut it with a knife, it might be time to retire it. One morning I was waiting for my consort by the fire in the billiards room where breakfast is laid out and overheard an animated managerial conversation about how important presentation is with food. But having spent two days loitering in a funeral home, I can assure you: no amount of edible flowers will ever bring ossified Danish back to life. Buy Entenmann’s for the long haul or buy fresh every day. Spare us the perky daisies.
Long Island might as well be the dark side of the moon to me, especially the farthest tip of it. I’ve been out there almost less often than I’ve eaten at Daniel, or Babbo. So I was happy to find myself not the only one totally discombobulated on a field trip way the LIE hell out to Satur Farms. Several of the chefs from top Manhattan restaurants who were also trooping between the plowed furrows and under the irrigation sprinklers all wanted to see the white asparagus growing — only to be repeatedly told it was under mounds of dirt. At least I knew enough to understand that if you saw it, it would be green.
Whatever else I might brave Fairway for, it’s not cardoons. It’s been about 20 years since produce was the strong suit there; I usually make three or four stops on the way home, cherry-picking other markets for perfection. So if you’re gonna hate a place, hate it for the right reasons. It attracts nasty, nasty ancient bitches who see themselves as the second coming. It attracts oblivious moms with double-wide strollers ferrying the Baby Jesus. Neither of them can drive. And they are loose not in a store but a maze. Hostility happens. On the whole, though, you always know you’re not shopping in Kansas, and everything is so cheap you’re saving the price of a cab ride there and back. So what kind of fool would go to 74th and Broadway looking for the Bell’s seasoning that’s sold everywhere dust collects? Oh, right. A wit-free one apparently paid by the word.
I read about it in the gossip columns, but why the news was placed there is almost a gossip item in itself. David Bouley’s new bakery has opened, wires still hanging, plastic dropcloths still thrown, painters still unfinished. I wandered in since I was already heading for Blue Moon’s fish at the Tribeca Greenmarket, and I walked out nearly $10 lighter even though I was already carrying fresh bread. (For the record, the small loaf of saffron-walnut bread for $7 outshone the $2.40 half-loaf of Viennoise studded with chunks of good chocolate — the former was more like brioche, the latter more like a long doughy roll.) But at a time when a certain gray daily and a frenetically colorful weekly routinely run the same openings on the same Wednesdays, it seemed odd to read about a four-star chef’s expansion alongside the latest anorectic exploits of the half-stars in the Daily News on a Friday. And that could be why the place was packed and nearly depleted by midday Saturday.
We get the Wine Enthusiast because we go through so much Illy these days we’ve run out of other free bonus subscriptions. But one month it was actually worth four paid magazines — the cover was so silly it belongs on the Onion. The photo over “Wine in the Wild” shows the backs of a couple of guys (bartender and patron? great white-and-black hunters? master and?) facing an extremely fuzzy elephant off in the distance, one that looks like something Stevie Wonder would have Photoshopped in. Worse, the “bar” in front of them is dominated by bright yellow cans of tonic and a big bottle of Gordon’s gin. Only if you look hard will you spot the lone bottle of wine, and its label might as well be Villa Sbobba. I know how hard it is to try to illustrate the impossible, but the only thing worse than using handout art would have been hand-tinting that elephant pink.
Great moments in lavishly produced PR: The new Aquavit newsletter does a faux-fawning interview with a back waiter and never explains what the hell a back waiter does. (I actually thought it said black waiter at first and thought: Even those publicity hounds wouldn’t dare.)
Maybe I misheard this on Marketplace, but one of the many slippery things Krispy (Blame Low-Carb Diets) Kreme apparently did in baking its books was dispense doughnuts to outlets on consignment. Which was a little risky with a product that coagulates into something foul in less time than it takes a souffle to fall. It’s just too bad the accountants and marketers were in charge rather than food people. A savvy baker would have turned all those returned doughballs into KK-brand bread pudding faster than you can say salad bar. Then again, if food visionaries had been running the show, the doughnuts would have been edible.
Rosa Mexicano and I have had a love-hate affair since Day One in the incarnation across from Lincoln Center. Even when the food is good the place always treats me badly, and I just keep coming back for more. This time, though, I asked to sit downstairs at lunch in my compromised situation, and the payoff was exceptional service and the best meal I have ever eaten there. With one bite of the crab empanadas I was transported back to Arizona — something about the dough and/or the seasoning evoked my childhood the way nothing has in eons. And they were not only masterfully engineered but also paired with excellent sauces: mango, tomatillo, mole, habanero. Enchiladas suizas with cheese were nearly as good as the ones across town at the much less ambitious El Paso Taqueria. The cappuccino was faultless; the Chilean sauvignon blanc was a generous pour.
The waiter, when I asked, said that the chef was new but the menu was about to change, which I took for a good thing. And then a woman in a pink chef’s jacket came out to eat and talk with a suit a couple of tables away, and soon I was overhearing phrases like “roasted duck breast with sweet potato-ancho mash” and realizing our relationship was heading right where it began. Just when I find Mexican food true to my soul, the border crossing to Fusion, Anywhere, begins.
With my consort off in Sicily (and not in a Sheraton), I’ve been easing my sorrow at being too much of a crip to travel by burning through a few strata of the mountain of books and galleys stacked up on my desk. I’m so far behind that I only just caught up with the last two chapters of Mireille Guiliano’s French RX, but that inspired me to pick up “The Diet,” a slick production with a wannabe-sexy cover that could have been designed by Ben F. in her cap. At first I was turning pages in fascination at how such an obvious vanity publication could get published — the thing read like a Good Housekeeping short story, with some chapters weighing in at half a page or less, and with a narrative that was as captivating as it was unbelievable: skinny cooking teacher with fat mom gets book contract and blimps out, losing baby, husband, self-esteem, etc. etc., only to win the world and a flat stomach through the usual four-letter regime. Nothing but the food rang true. Somewhere in that inflated book was a slim novel struggling to get out. And I can’t believe I read the whole thing.
As if a vegetable-rights circus to make PETA look tame down in Florida was not horrific enough, my French friend who puts faith in Bordeaux as the stuff of life pointed out something really chilling: The NYT review of “Mondovino” had it rated PG-13 partly for “scenes of wine drinking.” I guess “Sideways” offered enough sex ’n’ swearing to keep the fundamentalists distracted from the most serious sin. And now I’m half-sorry I missed “Passion” — maybe the worst thing in it was not the bloody violence but the imbibing. Last Suppers are notorious.
One of the givens of writing about food is that so much of it will be given. We don’t call the literal handouts freebies, though. They’re “press tastings,” and half of what you read comes out of them in one way or another. As a happy indulger I never realized there were ethics tangled up in the loophole until Braden Keil laid out a strange little story on how “eyebrows were raised” when a restaurant critic showed up at the trough at Koi. Only “industry writers and editors” should have been freelunchers, he dutifully reported. You know, the ones who are paid to be objective. No wonder food journalism will always be a ghetto. If not an oxymoron.
If anything good comes out of the Rocky Horror Chili Show at Wendy’s, maybe it will be the end of chicken fingers on fast food menus. Diners will only want the real thing, right down to the manicured tip. (I have to say I was more empathetic to the purported victim before she started giving out her name and interviews. I’m still shell-shocked from the long black hair I extracted from my refried beans at Gabriela’s, and that was in the early Nineties at least. Why compound it by being publicly tagged as the digital diner?)
Of all the arguments against home schooling, the most powerful came clear to me on a misguided foray into the dread TWC: Sitting out collective seventh grade leaves you totally unprepared for a Rande Gerber bar.
My education was inflicted on the late afternoon when a friend I can never see enough of persuaded me to meet her at Stone Rose for an early drink. I got there first, feeling my soul seeping out onto every set of escalators up to the fourth floor, and was immediately shown to what seemed like a great table in a pretty deserted room, right near the big windows overlooking Columbus Circle and the park. When the next table was filled by a large (to put it euphemistically) couple and the one after that with geriatrics, I realized my crutch and so-last-century face had been strategically hidden away behind a curving wall that essentially formed a reject pod. Since I’m the one paying with the gold card, though, it bothered me much less than getting abused in an Arizona schoolyard ever did. I just reverted to adolescence, pointing out that the robotic waitresses had perfect-20 bodies but faces seemingly lifted off Joan Rivers. Maybe they spend too much time corroding their self-esteem in the bathroom, where the lighting would make the most gorgeous kid look straight out of Edgar Allan Poe (and where the attendants are so superior they do not acknowledge tips).
Three more reasons to do your drinking at street level: I settled for “Calloway” sauvignon blanc for $12 a glass, about the cheapest choice, while bottles were far, far pricier than five glasses, I guess to discourage anyone from ordering anything involving a corkscrew and real service. The bar snack was goldfish pretzels, something the cheesiest airline would be embarrassed to hand out. And the apple martini came with a slice of apple seemingly out of science fiction, with a taste, my friend said, to match.
As we left, a little before 8, we stuck our unimproved noses into the other gems in the collection. V the Steakhouse was all but deserted for a throbbing bordello. Per Se looked corporate cold. And the bar at Masa was empty. Calling Charlie Trotter. . . .
At a time when the whole world seems to be on the same itinerary (Destination: Hell; Carrier: Handbasket), reading the Wall Street Journal can be downright unnerving. Forget Social Security and Iraq and anything having to do with a Chimp who finally found a reason to interrupt a vacation (pandering to even smaller brains). The real ticket-to-extinction stuff is back in the soft pages, in stories like the one on appliances coming soon to a counter near you. In great detail, it described a fondue fountain that spews cheese, chocolate and ranch dressing (and never answered the obvious question: who would be too lazy to dip carrot sticks?) Worse, with kids growing to hippo size by kindergarten, it touted an electronic pet (animal-shaped refrigerator) that essentially wags its tail every time the door is opened so treats can be extracted. Bad enough you can’t lie on the couch in this country without getting cues to eat. Why not invent a food dispenser that outdogs Pavlov?
