My other too much, too soon outing was to Borough Food and Drink, where we lured a friend fresh off “The Colbert Report” who likes to try new places and loves Fatty Crab. Good thing the guanciale and ricotta flatbread and the jerk chicken were excellent, or he would never listen to me again, Zak or no Zak. The “hostess” was apparently hired for what the Cod refers to as sweater puppies (although hers were more tank top mastiffs), because she led us to a table facing the wall in the very back of the half-empty restaurant and refused to seat us in a booth (one that was still unoccupied when we left). The din was brutal, the menu was meant to be all over the subway map but ended up dinery, and the duck in my salad was fatigued. But at least we could entertain ourselves talking about having eaten at all the previous incarnations of that doomed space. When the waiter started out by saying, “We’ve only been open 30 days,” I couldn’t tell if he was apologizing or bragging.
What lured us to Eutopia this time was a 7/7/7 wedding in Tuscany — two students from two countries who met in one of my consort’s workshops at TPW were literally tying the knot in a Philippine cord-and-veil ceremony and flew him over to be witness. They graciously let me tag along and so I got to see what happens when a cheesy tradition meets an upscale ingredient: The rice most everyone threw outside the church in San Quirico d’Orcia was arborio. And compared with Uncle Ben’s, that stuff is weapons grade.
After our first meal in Rome, it seemed even more laughable that Panchito was ever plucked out of foreign correspondenthood to be restaurant critic. Eating there makes Manhattan look like the Bois de Boulogne with multiple three-stars; it’s even riskier than Venice or Florence. The trattoria we braved in a Sunday afternoon panic was so dispiriting I wanted to tell the chef when he passed me on the way to the bathroom: “You should be ashamed of yourself.” But then anyone who spends a few years facing down lukewarm cannelloni sauced with the same anemic tomato cream as the “special” ravioli would probably be just the guy Moltoville needed.
Landing at JFK felt, as Bob put it, like arriving in Mexico City. And that may be an insult to Mexico City. Not only were armed guardsmen patrolling out front, but the Delta terminal was dark, dirty, cramped and as welcoming as Guantanamo. I don’t know why I was surprised, yet again. Our last meal there before flying to Nice had been on stools in the Samuel Adams pub because I couldn’t face the Chili’s, and we paid $78 for two glasses of pissy wine each, a “turkey” club and a quesadilla. Our last meal in France was at the Nice airport, where we dropped less at Le Badiane, a bright upstairs restaurant more sleekly appointed than many in New York, with a view more of the Mediterranean than the runways (and certainly not of pigeons running around a food court). I had tomato clafoutis, Bob ate tuna tartare and we split a demi bottle of fine rose and basket of warm olive and rosemary breads. Of course, since we were full, Air France then mysteriously upgraded us to business class from Paris and I couldn’t work for all the interruptions of foie gras and Champagne. Maybe they just felt sorry for us, coming home to Delhi.
While we were tooling around Tuscany and Rome, an Italian friend was in Arles, for the fabulous photo show where we were heading next, and we got an email from him warning that the restaurants there “sucked” and saying he was longing for “good, honest Italian food.” I wrote it off as the usual semolina chauvinism, confident that even the worst French meal would always be more rewarding than endless plates of pasta. The joke was on me at our very first stop, in Grasse, where we found a relatively cheap hotel to break up the drive from Nice. The owner suggested some pizza/French hybrid, but we went wandering through the deserted streets of the oldest part of the city, stumbled upon Le Gazan and settled into a table outside, thinking it was the only option. I have eaten some bad French food in New Jersey, but this kicked the bar even lower. My monkfish tails were steamed okay, but the “bouillabaisse-style” sauce was the color and consistency of the squitters, and both came on more a platter than a plate, strewn with broccoli florets and boiled potatoes and a carrot flan and a single roasted slice of roasted zucchini. The whole assemblage looked as if time stopped in 1977. I wrote it off to the same rube mentality that produced a cup of good espresso topped with a Montblanc of whipped cream and dusting of shaved chocolate when I asked for a cappuccino at a cafe the next morning. Then we got to Arles, and I was ready to email Carlo for directions to the nearest honest Italian.
Without boring with details, I’ll just say sucks is an understatement for the food there. We started at a gorgeous little restaurant the manager of the incomparable Grand Hotel Nord Pinus recommended, Le 16, where both my duck and Bob’s rabbit could have been raised by Perdue for all their flavor. We continued the losing streak at the very hospitable Au Brin de Thym, where the chewy magret was partnered with a baked potato in foil(!) Gritty salads one night outside at Les Deux Fondus were redeemed only by the amazingly accommodating host and the carafe and a half of decent rose. Lunch at Le Jardin de Manon did not exactly qualify for the S word, since the appetizers were actually nicely done if American-portioned: a gateau of salmon tartare with fennel, and a sundae glass brimming with whipped cheese layered with roasted tomato, eggplant and pistou. But my braised rouget with watery pistou, beans and tomato made an unbeatable argument for grilling or sauteing that wondrous fish, while Bob’s rabbit stuffed with kidneys and more pistou gave new meaning to the words tough and tasteless (the mashed potatoes with it, however, were superb).
We did eat well in France a few times, astonishingly well once, but even a restaurant my friend led us to for Sunday lunch in Languedoc was a letdown despite the gorgeous setting overlooking vineyards, the exceptional service by the chef himself and his wife, and the world-class wine they suggested, Mas Champart Saint-Chinian made by what the chef joked was his second wife. Everything was too much muchness; it was if the French don’t have a word for restraint.
Of course I may have only myself to blame for not doing better in Arles in particular, because we resisted the insistence of a friend living in Provence that we try what she swore was the best restaurant in the region. I just could not see sitting through endless courses and dropping what the Michelin said was 55 euros a head and she warned was even higher. Of course it turns out to be the one-star getting all the press, but I’m still glad we pinched centimes now that I’m home and doing the Bush-league math. That Saint-Chinian was 27 euros. And for roughly $40, it should have been good.
Years ago we swung through Atlanta to visit friends who took us on a weekend expedition to a rural B&B where a 300-pound relative of the proprietor was rocking on the porch as we arrived and warning that “if I don’t eat in 30 minutes I’m gonna starve to death.” Which taught me that “Deliverance” can take many forms. The Italian translation on this trip came about an hour or so out of Fiumicino when we pulled off near Mazzano for something better than Autogrill processed crap and came across an Old West-looking restaurant where three or four people were sitting out on the veranda. The fattest of them jumped up as we locked the car and asked something starting with “mangia . . .?” We said “si” and followed her inside as she slapped on a cap and showed us to a table in a huge unlit dining room with a pizza oven on one wall and black lawn jockeys scattered around the others. She rattled off a few pastas and sauces, we nodded first at strozzapretti and then at amatriciana and she waddled off, seemingly disgusted that we did not want wine. Not long after she slapped down two plates of something toughly frittata-like topped with zucchini blossoms, plus a carafe of water, and we sawed away until a big-eyed young girl wearing a red T-shirt with a swastika on it brought bread and condiments. Then the pasta landed, two medium bowls of chewy noodles with chunks of pancetta and onion in faint tomato sauce. I sprinkled mine with grated cheese, ate a few bites and threw on a little more much-needed cheese, only to have the Dick Cheney of cooks appear and whisk it away disapprovingly. She was even more annoyed when I left behind half our shared insalata mista. I think the tab was $40US for two pastas, one salad, two coffees and all the scorn we could swallow. The printed menu I had sneaked a peek at listed pastas at 7E. Several times on this trip Bob quoted John Krich, who said when they worked on a travel story together many years ago (and I paraphrase): Getting ripped off occasionally is the price we pay for not speaking the language. And at least this time we didn’t have to squeal like pigs.
Some things I saw in Eutopia: Villeroy & Boch toilets, seatless by design, at a rest stop in Provence. Salmon steaks grilled over blazing grapevines in a very formal dining room in Nardonne on a blazing hot afternoon. A chef in Montpellier, at a restaurant where the food had come slowly and been cooked erratically, sporting a black eye. A 200-year-old wood oven in continuous use in Nardonne (even day-old on the road, the croissant and pain au chocolat from it were outstanding). Tiny saucisse wrapped like little candies on the plate with the olives at Le Jardin du Manon in Arles. Chamber pots used as planters at Osteria Delle Grotte in Singalunga in Tuscany. A waitress at a cafe in Montpellier tying the tricolor flag around her dog’s neck on Bastille morning after delivering us a perfect croissant and cafe creme. Cats ready for the Apocalypse with a pup tent and stockpiled food, in a park in the Aventine in Rome. And, best of all, box wine poured from a crystal decanter in Languedoc — talk about style trumping substance.
Hail to the Chimp for making us realize there are scarier things than fish from China. We could be eating what he and Fredo and a Skank Twin attempted to reel in off the coast of Maine. Line-caught by a certain fool’s upcoming definition it might have been, but it would still turn to shit in his hands.
According to the Washington Post, we’re supposed to feel sorry for the poor schmuck — he’s suffering so badly over the bloody mess he has made that he “rarely goes out to dinner.” Hate to break it to them, but Incurious George never went out to dinner (I guess because he couldn’t bring his pillow). But somehow he can always make time for vacation.
I’m going to miss the Journal if Murdoch gets his soulless mitts on it. What other paper excels at deadpan ledes like: “On a visit to Marietta, Ga., last fall, TJ Palmer stopped into an Applebee’s and ordered a bruschetta burger”? I can’t even get my mind around what that abomination might be, but the reporting, as always, was solid enough to come through on the perpetrator: a TV face who is a chef in image only. Scarier still, that is the only one of his “innovations” that has survived since his high-profile hire. Why it outdid “crispy brick chicken” and “penne rosa pasta” eludes me, but apparently fries will move anything, even with garlic and Parmesan overkill.
Boston seems to have evolved into America’s most European inter-city transit hub. On my last trip I got to the train station in time — if the airlines had humans manning the phones and if I had done any research — to have had three choices of rides home. Unfortunately, I first missed the fast rail shuttle to the air shuttle while trying to reserve, then lost out on Greyhound because I didn’t realize the bus station was literally next door. But here’s what really makes Boston rule: My interview subject told me there were two good restaurants just a block or so from South Station, and I was able to kill the two hours till the last Amtrak train with foie gras torchon and a couple of glasses of white wine at the Paris knockoff Les Zygomates. New York is in the dark (as in Houlihan’s) ages by comparison.
Of the many indignities of falling and not being able to get up in Tribeca, the worst was having to lie there waiting for the ambulance and listening to some wacked-out woman from the neighborhood rant: “You have to sue! This sidewalk is dangerous. Are you gonna sue?” And I hurt too much even to whimper, “Lady, I need a doctor, not a goddamn lawyer.” My insurance company may go all ABA on me, but I still think Shakespeare had it right. Which is why, as much as I admire the aggrieved in a very high-profile case right now, I wonder why she didn’t just let a thieving dog lie. As long as the sad sack doesn’t hire a reservationist, how much damage could he do? Ridicule would have shriveled his nutsack even tighter than the threat of a lawsuit anyway. Isn’t “my way” the goal of any true creative person in any field?
Contrast this tempest in a hot dog bun with the email I just got from a friend who schlepped out to Middle Earth to my consort’s surprise party and, even on the ticket-attracting fly, took my advice to check out North Market in Columbus, where she had blowaway Vietnamese. Now the sandwich she loved there has morphed onto her menu down in Mayberry, Pa., as “Berkshire pork chop Vietnamese hoagie-style,” with the marinated slab served whole on grilled bread “schmeared” with hoisin mayo and topped with a salad of pickled carrot and daikon and much more. To rephrase the cliche about teaching: Those who can, create; those who can’t, steal. And smart eaters can always tell the difference.
As I said early on, the poor sap should have dreamed no small dreams and thrown some really crappy pasta into the pathetic scam. He could have both stolen and sold out, then called the whole thing Ed Lobster.
File this under Stake Through the Heart of Irony: Did Paul Prudhomme really cook gumbo at a Mardi Gras theme party at the White House, home of the disengaged scumbag who sat by and let America’s most magical city drown? I hope he at least pissed in it. The Chimp is so shameless about exploiting his fuckups that pet goat will probably be on the menu this 9/11.
I’m starting to think foie gras is the missing white woman of food: Nothing distracts so many allegedly serious journalists more reliably. Any news, good or bad, is news when it comes to an expensive and esoteric ingredient consumed infrequently by the most minuscule portion of the world’s population. Of course hysteria was bound to break out all over when a study of unknown underwriting appeared linking consumption of fatty livers by geese themselves to all manner of health boogeymen. And somehow yet another huge eat-it-and-die E. coli outbreak in ground beef was barely covered. If only someone would find foie gras in Darth Cheney’s office. . . .
The obituary for advertising in old media may be premature. Look at how those dollars paid off for Holy Foods, with a front-page story on a phenomenon that was already noted more than five years ago. So why is it so hard to sell out space on section fronts? Dining was actually reduced to running a house ad in once-sacred real estate. Which reminded me of nothing so much as a hooker having to pay herself for a hand job.
Maybe it’s because the population has thinned out for the summer, but the eavesdropping has been particularly pleasurable lately. I heard a guy at Balducci’s asking for “bread with no lactose” (and the clerk actually trying to help). A couple of heavyset West Indian women were striding through the Greenmarket on 97th railing: “No grapes? No bananas? What kind of market is this?” A friend was in Fairway when she overheard: “Fuck you!” “No, fuck you.” “No, no one would fuck you.” But my favorite was the garrulous young gay guy at the next table at Spice who informed his lunch date, “I’m just looking for someone who will worship me.” Somehow I suspect he would have more luck at Balducci’s than Fairway.
A tour guide’s memoir my consort brought me back from Italy a couple of years ago, “Too Much Tuscan Sun,” is proving to be a real hoot, particularly the chapter about the awful Americans who arrived toting “a credit card company’s travel magazine” and insisted on following what the printed word dictated rather than listening to the local they were paying. I got some of the same sense from scanning the bizarrely inflated coverage this year of a certain event out in a town named for Scooter and Judy’s coded tree. Who all got a ticket to eat? Why are we reading the phrase “Sundance of food” over and over about an event where the main attractions are the same old same olds you’d see down at Barnes & Noble when the new book comes out? I hate to point out the obvious, but one is about indies and the other about corporate clout. Schlep to Colorado to watch a Mesa Grill dish demonstrated? I’d rather eat Communion hosts at Otto. But I give major points to the magazine for luring all these unpaid flacks west. Even I’m talking about an event that is to “sex lies and videotape” as “Top Chef” is to “The Five Obstructions.” I would just like to think that if the Daily News can afford to send a reporter to a three-day infomercial it should be able to bring back that fourth page of funnies if not the real restaurant review. And yes, I know, all I need is a Gold Card and a dream.
Big mistake going to see “Knocked Up” the same night Panchito’s id treated a serious trend story like a Jell-O wrestling match. I will never be able to skim him again without thinking of the cretinous roommates frenetically miming oral sex. At least the arrested development onscreen was intentional. This was as unseemly as a wine writer bragging about gettin’ wasted, man. With no director to say: Grow up.
I don’t want to dwell on guys and their piggy obsessions, but I do have to wonder what the good doctor with the cigar would say about the Bruni-worshipping blogger who typed “strawberries marinated in pork.” Someone needs his salad tossed.
