Archive for August, 2007

Who’s your daddy?

August 2007

What is it with Mrs. L and Mr. V? I heard her on Brian Lehrer talking about taste being the most provocative stimulus of memory (I’d vote for smell or sound, myself), and when it came time to drop a chef’s name, guess whose was trotted out yet again. I absolutely doubt the Friendship is curdling, but it is odd. And of course I only bring this up because I was recently asked to blurb a book by a blogger I have never met, only to be advised by his handlers that my terse praise was not used “in the hopes that your editors” may “allow you to write about” the opus. Undoubtedly it was a face-saving excuse, but even words that wind up on the cutting room floor count in my estimation — a phantom blurb should haunt you more than one in print.

Bloody mess

August 2007

All I can say about the girls-eat-steak! travesty is that I never thought the day would come when I would miss old KK. She may have been batshit insane, but at least she would have insisted on a meaningless statistic or two to throw up a mesquite smokescreen of truthiness about the “trend.” Given that the birdcage liner got what it wanted, web traffic at any cost to journalistic credibility, expect many sequels: Boys eat salad. Kids eat vegetables. Strippers sell steak. Oh, wait. I think they’ve done that.

The nutless white meat

August 2007

If there could be verbal gavage, every soft-headed opponent of foie gras would be forced to read the WSJ’s amazing piece on piglet castration. I still feel guilty about the gap between my Siamese’s back legs, and he at least was knocked out before we dealt with the feline version of “boar taint.” Now I know about 50 million “mostly unanesthetized” piglets are de-nutted in this country alone every year, primarily to keep the meat from tasting funky. And to me that makes overfeeding look like Thanksgiving. The story said animal rights activists have forced Norway to ban the procedure by 2009, and of course producers there are bitching and producers elsewhere are nervous. And consumers should be queasy as well — the solution being pushed is, naturally, a vaccine that would do the castrating. But hey, what’s one more hormone in the food supply when ducks are gorging?

 

Low wattage

August 2007

The biggest laugh lately was the chef suing Gordon Ramsay because what was shown on his reality show wasn’t real. The second-biggest was the lede W buried in its feature on Gwyneth Paltrow: She’s going to be Molto’s co-host for a series on cooking in Spain. The proud spurner of jamon did name her daughter Apple, so she must have some food cred. But this is PBS, not the Food Network. Julia must be spinning. . . .

 

paleolithic bites

August 2007

Rumors that a burned-out, so-1980s novelist might be named the new restaurant critic of the NYTimes have sent justifiable shivers through both the food and book worlds. If David (Neo Is Short for Jewish) Brooks was a bad hire, imagine what damage Ol’ Dim Lights could do to a newspaper whose reputation as a culinary starmaker is a bit dulled right now. (And was even before the mystery of the missing star for bizarre Bread Tribeca unfolded.) But it gets worse: The new rumor is that the Times has narrowed its search to two candidates, neither with any expertise in high-end eating beyond a lusty appetite.

Imagine any other field in which the critic could be only an aficionado and not an expert. I like art, especially that really famous old stuff framed so well in museums. Why couldn’t I follow Michael Kimelman? It’s one more indication of the disdain the Times holds for food, which just happens to be the second biggest moneymaker for New York City, after finance. Worse, it’s yet another example of the country’s most powerful paper leading rather than following. New York magazine and Gourmet have both already opted for critics who prize sizzle over steak. And does anyone care what they write?

One sharp observer noted that there’s a bit of a backlash in this trend. People are clearly sick to death of the kind of food people who can obsess for days over whether the truffles are up to pigs’ snuff or the fleur de sel is worth its salt. (Even my pinkie goes up in revulsion when I hear the F name.) But a reviewer should know a little more than the average Wall Street guy with an Enron-obscene expense account.

Back when I was in restaurant school, half my class spent half its time railing that Mimi Sheraton was unfit to judge restaurants because, they ranted, she had never actually worked in one. We’ve come a long way from those days. No one expects a critic to have experience, only knowledge. And yet in another way we haven’t progressed at all. I invested in a serious program because I wanted the credibility to write about food: It was not enough that I loved to cook. I had to know the differences among the mother sauces, how to tell when and why veal was overcooked and monkfish underdone, and just what the magic was that transformed 30 rather ordinary ingredients into the miracle of bouillabaisse. The payoff when I graduated was constant work: In 1983 there were a lot of people who could type and punctuate but many more who could cook; those who could do both were rare as capon’s balls.

Sadly enough, today it doesn’t matter. Just when the world is starting to overflow with bright, smart, acutely palated people who can string words together with the same skill they use with seasonal ingredients, and vice versa, the Dubya effect is ruining food. Unqualified but connected is good enough.

 

Here’s how you can tell it’s the Year of the Monkey: All the hot new restaurants are aping each other. There’s Asiate and Geisha, Riingo and Matsuri — all Asian all the time. For someone like me, oriented toward Europe, this is a fate worse than fugu. I like soy and ginger and shiso and wasabi, alone or in combinations, as well as anyone else. I just want something a little more inspired than “barely cooked salmon marinated in miso-mirin with shiitake mushrooms and grilled scallions.” That sounds like weeknight cooking at home, and it’s what’s on the menu at Geisha for $24. No wonder I can’t get into Lever House for my birthday. Everybody knows this Asia is nowhere.

 

 

Reading about the first confirmed case of mad cow disease, I could only feel a weird sense of relief. It was always a matter of when, not if, the manure would hit the fan here. Now that it has, maybe now people will quit calling me elitist for pointing out that food is like gas: you have to pay a little more for premium if you care about your engine. Americans can’t keep eating in a fools’ paradise where two beef tacos sell for 99 cents. Beef was never meant to be cheaper than beans — not unless it comes from a downer dairy cow with every part but the moo ground up.

As for giving up beef, I figure it’s too little, too late. BushCo can blame Canada till the sick chickens come home, but there’s no denying our food supply is seriously compromised by big business, and it has been since even before some greedy bottom-liner realized you could pass sugar water off as apple juice. There’s also no giving back all the bone marrow and offal I’ve succumbed to over the years at chefs’ insistence. Considering the incubation period for BSE, the brains my consort insisted on ordering in France in the Nineties could come back to bite us in own brains. The only answer is to look for organic on the label and hope for the best. That or move to India, where the vegetarian food is so good and varied — and the cows so scary — you don’t even think about beef, at any price.

 

The New York Observer weepingly reported that Grange Hall in Greenwich Village is closing, but don’t count me among the mourners. Having lived in both Nebraska and Iowa, I always found it wildly ironic that a place that pretended to cultivate a warm and fuzzy Midwestern image had such hostile characters in the front of the house. The place made you feel as welcome as an atheist at a church supper, and the food could barely compete with Lincoln’s best. Apparently farmboys aren’t the only rubes in this world. New Yorkers can get taken, too. (Except by a Californian recycling Eighties hits at Washington Park, that is.)

 

The Bruni memo was memorable for a line channeling a Republican attack ad: “his writing will not just serve members of the food elite.” If that’s the Times’ attitude, maybe chefs should be allowed to judge the Pulitzers.

 

 

It’s not often you go out to a press lunch and wander into a Fellini film. This one was promoting the food and wine of Lazio, and the surreal aspect started with the setting, a curtained-off area in a trade fair at the Puck Building. The menu would have been wild enough: 10 wines and nine courses, launched with prosecco and slabs of roast pork and chunks of pecorino Romano and progressing through the likes of lamb liver with artichokes. But there was Gina Lollobrigida (apparently she’s still alive), and there was a 30-something chef who had no idea who she was. There was Franco Nero, that heartthrob from “Camelot,” in shades and pompadour but looking a little worse for four decades’ wear. There was “the king of Italian TV,” looking just like someone you would see on the formaggio network. There were French chefs from Daniel looking baffled, a poor overdressed and overly made-up microphone girl nervously prowling the horseshoe table, Tony May bashing the Times as if I had anything to do with its miguided recommendation of American buffalo mozzarella. And there was the star chef, looking dangerously close to becoming the Paul Prudhomme of the Italian kitchen and making some of us wonder about the wisdom of nine-course meals with 10 kinds of wine. The down side, beyond the 3 1/2-hour bite out of the day, was that this turned out to be an audience participation film. We had to sing for our lunch, and I failed miserably. Asked about a red wine on the table during one particularly long lag between two pastas, I could only blurt idiotically: “It needs food.”

 

But the high point came with a flashback to seventh grade. I walk in to see place cards in 70-point type, and the person beside me says: “Oh, you’re sitting with Arthur Schwartz.” I mentally shrug and think: I can handle that. I’ve had to face people after saying far worse things in print than that that they run cretinous radio programs at a time of unparalleled sophistication in food. But then he arrives, sees the cards and sidles (well, maybe lumbers is a better word) over to the PR person, who immediately switches my name one chair away from his. I’m amused as she gracefully tries to cover by saying I would be “more comfortable” next to her. But I’m really laughing on hearing Gina L totter in and crankily ask: “Who’s Arthur Schwartz? Why am I sitting with him?”

 

 

Food & Wine’s “best new chefs” party is always worth the subway ride, if only to see how not to throw a fete for the masses. This year it was in the Surrogates’ Court building downtown, which is imposingly gorgeous but not exactly set up for four chefs cooking too-complicated food to order for throngs with a precarious hold on their drinks. Each of them was crammed into a hallway overlooking the central court, and it was like snacking on the A train. Try that with a fried shrimp wrapped in filo threads sitting on stir-fried bean sprouts in a puddle of red that too easily goes flying onto the closest person’s good clothes. Slow-poached eggs in a Parmesan broth served in a coffee cup were also not easy eating. (And the beet concoction Dan Silverman from Lever House was dishing up seemed to have wandered in from another event, maybe a wake. Beets are for penance, not a party.) The one saving grace was the endless supply of Mumm Champagne, especially since the wines on offer were one cork over airline caliber: sip and shudder.

 

The awards were awfully late in arriving, so much so that my consort stopped and asked the lighting technicians what the holdup was. “We’re waiting for the presenter,” one said. “He’s got another engagement and then he has to leave right away for one after this.” Bob of course had to ask, “Who is it, the mayor?” But no, it was some guy from “Queer Eye.” There are nights when you’re embarrassed to be in the food business, and this was one of them.

 

 

One of the most disturbing signs of spring in New York is the bare flesh busting out all over. It’s bad enough on the street, seeing fat guys in shorts already (why are the worst always the first?) But it’s a true turnoff in a restaurant. Everywhere I go lately there are women hunched on barstools with a winter-whitewall spare tire bulging between top and bottom for everyone behind them to see. Even more queasy-making are the thong wearers letting it all hang out of low-rider jeans. Someone should amend the no-shirt, no-shoes, no-service rule to exclude the Britney wannabes. Some of us are trying to eat.

 

 

One problem with having an office just down the hall from my bedroom is that I tend to eat too close to home. It’s hard enough to leave this sunny apartment over the park, let alone venture beyond my little neighborhood. And so I was almost glad to have an errand way downtown one night around suppertime when I would have otherwise been home alone.

After tramping those bleak crowded streets for about an hour, I could only wonder: Where are the great restaurants in Soho? Savoy is nice but no better than @sqc. Balthazar is all setting, with forgettable food. Honmura An is lovely, but I’ve never felt compelled to rush back. Add up all the stars south of Houston and you’re still short a galaxy. I succumbed to Dos Caminos (taquitos filled with short ribs seemingly carved off an elephant), wishing I was at Cafe Frida, up in the food Sahara I call home.

 

 

Great moments in mandatory hygiene: I was waiting at a new bakery/cafe on Broadway when the pizza guy came out of the toilet — still wearing his little rubber gloves. Apparently you can lead a cook to water, but you can’t make him wash.

 

 

There are many days when I wish I’d listened to my consort, and the night we ate at Amma was the latest. He’s the kind of guy who swears off Italian for months after teaching in Tuscany every summer, on the theory that you should never eat the food of a country you’ve just come from until you can’t remember what you’re missing. But I guess I don’t travel enough. I stupidly ignored Bob and took a friend up on an offer to get us impossible reservations at the latest Indian two-star.

A month earlier I might have been thrilled with my meal, although even before I learned to eat with my hands I suspect I would have recognized that the naan and roti were too thick and doughy. But with memories of so much sensational food so fresh in my mind, it was hard to understand what all the fuss is about. Only the dal was exceptional, as good as any we had anywhere in India. “Crispy” fried spinach was one tough cookie. Baby eggplant was more peanut sauce than vegetable, unlike the sublime version I had at Grain of Salt in Calcutta. And the Manchurian cauliflower was like Chinese takeout from Dunkin Donuts compared with the rendition we stumbled across in a Tibetan settlement near Mysore. Amma’s Indian wine, however, was the real deal: it was as shudder-inducing as what we braved in Bangalore.

It’s probably all our own fault. Maybe we should have ordered the more Manhattanized concepts on the un-spell-checked menu, like the “tandoor girlled lamb sausages cased in sweet peppers,” and left the crispy tangy okra with tomatoes uncharred in our memories. At least until the curry faded.

 

 

Back in the last century when I started in newspapers, no obituary ever dared print the scarifying word cancer. “After a long illness” was the preferred euphemism if cause of death had to be mentioned. I think of that today whenever I hear someone 47 or 52 years old has died of a heart attack. Could the real culprit be a certain diet that Bloomberg’s been trashing?

 

 

Misery is a fish served cold, but that adage apparently eludes the latest chef at Campton Place in San Francisco. His signature dish is reportedly branzino served two ways, half straight off the bone at tableside and the remainder after a return trip to the kitchen to be transformed into a showstopping entree. I can’t think of anything less appealing. Plating in the dining room already guarantees a tepid meal (not to mention high anxiety as skin and bones go flying). Watching it happen is about as seductive sitting in on an autopsy. But to see that same leftover flesh come back from the dead, all gussied up, would be even creepier: Too many hands pressing the icy flesh.

 

 

I may be the only professional eater on the planet who gets the willies just looking at the TWC (transpose those initials and you’ll think twice, too). I’m sure I’ll eventually be lured into one of the Keller/Kunz/Trotter restaurants that Gourmet has already designated among the best in the city, but the fire that just broke out at barely opened Per Se only reinforced my intention to keep taking my edible chances at street level. Better mediocre than sorry.

 

Anyone wondering whether diving into a sinkhole in Iraq has made America safer should spend a couple of days in Washington. You won’t be able to get within blocks of the heavily barricaded White House (a k a the Chickenhawk Coop), and your hotel key card will be constantly demagnetized by all the metal detectors you’ll have to pass through to get into museums. On the plus side, you’ll also have a hard time contracting salmonellosis on capital time.

On both mornings I was stranded there, an egg breakfast started to look as attainable as Iraqi democracy. The otherwise wonderful Hotel Rouge serves only a continental, and badly, and the desk clerk just suggested another hotel where I had already eaten dinner, or a Cosi (Friendly’s must have been closed). So one day I made my way to the Tabard Inn, which used to have a good restaurant, and was told at 9:45 that the kitchen was closing. And the next day, Poste, in the Hotel Monaco, had already given its cooks the morning off at 9:55.

The eerily quiet Tabard did finally come through, close to lunchtime, with decent scrambled eggs, “whole wheat” toast with suspicious caraway seeds, grease sponges passing as home fries and a side order of instant grits with smoky bacon and processed cheese shreds. Luckily, my chewing was drowned out by a woman who strapped on her cell headset and treated the whole half-full room to a line-by-line revision of a long manuscript (“Where you say ‘exacerbated by race,’ let’s make it ‘transcends race’’’). No state secrets there.

The host at Poste at least sent me on my way, to Spy City Cafe, next to the new spy museum in the next block of F Street. It looked like one of those grab-and-go stands you have to suffer in airports, but it had a grill and decent tea and a great schtick: the cooked food takes so long you examine everything else for sale and wind up going back for the tempting $3 cup of fruit after clogging up on the cheap eggs. What made it really worth a stop, though, was seeing the walls lined with photos of Washington landmarks in espionage history, from those good old days when war-launching intelligence just might have been intelligent.

 

 

The new parlor game, naturally, is: Guess the new Biff Grimes/Ruth Reichl/Bryan Miller. Never a good gambler, I’m putting my pennies on Calvin Trillin, Bud to his buddy “Johnny” Apple, whom he just coincidentally profiled in the New Yorker not so long ago. But come to think of it: What a way for RWAjr himself to wind up his Times career, as the ultimate arbiter of food. I personally would pay cash money to be in a restaurant the night both he and that other 800-pound primate show up, one presumably under an assumed name and the other barreling in as usual, his sport coat hanging as low as his arms from the weight of his giveaway guides.

 

Why W is one magazine that has to be opened as soon as it lands on my doorstep: Someone there understands what the Times apparently doesn’t — food is fashion, food is style, food is vitally important. A one-pager in the latest issue on Thomas Keller’s inamorata/booker is worth the subscription. Not only do you get details on her and him, but when you read between the wide lines, you understand that mere mortals had better abandon all hope of ever eating at his New York branch, Per Se. There are too many PXX’s, as Daniel would call them, and not enough tables. Or, to put it another way, we’re not in Napa anymore.

 

 

Fear and favors: In one of those strange coincidences, one afternoon I’m having lunch with an editor at the country’s most self-important daily who’s kvetching about the overwrought ethics standards forcing her to perform painful contortions to be absolutely sure no reviewer she contracts has any connections with any author up for review. The very next morning I open the Sunday supplement of the same national newspaper to find an article about a rather weak chef written by a staffer who owes her job partly to the chef’s much stronger mother. The piece does mention they’re “friends,” but you have to wonder. There are 8 gazillion chefs’ stories in the naked city. The one about the job-jumping daughter of a mentor is the most compelling?

 

With no luck, though, maybe we’ll find the same story in the country’s premier fashion magazine next month. A pattern appears to be developing there: Newspaper with national circulation inflates culinary tidbit into story; magazine with dedicated following in the food world throws its hefty weight at the identical ort just weeks later. And women wondering if a Caja China is really just a cigar are left with nothing to read.

 

 

Where’s Tom Ridge when the Upper West Side needs him? You can’t get into the better restaurants for all the East Siders flocking in with their fixed faces — Nice Matin is fully committed even at 5:30. I’m sure a little fingerprinting and photographing would keep us from having to close the borders.

 

 

For a rather large couple, the Zagateers are oddly agile targets. Mark Gimein in Fortune comes close to nailing them in “Table for Mr. Bigfoot” (best line: Why does Paris have just six restaurants rated 27 or higher for their food while Dallas has 14?) If they didn’t manage to slip away unscathed, yet again, it might be worth a link.

 

 

With a name like Natchez, a new restaurant in the East Village would seem to have an idea of hospitality a little less northern than arctic. But we had one of the most bizarre “welcomes” I’ve ever experienced in an almost empty restaurant. We walked in nearly on time for the reservation to find our friends ensconced in a corner waiting for the beer and wine they had ordered, and we all proceeded to sit unattended until the hostess set down the phone and started manically moving tables with the busboy, while the cook stood by idly in the open kitchen. Finally she came over to explain that she might have to move us because she not only needed our table, she also needed to fit one more in behind us to accommodate one of two big groups she was expecting.

Back in the last century I worked in a department store that all but tattooed employees with the message that a customer in front of us was always worth 20 on the phone. I hope Natchez got its hordes, despite its cash-only policy and too-limited menu, because the four of us immediately put on our coats and walked north to the busy Mermaid Inn, where we were greeted, seated and drinking good Zinfandel in a matter of minutes.

 

 

Casa Mono does do a few dishes you won’t see anywhere else. But the only way I’m going to eat cock’s combs is in a hot dog.

 

 

After my guide in Calcutta emailed me a link to a food story in the Times of India, I inadvertently got a clue to how the rest of the world sees what has happened to our peace and prosperity. All of us grew up being told to finish our food because children were starving in India. Now the tables are upended. A blinking link on the newspaper’s web site implores Indians to help wipe out hunger . . . in America (secondharvest.org).

 

Waiting the usual 10 minutes for a menu and 15 minutes for service in a restaurant (Nice Matin), I suddenly realized what half the 10 million jobs lost under the tragically limited occupant of the White House must be: waiters. Hosts of either gender now routinely seat you while withholding any clue of what you might choose to order, and I’m convinced it’s a delaying tactic to stretch a thin crew even tauter. Apparently it never occurs to them that they could turn tables faster, and maybe even sell more food and wine, if they sprang for more bodies. If only wait staffs could be outsourced to India.

The latest byline on the NYTimes magazine’s food co lumn can be read many ways, but I see it as the final curtain on that dark era of Raines of Terror. Order has been restored on 43d Street. Once again, well-connected white boys rule.

 

 

As Natchez reminded me, I’m cursed with a good memory for bad experiences. My consort never suggests a restaurant without asking: “Or is that on your shit list? I can’t keep track.” I can never forget a dis, miserable food, hostile service, food poisoning, corked wine, painful noise or any other conditions that provoke us into fighting. This city has too many other choices — about 15,000, I think.

What’s peculiar, though, is that I tend to forget why places are not bad. I wandered into Le Monde, up near Columbia, with a floating notion that it was worth a revisit. Only after I had eaten half my overdressed avocado-bacon-lettuce sandwich with anemic tomato and limp french fries did it come back to me. The food is not the thing. It’s the service that’s exceptional. The hostess cleaned the window table I chose, the waitress was friendly and fast and even the busboy stepped in to bring my wine and take my credit card. Sometimes half a loaf is just right.

 

 

Just when I thought Real Simple had reached its absolute nadir, I happened to flip open the issue labeled (like the last six) the absolute last of my ill-advised subscription. And there was a pages-long story on how to doctor up takeout to make hors d’oeuvres fit for company. I hate to keep kicking a retarded horse, but every idea was lamer than the last. Hollow out cherry tomatoes and stuff with prefab guacamole? What could be more tedious and time-consuming? Cut out little rounds of partially baked pizza, garnish each one and rebake them? Canapes would be quicker. Whoever described going out to dinner as the two-hour solution to a 30-minute problem never realized how complicated shortcut cooking could get. And the fact that this tripe was written by someone known for churning out high-end chefs’ cookbooks tells you everything you need to know about the schizo world of food today. Message: buy the book, get intimidated, put absurd energy into reprocessing processed junk.

 

Cookbook publishing is one mysterious business, though. Lately there’s an outbreak of heavily promoted books from restaurants not known for their food. Did trees need to die for recipes from Balthazar? Or, worse yet, from the Palm? I can’t wait for the cookbook from Gray’s Papaya.

 

 

Great moments in terror prevention: Booze was banned from Times Square on New Year’s Eve, but doesn’t Al Qaeda also see alcohol as the root of all evildoing?

 

 

It’s the season to be queasy: Walking past a certain yuppified “Chinese” place on Broadway known for its grease, I picked up a whiff of something much stronger than pine needles and turned just in time to see a tanker trunk from a rendering plant pulling its hose out of the basement. Hope it was a pickup and not a delivery.

 

At Schiller’s, the third time was the jinx. The place itself was still magical, a transporting experience on a raw day. But the waiters were bumbling at best and I stupidly ordered what had to be the worst choice on the menu: eggplant Parmesan. I know I deserved what I got, but it really should have been better than a bowl of tomato soup with a few undercooked strips of eggplant and about half a pound of mozzarella. It was like pizza without the crust, a bun without a burger, a fish without a bicycle. The nearly perfect french fries held up their end of the meal, though, and the rotisserie chicken was certainly acceptable. It’s amazing how good scenery can sometimes taste.

 

Buche Rolling in Our Time: I like the food writing in Vogue enough to risk a hernia plowing through the fashion pages to get to the tales of boudin-bound pigs actually squealing like pigs. Which is why I think the big writer was not well served when his latest collection of columns was thrown to a friendly puppy to chew and review. Anyone who can see where the apron strings lead (“My Buddy, Myself”) will write off the book as one only friends and family would spring for. Anyone else will probably underestimate its brilliance because of the self-aggrandizing. The reviewer, who got a big plug in Vogue in December, could have done the honorable thing and admitted: A fresh reader without a bone to suck is always a much better judge. But then who would mime the critic’s praises when he publishes his next forest-depleting masterwork?

Narcissus watchers might want to stop picking on Rocco DiSpirito and start in on Jonathan Reynolds. The NYT magazine contributor has taken his self-indulgent column to the big stage, and the result is pretty but far from witty. I only saw a preview, when a friend of the producer persuaded us to join her on a discount night, but it was hard to imagine how the one-man show could be saved, short of firing the casting director, as my consort suggested. Like the lawyer who hires himself and winds up with a fool for a client, Reynolds is a far better playwright than an actor, and despite his great “Stonewall Jackson’s House,” that’s not saying much.

Probably the biggest problem is that when a blueblood opens up a vein, ice water trickles out. It’s hard to empathize with a rich kid whose mean old maman was emotionally stingy (try being poor and beaten). Using food to milk sentiment also seems cheap, the Patsy Cline “Crazy” of dramatic devices. And even if you could care about the plot, the self-consciousness and self-congratulation and kielbasa hamminess make it impossible to respond without total cynicism (all four of us shuddered when he threw the Polish sausage into his cardoons).

If you go just for the food porn, you may come away with a new appreciation for the old Fat Ladies. They did that cook-and-chatter schtick so much better, so much sooner. The only saving graces are no half-time, a gorgeous set (oddly, no credits are given in the Playbill for the back story on the appliances and cookware) and the one aspect not spelled out in how-clever-am-I smarminess: Reynolds’s menu must have been designed to do in his mom with gout. Why else would he serve a deep-fried turkey with a cheese-loaded potato souffle?

“Dinner With Demons” may benefit from the oldest rule in the food business, though: location, location. The theater is just down the block from the playwright’s benefactor.

 

 

Just spotted the ultimate cross-marketing, and it’s not a joke: Chicken McNuggets and “Haunted Mansion.” Talk about a scary movie.

 

 

Why the oral experience has to be so aural is one of the great mysteries of eating out, but I think I’ve come close to solving it. The breakthrough came after we met friends at Thalia just for a drink before a show but wound up at a table where, as always, we had to yell to talk. One of my friends seemed to say her Jonah crab claws were the best she had ever had, which was surprising, since my Caesar salad was a little on the timid side and the “herbed” fries were not just bland but cold. It also seemed strange that she wasn’t polishing off her small plate.

Only later, as we were walking out of the theater, did my ears clear. “Those crab claws,” she reiterated, “really were the worst I’ve ever had.” No wonder bad restaurateurs crank up the volume. It’s cheaper than buying fresh.

 

 

Reading all the “best” cookbook roundups, I had to wonder why anyone publishes in any season but fall. Recipe reviewers apparently have shorter memories than Oscar voters, and they have no excuse of not being able to watch a video to check out the little guys. It would also be easier to take these Golden Globs seriously if they all didn’t inevitably crown the same members of the food world’s inner circle, the cookin’ coven.

 

Chefs and scientists have apparently done their damnedest with the burrito, finally calling it a wrap, if the increasing bastardization of the taco is any indication. I don’t know which item I noticed recently was scarier: the grocery coupon for $1 off on Old El Paso Seasoned Taco Meat Bucket (could there be a more appropriate container?), or the Todd English recipe in Bon Appetit for “rib-eye tacos” mucked up with horseradish and onion jam. Actually, there’s no contest. The English tacos (say no more) use flour tortillas, inexplicably cut into squares. Reinvent some wheels and you’ll get carsick.

 

 

Two weeks away from the easily manipulated American media must have been deleterious to my cynical side. I saw the famous Bon Appetit/campaign shot plastered everywhere and never questioned where in the name of Saddam Shrubya’s string pullers had been able to find a food stylist that good in a Baghdad so dangerous only Hillary Clinton and colleague could walk free. (Did anyone see Martha Stewart in this country on that day?) Even worse, it never occurred to me — a veteran of a mass Thanksgiving feeding in New Orleans — that gorgeously roasted birds are rarely presented whole to hordes. But as the turkey in chief would say, fool me once. . . . When he sneaks back to that hangar with caviar on New Year’s Eve, I’m going to look twice.

 

 

IIf your worst nightmare is winding up on the wrong flight, headed for Omaha instead of Oaxaca, don’t fly Song. Delta’s new discount airline is putting all its promotion into one weird campaign that sends some very strange signals. One ad in the New York Observer touted a big smiling “Mimi,” on a flight from LaGuardia to West Palm Beach, as having “time for Animal Planet, Discovery Channel and two cosmos.” But what’s in her shaking hands is not pink at all — it looks like a mutant mojito but with lemon. Can you trust them to find the airport if they don’t know their booze?

 

 

Once again, gossip columns gushed about all the klieg wattage at what I thought was a rather dull (read AARP guest list) party. Admittedly, I bailed on Egi Maccioni’s book fete at Circo. It started at 5, I got there around 6 and was just able to get a glass of quite good pinot bianco before the pizzettes and other savories vanished. Speeches were followed by sweets, which to me is the equivalent of blasting the lights on at last call. But apparently the stars only come out for sugar — Liz Smith listed a whole roster I never saw. Call it the case of the materializing celebrities.

 

What is it with old gray ladies and risotto? In the last few weeks the paper of rice has run at least three recipes — two back to back in the magazine alone, and two by those renowned experts in Arborio alchemy: Brits.

 

 

A cute little automatic match for candles was just hand-delivered from Steve Hanson’s people as a promotion for his new outpost of Fiamma in Las Vegas. Too bad he isn’t using it to light a fire under his staff closer to home. I actually tried to eat at Ruby Foo’s uptown, having never been there in the eons since it opened, but the warning signs were the same as at Atlantic Grill recently. Almost every one of the tables in the front section where I was seated was squirming in anxiety. Two had their credit cards out in that subway-evoking deaf-mute plea for a check; three more were sitting waiting for food with those peeved-but-trying-not-to-lose-it faces I increasingly see in Hanson properties besides Isabella’s. The rest had cobwebs growing over them. I waited 10 minutes with no sign of a waiter and fled. And not to Fiamma, here or in Vegas.

 

 

Minimalist trick of the month: turning a sauce into an ingredient (shouldn’t it be the other way around?) Pipian is described as pumpkin seeds in the paper of cupcake record. Which is sort of like defining pesto as pine nuts. No Booker Prizes for food brains this week.

 

Not just because my cellphone-dependent father died of brain cancer, I tend to be a little more neurotic about the ubiquitous ego extenders than apparently anyone in New York. And more and more, I keep noticing how the annoying little cries for help bring out the beast in their owners at feeding time. I was raised not to talk with my mouth full, but that was before eating in public became solitary recreation. Wherever I am, I can’t help spotting people who sit quietly until their food arrives, then go on autodial and let their callees suffer the sounds and saliva. It’s a bizarre phenomenon, particularly in Mexican restaurants, where it’s rampant and where crunchy tortilla chips and slurpy salsa are inevitably involved. At my loneliest, I would never a call a friend in the middle of a takeout pizza. It would be rude and cumbersome — not to mention profoundly pathetic.

But as much as I’ve become accustomed to the gruesome performance, what I just saw while getting my hair cut left even me gape-mouthed. A scrawny woman with big hair and diet skin was apparently content to sit scrawling in a notebook in a nearby chair as the hairdresser tugged and dried. As soon as he left her to go off and bring back a strange machine, though, she got out the cell and ostentatiously hooked up the earpiece. Then she opened up a pint container of boiled egg whites. About 10 or 12 of them. And then she proceeded to autodial as she made like a mongoose. The whole thing was surreal. It had to be one of those successive sets of calls where every callee pleads: “I’m losing you.” Sucking eggs should not be shared.

 

I subscribe to New York magazine — at the most discounted price on the planet — but with every issue I wonder why. The latest one, on “Best Chefs 2003,” could have been overseen by Zagat, it has such a disconnect from the food scene. Not to mention that the opening spread seems to have been shot by the same woman who just did my visa photo for $7.95: it may be anatomically correct, but where is the flattery, let alone the professionalism?

I like a lot of the guys in the feature, but if they’re the best, then New York is just what I’ve been complaining: A tired Podunk. Either that or the depression I keep diagnosing on the food front is worse than even I’d thought. This feature has a going-through-the-motions feel you would not perceive in Sydney or London. Then again, maybe these hangdog chefs, and the editors, are all contemplating having to cook for Republicans next year.

 

Imagine if the NYTimes ran a forum on a celebrity cooking for a head of state. Say it was Emeril for Blair. What you would read would never be as acerbic, even brutal, as what the Brits are suggesting the Inflatable Chef whip up for the Chimp in Chief.

After Nigella was spotted skulking around power central in London, the British papers didn’t ask the obvious: Why not have a real chef rather than a TV presenter cook? Instead, the Guardian just let readers let fly. Not surprisingly, the responses were nothing like what you will read on the defanged NYTimes site, which seems to be all about cookies and milk. Toasted chads and jerk chicken were among the milder suggestions; most were in the strychnine-hemlock-fugu vein. In short, more than the mice used as food tasters in Thailand may be needed on this trip to “our” main coalition partner.

 

 

Studs Terkel had a great column recently in which he referred to America’s “national Alzheimer’s disease.” He diagnosed it in a more substantive context than food, but it’s hard not to agree with him when you walk past a newsstand anymore. Low-carb has clearly supplanted low-fat as the No. 2 cover line after great sex, but does no one really remember how obese the whole gullible country got gorging on Snackwells and other fat-free wonders?

 

 

Given how addled Americans are about food right now, it’s bizarre to read a menu like the one my consort just brought home from Bloom in Scottsdale. Two appetizers and six entrees on the long, overwritten list (creme fraiche, for instance, is modified by both cool and chive) carry little asterisks, decoded at the bottom with two lines reading: “Regarding the safety of these items, written information from the United States Food and Drug Administration is available upon request.”

I assume it’s a notice not unlike the one you see in any restaurant in New Orleans serving oysters that may pose a risk to anyone with a compromised immune system. But that red flag is at least straightforward. This one makes you wonder how badly you want that “spicy tuna tartar, chilled sunomono salad & crisp black seeded wonton.” Will the FDA give the all-clear on the sunomono or the black seeded? The drunken cherry sauce with the duck does not warrant an asterisk, and either does the “tamari nap” with the wok shrimp. But the lamb, the two beefs, the pork, the tuna and the scallops all do.

The sad part is that the little asterisk does nothing to reassure, any more than the little heart alongside the low-fat entrees made them any more alluring in the heyday of Lean Cuisine. These days, with the EPA lying about air quality at Ground Zero and the pretender in chief lying about who hung the mission accomplished banner, I think I’d trust the chef on what was safe to eat. Even if he was serving forbidden rice.

 

 

Another souvenir of that vicarious trip to my birthplace was a special wine section from the Arizona Republic showcasing what has to be the weirdest gimmick ever presented in a mainstream publication: a wineglass dipped in chocolate filled with a “bold” cabernet or “peppery” zinfandel. The rest of the section was actually quite savvy, but I cannot imagine what led an editor to showcase this rim job, particularly next to an item touting Healthy Choices’ new frozen dinners allegedly made with merlot or chardonnay. It was almost like a parody of a margarita. Then again, the writer gave away more than she intended when she started off by saying: “Discover what women with PMS already know: Chocolate and wine are perfect partners.” If you’re going to get greedy and try to get both in one mouthful, wouldn’t it be a lot less lip-sloppy to dunk the chocolate in the wine?

 

 

Everyone must know by now that airlines are starting to charge for what they call food, but who knew the trend would invade the supermarket so soon? Kraft is now marketing Philadelphia [registered trademark] To Go, little packets containing a cream cheese spread with one of those bagels engineered to survive six round-trips to LA. It’s exactly the kind of breakfast you might suffer at 30,000 feet. But who here on earth would spring for it, even if the little knife packed with it would fly right past security?

 

 

One of the most valuable lessons I learned in restaurant school — besides never to grab a knife as it falls, and always to elevate a bleeding digit to slow the blood flow — was that words have to be strung together to make anything on the menu sound as if you could taste it, or at least couldn’t wait to taste it. The way to a man or woman’s stomach is not through the heart but through the hyper-critical brain, the one attached to the wallet and the gold card. Ingredients have to taste good to your ear.

 

And so the food at Butter under the new chef with the powerful mom may be absolutely brilliant. But I’m not rushing off to try it. Even lust needs mental synapses.

Where is the harmony in watercress, sage and tangerine sauce with grilled beef? Could ravioli with a wild mushroom filling actually survive a sauce with not just roasted beets but poppy seeds? Somehow I suspect Butter’s biggest seller is the strip steak with those out-there accoutrements, creamed spinach and onion rings. Now you’re talking my $31 language.

 

 

Washington may not be a lost cause after all. The Up East branch of the Shrub family’s alleged favorite Austin restaurant has gone under like a Neil Bush S&L. Jeffrey’s is out of the Watergate, and Aquarelle is back in. That wouldn’t be a Freedom place, would it?

 

Mrs. Latte has reconsidered. Emeril is okay. As long as he’s English. (I don’t blame her, though. I know who she reports to.)

 

When it comes to Mexican food, I’ll go to the opening of a can of black beans. And so after a particularly persuasive PR woman called and emailed twice to insist I come to her promotion at Pampano, I had to say si. I had no idea it was a sit-down dinner — at the prime siesta hour of 4:30 in the afternoon — until I showed up late and spotted the friend I had invited wedged into a banquette with full flatware in front of her. To join her, I had to interrupt and then wriggle past a braying ass on a cellphone in the prime seat at the table. He continued bellowing and preening even as the chef was giving her soft-spoken spiel to the whole room on exactly what we would be eating, and how she had put the client’s products to best use. Of course he was then mystified by the origins of the huitlacoche with the excellent swordfish, and he dumped habanero salsa all over the carefully constructed tamal with green chilies. Worse, when he asked my friend who she “was with” and she said freelance, he reacted as if someone had laid cat mess on his plate. (Luckily, he was too appalled to ask me.)

Who was this buffoon? None other than the huge company’s top PR guy. Apparently Rumsfeld has a twin in the marketing business.

 

What I got out of the cena from hell, besides a pretty decent goodie bag, was a tipoff to a “comida Latina” trade show at the Javits Center the very next day. This is clearly the food of the future, with nearly 40 million Hispanics in this country, and I had high hopes for produce and chilies, maybe tortillas and tamales. What I tasted was mostly processed, processed and processed. Aside from some phenomenal queso de freier — a Mexican cheese like haloumi that both crisps up and turns oozy when heated and could be the greatest snack for drinks since Spanish chorizo — what was mostly on offer was the kind of stuff you open at your own risk of 4-inch-long ingredient lists. Frozen pupusas. Pina colada yogurt smoothies. Precooked ropa vieja. Yucca fries and yucca empanadas and yucca balls. Chorizo-flavored potato chips. Some big mainstream food companies were out in force (I’m still trying to get the taste of Kozy Shack’s dulce de leche pudding out of my mouth). But what was most disheartening is that the bulk of the name tags I spotted moving from booth to booth were from restaurants from all over the Northeast. Coming soon to the margarita mill near you: Guacamole with a 45-day shelf life.

 

This was not a good week for any diner who believes cleanliness is next to savoriness. Brasserie 8 1/2’s carpeting and barstool upholstery were positively grimy when I stopped in for a drink (the overburdened barman’s jacket had also gone gray, and the giveaway grissini were days past their eat-by date). Strange, since there were barely enough customers to dirty a rug. Over at Atlantic Grill, my wineglass had an unnerving crust on it, almost as thick as the one on the saltshaker. Hard not to wonder if restaurant managers haven’t been scared cleaner-less by the Wal-Mart raids.

 

Chef’s catalog seems bent on proving that the more dazzling the kitchen arsenal, the less likely the owner is to do any actual cooking. Call it the Garland range/Chinese takeout syndrome. Chef’s latest mailing includes four full pages of mail-order food, and not the kind of inaccessible indulgences even the confident might be hesitant to try at home, like the tamales and exotic sausages Williams-Sonoma and Needless-Markup have always offered around the holidays. Haute@Home is the silly label chosen for dishes like biscuits and bread pudding and chicken enchiladas, staples of poor cooks from the era of wood stoves. There’s just something gleamingly absurd about the owner of a $900 set of knives shelling out $50 for a one-time panful of sweet potatoes Anna. And judging by the photos, you couldn’t even pass this food off as homemade. It’s too crude.

 

 

My rant on the idiocy of cooking frozen broccoli in its own bag in the microwave has been validated: Some scientist actually compared nuking and steaming and determined the former leaches the life out of one of the more healthful choices in the produce aisle.

 

 

Simple has two basic meanings: uncomplicated, and mentally deficient. A real major magazine has decided to be the latter. It’s increasingly prostrating itself before advertisers while flipping an unfloured finger to honesty and common sense.

In the November issue, readers could get mental whiplash flipping back and forth between what has to be the most cumbersome recipe ever for pie crust (made in a food processor; 15 steps before you even chill it) and the most bogus page ever of “pie myths debunked.” Not only does it actually recommend Pillsbury refrigerated crusts for their “quite good” flavor and texture but it also prescribes shortening sticks for the flakiest crust. Can you say transfatty acids, and ingredients not existent in nature? Butter is best, but if you want that old-time flakiness, why couldn’t they tell you lard is by far the healthier choice? Probably the dumbest idea, though, is to “tuck your pie dough into a square brownie pan” to avoid the cliche of the round pie that’s on “every dessert table in America.” (Who writes this stuff? Oh, right. He’s credited.) There’s a reason those boring old pies are round. They cut better, from core to perimeter, and they give just the right proportion of crust to filling. How simple is that?

Real Mentally Deficient lives down to its name even more in the main Thanksgiving feature. The theme is avoiding a sink overflowing with pots and pans, which is about the most appetizing idea they could toss up on the happiest of holidays. Suggestion One: Substitute carrots and leeks for a roasting rack under the turkey so you don’t have to scrub it afterward. (Personally, I would rather soak a rack overnight than clean leeks and scrub carrots, but I guess that’s too complicated.) Suggestion Two: Use crappy processed garlic bread for stuffing to save on chopping parsley and garlic. (Not quite Apocalypse Now, but oh, the horror.) Suggestion Four: Cook your frozen broccoli florets “right in their microwavable bag” to save on pot washing. (If you’re going to get out a skillet for the lemon butter, cook the whole fresh head in it. You already sprang for the leeks, for Crisco’s sake.) My one suggestion: Warn your guests they’d be eating better at a Boston Market. And a lot faster.

Given how craven the magazine seems to be about soliciting ads through name-brand copy, I’m surprised it didn’t suggest using that great new Dawn Power Dissolver for the rack. Do leeks have lobbyists? But I’m mostly disheartened that a magazine that started out with a brilliant concept — cutting through the jangle in our lives, as the founding editor put it when I met her back in the beginning — has devolved into a very slickly packaged 1950s ode to convenience foods. In these glory days in the American food chain, convenience is such a better word when it’s a noun.

 

 

The true test of my Manhattanitis came on the buffet line at Bay Leaf in midtown. With a friend who had suggested the place, I had just started filling my plate when the young Indian guy ahead of me blurted: “Did you see what I just did?” There was no mistaking it: a very brazen cockroach parading among the squash heaped decoratively alongside the Sterno pans. It was too late, and too unpolitic, to drop my plate and flee, even after the guy grabbed a waiter to give him hell. And I’ve seen worse: Whenever the exterminators sprayed in the kitchen of the restaurant where I went to cooking school, sluggish roaches were always dropping into serving plates for a day or so. My consort and I were once eating in an Indian restaurant off Amsterdam Avenue when we spotted a roach strutting its dirty stuff on the wall and pointed it out to a waiter who simply reached over and crushed the bug with his thumb (the same one later to be seen in our saag paneer).

Roaches are just a fact of restaurant life. Even Jeremiah Tower ’fesses up in his memoir, “California Dish.” But I left Bay Leaf feeling rather queasy nonetheless. As my friend and I ate, I noticed the waiters were not changing the linens when they turned the tables. They were merely swiping the curry crud off the Teflon textile onto the floor and laying down what I hope were fresh settings. Humans only get the buffet at lunch there. For roaches, it’s gotta be a 24-hour smorgasbord.

 

 

You know things are bleak when Reagan starts looking bright. He only declared ketchup a vegetable to save a few bucks on food for schoolkids. These days the NYTimes reports prison officials around the country are not even bothering with semantics. They’re flat-out changing the definition of what adequate is for inmates.

In a country with the cheapest food supply on earth (can you say rampant obesity among the very poorest?), it’s unsettling to think 15 percent of the states are so strapped they can no longer afford to put two flour-and-lard biscuits on a plate and now have to serve just the dirt-cheap chicken and forget the extravagant macaroni and cheese. If there’s $100 million to spare for a witness protection program for exactly 100 Iraqi families, it seems criminal not to spring for breakfast for Americans — even bad Americans — on weekends. There’s also an element of pennywise poundfoolishness to dumping fresh vegetables and substituting “juicelike” drinks when you consider prisons will always have to pay for health care for the malnourished.

 

Goulash to gulag is an easy slide, especially considering these are only the changes affecting “legitimate” prisoners who have access to lawyers and reporters. What could they possibly be serving at Guantanamo?

 

 

Maybe one way prisons could make up the shortfall would be to produce the “Texas Budget-Chainsaw Prison Diet,” with testimonials by cell potatoes. It couldn’t possibly be as offensive as something due out in January from Jacqui Malouf, Bobby Flay’s interpreter on the Food Network. The promo for it shows her bare-topped in bed with a trayful of breakfast under the title “Booty Food,” and it goes down-gutter from there. There’s an “aphrodisiac alert” with entries like “anchovies — they get your love loins going” and a back page of “lust symptoms” that will put you off your feed. To get your pork loins going, there’s a sample recipe that allegedly serves two but calls for a pound and a quarter of meat, two cups of “corn-grit” polenta and a whole cup of Parmesan. So much for sex on the dining room table — anyone who ate all that would have to say: “Not tonight, dear. I’m digesting.”

 

 

This will be my 22d Thanksgiving in New York (I missed one in New Orleans), so I’ve clearly been here awhile. But I have to say I have never had a conversation about hero sandwiches. Wraps, bagelwiches, burritos, even rotis, sure. But heroes just aren’t on the salumi radar. So I was mystified by the big spread devoted to them in our hometown paper. And then I remembered where I saw the gruesome things on a regular basis: five-foot-long ones sitting unrefrigerated and sneeze-unguarded on the sandwich bar in the Cafe Regret, the feeding station where they were brought in as a special treat for the voluntarily incarcerated on West 43d Street. I can only envision the heroic sequels: Dishwater soups. Gluey puddings. Tacos, cafeteria style. This is why editors should go out to lunch.

 

 

Only the most naive recipe follower would believe any chef really wrote a cookbook. Those guys are too busy doing everything but cooking to slave over a hot keyboard. Just about all of them hire partners in deception. But now I’m wondering how those same collaborators can churn out so many books. I have this vision of them sneaking around like kitchen contractors, putting in a day or three here, then disappearing for a couple of weeks while they go off and appease other clients they never mentioned they had.

 

The question only came up when I got yet another review copy of yet another book with this fall’s It Collaborator, and I only noticed because he was getting cover credit this time. The end of anonymity is a big step forward for the word grunts in food publishing, but it also spares them reviews like my all-time favorite on a chef cookbook not written by a chef. Referring to the Sylvia’s of Harlem opus, Nation’s Restaurant News memorably wrote: “Unfortunately, the book would have benefited from a ghostwriter.” (Also like kitchen contractors, bad collaborators live to sin again — this one went on to infamy with a pastry chef who went on to sell out to a sandwich chain.)

 

 

Does anything go stale faster than flavor-of-the-week food? Stewart, Tabori & Chang has just published a collection of the “100 best recipes” from New York magazine and moths virtually fly out of every page. What seemed so fabulous when Meigas was still in business, and when Patrick Clark was still alive, now looks about as exciting as my 1972 copy of “All Around the Town,” which at least boasts “hundreds” of recipes from New York’s “finest” restaurants. Can’t wait for the sequel: “100 best fashions,” a showcase for leg warmers and shag haircuts.

 

 

Be careful where you wander into after a party with Texans who pour faster than the Bush twins. We tried to go to nice and sedate Beppe after a liquid soiree on Park Avenue South, but the kitchen was already closed around 10, so we headed for Dos Caminos, where I figured the guacamole sommelier never sleeps. It was the right place for a last glass of wine and a couple of hangover-deflecting tacos and salad, but the wrong place the next morning when I realized my Amex card was missing. Somehow the waiter had remembered to give us the sign-up spiel for the BR Guest mailing list (the one I’m starting to think is being compiled for Jet Blue) but had forgotten to hand me back the plastic.

 

I immediately called, expecting to hear a reassuring, “Yeah, we have it right here.” Instead, the receptionist took down my first and last names and color of card etc. and put me on hold before reporting she had it. I schlepped to 26th and Park, gave the same information at the hostess stand and waited about 10 minutes before another employee came back. With at least 15 credit or debit cards clutched in her hand.

 

There once was a time when a restaurant would immediately call you to say you had left your vulnerable card, even offer to messenger it to you. Now, let the diner beware. Having just been billed twice for the same $82 lunch at Rez’s Cucina Italiana in London, I’m putting on my glasses for my next Amex statement.

 

 

Just back from Salzburg and London, I can’t help thinking New York looks somewhere between provincial and moribund. The energy of those cheese-eating, Blair-challenging cities is sadly absent here anymore. Restaurants take no risks with food or with design, as if eating safe will keep us safe, and how ridiculous is that? Londoners sound just as convinced they’ll get hit, too, but they seem determined to go down in a blaze of innovation if not glory. Salzburgers see no need to bury their heads in Mozart, either. Compared with the bathrooms in even their classic restaurants, New York’s look like Portajohns. And the circular bar at Hangar 7 in Salzburg, with a computer function under the glass that lets one drinker send a little “plane” with a message to another, makes downtown look like Des Moines.

 

 

Coming home to the huffing and puffing in the Time Out and New York fall previews did not do much to lift my gloom. Those breathless promo pieces are always the desperate triumph of hope over experience — how many times has Gray Kunz announced he’s really, seriously, finally opening a place? How many of those dozens of bright and shiny new places will actually see the light of candles? (I always save the gushings to do a head count the following spring.) But this season it’s worse — much of what they’re promising is either confusion passing as fusion (Samuelsson does sushi, Burke gropes for his inner Italian) or still more risk-averse menus. Marc Murphy takes years off just to come back and serve steaks and sauces? Christian Delouvrier’s channeling his Gascon grandma? Ken Aretsky’s reviving that peculiar Pearson barbecue (without the diabetes-inducing potato salad, I hope)? Even Ducasse’s opening seems a little forlorn. London gets Pierre Gagnaire’s brilliance. New York gets multinational macaroni and cheese. With peanut butter.

I can only take solace in an I-told-you-so. More than a year ago my “editors” pressured me to make Katy Sparks the lead of a story on chefs on hiatus. The fatherly saps were just besotted with the idea of a woman home with her baby reveling in quality time before opening the restaurant of her dreams in mere months. Things got nasty, but they finally had to stick a diaper in it when I insisted that the chances of that place ever materializing were about as slim as Gray Kunz setting up shop in Lever House. Now a little blurb in New York reveals that Sparks’ erstwhile partner is not opening Katy’s on West 10th Street but — surprise, surprise — Twilight 101. Tapas, anyone?

 

I knew there was a reason most of the people dropping megapounds in the Fortnum & Mason tearoom were of the Hello Kitty sweatshirt variety from Japan. My absurdly overpriced scone seemed to have been baked by Poppin’ Fresh. (Don’t ask about the rare tea that drew us there for my consort’s job — it was 6 pounds a pot including surly service.)

 

 

One juicy detail got left out of the New York Times’ bedazzled account of the Paris boondoggle for Chefs des Chefs d’Etat, the coalition of the culinary catering to heads of state. According to the Daily Telegraph in London, Geedubya’s man in white, Walter Scheib, was set up by hoaxsters from a French TV show who sent a woman pretending to be Mme Chirac to his hotel to offer him a job cooking for her husband, who she said was longing for freedom fare like hamburgers and barbecue after so much of that silly old French food. On camera, the poor dope actually asked for time to think “this great honour” over before the scam was revealed and he started whining about “a diplomatic incident.” Given how the Maison de Bush apparently prizes loyalty above all other considerations, the fickle Schreib could be the first chef in history who may be needing a taster himself.

 

 

One more way the Europeans have it all over on us at the table: vegetarians get the four-star treatment just about everywhere. But the Brits at least keep a sense of humor about this mad cow world. A brochure I picked up at a sausage shop offering a “nonmeat selection” in the Smithfield Market carried a wry little reassurance: Please note that no animals were harmed in the production of this flyer.

 

 

Another good sign from London, where purification seems to be half the point of eating and drinking anymore: A pub in Soho with a chalkboard outside advising “Retox here.”

 

Consider it one more paving stone on the road to extinction. Black & Decker has come out with the appliance the whole world was waiting for: an electric jar opener. It’ll be just the ticket for the next blackout.

 

 

When the lights went out, I was standing in the paper products aisle of Food City and wishing I had had the foresight to be caught near the canned tuna before the manageress threw everyone out of the store. I’m the kind of recovering Catholic who has a recurring nightmare about tanks rumbling after me for filching a single grape, but for once I could understand why shoplifters grab and run, even when the cash registers are working. I would have been happy for any food that could just be opened and eaten if the blackout lasted.

Turns out I didn’t need the Progresso after all. My apartment had gas and running water and lots of red wine, and we could cobble together something approximating penne putanesca from my bulging kitchen cabinets, without breaking the seal on either our overstocked refrigerator or our crammed-solid freezer. And when I finally cracked open both doors next morning, two hours after the power surged back on, 16 hours after it had gone off, the frozen foods were all still iceberg-hard and even the milk was still cold.

Which made it all the more suspicious to read over the next two days how all the New York butchers and pizza bakers and grocery stores and restaurants were diligently — and photogenically — following the mayor’s reflexive advice on the food front: “When in doubt, throw it out.” No restaurant I ever worked in paid much attention to sell-by dates, let alone to the absurdly wasteful idea of tossing out meat or fish just because it might possibly maybe be on the verge of going bad — or even because rats had gotten the first nibble. In restaurant school I was taught that the first salad bars in upscale markets originated as a way to turn tired produce into high-priced takeout, that stock was just a smart chef’s way of recycling carrot scrapings and onion peels. Dump borderline food? Yeah, right. Maybe if a photographer was there to record the noble act. (One of my favorite cartoons ever is of a chef standing in a card shop asking for 600 get-well greetings.)

As if to validate my cynicism, the Food City when I stopped back in the day after the disaster had an ice cream case just as packed as it was when I had abandoned my basket. The Haagen-Dazs cartons looked a little more crusted with frost, but what else is new? I figure anything I buy in Manhattan has always been through more mini-blackouts than Noelle Bush.

 

 

On the bright side, I had the good sense to disregard the petit poulets on our transistor radio the morning after and go out to see for myself if the sky was still in place. My feet automatically turned right at Columbus Avenue, toward the Friday Greenmarket on 97th Street. I couldn’t imagine there would be anyone there with all the doom and gloom and chaos on the airwaves, but the white umbrellas were immediately visible from half a block away. Not to sound soft-headed, but I couldn’t have felt more encouraged if I had seen the flag flying over Fort McHenry through the rockets’ red glare. The farmers were still there.

And they were definitely doing no dumping. At Bialas Farms, from way up north in Orange County, I told a familiar face I was surprised to see him and he just said: “We had to come. We had everything picked when the power went off, and it would have rotted if we didn’t bring it in and try to sell it. There was no traffic. And we only brought raw things, in case there was no power — people would still be able to eat.”

Tell that to the grandstanders who claimed to dump a quarter-ton of butter (which doesn’t go bad overnight at kitchen temperature as sickeningly as it does over days in an ungroomed walk-in), or 250 kinds of cheese best stored outside a chiller, or $25,000 worth of beef and pork and chicken. Funny how they sell that stuff without refrigeration in the Caribbean and Cuba, and even in France and Italy and Spain. Not so funny, though, how the Iraqis have to endlessly jury-rig cooling systems for their true perishables while they wait for their months-long brownout to end.

 

 

Dire straits should have made me more forgiving of restaurateurs’ foibles, but then it’s hard to forget the little things when the big Amex bill arrives. And so I have to admit I was more than a bit appalled at the latest “innovation” at Blue Water Grill, a restaurant I should forget exists even though it is so convenient to the Union Square Greenmarket when I have just bought my Blue Moon fish for dinner and suddenly get a craving for a cheeseburger for lunch (one reason Steve Hanson has done so well, I’m convinced, is that he knows a great burger will hide a multitude of menu sins).

At the cramped, dark table in the horrible corner under the stairs and in the waiters’ kitchen flight paths where I am inevitably seated, I was presented with a new kind of ketchup for my fries: ketchup in a Heinz squeeze bottle. Maybe it was an improvement over the glass-banging challenge you usually get, but there was something ineffably tacky about it. Not to mention unsavory: previous users’ fingerprints are harder to wipe off plastic.

I’ve been eating professionally for 20 years now, but I must still be a rube — I’m always so impressed when a restaurant cares enough to decant the ketchup into a ramekin. Then again, now that we know how rustic life can turn in minutes, maybe I should have been glad for the trailer-trash squeeze bottle. I could have been handed a few packets of fast food mess.

 

 

One more sign that the restaurant scene in Manhattan is bleak and getting bleaker: The first Chipotle Grill opened, and got major press.

It’s just a glorified McDonald’s, for Kroc’s sake.

 

Alain Ducasse had better get his new Mix open soon or New Yorkers will forget how to use silverware.

 

 

Press lunches can be deadly, and the one given by Wildwood and King Estates from Oregon at Eleven Madison was starting to show ominous symptoms — a preponderance of wine geeks at the one table, and an earnestness about the menu and pours that made it hard to chew and listen at the same time. Then the talk turned to native son James Beard and his being “asked to leave” Reed College for “inappropriate behavior.” The jaded hands in the room sort of chuckled and went on, but one fresh-faced young thing finally asked innocently: “But what did he do?” More laughs as everyone wondered: How do we tell her? Could anyone be so naive? Finally one woman burst out: “Something George Bush is only just coming to terms with.”

 

Maybe Jeremiah Tower’s graphic new book should be required reading in food-and-wine-writing school.

 

 

I seem to be one of the last internet addicts still sitting who is not seduced by FreshDirect. The idea of letting some stranger pick out my parsley and corn and veal is incomprehensible — I don’t even trust my perfect consort to decide when an avocado is guacamole-ripe.