I suspected Maureen Dowd was losing her beautiful mind when she swore the Chimp winked at her (didn’t she realize he was aiming at Helen Thomas in the seat behind her?) But now I’m convinced, after skimming her take on a resort in a bubble in Mexico where she complains she couldn’t get laid. I mean get nachos. We can only hope Travel never ships her off to Shanghai to let her waste a few thousand words on how hard it is to find chop suey.
Bad judgment in travel prevails in a certain newsroom, though. Is that a durian on the silly T cover or are they just happy to see us too scared to fly?
Now I know why Metropol gets mentions only for its design, which has pretty effectively wiped out every charming trace of the old La Metairie. A friend and I walked in a little after noon on Saturday and were seated instantly, under all the clocks, with one menu and one wine list. And there we sat, ignored, for a good 10 minutes, watching as one guy eating alone finished his meal and everyone around us just waited, and waited, for theirs. None of the stylized creatures from the crypt bumbling around the room seemed aware of us, or of the kitchen, for that matter. And as I suspected, no one even noticed when we put on our jackets and walked back out. Note to McNally wannabes: Without some teeny semblance of food and service, you can’t call it a restaurant.
More proof that there are no new stories, only new reporters: Newsweek discovers crudo. It’s “Italian for sushi.” So that explains the risotto it’s served on.
Jayson Blair at least had an excuse (well, several, actually). But it’s hard to figure why any other byline in that credibility-challenged publication would think a story on the Greenmarket and corporate groceries could be reported without traversing Union Square. But I guess it was valuable to hear what a farmer sitting by the phone waiting for his tomato and chile seeds to sprout would have to say about the invasion of packaged produce right now.
NPR, which has really hit the skids lately, was just as reflexively lame on the nonstory. The whole idea that an overpriced, overrated, soul-free supermarket would cut into the Greenmarket’s unparalleled interactive shopping is beyond absurd. Even addressing that idea reveals how little “reporters” understand the experience. But at least now consumers can see why the anti-Gristedes never has to advertise. The Jeff Gannons of food will give it endless space for free.
The saddest part of the tempest in an espresso cup is that the larger issue was never addressed. In a week when the oiliest Senate in our lifetime pretty much sold the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off to environmental rapists, no one was hammering how complicit industrial organic shoppers are in the evil. New Yorkers at least have a choice: Buy what’s trucked and flown in from who knows where, or, as much as you can, support suppliers growing close to home. Maybe I’m a softie, but I prefer my eggs without the miles.
Don’t judge the unfortunately named Absolute magazine by its advertorialesque cover. There’s actually meat inside, particularly the exquisite photo story on the Cloud Room gone to ruins in the Chrysler Building. But the editors also get serious points for hiring the illustrious (and certifiably liquor-savvy) Stanley Bing to evaluate Caviar & Banana. Imagine, a restaurant critic who’s intentionally hilarious.
Caroline Miller’s old workplace, by contrast, takes the high school clique road to rating New York’s best restaurants. The same few effete places are mentioned over and over, by half a dozen palates. A self-referential headline on “the best new restaurants that aren’t Masa or Per Se” just rubs the insider-rating in. Should friends really be rah-rahing friends in print? Sacred cows get awfully hard to swallow on second and third tout.
Despite some poor fool’s obsession with carbs, restaurants just keep plugging away trying to avoid yesterday’s boogeyfoods. At Bricco, the special soup was earnestly described as “carrot, potato-based, no cream.” All it needed was a transfatty Girl Scout cookie to hit all misguided bases.
Just when we’re getting over our confusion over what color saffron is (hint: it’s not the yellow in risotto milanese any more than beef is the gray it turns when cooked), the marketing brains at Oxo have come up with a 21st-century answer to Avocado for a new spatula. They call it Pesto. And I see it turning black.
One of the most surreal experiences ever in my own home was the party a French friend and I threw together years ago, after some debauched night out when we thought it would be amusing to have all our other friends meet. Everything about it was disorienting, starting with the boldface Gascon who suggested I “take the garlic out of the guacamole and put it in the brandade.” Mostly the French were French and the English-as-a-first-language guests just talked among themselves; one who went too far in articulating his Francophilia wound up with a glass of wine over his head. The last thing I remember was standing with my friends in the dining room watching her friends in the living room: on their feet, arms pumping, bellowing out martial-sounding anthems.
It all came back to me at another party, the one D’Artagnan gave at Capitale to celebrate 20 years in the ultimate luxury goods business. The thing started out feeling like a bad Jewish wedding, with one long line for the food (until everyone figured out there were multiple tables and it was not bad form to lunge in and grab rillettes or foie gras or cassoulet) and lame singers (were they really doing the Monkees, a fake band playing a fake band’s songs?) But the wine and Champagne and goodwill were flowing, and I only left when it started feeling like my living room, with the dance floor cleared and a huge throng going nationalistic on our asses. No wonder French women don’t get hangovers. It’s hard to drink while belting.
The best part of the night was actually my excursion to the facilities, as it so often is in France. Because I can’t do stairs, a guard pointed me to the handicapped stalls at the entrance, which turned out to be blocked by the table handling the press list. The man and woman behind it were seriously annoyed when I asked them to let me pass, even arguing, as I stood there on crutches, that there were other bathrooms. When I came out and said thank you, the woman acted as if I had farted in her general direction. I couldn’t decide if they were more pissed over the inconvenience or over realizing they were so important they were parked in the unloading zone.
Easily the creepiest ad campaign right now is the one for Sanfaustino, a bottled water from Italy with calcium as its claim to the American market. Maybe I’ve spent too much time looking at X-rays of my own bones lately, but a skeleton does not connote health to me. It makes drinking the stuff come off like a deal with the devil.
Sad how mad cow disease is becoming just another terror warning. A second infected cow is found and everyone yawns as if Tom Ridge has stepped up to the microphone again. Beef: It’s the real red alert.
My expectation that motherhood might choke off the metaphor reflex in a certain restaurant reviewer is gone. She’s back with a big one: Funky shrimp soup “left me pug-nosed.” I thought only Dan Baker could do that.
My new hope is that she doesn’t venture over to try a particular dish at the restaurant in the Steve Cuozzo review, the one with the headline that could have been drafted by his competition: Greecey Swoon. Having been raised on deer meat, I can think of few ingredients scarier than venison cheeks. Even if they’re from the hindquarter.
New motto for another food section: We can’t tell gingkos from Shinola.
With the smell still seeping out of the James Beard House, you would think the new award category to be opened up next spring with great fanfare would be Accountant of the Year. But no, it’s “outstanding restaurateur” — or, as cynics would see it, just another craven prize to rope big players in to keep the logs rolling.
Fresh Direct is a funny phenomenon: I can’t tell if it’s a convenience or a cult. No one ever wants to hear any doubts about the sense of delivering a few groceries in a small forest’s worth of cardboard boxes while a huge truck idles outside blasting through gas. I used it once in desperation in my earliest days of being apartmentbound but now would prefer to cab to Zabar’s and Fairway to pick out my own food and let Food City walk my staples over in brown paper bags. Which now seems like not such a bad strategy, given the case of the Fresh Direct driver just sentenced for calling customers and threatening to rape them. You have to wonder what kind of company would hire a guy who thought it was fun to harass its core clientele and who knew exactly where those women lived. This gives sinister new meaning to Fresh.
With California artichokes flying in at 99 cents apiece and asparagus at $1.99 a pound, the story all New York was dying to see had to be a premature prostration to National Frozen Food Month. But any idiot knows the best way to get real red pepper flavor in February is to buy the roasted kind. And any self-proclaimed omni-cook who would even think of suggesting frozen rutabaga has to be written off as the Million-Dollar Booby.
Three times recently I’ve crutched from PT on the Bumble & Bumble block to 86th and Lex or Madison without passing a single place where I wanted to stop for lunch. Orsay looks half-tempting, but given where I’m coming from right now I can’t get images of the undead who haunt the place out of my mind (there’s fixed, and there’s embalmed). Otherwise, the one choice is stuffy Payard, where once was plenty and savory is not the strength. It’s such a wasteland on that side of the Gates that I’ve come home twice to eat and once settled for takeout from a sliver of a shop called Benoit, where the food looked at least at the level of what you might find in the Gare de Lyon but where my flavor-free sandwich could have come from the bowels of Penn Station. I can’t blame the restaurants, though. There’s a reason why the Dean & Deluca uptown carries exactly zero fresh wild mushrooms: The clientele can buy anything but would prefer to taste nothing. But you won’t be reading that the next time another good restaurant opens on the Upper West Side. Inevitably, the lead will come straight from the Panchito prototype, manifested most recently in the Onera review in New York magazine. Manhattan is always evolving. Closed minds are forever.
Given how American meat can really put you on the run anymore, you have to wonder what a Buffalo cafe is thinking selling a roast beef sandwich as The Shatz. I guess it’s because you can Depend on it.
The latest sign we’re living in Rome before the fall: A couple who qualify as obese even by American standards not only get married at a Dunkin’ Donuts but proudly pose for news photographers with their doughy flesh indistinguishable from over-risen crullers. It was gluttony on parade. Isn’t there anything in the “defense of marriage” bill banning this stuff? It’s unnatural to be too corpulent to procreate.
As dazzling as The Gates is/are, there’s no way the color can be described as saffron, as every reporter who doesn’t know how to spell sunrise seems be doing reflexively. If the light is hitting the fabric just right, the proper word is clementine. Otherwise, think Martha Stewart matte: not prison jumpsuit but pumpkin frosting.