The other WTF was the obit of 12th Street’s Ken Lay. I know I babble about this constantly, but I have to recall my mom very calmly responding to my grade-school hypothetical about acquiring fame by killing someone; she just said, “No, that would be infamy.” Now I want to warn: Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Peter Kumps. Some crook who nearly destroyed the foundation will still get a memorial nearly as long as the visionary who founded it and built it up. The sausage-making machinery in that shiny new building must be really something. If it weren’t for the lapses, there would be no judgment at all.
My consort always says you could set the nuclear clock by my remorse, and never is that more true than when it comes to Estonia. I took Bob’s self-effacing friends at their word when they said there was nothing to do or see there and so will go to my urn wishing we had allotted more time to explore. Maybe then I would not have needed the WSJ to explain why the baby nation had no cuisine. Our friendly interpreters had said it was because rationing and food shortages had made it impossible to develop characteristic dishes, but buried in an excellent piece on Baltic herring as the newly designated patriotic fish was the real reason: Official Moscow did everything it could to exterminate any local recipes as nationalist. Maybe if more Americans knew that, we would not be so passive about a Chimp who has declared himself king. First they came for the french fries. . . . It’s a slippery slope to felafel and other noncorporate foods of which Washington night not approve.
In an ideal world, Philadelphia’s cloutiest restaurateur would be shoving a PETA picket sign up Paula Greed’s ample ass. He’s caving to foie gras protesters when she’s raking in the bucks promoting industrial pork? What’s wrong with that picture? Supersizing ducks as if they were humans driving through McDonald’s might seem cruel if not unnatural. But abusing pigs (and the environment) to produce cheap food is downright evil. The only mystery in this sellout world is why no one has thought of getting celebrity endorsements for literal shit. I can think of at least half a dozen greedheads who would line up to promote it with the right slogan: Merde — it’s what was for dinner.
Imagine how much horror could have been averted if voters had understood the candidate they most wanted to have a beer with would be too hungover to function after just a couple of German O’Doul’ses. Thank allah they kept him out of the communion wine at the Vatican or even the Albanians would have been embarrassed. If nothing else, this dry drunk reign has made it too clear that a crucial part of presidenting is imbibing. Forget the debates. Next election let’s have wine tastings and watch who spits.
I guess the NYT can blame the big move to the Taj Sulzberger for any glitches for the foreseeable future. Certainly disorientation has to be to blame for the phrase “chicken tortillas” making it into print. What in the hell are those? And would sandwiches be “chicken breads?”
Talk about damning with faint praise. On some forum I saw a reader raving that Barbara Kingsolver’s calculated take on “Coming Home to Eat” is “almost as good as ‘Under the Tuscan Sun.’’’ Could have been worse — she could have said “The Bridges of Madison County.’’
I was sorrier than most to read of the demise of Kurowycky’s, which for several years was my special source for ham for our New Year’s open house. Sentimental as I felt, though, I still wondered at the official explanation. People are clearly not eating less cured meat these days, for starters — charcuterie/salumi is so hot you can make news out of Iowa or Seattle just by producing it. Pork in all forms is huge as well, as is the artisanal touch with any food. And so I wonder if what really did the place in had something to do with the raw ingredient. I gave up on ordering locally after my very first taste of ham from Heritage Foods USA. Once you’ve had nonindustrial meat, you’ll never go back; the most brilliant processing cannot compensate for pork raised wrong. Maybe the family should now take their show on the road — a Kurowycky-cured ham made from Red Wattle pork would be a taste to behold.
For the whole 20 months I was in PT, I constantly thought restaurants could learn a lot from my center — all the therapists and their assistants were watching everything, not just their own patients; there was no “that’s not my table” attitude, and I honestly never felt neglected (although rehabilitated clearly turned out to be another issue). Now that I have spent a night in a NYC emergency room, my new theory is that trauma managers could learn from brunch triage. In my short and misguided stint in a restaurant kitchen, I was trained to think, to check the lineup of incoming orders and expedite — if a loner ordered scrambled eggs after two four-tops requested omelets, it made sense to knock out his food first and turn that table. Not at St. Vincent’s. The guy who broke his ankle boozing and brawling got the orthopedist first even though that involved noisily evicting his girlfriend with the cellphone camera, making the plaster for his cast, unspooling miles of gauze, putting him under and then resetting the bone for all to see. Me? I got my fracture strapped into a shoulder immobilizer and was sent on my way with a Rush Rx. I could have been out four or five hours earlier if only someone had thought like a cook and made mine over easy.
Just back from one last expedition to Middle Earth, I have a slightly better understanding of why people are not storming Washington as the carnage-for-nothing continues. There are Eastons out there to lull them into thinking shopping is the right thing to do when their selected leaders have only fear to sell. Our friends in Estonia call malls “the new cathedrals,” and this one in Columbus was certainly a temple, not a toy store. My consort and I did our part to sacrifice, buying a paring knife at Sur La Table and a couple of bottles of more-expensive-than-Gotham wine at the requisite Trader Joe’s. And then we got in the car and helped the war effort by burning through $3.39-a-gallon gas all weekend. Bob unpatriotically invested in a Honda, though, and I half-regret that we had only a little over half a tank to give for Darth Cheney.
I also learned TSA stupidity is contagious when I stopped for a glass of wine to kill time before the flight home. The airport bartender, the one who knew Stella Artois was “from Europe” but not which country, was carding every single person who sat down, and all of us were clearly older than he was, and he was at least twice the drinking age. Of all the things we have lost in this country thanks to the Chimp in Chief, common sense is the most infuriating. But I guess I should just be glad I got to keep my shoes on.
Rigsby’s Kitchen in Columbus was not as enchanting the second time around, but it was our fault for not braving the Bluefish that had just opened down the street, or Rossi’s, the bar the baker at Eleni-Christina’s recommended. And we were certainly not going to try Betty’s, which both the baker and a photographer shooting him for a brochure warned us off (in unison, and loudly, “No, you don’t want to go there”). We didn’t hear in time from our chef friend that the Vietnamese “hoagie” at North Market was world class, either. Rigsby’s wasn’t bad; it just seemed a little tired on a slow Friday. And it was still far better than anyone poking around on mouthfulsfood would be led to expect. When I looked in to see what commenters were saying about Columbus, there was a lot of yuk-yuking about Wendy’s from people who had not even been there, just were certain it was a culinary wasteland. It all reminded me of that old saying about keeping quiet and appearing stupid, rather than posting and removing all doubt.
Misguided marketing: IFC, where I stopped in to see the wondrous “Boss of It All,” is offering David Lynch iced coffee. Ground for “Eraserhead”?
Everyone in a tizzy over the garbage if not poison China is shipping us should pay the WSJournal to read what American farmers are feeding their animals now that ethanol producers are pushing up the price of corn (which was bad enough). The descriptions were straight out of “Darwin’s Nightmare” — I kinda doubt cattle were ever meant to eat Tater Tots and ramen noodle scraps. To quote just one graf, “Besides trail mix, pigs and cattle are downing cookies, licorice, cheese curls, candy bars, french fries, frosted wheat cereal and peanut butter cups.” We know what that stuff does to the human body, and it can’t be any more beneficial consumed secondhand, one step up the food chain. Then again, the creepy trend might yield the ultimate American dream foods: bacon flavored with chocolate, and burgers with the fries built in.
Mediabistro has always struck me as the cyber-successor to the Learning Annex, with dubious experts duping desperate amateurs. But maybe it does teach useful skills, judging by the announcement of one seminar I spotted: “It seems like everyone wants to be a food writer, so how can a journalist gain an edge? Until you can walk into a restaurant and get a free meal, there are plenty of ways to build a portfolio of published food-related items.” This is making it? Free meals? Then again, I fully anticipate a burst of publicity for a certain Upper West Side restaurant in the weeks ahead — the flack is offering dinners at the allegedly professional price.
Finally, a glimmer of success in Iraq. The president is so fat the Mayo Clinic has just taken him in for treatment. Obese politicians in a country with hungry children — they’re becoming just like us. Even so, I don’t think they will ever be overrun with commentators and writers of letters to the editor who are convinced that $28 a week would be plenty for food if the poor would just yank up their bootstraps and suffer harder. One hard-heart in the LATimes actually said they should be making their own tortillas. But Harley Karnes was the worst offender, braying on WCBS Radio about growin’ up poor in a holler and eatin’ mighty fine because his momma didn’t need no stinkin’ food stamps; she made magic with lard and cornmeal. Having grown up in similar straits, I somehow suspect his sainted mother could do that because she did not work outside the shack. Cheap food that’s good for you eats up the biggest luxury: time.
What is it with Southern cooks and Northern publishers? Not only are bookstores overstocked with Paula Deen titles, but now I see her sons and her brother have cookbooks out, too. Seriously, someone thought “Uncle Bubba” needed to share ridiculous recipes and bogus folksiness with the world. The last time a population explosion on paper was this out of control was after Paul Prudhomme burst onto the national scene and every sibling in the litter tried to cash in. But at least the Prudhommes brought something relatively real to the table, back in those halcyon days before a TV show became the only passport to cookbookland. Here’s what you get with Bubba: a headnote saying “beef Burgundy” was “served by his wife at a romantic dinner” and a list of ingredients that includes canned mushroom soup and Lipton’s onion soup mix. Trees were sacrificed for this horse shit? The Food Network should be shut down as a threat to the environment.
The Chimp Wannabe seems to be borrowing a page out of the Clinton playbook. According to the gossipy profile in New York magazine, his tiara-loving, dog-dissecting third wife absolutely forced him to eat at Le Cirque, night after night of food so rich he had to puke it up. Apparently his defense will be, “I didn’t digest.”
And this nutcase who already makes GoFuckYourself look charming will need a defense, now that so many politicians lately are doing the try-to-live-on-food-stamps-for-a-week stunt to bring attention to the shamefully low allotment for the poor in the land of the $12 latte. What the government gives a single person to live on for seven days is exactly $1 less than the scrambled eggs with caviar at Le Cirque, although with that $29 appetizer you do get your Yankees ring kissed. I hope anyone who cannot see through Mr. 9/11 does not mind one day hearing Judi regally announce: “Let them eat ($60) steak.”
Along with all its other virtues, menupages can really teach the benefits of paying attention in English class. Trying to find someplace that serves escargots for an out-of-towner the other night, I came across this comment on Cafe d’Alsace: “My wife and my dinner bordered on inedible.” And he blames the restaurant?
The $25 & Under on a venerable eating establishment down the street from me came up at a dinner party the other night, and of course I had to recount a battle in one of the more entertaining turf wars from my days as Deputy Dawg, when a winsome young reporter proposed a Temptation on the same thing and the guy then on the gyro beat went ballistic. To her wondering eyes it was a great discovery. To him it was a “lame-ass taco truck.”
Bees could be vanishing because we just don’t deserve them. I had an encounter with a flack the other day who told me the local products in a shop included things from “honey farms.” I’ll bet she thinks fish grow on trees, too.
Treat cookbooks as so much style fodder and what do you get? A reference to a record store that left the city three years ago. Failure must be the new success. Not to mention that ears should have been burning on 43d Street the other Monday while a seminar on “authentic Italian” was going on at the FCI. A couple of rather damning stories were told, but luckily most everyone there was old enough to have heard worse. . . .
My other exposure to what constitutes authentic Italian came at a lunch at the UN put on with mega-euros from Torino and Piemonte. I have a ridiculously soft spot for the city and the region, having come home from my second trip there outfitted with local screws after 16 days of four-star medical treatment, but more than sentimentality is talking here. Five courses were almost French in their intricacy, yet I was primarily impressed by the traditional stuff, the asparagus on a pool of fonduta and the agnolotti del plin, the quintessential local stuffed pasta. What made the lunch seem most like a trip out of New York despite the East River view, though, was the precision service coupled with the chefs’ modesty. Twelve “stelle” had been brought in to cook, but when the editor next to me asked which was responsible for which dish, the one who had the done the talking before every course simply said, “We’re a team.” How perfectly un-American. Freckles would be flying here.
If you think the suppuration in the Justice Department is bad, wait till you hear what has been happening in the kitchen on Pennsylvania Avenue. U.S. News & World Report says the purge extended to the chef, who was canned not because his food did not meet the exalted standards of the Texas elite but simply because he was a Hillary holdover. As evidence, the magazine says the menu fit for a queen looked to be a Scheib carbon copy. Imagine having to take a loyalty oath to cook. And will there one day be a Pat Robertson Culinary Institute?
With the town in a tizzy over the Page 6/Nello payoff scandale, a little item in the competition jumped out. Some Village restaurateur wanted to boast that a customer had comped Mrs. Chimp and her protectors, which sounded like a bullshit story even before you noticed he didn’t name the scene of the crime. And of course he couldn’t. No sane New Yorker would patronize the place ever again. Kobe Club has to be regretting ever letting anyone know Rush Limbaugh had been in the joint. Forks and glasses that touched his lips will certainly never touch mine.
I have to be more discriminating in my wanderings through food blogs. I went to one that led me to Panchito’s unmoored rambling on photography in restaurants, the one that wound up insisting images misrepresent reality, right down to the color of the walls. My first thought was that old punch line, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” And then one of my favorite Tom Waits songs came to mind. Paraphrasing the last line to fit, it would be “the camera has been drinking, not me. . . .”
The cluelessness of the Chimp’s courtiers is not limited to the Middle East. A Brit comes to dinner in a superior food country and what do they serve? Dover sole. Now there’s something she could not get at home.
The latest candidate for most peculiar name for a food establishment: Chicken Cabaret, on 34th Street. Do they sing for your supper?
Poor Michael McLaughlin. Even in death he can’t get his due. All the coverage of “The Silver Anniversary Cookbook” makes it seem as if all that brilliance was due to only the famous faces on the back cover. His name is never mentioned. At least he can eternally rest easy knowing that writing recipes well was the best revenge.
Despite having seen how the sausage is made, I’m still mystified as to why a newspaper that blithely recommends $94-a-pound chocolates would advise scrimping on kitchenware. My hand hurt looking at it. The last place to pinch pennies is on a knife, if only because it forces you to invest in crap you really don’t need, like a food processor and a mandoline. And if you have to replace that cheap and cheesy tool every year or so, you’d be better off taking out a loan and amortizing. The Wustof I bought in 1983 (on credit) averages out to have cost me $3 a year, while the pricey little parer that broke at its age of 22 or so was replaced for free by the manufacturer. Maybe “most of the cooks” in restaurant kitchens work with that shitty shiv, but then maybe those are the ones who squandered their loans on rip-off cooking schools and can’t complain about having to hammer nails with a high-heeled shoe.
Now the tainted Chinese gluten is in the feed for farmed fish. Which makes you wonder how smart it was to start taming the wild food supply. A lyrical writer in Harper’s a few years ago may actually have put his finger on the problem: Agriculture is the root of all evil. It could not be greed, could it?
Food writers who passed up Zarela’s invitation missed out on a lesson on Mexican corn that was as seriously entertaining as it was wildly illuminating. She has been telling me for years that the world has gone to hell in a metate now that true masa is so hard to find, but tasting the real kernels soaked, whole, ground and in a baker’s dozen other forms made her case beyond persuasively. And she is one smart pimpo: As we watched her grind corn and mix masa with plantains and griddle-bake just-shaped tortillas, we were sitting down gorging on little picadas with avocado salsa verde and tamales with mole (plus margaritas). Two things she served were particularly transporting, the esquites, corn kernels with mayonnaise and chile powder, and the enchilada de chorro, which was the closest thing to Arizona I’ve tasted in eons. Unfortunately, the whole intellectually sensual experience only made me think how narrow Mexican has become in Manhattan — we’ve gone from abysmal Tex-Mex to mostly pedestrian Puebla-esque menus, and there is so much more to the cuisine.