This time of year, high season for local food, unpacking boxes from some warehouse seems even more absurd, which is why the FreshDirect truck I spotted idling on one corner of Greenwich Street in Tribeca stuck out like Reddi Wip at Payard. One block away at Duane was the Greenmarket, which has blossomed into one of the city’s best on Saturdays, with Blue Moon’s spectacular fish, De Paola’s superb turkey, Cato Corner’s excellent cheese and maybe a dozen other vendors selling everything from Korean cucumbers to wild mushrooms to the best berries. After picking up two slabs of gorgeous tuna, I ducked into the store next door to buy something frozen to keep it cold for the trek home and immediately went into supermarket-envy overdrive. That’s the cleanest, best-stocked Food Emporium I’ve ever experienced. And to top it all off, Bazzini’s just across the street has morphed into a market to rival Dean & Deluca, one that could have been airlifted in from San Francisco. Once a little nut shop, it’s now a huge and well-stocked food hall with housewares and every known condiment along with good-looking fresh fish and a great meat counter, and a coffee bar to boot.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why that FreshDirect truck was parked outside. The driver might have been doing some shopping.

 

 

The report that the White House strongarmed the EPA into putting a happy face on what it told New Yorkers about the air around Ground Zero after 9/11 was no surprise to me. I live a good five miles uptown from the WTC site, and I went to sleep with that melting-plastic smell wafting in for weeks after the attacks. Worse, I spent the better part of the second week after the devastation walking around the city for a story on how restaurants were coming back, and some of what I saw and inhaled haunts me. The creepiest sight was of the sidewalk cafe at the Odeon at Sunday brunch, exactly 11 days after the towers came down, when what we all were breathing included incinerated bodies along with mercury, lead, benzene, PCBs, asbestos and fiberglass. Just a few blocks upwind from the huge smoldering crater, people were tucking into their mimosas and egg white omelets without a care in the air. What, us worry? Our misleaders told us to get out and spend.

 

 

Mystery of the month: Who took out the hit on farmed salmon?

I gave up on the stuff quite some time ago, after reading one too many horror stories in the superior British press about the creepy risks it poses to the environment, let alone to health. Now that the wild salmon that used to be sold only in cans is available fresh nationally all the time, why would anyone who could afford clean, lean, supremely flavorful fish settle for anything less?

But lately, to read the sudden rash of Live at 5-level hysteria everywhere, you would think pink fish is the scariest thing since that other salmon word (-ella). What’s really odd is that the wild fish is winning the PR battle. Wild foods tend not to have lobbies — in fact, the Wall Street Journal just ran a depressing story on how Karl Rove stepped in to increase the irrigation flow from the Klamath River in Oregon for vote-buying reasons, leaving 30,000 wild salmon dead in the low water. Maybe fish farmers just didn’t pay their GOP dues this year.

Down the line, what will be more interesting to see is how many of these save-the-seas food crusaders give up smoked salmon along with the easily avoided cheap fresh stuff from the supermarket. As far as I can tell, very little of what’s in top markets today was made with pristine and politically correct wild fish. And what’s a bagel eater to do?

No one is also talking about another issue: more and more, farmed seafood in general is being promoted as an alternative to the overfished species. Salmon is certainly not the only trouble in the sea. What else should we be worrying about? For now, farmed salmon is this week’s transfatty acid — it’s selling newspapers and magazines and TV ads. The only good news is that the nutrition nazis have issued this indictment, and now their ADD insanity can move on.

 

I never thought the day would come when I would long for the old Balducci’s in Greenwich Village. I hated everything about the place — the crowding, the pretension, the prices, the attitude, the escargot posing as cashiers, the prices. Everything, that is, but the stock. It was the Alice’s Restaurant of food shops in a city with no shortage of superb markets: you could get anything you wanted, and always in camera-ready condition.

I was mourning it all last week while on a hunt for Smithfield ham for a recipe for a magazine piece — not a whole ham, which I can buy in any butcher shop in Chinatown, but a pound or so sliced. Balducci’s would have had it without fail.

Zabar’s was out. Jefferson Market doesn’t carry it; Fairway either. Garden of Eden tried to sell me a fatty chunk of what was clearly labeled Missouri country ham even after I pointed out that Smithfield is in Virginia. And Citarella, as always, topped them all. The appetizing clerk just looked at me with insouciance worthy of the worst of Balducci’s and said: “Never heard of it.” It was enough to put me off Dean & Deluca.

 

Things must be looking dismal over at the Four Seasons. First a famous magazine editor keeled over with a stroke at lunch and later died, bringing the kind of publicity no restaurant should ever suffer. And now Gourmet is running a dual promotion that reeks more of Midwestern openness than Manhattan exclusivity. I just got a mailing signed by the magazine’s publisher saying: “Come in for lunch or dinner between now and September 20, mention you received this letter (and that Alex & Julian invited you) and enjoy a complimentary bubbling glass of Moet Chandon Rose upon your arrival.”

Then again, maybe things aren’t so bleak, for the restaurant anyway. At least once a year I usually get a postcard from the Four Seasons offering me a whole free bottle if I come in for dinner without mentioning Gourmet.

 

 

Imagine if Orwell wrote for Zagat. You won’t have to try very hard if you look at how the Barbetta “review” has changed over the last few years.

 

A Philadelphia friend tipped me off when he emailed me wondering if the geriatric Italian was worth risking for a birthday lunch in the Theater District for another friend. “This friend seems to like overembellished places,” he typed, “but an old Zagat’s noted: dull, pompous, overpriced” etc. In warning him off, I flipped through the latest little maroon gazetteer out of curiosity and found Barbetta is now described as “romantic,” “genteel,” “grand style” etc.

Either the place has undergone a transformation not seen since Mamma Leone’s had the grace to shut down, or I’ve just cracked Zagat’s euphemism code. Who knew “Jurassic Park” really meant “corner of paradise?”

 

New York magazine is gossiping about a little trendlet of sorta famous wives being rescued after they nearly choked their last on chunks of protein, one on steak and the other on a meatball. The natural first question is whether the Atkins Diet was involved. The second is if dead weight counts as a loss.

 

 

The other night I dreamed that an uncharacteristically savage Drew Nieporent had me pinned to a bar and was ranting that there was “nothing clean” about anything I had ever written. It was pretty freaky, but nothing like opening up the newest issue of Sunset magazine and seeing a maniacally grinning Donald Trump with his bizarre hair mat waving a slice of pizza in a two-page ad for GE Monogram kitchens. On one level, it was refreshing to see an advertiser acknowledging that obscenely expensive kitchens are used mostly for eating takeout standing up. On another, you have to wonder what kind of company would think there was anything remotely alluring about a vision even my sick subconscious would never pull out of my mental drain.

 

 

I think it was Calvin Trillin who warned, “Never eat in a place called Mom’s.” I have a whole list of more subtle signals that you’re headed for trouble in a restaurant, starting with the innocuous — a help wanted sign outside — and ending with the unsettling — a waiter and a manager in a fistfight at the door. But there’s one I can never seem to remember until it’s too late.

I learned it all over again on a stopover in Providence on the way to Cape Cod. Cafe Nuovo was our lunch destination, a place I had found in my restaurant database and then in repeated raves online. It turned out to be off the sterile lobby of a sleek new office tower, but it was right on the river and the menu looked promising. So we plunged in.

And we stood for many long minutes at the receptionist’s desk while no one even approached us. Finally my consort stepped around to the bar and asked if we might be seated. Grudgingly, we were, at a table where the “linens” looked as if they had not been washed since Hamilton was dead-center on the ten-dollar bill (synthetics may repel food, but they can’t ward it off forever). The one waitress still working went into major ditz mode when she finally showed up to rattle off the specials. And the food was on the same level, starting with crab and avocado maki rolls that tasted of neither crab nor avocado, let alone maki (who knew rice could go stale?) Bob, usually the diplomatic palate at the table, was starting to accuse me of making him eat “crap,” and then we had to beg for coffee and the check. Refill? You must be kidding.

 

Back in the car, both of us hit on what had gone so wrong. The guy we had to prod to acknowledge us was busy sorting bundles of money. And in a plastic world, dollars should never matter more than diners. If you walk in and someone is too busy counting cash to welcome the prospect of taking in more, you might want to walk right back out.

 

 

If anyone believes “The Restaurant” is really a reality show, let alone the “documentary” the NYTimes labeled it, I have some yellowcake I’d like to sell. . . .

 

Speaking of Rocco in Wonderland, it’s interesting that when he went looking for a stage set for his infomercial, he had his pick of properties once presided over by the last media It chef, Matthew Kenney. The curiously made-over DiSpirito couldn’t get the Canteen hole in Soho and settled for the Commune space in the Flatiron. If he finds himself with a sequel, maybe he can take over the Commissary on the Upper East Side. Or the one in Portland, Maine. If he doesn’t, maybe he can consider what happens to chefs who succumb to the lure of the camera and vain overexposure.

 

 

Dear Miss Manners: A casual friend is part-owner of a thriving restaurant I’ve always believed deserves to thrive. My pavlovian side has led me to order the pastrami reuben dozens of times since the place opened, and it’s always been the same: meaty meat, sturdy rye, chewy cheese. And then one afternoon I stop in and get a sandwich that looks like the good old days but is so unsatisfying that I wind up obsessing on the Lurch-like waiter strutting around the room stroking his oily face and slicking back his slick hair and looking as if he spends most of his life in front of a mirror even though it’s been a good 30 years since what looked back was, shall we say, savory.

So how do I tactfully tell my smart, generous, sweet-tempered, gifted-cook friend whom I owe in a half-dozen ways that his product is slipping? How do I say the cheese tasted processed and the bread tasted more white than rye and the whole thing was flung together with less care than a Whopper?

Do I attempt a friendship-corroding intervention with denial the inevitable first response? (My cooks aren’t cheating on me!) Or do I just scratch another restaurant off the list of 15,000 in the barely clothed city and hope my friend has the luck of the Carnegie Deli, where the crowds keep coming long after the quality has left the building?

 

 

Once in a while something happens that makes you believe there may be a restaurant god after all. The closing of 222 on West 79th Street was the latest for me. If ever a place deserved to die, it was this poorly designed, pretentious joke.

We ate there exactly once. It was stupefyingly expensive, and nothing about the decor could let you forget you were trapped in a warren-like basement in a decidedly uncool section of the city. The appetizers and main courses were wiped off my mental hard drive about 700 meals ago, but I still can’t get over the dessert. It was some kind of pudding, and it was, like so much on the menu, strange. Not interesting. Not ambitious. Just strange. And of course my consort had to take the bait and order it. The waiter immediately warned him it was bad. He didn’t listen. But when it came, it was beyond bad. It had been chilling, unordered, for so long it no longer tasted of anything but refrigerator. It was also $10 or $12, at time when those were double-whammy numbers.

We asked to have it taken off the bill, even offering to let the waiter taste why it was so offensive. He refused and sent the officious owner over to inform us that “that is how the chef intends it.”

 

There are many reasons why Nice Matin, just across the street, is jammed every night even with a lemon of a burger. And if it’s what finally put a stake through the liver of 222, long may it run.

 

How not to promote a restaurant for private parties: Send out a press release littered with grammatical and punctuation errors, one that refers repeatedly to the “dinning” room. Spell the party coordinator’s name two different ways. Be sure to enclose a cheesy tiara made out of gold cardboard and silver tinfoil.

After a class hustle like that, who wouldn’t want to book a dinner for 100 people at “casual elegant” Gotham Bar & Grill for $45,000 plus tax and tip?

 

Lightly sauteed is one of the most annoying descriptions any menu writer can type. What does lightly mean, exactly? Barely? Not too heavily? With very littlel butter? It ranks right up with “touch of cream” in denial and idiocy. The literal definition of sauteing, after all, is “frying quickly in a little fat.”

Now Hudson’s on the Bend, down in Austin, has come up with a whole new bastardization. One dish in its cooking classes is described as asparagus wrapped with salmon, crusted with herbed panko and “deep sauteed.” Figures that the phrase would turn up in Texas, home of the forked tongue in chief. They can twist language till cows show up at the “ranch,” but fried is fried.

 

 

On the fear-of-food front, it figures that a huge E. coli outbreak in ground beef would happen just when people were getting worked up to a proper frenzy over farmed salmon, and just when the tom-tom beat against industrial pork was starting to be heard. It only made me realize that even as salmon has become the new chicken, no one ever cleaned up the henhouse. People are still buying foul birds from the supermarket. The government is still looking the other way in the slaughterhouses. Look for big business’s answer to the whole problem to creep beyond the meat case. They’re already irradiating beef and selling it with deceptive labels. Will Babe of Smithfield and that pink chicken of the sea be next?

 

 

Pace is finally getting its new cooking sauces into supermarkets, for cooks who would never think to coat their baked fish in good old salsa. My favorite of the four varieties, in name only, is the “roasted ranchero.” Hope they don’t try to export it to one of those countries where they can translate the label: “cooked cattleman.”

 

 

Was it a caption or was it dummy type? The line under the photograph with the city’s preeminent restaurant review reads: “Roman Holiday: San Domenico serves pastas, risottos and such . . ..” I can’t wait till some other multistarred joints are re-reviewed. Le Bernardin? “Serves fish and seafood and such.” Nobu? “Serves sushi and sashimi and such.” Probably reads well in the heartland, though. Where they have Chipotle Grills already.

 

 

The July Harper’s has a seriously funny exchange of letters between Coca-Cola’s ad idiots and a former English teacher outraged over the slogan on the Dasani water bottle: “Treat Yourself Well. Everyday.” As he points out, the last word should be two; otherwise it means “Treat Yourself Well. Ordinary.” I can only hope the poor guy doesn’t see the new ads in pidgin for Bisquick (“Bursting with more cheese-garlic”) or for Jack Daniel’s EZ “Marinader.” Both may be, as the Coke correspondents would put it, “more impactful.” But, like something else they claim is not in the dictionary (“words with suffixes”), neither attempted usage is the way Webster’s would see it.

 

 

Speaking of food, lies and media, I thank my cynical-reader friend down south near Philadelphia for pointing out this job title at McDonald’s: “healthy lifestyles director.” Turns out the beleaguered company also has a “director of social responsibility.” Is Rove with his bag of euphemisms moonlighting for another evil empire?

 

And, speaking of evil empires, the most disheartening trend on the fast food front is that McDonald’s is reporting huge interest in its salads now that Ol’ Blue Eyes With a Conscience has signed on to dress them. One article I read actually reported that mothers were dragging their kids in for their first Happy Meals now that mom had the promise of Newman’s Own sustenance as well. As a major consumer of health scare stories, I’d be very wary of salads in a fast food joint. Some of the most terrifying Shigella Mary outbreaks have involved unwashed raw greens handled by unwashed gloves attached to minimum-wage bodies with no health care. Personally, I’d rather take the cooked E. coli and run.

 

 

“Greenmarket” menus are like bad pennies: they just keep turning up all over town. And this summer, as always, they have as much in common with what’s actually at Union Square as Eli’s produce does with Gristede’s. The new Westville in Greenwich Village is the latest to snooker restaurant writers with visions of the chef out at dawn gathering vegetables so local they’re still dew-kissed. As a frustrated Greenmarket junkie, I can tell you there may be tomatoes and honeydews on the plate, but right now the Jersey/Hudson cupboard is pretty bare. With all the rain, I’m still settling for asparagus and radishes and waiting for the first Tristar strawberries. So exactly how does the early chef get the corn? Maybe by fooling all of the critics all of the time.

 

 

WD50 gets the award, not just the nomination, for most peculiarly pretentious wine service. When we ordered a bottle off the by-the-glass-or-by-the-bottle list rather than the much pricier “real” list, the Levis-wearing waitress disappeared, then came back and set down the same cheap but durable glasses we use for everyday. Then she brought the bottle, showed it, popped it open and poured a taste. Finally she disappeared again, only to return with a carafe in a stainless-steel wine cooler and the empty bottle. At some point the empty vanished. Was all this fuss so the $34 Kerner Novacella could breathe? So a few glasses could be siphoned off at the bar? So we wouldn’t be embarrassed not to have sprung for a $64 bottle instead of what was clearly plonk? Or just to divert us from all the diners sneaking out their cellphones to send and receive despite the request on the menu to let us eat in peace?

 

 

For once McDonald’s is bypassing a tie-in with what could be the feel-good movie of the summer — Carr’s is doing the promotion for “Seabiscuit.” Guess I’m not the only one who thinks horse flesh might be more appetizing than whatever’s in a Big Mac.

 

 

Until he went Italian and then Mexican, Steve Hanson seemed to specialize in restaurants that all felt pretty much the same. The burger, the crab cake, the chairs, the wines by the glass and especially the scene are familiar whether you’re wedged in at Isabella’s or at Park Avalon. But lately I’ve noticed what really makes them all alike: I have never had the same waiter twice at any of them.

And after a particularly service-free dinner at Ocean Grill, on Columbus Avenue, I’m actually wondering if BR Guest just puts an endless succession of job candidates on the floor for a tryout so that it never has to hire anyone.

The whole meal was an exercise in ineptitude by the waiter, who did not have a pen, could not remember the temperature for the special salmon and simply vanished after taking our orders. All that would be forgivable, maybe even predictable. But what got jaws dropping was how he poured the wine: he went around the table and carefully dumped one-quarter of the bottle into each glass. Then he proudly announced: “There, that looks like they’re all even.”

But even is not the point. And if the idea was to sell another bottle, and fast, off that greedy list, maybe someone should have trained him to pop by once in a while to take the order.

 

 

A couple of Oregon friends taught me an excellent mantra: “Free is a very good price.” But it has a flip side.

Consider Cape Cod potato chips, which have always been the higher-priced fat. I’ve never thought they were particularly good, but I was happy to grab a bag at the Barnstable fair on Cape Cod when I came to a booth where two guys were handing them out by the thousands for free. Then at lunch the next day, I spotted the same little bag alongside the lobster roll and coleslaw at the Flying Bridge in Falmouth. Aside from making the meal look American Airlines-worthy, the packaging sent a clear message that name counts more than contents. And it left me wondering: If the price really only covers packaging and branding, why pay ever again?

 

 

At the risk of sounding like an ancient aunt recounting the blizzards of yore, I remember when the only tortillas in New York came in a can. Mexican ingredients were alien when I moved here (a big chef once confessed to me that he thought cilantro “tastes like Zest”), and about the best you could hope for eating out was not to get alcohol poisoning at some bogus place like Caramba. Now there’s a chile emporium on just about every corner not befouled by a Starbucks, and every chef looking to cash in on marked-up margaritas is moving into Mexican.

Having been weaned on tortillas in Arizona, I’m happy for the salsa tsunami. I just wish finding real Mexican was as easy as stumbling over designer knockoffs.

The new Suenos, in an eerie little alleyway in Chelsea, is case in point. Apparently every food commentator and critic who got the press release bought into the concept of Sue Torres elevating Mexican food through fusion the way Jean-Georges Vongerichten did Vietnamese and Floyd Cardoz is still trying to do with Indian. But eating there in the first week the doors were open, I could only think this particular wheel didn’t need to be reinvented. Some of the food was good, but what I wouldn’t give for a real enchilada, not tricked up, with that wine list.

 

 

The tabloid restaurant critic I read just for the strained similes has topped herself yet again: “… Scallops are like babies: We like them plump.” Grilled, too? Eat for yourself.

 

 

File under thank the government for small favors: Now we’re going to know exactly how many trans fatty acids are in our processed food. And I notice we’ve all gotten downright svelte since we started reading how many calories we were consuming in our Haagen-Dazs, and how much fat.

In related food police news, Kraft has announced its “obesity initiatives.” One is rather radical: a single-serving package will henceforth contain only one serving.

Now if only the same fear of lawyers (food is the next tobacco, after all) would infect the people who package all the tortilla chips. Try to find a 7-ounce bag anymore. Try to find a 2-ounce bag that isn’t slicked up with a Twinkie’s worth of caloric flavorings. I went looking the other night and came home with a bag big enough to service a small restaurant. Somehow, I kinda doubt knowing the trans fatty acids is going to help. Especially since the metric system is as mysterious as it ever was. Is 2 grams like 15 degrees Centigrade? I’d love to meet the lobbyist who sold Washington on talking in Old European units in a country hooked on Imperial measurements. Imagine what damage could have been done using apothecaries’ weights (8 scruples per serving, say).

 

Not to belabor the point with a Doritos hangover, but no news report I read ever mentioned the obvious answer to the whole problem: don’t eat processed food.

 

 

One more reason not to believe everything you read in the New York papers: The Daily News has declared the Union Square Greenmarket passe. The hot shoppers, it “reports,” are buying from FreshDirect now. Local, seasonal food is so last summer? It’s really cooler to buy peaches and corn without seeing them or touching them? You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you?

 

 

If I had thrown money at Krispy Kreme stock on a Monday, after reading Fortune magazine’s embarrassingly gushy ode to a company that is clearly spreading like SARS, I would have been suffering fiscal indigestion that Friday, when the Wall Street Journal reported a conference scheduled for Boston called “Legal Approaches to the Obesity Epidemic.” All the grease and glaze must have gone to the Fortune writer’s head. He forgot to type one word, and it isn’t litigation. It’s diabetes.

As a mistress of hyperbole myself, I almost hate to point out the other crippling flaw in the story. Fortune says everyone loves Krispy Kreme except “nutritionists, Dunkin’ Donuts franchisees and compulsive liars.” In reality there’s another category who revile this white-trash fodder: anyone who has ever tasted a real homemade doughnut, hot out of the brown paper bag where it’s been tossed with a coating of cinnamon and sugar to transcend any oil. My mom made them from scratch all the time when I was growing up. Hers were yeast-raised, like Fortune’s favorite, and deep-fried, like FF’s. But they were to Krispy Kremes what Crisco is to Plugra. Every one was airy but sturdy, heady and greaseless and a healthy dark brown, not the color of 300-pound thighs like a certain brand I could name. When you bit into one, even after it had cooled, you knew you were tasting excellence you could never buy in a million strip malls.

There’s a reason savvy investors should be looking past the too-sweet forecasts and thinking insulin and syringes these days.

 

 

As a kitchen Luddite who has avoided the Cuisinart like the monkeypox, I always suspected electric can openers can lead to brain death. Now Williams-Sonoma has proven me right: it’s selling a “can strainer,” a $15 gadget to slip over an opened tin to separate solids from liquids. My first question: Can’t you just use the lid as a strainer? And my second: Williams-Sonoma shoppers eat from cans?

 

 

Tom Colicchio’s new ‘Wichcraft is the oddest new food dispensary to open in New York all year. It actually makes Craft seem voluptuous.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think you’d walked into a hair salon, and a badly designed one at that. Aside from a minimalist drink case, and a couple of scones and pastries behind a glass barrier on the counter, there is not a sign of anything resembling anything edible. The kitchen is open, but the walls come up just far enough to block any view of cooking, or sighting of ingredients. The day I stopped in, there were no aromas, no sounds, nothing to indicate a rather sensual activity might be the point of the place. It’s almost anti-food. And I guess it’s no surprise that the sandwich I chose off the menu wall — braised flank steak with onions, peppers and Gruyere on grilled country bread — was about the most flavor-free assemblage ever foisted on me outside an airplane.

 

 

Now that Bloomberg has been so successful at wiping out smoking that you can’t get to a menu posted on a new restaurant for the clot of women greedily inhaling in front of it, maybe he can tackle a more insidious health hazard: din. A.O.C. on Bedford Street in Greenwich Village was just the latest place determined to break the sound barrier with bad music — the bartender had the stereo amped up to Meadowlands level in a space with one bathroom and about a dozen tables. It was the second meal we’d suffered in a week where the idea seemed to be to keep the staff energized at the patrons’ aural expense.

Luckily, the food and service came through. A Venezuelan chef who trained in France is in top form in a kitchen the size of a home entertainment center: the Flintstonian veal chop was juicy perfection with a lavish mound of fava-level vegetables; the duck breast was undeniably duck. The concept is angled toward A.O.C. or D.O.C. ingredients, like the Manchego on our shaved artichoke salad, but the O on the short wine list stands for ordinary. If only we could have heard the waiter, I might know more about the chef’s and owner’s resumes. But then that may be why the music was pounding: Even after asking, I didn’t realize the veal special was $29 — $7 more than the duck on the menu — until the check arrived.

 

 

My nominee for false labeling of the month goes to the “five-napkin” burger at Nice Matin. It comes with cheese, onions, aioli and plum tomatoes, which sounds drippy enough even with ridiculous radicchio substituting for nice juicy lettuce. But cooked “medium” the way the waiter insists, it comes so dry (after a 40-minute wait) that the meat is like a dog’s fresh chew toy. It wouldn’t mess up a single Wetnap.

 

 

With Mexican restaurants opening seemingly every hour, I’ve been letting hope triumph over experience. I’ll try anything — even Flaco’s Tacos in Greenwich Village. I knew the guys behind it also run the mediocre City Crab and the grim Duke’s Barbecue, but then I’m so bad all I need is guacamole and a dream.

I should have fled when I saw the tequila list was almost as long as the menu (translation: this food is meant for sopping), or at least when I noticed that some dishes were brazen knockoffs of Steve Hanson’s two Dos Caminos (Mexican chopped salad is not something you’re going to come across at a restaurant worth its poblanos). Otherwise the menu was so dispiriting that I actually settled for “taco soup,” which sounded like at least a distant cousin of tortilla soup, and chorizo flautas. The former could have been ladled up off a steam table in an abandon-all-hope cafeteria (ground beef in watery broth with a little cheese and a few chips), and the latter was filled with Mexican mystery meat, apparently untouched by seasoning. The kiss of muerte, though, was the toothpick I bit into in the center of one. For once I would have preferred to have found a hair.

 

 

Just back from Italy, I have a new appreciation of the risk in relying on the kindness of locals. I should have learned on my first trip to New Orleans years ago when I was steered to a restaurant that could have been airlifted from Manhattan, with the same all-over-the-map menu I could get at home. It may have been the hottest place in town for the townspeople, but I had come to New Orleans to eat New Orleans food.

Which is why I spent my last meal in Palermo kicking myself at I Grilli, suggested by a native who had set out the most dazzling dinner in his apartment the night before. The place was definitely an insider’s deep secret, hidden away on the second floor of an apartment building like a paladar in Havana. The candlelit room was gorgeous, the service as personable as it was professional. But I knew we were in for an out-of-Palermo experience when the bread basket arrived with imported water crackers instead of the great Sicilian bread and, even worse, when the antipasto platter proved to be three ramekins of prissy dips: Gorgonzola, basil mayonnaise and tuna in a sort of salsa.

We stupidly skipped the pasta course, since we had already learned Palermo people choose only two out of three when confronted with antipasto, primi and secondi. And so we wound up our last dinner in that singular food city with plates of overwrought fish that would have seemed fresh in France in 1985. Mine was spargo, which I had seen in the markets, but it was wrapped in lettuce and drowning in a heavy sauce with supremely un-Italian pink peppercorns; Bob’s was tuna cooked leathery and smothered in a spinach sauce with more of those silly dated peppercorns. And with markets overflowing with favas and artichokes and asparagus, we both got carrots. Bitter carrots at that.

The night before, our own private restaurant adviser had presented quintessential caponata, octopus salad, risotto with zucchini and shrimp, wondrous spiced chicken and a table full of Sicilian pastries. At lunch, at Santandrea near the main market, we had shared an antipasto of panelle, mozzarella en carozza, fried broccoli, fried ricotta, fresh anchovies and caponata with baby artichokes. I had had spectacular risotto with super-tender squid, shrimp, mussels and asparagus; Bob had had bucatini with sardines, with toasted bread crumbs to sprinkle on instead of cheese. We were blown away. But then we didn’t have to eat that stuff every day. If you did, I suppose, gimmicky fish would be just what the chef ordered.

 

My other insight from Italy is why it’s so hard for me to sell the trips I plan and pay for myself. The freeloaders are everywhere. A “press” trip for a few old-face names was winding down in Calabria, just a short hop from Sicily, when I got to Palermo. And in Trieste, a massive table of junketeers who included a very familiar white-haired restaurant icon (or one of his clones) was clogging the most famous place the night I ate there. Now I have to compete with 16 of them?

 

 

Stephen Glass has nothing on this guy: The June issue of Food Arts features a fascinating attempt at rehabilitation by the most overextended restaurateur in town through much of the late Nineties. He swears he has learned from “the debt burdens I sustained” that were “too much for the businesses to bear.” And of course he shamelessly cites 9/11 as the trigger for his downfall. It would be a little easier to take seriously if the photo of the allegedly humbled but wiser entrepreneur were not one of those annoying glam shots from back in the days when he seemed to be doing more modeling than cooking. And it would be less incredible if he didn’t end his confession with a litany of all the red-hot new irons he has in the blazing fire. Investors must be born every minute.

 

 

So who was that porcine character wedged into a high-visibility booth at Ouest, destroying my appetite by lasciviously gnawing the last bits of greasy meat off the huge bones left from his massive dinner, as if he would not see food again for another week? Oh, right. The self-appointed arbiter of the finest in New York dining opportunities.

 

 

Better side-chair shrinks than I will have to analyze this: One critic of the female persuasion finds the lobster har gow at 66 “so attractive you are more inclined to pin them on your jacket than put them in your mouth;” another is so smitten with the fragrance of the lamb ravioli with orange and sage at Nice Matin that she actually says “you’ll be tempted to take a pillow home to put in your undie drawer.” Personally I’ve never been tempted to wear my food in or out. And I hate to think what they suggest “you” should do with sausage.

 

 

Just back from two weeks in Australia and a week in jumbo jet lag, I have one more theory on why restaurants in New York are so timid and tame these days. If a trend rises in a kitchen and no one’s there to evaluate it, how does anyone hear about it?

In New York, a couple of 800-pound gorillas with a flawed gazetteer (does no one really eat at Nicole’s, for instance?) have pushed all the restaurant guidebooks clean out of competition. In Sydney, the first bookstore I walked into had a choice of serious food Baedekers with full sentences and critical smarts.

I had landed in Oz with endless recommendations on where to indulge in my all-consuming interest, but I would have been lost if I had had no way to sort through them. What I used for cross-referencing were not just musty compilations of newspaper or magazine reviews but fresh and jazzy guides, written with wit and savvy. Even as I picked up more “live” tips, I was able to winnow down the places where the most adventurous chefs might be cooking. No traveler to New York would ever be so lucky.

The two guides I chose were both produced by newspapers with superb (and hyper-newsy) food sections, the Morning Herald in Sydney and the Age in Melbourne. But neither relied on a couple of overworking critics recycling madly. Instead, they sent SWAT teams out to award chef’s hats like stars; restaurants that get three toques have each been visited at least three times by different reviewers. Both also gave point ratings, which I deciphered as I ate (14 out of 20 as often meant “beware” as it did “go”) and which were another incentive for chefs to stay on their stylish toes. And while both carried advertising, neither pulled any punches — we skipped a place in Melbourne that was highly recommended by a top chef because the Age made it clear that it would be like dining at Le Cirque (you’re nobody till Sirio shuns you).

Neither of these books ranks the “most popular” places, which may be their true virtue. You can still get burned in Sydney, and badly in Melbourne, but you’re better off than you would be at No. 1 With a Worn-Out Bullet down by Union Square.

 

The Purple Spleen for most craven restaurant promotion has to go to Guastavino’s, which is sending out cards touting its brunch with a vintage photo inscribed “gather the troops.” With Americans still dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, why not lift a mimosa to MREs?

 

 

Balitore is one of the most enticing spaces to open all year. Too bad they forgot to hire a chef. The light fixtures, the arty horse photos, the gray walls, the bathrooms and the general feel are all sleek and right. The service is extraordinary for what’s essentially an Upper East Side scene bar (Gabriel Byrne is one of the owners). One waiter came over to recite the short wine list since the printed one was not ready and then came back to give us a taste of the Firestone sauvignon blanc we chose for $26. The busman was more attentive than the best waiter anywhere else, keeping our glasses topped off rather than dumping the whole bottle in in three gushers, keeping the table tended and thanking us just profusely enough as we walked out.

But a great room and staff do not a restaurant make. The menu is a bland hodgepodge, the kind of rote list that bizarrely makes you lunge for the tamest offerings: a burger, Caesar salad and macaroni and cheese. The burger was small and dry, the Caesar the same. But the penne, allegedly made with Irish Cheddar, was more like chunky cream soup, baked in an absurd deep cup that pretty much guaranteed it would still be too bubbling-hot to eat long after we’d lost interest. And considering the place is named for a town in Ireland, you would expect something more evocative than “Irish fries” that are just poor relations of McDonald’s. The place has been home to a succession of losers, but if this one fails, the owners shouldn’t blame the location.

 

 

Another illusion shattered: My goal on dropping out of college in Tucson was just to travel around the country, living and working in 50 states, never settling down until I had to be cremated. I only made it to five before getting waylaid in Manhattan, but that silly idea still infected me with serious envy of the distaff side of the nation’s most famous mobile food team. I’m sure she had to swallow her share of roadkill, and she made me very aware of the bottom-line risk of riding rather than walking between meals. But what a life: another day, another diner.

So it’s a little unnerving to read the excerpt from her requisite midlife-rebirth book, posted on the AARP web site. Describing her depression at age 52, the icon of the Interstate writes: “I spent my days walking around the house . . . it was hard to find the energy to get dressed, and quite frankly, there was no pressing need. As a writer, I worked at home.”

Wait. Who was packing away all that pork and all those pies for Gourmet and NPR, not to mention sending all those weekly “postcards” to epicurious? I know from crippling depression, but still. Next someone’s going to tell me Chef Boy-Ar-Dee was not Italian.

 

 

We had just suffered an abysmal lunch at Pigalle: lost-in-translation service; a salade “gourmande” with exactly five shreds of desiccated duck confit; coffee too bitter to finish. And then the waiter brought the bill with the inevitable promotional card mapping the owners’ other restaurants, prompting my friend who was paying to check them off: “I hate that place. And that place. And that place, too.” Guess that’s why they never give you the cross-marketing card with the menu. And why Godiva doesn’t advertise its Campbell’s ownership.

 

 

Lessons from Moomba? The first I heard of Capitale was when a friend came for turkey and Calvados last Thanksgiving and spent half the afternoon bitching about having to call the police every night over the noise and frenzy across the street from her apartment (and that’s saying something: her own parties can make a club look like a retirement home). Now I can only guess that the public nuisances have inevitably moved on to the next hot scene. To read the coverage lately, you’d think Capitale was born yesterday, as a decidedly adult restaurant. And maybe there is a way to beat the club curse — although the idea of a $45 entree on the Bowery makes me want to reach for the Ecstasy.

 

 

Australia is not a tipping society, but I found myself leaving 20 percent often because the service was the antithesis of what you get in New York even in good restaurants. Since I’ve been home, though, I’ve been tipping like the stereotypical female cheapskate: 10 percent at Blue Fin, where our wine arrived after our (long-delayed) entrees and the waiter almost spit when we tried to get his attention, and 12 percent at Mama Mexico, where the entryway was hung with not one but three huge “diamond awards” from the “American Institute of Hospitality” and where the waiter, when asked what white wine he had, said, “Merlot and Chardonnay — I’m not sure which is which,” and then never brought either.

 

 

Maybe Oz restaurants are flush because they’ve moved beyond hustling water. At Wildfire in Sydney, the waiter had barely handed me a menu when he was asking whether I’d like bread. Sure. Plain or flavored? Plain’s fine. Too bad I didn’t know that either way it would cost me $7.50. And a few herbs might have made that pathetic loaf palatable. (Mark Miller should hang up his chilies for his part in the whole overdesigned, underachieving tourist snare.)

As much as I dreaded the six-day flight to Sydney, it turned out that only the food on Qantas was torture — penne bolognese should not conjure thoughts of intestinal distress, and salmon should be slightly more succulent than the tray table. Luckily, I had the ideal antidote: Robert Hughes’ “The Fatal Shore.” His descriptions of “salt horse” and moldy beef and other delights foisted on the first Australia travelers certainly put those imitation MRE’s in perspective. I recommend it over Ambien for anyone eating across the International Date Line.

It’s not over till the dumb chef bombs: In the first act, a charming chef, poised to be the Nigella of Oz, recommends another chef working in the most theatrical setting in the whole wide country, at the Sydney Opera House. We naturally swallow his advice. (And the guidebook’s.)

In the second act, we get tickets to a play and reservations for dinner beforehand at the shrine, Guillaume at Bennelong. We stop for lunch at another three-chef-recommended, five-toque-worthy joint, but we barely swallow. We want to save room for the gastronomic pyrotechnics.

In the last act, just as the sun is setting out the cathedral-height windows overlooking Sydney Harbor, we walk into the world’s most spectacular nursing home. The prix-fixe menu is obviously designed for denture wearers: boring fish, boring osso bucco, boring risotto. Even the steak with bearnaise is pre-sliced for easier gumming. Qantas would be thrilled with the salmon terrine.

Dejected, we ask the headwaiter what the deal is as we pay the absurd check. And he snootily informs us that Star Chef believes that what matters is that his 170 or so covers get to their red plush seats in time, and so he keeps his best food for later, after the curtains go up in the Opera House. “If someone wants to try his real menu, they’ll come back,” he adds.

Yeah, just the way we would rush back to hear Christian McBride in a jazz club if he’d bungled Muzak in the elevator.

Slogan of the fortnight: “No Stars. No Bucks. Just Awesome Coffee. (Cafe in Sydney, where the evil green logo is inescapable.)

On our last night in Sydney, my consort turned down dinner at a new friend’s home because we had long-arranged reservations at Tetsuya’s, the Charlie Trotter’s French Laundry of Australia. We wound up facing down 18 little assemblages of overhyped, overhandled food in a stuffy room, and we’re both wondering what we missed.

I can’t remember any dinner outside the Beard House where I so wanted to yell: Make it stop. We actually skipped the third and last dessert out of stupefaction. Until then, it was one dainty dish after another, each element sedulously explained by the waiter again after the whole meal was forecast in exhausting detail by the headwaiter when we sat down. Because the entire restaurant was facing the same food in the same order, it was hard to get excited when the scallop carpaccio with foie gras arrived with great ceremony after other tables were well on their way to the roasted squab with buckwheat and mushroom risotto.

We also took the “wine option,” with half-glasses poured with each course for $65Australian extra apiece, which was not the smart decision it was at Trotter’s. About halfway through the ordeal, a waiter came by to say the kitchen was waiting for us to catch up on our wine. “If you were university students,” he added, “I’d advise you to slam it back.”

So how was the food? Suffice it to say that I remember the green salad served with Tetsuya’s signature ocean trout confit the best. A couple of his creations were quite good, like the scallop carpaccio, and a sliver of venison rolled around foie gras with rosemary and honey, and a little shotglass of beet and blood orange puree. But it was all too much, with too few of those fusillades of flavor that brilliant chefs can send out without even trying. I actually saw the butter presented with the bread as an omen: it was tricked up not only with black truffles but with Parmesan. A chef who would gild the tuber just doesn’t know when to stop.

Boycott Best Cellars: I walked out after a Frenchwoman walked in to protest the inflammatory red-and-blue sign in the Lexington Avenue store. As the clerks pointed out, the “Boycott French Wines” headline did end in a question mark. But the fine print was more craven than the display type. After singing the praises of French varietals, the store went on to list more politically correct alternatives from other countries for buyers who just had to take a stand. Talk about having your brioche and eating it, too.

Chef shilling is one of the more interesting sideshows in food. I thought the pastry chef with an affinity for filo who endorsed Crisco — butter-flavored Crisco at that — was the lowest of the low. But now I see the newly hirsute Rocco DiSpirito teamed up with Rockport for a day: Try on shoes at Macy’s, get a tin of his “custom-made” spices. Maybe it’s because I sold shoes in one phase of my life, but there’s something queasy-making about the combination of feet and food. And souls must be really cheap these days.

It’s hard to imagine, considering supermarket salsa was involved, but Rosa Mexicano across from Lincoln Center pulled off the biggest bait-and-switch I’ve experienced in eons. The press party for the new Pace line was actually classier than my lunch three days later.

Usually I can tell launch parties are not real life — I didn’t rush back to Daniel after eating frozen food there, or to Danube after being introduced to a supermarket magazine there. But Rosa M. made me want to try the non-Pace experience, partly because of the great service and dramatic room but more because a new culinary director from Fonda San Miguel in Texas was introduced and he was serving duck “zarapes” in a habanero-yellow pepper sauce that were sensational. I should have been more suspicious when he translated the name as “the blankets Mexicans pull over their shoulders.”

When I went back, it was the same restaurant, different planet. The hostess kept me waiting 15 minutes. The wines by the glass were listed orally, meaning my friend wound up shelling out $12 for each tempranillo. (Why are prices always secret from everyone but the person paying?) The waiters were scant to AWOL — we had to flag one down for tortillas for the queso fundido, another for coffee (too burned to drink), another to clear away the plates we had stacked in a desperate plea for a clean table, yet another for the check. And there were no zarapes, let alone serapes.

The food was actually good. But now I see why Pace is so hot to market “cooking sauces” to “recreate the Mexican restaurant experience at home.” Who wouldn’t want the flavor without the abuse?

What a difference a new owner makes. America’s most down-scale, just-folks food magazine, Taste of Home, is now hustling platinum MasterCards. Before Readers’ Digest gave it that touch of incongruous class, the only plastic it was pitching was knives for iceberg lettuce.

 

 

Building brand confusion, one gaffe at a time: The scene is Barolo, at a peculiar party with boozy sponsors. The request is for Champagne. The choice? “Click” or, as the baby bartender offers on second try: “Click-kay.” Don’t ask about the Skey vodka.

 

 

In a week of particularly inane food stories (people go to restaurant bars just to drink! Cuban food is catching on!), the Wall Street Journal takes the dolt prize for its investigative piece on chain restaurants like Applebee’s “going upscale.” Bad enough that the writer repeatedly spews the adjective gourmet as if it signified something. Bad enough that she helpfully translates ceviche for all her poor unsophisticated readers as “raw seafood salad.” Bad enough that she actually dragged food “experts” around to analyze the “gourmet touch” on each menu. But the real idiocy was the very idea. A press release touting the hiring of a chef who used to cook for Richard Nixon (isn’t he dead?) should have been shredded, not puffed up into a trend story pointing out that Bouley serves oysters with pedigrees beyond Hooters’. You lie down with Bennigan’s, of course you’re going to wake up with heartburn.

What if you gave a party and everybody came? If you were a big important magazine, you might run a bit low on food, and fast. Five marquee chefs could not keep up with the hungry hordes looking for better than the catered tidbits at this soiree (luckily, the bold-face sponsors kept the wine pouring). I got a bite of Tom Colicchio’s new ‘Wichbar’s white anchovy sandwich (a work in progress, I hope), and two slugs of Dan Barber’s soups (lettuce: good; whole mussel: calling Linda Lovelace), and one all-butter gnocchi from Marc Vetri of Vetri in Philadelphia. But the line looped around at least twice in front of whatever Nobu was dishing out from a cast-iron pot, and the scrum at Artisanal’s table was demeaning (really, it’s just fermented milk). A reporter from a restaurant trade magazine I ran into had the right idea: he was heading over to the Empire Diner for a cheeseburger. My consort and I wound up soaking up the Ruffino at the bar at the Red Cat with Parmesan fries: a little cheese, no standing, no waiting.

What if you gave a party and it snowed? If you were a Mexican restaurateur known for being able to feed a village in a townhouse, you might find yourself with an exceptionally well-edited guest list on your 20th anniversary in New York. The weather wimps stayed home. The interesting people got to revel in heaping plates of greatest hits like sensational crepes filled with spinach, ham and cheese, pork braised in ancho chile sauce, and the best green bean salad (with tomatoes and jalapenos) ever dished up on a buffet. The bonus was a civil sound level — there’s no party favor like being able to hear another guest and not just shrieks in your ear. We were spared, in the words of a guest at the magazine party, “shock and awe music.” Even with margaritas flowing faster than Ruffino.

A terrible thing has happened to Giorgione in Soho. Theo closed. Now that crowd has apparently found a new haunt just down Spring Street. And it’s not pretty: super-skinny girls slinking about until their scuzzy guy friends show up. The backwash has also slimed the service. Once again, odd was the cruelest number: five of us were shown to a four-top in an almost empty dining room, and we got an argument when we asked for at least enough room for 10 elbows. Maybe the waifs could pick there comfortably. But not grownups who think the food is the thing.

It must be spring. The first cretins are popping up in Union Square. At the Wednesday Greenmarket, a guy determined to buy only the freshest eggs from the Amish farmer was demanding to know: “When were these hatched?”

With mint, or on the rocks?: It was my own fault for ordering hot tea in a gay 24-hour steakhouse in Washington, but it was still peculiar to be told by Buff, my waiter, that there was no Earl Grey. “Only Orange Pekito.”

New York, New York: At the opening party for Charlie Palmer’s promising Kitchen 82 on Columbus Avenue, a waiter proudly presented an elegant little cup of rich soup garnished with what he said was “giuliani of celery root.”

And I noticed that while no one was answering the phone at WD50 (even though Citysearch already had it rated, at 5.5), Wylie was still taking care of business. He’s stripped down to his Vitaprep in the new Food Arts.

Sommelier is a word with about as much credibility as compassionate conservative these days. I know because I just had encounters with a “hot chocolate” sommelier and a “celebrity” sommelier within three days.

Chocolate won.

He was at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia, standing at a bar in the lobby and advising guests on the differences among exotic chocolate like Venezuelan and Tanzanian, then suggesting toppings and additions like house-made marshmallows. A couple of guys stood behind him to half-melt the chosen chocolate into half-and-half and gussy it up to order. It was all very gimmicky, but it was a good excuse to try Cuban chocolate (tastes like chocolate).

The HC sommelier was both savvy and patient, unlike the “celebrity” at @sqc on Monday who pushed the most expensive bottle of white on the list on half-price night. Any crudely coiffed salesman in a Today’s Man jacket and Nineties glasses can recommend a Meursault. It takes real knowledge and communication skills to respond, when someone asks about the Chablis, with a condescending: “Chablis is a place. It’s still chardonnay.” And terroir is?

One of the mysteries of New York is how a gaudy restaurant better known for its Italian owner than its French food packs in the crowds despite the surly “service.” The first time I went there, when the ringmaster’s fanny was the only welcome at the door, was just like the last, when his underlings were chimping his attitude and posture at a dreary magazine party. Makes you wonder if host and hostile have the same root.

Weirdest name for a restaurant: The Green Gateau, in Lincoln, Nebraska. A French friend wondered if it connoted Irish/French fusion, but to me it just conjures mold.

Pierogies may be the greatest thing Polish since vodka, but who would think to add them to your “shape-up strategies”? Mrs. T’s, however, has set out to sell its potato-and-Cheddar lead sinkers as “a great fit for a healthier lifestyle” because they’re “low fat.” Somewhere, I hope, a copywriter is wearing a bag on his head. And drinking vodka to forget what he typed.

Diminishing returns: Consistency seems to be the hobgoblin of little Manhattan restaurants. Sosa Borella, on my third visit, had devolved into a diner at lunchtime, with grilled sandwiches on cotton bread heated barely long enough to melt the flavor-snatched cheese. And Celeste, which had become a real favorite for the smooth handling of throngs at the no-reservations door, had adopted serious attitude on a Monday night. We arrived at 7:20 to find no fewer than 16 empty seats but were told we would have to wait 20 minutes for a two-top to open up. The usual host had been replaced by an arrogant airhead who not only had flunked math (tables for four are divisible) but did not seem to realize that two cash-carrying bodies standing in front of him were worth any number of parties of four in his fantasies.

The most amazing sight at Ariane Daguin’s lavish party at D’Artagnan for some top women chefs in from France and Spain was not the two pans of cassoulet nearly as long as she is tall. It was all the Americans reaching for what looked like rounds of cheese on the saucisson platters and coming away with butter all over their fingers. Rather than have the grace to look embarrassed, I noticed, they all took the Rumsfeld approach: mock the French for eating fat on fat.

No Wonder It’s the Bunker Capital of the World: Despite my whining over a weekend that felt like a month in Washington, I actually had only one bad eating experience. And that was when we trekked to Bob Kinkead’s newish enterprise, Colvin Run Tavern in Tysons Corner, Va.

The reservationist advised us to take the Orange Line on the Metro to the very last stop, and like rubes ignoring the subway concierge in the District, we did. Our flummoxed cab driver then had to whisk us back toward the city for 20 minutes and as many dollars before we found the mecca in a mall. We hit the reception desk spewing bile, but the snotty kidlet who checked us in evinced not a flicker of interest. While an older woman took our coats and clucked in sympathy, Mini-Manager simply typed a message into the computer to update the subway information: it extends way out to Vienna.

The best food in the world would not have calmed me down, and this was grasping desperately for mediocre (the amuse bouche was a four-mouthful soccer ball of risotto; my salad actually combined grilled Gruyere and pancetta on brioche with deviled eggs, and I had to get out my glasses to find the underdone monkfish on my plate with tired clams, chorizo and a pallid potato gratin). But a little service would have gone a long way. Most of the dreary evening was spent either fuming or flagging down anyone who could bring menus, pour wine and water, or deliver a check. Even the cab the managerette called almost drove off in frustration before we could get to it.

Kinkead’s in Washington is obviously the owner’s real restaurant. Colvin Run is for suburban suckers. And judging by the fury of the woman in the adjoining booth who was also the victim of bad directions and worse service, it will be for one-time suckers only.

The Anti-Antidote: Since a cheeseburger (with a bloody Mary) is always my favorite cure for a hangover, I’m hurting lately. The New York media feeding frenzy over one-upmanship on the grill has killed my appetite for grease and Cheddar on a bun. I blame myself for indulging in the burger bull, which interestingly enough dried up about as fast as you can say crockpot. I may eat another half-pounder with fries one day, but right now I’m feeling as if chefs got a free ride on the burger train. Now let them cook real food.

That appalling sound you hear right now in New York is not just reverse flatulence. It’s Escoffier spinning in his crypt with Marie Antoinette. Neither could probably have ever imagined a French chef would set out to make news not with a brilliant dish but with a let-’em-eat-truffles burger. And both might consider the chef more persuasive if he were serving this decadence for lunch at his namesake restaurant. But that Hearst Castle gave up the midday ghost more than a year ago.

As Yogi Berra would say: If people don’t want to come out to a restaurant, no $50 burger is going to stop them.

Just back from Madrid, I have a new rule: Ignore Johnny Apple at your own risk.

Before heading off I had pestered the great RW Jr., the man who really ate everything, for restaurant suggestions but got cold teeth once we landed there. The places in his last opus on the city were listed in the Eyewitness Guide, which not only happens to be a major resource for the kind of travelers who like to talk about their hometown with strangers over dinner but also actually advises visitors to that sophisticated city to “always carry toilet tissue with you as it is often not provided.”

I’d sooner tote my own Charmin than eat with Americans, so for our one serious meal in Madrid we found a relatively new restaurant, La Broche, that had turned up in both an old Travel & Leisure and the latest Gourmet. How could we go wrong with a chef who was inevitably described as a “disciple’’ of Ferran Adria? If the food was bad, at least it would be light as foam.

Shock number one was of the sticker variety: one appetizer at lunch was 42 euros; entrees topped out at 47. Shock two was that the restaurant was in a hotel but the waiters spoke only poquito ingles — and the menu was in high Chefese. Everything from morels to cuttlefish was translated as “excellent.”

We blundered through without either ordering pig’s trotters or spending more than 160 euros with a half-bottle of excellent Rioja, and the experience was not without its high points. The room was hipper than anything in New York: stark white, with a little folding table for Bob’s fanny pack and my purse; a tea cart loaded with leaf-filled test tubes, and so many waiters you got tired just watching them bustle. Both the menus and the check came in little white wooden boxes; to read the former, you pulled out a booklet like a CD insert.

One amuse bouche was inspiring — toasts topped with onion marmalade, Cabrales, chanterelles and a fried spinach leaf — and the other was like a bar snack by Antabuse: Campari foam with peanut foam. My first course was blowaway, a bowlful of thick morel “pudding” coated with an airy ham mousse and ringed with tiny curried fried snails. Bob’s was like nouvelle cuisine from a mad lab: bits of sardines and whole mussels interspersed with raspberries and cauliflower florets. The flavors communicated with each other about as well as our waiters did with us.

Jackson Pollock could have designed Bob’s next plate: ethereal little meatballs and baby cuttlefish with garlic-parsley and thyme sauces, which was a wild study in black and green. I was the sucker who bit at the 47-euro entree, a nasty slab of turbot cooked in its own slimy skin with a truffle sauce plus a few fried oysters on the other side of a mango demarcation line. It was the perfect setup for a shared dessert of peanut foam in curry sauce with cocoa crisps over the top (I don’t know how we resisted the licorice-gin-black beer ice cream). But the coup de gross was the truffle-infused white chocolate wafer on the petit four plate. There may be worse taste combinations, but I’ve never come across them. And maybe the spelling of desserrs on the restaurant’s web site is not a typo.

In the end, Johnny of course was right. In one email, he warned me that the Michelin was not helpful in Madrid. And of course I later learned that La Broche and its chef, Sergi Arola, have two stars. [November 2002]

So much for survival of the fattest: Grotesque cinnamon buns and the tourists who grow huge on them would seem to be a match made on 42d Street. But when we recently left the AMC Theater in Times Square that’s designed to dump moviegoers into fast-trash heaven, the food court was gutted. Even the signs were gone: Cinnabon, California Pizza Kitchen, Jody Maroni’s Sausage, Ranch 1 and all. One of the porters behind the “do not cross” yellow tape said the owners had just called it quits.

The surprise was not that it failed but that it lasted as long as it did, even in such close proximity to the NY Times, where worker wasps like me would eat anything to avoid the steam table in what I called the Cafe Regret. This alternative was designed for the old 42d Street, when the goal of any bunslinger (and any hotel with a lobby on the sixth floor) was to keep the bums out. On the new 42d Street, it kept the tourists out, too. Faced with trekking two flights up, even on a moving stair, who wouldn’t rather just waddle on by?

Call it premature exultation: Magazines always love to shoot first, let the restaurant open later. But Time Out and New York just outdid themselves. Both ran slick photos of what appeared to be an up-and-serving place called Jefferson in Greenwich Village; Time Out even showed it full of drink-clutching partiers. The Saturday before both magazines landed on my doormat, though, we had walked by Jefferson to see a virtually empty space with a worried-looking chef on a cell phone.

Cameras don’t lie. Heat-seeking PR people do.

For much the same reason, it’s easy to see why Wylie Dufresne still hasn’t opened WD50, the most-hyped, longest-delayed restaurant since Beppe went into extended labor. He’s been busy posing for every publication short of the National Enquirer. Guess it’s easier to say cheese than say when.

 

File under “the emperor has no sense:” Oysters coated with pepperoni and coconut, thrown together by the chef from Wish in Miami. Who also sears his watermelon.

Breasts and big livers are apparently just too ordinary. I was sure the waiter at Les Halles was confused when he rattled off “loin of duck” as a special the day before Thanksgiving, but maybe not. A chef on Long Island is now cooking with duck cheeks.

Beware the temperamental chef. That was the sad lesson of Butter in NoHo. We had to fight the “host” to be seated because “the kitchen will only take all orders at once.” In a half-empty restaurant that never filled all night, you would think three grownups could sit down and order a bottle of wine until the fourth showed up moments later. Worse, the waiter insisted there could be no substitutions on any dish. Our friend who despises eggplant was sentenced to a ratatouille relation with her lamb; mashed potatoes filched from the skate would apparently sully the kitchen god’s unique vision. And I was informed, after choosing tuna, that “the chef prefers to cook that extremely rare.” I had to say: “I have to eat it. And I prefer it closer to medium.”

Of course there were no jolts of juxtaposed flavors, no frissons of contrasting textures. There was not a whiff of genius to justify the rigidly silly rules. The chef, like any autocrat at the dinner table, was just a crashing bore.

Lunch at Toqueville on Saturday (for work). Only two other tables are occupied, one by a graying foursome of whom two were impassioned foodies, blathering on about restaurants they had tried and chefs who had impressedthem and cities where they had found both. The husband got so excited at one point that he started uttering, very importantly, the name “Alain du Carlo.” Think he meant the chef of Monte Christo?

Odd is the awkwardest number. Anyone who eats alone knows one person always gets the worst table and worst service. But lately I’m noticing any group that does not square off nicely at a four-top suffers the same indignities and worse. Restaurateurs will cram five people, or 11, into a table fit for four or 12. In the last couple of weeks I’ve suffered it at glorified fast food joints like Patsy’s and, worse, at allegedly sophisticated places like Craftbar. We met good friends from Chicago there recently and arrived late to find the three of them crammed onto a banquette at two shoved-together two-tops. Since we were dropping $50 a person, couldn’t the place spare a scosh more room? But maybe the only thing worse is a table that’s too big.

The Wall Street Journal is one amazing newspaper, but it really should stay out of the kitchen. Since the launch of the Personal Journal, reporters more familiar with balance sheets have been sent out to demystify menus. And they come back with some very strange factoids. My favorite lately was the item on salt cod that said it “had a good run until the 1950s, which gave us refrigeration.” The 1850s, maybe — that’s when the first patent for mechanical refrigeration was issued.

Late summer 2002

mesolithic bites

August 2007

One of the more self-worshiping culinary columnists (notice how no one says “food” anymore?) has apparently finally met his match, which undoubtedly means we can all look forward to the usual tales of the blessed events, written in his arch and stilted style. First will come the arduous search for the ideal caterer for the wedding, with the winning candidate of course trading nuptial fare for publicity. And next will be the “my baby eats like me” pablum. Is it just me, or do all conventionally happy food writers type alike?

 

 

I barely passed chemistry in high school, but I feel pretty certain Splenda is not a substance that occurs normally in nature. That hasn’t stopped a cluster of name chefs from happily jumping on the money train to promote this calorie-free sensation and its “sugar blend” cousin. Most puzzling is Michel Nischan, who is such an articulate advocate of good food and real food. Hasn’t he heard the Evil Dick talking about how to make money in this new economy? Get on eBay and sell those old Heartbeat menus. It might not be as lucrative as a living-worse-through-chemistry check, but it’s gotta be easier on your soul.

What if you gave four stars and nobody cared? This was like a pedestrian evaluating a Maserati by typing one deep thought repeatedly: “It looks cool and goes really fast.” (To be fair, maybe the whole embarrassing ooze got more insightful after the jump. I wouldn’t know.)

 

 

Why it’s dangerous to write your own epitaph: By all accounts, Arthur Schwartz stormed off his longtime prattle gig on WOR because he was worried about “journalistic integrity.” And then he apparently went straight home and posted this on his web site: “I leave you with a wonderful recipe that I developed for a promotional program I was going to do with Food Emporium and WOR.” What was the problem? They wanted him to shill for D’Agostino’s?

 

 

This was one of those rare scenes that give you hope for the future of New York food at a time when the official entree appears to be a nonthreatening burger: I was waiting in line at Mani Market in my neighborhood when a woman in full dress (Indian? Pakistani?) came in with her young son and asked the two cops getting sandwiches if there might be a good restaurant nearby. The owner and the cops first made sure she didn’t just want McDonald’s (she didn’t crack a grimace) before suggesting the diner up the block. She pressed them for something ethnic and they all thought and debated and finally came up with what really was the best recommendation: Saigon Grill. As I was paying, I noticed she was clutching a Zagat guide. What an uplifting feeling to know you can fool some of the travelers some of the time, but the savvy ones know two cops on a coffee break are worth a whole volume of suspect ratings.

