A cartoon in the Journal the other day showed a waiter advising a diner that “the Chilean sea bass is as fresh as fish from Chile can be,” which did get me wondering whether we should be encouraging Citarella to sell grouper with jet lag by buying those tempting fillets from New Zealand. But nothing could make you think longer and harder about the consequences of a growing global cornucopia than “Darwin’s Nightmare.” It’s the food chain as imagined by Dante, but it’s not a Hollywood movie. It’s a beautifully made documentary, and it is about as close to apocalypse evolving, the Rapture now, as anything you never hope to see.
The second-largest lake in the world is down to one species of fish, an exotic variety introduced in the Fifties that has eaten all the rest and is now turning on its own at the same time the economy is totally dependent on one product: Nile perch, cleaned up and zipped off to the prosperous in the European Union. Planes fly in to pick up 55 tons at a time, hookers sleep with the pilots, AIDS is rampant, the preacher is condemning condoms, starving locals are fighting over factory rejects swarming with maggots, legless kids are melting tape from the packing boxes to get glue to huff so they can sleep through abuse in the gutters, politicians are in full mufti denial and there’s something about those Russian guys. If your head isn’t spinning already, the factory boss starts showing off his wall bass singing, what else, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
As dexterously devastating as the whole thing was, I had to go eat afterward. And in the restaurant, I started reading Time magazine from the back, as always, only to find a story that brought it all back home: Americans are increasingly worked up about humane treatment for farm animals. Save the chickens; keep them free from antibiotics. In the grand scheme of horror, we are truly living in a raspberries-in-December neverland.
I’m sure none of this could possibly be true, but it’s too moist not to repeat. A big name is coming out with a big new thing and has already been warned: You won’t get TV. The official story is that this is Rachael’s and Giada’s world — old doesn’t sell. The view from inside the studio is more brutal: She talks with her mouth full. She uses her dress as a napkin. And her dresses are always too short — you can see her underwear when she wipes. And then there’s what one of her alleged pals told me: She farts in public. But that can’t possibly be true.
How you can tell you’re getting way too old for nutrition games: You read the staggering news that NYC is cracking down on restaurants using trans fatty acids and you still remember when McDonald’s got megapoints for jettisoning the beef tallow that made its fries taste good. I’m actually starting to understand the appeal of intelligent design. Science just can’t get its story straight.
As for lard and its day in the Op-Ed sun, I thought once again about the photographer friend who stockpiled trendy magazines in his basement, sure that every piece in them could be proposed again in 10 or 20 years — Zarela Martinez was making the same case way back in the Eighties when other, far more important gastronomes were jumping onto the free trip bandwagon with Oldways to promote the great fat savior: olive oil.
And as for the Op-Ed page as the new Oprah for authors with food tomes to flog, can you say impenetrable? Maybe it’s bad editing, although I find that really hard to imagine. But just in the last couple of weeks the record is three for three on publicity stunts backfiring. After the most pedantic, the tip I heard most often was: Don’t buy the book.
Did someone say sous vide, or did my pinkie just jerk up reflexively? My advanced age once again forces me to confess that I did a piece for American Airlines’ magazine way, way back in the last century — 1985? ’86? — on how “boil-in-bag cuisine” was the coming revolution. I did it despite the fact that I was fresh out of restaurant school where we were taught by the late great Jack Ubaldi that Cryovac destroyed meat because it couldn’t age, only virtually ferment to flabbiness in its own blood. So I can only hope the letter-writer who flayed me is still around and ready to type that great American four-letter word: Hype. If not, may the ghost of Curnonsky haunt chefs who aren’t quite clear on Escoffier. Cuisine is when things taste like themselves.
My geriatric Siamese was a kitten with balls when I ate at a certain Filipino restaurant in SoHo for the first and last time. Aside from the duck’s tongue I brought home for his fleeting amusement, there is not a single detail that sticks with me about the place. So I was not exactly surprised to find Panchito lavishing it with a long appreciation; visions of him sitting up and poring over Zagat late at night, looking for the last lost thing, are just the price you pay for flipping through to the Food Emporium ad on Wednesday. But it did illuminate why “critics” are being left in the dust. As soon as a restaurant opens anymore, the believable reviews begin instantly, in the real world Al Gore invented. No one had to wait for the garbled similes lavished on Diablo Royale in old media — regular people went, they ate, they hated, and they weighed in without detouring through rogetsfordummies.com. Ditto for Mercadito Grove and Centrico. What’s saddest for a diehard newspaper reader to admit is that the reviewing bar has dropped so low that some fake-named stranger outraged at $18 tacos with no refries can actually have a better take on a place than some guy with an unlimited expense account who seems to have spent too long eating with the pope. Either that, or he’s been fixed.
It only took two years and three months, but I finally have the answer to a question that has eaten at me ever since I read a story in an important pooper-scooper raving about the restaurant boom in Washington: Why in the name of Saddam is a city that limped through the boom years under Clinton suddenly thriving? Where were all those boutique hotels when Dick Morris was sucking toes? Why would anyone try to serve ambitious food when most of Congress seems to drink bug spray and feast on Florida vegetables? Thanks to the miracle of the internets, I’ve learned the Washington Post has cracked the code with one word: lobbyists. Under the administration that vowed (or was it threatened?) to restore honor and dignity, the other L-word types have reproduced like cockroaches. And these noble characters are charging 100 percent more than they did back way back when peace, prosperity and Democrats reigned. I’m happy for the better food when I’m dragged there, but I kinda wonder if Kansas knows what’s the matter with the capital.
America is a scary place. We only got a little over five hours out of Manhattan, but that was enough to make me wonder if the tsunami was the only thing that has thrown the earth off its axis. In Scranton we stopped for lunch at a place called Fresno’s that looked local but was really a three-city chain and realized too late what the billboard boast of “great BIG portions” meant. My consort always says I should never play poker, and I know my face gave it all away when we walked in and saw booths filled mostly with people who once could have made a healthy living on Coney Island. One girl who could not have been more than 5 years old weighed almost as much as I do, if that gives you any idea how petite her mother was. Another woman rolled in wearing a black sweatshirt with pink rhinestones spelling out “American Sweetheart” across her beyond-ample chest in letters nearly as tall and wide as on the billboard. We ordered daintily — two salads and one bowl of soup — and were still probably served enough calories to sustain several villages in Sudan for a week.
And that was just the beginning of the overstuffing. Almost everywhere we picked up a menu we got food for three in a single order. I actually came home much more sympathetic to all those sideshow acts who were born too late. When everyone around you is just jaw-dropping BIG, it’s way too easy to keep eating and eating, smugly thinking: I could never get that fat. Next thing you know, I could.
At least there was sanity to break up the obesity. At a splendiferous cafe we trekked to twice for breakfast, the owner had an extraordinarily light hand with baking. Her biscuits were airy and flaky but still held together to the last crumb even when sandwiched with a fried egg and ham, or with scrambled eggs and cheese. Her pancakes were almost other-wordly in their melding of substantial and ethereal. All that would have been impressive enough, but she also insisted she had no claim to the one job description tossed around most indiscriminately these days. “With all the carrying on these guys do anymore,” she said, “I’d be embarrassed to call myself a chef.” Not surprisingly, the extremely fit legs jutting out of her shorts did not end in orange clogs.
What’s worse than 400-pounders in every booth around you as your deep-fried bacon lands with your butter-soaked toast and grease-oozing eggs and homefries? Three-hundred-pounders with cellphones and dental issues. We got trapped next to one old white-hair one morning as she plugged in her earpiece and went to town sharing her report from the decay front. “Uh-huh, he says I will have pretty teeth, but it’s gonna take a lot of work. Uh-huh, he says one tooth is rotting now but he thinks he can save it. Uh-huh, and this one is going to be gross because he’s going to have to pull it with the pus coming out. . . .” Thank the incisor gods for the Mary Tyler Moore/Fox TV fans behind us discussing the end of television as we know it: “Everything is reality these days. I don’t care much for reality. . . .’’ Me, neither. Especially at breakfast.
By our fourth meal, I had abandoned all hope of finding anything that did not taste as if it had been tossed off a Sysco truck. Every menu seemed to start with spinach-artichoke-cheese dip in a bread bowl, include some variation on Buffalo chicken wings tortured into an entree and end with some dessert that combined a Snickers bar, Jack Daniel’s, ice cream, cookies, cake, pie crust and whipped cream. Everything, in short, seemed to be a Nation’s Restaurant News ad come to horrifying life. And then we happened across a little card in a winery listing a dozen or so restaurants in a culinary alliance dedicated to using local produce.