The real deal could have no better ambassador: She had us sniffing epazote and tasting fresh lard and struggling to keep up with all the historical and sociological nuggets she tossed off (who knew the Lebanese had influenced Mexican cooking?) Contrast that with the countless “seminars” that turn out to be nothing but shilling, with the “experts” only reciting from a poorly memorized script (can you say ron?) Zarela has the cojones to always charge a pittance, but given that so much of the media still can’t tell huitlacoche from chipotle (and will not learn that tamal does not take an E), the Mexican government should set up a neediest cases fund.
News that Whole Foods is opening a couple of blocks from me has the neighborhood in a tizzy, and not just because some think it should be a Trader Joe’s instead. We have one of the best Greenmarkets in town, and easily one of the cheapest “supermarkets,” plus a couple of good places for produce and bread, incomparable Oppenheimer’s for meat and even a Gourmet Garage for when we can’t run down to Fairway and Zabar’s and get better for cheaper. Do we need this behemoth abutting the projects when we can’t even buy a magazine now that all the newsstands have been forced out?
What makes me even more disgruntled (yes, it’s possible) is knowing that the opening will bring out the rube in New Yorkers yet again. Judging by the photos of throngs outside the new gelateria from Torino that I never heard of on two perambulatory trips there, Krispy Kreme has destroyed sophisticated brain cells. If it’s branded, Manhattanites will queue up. Then again, the fact that the samples are free has to count for a scary lot. In the midst of a building boom when housing costs are crippling, these are the new bread lines.
I’ve now been informed Tran Phat is a real guy. Which will teach me to spoof on anyone’s name, having spent decades suffering for what was inflicted on me. And not just the bad rhymes with my surname. Imagine going through seventh grade with a geography teacher who calls on you Canadian style. For my recent insensitivity, I hope I can count punishment served: At recess, I had go by Vagina.
The Chimp seems to be packing on the LBs since Bill Yosses started baking for him. On a more sober character that would be called a beer gut, but maybe it won’t be so obvious under white tie, the latest Village People get-up. Given that Gofuckyourself runs the show, the accidental president reminds me of that hoary joke about the grandiose illiterate who wears a tux to his vasectomy because “if I’m gonna be impotent, I want to look impotent.” At least that mission is accomplished. Bring on the desserts for dummies.
I see first prize in the Daily News recipe contest was a night at the Beard awards. Obviously, second prize would include a ticket to the after-party.
Probably the most idiotic letter I have ever read in a newspaper came from the soft-headed woman whimpering about foie gras who said she would not want a feeding chute jammed down her throat, therefore ducks should be spared. By that logic, the fact that ducks would not want shoes rammed onto their webs means humans have to give up footwear. Aren’t there online forums where this kind of nincompoopery can go hide?
Pity the poor magazine trying to stage a food & wine festival in soulless Vegas without using the rival’s name. Sympathy only goes so far, though. “Culinary and Wine” would send my old English teachers whimpering into the fallout shelter. Shouldn’t it at least be the Culinary and Viticultural Focus? Or maybe Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off?
I’m starting to think the NYC Health Department should be taking over the Iraq war. Since the rats ran wild and closings accelerated, at least one restaurant has done a preemptive shutdown to clean up just in case the “vicious” inspectors come by. This is proof the mayor is not a real Republican — it shows government can do good. The surge is working. And the only victims of the fear-spreading are bacteria.
At least once a day a news item makes me think of that old saying, “Figures lie and liars figure.” The latest was the “study” correlating the incidence of obesity in different cities with the recipes run in local newspapers. I admit I have a dachshund in this fight, but really, can this actually be true at a time when everything you read says newspapers are going the way of the Walkman? Somehow I suspect fast junk, microwavable garbage and the obsolescence of walking have had more of an iPod impact than the most calorific concoction ever printed under my byline. Besides, everybody knows reading is good exercise. So, for that matter, is cooking.
Clear warning that you are pouring friends’ wine with too free a hand at a birthday party with a Judi Giuliani theme: You get an email from the cab home from one swearing her driver is named Tran Phat. Right. Noah Smokin must have been off duty.
Gordon Ramsay has done more to redeem his restaurant’s reputation by taking on Panchito without taking out an ad than he could have by giving a year’s worth of free meals to the 800-Pound Gorillas. Every time he trash-talks he gains a reservation, from all I’m hearing. And of course that increasingly makes P. the Fredo Gonzales of reviewers: How long can he hang on, rubbing his bosses’ noses in bad chocolate and worse judgment? Already it looks as if the Phat Phuck is angling to be his replacement, judging by all the NYT ass-bussin’ going on lately. Eventually a bad thing has to come to an end, and we can only hope the screeners read Joe Morgenstern’s review of “Waitress” to get a sense of what a critic should be. Rather than sticking two thumbs up his ass, he gives you all you need to appreciate quality. Not the emotional what. The technical why.
When I left the NYT the first time, in 1983 to go to restaurant school, my partners in misery presented me with Martha Stewart’s “Entertaining” (at a party on the desk where I refused to eat the Brie because it was too funky-tasting — talk about “’twas in another lifetime”). Maybe that’s why I have a somewhat soft spot for one of the toughest broads in any business, even though I once turned down an assignment because her writer’s contract was so greedy. It really does mystify me why she is the Hillary Clinton of food. People just go batshit insane over her while Turd Blossom walks free. She gets a deal with Costco to produce prepared food, and the flaying begins, despite the fact that she has a golden track record with Kmart. Molto, by contrast, signs on to sell processed Progresso through Costco and Sam’s Club, and not a discouraging peep is heard. I don’t want to make the obvious comparison and say he’s the Laura Bush of food. But really, is it just that redheads have more immunity? Or was “Metropolis” too prescient?
Bill Maher has an entertaining new rule that food personalities on the teevee must stop making orgasmic faces whenever they taste something. But he doesn’t see the half of it. Flit around the internets among the food sites dipping pinkies into video and you will notice something much more disturbing. Too many of those frozen screens evoke Elvis on the throne. Personally, I prefer Giada’s moaning to some unknown’s straining at stool.
The heckuva-job loyal Bushie paid to promote abstinence has famously said calling in a hooker was like ordering pizza (“one large Central American, please”). It almost makes you long for the good old days of efficient government, when a single intern could do the “massage therapy” and dial Domino’s, too.
Normally a $1,400 Mai Tai would not be worth wasting key strokes on, but sometimes the where matters more than the what in a story. Belfast was one of the saddest cities I have ever slept in, and now it has a hotel that can charge Halliburton prices for a drink. Maybe there’s something to that old idea of prosperity through peace. Even I would welcome a press release touting a $5,000 felafel one day.
Workman parties always turn the food coven cheery, which must be why an editor who is no admirer of mine walked past and smiled so broadly I took a step back, then she caught herself and said: “I can’t talk to you because I was misquoted last time.” Talk about the last refuge of the indiscreet. Another editor, a couple of glasses later, wondered: “How did she know it was her?” A good question, given that the first acquaintance I ran into had asked, “Is the Phat Phuck Bruni?” Still, I did feel half a pang for causing any knickers to knot. I realize, even if the aggrieved didn’t, that a certain skin is stretched very thin.
Someone must be putting whatever drugs Mrs. Chimp takes into the New York water supply, though. The night before the Silver soiree, I was lucky enough to be at Hurapan Kitchen in the West Village when the only guest older than I am might have been the birthday boy’s family, and no one seemed to notice. I never made it more than six steps past the entrance and through one pass at the excellent buffet but was caught up in superb conversations, including on suburban sex (absence of discussion of, that is) and the insanity of cooking naked, online or off. Not for the first time, I wished I could match Dawn Powell’s output and not just her capacity. Nrnfoodwriter’s set would be at home in the diaries.
But enough about conviviality. My third big outing was a lavish lunch where two people I talked with went bonkers on the Evil Monkey. I don’t want to be accused of misquoting after five different wines, but one said she could drag a mood down 15 levels. The other I do remember said he once shared a cab uptown with “What A Sourpuss!” and was made miserable, to the point where he wanted to say get out and walk if you’re so important. It was the kind of carping you hear about women food writers by women food writers. But this was carpers who could not be accused of mere envy. Funny, since another friend always used to say slyly, italicizing the V word, “She’s a very lucky woman.” What good is power if it doesn’t buy you love?
My consort recently sent me a link to a video he and his classmates had produced on the NPPA judging of the best of photojournalism, which gave me some perspective on how the winners of prizes given out at the lunch were chosen. If I heard right, 200 products were taste-evaluated in four hours to select six to gold-medal. That would be like doing the Fancy Food Show on crystal meth. After breakfasting at Applebee’s.
The honeybee plot continues to sicken. David Byrne, linked through the inestimable eatdrinkonewoman, has an interesting conspiracy theory up — GM producers are killing off promiscuous bees to protect their insidiously evil crops — but the awful truth is that even worse theories could be at work. If we were actual stewards of the planet, we would all be 86ed. Consider the greedism on display in the maple capital of Vermont. The NYT did yet another story on how warming weather is diminishing sap, but this one, in BizDay, wound up as an ode to the lucrative marvels of technology. Fifteen years ago my consort and I, working on our ill-fated harvest book, spent days in Mapleville waiting for sugaring to begin and developed a serious case of techo-willies. Seeing whole stands of trees strapped up to be sucked sapless was really disturbing; the farms looked like ICU units. No wonder the earth is, as Laurie David and Kurt Vonnegut said, developing chills and fever and trying to shake humans off. People who care about maple syrup will pay whatever they have to for the real deal. But in a world perfectly happy with Aunt Jemima, why rape Mother Nature?
Poor Jean-Jacques. If the health inspector had only held off another month, until after the once supreme Court ruled, he could have had the perfect defense for vermin in the kitchen: The mice were pregnant and the roaches were carrying eggs; he was only protecting the unborn.
One of the great things about the series of tubes is how it keeps a story pumping along. You skip a few pages of a newspaper to avoid the overkill on the local shooting story and you miss the public pillorying of Paula Deen, but the internets soon bring you up to speed. The only mystery for me is why she did her deal with the Smithfield devil rather than Land O’Lakes, which has bought so many smaller souls. Maybe even the super-creamy guys quailed at the sight of her guzzling their melted product as if it were Baileys. I mean, there’s pigging out and there’s pigging out.
A vendor on 23d Street had an interesting name on his aromatic cart: Nada Food. It could be a chain.
This was V for vindication week for me. For years I have been arguing with food writers who insist the Enron-on-12th-Street Popularity Contest is vital “because we have no other way to get recognition.” My answer was always: What about the Pulitzer Prize? Now I hope the laughing has finally stopped. Whatever you think about Jonathan Gold, he and his outlet showed serious chops by both entering and winning. Good on him for proving food does not have to be a ghetto; eating is the second most important thing in life, and nothing else touches on so many aspects of life. So what if the same bunch gave Maureen the Emasculator of Democrats the same award a few years ago. Their punishment will be having to read through the reams and reams of really deadly food prose that is headed their way next year . . . .
Judging by a lively conversation at a lavish press event (the crappier the product, the more resources thrown at it), the tipping point might have been finally reached for the Egotist. Now that he is on the teevee with all his anti-charisma on full display, the long knives are out. (Travel? Clueless. Recipes? Lame. Why so inescapable? Damn good question.) From there the bile flowed to the other B-boy, whose ascendancy puzzled my tablemates even more. I could only wonder why Esca was reviewed for a third time in a city with more than 15,000 restaurants, since I had been there with the last real critic when it first opened and have never understood its allure. But I guess I’m naive. Two blocks from HQ is location, location. And when you’re talking fish, you have all the silly, obvious metaphors in the sea. No wonder brunidigest has gone into hibernation. The parody is running on autopilot.
When I wrote about new jobs in food recently, I did not include media coach. Judging by said press event, the field is not just wide open but demand far outstrips supply. Here was a guy hired to educate a roomful of journalists and he repeatedly talked about “distilleration.” And “charerization.” “And Columbus brang.” (“Soders” for sodas I could forgive.) Worse, a great-sounding cocktail he demonstrated was described as “a good party-stopper” — which is just what every happy hostess wants. I did write about mixologists, and this guy was clearly a shaking wizard of the cocktail; his twists were smart and smooth. But to all those people who wrote me wondering how to acquire a brave new job in food, I can only advise: No matter how well you walk the walk, you had best learn to talk the talk.
The event was not a waste, though. The food was quite good (with the ingredient du jour showcased intelligently), and I certainly enjoyed hearing how a familiar freelance byline in the Newspaper of Integrity is a total pill on press trips. In saccharum, veritas.
Some other bilious thoughts: The best image I have heard in weeks is from the two political bloggers who described Go-Fuck-Yourself as traveling around the world like a turducken, in an AirStream trailer inside a cargo plane. Then, did the Chimp’s motorcade swing through a drive-through liquor store on his trip to Ohio? Why else would he be talking about “chicken-plucking factories”? Not to mention that the best Dinosaur-in-Denial moments happen anymore when NYT editors have to answer reader queries online. You don’t even need to have your speakers on to hear the teeth gritting. My favorite was the complaint about too much fat in recipes that was answered with “we just ran recipes for brownies and macaroni and cheese and meatballs” — you could almost anticipate the “you ignorant slut” that followed. Plus did someone say the Chinese poison in the pet food is also in the hog feed now? Grover Norquist may have succeeded in getting the federal government small enough to drown in a bathtub, but in helping to gut the FDA he has forgotten even the rich need their bacon. Finally, if you don’t already want to crawl into your own private bunker in despair, I just got a copy of a Wonder Bread cookbook. I would suspect it is a joke, but it includes balls — a formula for rolling the gummy gunk into them. Funny, I always thought a recipe was for something you would eat. And a cookbook involved food.
Just back from Middle Earth, I am feeling less depressed about the chaining of Manhattan. At least we don’t have an A&W. Yet. There was one at the Columbus airport, and I actually resorted to it after being almost hauled off to Guantanamo for trying to duck over to the Wolfgang Puck Express in another concourse, beyond “security.” And it sold cheese curds. Deep-fried cheese curds. To 500-pounders. Landing at JFK, I was half-happy to see what is going in at the Delta gates where only Starbucks was open on the outbound flight. You know it’s grim when Todd English looks good.
I’m also seeing Mother Waters in a different light. As much credit as she is due for changing the way America eats, there’s no denying a huge proportion of the improvement has been literally organic — even she would have been stymied if the counterculture had been wiped out in the food world as it effectively was everywhere else in this society. Poke around southeastern Ohio for just a couple of days and you’ll find no end of people who decided 30 to 40 years ago that they wanted to produce clean meat and pure cheese and pesticide-free vegetables and simply stuck with it, with no fantasies of fame or fortune. (There’s a concept: Iron Farmer.)