 

 

Philadelphia and I go way back. I went there first while on a job tryout at the Wilmington newspaper in 1978, and I moved there later that year, to work at the Bulletin. The next three years meant glory days for restaurants, and while the city has had far more sorry downs than transcendent ups over the decades, it has always been about so much more than the reflexive cliche hauled out by food writers from every other city. Most recently the Wall Street Journal devoted half a page to documenting the novel notion that cheesesteaks are not all you will find there, and I could only wonder: Where have you been eating? Philadelphia has never had a “one-dish image” except among “experts” who have never explored it. I don’t get press releases from Stephen Starr, but I also have to wonder at how much of a gourmand draw a rooftop bar with swinging chairs and stuffed ponies really is. Kobe cheesesteaks with Brie, maybe.

 

 

Big points to the Journal, though, for the excellent story on the Soup Nazi who refuses to go by his TV name or play by the rules of the sellout game. Al Yeganah made his franchising deal with partners who agreed to his demand to omit all social niceties from pitch letters: no dear or thank you for Mr. Surly. More important, he’s insisting on total control over his product and image even though self-designated wiser heads snidely point out that he is moving from the soup business to the marketing business. The whole tale leaves you rooting for a man you would not want to have to dinner (and whose soup you’ve never even tasted). What a concept: the food is the thing.

 

 

One of the more entertaining time sucks is poking around in foreign web sites translated into something struggling to be English. Sometimes they’re no less nonsensical than you might read in big papers whose reporters and editors can’t tell a tortilla from a taco and think a poussin is a game hen. Other times they’re so silly they border on lyrical. My current favorite is the cyber-speak by the Montpellier twins, the three-star Pourcels at Le Jardin des Sens. “The thin slice of net of roast pigeon on the bone, its crystallized and frozen thigh, ragout of corn to morels, juice of pigeon to the crystallized grottes statement of liquorice” is one example. But “the zucchini in puffed up flower crawfish tails, sparkling bubble with the truffle juice” is just as tantalizing. My favorite, though, was “young people asparaguses.” It’s bad to laugh, though, because just the other day I saw “masculine salad” on menupages.com. And New Yorkese is ostensibly its first language.

 

 

No wonder the Bush handlers think this election will be a cakewalk. Apparently this is a country so dumb Williams-Sonoma expects people to spend $16 for a jar of “turkey brine blend.” It’s mostly salt, for Chuck’s sake. And the “simply add water” instruction says it all.

Talk about an invitation you can’t refuse. Little ortolans keep telling me a well-known if not high-profile restaurant reviewer who is marrying a writer who also covers the food scene has asked a cluster of select Manhattan chefs to provide refreshments for the blessed event. And this is no intimate affair — the guest list is said to be 200 strong and thirsty. At least it’s an easier way to earn stars than writing a book blurb.

 

Playing the class card: A Wall Street Journal story about the products voters associate with the dueling presidential candidates included a pissy comment by a Republican pollster who was “skeptical about portraying Mr. Bush ‘like mac ‘n’ cheese to Mr. Kerry’s penne alfresco’.” As my consort said, “That doesn’t sound very French.” (And it’s just as silly as those surveys showing most people would prefer to have a beer with Bush over Kerry. They never seem to remember the cowboy can’t drink, unless it’s O’Doul’s, the breakfast of wimps.)

 

 

In an unprecedented moment of humility, Bobby Flay has admitted he doesn’t know enough about Latino food to carry out the concept he announced for the old JUdson Grill. Instead he’s going down that well-traveled Larry Forgione road, with American regional cribbed from his TV scripts. Funny, since nothing stopped him from faking Spanish.

 

 

Details, details: The Wall Street Journal weighed in on the crumbling of the Krispy Kreme scam (oops — empire) but chose to illustrate it with a cake doughnut. Maybe the newsroom didn’t get enough dropoffs of freebies to know the chain sells only grease and air. And the NYT really should run any food reference through one of those online sense-checkers. A snide little convention item on the “essential food groups” at one party wound up with this combination: “cherry-glazed roasted figs with mascarpone pistachios.” Is there an “and” missing or did the reporter/backfielder/copy editor not realize the Italian cheese is not an adjective? Unless it’s eaten Alfredo, of course.

 

 

My wanderlustful friend Don Groff forwarded a release I would never get: an announcement of a fear-of-flying support group’s meeting at Calle Ocho, “one of the most remarkable restaurants in New York City.” Given that I haven’t eaten at that “spectacular” joint since three co-workers called in green after a pre-review meal, it might be just the place to cure what ails that crowd. Taking off couldn’t be much scarier than sitting down to “braised short rips” followed by “pollo criollo fufu stuffed Cornish hen.”

 

 

My consort, who seems to spend half his life on planes, came home outraged at having to buy food for the first time, on a long American flight to Denver. Eight dollars for an Au Bon Pain corn muffin with yogurt does sound like airborne robbery. But at least, I thought, it’s better to have the airlines cutting corners on food rather than fuel. Unfortunately, the Journal reports pilots are flying on tanks so low they have no spare to wait out a storm or divert to a more far-flung airport. As Bob said, it’s not either-or at all. They’re scrimping on all fronts. Maybe we should all be meeting at Calle Ocho.

 

 

Julia Child is barely cold in the California ground and already the frenzy to cash in has begun. A woman who almost alone in the food business never sold her good name for a cheesy product endorsement has just been named as the marquee attraction for the James Beard Foundation’s next orgy of self-celebration. And of course the announcement includes the requisite list of all the “underwriters” that make the extravaganza one big TV commercial. She probably never realized the monster she was unleashing in suggesting buying the home of the biggest shill in culinary history. Let’s hope her own will stands up to protect her — and us — from a Julia Child Front.

 

 

I want to blame Republicans for this somehow, but I think it’s just another sign that Manhattan is becoming the Mall of America: A Capital Grille opens and gets press all over town. The same people who mock Olive Garden are falling over themselves to plug a chain steakhouse with no national profile. Maybe if we hope real hard we’ll get a Wolfgang Puck place one day. Or an Emeril. Now that would be front-page news.

Walking past a Village restaurant I’ve seen countless times but never really noticed, I was reminded of that old Gary Larson cartoon of the deer with a bull’s-eye on its side (caption: “Bummer of a birthmark, Vern”). La Scatolina might have seemed like a charming choice for a name, since it means “the little box” in Italian, but its root sounds suspiciously Greek. Or, in the words of our inimitable Orator in Chief, as quoted in Newsweek: “All human beings begin life as a feces.”

 

 

Don’t expect corrections, but the NYTimes is on a details roll. 71 Clinton Fresh Food was described as “Wylie Dufresne’s restaurant.” And an article about a protest near the mayor’s homestead said the demonstrators had brought Krispy Kreme doughnuts while the photo clearly showed . . . a Dunkin’ box. It’s those little things that can add up to a Wen Ho Lee. No wonder it feels safer to keep shucking that Silver Queen corn.

 

 

Krispy Kreme has its own issues lately, trying to blame its mess of a quarterly report partly on the low-carb fad, which is clearly fading if you read the LATimes. As the Toronto Star pointed out in a great scathe, Dunkin’s sales are certainly not falling. All those boxes and boxes of gross doughnuts showered on newsrooms everywhere could help KK keep up the charade only so long. Eventually a reporter had to snap out of the sugar haze, and investors were sure to follow.

 

 

Let’s say you’re a major American newspaper, one that considers itself the noblest in the land while still licking wounds from an ethics scandal. You obviously need a story on how open tables are likely to be during the invasion of the Republicans into your hometown, a time when the base is fleeing for the bridges and tunnels, a time when restaurateurs could wind up as lonesome as they did for four days in Boston. And so you find just the right contributor to send to the phones for a truly fair and balanced report: yes, the one who wrote the promotional cookbook for the tourism agency that so desperately needs a positive spin going into the lockdown. You know. “One of the most respected food writers in the country.” The one allegedly sharing the proceeds with the very organization she’s covering.

 

A friend seized on something else strange about the story: For the first time in her memory, a restaurant roundup did not mention the usual saint, Danny Meyer, who just happened to write the “foreward” to the book with NYC & Company prominently named on the cover. She wondered if it meant he wasn’t “hot” anymore, and we both agreed that could not be the case since he has this fall’s big project opening at MOMA. Have he and the 800-Pound-Gorilla-turned-Op-Ed-pontificator had a falling-out? Was he unavailable for defensive comment? Or is it simply that everyone is overcompensating for the lost Montrachet star by overquoting from Myriad? (Did someone say not hot?)

 

 

As odes to the French Chef continue to pile up on the internet, in the cyber-equivalent of the garish shrines that sprout everywhere for dead princesses and drive-by shooting victims, a telling detail has emerged. A surprising number of the great woman’s disconsolate admirers don’t seem to know her name. They love her so much they call her Childs.

 

 

Wouldn’t the plural of crudo be crudi? (If so, the first vowel should be short.) Or can an adjective be made plural in English?

 

 

Jean Carper is usually one of the rare voices of reason on the subject of eating to beat Methuselah, so I guess I should blame anyone but her for the packaging of her latest feature in USA Weekend: “The 6 Healthiest Recipes in History.” I can only imagine the poor sucker who also had to compose “The Best Religious Movies Ever Made” just lost it when it came to the food and went straight for “spinach and berries with nonfat curry dressing.” Faced with “The Passion” in a full-page ad, who wouldn’t think only five other dishes were that good for you in just the 11,000 years since sheep were domesticated.

 

 

No matter how long you live in Manhattan you can never underestimate all the ways a restaurant can ruin the out-of-house experience. I went back to Nice Matin with a friend after one impeccable lunch and of course the I-don’t-see-you service was back, too. Which would have been painful enough, but all the windows were thrown open to the street when a truck pulled up outside, the driver stuffed a hose into the basement and the most hellacious sucking racket ensued. The sign on the truck didn’t say anything about rendering, but I suspected the worst. When my friend asked the waiter on one of his rare visits what was going on in the middle of lunchtime, he just shrugged and then, when I blurted, “They’re pumping the grease out,” smiled and walked away. Suddenly the French fries didn’t look so appetizing.

 

 

Wherever the guy whose name the Cowboy in Chief never mentions anymore is hiding, let’s hope he cannot get his hand on what I just spotted at Barnes & Noble. As a symbol for a society gone brain dead and vulnerable, could there be anything more damning than a whole cookbook on deviled eggs? You take the yolk out, you stuff the yolk back in, you use your imagination. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told an idea for a book is only worth a magazine article. Deviled eggs should merit no more than a Hellmann’s label.

Is it just me, or do jokes about foam sound as tired as foam itself did even before Biff Grimes retired?

 

 

In one of those little ironies of pack journalism, newspapers and magazines are busting out all over with syrupy odes to heirloom tomatoes just when reality bites. Buying heirlooms this weird, rainy summer is increasingly a crapshoot, even now that the price has dropped to $2 a pound and every Greenmarket has them by the crateload. The fat yellow-streaked ones that were so luscious the last few summers have been half-mushy, half-woody half the time. All the dark red ones have too often been not a lot more intense-tasting than the regular old field-grown specimens from Cherry Lane Farms at Union Square. My cynical side also notices even growers I respect are suddenly selling bloated plum tomatoes labeled “from Polish heirloom seeds brought over by a friend of the family.” Plum and Polish are two adjectives that don’t exactly harmonize with tomatoes, but then more and more “heirlooms” seem to be nothing more than Olympic-pumped beefsteaks, bred for the long haul. It’s a sad summer when you need Paffenroth bush basil to make a tomato taste like seasons past.

 

 

Funny how people who think Martha Stewart should have gone straight to jail without passing a judge (“the law is the law”) are now defending Whole Foods for sneaking a wine shop into a supermarket. The law in New York State may be an ass, but it’s pretty clear about the separation of booze and food. At least down the line something good could come from this brazen flouting, though, as more supermarkets realize how easy it is to bend the statutes and just have discrete entrances at street level, as Premier does in that bastion of innovation, Buffalo. Why should a Manhattanite have to descend to Whole Foods for one-stop shopping?

 

 

Aside from the occasional scan-scam, I don’t often get taken on groceries. But the other day I was in the express line at the Food City when I noticed a tempting strip of packets of spiced peanuts labeled cacahuates Sabritas and just assumed they were imported. They were only 25 cents each and so tiny they could not possibly be American — nothing in this country is ever packaged in .62 ounces when a half-pound will do for one serving. I actually hesitated before taking a bag, though, because there have been so many stories lately about lead from chilies in candies from across the border. And of course the joke was on me. The threat was not from the spicing but from big business — after eating the whole little bagful, I read the back label: “Made for Frito-Lay.” What does it mean that we now face snacks of Mexican deception?

 

 

When good restaurants go really, really bad: Since 1999, I’ve eaten at Cafe Frida probably more than at any place on the Upper West Side. I’m an asking-for-it sucker for Mexican, but this kitchen consistently turned out great guacamole, nuanced salsas and superb quesadillas. A couple of times it might have hit a few bumps, and the noise could be painful, but otherwise it was the quintessence of old reliable. Ever since it renovated, though, putting the bar up front like every other tequila hustler in town, Cafe Frida has deteriorated to the point that my consort could only mutter two words on smelling the fajitas landing at the next table: Chi. Chi’s.

 

The whole place now reeks of those bogus moneymakers. The service is so lame that describing it as bumbling would be a compliment (a table that arrived after us got our order, and after it was finally delivered to us a third waiter immediately arrived to whisk it away). Seating on the banquette in the former bar area is as stifling as the Sonora desert. And the guacamole is no longer an indulgence but a penance. There is no way bounceable avocados and supermarket tomatoes will add up to anything worth dipping, especially when the mixer apparently is paid by the molcajete and churns it out as fast and as grossly as Taco Bell. Parting insult to lasting injury, the check arrived with a tip chart that inflated every percentage. The couple to my left was from across a river, the couple to my right from over an even bigger body of water, of the Atlantic variety. Buena suerte to Cafe Frida in trying to make a go of it on those frequent diners.

 

 

How do you know when you’re turning vintage? When you’d rather drink than inhale. All the coverage of the new-age Breathalyzers in clubs certainly left me feeling hopelessly old-school. I can see skipping the liquid part to cut the calories, but any grownup knows you spend 20 minutes over a drink for the taste, too. Of course I’ve never had a Cosmopolitan, so maybe I just don’t know the nastiness I should be vaporizing.

 

 

The brouhaha over Mike Wallace’s arrest by the TLC actually illuminated a Leslie Revsin insight. He went bonkers while his takeout meatloaf dinner was going cold in his limousine, and I could only think: All his fame and fortune and he settles for Hamburger Helper? In an interview with a trade magazine, though, Leslie explained it all. How are the rich different from you and me? Given a choice between Roquefort beignets and Caesar salad, they’ll go for the bore every time. No wonder it’s so hard to get anything seasoned to life on the Upper East Side.

 

 

One thing you might get in that restaurant wasteland is a half hour’s worth of entertainment, at least if you stop for lunch at the bar at Payard. I had a respectable potato and mushroom tourte with salad while listening to a cross between eBay and a chat room, with the bartender working deals to sell a brother-in-law’s car and assorted ravaged patrons trying either to assuage hangovers or impress said bartender. The shades-adorned dolt next to me, who ate his soup while complaining about how his daughter’s boyfriend wanted to be a writer but didn’t know what a hyphen was, was bragging that he had eaten “Grand Marnier souffles and Parma ham at every meal in Spain,” which led the bartender to recall a paella scene in a well-known movie. “Ah, yes, ‘Dona Flor’,” the guy said pompously for all the bar to admire. “That was written by Giorgio Amado, a very famous Brazilian writer.” (My friend Don Groff had the perfect reaction: “Actually, it was Jorge Armani.”)

 

 

After 20 years of typing about the most ephemeral art form, I’m the first concede it ain’t easy coming up with new ways to describe food, but a little item in the Daily News struck me as hitting the formulaic gong particularly hard. The lead gave corn the old explain-the-exotica treatment: “This sweet vegetable, whose teeth-like kernels are nestled in rows along a woody ‘ear,’ is native to the Americas . . . . ’’ Never let this Pinball Wizard come in contact with a potato, or a banana. But what do you expect of someone who starts a recipe for corn flan (serves a very manageable 10) with “clean the corn”? What the shuck is she talking about?

 

 

I should have known we were in for a surreal week when I woke up Monday to a consort reeking of dead snapper and bearing ominous news along with our three morning papers: “They’re shutting down the bridges and tunnels.” He had been up all night shooting at the Fulton Fish Market and had a question much on the minds there: “How are the food trucks going to get in?” Next morning I woke to photo-op evidence of the First Lady of Stepford and her evil twins having a fine time swilling coffee at one of the alleged terrorist targets and knew our elevator operator had nailed it from the git-go: “The only thing that scares me is Tom Ridge.” Unfortunately, Bob’s question is lingering like the fish stink. The absurd lockdown/campaign stunt was a fair warning of what convention week will be like. And much as I hate to think like a bureaucratic threat-monger, I suppose he’s right about stocking up on canned beans and pasta, the staples that got us through the blackout. Help may be on the way, but meat and fish will probably be waylaid in Jersey for security reasons.

 

 

Washington could take some lessons in scare tactics from Procter & Gamble, whose motto seems to be “the only thing we have to sell is fear itself.” AmNY took the bait in touting the new Dawn Wash ‘n’ Toss dishcloths with: “We’ve all heard about all the bacteria living in our kitchen sponges.” Of course we all should be worrying about more silly disposables clogging up landfills, but there’s no money in that. And to paraphrase our misleader, who cares about the future? We’ll all be gone then.

 

 

You know the Olympic tie-ins have gone too far when the Greek wine poster in your local liquor store reads just like the headline in your hometown paper.

 

 

A week when the sky was falling seemed like a good occasion to go get a spiritual lift at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central, especially since I was already stuck in midtown at lunchtime. The place is so gritty and timeless and so wondrously New York you can’t imagine anything bad happening as long as it — and the gorgeous terminal — are around. It’s also one of the few places in Manhattan that is so democratic with its counters, and so efficiently old-style in its service. (My waitress was juggling orders from a Japanese guy, two French women, four businessmen and three lost souls with an American Girl shopping bag.) Unfortunately, the time-warp magic does nothing for the food. The Maryland she crab soup had big chunks of undeniable crab in it, but it was mostly white glop and celery that even sea salt and Tabasco could not shake to life. This is soup the way they made it when my mom was a kid here, back before cream was invented.

 

Note to Bar managers: It might be time to invest in some fresh dish towels for napkins, too. Nothing lasts forever.

 

One more indicator America is going to hell in a handbasket with no outside help: Land O Lakes is now wrapping its unsalted butter in wax paper rather than the foil that gave it the shelf life of an MRE (or of salted butter). For the second pound, what I tasted was right on the edge of rancid, despite the 11/04 sell-by date, and so I called the 800 number on the box. After a long wait, a nice chirpy voice informed me that consumers had insisted on the change, primarily because they wanted to put the butter in the microwave. On every level that’s a depressing explanation. Is it because they forget and have a meltdown? Are they too lazy to unwrap it? I’ve always been wary of microwaves — how obese was this country before Hungry Mans were ready in minutes? — but now I know they’re a menace.

 

 

I was shocked that butter was up to $5.49 a pound at my grubby neighborhood grocery store. Then I priced it at the sleek spot three blocks down Columbus: $6.79. No wonder I spotted a guy in a red Dagostino’s shirt in the checkout line at the Food City. It must be like Walmart: the help can’t afford to buy there.

 

 

Connect the dots in a web posting by a restaurant publicist who does it for free and you’ll see why it’s smart to have friends in the payback business. If you get sick the week you eat at one of their client restaurants, they’ll bring you restorative chicken soup from another one.

 

 

Whitehouse.gov almost rivals whitehouse.org with its web chat with the retiring pastry chef, Roland Mesnier. It’s not quite as patently bogus as the one with the show twins that could have been typed by simian androids, but the man has clearly learned from masters of deception. First he offers to “give you the smartest answers I know” and then he blows off a request for the secret to perfect creme brulee with “it would take too long to explain.” How do you get dough for cinnamon rolls to rise? “I would suggest a bicycle pump.” He also has a thing for Crisco, which you don’t want to overanalyze in that town. And he reveals Barney is like so many in the George II coterie: a bootlicker, although even that tale is suspect considering he says the dog comes to his shoes for the chocolate. Isn’t that a weapon of canine destruction?

 

 

The saga of the virtual cookie war will not end. Teresa Heinz Kerry has now come clean in saying the “nasty” recipe Family Circle ran under her name was not hers at all. No one is taking blame for it, but the magazine says its test kitchen could not get the recipe “she” actually submitted to work. Of course the glaring question in this latest episode of First Lady Fakeoff was not considered news fit to answer: What the Cheney are Yummy Wonders?

 

 

Someone should take “Laura’s” recipe for cookies — and “Teresa’s,” too, for that matter — and convert them to microfilm. And then just inadvertently destroy them. Otherwise so-called journalists are going to continue to squander energy and air time on an absurd spoon-fed debate over which is better, chocolate-oatmeal or pumpkin-spice, when each has about as much to do with the name attached to it as Alain Ducasse does with Mix. Laura Bush is firmly on record saying she does not bake. Teresa Heinz Kerry has obviously not been near a sugar canister since well before her ketchup dough started flowing to charity. Why do outlets like NPR continue to buy into this trivial charade? I know it’s just a tiny lie, but the last one the media allowed to mushroom is not exactly looking like a reality show these days. Why let falsehood reign?

Maybe I’m hypersensitive because the first bathroom I ever experienced was an outhouse, or because I grew up sharing one bathroom with two parents and six siblings, but I have a thing for clean toilets. Especially when food is involved. And I cannot imagine why any New York restaurateur would not be just as obsessive. There’s no turnoff like plumbing under siege, nothing that makes you think more graphic thoughts about the kitchen. But when I stopped into City Bakery the other day and decided to avail myself of the facilities, I would have sniffed a problem even if the woman waiting ahead of me had not warned that one of the two toilets didn’t flush. I had to leave, no matter how tempting the tortilla casserole looked on the way out. When I’m hungry, I don’t want to go home again.

 

 

The good news about Blue Hill at Stone Barns is that it’s not as dull as it sounded in print. The better news is that the one visionary you might conjure while eating there is not Alice Waters. Reine Sammut in Provence, maybe, or even Thomas Keller in Napa wonderland would be a closer inspiration. It helped that I was lucky enough to eat during previews with a Hudson Valley baby, one whose father (I was embarrassed to learn after dissing local wines) is a notable vintner, and one who was clearly excited about recognition for an untapped region.

 

The concept would have been unthinkable only five years ago. David Rockefeller has paid to have his family’s old barns turned into a beautifully designed gastro-complex where the kitchens rely on the fields and gardens right out the back door. (Eventually they will, anyway.) Dan Barber, one of the few chefs I run into Wednesday after Wednesday at the Greenmarket, is the designated sorcerer, and when his formula works he does make magic. One of my tablemates wondered if the countryside (that well-developed Westchester County countryside, even) is ready for “precious” food rather than big slabs of pork and potatoes, but it was easy to get caught up in the moment and hope for the daintiest.

 

My first course was certainly a bit fey: one spear of asparagus coated in sesame seeds and presented like topiary in a wooden block alongside a plateful of five or six halved spears sprinkled with hazelnuts, with a poached egg on one side and a gorgeous, tiny herb and greens salad on the other. Some of the food can be muted: a perfect little lobster claw just would not talk to the Jerusalem artichoke cannelloni on which it rested. And much of it can be sublime: amazingly flavorful Duclair duck was poached, a technique that transforms the meat, and teamed with a spaetzle gratin. All this was in rehearsal, so it’s unfair to judge it, even too kindly, I guess. But I would go back in a heartbeat if someone else were driving.

 

And that’s despite the potentially crippling flaw in the whole enterprise. Country restaurants tend to be staffed by country bumpkins. Anywhere else in the world, service is a serious profession. Here, it’s a way to make some change, and rarely enough to squander on a meal where you get to see how the other half eats. It was hard not to laugh after the driver in our group ordered a glass of San Pellegrino at the bar where we were shunted to wait until all six of us arrived and then someone materialized at the table 20 minutes later to plonk down the going-flat bottle with a curt: “You left this at the bar.” Then again, she might not have been a bumpkin but someone I’ve run into super-selling water in the city.

 

 

Who says there are no second acts in American lives? A chef once pegged with bizarre behavior in the kitchen is now shilling in a meditative pose in a fruit ad. I guess if a war president can become a peace president with just a change of speech, why shouldn’t a serial biter find his inner Dalai Lama for a fee?

 

 

If you thought anyone could be a restaurant critic these days, you could wind up with as much red sauce on your face as Republican convention organizers. In a rare fit of reporting enterprise, the NYT disclosed that Rudy Giuliani’s Top 10 list has been disappeared from 2004nycgop.org, where it had been posted along with similar favorites suggested by Bloomberg, Koch and Pataki (a real go-to guy for food advice). The official reason is “space reasons” (yeah, on a web site), but the Times noted the embarrassing reputed mob connection to Mr. Righteous’ No. 1, Da Nico in Little Italy. It made no mention, however, of the Village Voice’s earlier muckraking look at the Health Department inspection records for his hangouts. Somewhere in there is a message, and I think it involves vermin.

 

 

My candidate for the starring role in “Chefs Gone Wild” has to be the absurdly uninhibited guy at Counter, the sleek but overpriced vegan wine bar in the East Village (a k a the most odious restaurant neighborhood in Manhattan). Reading the menu is like tumbling down a rabbit hole: ingredient after ingredient after concept after concept. It’s mental whiplash — you’re riding along thinking cauliflower “risotto” sounds interesting and then you crash into seven other ingredients, none of which would ever talk to the other. Could this possibly be the same chef whose restrained food we had liked at Voyage in the civilized West Village?

 

Neither of us could make much sense of the endless array of printed choices and so we went for a couple of appetizer grocery lists the waitress rattled off as specials, including a mishmash that ended in pesto cremini (for $12). The slimy/grayish “eggplant caponata pizza” was not nausea-inducing although it was neither caponata nor pizza. But what I faced was surreal: four tiny (as in button) mushrooms filled with pesto and interspersed with dollops of a pure-heat sauce, all arrayed around a disk of something topped with four or five strips of cucumber. We chewed and chewed and could not determine what the crop circle might be, so we had the waitress come back and read the shopping list again. Weird how everything from olives to red onion to parsley to fennel can come together with undercooked quinoa to taste like none of the above. It can’t be just because we had just come from the excellent “Maria Full of Grace,” but my stomach felt as if I had swallowed 62 balloons of cocaine.

 

 

Call it “When Whores Collide:” The scene is a Champagne book party. The characters are two word people who think they recognize each other “from the circuit.” (Names and destinations changed to protect the guilty.) The dialogue overheard when one walks up to the other begins: “Nice to see you — how are the kids?” “I don’t have kids, just a wife.” “Aren’t you that editor at XXX magazine?” “No, don’t you work for XXXX?” “No, but weren’t you on that trip to Greece?” “No, but didn’t we meet on that trip to the South of France?” And on and on till you wonder how some junketeers have time to take a vacation. Let alone report back on it.

 

 

You can tell true believers in compassionate conservatism are coming to town when soup kitchens are forced to shut down “for security reasons.” The Daily News reports that the Church of St. John the Baptist is a little too close to Madison Square Garden for Republicans’ comfort, and so the 500 hardship cases it feeds every week will go without during the staged festivities. It’s one way of guaranteeing no reality is left behind for conventioneers to witness.

 

 

I’m at least 17 years late to the table, but thanks to my DVD junkie consort I’ve just discovered the world’s most underrated food movie: “Withnail & I.” Booze figures more prominently in the wildly funny plot, but even wastrels have to eat. And so there are great scenes with carrots and rabbit, not to mention eels and teacakes and uncles with unusual appetites. It’s worth renting for one interlude alone: the transformation of live chicken into roasted dinner. Why do I see the inspiration for Steve Raichlen’s overflogged beer can chicken in that same oven?

 

 

Out-of-touch promotional idea of the week: Fifty Seven Fifty Seven’s “Intermission Intermezzo,” a $38 dinner that includes a to-go packet for Broadway-bound diners. I hate to point out the obvious, but if a play is a stinker, water and macaroons are not what you’ll be wanting at half-time. There’s a reason theater owners get away with selling shiver wine at Four Seasons prices

 

 

Why do I look at those creepy Bush twins and think Prohibition could be coming back? Maybe because behavior acceptable for privileged Republicans always seems to be outlawed for everyone else?

 

 

Two observations from the illuminating memorial to Seymour Britchky: Dawn Powell lives. And Andre Soltner is either the nicest guy in New York or the best actor.

 

It was little odd to attend an homage to a man I knew only through his acerbic words, but I was honored to accept the invitation. There was no way I would have met him. Even 13 years after his last collection of reviews was published he remained a faceless voice (to the chagrin of his photographer wife) because he did not really mingle in the food world. His reward, judging by the warm but candid remembrances and the happy hour afterward, was more interesting and less snooty friends. A lively contingent of drinking buddies from Cafe Loup had tales to tell over Tommy Flanagan on the CD player, evoking the Villlage in the diaries, the one before Bradley’s died too.

 

The most revealing eulogy was by Soltner, who was charmingly frank when he said: “I look around and I don’t see any chefs here.” As he went on to point out: Chefs didn’t love the hypercritical Britchky, but they respected him — and they “couldn’t love him because we were not on the same side.” (One other chef did turn up, but I later heard he had talked of doing a book with Britchky as Soltner did.) With no notes, and at the end of a stressful day of moving from his longtime home above Lutece, Soltner was both amusing and seriously moving while inadvertently communicating as much about his own honor as his friend’s. And a lot more about an era before chefs’ blurbs were on reviewers’ books and restaurant flacks had critics on speed-dial.

 

 

All that made it even more ironic that a certain renowned reviewer whom I sat with was leaning on me to review her memoir. “I can’t,” I said. “I know you.” And suggested another food writer. “But he knows me, too.” “Yes, but he’d review you.” Yes, she said. He would.

 

 

My new Wednesday/Friday sport is guessing who the latest replacement for the renowned reviewer will try to channel, his straining-at-MFK predecessor or his gracefully witty one. Too bad he’s not the cook either of them is. He’d know what happens to mishandled cod. It does not turn rubbery. Except maybe on a canceled reality show.

 

 

Most likely it’s because the big-bucks competition is limping so badly, but the Daily News’ food coverage just looks better and better. The restaurant reviews are unfortunately not as ridiculously entertaining now that the regular critic has taken her LOL metaphors on maternity leave, but the expanded coverage on Friday and even Sunday’s silliness actually make you feel as if you live in a major culinary capital with thinking chefs rather than British natterers. It’s almost enough to make me forgive the paper for adding doom and gloom in the guise of health on Wednesday, the high holy day of food journalism.

 

The most recent high point was a chance to be virtually present at the re-creation of the top dish from the Pillsbury Bake-Off. I squandered more time on that page than on the whole Times magazine, fascinated by how inept the winner’s fluted pie crust was (made from a Pillsbury pre-fab), how un-New York the baker was in her matching oven mitts and adrogenous haircut and really how wacky the winning recipe was: a variation on pecan pie, with granola bars as the secret ingredient. (A helpful photo shows how to crush them in the package with a rolling pin.) That’s a recipe for Wednesday Health. Or for cooks who never met Quaker oats.

 

Eons ago I went to a Pillsbury Bake-Off for a magazine story, and I’m surprised it’s become so dull when there is so much more processed garbage that could be turned into prizewinners. Where are the chicken and chocolate enchilada quiches of yesteryear?

 

 

We can hide, but we’re still going to get hit. Even Americans who don’t travel will soon feel how worthless the dollar is becoming, judging by my surprise at the cheese case where I went to pick up a wedge of that industrial Brie sold in supermarkets in France that melts almost as well as Velveeta for chile con fromage. The chunk I used to get for $2-something is now $3-something. And having spoken earlier in the week with a spice processor who is cutting back on Hungarian paprika, I don’t think it’s inflation at work. It’s the euro kicking buck. Figures that the Brie brand is President.

 

 

Forget her cooking skills. Marcella Hazan must be one hell of a housekeeper. Her kitchen in the just-out Saveur looks as gleaming-new as the photos did when I wrote about it for House Beautiful at least five years ago.

 

 

It’s hard to tell what’s a bigger threat to national forests these days, Bush bankrollers or cookbook publishers. Did trees really have to fall for a whole collection of lavishly photographed recipes for grilled cheese? One not even titled “Melting for Dummies”?

Speaking of forests, the tree no one appears to have heard falling was the Beard timber in the out-of-towner’s column in the Daily News. Judging by the collective shrug, this had a real “there are no new stories, only new gossips” aspect. Maybe one day, and maybe soon, someone can definitively answer the question posed by so many chefs like the one I met in Charleston a few years ago: “How can it cost me $20,000 to put on a dinner there?” Or worse insinuations — after all, that much smoke cannot just be salmon. But at least in the short term, the foundation probably underestimates how much it benefits from a very well-positioned finger in the dike. And if financial shenanigans ever surface, it could not be blessed with a more appropriate name.

 

 

Compass, the restaurant that just can’t find its way, is now running a big ad touting cut-rate lunches and dinners “in addition to our acclaimed chef’s menus.” Not only that, it includes stars and blurbs from some of the kinder reviews published before said acclaimed chef packed up her knives and went home. If the owners had any sense, they would have just quietly waited it out, knowing a certain domineering editrix who has considered Compass her canteen since it opened as Marika would surely steer a malleable reviewer their way one more time. The fourth could have been the charm.

 

 

Maybe I’m too busy eating, but I never noticed Whoopi Goldberg was the Slim-Fast flogger until she lost her gig. Savvy advertisers could take a cue from that: Send a shill out to offend the notoriously sensitive ears of Cheney’s fellow Republicans, and you’ll get press you couldn’t buy. Not to mention a chance to shed spokesmodels who don’t exactly conjure the product.

 

 

One of the little ironies of the star-making machinery of the food world is that chefs have become so much more articulate just as their handlers are insisting on pulling all the strings. Half the time you can’t interview the guy who developed the dish, only the clueless publicist with the restaurant account. But a little item in the New York Observer made it clear why chefs sometimes cannot be trusted to speak for themselves. The pastry person at Union Square Cafe, promoting her appearance teaching kids at the Greenmarket about peaches and other stone fruits, went on the record as saying: “I’m a little nervous because I haven’t seen any yet at the market.” A good ventriloquist would have blithely promised pumpkins in July. Or at least asked the chef at a restaurant known for its “Greenmarket menu” to walk half a block east and take a look before she revealed how out of touch she was with a place where peaches and cherries have been on offer for weeks.

 

 

A charismatic Italian guy we spent a day with near Treviso was full of aphorisms, but one in particular resonates: “It only takes one dog to herd many sheep.” The dog in our town, I have just learned, is a web site that is really one click away from being a google ad. While old media pours endless ink into long-winded reviews with tempting photographs, and while restaurants struggle along as if not a word had been printed (can you say Marika/Compass?), it turns out all it took to ruin my attempt at a Tocqueville lunch was two incomplete sentences on a site whose url should be ovine.net. The flack says she worked hard to get the mention, and the restaurant was clearly slammed. Now that I know who gets the sheep in, even I’ll be logging on, if only to be sure my destination is not ranked as the bonbon du jour. You can never eat well in a pen.

 

 

It’s one thing for a hired biographer to swallow fish tales. But shouldn’t a reviewer for the peerless NYT at least raise a skeptical eyebrow? To quote just one absurdity: “Sirio was one of the first to fly in seasonal ingredients from around the globe, and it was Sirio who led the great gourmet cattle stampede to Las Vegas.” The first half of that sentence sounds pretty impressive until you remember there’s no need to fly in seasonal ingredients — they’re as close as the Greenmarket. As for Vegas, I believe a little nobody named Wolfgang was there as long ago as 1992, six years before braveheart Maccioni bet big. At least we know one restaurant critic is guaranteed a good last table at 50th and Madison. If not at the Ivy in London.

 

 

A flack whose client I spoofed has e-communicated to set the record straight. He is not just prostitutin’. He’s procurin’, too. Unfortunately, in laying out the dream team he has assembled to resuscitate a shortlived restaurant he didn’t impress me so much with how high he had reached as by how far the mighty had fallen to be within his grasp. And he does have me wondering why such a useful profession is so often dissed by its own practitioners. Really, if you can correctly spell the names you drop you don’t need to call yourself a visionary.

 

 

Note to the Wall Street Journal: Crockpots are like the poor. They will always be with us. And can they have a comeback if they never went away?

 

 

For four days I ate only my own cooking. On the fifth, after an editor spurned a recipe I had developed, I set out to recalibrate my palate. A friend was persuaded to join me for the Greenmarket lunch at Tocqueville, with a reservation in her name at 1:15 (1 was impossible). I showed up first to find the entry full of upended chairs, two annoyed customers ignored at the bar and a host nowhere to be seen. As I waited, I could see at least one table stripped clean and another yet to be bused. The host appeared, took my fake name, said how nice it was to see me again and let me go off to the bathroom. Which was occupied. For the next 10 minutes. As I perched on a windowsill and waited, my oversensitive antennae for trouble went into overdrive. The room did not feel happy. People were waiting for food at too many tables; a woman was trying desperately to pay her check as dessert dishes sat congealing. My instinct was to bail, and then a guy at the table closest to me called over a waiter to say he had ordered the wine pairing and had nothing as his first course was being cleared. Bladder still bulging, I went back to the front, collected my friend from the chair (not even the bar) where she had been deposited because she was “the first to arrive,” and we fled. Unnoticed by anyone.

 

That’s the trouble with a publicist doing a job too well in sending out a tempting press release: The press might actually fall for it. (What’s that old saying — you can lead a writer to lunch, but you can’t let it stink?)

 

 

Here’s a profession you never saw anyone aspiring to in a high school yearbook: “spokesperson for the launch of Perrier’s plastic bottle.” I wouldn’t brag about achieving it, but a real Aren’t His 15 Minutes Up Yet? character is.

Walking through the specialty food show at the Javits, it was hard not to see America as one country under nutritional siege, or maybe just home to 280 million invalids. About one in three products seemed to have been doctored to be low-carb, sugar-free, lactose-free, fat-free, low-calorie or gluten-free. The silliest was the lactose-free mortadella (sorta like gluten-free pastrami), but I even saw low-carb Chinese noodles, from the least likely old-line producer, not to mention “no-soy” fake caviar. For once I had to be very careful what I ate — I accidentally ingested a “less-carbs” tortilla chip and it took me half an aisle to get the chemicalness out of my mouth. Altered crap looks just like real food unless you read the fine print.

 

But at least it was easy to see all the silliness on display for a change — the crowds looked to be the thinnest ever for this celebration of nonessential nutrients. A friend at one booth said many other West Coast producers couldn’t afford to attend this year, thanks to that exuberant economic recovery we keep hearing about from the great pretender with the weakness for pretzels. Twenty-three of the winners for best product, in fact, were not even on the premises. Still, as food gets more and more political, the future may lie off in a whole other direction anyway. Everywhere there were booths offering to certify products as kosher, or organic, or fair-trade. In a country where down is up and fear is security, labels have never mattered more. Or truth less. Of course credibility should be for sale.

 

 

Right behind me in the badge line in the Javits press office was a guy who swore he had proper credentials. After all, he hosts a polka program on the radio. In Amish country in Pennsylvania. And “sometimes we talk about food.” He got in, of course. Press is press, and he could not produce a dumber report than any of those that proclaimed trends spotted among 60,000-plus products. Figs, salt and tea could as well be coffee, wasabi and pecans. The show is just a show, and very little of what is shown there ever turns up in any stores near me, let alone in enough quantity to qualify as “flavor of the day.” Roll out those barrels.

 

 

You can fool a lot of New Yorkers most of the time, but not many Italians even once. A big olive oil producer I met in Palermo was at the food show and still reeling from his dinner at Lupa. For eight people, he was staggered to say, the bill was $900 (and he was packing euros). Worse, the food was all wrong. Debasing-of-culture wrong, in fact. For the “meat rolls,” he said with a mix of mystification and disgust, “they put salad in them. On the inside.” At least he could take four Alka-Seltzers and get over the Carnegie Deli. That Batali burn lingers.

 

 

The surprise is not that JUdson Grill is closing. It’s that anyone would think the world needs more Bobby Flay. Or more bogus Spanish/Latino/macho. Comparing the Equitable building to the TWC is also pushing things, but then Metro editors looking to fill weekend pages seem to be becoming easily pushable, especially by marginalized hangers-on who could never get hired on staff.

 

 

Something weird has happened to Where magazine. The copy I picked up at the Javits actually had some restaurant coverage that didn’t seem irredeemably clueless. It’s either got a better class of advertisers to promote or the restaurant “reporter” I once met at a press lunch has moved on. (She was the one who bit into a shiitake and asked, “What is this, baloney?”) The best part is that its map shows no eating options north of Kitchen 82, leaving my neighborhood safe from Republicans. But I still wouldn’t pay $6 an issue for the thing, let alone $56 a year. Tourists who want to “plan ahead” should know there’s a bridge for sale here, too.

 

 

A Montreal restaurant roundup in a formerly prestigious publication actually included the phrase “screamed my taste buds to attention.” I know a prison in Baghdad that might be interested in that maneuver, and not for an oyster shooter.

My eagle-eyed if underemployed friend Heidi Yorkshire faxed along a great true confession from the designers of the first Kimpton to open in New York. At SilverLeaf Tavern, they’re promising a “netherworld ambiance.” Which is just what this town needs: more restaurant hell.

 

 

Speaking of which, I know there isn’t enough room in a whole book to tell a story the way it really happened. So I guess I’ll just have to take up valuable cyberspace to set the record straight. I went to Le Cirque first with a top editor at Allure and we got the Ron Galotti treatment: fawning to the point of slobbering by the circus jerk, spectacular food, lots of freebie extras, face time with Daniel, major fanny kissing on the way out. Snowed, I called for my consort’s birthday and was graciously granted a 9:30 or 10 o’clock reservation. We were greeted by CJ’s rather substantial posterior for some minutes on arriving, and the treatment went downhill from there. We had to wait forever at the bar for our table, then the waiter just stood tapping his pen on his pad and asking, “Didja come to talk or didja come to eat?” I remember nothing out of the ordinary on our plates, only the sight of chairs being upended around us and a vacuum firing up in the dregs of the evening. What went wrong at the Schrambling table was that it was in the wrong restaurant. Great ones honor reservations if they offer them around midnight.

 

 

The good news is that Kalustyan’s has closed its upscale cafe “for renovations.” The sad news is that the chef must be making breads for the store now. The usually excellent vegetable paratha could have come out of Otto’s pizza oven.

 

 

It’s been a long, hard contest, but I think I have found the very worst waiter in all of Manhattan, one right out of “Tommy.” I suffered him when Soho Cantina was brand new and figured he had to have been fired by the third night. But no, he’d somehow found his way back and was bumbling through lunch on a day with all of three tables in play. I stupidly stuck around to try the duck “confit” quesadilla and a glass of cava, which was ordering trouble, because he had me to repeat both, and his hand shook as his brain struggled to connect (it was like watching Bush try to sign his name). Then he stopped me on the way to the bathroom to ask again what I wanted to drink and I had to spell it out: Cava. Sparkling wine. Yes, white. A long time later a trough arrives with a large corn tortilla in it but not a shred of poultry. I flagged down the only animate being, the busboy, and asked about duck. D-U-C-K. Pato. He took it away and maybe 45 minutes later the real thing landed. And this was well after Witless had come by to assure me it would be right out at the very minute one of the three women at the next table was getting up in desperation to go fetch menus. Don’t ask how long the check and change took. He did wipe the $12 quesadilla off the bill, but the place is going to go bankrupt if all Cheney-ups are atoned with giveaways. The guy should be shipped off to Denmark, where anyone aspiring to be entrusted to carry food and drink has to go to school for three years. Not to diss the handicapped, but this is not a profession for pinball wizards.

 

 

The FCI is nothing if not sly. Its tiny front-page ad touting a new program — learn to be a restaurant reviewer — ran on just the day some readers might be wishing for Alan Richman.

 

 

Lately when I open my e-mail I can’t tell if it’s PR or if it’s parody. One day it’s a restaurant promoter boasting of a sushi chef combining eel and Boursin (even a shark would hesitate), and the next it’s a liqueur flogger insisting that celebrities I’ve never heard of are pouring the stuff in their hair for “extra richness and shine.” The Onion is paying the wrong writers. Flacks do it with a straight face.

Here’s how bold-face the Le Cirque party was: they let me in. A few stars did stud the many rooms, if you see luster in the likes of Joan Rivers and Rudy and Judi, but it was easy to suspect Sirio’s problems are not just with location and landlord these days. What one straight-faced guest called the In Crowd looks dangerously close to interment, despite all efforts at surgical denial. I’ve never seen so many tight faces over such sagging flesh (rule of decay: once your nipples graze your navel, you might want to cover your assets). I’ve always found the place a little gloomy for parties, but on this night it really had a “Shining” aura.

 

It was also no Gotham. The good stuff must have been far back in the kitchen, which I was never able to penetrate beyond the salt cod fritters and the zeppole by another name; closer to hand I saw nothing but little crab cakes and miniature quiches being passed and big steam tables with ravioli in one room and the dregs of a seafood soup in another. Aside from the hyper-efficient bartenders, who were apparently bent on emptying the Champagne cellar into flutes the size of tubas, the waiters had that patented dismissiveness bordering on contempt I remember so well from my last self-financed sit-down at Le Cirque, on 65th Street. “Watch your back” was as pleasant as they got.

 

The real lesson of the night is not to believe what you read in the papers. The Times, once again, comes off like the Chalabi Crier, helpfully passing along one side of the story for a restaurateur with a book to promote. (One article pays dishwashers $29 an hour, another tells you there might be a lower figure involved but you won’t be seeing it in the Corrections.) A fellow cynic had the best response when I threw out my second-hand insight that Le Cirque was limping because it had not had a bold-face chef or pastry chef for so long: “Maybe that was Sirio’s mistake: having name chefs in the first place.” Siegfried could have told him what happens when the spotlight shifts to the tiger.

In the frenzy of mourning and forgetfulness the Reagan Wannabe has had his underlings ordain batter-dipped frozen French fries as a fresh vegetable. Which would seem absurd until you consider that it’s actually good for Kerry. No one can eat freedom fries without that other compassionate Republican vegetable, ketchup. And Heinz is the one American brand still proudly displayed in just about every country we travel to.

 

 

Manhattan looked like the Reagan years over the weekend. Only this time the long lines for food were not at soup kitchens but at festivals, one Indian and one barbecue. Bypassing them both reminded me of one of the more disheartening experiences in my first go-round at the Times in the Eighties, the night a top editor had a meltdown over a story about congressional staffers driving around handing out sandwiches to the homeless. “We can’t run this,” he yelled. “It makes Washington sound like Calcutta.” Then as today, reality was not going to get in the way of morning in America.

Reverence for Reagan must also explain the bizarre clothing choices of so many patrons at Rosa Mexicano last week. Half the restaurant seemed to be wearing the same skimpy shorts and T-shirts all those slobs lined up to see the coffin with the frequent flyer miles did in DC. And anyone who thinks dress codes are silly has never tried to eat queso fundido while Stiltonesque flesh is bulging out of scraps of fabric all around.

 

 

Kalustyan’s has hired a PR firm. Which makes sense since the store needs about as much help with exposure as Paris Hilton does. If it were me, I’d take that money and hire some chefs for its lame restaurants.

 

 

Panchito the new reviewer in town gets points for following the foreign correspondent script: stick with what’s already been printed. His sophomore effort on Five Ninth, though, left me wondering how far you can stretch a metaphor before the reader breaks (or just pupas out).

 

 

The Daily News has done away with the best thing in the Sunday paper, its details-only answer to the pretentiously silly Vows column. I loved reading what was on the menu at weddings — forget how they met; tell me what they serve and I’ll tell you who they are. Now the News sometimes gives the salient details, but the sappy stuff predominates. Don’t they know all happy couples are alike? It’s the cannoli cream filling in the tiramisu cake that makes them worth reading about.

 

 

Usually when I get back to New York I have to spend the first week or so breaking myself of acting pleasant. It says something about Copenhagen that I almost snapped at a waiter at the Neptune Room within four hours of landing at JFK. All he did was hand my consort a card, saying it was from a man at another table who had drawn a caricature of the two of us. Accustomed to street hustlers, I started to snarl, “No, we’re not paying — take it away,” when I saw the artiste himself walking out and smiling. Turns out he was from the neighborhood and does his little couples trick with the illegible signature just for fun. And he does it even though his wife, the waiter said, “knows the woman usually hates it.” Danes must live among us.

 

 

Everyone always wonders if the Beard awards really mean anything, and now there’s an answer. Cook for the awards dinner and you could wind up being discovered by the newspaper in your own front yard, years after you have made a name as a Latina genius with a fabulous restaurant and a solid book on chocolate. The down side? The headline will read as if it wandered off a trend story. And the address of neither of your places will be included in the big splash.

 

 

Look for the Dining section to complete its devolution into the old Living section very soon. The newly named editor sticks out strongest in this ex-deputy’s mind for pitching a story on fajitas. A trend story. In 2001. (The only wackier proposal came from a woman who was also an editor in Sports then, a huge one who rolled over one day to suggest something on how restaurant hosts always seated her where flies congregated. And that at least had the dramatic arc of cause and effect to it.)

 

 

Slow Food’s quirkily translated web site lists “local rootedness” first among the movement’s key goals. Which of course explains why crawfish will be served at the next Slow Food fund-raiser in New York. Last time I looked there were no bayous on this island, only hustlers.

 

 

The doomed restaurant space at 56th and Eighth has finally found a taker, after dying a lingering death as Tapika and a mercifully quick one as Cinnabar. Unfortunately, it’s one of those obscure new banks, and so many are opening around Manhattan anymore that a new S&L crisis has to be headed our way. (Remember when banks were closing and restaurants were taking over the spaces?)

 

 

Just when I was starting to think I was the only old-timer in town who expects an editor to be an arbiter of fairness and not a critic, I got an anxious email from a friend who had just had dinner at an ambitious restaurant opened by a friend of her husband. He was freaking out, she said, because the Diner’s Journal about his place had been so snarky. Wouldn’t that mean the reviewer would have to agree with the boss? No wonder restaurateurs are begging for Bruni, who is either still in Rome or all over town, depending on who’s gossiping. He’s gotta be better than a ramp with two hats.

 

 

The Washington Post apparently just retyped the press release for its report that Poste has a new chef from Guastavino’s, which was “awarded two stars by the New York Times under [his] watch.” How soon they forget Daniel Orr.

 

 

Considering how many chefs have cameras in the dining room, I’ve always wondered why more don’t bug the tables, too — imagine how much better they could do if they knew what diners were really saying. But then maybe they do. The other night I was telling friends how the chef where we were eating had once written me a four-page frothing letter objecting to a story I had done when he was working for a different group. Later he walked over and said: “You know that letter I sent you? It was bullshit.” I knew that. How did he?

 

 

Watching how the porn industry has responded to an AIDS outbreak has been enlightening: Because workers are tested early and often for sexually transmitted diseases, all filming was shut down as soon as two cases were detected. Contrast that with the food business, where poorly paid workers with no hope of health care are turned loose to toss salads and manhandle meatloaf. One prep guy with lethal hepatitis can conceivably infect hundreds of diners, and yet it would never occur to employers to monitor food handlers’ conditions. Typhoid Mary was a cook, let’s not forget.

 

The NYDaily News has added some surprisingly lively and shockingly high-end food coverage on restaurant-review Fridays. Maybe the competion should take a look. It’s a great way to pander to cretins on grocery-ad day and salvage your soul on going-out day — they may lie down with Cool Whip, but they don’t have to wake up with Red Lobster.

Just when you think things really can’t get worse, Time magazine reports that those Healthy Skies wordsmiths working for big business’s federal branch have decided to reclassify wild salmon to include farmed fish released into rivers. Just when Americans are waking up to the risks of farmed salmon, they will have no way of knowing what they are buying or eating. And more “wild” salmon, Time says, will be treated as evidence that stocks are increasing, which means 15 species could lose environmental protection. But hey, what’s good for the power companies is surely good for fish and us. We can always eat beef. Under this regime, if it can’t be tested we know it’s safe.

 

 

I’m still sorting out what to make of the Greenmarket after the public airing of its dirty laundry, but it was not encouraging to see Green Mountain Coffee Roasters on Union Square last time I was there. It’s hard enough to get New Yorkers to understand why there are so few local foods for sale in springtime. Why confuse them with patently commmercial booths? When I stopped and asked what the market connection was, I got a long rap about fair trade and how coffee can’t be grown locally and how noble goals can all be combined and how they were not selling but handing out free samples. It was every explanation but WMD and liberating Iraqis. But the whole encounter made me marvel yet again at what a friend in Portland, Ore., had emailed me: the three weekly markets she’s involved in had 233 vendors last year, and “we’re working on recruiting more (all our locations are technically ‘full’ — we’re just looking for more variety in every way).” New York, a city more than four times as big, has exactly 185 for 30 locations over seven days a week. Something’s wrong with this picture, and it’s not just all those nasty cookies and industrial breads for sale on 17th Street. If there’s room for do-gooder coffee, there should be space for a new crop of artisans.

 

 

A press packet for a series of food guidebooks included a wacky blurb from the inimitable grayest old lady at the old gray lady: Touting the Brazilian edition, she enthused that it “adds Ole! to the kitchen.” I guess I should be impressed that she didn’t babble in Latin, but don’t they speak Portuguese down Rio way?

 

 

More lost in translation: An Italian friend is in town and we drag him to a Theater District restaurant with an all-over-the-map menu but a good wine list. Because his mom runs a restaurant in Tuscany, he knows enough to be impressed by the prices: a Barolo here is half what it would be at home. But he is a little baffled by the food. What is fennel? he wonders, and I luckily conjure up the Italian (finocchio), to which he responds with a story of how that word also means gay, although he has no idea why. Monkfish he translates as pesce de monaco (fish of the monk). But then he spots something really tantalizing: beef salad. Actually, we tell him, that’s beeT, but he has no idea what the ingredient is and the word fails me. We both try to describe it (red, or yellow, which confuses the issue, and shaped like a turnip, which is another alien idea). The salad arrives and he excitedly digs around for the beeT. The yellow chunks turn out to be tomato and he’s soon excavating his greens. And when he spots the mysterious temptation, he just laughs: “Oh, barbabietola! Of all the vegetables, this is the only one I don’t like.” Leaving every slice untouched, he listens closely when we recount the tale of the salad we ordered once in France without knowing what a certain word meant, only to be served slices of gruesome cow muzzle. “Museau,” he repeated, clearly filing that one away with beeT, “a bad mistake but one never to make again.”

 

 

All the news that’s aged to print: When the Daily News weighed in on Chef’s Theater, it sent the drama critic and the restaurant reviewer right away and produced two adamant thumbs down. The newspaper not of record waited until Two Hot Tamales were on Broadway to weigh in on their predecessor, Tyler Florence, which is sorta like critiquing an entree after it’s scraped into the trash. Everyone knows the show is a bomb. Why describe the detonation and not the latest dud?

 

Just before a new restaurant is to throw its launch party, the kitchen catches fire and the flack has to send out an email suddenly rescinding the invites. Not one to miss an opportunity, he mentions that “Thomas Keller will agree that no, this is not a new trend in restaurant openings.” I was appalled, but damned if lazy “reporters” didn’t seize on that peg to run a little item, without even waiting for a third fire to make a trend. If the same guy is pimping for Pop and the Fino family, I can’t wait to read the release: Someone Is Offing the Obscure Restaurateurs of New York.

 

This is why New York needs 15,000 restaurants: You can’t go back to most of them. Places I think are great on first encounter just seem to fall apart on repeat visits. Paprika in the East Village was perfection once and Sardi’s poor on a second try — if the decor were not so distinctive, I would have been convinced we had wandered into the wrong room, or the revival of Candid Camera. Both pastas we tried were so lame I left wondering if the dishwasher and cook had swapped stations for the night. West Bank Cafe was another re-bomination. The risotto was by Uncle Ben, the Asian-glazed snapper was more like jerky and the special of monkfish on more risotto looked and tasted like spats of the sea. And then there was the Cub Room Cafe, where the Cobb salad used to be the very model of a California standard. This time it was mostly onions, light on the avocado and with slime cubes substituting for turkey. Luckily, I had my receipt to keep me mad: with a glass of wine, my pathetic little lunch came to almost $30. That I’ll remember if I ever get the urge to go back.

 

 

Two more signs retailers understand Americans are not getting any smarter: At Bloomingdale’s I spotted Salton’s “quesadilla maker,” a $30 electrical appliance complete with 18-page manual apparently designed for those dunces with no skillet, griddle or oven. And Crate & Barrel is selling an avocado masher. For the fork-deficient.

 

 

In a week when it was depressingly clear we’re becoming one world, I was happy to get a small sign of the light side. My regular email from “the largest Indian food site” not only offered lasagne recipes but also mentioned that the dish in question is a favorite of Garfield’s. Finding Italian in an alien place was no surprise. But I didn’t realize even the cartoon cat had been virtually outsourced.

 

The big argument in restaurants when I worked at self-proclaimed ethics central used to be over just getting a check. At BLT Steak they did something new: sent out extra appetizers and main course and free desserts but took them off the bill with a line marked “NYTimes discount.” Apparently the freebie has gone legit. And it brought back memories of the night a few years ago when I ran up a $70 tab at the bar at Jean Georges. I was with a woman who is rather recognizable in the food world, and the bartender wanted to comp us. I of course insisted, very pompously, “I have to pay. I work for the New York Times.” His laugh still echoes in my ear.

 

 

Never let it be said that the fat cats in Congress aren’t looking out for America at large and at war. Finally confronted with undeniable evidence that we the people are becoming the new dinosaurs, little tiny brains in huge lumbering bodies, our friends in high places have decided the most pressing need is to protect Krispy Kreme. Apparently if McDonald’s doesn’t have to worry about lawsuits over obesity and diabetes, all its patrons will suddenly acquire the Personal Responsibility the bill is named for. Suing Burger King because you weigh 500 pounds is absurd. But so is a Taco Bell burrito advertised as containing a full half-pound of meat and cheese. This is just big business as usual: Leave no campaign contributor behind.

 

And it’s too bad Congress will never pass a real Corporate Responsibility Act. What kind of company would stiff the caterer it contracted to provide meals to soldiers in Iraq, including the turkey dinner seen ’round the world? It wouldn’t be the one still paying Dick Cheney, would it?