Forthwith we were at the closest one, which looked like a diner and, worse, appeared to be wine-free. The menu was a grubby printout that looked no more promising than the omission of spinach-artichoke dip. Then the waitress walked over to rattle off the special, which the kitchen was just getting ready to pack away but could be enticed to serve once more: pulled barbecue pork with coleslaw, in a wrap or on a bun. For some reason I then noticed the bread was from a real local bakery and the other touches seemed more seductive than Sysco. Even better, the special came with either fries or house-made chips, with any of four seasonings.
BS’s pork was exemplary, as was my turkey sandwich on whole wheat with roasted red peppers and a special mayonnaise, both garnished with half a hard-cooked egg drizzled with horseradish sauce. For the first time since finishing our Sullivan Street bread at home, we were eating real food. The owner came over as we were finishing to tell how he and his cooks had invested 14 hours in the pork and to spell out his dedication to doing the best with what he could, using local eggs for breakfast, local maple syrup, local produce in season. “I don’t have anything against California farmers,” he said, “but why would I buy a tomato from them instead of from someone I go to church with?”
It almost made me think America has turned a corner toward European ideals. And then, the very next night, we stopped at a cafe with a superb reputation where the high-wattage waitress insisted we try a sample of the house-made pulled pork after we had finished our excellent meal. It was far better than the idealistic diner’s. And on the way through the parking lot, BS spotted a couple of smokers smoking, pulled open one to reveal five fat pork butts being transformed and determined to come back the following night.
As we were walking in, though, we saw a cook out at the smoker knifing open a box stamped IBP. And neither of us could even contemplate ordering the pork. BS said that he never finished “Fast Food Nation” but “I know.” I lived in Iowa, though, and I know from industrial pork. Underqualified critical snoots in the big city can dis Niman Ranch till the hogs come home, but there is much to be said for sourcing with integrity. It doesn’t have to be local. It just has to be good, in every sense of the word.
Considering Red Jacket Orchards is among the few farms that shows up at the Greenmarket in my neighborhood all year round, I should be a huge (well, make that dedicated) supporter. But I have never been all that impressed with the fruit or juice or anything else. Still, since I had bought some great rhubarb for two weeks in a row this spring, I insisted we detour to its farmstand when we were passing through the home base.
Talk about a shock to the farm system. A vintner had already told us the growers have no trouble dealing in New York despite the long drive because Red Jacket has a warehouse in Brooklyn. But the stand proved to be directly across from an evil Walmart and down the road from a sign describing it as a “fruit outlet.” Inside looked as dreary as the parking lot, with dispiriting light and tired displays and an overall aura of griminess. The rhubarb was $1.99 a pound, not the $3 I paid two blocks from my house. The strawberries were on their last leaves. The bigger showroom was dedicated to all manner of jams and prepared crap. Determined to salvage the outing, I picked up a box of cream of buckwheat I had never encountered, and my consort grabbed a bag of Martin’s pretzels, the kind he always invests in on Union Square to keep us from overbuying on other food. We both trudged back to the car feeling as if we had been to the rural underworld. And it got worse: the pretzels were not only unsalted but seriously, gravely, unforgivably stale. We wound up feeding the rock-hard crumbs to the ducks on a nearby lake and worrying that neither of us was skilled in the Heimlich for poultry.
The Greenmarket is a mysterious place. But after that close encounter with how the apples are bagged, I think I prefer to see the curtain closed.
It’s come to this: A bare-legged chef as commencement speaker. I guess Rachael Ray was booked. But then if the Dissembler in Chief can be set loose at a podium to say American weapons “can target the guilty and protect the innocent,” why shouldn’t Rutgers graduates hear that life is just a bowl of spaghetti, dude?
Shades of Mr. Loaf: In one of the multiple and conflicting reports on Emma Bloomberg’s wedding in our styles-happy, class-scrutinizing hometown paper, someone thought Nobu had to be explained, as “the trendy Manhattan restaurant.” But at least Metro restrained itself from describing Daniel as “the restaurant awarded four stars by the New York Times.”
A faithful correspondent sent me an e-rumor that Panchito “got the axe,” but I knew immediately it couldn’t be true. Now that even political bloggers are spoofing the Liberace of literature, half the internets would have to shut down if he were 86ed.
As if being caught in a misguided war started on lies is not horrifying enough, apparently the troops are being forced to listen to Christian “jaw-jacking” while they eat, as ever-vigilant Jesus’ General noticed. Am I missing something, or wasn’t this country founded on freedom from religion? As the eloquent correspondent to Stars & Stripes put it, “I don’t go into chapels to eat my breakfast.” So what are gospel singers and proselytizers doing in mess halls? Halliburton must have the faith-based contract.
I shouldn’t complain since I needed an escort, but the opening party for BLT Prime was quite the oversubscribed scene, complete with food TV cameras (from tasteful Canada). We snagged a few hors d’oeuvres, which were excellent, and way too much wine, which was exceptional, but sat out the demeaning chow line. No matter how extraordinary the meats and sides looked, I would rather listen to gospel music while eating an MRE than stand with empty plate in hand for 15 minutes. Press parties always feel so insular, but this new trend of inviting half the phone book to one buffet guarantees an experience somewhere between a Jewish wedding and a soccer scrum. Or vice versa.
Which editor has become the Dick Cheney of food publishing? She reviewed all the possible candidates for columnist and decided only she was suited for the job. I smell a flaccid fragrance, and it ain’t truffle oil.
I have to confess I read about the second confirmed case of mad cow disease in this country and went straight out to the opening at the Heart Gallery of New Jersey and ate a scary little packet of something gray and doughy passed by a waiter who called it “beef Wellington.” No one would ever accuse me of looking on the bright side, but I figure it’s too late to worry about my brain getting riddled from eating ground-up cows raised on blood and chickenshit. My version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” would plot out a scary future where the careful few shunned beef and kept their health and wits and environment only to wind up having to care for the addled masses and masses who ignored all the warnings and happily ate those 19-cent tacos and honking Skankburgers. Besides, to quote a certain simian who talks to God, who cares about history? We’ll all be dead.
I got a hint of how the main Greenmarket sees these glory days of brilliant PR when I was chatting with one vendor just as another one walked past on his way back from a break. “Hey, Bobby Flay is filming over at your booth,” she called out. “He’s drawing a crowd.” And he stopped and said: “I’m not going back, then. They should pay us for the nuisance.” He was smiling as always but, in the words of a farmer I met on my ill-fated harvest book, serious as a heart attack.
No one on Union Square seems to be losing much sleep over the invasion of Holy Foods with its long-haul produce and corporate warmth, not when there are new fava greens and comfrey to be found at Gorzynski’s Ornery Farm. But to this eavesdropper things sound slightly grimmer less than a mile south, down in the Tiffany of food. While taking stock of the flavor-over-organic bread selection I overheard a guy vociferously informing a clutch of suits that “This is how we’re going to beat Whole Foods: We have a real butcher. They get meat in Cryovac. We have a real cheese guy. . . .” Sounded good to me. But when I was leaving with my tiny bag and without $32 I had walked in with, I couldn’t help hearing a guy in a signature chef’s coat telling another guy in the produce section, “Yeah, my sales are down 10 percent.” Calling Bobby Flay.
A writer friend was just in town lamenting his exile from the NYT book review, but judging by what ran under the Cooking rubric, he might be in a better place now. This thing read like a FreshDirect order, but with less soul — some of the subtitles took up more lines than the critical evaluations. “Bills Food,” however, is singled out for indictment as “a collection of recipes that look suspiciously untested for American kitchens,” which almost comes off as a confession that these cookbooks were just flipped through, never messed up. (No one “reads” cookbooks. You have to work them.) Worse, Molto Ego is included as one of the chef “hunks.” Anyone who believes that deserves to be mopping a pork butt, and not with cider vinegar.