For starters, the Athens farmers’ market on a snowy Saturday morning had more variety than Union Square (ramps and garlic chives already), while the Mexican co-op Casa Nueva devoted one page of the long menu to a list of all its local purveyors of beef and mushrooms and herbs and produce. Even the Kroger had an aisle set aside for locally produced foods such as salsa and pasta. And the old rebels who crank it out walk the walk. One farmer my consort knows had just come back from the Middle East, where he goes every year with a Christian group that clings to the absurd idea that peace might be possible. This trip, he said, “Iraq was the worst we have ever seen it — Baghdad was too dangerous; we had to go to Kurdistan.” (My response: Tell that to John McCain.) Seeing how much good has been done off the radar, you start to wonder if honeybees would be threatened today if America had stayed on the greening track and not gone for the greed. But at least the fat cats can look forward to a last meal at a certain shrine in Berkeley.
Right before leaving town, I had coffee with a friend in from Houston who was still in shock after her dinner at Per Se. For three women, each of whom nursed one glass of wine for the whole nine courses, the bill was nearly $800. Unfortunately, I was not surprised by either that sad tale or her disappointment in the food itself. But I kept my mouth shut, because when she had told me the day before that she was headed to the dread TWC, I had not warned her off, only said mildly, “I’ll be curious to hear what you think.” Why ruin it for her when it was too late to bail?
The joke was on me exactly three nights later. My consort had made reservations at Purple Chopstix in Athens for dinner with his downstairs neighbor and his consort (the neighbor’s), mostly because it was about the last “high-end” place in town we had not tried. And there Bob’s bland red Thai curry was ladled over couscous while my slopped-out “veggie pesto pasta” had plenty of the first and last ingredients and precious little of the main; worse, it arrived with two slivers of parsley-dusted melon and three wedges of pita(?) flopped on the side. Soup and salad were included, and all I’ll say is that Bob’s neighbor described the former as “Appalachian tom yum.” I took no comfort in finding the bill for four was less than one bottle of wine at Per Se — it was all like hippie food for people who have never done drugs. No wonder everyone we met beforehand had asked us where we were eating and then gone either strangely quiet or wondered, “Have you tried Stephen’s?”
As we were trotting, late, into Purple Chopstix, I suddenly asked Bob: “What if it’s BYOB?” And of course the other couple was waiting with a bottle of red they had brought. Luckily, we’d noticed a liquor store across the street, so he went tearing off to save us. Much polite conversation elapsed before he ran back in, clutching a Rodney Strong merlot and laughing that it had taken so long because “the clerk didn’t hear me come in.” Of course not. It was a drive-through. No wonder every Ohio liquor store you walk into wears a sign warning that carrying a FIREARM around booze is a felony. If you can’t honk for service, you might be tempted to shoot.
The best chemperor-wears-no-clothes moment came late at night at Bob’s best friends’ house when he was trying to get me to shock them by telling how much that dinner at Per Se cost. I never even got to the amount. The wife absorbed just enough to yelp, “Per Se? That is the most pretentious name I have ever heard.”
Which made the NYT’s blithe skewering of a schoolkid who had never heard of Per Se seem all the crueler. But then that whole mess of a story on NYC’s culinary high school was marred by off-hand shittiness, the kind that can only be dispensed by someone with a nice salary, a 401K and a stock plan. I’m no bleeding heart, but I felt for the poor girl whose impoverishment had to be exposed to myriad readers, and in the lede and photo to boot. If the most significant facet of the school is indeed the income level of the students’ families, the point probably could have been made a tad more gracefully. Maybe I’m just sensitive because my father always insisted the difference between “poor” and “white trash” was soap and education. Given that he could barely provide for a family of nine, he would have been mortified to see any of his litter publicly shamed for choosing the latter. And if the snootiest restaurants are really so important, could the piece at least have mentioned where the graduates wind up? Maybe they’re at Zagat, where they only need to know from names and not from cooking.
Did anyone else find Deriding The City Of New Orleans’ choice of phrase while daintily “reviewing” the Egotist-on-Teevee a bit odd? It came awfully close to “choking the chicken.” But then when you start with circle-jerking with these guys, where does it stop?
My metropolitan chauvinism must have been getting out of control in Middle Earth because one happy inhabitant bluntly asked me what was so great about living in Manhattan. I was stopped cold, then started blathering about the gift of privacy and the gift of anonymity. What I really meant only came clear to me when I got back to terra infirma and read my Sunday papers. One party I had gone to in the week before was showcased for an appearance by a teevee star whose newest boyfriend looked like the Anna Nicole daddy, while another was significant enough to be documented by Bill Cunningham. What I remember from each is a sound bite. At the first, a designer paid by the promoters was doing a demo with an ingredient she pronounced “grand marnyer.” And at the second, the Apple-laptop deejay chose to play “Stuck in the Middle With You.” That was at the Four Seasons, where another party was starting to swing as the superb one I was leaving was winding down; on the way out, I passed Dominick Dunne and heard people referring to Kissinger coming in. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, indeed. This little island is the great equalizer, and you get your drinks for free.
On the news front, I don’t know what was creepier among recent WSJ stories, Molto Ego’s hiring on to sell frozen dinners or the fact that the FDA has been so gutted under the C student from Yale that contaminated pet food ingredients are now the least of our worries from China. And then there was the NSS (no shit, Sherlock) item in the NYPost, on Consumer Reports’ finding on which kitchen appliances are most likely to break down. Hmmmm. Would they be the most expensive, the most yuppified? Congratulations. You win a restored Fifties stove. Which at least will prevent you from nuking a Mario Batali Regional Recipe and wondering what kind of “rustic mouth feel” sausage with orecchiette can safely feed five for $10.99, celeb’s payoff included.
Publishers must be as gullible as Panchito himself if he has a contract to tell the world how he morphed from Bush-whacked groupie to not-waving-but-drowning restaurant reviewer. The title pretty much writes itself: “Triumph of the Witless.”
And of the many brilliant aspects of Bill Buford’s extraordinary take on Gordon Ramsay’s rough entry into what has become Hamburger Heaven, my favorite was his casual evisceration of the big paper’s little man at table. Manhattan has never seemed more like a backward colony than in this haunting piece, which gets right to the heart of a celebrity-addled culture. I only had Ramsay’s food at the opening party, so I can only suspect it could be all Buford describes. But I now wonder if everyone would be so enamored of Per Se if Keller cussed on the TV. Certainly the food served at a sit-down lunch during a Spanish wine event the other day was so restrained it would pass for unremarkable if you didn’t understand what went into it. But then a New York chef by way of California (and vice versa) can sing the theme song from “Freaks,” so he gets automatic beatification as one of us even though he may spend no more time here than the guy with the F image. I won’t soon forget the starry-eyed young writer at my table asking if the holy man would be coming out to greet us and being told very snootily by a waiter offering dueling waters: “No, he’s in Thailand.” London or Paris, of course, would cost him fucking stars.
Speaking of colorful speech, I was walking down Eighth Street and contemplating Pio Maya for lunch when a quarreling couple passed me with the man snarling: “What did you expect? It was a fucking Happy Meal!” Maybe she expected to be greeted with flowers?
Sugar does nothing for me, but the Saveur cover still looks particularly tantalizing this April. Right under the “savor a world of authentic cuisine” line, whipped cream is being piped from 12 to 2 on the clock of a coconut cream pie; the glimpse of the filling under all that white makes the photo. So it’s a bit of a letdown to turn to the recipe and see that the “cream” is actually made from a box of Dream Whip. I thought that stuff went the way of bluing. But then that’s what “honest American cooking” is in diners. That and “chicken base,” the essential ingredient in two other recipes. Both are sourced, which tells you even more about the disconnect between GE Profile editors and regular readers anymore. For the record, they also sell cream of mushroom soup at Gristede’s. And Taste of Home don’t need no stinking source box.
Reading the Metro story about rats and their pivotal place in the food chain the other morning, I hoped the Porcine Pantload was choking on his Frosted Rodent Flakes. More likely that scurrying legal mind was already spinning another op-ed out of the revelation of what furry vermin consider a good protein breakfast. To summarize: Rats eat big disgusting cockroaches. Ergo, rats are performing a public service. In closing, get the health inspectors off infested restaurants’ backs. Really, there’s a place in the Justice Department for this guy. Maybe under Turd Blossom.
Given that I was ready to move to Milan after my most recent foray, it says everything that it took a friend’s urging to get me to skim the Travel piece on eating there. Given that this epic was published in a weekly section, though, I mostly wondered why the food was so last autumn. Italians be seasonal, and summering Americans will be seriously disappointed if they clip and eat. I can’t forget my first eating expedition in hottest July a few years ago. Our friend Cristina, who is Milanese to the core, chose a garden restaurant for lunch one day and indulged us in the most obvious local specialties, risotto and vitello, but warned: “You will still be digesting at Christmastime.” I guess it’s easier when you’re plodding?
Do the French have a word for formidable? If so, it is the only adjective for Madame D’Artagnan as she learns the K Street shuffle and starts fighting back in Up Is Down/Black Is White style against the crazies trying to ban foie gras. Whatever you may think about the humanity of force-feeding birds that are genetically programmed to gorge, you have to question the sanity of declaring any food off-limits in the alleged land of the free. Ortolans by any name are different, considering extinction is forever. But are we really going to be the first Western country to legitimize a culinary Taliban? Didn’t some other Frenchie say he might not agree with what you eat, but he’d defend to the death your right to eat it?
The Duck Stops Here is very smart to move the debate away from the ingredient and toward the rights of the producers, the artisanal farmers who are so much more well-intentioned than the agribusinessmen lining up to rape the planet to cash in on the ethanol fad by overplanting corn (only obese America would think burning food for fuel is an ethical concept). But then with the Pucks (Wolfgang and Burger) snagging headlines on a kinder, gentler food supply, it’s looking as if this country will soon be treating hogs and hens a little too well, all lives considered. If the hyper-concerned citizens don’t want to eat an engorged liver, they can pass it by. But until scientists certify the dangers of second-hand bliss, maybe these food fascists should start picketing Walter Reed.
Now that the world knows the Chimp calls his own private attorney general Fredo, after the weakest link in the Corleone family, now might be a good time to remind everyone who gave Panchito his nickname. Even a friend of mine suddenly claims to be unaware of their BFF relationship back when a global menace was sold as an amiable cowpoke to a country that just wanted to have a beer with its president. The only encouraging thought is that Leni in a leopard print bathrobe will be too busy maxing out Pinch’s credit cards at the trough to hit the campaign trail next election; otherwise we’d be looking at a first lady in a tiara, and her husband in a dress. Fool us once. . . .
One of my favorite titles (and books) is “Cold Spaghetti at Midnight.” Maggie Waldron’s legacy is a supremely engaging and very useful guide to feel-better food, and if she were alive today I just wonder what she would have to say about hot sausages at daybreak. Someone’s size OOO black dress must be cutting off circulation to her empty cranium — this stuff makes Nigella Lawson look like Elizabeth David. Anything that takes a couple of hours to cook is not exactly convenience food on a very late night. And why does a deep freezer full of assorted sausages including bangers but no Italians sound like a bachelorette party gag?
The snow had not even all melted before I had already heard enough about the Shake Shack reopening to last me six lifetimes. I cannot believe I fled a tiny boring burg only to wind up in another where the circus comes to town and the rubes all wet their pants. Even in Clarkdale we didn’t get this worked up about the Dairy Queen every summer. Kroc help us all if an In-N-Out ever opens.
On the plus side of living in Manhattan, I had another experience at Fairway that could not have happened anywhere but here. That store really is like no other killing field, but for once the assault was not by the usual Mike Tyson-wannabe old lady/young mom/shrink co-dependent. I had simply reached up to grab some lemons off a stack about three feet taller than I am and found myself Velcroed to the display, with nubbly wool firmly attached to whatever had held the missing price sign in place. I love my new coat, and I was ready to freak before I realized I was not impaled on a nail. You can’t get that at peace-love-and-understanding Wegmans. The next Spiderman movie could be shot in that same aisle. Come to think of it, the “300” sequel, too.
Surreal evening of the year so far was at Craftsteak, at a strange event celebrating City Harvest’s 25th anniversary. I expected a crowd, but probably fewer than 25 people were clumped in small groups in a private room with three tables laid out with lavish pick food and with several waiters pouring wine and passing plates. For once I did not recognize a soul and sort of lurked near the eats until a guy wandered over to grab some coppa and I tried the old, “Is it just me or do you not know anyone here either?” Within two minutes his wife had materialized and we struck up a conversation that drew over a couple of other people, and I got a persuasive good-we’re-doing rap. I forgot to pick up the press packet when I left shortly afterward, but I did hear that what looked to be three tables’ worth of serious leftovers would not be donated to City Harvest, including foie gras, that amazing coppa, other cured meats, roasted vegetables and more. Only what had not been set out could be accepted. Unlike in India, beggars here can be choosers. While cats get poisoned by food you pay for.
Obsessionwithfood tipped me off to the SFChronicle’s stop-the-presses front-page discovery of restaurant bloggers, which did not exactly do much to advance the cause of old media’s dominance. It was just more proof that there are no new stories, only new reporters (and seriously uninspired photographers — was the best illustration really a woman sitting at a computer? Give that shooter a cellphone.) Plus it did not address what I find most fascinating, how flacks’ sneaky ways of catapulting the propaganda are not going to work for much longer. After seeing Central Kitchen in the Village photographed as if it were turning out seared tuna in a finished dining room, I happened to walk past and looked into a construction site. But at least this case of premature exultation was an equal-opportunity scam. Both the bloggers and the paper press got taken.
Look for Colors to start getting “reviewed” far and wide on the series of tubes, though. A flack is right now beating the blogs trying to drum up interest in a concept that was probably doomed from the git-go. New York may be, as my one wingnut friend insists, overpopulated with bleeding-heart liberal nitwits, but even we draw the line at eating solely for a cause. This place got more opening press than any 25 restaurants, and it is still struggling — clearly the 9/11 connection should have been the back story, not the raison d’eating. And aren’t “global eclectic” menus with staff to match a peso a dozen here? For once I hate to sound cynical, and I really do hope they can turn the soul train around before it goes over the cliff, but a mission statement makes a damn dry dinner.
I guess I should consider myself lucky: I eat a lot of mediocre food, but I don’t often face down anything truly miserable. The latest exception was at the newest fusiony Asian joint in our neighborhood. My spring-breaking consort in from Ohio tasted his stir-fried udon and said, “This makes the steam table in Athens look good.” My “tofu with double mushroom” arrived shortly afterward, and I knew without lifting my fork that the sauce was the same as his. As for “double mushroom,” it must have meant “from two cans.” Soup and salad were included in the specials, but I didn’t know they still made iceberg. Even at $5.95, slop is slop. The insult added to the injury was contemplating how much the owners had obviously invested in the look of the place, which is very sleek and stylish and almost downtown for Amsterdam in the 90s. It used to be that an ethnic joint would open up here in a low-rent dump and turn out great food, then renovate and expand as money flowed in. Now the trend seems to be throwing all the cash into the decor and forgetting why people with nice big kitchens go out for lunch. Cool light fixtures have no perceptible taste.
Something tells me you would not want to eat at the Porcine Pantload’s. Rat turds in the sticky buns clearly don’t worry his big inflated head. When it comes to reasoning, his bloviating made it pretty clear that as a lawyer he makes a lame food writer. But then what’s that old saying about a lawyer who retains himself having a fool for a client?