 

The oldest question of which came first is not the chicken or the egg but the bad service or the skimpy tip when a woman is involved. Still, who would expect to ask it at Lever House, a place apparently so dependent at lunch on women (the scary kind with the old eyes in the tight-as-a-22-year-old’s sockets)? My poor hostess got her espresso before our dessert, had to beg first to have the table pulled out so she could slip in and then for a check and generally had to put up with the offhand to dismissive treatment that leads to perpetuating the stereotype. Maybe because she lives here only part time, she was livid. I thought it was just another meal in Manhattan.

The food was certainly nothing out of the ordinary. My cod was a nice-enough piece of fish sitting on a pool of sweet onions that looked like cat spitup and completely sapped the Alfredo olive sauce of its salty effect; the pear crisp needed a refresher course from Betty Crocker on the proper balance between crust and fruit (my teeth still ache). I’m glad I went, despite the callousness and the din, but really, it’s just another Kleenex restaurant: good for one use.

 

Lever House actually reminded me of another unanswerable question: Why do so many restaurants set out a bread plate with butter knife and leave it empty for an entire meal? Is it careless or is it calculated?

 

 

More delicious irony: Just as even the Russians are saying they don’t want filthy American chickens, and as the rest of the world is waving crosses and garlic to keep out our weaned-on-blood mad cows, the U.S. government has banned all imports of French processed meats, from foie gras to sausage. Our protectors do care about clean factories, as long as they’re in Old Europe.

 

I go to press events when hope triumphs over experience, knowing most are exercises in emptiness. You leave overfed but underinformed, usually because the usual gaggle of food people shows up for some mutual back-scratching and talks over any presentation while counting on the press kit in the goodie bag to fill in the gaps.

 

But what Sue Torres organized at Suenos was that rarity: a seminar, not a circle-jerk.

No more than 20 people were there, all lined up as if in class, to watch eight chefs cook and teach. Nine little plates were served, most with a complementary single-village mescal, but each was preceded by a discussion and tasting of the key ingredients (five chile purees and the toasted pods they were made from; achiote paste and pozole; huitlachoche and nopales). The Del Maguey mescals were presented long with a clever pass-around card showing each step of the harvesting and distilling of the agave, which spared us the deadly slide show or Powerpoint. Sniffing, tasting and listening, I learned more in a couple of hours than I would have reading 12 cookbooks.

What was being sold was the whole idea of Mexican cuisine, not a single product, and it made a huge difference. As did the realization that chefs who are competing for the same margarita drinkers (Zarela, Pampano, Noche, Paladar, Zocalo, La Palapa and Lucy’s) were coming together just to elevate food writers’ knowledge of what it is they’re putting on plates, and why.

As I left, though, I decided who really should have been at the event: restaurant critics. The level of ignorance in most reviews in New York City is appalling (they mix up tortillas and tacos, complain when chilies are charred, love burritos beyond all reason). Now that anonymity is apparently off the table, why shouldn’t critics take lessons from the chefs they’ll be evaluating?

 

 

New York’s Greenmarkets are almost 30 years old, but I never knew they existed until the summer of 1984 or 1985, when my consort was assigned by New York Magazine to shoot photos for a gossip item on how the farmers there were allegedly price-fixing. I tagged along and came home with a big bunch of basil and tomatoes the likes of which I’d never seen before and I think some really ripe peaches (but that part I may be romancing). I’ve been hooked ever since, to the point where heading to Union Square twice a week is like going to church for me and where at the height of summer I’m in a market virtually every day, on 97th Street or up near Columbia, in Tribeca and in the West Village. Always, though, I remember the rabid farmers’ meeting I was once privileged to attend, one fall in the mid-90s when Barry Benepe persuaded me to donate some copy on squash for a brochure he was planning to distribute (never happened). It was like watching a rock overturning and the bugs crawling out, but with microphones. The place has been contentious as hell for as long as I’ve been shopping there, and the Taliban could not be as harsh on rules of behavior.

 

All of which makes the NYT op-ed piece by the Greenmarket’s recently canned director that much more fascinating. She let a lot more bugs out, but many of them were pretty harmless (anyone who goes to farmers for pies is making a margarine mistake, and it’s right there on the label). Some of her facts were shaky (it’s unlikely there were heirloom tomatoes on sale in 1976; the turkey farmer has not been in Union Square for years), but she is right that the market could be far, far better. Still, nothing she wrote justifies the reaction among what the Times would call “the food elite,” all the bluster about boycotting the market. Sure, you can find ramps for $18 a pound in the Chelsea Market, but it isn’t quite the same as coming across the first of the season on the west side of the Greenmarket for $2.50 a bunch one chilly morning in April when the only other green things come from greenhouses. Flawed as it is, the market is just the closest New Yorkers come to seasonal awareness. And as long as it’s not abusing little boys, I’m going to keep going there.

 

 

As for the companion piece in the Times, the head of Slow Food USA might want to read his organization’s own web postings. He argues that the hard-fought advice to eat locally should be abandoned in favor of saving livestock breeds by trucking them in from specialty producers in the Midwest until local demand grows. But in Buffalo, one of the most economically bleak places on the map right now, a farmer was persuaded by Slow Food to grow three heritage varieties of turkey last year and unloaded all 54 birds for gilded-pheasant prices. It can be done, now. The old arguments against long-haul food haven’t changed (including the fact that oil is squandered in the process). They’ve been joined by a new one: If you grow them close to home, they will sell.

 

 

The autopsy would have been a success if the patient had only been dead: The team the Times assembled in Arts & Leisure to dissect Rocco’s the Restaurant Wreck was almost as much a joke as the series itself. Try to find the logic in bringing together the Mamma Leone of theater district pub owners (and how many readers were surprised to learn there really was a man behind the logo?) with an off-the-radar restaurateur with much to say and little to impart and the oddly out-of-terroir California chef now turning out pasta to $25 & Under second-guessing. Finally, and most demanding of an email flood to the paper’s new public editor, there was the big-time restaurateur who left a particularly acidic trail across Page 6 with his opinions of the star chef well before this exercise in banality was ever conceived. No wonder the photo took up more room than their insights. The whole exercise plumbed new depths of vacuity.

 

But it was good for one reason. After going on 23 years in New York, I do sometimes idly wonder what it would be like to be living in Lincoln, Nebraska, again and fantasizing about the big city. This piece would have brought it home: you ain’t missing a thing. Although the editors certainly are.

 

 

In another sign of the decline of the gray empire, the Sunday magazine has now dropped all pretense that its food column exists except to attract the occasional token ad for Colavita olive oil. It’ll shove anything in that space, even cranberries in April. If it really cared about reader service, it would at least advise us to start freezing ramps for the November story.

 

 

While California almond and pistachio promoters were blanketing magazines with advertising and food writers with heavy mailings, the competition in the walnut groves went straight to where growers’ dollars really make a difference: what used to be the federal government. The FDA has just ruled that walnut packages can now carry a health claim, carefully couched and borderline meaningless but a health claim nonetheless: “Supportive but inconclusive evidence shows that eating 1.5 ounces per day of walnuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.” Substitute any nut in that nonsense and the same would probably apply (although not peanuts, despite the nattering about them on NPR — those are legumes). It almost makes you long for the days of oat bran. And Big Brother where it belonged: in the agencies overseeing food. (Don’t get me started on the beef processor who is forbidden to test for mad cow because it might hurt business for the big producers with the big bucks for “our” representatives.)

 

 

Newsday’s new handout amNY proved it was worth the price with a pickup piece from the Washington Post on chervil that was graphically illustrated with a sprig of . . . flat-leaf parsley. Must be the season, though: The blackboard in front of the bison stand at the Union Square Greenmarket had a sign promoting Sirlion Brisket. (Salute when you order that bizarro cut.) Another sign in front of a little place I passed on the Bowery called Orange Valve was touting Stir-Fried Frank Steak. (For a second I actually thought they meant a hot dog.) And what can you say about brand-namers who thought Effen sounded smart for a new vodka from Holland?

 

 

Buffalo is the last city where you might expect to find a hotel on the exalted level of the Mansion on Delaware Avenue, a lustrously restored private home from the 1860s with 25 rooms and three suites outfitted with just the right blend of antique and boutique, from fireplaces and a billiard parlor to whirlpool baths and Frette robes. The common rooms are so gorgeous you hate to leave for a day of Target and Tops. It has butlers who pour good wines; it has some of the best teas imaginable (and in silk bags to boot). Plus it hands every guest a little card with imprinted name declaring him or her “in residence.” Both the nights we slept there in the cheapest room I marveled at how far $145 goes in a beaten town.

Unfortunately, the Mansion had one weak link. Every morning the pool table was draped with swanky linens and arrayed with unripe fruit, weird little bagels, over-the-hill cream cheese and enough iced-thick pastries to send even passersby on the sidewalk into a diabetic coma. One day there was a cheesy flatbread encrusted with funky smoked salmon; the next there was a plate of tired cheese including past-its-prime St. Andre (to smear on the bagels, I could only guess). It was the kind of spread you keep going back to hoping for something, anything that will satisfy. Just why came clear when I heard a staffer on the phone, ordering “65 mixed pastries” from a bakery, and not an artisanal one like the excellent Dolci relatively nearby on Elmwood Avenue. This is a five-star hotel with a B&B mind-set in the morning.

 

 

Now Congress had better get cracking on a new law to cover the lardasses at all the women’s magazines who keep turning their pages into advertorials to promote the grossest foods in the supermarket, in combinations even the super-sizers would consider excessive. I would hate to see Comstock cherry pie filling left vulnerable to bonbon-addicted housewives’ lawsuits. Real Simple has been the worst offender, but even lowly Woman’s Day has a 1-2-3 Dessert feature that combines a ready-made chocolate crust with caramels and condensed milk and chocolate chips and whipped cream and pecans in a “no-bake truffle pie.” Each slice allegedly contains only 419 calories, but who among the most Personally Responsible can eat just a one-tenth sliver? (It’s the opposite of super-sizing: If you can’t keep the fat count down, up the servings.)

 

 

Not to keep kicking a limping newspaper, but did anyone else notice a weird similarity in the reviews of Hearth and Chestnut? Each included a graf on the warming effect of a drink at the bar. Call it “a feeling of well-being,” “a promising glow” or just what it is: a buzz. But chefs now know the secret: First you marinate the critic.

 

I have so many mildly offensive eating experiences that I sometime wonder if I could still discern a true abomination. I got my answer at Kalustyan’s new [and shortlived] Masala Cafe, where the menu promises “Indian-inspired cuisine with a French accent.” That’s a long way of saying travesty.

The place is quite sleek and good-looking (the designer did Tamarind as well). The service was exceptional. The wine list is a real wine list, and Champagne and prosecco by the glass are suggested when you sit down (both go surprisingly well with flavors never meant to touch alcohol). But the food was was not even decent enough to qualify as a letdown.

A friend and I split the trio of samosas, billed as one each of goat cheese, turkey and apple and potato. The goat cheese was awol, but it couldn’t be any better than the underseasoned other two. Samosas are one of the greatest things out of India, and why would someone substitute rice paper for the usual flaky dough? These were like spanakopita with all the grease and none of the pungency.

I don’t know what came over me when I decided to order the Indian bouillabaise. I’m not even crazy about the real thing. But this gets an A for abysmal: a medium-sized bowl of mostly mussels with a few shrimp, two bits of fish and two scallops adrift in a broth that had less character than canned. I had to ask for the cumin-cayenne aioli, and when even mayonnaise cannot come to the rescue, you know it’s bland. My friend’s whole fish, the special, came bones and all in a heavy crust and was surprisingly dull (the sauce with it seemed to be the same oniony red blandness that was with the samosas). Worse, the side dishes were broccoli rabe (Indian? French? Misguided?) and potato wedges that could have been fried, could have been roasted but were still about diner level. For $25. (Don’t you sometimes wonder if chefs just pluck prices out of the air?)

The one saving grace was a side order of fruity naan that was what everything else was not: inspired and well executed. Dessert was forgettable. Literally. With three glasses of wine and one tea, the tab was $57 a person.

 

 

Kalustyan’s is one of New York’s greatest markets. The selection, the quality, the prices are extraordinary. Why would it open a restaurant missing the essential ingredient? Before I tasted anything, I was actually feeling sorry for Masala Cafe for being doomed to be a $25 & Under thanks to NYTimes restaurant redlining. By the time I left, I was looking longingly across the street at Curry in a Hurry, envying the cab drivers.

 

 

So which is it?

February 27, 2004: “And for that alone, I might order a glass of sake, stay for the gougères, then feign illness and steal across Columbus Circle to Jean Georges for a meal that never disappoints.”

March 28, 2001: “Although I have always savored cooking for friends at home, a recent break-the-bank experience at a restaurant made it all the more appealing. (Valentine’s Day. Jean Georges. More than $600 for two. We split the check.) Who needs that kind of trauma?”

And by the way, when exactly is the season for miniature pattypan squash? Isn’t it the same as the one for “new” potatoes?

 

 

A waiter said it, not me: Mix is “Alain Ducasse on sale.” But who wants to eat in Filene’s French Basement?

Twenty minutes after my consort and I walked into the place, I started getting a Bastide feeling. One of the worst eating experiences of our long life together was inflicted on us at another Ducasse spinoff, Bastide de Moustiers in Provence, and that whole long, sloppy, abusive evening was flashing before my eyes on 58th Street. There’s no way I could face rabbit stew with only paws in it ever again. Especially if slovenly service was involved.

The inhospitality started at the door, where the coat check was a scrum: gouged guests forcing their way out and us trying to get in while one woman wedged way too many wool objects into far too small a space. The guy at the computer checked our reservation, assured us he was “checking the table” and shunted us off to the bar, where we stood and stood, staring at a half-empty, overlit dining room that looked a little like God’s waiting room. That was the first flashback, to my days selling shoes, when the only women who could afford the really expensive pairs were too old to do them justice. Mix is what Dorian Gray would have thought of as kicky and fun.

When we finally did get seated, it was on a long empty banquette, right next to a table that had not been bused yet (again, in a half-filled room with waiters lounging everywhere). We were soon joined by a geriatric-with-a-capital-G couple moved midmeal from a colder part of the room, him gumming and her braying, but we still had no menu, no water, no wine, no waiter. Those Bastide vibes were getting stronger. This could be a very miserable, very expensive death of an evening. After plastic menus were finally slapped down on the table, Bob didn’t hesitate when I suggested we bail. And as we pushed open the front door, Mr. Oblivious at the computer called out merrily: “Thanks for coming.”

That was at 7:55. By 8:15 we were drinking Champagne at a walk-in table in the bar at rm. We had bread, beans-and-olive spread, water, menus, waiters, and the place was packed on this Friday night. Spaghettini with lump crab and caviar in sea urchin sauce would have attoned for all sins at any rate, as would the bacon-wrapped cod with escargot on polenta cakes, not to mention the $45 Mercury.

Maybe the French just don’t get diner style. Jeans don’t fit three-star chefs anymore than peanut butter and BLTs suit them. And it’s not just Ducasse, who first tried casual Friday at his bastide (where our room was as luxurious as the dinner was a faux peasant disaster). Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Market in France had much in common with Mix when it first opened, but there we were too Americans-in-Paris dumb to leave.

Ducasse’s New York flagship may not have the most dazzling food I’ve ever eaten, but it did lay on the service, to the point of absurdity. Now I realize that’s what you pay for with him. And it’s what’s first to go when the markdown begins.

 

 

On another global front, consider this: While we’re in denial, the Indians are in the laboratory. Bushco is steathily editing global warming out of government reports. Indian scientists are busily developing a rice hybrid that can grow in salt water. Why? Because sea levels are rising thanks to a little phenomenon the oilman in chief would prefer to ignore. Remind me: Which world is the third one?

 

 

I know I should be appalled that Rick Bayless has sold his soul to Burger King rather than Taco Bell, just in time for Day of the Dead. I know I should think it’s a major scandal that he can actually say some scary-cheap chicken sandwiches fit with his “message” of “good, simple everyday eating.” But as long as there are chefs out there shilling for butter-flavored Crisco, and as long as Thomas Keller is paid to say California raisins are the greatest thing since butter-poached lobster, it’s tough to get riled up. This is America. Honor and integrity are mostly missing ingredients these days.

 

Exhibit A is a report by Patrick Cockburn in the Independent that starts off: “U.S. soldiers driving bulldozers, with jazz blaring from loudspeakers, have uprooted ancient groves of date palms as well as orange and lemon trees in central Iraq as part of a new policy of collective punishment of farmers who do not give information about guerrillas attacking U.S. troops.” It gets more depressing as you read on (search news.independent.co.uk). We’re talking food with deeper meaning.

 

At least Bayless is only sullying his own hyper-inflated reputation. What’s happening on those farms is being done in all our names.

 

 

A food writer trying to cover the Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center is like a blind person trying to describe an elephant. The thing is just too big. Three spottings of wasabi, or of white tea, or of honey might add up to a trend in the real world. In the sensory overload of a bulimic’s dream that is the food show, it might just be the tail or the trunk. Or the dung.

I managed to taste only 143 different cheeses, chocolates, bacons, mousses, nuts, tandoori sauces, cookies, confits, salmons, pates, peanuts, potato chips, dips, mints, bread spreads, salamis, marmalades, mortadellas, margaritas, ginger beers, lemonades, andouilles, olives, meatballs and romesco sauces in my six hours at the show. Usually I have more stamina, but this year the general nervousness of the country had crept into the air-conditioned nightmare of the Javits Center. Most everything had to be sampled off a toothpick or from a plastic spoon; the usual finger-free-for-all dipping and grabbing was not allowed. And it ould take two more hands than I own to juggle my glasses, my pen and my notebook and still be able to spoon artichoke pate hygienically onto a cracker fragment while being jostled by hungry hordes of hydra-handed cellphone users.

What was most laughable was overhearing sanctimoniously fastidious exhibitors and buyers monitoring the toothpick piles. As one said: “We’re concerned about our health here.” This from a guy who, like so many at the show, weighed a good 350 pounds. The morbidly obese have it all over on the mildly queasy: Calories don’t count. Germs do.

 

 

The coverup is now looking worse than the impropriety at the Times.

 

To the paper’s credit, it did finally run an Editor’s Note disclosing half of what the whole food world already knew about the blow job passing as a Spice Market review. But the followup sent out to readers who complained to the Times’ public editor was a piece of unartful dodgery worthy of the White House. An irate friend passed along the response she got secondhand from Dining. Boiled down, it said that Gray Kunz was omitted from the review for space reasons (by my count, his full name takes up less of a line than a single Vongerichten), and the blower simply “forgot” that one of the most important chefs in the country had given her a sappy love poem to splash on her book. No mention was made of the fact that the newspaper of record had never officially expunged Kunz; for all readers would know, what was reported exactly a month before was still true (J-G and GK “are the drawing cards at Spice Market;” the “two kitchen superstars have guided the restaurant’s menu”). And if, as the followup note said, the “restaurateur” who “risks his money” generally gets the credit in the Times, where were the licks for the Monsieur Moneybags without whom there would be no Vongerichten empire?

 

Really, this is the age of the internet and checkable facts as close as a click. Fudging should take a little more imagination than that. If only the Times held its staff to the standards it found the Clintons so lacking in for eight long years.

 

 

At some point the NYTimes is going to have to stop blaming Jayson Blair and just fix the thing. Hiring a real restaurant critic would be a good place to start. After two years of lethargy on the food front, seriously good places are opening all over, and they’re being graded by substitute teachers whose gold stars are worth about as much as their F’s. Imagine the Broadway theater critic’s job being treated so cavalierly for so long. Directors would be begging to have the butcher back.

What makes things so much weirder is that for the first time, the top cursor in the Dining section is also acting as a critic. I’m sure his editorial judgment would never be confused with his critical faculties, but the two hats do seem a little too close for comfort. And it has to put his fill-ins in a conflicted position. He comes out swinging for the potstickers, and what are they supposed to say? What we once overheard a drunken soccer fan telling a policeman in Hong Kong? You, sir, are a wanker?

 

Spice Market has brought the whole mess to a public boil, and not just because of the Rick Braggadocio prose (for starters, you’ll whiff more blood at Food Emporium’s Saran-wrapped butcher counter than on Ninth Avenue). I went in two nights before the review and saw a connected friend at the food bar talking up Gray Kunz in the kitchen, and she asked him to get the four of us a table with no reservation. Suddenly one of the harem at the reception desk materialized to say “the LATimes” could sit down at 8 o’clock. Things went wildly off the track after that, but it was very clear that Jean-Georges Vongerichten was not the only chef turning street food into Gold Card fare. Reading the review, Gray was the man who wasn’t there. (So was Stanley Wong, whose name is actually on the menu.) Guess the arbiter of fairness was distracted, rating cheesecake.

 

As an ex-copy editor, though, my favorite part of probably the most overanalyzed restaurant review since Ruth Reichl got conned by Sirio was the little matter of the alleged inscription on the maitre d’s T-shirt. On the same day the Times ran a correction on David Letterman’s marquee (not Late Night but Late Show), Dining readers were treated to two references to the former. Another reason to have a dedicated editor.

 

A tale of two waitstaffs: After lounging hungrily downstairs at Spice Market for at least an hour, three of us were a little looped and sagging toward passing out in the wasabi peanuts when we finally decided to bail. We got the $62 check, stuck my credit card in the folder and tried frustratedly to find our MIA waitress. Finally my consort stood up, stopped the next uniformed pretty person meandering past and said: “Can we pay this?” Even in a Greek diner a busboy would have grabbed the folder and helped us out. This blank creature just looked at Bob and said: “Who’s your waitress?” How would we know? They all look alike, and it had been so long since we had seen her.

 

A few days later we two stop at Petite Abeille in Tribeca at the height of brunchtime and the host comes out to us on the sidewalk and offers us a menu so we can be sure it won’t be eggs only. We’re seated almost instantly at a table for four in the jammed dining room and have water and menus right away. It did take a while for the waiter to get to us, but neither of us was bothered because we were agonizing over what to order. And after we did decide, he ran over and apologized profusely for taking so long at the table of seven next to us. When I asked for wine, he came back instantly with a brimming glass of $7 sauvignon blanc, set it down and said: “This is on me because you had to wait.” I could barely shut my mouth to eat.

 

Once again, I had to wonder if there isn’t a caste system for waiters. Those at the top are the thinking kind, empowered enough to keep the customers satisfied. Those at the bottom get to wear the cool uniforms, fantasizing that they’re superior to the people they rely on for alms.

 

I’ve had my first taste of Per Se, and it could be my last. This was at a party in Veuve Clicquot’s stunning new offices in the Starrett-Lehigh Building, where pastry chefs from five restaurants were plating desserts to go with the bottomless carafes of demi-sec. When I walked up to the Per Se table, the two young Keller acolytes behind it were determinedly studying super-tiny herb leaves to pluck the closest to perfection for what their sign said was Essence of Spring. I had a spoonful of one little orange mound without quite grasping the flavor and interrupted their mad-scientist intensity to ask: “What makes it spring?”

“What makes it creamy?” one responded distractedly.

“No, what makes it spring?”

“Apricots. And basil.”

But of course. Those are two ingredients you’ll find busting out all over the Greenmarket in March in New York. Even if they were seasonally correct, though, the Essence would taste less of spring than of Old Europe. The texture and the presentation felt as fresh as Escoffier.

 

Front-page news isn’t what it used to be. Case in point was the story about successors to Martha Stewart, all of whom insisted their phones were ringing off the cell with calls for licensing and TV deals. Unfortunately, the reporter drank a little too deeply at the hype pond he was led to. One of the smiling faces above the piece was of a woman who not only had or has products in Bed Bath and Beyond but also presided over a short-lived magazine, with Style in the logo where Living would be after her name. I developed the recipes for “her” Thanksgiving, as a matter of fact. K-Mart, get me rewrite.

 

Now that press agents are finally realizing you can write for a newspaper without moving to the town where it’s published, my mail is getting entertaining again. I just got what I thought was a parody — an invite to the opening party for a restaurant promising “Eastern European Cuisine with a touch of China.” (Isn’t Communism so over?) And another flacking firm tells me it has actually rented out Carnegie Hall (well, Weill Recital Hall, anyway) to promote reduced-fat “cheddars.” You get it, don’t you? “Moo-vements”? I want whatever they’re smoking: Who would bring together a chef from the Sea Grill, a chance to “see the meltability” of the stuff in a music venue and someone from a show called Cooking Thin at a time when protein is in? If they had to despoil a temple of culture, why not go where the fat ladies sing?

 

 

Lost in translation: Penelope on Lexington Avenue calls itself a “comfort station.” It may be meaning to conjure meatloaf and mashed potatoes, but my dictionary says that’s a toilet.

 

More bad ideas in restaurant promotion: A block association that clearly never sees what happens to posters in the subway has made the mistake of hanging a map on a lamppost at the 14th Street/Eighth Avenue exit, asking for write-in recomendations of restaurants in the meatpacking district. When I went by three guys were lined up waiting with pens at 12:30 in the afternoon. As they stepped away laughing, I could see not directions to Pastis or Markt or even Spice Market but vindictive scrawls like “go back to the ’burbs” along with the usual jocular obscenities. Never ask a New Yorker where to go. He’ll tell you.

 

 

While all the right-wing nut cases are haranguing the Spanish for being tapas-eating surrender monkeys, I’ve figured out how to show my support for their throwing their own lying bums out. I’m buying Spanish wines. The Muga Rioja blanco is particularly good if you want to drink to 77 percent voter turnout.

 

 

Dumb things come in small packages. The pocket guide to dim sum that landed on my doorstep is Exhibit A: a missal-size collection of color photos of dishes you might encounter on the rolling carts in a Chinese restaurant. Of the myriad ways to look foolish around Asian food, whipping out a book to try to tell the beef tripe from the shark fin dumpling may be one of the most guaranteed. I couldn’t imagine asking the impatient driver to hold up the cart while I flipped frantically through the pages and pages of explanations. Boning up in advance seems even sillier, since there’s so little chance you’ll find the foods you prepped for (shades of high school science tests). As squeamish as I can be, dim summing in Hong Kong taught me there’s only one solution: point and hope. I actually liked boiled pig’s ear before I understood what it was. Chronicle should do an American fast food guide for the Chinese now. I’d love to see the ingredients in a hot dog laid out so clearly.

 

 

Maybe the secret to life is just showing up. I called Crispo a week in advance for a reservation and was told the only one available all night was at 6. A friend strolled in that evening at 7:30 and was seated immediately. Spice Market tells me the only opening it has for any night for the next month is at 11. And the same friend says the place did not fill up until after 9 when she ate there on a Friday. It reminds me of the old Jerry Della Femina story about a restaurateur who turned away all reservations for the first week or so in business just to make people crazy to get in. There’s no lure like the word no.

 

These are surreal times, and not just because they’re making low-carb ice cream. The other day I overheard a woman getting professional diet counseling in a pizza place, from a guy with two slices and a Coke in front of him.

 

When my lunch date picked up the menu at Stella Osteria, she immediately put it down in dejection. “It’s the same one,” she said. Turned out there were some slight twists, but she was basically right. All the usual tired suspects were there: the same salads, the same pizzas, the same pastas. And I had the same flash I did after stopping to read the lunch menu at the new Landmarc after having just read the one at old Odeon: There must be one central factory somewhere cranking out menus. There’s so little variation anymore. And if you’ve read roast chicken once, you’ve read it a thousand times.

 

 

Amtrak has improved so radically that getting to Washington is probably the best part of the trip (actually, no, that part would be getting home). My Wednesday afternoon Acela was SRO, and I could only wonder why they don’t just add a dozen more cars and turn a profit. Who wouldn’t rather travel without a strip-search at the airport and no bathroom privileges over Shrubya’s air space? Who wouldn’t rather conserve a little oil while kids who joined the Army for college are dying for it? On the ride back to Penn Station, though, I decided Amtrak may be on its own route to profitability. The cafe car now sells a half-bottle of Meridian chardonnay for $8, uncorking included, as an alternative to those little quarter-bottles of shiver wine that have always characterized Metroliner (and airliner) misery. Add another dollar and some real food and David Gunn won’t have to go begging to Congress ever again.

 

 

The Wall Street Journal reports that Chiquita has ’fessed up to paying protection money to terrorists in Colombia, source of 9 percent of its crop. Don’t we have a war on? Or did someone say you’re either with us, or you have no bananas?

 

 

Spice Market is much easier to get into for lunch, but daylight is not kind to the room — as my art director friend said: “It looks like Pier One.” At least the bathrooms have a whiff of authenticity. My other lunchmate said her stall “smelled like Southeast Asia.” A toilet seat was yanked loose in another stall. And not only did one sink have an out of order sign on it but the supply closet was open with a stack of more cards, a hint that the problem might be not be an aberration. I don’t know from bars in Bangkok, but you expect a little nicer from Jean-Georges.

 

 

Sometimes when you know the chef you get gefilte fish (a special; don’t ask). And sometimes you just get weird stuff.

 

Two friends and I are finishing up a very long dinner when the chef ambles across the nearly empty dining room and asks: “Who’s lonely and horny?” We laugh uncertainly and he wedges himself onto the banquette and proceeds to regale us with tales so far out of the kitchen you wonder what planet you’re drinking on. Suffice it to say that the story of his wrestling days when he had to go body to body with an opponent “with a dick as long as a stethoscope” was the least of it all. It was bizarrely amusing, especially with comped ice wine to wash it down, but maybe that’s only because it was the capper to an evening that started with an old man leaning over constantly to ask, “Are you girls going to eat all that?” and peaked with another old man accompanied by three bosom-enhanced bimbettes nearly croaking on a shoestring fry and getting Heimliched by Breasts No. 3 (“She’s a nurse,” the headwaiter later told us — not mentioning a nurse in “Debbie Does the Ward”). No wonder “Chef’s Theater” is bombing. You can get dinner and a show anytime if you know who’s cooking.

 

 

Gotham has never been one of my favorite restaurants, but the birthday party it threw itself was a rousing testament to why it’s reached the ripe age of 20 in a business notorious for abbreviated life spans. The usual huge bar was supplemented by two others pouring limitless pink Champagne while waiters with the agility of tightrope walkers were moving through the room with trays loaded with ambitious hors d’oeuvres (baby octopus, Kobe beef with onion rings), and unlike at so many parties, they were able to get five steps beyond the kitchen doorway without locusts descending, so the food just kept coming, from all directions. Someone said 800 people were either invited or attending, and it was hard not to conjure images of the Happyland Social Club (although with worse music and dancers — the “I Will Survive” vocalist and band were the only misstep). At least that made it easy to wriggle past the snubbers (and be relieved you will never again have to suffer a sloppy kiss from the mad cow husband of one in particular) and easier still to move from conversation to conversation with fun people, like Andre Soltner, sweating his Broadway debut, and Drew Nieporent, wondering which guest was Frank Bruni, and Peter Poulakakos, escorting his dad Harry and talking of his own expanding empire. My two favorite moments, though, transpired when a couple of guys with those bizarre bug eyes that can only come from legal drugs found each other across the crowded room and were soon deep in conversation about . . . Claritin, and when one of the contortionist waiters was jostled while holding a tray with a bowlful of silver forks high over his head. It was like a scene out of “Kill Bill,” but in true Gotham style, he let the entire set shower tine-first over his forehead without so much as a flinch, then, as his compatriots dove to pick up the mess, he calmly touched his face to be sure no blood was spattering his crisp white shirt and glided on his professional way. Now that’s a waiter. Give the place 20 more years.

 

 

Okay, so it’s not the paper of record, and only its readers think it is. So why do its news pages persist in erroneously explaining the obvious (guy in Mexico hacks up a friend and turns him into tamales: “a popular dish of chopped meat wrapped in a softened corn husk”)? Or spelling out the wrong role for a spice (turmeric is not “the principal ingredient of curry” — wouldn’t that be ginger or cumin or mustard seeds)? Coming soon: The Judy Blair Cookbook (or should it be the Jayson Miller Yellow Cake Mix Doctor?)

 

 

Dead men tell no recipes: Food Emporium is now carrying a line of Ernest Hemingway marinades. The brand appeal eludes me, but at least the tacky marketers have shown a modicum of taste. None of the four sauces are hot enough to be labeled suicidal.

 

 

Reports of the death of French dominance are greatly exaggerated. No one in New York seems able to report on the closing of Lutece without nattering about the decline of the Gallic empire. But isn’t just about every top restaurant in the city French? Can you say Daniel or Jean Georges or Le Bernardin or even awful Chanterelle? What does Thomas Keller cook that doesn’t owe its origins to Escoffier? Even the second-rung places shamelessly ape old Paris: Artisanal, Balthazar, Pastis, the new Cassis. Quenelles may be over, but we’ll always have gougeres.

 

 

The other absurdity of all the overwrought obituaries was the reflexive interviewing of a “restaurant consultant” who really should be identified for what he is: a quote whore. Curious about exactly what restaurants he consults on these days, I Googled his web site, and I’m happy to report that he actually may be the best go-to there is on the subject of restaurants that swim with the codfish. Two of the most prominent names on his client list are the Russian Tea Room and Sign of the Dove. Now there’s a track record.

 

The other favorite quote ho of lazy reporters came through with this brilliance on Gage & Tollner: “I think it’s very sad. There aren’t that many restaurants that go back to 1879.” Who outside the Oval Office could have given such a scintillating insight? I could see it in quotes in the Zagat, as a matter of fact.

 

Lutece, to me, has been a dead restaurant limping for years. Maybe if anyone but engulf-and-devour Ark, the Disney of dining, had bought it it might have had a second life (imagine a Wylie Dufresne in that minuscule kitchen), but the place was really the chef. Gage & Tollner is a much harder loss, and not just because there aren’t that many restaurants that go back to 1879. I ate there for a story for the Times right after 9/11, and it was magical at a moment when the city itself seemed on the brink of disappearing. The gaslights were glowing, the wood was gleaming, the waiter wore a coat with decades’ worth of service ribbons (someone else’s, it turned out, but impressive nonetheless) and the food was far better than it had any right to be. The place was also so packed we had to eat at a cramped little table in the bar, which is why it may be one of the few restaurants not to blame 9/11 for its fate. I’m sorry it’s gone, and I’ll be sorrier still to see it turned into an Outhouse Steakback like the rest of New York. Maybe we should all go eat at Keen’s and Bridge Cafe while we still can.

 

Dining, get me Metro: Having served two sentences at the Times, I should never be surprised when one section apparently hasn’t talked to the other (or when even the staff hasn’t read the thing). But it was still pretty funny to come across the Union Pacific review wondering whether Rocco the Wonderboy wasn’t spending too much time on the set he calls a restaurant after having just read an article saying he was being sued for . . . not spending enough time on the set he calls a restaurant.

 

These are tough times for foie gras. First California proposed a ban on the production and sale of engorged livers, on the ground that forced feeding is “an inhumane way to be dealing with our fine-feathered friends,” to quote an addled lawmaker who probably went off happily to a Perdue chicken dinner without a second thought of the scarifying conditions 59-cent-a-pound fryers are raised in all over the country. And then Madrid chef Sergi Arola came to New York with a tapa that can only be described as an inhumane way to be treating guests at a Spanish wine and food event at the Rainbow Room. He was sending out cubes of foie gras enrobed in cotton candy. The experience was like liverwurst at a county fair, just before the roller-coaster. Even this Mrs. Sprat would almost vote to ban the stuff after that.

 

 

No wonder the Times is taking its strange time choosing a new restaurant reviewer. The gossip I heard at a press lunch promoting Australian food was enough to make any employer quail. There’s the notoriously pretentious food writer who “never eats — or if he does, he purges.” There’s the venerable reviewer who went vegetarian for a spell and let his boyfriend pass judgment on all meat items. There’s the legendarily caustic British reviewer who can drink nothing stronger than coffee anymore. There are the two magazine critics who, if a self-anointed “visionary” flack is to be believed, allow a restaurant to designate which of them will weigh in. But the greatest sinner, according to a big restaurateur contributing to the dish, is the kind of critic who takes a poll of other eaters before dissing or praising a place. And apparently they’re as common as cockroaches.

 

Read “The Pedant in the Kitchen” and you’ll see why the rumors about Julian Barnes as the new critic were so absurd. Real writers write.

 

In a week when you couldn’t open a paper, turn on the radio or click on pol porn without your head spinning faster than Linda Blair’s over the bald-faced BS on WMDs coming out of the Bush bunker, it was still stunning to come across this lead, and not in the Onion: “With panic over avian influenza crippling the chicken industry in Asia and fear over mad cow disease in the United States sending beef eaters to the poultry department, the time may never be better to be an American chicken producer.”

Up really is down in this country these days.

The story went on to detail — as uncritically as a press release, of course — all the amazing innovations on display at a poultry trade show in Atlanta. They ranged from a machine that could shoot antibiotics into 3,500 birds an hour to an advanced recovery system that extracts everything but the cheep from a flock of chickens (especially the foul parts that can be fed to . . . cows).

I hate to rain on the fecal parade, but chickens are scary. I grew up with them in the backyard. Even as free-range as those were, eating their fill of whatever worms and bugs they could find, they are always risky business. Raise them in a factory and you take your health in your own hands. Does the word salmonella ring a bell? How about campylobacter, the leading cause of food poisoning in the United States, the bacteria the CDC says is found in more than half of all chickens? Does the world really need the kind of machine that will do for chickens what the mad cow strippers have done for beef?

But then I guess if Americans can lull ourselves into lassitude over a president lying about so much more than a little lip service, we can certainly delude ourselves into thinking commercial chicken is homeland secure. The only good news is that mad cow takes forever. Campylobacter is quick and dirty.

 

Just when I was starting to lose faith in food as art, with a new dinner theater/circus act announced seemingly every week, along comes “Kitchen Stories.” This small Norwegian film has more to say in its own quiet, lyrical, beautifully styled way than any Broadway production ever could. And it does so by staying true to the essence of food as so much more than nourishment.

 

 

That spinning sound is Orwell in his underground bunker: Just when you think Bushco can’t get any more desperate to skew reality, along comes a proposal to change the description of fast food jobs from “service” to “manufacturing.” Finally admitting burgers are factory food is a step forward. But who ever walks into McDonald’s and says, “Make me a cheeseburger”? (Or even, “Make me fat?”) If you take jobs out of column A and put them in column C, you still wind up short a couple of million. Maybe the Village Person in Chief should dress up in a Burger King jacket and stand in front of a “making the economy healthy” sign and see if anyone salutes.

neolithic bites

August 2007

One good thing about leaving the country these days: you can safely suspend your subscription to one big newspaper, sure in the knowledge that you’ll find the same same old in the food pages no matter when you get back. Carbs? Still over. Betty Crocker? Still mythic. Editorial idiocy? Still fathomless.

While the ideologues work themselves into a lather over Sandra Day O’Connor’s successor, I keep thinking about her next decision. If she has any sense, it will be 9-0, write a cookbook. Her enchiladas are renowned, and her law clerks were just on NPR swooning over the other Southwestern food she always made for them. Given how grossly underrepresented our home state is in bookstores, she could cross a whole new frontier, complete with TV show: “Justice in the Kitchen.” Soon enough, you know that will be a woman’s place again anyway.

Maybe I’m hopelessly cynical, but I don’t quite get how a bunch of carefree first-worlders partying on does anything tangible for the starving in Africa. Did no one think to pass a tin cup around at any of those Live 8 concerts? Anyone who marched against the Prevaricator in Chief’s war without end knows governments don’t listen to anything but fat checks and oil interests. To steal from Thelonious, singing against hunger is like dancing about architecture.

 

And did no one else notice how all this sudden Africa activism overlapped with the great feast days of America’s obscene new sport, competitive eating? July 4 now means it’s open season for world-championship gorging on hot dogs and pasta. Snap your fingers every three seconds if you find anything redeeming about gluttony in a time of famine.

 

 

Mocking our hometown paper feels increasingly like kicking a half-blind paraplegic, but some idiocies just can’t go unremarked. The one about the widening dearth of cheap restaurants in Manhattan was the latest jaw-dropper, flawed on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin (Bar Patti, you say?) Basing the economic “analysis” on Zagat rather than on prices in the paper’s own published reviews made my mind reel, almost as much as the complaining that a couple just can’t get out of a $25 & Under joint for $50 even with tap water instead of wine (untold millions of readers have been saying that for years, never having been informed by those in charge that the $25 refers only to two courses, no extries). And the carping about ethnic going upscale was particularly inane, not just because Devi is to Sixth Street as Rosa Mexicano was to Del Taco when it opened. Holding up Spartina as the lost ark also sounded bizarre without context. Does no one else remember an ill-advised uptown expansion and overextended chef? Greedy landlords aren’t the only villains in any piece. Maybe the whole thing was nothing more than it came off as, yet another pathetic defense of exile to Brooklyn. But I’ll still take Manhattan. And a pound of salt with my daily paper.

 

 

 

Look for a fair amount of coverage of a new restaurant opening over a car showroom in the Hamptons. It’s ferrying Manhattan stenographers out by Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Porsche for the press party, which should get it faster notice than Regional managed (blurbed in Time Out May 26, written up in both “dailies” a month after I first ate there). As for me, I’d rather take the AirTrain through Brooklyn than spend half my day on the LIE, even for a free meal with “unique Italian cocktails.” What part of oxymoronic does that phrase express best?

 

 

Maybe I’ve bitched my last about restaurants being too cheap to hire enough waiters and expecting mono-lingual busboys to pick up the slack. I now see there’s a bigger service issue. Some places have either no manager or the incompetent kind.

 

The latter was on full display at Pace, where we arrived 15 minutes early for a 9 o’clock reservation on a Friday night and were told by the two chirpy hostesses, “We’re right on schedule for 9 o’clock” even though several tables were empty on the sidewalk and I counted 13 deserted in the dining room — “We have people waiting for those.” Rather than join the lost souls languishing at the bar, we left the happy ho’s and walked over to the Harrison. Where the guy at the door immediately offered us a table in the bar that would have been fine. But the host he handed us off to said, “Wait a minute, we have something better,” and led us to a table by the window. And within minutes we had menus, bread and even wine and were on our way to a superb meal. The only thing that marred it was having to keep marveling how the same owners could create such radically different experiences.

 

Our attempt to try the new cafe at IFC was even more unnerving. Three of us stopped by around 9 on a Thursday after the resonant “Me and You and Everyone We Know” and found the room empty aside from two women at the long bar who had a bartender hunched over a menu with them. We meandered in, walked to the back of the room to check out the tent outside, looked around slowly at the sleek decor, scrounged at the service area to find a menu, read it over — and then meandered on out. Not once did any of the four guys in staff T-shirts even glance in our general direction. I started to say the Harrison should send one of its hosts over to Pace, but maybe this place needs one even more desperately. Name chefs don’t mean a thing if prospective patrons are fleeing across Sixth Avenue to the very busy Bellavitae to drink two bottles of wine and eat gnoccho frito as good as in Parma.

 

 

Who knew the “show me” state is really the “feed me” destination? Missouri is running a rather unfortunate tourism campaign focused on “world-renowned” barbecue and toasted ravioli etc. Considering most people who ever land in St. Louis come away stunned at how huge the human condition can get, you have to wonder at the geniuses who chose not just to emphasize the gruesome but even to suggest visitors “come back for seconds.” Just thinking of it I’m feeling fat — and not in the wallet.

At the risk of winding up on Karl the Antichrist’s enemies list of more than half the country, I have to say it’s too bad peace is not a fad nutrient. Judging by the multipage blur of advertising and editorial for whole grains in USA Weekend, the big bucks thrown at promoting the noble cause of bringing the troops home would be so irresistible that journalists would have to start reporting on just how good stopping the waste of lives — American and Iraqi — would be for the health of this country. But I guess Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats are a much more serious inspiration for stories.

Usually an ingredient is newsworthy when it has such distinctive flavor it needs nothing but a fork to appreciate. So what to make of a quarter-pound of one that is best cooked with five (5) cloves of sliced garlic, a cup (1 cup) of sliced onion and a weirdly dainty tablespoon of pine nuts, not to mention a finishing splash of balsamic vinegar? The only thing missing was half a pound of foie gras and a little truffle oil to bring out the exquisite underlying taste. Someone must have been thinking of that old stone soup recipe, but I guess the snoot markets with checkbooks don’t carry rocks at $16 a pound.

 

 

You know you’ve lived in New York too long when you’re happy to see a Sam Hazen operation open, at least when it means a seemingly indestructible grossness is finally gone. I never understood how Charlie O’s in Shubert Alley could stay in business when I managed to serve two sentences just a block away without ever having more than one drink (not even a meal) there. Tourists must be more transient than anyone ever knew. But after picking up our TKTS (did you know nonmusicals are now labeled with a P on the LED board?), we made our way to Bolzano’s for a quick drink and walked into what can only be described as rosemary Sensurround with popcorn. Seriously. The place has a popcorn machine at the door, and the food seems to be herby-lusty to the max. I might even go back, considering the bartender was hyper-efficient, the wines were good at good prices and I’d never see those people pushing around their meatballs again.

 

Long ago I decided Americans in SUVs are really the new dinosaurs: little tiny brains in great big bodies. But now I’ve noticed the label on my Hain canola bottle warns: “All oil will burn if overheated. If oil smokes, reduce heat.” Even we mentally superior pedestrians are an endangered species if we need that advice.

 

I walk into a book party and there’s no ID inspector, just a chirpy young culinary student who instantly offers “a glass of Champagne.” Of course, I say, and ask: “What kind is it?” She stammers as she tugs a bottle out of the ice bath to show me the label, admitting, “I’m not sure. I can’t pronounce it.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her it’s easy. It’s “prosecco.”

 

I like Zardetto. Just call it what it is.

 

(Things have been worse, though: Four of us ordered prosecco in a bar in Pollenzo and were actually served Freixenet. Insult to injury: in glasses etched with the logo. At least it came with the traditional Italian potato chips.)

 

 

Menupages.com used to seem like the greatest innovation since the internet itself. Who needs that bogus Zagat when there’s a cyber-gazetteer with not just addresses and phone numbers but hours and actual menus? Unfortunately, it’s starting to ruin my life, if not what remains of my reputation. Whenever I have to choose a restaurant to meet a friend, especially one who does not eat with abandon for a living, I come down with paralysis of analysis, flipping through menu after menu and agonizing over prices and entrees and then mentally factoring in ambience. And inevitably, I order wrong.

 

Case in point: I need a place for Saturday lunch/hangover rehabilitation somewhere between the Greenmarket and the Port Authority. My instinct says Mesa Grill, one of the few possibilities where real food is served at evil brunchtime. But menupages brings up $13 eggs. I worry my up-from-DC friend will freak, so, with Southwestern on my mind, I remember Rocking Horse, where the online menu looks as if it has everything, and reasonable. I wind up paying $11 for eggs. Bad eggs. And he pays $13 for three teeny tacos, with fish laid into them apparently with tweezers. The music is annoying, the waiter even more so. And I can’t apologize enough for choosing it. I could not have done worse if I had relied on Panchito.

 

Food Arts used to have some of the most stunning covers on select newsstands — I can still see the Dean & Deluca one, and that was at least 15 years ago. But lately they’ve been going by in a literal blur. I keep studying the newest, allegedly illustrating “a toast to the American table,” and trying to discern what the fuzzy art means when only a water pitcher is in focus, and in the lower left corner at that (my point-and-shoot does a better job of finding the point to shoot for). Someone needs to invest in what a friend saw a woman following into Book Expo: a Seeing Eye pony. And somehow I don’t think it’s the readers.

 

Press release writers struggling for hyper-superlatives often stumble over words like penultimate (no, it’s not beyond the best). The latest popped up in an announcement of a winery trip that included a stop to buy a farmstand’s “infamous” pies. Apparently Sweeney Todd lives, way the hell out on Long Island.

 

When I served time in Iowa, on my first “real” newspaper job, we never wrote about the corn crop until we made an expedition out to a few farms with a photographer to get a gauge of how things were coming along. And even then we knew a tornado could wipe out every field in four counties. But life is much more predictable here in the big city. Reporters can be certain the best corn last year will be just as good this summer. Ditto for the tomatoes and berries. Obviously, when olive cafes can be photographed with customers before they even open, what newspaper needs to wait around for news?

 

That old saying about vino and veritas is ringing truer than ever. I always knew Holy Foods had a streak of Enron in it, and the forced closing of its wine shop has finally brought it to the surface. Selling booze in a New York supermarket, even the noblest supermarket, had to be patently illegal. I’m no fan of the moronic liquor laws in this state, but it’s nice to know everyone has to play by the same rules, even the Texas chain gang enshrined in the mall.

 

Some menu writers should quit while they’re ahead. At Jovi’s in Buffalo, one of the seafood items was “stuffed orange roughly.” The pork chops could be “grilled to temperature.” And the lasagne was described as “an Italian classic that needs no description.” But I guess I shouldn’t have expected precision from a place that calls itself an Italian Grille and does not mean the front end of a Ferrari.

 

The best hotel in Buffalo — and one of the best anywhere I’ve ever been — is still struggling with the most important meal of the day. For our last stay at the wondrous Mansion on Delaware Avenue, the usual diabetics’ morning nightmare had gone stale. For three days I tried sugary pastry after bagel after pastry and felt more like a geologist than a hedonist. And with no comment cards, there was no delicate way of suggesting to the owners: If you can’t cut it with a knife, it might be time to retire it. One morning I was waiting for my consort by the fire in the billiards room where breakfast is laid out and overheard an animated managerial conversation about how important presentation is with food. But having spent two days loitering in a funeral home, I can assure you: no amount of edible flowers will ever bring ossified Danish back to life. Buy Entenmann’s for the long haul or buy fresh every day. Spare us the perky daisies.

 

 

Long Island might as well be the dark side of the moon to me, especially the farthest tip of it. I’ve been out there almost less often than I’ve eaten at Daniel, or Babbo. So I was happy to find myself not the only one totally discombobulated on a field trip way the LIE hell out to Satur Farms. Several of the chefs from top Manhattan restaurants who were also trooping between the plowed furrows and under the irrigation sprinklers all wanted to see the white asparagus growing — only to be repeatedly told it was under mounds of dirt. At least I knew enough to understand that if you saw it, it would be green.

 

Whatever else I might brave Fairway for, it’s not cardoons. It’s been about 20 years since produce was the strong suit there; I usually make three or four stops on the way home, cherry-picking other markets for perfection. So if you’re gonna hate a place, hate it for the right reasons. It attracts nasty, nasty ancient bitches who see themselves as the second coming. It attracts oblivious moms with double-wide strollers ferrying the Baby Jesus. Neither of them can drive. And they are loose not in a store but a maze. Hostility happens. On the whole, though, you always know you’re not shopping in Kansas, and everything is so cheap you’re saving the price of a cab ride there and back. So what kind of fool would go to 74th and Broadway looking for the Bell’s seasoning that’s sold everywhere dust collects? Oh, right. A wit-free one apparently paid by the word.

 

 

I read about it in the gossip columns, but why the news was placed there is almost a gossip item in itself. David Bouley’s new bakery has opened, wires still hanging, plastic dropcloths still thrown, painters still unfinished. I wandered in since I was already heading for Blue Moon’s fish at the Tribeca Greenmarket, and I walked out nearly $10 lighter even though I was already carrying fresh bread. (For the record, the small loaf of saffron-walnut bread for $7 outshone the $2.40 half-loaf of Viennoise studded with chunks of good chocolate — the former was more like brioche, the latter more like a long doughy roll.) But at a time when a certain gray daily and a frenetically colorful weekly routinely run the same openings on the same Wednesdays, it seemed odd to read about a four-star chef’s expansion alongside the latest anorectic exploits of the half-stars in the Daily News on a Friday. And that could be why the place was packed and nearly depleted by midday Saturday.

 

 

We get the Wine Enthusiast because we go through so much Illy these days we’ve run out of other free bonus subscriptions. But one month it was actually worth four paid magazines — the cover was so silly it belongs on the Onion. The photo over “Wine in the Wild” shows the backs of a couple of guys (bartender and patron? great white-and-black hunters? master and?) facing an extremely fuzzy elephant off in the distance, one that looks like something Stevie Wonder would have Photoshopped in. Worse, the “bar” in front of them is dominated by bright yellow cans of tonic and a big bottle of Gordon’s gin. Only if you look hard will you spot the lone bottle of wine, and its label might as well be Villa Sbobba. I know how hard it is to try to illustrate the impossible, but the only thing worse than using handout art would have been hand-tinting that elephant pink.

 

 

Great moments in lavishly produced PR: The new Aquavit newsletter does a faux-fawning interview with a back waiter and never explains what the hell a back waiter does. (I actually thought it said black waiter at first and thought: Even those publicity hounds wouldn’t dare.)

 

 

Maybe I misheard this on Marketplace, but one of the many slippery things Krispy (Blame Low-Carb Diets) Kreme apparently did in baking its books was dispense doughnuts to outlets on consignment. Which was a little risky with a product that coagulates into something foul in less time than it takes a souffle to fall. It’s just too bad the accountants and marketers were in charge rather than food people. A savvy baker would have turned all those returned doughballs into KK-brand bread pudding faster than you can say salad bar. Then again, if food visionaries had been running the show, the doughnuts would have been edible.

 

 

Rosa Mexicano and I have had a love-hate affair since Day One in the incarnation across from Lincoln Center. Even when the food is good the place always treats me badly, and I just keep coming back for more. This time, though, I asked to sit downstairs at lunch in my compromised situation, and the payoff was exceptional service and the best meal I have ever eaten there. With one bite of the crab empanadas I was transported back to Arizona — something about the dough and/or the seasoning evoked my childhood the way nothing has in eons. And they were not only masterfully engineered but also paired with excellent sauces: mango, tomatillo, mole, habanero. Enchiladas suizas with cheese were nearly as good as the ones across town at the much less ambitious El Paso Taqueria. The cappuccino was faultless; the Chilean sauvignon blanc was a generous pour.

 

The waiter, when I asked, said that the chef was new but the menu was about to change, which I took for a good thing. And then a woman in a pink chef’s jacket came out to eat and talk with a suit a couple of tables away, and soon I was overhearing phrases like “roasted duck breast with sweet potato-ancho mash” and realizing our relationship was heading right where it began. Just when I find Mexican food true to my soul, the border crossing to Fusion, Anywhere, begins.

 

 

 

With my consort off in Sicily (and not in a Sheraton), I’ve been easing my sorrow at being too much of a crip to travel by burning through a few strata of the mountain of books and galleys stacked up on my desk. I’m so far behind that I only just caught up with the last two chapters of Mireille Guiliano’s French RX, but that inspired me to pick up “The Diet,” a slick production with a wannabe-sexy cover that could have been designed by Ben F. in her cap. At first I was turning pages in fascination at how such an obvious vanity publication could get published — the thing read like a Good Housekeeping short story, with some chapters weighing in at half a page or less, and with a narrative that was as captivating as it was unbelievable: skinny cooking teacher with fat mom gets book contract and blimps out, losing baby, husband, self-esteem, etc. etc., only to win the world and a flat stomach through the usual four-letter regime. Nothing but the food rang true. Somewhere in that inflated book was a slim novel struggling to get out. And I can’t believe I read the whole thing.

 

 

As if a vegetable-rights circus to make PETA look tame down in Florida was not horrific enough, my French friend who puts faith in Bordeaux as the stuff of life pointed out something really chilling: The NYT review of “Mondovino” had it rated PG-13 partly for “scenes of wine drinking.” I guess “Sideways” offered enough sex ’n’ swearing to keep the fundamentalists distracted from the most serious sin. And now I’m half-sorry I missed “Passion” — maybe the worst thing in it was not the bloody violence but the imbibing. Last Suppers are notorious.

 

 

One of the givens of writing about food is that so much of it will be given. We don’t call the literal handouts freebies, though. They’re “press tastings,” and half of what you read comes out of them in one way or another. As a happy indulger I never realized there were ethics tangled up in the loophole until Braden Keil laid out a strange little story on how “eyebrows were raised” when a restaurant critic showed up at the trough at Koi. Only “industry writers and editors” should have been freelunchers, he dutifully reported. You know, the ones who are paid to be objective. No wonder food journalism will always be a ghetto. If not an oxymoron.

 

 

 

If anything good comes out of the Rocky Horror Chili Show at Wendy’s, maybe it will be the end of chicken fingers on fast food menus. Diners will only want the real thing, right down to the manicured tip. (I have to say I was more empathetic to the purported victim before she started giving out her name and interviews. I’m still shell-shocked from the long black hair I extracted from my refried beans at Gabriela’s, and that was in the early Nineties at least. Why compound it by being publicly tagged as the digital diner?)

 

 

 

Of all the arguments against home schooling, the most powerful came clear to me on a misguided foray into the dread TWC: Sitting out collective seventh grade leaves you totally unprepared for a Rande Gerber bar.

 

My education was inflicted on the late afternoon when a friend I can never see enough of persuaded me to meet her at Stone Rose for an early drink. I got there first, feeling my soul seeping out onto every set of escalators up to the fourth floor, and was immediately shown to what seemed like a great table in a pretty deserted room, right near the big windows overlooking Columbus Circle and the park. When the next table was filled by a large (to put it euphemistically) couple and the one after that with geriatrics, I realized my crutch and so-last-century face had been strategically hidden away behind a curving wall that essentially formed a reject pod. Since I’m the one paying with the gold card, though, it bothered me much less than getting abused in an Arizona schoolyard ever did. I just reverted to adolescence, pointing out that the robotic waitresses had perfect-20 bodies but faces seemingly lifted off Joan Rivers. Maybe they spend too much time corroding their self-esteem in the bathroom, where the lighting would make the most gorgeous kid look straight out of Edgar Allan Poe (and where the attendants are so superior they do not acknowledge tips).

 

Three more reasons to do your drinking at street level: I settled for “Calloway” sauvignon blanc for $12 a glass, about the cheapest choice, while bottles were far, far pricier than five glasses, I guess to discourage anyone from ordering anything involving a corkscrew and real service. The bar snack was goldfish pretzels, something the cheesiest airline would be embarrassed to hand out. And the apple martini came with a slice of apple seemingly out of science fiction, with a taste, my friend said, to match.

 

As we left, a little before 8, we stuck our unimproved noses into the other gems in the collection. V the Steakhouse was all but deserted for a throbbing bordello. Per Se looked corporate cold. And the bar at Masa was empty. Calling Charlie Trotter. . . .

 

 

 

At a time when the whole world seems to be on the same itinerary (Destination: Hell; Carrier: Handbasket), reading the Wall Street Journal can be downright unnerving. Forget Social Security and Iraq and anything having to do with a Chimp who finally found a reason to interrupt a vacation (pandering to even smaller brains). The real ticket-to-extinction stuff is back in the soft pages, in stories like the one on appliances coming soon to a counter near you. In great detail, it described a fondue fountain that spews cheese, chocolate and ranch dressing (and never answered the obvious question: who would be too lazy to dip carrot sticks?) Worse, with kids growing to hippo size by kindergarten, it touted an electronic pet (animal-shaped refrigerator) that essentially wags its tail every time the door is opened so treats can be extracted. Bad enough you can’t lie on the couch in this country without getting cues to eat. Why not invent a food dispenser that outdogs Pavlov?