Knight-Ridder News Service has just discovered a trend that was declared peaking about five years ago: chefs as hunks. When Dining did it, we joked about them as “chunks.” And even way back then no one was saying star chefs had previously been “stereotyped as either old, portly or balding,” let alone as “a combination of Chef Boyardee and James Beard.” As always, though, the lamest story can cough up a nugget. This one revealed that LA’s stud croissant, Ludo Fefebvre, strutted his steamy stuff in a cookbook at the urging of Judith Regan, who “sees me as sexy.” As I recall, the last guy who got her stock boiling was Bernie Kerik. And that queasy-making thought brings back memories of a card someone gave me right before the paper of record declared chefs hunks: “You know you drank too much on your birthday when you’re up all night blowing chunks . . . and Chunks is your dog.” Could someone get out that Vitamix blender, please?
Apparently the nervous nellies in Britain calling for a ban on kitchen knives have never been to Trinidad. On both my trips there the papers every morning were full of wildly bloody accounts of people slaughtered or merely maimed by “chops delivered” to the head or body. Take away a good workhorse Wustof and the enraged will just pick up a cleaver, or a machete. (Or, in this country, as many have on happy Thanksgivings, an electric carving knife.) What was even more laughable about the editorial mocked round the world, though, is that the authors claimed to have quizzed 10 chefs “well known for their media activities” yet “none gave a reason why the long pointed knife was essential.” And that could be the best indictment of celebrity chefs so far: they forget what their tools are good for.
In other news from the limelight zone, Food & Wine sent out a release touting a forthcoming cookbook with recipes by “superstars” like “Mamie” Oliver. Good thing he goes naked or people might wonder about him and his knives.
I’m not sure what the word for tone-deaf in editing is, but I know it when I see it: A bleakly evocative piece on South Africa on edge in the Seventies, with red curry you could almost taste, slammed up against halibut with licorice, from the outer limits of the trend-sphere. Guess it could have been worse, though. Imagine if the recipe had been for black-and-white cookies.
Here’s what $32 buys you these days: One pound of pasteurized jumbo lump crab at Premier in Buffalo, enough to make crab cakes with leftovers for four people. A three-pasta sampler plate with salad, a chicken-and-veal plate with spaghetti and salad, an order of flavor-free meatballs, all in the same tame sauce, lots of garlic-cheese bread and a big Caesar salad, all takeout from Jacobi’s in Kenmore. Or, back home, at the Greenmarket nearest me, a bulging bag of freshly picked spinach, my first radishes of the season, a pound of asparagus, a quart of Jersey strawberries, a big hunk of exquisitely fresh turkey breast, two bundles of refreshingly buggy tatsoi, a dozen extra-large clean eggs and a drinkable mango yogurt, plus a huge bunch of Sweet William with a promised shelf life of a full week. You get what you pay for in this country. You just have to cook it.
Something is wrong with a country that demands a new cellphone every week but expects an avocado to last into infinity. I just read about an insidious coating that will keep cut tree testicles from changing “color, flavor or texture for up to two weeks.” The marketers call it Natureseal, but it sounds like Botox for produce. And it’s exactly what the world needs now: Joan Rivers in the guacamole.
I don’t know what was more creepily fascinating in New York magazine: the fat girls gone sorta skinny or the restaurant critic paying back the host for her eating expedition to the new casino food court out in Sodom in the desert. Luckily, I remembered how she had calibrated her palate in anticipation of indulging in 69 (different breads). She went to Spanky’s BBQ, demon spawn of Heartland Brewery, and actually raved about the same place that sent my mild-mannered consort home sugar-shocked at how bad it was. Message: Las Vegas — It’s the new Times Square.
Say one thing for the NYT: It couldn’t get Clinton, but it did take down a chef in the sunset of his career, and apparently no one is going to be allowed to forget it. The latest chest-thumping came in the New York Observer, in a piece that would leave Hans Christian Andersen rending his raiments for all the testimonials to the critic’s new talents from eminently recognizable co-workers. Apparently the guy knows much more than a sentence referring to a “rum baba dessert” would indicate. And if that’s the case, he’s guilty of a sin far more grievous than cluelessness, at least in journalism: failure to communicate.
None of it would be worth expending another gram of mental energy on if not for one consideration: Through his fawning coverage in 2000, this anything-but-the-food reviewer now ambling through restaurants helped elect the chimp responsible for a morass that has consumed more than $300 billion and killed more than 2,500 Americans and who knows how many Iraqis. The same trait that left him vulnerable to a dry drunk’s seduction is clearly at play in the restaurants of New York. Recognize him as Panchito and he’ll put his lips together and blow stars all over you.
When it comes to serious food books, one man’s meat is another person’s suet. I’m being peppered with all the worthies I missed, but the disgruntled and disapproving don’t seem to grasp that my focus was on the new, the startlingly successful and, most of all, the readable. Turgid histories do even less for me than political tracts, and there are no shortages of either languishing in cookbook stores and awaiting relegation to the remainder table in megastores. The noblest book on the planet is as worthless as another Rachael Ray if a good chunk of the masses can’t slog through it. In the immortal words of Larry Gelbart, you have to get the asses in the seats. And castor oil, even organic castor oil, is not going to make that happen.
I haven’t been to Las Vegas since I was 10 or 11 years old, but I see signs that all the new glitz has not obscured its seedy core as the con capital of America. Bon Appetit is running a tout for a casino overlord’s “first property that he’s put his name on,” laying it on thick about how “you can bet he has seen to every last detail” and including a pageful of shiny, happy faces of chefs lured out to join the dream team “at the forefront of America’s culinary movement” (actual quote from actual chef). Unfortunately, I read this guano right after coming from a party where a restaurant critic from down south was gossiping about one chef who uprooted his family only to come up hard against the house. All he did was tell an interviewer that he would not be serving chicken because the quality-minded god of the casino was “too cheap to spring for a rotisserie.” Quicker than you can say “you will have hot dogs on the golf course” the guy was leaving Las Vegas. Luckily, though, hype springs eternal. Odds are good any of these chefs could be coming soon to an awards ceremony near you.
My only contact with the big besmirched awards was a purveyor party where the commemorative cocktail seemed like something (neon blue and oddly aromatic) you would measure into your washer. But it was worth the C journey for this exchange, with an engaging reviewer in from out of town who was marveling at what passes for top tier. “Have you eaten across the street at Spice Market?” he asked. “It’s nominated for best new restaurant in the whole country.” “Overpriced joke, right?” I said. “Oh, you have eaten there. We wound up leaving and going to the Spotted Pig for dessert. Have you been there? Best new restaurant?” “Pretty lame, no?” “Oh, you have eaten there. And what about this Latino place . . . .”
As if booting Bob Edwards were not unforgivable enough, NPR devoted long minutes on a Saturday morning to a segment on a guy whose own handlers once told me was plucked out of kitchen obscurity not for his Escoffier potential but simply because “the camera loves him.” Does no one else find it surreal to hear serious radio promoting vacuous TV? I guess I should just be glad Paris Hilton was too busy getting waxed to stir-fry.
Maybe it’s because the San Francisco Chronicle kicked ass with its series on “The Taking of 167 West 12th Street,” but my local paper is filling me with less hometown pride than usual, if you can imagine. Scornful as I am, even I was surprised to spot a headline that essentially read: Nyah, Nyah, Nyah. The estimable Christian Delouvrier is out of a job and the most embarrassing critic in the history of restaurant reviewing is allowed to piss all over him claiming the credit. It’s as if the only way the paper can justify hiring a joke is by holding up a little fanny-pack belt with a notch in it. Time was when the Times would have been more modest, even self-effacing; in both my stints on 43d Street any mention of the paper in the paper had to be cleared all the way up the command ladder. Now, a full year before he’s scheduled to retire, it’s clear that Al Siegal has left the building. But at least the world has been made safe for martini drinkers at Ducasse.
Apparently women don’t have it bad enough in the restaurant business. A hypercelestial blogger is running a ridiculous contest to name the chef with a correct chromosome who should take over the White House kitchen. Could there be a more thankless job than peeling bananas for a chimp, brewing nicotine for his real wife, trying to persuade his pretend wife to eat and whipping up good-and-greasy Hangover Helper for the skank twins? Especially when Clintonesque state dinners seem to have given way to hand-holding photo ops by what Tom Toles has labeled petrosexuals at the “ranch”? Somehow I don’t think this is quite the path to “women rule!” glory it’s being sold as.
One of the more indigestible lunches of my Dining days was with the Egotist, and not just because it involved the spectacle of him reflexively rubbing his pate stubble while mocking our old-line French waiter’s crude rug. The high point came when I asked why in the name of Pierre Franey he had taken on the drudgery of a weekly column for such a paltry fee. “Are you kidding?” he shot back. “The exposure makes everything else possible.”