Bad enough that the Phat Phuck was allowed to defend his own kind in the vaunted pages of the NYTimes. But it was a tad too close for comfort to see the missus promoting Niman Ranch’s animal husbandry by essentially attacking the competition. I mean, there was no arguing with the integrity of her position — industrial pork is the real preventable horror in this country, not overfed ducks — but it would have been even more persuasive presented by someone with no need to disclose the conflict of marital interest. This was like Mrs. Chimp writing, “Es la verdad.” And spies have been outed for less.
Back to the rats du jour, I’m thinking the owner of the Coffee Shop could go to work for the Justice Department. Closed by the apparently invigorated health authorities, he offered a bizarre defense: The place has been always been a rule-breaker; inspectors have never cared. The feature reporting he had more than two dozen violations never mentioned what the tipping point is, which now makes me a little queasy about eating in my own neighborhood. After a woman behind me in the deli line at my favorite little market shrieked on spotting a coatless cockroach in the refrigerated display case, strutting over the fried fish fillets, I went online to see what the rating was. It never turned up, but the oddest pattern did: The “better” the restaurant around here, the closer to a shut-down rating. Could cheap joints really be cleaner, or just have less palm grease in their dispensers?
Anyone else find it ironic that the killer pet food turns out to be the very kinds vets have persuaded us are most healthful? And who knew pricey kitty pate was like peanut butter, with one producer capable of poisoning under many labels? Someone needs to come up with local food for felines. Organic ain’t gonna help.
Advertising works in mysterious ways. The same day Conde Nast took out a full-page ad on C7 congratulating Gourmet for winning Adweek awards for editor and design team of the year, a column on C11 showed its ad pages were down 18.2 percent from last year. As a reader, I consider that good news, though. It’s tedious having to rip out all the car and cruise ads to find the editorial anymore. I haven’t seen Jeffrey Steingarten in months because he is buried so deep in Vogue. But given that he is apparently swaddled in a bathrobe for his most recent stunt, I consider that good news. . . .
I was going to let Panchito’s latest shameless orgy of excess pass without comment, figuring it was just more evidence that the NYTimes wants to be the newspaper of, by and for the filthy rich. But the tale of the $800 meal in the hotel room New Yorkers would never rent happened to run the same day Mayor Bloomberg was quoted as saying the chasm between rich and poor in this country is neither politically viable nor morally right. And it was the same day I heard Martha Raddatz speak about how shameful it is both that Americans are being asked to sacrifice nothing for the Iraq war and that we are in no way prepared to care for hundreds of thousands of grievously wounded veterans. What made that even more surreal was that I was surrounded by the Times’ target audience at a breakfast at “21,” where the silver was gleaming and the flowers were lavish and my table mates were talking about dropping $42,000 on season tickets for four to some sport or other. (I can’t keep them straight.) At least consciousness was raised there — guests did ask what corporate America could do to help. But later, when I flipped through Dining, I really wondered how funny a National Guardsman on his fourth tour of duty would find the Chimp’s original enabler, mincing around in a leopard print robe. Next challenge: Can he eat at Atelier, Masa and Per Se and have the $1,000 pizza — all in one lunch hour?
John’s Pizza gets shut down by the Health Department just around the corner from the Ratso Bell and whose fault is it? “Sleazy fast food joints,” of course, forcing the city to force the old-time joint to seal the “Welcome, vermin” portals and cover the buffets in the garbage cans. The owners may want to get the government off their backs, but I have never felt safer eating a meal than I did at Pearl the day I spotted so many windows on Bleecker Street posted with officialese. Now can we send those same inspectors even I maligned down to Bill Yosses’ new kitchen? The rats in that establishment must be a huge problem if one has been dubbed Jabba the Veep.
My lunch at Pearl was almost literally a trip. Walking in on the latish side, I grab a stool at the counter between an older woman and a couple who are chatting away about New York restaurants, and of course I have to chime in when I realize the out-of-towners’ to-try list is surprisingly savvy. (Naturally, they didn’t compile it from the NYTimes but from Wine & Spirits, a magazine I clearly have to track down.) Turns out they have made their way to Cornelia Street after having been repulsed by surly treatment at Saravanaas, but the conversation is mostly about what a wondrous city they are in (I couldn’t disagree, only say it’s a far better place to live than to visit). And then suddenly a smiling, happy Mr. Billings is snarling, “George Bush is the shittiest president ever.” I almost have to abandon my perfect, perfect fried cod sandwich to get into this. More, please, sir. We go back and forth about Laura’s little accident and how 9/11 never had to happen and etc. He leaves making the peace sign and saying, “Make levees, not war,” and I go back to my still perfect sandwich without a word to the regular who has taken the stool to my left. And to enjoying what E.B. White called so beautifully New York’s queer prize: the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.
Now that Lonesome Dove has skedaddled back to Texas, antelope tail between its shaky legs, I hope the Fort Worth paper devotes the same amount of humongous space to the deluded chef’s packing up his tent as it did to spreading the news that he was going to make it here. It’s a story chefs never read before they hear wine-soaked applause and mistake Enron on 12th Street for a culinary Carnegie Hall. From there it’s an easy slide to thinking the flacks run the show and forgetting that “location, location, location” is the equivalent of “practice, practice, practice.” The poor guy would have been so much better off taking his kangaroo nachos west. From all I read, what sucks in Vegas stays in Vegas.
It was not the cocktails talking that made me warn a chef up from New Orleans that he would have a hard time finding better food in New York than what he had just cooked. This was at an event at the transporting Pegu Club (Hong Kong on Houston Street), where a contingent from Cafe Adelaide made getting on a plane to a wounded city sound like a duty to gout and country, and not just because wearing a faux feather boa would seem less ridiculous there. The marination of the guests started with a combination of rum, brandy and Champagne and ended three glasses later with a combination of Calvados and peach brandy (we bailed before dessert and the combination of moscato and cassis). Each glass was paired with a sit-down dish created by that chef, Danny Trace, starting with a plate of crab (cake, claws and lump) and ending with a plate of pig (tenderloin, boudin crepinette, hog’s head cheese) With crawfish, duck, honey, grits, tasso, andouille and chicory coffee thrown in, it was all an exceptional exploration of the Louisiana Terroir. And it made me think, first, how much that cornhole from GQ missed in New Orleans and, second, how much New York is missing with its bizarre obsession with burgers and steaks. Then again, if brilliance landed in the forest, could a guy who was photographed dressed for White Castle even hear it?
What do Ann Coulter and Mario Batali have in common, and I’m not talking gender? The same edamame-brain profiler, who has now taken on the local vs. organic debate, undoubtedly confusing a shrinking number of Americans (Time readers, that is). His piece whipsawed through the usual arguments, building his credibility throughout with loving allusions to such admirable food icons as Applebee’s, Froot Loops, margarine and of course the evilest empire, McDonald’s. Holy Foods? But of course. I have no idea what photos ran in the magazine, but I will be scratching my head until July wondering how an upstate New York CSA farm near the Vermont border would have the tomatoes, basil and two kinds of summer squash shown on the web in March. This story must have been in cold storage longer than those local apples he preferred.
In the highly unlikely event Bear Back Libby does not get his pardon, let’s hope he winds up in a jail where Halliburton has the contract for the food if not the soap. And come to think of it, that must be who catered the dinner Turd Blossom gave for his Chimp at which reporters waiting outside were treated to sausages and “quail wings.” Excuse me? There’s barely meat on those birds, let alone on their wings. At first I wondered if they might have been something left over from that other heckuva job by Halliburton, at Walter Reed (rat and roach legs). Then I checked the Google and saw quail wings are what hunters use to train their dogs. The only better snack for D.C. press who dutifully regurgitate whatever they’re told would be yellow cake.
The icky onanism of the latest installment of “Liberace Goes to Hooters” raises a couple of questions, and not just why he ever imagined he could outdo Eddie Murphy. First, why didn’t Rupert Murdoch think of showing tits and asses to pump up his web traffic? Oh. Right. And, given that nothing could be that embarrassing without someone pulling the strings, who is the Turd Blossom of Dining?
Once again, the real scandal was $25 and Under. A chef with a total of four stars from the NYTimes lowers his prices and gets blown off as cheap eats while the food fight with Chodorow escalates to skank level. Funny, I remember some alleged critic had this to say at Dona: “As satisfying as it can be, a strip steak seldom argues for much attention.” So enough already with beating the meat. Meanwhile, I’ll keep picking up the Murdoch rag to see what a grownup has to say about the restaurant capital of America. Who else lately would put these three names in one sentence: Kreuther, Nish and Humm? But I guess the Times thinks we only read newspapers for the butts and burgers.
WIN, revisited: The people who used to swear olive oil was a panacea are now distributing tiny buttons reading, “Just ask for whole grains.” As if anyone is actually going to wear something so profoundly ridiculous when he could be loading up on a “hybrid horrible” like a cheesecake/brownie/pie or bacon-cheeseburger pizza. What’s weirdest is that this “bold new program” requires consumers to do the hectoring. Shouldn’t the buttons be on the other side of the counter? Otherwise, button wearers are going to be harassed at the ice cream case. Too bad Gerald Ford is not around to help, because I suspect the whole silly effort has all the potential of whipping inflation into foam.
Having actually eaten at the filthiest Taco Bell, I should not have enjoyed the rats-gone-wild videos. But I know the awful truth is that “You Sexy Thing” could be playing at many more restaurants than you want to consider, especially any with a basement where rats can reproduce like franchisees. Given how little oversight appears to be applied to new construction in this town under Nanny Bloomberg, the sickening part is knowing the inspectors looked the other way. Maybe the trick would be to let rats smoke. They would be outa here faster than you can say trans fats.
Just when honey is ordained the new salt, the news sinks in that the bees are dying off. The NYTimes asked what is killing them, but the real question is what isn’t: stress, mites, long-haul trucking, the almond juggernaut, all work and no play? And it didn’t even mention genetic modification. This is the worst manipulation of nature since the foie gras burger — once corn syrup is considered bee food, you’re axing for trouble. And somehow I suspect importing immigrant bees from Australia to round out the worker force is not the answer but a whole new set of problems. Can you say kudzu? Where is Lou Dobbs when you need him?
Speaking of immunity from nature, I succumbed to an excellent lunch at the “21” Club where an interesting exchange ensued (and not one involving the email warning jeans and sneakers would not be allowed — travel writers need to be told? [Actually, yes.]) A professionally charming Italian representing the Villa San Michele’s cooking school in Florence stopped at our table and started to go on about how the hotel obsessed over local, seasonal food. Someone went off on an ode to Italian peaches, and someone else chimed in: “Our peaches are terrible. They’re hard, and they don’t taste like anything, and they all come from Chile.” Well, it is New York, and it was February. Think there’s a connection?
(Also, among the many nice touches at “21” for this gimp is that even the small toilet stalls have handicap bars. That reminded me of the tourist pamphlet I picked up in Venice that listed all the hotels there, some with a little red heart alongside the name. I thought it designated favorites until I saw the fine print: “defibrillator available.”)
One reason why universal health care might be, how you say, a good idea: A prep cook with Wolfgang Puck Catering was diagnosed with acute hepatitis A after working 13 events attended by more than 3,500 people. All it takes is one Typhoid Mary to make a human WMD. But at least this little story has an uplifting ending. Google the key words and all the news results show what you most need to know: Beyonce went to one of the parties and didn’t get sick. It’s morning in America.
Here’s evidence that the blog fad has peaked: Artisanal claims to have started one. Judging by the first two posts, the only difference between it and a press release is that you have to click through to see it. Which may be the best spam filter so far.
There’s something sad about a guy who really did revolutionize cheese in restaurants being reduced to a stunt like the world’s biggest fondue, even for a noble cause (although given the shelf life of melted Gruyere, I wonder how much actually went into poor stomachs). Is this really what a chef has to do to get attention anymore? I guess a ton of fondue has to be a lot cheaper than a full-page ad. And maybe Chodorow should grill the city’s biggest ass.
It says everything that an ad has generated more buzz than anything Dining has printed in years. But if the world’s most unlikely David had to take on the gray Goliath, he should have ripped a page out of the MoveOn playbook. I’ll bet thousands of readers would have kicked in on an ad for critic impeachment.
The real scandal was $25 and Under, which didn’t even pretend to be about that so-last-century price. Even if you ordered the two cheapest items touted, you would still need bread — and still not get your money’s worth. (I only went once, but it was a lame ripoff at lunch.) Worse, calling the joint the best option for Indian food uptown is a little like saying the airplane meal is your best bet at 30,000 feet. This may not be a restaurant wasteland up here, but it isn’t exactly Curry Hill.
And while I’m starting to feel like the boss in Dilbert whose underlings gave him a dead horse knowing he would kick it, I have to wonder what kind of newspaper would award a regular column to someone with the verbal skills of a Chimpanzee. “Bone pickers and leavers?” Isn’t that dangerously close to uniters and deciders?
Which two boy bloggers really should get a room? (I mean, it’s one thing to light your own farts. . . .) Which TV food fake literally demands what her brand marketing implies: “Eat me”? (No, the initials are not Rs.) And isn’t showing a certain bloated chef to lure suckers to a magazine’s promotional event taking Year of the Pig a little too far?
I read the Journal’s interview with Kraft’s new honcha with slack-jawed fascination. This airhead is the Condoleezza Rice of CEO’s, completely in over her head. She insisted, repeatedly, that the future lies in packaging crap meat with crap cheese as “Deli Creations” — “What’s so cool about them is you stick them in your microwave, it takes 60 seconds and it tastes freshly baked.” And that was her example of catering to cooks. Worse, she announced that “we’re about to come out with Jell-O with fruit in it.” Apparently they’re going into the MRE business. But at least that would be following the money.
More likely, someone at Processed Cheese Food HQ has been reading Taste of Home. Once a hokey but wholesome little food magazine, it has come completely undone under newish ownership apparently determined to shove a very square peg into a GE Profile hole. The editors (the real ones, not the “field” editors) used to understand that their readers were interested in cooking rather than just fixing food, and recipes were always built on real ingredients, not shopping carts full of convenience chemicals. Whatever I have made from it has been good. But now, more and more, you get incoherence (a recipe for Buffalo Chicken Dip calls for “1/2 cup buffalo sauce,” and I don’t think they mean bison semen) and garbage (a “good food that’s good for you” cake combines a mix, egg whites, fat-free reduced-sugar yogurt and Cool Whip). I’d sooner buy a microwave and shove a Deli Creation into it. Let Bon Appetit be Bon Appetit. This is putting lipstick on a heritage pig.
One of the mysteries of the food world is why the announcement of the Michelin stars rates so much coverage at the same time everyone insists the Red Guide is over. Even I look at the list, despite knowing my chances of eating at anything higher than two is about as likely as my taking possession of that $10 million that soldier over in Iraq keeps promising me in return for my banking details. And so this year I learned that the place my consort agreed to take me to on a stupidly significant birthday is now up there at the top of the starosphere. Unfortunately, what I mostly remember about that dinner was the cab ride to reach it, deep in the Bois de Boulogne on a frigid night in January. I concede that the four previous days had been an orgy of Champagne, but I could still swear the road was lined with women (many Asian) who were either naked or wearing only open coats, while the driver didn’t seem to find anything unusual about it. Maybe that’s what “worth the journey” means in Paris.
My travel photographer friend who treated me to dinner with his wife at the always-satisfying Chola found one of his pictures printed on the entertaining menu and had no idea how it wound up there. Which would not be worth commenting on except for the fact that the wedding it depicted was not in India. He shot it in Trinidad. I guess immigration mucks up more than red sauce.