 

 

 

I suspected Maureen Dowd was losing her beautiful mind when she swore the Chimp winked at her (didn’t she realize he was aiming at Helen Thomas in the seat behind her?) But now I’m convinced, after skimming her take on a resort in a bubble in Mexico where she complains she couldn’t get laid. I mean get nachos. We can only hope Travel never ships her off to Shanghai to let her waste a few thousand words on how hard it is to find chop suey.

 

Bad judgment in travel prevails in a certain newsroom, though. Is that a durian on the silly T cover or are they just happy to see us too scared to fly?

 

Now I know why Metropol gets mentions only for its design, which has pretty effectively wiped out every charming trace of the old La Metairie. A friend and I walked in a little after noon on Saturday and were seated instantly, under all the clocks, with one menu and one wine list. And there we sat, ignored, for a good 10 minutes, watching as one guy eating alone finished his meal and everyone around us just waited, and waited, for theirs. None of the stylized creatures from the crypt bumbling around the room seemed aware of us, or of the kitchen, for that matter. And as I suspected, no one even noticed when we put on our jackets and walked back out. Note to McNally wannabes: Without some teeny semblance of food and service, you can’t call it a restaurant.

 

 

 

More proof that there are no new stories, only new reporters: Newsweek discovers crudo. It’s “Italian for sushi.” So that explains the risotto it’s served on.

 

 

 

Jayson Blair at least had an excuse (well, several, actually). But it’s hard to figure why any other byline in that credibility-challenged publication would think a story on the Greenmarket and corporate groceries could be reported without traversing Union Square. But I guess it was valuable to hear what a farmer sitting by the phone waiting for his tomato and chile seeds to sprout would have to say about the invasion of packaged produce right now.

 

NPR, which has really hit the skids lately, was just as reflexively lame on the nonstory. The whole idea that an overpriced, overrated, soul-free supermarket would cut into the Greenmarket’s unparalleled interactive shopping is beyond absurd. Even addressing that idea reveals how little “reporters” understand the experience. But at least now consumers can see why the anti-Gristedes never has to advertise. The Jeff Gannons of food will give it endless space for free.

 

The saddest part of the tempest in an espresso cup is that the larger issue was never addressed. In a week when the oiliest Senate in our lifetime pretty much sold the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off to environmental rapists, no one was hammering how complicit industrial organic shoppers are in the evil. New Yorkers at least have a choice: Buy what’s trucked and flown in from who knows where, or, as much as you can, support suppliers growing close to home. Maybe I’m a softie, but I prefer my eggs without the miles.

 

 

 

Don’t judge the unfortunately named Absolute magazine by its advertorialesque cover. There’s actually meat inside, particularly the exquisite photo story on the Cloud Room gone to ruins in the Chrysler Building. But the editors also get serious points for hiring the illustrious (and certifiably liquor-savvy) Stanley Bing to evaluate Caviar & Banana. Imagine, a restaurant critic who’s intentionally hilarious.

 

 

Caroline Miller’s old workplace, by contrast, takes the high school clique road to rating New York’s best restaurants. The same few effete places are mentioned over and over, by half a dozen palates. A self-referential headline on “the best new restaurants that aren’t Masa or Per Se” just rubs the insider-rating in. Should friends really be rah-rahing friends in print? Sacred cows get awfully hard to swallow on second and third tout.

 

 

Despite some poor fool’s obsession with carbs, restaurants just keep plugging away trying to avoid yesterday’s boogeyfoods. At Bricco, the special soup was earnestly described as “carrot, potato-based, no cream.” All it needed was a transfatty Girl Scout cookie to hit all misguided bases.

 

 

Just when we’re getting over our confusion over what color saffron is (hint: it’s not the yellow in risotto milanese any more than beef is the gray it turns when cooked), the marketing brains at Oxo have come up with a 21st-century answer to Avocado for a new spatula. They call it Pesto. And I see it turning black.

One of the most surreal experiences ever in my own home was the party a French friend and I threw together years ago, after some debauched night out when we thought it would be amusing to have all our other friends meet. Everything about it was disorienting, starting with the boldface Gascon who suggested I “take the garlic out of the guacamole and put it in the brandade.” Mostly the French were French and the English-as-a-first-language guests just talked among themselves; one who went too far in articulating his Francophilia wound up with a glass of wine over his head. The last thing I remember was standing with my friends in the dining room watching her friends in the living room: on their feet, arms pumping, bellowing out martial-sounding anthems.

 

It all came back to me at another party, the one D’Artagnan gave at Capitale to celebrate 20 years in the ultimate luxury goods business. The thing started out feeling like a bad Jewish wedding, with one long line for the food (until everyone figured out there were multiple tables and it was not bad form to lunge in and grab rillettes or foie gras or cassoulet) and lame singers (were they really doing the Monkees, a fake band playing a fake band’s songs?) But the wine and Champagne and goodwill were flowing, and I only left when it started feeling like my living room, with the dance floor cleared and a huge throng going nationalistic on our asses. No wonder French women don’t get hangovers. It’s hard to drink while belting.

 

The best part of the night was actually my excursion to the facilities, as it so often is in France. Because I can’t do stairs, a guard pointed me to the handicapped stalls at the entrance, which turned out to be blocked by the table handling the press list. The man and woman behind it were seriously annoyed when I asked them to let me pass, even arguing, as I stood there on crutches, that there were other bathrooms. When I came out and said thank you, the woman acted as if I had farted in her general direction. I couldn’t decide if they were more pissed over the inconvenience or over realizing they were so important they were parked in the unloading zone.

 

 

Easily the creepiest ad campaign right now is the one for Sanfaustino, a bottled water from Italy with calcium as its claim to the American market. Maybe I’ve spent too much time looking at X-rays of my own bones lately, but a skeleton does not connote health to me. It makes drinking the stuff come off like a deal with the devil.

 

 

Sad how mad cow disease is becoming just another terror warning. A second infected cow is found and everyone yawns as if Tom Ridge has stepped up to the microphone again. Beef: It’s the real red alert.

 

 

My expectation that motherhood might choke off the metaphor reflex in a certain restaurant reviewer is gone. She’s back with a big one: Funky shrimp soup “left me pug-nosed.” I thought only Dan Baker could do that.

 

My new hope is that she doesn’t venture over to try a particular dish at the restaurant in the Steve Cuozzo review, the one with the headline that could have been drafted by his competition: Greecey Swoon. Having been raised on deer meat, I can think of few ingredients scarier than venison cheeks. Even if they’re from the hindquarter.

 

New motto for another food section: We can’t tell gingkos from Shinola.

 

 

With the smell still seeping out of the James Beard House, you would think the new award category to be opened up next spring with great fanfare would be Accountant of the Year. But no, it’s “outstanding restaurateur” — or, as cynics would see it, just another craven prize to rope big players in to keep the logs rolling.

 

 

Fresh Direct is a funny phenomenon: I can’t tell if it’s a convenience or a cult. No one ever wants to hear any doubts about the sense of delivering a few groceries in a small forest’s worth of cardboard boxes while a huge truck idles outside blasting through gas. I used it once in desperation in my earliest days of being apartmentbound but now would prefer to cab to Zabar’s and Fairway to pick out my own food and let Food City walk my staples over in brown paper bags. Which now seems like not such a bad strategy, given the case of the Fresh Direct driver just sentenced for calling customers and threatening to rape them. You have to wonder what kind of company would hire a guy who thought it was fun to harass its core clientele and who knew exactly where those women lived. This gives sinister new meaning to Fresh.

 

 

With California artichokes flying in at 99 cents apiece and asparagus at $1.99 a pound, the story all New York was dying to see had to be a premature prostration to National Frozen Food Month. But any idiot knows the best way to get real red pepper flavor in February is to buy the roasted kind. And any self-proclaimed omni-cook who would even think of suggesting frozen rutabaga has to be written off as the Million-Dollar Booby.

 

 

Three times recently I’ve crutched from PT on the Bumble & Bumble block to 86th and Lex or Madison without passing a single place where I wanted to stop for lunch. Orsay looks half-tempting, but given where I’m coming from right now I can’t get images of the undead who haunt the place out of my mind (there’s fixed, and there’s embalmed). Otherwise, the one choice is stuffy Payard, where once was plenty and savory is not the strength. It’s such a wasteland on that side of the Gates that I’ve come home twice to eat and once settled for takeout from a sliver of a shop called Benoit, where the food looked at least at the level of what you might find in the Gare de Lyon but where my flavor-free sandwich could have come from the bowels of Penn Station. I can’t blame the restaurants, though. There’s a reason why the Dean & Deluca uptown carries exactly zero fresh wild mushrooms: The clientele can buy anything but would prefer to taste nothing. But you won’t be reading that the next time another good restaurant opens on the Upper West Side. Inevitably, the lead will come straight from the Panchito prototype, manifested most recently in the Onera review in New York magazine. Manhattan is always evolving. Closed minds are forever.

 

 

Given how American meat can really put you on the run anymore, you have to wonder what a Buffalo cafe is thinking selling a roast beef sandwich as The Shatz. I guess it’s because you can Depend on it.

 

 

The latest sign we’re living in Rome before the fall: A couple who qualify as obese even by American standards not only get married at a Dunkin’ Donuts but proudly pose for news photographers with their doughy flesh indistinguishable from over-risen crullers. It was gluttony on parade. Isn’t there anything in the “defense of marriage” bill banning this stuff? It’s unnatural to be too corpulent to procreate.

As dazzling as The Gates is/are, there’s no way the color can be described as saffron, as every reporter who doesn’t know how to spell sunrise seems be doing reflexively. If the light is hitting the fabric just right, the proper word is clementine. Otherwise, think Martha Stewart matte: not prison jumpsuit but pumpkin frosting.

 

 

Call me old-fashioned, but when I see “fat substitute” in a headline, I expect Olestra. Call me confused, but why would the lead be about frying doughnuts in real oil? Oh, I get it. This stop-the-presses takeout is more dated babble about partially hydrogenated oil. You know, the stuff in Parkay and Crisco that was always sold as so much better for you than all-natural butter and lard. By now, food-and-health writers should feel like hamsters in a wheel, not literally peeing on newspapers but eternally spinning whatever Big Food feeds them. No reporter is ever going to put it simply: Don’t eat processed crap. That would make it tougher to sell ads for “whole grain” cereals in the A section the day you run a feature on them in the F section.

 

And, of course, if the Times covered nutrition like Social Security, rational scientists would be modified as “liberal” the way economists seem to be in every story these days.

 

 

I thought the silliest thing I saw all week was a promo for a whole cookbook on flavored butters (1: Unwrap Land O’ Lakes; 2: Add cinnamon). And then I got trapped in the recovery room at PT with the Food Network on the TV. It was blaring some party-planning show for which the frantically festive food was “lively Latin:” ham-and-cheese panini; Coke-braised pulled pork; all the Cubana classics. But what was most disturbing was that the other people in the room seemed mesmerized by the inanity, actually sitting up on their tables to get a better view. Then the giggling airheads on the screen started decorating the wineglasses for the sangria, gluing on strips of red ribbon with ornaments attached. A therapist and the guy he was kneading looked at each other and simultaneously said: “Way too much time on their hands.” And it got stranger: when the guests at the 30th-birthday party burst in, they were all women. Whatever else you might say about the Two Fat Ladies, you never had to wonder if Mary Cheney was the target audience.

 

 

I still haven’t decided whether the quartino is a great innovation or a pretentious gouge. Usually it’s the former at the Neptune Room, but on my last visit the impatient waiter was doing exactly what turns it into the latter. Every time he passed our booth he dumped the carafes into the glasses and pushed us to order more. Somehow I don’t think a Big Gulp is what the sommelier had in mind.

 

 

The Versaillesification of the White House has officially begun. Not only did the empress turn up for Fashion Week in what looked like a fabric sample for the new thrones, but the chef hired by the democratic Clintons has been canned. Apparently it’s not because Walter Scheib was failing at state dinners — how demanding can it be when the Washington Post says the last one was in October 2003? — but because he doesn’t have quite the right free hand with the gold leaf on the Napoleons (or is it the brioche?) Too bad four years of Chateau d’Yqem are going to be wasted on the dry drunk at the head of the table. Not to mention on the kind of skank twins who would mix it with Red Bull.

Food & Wine’s timing could not have been luckier. Just as the tempest in political correctness blew up over the teddy bear in a straitjacket labeled “crazy for you,” the February cover story on “going bananas” came out, complete with a description of a cake as “insanely good.” But I guess that’s no nuttier than running a feature on a restaurant that hasn’t even opened and declaring it the best in America. That makes all the absurdly premature exultation over the Modern look sane and sober.

 

 

Apparently no one did the one great story of the State of the Union: Was it the antithesis of Super Bowl Sunday for restaurants? I know our party of four grew to six when more friends decided they could not stand to be home alone with the chimp smirking at his TelePrompter, and Alouette was packed all evening with others looking for reliable Freedom Food with no TV. We try to be good citizens, but if all you’re going to hear is lies about everything but sex, we might as well go out to eat. At least the teetotaler in chief has been very good for the wine business.

 

 

Maybe it’s because the lump crab meat I just bought there did a pretty fair imitation of having been frozen and thawed, but the seafood monopolist’s bag that has always bugged me looks particularly annoying right now. That admonition on the indestructible bottom — “Citarella cares about the environment. Please recycle this bag.” — is the equivalent of a “support the troops” magnet on a gas-hogging SUV. The buck passes there.

 

 

As much as I like fresh mozzarella, especially when it’s warm, I would rather see blood sausage being made than have anyone come near me with sweaty arms in murky water in a dining room. What the latest self-ordained celebrity chef trying capitalize on his Italian roots has started has chilling potential. Next we’ll be seeing cows being ground tableside for meatballs. And hairy culatello being cured (actually, some waiters could be slow enough for that to happen). Spare us the reality show, please.

 

 

I knew it was only a matter of time until fajitas got their due: They finally arrived under cover of guacamole for Super Bowl. Talk about a cliche so hoary it makes the frozen margarita look fresh. But the best food detail was not to be found in the section with the vodka payback ads (coming Wednesday: two full pages on processed Hass avocados). Or even in the “Wow, iPods Shuffle” section where paper sushi popped up. It was in all the mourning of the architect who hung out at the Glass Garden of Heavenly Rest (oops, the Four Seasons). If foie gras and espresso keep you going to 98, bring me the lunch of Philip Johnson.

 

 

All the allegations that the money behind Rice to Riches might not be exactly clean read straight out of “Casablanca.” Bookmakers with restaurants? What will they uncover next in this town? Vengeful waiters? Bigoted hiring? Rat turds in the sticky buns? I’m shocked.

 

 

I would never conceive of my birthplace as a great restaurant city, but the critic for the Arizona Republic made a pretty persuasive case for eating out twice a day there when I stumbled across his roundup of local favorites while looking for the latest Benson cartoon. Some of his choice dishes sounded scary (duck enchiladas with blueberry pecan mole, foie gras sushi), but what he enthusiastically communicated was that he understood not only what he was eating but why it was worth recommending. And it was all just the food, please, with no grafs and grafs of babble about everything else.

 

Judging by one week’s writing it was no contest with our hometown star-taker. This guy is not only unaware that Xeres is Jerez by another name and that undercooked veal is pretty damn rare but also drops $175 on a bottle of wine when he’s not carrying a notebook. Funny. The check usually records what you pay for. And if you really won’t remember the name, you can have them soak the label off for you. Even places that can spot a philistine by his martini are happy to comply.

 

 

Dillard’s must not have caught “Sideways” fever (me neither, but I have an excuse: the theater I tried to see it in had unannounced steps). Its ad for a new bra with mix-and-match patterns labels the thing a Cabernet Convertible rather than a Pinot Pushup. In either case I don’t get the varietal connection. Do you squeeze a cup and wine comes out?

 

 

My consort went to Cajun country and all I got was a handful of menus (I still can’t move fast enough to keep up with him, let alone with him and Calvin Trillin). But reading them was almost as good as eating there. T-Coon’s in Lafayette boasts “everything homemade” and includes specials of smothered rabbit on Mondays and turkey wings on Thursdays. Cafe des Amis in Breaux Bridges’ breakfasts range from couche couche to the “Big Hat,” an omelet topped with crawfish, either etouffee or au gratin. But the menu at Black’s Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar in Abbeville was the real trip, especially the specials list with the kind of lyrical tendencies that are determinedly edited out in a chain world: “fresh ling on top of a creamed spinach outlined with a lobster cream sauce” (no napping there); “jumbo lump crabmeat blended with fresh cream & Cheddar cheese baked to a bubbly finish” (a k a au gratin); “filet mignon: the most tender of all cuts.” Even among the “alligator dinner” and the “delicious oyster loaf,” though, a little trendoidism must fall: the handwritten addition to the two desserts was “Reese peanut butter pie.” At least it wasn’t panna cotta jelled tableside.

 

 

College is one of a multitude of things I never finished, but I did spend enough time in journalism school to absorb the five W’s. If you want to tell me the Who, the What and the When, either don’t tell me where the egg cartons come from or at least tell me why.

 

 

My latest candidate for most idiotic restaurant name: Solefood, in the Loews hotel in Philadelphia. I couldn’t decide if it feeds fish or serves leather.

January must be National Vodka Month. How else to explain the obsession with it by both the hometown paper and the official magazine of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board? (One guess which publication had the more illuminating take.) The best angle was actually in Philadelphia magazine, which featured a “Brita for booze,” a filter that allegedly removes all the nasty stuff that makes you sick from the cheap brands. Those cheap brands that allegedly taste so good.

 

 

The restaurant at the Philadelphia Museum of Art makes a big deal of doing menu tie-ins with blockbuster shows, but no chef could be happy with what lies ahead: Salvador Dali. I wouldn’t be able to eat there without thinking of the story of how the artist’s wacked-out wife Gala could not find anyone to take care of his prized rabbit while they went away on a trip and wound up cooking him the most amazing lunch on departure day. Diners would be wise to avoid the Blanquette du Jour.

 

 

One good thing about venturing far from home for the first time in four months was running into an old friend who, like me, had strayed from hard news into food and who, unlike me, wondered what was so bad about Panchito. I blurted out something like: “Imagine if the Inquirer had sent Elaine Tait to cover the White House.” Too bad no one on 43d Street could have seen his expression in time to prevent the train wreck.

 

 

 

File under “And they call this the hospitality business?”: My consort and I crept eight blocks through ice and slush to get to Pampano after calling for a reservation for lunch after my second bout with physical therapy, only to be faced with at least eight steps into the place. I had been there before and knew the main dining room was up two flights, which is impossible for me in my condition, but I also knew there was a relatively street-level bar that had to be accessible. Thank the deities I sent my consort up first, because the brain-dead guy in the red shirt who stepped over to the hostess stand was adamant: there could be no service downstairs. In my head I yelled, “We’re going to Zarela” for vindication, but in actuality I was sad and humiliated and mystified. Would it have killed him to throw a table and waiter our way on an unbusy day? We aren’t cheapskates, and I really wanted to try a real meal of the chef’s food. Now I can never go back.

 

But maybe there is such a thing as poetic justice, because for 46 months I passed restaurant criticism into print with only the most cursory look at the “wheelchair access” line that ran with both the main review and the $25 & Under. Now I know the phrase “a few steps at entrance” communicates nothing and a review omitting any mention of two flights is criminally neglectful.

 

Unfortunately, though, I also now realize that the Americans With Disability Act is just one more big liberal joke in Bushworld. We had dinner in Philadelphia in a three-month-old restaurant that had a graphic sign on the unisex bathroom door boasting of wheelchair accommodation. The door, however, was a full step above the dining room. This is the new America: Only the chimp and his big-business backers do not have to struggle. The rest of us can eat cat food out on the sidewalk.

 

 

You can dress the skank twins up, but you can’t give them any class, at least if the beverage served at one inaugural ball is any indication: merlot mixed with Seven-Up. The Times described it as Texas sangria, but to me it sounded like cowboy Antabuse. Maybe we’re lucky the skankier of the twins was only yawning and not hurling as her dad slogged through his strange speech.

I assume the ghost of Dining’s package on DC eats was intended for the same cretins who put the chimp back in his gilded cage, because it was printed a little late in the coronation to draw many people down to restaurants like Teatro Goldoni (where we had an expensively disappointing experience years ago when it first opened). But then Washington will always be just Washington, a backwater catering to the sophisticated likes of Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay. As much as I like Kinkead’s and admire its owner, his new cookbook only brings the point home graphically. Tim Turner, who does such gorgeous work on Charlie Trotter’s productions, shot the food here, too, but he had to struggle with everything but the finished plates. The raw seafood looks pretty decent while the produce could have been picked at a Whole Foods. One photo, with a recipe for heirloom tomato salad, shows suspiciously uniform softballs among some scraggly green beans (scraggly green beans that resurface a few pages farther on). The artichokes look exactly like Wegmans’. Even the potatoes are white-bread ordinary.

 

At least the book includes two great bits of information, in one tale of a big night on Pennsylvania Avenue. The first is an ode to the star power of the last real president. The second is a recounting of how a gift of a chef’s knife was confiscated by the Secret Service. In reality, it should have been seized by the ethics police, since it was brought by a critic for Washingtonian magazine and intended for a chef at Kinkead’s. And that tells you everything you need to know about politics and bedfellows.

 

 

Thanks to one of my sisters stranded outside the backwater, I was able to catch the Washington Post’s travel story on my own “sleepy suburb.” She thought it made the neighborhood sound like a red state, and I can only assume she was judging by the restaurants recommended, all my personal favorites for sure: Monsoon, Ruby Foo’s and Homer’s malt shop. Worse, not only does the writer say the Greenmarket near Lincoln Center sells “drippy nectarines” in winter. She also also insists “it is nearly impossible to pass by Popcorn, Indiana,” without being lured in. Funny, I have managed to resist that place countless times — it’s on the wrong side of Broadway, and I don’t push a stroller. I’ve always thought Manhattan is a better place to live than to visit, and now I know why. If you weren’t here for the long haul, you might go home deluded that mall crap like “chocolate chunk n’ caramel” popcorn is what the locals eat.

 

 

I thought the idea of a Donald Trump perfume was stomach-churning enough (slogan: “Ah, the stench of it”), and then I got an e-release on a cheese program at a restaurant far out west. Along with “Pepe le Phew, We Love You,” it’s offering “Donald Trump in Vermont,” which it describes as “rich & creamy.” No wonder the idiot missing from the Texas village was reelected: Americans are too dumb to face reality — the guy’s casino business is bankrupt. And it’s bad enough I can’t avoid him in the tabloids. I don’t want him anywhere near my food. Now I’m thinking we were just lucky no one came up with a Scott Peterson tie-in for special omelets made with fertile eggs.

 

 

I lived in the cheesesteak capital of the world for three years and only knew Jim’s and Pat’s. Now I can’t open a newspaper or magazine without reading about an alleged legend migrating north. Could a sandwich shop really be the equivalent of the second coming of Joel Robuchon? (Really, give the joint an iPod and it will probably even be reviewed.) Forget that nonsense about 8 million stories in this city. All you need is one press release.

 

 

Apparently the food pyramid is now a pentagon. Or something just short of an outbreak of peace that would warrant endless front-page stories and NPR thumb-sucking. I read/heard enough to know it was all about rating lobbyists on their success or success (sugar? yes! whole grains? the whole processed food world is waiting!) And then I went on with my life, knowing this is the same government that lied us into a criminal war and is now trying to force us all to blow our Social Security on Wall Street brokerage fees. We’re supposed to listen to these guys tell us how to be healthy? I’d sooner eat a can of Iams.

 

Considering the kitchen is still on its shakedown cruise, the food at the Bar Room at the Modern is surprisingly polished (if anyone can make liverwurst taste like a not-so-distant relative of foie gras, it’s Gabriel Kreuther out to impress). But the room is beyond hideous. My poor consort had no idea where I was dragging him and was appalled to find himself awaiting dinner in what felt like a museum cafe. Which it is, really. I didn’t mind until I started noticing how gruesome every single woman around us looked in the cruel fluorescents: young, old, alone or exchanging serious tongue with a Walmart manager. Maybe they should warn women: Enter at your own facial risk — lighting is by Picasso.

 

A wonkette tipster has pointed out the slimiest aspect of the Bush coronation. No, not that it’s obscene to be partying like it’s the height of Clinton peace and prosperity. No, not that the skank twins are getting their anti-burkas at a discount. No, not that soldiers with no limbs are invited to or excluded from the balls. The worst detail is that the “Champagne” to be dribbling will be Korbel. Somehow I don’t think this has anything to do with dissing the French and much more with getting Cheney wannabes ready for life in the new Argentina, when the best a retiree will be able to afford will be California dreaming. But surely $40 million could have covered something more progressive, maybe a few cases of Piper Sonoma or Louis Roederer. The saddest thing is that the chimp in a bubble has no way of knowing how far American sparkling wines have come since he stopped drinking. Especially since he’s been so busy starting barroom brawls with the whole world.

 

 

Given that Molto Ego is involved, the new Bistro du Vent should be a Disneyworld joke (it’s a small world when you’re faking Italian/Spanish/French). But we had a surprisingly civilized evening there eating relatively credible knockoffs of French classics one table away from Alfred Portale and friends. Aside from the lame wine, the main flaw in the joint is the joint itself. The decor looks to have been ordered straight out of the Sears catalog’s “bistro” collection, especially with booths that seem to have been stamped out of plastic. Say what you will about Keith McNally, but at least he can fake it.

 

 

I always thought the worst job in reviewing would have to be the Atlantic City beat for the Daily News. But lately I’m wondering if it’s really so depressing. Nearly all the restaurants seem to be four-star.

 

 

With all the shock, shock over the Education Department paying for positive commentary on the No Child smoke and mirrors, you would think publications would be more careful about even the appearance of conflict. But everything you need to know about how the food world operates can be summed up in the Romenesko item singling out Bob Lape and Joanna Pruess as nuptial freeloaders. When the two married with myriad chefs catering, no one blinked an eye. Everyone knows it’s SOP to shake down chefs in return for good reviews or positive coverage. And even after the couple was highlighted at ethics central, where was the outrage? Probably at the bar.

 

But that’s all water under the bride now. One of the two new color supplements to the Daily News has something even more worrisome: a huge cover story on “your morning coffee’s amazing journey.” Inquiring minds with knowledge of how secretive the nation’s most overrated coffee chain can be are asking: Is it Life, or is it a Starbucks advertorial?

 

 

Why restaurant critics should be sterilized: The mothering one at the Daily News finds it rather charming that yet another alleged Chez Panisse in Brooklyn has an owner who toodles around taking orders with a baby strapped to her chest. I find it chilling, given that the sickest I have ever gotten from professional food was from a felafel assembled at the carryout counter of an Upper West Side restaurant where an infant’s fanny was splayed on the counter. (Can you say giardia?) Take your baby to work, sure. Just don’t let it Pamper anywhere near my plate, please.

 

 

One of the more unsettling ads I’ve come across lately is for Campbell’s new line of Southwest Style Cooking. Apparently it’s possible to can a gerund, because the word soup does not appear on the front label. This dispenses with the whole myth that you’re buying the stuff to heat up with milk and eat from a bowl. It’s unabashedly designed to be the paste to hold your chicken and tortilla together if you’re not smart enough to grate cheese. Worse, it makes perfectly clear what really divides America anymore: White sauce. In the blue states we snobs whip up bechamel; in the red, they open up Campbell’s Cream Of. Education is the difference between elegant gratins and gloppy casseroles, and now there’s Glue in a Drum for a whole new generation. Campbell’s hometown of Camden, N.J., was just named the scariest city in America. Is it any wonder?

 

Coagulated. Foul. Mushy. Nasty. Penance. Add all those key words up, a friend said, and you had the Anti-Food pages to start the new year. But I don’t agree. The lead photo of a Technicolor yawn alone would have made it seem like the Retching section.

Call this when Bad Restaurants Happen to Nice Chefs: Charlie Palmer was so gregarious and his hors d’oeuvres so exceptional at the Chow magazine launch party at Metrazur that Kitchen 82 was my first thought when friends wanted to eat someplace affordable. I got there way too early and was down to the last third of my wine by the time the other three met me at the bar. One was still paying for her glass when the host came over to transport our drinks to the table. And promptly lost control of his tray, shattering three glasses. In any place above the Metro Diner, full replacements would be immediately ferried over, but here I finally had to ask the surly waitress to look into it. (Isn’t possession nine-tenths of the responsibility?) By that time Friend 3 had ordered one of the high-markup pussy drinks instead of her wine, and I said I didn’t expect a new glass. So for three lost drinks we got one.

 

Nothing like a sour taste to set the tone. From then on my lame leg was jostled by every single service person (but no other patron) who happened by. The waitress got no nicer. The desserts were sad. And the parting insult came as I started to suggest Friend 4 take home the huge portion of good pasta left in her plate. The busgirl reached over us both, grabbed the dirty bread plate and tossed it into the orecchiette. With those skills, she’s ready to be promoted at what I now think of as Scullery 82.

 

 

So how was the Chow party? Ask the crashers, out in force. My last conversation of the night was with two guests of the PR persuasion, both marveling at how such notorious swine had slipped in. But it could have been worse. In Grand Central it could have been actual bums shoving me out of the way to get to another pomegranate martini or fistful of lamb chops.

 

 

The NYTimes manages to do at least one important thing extremely well: bury the Diner’s Journal. If not for the impassioned Panchito dissers over at mouthfulsfood.com, I would have missed one last blow job for and by Sirio, who actually has the gall to say his business never recovered from 9/11 (really, it’s way past time to give that excuse up). I also would not have noticed the eulogy was by the paper’s esteemed wine critic, literally snowed by truffles. When it comes to fawning paybacks, all writers somehow sound the same. Moist.

 

 

New Year’s Eve is the most miserable occasion to try to find a decent meal. It’s Amateur Drunk Night, and just about every otherwise sane restaurateur gets dollar signs in his/her eyes and decides a DJ and dancing and other annoyances are worth $100 on top of a $200 prix fixe (drinks and tip extra, of course). No wonder Cafe Boulud had tables open for both its early and “gala” seatings as late as Wednesday before the big night. Those of us who only want a good meal in a nice quiet room, the least we would expect any night of the year, just have to grit our teeth and pay out the nose (and think in cliches).

 

Which is how we wound up shelling out $100 a head at Citron on Bleecker and thinking we got a deal. The $75 menu tried hard and only hit okay on the wow scale, but the space was exquisite and the sound level was perfect (it helped that only two other tables were ever occupied at one time). And the $25 sparkling wine pairing with each of four courses was blowaway brilliant. Who knew shiraz even came in fizzy form, but it was just the right match for the smoked lamb chops. Iniskillin was anything but cloying against the duck confit in my raviolo (really free-form lasagne), and Mumm Cordon Rouge hit all the right notes in the poached pear matched with a good and green apple-parsley sorbet. These were not dainty pours, either — each one filled the flute just as high as the $12 glasses of Mumm’s we started with while waiting for our friend. Best of all after a bottle of Veuve Clicquot shared later during fireworks in the park, neither of us woke up with the usual “whose idea was it to mix still wine and sparkling?” hangover. Better to taste only the stars on a night like this.

 

 

I thought this was the very agile Gameboy generation, but the Wall Street Journal reports that more and more schools are jettisoning milk cartons in favor of round plastic bottles. One chilling quote from New Hampshire’s agriculture commissioner: “Those damn square containers are awfully hard for kids. Teachers say you can spend the whole lunch period just walking around and opening those containers.” It’s scary enough that most American schoolkids cannot find Mexico on a map. Are they really being raised so dumb they cannot get their straws in their milk? No wonder winemakers are wildly switching over to screw tops. The future looks dim.

 

 

Turns out the only thing that separates the failed bakeries from the household words in this town is “Sex and the City.” So says a defender of the longtime Village sugarsore being auctioned off in the NYTimes want ads as “Jon Vie’s.” She apparently will miss the rude clerks and substandard, overpriced pastries and thinks it unfair to compare a stodgy joint with a hip newish one, or with one run by a very shrewd businesswoman who hires nice people and sells only perfect products. But for every Magnolia there’s a Polka Dot. And if all a food establishment needed to thrive was sexy TV exposure, Mamma would still be balling meat at Rocco’s on 22d.

 

 

For a while I thought I wasn’t getting out much and was losing my sense of decorum. Then I had lunch at Fairway Cafe. Where a grandmotherly-looking woman was drinking her soup. From the soup plate. Worse, I had lunch at Pearl Oyster Bar, where a shriveled harridan sitting too close to me at the counter ordered pie with ice cream and ate every bite. Then picked up the plate and slowly licked it clean. At this rate I can’t wait till the Misleader has his way with Social Security. Old ladies will be openly scrounging crumbs on restaurant floors.

Restaurants going through identity crises seem to forget to shred all evidence of failure. My receipt from Caviar & Banana was printed with the new name, but my Amex statement read Rocco’s. And the new Nonna on Columbus is still Avenue on both receipt and statement, even after it has gone through its 520 phase. But then that place would be a stinker by any name. It’s hard to imagine an Italian grandmother would ever serve Mueller’s-level noodles with watery sauce, or cod that could pass for diner fare except for the smell — frozen fish doesn’t reek. What’s even stranger is that a restaurant directly across the street from one that bombed as Italian and as French and is now destroying Turkish would start over with pasta. But apparently there’s always another flack to help in the charade by abusing another restaurant’s name. We saw Crispo in all the writeups and got Rocco’s on the plate.

 

 

My mantra is “expect the worst — you’ll never be disappointed.” Which is why I boxed up my Wustof paring knife when it snapped in half after 21 years and shipped it back to the company. I never figured I would get a response to my forlorn little letter, but it was better than wrapping up the remains to bury in the trash. About two weeks later, though, a brand-new parer arrived in the mail. No wonder I’ve been tuning out all those silly stories on new-wave knives lately. Think negative, buy right.

 

 

I forget who came up with other words to live by: “Drinks at 5, dinner at 6 and to be immortal you have to be dead.” It’s why every obituary makes the newly departed sound like Gandhi, and it’s even worse with dying food establishments. The mournful story on the passing of the Jon Vie bakery would have made me weep if I hadn’t bought a croissant there eons ago and been shocked by both the price and the haughty nastiness of the clerk — I could have been in Paris except the croissant was not as good, and I never went in again despite passing by at least once a week. If ever a place deserved to go under, this is the one. But the sappy reporter had to haul in quotes from the sorrowful agreeing that a bakery in the Village just can’t make it anymore. Don’t tell that to Magnolia. Or to Amy’s, which is expanding to Bleecker Street, next to the new Wild Edibles next to the expanded Murray’s Cheese. And don’t let reality get in the way of a good eulogy.

 

 

I don’t know how it read out in Des Moines, but the big news that a Miami chef had moved to a resort in Cancun was downright baffling in my hometown paper. I even googled the boldfacer to see what New York connection I was missing, and the first hits were her shilling for Oster and for Bell & Evans (the Food Network connection is almost as bad). Of all of the chefs in all of the city, why this one? Someone must have one hell of a tan line.

 

 

Considering what a mess Iraq is and Social Security threatens to become, it’s not easy to be cheerful right now. But at least there’s the happy thought that the “medals of freedom” fraud was not perpetrated on the food world. If Rove’s monkey could have, I’m sure he would have draped ribbons around our three heroes: the chef who thought reality stardom would be a “slam-dunk;” the executive behind the “catastrophic success” of the Beard Foundation, and the good soldier with so little credibility lonely restaurateurs are wondering if anyone reads Wednesday reviews anymore.

 

 

Speaking of Enron on 12th Street, think of all the embarrassment the key characters would be spared if only they had had the foresight to invent an illegal nanny.

 

 

And maybe even Rocco deserves more credit. He was way ahead of the red state curve, judging by the email I got touting the low-rent web site fronting for the www.glam one he was using not so long ago. Now he’s offering to be “your Secret Chef and Secret Santa,” with meatballs and other unintimidating temptations. The “fabulous red cookware” and “cooking in a vacuum system” didn’t do it for me, but I might just join “Rocco’s Perfect Paring Wine Club.” Who doesn’t need a glass while peeling potatoes?

 

 

Given that an astounding 2 percent of Americans have true food allergies, you can understand why there is such a desperate need to develop vaccines that New Yorkers looking for a year-end tax write-off would kick in $3.2 million for the cause. What’s incomprehensible is that this was all done at a “Food Allergy Ball,” at the Plaza. Imagine coming up with that menu, considering you can’t give a dinner party these days without grilling the guests for fear they’re “allergic” to red peppers or black olives or anything else benign. Worse, there’s something surreal about using a swanky meal as bait to underwrite a solution to a relatively effete food problem (why do so many lactose-intolerant women hoover ice cream? why is no one allergic to chocolate?), especially when hunger is a tad bigger issue in the world. Judging by the photos in the Daily News’s entertaining 25 Hours, we really are living in Rome before the fall.

 

 

Twenty-some years ago, when I had to wait for a bus home from the Times at midnight under a gay theater’s marquee on Eighth Avenue, the idea of family fare on that major sleaze thoroughfare would have seemed as probable as a Village Person in the White House. But on agonizingly slow cab rides home from the Greenmarket lately, I’ve spotted two cases of chain-food spillover from Disney Square: Joe Franklin’s is now a Charley O’s and Jack Rose (formerly B. Smith’s) is now a Bennigan’s. It’s almost enough to make me long for the good old days of Dick Does Developers.

 

 

Another week, another WMD: I’ve always suspected soybeans were scary, but reading the NYT story on Brazil’s new status as food super-power was still chilling. The idea of ripping out the rain forest to grow industrial crops just like subsidized American farmers is appalling. I guess I’m happy to see Brazilians sharing the Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland wealth, but why does the world want to emulate only our worst achievements? And you can’t even give up tofu in protest. If these soybeans are like ours, they’re going to feed the cattle that make the burgers that make this country the fattest in history. More and more, it feels as if we’re waiting for Armageddon in an air-conditioned Hardee’s.

 

 

Maybe this istempting fate, but I have to admit I get so little spam I sometimes open it. Which is how I found a promise of a drug that produces a “hard rock erection.” I thought you only got those eating with large Midwesterners in passe cafes.

 

 

My candidate for most ill-informed, maybe idiotic lead in a business publication, on- or off-line: “Following in the footsteps of fashion designers Karl Lagerfeld, who launched a clothing line for cheap-chic retailer H&M, and Isaac Mizrahi, who sells his clothes at discount chain Target, celebrity chefs lately have been expanding their horizons.” Business Week labeled it a news analysis, which is even more embarrassing. Not only was the peg some nobody from a less than famous restaurant in Boston who went to work for Au Bon Pain (stop the ovens!) but the writer seemed oddly unaware that chefs have been hawking pots and pizzas and selling out to fast food chains since before Karl Lagerfeld discovered Diet Coke, let alone H&M. This is the kind of story that turns the reader into a rubbernecker, wondering how bad the car crash can get. The verdict here: gruesome. “Rotisserie chicken with a ramekin of barbecue sauce and mini corn-bread muffins” is described in the kicker as both “pretty haute” and “fancy.” I can’t wait for the sequel: Celebrity chefs are writing cookbooks.

 

 

This seems to be the season to celebrate those books, though. No wonder everyone holds off for Christmas publication — not to hook shoppers but to tempt indolent reporters. How much Lidia can one reader take? Is it news that Marcella is gasping her last? And really, “Bouchon” is a brilliant book, but is it a story? How does mustard make it more than CliffsNotes?

 

 

Rufus’s father Loudon has a good song about Christmas coming right after Halloween, with Thanksgiving “just a buffet in between.” He would be even more depressed if he got the release from the chocolate company that’s already pushing Easter candy. Not to mention chocolates for “Administrative Professionals Day.” I don’t know which acceleration is worse, the calendar or the decline of the English language.

 

 

Most of the bright spots in my 15 days in an Italian hospital came in the morning: perfect tea, senza zucchero, with two little packets of rusks and one little packet of jam. Eating it, I could have been in any of dozens of hotels we’ve experienced in Italy. Breakfast is just not a big deal there. But that hasn’t stopped a new restaurant in Midtown from announcing a “full-service, Italian-style breakfast,” with everything from Friulian polenta to Trentino potato pancakes. The release reminded me of my physical therapist and her great curiosity about what Americans have in the morning, whether it is “only in the movies” that we eat so many eggs. I can’t imagine what she would make of panettone French toast.

 

 

Anyone doubting that Manhattan is the ultimate witness protection program has only to stop by the reincarnation of Rocco’s on 22d. All the Italianesque kitsch is gone, the lights are brighter and the look is cleaner. But the staff is taking no chances on risking a repeat of reality. When I said to a hostess as we waited for our table, “It looks so different from before,” she immediately responded: “Don’t speak that name. We don’t want to ruin it.” Unfortunately, the wine may do it for them. All four glasses we tried by the glass were overpriced and really bad, as in head-pounding bad. It takes more than dumping Mamma and the titty glasses for Champagne to really shed the Rocco identity.

 

 

Do you feel safer than you did four hours before Tommy Thompson dropped the camel dung in the punch bowl with his parting shot about being amazed that terrorists had not attacked the food supply? Dunce that he is, he blurted that we’re vulnerable because “we are importing a lot of food from the Middle East, and it would be easy to tamper with that.” Of course the bigger threat is the one his boss would never address: This country now imports more food than it exports. Given that we can’t even produce what 280 million people need to eat, I kinda doubt anyone is going to get much bang for the dinar putting toxins in the Aleppo pepper. Better to watch and wait as our currency goes to hell. Wait. It already has.

If there’s any bright side to the decline of the American empire, it’s that we’re spending more time with friends from overseas who look on our money the way we once did Canadian dollars if not Mexican pesos — they can drop over for a long weekend while we cower at the thought of braving a cappuccino in Milan. And nothing is more refreshing than going out with Italians who see right through the food game in Manhattan, especially at a 30 percent discount. Our friend Gianluca and his mother, who just closed her own restaurant in Emilia-Romagna, decided places like Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern were not worth bothering with because they’re “too obvious.” The mom had read “Kitchen Confidential” in the Italian and decided that not only was the author “not normal” but she had no interest in Les Halles because the “chef” didn’t bother to come to work (we persuaded her that was exactly what makes it so consistently satisfying). The best insight was from Gianluca, who noticed: “If you look at some guides like Zagat it looks that everything is good.” At the table, he read us the entry for a place his mom was curious about (Macelleria, but it could have been any of a couple of hundred on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that capsules) and admitted: “I have no idea what it means, the words I just said.” I think that reaction may be universal.

 

 

Lately you can’t pick up a newspaper or magazine without finding another ode to “Chef Bobo,” the alleged miracle worker in the Calhoun School cafeteria who happens to have a book to flog. Maybe he is a certifiable nutrition genius, but he looks like just another “eat what I say, not what I do” bloviator. No dietary expert should ever go out on tour with a belly that shakes like a bowlful of jelly. Especially around Christmas.

 

 

Speaking of ill-advised appearances, what is the paper of ethics thinking sending its restaurant critic out to moderate a forum with four of the biggest chefs in town? As the ads running every day say, “buy your tickets now” if you want a good look at Panchito sitting cheek by jowl with Batali, Barber, Colicchio and Vines-Rushing. (Now if he wears a bag over his head, that might be worth the price of admission.)

 

 

The only thing more absurd than a fat guy promoting low-fat, low-sugar eating is a formerly fat guy out shilling a barbecue book for Food & Wine in Florida when his stomach has been surgically shrunk to the point that it can hold no more than a bite of a burger. Al Roker and Chef Bobo should talk — at least one of them has a sure way to keep from ingesting that dread ketchup made with corn syrup.

 

 

File under “there are no new stories, only new suckers”: The cellphone booth at the Biltmore Room was mentioned in every piece that ran when the place opened a full year ago. Suddenly it’s big news in the Daily News, the Journal and even on the radio. I was bracing for a flurry of stories on the other amazing innovation in town — David Burke’s limo smoking section — when I remembered: it’s already started.

 

I’ve always thought Uglesich’s in New Orleans was one of the best restaurants in the country, but any doubt that its magic was not transportable went out the window when the requisite cookbook arrived in the mail. I didn’t need to know EggBeaters and sugar substitute were working in the kitchen (even in the macaroni and cheese), or that the coleslaw recipe was “inspired by” one in the Times-Picayune. And nice as it is to have the recipe for the splendiferous Muddy Waters sauce, it’s depressing to think the son of the chef who was “inspired to write” the thing could not be bothered to find a proofreader (worse, that a graduate of Tulane University can’t spell). Just a few of the LOL ingredients: Hardball eggs. Adobe sauce (for those brick-red chipotles, of course). Egg yokes. Panchetta. The glossary defines translucent and butterflied but neglects to explain that pistolettes are a type of dinner roll. On the other hand (to emulate Zagat), how many cookbooks ever tell you what to do with two pounds of gator meat? Or to make an oyster soup with 50 ounces of “Brie cheese”?

 

 

The country’s most pretentious food writer is married only a matter of weeks and already he’s an expert on parenting. Either that or he was just struggling to find something, anything to praise in reviewing the new book by the NYT’s star food columnist for the NYT. Funny, even before the change of life, nursery puddings never struck me as his area of expertise. Once again, I guess deception is the better part of valor.

 

 

Apparently the same wordsmiths who helped put Our Leader back in the White House have found new grounds for deception. Who else would have the gall to write an ad claiming “your single cup coffee maker is only as good as the coffee that goes in it” and mean the brand my parents drank back in the dark ages before Mr. Coffee, let alone espresso? Even with hyphens properly positioned, it would be bad to the last drop.

As if government credibility could sink any lower, we’re now informed that a Thanksgiving turkey is so dangerous a WMD that it should be stuffed straight into the oven, poop, blood and all. Somehow not rinsing to keep your kitchen sink clean sounds like not flushing the toilet because tests have indicated it spews bacteria all over your toothbrushes. It figures that there would be no USDA provisos for cleaner birds, the organic and free-range ones some of us go out of our way to buy precisely because they do not come with the little bonus you get from the industrial turkeys that underwrite lobbyists’ salaries. Fear and ignorance — it’s what’s for dinner.

 

 

I also hope the little children who apparently will be warped for life by a commercial showing a woman’s naked backside were not allowed to open their hometown paper on parade day. Allah forbid they should ever see bare-breasted turkeys, throats slashed and heads dangling, without getting any explanation of what makes the things halal.

 

Worse, the front-page revelation that immigrants put their own imprints on Thanksgiving dinner was so stale it could be turned into stuffing for a dirty bird. The only thing dumber was the chef in Life magazine who said those alien Pilgrims could not make cheesecake with cream cheese because it had not been invented yet . . . and so they used ricotta. Then again, maybe that was the Italian accent in 1621.

 

 

The Journal ran one of the smartest stories all week — a spin on the turkey hot line cliche that demonstrated how many alternatives there now are to frozen Butterballs — and then had to go and spoil it two days later by rounding up elitist chefs’ recipes for leftovers seemingly phoned in from fantasyland. On my most disastrous holiday I have never had to worry about having two pounds of cranberry sauce hanging around, and I kind of doubt a couple of teaspoons of Indian spices would transform it into food if I did. (Let’s not even go into how anxious anyone is to do ambitious cooking so soon after getting all the platters and wineglasses finally clean.)

 

 

I blame turkey fatigue for sending me up into the dread TWC at long last. Shut out of two movies and in search of culinary recreation that did not involve white meat, we decided to go have a snack and a look at Cafe Gray in the “Restaurant and Bar Collection” (developer-speak for Food Court). My own private Michelin, the one with crutches instead of stars, would rate it not worth the journey. Not only did it feel as if it was a half-mile from the elevator but the design was so bizarre and the service so much stranger that I almost wished we’d just gone to Picholine, the most annoying bar on the Upper West Side. We were early enough to get a boothette and still the place felt like either the nicest restaurant at the Mohegan Sun or a downsized Tavern on the Green. Wines by the glass were nicely priced ($8 for a gruner-veltliner) although served pretentiously, in beakers that the waitress, after two sips, came by to finish dumping into our glasses. And apparently you only get bar snacks if you don’t order food. Maybe Gray blew all his best little ideas on that imaginary bar in Bangkok downtown where he got no credit. Even the most magical food, though, would be forgotten once you gimp out and find yourself in a mall, a very long way from a cab.

 

 

For the last three Thanksgivings the White House turkey pardon has seemed innocuous, a chance to joke about which creature at the photo op looked dumber. But this year made me a little queasy: The Christian in Chief could find it in his heart to save food from the oven while so many in Fallujah would never eat dinner again? I guess it’s just lucky he’s not younger and living on Long Island. Given his history of blowing up frogs, he’d be throwing turkeys through car windows for sport.

Lunch at Nice Matin is always a transporting experience: to the Upper East Side without a MetroCard. But I never realized just how creepy that could be until a friend in from Darien filled me in on the woman she recognized at the next table: “I used to baby-sit for her. She always left the house full of dog mess for me to clean up. She even made me clean the lice out of her daughter’s hair. For baby-sitter’s pay. Now she’s a shrink.” I think of Manhattan as the capital of anonymity, but in some places it really is the Naked City.

 

I’ve just heard the first valid reason why Cuba should stay cut off from the United States: A rancher there has gone crossbreeding crazy and come up with a family cow fit for the backyard — it’s the size of a collie and can produce more than a gallon of milk a day. Forget genetically altered corn. Lassie with usable udders is nightmare material.

Funny how chocolate is being wildly promoted as a health food just when going out to sample it has gotten so dangerous. Anyone braving the Chocolate Show risked being trampled by hordes of large people, especially the greedy women traveling in a pack in too-similar-for-comfort purple outfits with red hats who were trying to get their pudgy fingers around their $20 worth the day I went. Unfortunately, the chocolates seemed to be targeted to their type this year. Anything really good was either sampled out, rationed to hot chocolate only or available for a price. The best thing I discovered was a chocolate partner, a wine called maury from near Perpignan, and I was nearly knocked over stopping to taste that. Probably the harshest lesson is that bigger is not better with chocolate: There really are only a few great producers, and if you want the ladies in purple and red to come out in hordes, you have to let in the lesser darks.

 

 

Cooking is a form of alchemy, but generally the goal is to transform something mundane like eggs into something sensational like a souffle. You wouldn’t know that from the food photography in the Eat issue of New York magazine, though. Somehow a stylist turned lamb chops into schwarma, with what looks like raw gnawed meat stuffed into a rack of ribs. Halibut en papillote could have been shot in an albino operating room, after the Martian chutney transplant failed. And I’ve seen more attractive pork shoulders in the dog chew toys heaped at the checkout stand at Petland. The only photos more disturbing were a few pages back, the ones of Daniel reacting to home cooking before he’d shaved. I thought I’d died and gone back to watching Italian television for all the subtlety on display. On the bright side, only a few months ago it could have been worse: Rocco would have been the star chef mugging frantically for exposure.

 

 

Thomas Keller’s new cookbook will probably outsell his first, no small feat considering more than half a million copies of “French Laundry” are reposing on coffee tables across America by now. It’s not that the recipes are light-years ahead of a dozen other bistro collections lately, although Deborah Jones’s photography does turn food porn positively transcendent. Instead, “Bouchon” includes the kind of glitch that makes a first-edition stamp worth millions more than face value. All the ingredients for the basic quiche are missing on page 89, and the publisher has included the slickest fix I’ve ever encountered in a cookbook: a little stick-on slip that fits right below the decorative border. It’s so artful you’d almost think it was intentional.

 

 

By contrast, the new “Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America” has sent out a fix of the declining America kind. To atone for omitting a contributor from the credits page, it mailed prospective reviewers packets of popcorn. Microwave popcorn. Microwave popcorn labeled “Have a poppin’ great day.” If nothing else, this guarantees no one will ever mistake this enterprise for its seriously British predecessor.

 

 

I assume they were meant to be irony-free, but could there be better illustrations for a story dissing pigs in a poke than photographs of containers of rice pudding and tins of desserts? Even on the Internets you generally get a peek at the actual goods: over, under, sideways, down.

 

 

When T for Twaddle ran a bunch of Southeast Asian recipes with no translations for the titles, it looked like arrogance. Now I see Ten Speed Press’s reissue of Joanne Weir’s “From Tapas to Meze” has gone to the other extreme. Every title is literally spelled out, with the magic leached out proportionally. Ratatouille becomes “Provencal roasted summer vegetable ragout,” for instance, and Iman Biyaldi is rendered as “Baked stuffed eggplant to make a priest faint.” It’s either Appetizers for Xenophobic Dummies or help for ex-altar boys.

 

 

Apparently there’s a tomato shortage on, although I haven’t noticed any mention of the crisis in my hometown paper beyond an editorial that cribbed from Newsday. Given the evangelical fervor allegedly seizing the country, you would think Americans would take this as a sign that eating out of season is a sin. But then you would be underestimating the energy of PR people and their clients. I just got a release promising “Mother Nature can’t hurt” one purveyor’s tomatoes. Which sounds like the kind of hubris polar bears would appreciate right about now.

 

I knew it was morning in America when I ventured into Georgia’s Bake Shop right after Black Tuesday and heard a clerk trying to interest a woman in a Mussolini. Chocolate, I hope.

With great regret, I passed up a benefit at the Whitney where the Patron Saint of American Farmers was going to be collaborating with an artist “so that every aspect of the meal helps to remind diners of the roots of the food being eaten.” It had the high tone of an event aiming for noble and hitting effete, but even I underestimated it. A friend went to buy a guinea hen at the Greenmarket the Saturday afterward and was told only amputees were available — “Alice Waters bought all the legs for a dinner.” You would think a celebration of guinea roots would make room for other parts at the table. But I guess only a Jeremiah Tower would think to turn at least the breasts or bones into another course.

 

 

Panchito’s brave little excursions across bridges and through tunnels would have so much more credibility if the NYPost weren’t reviewing the same restaurants he chooses from the PR pile, sometimes the very same week. For every grubby Thai joint in one paper lately, you get a View or a Cru in two.

 

 

As addicted as I am to olive oil, I’m taking the FDA’s health ruling with a grain of saccharine. This country is still trying to get beyond the big lie that margarine is better for you than butter, a lie that was promulgated with Washington’s help even before the wolves hijacked the henhouse. Now any pretense of public interest has been dropped. The producer with the big bucks wins, which is why walnuts are officially good for you and squash is not. Given the misleadership of the last four years, and the now certifiably sheep-like tendencies of the populace, the last thing Americans should be swallowing is government advice on eating. Next thing we’ll hear, beef is safer than ever. At least antipathy to Teresa has saved us all from ketchup becoming a vegetable again anytime soon.

 

 

Talk about the pot calling the kettle confused: T makes “frantic oddities like ‘Nuevo Latino’’’ look like the height of Careme clarity. Fusion doesn’t get much more addled than a stew of food, fashion and design, judging by the frenzied hodgepodge that thudded onto my doorstep. There’s not enough inexpensive cava, let alone budget-blowing reds from Campagnia, to ever get bread and shoes to photograph in an easy fit. Funny how W and Vogue make similar ideas look so effortless, but then neither would consign an Irving Penn to the Out column just because he’s old.

 

Beyond the whole editorial mess of fat-with-ads T, there’s the underlying reality: Nero is mixing martinis — oops, vintage cocktails — while Iraq is burning. Message: Shop, drink and feel too inadequate to give a party without candlesticks from Marrakesh.

 

 

Why trade magazines should never be sold on newsstands: The new Food Arts has a two-page Tyson ad aimed at holders of wage slaves who don’t have time to “add the special touches.” The photo shows a chef arranging flowers in a carved butternut squash; the answer is pre-seared chicken breasts. They’re labeled new, but I’m sure we’ve come across them already. And I’d almost rather eat the latex gloves the model chefs aren’t wearing. (You know it’s food porn when they’re cooking bare-handed.)

 

 

Despite all my bitching about NYTimes stories that say nothing in too many words, I actually caught a revealing piece in one of the most surprising sections: Escapes. There could not be a better depiction of America today — divided between have-mores and have-nothings and heading down Argentina way — than this ode to pilgrimages to the Viking factory in Greenwood, Miss. Emeril wannabes are apparently flocking to pay homage to an overrated stove that exemplifies excess, and they’re doing it in a state ranked by the last census as 42d in indoor plumbing. You can only hope locals with not enough food get the concept of stoves not meant for cooking.

 

 

The debate over whether Elizabeth David could be published in a glossy food magazine today continues. All I can say is: David Foster Wallace boasts that he went through the fires of editorial hell to produce a piece deemed publishable by Gourmet, and he’s not exactly chopped lobster. More discouraging, I just learned another slick magazine simply hires writers willing to write perky, which was, to put it mildly, not Ms. David’s forte. In reality, though, the recipes should be the end of the argument. David’s best were like the one for mushrooms baked with garlic in grape leaves, one so compelling it could motivate you out of bed at midnight to try it as soon as you read it. And the most forgiving test kitchen would have to go and ruin it by specifying quantities and temperatures and cooking times. Let’s let legends be legends and give up the lame defense. It’s a GE Monogram world now.

Now that the reign of fools is coming to an end, I am so ready for a president who can have wine at state dinners, not to mention a beer with a voter. Finally we can acknowledge that having an alcoholic in the White House was driving us all to drink — between 9/11 stress and Kerry campaign parties, he united us in excess. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m almost tired of drinking for two. [Amended: As penance for my optimism, it looks as if I have to start drinking altar wine. For 59 million.]

Some flings are best left unflung for public consumption. When I read yet another steamy tease for Gael Greene’s forthcoming memoir, with the tale of her and Elvis, I could only hear the “Full Monty” soundtrack in my head and add the word please: “You Can Leave Your Hat On.”

 

 

Thanksgiving is a sad season for the art directors this year. Martha Stewart Living has a table worthy of a monastery, a bleak house or maybe even the big house in its festive issue, which itself is turned out in depressing earth tones. And Gourmet’s grim cover this month could have been composed by Joel-Peter Witkin, although even he might hesitate to leave a sinister needle sticking out of the poor desiccated turkey’s flesh.

 

But then maybe those art directors were indulging in the scary potion some booze company is pushing: a martini made with pie filling — pumpkin, brown sugar, cinnamon and gin. You don’t drink something like that. You rent it.

 

 

Trust Eli Zabar to turn a disaster into a promotional opportunity, and the Metro section to swallow the bait. Reading the NYT’s account of the fire in his bakery and greenhouse, you would think he was launching a new product line, or gearing up for certain holidays. Deemed germane to the story were the facts that “fresh dough for the pizza was kneaded and baked there” and that “tomatoes that topped it grew in the greenhouse gardens” (yes, it was that redundant). That sentence was followed by a helpful mention of his second store, open for business. Pet shops have burned down in this town with less back story, let alone sympathy from reporters.