Call me old-fashioned, but when I see “fat substitute” in a headline, I expect Olestra. Call me confused, but why would the lead be about frying doughnuts in real oil? Oh, I get it. This stop-the-presses takeout is more dated babble about partially hydrogenated oil. You know, the stuff in Parkay and Crisco that was always sold as so much better for you than all-natural butter and lard. By now, food-and-health writers should feel like hamsters in a wheel, not literally peeing on newspapers but eternally spinning whatever Big Food feeds them. No reporter is ever going to put it simply: Don’t eat processed crap. That would make it tougher to sell ads for “whole grain” cereals in the A section the day you run a feature on them in the F section.
And, of course, if the Times covered nutrition like Social Security, rational scientists would be modified as “liberal” the way economists seem to be in every story these days.
I thought the silliest thing I saw all week was a promo for a whole cookbook on flavored butters (1: Unwrap Land O’ Lakes; 2: Add cinnamon). And then I got trapped in the recovery room at PT with the Food Network on the TV. It was blaring some party-planning show for which the frantically festive food was “lively Latin:” ham-and-cheese panini; Coke-braised pulled pork; all the Cubana classics. But what was most disturbing was that the other people in the room seemed mesmerized by the inanity, actually sitting up on their tables to get a better view. Then the giggling airheads on the screen started decorating the wineglasses for the sangria, gluing on strips of red ribbon with ornaments attached. A therapist and the guy he was kneading looked at each other and simultaneously said: “Way too much time on their hands.” And it got stranger: when the guests at the 30th-birthday party burst in, they were all women. Whatever else you might say about the Two Fat Ladies, you never had to wonder if Mary Cheney was the target audience.
I still haven’t decided whether the quartino is a great innovation or a pretentious gouge. Usually it’s the former at the Neptune Room, but on my last visit the impatient waiter was doing exactly what turns it into the latter. Every time he passed our booth he dumped the carafes into the glasses and pushed us to order more. Somehow I don’t think a Big Gulp is what the sommelier had in mind.
The Versaillesification of the White House has officially begun. Not only did the empress turn up for Fashion Week in what looked like a fabric sample for the new thrones, but the chef hired by the democratic Clintons has been canned. Apparently it’s not because Walter Scheib was failing at state dinners — how demanding can it be when the Washington Post says the last one was in October 2003? — but because he doesn’t have quite the right free hand with the gold leaf on the Napoleons (or is it the brioche?) Too bad four years of Chateau d’Yqem are going to be wasted on the dry drunk at the head of the table. Not to mention on the kind of skank twins who would mix it with Red Bull.
Food & Wine’s timing could not have been luckier. Just as the tempest in political correctness blew up over the teddy bear in a straitjacket labeled “crazy for you,” the February cover story on “going bananas” came out, complete with a description of a cake as “insanely good.” But I guess that’s no nuttier than running a feature on a restaurant that hasn’t even opened and declaring it the best in America. That makes all the absurdly premature exultation over the Modern look sane and sober.
Apparently no one did the one great story of the State of the Union: Was it the antithesis of Super Bowl Sunday for restaurants? I know our party of four grew to six when more friends decided they could not stand to be home alone with the chimp smirking at his TelePrompter, and Alouette was packed all evening with others looking for reliable Freedom Food with no TV. We try to be good citizens, but if all you’re going to hear is lies about everything but sex, we might as well go out to eat. At least the teetotaler in chief has been very good for the wine business.
Maybe it’s because the lump crab meat I just bought there did a pretty fair imitation of having been frozen and thawed, but the seafood monopolist’s bag that has always bugged me looks particularly annoying right now. That admonition on the indestructible bottom — “Citarella cares about the environment. Please recycle this bag.” — is the equivalent of a “support the troops” magnet on a gas-hogging SUV. The buck passes there.
As much as I like fresh mozzarella, especially when it’s warm, I would rather see blood sausage being made than have anyone come near me with sweaty arms in murky water in a dining room. What the latest self-ordained celebrity chef trying capitalize on his Italian roots has started has chilling potential. Next we’ll be seeing cows being ground tableside for meatballs. And hairy culatello being cured (actually, some waiters could be slow enough for that to happen). Spare us the reality show, please.
I knew it was only a matter of time until fajitas got their due: They finally arrived under cover of guacamole for Super Bowl. Talk about a cliche so hoary it makes the frozen margarita look fresh. But the best food detail was not to be found in the section with the vodka payback ads (coming Wednesday: two full pages on processed Hass avocados). Or even in the “Wow, iPods Shuffle” section where paper sushi popped up. It was in all the mourning of the architect who hung out at the Glass Garden of Heavenly Rest (oops, the Four Seasons). If foie gras and espresso keep you going to 98, bring me the lunch of Philip Johnson.
All the allegations that the money behind Rice to Riches might not be exactly clean read straight out of “Casablanca.” Bookmakers with restaurants? What will they uncover next in this town? Vengeful waiters? Bigoted hiring? Rat turds in the sticky buns? I’m shocked.
I would never conceive of my birthplace as a great restaurant city, but the critic for the Arizona Republic made a pretty persuasive case for eating out twice a day there when I stumbled across his roundup of local favorites while looking for the latest Benson cartoon. Some of his choice dishes sounded scary (duck enchiladas with blueberry pecan mole, foie gras sushi), but what he enthusiastically communicated was that he understood not only what he was eating but why it was worth recommending. And it was all just the food, please, with no grafs and grafs of babble about everything else.
Judging by one week’s writing it was no contest with our hometown star-taker. This guy is not only unaware that Xeres is Jerez by another name and that undercooked veal is pretty damn rare but also drops $175 on a bottle of wine when he’s not carrying a notebook. Funny. The check usually records what you pay for. And if you really won’t remember the name, you can have them soak the label off for you. Even places that can spot a philistine by his martini are happy to comply.
Dillard’s must not have caught “Sideways” fever (me neither, but I have an excuse: the theater I tried to see it in had unannounced steps). Its ad for a new bra with mix-and-match patterns labels the thing a Cabernet Convertible rather than a Pinot Pushup. In either case I don’t get the varietal connection. Do you squeeze a cup and wine comes out?
My consort went to Cajun country and all I got was a handful of menus (I still can’t move fast enough to keep up with him, let alone with him and Calvin Trillin). But reading them was almost as good as eating there. T-Coon’s in Lafayette boasts “everything homemade” and includes specials of smothered rabbit on Mondays and turkey wings on Thursdays. Cafe des Amis in Breaux Bridges’ breakfasts range from couche couche to the “Big Hat,” an omelet topped with crawfish, either etouffee or au gratin. But the menu at Black’s Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar in Abbeville was the real trip, especially the specials list with the kind of lyrical tendencies that are determinedly edited out in a chain world: “fresh ling on top of a creamed spinach outlined with a lobster cream sauce” (no napping there); “jumbo lump crabmeat blended with fresh cream & Cheddar cheese baked to a bubbly finish” (a k a au gratin); “filet mignon: the most tender of all cuts.” Even among the “alligator dinner” and the “delicious oyster loaf,” though, a little trendoidism must fall: the handwritten addition to the two desserts was “Reese peanut butter pie.” At least it wasn’t panna cotta jelled tableside.
College is one of a multitude of things I never finished, but I did spend enough time in journalism school to absorb the five W’s. If you want to tell me the Who, the What and the When, either don’t tell me where the egg cartons come from or at least tell me why.
My latest candidate for most idiotic restaurant name: Solefood, in the Loews hotel in Philadelphia. I couldn’t decide if it feeds fish or serves leather.
January must be National Vodka Month. How else to explain the obsession with it by both the hometown paper and the official magazine of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board? (One guess which publication had the more illuminating take.) The best angle was actually in Philadelphia magazine, which featured a “Brita for booze,” a filter that allegedly removes all the nasty stuff that makes you sick from the cheap brands. Those cheap brands that allegedly taste so good.
The restaurant at the Philadelphia Museum of Art makes a big deal of doing menu tie-ins with blockbuster shows, but no chef could be happy with what lies ahead: Salvador Dali. I wouldn’t be able to eat there without thinking of the story of how the artist’s wacked-out wife Gala could not find anyone to take care of his prized rabbit while they went away on a trip and wound up cooking him the most amazing lunch on departure day. Diners would be wise to avoid the Blanquette du Jour.
One good thing about venturing far from home for the first time in four months was running into an old friend who, like me, had strayed from hard news into food and who, unlike me, wondered what was so bad about Panchito. I blurted out something like: “Imagine if the Inquirer had sent Elaine Tait to cover the White House.” Too bad no one on 43d Street could have seen his expression in time to prevent the train wreck.
File under “And they call this the hospitality business?”: My consort and I crept eight blocks through ice and slush to get to Pampano after calling for a reservation for lunch after my second bout with physical therapy, only to be faced with at least eight steps into the place. I had been there before and knew the main dining room was up two flights, which is impossible for me in my condition, but I also knew there was a relatively street-level bar that had to be accessible. Thank the deities I sent my consort up first, because the brain-dead guy in the red shirt who stepped over to the hostess stand was adamant: there could be no service downstairs. In my head I yelled, “We’re going to Zarela” for vindication, but in actuality I was sad and humiliated and mystified. Would it have killed him to throw a table and waiter our way on an unbusy day? We aren’t cheapskates, and I really wanted to try a real meal of the chef’s food. Now I can never go back.
But maybe there is such a thing as poetic justice, because for 46 months I passed restaurant criticism into print with only the most cursory look at the “wheelchair access” line that ran with both the main review and the $25 & Under. Now I know the phrase “a few steps at entrance” communicates nothing and a review omitting any mention of two flights is criminally neglectful.