Turns out there’s exposure and there’s flashing. The acres of type in his own words devoted to his TV masterwork gave new meaning to the word indecent, not least because the NYT failed to disclose what the show’s web site does: It’s underwriter No. 1. Bad enough Rick Bayless has been pilloried for shilling for Burger King while “I Am the Greatest” shamelessly lured chefs to his book party at another fast food sponsor. But blowing yourself is not a technique anyone expects to see demonstrated in a family food section.
One of the greatest things about living in Manhattan is what E.B. White called the gift of anonymity. But the longer I spend here, the more I realize this vast ocean is really just a fishbowl. Exactly how dangerous it is to forget that came clear on our way to the D’Artagnan party, on an hourlong bus ride in a treacherous snowstorm. Around 14th Street a woman who looked vaguely familiar got on and immediately started reaming out the driver, railing that she had been waiting 20 minutes and that he had not pulled up close enough and had made her walk too far from the shelter. As she bitched and moaned, another passenger, a young woman, finally moved near her to say quietly, “Ma’am, just call the MTA. He can’t do anything for you now.” But she kept carping even as the driver was skidding and sliding and telling her how hard it was to pull close to a stop on the ice. Finally a second young woman called out, “She’s right: Call the MTA and pipe down.” Now it turns into one of those great “you’ll never see these people again” bitch-slaps, with the older woman yelling, “It’s none of your business,” and the other one responding, “It is our business if you’re distracting the driver and he gets us in a wreck.” Just when it’s sounding interesting, we pull up to our stop and she and we get off and I lose sight of her while concentrating on my own slipping and sliding.
Next day, in the party post-mortem, a friend asks me if I had seen a certain well-known cookbook editor there because “she’s lost a ton of weight.” And then I realize: “That was the crazy lady on the bus.” Remind me never to flip off anyone who honks at me. It’s undoubtedly someone I know.
After an eternity essentially confined to my little office, I’m feeling like Rip Van Winkle lately. As I travel farther and faster (the subway is the Concorde compared with buses and cabs), and can walk more than a few blocks, I keep bumping up against all the ways the city has changed while I was sleeping: buildings have gone up, and come down; restaurants have opened, and closed; Wild Edibles has spawned like salmon; Jamba Juices are busting out all over; Sullivan Street Bakery has added more desserts and raised its prices. But then I’ll open an ostensibly hot-off-the-presses newspaper and it feels like Groundhog Day all over again. Best diners reprised in the Daily News? And delivery in the Times? Didn’t we go through all that back in the Living section? Repeatedly? Next they’ll be telling us where to buy roast chicken. Oh, right. That old hairball was already coughed up.
Jacques Tati’s wondrous 1967 “Playtime” showed for only a week at Lincoln Center, but it could run forever if the creepy TWC had a movie theater like any other self-respecting mall. One long sequence features a restaurant in meltdown on opening night that makes Thomas Keller’s fire seem no more consequential than a smoke alarm going off. The best bits reminded me our pit stop at Cafe Gray, or my long lunch at Asiate. We didn’t have a succession of waiters coming by and seasoning and saucing and otherwise mucking with our whole fish on gueridon without ever serving the thing. But the general confusion felt the same, and I could just imagine a maitre d’ back in the kitchen putting more energy into making sure waiters were not sneaking swigs out of the flambe bottle than tending to patrons. Best of all was the Tati waiter describing a special: “poached in beurre blanc, doused with cream, napped with . . . .”
It would all have been even more amusing if we had not walked seven blocks north afterward to find a favorite restaurant having its own crisis. Too late we realized the chef was away and the kitchen thought it could play. Steamed pork dumplings were the size of meatballs. My usually crisp crab cakes were like soggy clumps of gray lint. My consort’s chicken seemed not roasted but battered into submission. And it all took forever to come to the table, giving us way too much time to do the math on the wine list. The Matua Valley sauvignon blanc I buy for home for $8.99 a bottle was $36. It’s a sad night when you walk out thinking: at least we didn’t get broken glass for ice.
Thanks to a gift subscription to a very lively little magazine, I now know where a certain literary light wound up after ceding her Sunday Times turf to the soon-to-be Bride of Latte. No, not the New Yorker. She’s writing recipes using fake sugar, with headnotes in perfectly direct, downright readable prose. (People rag on Rick Bayless for touting Burger King, but at least meat, even creepy meat, is food. Splenda is magic dust for mad scientists and calculating accountants.) Even more amazing, the wordsmith of yore is now also dispensing diet advice. As in how to lose weight. So that’s what happened to onefatass.com.
Just back from two weeks in Italy, I’m having a tough time assimilating, probably because I spent most of my excursion looking at ceilings, and not of the Sistine variety. One impression will stick with me, though: Compared with Italian cooking shows, the Food Network is Masterpiece Theatre. Even Emeril never has to kiss a man-size cartoon character of a beet, and repeatedly at that. And even Mario looks positively Armaniesque compared with the pubic-permed hostess in denim sausage casings who afflicts Italy’s version of Iron Chef, where good ideas like mortadella stuffed into fried zucchini blossoms get lost in a frenzy of shrieking inanity.
Commercials were actually a break: My favorite was the one for Guylian featuring a slug sliming to the big city to be eaten in chocolate form, to the haunting sounds of “Everybody’s Talkin’at Me.” (Maybe you had to be there.) Trapped in a trauma bed with this kind of pap all day and half the night, I started to wonder if a country that invented cappuccino and Parmigiano and Arneis could really be a colony of mental deficients, and then someone mentioned who controls the airwaves in Italy. And I could only be glad the Bush empire sticks to oil. Rove’s Kitchen is not anything I would ever want to see, in sickness or in health.
A few too many loud encounters with Italian Jeopardy also had me deluded into thinking anything written in English was almost Nobel-quality literature. And then the first few confections from the NYT magazine came my way (downside to the internet: there’s no escape). All I can say is that the motto for T should be “Not Waving but Drowning.”
That an employee of a publication widely derided as Pravda on the Hudson if not White House Officials Said could mock another country’s newspaper as “hilariously one-sided” was juvenilely offensive enough in a recipe column. But the arrogant new feature that aims to out-Bittman Nigella had the high tone and lame language of a 1960s Sunday supplement and the depth and context of frosting from a can. Worse was the verbal equivalent of a Keane painting, wide-eyed and artificially innocent. Certainly many is the time I’ve tucked into morels in an expensive restaurant on assignment and thought: I’d love to meet the guy who checked these into the kitchen; it would add so much to my understanding. Last laugh goes to our old friend the Big Homme. He gets a couple of gullible press types into his lair for major publicity and he makes sure the Mexicans are eating lobster penne for staff lunch. The idea of Mario Batali writing for Vanity Fair, and about music rather than food, seems less and less absurd every hour I’m home.
Of all the phrases Julia Child ever uttered, probably my favorite was, “If you can beat a pound of butter into a pound of spinach, you’ve won.” Her truly un-American fearlessness when it came to fat was a huge part of who she was (“if you’re afraid of butter, use cream”). The fact that everyone in one of the nastiest professions on the planet almost universally revered her was also remarkable. But it shows the depth of the lack of understanding in certain quarters that those kinds of references were wiped from the record. Her great statement that we’re terrified of French food and yet “you don’t see all those big fat people over there that you see lumbering around Disneyland” was also deemed not fit to print, although it was gleefully repeated on NPR and television as just the reflection of outspoken character it was. The suckers who were stuck with day-late print did learn, however, what the French master thought of Italian. Does everything in life and death have to come down to Mario Batali?
What remains most fascinating about Julia Child is that everyone wants to be her, but no one would dream of putting in 10 years of obsessive work on a cookbook. The empty goal is a TV show, endless product endorsements and an army of assistants to write the recipes (or a co-author to claim all the credit). I look forward to many very brief obits down the line, all buried in the back pages.
When I was thinking of leaving journalism to go into cooking, in 1983, I wrote craven letters asking for advice from a cluster of chefs I admired. I heard back from two, Pierre Franey and Leslie Revsin. The 60-Minute Gourmet caught me off guard by calling only a few hours after I had gotten home from the NYT around 2 a.m., but he was extremely charming and seriously encouraging despite my sleepy inarticulateness. Leslie, though, earned points into perpetuity: She invited me to come meet with her at the Bridge Cafe, where she was temporarily moored, and we spent a good morning talking about just how brutal and demanding professional cooking really was. Having broken into the all-male kitchen at the Waldorf less than 10 years before, she advised me to have no illusions but be prepared to love it.