 

Let’s say you’re flying high with a little restaurant where you just lean back and collect accolades. It closes and you get promised a dream deal that dissipates and you’re still out of work and finally you get an uptown gig with friends on 43d Street and it doesn’t pan out, either. The place is too big, maybe, or you’re just too creative. You’re out of work again, for half a year maybe, and you have to put food on your family. It’s all very understandable. But why would you hire a flack to blare your ignominious landing, in the corporate kitchen of a food shop that will never be what it once was? The last high-wattage woman chef to make that kind of transition with a splash wound up leaving Pret a Manger with a bag over her head.

 

 

More evidence that Andre Soltner may be the last of a kind: I always joke about how my business is covering the alimentary canal, but naturally I prefer to focus on the beginning of it. The New York Observer’s piece on “bad boy chefs” makes it very clear which ones are proud to be the very end.

 

Have you heard the one about the roast that won’t fit in the pan but “that’s the way Mom always made it”? It’s the new Neiman Marcus “two-fifty” cookie recipe, only this time it’s making the rounds not by email but in major newspapers. Nigella quoted it recently as if she had heard it with her own ears, and now the Washington Post has passed it off as real life, real story, too. I’m sure they both thought it was a legitimate heirloom tale, but why did I read it first on a joke site online? Couldn’t food editors at least check snopes.com? We’re not talking WMD here.

Judging by my email, anyone who eats at Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar walks out wondering where the money went — how could a thoroughly uncomfortable dinner cost at least $100 a head? Now Sunday Styles has printed a hint, and it’s not about ingredients. One of the owners boasts of wearing a table for 20 on his back alone. No wonder so many true chefs do fashion ads in borrowed finery, just for the feel of it.

 

 

My desktop has been an archeological dig lately, which explains why I only recently unearthed the dumbest idea in publishing since the Fluffernutter cookbook (yes, it exists). This one is called “Aroma,” and it combines recipes for food with formulas for fragrances. Maybe it’s because I had to eat where I peed for two weeks, but I can’t see anything the least bit alluring about bath salts and soup on the same page.

 

 

Here’s what happens when you let a Nascar reporter review classical music: before even a few months have passed, he’s complaining that all the orchestras at Carnegie Hall play too many B boys’ compositions. Didn’t this guy know tuna tartare is like shiver wine at half-time? It comes with the territory, and has almost since Bach was a sprout. And if he’s kvetching about ramps in April, he clearly doesn’t remember the bad old days of raspberries in December.

 

 

Of all the rants an increasingly lost former restaurant reviewer could go off on, bare-handed kitchen workers is one of the more inane. Those signs in the bathroom do not say, “Employees must change gloves.” Hands get washed. Latex never does. And I don’t want it in my mesclun. Personally, I would rather see gloves on my gynecologist. But even her I expect to scrub first.

 

 

So which would you find more scorn-worthy: small-town shoppers who list margarine by a short brand name on their grocery lists, or big-city arbiters who use the fancy name for curry powder and misspell it?

 

 

My business never struck me as hazardous until I braved my first food event as a gimp. I had escorts in front of and behind me and was still nearly mowed down by old ladies hellbent on being first in line for the truffle saucer at ICE (FCI/CIA-wannabe to you). And this was at a relatively refined symposium pegged to the new Oxford University encyclopedia on American food and drink. I could only imagine the knock-down frenzy at Les Halles later the same night. You would think food professionals have not eaten in a cicada cycle the way they light out for freebies.

 

But I was glad I risked the madness if only to hear a discussion by six food editors that was slightly livelier than one on restaurants (note to moderator: moderate, already — don’t promise “lesbian children” and then let the pompous monologues ramble until your listeners are sinking into hibernation). High point of the day came when someone in the audience asked whether Elizabeth David would have a Popsicle’s chance in hell in today’s GE Monogram magazine world and one (unnamed for her own sake) editor said, “Sure.” Without ever explaining how the next Elizabeth David would avoid the fate of Darra Goldstein of Gastronomica, who had just said she had written for Saveur, Bon Appetit and Gourmet and been published in a different voice in every magazine. That eerie chortle was the great writer snickering unmistakably in her grave.

 

 

Talk about all dressed up and nowhere to preen: Rocco sedulously turns himself into a hunka-hunka prime time — those curls, that hide — and who bites? WOR. Radio. The last refuge of the unpresentable.

Our local paper seems to have learned nothing from getting taken for an opinion-mongering ride by a bunch of college students in North Carolina, as the New Yorker revealed. It just published a press release from the Zagats celebrating their silver anniversary (a piece worth 30 pieces, no doubt). Note to the Op-Ed overseer: The wily ones never come right out and announce their crass news. They bury it in a bigger “story.” Sometimes they even embargo it, or promise you an exclusive, just like the real Roves. But if you aren’t careful, you wind up headlining exactly what they want. “Eating Our Way” certainly said it better than Billions and Billions Printed.

 

It might not be an amuse-bouche and an aperitif all in one, but watching New York magazine’s redesign evolve is one of the better diversions in town right now. Or it was until it started looking as if they meant it. Trust me, packaging Gael Greene as a tiny hat does nothing to make a restaurant sound seductive. Show me the food. Please.

 

 

Christ on a coconut (that’s Sri Lankan for “stop the presses”): America has regional foods. Like Moxie and Derby Pie. Coming next week: Wine — It’s Made in All 50 States.

 

 

Life, the magazine that will not stay folded, has the right idea: Don’t let Nigella near a keyboard. Just have her babble to a stenographer about roasting chicken when she’s really braising it (“the aroma permeates the house — it’s the smell of home”). The recipe, though, looks like her work: the parts are swimming in chicken fat after 2 1/2 hours, and the parsley garnish listed in the ingredients is really thyme and rosemary. And for some reason, neither she nor her mouthpiece can bring her/himself to say the proper name of the seasoning in this land of the brave. Their bird uses herbs from “the Saint-Tropez area of France.” Which I believe is Provence. What do they think their readers are? Moxie drinkers?

 

 

Red Bicyclette is the Pollo Campero of wines: With enough overinflated hype they should be able to get that turkey off the ground, if not make it fly (to filch from an old Harper’s story on film marketing). In one week the new Fat Bastard popped up in a promotion touted in the Daily News and at a debate party and, most insidiously, in Lucky magazine as a vanilla-flecked food writer’s party choice, just in time for the launch. Call it Gallo, though, and it looks a lot less hip.

 

 

With Indochine, Panchito was apparently doing a pretty good Neil Diamond imitation: “Iman, I said. To no one there.” Really, Joe Allen would have been a less dopey choice if he wanted to be heard by more than a chair.

 

 

With friends like these, who needs attorneys general? The embattled Beard Foundation could not have chosen a less flattering photo of Julia Child for its latest calendar if it had gone to hideousheadshot.com. Tip from my mother-in-law equivalent, one of the better picture editors I’ve ever met: When someone has her eyes shut, or appears embalmed, or generally would die if she saw herself looking so gruesome, cut her out. Better yet, throw away the negative. Because if this was the only photo of the two icons actually together, the organization has more problems than how much it disperses in scholarships.

 

 

Forget president. Arnold Schwarzenegger should be thinking about becoming emperor of the whole world. If he can solve a mega-problem like force-feeding ducks and geese for foie gras, surely he could do something about the indelicacy of despair in Sudan. In the wake of the ban on tanning booths for kids under 14, it’s so reassuring to know at least one leader has his priorities in order.

Certain larger-than-anyone’s-life food writers just anointed the toast of Bon Appetit should really never be photographed weared red-checked shirts. You can only think how one of those Chianti bottles dripping wax would look so perfect set right over his belt.

 

 

Home just over a week and already one of the great myths of Manhattan has been shattered, the one I clung to while contemplating withstanding three months without being able to slice and dice. You can get anything you want delivered, but is that a good thing? I called the Indian restaurant closest to my apartment (Tandoori North? Manhattan Indian? Aliases for a reason?) one night when a friend was over and my consort was due back late from a flying trip to Geographic and wound up spending $35 with tip for desiccated chicken, dishwater dal, spinach from the crypt, gummy bread and acceptable raita, not one foil container of which was worth the recycling. Next day we forged our way to the Greenmarket on 97th Street and dropped much less to feed six people turkey breast, squash and salad at a dinner party with Bob at the stove, with leeks, herbs, apples, pears, potatoes, carrots and red peppers to spare. And the big difference was that we had a real cook. Now I understand how so many frightening restaurants stay in business on this island: serve food so grim it has to be takeaway in plain brown wrappers. Menupages.com should change its name to desperationdining.

 

 

Funny how a little break changes your perspective. Atlantic Grill was always just another Steve Hanson mediocrity until I found myself with two hours to kill at Lenox Hill, and then it stood out like a Ducasse among the diner-level choices within wheelchair distance. After three solid weeks of meals on trays or at the kitchen counter, I was actually almost weeping with pleasure at the jazz, the photos on the wall, the flurry of flesh offering warm service. My crabcake BLT with housemade chips was American bliss after so much force-fed pasta, and Bob’s salad with grilled apples and his scallops with roasted squash seemed like that rare merger of brilliance and technique. Then reality kicked in. A brown-water cappuccino would have been a capital offense in Italy, and the hyper-cinnamoned pumpkin concoction and stale cookies were a cry for pastry chef help. The crowd started to look like the idle undead, as it always does on the Upper East Side. The bill was $63 before tip for lunch. And suddenly I had my feet back on planet New York.

ancient bites

August 2007

Having been to Trieste while my consort was shooting caffeine for National Geographic, I know coffee tasting is an art, but it ain’t pretty. His photos of the experts at Illy sniffin’ and spittin’ make the action at the Trois Glorieuses in Burgundy look refined. So it’s all the more mystifying why Zabar’s would force shoppers in line for the cashiers to watch Saul himself go through the stomach-churning motions on an endless video. Maybe it shows how carefully the store’s beans are chosen, but it just made me want to buy Illy saliva-free in the tin. And I’m really glad Zabar’s does not carry Cheney sperm.

 

The $8,400 slipcover she mistook for a dress is not the only sign Mrs. Chimp is morphing into Marie Antoinette. Troops are dying three a day on average in Iraq, her stubborn simian has not a clue on how to get them out and we’re hemorrhaging money along with their blood, but what is top priority at the White House? Finding her a pastry chef. What’s that old saying? Let ’em eat spun sugar? With Xanax, it must be an essential nutrient.
Just when you think it’s impossible to feel more disgusted, the Chimp up and decides to imitate a designated driver who has had eight margaritas and thinks just one more will do the trick. And he’s not picking up the tab. Maybe what this country needs is MAPP — Mothers Against Power-drunk Presidentin’.

 

Now that Alain Ducasse is auctioning off his own private Versailles, I hope he is at least thinking in echoes of Norma Desmond. He’s still big. It’s New York that got small. Even I can’t believe how tame the food scene has turned since he opened in a blaze of ridicule only six years ago. You can get all the steak you want, but try to get excited anymore. The dulling of Manhattan has to be due partly to the epidemic of greedism — the obscenely rich are always ridiculously timid about investing their ill-gotten gains in daring food, while creative chefs have to cross the water to pay the rent now that virtually every block has a two-bank minimum. But if the world’s most acclaimed chef actually does reopen, I have one word for him: Burgers. Over-bonused louts love ’em. Stuff them with foie gras, charge out the ying-yang and he could even get away with serving them with a selection of silver mustard-spreaders, purse stools on the side.

Call this defining celebrity down: A cruise line is offering classes at sea with a lineup of “renowned guest chefs” that includes two obscurities whose only claim to fame is having “challenged” a couple of marquee names on “Iron Chef.” Imagine a week on the water with any of them, glittery or no. You’d be hoping for gastroenteritis for excitement.

Speaking of misguided touts, I spotted an elevator sign while coat-shopping at Lord & Taylor that was advertising “our infamous toasted ice-cream sandwich.” Who did it kill? And then there was the special I passed, posted outside some overpriced dive on Amsterdam: Mediterranean cheese roulette. Need any more proof that real Russians use sushi?

Prix fixe is a term that seems to addle even the restaurants that use it, but it was still funny to see how the new Blue Point crepe joint on Ninth Avenue translates it — not as the usual “price-fixed,” which sounds faintly Enrony, but as “the French fix,” which seems alluringly druggy. No wonder so many Fleet Week sailors were stopping to study the menu.

Given everything we now know about salmon, a certain ode to the one-source smoker in New York should have been titled: Garbage in, garbage out. The fact that such an influential publication would blithely promote farmed fish would seem amazing if not for other bizarre touts for anti-Pollan ingredients lately. What’s oddest is how this became a story when smoking is the one affordable way to make wild salmon fit for travel. I guess if it’s bad for you, and the environment, it’s good for twaddle by any name.

This has been lying on my desk for almost a month, but I’m still confused. A story in amNY quotes from “The Itty Bitty Kitchen Handbook” to billboard this: “Use a trouser hanger as a book stand.” That almost makes Diana Vreeland look lucid. And I want whatever that copy editor was smoking.

A bizarre video popping up around the internets shows a couple of creationists attempting to prove the existence of America’s allah by fondling a banana and pointing out how intelligently designed it is, right down to the pop-top to open the skin and extract the fruit. But the banana is nothing compared with the avocado, which may be English for tree testicle but never seems lurid when handled. Not only is it the perfect food, with myriad nutrients, but it looks absolutely gorgeous. And every time I see the poster for the new Pearl Jam CD around town, I keep thinking back to a dinner we went to recently where the organizers did not seem to realize they had a gem on their hands and worked it so hard they turned it into costume jewelry. Why in the world would you griddle an avocado and top it off with foie gras brulee, for dios’s sake? Or deep-fry an avocado? Or whip it into dessert? This is nature’s most sublime food in its most unadorned state. If you want to knock someone’s socks off, serve a single slice of dead-ripe avocado with a little sea salt. One bite and you’ll see god — and not look like an ape eating.

Call it a kernel of confusion: Blathering about alternative fuels, the Addict in Chief announced that “you just got to recognize there are limits to how much corn can be used for ethanol — after all, we got to eat some.” Dude, you don’t eat that kind of corn. (Well, maybe you would — embarrassing photos do exist.) But then again, the useful idiot has a point. If we all gave up high-fructose corn syrup, and corn-fed cheap beef, we wouldn’t need to get out and walk.

One of the best things about living in the Northeast is tripping over history everywhere. Just taken to lunch by friends in Connecticut, in fact, I realized how great it was that we fought a Revolutionary War. It made the world safe for a Fife & Drum restaurant.

Why is not surprising to learn that the Tantrum-Thrower in Chief uses his decider powers to order baby food (peanut butter and honey sandwiches) for lunch? The bigger mystery is why the chef his wife canned, and the Wall Street Journal, would think anyone really wanted a recipe for the favorite dinner of the most reviled president since Nixon. A Saddam stew would be more appetizing at this point.

In other weirdness in Mrs. Chimp’s kitchen, the Washington Post reported that the Chinese president was not only subjected to heckling, jerking around and other diplomatic gaffes but was also served “butter heirloom corn broth.” This is America. Type English, damn it.

The NYTimes freelancer inquisition is a classic case of closing the barn door after all the cash cows have gotten out. I see some bylines and wonder: Written anything that resulted in a lawsuit? Does a hefty libel judgment against your check-cutter count? I see many others and wonder: Taken any junkets in the last two years? Does the Pope poop in the Vatican?
Earth to 43d Street: You can’t demand high-end advertising copy if you won’t underwrite high-end editorial excursions. Not everyone is lucky enough to have other ways to see the world. And clearly, not everyone worries about facing the mirror in the morning. . . .

I won’t soon forget my consort’s face when I told him over dinner on his first night home after a week off tending to his mom that I had a terrible confession. But then I couldn’t have been more ashamed if I had actually cheated on him as I admitted: “I ate a patty melt. In Macy’s Cellar.” I don’t know which sin was more mortal: eating ground beef from who knows where in the age of mad cow, or doing it in a department store basement. Luckily, Bob is almost never judgmental and I could explain that I had gotten to the store starving, and I can always be led into patty melt temptation for two reasons: 1. My last summer in college I worked as a waitress, and the fry cook always made them special for me, without the nasty onions. 2. Loudon Wainwright has a song about being out on the road and wondering “how many patty melts can one man eat?” In Manhattan, not many.

So how was it? Grim. The meat actually tasted decent and was cooked right, but the cheese was not melted onto it, and the bread was square, not rounded, so there were huge expanses untouched by the grease and meat. Don’t ask about the fries, just realize that you have encountered them in any restaurant with a freezer. I felt sick afterward, even though I should have known I would get screwed, and not by the Fedex guy.

This is why consultants get the big bucks. An apparently well-intended promoter is urging New Yorkers to “pig out at one of our Dining for Darfur participating restaurants.” Wouldn’t it have been more direct just to say: “Feel their pain — binge and purge”?

After all the much-needed publicity Myers of Keswick was showered with just for having a cat trapped in a wall, I wonder how long it will be until Del Posto drops a baby down a well.

I’m confused. Michael Pollan had to hunt down and kill a wild boar for his supper, but it’s perfectly okay to do your Easter foraging under the fluorescents in the industrial pork aisle of the supermarket? What would Jesus reheat? Typical modern parent, though: Awesome, Dude would rather be a self-indulgent smart-ass today than leave a clean environment for tomorrow. At least he paid his penance by kissing celebrity butt. Personally, I would rather pull my own teeth than extract recipes from a chef who believes his own PR. Especially if I had to go with non-Niman Ranch ham in hand, reeking of Smithfield sewage lagoons.

I thought Porkette could be just another name for the usual mystery-pork-is-cool cliche, which is Spam, but my footloose friend Dgroff had a better idea: It sounds like a blog.

So the NYT has finally started demanding full disclosure from freelancers. My first thought was of someone who must feel so lucky to be grandmothered in. Tony Luke’s again? What, are there euros in those pizzini?

Speaking of environmental head-in-the-sandism, the attitude of some chefs in the Journal’s exemplary story on growing their own produce was astoundingly clueless. Some of these guys admit they bring seeds in for fruits and vegetables they taste overseas, and while a couple said they had no idea it was illegal, one said he flouted the law because he “decided his seeds would cause no harm because they were to be planted by only one farmer on a small plot.” Has he never heard why all the indigenous corn in Mexico is getting wiped out? It’s called genetically modified pollen crossing over. If I were the nasty type, I’d say get your head out of your Greenmarket ass and rent “Darwin’s Nightmare.” The reality of one little imported fish eradicating all the native varieties in Lake Victoria will leave you fetishizing boring asparagus.

Overall, the food page in the Saturday Journal did not make chefs come off as the most seasonally sensitive souls. Alain Ducasse’s aide-de-New York actually offered a menu featuring both morels and tomatoes. I know where to find the former, for $40 a pound, but we are a very long way from the latter. Even Ducasse must know money can’t buy you ripe.

File under, No, You Haven’t Heard It All: On our second bottle of wine in a restaurant I won’t glorify by naming, the waiter asked the three of us to describe the taste to him, “so I’ll know what to say to the next people who order it.” A little lit, we were a big help, throwing out conflicting descriptives like fruity and dry, and then my consort thought to ask: “Don’t they let you taste the wine you sell?” And he actually said no. Ordinarily we would have offered him a glass, but this was like being served by a squeegee guy — you can’t encourage that behavior. Maybe the owners should do as Daniel now proudly does, and buy the stuff in a box. Why should the uncorker be the last to know?

I got an e-press release the other day touting “Dungeoness” crab. Isn’t that what they serve at the Cheneys’? Or is that just Lynne?

Over brioche and watery cappuccino at Georgia’s, my friend the literary agent was bemoaning the publishing world’s obsession with celebrity lately and wondering when the cycle had to peak, although she agreed it was not likely to be anytime soon when a flash in the bedpan like Rachael Ray can sell 600,000 copies. I walked home depressed, then picked up Good Housekeeping and felt instantly better. It quoted Christie Brinkley on the “healthy substitutions” she makes in putting food on her family: low-fat cheesecake made with Splenda, and baked sweet potatoes dipped in ketchup (a k a high-fructose corn syrup). If this is what the famous are actually eating, let’s face it: Unlike the poor, they will not always be with us.

One detail in a particularly disgusting little-lost-white-girl crime story made me think it’s not just knowing that a chimpanzee who believes in the Rapture has his hairy finger on the button that is convincing people we’re heading into the end of days: As part of his arsenal, a wannabe cannibal bought a meat tenderizer to do the deed. Yes, a meat tenderizer, for distinctively puffy American flesh. Not only is this a sign of an over-accessorized civilization on the brink. But apparently one scumbag did more planning for one killing than Rumsbag did for countless thousands. Allah help us all, but maybe the Halliburton contracts should have gone to Williams-Sonoma.

The only thing that got me through a week of Rudy the Moralizer being back in the news was remembering a particular product I noticed in so many macelleria windows in Venice. Some people might have looked at that grandstander wallowing in 9/11 and thought old “I Didn’t Know She Was My Cousin When I Married Her” was presidential material. I saw Wudy, the Italian hot dog.

It figures that Time would decide Molto Ego was worth a huge spread just as a big agent and a big newspaper were saying he was well down the road to Roccodom. This is the same publication, after all, that thought Ann Coulter was a cover story, and even that “brand” hadn’t stooped to pandering to NASCAR. To me it says it all that the same writer was chosen to fellate both subjects at great length. He certainly took to the task with more enthusiasm than a freewheeling friend of mine on the other coast who knows the vain one from well before the Coach connection and who emailed me after reading the blow job to make it clear that she had had some issues with his heft and hygiene and “didn’t fuck him.” After so many Gael confessions, that was refreshing to hear. Obviously he’s over and out.

For all the evil the Liar in Chief is doing to this country, he may actually accomplish some minuscule good. Maybe one day Americans will start to get the message that everything is suspect. And then the American Pork Board will have a harder time running an ad for Rovian-sounding “niche pork” with a “farmer” toasting a chef with a wineglass grasped in a smooth and perfectly manicured hand. One thing about lying down with hogs. You do not get up with shining-clean nails.

Speaking of dirty little realities, it was fascinating to see the New York restaurant industry’s response to the report documenting how overworked and underpaid kitchen workers are more likely to bleed in your food. Here was a chance to push for the end of the tip system and the beginning of health care for everyone, but instead platitudes worthy of Scott McClellan flowed out, starting with, “Food safety is the No. 1 priority of restaurant operators.” If you believe that, someone has a health savings account to sell you. This is America. It’s all about the bottom line. Only the countries we scorn — like the land of Freedom Fries — seem to understand a Band-Aid and a rubber glove are not much protection for anyone on either side of the plate. Not to repeat myself too often, but never forget that Typhoid Mary was a cook.

Life is so flimsy it’s probably a waste of thinking to pick on it, but you have to wonder how the food contributor gets away with hyping a book he co-wrote. Mr. $25 & Under must be borrowing a page from Dick Cheney: Need a brunch topic? Look around and realize the best candidate is yourself.

The most fascinating thing I’ve read in months was the NYT letter to the editor from two women photographed for that months-late, dollars-short Page One “news” on centers where moms go to fix a week’s worth of meals because it’s just too much trouble to put food on their families from their own freezers. They were adamant that they “will not be returning to the franchise.” Translation: Busted. It’s one thing to go off and do something so uncool the Times recognizes it. It’s quite another to have the world see you’re feeding your kids Stouffer’s without the packaging.

Given how much newspaper real estate is devoted to the great American crisis at the dinner table lately, though, it’s sobering to walk into a wondrous show from the New Orleans Museum of Art at the AXA Gallery at the Equitable Center and come across two stark photos by Lewis Hine that should stun you into thinking it’s the editors, not the kids, with ADD anymore. One depicts a ragged boy about 8 years old, the other two little girls, one no more than 5, the other maybe 7 or 8. The photos are gripping as documentary work, but what kicks you in the stomach is the captions. One reads, “cannery worker,” the other, “oyster shuckers.” Both were taken in 1911. In less than a century children have gone from near-slaves to pampered princes whose guardians are so busy chauffeuring them from soccer practice to Condi lessons that they barely have time to nourish them, let alone socialize them. At least if you believe what you read in the papers. Somehow I kinda doubt obesity and hyperactivity were big issues in canneries and oyster depots. And I wonder if the mantra of those factory owners was that exploited little kids were just doing the jobs Americans would not.

Better observers than I can tell you about all the movin’ and shakin’ allegedly going on at the Food & Wine “best new chefs” party. I was more impressed with the space, the Battery Maritime Building where the city has proposed creating a market to rival Ferry Plaza in San Francisco. That seemed silly until we stepped out of the dazzling new Staten Island ferry terminal and saw how accessible the gorgeous old place actually is. It would be a spectacular food hall, especially with that veranda looking out onto the harbor, straight to the Statue of Liberty. The exterior is already under renovation by the city; the interior, raw as it is, has the grand potential to outdo Ferry Plaza. And maybe that’s why the party was underwhelming, despite the 600 invites that went out and despite the usual head-shattering music by one of those onanistic deejays who think the last great songs are circa “Stayin’ Alive.” In such cavernous surroundings, even the four Best Old Chefs looked a little small (Laurent Tourondel deserved a fresh award for his food, though). One thing was undeniable. As the best man said at the fanciest wedding we ever went to: “This had to cost a fucking fortune.” If the building benefits, it was a worthy cause.

One of the many reasons to see the insidiously brilliant “Inside Man” is the chance to watch Julian Niccolini get his five seconds of comeuppance. Even better, he spends his mini-moment with Denzel Washington, who responds to the imperious, “May I take your hat?” with a dismissive, “Get your own.” If only the Four Seasons were so dramatic in real life.

I should be mortified to admit this, but my feet seem to be taking me into the dread TWC more and more often. I have no control over them, clearly. Most recently they dragged me all the way up the escalators to Bouchon when I was running out of options for a fast lunch after walking far west from PT. I did dissuade them from stopping at the cafe itself when I saw how grim it looked — a detention center in a sterile mall under a huge Samsung sign, and with no wine to boot — but they won when I realized I could not walk any farther than the takeout counter a few limps away. If that had been my first taste of Thomas Keller, I would have thrown out his two cookbooks. None of the sandwiches looked either interesting or irresistible, especially not the ridiculous $6.95 cashew butter-and-jelly assemblage. I settled for roast beef and Fontina, waited a short eternity to have it “pressed” and settled for undistinguished cold meat and half-melted cheese. It was enough to stop the whole silly “pressata” craze even before Dunkin’ Donuts starts pushing “stuffed melts.” I still have warm memories of lunch at the French Laundry, but one bite here was more likely to send me trotting straight to Amy’s Bread than to Per Se. This is New York. If you’re going to make it here, you have to make sandwiches an art form.

Apparently there’s great joy in Blogville these days: Fatter Guy has struck out. Something to do with ethics, my e-correspondent who nicknamed him implies. The only shame is that this is not the high colonic the org really needs. Given its history of character assassination, its motto really might as well be: “Integrity, my ass.”

Would you buy an airline guide from this site? Oag.com has a bright little tout up for the new Cafe d’Alsace that includes the advice: “Be sure to try the classic dessert choucroute garnie; it is one of the signature desserts.” Really, there’s nothing like sauerkraut a la mode.

Everybody seems worked up over the cloned pigs that are allegedly going to save our bacon, healthwise. I find the whole idea no more absurd than any other Big Food innovation lately. Quaker is marketing oatmeal cookies for breakfast. Chips Ahoy are “whole grain” now. Wonder Bread is softer and whiter than ever but even more nutritious, the Journal tells us. Why indict a ham sandwich as the new lifesaver?

This is why cellphones on airplanes will be the end of the world as we know it. I stopped into Rosa Mexicano uptown for a very early dinner and had the great luck to be seated at a table next to an expensively dressed, hypergroomed black guy who was working out a very nasty-sounding family situation in the happy hour din, one that involved “cutting a check for $10,000 immediately to shut her up” and “subpoena” and “keeping Leeshie under control.” Every call started with, “Can you hear me?” when they could probably hear him up at Columbia. People at tables all around him were turning to gawk, and he kept bellowing, staring out the window intently as if we couldn’t see him if he didn’t see us. My favorite line was, “We need to get right on this or our shit’s gonna be all out on the street by Monday,” and I resisted pointing out, “Buddy, your shit’s all over this restaurant.” I guess I could have asked to be moved, but instead I ate my excellent crab enchiladas as fast as I could and walked out happy I was earthbound. If this had all transpired at 30,000 feet, I would have had to beat him to death with a molcajete.

I see the owners of Cafe Loup are complaining that the unending construction chaos on 13th Street is destroying their business. I’m sure it’s not helping, but last time we inched our way through the mess to meet a friend for a glass of wine, I certainly didn’t get the sense anyone cared about our particular business. The place smelled, it looked seedy, the bartenderess was neglectful to hostile and the whole feeling was like wandering into an Elks lodge without a membership card. It was the antithesis of happy to serve you. They can blame the Big Dig, but it’s more likely connected to the lint that has been dislodged in my cranial sieve — all I can think about is that awful “Look What They’ve Done to My Song” back in high school and how every time the caterwauling started on the radio my friend Henry would say, “What do you mean, they? You shit in your own nest.”

Maybe it’s a Village thing, though. We braved Pearl Oyster Bar early on a Saturday night and were faced with a 45-minute wait in a packed room and stepped outside to have a drink. Right next door is Le Gigot, but the bitch at the bar all but threw up a crucifix in a garlic braid to keep us out. “It’s an eating bar,” she said, even insisting the cushions in the window were not for the comfort of mere drinkers. No matter that the bar was completely unoccupied, of course. We just took our $20 and spent it down the block at Palma. And when we left Pearl a couple of hours later after an excellent lobster roll and halibut on cabbage with bacon, half those same barstools were sitting empty and sad. The funny thing was that Le Gigot had been my back-up plan if Pearl was impossibly zooey; if we’d been allowed to check in, we might not have checked out. So I look forward to the day when the owners complain to the City section that their business is dying. They can blame their own big chill.

The cookbook reviewer for a revamped home design magazine is starting to make a name for herself: disingenuous. One month she’s contending she doesn’t know how small a small jalapeno might be, the next she’s insisting that “hard-to-find ingredients are not my thing.” Someone had better alert the husband. It’s what he sells.

Just back from Italy, I’m ready to turn around and go back. For our first meal close to home, I chose a difficult place where the chef knows me and reflexively reserved in my consort’s name, then hung up and wondered: “Why did I do that?” And Bob immediately said, “Because you want to be treated like shit.” We actually weren’t, but we were seated next to the kind of fat braying cretins you never hear in Europe and had to finish our food in defeated silence while subjected to the trashing of a soon-to-be-ex-wife, one who “needs a guy who makes real money, like $100,000 a year.” And at our second outing, to Blaue Gans for brunch, the host came over and told Bob that if he wanted to shoot in the bright and lively room, he had to “ask the people.” This was after an apparent tourist across the room had blasted our table using a flash with no objection. The guy was nice about it, but I had whipped out my little PHD in countless restaurants in several cities with no hassle from anyone. And I walked out wondering how often “the people” at Daniel and Jovia and every other Manhattan restaurant are asked before they are videotaped. This is America. Your every move is monitored.

Then there was the official welcome home. We flew Delta, an airline so bankrupt it can apparently only afford plastic flatware in child size, and that terminal at JFK feels one step below Third World to begin with. But we were shooed over in the passport line to a booth where a very large, very mean-looking functionary snapped at us that he was closed. Of course he was. He was busy trying to open a bottle of Pepsi by slicing off the top with a huge Bowie knife. I guess we should be glad he wasn’t using a prison dog.

The best sign I spotted in nine days was at L’Osteria di Santa Marina in Venice: “Water is a precious gift. Drink wine.” They meant it, too. My two glasses of pinot grigio totaled 3 euros. The bottled acqua was 2.60.

Our last night in Venice was a trip down the rabbit hole to the new Italy, a country where you can now eat a splendiferous lunch and see an Asian chef walk out of the kitchen. I think we were 20, after the TPW “Water Color” slide show, so we were all herded across a canal to one very long table in an osteria called 40 Ladroni. The food, pre-ordered by a fussy eater with a brilliance for crowd control, was big platters of what every American fantasizes about finding in a watery wonderland: polenta with baby shrimp; mussels and clams in spicy brodo; calamari fritto; risotto with another kind of shrimp; gnocchi with crab and tomatoes. But what made it surreal was eating under the deliberately averted eye of a gray-haired woman standing regally at the back of the front room, in a Venetian hat and a long gray cloak, seeming very time-warpy except for the Band-Aid slapped across one bony cheek. Then there was the cheery waiter, who looked and sounded Irish. And the kitchen, which was a veritable model UN, or at least a page out of Benetton. We could have been in Kansas. And I don’t think even John Berendt could make it up.

I also seem to recall sitting across a table from Rande Gerber and Frank Rich one night. I think Susan Anspach turned up somewhere, too. But that was all outside Venice and will need a while to assimilate. Meantime, I’m off to bake some beans since time is getting tight to cook the bunny for Easter. Food writing really is the last refuge of scoundrels.

Walmart help us if Costco ever decides to open in Manhattan. One Dining section might not be big enough for that advertorial. Besides the fact that it’s so provincial to get so lathered up over a chain selling processed food, pandering to a prospective advertiser feels unseemly. The crossover has become so pervasive, though, that when someone called to ask me the best way to get in touch with Molto Ego I could only say: “Call the New York Times. Ask Frank Bruni.”

Jon Stewart’s opening skit at the Oscars reminded me again of the search for a new president for Enron on 12th Street. Rumor has it that not even Mr. Moviephone will take the job.

Predictably, techno-chefs and their groupies are up in arms over the NYC health department’s decision to crack down on sous vide, the technology that seems to carry more cachet than grass-fed beef anymore. Maybe bureaucrats are erring on the side of caution, but for once I’m happy to see them step in a little more aggressively than government seems willing to do on mad cow. One of the most unforgettable lessons of restaurant school was how easy it can be to kill someone: All you need to do is forget sauteed onions under a tight cover on a warm grill. By morning you may have created something completely new, and it isn’t trendy. It’s botulism. And it’s just as lethal in clear plastic. Since cooking has finally become brain surgery, those boys with toys should be making the authorities nervous. Who’s minding the Seal-a-Meal when kitchens are a continent apart?

I like the food coverage in New York magazine and really want to trust it, but I choked when I saw the choice for best sandwich in the whole city. That nasty attempted Hot Brown at Bar Americain would be scraped into the closest trash can in Louisville. Just for starters, the real deal is never made with what tastes like French toast. The travesty is about as good as pastrami would be on challah with mayonnaise in Kentucky.

Was anyone else not at all surprised to find that the shock heard ’round the world was yet another mendacity, the one about the girl who died after kissing a kid who had eaten peanuts? Once upon a time, back when I started in newspapers, a cynical editor would have ripped that report off the wire and tossed it straight in with the Flayed Hot Brown. Now, if it lies, it flies. Allergy advocates need to get a grip. Cry WMD often enough and no one is going to take the death threat seriously. You can’t have your lactose intolerance and eat Haagen-Dazs, too.

I wish I could learn to let sleeping sluts lie. A friend goaded me into reading a certain excerpt of a certain memoir, and I’ve been trying to flush the images out of my cranial sieve ever since. I can’t forget the first young chef whose skin was still crawling when he told me the only way to get a good review was to sleep with the reviewer. I thought he was just being cruel. But no, now it’s out for all the world to read. My consort often accuses me of having an overactive imagination and I guess he’s right. Lately I keep conjuring another critic with weak ankles wrapped around the clogged one. This might be a Drano moment.

An anonymous quote in a guide to Venice sent by a friend we will be meeting there shortly seems particularly apt in the wake of the breathlessly awaited Del Ego review. The silly assumption that Panchito became an expert in Italian food just by being posted to Popeville was floated out once again to try to give a little credence to another episode of condescension from 43d Street, this time from a guy who could very well have spent his expense account at the McDonald’s on the Piazza della Rotunda. As the good book says, “Traveling makes you witty, but he who departs dull will return dull.”

The review may have been an anticlimax after the wild foreplay Panchito gave the Batali empire so long ago, but it did get me thinking back to the night my consort and I ate at Esca with the poor guy’s esteemed predecessor and his wife. I don’t remember much about the food, beyond an underwhelming fritto misto, but the image of the other B on the team circling the room and greeting every other table but ours is as vivid as if happened last night. It was such an obvious tipoff that he knew he had a critic on the premises, and that subtlety is not his strong suit. And maybe that explains the scruffy one’s statement in the vastly entertaining NYObserver takeout on the lease troubles at the Italian Versailles: “Somehow my partner Joe’s signature got on a piece of paper that maybe he hadn’t looked at.” These guys could be working at the White House.

My new favorite saying is “hype goes before a fall,” but it’s still odd that New Yorkers seem to be gunning so hard for Morimoto’s backer to fall on his multimillion-dollar face. Haven’t they noticed that the Stephen Starr of Manhattan seems to be stumbling, even with Eric Ripert to hold onto? Barca 18 is now offering a 20 percent midday discount. And to paraphrase Yogi Berra: If people don’t want to go there, nothing is going to stop them.

A bizarre item in the NYSun could be seen as a chronicle of cheese foretold. Once upon a time, maybe 15 years ago, the news was always that bread was getting better, that more and more idealistic New York bakers were working seriously hard to produce loaves better than you would find in Europe. Then everyone started to take the stuff for granted. No one even remembered the bad old days when the rumor was that the Mafia controlled restaurants to the extent that the bread basket could contain nothing but cotton in a light crust. And now apparently extraordinary bread has become such a given that a New York City writer could actually produce, and have published, a piece touting — you won’t believe this — Pepperidge Farm frozen bread. “Hearth Fired Artisan Bread” at that. Apparently the only redeeming value is the aroma of baking bread. And if that’s the model, one day not so long from now Kraft will be talking artisanal and selling farts.

“I am about to encourage you to buy and cook a fruit that is probably not available in your grocery store” is the food story equivalent of “It was a dark and stormy night.” Except Snoopy never went on to pat himself on the back for making prosciutto and fresh thyme available to the masses. I think I just heard the sound of one kumquat condescending, especially since I write for a supermarket magazine that definitely wanted the k word in a recipe this winter. Earth to 43d Street, too: America is not always the great unwashed. Even the soap in our hotel room out in Athens, Ohio, was culinarily correct, with a label boasting grapefruit and sage. But I guess it deserves scorn for not evolving to extra-virgin olive oil yet.

The real news you can use was not the story that supermarket beef might be the scariest food you can put in your shopping cart, and not just because it’s now being treated with carbon monoxide. If anyone still thinks it’s a good idea to buy anything but a D’Artagnan chicken out of the average store’s butcher case, I have some farmed salmon I could sell. No, the best thing I read was in the Journal’s Pursuits section, on wild man David Burke starting to raise his own beef. One solid trend story made the excellent point that even American idols like Niman Ranch can lose their cachet when they sell out to fast food. And it also demonstrated that real change in the food world is induced by the people who make it happen, not the ones who simply sit and write. Forget that and you might as well take me to the finger bowl and drown me in the shallow water.

Some bar in Las Vegas is serving a “liquid fortune cookie,” made with cream, Bailey’s and Amaretto pistachio cream. I think I can guess what the prediction is, too: Very shortly, you will puke.

Speaking of the blabble (that’s blog rabble, you know), I have to say one thing I’ve learned in 22 years is that the hardest part of reviewing cookbooks is coloring inside the lines. A technique may sound a little off, an ingredient may seem dispensable, a pan size may look interchangeable, a whole dish may read like a recipe for disaster. But if you don’t follow directions, you can’t blame the map when you get pathetically lost. Now I think I’ll go try a Marion Cunningham omelet without egg yolks and see what that does for my credibility.

You may never encounter so much as a bag of peanuts on a plane anymore, but it’s encouraging to know the airlines have not thrown out all their amenities with the pillows and blankets. Delta, the Wall Street Journal happily reports, is going to start stocking its lavatories with “antibacterial ‘lemon grass wasabi’ hand wash” to “satisfy health-conscious customers.’’ I don’t know which is scarier: the Roy Yamaguchiesque fusion, or the idea that microscopic bugs are more dangerous than the little outburst lately of hungry, thirsty, leg-cramped and wigged-out passengers trying to open doors in mid-flight. But it could be worse. They could be trying to update the lasagne.

While Dining was going all ethno-trivial on us, the mighty Cuozzo was breaking news and naming names. His piece on remote cameras spying on dining rooms was a piece of work that demonstrated yet again that the best decision he ever made was throwing away his critic’s notebook to engage in that increasing rarity, reporting. I just hope the voyeur down at Zoe does not take it as an excuse to install a camera in the Jovia men’s room under the guise of checking on the toilet paper his employees neglect. No wonder Americans are rolling over and playing dumb at the Chimp’s illegal surveillance. They already know we live in a White Castle world, with a camera on every transaction except the ones that matter, the devious dealings in the bunker where GoFuckYourself eats puppies for bar snacks and washes them down with snake oil.

My favorite restaurant pro is risking never eating dinner again for free in this town. In officially blogging his latest hostage situation at Enron on 12th Street, where meals go on for weeks, he details some bizarre encounters during an event with a particularly craven choice of a chef from a nothing resort (I guess the grill guy at Applebee’s was booked). On the way out he also gets a waiter to lament the decline and fall of both the cooking and the clientele in that self-described temple of high-end cuisine. No longer is the food “extraordinary,” with guests showing “reverence,” he says; now they “gorge themselves on Champagne and are drunk by the time dinner starts.” It can’t be an accident that he then notes that the menu included “Florida stone craps.”

If all the yellowcake-rattling by Iran lately is not scary enough, now comes a true sign that the apocalypse is upon us. Ten Speed Press is publishing a Twinkies cookbook. With recipes by real people, it says, for stuff like “sushi.” For dessert. But it gets worse. The cover of the publisher’s catalog actually showcases an elaborate cake made of Twinkies apparently encased in marzipan. Aspiring cookbook authors everywhere should just hang it up and let Hostess do the writing; I’m sure there must be 50 ways to use a Ding Dong, too. The occasion is actually a commemoration of a food spawned in the Depression, though, so maybe it’s just right for our times. But what’s most appalling is that the book comes with cover blurbs, making it very clear it’s way past time for Jane Stern to hit the road. And what’s saddest is knowing that “news” outlets everywhere will jump on the PR campaign. Bogus food always goes down easier than reality out of Iraq or New Orleans.

Funny to see the chef at the new Ruhlmann’s boldfacing Tavern on the Green on his resume. There once was a time when earning two stars there was enough to get you banished to Switzerland, as a chef I knew in the mid-Eighties was by Warner LeRoy, who was outraged that the NYTimes came up two short. And for the last many years the place couldn’t even get arrested. But now I wouldn’t be surprised to see it popping up on brunidigest. We can’t count on Mimi’s wisdom anymore, only the comfort of Panchito’s wiseass.

A raw milk rebellion seems to be simmering out in America, but my cynical side suspects cheese makers who want to do their European best have an up-Everest road ahead of them. Right now this country is going backward on flavor and nutrition and quality, not forward, with industry foxes positioned at most every henhouse where artisanal ideas might be hatched. Take New York City’s decision to outlaw regular old whole milk in public schools. As Nina Planck pointed out at the press lunch for her forthcoming book “Real Food: What to Eat and Why,” kids don’t get enough calcium from skim milk, and they have trouble digesting it. They need the real deal. (And as she also noted, if obesity is the problem, the solution is more what Connecticut announced in the very same news cycle with its ban on sugary drinks in schools.) Somehow I think serious dairy will be struggling as long as the lobbyist most in the news besides Jackoff is the one working for Kraft.

I read somewhere that when Americans are asked if they voted in the last election, 91 percent will say yes. But I also notice the same relationship with reality surfaces when the morbidly obese are quizzed on what they eat in a given day. I just spotted an interview with a Hastert-size woman who says breakfast is coffee and an egg sandwich, lunch is Diet Pepsi and leftover Indian chicken and dinner is grilled shrimp and a big salad and more Diet Pepsi. Not only that, one of her favorite kitchen tools is her George Foreman. So I guess it’s true what I always suspected. Aspartame and greaseless grilling do make you fat. Either that or lying is not just a presidential trait anymore.

If ignorance is truly bliss, there are some stunningly happy people on 43d Street. Every time the Greenmarket is addressed, the letters go astray. Who goes there? “The chefs, the foodies and the graying hippies,” Metro says. What is the unifying look for those who sell there? “Worn overalls and dirty fingernails,” City says. Maybe a couple of editors need to take off their green eyeshades and actually go take a look at a modern market. But I guess that would require a little more imagination than simply letting clichés run amok.

Hearing that the NYTimes has outsourced its food service, contracting with Restaurant Associates to provide fodder to the gray ghosts, brought back some interesting recollections of what I called the Cafe Regret. Like the one legitimate sick day I took in 46 months, after eating a wrap that had clearly been festering. Like the bacteria bar, the salad option frequented by surprising connoisseurs (suffice it to say that surimi is not anything you will ever see promoted in a certain column). Or like the grill jockey who had the world’s best technique for keeping his workload manageable — he could take so long to desiccate a single burger you would be quicker running out to Joe Allen’s, but it did mean he never had to cook very many. Mostly, though, I remember seeing a stylish byline in late afternoon eating one of the scary little pizzas that were always the last offerings to sell. Knowing she had started to work there the year I started kindergarten, I could only look at her and wonder how many of those excuses for lunch she had forced down, and what better life might lie anywhere else. No wonder a friend I just had lunch with was thinking longingly of what the RA guest chef was serving as she and I sat in an abysmal French restaurant. Roast pork with fingerling potatoes is haute cuisine compared with that old steam table standard: “taco, Mexican-style.”

We may never see the photos of the Chimp embracing Jackoff, but I can no longer say this administration does not believe in transparency. In a bizarre move, the FDA is actually proposing that food companies list insects in their ingredients. Well, insect derivatives, anyway: dyes made from beetles. Of course some Americans are riled up about it, judging by the article that ran in the Wall Street Journal. What it failed to note is how much food already contains matter that matters to vegetarians and kosher keepers; there are “allowable amounts” of insects in everything from flour on. Bugs happen, after all. The only difference is that Pillsbury doesn’t have to admit it, but Good & Plenty may be forced to do so. Somebody needs a better lobbyist.

Before finding my first big-city newspaper job, at the Louisville Times, I had earned the best money of my life slinging patty melts in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of journalism school. After dropping out and trying waitressing in Nebraska, I found people will always tip a student better than a pro. But you don’t learn that playing queen for a week, which is why I had a rather visceral reaction to the latest national exhibition of falling standards at a newspaper that once prided itself on ethics.

Waiting tables used to be what aspiring journalists did to put themselves though college. Now the profession has become so elitist that a restaurant critic can afford to do it only for a story. I’m trying to remember the last time a real reporter was allowed to use a fake name and fake identity for the sake of ephemeral copy. I guess I missed that class. But then this was Sweeps Week in print. And who needs integrity when there is buzz to be had? Whatever goes on in women’s bathrooms is nothing compared with what must happen in effete offices anymore.

I have the best readers: They slog through minimalist attempts at prose so I don’t have to clutter my empty head. And usually they make excellent points. How can you talk about top chefs opening casual places in Paris without putting Joel Robuchon and his Atelier into context, especially since he is bringing the concept to New York? Unfortunately, that question made me go back and look at the atrocity in question and my jaw pretty much dropped. The perpetrator actually contends that American top chefs were first to start opening casual places and that the “trend” has “spread” to France. I hate to point out the obvious, but the Parisians were accustomed to baby bistros a good 15 years ago; I even ate in Robuchon’s way back when. But I had to stop reading after that silly sentence. It brought back too many memories of poking at ledes and having the logic collapse. Some “writers” should stick to recipes. And check them twice.

So I’m sitting at the bar at the newish Tintol, waiting for my consort to stand me up, and it’s just me and a couple of guys drinking quietly and four couples who in about 30,000 years might manage to evolve enough to pass for Eurotrash. They are foul on every level, throwing their coats and bags and crap onto more than enough stools for four, crawling into each other’s laps, braying, taking cellphone pictures of themselves and generally acting like scum from across the pond. I keep thinking the place is doomed if that’s what’s allowed to hang out there, with no one at the door to rein them in. But then they finally leave, the sleek and sophisticated place goes quiet and I hear the excellent bartender communicating her relief with the two guys, who apparently work in the neighborhood and ask: “So, have you had your first fight yet?” Meet the new Times Square. Grosser than the old one.

For some reason every conversation over every meal anymore seems to turn to the decline and fall of the American empire now that we have a White House inhabitant whose idea of unacceptable behavior is literal fellatio, and by a woman. So it came to pass that we were halfway through lunch at Gaetano’s in Red Bank when the forthcoming televised exercise in doublespeak came up and I of course had to mention that the guy must be drugged lately. “His jaw moves in that really weird antidepressant way, and he gets that strange white stuff in the corner of his mouth that my mom always did, and she was schizophrenic and on serious drugs,” I was spewing when I noticed the young, very pretty, wide-eyed waitress had stepped up to the table and knew exactly whom we were talking about. “Our president?” she asked incredulously. And of course I had to say, “You know he’s an alcoholic, right?” She nodded and said, “But drugs? Drugs?” She thought a second and added: “They do make your jaw funny….” Then she walked away, leaving us to wonder if she was off to call the FBI. Maybe we should have tipped more. Homeland security is a marvelous thing. You just don’t want to have to live with it.

Good thing Americans have been thoroughly indoctrinated into ignoring anything that happens overseas. They don’t need to worry that U.S. beef is now banned in Japan, just a month after the stuff was allowed back in, since mad cow fears have sprung up yet again, over there if not here. (Nothing gets between this country and its obscenely cheap burgers.) But just imagine if the government devoted half as much energy to spying on stockyards and slaughterhouses as it does on poor saps Googling nonsense. We still wouldn’t have Osama dead or alive, but we might be spared meats of mass destruction.

It’s no wonder newspapers have trouble getting ads anymore — in a Holy Foods world, the news columns will always pick up the slack. The last time New Yorkers seemed this worked up was when Krispy Kreme came to town. Now the mega-news everyone is atwitter about is the silly announcement that Trader Joe’s is incoming. I’ve only been in one, outside San Francisco, and was underwhelmed, so maybe I’m missing something. Oh, right. Manhattan when it had character, before it was overrun by franchises.

Every day in every way American journalism loses a little more credibility. The latest example might not be as bad as a reporter admitting taking money from a crook she met at church in return for writing favorable articles (and ratting him out only when he didn’t pay the full freight). But you have to wonder about the newspaper, the freelancer and the whole world when a woman who writes a book with a chef gets to turn around and blow her a big drooling kiss in print. Hope it sold some cookbooks. And maybe some takeout. But the price of integrity just keeps dropping. If the food is really that spectacular, someone with distance if not believability should say it. Otherwise the Jeff Gannons will have won.

Coming off a seriously good if weirdly delayed series on diabetes, the NYTimes went right back into stenographer mode in its story on the city’s program to get bodegas to start selling low-fat milk. Of all the evils bloating the poor in this town, it’s hard to imagine whole milk could possibly be worse than half-gallons of high-fructose corn syrup and shelves and shelves of sugar for cheap. Bodegas are disappearing in my neighborhood since Symphony Space went all high-rent on us, but I still know the few that remain are not about dealing milk. And the city would be better off getting the Snapple sugar water out of the public schools before it tries to shove light milk into the Red Bull cases.

The true disconnect between the series and the rest of the paper, though, was a story actually headlined “Corn Farmers Smile as Ethanol Prices Rise, but Experts on Food Supplies Worry.” Anyone with half a brain knows where the corn our tax dollars subsidize goes, and it is not into nutritious food. Besides, the whole idea that cars will burn so much as fuel that humans will go hungry ranks right up there with pushing low-fat milk into what amount to snack bars. Please, starve us of that cheap Coke.

The really big news lately is that city restaurant inspections have been expanded online, and I was so reassured to see that one place I know too well is staying consistent. Way back when, I remember rat scat in the sticky buns. Today there is just “evidence of live mice” in the kitchen. I guess those shortbread cookies deliberately left out overnight as a distraction are finally working, at least for the inspectors.

After nearly 23 years of eating for a living, I should be impossible to shock, but I have to say Nice Matin has just provided one of my most astonishing restaurant experiences anywhere in the world. It happened when I hooked up with a friend just as the kitchen was closing in midafternoon. She ordered pistou, I asked for a second to look at the wine-by-the-glass list and we never saw the waitress again. I had to flag a busboy and put his finger on the Arbois line to get my order, and we sat neglected for the next 45 minutes until we flagged another busboy in a vain attempt to get a check. My friend, in a hurry to get to an antiwar vigil by grandmothers in midtown, set down a five-dollar bill as a tip and I started to protest, then figured, “Well, she’s a great supporter of women and labor, and besides, I have no ones, so what the hell?” We went to the bar and told the bartender we needed a check, and he first dragged the waitress out of the liquid staff meeting, then said: “If you didn’t get service, don’t tip her.” My friend, though, pulled out a twenty and handed it over to the derelict waitress along with a penny for the $15.71 bill. In return she got $4 and the penny back, and both of us were too surprised to say anything. Then, as we turned to leave, the waitress lunged at us, brandishing the check folder and whining, “There’s no tip?”

I’m afraid I went ballistic: “You’ve got to be kidding me. We get no service, the busboy brings the wine, you cheat her out of 30 cents and you’re demanding a tip? Didn’t you even look on the table?” I stormed over to make sure no one had made off with the excessive five and then turned to leave with my poor friend. We were almost at the door when the waitress ran back with the five, folded over, saying: “I’m sorry. Take it back.”

My friend, to her eternal credit, just said: “Keep it. Let it be on your conscience. And remember it the next time a little old lady crosses your path.”

I kinda doubt I will ever be her when I grow up. But I will take comfort in the fact that you never see the same waitstaff twice at Bad Matin. The good ones, I’ve noticed, go on to great jobs. The lousy ones, I can only hope, go to hell.

 

Let bigger role models than I decide whether the new cereals are politically fit to eat. I’m busy squandering my life obsessing on how Wilford Brimley went from Quaker oatmeal icon to diabetes-accouterments shill. It’s like seeing the Marlboro man reincarnated with a pink ribbon. And it certainly makes me think a breakfast burrito is a better start on the day than Big Food’s nutrition nuttiness.

If W (the magazine, not the chimpanzee in chief) can be believed, maybe Princess Di didn’t have to die in a Paris smashup. Her rival the Rottweiler could have just done her in with a favorite dessert, the “Mars Fridge Cake.” With diced Mars bars, cookies, fruit and nuts chilled into some gruesome mass, it makes deep-fried Snickers bars look positively genteel. Come to think of it, though, Camilla’s concoction would have backfired as an assassin’s plot. It’s a bulimic’s dream.

For some reason the New York Sun has been surfacing on my doormat every morning along with the three other newspapers I pay for, and it’s been a revelation. Everyone on 43d Street should get it. On the bad side, it would make them realize how tangled-up-in-payback Off the Menu reads (if separating subject from verb were an Olympic sport, this would be golden), and how crammed-in real news feels (one adjective from Bret Thorn is like a cruise compared with those sentences I was always instructed to “unpack” when editing). But on the plus side, it might make misspelling potpie in display type yet again seem like a venial sin. The Kitchen Dish column actually referred to a chef who had been working in India at a restaurant in “Deli.” Is that somewhere near Coldcutta?

For anyone weary of Panchito, there’s no rest even in the parodies. Thanks to the brunidigest, I now have information I was protected from by not reading the most recent nonsense in the newspaper that doesn’t seem to understand why its local circulation is shriveling like Pinch’s nuts: The latest two-star does not take reservations. That is the most basic of amenities any reasonable person would expect. Next he’ll be busting into fragile restaurants barely open long enough for the kitchen to know its way around the walk-in. Too late. Color him witless.

More evidence that the fish rots from the empty head down: The Chimp breezes into New Orleans and actually recommends y’all bring the family. Weird, since our friends are coming back shell-shocked at how devastated that magical city is, and he’s saying come on down, the food’s great. But cluelessness does not stop with brush-clearing in this fearsome new world of homeland security. We walked into Macy’s for a 25th-anniversary party without the invite and stopped to ask the “security” guard where De Gustibus might be. He literally squirmed backward and admitted, “Everyone’s comin’ in askin’ that. I’m not sure.” And of course you have to wonder how safe you would be if those goldurn turrists decided to attack on the eighth floor and the guy at the front door did not even know where the commotion might be coming from. But I guess it could have been worse: He could have called FEMA.

If you had to spend one last night on earth, though, the De Gustibus party would have sent you out with visions weirder than 72 virgins. I will have a hard time clearing my mind of the sight of Jacques Pepin grabbing Alain Sailhac and dancing him across the stage, butt in hand, while a shy but accomplished accordionist played “Happy Birthday.” One thing about cheese-eating surrender monkeys. They do know how to have a good time in this life.

Here’s a trend guaranteed to send spasms down your colon: According to the food prognosticator in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Starbucks is testing variations of the Egg McMuffin.” With coffee and grease, go-cup could take on a whole new meaning.

For once Panchito’s (and his editors’) lack of judgment leaves me speechless. I can only quote one friend who thought his Freudian stunt was a “mischievous muddle.” And another who simply wondered if he would now be reviewing another mother-son situation in one clueless swoop: Felidia and Del Posto. (Maybe a real Italian mamma in the Village is wise to be heading out of town with the review on the way.) It all seemed very unTimesian, but then this is now a paper that has sunk so low to keep the stockholder/employees satisfied that it runs refers to ads. If it’s Thursday, it must be the Olay story.

The Christian Science Monitor discovers the food blogiverse and whom does it ask for comment? The most overexposed quote ho in the restaurant business, a guy whose idea of a clever insult is “don’t just stand there, go blog something.” It makes about as much sense as interviewing the Lumiere brothers about digital cameras. I never thought I’d say this, but it might have been smarter to call Tim Zagat. Hot air, breaking wind — what’s the difference?

Wondering who in the world would spend their own money on a trip to Libya? Read Michael J. Totten in LAWeekly: ‘“For tourists we have fish,”’ [a waiter] said. He did not give me a menu. I didn’t see a single menu anywhere in the country. In Libyan restaurants you sit down and eat whatever they give you.” And how was that fish? Served guts and all, “it smelled bad and tasted worse.” Geez, maybe someone could run the recipe.

Booze brand managers may be doing their jobs too well. A murder report over New Year’s mentioned the victim and his pals had been drinking vodka and cranberry juice. And not just any vodka but Grey Goose. Now that cops and reporters are on message, it could be a new ad campaign: Cosmos to die for.

Everything you need to know about Panchito’s power can be summed up in one little tale of two restaurants on New Year’s Day: A friend tried to go to Cafe Luxembourg for brunch and wound up at Compass by default. His two-star was her second choice. His one-star was packed. But at least this explains how the restaurant reviewed more often than Alain Ducasse without ever rising above “very good” has survived so long: location, location, spillover. It’s a celestial sump pump.