Unfortunately, though, I also now realize that the Americans With Disability Act is just one more big liberal joke in Bushworld. We had dinner in Philadelphia in a three-month-old restaurant that had a graphic sign on the unisex bathroom door boasting of wheelchair accommodation. The door, however, was a full step above the dining room. This is the new America: Only the chimp and his big-business backers do not have to struggle. The rest of us can eat cat food out on the sidewalk.
You can dress the skank twins up, but you can’t give them any class, at least if the beverage served at one inaugural ball is any indication: merlot mixed with Seven-Up. The Times described it as Texas sangria, but to me it sounded like cowboy Antabuse. Maybe we’re lucky the skankier of the twins was only yawning and not hurling as her dad slogged through his strange speech.
I assume the ghost of Dining’s package on DC eats was intended for the same cretins who put the chimp back in his gilded cage, because it was printed a little late in the coronation to draw many people down to restaurants like Teatro Goldoni (where we had an expensively disappointing experience years ago when it first opened). But then Washington will always be just Washington, a backwater catering to the sophisticated likes of Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay. As much as I like Kinkead’s and admire its owner, his new cookbook only brings the point home graphically. Tim Turner, who does such gorgeous work on Charlie Trotter’s productions, shot the food here, too, but he had to struggle with everything but the finished plates. The raw seafood looks pretty decent while the produce could have been picked at a Whole Foods. One photo, with a recipe for heirloom tomato salad, shows suspiciously uniform softballs among some scraggly green beans (scraggly green beans that resurface a few pages farther on). The artichokes look exactly like Wegmans’. Even the potatoes are white-bread ordinary.
At least the book includes two great bits of information, in one tale of a big night on Pennsylvania Avenue. The first is an ode to the star power of the last real president. The second is a recounting of how a gift of a chef’s knife was confiscated by the Secret Service. In reality, it should have been seized by the ethics police, since it was brought by a critic for Washingtonian magazine and intended for a chef at Kinkead’s. And that tells you everything you need to know about politics and bedfellows.
Thanks to one of my sisters stranded outside the backwater, I was able to catch the Washington Post’s travel story on my own “sleepy suburb.” She thought it made the neighborhood sound like a red state, and I can only assume she was judging by the restaurants recommended, all my personal favorites for sure: Monsoon, Ruby Foo’s and Homer’s malt shop. Worse, not only does the writer say the Greenmarket near Lincoln Center sells “drippy nectarines” in winter. She also also insists “it is nearly impossible to pass by Popcorn, Indiana,” without being lured in. Funny, I have managed to resist that place countless times — it’s on the wrong side of Broadway, and I don’t push a stroller. I’ve always thought Manhattan is a better place to live than to visit, and now I know why. If you weren’t here for the long haul, you might go home deluded that mall crap like “chocolate chunk n’ caramel” popcorn is what the locals eat.
I thought the idea of a Donald Trump perfume was stomach-churning enough (slogan: “Ah, the stench of it”), and then I got an e-release on a cheese program at a restaurant far out west. Along with “Pepe le Phew, We Love You,” it’s offering “Donald Trump in Vermont,” which it describes as “rich & creamy.” No wonder the idiot missing from the Texas village was reelected: Americans are too dumb to face reality — the guy’s casino business is bankrupt. And it’s bad enough I can’t avoid him in the tabloids. I don’t want him anywhere near my food. Now I’m thinking we were just lucky no one came up with a Scott Peterson tie-in for special omelets made with fertile eggs.
I lived in the cheesesteak capital of the world for three years and only knew Jim’s and Pat’s. Now I can’t open a newspaper or magazine without reading about an alleged legend migrating north. Could a sandwich shop really be the equivalent of the second coming of Joel Robuchon? (Really, give the joint an iPod and it will probably even be reviewed.) Forget that nonsense about 8 million stories in this city. All you need is one press release.
Apparently the food pyramid is now a pentagon. Or something just short of an outbreak of peace that would warrant endless front-page stories and NPR thumb-sucking. I read/heard enough to know it was all about rating lobbyists on their success or success (sugar? yes! whole grains? the whole processed food world is waiting!) And then I went on with my life, knowing this is the same government that lied us into a criminal war and is now trying to force us all to blow our Social Security on Wall Street brokerage fees. We’re supposed to listen to these guys tell us how to be healthy? I’d sooner eat a can of Iams.
Considering the kitchen is still on its shakedown cruise, the food at the Bar Room at the Modern is surprisingly polished (if anyone can make liverwurst taste like a not-so-distant relative of foie gras, it’s Gabriel Kreuther out to impress). But the room is beyond hideous. My poor consort had no idea where I was dragging him and was appalled to find himself awaiting dinner in what felt like a museum cafe. Which it is, really. I didn’t mind until I started noticing how gruesome every single woman around us looked in the cruel fluorescents: young, old, alone or exchanging serious tongue with a Walmart manager. Maybe they should warn women: Enter at your own facial risk — lighting is by Picasso.
A wonkette tipster has pointed out the slimiest aspect of the Bush coronation. No, not that it’s obscene to be partying like it’s the height of Clinton peace and prosperity. No, not that the skank twins are getting their anti-burkas at a discount. No, not that soldiers with no limbs are invited to or excluded from the balls. The worst detail is that the “Champagne” to be dribbling will be Korbel. Somehow I don’t think this has anything to do with dissing the French and much more with getting Cheney wannabes ready for life in the new Argentina, when the best a retiree will be able to afford will be California dreaming. But surely $40 million could have covered something more progressive, maybe a few cases of Piper Sonoma or Louis Roederer. The saddest thing is that the chimp in a bubble has no way of knowing how far American sparkling wines have come since he stopped drinking. Especially since he’s been so busy starting barroom brawls with the whole world.
Given that Molto Ego is involved, the new Bistro du Vent should be a Disneyworld joke (it’s a small world when you’re faking Italian/Spanish/French). But we had a surprisingly civilized evening there eating relatively credible knockoffs of French classics one table away from Alfred Portale and friends. Aside from the lame wine, the main flaw in the joint is the joint itself. The decor looks to have been ordered straight out of the Sears catalog’s “bistro” collection, especially with booths that seem to have been stamped out of plastic. Say what you will about Keith McNally, but at least he can fake it.
I always thought the worst job in reviewing would have to be the Atlantic City beat for the Daily News. But lately I’m wondering if it’s really so depressing. Nearly all the restaurants seem to be four-star.
With all the shock, shock over the Education Department paying for positive commentary on the No Child smoke and mirrors, you would think publications would be more careful about even the appearance of conflict. But everything you need to know about how the food world operates can be summed up in the Romenesko item singling out Bob Lape and Joanna Pruess as nuptial freeloaders. When the two married with myriad chefs catering, no one blinked an eye. Everyone knows it’s SOP to shake down chefs in return for good reviews or positive coverage. And even after the couple was highlighted at ethics central, where was the outrage? Probably at the bar.
But that’s all water under the bride now. One of the two new color supplements to the Daily News has something even more worrisome: a huge cover story on “your morning coffee’s amazing journey.” Inquiring minds with knowledge of how secretive the nation’s most overrated coffee chain can be are asking: Is it Life, or is it a Starbucks advertorial?
Why restaurant critics should be sterilized: The mothering one at the Daily News finds it rather charming that yet another alleged Chez Panisse in Brooklyn has an owner who toodles around taking orders with a baby strapped to her chest. I find it chilling, given that the sickest I have ever gotten from professional food was from a felafel assembled at the carryout counter of an Upper West Side restaurant where an infant’s fanny was splayed on the counter. (Can you say giardia?) Take your baby to work, sure. Just don’t let it Pamper anywhere near my plate, please.
One of the more unsettling ads I’ve come across lately is for Campbell’s new line of Southwest Style Cooking. Apparently it’s possible to can a gerund, because the word soup does not appear on the front label. This dispenses with the whole myth that you’re buying the stuff to heat up with milk and eat from a bowl. It’s unabashedly designed to be the paste to hold your chicken and tortilla together if you’re not smart enough to grate cheese. Worse, it makes perfectly clear what really divides America anymore: White sauce. In the blue states we snobs whip up bechamel; in the red, they open up Campbell’s Cream Of. Education is the difference between elegant gratins and gloppy casseroles, and now there’s Glue in a Drum for a whole new generation. Campbell’s hometown of Camden, N.J., was just named the scariest city in America. Is it any wonder?
Coagulated. Foul. Mushy. Nasty. Penance. Add all those key words up, a friend said, and you had the Anti-Food pages to start the new year. But I don’t agree. The lead photo of a Technicolor yawn alone would have made it seem like the Retching section.
Call this when Bad Restaurants Happen to Nice Chefs: Charlie Palmer was so gregarious and his hors d’oeuvres so exceptional at the Chow magazine launch party at Metrazur that Kitchen 82 was my first thought when friends wanted to eat someplace affordable. I got there way too early and was down to the last third of my wine by the time the other three met me at the bar. One was still paying for her glass when the host came over to transport our drinks to the table. And promptly lost control of his tray, shattering three glasses. In any place above the Metro Diner, full replacements would be immediately ferried over, but here I finally had to ask the surly waitress to look into it. (Isn’t possession nine-tenths of the responsibility?) By that time Friend 3 had ordered one of the high-markup pussy drinks instead of her wine, and I said I didn’t expect a new glass. So for three lost drinks we got one.
Nothing like a sour taste to set the tone. From then on my lame leg was jostled by every single service person (but no other patron) who happened by. The waitress got no nicer. The desserts were sad. And the parting insult came as I started to suggest Friend 4 take home the huge portion of good pasta left in her plate. The busgirl reached over us both, grabbed the dirty bread plate and tossed it into the orecchiette. With those skills, she’s ready to be promoted at what I now think of as Scullery 82.
So how was the Chow party? Ask the crashers, out in force. My last conversation of the night was with two guests of the PR persuasion, both marveling at how such notorious swine had slipped in. But it could have been worse. In Grand Central it could have been actual bums shoving me out of the way to get to another pomegranate martini or fistful of lamb chops.