If you have $70 to throw away on a class on food blogging, you already have your first post. Save your money and just do it. The fact that there are people who would happily charge for seminars on (heavy) breathing doesn’t mean you have to inhale.
I was blissfully out of the country when it happened, so I missed all the snickering over “Desserts for Dummies” at the White House. But maybe the sweet hire might want to think about borrowing Britney Spears’s hoodie. Judging by Google images, the Chimp has pate issues. And I don’t mean duck liver.
Before you accuse me of being insensitive, consider the flack who sent out a photo of a disturbingly bloated client with the line, “Think a serious (Deleted) on steroids.” The worst part is that the paid buildup to the poor guy’s opening seems, judging by the press kit, to have lasted longer than the average new restaurant.
I guess we’ve lived so long knowing there’s shit in the meat that a little salmonella in the peanut butter just seems like more homeland insecurity. But it is revealing that Peter Pan turns out to be Great Value with a higher price tag; both were made by the same factory. If there is an up side to food poisoning anymore, it may be that it is one of the few things in seriously stratified America that is still equal opportunity.
I have subscribed to the Daily News for almost as long as I have lived in New York (which is so long that I distinctly remember knowing I had reached Gotham City when I first saw two guys kissing passionately in front of the 9 sculpture on 57th Street on a Sunday afternoon — in 1981). But every morning I get closer to pulling the plug, and not just because the comics have been cut by a quarter, the editorials are rabidly Foxian, the dreadful redesign has left less room for real content and the obsession with diapered astronauts and implant overdoses is such an abdication of civic duty when troops (and democracy) are dying at such a steady clip. Now the disconnect between reality and TabLand has hit an obscene low, with a story blurbed, “Cooking is becoming the new manly art.” Becoming? “Add a side of macho,” it advised, alongside a shot of a notorious crybaby. Twenty years ago, it insisted, men’s magazines never ran recipes (tell that to Esquire, which started buying from me in the spring of 1987). And on the jump, the photo was of another will-o’-the-whisk. This stinker made that ridiculous equine dung in Styles on eating at your desk seem fresh and smart. Oh, and the quote ho they dug up to prove girls are down with this “trend”? Last I heard from her, she was a flack. Even a Metropolitan Diary sold shorts is not that gullible.
Beyond the idiocy, the paper is increasingly clueless about the hometown. A story on the scalping of VD reservations referred to “the city’s top foodie havens: Gramercy Tavern, the River Club, Le Bernardin, Acappella . . . .” Didn’t they mean Cafe Accapella? Maybe the damn thing is being outsourced to India. But even in Bangalore they might think to get out their maroon gazetteers.
Apparently the same pollsters who still turn up even the tiniest percentage of support for the Chimp are now working for Bon Appetit. The new issue cheerily reports its survey found 75 percent of readers “choose locally grown and produced foods.” Granted, maybe the question was asked at the height of tomato season. But it still makes you wonder how an E. coli outbreak in spinach could go national with such enlightened shopping going on. Or maybe people are as likely to lie about eating nobly as they are about voting for a black or woman president. There are no exit polls at supermarkets.
The other message of BA was pretty obviously thanks for the mammaries, if you could decipher it through all the ads designed to look like editorial (or vice versa). A few of the photos reminded me of the video clips a clearly underemployed friend sends me of waitresses using their breasts as creamers. I could see making your own mozzarella, but not falling out of your tight top and starting from scratch.
At a time when old media is earnestly trying to advise the great unwashed online about ethics, I quite enjoyed my taste of how “real” travel writers dine at an exquisite afternoon at Cafe Pierre. An incorrigible hotelier from Biarritz was in town on a promotional visit, and I had the great good fortune to be seated to his right as he held court through the Laurent-Perrier and white Burgundy, the lovely lobster and the shrimp soup/flan and the sea bass. I heard the stealable term “intellectual masturbation” used to describe Ferran Adria’s cooking and got an offer to call Pudlo from his programmed cellphone on the banquette (I passed, my French being even lamer than my Catalan). If his point was the crucial importance of the human touch in hospitality, he was making it big time. And when I got home, I saw that the gray guests walked away with just what I did, none of it anything like the ephemera handed out at food events. So, sure, old media, lecture young bloggers till the sacred cows come home. But at least have the grace to be self-aware.
Speaking of OM, maybe newspapers could revive their fortunes by starting want ads that actually say something. I’m thinking of a category formerly known as Help Wanted that would now be Just Shoot Me. Anyone considering job jumping would read it and stick to the hell he knows, while the unemployed tempted by the military would have an alternative. Given that Outback Steakhouse had enough dough to take out a full-page ad in USA Today boasting the ultimate JSM position, the income potential is unlimited. Could you imagine spending your precious life as the crouton chef? I mean, really. Making croutons and knowing aborigines have no word for yesterday or tomorrow, only that today will be one endless slog of dicing and toasting cubes of bread most people will never even touch, let alone notice? Whoever said hell is other people never understood the hell of other jobs. In a balls-eat-balls world, never forget that Mr. Bad Example will always need a fluffer.
Just back from Italy, I’m happy to report that the only food TV I saw in eight days was a commercial — the chef of the original Bice happily shilling the bouillon cubes he claimed were the secret of his risotto Milanese. And why did that seem so much more honest than all the bogus competitions Americans obsess on?
The best part of the Identita Golose conference that lured me to Milan was that all the chefs looked and acted like regular guys (only a few moms were there to represent the smarter sex). Except when they were doing their presentations, wearing personalized jackets made by one of the sponsors, they walked around in civilian clothes, egos securely checked at the front door. Maybe I don’t get out enough, but it was incredibly revivifying to be surrounded by people who wanted to talk about changing the world through food rather than strutting their “Iron Chef” schticks around in clogs. Absence made the horse shit clearer.
I tore out Gourmet’s story on eating in Milan and never enjoyed it more than after a bruising at Bar Magenta. The writers were so charmed by the fact that Italian bars now advertise “happy hour.” What they failed to mention is that those two words will cost you. A prosecco that goes for 2.30 euros any other time of day is 5.50 to 7, whether you want the sneezed-on, picked-over hors d’oeuvres on offer or not. Something was lost in the translation of aperitivo.
After very long, very intense days spent watching creative chefs’ ideas fly by, the weird thing was that I had no interest in clever food for dinner. The first night I made my way to a Slow Food special, Osteria delle Vigne, in the Navigli area. My starter was perfection: tagliolini with duck that was swirled into a tidy nest with a puddle of sauce off to the side, so that I could eat awhile, then dip awhile; the overall experience got better rather than boring. But the next course was a lentil soup topped with bacon, bacalao and garlic croutons — four ingredients in search of an immersion blender. Maybe there’s something to this foam stuff after all.
Some things I saw in Milan: Dentures made out of marzipan. A bar called Old America (presumably the one before the Chimp of Destruction). A guy taking a dump in the street in the financial district. Wine on sale in a health food store. Even dogs in fur coats. Some things I learned: Older Italians go to Cuba for dental work because it is faster and cheaper (message to New America: Keep your hands off Havana). There is something called heroic viniculture (in a valley north of Milan, the terrain is so treacherous they harvest by helicopter). Italians think of everything, including a special biscuit to eat with prosecco called a proseccino. Some places I loved: Biffi on Corso Magenta, for the excellent cappuccino, the great attitude and the extraordinary crowd management; Chocolat, for the macchiato, the scene and the glimpse of the new Italy (hint: it is the color of cacao), and my hotel, Locanda Antica Leonardo, for the service, location and price (95 euros!) One great thing I heard: My friend Diego Orlando, wandering among the booths in the basement of Palazzo Mezzanotte looking for a place to dump his wineglass and lamenting, “An empty glass is always heavier than a full one.” And one thing I should never forget: A quattro stagione pizza in Italy will always be bread soup. They do crust wrong.
Can you kill with banality? F&W is certainly trying with its new “blog.” One ponderous anecdote follows another, with attempted snark far outpaced by product plugs and self-references, not to mention the sense that editors are lurking (who else would not trust a reader to know what an ear trumpet is?) I always remember someone described Sunday Styles back when it began as a grandmother jammed into bike shorts. This sorry attempt at trendiness is Mrs. Doubtfire in a thong.
A friend who would know had the best take on the closing of Cite: You can be sure things are bad at Time-Warner when the canteen shuts down. This may be the first restaurant casualty attributable to the travails of old media.
More than a week of eating in a country where only the semolina suffers made me even less tolerant of the fools picketing a Manhattan institution over foie gras. Given that the “outrage” is overfeeding, these misguided dilettantes would be better off protesting in front of the Dunkin’ D’s in poor neighborhoods all over the city.
I don’t know what was more unsettling to find in my hometown paper: Mary Cheney’s ovaries or Panchito’s proudly bosomless buddy on the airhead beat. The debut was dangerously close to parody (and inaccurate to boot — grits are grits and polenta is cornmeal); the only thing dumber would be making your own cornflakes. Clearly, she realizes she has some very small flip-flops to fill.
I notice I was not the only cynic who thought the skankier of the skank twins should probably try her hand with a cookbook rather than anything her dad could not read. Despite her endless research, though, how many recipes could she have for margaritas?
A sign posted at Sipan on Amsterdam says it is “closed for reparations.” I can think of about 50 restaurants that should be doing the same atonement.
Idiocy is everywhere. Drew’s brother told the Daily News that New York’s silly Restaurant Week is a culinary Woodstock. What, unwashed hordes are dropping acid and defecating in the dining room? Or was he actually admitting what really happens: People get fucked in public?
I was underwhelmed by Barry Glassner’s “Gospel of Food,” but after reading smittenkitchen on Ina Garten’s “lightened-up” lemon poundcake I may have to give him more credit for saying we should just tune out every last word on healthful eating. You tell me how substituting oil for butter and a lot of yogurt for a little buttermilk while adding an egg makes a dessert any better for you, calorically, fat-wise or any other way. The cliche is that you should never trust a skinny cook. But it might be wiser to wave the garlic at the chunky ones offering diet ideas.
Nice to see such a big chef get the fair-and-balanced treatment when he took his defense really public, in the Daily Elitist. I went back and read it after noticing the normally power-to-the-proletariat chat boards were all railing at the horrendous injustice inflicted upon this wonderful human being and his shrine of a restaurant. Could there have been a more one-sided piece, roaches or no roaches? You would think he was an innocent victim rather than a guy who freaked at the very idea of photographing his staff lunch. Anyone halfway sentient knows who makes New York restaurants run, and it is not white guys with endearing French accents. It’s disgusting, but I’d rather think the future is more about chefs like Cindy Pawlcyn — her latest cookbook, “Big Small Plates,” gives full credit, with lovely photos, to two brothers from Oaxaca who worked their way up to become her partners. Odd that it’s considered okay for the chef on the ropes to import waiters from his homeland at a time when this country is building a fence to keep out the very people who make the food chain function. And even the least sympathetic observer has to acknowledge it took real cojones for those workers to file a lawsuit, considering no fewer than 200,000 immigrants are already being held in “detention centers” in this country. Do the French have a word for arrogance?
So my haircutter was chatting away about how much she admires a certain older woman’s cooking shows and asked me what this famous personage is really like. Interestingly enough, the night before I had sat at the same table with her at a Scorcese-esque dinner, and I said she had struck me as extremely nice, which must be why she has done so well for herself. The scissors-wielder was surprised: “My husband knows a guy who worked for her, and he said she’s a real bitch!” So I corrected myself, saying maybe that was why she has done so well. But I also had to point out that her famous partner is apparently a notorious son of a bitch, and somehow no one has a problem with that. If all politics is local, Hillary would be wise to wear crocs.
Having finally caught up to Jay Rayner’s “tastes of things to come” — starting with Alinea and ending with zein — I now know where the most ominous term in food right now comes from. Molecular gastronomy was essentially grant-speak that means nothing. But the more important lesson from the other 25 ingredient-manipulating trends is that the goal seems to be the same way of eating the futurists were always predicting almost half a century ago. Rather than indulging in full plates, we will be consuming one pellet a meal, all nutrients in capsule form. Call me a Flintstones throwback, but somehow I don’t think it’s progress.
The most ridiculous thing I have read in donkeys’ years was by the Paris Hilton of food news bloggers, who said the Mexican president’s intervening in the price of tortillas saved America’s Super Bowl. Could anyone with access to a mouse really be that witless? No. 1, who makes Doritos from scratch? No. 2, why would the price south of the fence make the slightest bit of difference? And No. 3, does she have even the faintest inkling of the reality that the crisis was a crisis because poor people with no 2-for-99-cent Taco Bells live on nothing but beans and tortillas for protein? Pennies make the difference between life and privation. Maybe if we did more to address the inequity in the world poor beleaguered French chefs would not have to be bothered with Mexicans wanting to move up, literally. And maybe a great reality show would let mothers wondering where their next tortilla is coming from swap places with privileged cretins.
I see the Porcine Pantload has finally solved the mystery of how the whole world knows what Panchito is going to review before the paper even comes out. Is this the same Phat Phuck who presided over endless scurrilous-to-slanderous potshots while making oracular pronouncements on the inner workings of the NYT? No fool like an internationally exposed fool. But I guess when your whole life is devoted to the wrong end of the alimentary canal you have an excuse: It’s gotta be hard to see with your head up your e-rectum.
Even I’m weary of pointing out that the guy who helped sell a dangerous chimpanzee as a nickname-dispensing good ol’ boy is equally adept at representing restaurants. But did anyone else think lumping Eleven Madison with the Bar Room was as intellectually sloppy as trying to review Martin Amis’s latest with a Richard Bachman in one muddled mess? The worst part is that it all had the stink of atonement about it. Who wouldn’t love to get the skinny from Saint Danny?
The Dan who is really working toward beatification is Barber. In his NYT op-ed on government farm policy, he did a stellar job not just of laying out problems but of offering intelligent, practical solutions. With what Jon Stewart has accurately dubbed a catastrophuck going on right now, most of us seem to forget that Congress actually should be doing the right thing by “we the people,” not just for agribusiness with its bottomless pockets and boundless greed. Too bad his piece was turned over to the kind of itchy-cursor copy editor and anal slot with which the NYT is so afflicted, the combined effect creating a syndrome that one cranky veteran on the national desk in my first stint dubbed “Mr. He The President.” Commas followed by long dashes, phrases like “and the food what we grow” and “the rich muck dirt” — it was embarrassing. As penance, the perpetrators should be sent up to the magazine to do an intervention on a certain editor’s too-good friend. The one who thinks you make pie crust by kneading.
As hard as I try to resist the very idea of molecular gastronomy, I keep getting sucked into it. Most recently I succumbed to blandishments from two sides and found myself in the audience at the International Culinary Center (nee French Culinary Institute), watching as a bright young chef from Padua did things to food Apicius never dreamed of on his wildest and craziest day. Given that I have ranted ever since my first eating expedition to Italy that there is no cuisine there, only ingredients, I thought what he was doing veered treacherously close to French. Mostly it looked like an enormous amount of work to deconstruct a tomato only to turn it into a tomato all over again, with lots of plastic wrap and mechanical assistance. And the sequence where he melted provolone into a wrapper simply conjured what happens at Kraft when they make Singles.