In the annals of idiotic inventions the Juiceator ranks right up there with Snackwells. It’s a special straw that kids can punch into an orange to suck the juice out. And what’s so dumb about that? It’s supposed to be the answer to childhood obesity. According to that big paper that seems increasingly easy to dupe, the guy who came up with this was “trying to think of alternative snacks to potato chips and soda pops.” Before he continues pointing fingers at “deep-fried foods from fish to pizza,” though, he might want to think of another reason Baby Huey would look small in a grade school today. It’s called juice. It used to be rationed, served in tiny glasses. Now it’s sold in gallon jugs and drunk like water. And when you take away the fruit, with a straw that blocks out the pulp, all that’s left is sugar in liquid form. Once again, the solution is as bad as the problem.

These are days of miracle and wonder. In the same week I found myself cooking from the Wall Street Journal (yes, the Journal) and dropping $95 on a ham, a food I once gave up eating for 30-some years. The latter was the more life-changing experience: Once you eat Heritage Foods meat, it would be impossible to go back, even to Kurowycky’s extraordinary ham. But the Journal recipe had the saving grace of roasting shiitake caps to use as a garnish, and they were sensational. It’s a good thing the sesame noodles they went with, from a chef whose name I didn’t clip, were not great, or that paper could be dangerous. I could find myself making Bobby Flay’s brunch. And hating myself in the morning.

Four of us, including an out-of-town chef, had a good laugh at the $15.50 roasted cauliflower at Telepan. The main ingredient isn’t even in Greenmarkets, for Alice’s sake. But now it looks like a deal. Del Posto, myriad sites say, is putting out entrees that run $200 and up. They’re meant to be shared, but even then the math looks fuzzy. Either Halliburton is doing the menu pricing or the joke’s on anyone who wants to risk table-size disappointment (prime rule of ordering is that a kitchen can handle one sautéed skate per table; more and it all sogs down). As the visiting chef said of Bill Telepan, though, “If he can get it, God bless him.” Let’s hope some other supernatural being will be taking care of Molto greed.

Given how desperate the Metro section seems to be for stories these days (I keep expecting them to run some I did back on a weekly in Iowa, like homeowners with four — count ’em — birdhouses for purple martens), it’s not surprising that V’s predictable demise warranted a big display. The mystery is why the closing of Ooze of all places was worth a mention in another section. That poor chef seemed to be shelling out to the wrong people to the bitter end.

Pity the poor restaurant critics. They have to suffer so much tuna tartare and organic chicken. Work is hell, and then December comes. The pink paper’s reviewer has just gotten the look-back-in-crankiness trend rolling for 2005, and reading her you can see what the problem is: that damn expense account. Try eating farther down the food chain from Alto and Perry Street; mix it up a little and you might appreciate all that grass-fed beef. You might even break the cycle of chefs churning out crudo because critics lap it up. And that might stop all the whining that all menus are alike.

The muted outrage at the latest madness of King George would be more surprising if restaurants had not already taken to spying on the unsuspecting. It’s gotten to the point that the Michelin men say there are so many cameras trained on New York tables that anonymity is impossible. And let’s not forget who the first big chef was to admit he had cameras in the dining room, and not to check up on his waiters. Funny to think of the guy paid by we the people having so much in common with a French control freak. Clearly the Chimp does not know the history of a certain homeland or he wouldn’t be taunting: Let ’em eat privacy.

The newest trend in food, at least in newspapers, is using stock photos with recipes. It’s more insidious than outsourcing journalism — why should the Wall Street Journal shoot a fresh creme brulee from a New Orleans chef when there are iconic images to be had for almost nothing? All cremes brulee are alike, no? All that matters in media anymore seems to be the bottom line, not credibility. USA Weekend in particular is apparently unaware that cooks like visual references — you can judge a recipe by its representation. So whom does it help to illustrate “sautéed cherry tomatoes with garlic & basil” with Stockfood’s No. 643668 “cherry tomatoes on a square yellow cloth,” especially when the pictured herb is anything but? Don’t they think anyone wonders why the prime rib with garlic and rosemary is sitting on red onions flecked with thyme? Or why the creamed spinach could have come from a Stouffer’s box? It would be one thing if these were supermarket handouts, but they’re newspapers. It’s the same phenomenon that gets op-ed pages to accept free propaganda catapulted by conservative columnists on the government take. You can only wonder why Turdblossom hasn’t thought of handing out food photos with hidden messages. Wait — that would be the Chimp in Baghdad with the fake turkey. Deception accomplished.

Speaking of images your brain could live without: creamed spinach “so rich you’ll think this vegetable sprouted from an udder.” Seriously. That line was in a major metropolitan newspaper. One that also described Bobby Van’s staff as “more strip joint than strip steak.” Why do I keep envisioning streaming green pasties?

 

 

I don’t often feel sympathetic to the tourists who lumber through Times Square clogging the sidewalks and thinking they’re in New York. But after a one-two punch of local hospitality and cuisine after an opening at ICP, I almost wished I could be so Bubba Gump’s naive. We started at Angus McIndoe just because it was close by on a bitter-cold night, and we got a table right away but absolutely no attention, even though the place was less than half-full. Worse, no one noticed when we finally did the non-Nebraska thing and stood up, put down our napkins and menus, picked up our coats and scarves and walked out to John’s Pizza right next door. That old church was almost empty, and it was soulless even after it half-filled up with large people. The legendary pizza was middle American, the wine box quality, the service about as personal as a flu shot. You know it’s bad when you start thinking longingly of Olive Garden. And worse when you want to kiss the floor of the C train taking you home and not to a hotel.

 

 

Considering this is the season for lexicographers to choose their words and definitions of the year, I’m surprised Mallomars did not make the list as “swallows of Capistrano, New York style.” It’s a Metro miracle. They’re back.

 

 

The American Taliban’s insanity in trying to claim the biggest shopping season of the year for Christians only is certainly making me wonder what Jesus would buy. So thank allah there are food purveyors like the one that emailed me with the best suggestion, one that truly shows what the holidays are really all about: “Nothing says Merry Christmas better than a bucket of XXX’s delicious popcorn.” In caramel, “cheesey” and butter flavors. Maybe Bill O’Reilly could put a five-gallon bucket where the felafel won’t shine.

 

The latest installment of T for Travesty was so full of retching excess it’s hard to know where to start feeling appalled. On the same day the front page was telling unconscionable tales of New Orleanians still living in their cars while 222 billion of our tax dollars flow toward destroying another country, the overwrought advertorial was letting the Queen of Sazeracs blather on about her 28-foot dining table and wall-size stove in an intact home. You never expect good sense from a shiny rag, but good taste seemed to have flown out the same window. Did anyone really taste those factory-farmed steaks before touting them and trashing heritage turkeys? If so, that $1,435 bottle of wine obviously went to his or her head. Let’s hope I missed something and it was really all just a parody. At least the Daily News had the grace to make the gold leaf in its cocktail optional.

When I think of Thanksgiving, I don’t think of Stove Top Stuffing, but then I could never run America’s obit pages. The way the death of one of its inventors was covered, you would have thought she was the Karate Kid of processed food, merely because she happened to shuffle off this mortal coil 11 days before turkey day, in that lull before the media could start whipping themselves into a frenzy over shoppers trampling each other in malls (malls with stores that advertise, of course). I could see it if she had been part of the team that patented the pop-up timer, or canned cranberry sauce, or even instant mashed potatoes. But the significance of her product is simply that it turned a celebratory food into an everyday indulgence and merely facilitated the fattening of America, giving lazy cooks one more starchy-greasy thing to serve instead of fresh vegetables. If anything good can be said about the whole sorry story, it’s that the scary scientists who came up with Peeps just got some inadvertent career advice: If you want to be immortal, kick off around Easter.

Stove Top Stuffing looks as healthy and natural as an avocado, though, compared with what one wingnut boasted about making with her kids for Thanksgiving: pies (plural) filled with instant vanilla pudding, canned pumpkin, chocolate chips and Cool Whip. Talk about transcending the Twinkie defense. This is the best explanation yet for why Asian commentators who advocate internment stand up for the unevolved Chimp and try to bash liberals with rabid foam. Real food keeps you sane. Chemicals make you batshit crazy.

I waste my share of food for no good reason, but I still got queasy hearing about a turkey-eating competition the same day the papers were all running holiday cries for help from food pantries warning that demand is up almost 50 percent from families in New York who are going hungry since the rich all got richer under the oil president. It’s not just that gorging has become a spectator sport but more that something is profoundly wrong when the winner could be declared with less than half of a 10-pound bird under her belt. Come on, there are amateurs in this country who put away four pounds of red meat at a normal sitting. Next year, the organizers should make this a true challenge. Insist the hogs gag down tofu turkeys. And sell front-row tickets to benefit Second Harvest.

The food people at the Wall Street Journal’s new Saturday edition are just the latest to kick a dining section when it’s down. Stories on restaurant cooking so far have been hitting the right balance of trends-you-can-use information and chefs-know-stuff-but-not-everything skepticism. A survey on secret spices and condiments in particular was worth five years of Minimalism. And not least because it never once mentioned the B word, let alone flashed a clog.

A business story in the hometown paper says more than five new restaurants on average open every week here. So what the hell was I doing back at Rosa Mexicano downtown when I wanted a fast early lunch with a friend and my consort after the Greenmarket? Hope springs eternal would be one excuse, but the reality is that I was honestly driven by form over function — the design is Broadway with a working kitchen. Unfortunately, the guacamole was pallidly seasoned and clumsily mixed (bland for one bite, all jalapenos for another). The chicken quesadillas were stuffed with tired meat and topped with pico de capon. I didn’t taste our friend’s flautas, just heard that they were soggy from sloppily dried lettuce alongside them, but I was tasting my crab empanadas for another eight hours. At least the waiter gets credit for asking if they were okay when I declined to take the leftovers home, but he gets points off for sniping, after I said they were not as good as uptown because the dough was greasier and the crab stringier, that “it’s all the same supplier.” I could only snipe back: “But it’s a different cook.” Given how fast the chain is expanding, the problem may be with the good kitchen, not the bad one. Mediocrity only succeeds when expectations are low. And a wall of water with divers could do wonders for Chi-Chi’s.

A bag of yet another high-end European salt has landed on my desk with a rather enticing suggestion on the label: “Add it to fries, after coked.” Or, as the Portuguese might put it, just say sim.

You could almost forgive New York magazine its morning-in-America all-white, all-hetero sex cover when you came to its pie feature (so to speak). Both graphically and information-wise, it kicked ass on how to make the overexposed seem seductively different. The Journal, by contrast, must have been socking back the same downers as those depressives on 43d Street. You don’t need an MBA to cook Thanksgiving. It’s the simplest meal of the year. The turkey is just an oversized chicken, and the menu is pretty much written in stone. If the problem is that companys coming, just follow the Piemontese path to bliss: Better one friend than a dozen relatives.

Having finally, finally caught up to “Mondovino,” I have now officially crossed over to the other side that believes wine coverage needs to be transformed. A guy who apparently all but keeps crocheted covers on his extra toilet paper rolls should not have so much control over the most taste-driven art. Even so, what popped up on a Philadelphia wine list, and was spotted by my geogroffica.com friend, is decidedly taking the lyrical impulse way too far. Native Blend 2001, Fourplay No. 1, is described as “4 promiscuous Sicilian grapes fornicate for your pleasure.” Call me old-fashioned, but I would go for the South African pinotage simply described as “complex and witty” if I wanted to respect myself in the morning. What happens in the winery should stay in the winery.

Sartre was mistaken. Hell is not other people. It’s other people’s Thanksgivings. I just spent more than a week up to my hip screws in turkeys, heritage and free-range, and by the end I was looking longingly at tofu. Which must explain what happened at the Wall Street Journal when it set out to shop for all those masters of the universe raking in the megabucks while pensions get trashed and health benefits rescinded. The final choices seemed so forlorn, so low-rent, even — the unforgivable sin — so cheap. Honey Baked Ham Co. for $64.95? Harry & David? Don’t they know about $200 tags on raw turkeys alone? With the right bird they could have fulfilled every CEO’s fantasy: You eat one and you shit gold.

 

 

The Food Network’s vision of Thanksgiving is just one more reason why I have never mastered the remote (my consort had to call from Beijing on 9/11 to tell me how to activate that dusty box in our living room). Only dinner with my no longer intact family could be as painful as watching “stars” induce vicarious diabetes with “honey-brined smoked turkey” and “Orange You Glad It’s Thanksgiving soup.” Did you have to ask? Of course Emeril is involved.

 

 

My favorite part of the Sunday papers is always the coupons, a scary glimpse from here in the land of recycling egg cartons from the farmers’ market into an alternate American universe where nothing is fresh and everything is overprocessed and mindless obesity seems to be the goal. Every week there’s another insult to taste and good sense, but the latest revelation of what advertisers think consumers want is the one pumping up the $1 off on plastic EZOvenware. It had to be a very dark corner of a huckster’s sick mind that produced a slogan so clearly describing this country’s attitude toward the world: “Bake it, serve it, nuke it, trash it.” Condi could not have said it better.

 

 

File under “nothing sacred:” The long-vacant Iridium space across from Lincoln Center is becoming the third P.J. Clarke’s. Funny how the new owners got such adulatory press when they “saved” the 1884 original not so long ago, and now they’re turning it into just another Houlihan’s. Which, without the skyscraper-holdout atmosphere, it really is anyway.

 

 

Funny thing about the new Michelin. Back when the Luteces and La Caravelles were all closing, everyone was declaring formal and French not just passe but extinct. Now that the stars have been strewn, the same “experts” are bitching that they skew formal and French. The whole week felt like a Monty Python routine. The frog is not dead yet. Really.

The Guides were all gone by the time I left the big to-do at the Guggenheim, so I can only hope Michelin does ratings better than it does parties. This thing was a scrum. Everyone was packed into the lobby, with one bar — it was like being invited to a mansion and getting shunted to the gatehouse with a keg. Worse, they poured the last of the Veuve Clicquot just as I got there, no more than 45 minutes into the evening. Worse still, there was almost no food, and some of it was chocolate-covered strawberries. Until they opened a second bar one level up after the speech, complete with recycled jokes from the coming-to-New-York party last winter, it was almost scary. If someone had yelled fire, the luminaries and the lowlifes alike would have been trampled. But that was assuming we could have heard the yell over the sound system, which was painfully blaring stuff like “Another One Bites the Dust.”

 

Among the many surreal sights was spotting Andre Soltner and Alain Sailhac waiting patiently in the long line on the sidewalk to be cleared by the check-in girls with their thick binders of names. Someone should have given the jejune types a cheat sheet of iconic faces. Even better was noticing the group photo being taken with Ducasse, J-G, Ripert, Bouley, Keller and Daniel all posing with Maguy and a model and a couple of lesser lights and, wedged into the very center of the shot, a smiling Todd English, his best jaw forward. I was standing next to Terry Brennan and played dumb: “Who’s that guy in the middle?” He didn’t respond, only snorted and eventually stomped off, so I asked the guy he had been talking to: “Is that Todd English? What’s he doing there?” And he responded: “Beats me. He’s not even in the book!”

 

Apparently I missed a bunch of famous visages myself, but I was surprised to see one who had been the subject of a rather scathing expose of his reviewing habits just that day. Considering I spotted a certain wine writer in a sidewalk cafe earlier in the week on the day after his daughter’s accusatory memoir was reviewed, I figured shame must be last year’s model behavior. But then I ran into my favorite straight-shooter from the most unlikely publication who observed: “Why should he be embarrassed? Everybody already knew he was the biggest schnorrer in the food business.” And on this night of all nights, that was saying something.

 

 

Am I the only bleeding-heart foie gras aficionado who finds it a little disconcerting that Chicago is so worried about ducks being abused that it is about to ban one of the small pleasures of our overfed lives? This big battle is going down while the Vice Chimp is arguing for the authority to brutalize human beings to win the war on the abstraction. If only the conscientious out in the heartland worried as much about destroying Muslims as they do about force-feeding poultry. This isn’t “Babe.” It’s “Battle of Algiers.” Apparently we need a Jonathan Swift to find a way to engorge human livers just to get help on the way to the new American torture chambers in Eastern Europe. And if that seems too radical, what about a mega-surtax on foie gras to be dedicated to rescuing earthquaked Pakistanis? I would rather pay that than fatten the Red Cross.

Our old friend Leslie Wong always said the most amazing thing about New York is that “the more people get fucked, the more they like it.” It’s what accounts for long lines and abusive service all over town. And now I see it’s why the gullible abase themselves to cram into Babbo for the pleasure of struggling to keep the chickpeas on the bruschetti while Maremma has a nice wide-open bar and superior food of the re-envisioned Italian variety. We got absurdly over-the-top treatment, and food, and wine, and the Marty Robbins soap-operatic songs from my childhood were almost as seductive, but even without all that I would have perceived that this was a serious restaurant. Funny that I’d been staying away because I assumed it was as tough to get into as Beppe. Funnier still that idiots waste their reviews on theme park jokes. Nice guys should not finish last.

My compliments to the candy corn flacks (imagine having that life’s work in your obit). The hoariest of Halloween pegs was deemed worthy of the NYT, Life, Time and who knows what other publications. Those Peeps hypesters should take a lesson. Nothing succeeds like cliche.

One of the real scandals of the Beard House is how New York’s lamest party photographer was able to start by donating his “services” (certainly not his skills) there and use it to build a career disrupting restaurant events everywhere. Now that he’s gone digital it’s even worse. Not only does everything have to stop while he poses and blasts his flash, but then he has to chimp — everyone waits while he checks the back of the camera and then inevitably and ineptly tries again. I know party pictures are the lowest of the low in photography, but there’s gotta be someone more talented out there. For want of a better Rolodex, every book celebration should not go by as a blur.

McDonald’s offering nutrition information on its packaging seems about as likely to end the obesity pandemic as adding calorie counts to Haagen-Dazs cartons has. But the Center for Science in the Interest of Public Relations still seems a little silly saying that it’s not enough, that customers “should not be expected to do the math” to know what’s good for them. I guess it is a little much to expect some waddler can’t figure out that the numbers on the heavily advertised healthy choice apple-walnut salad (310 calories, 13 grams fat) are bigger than on the hamburger (260, 9). Clearly it’s not the meat. It’s the stupidity.

I’m so old I remember when it was a scandal when a print reporter would cross over into television, which even before the plasma screen was always perceived as the shallowest of media. Even back in the mid-Seventies, though, no one ever dared leap the divide between church (newsroom) and state (ad sales). So how can a newspaper that makes so much noise about ethics send an editor out to do a dog-and-pony promo for kitchen advertisers with “celebrity chefs?” Maybe the $125 “VIP” tickets make it all okay, and maybe it’s not as bad as overstarring a friend, but really, doesn’t the place already have enough yellowcake on its face?

Everyone is piling onto David Burke for inventing his latest whimsy (or are they really resenting his promotional skills?) My feeling is that if furniture polish can come with sunscreen, why can’t food have deodorant? Personally, though, I would have waited until I was down to Olsen twin size before introducing something promising to “spray your pounds away.”

I know Chipotle Grill is supposed to be the anti-McDonald’s, but I still can’t bring myself to try it. Now it turns out my suspicions may be well-founded. On the menu my consort picked up in his travels about town, the chicken is described as “vegetarian fed.” Bad enough cows are raised on chicken manure. Who knew the henhouse trough was being filled with all those sprout eaters from PETA who have clearly been fighting for the wrong victims?

Homophobia is allegedly the nasty little secret of the chef scene in Manhattan, but something else comes wafting out of the closet when you flip through Time Out’s “superstar” issue. When I attempted a piece on New Orleans restaurants right after Katrina, it struck me how women ruled: Ella Brennan, Susan Spicer, JoAnn Clevenger, Mary Sonnier, Leah Chase. And that’s in a tiny town. Here, of the 48 shiny, happy faces in a huge spread, exactly three are attached to women: Zarela, Lidia and Gabrielle (Hamilton — it says everything that she needs the identifier). I know all the excuses (women need to raise kids, women can’t get financing, life’s a bitch and Chodorow owns it). But I suspect it really comes down to the reality that unless you can comfortably snap a kitchen towel across a big bare freckled butt, you’re on your own.

 

And apparently the only thing worse than being born with a vagina, by Time Out standards, is attempting cuisine in another borough. For all the hooah about great restaurants across the waters, including the Zagat absurdities (is that redundant?) involving the Bronx lately, not a single “superstar” cooks for the B team.

 

 

For some reason newspaper copy editors are expected to know about everything from business to sports to opera but are allowed to be complete nitwits about food, the one universal subject. How else to explain all the first-day news stories on the twin babies who died suddenly in their bed in Brooklyn that reported they had been fed “soymilk [or soy milk, depending on the desk] and cornmeal.” Having been raised on mush, I read that and thought it was pretty clear what did them in. Dry cornmeal will shut you down. It’s what private school parents put on their kids’ heads with the shortening to suffocate lice. Only on the second day, after the weirdness was repeated in a lede, did “porridge” appear after “cornmeal.” Of course the stuff was cooked. Didn’t anyone down the word chain think it was strange to be typing flour and meaning tortillas?

 

 

What could be worse than shaking down chefs, demanding trips for free and rewarding cooperative restaurants with good reviews? Apparently, bitching that the comped hotel has no shower caps. As my e-source wondered, why would a guy need a shower cap? Maybe he meant a laundry bag for the cash.

 

 

And let’s have a moment of silence for the publisher of a nut graf on farmed venison that called it “a rare opportunity to taste something wild” (shiitakes do happen). The paper of Judy Miller has more to account for than mere silliness and Rachael-reverse snobbism (anyone remember the Galloping Gourmet, let alone the Frugal Gourmet?) One of the outrages that drove me off the national desk and into cooking school in 1983 was being told that a reporter sleeping with a congressman she covered was perfectly acceptable. But maybe that was a good thing. I could have been shifted over to the features copy desk, where I sometimes filled in, and become just another gray ghost on 43d Street. I would have thought everything the paper did was as fine and upstanding as re-editing and fact-checking a Moira Hodgson article on museum restaurants 14 times before it finally ran. For all my mockery, I have to say it’s sad to think that even restaurant reviews were taken so seriously way back then that Mimi Sheraton would stand over the copy editor with menu in hand and make sure everything under her byline was verifiable. Agenda-free was taken for granted.

 

 

Forget all the other signs of the apocalypse looming: the ceaseless hurricanes and the monsoons in Manhattan and the earthquakes and the Arctic conveniently melting for the oilmen. The true sign that the end is near is now on the menu at Red Cat: tempura bacon. My inner Mr. Creosote made me order it, but even I had to acknowledge that nothing says our days are numbered like an appetizer of deep-fried fat. No wonder this country urgently needed the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption law just passed in the caring (for Burger King) Congress. If the fast food can’t get you, the creative chefs will.

 

 

The Greenmarket is always a mood-elevating experience, and not just on a late morning when you’re there exactly as the clouds clear and the blue blasts back into the sky just 32 days short of New York building an ark. I stopped to buy buttermilk from a teenage girl in a stretched-tight XXL Aeropostale Phys Ed Dept. sweatshirt who was sitting behind a sign listing prices for quarts and pints, and it went like this: “Could I have a pint, please?” “Uh, is that the little one?”

This is why the crazies want intelligent design to be taught in schools. It’s gotta be easier than math.

 

 

I think I can predict a story everyone will soon be reading avidly, though: In a half-blind tasting sponsored by the inimitable Ariane Daguin, heritage and wild turkeys triumphed (especially over the capon and the goose thrown in as ringers). I would spoof the stunt, but I was totally into it. What was less surprising than the undeniable superiority of the holier-than-Butterball birds was how bad the supermarket choice was. (Luckily, the brand escapes me.) It was not just bad, but scary bad, to the point where you would have to wonder why more Americans don’t call in sick on the fourth Friday of November. Unfortunately, that will be the 49-cent-a-pound protein under the gravy on most tables next month. Maybe we should give up on universal health care and just try to figure out a way everyone can have good, clean food without risking the debtors’ prisons undoubtedly coming soon under a Halliburton contract. It’s not that the heritage turkeys are too expensive. It’s that the overbred, overfed, spongy-weird turkeys are too cheap, and deceptively so.

 

The whole experience also reminded me of what else is heading our way besides a pandemic of happy bird news: the usual warnings from the government to scrub down your cutting boards and cook the turkey into jerky for safety’s sake and, most important, don’t rinse the filthy fowl or it will spew bacteria all over your clean kitchen. Under this go-Cheney-yourself regime, it’s all about personal responsibility. Because that’s so much more effective than scrubbing down the food chain.

 

 

Maybe I went to the wrong La Masseria. When I saw it named one of Esquire’s best new restaurants in the entire country, I first couldn’t even place it, then remembered dragging a friend to an embarrassingly mediocre, and expensive, lunch back when it first opened. Things must be bleaker out in America than I’d realized if this is the second-best New York can do. I can’t believe Mariani is going to make me agree with Panchito. Next he’ll be raving about Tony Luke’s.

 

 

The best gossip from the turkey trot-out was that Julia Reed has apparently been disappeared from the Times magazine. “It’s unfortunate,” I overheard a very distinguished contributor saying. “It’s made the page rahther dull.” Actually, I don’t think that’s what’s done it. When “voyeurism” with recipes from Jupiter puts you to sleep, there’s a bigger problem.

 

 

I doubt it was intentional, but Food Arts has come out with the ultimate Halloween cover: It Came From Out of the Curing Room. What looks like Karl Rove, post-indictment, is somberly cradling what could be either a dead baby or an amputated shoulder with hook already attached. (The inside photos are more appetizing, and the DIY story is actually excellent.) I guess it could have been much scarier, though: only the hem of his shorts is showing, for once sparing us all the sight of those great pumpkin legs in clogs.

More than usual, I’ve had a hard time readjusting to life in a city where English is almost the dominant language. I kept reading reports of some typhoon in an espresso cup over a chef’s memoir and not understanding what in the name of Rocco all the hoo-ah was about. Leave it to the hometown paper to inflate it into big news without even hinting at what I now hear is the back story, something involving conflict of interest and on-line censorship (but don’t trust me on that — I still say “si” when someone asks me the time). At least the whole world now knows the shocking truth about buche-rolling: famous names don’t read the crap they effusively blurb. Next they’ll be revealing they don’t write it, either.

 

The new Balducci’s is so bright you have to wear shades. Otherwise, on a particularly sunny day, you may have a hard time seeing the prices and will wind up paying $1.50 more for Illy espresso pods or 50 cents more for a bag of pearl onions than the dumpy uptown stores sell them for. It is one stunning food hall, but for navigability it ranks right up with that bumper-car demolition derby at 74th Street. The takeout looks ambitious, especially big hunks of special suckling pig, but to get to it you have to risk knocking over towers of olive oil and Il Mulino pasta sauce. Or killing a stroller mom.

Don’t let those swarms of furs clogging the city and those braying boors storming high-end restaurants fool you. The Eighties have not returned, at least if you compare the bubble pricing in two leading national newspapers. Champagne for $24 to $30 is “how low can you go” in the paper of the hoi polloi, while Champagne for $27 to $37 is “mid-range” in the publication that caters to masters of the universe. Maybe the New York Post can do the fair-and-balanced thing and tell us where the $50 to $75 bottles fit on the Cristal scale.

In other developments on the intelligent design front, we learn that “pet feces” should not be composted (and over our morning toast, no less) and that Crisco is just a class thing and not a nutrition menace if rich friends of well-connected magazine food sycophants use it. And let’s not even get into the Michael Brown of restaurant reviewing. Isn’t there a Stylish corner of Judy Miller’s jail cell where news-deaf “editors” could be lodged?

 

 

One more reason to despise Gabriela’s: I don’t like being wrong. It’s closed, all right, but not for good. Instead it’s taking over the huge Fish Tale space around the corner on Columbus that has been sitting empty at least a year while high-profile chefs were rumored to be prowling the Upper West Side in desperate search of prime locations. The most ironic part is that I actually thought Gabriela’s demise would free up a bleak but good corner for a serious restaurateur. I never even considered that a better, bigger space would be taken over by a worse kitchen. Drew Nieporent, donde estaba usted when we needed you?

 

Here’s what happens when you parrot the wingnuts’ “up is down, black is white, war is peace” line too long: One day you run a photo of Katy Sparks with your requisite story on trans fats in New York restaurants and your caption identifies her as “of Quilty’s in SoHo.” But the chef’s jacket she’s wearing clearly reads Balducci’s. Okay, so it’s not quite on the level of the toppling of the Saddam statue. But I can still just imagine the NYPost’s defense: “Are you gonna believe us, or your lying eyes?”

 

(For the record, the text had her employer correct but her first name misspelled, along with the surname of the owner of the Doughnut Plant, and also misidentified Amy’s Bread. No WMDs were found, however.)

 

 

Maybe there is a Dios: The nasty uptown Gabriela’s is up for auction (while the downtown food poisoning dispensary remains “closed for renovation”). The only question is why it took so long to bite the green bullet from hell. Whenever I’ve succumbed in the last couple of years, I’ve suffered hair in my refries, appalling service, grease, blandness and worse. Now that the roach-ridden Tacocina has been converted into a kosher creperie, I can only hope three makes a trend with mediocre Mexican up here. That would leave Mama Mexico free to celebrate Day of the Dead soon.

 

 

My own private Week in Review: Quagmire in the Travel section. Cheese steak mystery deepens (maybe someone should follow the greasy money?) And if a blackout happens, blame toaster ovens struggling to do in 50 minutes what a grill pan would in 5 — even before the weather has turned.

 

 

One of the weirdest experiences I had all summer was encountering a flip-flopped young woman sucking an iced latte who stood staring at the cascading mountains of corn and squash and melons and tomatoes and basil and cucumbers and peppers at a stand at the Greenmarket in Union Square and could only say: “Doesn’t anybody here have asparagus? It’s so easy to grow!”

 

I don’t know what Ms. Climate-Challenged would have uttered on seeing buttercup squash suddenly turn up among the huge heirloom tomatoes at the best stand on 97th Street, but I felt a twinge. And I soon found I was not alone. After paying for some lemon cucumbers and bright red paprika peppers and one of those tomatoes, I was limping away when the bearded farmer himself materialized alongside me to pass me a heavy bag holding two enormous, gorgeous tomatoes, one striped yellow and one deep red. He said something along the lines of, “Here, take these, enjoy them while you can.” I was so surprised I could only blurt, “Yeah, you almost get depressed when you see the first squash.” And he just said: “You do? I was depressed two weeks ago. Winter’s on the way.”

 

Maybe he can spend it growing asparagus. I hear that’s easy.

 

 

The September Gourmet should have been polybagged with a little hash. I admire the out-there inspiration of an issue devoted to music and food, but the execution will leave you longing for whatever they were smoking up high in Times Square. Kitchen Confidentially Yours contributes the sleaze factor, exposing himself with a self-indulgent intro almost as queasy-making as those smirking subway pervs captured on cellphone cameras. Recipes inspired by song titles are literally silly (or should I say ridiculously obvious?) And a multi-page feature on country-western food takes the usual fake dinner party into a whole other dimension, if not parodyland. The musical “family” pictured is never ID’d, the deviled eggs are laid out across from a guy who might as well be milking a horse, and the whole thing was shot by a Sydney photographer. Who are those shining happy people, and what the hell do big sky and big Stetsons have to do with singing of the South? A “pre-dinner sip of pot likker” is not going to do it. Readers are gonna need some meth.

One more reason to resent the tricyclist down at what someone clever has dubbed the Lazy W: Danny Meyer tells the Financial Times the American artisanal cheese frenzy can be traced back to a confluence of “an explosion in writing on gastronomy” and a booming economy. And he is referring, of course, to the 1990s, under a guy who didn’t need no stinking Supreme Court to become president. Remember the good old days of peace and prosperity when people not only could afford to travel adventurously to eat but could do it without a strip search? Who moved our country?

Someone at the White House Office of Language Abuse must be moonlighting for Williams-Sonoma. Shake ’N Bake has a new name: Roasting Crust. It’s what you get when you mix panko with herbs and sell it to idiots for $9.50.

 

 

Odd that all the ethics finger-pointing at the Times right now is aimed at freelancers. Everyone knows even staffers with corporate Amexes can get too close for comfort with subjects and start seeing stars (and worse). Considering all the sound and fury is targeted at the 401k-free, though, I just got a smokin’ letter that I suspect should have been addressed to Byron Calame instead. From the sound of it, a certain Gulliver might want to be a wee bit more careful about covering her pampered tracks. You can fool some of the editors some of the time. . . .

 

 

Speaking of true confessions, if Mr. Creosote really acquired the “entire body of my knowledge” on “food, travel and lifestyle” by violating those vaunted guidelines, things are worse than we knew. Even McDonald’s will teach you something, for tripe’s sake, because money changes everything, especially when it’s your own. Or you can go seriously in hock to go to restaurant school. Into every career a few freebies must fall, as I’m the first to admit, but the great secret of freelancing is that you actually can afford to learn. You might not need that last tiny little thin mint comped.

 

 

I hate to have to read a Times magazine story once, let alone track back through it trying to figure out crucial details. How is it a guy can charge $150 a head for dinners in a field and still be down and out? Shouldn’t he be working for the Beard House?

 

 

Since the tipping “news” just won’t die down, I guess I have to chime in: The service fee is here already. At Napa Wine Bar at JFK, in the Air France terminal. It was 18 percent — $6.93 on a $38.50 dinner tab — and explained in four languages on the check. I paid it happily and left a dollar more, knowing I had seen the future and it looks European. Isn’t the five-week vacation already upon us?

 

I could have done without the asinine cover line and Molto Ego’s misdirection (if he thinks the Rome airport has the best cappuccino in the world he has not been to Trieste, or Capri, or into town), but the new Budget Travel has a surprisingly refreshing feature on where food people go for cheap eats. It’s not all about the usual suspects — you suffer Alice and Apple but also get Bill Niman and Gabriel Kreuther and the president of Maker’s Mark — and it does the unthinkable in a glossy, letting Chris Kimball recommend a place where “the food’s awful except for the pies” (you could say that about all of Vermont, though). It also includes a number of unwittingly revealing asides, as sometimes happens when the name-dropping gets competitive. My favorite (edited for snark’s sake, of course) was “Craig Claiborne turned me on.” It explains so much more than it should have.

 

 

Anyone worried about how the First Stepford Wife is dealing with the little unpleasantness of having a dead soldier’s mother camped in her driveway can now relax. Her priorities are firmly in order. After long deliberation, she has chosen a new cook and, the AP says, can finally start throwing those dinner parties she was cheated out of after 9/11. And look, it’s the first woman chef for the White House. See, her husband isn’t so bad.

 

All I can say is that Turd Blossom must really be distracted with fears for his own flabby fanny these days. There could not have been a more tone-deaf, let ’em eat lemon creme announcement in a month when 54 other mothers have already sacrificed their kids to the big lie and more Americans than ever are asking: If women are equal, and the cause is noble, when do the skank twins put down their margaritas and ship out?

 

 

For shameless clumsiness, not much could make you want to avert your eyes farther and faster than a food section trying to look timely by capitalizing on a newscaster’s death. Yes, he would have wanted us to eat. And maybe not smoke (our food), either.

 

 

It’s a sign of just how badly this country has been misled for the last five years that restaurateurs can get away with stunts like the one at the newest Mamma Leone’s. The waitress, on presenting the check, insisted it had to be signed “for security reasons.” How my scrawling my illegible signature on a fast-fading computer printout keeps us safe from that guy we were going to get dead or alive mystifies me. But I notice the receipt you always scrawl on had a new category of information, below card number and expiration date. And “research” gives me the creeps even if I did come up 12 zeroes.

 

 

I would have read right over the hometown paper’s predictable slap at Philadelphia cuisine as being only cheese steaks if I hadn’t encountered so much about that very gastronomic delight in its own pages so often in the last few months. Wasn’t it only four days earlier that valuable real estate was given over to the closing of a cheese steak joint in Manhattan? Forget the hip kids heading south. Follow the money. It’s not always in the “packed” restaurants.

 

 

Frieda Caplan always says there is no such thing as bad publicity, and she would know, having inflicted the gonad of the fruit world on produce sections everywhere. But even she might be impressed at how GQ’s embarrassing restaurant piece has brought a forgotten magazine back into circulation. Once Steve Cuozzo got his knickers in a knot over the idea that New York is not among “the four greatest food cities on earth,” and especially after he pointed out that Piedmont is not a city (details, details — isn’t that just a competitor?), who wouldn’t run out and pick up a copy just to see how ridiculous the other contentions were? Fortunately, my consort saved me the $3.95 by trash-picking an already-recycled one in our back hallways, because the actual feature is all fizzle, no steak. There’s nothing sillier than the flaccid trying to feign kiwis.

 

 

If you never had the misfortune to eat at Boulevard in San Francisco, get ready for the cookbook, coming in October. It actually gives overwrought a heavy name. The fried chicken recipe — which specifies babies, not full-blown Perdues — takes up three full pages in the galley, and you’d still be left with fried chicken. No home cook would bother; any restaurant chef would be underwhelmed. The one clever idea seemed to be a chocolate cherry shortcake, but then I slogged through the ingredients and instructions. The biscuits are meant to ooze, which would defeat the whole purpose of layering juicy fruit into rich flakiness. And anything whose primary allure is “making everyone’s pants fit a little tighter” says Ray Kroc more than Joel Robuchon to me.

 

 

Bin 71 could have been the greatest thing to happpen to Columbus Avenue since Nancy’s, but how can you have a wine bar with none of Aretha’s attitude? The space, formerly occupied by what the hometown paper described as a cut-rate florist but where I could never afford to buy, is absurdly tight, especially considering they’re trying to serve food, too. Even if you manage to wrestle your way to the bar and get a viognier, you have to retreat to a corner to defend your turf while unthinkingly socking back $10 worth. Wine needs attention even if you can’t manage respect. About the only redeemable attribute of this wasted opportunity, so close to two movie theaters, is that it’s a cosmo-free zone. I can only hope the Carrie wannabes get the message and flip-flop on.

 

 

Buy the new BelAria truffle butter and you should be shocked to see it contains 780 calories a serving — a serving being half the four-ounce tub. Some of us can’t even imagine having a steak big enough to spread that on. Probably neither could the crowd my consort and I saw clustering around a couple of tables in Harlem on the most recent brutally cold night. We thought they were thronging a vendor of some hot toy or DVD until we heard they were lining up for handouts of groceries. What made it more unsettling was passing them on the way to a party four blocks away at a new shop selling farmed caviar from Uruguay at $75 an ounce. What’s that old saying? The rich get tax breaks and the poor get children?

Even Hepatitis A is going upscale in this economy. The disease that killed people who ate at Chi-Chi’s has now broken out among patrons of Cafe Pinot in Los Angeles. And it figures that news stories are blaming it on lettuce. It’s a convenient way of ignoring the fact that as long as we continue thinking health care should go only to those who can afford it, sick people are going to be picking the mesclun and tossing the salads. And all the rubber gloves in the world — or fences along the Mexican border — are not going to be protection enough. The produce is not the problem. It’s the denial.

The downside to going away is coming home and finding the two Killer B’s (Shrubya and his enabler, Panchito) still have jobs. Then things start getting entertaining. Your hometown paper lands on your doorstep and you see Tony Lucre’s cheese steak joint is boldfaced yet again (someone must be getting another gold-plated bidet). The creepiest Joan of Arc in history leaves jail and on her first day out is variously reported to be eating a steak dinner, eagerly awaiting a home-cooked meal and expecting her cruising husband to cook for her (but hey, if she could come out of 12 weeks’ incarceration with tidy bangs, why ask questions?) And then comes Steve Cuozzo’s throwing in of the starred side towel. He’s finished with reviews, he says, ranting about Potemkin restaurants and consistency being the hobgoblin of New York chefs and the general futility of trying to rate hype and smoke. His answer may not be the best — “we’ll tell you what’s happening at more than one place” — but at least he is aware of what that poor sap on 43d Street is not: the critics have no clout. They’re the Americans of the food world.

 

But nothing said welcome back better than the photo of the Reverend BS and his dining companion up in Harlem. Judging by the clenched fist and fear-factor face, that had to be the worst date since Bush the Elder went out with the Japanese prime minister and vomited in his lap.

 

Maybe the Chimp isn’t lying about the economy. Times are apparently so good that this winter’s Restaurant Week price is $3.95 more than last summer’s. But even that can’t get you into some restaurants on the peculiar list. Caviar & Banana and V Steakhouse are closed, and 2nd Avenue Deli seems about to be (just when I was hankering for a $17.50 tongue on rye). When $24.07 is presented as a deal for Mercadito, it’s no wonder they’re cutting food stamps. Who needs ’em in a 24/7 town?

If there is one thing you can count on in New York restaurants, it is that you will almost never have the same experience twice. Which is the fatal flaw in New York magazine’s ballyhooed “101 Best.” The most brilliant critic on the planet would be overreaching in ranking restaurants experienced over five years. Five months is an eternity in this town. Everything changes: the kitchen, the waiters, the ingredients, sometimes the whole concept. Throwing around stars by the handful generates more buzz than credibility, and didn’t Michelin just try that? No one who has tuned out Zagat for the last millennium cares about rankings. A restaurant is only as good as your last meal. Come to think of it, you can’t even count on that. The concept might not have looked as impressive on the newsstand alongside all the other “505 ways to change your life/diet/sex” cover lines, but “20 truly good” would have done just fine.

In those few days between Sharon’s strokes when news reports were cheerily insisting his health had nothing to do with his meating habits or his humongousity, an insidious message seemed to be emanating to the large who eat among us. We were at Bistro Cassis, crammed in as if we were dining at 30,000 feet, when our plates arrived and my consort tried to move his seat back just far enough to be able to lift his fork. The woman crammed behind him immediately took umbrage, yelping, “What are you doing? I can’t move. I can’t move.” I sorta looked over at her and saw the problem, and then she started yelping again: “I have boobs. I can’t pull my chair in.” Well, it was clear that the protuberance keeping her away from the table was not where she claimed. She was built like Humpty-Dumpty. But she was not going to give up one millimeter of space to a scrawny guy. Only after she left did he say what he had been thinking: “Lift those boobs up and put them on the table and we’ll all have room to eat.” But that would have been udder diplomacy.

Now that the Chimp in Chief is insisting eavesdropping on strangers is perfectly ethical, it’s less embarrassing to stop eating and lean right over to hear what the nice old couple at the next table is saying. I can only imagine what the federal snoops would have made of this, at Bistro Cassis, when the place was packed with the Medicare crowd that seems to be the bulk of Lincoln Center’s membership: A white-haired guy who would be at home in an A.R. Gurney play telling the sweet-faced old lady with him that “you put the cat in the box, and then you put in the poison, and when you open up the box, you either have a completely dead cat or a cat that will scratch your eyes out.” Funny, shouldn’t that have been overheard in the White House before the Iraq war?

I think it was Mark Twain who said you should always tell the truth — that way you don’t have to remember what you said. The clearest example of the risks of tripping over deception has to be the new Gourmet, celebrating 65 years by dredging up dusty correspondence allegedly testifying to readers’ fondness for and involvement in the editorial content. Call me hopelessly cynical, but didn’t magazines have trust-fund babies on staff in the Forties to type up treacly letters just as they do today? I can just see some cowpoke in Dallas in 1946 writing in to say he got custody of the magazine in the divorce. At least today we’re spared the charade of snarky-snappy answers. And now it’s easier to see how it works: What else could make those GE Monogram ads look like real life?

Just when the city was starting to appreciate how quiet it was with no buses, a lawyer had to start braying. I wonder how many restaurants that guy was forced to trek through during the strike before he found one willing to admit its clientele was solely of the sucker variety. Russian Samovar certainly sent a B&T message to Manhattanites when it sued on the ground that business was down 80 percent: tourist trap. At least there was entertainment value — The Daily News quoted a prediction that the lawsuit would be “tossed faster than a Cobb salad.” Which, of course, is composed.

Here are 12 words that should strike fear into either prospective participants or the operators of the Brazil cruise being offered by Enron on 12th Street: “a portion of this tour’s rates have been designated as a donation.” Considering fares start at $6,995 and go up to $13,895, they’re not talking Red Lobster change, as chefs got away with. But I guess that’s no more obscene than flying to poorest Salvador da Bahia to wallow in generic luxury on a boat offshore and, “in the most diverse country in South America,” as the brochure bills it, eat Union Square Cafe food. No wonder Fuck Himself broke the Senate tie on cutting food stamps. The rich are hungry for idiocy.

Why friends should not let friends write about strangers’ shopping habits: Only someone very privileged could be in Fairway and see some woman buying steak and crap and assume the latter was meant for her children. Not only do Gucci addicts eat junk. But step into a Food City checkout line sometime and you’ll notice not all the Nine Lives being charged on a credit card can be safely destined for a pampered pet. What made the effete silliness even lamer is that the fuss over feeding kids came in a week when yet another was beaten to death in another family with six siblings with assorted last names while a bunch of privileged white guys in Washington were arguing about the right to birth (the hell with life). Coming from a litter of seven, I can tell you it’s so much easier to put food on your family when the table accommodates only those mouths you can afford. What this country needs is a good cheap contraceptive. For women.

You have to wonder about the genius who came up with a restaurant recipe collection and called it 86. It ranks right up with that failed restaurant Nova: Spanish speakers took the name to heart and didn’t go.

One of the few drawbacks to dropping out of college and selectively self-educating is that you don’t always get intellectual references. That Cheney Wannabe I overheard at Bistro Cassis was apparently talking about either physics or Ian McEwan’s “Saturday,” because the cat in the box had to have been Schrodinger’s. There’s still no excuse for the neocons organ-grinding for the monkey, though.

Did you hear the one about the chef who was running with drug dealers by 19 and was saved by the kitchen in prison? Publishers must never learn, because the guy has a “significant six-figure” deal to tell his tale just the way it happened. With a million little sordid details, Oprah may even fall for it. The funny thing is that in some misguided circles these days the title — “From Cocaine to Foie Gras” — would indicate anything but redemption. Blasting gangstas is one thing. Fattening innocent little ducks’ livers is beyond the pale.

Walk into the new Balducci’s and you’ll be stopped cold, not by the displays in that gorgeous space but by the PR cojones. An easel just inside the door sports a big blowup of the NYPost article singing the glories of the chef and the takeout — written by the chef’s co-author of her cookbook. You know, someone you can trust to be absolutely impartial. At least Bloomberg has the sense to warn readers the puff-stuff it runs does not necessarily jibe with its opinions.

I know this is like kicking a lame ass, but I have another insight into why Panchito is the Brownie of restaurant reviewers. At an awards dinner the other night for a kids’ art contest my consort helped judge, a few people were talking about a gallery installation where a longtime critic had filled a room with announcements of shows she had seen over the decades, each card carefully inscribed with her reactions. Apparently it was a brilliant exhibition, but then, as one guy said, “All art critics are frustrated artists.” So that got me wondering how, if you have no passion for a subject, can you critique it? Oh. Right. By the seat of your pants. Sales of cushions must be up all over town.

Usually whenever I start feeling sorry for myself trying to come up with something different for Thanksgiving, a holiday that everyone really wants to be exactly the same, I think of all those poor souls who have to find a fresh way to announce that a pallid French wine has arrived, November after November, at least 15 years since anyone really cared. But my empathy has evaporated since being served this season’s release, on the cocktails designed to hype the New Coke of the wine world. This is where allowing the word mixologist to enter the vocabulary leads — a bartender has come up with something so supremely ill-advised as mixing wine with gin or vodka and simple syrup. It’s the dumbest drink since the smoked-salmon soda. But at least all those moms who undercook unwashed supermarket turkeys and let them sit around full of bacteria-breeding stuffing will no longer have to take the blame for poisoning untold relatives. Anyone who drinks a “nouveau martini” with gin, Grand Marnier and grape jelly in the latter half of November will know exactly what caused them to call Ralph on the big white telephone.

That keening sound you heard all over New York was not the alarm system being tested at the Indian Point nuclear power plant. It was one long, collective “Oh. My. God.” from NYTimes readers opening their paper to find not just a raw turkey but a specimen that appeared to have died a particularly unhealthy death. Food porn is ridiculous, but I’d almost rather see Dick Cheney naked first thing in the morning. (Well, Mary Cheney anyway.) The only entertaining aspect, beyond the “look west, young man” design, was that the eating disorders seemed to be section-wide. It brought back a memory of the production editor tossing a proof of a particularly absurd $25 & Under page on my desk one crazed Tuesday and asking, “What’s he been smoking?” This week everyone apparently had access to the same weed. Hoot, man. That Haitian grandma must have “developed” her technique on a trip to Barbados — everyone on Baxter’s Road does it with chicken. If the point of the autopsy shot and all the don’t-even-think-of-cooking copy was to scare a million-some subscribers into going out for Thanksgiving, all those wine advertisers threw their money down a turkey hole. Imagine a package that could make Sardi’s look tempting.

I know the turkey rots from the gorgle down, but I’m still confused. Am I supposed to quit braising, if not disinvite my Thanksgiving guests, because it costs too much to gas my stove? Am I supposed to casually drop $199 on a food processor while cadging free edamame? Or am I just supposed to lust after a $945 toy? Luckily, all I took away from the silly Stylish frenzy is new awe for my consort of going on a quarter of a century. Through my whole long hell of turkey roasting, 70 pounds in one week, he kept trying to cheer me up by mock-whimpering for turkey tetrazzini. And now we finally have a recipe. If only we could make it in a toy we can’t buy.

The new Rosa Mexicano in the old America space is everything the one next to the impending Houlihan’s is not. The David Rockwell wall of swimmers is stunning, and the service is so solicitous you almost pity the help (especially when she rattles off cabernet sauvignon as a white — a little Latin would help every server forced to memorize wine-by-the-glass lists to keep the prices away from prying diners’ eyes). But when I ordered the Oaxacan cheese tacos rather than the queso fundido to get more than intestinal shutdown, what arrived was just a little dish of melted-to-rubber cheese with peppers and nopales and a littler basket of tortillas. It seemed as if the menu had mentioned salad and beans, but who was I to ruin that poor girl’s afternoon? Strangely enough, when a friend met me a couple of days later at the uptown Rosa and ordered tacos she got a whole heaping tray of food. That’s the trouble with chains: They set up insane expectations of consistency. And this way mediocrity lies.

 

 

My consort is sitting at the sidewalk cafe at Ocean Grill when a middle-aged woman walks by screaming: “You know Dr. XXX? Queens Park? Fuck him! Fuck that asshole!” His date calmly says that “a couple of milligrams of XXX would take care of that,” which is clearly doctor-speak because my surgeon in Turin, when lambasted by a crazed museum worker, politely suggested that she “have some dinner, eat some Valium.” Change the prescription, though, and it would apply to whoever was responsible for the biggest downer of a food spread in New York magazine’s history. Talk about the gallery of regrettable foods — those holiday pages make T look hip and happy. Edgar Allan Poe is not who you want to think about when you see “the Perfectionist’s Thanksgiving,” let alone Betty Crocker with a major hangover when you consider “the Hedonist’s New Year’s Brunch.” Come to think of it, though, Bourdain with his hands on Mom’s “Joy of Cooking” might be what sent the art guys into a big-time depression to begin with.

 

 

 

If you weren’t “humored” by the T (for Twaddle) orgy of wretched excess as Paris burns, Chef’s Catalog has more evidence that it’s officially the season to buy idiotic kitchen gadgets. Maybe it’s not quite on the level of Sur La Table’s Batali orange cookware, but the catalog is selling a cylindrical basket you can fill with bread and aromatics to ram into a big bird and “remove in one easy motion.” They call it a “stuffing cage.” I guess “turkey tampon” wouldn’t fly.

 

 

 

In the weird mating of Steve Hanson and Eric Ripert, it’s now clear whose genes are stronger. Barca 18 is much more the spawn of Ruby Foo than of a three-star restaurant. First clue is in the hiring: Pretty is not a job skill. Someone needs to train the hostesses and the waitresses. Second clue is in the reception: Walk up to the desk for your humiliating 6:45 reservation made a week in advance and you’ll be told: “You’re the first. Check back when they arrive.” I could forgive the hostility that precludes offering to take my coat, or diverting me to the bar. But the bad grammar is a capital offense.

 

 

File under You Can Dress Them Up: A waitress at Silverleaf Tavern was passing hors d’oeuvres at the Chow magazine anniversary party, and she certainly looked splendiferous in strapless black. Then she had to go and open her mouth when I asked what exactly was in the piles on her tray. Seeming stricken, she hesitated, then said, “It’s that meat.” Long pause. “Prosciutto.” Then she added: “I get that mixed up with bruschetta.” Don’t let her loose with pancetta. And isn’t Barca 18 hiring?

 

 

 

I hate to break it to the Tom Delays of this world, but evolution is not a liberal myth. Just look in your mailbox. Even as the shop-happy Luckys and Dominos of the world are endangering the whole class of catalogs, Williams-Sonoma’s and Sur La Table’s seem to have started morphing into magazines. Neither has quite achieved intelligent design, but then adapting is a slow process. “Legitimate” editors have needed some lean times to realize advertisers’ wares could be embedded in stories and photo layouts. And look how long it’s taking one chimp to start acting like a human being.

 

 

Speaking of satire, not much could top McDonald’s new Farm to Table feature on its web site. This overwrought obfuscation takes the term “catapulting the propaganda” to a whole evil level. In the case of the buns, it starts with a textbook photo of wheat and segues fast into a Willy Wonka providing a new vision of hell: quality control taster for McDonald’s. To put it mildly, this boy is not svelte, let alone the picture of health. Don’t ask about the eggs, but apparently they do spend some time in a shell if not a henhouse before they re-emerge as rubber in a “muffin.” As for the beef, suffice it to say there are no cows to be seen grazing in the grass. The whole thing should be called Factory to Trashcan. But given that it takes so long to download, it’s not likely to do much harm or good. E. coli poisoning would be quicker.

 

 

Pity the poor chef who blew through his seed money on a smart PR company without heeding advice on his biggest liability. Now, with that great blast of opening buzz vaporized, he’s gone and hired another flack whose first bright idea was sending out a release (a print one, at that) misspelling the biggest name on his resume as Il Bulli. I guess you just can’t reason with someone who actually believes deep-fried blood sausage is what you want with venison in a Coke sauce. So let him live with a restaurant name that sounds like a symptom of a vaginal infection.

 

 

 

Did you notice the shameless Barca 18 promoter who thought the Spanish peppers were “pardons”? I think it was a Rovian slip.

Every day the Daily News devotes an entire page to some musty, dusty nostalgia story, and every day I wonder why it bothers. Who reads that old stuff recycled and re-recycled? But nothing felt like deja vu all over again as much as Dining did when a guy who was probably doing Jell-O shots for dinner 20 years ago became the designated driver down memory lane. I got as far as the Miracle on 16th Street and the Deification of Danny yet again and started wondering how much more entertaining any hoary tale Jay Maeder dredged up would be. Those 20,000-year-old noodles actually seemed fresher.

 

 

My consort had a good question, though: What are cloches? And what in the name of Alice do they have to do with restaurants? (Maybe there’s a new dictionary, because the officially sanctioned one does not even include an obsolete definition to help those “average” readers for whom the reviewer from Rome was chosen.) Maybe we’ll find out in the 30th-anniversary story of the Greenmarket, coming to a big newpaper near you next year. “Ineradicable roots,” my posterior.

I’m trying to be a good-heil citizen and think all Americans are safer when the government the conservatives swore to get off our backs is unabashedly listening in on phone conversations and opening mail from overseas. But when it’s mail addressed to my apartment, it gets a little queasy-making. My consort just received a small, exquisite box of chocolates from a grateful student in Italy that had been ripped open and sniffed through and unabashedly put back together, and we could both only wonder: What was the security risk involved? The poor kid had already paid off everyone he could on his side of the ocean that used to protect us, since there were at least 10 customs and tax papers enclosed to clear the way for the 10-euro gift to fly. But I suppose we should just count ourselves lucky we were not in some Pakistani village. We only had to endure having noses in our food, not missiles on our home.

You can’t believe what you read: We have post-movie depression at the thought of trying to find a decent glass of wine with small food somewhere on Columbus when we remember having ducked our heads into Loft as it was just opening, in a space that used to be a nasty bar with a rope out front. We get there and it’s got an empty bar and about eight tables occupied, none of them by kids, let alone cool kids — most of us are probably being stalked by AARP. Near us I recognize a Daily News food writer who, as she leaves, stops to talk to a couple of young girls who have just arrived and been given their choice of dozens of tables. Young asks Old if she’s covering it, too, because “I’m doing it for Thursday’s Hot Spot.” Let’s hope the recipe they run is more trustworthy.

 

And you can’t believe what you misread: Looking for a new place for dinner after an art party in Soho, we listen to online noise about the new, hip-happening 24 Prince, which from the sound of it is the next La Esquina but which I think I can stomach for the sake of novelty. Not only did five of us decidedly uncool kids get a nice table, and comped appetizers, but it was anything but a Sunday Styles drool-fest. The macaroni and cheese spring rolls, in fact, were not even silly. Something is wrong when you get repectable food with no attitude. As one of our five said, the place must be doomed.

 

 

 

Lured back to Bistro du Vent, I had a little time waiting, while the hostess was on the phone, to try to imagine how an orgy ever took place in that little bar. Anyone who goes there would have to let his mind wander into the same gutter, which makes it all the less savory that the first thing I spotted on the menu was “Widow’s Hole Oysters.” Talk about organ meat.

Waldy just can’t get it right. His restaurant has too many seats, judging by how empty it always seems to be. But now he goes and opens a pizza place and guess what he forgot? If you’re going to serve three-foot pizzas with wine, and rip off Schiller’s “good” and “better” labels, wouldn’t you lay in more tables and chairs than a slice-and-a-Coke joint?

File under Automation Is Not Your Friend: Tarla Dalal’s mass emailing with her latest Indian recipes can only be described as unfortunate. With its usual perkiness, it starts off with how “everyone is getting into the celebratory mood that comes with the nearing of one of the most beautiful, colourful and enjoyable religious festivals in the world — Diwali.” Given the bombings in New Delhi the day before some computerized finger hit the send button, I think “everyone” might not be the operative word and “religious” the most telling. But of course only Americans have anything to fear from faith-based extremism.

Okay, I take it all back. The NYT does have a sense of humor. Could there have been a more brilliant self-parody than the Dining cover with what looked to be Panchito at table? The caption even captured what all New York seems to be saying: “A buffoon’s got to eat.”

Speaking of the most recognizable food critic since Ben Franklin in a yachting cap (to quote Mimi Sheraton at her cattiest), location, location is indeed the crucial consideration for a restaurant. But if that’s all there is to say, and say, about a place, maybe it’s not worth an agonizingly protracted Diner’s Journal. (Why do those things read like essay questions where he blew off the homework? Skimming them is like waiting for Il Papa to give up the holy ghost.) Context might be nice, especially since everyone I’ve mentioned Metropol to has had the same sad reaction: “La Metairie is gone?”