The NYTimes manages to do at least one important thing extremely well: bury the Diner’s Journal. If not for the impassioned Panchito dissers over at mouthfulsfood.com, I would have missed one last blow job for and by Sirio, who actually has the gall to say his business never recovered from 9/11 (really, it’s way past time to give that excuse up). I also would not have noticed the eulogy was by the paper’s esteemed wine critic, literally snowed by truffles. When it comes to fawning paybacks, all writers somehow sound the same. Moist.
New Year’s Eve is the most miserable occasion to try to find a decent meal. It’s Amateur Drunk Night, and just about every otherwise sane restaurateur gets dollar signs in his/her eyes and decides a DJ and dancing and other annoyances are worth $100 on top of a $200 prix fixe (drinks and tip extra, of course). No wonder Cafe Boulud had tables open for both its early and “gala” seatings as late as Wednesday before the big night. Those of us who only want a good meal in a nice quiet room, the least we would expect any night of the year, just have to grit our teeth and pay out the nose (and think in cliches).
Which is how we wound up shelling out $100 a head at Citron on Bleecker and thinking we got a deal. The $75 menu tried hard and only hit okay on the wow scale, but the space was exquisite and the sound level was perfect (it helped that only two other tables were ever occupied at one time). And the $25 sparkling wine pairing with each of four courses was blowaway brilliant. Who knew shiraz even came in fizzy form, but it was just the right match for the smoked lamb chops. Iniskillin was anything but cloying against the duck confit in my raviolo (really free-form lasagne), and Mumm Cordon Rouge hit all the right notes in the poached pear matched with a good and green apple-parsley sorbet. These were not dainty pours, either — each one filled the flute just as high as the $12 glasses of Mumm’s we started with while waiting for our friend. Best of all after a bottle of Veuve Clicquot shared later during fireworks in the park, neither of us woke up with the usual “whose idea was it to mix still wine and sparkling?” hangover. Better to taste only the stars on a night like this.
I thought this was the very agile Gameboy generation, but the Wall Street Journal reports that more and more schools are jettisoning milk cartons in favor of round plastic bottles. One chilling quote from New Hampshire’s agriculture commissioner: “Those damn square containers are awfully hard for kids. Teachers say you can spend the whole lunch period just walking around and opening those containers.” It’s scary enough that most American schoolkids cannot find Mexico on a map. Are they really being raised so dumb they cannot get their straws in their milk? No wonder winemakers are wildly switching over to screw tops. The future looks dim.
Turns out the only thing that separates the failed bakeries from the household words in this town is “Sex and the City.” So says a defender of the longtime Village sugarsore being auctioned off in the NYTimes want ads as “Jon Vie’s.” She apparently will miss the rude clerks and substandard, overpriced pastries and thinks it unfair to compare a stodgy joint with a hip newish one, or with one run by a very shrewd businesswoman who hires nice people and sells only perfect products. But for every Magnolia there’s a Polka Dot. And if all a food establishment needed to thrive was sexy TV exposure, Mamma would still be balling meat at Rocco’s on 22d.
For a while I thought I wasn’t getting out much and was losing my sense of decorum. Then I had lunch at Fairway Cafe. Where a grandmotherly-looking woman was drinking her soup. From the soup plate. Worse, I had lunch at Pearl Oyster Bar, where a shriveled harridan sitting too close to me at the counter ordered pie with ice cream and ate every bite. Then picked up the plate and slowly licked it clean. At this rate I can’t wait till the Misleader has his way with Social Security. Old ladies will be openly scrounging crumbs on restaurant floors.
Restaurants going through identity crises seem to forget to shred all evidence of failure. My receipt from Caviar & Banana was printed with the new name, but my Amex statement read Rocco’s. And the new Nonna on Columbus is still Avenue on both receipt and statement, even after it has gone through its 520 phase. But then that place would be a stinker by any name. It’s hard to imagine an Italian grandmother would ever serve Mueller’s-level noodles with watery sauce, or cod that could pass for diner fare except for the smell — frozen fish doesn’t reek. What’s even stranger is that a restaurant directly across the street from one that bombed as Italian and as French and is now destroying Turkish would start over with pasta. But apparently there’s always another flack to help in the charade by abusing another restaurant’s name. We saw Crispo in all the writeups and got Rocco’s on the plate.
My mantra is “expect the worst — you’ll never be disappointed.” Which is why I boxed up my Wustof paring knife when it snapped in half after 21 years and shipped it back to the company. I never figured I would get a response to my forlorn little letter, but it was better than wrapping up the remains to bury in the trash. About two weeks later, though, a brand-new parer arrived in the mail. No wonder I’ve been tuning out all those silly stories on new-wave knives lately. Think negative, buy right.
I forget who came up with other words to live by: “Drinks at 5, dinner at 6 and to be immortal you have to be dead.” It’s why every obituary makes the newly departed sound like Gandhi, and it’s even worse with dying food establishments. The mournful story on the passing of the Jon Vie bakery would have made me weep if I hadn’t bought a croissant there eons ago and been shocked by both the price and the haughty nastiness of the clerk — I could have been in Paris except the croissant was not as good, and I never went in again despite passing by at least once a week. If ever a place deserved to go under, this is the one. But the sappy reporter had to haul in quotes from the sorrowful agreeing that a bakery in the Village just can’t make it anymore. Don’t tell that to Magnolia. Or to Amy’s, which is expanding to Bleecker Street, next to the new Wild Edibles next to the expanded Murray’s Cheese. And don’t let reality get in the way of a good eulogy.
I don’t know how it read out in Des Moines, but the big news that a Miami chef had moved to a resort in Cancun was downright baffling in my hometown paper. I even googled the boldfacer to see what New York connection I was missing, and the first hits were her shilling for Oster and for Bell & Evans (the Food Network connection is almost as bad). Of all of the chefs in all of the city, why this one? Someone must have one hell of a tan line.
Considering what a mess Iraq is and Social Security threatens to become, it’s not easy to be cheerful right now. But at least there’s the happy thought that the “medals of freedom” fraud was not perpetrated on the food world. If Rove’s monkey could have, I’m sure he would have draped ribbons around our three heroes: the chef who thought reality stardom would be a “slam-dunk;” the executive behind the “catastrophic success” of the Beard Foundation, and the good soldier with so little credibility lonely restaurateurs are wondering if anyone reads Wednesday reviews anymore.
Speaking of Enron on 12th Street, think of all the embarrassment the key characters would be spared if only they had had the foresight to invent an illegal nanny.
And maybe even Rocco deserves more credit. He was way ahead of the red state curve, judging by the email I got touting the low-rent web site fronting for the www.glam one he was using not so long ago. Now he’s offering to be “your Secret Chef and Secret Santa,” with meatballs and other unintimidating temptations. The “fabulous red cookware” and “cooking in a vacuum system” didn’t do it for me, but I might just join “Rocco’s Perfect Paring Wine Club.” Who doesn’t need a glass while peeling potatoes?
Given that an astounding 2 percent of Americans have true food allergies, you can understand why there is such a desperate need to develop vaccines that New Yorkers looking for a year-end tax write-off would kick in $3.2 million for the cause. What’s incomprehensible is that this was all done at a “Food Allergy Ball,” at the Plaza. Imagine coming up with that menu, considering you can’t give a dinner party these days without grilling the guests for fear they’re “allergic” to red peppers or black olives or anything else benign. Worse, there’s something surreal about using a swanky meal as bait to underwrite a solution to a relatively effete food problem (why do so many lactose-intolerant women hoover ice cream? why is no one allergic to chocolate?), especially when hunger is a tad bigger issue in the world. Judging by the photos in the Daily News’s entertaining 25 Hours, we really are living in Rome before the fall.
Twenty-some years ago, when I had to wait for a bus home from the Times at midnight under a gay theater’s marquee on Eighth Avenue, the idea of family fare on that major sleaze thoroughfare would have seemed as probable as a Village Person in the White House. But on agonizingly slow cab rides home from the Greenmarket lately, I’ve spotted two cases of chain-food spillover from Disney Square: Joe Franklin’s is now a Charley O’s and Jack Rose (formerly B. Smith’s) is now a Bennigan’s. It’s almost enough to make me long for the good old days of Dick Does Developers.
Another week, another WMD: I’ve always suspected soybeans were scary, but reading the NYT story on Brazil’s new status as food super-power was still chilling. The idea of ripping out the rain forest to grow industrial crops just like subsidized American farmers is appalling. I guess I’m happy to see Brazilians sharing the Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland wealth, but why does the world want to emulate only our worst achievements? And you can’t even give up tofu in protest. If these soybeans are like ours, they’re going to feed the cattle that make the burgers that make this country the fattest in history. More and more, it feels as if we’re waiting for Armageddon in an air-conditioned Hardee’s.
Maybe this istempting fate, but I have to admit I get so little spam I sometimes open it. Which is how I found a promise of a drug that produces a “hard rock erection.” I thought you only got those eating with large Midwesterners in passe cafes.
My candidate for most ill-informed, maybe idiotic lead in a business publication, on- or off-line: “Following in the footsteps of fashion designers Karl Lagerfeld, who launched a clothing line for cheap-chic retailer H&M, and Isaac Mizrahi, who sells his clothes at discount chain Target, celebrity chefs lately have been expanding their horizons.” Business Week labeled it a news analysis, which is even more embarrassing. Not only was the peg some nobody from a less than famous restaurant in Boston who went to work for Au Bon Pain (stop the ovens!) but the writer seemed oddly unaware that chefs have been hawking pots and pizzas and selling out to fast food chains since before Karl Lagerfeld discovered Diet Coke, let alone H&M. This is the kind of story that turns the reader into a rubbernecker, wondering how bad the car crash can get. The verdict here: gruesome. “Rotisserie chicken with a ramekin of barbecue sauce and mini corn-bread muffins” is described in the kicker as both “pretty haute” and “fancy.” I can’t wait for the sequel: Celebrity chefs are writing cookbooks.