The real entertainment was provided by the translator, who was the human equivalent of that little flag you click on on a web site to turn Kazakhstanese into English. He was so lame people in the audience were calling out the right words, and by the end even the chef was telling his mentally paralyzed mouthpiece “chives” when said ingredient popped up on the screen. He used “greasy” for “grasso” and “last of the beets” for “greens” to cite two of the less embarrassing errors. The sad reality was that I spoke with the chef beforehand and, like so many Italians, he misunderestimated his own agility with English. Surely he would have been better able to describe what was happening with his saffron risotto than “irrigating.”
But the most jarring part of the day came when I was still reeling from seeing shrimp heads go into a food processor and thinking of the wood chipper scene in “Fargo.” Walking down the stairs after the lovely little tasting, I spotted a big sign quoting Escoffier: “The best dish is the simplest.” Put that in your immersion blender and foam it.
If salarymen and minimum-wagers were the only sheep packing the burger joints mushrooming all over the city, I might buy into the idea that ground beef emporia are “the poor man’s steakhouses.” But more and more places are opening to cater to the high end, which means something more insidious is at work. The too-clever names (STK, brgr) also have me wondering why there is so much meat available for either kind of restaurant. What happened to those illegal meatpackers immigration rounded up, anyway? If the B in burger is not pronounced, would you say it’s soylent?
Looking for food? Nice? How about Readings? Pick up Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and think about how much good your bottled water and cash caches will do you. It’s not too late to start canning for the apocalypse.
You have to wonder about a culture that simultaneously demands health rules for models and invents diet pills for dogs. As if the Saddam snuff video did not do enough damage to our national image, now there is the news that legal drug pushers are marketing something they admit will turn chihuahua livers into foie gras. I buy canned cat food as a souvenir in every country I go to, and so far I have been stymied exactly once, and it was not in Cuba. At a supermarket in Bangalore, the LA of the Subcontinent, the clerks looked at me as if I were the ugliest of Americans. Food for animals? What a concept in a country where whole families subsist literally on the streets. Unfortunately, newspapers still rule there. And now a billion Indians can read all about researchers squandering resources on fat pugs.
New York is in an orgy of self-congratulation since one guy rescued another from being run over by a subway train and two more snatched a kid from a death dive off a fire escape. Nice stories, both of them, but hardly evidence that the city has changed irrevocably for the better since 9/11 (what happened to the three-makes-a-trend rule?) Walk into Fairway or Zabar’s around the holidays and try to find even a milliliter of that milk of human kindness. In the latter I was merely shoved, jostled and aisle-blocked while dreaming of geriatricide, while the former left me with a big, nasty bruise after some guy pushing past hit me so hard on the hip screws with his basket I nearly puked from pain in the sugar aisle. But this is why I live here. It’s the world capital of go Cheney yourself. And the NYT definitely asked the wrong questions. Forget whether you would jump into the Hudson to save a baby. Would you ever let someone cut ahead at the deli counter?
The food world equivalent of the inflatable lawn Santa has to be the seasonal sensation dreamed up by the mad chemists at Dunkin’ Donuts: gingerbread latte. The only thing worse would be fruitcake cappuccino. And maybe trans fats aren’t all that should be banned there.
When the shit hit the spinach, the FDA immediately blamed budget cuts and “competing demands” for keeping it from tightening up produce inspections. Thanks to the WSJ, it’s now clear what it was busy doing: caving to the manufacturers of one of the creepiest fake foods out there. No longer will the favorite salad bar delicacy of a well-known nutrition writer be known as “imitation crab.” You have to call surimi “crab-flavored seafood.” If the world lasts long enough for the Chimp’s comma to ever be analyzed, the torture of English may be the most haunting chapter. Oops. Make that the “alternative interrogation” of English.
Figuring out what caused the food poisoning at Olive Garden may be even trickier than it has been for Taco Bell. Investigators are asking diners to bring in both their doggie bags and their stool samples. The mystery is how they will be able to tell the difference.
That unsettling sound you heard the day after the NYT’s staggeringly stupid trans fat cook-off was Julia Child, shitting in her grave. The very idea that butter would be inferior to Crisco in a tarte tatin probably came as news to Andre Soltner and Jacques Pepin, not to mention the ghost of Escoffier. How did the French manage for centuries before chemists figured out liquid could be turned into solid for cheap pastries with the shelf life of a Twinkie? The bigger question is how the self-appointed trans fat expert of America could “contribute reporting” without suggesting that maybe using cleaned-up Crisco would make the contest more fair. And that maybe the lard in the lede might be followed up on in the “tests.” The whole thing reeked of typical ICE grandstanding and reporters’ gullibility. I hate to point out the obvious, but a real chef like Francois Payard would at least have given the stunt a whiff of credibility. And even the biggest quote ho in the business would have been a better judge.
For some reason, though, trans fats seem to incite willful idiocy on 43d Street. An otherwise content-free interview with the 800-Pound Gorilla included the bizarre observation that his favorite holiday foods — roast-beef ribs, vegetables, plum pudding with hard sauce or vanilla ice cream — involve trans fats. Which one? Do these cretins even know what trans fats are? And what is the obsession with insisting they make food taste good? I guess I shouldn’t even be asking this about the paper that swallowed and regurgitated every bit of BS from the DC crazies to lie us into a bloody mess. Trans fats are just the new WMD’s. Which makes the Chalabi Crier now the Crisco Chronicle.
Young Frankenstein may be dead, but he will not expire in my memory, ever. He didn’t just play a monster; he could be a pretty unfunny one in a restaurant. When his eggs did not arrive as fast as he wanted late one morning, he stuck his vein-bulging head and half his upper body straight into the passthrough and bellowed, Johnny Rotten style. But he actually did me a favor: When I couldn’t bring myself to spit on his plate, I knew I was not cut out for the restaurant kitchen.
If you’re looking for restaurant advice, do not pretend to write to Dining Dilemma (and not just because the name is ridiculous — anyone check the dictionary?) If you want Scandinavian, they’ll go to norway.com and find some gruesome recommendation and send you there even after they have a lousy meal (sample descriptives: “letdown,” “dainty,” “unavailable,” “less luck” and, my favorite, “only decent”). The honesty is admirable, but you have to wonder if some mole has infiltrated the Daily News to make Panchito look sage.
One of my many slogans has always been: “Once a copy editor, always a nuisance.” And so the only thing that keeps my head from exploding on reading one of my three morning papers is knowing that a far more famous cranium must be shattering in retirement. One day it’s protestors and the next it’s court bouillion. You think “the reason is because” they don’t have spell-check? But even that would not explain “I.V.O.O.” in a dis of Rachael Ray’s show. Uncorrected, that’s Ixtra Bad.
My one objection to the trans fat ban sounds awfully conservative even to me: Get the government off my plate. For every good thing it does, like saving smokers from themselves and us from them, it comes up with something deluded to the point of dangerous. The latest example is the city’s move to battle obesity among schoolchildren by depriving them of whole milk. Turns out the kids have just cut back on drinking milk altogether rather than gag down the watery versions that are deemed nutritionally acceptable. If you can’t even count on newspapers to keep up with science, how can you expect bureaucrats to understand that growing bodies might — as Nina Planck documents in her excellent “Real Food” — need the fat in whole milk to absorb the vitamins that are so essential? The only thing worse would be outsourcing. Snapple would do a heckuva job. Wait. I guess they already tried that.
Given that I use my Amex in a restaurant sometimes five days out of seven, it’s amazing that I have only left it behind twice. Both times I have been left stewing over why the onus is on me to figure out where it is. Most recently there was so much crap in the check folder at Bread Bar at Tabla that I collected my receipt and a copy of the bill but missed the gold hidden among a promo for chutney and a comment card and whatever other loving paperwork had been jammed in. Next day I went to get cash, noticed a certain something missing from my wallet and had to mentally retrace my steps. To the restaurant’s credit, the receptionist was instantly able to tell me when I called that “we have it in our safe.” But it feels as if once upon a time a restaurateur would have called me. I’m in the book. Anywho.com has made tracing people even easier. It’s one more symptom of hospitality as a dying industry — at least until they figure out how to swipe your card into a call center in India that would automatically dial home.
For once looking on the bright side, I have to note that this incident did have amusement value. I schlepped all the way back in the rain, carrying a heavy bag from the Greenmarket, and waited while the hostess seated three parties until finally a young kid in a suit came over to ask for my ID to go fetch the card. He leaned close, made a twitch halfway between winking and cocking his eyebrow and said, “Glad you enjoyed yourself so much last night.” Very funny. It was a one-glass lunch. But I guess that’s why they never call. Card losers have only themselves to blame. And restaurateurs are too busy insisting diners call to confirm the reservations they have battled the phone tree to make in the first place.
As far as I can tell, the cheapest subscription to the Wall Street Journal is about a hundred bucks a year. Its target audience is not secretaries and janitors but the guys raking in bonuses the size of GDP’s of countries in the developing world. Yet when its health columnist set out to give readers advice on “dining out,” the tips were all intended for use in restaurants about one step above fast food. Really, a fat-cat CEO needs to worry about the calories at Panera Bread? Give me a foie gras break.
While the fashion industry wrestles with anorexia, knowing that hyper-skinny models are essential to deluding menopaused Lumps in the Bed into thinking a slipcover will fit like a dress, the food world is about to embrace it. “Bony Like Me” aims to teach women to restrain themselves and consume only “tidbits of yum.” Trust me, that phrase alone will set off an epidemic of barfing if not scarfing.
Don’t ask me why, but I’ve been up to my epiglottis lately in memoirs by the baddest of bad-boy British chefs. For all their big-swinging-dick idiocy, though, they have nothing on a Chimp diddling while Iraq burns, just to protect his SOB ego. But for all their abusive antics, they at least appear to have worked very hard to get to the point where they could kick around the help (and the customers). Forget Barack and Hillary. A prick chef might make a better president.
I was laughing over spotting “homemaid soup” on a big banner outside a deli near the Greenmarket, then came home and saw an eminent ghost nattering on online about writing a “forward.” And not a Jewish one. The old copy editor in me who sees that same idiocy in five out of six food books anymore just has to note that it’s ass-backwords. Make it stop.
One of my many rants has always been that journalism has devolved from a rough-and-tumble profession to a privileged path lined with stock options, and nothing demonstrates that more clearly than the coverage of the Taco Bell shit storm. Even in the tabloids, you would think none of the rarified souls “reporting” had ever set foot into one of those cheap-food-is-for-the-little-people outlets that blight the American landscape. Otherwise, they would know the slimy scallions were always scarier than the truly frightening beef in the two-for-$1 tacos. In my old life, I actually would skulk in for meat-free nachos supreme, just for the self-loathing effect, and the green flecks used as a garnish inevitably looked like a dangerous marriage of chlorophyll and bacteria — or something that might happen in the Cheney family. But the ultimate symptom of cluelessness was the assumption that the filthy lilies were used in salsa, as they were at killer Chi-Chi’s. This chain is too cheap for salsa; witness the boycott over slave labor a few years ago. It cuts costs beyond the bone, literally right down to the gut level. And I guess it says everything that a reporter was dispatched immediately to try the $55 macaroni and cheese.
Thank the butter deity that the trans fat ban has passed so we can finally stop hearing that it will affect all restaurants, from “McDonald’s to fashionable bistros,” let alone change the taste of doughnuts. This is a cost issue, nothing more. No food needs trans fats for any reasons but price and shelf life. For every can of Crisco, there is a tub of lard that works even better. And no one should forget that the same substance now being outlawed with great fanfare was foisted upon the fast food chains. McD’s, after all, cooked its fries in animal fat until the people now crusading against trans fats insisted it was not healthy. Why believe them now? But if you really want your head to explode, consider the proud announcement from the silly soda company that it will be making its drinks with sugar. Sugar. The stuff we have been warned about our whole lives is now the preferred ingredient. Not for the first time, I’m thinking of giving up nutrition coverage for my health.
I often feel out of it when I flit around the blogosphere and see everyone swarming into the next hot thing when I have yet to pick up on a distant signal from Planet Hip. So I thoroughly enjoyed the breathless coverage of the “opening” of Metro Marche, in the Port Authority. It was everywhere, in print and online, the very morning after my consort and I had eaten there for the second time (after “Fast Food Nation”) and had, in fact, been informed that business was picking up after several weeks. A ribbon-cutting does not an opening make. Neither does a press release.
The shocker in the lawsuit against the Big Homme is not that workers with pigment issues could be treated badly in a taste temple. It is that seven of them actually got up the nerve to take it public. The funny thing is that he probably doesn’t even mind. At least he gets his name in the paper. Too bad it’s in Metro, but you take what you can get in the age of Dining irrelevance.
Halliburton must have won the Christmas catering contract at the Chimp’s. As Slate noted, the dessert list alone is beyond overkill (22? 23?) Maybe it’s reassuring to know the compassionate conservative in chief does not have to worry about food security. But I hope it doesn’t give him any ideas about how the rest of us eat, especially in wartime. Clearly, it’s high time for another Talking Heads anthem. This ain’t no buffet. . . .
Say what you will about the Skank Twins, but the odds are good that they ingested a local thing or two while wilding through Buenos Aires. Their sorry father, by contrast, flew all the way to Estonia and couldn’t (too despised) or wouldn’t (too chicken) try anything but bubble food. Much was made about him being the first sitting president to visit that amazing country, but he really is more the E.B. White-ish definition of a commuter: a guy who travels a million miles and never goes anywhere. Say what you will about Hillary, but they still talk about her dinner at Grandma’s Place in Tallinn, and her almost Finnish taste for the vodka. Oh, for the good old days when we had White House occupants who could drink and not drive the country into a ditch.
You know it’s Christmastime in a globally warmed world of confusion when Hunan Park hangs out its soft-shell crab sign. When the Tribeca Greenmarket offers “finger link” potatoes. And when some forgettable SoHo cafe has a chalkboard special in the window: chicken semifreddo. No hint as to whether you can get it in a cone or just a cup.
Speaking of labeling, the LAT certainly caused a stir with its story of the woman suing Kraft for fraud over the guacamole that contains virtually everything but the ingredient you would most expect. The surprise is not that this concoction is the usual American crappier-eating-through-chemistry but that anyone is surprised. If you bought it at the supermarket, it’s probably processed. My consort is home on break with his ribs protruding attractively and credits his flat belly to eating primarily from his farmers’ market in the wrong Athens. As a friend immediately pointed out when I told her, you can’t get fat eating that food. Because it is food. Not hydrogenated oils and corn syrup and anything but avocado.
Of course the guacamole reporting was larded with reaction from consumers who were shocked, shocked. And that is no surprise, either. The one thing that characterizes the average shopper is cluelessness. Which is also an affliction rampant in the media. One day I both saw in print and heard on the radio that a defendant in a murder case had disrupted his trial by refusing to eat an egg salad sandwich “because he was lactose-intolerant.” At no point did the “reporter” point out that there is no dairy in such a sandwich. Or, as a farmer on Union Square tartly advises his city customers with food issues: “Eggs do not come from cows.” And, might I add, should not come from the same aisle as Kraft “guacamole.”
Oysters and pancakes together would be unappetizing enough, but it was downright creepy to exhume Johnny Apple and then effectively dis him with faint praise. The story of him being solicited for advice from his deathbed was bad enough when the triviality of the request was first disclosed. Worse is seeing what that last effort yielded. Next time, google “kewl pancakes” and let a legend expire in peace.