When her husband called to say she had died, it felt weirdly like a personal loss. I met Leslie only once after that first encounter, at an early Women Chefs and Restaurateurs event, and I only spoke to her when she did a couple of pieces for the Dining section (as a writer, she lived up to her headstrong reputation), and we exchanged only a few emails. But I always felt I knew her well through her recipes, starting with the ones in her “Great Fish, Quick,” every one a masterwork of imagination, flavor and technique. The short ribs in her next book, “Come for Dinner,” are the best I have ever cooked, let alone eaten. Her husband said she was testing recipes over and over for her next project even as she was debilitated by cancer and its treatment.
Like Julia, Leslie Revsin was the real deal. She earned her time in the TV spotlight by going where no woman had before. And, more important, by so willingly extending a hand to those behind her.
I know you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but can we talk about Jeff Smith? He made his name and his money on television and in print selling an image as a man of god, warm and generous and the very model of moral superiority. In my one telephonic encounter, though, he all but told me to go Cheney myself, Madam. Thanks to a starstruck editor in the mid-Eighties, I had to approach him for a recipe for a magazine story and it was if I had dialed Tourette’s Central. Suffice it to say he did not end the conversation with “I bid you peace.” Nasty as the experience was, it does make me look back in wistfulness on those days of innocence when you could just call a celeb straightaway. Today he would have handlers shielding the real Frug, and seven guys would be wondering if anyone would ever listen to their allegations.
After several years of wondering what ever happened to the greatest restaurant critic New York has had in my 23 years here, I now have the sad answer. There is no more Seymour Britchky to tell the tight truth and nothing but about the food scene in the city. In his newsletter and guidebooks, he meted out stars for dummies but counted on his readers to be smart enough to read a whole review to understand exactly what they were in for. His one-star take on Le Cirque in 1991 could not have been said better, especially this acid-toss at “poor Sirio,” who “is not aware that, though the moneyed and powerful are his clientele today, in any reverse revolution, he and they will be separated at the first cut.”
I owe my most transformative early food experiences to those kinds of baroquely composed but still terse assessments, one of which led us Meursault virgins to Le Lavandou, Jean-Jacques Rachou’s “baby bistro,” in 1982, where we paid a shocking $125 with tax and tip for a meal that opened up another world. (We went back again when it was Le Pistou and the review was just as on-target.) Even better, Britchky could verbally take us to places we would never want to go. I can’t think of Elaine’s without seeing her through one of his reviews, lumbering through and hiking up her underpants.
“The Five Obstructions” is not just one of the most dazzling movies I’ve ever seen. It also has an extraordinary food scene: A Dane in a dinner jacket tucking into a sumptuous meal on a filthy street in the red-light district of Mumbai with only a translucent plastic scrim separating him from a real-life horde of frighteningly poor onlookers. As he pours his Chablis and forks up his fish and sauce, the expression on one young girl behind him steadily turns from longing to hate. Nothing I’ve ever seen on a screen so powerfully illustrated the gap between worlds in this world. Maybe I’m soft-headed because I’ve been on both sides of the scrim in my life, but it’s hard not to believe we’ll never win the war on the abstraction until we share the fish.
Just back from Italy, Estonia and Denmark, my head is echoing with Surreal-Sound: “Me and Mrs. Jones” playing in a pub outside Venice, Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” muffled by the death-rattle coughs in a smoky cafe in Copenhagen, even “Feliz Navidad” lilting in Estonian in a countryside tavern dating from 1802. The European verdict may be that “the American dream is dead” thanks to the evildoer in chief, as a Calabrian acquaintance told us at that pub, but at least they haven’t started hating our music, at least while they eat.
When a New Yorker who has eaten in London suffers extreme sticker shock, you know a city is Gougeville. In Copenhagen, potato soup was $18 in a funky cafe, and monkfish in a mid-range restaurant was $50. And those weren’t the exceptions. It was hard not to wonder if Halliburton had the catering contract for the whole town.
Culinary tourism always seemed like a great idea, a way to save the world by showcasing local food. But a return trip to the Mercato Centrale in Florence flipped the sunny rock over to the buggy side: so many slaves to food lovers’ guides have tramped through that the place has metamorphosed into Pike Place Market.
Last time we were there, in the mid-Nineties, it felt much more like a real city resource. I remember watching my consort eat a fat-dripping beef sandwich while we stood near a workmen’s lunch counter after pushing through the gritty aisles admiring the overload of produce and cheese and meats and fish. Now the lunch counter is so well-known that mostly fellow travelers were lining up and then taking their Florentine Little Macs to a special cafe area with a mural straight out of Little Italy. Wild strawberries were one (inflated) price downstairs and another upstairs, where the stalls were a little darker and rougher (although even there the Faith Heller Willinger effect could be discerned: a sign over a three-foot snake squash read “widow’s pleasure” — in English). The wine shops were run by Asians, with signs in Japanese; the grocery stalls carried pasta shapes shamelessly designed for tourists and curried risotto mixes no Italian would be caught dead ripping open. And when we stopped to look at some olive wood bowls, a clerk ran over to help us, again in English (after close to a dozen trips I think I can safely say: that’s not Italian). Even the cheese counters looked tricked out more for Kodak than for locals. Tripe and udders and deep red horse meat were also on view in the antiseptic shops, but I couldn’t help expecting some hollering fishmonger with his eye on the cameras to toss an Alaska salmon my way.
English may have won the world language race, but Italian is clearly now the super-power of food. It’s inescapable from plane fare to Estonian cafes; at the high end it’s French for the 21st century. But Mexican is catching up: even Tallinn had more than one restaurant with guacamole-to-enchiladas menu, complete with chipotle salsa. (One also had spicy chicken wings, translated as “chicken muscles.”) Copenhagen was the worst offender, with one half-Italian, half-Mexican joint called Mamma Rosa’s among many but also with nachos on nearly every cafe menu as an alternative to the inevitable burgers and Caesar salads and of course lame pasta. I finally decided I should order them and make them disappear, but it didn’t work that way. And what I got for trying was exactly what would be slopped out on Columbus Avenue. Only a few strange strips of Danish ham made me remember I would not be paying in dollars but with way too many kroners. And afterward I could see why Italian rules: you won’t get Mexican everywhere in the land of tradition.
Estonia is pure magic, and not just because people there say their president “is an idiot, too, but he’s harmless,” or because the supermarkets make Wegmans look Soviet. We saw it through the shimmering eyes of a native, one who had booked my consort for a slide show and us into the very idiosyncratic and comfortable Olevi Residents and who steered us to good locals’ hangouts like Cafe Anglais and Elevant. Not surprisingly we got a completely different impression from the ones in the travel articles friends had sent me before we left — those were the kind that can only be formed at the end of a press trip leash (it’s bad when an article filches directly from a hotel brochure, right down to the misspelling of Hans Christian Andersen).
In one piece fully 300 of the 1,500 words were devoted to the hotel, maybe double that to the deep and thoughtful insights of Carmen Kass, allegedly the world’s most famous Estonian, who had led the awestruck poodle of a writer around. We went to inspect those splendiferous $300-a-night lodgings out of curiosity one night and could have walked into the W on Union Square. The place did have a great library, though — the trick is to stay at the 100-euro Olevi and read at the Three Sisters a few blocks away. Just as revealing was our trip with our connection to one of the too-hip cafes touted in the story. As we were leaving, he said: “You know that model you were talking about? She’s right there by the window, smoking.” Which only made me wonder: Who’s the freeloader with her?
One of the rules of travel is to always let a local to take the first bite. Our guard must have been down big time in Tallinn, though, because we blithely accepted our connection’s advice in a bizarre restaurant he assured us was frequented by Estonians as well as the hordes of tourists thronging the central square and side streets of the walled city. It was a medieval theme park, with only candles for lighting, Disneyesque musicians playing in a hayloft, waiters in “Holy Grail” costumes, a leatherbound illuminated menu in ye olde script (and on sale for 50 euros). Descriptions of all the dishes were also Pythonesque (Grand Beef of the Mighty Knight, Berries of the Highly Blessed Olive Tree), and the variety was a little staggering considering how little was probably available 500 years ago, even to rich merchants who lived in houses like that.