This seems to be the season to celebrate those books, though. No wonder everyone holds off for Christmas publication — not to hook shoppers but to tempt indolent reporters. How much Lidia can one reader take? Is it news that Marcella is gasping her last? And really, “Bouchon” is a brilliant book, but is it a story? How does mustard make it more than CliffsNotes?
Rufus’s father Loudon has a good song about Christmas coming right after Halloween, with Thanksgiving “just a buffet in between.” He would be even more depressed if he got the release from the chocolate company that’s already pushing Easter candy. Not to mention chocolates for “Administrative Professionals Day.” I don’t know which acceleration is worse, the calendar or the decline of the English language.
Most of the bright spots in my 15 days in an Italian hospital came in the morning: perfect tea, senza zucchero, with two little packets of rusks and one little packet of jam. Eating it, I could have been in any of dozens of hotels we’ve experienced in Italy. Breakfast is just not a big deal there. But that hasn’t stopped a new restaurant in Midtown from announcing a “full-service, Italian-style breakfast,” with everything from Friulian polenta to Trentino potato pancakes. The release reminded me of my physical therapist and her great curiosity about what Americans have in the morning, whether it is “only in the movies” that we eat so many eggs. I can’t imagine what she would make of panettone French toast.
Anyone doubting that Manhattan is the ultimate witness protection program has only to stop by the reincarnation of Rocco’s on 22d. All the Italianesque kitsch is gone, the lights are brighter and the look is cleaner. But the staff is taking no chances on risking a repeat of reality. When I said to a hostess as we waited for our table, “It looks so different from before,” she immediately responded: “Don’t speak that name. We don’t want to ruin it.” Unfortunately, the wine may do it for them. All four glasses we tried by the glass were overpriced and really bad, as in head-pounding bad. It takes more than dumping Mamma and the titty glasses for Champagne to really shed the Rocco identity.
Do you feel safer than you did four hours before Tommy Thompson dropped the camel dung in the punch bowl with his parting shot about being amazed that terrorists had not attacked the food supply? Dunce that he is, he blurted that we’re vulnerable because “we are importing a lot of food from the Middle East, and it would be easy to tamper with that.” Of course the bigger threat is the one his boss would never address: This country now imports more food than it exports. Given that we can’t even produce what 280 million people need to eat, I kinda doubt anyone is going to get much bang for the dinar putting toxins in the Aleppo pepper. Better to watch and wait as our currency goes to hell. Wait. It already has.
If there’s any bright side to the decline of the American empire, it’s that we’re spending more time with friends from overseas who look on our money the way we once did Canadian dollars if not Mexican pesos — they can drop over for a long weekend while we cower at the thought of braving a cappuccino in Milan. And nothing is more refreshing than going out with Italians who see right through the food game in Manhattan, especially at a 30 percent discount. Our friend Gianluca and his mother, who just closed her own restaurant in Emilia-Romagna, decided places like Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern were not worth bothering with because they’re “too obvious.” The mom had read “Kitchen Confidential” in the Italian and decided that not only was the author “not normal” but she had no interest in Les Halles because the “chef” didn’t bother to come to work (we persuaded her that was exactly what makes it so consistently satisfying). The best insight was from Gianluca, who noticed: “If you look at some guides like Zagat it looks that everything is good.” At the table, he read us the entry for a place his mom was curious about (Macelleria, but it could have been any of a couple of hundred on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that capsules) and admitted: “I have no idea what it means, the words I just said.” I think that reaction may be universal.
Lately you can’t pick up a newspaper or magazine without finding another ode to “Chef Bobo,” the alleged miracle worker in the Calhoun School cafeteria who happens to have a book to flog. Maybe he is a certifiable nutrition genius, but he looks like just another “eat what I say, not what I do” bloviator. No dietary expert should ever go out on tour with a belly that shakes like a bowlful of jelly. Especially around Christmas.
Speaking of ill-advised appearances, what is the paper of ethics thinking sending its restaurant critic out to moderate a forum with four of the biggest chefs in town? As the ads running every day say, “buy your tickets now” if you want a good look at Panchito sitting cheek by jowl with Batali, Barber, Colicchio and Vines-Rushing. (Now if he wears a bag over his head, that might be worth the price of admission.)
The only thing more absurd than a fat guy promoting low-fat, low-sugar eating is a formerly fat guy out shilling a barbecue book for Food & Wine in Florida when his stomach has been surgically shrunk to the point that it can hold no more than a bite of a burger. Al Roker and Chef Bobo should talk — at least one of them has a sure way to keep from ingesting that dread ketchup made with corn syrup.
File under “there are no new stories, only new suckers”: The cellphone booth at the Biltmore Room was mentioned in every piece that ran when the place opened a full year ago. Suddenly it’s big news in the Daily News, the Journal and even on the radio. I was bracing for a flurry of stories on the other amazing innovation in town — David Burke’s limo smoking section — when I remembered: it’s already started.
I’ve always thought Uglesich’s in New Orleans was one of the best restaurants in the country, but any doubt that its magic was not transportable went out the window when the requisite cookbook arrived in the mail. I didn’t need to know EggBeaters and sugar substitute were working in the kitchen (even in the macaroni and cheese), or that the coleslaw recipe was “inspired by” one in the Times-Picayune. And nice as it is to have the recipe for the splendiferous Muddy Waters sauce, it’s depressing to think the son of the chef who was “inspired to write” the thing could not be bothered to find a proofreader (worse, that a graduate of Tulane University can’t spell). Just a few of the LOL ingredients: Hardball eggs. Adobe sauce (for those brick-red chipotles, of course). Egg yokes. Panchetta. The glossary defines translucent and butterflied but neglects to explain that pistolettes are a type of dinner roll. On the other hand (to emulate Zagat), how many cookbooks ever tell you what to do with two pounds of gator meat? Or to make an oyster soup with 50 ounces of “Brie cheese”?
The country’s most pretentious food writer is married only a matter of weeks and already he’s an expert on parenting. Either that or he was just struggling to find something, anything to praise in reviewing the new book by the NYT’s star food columnist for the NYT. Funny, even before the change of life, nursery puddings never struck me as his area of expertise. Once again, I guess deception is the better part of valor.
Apparently the same wordsmiths who helped put Our Leader back in the White House have found new grounds for deception. Who else would have the gall to write an ad claiming “your single cup coffee maker is only as good as the coffee that goes in it” and mean the brand my parents drank back in the dark ages before Mr. Coffee, let alone espresso? Even with hyphens properly positioned, it would be bad to the last drop.
As if government credibility could sink any lower, we’re now informed that a Thanksgiving turkey is so dangerous a WMD that it should be stuffed straight into the oven, poop, blood and all. Somehow not rinsing to keep your kitchen sink clean sounds like not flushing the toilet because tests have indicated it spews bacteria all over your toothbrushes. It figures that there would be no USDA provisos for cleaner birds, the organic and free-range ones some of us go out of our way to buy precisely because they do not come with the little bonus you get from the industrial turkeys that underwrite lobbyists’ salaries. Fear and ignorance — it’s what’s for dinner.
I also hope the little children who apparently will be warped for life by a commercial showing a woman’s naked backside were not allowed to open their hometown paper on parade day. Allah forbid they should ever see bare-breasted turkeys, throats slashed and heads dangling, without getting any explanation of what makes the things halal.
Worse, the front-page revelation that immigrants put their own imprints on Thanksgiving dinner was so stale it could be turned into stuffing for a dirty bird. The only thing dumber was the chef in Life magazine who said those alien Pilgrims could not make cheesecake with cream cheese because it had not been invented yet . . . and so they used ricotta. Then again, maybe that was the Italian accent in 1621.
The Journal ran one of the smartest stories all week — a spin on the turkey hot line cliche that demonstrated how many alternatives there now are to frozen Butterballs — and then had to go and spoil it two days later by rounding up elitist chefs’ recipes for leftovers seemingly phoned in from fantasyland. On my most disastrous holiday I have never had to worry about having two pounds of cranberry sauce hanging around, and I kind of doubt a couple of teaspoons of Indian spices would transform it into food if I did. (Let’s not even go into how anxious anyone is to do ambitious cooking so soon after getting all the platters and wineglasses finally clean.)
I blame turkey fatigue for sending me up into the dread TWC at long last. Shut out of two movies and in search of culinary recreation that did not involve white meat, we decided to go have a snack and a look at Cafe Gray in the “Restaurant and Bar Collection” (developer-speak for Food Court). My own private Michelin, the one with crutches instead of stars, would rate it not worth the journey. Not only did it feel as if it was a half-mile from the elevator but the design was so bizarre and the service so much stranger that I almost wished we’d just gone to Picholine, the most annoying bar on the Upper West Side. We were early enough to get a boothette and still the place felt like either the nicest restaurant at the Mohegan Sun or a downsized Tavern on the Green. Wines by the glass were nicely priced ($8 for a gruner-veltliner) although served pretentiously, in beakers that the waitress, after two sips, came by to finish dumping into our glasses. And apparently you only get bar snacks if you don’t order food. Maybe Gray blew all his best little ideas on that imaginary bar in Bangkok downtown where he got no credit. Even the most magical food, though, would be forgotten once you gimp out and find yourself in a mall, a very long way from a cab.
For the last three Thanksgivings the White House turkey pardon has seemed innocuous, a chance to joke about which creature at the photo op looked dumber. But this year made me a little queasy: The Christian in Chief could find it in his heart to save food from the oven while so many in Fallujah would never eat dinner again? I guess it’s just lucky he’s not younger and living on Long Island. Given his history of blowing up frogs, he’d be throwing turkeys through car windows for sport.