Now I see why the NYT Op-Ed page was able to run such an excellent Thanksgiving screed on how planet overheating is endangering the traditional turkey trimmings. The opinionator apparently blew off his bigger assignment and filed a grocery list instead. If you were expecting reviews of the best cookbooks for the holidays, you would have been better off checking the authors’ own web sites. Call me old-fashioned, but I like a little meat, not just someone going through the motions. Can you really evaluate a collection of recipes without getting it greasy? Or, as they say in Writing 101, shouldn’t you show, not tell?
One of the many things that makes Manhattan the greatest city in the known universe is that you can head out to a restaurant to meet a friend’s friends and wind up sitting between one woman who has taught a parrot to do math and another who has done health-care consulting in Qatar. Given that one of the two was in a sling with a broken finger, some of the conversation did tend to dwell on the mess the rest of the country is content to live with when it comes to keeping every American healthy. I went into my usual rant about Typhoid Mary having been a cook but at least could freshen it up with a new example. Walking through Grand Central after not enough breakfast to face coat shopping the other day, I stopped at Ciao Bello for a restorative if dainty cup of passion fruit sorbet with a euro price ($4.15 for two little scoops; no extra charge for the ice crystals). As I was emptying my wallet at the cash register, a guy walked by and called out to the woman who had just been up close and personal with my food: “Feeling better?” She sort of flinched and shrugged, and I walked away thinking: “I hope to Islamochrist you are, because what you have I am going to get.” And somehow I doubt owning a private jet would ever do me much good.
I never finished journalism school, but I did absorb enough ethics lessons to make me stop at least once a week these days and think: “In a million years I never imagined . . . .” Thirty-some years ago, if a professor had said a newspaper section would ever run Champagne ads on the cover of a section devoted to booze, I would have wondered how much Boone’s Farm he had drunk that morning. Now I just wake up and confront the ’Horing section and see business as usual. Really, a beer story across from a beer ad? A Maker’s Mark ad across from a bourbon recipe? So much for newspapers trashing magazines for the same tricks. The awful truth is that more people I spoke with that same day volunteered that they had read the “kitchen” advertorial than had opened the section that actually did “involve the reporting or editing staff of The New York Times.” This bend-over attitude may be intended to keep the buzzards circling 43d Street at bay. But I suspect it is actually pouring blood on the water. Next thing you know we’ll be seeing Pinch’s stocking feet on a cracker box.
Interesting creature, the Chimp. He likes his turkeys free range but his soldiers cooped up, in a quagmire costing $11 million an hour. If there was ever a year to skip the ridiculous poultry “pardon,” it should have been this one. And to think they call turkeys stupid.
I suspected I was not the only reader who had to look away from the disturbing lede photo in Dining, and before Wednesday was over I was opening an email from a creeped-out friend wondering why it showed so many hungry kids and so little turkey. Then I realized: It reminded me of home. Not literally — Thanksgiving was one of the few days when there was actually more than enough to eat thanks to the kindness of whoever secretly deposited boxes of groceries on our doorstep. But I was raised in a litter of seven, and seeing what appeared to be at most two couples with 14 kids between them did bring back memories. I have no idea what the story blathered on about, but the headline should have been: “Pass a drumstick and a case of condoms.”
I had not heard a peep out of the university where I put in 2 1/2 years in the early Seventies until the other day, when I got a promo card addressed to me by my first name and middle initial and my consort’s last name. But I’m less curious about how I was tracked down and married off than how a Tucson alumni group could choose one of the most abysmal restaurants in New York to celebrate “Mexican food night.” It’s a disgrace to the chimichanga. And the Arizona Wildcats must now be serious pussies.
Here’s a trend that should be nipped in the petroleum stage: upscale plastic flatware. I’m starting to see it touted in magazines — $120 for a 16-piece set in Lucky, most recently — and there could be nothing more insane. I just went to a world-class birthday party where the most decadent touch was metal cutlery for all 24 of us to tackle the pulled pork and individual apple pies. And now we are being told plastic is preferable, by the same people who assume we would invest in fake lace doilies? It reminds me of a party I went to back in the Eighties where the hostess served a full turkey dinner; when I told a magazine editor later what a great idea it was, she asked, “Was she doing it to be cool, or didn’t she know any better?” I would need supreme self-confidence to set out $10-a-fork plastic shit at a party. And then I would lose it all realizing I had tricked myself into dishwashing duty, defeating the whole purpose of plastic. I’m sticking to those wacky wooden forks from Fairway. Or just giving up magazines for the holidays.
Upscale is downscale seems to be the message of the season, though. The refugee from Gourmet incongruously writing food for the Daily News on Sunday seems to think readers want to throw their maxed-out credit cards at $176 caviar sets and $100 steaks, not to mention crap from Zingerman’s when Zabar’s is so close. This is the paper that condemned the Post for the O.J. orgy and then put the Godmother on its own front page for two days running. Obviously, it knows its sophisticated readers are interested in the finer things in life. It’s enough to make you want to drop $105 on tequila, and not for a gift.
Anyone halfway sentient understands the WSJournal’s editorial page has absolutely no sense of humor, but it was still astonishing to read an apparent attempt at Swift that advocated sending poisoned turkey sandwiches to dictators around the world on the day after Thanksgiving. Under the regime these jokers worship, you could get arrested just for suggesting doing the same to a literal son of a bitch closer to home who deserves even worse. Given that the spy who succumbed to sushi was dead by then, the bad taste really reeked. Maybe for the next big holiday they could hire the Rush Limbaugh of restaurant critics to do a piece on sending radioactive fruitcake to New Orleans. Hilarious, isn’t it?
Call me insensitive, but I just cannot wake up every morning thinking, “Save the ducks!” Maybe it’s my consort’s clock radio blaring bloody news from halfway around the world, but the urgency of passing laws to ban foie gras absolutely eludes me. The New York City “legislator” who is now proposing that lunacy certainly did choose his moment, though, only days after “Our Daily Bread” opened in theaters here, exposing the strong of stomach to the horrors that chickens and cows and pigs go through on their passage to the table. Believe me, ducks and geese are at the Golden Door by comparison. Given that Christmas really is a sad season for the poor, it’s also odd that he would take up the cause of overfeeding right when so much of his own city is afflicted with what those bleeding hearts in Washington call food insecurity. I could live, maybe not happily, without foie gras. But I would be very distressed to live in a country without freedom to eat. Meantime, will no one speak up for the steer? Ducks, after all, die with their balls on.
The season to be dreaming of Uzis is already upon us. If I get one more flacking “deck the halls” email about a restaurant, I’m buying a tree and using it ridiculously early. As a weapon.
Everyone is freaking about the future of print, but I’m feeling much better since checking the ingredients on my cat’s Pounce. Second on the list is “Animal Digest.” We’ll always have kibble. The question is, do we want to know what’s in it?
After a video turned up on YouTube of the Chimp literally screwing America, I had to watch it eight times. On the ninth I couldn’t get it to stop and flipped over to my email, so I had the audio and not the visuals. It was pretty queasy-making, but not as bad as what you will hear if you do the same thing with the Cafe Gray web site. It sounds like a suburban dinner party gone “Ice Storm” bad; with such cheesy music and forced hilarity in the background, wine being poured could pass for pissing. Sometimes technology is not a friend to great chefs. When the web designer orders, “Turn over,” maybe they should just say no.
Talk about a disorienting week. Not only was the true loser in Vietnam at last, but I actually found something for less at Dean & Deluca, the intergalactic capital of gougery. Heritage turkeys from Good Shepherd there are going for $7.50 a pound, about double the free-rangers. When I had a butcher weigh one the same size as I had ordered online, it was only $145. But I’m not complaining. I’m just awed at the speed of change for the better in this country, at least when it comes to food. Imagine the gains if the real turkey were to be impeached. Brining and trussing would just be gravy.
The sad reality is that we have two more years of decisions like the latest one by Chimp cronies, to do away with the word hunger in USDA reports and replace it with “very low food security.” The Washington Post had the sorry story, including the fact that 11 percent of American households suffer from what government functionaries actually insist is “not a scientifically accurate term.” Of course these are the same compassionates who couldn’t define torture and say “internal nutrition” when they mean “force-feeding.” Even Orwell would be slack-jawed. A good punishment might be to lock them all in a room stacked high with the latest People magazine sponsored by Kraft, which has come up with scratch-and-sniff ads (and some editorial). But then given how foul perfume inserts are, a few hours of inhaling white chocolate and cherry Jell-O might make them even less understanding of what it’s like not to have food to put on your family. Let them read “The Pet Goat” in hell with the inventors of processed cheese.
Something really is wrong, though, with a country where so many lack food security while New York City is arguing for special ambulances that can transport patients who weigh more than 500 pounds. Not elephants — humans packing over a quarter of a ton on their wide bodies. Maybe we need more corn in our food.
Apparently the new Brit in town really does like to live dangerously. When I got to the opening party around 7, half an hour after it began, a few workers were frantically trying to prop up a sheet of decorative glass over the entryway with two-by-fours. If it had fallen, it would have been a guillotine. And the distressing part? It wouldn’t have whacked anyone of much significance. Well, there were a few notables there, including a slimmed-down Martha, but early on the crowd mostly looked straight out of a Mike Leigh movie. The food was anything but Martin Parr-ish, though, and there was plenty of good stuff being passed along with copious Champagne. And I suspect the cooking will definitely go over better here than the chefwear. Short-sleeve white coats make even a star look like either a bad dentist or a liposuctionist. Something you never want to think about over dinner is a back alley.
Pity the poor Gourmet readers who believe all you need to do is make friends with Sirio. They’ll get laughed back to Florida. But lately I’m noticing his warm and welcoming style is everywhere. Reserving at A Voce, I was ordered to call back to confirm the day of (if they don’t trust me, let them call). Mai House offered a table at 7:15 and said it would have to be surrendered at 9:15 (get real). Country seemed cordial until it came time to give my Amex number to hold the reservation (not on a bet). Worst of all was my experience at Public, where I walked in around 2 on Saturday and the woman posing as a receptionist said: “We might have room at the bar. Do you want to check?” I walked the long walk and found one cramped stool unoccupied, in front of the previous occupant’s detritus, while easily eight tables were empty, all four-tops that could be split. I walked out, telling Pretty but Clueless an un-bused bar is not a promising sign. When exactly did host become short for hostile?
The most ridiculous encounter was at the lounge in the Mandarin Oriental, where four of us went seeking ear peace after the assault of Stone Rose (not full on a Friday night). The guy at the desk actually said it was “fully committed.” And he did it with a straight face. We wound up at Porter House, where the waiter was harried and the crowd was touristy but at least the setting was most convivial and the air did not smell as if was vented from a diner. Still, I obviously could use an intervention if I am actually bar-hopping in the dread TWC.
This town is getting too small. I walked into the excellent book party for that enviable couple Johanne Killeen and George Germon at Taste and immediately met a woman who introduced herself and then dropped my hand like a fresh turd when she heard my name. You live by the snark, you die by it, I guess. Later, though, she came up to me as I was dunking some roasted cauliflower in good tomato sauce and said, “I see Mario every morning in Washington Square, and he wonders why you hate him.” Once I stopped sputtering red, I started remembering. And then I couldn’t stop. The arrogance, the ego, the faux Italian food, the attitude that Americans are fools to be suckered, the insulting experience with the geriatric anchovies (or whatever little fish it was) at Babbo when the unpleasant partner outdid himself. She insisted he is really a nice guy who doesn’t deserve to be picked on, and I could only say, “That’s not what I hear whenever I mention him.” Later I started to think it’s just me, but nearly every person I told this story to used the same word, one that, suffice it to say, means a certain orifice. Sounds as if the big guy could use some lessons in thick skin from a couple of boldface girls I could mention. Meantime, considering he’s an A, I am extremely glad to be safely down low on the D list for parties. . . .
The Chimp was reined in just in time — his linguistic trickery was seeping over into foodspeak. I see there is now something being marketed called “ocean-farmed” salmon. Sounds good and wild until you stop and think. Those fish are befouling the Atlantic. But in classic Turd Blossom fashion, the promoters have taken a negative and made it a positive.
It doesn’t get much dumber than this: A press release for a new restaurant attempts to tout the food by suggesting, “Imagine a car crash between Provence & Northern Italy.” Okay. I’ll have the blood sausage.
Lately there’s been an outbreak of flackidity, though. Someone keeps sending me releases singing (off-key) the praises of a new restaurant without ever mentioning where the hell it might be. Let alone how to call it. I just hope the client is forgetting to sign his checks. Or getting eater.com-savvy.
Funny how a Thanksgiving taste test could seem so much more authoritative when done relatively scientifically last year by D’Artagnan (although without credit). Funnier still is how the biggest reason for choosing a heritage turkey was not mentioned. Beyond the superior flavor, there is that little issue of sustainability, which is itself a vote against Big Food. Could turkeyness be the new truthiness?
Also to be filed under “Why do I bother reading this horse shit?” are crepes and Derby-Pies. The former, readers are informed, are hard to find readymade. I guess unless you look in most any produce aisle, where Frieda’s has long made them as common as kiwis (and Melissa’s is now doing the same). And the latter, readers are misinformed, was never to be tasted without a trip to Louisville before the internets were invented. Someone has been lost in cyberspace so long she forgets there used to be these useless things called catalogs and 800 numbers, not to mention whole books devoted to buying regional food by phone and mail. And guess what? Magazines like Smart Money even connected buyers with pies back in the last century. Al Gore should be pounding his head on the table over what he has wrought.
I’m slow, but I learn. I now know you should not eat at the bar in a restaurant or drink at a booth in a bar. Twice I have been tricked by the sight of place mats, napkins, glassware and cutlery laid out on a bar, most recently at Rosa Mexicano, where I stopped in for a queso fundido fix and did not want to wait while two groups with dripping umbrellas were seated before me. I got myself onto a barstool only to have the two guys chopping fruit at the other end look over with “What do you want?” disdain. Once I ordered a glass of wine, everything was fine, but I realize I should not have been so impatient. The table is where they want you. Worse was Film Center Cafe, where I went back to meet a couple of friends coming from B&H. They had snared a booth in the empty bar and we held it down for nearly five hours, during which time the waitress approached us exactly twice of her own accord. I guess the $2 she made charging us for a refill on the chips with the copious portion of guacamole with salsa made up for all the wine she could have moved, or real food she could have sold, if she had cared to wander by unbidden at least every couple of hours. My friends insisted we tip respectably, but I left puzzling yet again over a question more nagging than chicken and egg. Which comes first with women . . . ?
I think it was the Gurgling Cod who coined the excellent term “cloggers,” for corporate bloggers. Now he needs to come up with a word for what some of them need. “Bleditors” would be my candidate. Misspelling one of the most famous names in food is not a venial sin, especially when done repeatedly in a single post. Just a hint: It should not rhyme with cloggin’.
The Daily News managed the food section equivalent of blue balls. Its turkey how-to worked itself into a serious lather over the prepping, the brining and the trussing, and never went all the way, to the cooking. But maybe my analogy is not quite right. Instructions were given for carving. This may call for an NYT-quality correction: First the turkey must be roasted.
Last election one of our only Republican friends (reformed Republican, now) summed up the situation sadly: “They’re promising chicken or steak, but we’re all gettin’ tofu.” This time it’s actually a true choice: fresh meat, or what Borat would bring bagged to the dinner table. This is no time to go vegan.