We were seven at the crowded table, drinking the spiced and honeyed beers forced upon us, and then the spiced vodka, and we didn’t really notice what everyone else ordered; we just took the insistent advice to try the specialty: bear (I sea-chickened out with salmon). We dug into all the appetizers, the smoked herring and the baked cheese with juniper and herbs, along with everyone else. And then the main courses landed. Exactly two of them, one really loaded with bear. Waiting politely for the rest, we were stunned to hear: “Go ahead. We didn’t order anything. We don’t eat that.” (For the record, it was true mystery meat: it could have been anything.)
The real joke, though, was coming home and finding Olde Hansa has about as much connection with Tallinn as Babbo does with Naples. The corporate web site indicates it’s a chain, looking for investors to expand on the five-year-old prototype. And that 50-euro menu is free in cyberspace.
For all the acres of type generated by the opening of the Whole Foods in the TWC, no one seems to have shopped there. Every reporter gets so dazzled by the double-wide aisles he forgets to tell you how the food is. So it was a bit of shock to learn that Fairway is in no danger from this mall competition.
I went because I needed socially acceptable veal for a story, and I figured for once I could get everything on my list in one stop. But first the lemons were half-green and hard as hockey pucks are cliched to be. Then there was no Italian parsley to be had, only curly-leaf parsley under the flat-leaf sign in the organic section. The garlic, helpfully labeled with country of origin (Argentina), had cloves tinier than my pinky nails. The only butter was organic or otherwise obscure stuff, or Plugra priced like truffles; there was no solidly reliable Land O’ Lakes for my cake. I did find some gorgeous Champagne mangos that weren’t on my list, but one turned out to be rotten inside (the other was sublime).
As for the veal, it was probably the most flavorful I’ve cooked in years, but the four big cutlets varied from buttery to uncuttable, sometimes in one piece. And so once again I headed back to my own neighborhood, to go store to store to get the parsley and the lemons and the garlic and the butter. Whole Foods my ass. Bits & Pieces would be a better name.
Whole Foods also claims to be raking in 30 percent more business than it had forecast at the dread TWC, which makes me suspect it either set the bar low or is making all the money in the prepared-food half of the store, which is always mobbed. I tasted a few samples of what they’re serving, though, and wondered how long that will last. The eggplant parmigiana had that strange Whole Foods soy (or is it soylent?) aftertaste, and the apricot-glazed turkey was jerky. This was around 11, when the breakfast steam table had been dismantled but none of the lunch hot food was out (they’re not quite on Manhattan time yet). And the soup buckets were being filled by someone so snarly she had to be the sister of the nazi a few blocks away. Either that or she had to eat the staff meal.
When I read the NYTimes memo announcing Frank Bruni had been named restaurant critic, my first thought was: Judy Miller must have been busy taking Chalabi’s dictation. This was a move that had desperation written all over it, coming exactly a day after the NY Observer’s damning front-page story on the protracted bungle in the Dining jungle. If the idea was to promote from within rather than hire a famous writer or other culinarily clueless individual, why not Adam Nagourney, a solid reporter who is steeped in the New York restaurant culture and is also related to one of the better cookbook editors in town? Oh, right. He might want a future in straight news.
The new Craig Claiborne may “sneak food into his coverage of popes and presidents,” but he is better known for helping to sell a tragically limited, ethically compromised candidate as a harmless good ol’ boy with none of Gore’s earth tone flaws. (Dailyhowler.com’s archives hold the best documentation of these “memorable moments in the history of fawning.”) Like so many others, he was apparently charmed by Bush and his condescending nicknames, which does not bode well for his future in the notoriously manipulative food world. If Drew calls him Panchito, will he come running with that lost star?
Why is it that only bloggers seem to know how to use Google, and not “legitimate” journalists? Almost as soon as the ink had dried on the Chicago Tribune’s fawning Laura Bush interview in which she proclaimed, “I don’t bake cookies; I’ve never really baked cookies,” one cyber eagle eye had rifled through the official White House web site and found the recipe for “Laura Bush’s cowboy cookies” that was sent out to so many women’s magazines during the 2000 campaign. Forget about weapons of mass destruction and the Medicare bill and imminent threats — it’s a sad day for America when you can’t believe a cookie story. Now even “her” guacamole looks suspect. What true Texan uses shallots? Aren’t those Freedom onions?
Given the lump in the bed’s history, though, it’s probably not surprising that “her” recipes turn out to be lethal weapons. One is for a soup made from leftover baked potatoes with two cups of cheese and about as much heavy cream, sour cream and butter — it’s a heart attack in a bowl, and if only they’d serve it in the bunker. Even the cookies she doesn’t bake have been enriched to the edge of overkill, with coconut and pecans on top of three sticks of butter and three cups of chocolate chips. Except for the chips, none of those were in the cowboy cookies I really did bake when I was a kid. Mine started with shortening and were stretched out with oats. We were too poor for the recipe on the back of the Toll House bag. The one on the White House site would have bankrupted us. Which, come to think of it, is the one true Bush formula.
Call it Mario Does Madrid. It sounds so much nicer than “let ’em eat fake.”
Batali’s latest mob magnet, Casa Mono, does many things right. The welcome is surprisingly warm, the service competent, the space well-designed considering it’s about the size of my dining room. My friend and I also ate one seriously good dish: pumpkin croquetas filled with goat cheese that were fried to crisp-and-creamy perfection and also communicated flawlessly with the 1996 Muga Rioja reserve (a reasonable $45).
But the distance between the Plaza Mayor and Irving Place felt unbridgeable with the four other dishes that wound up on the table. White beans with chipirones bore an unsettling resemblance to a saucer of maggots, and the baby squid was distinguishable mostly by a slightly high taste. Scallops with chorizo and cava was a waste of gorgeous scallops in the shell with roe attached — the sweet wine duked it out with the spicy sausage and the scallion garnish won. Oxtails in piquillo peppers was a nice idea but a soupy execution. And the braised duck managed to be fatty but dry while avoiding all flavor from the whole olives with it (pitting the suckers would help). A plate of three manchegos in various stages of maturity was a great buy at $6, but the other dishes seemed to be priced in euros (the duck was not worth $13 American).
Once again, I walked out thinking you can fool New Yorkers most of the time now that so many are too paralyzed to get on an airplane and experience the real thing far from our strong and proud and free home. Still haunted by tapas in Madrid and many meals on Lanzarote not so long ago, I’d say Casa Mono should be called Senor Otto.
After nearly two weeks when so many meals were preordained perfection, I’m struggling to decide what to survive on. One of my complaints about this country is that we have no cuisine, only a smorgasbord that’s open all night. Now I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as Indian food — instead there’s Rajasthani and Gujarati and Punjabi and Bengali and more — but at least the disparate states have come together on a general pattern of eating. And none of what they put out is anything like what is pawned off on untraveled New Yorkers. As more than one very proud acquaintance pointed out, it’s the Bangladeshis and the Pakistanis and the North Indians who are the economic refugees who have to go into the food business here. South Indians can either live well at home or find a higher calling overseas. And the world’s table is a poorer place for it.
Eating Indian style, and with abandon, I actually lost eight pounds. Part of it may have comed from forgoing flatware, which does keep you from inhaling. In India, eating is a contact sport: you use your fingers, even with rice. Otherwise, I think I had four bites of fish, one beef dumpling (in a Tibetan restaurant) and one taste of Bob’s tandoori chicken in all my time away, and I see why India has no five-a-day campaign to promote fruits and vegetables. You can live very well without indulging in flesh. At least you can when the food is so varied and vibrant and wondrously seasoned. One of the most amazing experiences among dozens was loving every fingerful of a 12-dish thali at Teej in Calcutta, then noticing on the check that I was in a vegetarian restaurant. I never missed the meat.
I also didn’t miss the wine that’s usually my water, once I tried a local red from Grover Vineyards and a local white from highly rated Sula. When Kingfisher tastes good, you know the grapes are grim.
Now that I’m back, I’m dazed, hungry and adrift. Looking for the antithesis of Indian, I stopped at Pain Quotidien on 72d Street for the first time and got a duck pate tartine to go. I should have been nervous when my cat refused to share, but I plunged ahead with $8 worth of buttered bread and pate dabs, with unripe mango, less ripe cantaloupe and anemic tomato on the side. It all said welcome home with a vengeance. Lunch with a friend at Rosa Mexicano was even more of a shock to the system. That has to be the most inconsistent restaurant in 15 boroughs. The once sublime enchiladas suiza were greasy and cold, with a broken sauce and cheese only partly melted, and I think I flew from Delhi to Calcutta in less time than they took to slide out of the kitchen.