Lunch at Nice Matin is always a transporting experience: to the Upper East Side without a MetroCard. But I never realized just how creepy that could be until a friend in from Darien filled me in on the woman she recognized at the next table: “I used to baby-sit for her. She always left the house full of dog mess for me to clean up. She even made me clean the lice out of her daughter’s hair. For baby-sitter’s pay. Now she’s a shrink.” I think of Manhattan as the capital of anonymity, but in some places it really is the Naked City.
I’ve just heard the first valid reason why Cuba should stay cut off from the United States: A rancher there has gone crossbreeding crazy and come up with a family cow fit for the backyard — it’s the size of a collie and can produce more than a gallon of milk a day. Forget genetically altered corn. Lassie with usable udders is nightmare material.
Funny how chocolate is being wildly promoted as a health food just when going out to sample it has gotten so dangerous. Anyone braving the Chocolate Show risked being trampled by hordes of large people, especially the greedy women traveling in a pack in too-similar-for-comfort purple outfits with red hats who were trying to get their pudgy fingers around their $20 worth the day I went. Unfortunately, the chocolates seemed to be targeted to their type this year. Anything really good was either sampled out, rationed to hot chocolate only or available for a price. The best thing I discovered was a chocolate partner, a wine called maury from near Perpignan, and I was nearly knocked over stopping to taste that. Probably the harshest lesson is that bigger is not better with chocolate: There really are only a few great producers, and if you want the ladies in purple and red to come out in hordes, you have to let in the lesser darks.
Cooking is a form of alchemy, but generally the goal is to transform something mundane like eggs into something sensational like a souffle. You wouldn’t know that from the food photography in the Eat issue of New York magazine, though. Somehow a stylist turned lamb chops into schwarma, with what looks like raw gnawed meat stuffed into a rack of ribs. Halibut en papillote could have been shot in an albino operating room, after the Martian chutney transplant failed. And I’ve seen more attractive pork shoulders in the dog chew toys heaped at the checkout stand at Petland. The only photos more disturbing were a few pages back, the ones of Daniel reacting to home cooking before he’d shaved. I thought I’d died and gone back to watching Italian television for all the subtlety on display. On the bright side, only a few months ago it could have been worse: Rocco would have been the star chef mugging frantically for exposure.
Thomas Keller’s new cookbook will probably outsell his first, no small feat considering more than half a million copies of “French Laundry” are reposing on coffee tables across America by now. It’s not that the recipes are light-years ahead of a dozen other bistro collections lately, although Deborah Jones’s photography does turn food porn positively transcendent. Instead, “Bouchon” includes the kind of glitch that makes a first-edition stamp worth millions more than face value. All the ingredients for the basic quiche are missing on page 89, and the publisher has included the slickest fix I’ve ever encountered in a cookbook: a little stick-on slip that fits right below the decorative border. It’s so artful you’d almost think it was intentional.
By contrast, the new “Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America” has sent out a fix of the declining America kind. To atone for omitting a contributor from the credits page, it mailed prospective reviewers packets of popcorn. Microwave popcorn. Microwave popcorn labeled “Have a poppin’ great day.” If nothing else, this guarantees no one will ever mistake this enterprise for its seriously British predecessor.
I assume they were meant to be irony-free, but could there be better illustrations for a story dissing pigs in a poke than photographs of containers of rice pudding and tins of desserts? Even on the Internets you generally get a peek at the actual goods: over, under, sideways, down.
When T for Twaddle ran a bunch of Southeast Asian recipes with no translations for the titles, it looked like arrogance. Now I see Ten Speed Press’s reissue of Joanne Weir’s “From Tapas to Meze” has gone to the other extreme. Every title is literally spelled out, with the magic leached out proportionally. Ratatouille becomes “Provencal roasted summer vegetable ragout,” for instance, and Iman Biyaldi is rendered as “Baked stuffed eggplant to make a priest faint.” It’s either Appetizers for Xenophobic Dummies or help for ex-altar boys.
Apparently there’s a tomato shortage on, although I haven’t noticed any mention of the crisis in my hometown paper beyond an editorial that cribbed from Newsday. Given the evangelical fervor allegedly seizing the country, you would think Americans would take this as a sign that eating out of season is a sin. But then you would be underestimating the energy of PR people and their clients. I just got a release promising “Mother Nature can’t hurt” one purveyor’s tomatoes. Which sounds like the kind of hubris polar bears would appreciate right about now.
I knew it was morning in America when I ventured into Georgia’s Bake Shop right after Black Tuesday and heard a clerk trying to interest a woman in a Mussolini. Chocolate, I hope.
With great regret, I passed up a benefit at the Whitney where the Patron Saint of American Farmers was going to be collaborating with an artist “so that every aspect of the meal helps to remind diners of the roots of the food being eaten.” It had the high tone of an event aiming for noble and hitting effete, but even I underestimated it. A friend went to buy a guinea hen at the Greenmarket the Saturday afterward and was told only amputees were available — “Alice Waters bought all the legs for a dinner.” You would think a celebration of guinea roots would make room for other parts at the table. But I guess only a Jeremiah Tower would think to turn at least the breasts or bones into another course.
Panchito’s brave little excursions across bridges and through tunnels would have so much more credibility if the NYPost weren’t reviewing the same restaurants he chooses from the PR pile, sometimes the very same week. For every grubby Thai joint in one paper lately, you get a View or a Cru in two.
As addicted as I am to olive oil, I’m taking the FDA’s health ruling with a grain of saccharine. This country is still trying to get beyond the big lie that margarine is better for you than butter, a lie that was promulgated with Washington’s help even before the wolves hijacked the henhouse. Now any pretense of public interest has been dropped. The producer with the big bucks wins, which is why walnuts are officially good for you and squash is not. Given the misleadership of the last four years, and the now certifiably sheep-like tendencies of the populace, the last thing Americans should be swallowing is government advice on eating. Next thing we’ll hear, beef is safer than ever. At least antipathy to Teresa has saved us all from ketchup becoming a vegetable again anytime soon.
Talk about the pot calling the kettle confused: T makes “frantic oddities like ‘Nuevo Latino’’’ look like the height of Careme clarity. Fusion doesn’t get much more addled than a stew of food, fashion and design, judging by the frenzied hodgepodge that thudded onto my doorstep. There’s not enough inexpensive cava, let alone budget-blowing reds from Campagnia, to ever get bread and shoes to photograph in an easy fit. Funny how W and Vogue make similar ideas look so effortless, but then neither would consign an Irving Penn to the Out column just because he’s old.
Beyond the whole editorial mess of fat-with-ads T, there’s the underlying reality: Nero is mixing martinis — oops, vintage cocktails — while Iraq is burning. Message: Shop, drink and feel too inadequate to give a party without candlesticks from Marrakesh.
Why trade magazines should never be sold on newsstands: The new Food Arts has a two-page Tyson ad aimed at holders of wage slaves who don’t have time to “add the special touches.” The photo shows a chef arranging flowers in a carved butternut squash; the answer is pre-seared chicken breasts. They’re labeled new, but I’m sure we’ve come across them already. And I’d almost rather eat the latex gloves the model chefs aren’t wearing. (You know it’s food porn when they’re cooking bare-handed.)
Despite all my bitching about NYTimes stories that say nothing in too many words, I actually caught a revealing piece in one of the most surprising sections: Escapes. There could not be a better depiction of America today — divided between have-mores and have-nothings and heading down Argentina way — than this ode to pilgrimages to the Viking factory in Greenwood, Miss. Emeril wannabes are apparently flocking to pay homage to an overrated stove that exemplifies excess, and they’re doing it in a state ranked by the last census as 42d in indoor plumbing. You can only hope locals with not enough food get the concept of stoves not meant for cooking.
The debate over whether Elizabeth David could be published in a glossy food magazine today continues. All I can say is: David Foster Wallace boasts that he went through the fires of editorial hell to produce a piece deemed publishable by Gourmet, and he’s not exactly chopped lobster. More discouraging, I just learned another slick magazine simply hires writers willing to write perky, which was, to put it mildly, not Ms. David’s forte. In reality, though, the recipes should be the end of the argument. David’s best were like the one for mushrooms baked with garlic in grape leaves, one so compelling it could motivate you out of bed at midnight to try it as soon as you read it. And the most forgiving test kitchen would have to go and ruin it by specifying quantities and temperatures and cooking times. Let’s let legends be legends and give up the lame defense. It’s a GE Monogram world now.
Now that the reign of fools is coming to an end, I am so ready for a president who can have wine at state dinners, not to mention a beer with a voter. Finally we can acknowledge that having an alcoholic in the White House was driving us all to drink — between 9/11 stress and Kerry campaign parties, he united us in excess. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m almost tired of drinking for two. [Amended: As penance for my optimism, it looks as if I have to start drinking altar wine. For 59 million.]
Some flings are best left unflung for public consumption. When I read yet another steamy tease for Gael Greene’s forthcoming memoir, with the tale of her and Elvis, I could only hear the “Full Monty” soundtrack in my head and add the word please: “You Can Leave Your Hat On.”
Thanksgiving is a sad season for the art directors this year. Martha Stewart Living has a table worthy of a monastery, a bleak house or maybe even the big house in its festive issue, which itself is turned out in depressing earth tones. And Gourmet’s grim cover this month could have been composed by Joel-Peter Witkin, although even he might hesitate to leave a sinister needle sticking out of the poor desiccated turkey’s flesh.
But then maybe those art directors were indulging in the scary potion some booze company is pushing: a martini made with pie filling — pumpkin, brown sugar, cinnamon and gin. You don’t drink something like that. You rent it.
Trust Eli Zabar to turn a disaster into a promotional opportunity, and the Metro section to swallow the bait. Reading the NYT’s account of the fire in his bakery and greenhouse, you would think he was launching a new product line, or gearing up for certain holidays. Deemed germane to the story were the facts that “fresh dough for the pizza was kneaded and baked there” and that “tomatoes that topped it grew in the greenhouse gardens” (yes, it was that redundant). That sentence was followed by a helpful mention of his second store, open for business. Pet shops have burned down in this town with less back story, let alone sympathy from reporters.
Let’s say you’re flying high with a little restaurant where you just lean back and collect accolades. It closes and you get promised a dream deal that dissipates and you’re still out of work and finally you get an uptown gig with friends on 43d Street and it doesn’t pan out, either. The place is too big, maybe, or you’re just too creative. You’re out of work again, for half a year maybe, and you have to put food on your family. It’s all very understandable. But why would you hire a flack to blare your ignominious landing, in the corporate kitchen of a food shop that will never be what it once was? The last high-wattage woman chef to make that kind of transition with a splash wound up leaving Pret a Manger with a bag over her head.
More evidence that Andre Soltner may be the last of a kind: I always joke about how my business is covering the alimentary canal, but naturally I prefer to focus on the beginning of it. The New York Observer’s piece on “bad boy chefs” makes it very clear which ones are proud to be the very end.
Have you heard the one about the roast that won’t fit in the pan but “that’s the way Mom always made it”? It’s the new Neiman Marcus “two-fifty” cookie recipe, only this time it’s making the rounds not by email but in major newspapers. Nigella quoted it recently as if she had heard it with her own ears, and now the Washington Post has passed it off as real life, real story, too. I’m sure they both thought it was a legitimate heirloom tale, but why did I read it first on a joke site online? Couldn’t food editors at least check snopes.com? We’re not talking WMD here.
Judging by my email, anyone who eats at Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar walks out wondering where the money went — how could a thoroughly uncomfortable dinner cost at least $100 a head? Now Sunday Styles has printed a hint, and it’s not about ingredients. One of the owners boasts of wearing a table for 20 on his back alone. No wonder so many true chefs do fashion ads in borrowed finery, just for the feel of it.
My desktop has been an archeological dig lately, which explains why I only recently unearthed the dumbest idea in publishing since the Fluffernutter cookbook (yes, it exists). This one is called “Aroma,” and it combines recipes for food with formulas for fragrances. Maybe it’s because I had to eat where I peed for two weeks, but I can’t see anything the least bit alluring about bath salts and soup on the same page.
Here’s what happens when you let a Nascar reporter review classical music: before even a few months have passed, he’s complaining that all the orchestras at Carnegie Hall play too many B boys’ compositions. Didn’t this guy know tuna tartare is like shiver wine at half-time? It comes with the territory, and has almost since Bach was a sprout. And if he’s kvetching about ramps in April, he clearly doesn’t remember the bad old days of raspberries in December.
Of all the rants an increasingly lost former restaurant reviewer could go off on, bare-handed kitchen workers is one of the more inane. Those signs in the bathroom do not say, “Employees must change gloves.” Hands get washed. Latex never does. And I don’t want it in my mesclun. Personally, I would rather see gloves on my gynecologist. But even her I expect to scrub first.
So which would you find more scorn-worthy: small-town shoppers who list margarine by a short brand name on their grocery lists, or big-city arbiters who use the fancy name for curry powder and misspell it?
My business never struck me as hazardous until I braved my first food event as a gimp. I had escorts in front of and behind me and was still nearly mowed down by old ladies hellbent on being first in line for the truffle saucer at ICE (FCI/CIA-wannabe to you). And this was at a relatively refined symposium pegged to the new Oxford University encyclopedia on American food and drink. I could only imagine the knock-down frenzy at Les Halles later the same night. You would think food professionals have not eaten in a cicada cycle the way they light out for freebies.
But I was glad I risked the madness if only to hear a discussion by six food editors that was slightly livelier than one on restaurants (note to moderator: moderate, already — don’t promise “lesbian children” and then let the pompous monologues ramble until your listeners are sinking into hibernation). High point of the day came when someone in the audience asked whether Elizabeth David would have a Popsicle’s chance in hell in today’s GE Monogram magazine world and one (unnamed for her own sake) editor said, “Sure.” Without ever explaining how the next Elizabeth David would avoid the fate of Darra Goldstein of Gastronomica, who had just said she had written for Saveur, Bon Appetit and Gourmet and been published in a different voice in every magazine. That eerie chortle was the great writer snickering unmistakably in her grave.
Talk about all dressed up and nowhere to preen: Rocco sedulously turns himself into a hunka-hunka prime time — those curls, that hide — and who bites? WOR. Radio. The last refuge of the unpresentable.
Our local paper seems to have learned nothing from getting taken for an opinion-mongering ride by a bunch of college students in North Carolina, as the New Yorker revealed. It just published a press release from the Zagats celebrating their silver anniversary (a piece worth 30 pieces, no doubt). Note to the Op-Ed overseer: The wily ones never come right out and announce their crass news. They bury it in a bigger “story.” Sometimes they even embargo it, or promise you an exclusive, just like the real Roves. But if you aren’t careful, you wind up headlining exactly what they want. “Eating Our Way” certainly said it better than Billions and Billions Printed.
It might not be an amuse-bouche and an aperitif all in one, but watching New York magazine’s redesign evolve is one of the better diversions in town right now. Or it was until it started looking as if they meant it. Trust me, packaging Gael Greene as a tiny hat does nothing to make a restaurant sound seductive. Show me the food. Please.
Christ on a coconut (that’s Sri Lankan for “stop the presses”): America has regional foods. Like Moxie and Derby Pie. Coming next week: Wine — It’s Made in All 50 States.
Life, the magazine that will not stay folded, has the right idea: Don’t let Nigella near a keyboard. Just have her babble to a stenographer about roasting chicken when she’s really braising it (“the aroma permeates the house — it’s the smell of home”). The recipe, though, looks like her work: the parts are swimming in chicken fat after 2 1/2 hours, and the parsley garnish listed in the ingredients is really thyme and rosemary. And for some reason, neither she nor her mouthpiece can bring her/himself to say the proper name of the seasoning in this land of the brave. Their bird uses herbs from “the Saint-Tropez area of France.” Which I believe is Provence. What do they think their readers are? Moxie drinkers?
Red Bicyclette is the Pollo Campero of wines: With enough overinflated hype they should be able to get that turkey off the ground, if not make it fly (to filch from an old Harper’s story on film marketing). In one week the new Fat Bastard popped up in a promotion touted in the Daily News and at a debate party and, most insidiously, in Lucky magazine as a vanilla-flecked food writer’s party choice, just in time for the launch. Call it Gallo, though, and it looks a lot less hip.
With Indochine, Panchito was apparently doing a pretty good Neil Diamond imitation: “Iman, I said. To no one there.” Really, Joe Allen would have been a less dopey choice if he wanted to be heard by more than a chair.
With friends like these, who needs attorneys general? The embattled Beard Foundation could not have chosen a less flattering photo of Julia Child for its latest calendar if it had gone to hideousheadshot.com. Tip from my mother-in-law equivalent, one of the better picture editors I’ve ever met: When someone has her eyes shut, or appears embalmed, or generally would die if she saw herself looking so gruesome, cut her out. Better yet, throw away the negative. Because if this was the only photo of the two icons actually together, the organization has more problems than how much it disperses in scholarships.
Forget president. Arnold Schwarzenegger should be thinking about becoming emperor of the whole world. If he can solve a mega-problem like force-feeding ducks and geese for foie gras, surely he could do something about the indelicacy of despair in Sudan. In the wake of the ban on tanning booths for kids under 14, it’s so reassuring to know at least one leader has his priorities in order.
Certain larger-than-anyone’s-life food writers just anointed the toast of Bon Appetit should really never be photographed weared red-checked shirts. You can only think how one of those Chianti bottles dripping wax would look so perfect set right over his belt.
Home just over a week and already one of the great myths of Manhattan has been shattered, the one I clung to while contemplating withstanding three months without being able to slice and dice. You can get anything you want delivered, but is that a good thing? I called the Indian restaurant closest to my apartment (Tandoori North? Manhattan Indian? Aliases for a reason?) one night when a friend was over and my consort was due back late from a flying trip to Geographic and wound up spending $35 with tip for desiccated chicken, dishwater dal, spinach from the crypt, gummy bread and acceptable raita, not one foil container of which was worth the recycling. Next day we forged our way to the Greenmarket on 97th Street and dropped much less to feed six people turkey breast, squash and salad at a dinner party with Bob at the stove, with leeks, herbs, apples, pears, potatoes, carrots and red peppers to spare. And the big difference was that we had a real cook. Now I understand how so many frightening restaurants stay in business on this island: serve food so grim it has to be takeaway in plain brown wrappers. Menupages.com should change its name to desperationdining.
Funny how a little break changes your perspective. Atlantic Grill was always just another Steve Hanson mediocrity until I found myself with two hours to kill at Lenox Hill, and then it stood out like a Ducasse among the diner-level choices within wheelchair distance. After three solid weeks of meals on trays or at the kitchen counter, I was actually almost weeping with pleasure at the jazz, the photos on the wall, the flurry of flesh offering warm service. My crabcake BLT with housemade chips was American bliss after so much force-fed pasta, and Bob’s salad with grilled apples and his scallops with roasted squash seemed like that rare merger of brilliance and technique. Then reality kicked in. A brown-water cappuccino would have been a capital offense in Italy, and the hyper-cinnamoned pumpkin concoction and stale cookies were a cry for pastry chef help. The crowd started to look like the idle undead, as it always does on the Upper East Side. The bill was $63 before tip for lunch. And suddenly I had my feet back on planet New York.