Maybe the only thing to do is to go back to India and learn how to make rotis and chapatis and parathas and puri and pappadum. I could live on bread alone.
After three nights in a countryside hotel that should have been spelled with a v, I expected to be blissful on landing at the Oberoi iin Mumbai. I had just survived three bathing experiences that involved two faucets, one bucket, two pitchers and a plastic die to rest my fanny on while I splashed out a semblance of a shower. I had withstood repeated encounters with gray curries that were heavy on oily sauce and pretty close to vegetable-free. I had slept on sheets the color of cumin. And still I resented our $220 quarters on the seaface back in civilization. I had gone from a surfeit of local flavor to none.
We had landed in Esperanto Land. All hints of India had been excised in favor of a universal blandness. Lying in luxe linen, I realized we could be anywhere, or nowhere. It was a business hotel like every other one on the planet. Only the sandalwood soap in the shower (separate from the bath) carried a whiff of India. Breakfast, in the Rotisserie, was even more displaced: croissants and brioche, Brie and baguettes, granola and chocolate chip muffins. The morning before we had stopped at a roadside cafe outside Mysore and eaten freshly cooked masala dosa with coconut chutney and sambar off steel plates I was careful not to look at too carefully. The “ladies room” was Indian style (you fill in the blanks). And it somehow all seemed healthier. When in India, you really should eat what — and how — the Indians do.
This can only qualify as delicious irony: I went off to India gamma globulined against Hepatitis A, and now it turns out I’ll need the protection more at home. I missed the news reports of the lethal outbreak from Chi-Chi’s contaminated Mexican scallions but am thoroughly enjoying the reactionary cluelessness. Lou Dobbs actually suggested the solution is to seal the borders. Sorry. Immigration is not the problem. If you think globally, you’ll always eat locally, and in season. (Ever notice how most of these imported scares, from Chilean raspberries with Cyclospora to Mexican cantaloupe with salmonella, happen just when nature says we should be sticking to apples and oranges?) And as I just saw up close and personal, in this new world order when so many vegetables and cheeses and fruits need passports, the only way to keep the food supply safe is to treat the humans handling it like humans.
Levity was the one thing missing at St. John, the culinary cathedral in London where innards are not just dished up but downright worshipped. Absolutely no snickering is allowed: not when the special is announced as venison faggots, not when another dish is Gloucester Old Spot (and definitely not when the waitress looks like Dick and Jane both). Eating there was like going to weird mass, with Monty Python officiating. The deadly earnestness as the staff tried to make the bizarre seem everyday gave the dining room all the warmth of a morgue, and a rictus-lipped headwaiter in mortician wear didn’t help vanquish thoughts of “Dirty Pretty Things.” The more they tried to make it feel white-clean, the creepier it felt. (Contrast that with a great Chinese restaurant where your fish is presented to you first live, then on a platter, steamed to a state beyond denial.)
Offal is never my thing unless it comes from a diseased duck or goose, but when a newfound friend who lives nearby steered us there, St. John looked oddly appealing after four days of wiener schnitzel and Salzburger nockerl. And it seemed safe enough, with about half the menu given over to either vegetarian choices or good old fish and chips (plaice and tartare sauce, I mean). Maybe it was the “cheap and cheerful” bottle of wine we’d socked back at Carluccio’s Caffe beforehand, but suddenly even I was changing my appetizer order for smoked mackerel and horseradish to the terrine once the unsmiling waitress explained what it was made from: Pork. And offal.
Was it ever. The flavor was like liverwurst that had been on a week-long binge. I was only too happy to pass my plate around the table, but not when I tasted my consort’s salad of crispy pig’s ears and watercress. Babe Jerky is about the best description for the dainty strips of meat. Bob also succumbed to Old Spot, which was a very juicy slab of pot-roasted pork with prunes, but it was hard to eat without thinking of the geriatric hog that had died for his dinner. Our friend Chris too generously shared his deep-fried skate cheeks (who knew skate had cheeks, top or bottom?) and then the faggot, a meatball that brought back childhood memories: My dad killed at least one deer every fall that he would butcher and freeze and my mom would cook and force us to eat; when every other part was gone, she would boil the heart to a pungent death in her pressure cooker. I’ve worked very hard for 40-some years to get that taste out of my mind. Now it’s back, and I’m afraid for good.
The scariest part of the whole meal was that my entree was the hands-off winner. Thinking literally “no guts, no glory,” I ordered the chitterlings after Ms. Grimserver explained that they were salt-cured and pan-seared and served with splendiferous lentils. They had to be better than my last taste of that particular organ, at a swanky restaurant in Harlem years ago where Bob was seduced by “chitlins and Champagne,” only to be presented with a plate of plain boiled and coiled intestines and a flat glass of bubbly. These were truly spectacular, both charred and somehow succulent, but it was hard to look at them and cut. With hanger steak you can fool yourself. There’s no mistaking the exit route on a cow.
Just back from San Francisco, I can’t help thinking maybe the terrorists have won. The airport, especially the overseas terminal, was so deserted a shuttle bus driver hailed us, rather than the other way around. Chinatown was so empty you could have thrown a roast duck up Grant Avenue and not greased a soul for blocks. Saddest of all, there was a listlessness to the food almost everywhere but at the wedding that drew us out there.
Admittedly, San Francisco has been hammered by the dotcom debacle, and Geedubya Hoover’s back-to-the-Thirties economy is not helping, as our return driver on the shuttle insisted. But this is a city that primarily lives off tourists, and they ain’t crawling out of their bunkers with SARS loose in Canada. Not even for hotel rooms at $77 a night (at the Vintage Court, where the Orbitz rate bought us what would pass for a closet in a bed-and-breakfast in Belfast until we complained, twice, and got an upgrade to the “king deluxe” we had prepaid for).
In the two years since I last ate in San Francisco, the restaurant scene seems to have been gripped by fear, too. The buzz was still buzzing, faintly, about the same few high-end places. A gallery owner we met who was quailing over the dearth of visitors told us the only action is in the neighborhoods — destination scenes are dying. But at the highly recommended Woodward’s Garden in the Mission, the room was so dark and empty at 9 o’clock on a Saturday night that it was like dining at the Winchester mystery house (on the upside, the dour server brought us a free plate of risotto after insisting our friend instead order the steak, which really was the best entree on the table, much better than the geriatric halibut).
Zuni Cafe at quarter-filled lunchtime was not as bleak, only bleary. The Caesar salad was one of the best I’ve ever shared, but the house-cured anchovies with celery and Parmesan were a riddle up against an enigma: could such aggressive ingredients really be so passive as a team? Garganelli with microscopic flecks of pancetta, anemic fava beans and chives was also desperately seeking flavor. And the farro salad with manchego, arugula and Serrano ham (or was it everyday prosciutto?) was a shopping list on a plate. Espresso granita and a Qupe half-bottle of marsanne almost saved the meal, until we walked back out into the eerie emptiness.
Slanted Door, the hip Asian restaurant everyone was still salivating over, was even more of a letdown. The new space is certainly spacious and designed, but the hostess needed to cut back on her downers and the kitchen needed to start popping uppers. Everything we ordered was spark-free, nothing like the lively, jazzy, innovative food we had eaten last trip. You have to wonder about a restaurant that blows off its namesake spring rolls (“where the rubber hits the bland” is the best description of these turgid specials).
Even funky, time-warpy Sear’s Fine Foods had slipped a few meters downhill. Absent the tourists who will wait hours in line for snappy, happy service, it’s now closed an extra day a week. The hash browns have gone commercial and the pancakes have a weary look, and texture.
But all is not lost. For the first time since I’ve been traveling to San Francisco, since my sophomore year in college, the city was almost free of the ugliest Americans, the supersized ones in shorts who might as well be wearing T-shirts reading: “Wonder why they hate us?”
Howell Raines should not be the only high-flier wallowing in infamy right now. Larry Forgione deserves to be down there with him, judging by his latest incarnation of American Place, in Lord & Taylor of all ignominious ends. My lunch there was so bad I started off wondering how you can screw up water and left hoping it’s not really possible to confit a poodle haunch.
I stopped in only out of morbid curiosity while shoe shopping, having eaten at every one of his previous pompous homages to James Beard and American cooking. The menu looked promising, and the place was draped with his laurels, including what the host told one woman was “the Academy Award of culinary.” But the first warning that I was making a huge mistake came not when I realized there was no wine but when I heard the Japanese woman at the next table ask for bread and be told, “It’s coming — the kitchen is behind.” She turned to me and said: “Everything I ask for, there’s a problem. And look, they have half the dining room closed off.” The other half looked and sounded like a motel coffee shop with an odd mix of overdesigned accoutrements (skinny-handled knife guaranteed to slide off the square plate; silly silver dome over sloppy slab of butter).
When the flatbread finally arrived, well after my salad, I suspected Mario Batali was moonlighting as baker. It was tough, brittle and tasteless. The water had an oily aspect, so I ordered iced tea, which achieved the bizarre state of being both weak and bitter. But the real horror was the duck confit salad. It was based on the same mix of overcooked, uninspired vegetables every other table seemed to be getting under the salmon, doused with a Coke-sweet pineapple-chile sauce. But the leg was downright creepy: the skin was uncuttably tough while the meat was cold, old and lumpy, not fibrous and fatty and tender. After a few bites, I stopped when I suddenly remembered a photographer friend who traveled all through Vietnam asking for duck and being refused until the last night, when his interpreter confessed: “I thought you were saying dog.”
Washington would turn Mother Teresa into Barbara Bush. Just trying to get a decent cup of caffeine brought out the bitch in me over the weekend. At the Hotel Rouge, the “cappuccino” was made with regular coffee and serious foam — it looked like dishwater with rabies. When we tried for tea instead another morning, there was one tea bag on the premises and a silver bowlful of loose leaves. When my consort asked for something to separate the leaves from the tea, the attendant belatedly brought two iced tea spoons. (Tea, naturally, was $1 more than coffee.) Even when we fled in search of a real breakfast the third morning, the cafe at the nearby Washington Terrace hotel — the only place open for blocks — was serving big glass pots of barely tanned hot water. And when we sent it back, we got more of that burned murky foam that passes for cappuccino in Washington. No wonder the government is so screwed up. Everyone’s half asleep.
Worse, the whole town seems to be on Bush time. We reserved at Bistro d’Oc for 7:45 and realized we would be a little late after leaving the movies (“Man on the Train” — go immediately). When Bob called to say so, he was warned that the kitchen closed at 8. On Sunday night. Just as I suspected, we were the only people in the place, and it was too dreary to contemplate eating tripe and pigs’ feet and cassoulet in a restaurant that empty. We walked out onto the emptier streets and soon felt like the only people on the planet. No wonder laws seem to be passed in a vacuum in Washington. They are.
The happy occasion of this latest expedition to the far fringe of the civilized food world was a wedding of one of Bob’s childhood friends. And it was, as Michelin would say, vaut le voyage, but not for the usual reasons. What I got out of it was an epiphany about wedding cakes. I’ve always hated them because they’re more about looks than taste, but now I understand why.
This one was actually one of the best ever: the cake itself was moist, the berry filling was both intense and restrained, the frosting did not need a pickaxe to penetrate. But as I ate and considered, I realized what was so troubling. This cake had not been baked yesterday. It was a production, and it was tackled in stages. And there is no way it should have tasted as fresh as it did. Any more than a body at a funeral should look as good as it does.
I hate to say wedding cakes are unnatural. Embalmed is a better word.
The Emperor Wears No Pants: Maybe pizza needed to be reinvented, but not as a cross between a Communion host, a nonfat tortilla and a sloppy tostada, which is what Mario Batali has cooked up at Otto. His latest fool-most-of-the-New Yorkers-most-of-the-time enterprise in the old One Fifth/Clementine space in Greenwich Village is clearly still going through a shakedown cruise. But as long as prices are not set at the preview level the food should be a little better than salsify cooked with saba until it tastes like fruitcake without the batter and “panelle” fritters that have as much in common with real farinata as tofu mayonnaise does with hummus. The caponata, our sharp-palated friend pointed out, was so sweet it tasted like something from a seder.
But the pizza of the giorno was the real travesty. Cooked on a griddle until it got good and dry and too tough to cut, the super-thin crust was covered with slices of prosciutto and Parmesan that slid off with every bite. Adding insult to messiness was a drizzle of balsamic vinegar that was like syrup on a saltine. My cynical side can’t help but suspect that Batali is capitalizing on Americans’ new fear of flying to pass off this bogus Italian. Who will remember how the real stuff compares with his when we’re all huddled in our bunkers listening to Geedubya’s Terror Toons? But I can still hear people in Pantelleria, Sicily, laughing when I asked them about eating raw fish, the way he serves it at Esca.
One of the more fascinating how-the-sausage-is-made lessons I learned in 46 months at the New York Times is that a certain top French chef will do everything but fart backward to get his name in the paper. So when the new Dining section editor (motto: “awesome, dude”) said I would get “extra bonus super thanks” if I named a “multi-starred” restaurant in the lede of my last piece, on Mexican staff meals, I immediately put in a call to No. 1’s No. 2. She was out, but the assistant to the assistant was all gushes and promises. Not only was 25 percent of the staff at his three restaurants Mexican, she said, but his forthcoming cookbook just happened to include a recipe for posole that was a direct outgrowth of the staff meals at the big homme’s second restaurant. Of course we could have that recipe, and of course we could shoot in the kitchen.
Second thoughts set in about as fast as gas from frijoles. After emailing me the recipe, the assistant called in a panic to say no Mexicans were actually cooking at the restaurant, then emailed this message: “We would be delighted to prepare the Pozole Soup for the NYT to photograph. However, we do not wish to have photos taken of our staff having their afternoon meal. Although it is important to us for the staff to eat well and enjoy their dinner before they begin the evening’s service, it is simply not an issue we choose to feature in a photograph. We hope you will understand.”
The funniest thing was that every other chef I interviewed for the article all said the same thing: “Call over to The Top Place. They’ve got this guy Lupe who’s making the most amazing food. . . .”
Just back from 13 meals in Nantucket, I have new understanding of how the rich are different from you and me. They’ll put up with a lot more abuse. Most places we went, even the good ones, the attitude seemed to be: treat the CEO’s like shareholders.
The island is magical, but simmering right below the surface is definite contempt in a seasonal business. Restaurateurs like to push around patrons with No rules: no reservations, no credit cards, no bread, sometimes even no wine. And it’s not as if these are East Village-affordable joints. Local people say they don’t even think of eating in them.
At the Galley on Cliffside Beach, the fixed-smile lunch for a surgically enhanced crowd was priced for Jack Welch. Two crabcakes with a handful of mesclun went for $26, but that didn’t include snappy service. Small fortunes have been made faster than our food was delivered.
At Chanticleer, where we were lured by a longtime islander’s promises of “the real Nantucket,” we should have bailed when we overheard the sockless tycoon at the next table open the wine list, ask what was available by the glass and reel as the waiter responded: “Those are the wines by the glass.” The cheapest was $17. Give me the fantasy Nantucket any meal. Like fools, we stuck it out and were rewarded with a baby chicken as juicy as an old rooster ($30) and a dainty little lobster salad with frozen mixed vegetables ($29) — and it could have been worse: at dinner, duck for two is $80.
But the gouges were not without entertainment. The menu at American Seasons read like Food & Wine multiplied by Gourmet and minus SpellCheck: “seared rare porcetta rubbed tuna on a warm salad of fingerling potatoes & panchetta in a roasted tomato & saffron sauce with a spanakopita crisp.” And the one at Oran Mor could have been lifted from a Monty Python script with rap accents: “pan seared Ruthie B. summer left eyed flounder with a rustic garden provencal.” Translation: fish and sauce.
In a season of bizarre book blurbs, the most surreal can be found in a little primer called “The Waiting Game: The Essential Guide for Wait Staff” by Mike Kirkham, Austin restaurateur Peggy Weiss and Bill Crawford (Ten Speed Press). Laura Bush of all peple provided the foreword, which starts out warmly — “my husband and I love a good meal — especially one served with a smile” — and then turns sinister: “Many of us can relate to having a bad dining experience. You waited too long for a table. You waited too long for your food. You waited too long for your check.”
As anyone who remembers the delicate campaign coverage of Mrs. Bush’s past will recall, the First Lady has a bit of a problem with waiting. In 1963 she blew through a stop sign in her tiny Texas town and killed a boyfriend in the car she slammed into.
In other words, if you know what’s good for you, get this woman her food. Fast.