The Financial Times’ takedown of Per Se would have resonated even more if the reviewer out $580 had not referred to the cheesemaster at “nearby Picholine and Artisan” as Thomas Brennan. I can sympathize, though: A dinner lively as a wake can be hell on brain synapses. It is Daniel Bouley, isn’t it?

 

 

I can’t say I wasn’t warned, repeatedly, but I was still stunned at how profoundly mediocre the food is downstairs at BLTFish. How can a charming Frenchman who made his name with brilliant takes on seafood at Cello be doing so much better with meat these days? One clue can be found in Food Arts: Instead of minding the stove, he’s posing for an Illy ad. He may “live for moments of excitement and passion” on a motor bike, but some of us would settle for a piece of cod not cooked to slime on a bun.

 

 

 

Easily the most depressing news in hours is that produce marketers have seen the future and it’s tricked up. The Journal did a smart if bleak story on innovations in the fruit-and-vegetable pipeline intended to take advantage of the new “food guidance system” coming from the same administration that has brought us Clear Skies and Healthy Forests and Freedom on the March. One is a plastic clamshell to keep pears from getting squashed (when was the last time anyone bought a pear that wasn’t hard enough to withstand baggage handling?); another is sliced apples to be sold alongside chips in airports. The first may do what water in bottles has: turned a necessity into a fad, at huge environmental cost (cue Lenore Skenazy on toxic chemicals in plastic leaching into groundwater). And the second will just move pure food closer to processed crap — to keep apples from turning brown, some kind of additive will have to be added. Amazing that it’s taken a multibillion-dollar assault in the name of liberation to double malnutrition among Iraqi kids while the food industry can so easily have the same effect here with its relentless focus on better living through chemistry. Wrap it up. We’ll take it.

 

 

I didn’t coin this, but “butt-girl for Eli” has a nice ring to it. Especially since inquiring competitors are gossiping that all that tame salmon actually came from the same distributor. I’m sure it’s a spurious claim, but it does make you wonder why a cheese shop that hasn’t bought a certain blue for two years is making a fuss about listeria (among myriad unanswered questions). One more and it’s a trend: stories with holes big enough to drive a raw milk tanker-truck through.

 

 

Given the red tide rising in seafood markets around Manhattan in the last year, evaluating just which salmon is truly wild was a good idea, at least for readers who still bother with the Perdue of the sea. But was there a reason the biggest seafood retailer in town was not put to the test? This was like alleging that nearly all burger chains use horsemeat and not even mentioning McDonald’s. What’s that old ad sales word? Fishy?

 

Ever since newspaper copy editors essentially became Linotype operators, the “save-get” function on computers has been a brain-saver. Who needs to think when you can just tap a one-headline-fits-all button? I’m guessing that’s exactly where USA Today found this one: “NYC Chefs Lead Beard Nominees.” As stop-the-presses fodder, it ranks right up there with “Pope Still Dead.”

 

One more reason why Manhattan should secede: Hyper-obesity is the real threat to national security, and there are fat people out there in America. Scarily fat people. I just spent three days lurking in a hospital in Buffalo where way too many of the nurses, especially in the ICU, qualified as morbidly obese. Think about it. These are people who see better than anyone the consequences of carrying around an extra hundred or two hundred pounds, and they are still packing it in with both fists. They were Baby Huey huge. A surgeon would have to go elbow-deep in fat to hit a vital organ if they should need an operation; with my humbling in Italy fresh in my mind I can’t imagine how they would get around on crutches, not to mention on and off a bedpan.

 

Maybe it’s not all their fault, since the grim cafeteria with its Sloppy Joe steam table was heavy on desserts, and the vending machines were overstocked with Butterfingers as big as forearms, and I was put off the salad bar myself on seeing a particularly lumpen and rather grimy staffer hand-picking through the raw stuff. But there’s something about seriously unhealthy people taking care of desperately ill people that conjures a future I hate to contemplate. The larger half of the Road Food team can talk fat acceptance until she’s blue in the thighs, but too big is too dangerous. And a country that can only come up with Big John toilet seats that will support up to 1,200 pounds is coming at the problem from the wrong end.

 

 

So far I’ve resisted the cheesesteak invasion, but I did succumb to another high concept at the low end of the food chain: Anita Lo’s Rickshaw Dumpling Bar in Chelsea, directly across from the Outback Steakhouse, around the corner from yet another Chipotle Grill. Almost everything about it is spot-on: the industrial-sleek design, the open kitchen, the clever mix-and-match menu with soups and salads and edamame in addition to the namesake dish, the pricing, the patient service, the whole notion of a home-grown chain-to-be. Only one thing sucks: the dumplings. I just tried the Peking duck ones, fried and not steamed, but without my receipt I would not have been able to tell what the filling was in the greasy, sodden pile, let alone that the dipping sauce was hoisin. And the whole problem can be summed up in one sentence: In the time it took me to pick up my crutch and water cup and move from the cash register to a table, a distance of no more than 15 steps, my dumplings were fried and boxed and ready for pickup. It was like fast food in a cartoon; I could almost hear a giant whooshing sound. Call me antediluvian, but I would rather wait another minute or five and get something worth converting to body fat.

 

No one could envy David Kamp, saddled with reviewing the latest book of Ruth for the paper she apparently disses, facing a future when he will need goodwill at Gourmet. But I do hope he gets a little more familiar with “the American food world” before he puts out a book-length embarrassment. For starters, he might want to learn the difference between food writer and restaurant critic and then rethink the supposed shame of the former. Maybe I’ve been hanging with the wrong crowd for the last 22 years, but I can’t recall coming across too much “self-abasement.” Arrogance, sure. Obliviousness, even more. But for any number of P reasons (passion, pomposity), anyone who obsesses on food as a profession usually takes the topic deadly seriously, given that eating is the second most important thing in life (after breathing). Sounds like one newbie is feeling just a little insecure himself. Mom must have wanted him to marry a doctor.

 

 

As hard as I’ve tried to swear off health writing, I can be suckered into any nutrition backgrounder at the drop of a swizzle stick. Or at least that was my excuse for signing right up for a lunch presentation on what the new USDA dietary guidelines say about alcohol consumption. This looked to be information with life-and-drunk implications. The fact that it was scheduled at the revivified Aquavit didn’t influence me at all.

 

Even though the pouring stayed well within the official recommendation for good health (about two drinks a day, rather than any more or, far more dangerous, none at all), it was worth the schlep on a rainy Monday. The food was apparently designed not to compete with the usual painfully lame PowerPoint presentation (why don’t they just tell us, not show us?), since the fingerling potatoes were as undercooked with the sublime gravlax in the first course as the striped bass was in the second. But the space itself is everything the old Aquavit was not: inviting, intelligently designed and more like a refuge than a cavern (the alcove with image-restoring mirror next to the coat check is a luxury every restaurant should afford). And I can’t wait to go back and indulge in a couple of shots of amazingly smooth white-cranberry aquavit at the big new bar — for my health, of course. Finally, the government prescribes something right.

 

 

Next time I overhear someone at the Greenmarket at Union Square asking where the lemons are, I’m not going to laugh. Hyper-hip New York magazine looked just that clueless with its requisite homage to Whole Foods, the new Krispy Kreme with the media here. We’re at least a month away from even the first asparagus, and some comparison-shopping reporter thought the grab basket should include tomatoes. Don’t taunt us. The Daily News did a much more seductive job with its colorful report on all the local seasonal ingredients lined up for takeoff, although the wacked-out morel item must have originated where a dealer in far eastern Oregon once told me all wild mushrooms do: Spores. From outer space.

 

 

Food & Wine’s BEST NEW CHEFS party is one not to miss, if only to admire the culinary Ponzi scheme of honoring New York cooks one year to persuade them to cater the next year. It always has the feel more of Golden Globes than Oscars, but the tradeoff for heavy advertising payback is usually a better than average crowd to mingle with. Unfortunately, this was my third event in about a month where a sparse crowd in a vast space led to empty bars. And when it’s so easy to get a drink you tend to get too many.

 

More than the wine, though, I blame the noise. The invitation made a big deal of a deejay from the Ellen Degeneres show, but I kept thinking that if we had to listen to TV, couldn’t they at least have given out remotes to mute it so we could talk? Best food of the night: Gabriel Kreuther’s chorizo-encrusted cod with coco bean puree. Worst: anything passed by servers from the anonymous cook slaving far from the klieg lights. Only a freak show from Barnum & Bailey could love foie gras fried like a corn dog.

 

 

The definition of news has eroded a little further since two leading newspapers chose to report on something that could best be described as micturating into the breeze. The scoop? A group of women chefs wrote a letter proposing that one of their gender be hired for the thankless of job of cooking for the Chimp in Chief and his wastrel women (when are those skank twins going to get jobs?) Even worse, the press stunt cited Condoleezza Rice as a model promotion. Does no one remember what a perfectly manly job she did overseeing national security? Put her in the kitchen and she’d be stewing over Russian dressing stored at room temperature while a gas leak was about to blow up the stove.

A very respected American institution refers to the letters of introduction it writes for employees heading overseas as “dago dazzlers.” The faux Italian Bond 45 has the opposite idea going with a menu item labeled “Pantondo: First Time in America.” At $22, it can only be called a Rube Ripoff. I got taken because it sounded like focaccia col formaggio, one of the best things I have ever eaten in Italy but have never found done right in New York. I was even willing to wait the 45 minutes the waiter warned it would take. Ten minutes later the right notion was on the side table — thin bread encasing oozy cheese — but the dough was rubbery, the filling was watery and the whole experience was as depressing as a Corner Bakery cappuccino. Still, this is New York, where, as an exiled friend used to say, the more people get screwed, they more they like it. Pantondos will soon be the talk of the food columns. Already the price has gone up $4 since the Post mentioned what really is a quesadilla by a stupid name.

 

 

I must not be keeping up with the latest in pretentious kitchens. A company I associate with vacuum cleaners struck me as a strange sponsor of a Food & Wine event until I saw the thing was going to be at a casino. And Bobby Flay was going to be a star attraction. No wonder Electrolux is behind it. It has to suck.

 

 

Next they’re going to tell me there’s no tooth fairy. Here I was thinking Pollo Campero was some South American chicken chain propelled into the papers every day by popular demand, and I come to find out that of course a very Krispy Kreme PR campaign is pushing it there. The frijoles were spilled once the top fish had been safely netted, the one who might be last to the “news” but gets the biggest return. (“Big stacks of boxes of chickens” went back to the office after the photo shoot, a peripheral flack said, but I don’t think it stopped there.) Probably the scariest detail is that, after hearing how many thousands and thousands of chickens had been sold, I asked who the supplier was. Answer: Perdue. Which makes sense. If you’re going to do chicken big, with high-paid press, you can’t do it right.

 

 

The latest issue of Wegman’s slick magazine Menu includes a recipe for Fruit Lassie. For some reason, the instructions don’t say: Yogurt, come home. Or even: Copy editor, get help.

Old Original Bookbinder’s in Philadelphia is reportedly back, and promising to do better by the food this incarnation. But you have to wonder when you read the criteria the chef tells the Inky he’s using as he taps into his self-described “expanded knowledge of the modern market in seafood.” The bouillabaisse will now be made with New Zealand mussels and mahogany clams — not for their flavors or textures or even cachet but because one is “brighter in color” and the other complements the wood in the dining room. I’ll have to remember that the next time I shop for fish: How will it go with the walls?

 

 

Having officially informed readers it is not the newspaper of record, the New Sex Times seems determined to do away with any association with news at all. In the space of three days readers were treated to two reviews of mediocre old restaurants revealing that neither had gotten any younger or any better. And the point was?

One day I’ll learn never to go grocery shopping without my glasses. I picked up Goya’s canned black beans with what looked to be a redesigned label, and only when I got home did I realize I had been swindled with the low-sodium option. I knew there was a catch, as there always is with nutrition-nazi-approved food: they’re seasoned with potassium chloride along with salt. Don’t google that or you’ll realize it’s not just chiefly used to produce fertilizer but was also Timothy McVeigh’s last shot.

 

Feeling like Mrs. Magoo is also not the best way to approach Whole Foods. I finally braved the new one out of professional duty, and it makes Fairway look navigable. Allah forbid there’s ever a disaster or a blackout. Unmazing your way from the mangos to the checkout is tricky enough with all the lights on confession-high.

 

 

My consort has been racking up the frequent-flier miles with shoots in places where you won’t want to eat even vicariously. Usually he comes home with purloined menus; these trips it’s just scary stories. My favorite was about his stop in the DFW Airport for sustenance before a late flight home where he resorted to Chili’s. And where he was informed they couldn’t serve “real food” because it would require cutlery, as in maybe a butter knife, which they said has been banned for “security” reasons. Never one to eat quietly, he asked how the kitchen cut up the chicken for a salad. “They use a sharpened spatula,” the waitress actually responded. Now that should make you feel safer on boarding. When you can’t have a knife, of course you make a shiv.

 

 

One of the countless great things about the Greenmarkets in New York is how democratic they are. The one nearest me does a boom business with food stamps, and on nice Fridays you can barely get between the vendors and the jazz trio for all the open-mouthed schoolkids coming through on field trips. Even the one in Union Square would not be so lively or so long-lived without gawkers galore.

 

By contrast, if you believe what you read, San Francisco seems hellbent on perpetuating the image of farmers’ markets as elitist, for the precious few worthy of such a noble experience. Apparently there might as well be a sign at Ferry Plaza reading: “Consciousness-raising for residents only.” No wonder so many Americans give up and think apples at McDonald’s are a huge step up the food chain.

 

 

File under “Vince Foster was murdered by Socks the cat”: Two stories making the rounds are so dripping-juicy they can’t possibly be true. One is that a certain glitzy supplement is half the size it was on its debut because a certain editor is feeling so overwhelmed as advertiser masseuse. The other is that an Editor’s Noted narcissus has had a bizarre flash of modesty in complaining that his overseer is not exactly up to her task. “It’s like putting me in charge of the business section,” they say he’s saying. Of course there can’t possibly be a shred of validity to either wild tale. Everybody knows Hillary did it.

 

 

Sometimes the typo is more tantalizing than the real thing. The FT’s bizarre tout for Todd English’s homage to Roots mentioned “bugatini.” Which is not a drink, but maybe it should be.

Whatever else I might eventually decide about Bar Americain, already I can tell it’s no Gotham. The opening party was a Baghdad zoo, with waiters struggling valiantly but usually futilely to get hors d’oeuvres from the kitchen to the hordes and throngs and mobs in the disorientingly redesigned dining room. (The most comfortable bar and most dramatic space in midtown, where sunlight would shaft down on the likes of Susan Sarandon at lunchtime, has become cosmo central.) What I tasted was pretty good, though, especially a potato chip with blue cheese dip/soup/fondue. And looking around at the crowd, I could see why the emphasis was on the liquid. It was like a Karen Carpenter-with-silicone convention. Whom do they think they’re fooling when their dresses are back-free to show off their emaciated ribs and their fronts make you wonder how they can walk without tipping over face forward?

 

 

Exposes have been busting out all over this spring, with the Journal publishing two good ones in a single week. Even I didn’t understand the extent of the chef shilling and soul-selling going on out there. (Taking 500 fillets of farmed salmon for free to serve colleagues and restore a maligned ingredient’s image might be the nadir.) Luckily, NPR weighed in with a superb look at how the game works, starting with the substitution of bacon and eggs for coffee and toast as America’s national breakfast. I guess I feel better knowing the media have been helping force-feed the gullible for 100 years now. But the Pretenders (“Get Close,” track 8) should be required listening in cooking schools.

 

 

The food pyramid may be a tax-squandering travesty, but at least it works well as a polygraph. When five chefs were asked to detail their daily intake, guess which one laid out the shortest and healthiest list. Right. The only well-upholstered one. Of course that also shows how hard it is for media to find a high-profile woman chef to throw into the lineup of usual suspects. In this country, you’re nobody till some TV producer promotes you.

 

 

The weapons of mass deception campaign never ends with these guys. Did the gorge-and-live-longer study really have to be released the same day as the pyramess? Terrorists are starting to look less threatening to protracted life spans than government-induced confusion.

 

 

As a Greenmarket junkie, already going three times a week even though the flashes of green are still pretty sparse, I should be embarrassed to admit what happened when I stopped to buy a potted hyacinth at Renewal Farm’s stand on 97th Street and decided to add on a bunch of arugula and a bundle of garlic chives. As the vendor laid both into the same bag as the plant I started to say, “Hey, don’t put my food in with the dirt.” Luckily, I can shop there again because I stopped to remember: Where did those greens come from, anyway?

 

 

Impressed as I am by the operation rescue started for the dear and departed chef at Porcupine, I do wonder why anyone would have to flirt with a lapse in ethics to help him find a new job. Why not just borrow a web page from the savetoby.com playbook? A bunny’s life could not be more precious than a chef’s career.

 

 

Apparently Tom DeLay has joined the Beard board. The foundation with the ex-president charged with making off with Congressional-quantity piles of cash actually has the cojones to schedule a forum on ethics for journalists. Is it just me, or is that like Enron giving an accounting course?

The scene is Gotham Hall, the old bank near Macy’s that is now one of the most stunning party places in New York. The characters are a Michelin employee with sore feet and a food writer with a hollow leg. In the first act, the Times has announced that the Red Guide is moving into New York. In the anticlimax, Mr. Michelin himself (not the Man, the heir to the company) has just reported the very same thing. Now the Michelin staffer is confessing that “the leak” had been “carefully arranged” with the Times. And then she looks stunned as the Champagne aficionada says: “But I’ve been reading about this online for months.”

 

Those Freedom inspectors may have to run a little faster to keep up with chat boards and food blogs in New York, but chefs seem happy to help them out, especially if it means serious competition for the faux democracy of Zagatstan. This was the rare party when boldface names outnumbered bylines, and many of them were spotlighted in front of a video camera giving advice and compliments to what should be the enemy. But then maybe the famous faces are just more noticeable at a surprise party when 200 guests are expected and fewer than half show up to see the cat out of the bag.

The sensation of worlds colliding was even more jarring later that night at Gaby, in the Sofitel off Times Square, where we decided to avail ourselves of French talent in what I recall as a pretty mediocre kitchen. Nicole Fagegaltier of Vieux Pont in Belcastel was doing what had to be the most affordable dinner in the D’Artagnan anniversary series, so I can’t really complain that the ideas far outpaced the execution. Most courses at least communicated, especially the chestnut cappuccino and the duck with the best touch of squash this winter: deep-fried ribbons that were airy, crispy and still squashy. The price was right — $45 for three courses, $9 for the soup — and the waiter was exceptional. But the tarte tatin was pretty klutzy, and I cannot get the image of veiny duck liver draped with sad apples (allegedly in confit) out of my mind. You can lead a Manhattan hotel cook to foie gras, but you can’t make him deft.

 

The other Sudan that dares not speak its name is the food additive the Brits are in a stir over. The cancerous dye from India has wound up in processed crap in 15 countries, but you’ll be hard put to find a word about it in the American press. I guess we just can’t be distracted while we’re worrying about the sky falling onto Social Security (or manacles onto the world’s most famous Spotted Dick). Even if this turns out to be just a tempest in a Worcestershire bottle, now might be a good time to think about what exactly you’re buying when you reach into Big Food’s freezer case.

 

 

The new game in town seems to be “Where’s Webster’s?” Half my correspondents have been in high dudgeon over Panchito’s unfamiliarity with the French language in a section that also misspelled Gordon Ramsay’s name in display type. I was more saddened at seeing I had wasted 46 months of my life trying to get that desk to learn potpie is one word (or even: You could look it up). But the most disconcerting realization was that someone there might actually think “amuse bouche” means “foot-long hot dog.” More than a mouthful is too big.

 

 

Now they tell us McDonald’s is behind Chipotle. Next they’ll be breaking the news that Campbell’s bought Godiva, or Gallo makes Red Bicyclette, or Morton’s owns La Baleine. Stop those presses before they shock again.

 

 

Great moments in gullibility: A NYPost stenographer says the boy wonders behind Spotted Pig “asked British chef Jamie Oliver to head the kitchen, but he wasn’t available.” Right. And Gordon Ramsay was just busy washing his hair, too.

Give Waldy Malouf credit for sticking to his wood roasting through crudo and foam. But judging by his brunch menu, it might be time to give the gimmick a rest — he’s now offering “wood roasted balsamic bloody Marys.” Is his something from the oven the vinegar? The tomato juice? The drink itself? Who needs the booze when you can get this addled just ordering?

 

 

Teuscher truffles are not supposed to make you conjure Gloria Swanson, especially on a Hallmark holiday. When Bob first bought them for me, early in our consortium, both of us thought they were the greatest thing since real Champagne. This VD, partly for old time’s sake and mostly because the little shop is around the corner from a chamomile grappa dealer, I cabbed over to pick up half a pound (for $32) and got a letdown almost as big as the Sherry-Lehmann clerk volunteered the Dining section is anymore. I hate to think the truffles really devolved into small potatoes. More likely we just know there’s a bigger world of chocolate.

 

 

Buffalo is the canary in the American coal mine. Every time we make a flying trip up to my consort’s birthplace it seems sadder, but this foray brought home just how grim things are really going to get nationally, thanks to Shrubya’s cut-and-spend attitude. Rather than raise taxes, local leaders are planning to close parks, reduce road patrols, limit library hours and otherwise do away with everything that makes a city a community. Which made it all the more fascinating to find an enlightened piece in the Buffalo News by Jennifer Wilkins of Cornell pointing out that the federal government is dictating healthy eating even as it dispenses subsidies for industrial crap/crops like sugar and high-fructose corn syrup and soybeans rather than fruits and vegetables. Washington, she noted, showers all of $1 million on nutrition education. Not surprisingly, about the only businesses with signs of life on the lakefront were General Mills and ArcherDanielsMidland. Call it your tax dollars at insidious work.

 

In the 23 years since I left, Philadelphia has been to hell and partway back. It’s still a great city, but as my consort observed, it is clearly not being governed. There’s also a “Grey Gardens” aspect to it, with the people who live there seemingly oblivious to the fact that the place is crumbling around them. (How could a tourist city ever let its streetcar system die?) A book we spotted through the window of one of the myriad barbershops on South Street on the way to dinner one night summed up the feeling in Center City: “American Apartheid.”

For all that, though, Philadelphia deserves endless praise for keeping the Reading Terminal Market not only alive but thriving. It’s right in the heart of convention center sterility, anchored by a Hard Rock Cafe, yet all the stalls are local and independent, with not a Starbucks to be seen, let alone a McDonalds or a KFC. Some upscaling is perceptible, as at a stand selling more nouveau Italian, but you can still eat at funky counters and buy all the smoked meat you can carry from Pennsylvania Dutch country.

 

Which makes it all the more embarrassing to admit what I succumbed to for my second breakfast, the day after we had had snotty attitude but decent eggs and pancakes at the Down Home Diner. I hate to go back anywhere, and we were in a big hurry on a frigid morning, so we ducked into the Corner Bakery. Stupidly, neither of us realized the scrambled eggs were from a steam table, and I certainly didn’t understand that the cappuccino would be a travesty. For $16 we wound up with two plates of airport food — cold airport food — and scorched coffee. I was so depressed I couldn’t eat, or drink. Bob saved me from a breakdown by taking me to buy a lemon poppyseed muffin at Le Bus and a cappuccino to go from Old City Coffee. In the market.

 

We had the art museum virtually to ourselves on a Wednesday afternoon, which seemed sad, but then our travel-writing friend took us to see the new WXPN complex near the main post office with its bar/restaurant and a big World Cafe theater, which seemed promising. Probably the strangest experience was lunch at the Continental Midtown, in the space that was a Casual Corner back in the Seventies, followed by a quick tour of Barclay Prime, in the hotel on Rittenhouse Square where we always used to stay when the city seemed more together. Both restaurants verge on overdesigned, but the steakhouse was stunning: timeless in the bar and a marriage of 1920s Philadelphia and 2005 Tokyo in the dining room.

 

What was most fascinating was the reaction to our lunch at Vietnam, which had been recommended by a chef. I suspected it was silly to eat Asian outside New York, but the place was close to the hotel when we needed food fast. Bob said it looked like a restaurant he would have experienced in Vietnam, so that and a bottle of hot sauce got me through a big plate of blandness. But that night friends recoiled when I mentioned the name. As one said, there is much better Vietnamese outside Chinatown these days. Maybe there’s hope for a city that was once a wonderland.

 

 

Some weeks you just get lucky. I had no idea when I succumbed to Jell-O shots at a too-persuasive friend’s party that Knox had become not just socially acceptable but actually au courant. Now I see she should have called them gelees and insisted we ingest them with our pinkies raised. Even that would be preferable to making stock on a 100-degree Wednesday, let alone serving vermouth with a bloody mary garnish. I hear they’ve discovered another planet. And I suspect it’s on 43d Street.

 

 

No wonder the Chimp is hellbent on installing Batshit Bolton at the UN. It keeps him from dealing with a much more crucial job opening. The Washington Post just reported “he was trying out a prospective White House chef” the other night, one who was not identified but seemed to be about as suitable as every other candidate Turd Blossom chooses anymore — the audition dessert was described as “chocolate mango-tango tart.” Sounds like something the physically fit but mentally deficient would eat right before toppling over on their bikes.

 

 

If you want to know where to eat in Philadelphia, you might not want to ask Gourmet. Its hot spot is the very same place Philadelphia Weekly savaged in a review that started nicely enough: “Here’s a statement that will have zero effect upon the universe. The revamped Bookie’s is bad. Really bad.” Apparently “only the lobster passes muster” while “dessert is shameful.” Somehow I doubt the owner will be sending Ruth the same email the paper reported the truth-teller received: “I guess a blowjob is out of the question?”

 

 

Rocco’s enabler should skip printing his new “cookbook” and just sell the slick promo. If it’s not a parody, it’s the closest thing since the brunidigest. The flack note says she is “thrilled to share this with you” (as deadpan sarcasm, that alone would be worth $26.95). The premise is “5-minute flavor,” which is apparently what you get when you glop up microwaved storebought brownies with peanut butter, peanuts and ice cream. The cover has the stuntmuffin in bling with a lid-off jar of Thai sauce, while an inside shot shows him fondling something strange in the chicken nugget aisle of a supermarket with an open bottle of Martinelli’s sparkling cider in his cart (spiked, we can only hope). The introduction talks about him growing up in “the ‘hood” (cq on that misdirected apostrophe). If this is what he considers “exploring the good life,” give that man a TV series. And call it Whack-a-Mole. He’s starting to give chameleons a bad name.

 

 

In other flack news, the race between 7-Eleven’s and La Esquina’s seems to be running neck and neck — you can’t turn on a radio or open anything in print without being inundated with coverage of marginal openings in Manhattan. I never thought the day would come when a Slurpee would sound more alluring than a restaurant, but now I see you can never misunderestimate Sunday Styles.

 

 

I might skip the opening of an envelope, but if there’s an uncorking of a wine bottle, I’m there. Which is how I found myself with a friend in Riverside Park on a weekday afternoon, waiting around while three judges decided which example of campfire cuisine from five amateurs was worth $10,000 plus a $5,000 donation to the national park of the cook’s choosing. Apparently it was no easy decision, because we had plenty of time to determine that Redwood Creek is really Gallo by another label and that only a winery so huge and shrewd could employ a design director who could make a dog run look like a safari happy hour. All the aesthetics in the wine world, though, could not have made the food any more enticing. The winning dish was bratwurst chili with chickpeas, if that tells you anything. And it really was the closest to edible, if that tells you anything more. If you could judge a cook by his schtick, the ponytailed, tale-spinning inventor of the funky trout flop would have his own magazine by now. If not a wine column in a bigger magazine.

 

 

Belfast is the saddest place I have ever been, and my consort and I were there around the last time the IRA was seriously threatening to quiet down. We went not because my mom was born there but because a London restaurant critic I met persuaded me Northern Ireland was an overlooked culinary destination, literally worth the journey with a Michelin one-star. Roscoff was California-good, and gorgeous, but it was hard to see why it existed in a such a grim, grim city. On our first walk after leaving the monastic B&B I stupidly chose in those unenlightened years before the internets we were passed by a tank, fortified more heavily than any in Iraq today, full of soldiers holding real guns, and that was in a very leafy residential neighborhood.

 

Between the checkpoints and the surveillance towers everywhere else, it was hard to imagine how Berlin at its worst could have had a bleaker streetscape. Just to go into a store, we both had to have our bags dumped out and rummaged through, and even leaving the country I underwent the most humiliating search with patdown at the airport. Fear and hate were almost palpable, along with the root of so much evildoing, that clear divide between the haves and the have-nots, with religion cloaking all the craziness. I never felt luckier to be an American than I did when we got the hell out. We don’t have to live like that, I thought so smugly. And now we do, and maybe they won’t. George Mitchell, come home. The food is good.

 

 

After a week in a country where everyone is not presumed guilty until proven innocent, even after bomb scares shut down train stations in Paris and Marseille on Bastille Day, I had a certain sense of trepidation on re-entering the land of the free and the home of the brave, what with all those big signs at passport control warning furriners they would be fingerprinted and photographed, indignities not inflicted on Americans by the cheese-eaters at Charles de Gaulle. Ever since I paid duty after one Columba Bush spree, I worry I’ll be flagged no matter how little I’ve spent overseas. And so I walked up to the customs agent at Kennedy fully expecting to have to unzip my bag and let my less-than-fresh underwear fall where it may (my consort’s great trick for discouraging searches). But the guy just looked at my declaration card and asked, “What kind of food are you bringing back?” It took me a second to remember: “Um, salt. And pistou . . . .’’ He stopped me, fast. “Salt?” he yelped. “You brought back salt?” And then he waved me through, incredulously. “It’s great stuff,” I tried to say. “I’m not saying it isn’t,” he responded. He was still shaking his head when I pushed through the doors back into the land of Morton’s.

 

I guess it’s a good thing that servant of the people didn’t ask about my worst sticker price shock in Paris. He would have been as surprised as I was that it was not the 100-euro lunch tab at Joel Robuchon’s Atelier, or even the 71-euro whopper at Allard (did I really drop 51 dollars on one piece of sole and four little potatoes?) No, the check that actually floored me was the last, for lunch at Le Comptoir, where superb foie gras, brandade, two glasses of rose and a cafe creme came to exactly 27 euros. If this is the new Paris, you can have Manhattan.

 

My first night in Paris fell on a Sunday, which is a fate worse than Omaha, which is partly why I agreed to meet a newfound friend for dinner. She was staying in a Right Bank hotel where the Michelin says rooms start at 600 euros, and she had a concierge. Little did I know he would cough up exactly one suggestion: Right here, at Cafe de la Paix. Right here was right across the glitzy lobby, a nearly empty overwrought dining room where the scent of geriatric fish was unmistakable. I should be embarrassed to admit we wound up down the street at Le Grand Cafe, cousin of Le Procope and Au Pied de Cochon, but then it should have been mortified to send out my duck after so long under a heat lamp that the breast, ordered rouge, was crusted like a scab while the potato gratin was carbonized. At least we didn’t get sick from the whelks. And I didn’t feel so bad retreating to my amenity-shy hotel, close to real restaurants.

 

 

If not for one surly bitch at the one internet cafe in St.-Remy, I would have thought I had landed in any country but France. People were so friendly everywhere it made me anxious. My pidgin Francais was not just tolerated but apparently understood (a kir royale may have arrived in a martini glass at one cafe, but the components were right); a bookseller actually wanted to chat in English, and even the postal clerk picked the proper euros out of my hand with no perceptible disgust. In the market in Arles, vendors handed out samples with abandon and even leapt into camera range whenever I picked up my point-and-shoot. And in St.-Remy, the waitress at our first dinner stop snapped a photo for the table next to ours, something that would have been as likely as Velveeta on a cheese tray on our first trip to France back in the Eighties.

 

The mystery of it all was solved when I stopped by my favorite artisan in Paris for an earring fix and she said: “This is the first year the Americans are coming back.” With the whole world blowing up all around us, it’s so reassuring to know they won’t hate us for our chimp as long as we bring our Mastercards.

 

 

 

Jet lag alone can’t account for other weirdness. When I opened my hometown paper on my first morning back, I was sure one logo had been changed to the Diving section — that huge photo was just a little too pubic for comfort. Then there was the real estate story that referred to “designer wines” on Columbus Avenue (would that be ones with labels?) But the thing that really had me scratching my head was a piece on the Op-Ed page that I read all the way to the end, then went back and studied the headline and billboard to see if they might be able to summarize what the hell the contributor with the book to promote was saying. I guess Joe Wilson has scared the editors straight out of publishing clear thoughts, but you still have to wonder how a statement like “a burrito is nothing more than a delicious disguise for inelegant leftovers” ever made its way into international print.

 

I grew up calling burritos burros, which is what my family’s Mexican neighbors in the poorest part of a tiny Arizona town wrapped them up as. Lola, next door, made her own flour tortillas and kept them soft in a big pot on the stove, and she filled them not with the luxury of leftovers but from scratch, with not much more than pinto beans enriched with lard. Bean burros were lunch and dinner and sometimes breakfast on a street where the whole debate over farmers’ markets vs. supermarkets would sound like so much static from Mars even today.

 

I’m all for trashing Holy Foods. But get your peasant facts together before you romanticize Western Beef. Then maybe come up to my neighborhood Greenmarket sometime and see how easy it is to buy cilantro, chilies and quelites when Mexican women waving food stamps have gotten there first.

 

 

Another surreal sight on returning home was a news photo of bottled water being delivered in Phoenix to some of the hordes of homeless stranded in a lethal heatwave. I can see Evian in tsunami land. But what ever happened to drinking fountains in America? No wonder people are dropping dead. The shriveled soul of Grover Norquist rules.

oldest bites

August 2007

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?

 

Julia, unexpurgated

 

 

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.

 

 

Just back from India, I’m feeling as disoriented in New York as Bush must have in Baghdad. But I have to eat here.

 

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.

older bites

August 2007

Ducasse must be having a going-out-of-business sale. Three hundred twenty dollars for a truffle dinner for two with wine pairings? I think they call that distress pricing. And the place must be completely empty if that level of hooliganism is encouraged. Reading about it reminded me of the dinner my consort and I suffered through eons ago at Jean-Louis at the Watergate, which actually did cost something like $320 (I had the receipt up on my bulletin board for about a year to remind me that we could have flown to Paris for that price at that time). We had made a pilgrimage to what was allegedly one of the highest temples of gastronomy in America, only to be seated near a couple with a baby. A screaming baby. One that was being raised to scream itself out. But at least it wasn’t packing a digital camera and microphone and regurgitating, to Palladin’s humiliation.

I doubt I was the only reader embarrassed to be a New Yorker on seeing an adolescent had been sent to do an Apple’s job profiling the most brilliant woman in wine writing. What must that quintessentially erudite Brit have thought about the level of depth and wit at what presents itself as the nation’s greatest newspaper? And here I thought crush had a whole other meaning with wine. “Be still my heart,” my ass. Get working, my gag reflex.

Donald Trump is normally beneath comment (except by Borat’s behind, of course). But I have to say the new vodka out under his name does not really look as if it is bottled in gold, which is the effect clearly being attempted. That color makes it closer to urine. Which must be why the T logo evokes a certain statement by Andres Serrano.

The small story was about an outbreak of salmonella in tomatoes in 21 states. The huge one was about all the pandering to germphobes these days. Can no one make the connection between the absurdity of automatic disinfectants for doorknobs and the reality that food harvesters and handlers are among the poorest-paid and most deprived of health care of any workers in this country? All the Purell on the planet is not going to solve that little problem of denial. Lately, with a good friend coming to town, I’ve been marveling at hotel prices in Manhattan, and I just love the idea of someone who can pay $1,000 a night worrying about germs on the remote when the lethal risk could be from the obscenely overpriced strawberries from room service. Can I say it again? Typhoid Mary was a cook.

I’m no believer in the Apocalypse, but knowing a cranberry bog was simulated in the heart of Manhattan, in Rockefeller Center, almost got me seeing naked Christians flying up to heaven. A society (I started to say culture) that can indulge in such absurd excess purely for promotional purposes really is asking for End of Days. Having spent more harvests than I can count up around South Carver, Mass., during what really is the greatest show in agriculture, I found it particularly offensive: all flash, no substance, just nature out of context and balance. As a reality check, I think Butterball should be forced to bring a turkey operation to town next, with miserable birds bred to be all breast crammed cheek by gorgle into tiny cages. New Yorkers might stop complaining about tiny apartments and ass-packed subways — not to mention about being unable to mate naturally.

So some joint desperate for publicity in Las Vegas is offering a $70 baked potato. The truffles put it over the top. The potato makes it pathetic. I don’t think even in Dubai they would be so blatant about demonstrating their contempt for the losers with cash coming into casino eateries. Rubes tasting the most exclusive tuber in the world for the first time would think — as I confess I did — that it was something scraped off the bottom of someone’s shoe. Give them their dignity as you extract them from their winnings. Strew some gold leaf over the chicken nuggets.

I go back and forth on whether the internets are going to revolutionize the news business. For every breakthrough like the hijacking of BLT Burger’s opening you get a “Harold McGee has a blog!” The former demonstrated that restaurant flacks might want to think about looking into whether anyone is hiring in Bangalore. Sites like eater and chowhound grabbed that bone and ran with it, to the extent that anyone who goes online to decide where to eat knew a week ahead of every reader crawling after print that it was not just open but, apparently, not very good. Press releases were anticlimactic to the point of dodo-ish. But then the cyber-hysteria that greeted the discovery that the Einstein of food was posting was relatively ridiculous. The thing has been up since August and, when I checked, had not been updated since September. How do you say “stop the presses” in HTML?

In my indentured servitude I recall eating many times at Burritoville on Ninth Avenue near Chalabi HQ. So how in the name of Siegol did the word burrita make it into print? I guess on the 43d ode to funky food at the ball fields, effete eyes just glazed over.

“A Good Year” may not come in the form of a mushroom cloud, but it is one serious mega-bomb. Russell Crowe should have thrown a big white telephone at Ridley Scott before allowing the director to embarrass him so profoundly, having him play a money-guy asshole (or is that redundant?) who inherits a vineyard in Provence. A friend and I, invited to a free screening through a promising-sounding new group called Women & Wine, lasted about 15 minutes before realizing spit buckets would not be handed out. Maybe the movie will be a hit, though. The evening had started with a reception featuring out-of-season rose and bounteous imported cheeses, and my snobbish side noticed that the Boursin went first. And the asses were still in the seats when we fled.

I used to subscribe to GQ just for the food coverage, but that has been many years ago. Judging by the kerfuffle over the New Orleans story, I don’t think I’ll be re-upping anytime soon. Reading about it online made me remember the dismal day I went to lunch when I was still not weight-bearing and a guy walking out deliberately knocked my propped-up crutches off my chair; my surprised friend thought it was “like kicking a cripple.” Maybe the cooking really has gone completely to hell in one of America’s top five food cities, but now is not the time to blare that thought out, not while the people who staff the restaurants are so scattered and so many problems are clearly still far from solved. But in every debacle there is always a laugh, and mine came when I read the outrage over the outsized trout the poor critic was served. I guess he don’t know nothin’ ’bout no speckled trout. And we should all be glad no one attempted to serve him puppy drum. I can read it now: “Not only was it not a dog, I couldn’t beat it.”

Somehow it’s not surprising the canned White House chef is being very careful not to dis Mrs. Chimp — he has to know he would wind up with a horse’s head in his bed. And as a former friend once noted, that BFEE payback tradition must be how we wound up with so many horses’ asses in the executive mansion to begin with.

Nice to think Panchito has a second career waiting. After managing to gorge across northern Italy without a single thought any deeper than out-Appling Apple at least on his Visa, he could take up competitive eating. As much as I find that whole “sport” abhorrent, there is something deeply satisfying about imagining him entering the Coney Island hot dog pig-out. And winning.

Also, I have only been to the train station in Bologna, but one of my far-flung e-pals just back from there has an interesting observation: “Via Drapperie is one place in an otherwise untrammeled food town where every shop sells 80-euro bottles of balsamic with labels in English. This writer deserves a tour on the receiving end of Puglia.” Or at least a budget. This had to be spending on a KBR scale. With returns just as rewarding.

WNYC ended its fall shakedown in the absolute nick of time. If I had had to listen to that ridiculous promo for the Zagat Survey one more time, I would have thrown all three radios out the windows of our 14th-floor apartment, and at least one receiver, too. It had every cliche that could be jammed into one too-long enticement (“bad boy chef” — give me a break), and it struggled to add a veneer of validity to what is truly nothing more than a gazetteer. Which is why, for all the dopiness of the new Michelin, I for one am happy to have it, Dinosaur BBQ and all. The “mysterious inspectors,” as the company’s capo referred to them at the announcement breakfast, at least appear to be trying to impose qualitative judgments rather than letting “democracy” rule in a Diebold world. I can even forgive them the two stars for Molto’s palace because I now understand where they’re coming from. The place feels very much like the wildly ostentatious starred restaurant at Pompeii my consort and I once found through the Red Guide. But maybe I’ve just gone soft because that breakfast, at Bouchon Bakery in the dread TWC, was such a trip. It was the ultimate contrast to the gang-bang at the Guggenheim for the inaugural guide — there were probably no more than a dozen and a half reporters at 9 in the morning but enough flacks and waiters to take back Baghdad. And the exquisite little pastry I had plated by two servers was definitely worth the journey.

New York City’s move to ban trans fats in restaurants pretty much strikes me as a tempest in a Fryolator, even though I agree with chefs who say letting government outlaw any food is a very oily slope. But this is really about fast food and processed food; the kinds of restaurants that care about what they serve have already moved beyond the latest designated evil. Three of the mid-range places I eat at most often — Pearl Oyster Bar, Fatty Crab and Chola — all say they don’t even touch trans fats. And all you need to know about how the proposal affects ethnic restaurants is that this is a decidedly American innovation. Which makes it all the weirder that the industry keeps putting out misinformation and murking up the debate. The latest terror alert was from the head of the restaurant association, warning in the Daily News that the ban will make it tougher to turn out fresh chocolate chip cookies and cannoli and egg rolls. Exactly why is never stated. Not only does every one of those taste worse made with shortening rather than butter or hydrogenated oil instead of canola, but aside from the bottom line not one of them needs to be made with either foul ingredient. And if they are, all I can say about the crackdown is: Bring it on.

I actually found myself sucked into the dread TWC twice in a week, the second time because I happened to be nearby and just could not limp the extra 14 blocks up to Fairway for the large amount of Swiss chard I needed for a recipe. I think this was the day Holy Foods was getting yet another beatification in the press, this time for its support of “animal compassionate” meat, because my spinach detector was on high as I meandered through all that eco-sensitivity on chest-thumping display. And of course the cashier tucks my paper-wrapped loaf of Sullivan Street Bakery bread into its own heavy plastic bag and snaps a rubber band around the plastic box of duck rillettes already sealed so tightly that I will almost have to use pliers to open it. Ever since Vanity Fair said the most immediate thing we could do to save the environment is to cut down on plastic bags, I have been trying to carry my hyper-sturdy Cuba tote everywhere and toss everything I can into it unwrapped. I didn’t have it that day and realized: Walking out with this chain’s shopping bags, you’re just talking the talk.

The most surreal party of a strange week was the one for the Waldorf-Astoria’s new cookbook, in Peacock Alley. I had to take my chocolate cookie and go home after succumbing to the macaroni and cheese served in a martini glass and having some hammered woman at the bar next to me point at it and start half-singing, “This is us. You know what I mean? This is us.” Speak for yourself, lady. And now I won’t be able to listen to Mark Knopfler and Emmylou for a long time. Even more unsettling was that different serving stations were dispensing food from the book, and the longest lines (meaning three or four people) were not for the lobster or the truffled gnocchi or even the slow-roasted monkfish. They were for the mini-burgers. What in the name of Craig Claiborne has happened to taste in this town? Even Laurent Tourondel has succumbed to the siren song of nonthreatening burgers and, I see, now has toddlers to contend with in his newest dining room. I guess it makes sense on one level: He must have a shitload of meat scraps to use up from his other joints. But I still never thought the national capital of food would turn out to be a glorified McDonald’s. It has to be Dining’s fault. As we’ve learned the hard way with Washington, blinkered coverage leads to disastrous situations.

Hometown paper, my ass. One day it refers to Gramercy Tavern in the embezzlement story as “a bar.” And on another it says a Mexican food cart down in SoHo is on “Worcester” Street. Think the copy desk has been outsourced to Bangalore?

This is not a payback to Grub Street, but I have to say New York magazine’s story on extreme dieting was brilliantly done. We were spared all the blow-by-blow of the writer’s experience and simply treated to one devastating dinner with some truly scary characters (although I’ve seen more people in this town licking their plates in restaurants than mooning the A train — two to one if you’re counting). The writing was quite clever, too. But what I mostly came away impressed with was how much very specific nutrition knowledge these I-wanna-live-forever wackos had at their mouse clicks. People who try to eat right based on what they read in the papers and magazines and hear on the teevee are essentially clueless about anything beyond fat and carbs and whatever Big Food and its stenographers are pushing as the miracle nutrient du jour. And these anorexics by another name are getting their RDAs if not much else. Time for another confusing study on fish!

One of the best signs I have ever seen in a restaurant was in a gay diner in the French Quarter that read, “Watch your handbags and your husbands.” I thought of it yet again after hearing the fascinating story going around right now about the Schnorrer. When I passed that tale along to a friend, I added: “It’s so insane for him to do it — everyone knows he’s corrupt.” And she just said, “Now we know he’s a corrupt goon.” I guess in this business, you take your moral clarity where you can find it.

I also suppose it’s true no attempted good deed goes unpunished. After seeing a certain restaurant pop up on the Eater deathwatch, I figured I would go drop some money there because the chef is very good and very charming, plus the place is pretty and it is on the way to the Greenmarket when I am late as lunchtime in getting downtown. So I walk in starving at 12:40 and two tables are occupied while the “hostess” is on the phone rattling off all the many rules for some poor sucker who had the temerity to make a reservation. “We only hold it for 15 minutes, and then we have to give the table away, and we cannot seat you until your entire party has arrived” etc. etc. Finally, finally, she hangs up, literally tears at her hair, blurts frazzledly, “I’ll be right with you” — and promptly takes another call. This is the hospitality business? Lesson No. 1 when I sold shoes eons ago was that a customer standing in front of me was worth 500 on the phone. Ms. Stressed may have thought that sound she heard as I turned around and stomped out was steam exploding out my ears. I would say it’s a death rattle.

Anyone who gets the Greenmarket gig merely for living close enough to shop in flip-flops deserves to do better than trivializing. Voguish as an adjective anywhere near Michael Pollan? Some grownup really should take the keyboard away. Pigs are dying in vain.

A smart friend just back from Rome, Naples and Piedmont spent at least an hour on the phone venting on how unhappily she and her husband had eaten, and for so much money. If I hadn’t been to Tuscany relatively recently, I would have thought the Italian sky was falling. No one knows better than I do that the country has ingredients, not a cuisine, and if they’re not handled exquisitely, you can easily drop 100 euros on pallid pasta and overcooked fish. At least I had a fresh email from my orthopedist pal in Torino to restore my faith; back from what he called an “aria fritta” and I assumed was a boondoggle (fried air), he reported he had eaten in Milan, Rome, Naples and Palermo. “Enjoying respective local cuisines, I was thinking about you; I realized that in almost every Italian restaurant they’re trying to homogenize traditional cuisine and stylish cuisine . . . with not bad results. We had a meeting too at Canale d’Alba, at Enoteca del Roero restaurant, and I liked this wonderful commixture of authentic solid flavours from Piedmont revisited with a touch of French frivolousness.”

Now that is a uniquely lyrical voice you can trust. Especially compared with the reflexive bleatings about the damn Autogrill disseminated even in absentia. Once upon a time that roadside institution really was a guaranteed oasis. But after our last stop this summer, in Florence, I’ll always wait for the Spizzico in the airport. It’s the exact same processed crap anymore, but with Burger King on board. No wonder my frustrated friend is convinced Italians are playing fast and loose with their culinary heritage. They can serve industrial mozzarella with Big Ag ham on a cotton ciabatta and hornswoggle an American critic. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what Molto realized long ago.

The same frustrated friend, far across the country, had just the right take on the food cart megaturd, too: “People in NY go out for late dinners. Wow.” Wait till she hears about the $40 entrees. How soon we forget the $36 soup. I’ll say it again: They’re defining nadir down.

It’s only happened twice, but I’m convinced it’s a trend. Dogs are getting better service than humans in this town. Once was at a sidewalk cafe in the Flatiron where a guy walked up with a Great Dane bigger than he was and made me think Rick Santorum might be on to something. My friend and I waited and waited to order food while both the hostess and a waiter rushed to bring the dog a drink in a takeout container. The second instance was at another sidewalk cafe, on Columbus, where I got water only on request and bread only with my food but where the waiter positively sprinted to make sure a big boxer was rehydrated seconds after being leashed to the fence. The only redeeming element was what ensued. The owner asked me to watch Buster while he (the owner) went to the bathroom, and almost immediately, with so many other designer dogs prancing past, I found myself in the bizarre position of eating and drinking while watching an absolute orgy of butt-sniffing. It was almost like being at a press party with the Uberomnivore.

I told a friend from Beacon about that episode, at which I also heard there is a Manhattan store that specializes in Halloween costumes for dogs, and she went off on how her town has a “barkery.” “We don’t even have a bakery for humans, and we have a barkery for dogs,” she said. But then freshly baked biscuits and kibble don’t surprise me. The only refugees from Lebanon allowed into this country after the bloodbath were dogs, apparently the only things Americans care more about than blastocysts. Funny how we seem to be out-Frenching the French, who at least keep dogs in their place under the table — and proportioned for cities.

I keep going out to parties looking for absurdities and actually enjoying myself (yet another validation of my mantra: expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed). The Chow extravaganza at Bedlam (well, they call it Public) was a revelation. I don’t think I talked with very many guests besides chefs who do not exist largely in cyberspace, and it was a whole different experience from the literally old media events that can be so unpleasant. That classic New Yorker cartoon captioned, “On the internet no one knows you’re a dog,” is so true when it comes to food writing. In dog years I am ready to be put down, but all the pups were astonishingly friendly and open. A day or so later I realized why. On the internet you do it for fun. You compete only with your last post. And when you actually meet the people whose words you admire, you can be pretty confident those are their words, unfiltered. Of course part of the reason I went was to meet the blogger who thinks I am clench-jawed nasty, and of course she looked and seemed like a sweetheart, what the famous David’s sister might be if she didn’t have to wait on peons at that fake fish camp. She didn’t cringe from me, either. But then I did retract my fangs for the night.

Earlier in the week there was an evening at Zarela’s amazing home that I found seductive even without succumbing to the margaritas (the crack cocaine of cocktails), largely because the crowd was so mixed between media types and patrons who have become friends. I really can’t write about her in my other life because we are friends, too (although she once informed me I was becoming a liability precisely because of that separation between personal and professional), but I’m here to say from long experience that she does know how to fiesta. Among the things I learned as Aaron’s caja china was steaming out in the garden in the rain: The pizza at Celeste is best at 10:30 at night because it takes that long for the oven to reach the optimum state; Hallmark has a magazine, and it’s actually not unbearably treacly, and, if you are a smart and personable guy moving into a pivotal position, characters in need will be on you, in the immortal words of James Carville, like stink on shit. Some major-league glomming was going on, but I somehow suspect the attempted victim is more than able to resist the blandishments. Still, why do I doubt the words “when you were hired I got very frightened” were ever uttered?

You know the world is spinning off its axis when a tabloid runs a cartoon of a diner requesting “the House Republican special” as a waitress calls to the kitchen: “One order of toast!” — and it’s not the NYPost. If he’s lost Mr. Fox, the Chimp really is down to his Lump in the Bed and his real dog as loyalists.

Chills should also be running down the cloven-hooved Rove’s crooked spine now that news of Coke’s allegedly calorie-burning green tea drink has been greeted with more skepticism than the announcement of the last capture of Osama’s 1,900th No. 2. Something’s happened, and what it is isn’t exactly clear, but it’s obviously getting harder to fool all of the people all of the time. Rather than swallowing the notion of gym-in-a-drum, smart papers such as the WSJ did the math and reported that it would take 28 cans of this new Coke to counter one Big Mac. If America is really starting to wake up and smell the guano, it might mean the end of the faith-based flimflams, in and out of the supermarket.

The rumor that Grayz is not going to happen, heard only two weeks after I suffered yet another earnest pitch for the place, is somehow not surprising. The city has gone crazy, but maybe not crazy enough to want the uneasy spawn of a mixed marriage of “21” and a tapas bar. What’s most remarkable is that the pullout is happening after such unparalleled overselling — the announcement party alone would have put a Nobel soiree to shame. Somehow they always forget what happens when you push too hard and too fast: premature exultation, the most awkward form of birth control for restaurants.

If you want to save your sanity, never read a food piece in the business section of the NYT. On the same day Michael Pollan in the magazine presented his usual brilliant assessment of how we wound up with shit in the spinach, and how more government regulation would make everything so much worse, a stunningly misguided columnist laid out the exact opposite argument, right down to an ode to the great advance of forced pasteurization of milk. Maybe it was satire to praise irradiation, but somehow I don’t think so. When I saw the Chicago Tribune is looking to hire a “food policy reporter,” to be based in DC, it struck me as yet another sign of how schizophrenic old media is about food — is it women’s pages fluff or is it a crucially important topic right now? Coverage that bridges that gap as Pollan does would benefit everyone. And maybe what the world needs is more food policy editors, the kind who can tell the spinach from the Shinola.

Speaking of editors needed, it gives me no joy to point out the obvious one more time: Friends don’t let friends drone drivel.

Blogs must be the new Viagra. In one noteworthy case, a keyboard kommando has actually grown an extra ball and taken on the 800-pound gorilla. Maybe one of the duller openings really does represent an outstanding newcomer, but the defense sounds like a Tony Snowism: “Nina and I have never voted in one of our surveys.” But that was not the accusation. As we all learned too painfully in 2000, you can win an election with judges only.

A more telling insight into how the food world works in this great age of the series of tubes can be found in the “reviews” for a new wine book. Authors send copy to blogger, blogger raves, links are exchanged, traffic goes up all around. Spy used to call this logrolling in our time, but even those cynics never imagined how virtually out of control it would get. Maybe it’s not payola, but it’s so much easier than planting eight-thumbs-up reviews on Amazon. Expect a sequel. Call it “Becoming Your Own Flack.”

My sick suspicion that the food pages of the Daily News are preying on 6-year-olds has been confirmed. The latest insult to intelligence was a piece on breakfast “sammies.” That word is even more of an abomination than “veggies.” Do they really think any kid has a $31.60 allowance to subscribe? For that price, though, we deserve better than a full-page feature celebrating artichokes in mid-October. Maybe you can buy them all year round now, but if we have learned anything from killer spinach, it’s that obliviousness can be dangerous. For a publication so rabidly obsessed with the latest fashions, the News seems oddly clueless about the hottest trend in food right now. Just a clue: It starts with an L. And it’s something you would certainly expect in a “hometown paper.”

“Our Daily Bread” is the most devastating documentary food movie since “Darwin’s Nightmare,” and if you can sit through it you will have a very hard time understanding how animal rights ninnies can waste a nanosecond of concern on foie gras. Gavage looks like a trip to the Golden Door compared with the way chickens, cows and pigs are raised to become 49-cent-a-pound fodder. Even my overactive imagination could never have envisioned how brutal it is to take tiny chicks and ram their beaks into a guillotine at the rate of roughly one a second so they can be packed together tighter than excelsior in an Easter basket, let alone how disgusting is it to see them literally vacuumed up and funneled down chutes to the next level of hell. I think chickens are filthy birds but was still oozing sympathy at what industrial agriculture does to living things.

This long, slow, breathtaking movie is both queasy-making and mesmerizing in depicting the antithesis of sustainable. Every shot is as composed as a photograph on a gallery wall, and the camera really never blinks. There is no music, no voiceover, nothing but an unflinching and unjudgmental look at how man has beaten nature into submission, or so we think. It’s like “Koyaanisqatsi” without a Philip Glass score for comfort (there’s a thought I never thought I would have), but while it’s beyond life out of balance it presents a staggeringly fair depiction of the true cost of Big Food — animal, vegetable and mineral. I’m pretty careful about where my food comes from, but even I was repeatedly sickened; the sequence on farmed salmon was as unsettling as the many on greenhouse cucumbers and peppers and white asparagus and, especially, salt. By the end, after watching not one but two cows undeniably in agony after getting whacked while trapped in an iron maiden of a contraption, I realized that if the brisket I had to go home and cook for a story had not come from Niman Ranch, there is no way in hell I could have ripped open the plastic. As it was I had trouble sleeping for two nights and still get queasy thinking of a burger.

If only the dainty bleeding hearts out there squandering their worries on ducks without a gag reflex could hear the shrieks of pain from a piglet locked into a metal brace to have its tail docked before heading to the next stage of confined misery. And are the gadflies really trying to save cockroaches from an eating contest at a theme park? Islamochrist help us all.

I’m not a Democrat, but at least once a day lately I find myself mentally paraphrasing the Frugal Gourmet: Thank heaven for little boys.

A friend down in Texas mailed me the most amazing story from his local food section, a four-page spread on the blow-by-blow opening of a hometown restaurant here in the big city. Not just because of the novelty of print, I read it with absolute fascination, waiting to see how the flacks would get canned. That little messiness was never mentioned, but I did learn that they (or their replacements) provided the chef and his wife with “a fat notebook” crammed with photos of “reviewers, food writers and editors, along with other media big shots.” “Some come with descriptions: ‘a better, younger-looking Woody Allen,’ ‘looks similar to Harrison Ford but more muscular and tan,’ ‘likes to eat large meals’ . . .” Aside from the last, I’m trying to think whom they possibly could mean. Even more telling, the story also notes that “none of the A-list celebrities has made an appearance” at the opening party. Maybe the third PR team will be the charm.

No wonder we’re bogged down in a lose-lose situation in Iraq. There are actually people out there, in the media no less, who do not know how Panchito got nicknamed Panchito. (Big honkin’ hint: Not by me.) Thanks to e-pals who alerted me with reviews ranging from “semi-coherent” to “mean and pompous,” I looked in on holierthanthou.com (or is it circlejerk.com?) What is it with guys who read me and have to take to the fainting couch? It’s only guys, interestingly enough. Women must be more honest about how the food world works — not for nothing is it known as a coven. At least I don’t let my comment-monkeys fling the feces for me. And while I could never describe what it’s like being me, I can tell you what it’s not: boring.

If the descriptions of one set of American-girl fingers getting grape-stained in a vineyard in the Loire didn’t dull you enough, brace yourself. Apparently Travel has bought the same story. With luck we’ll at least be spared that very French recipe title, “Gruyere puff.”

One guy who would have searched out and insisted on the real name for that dish has just made the ultimate press trip, after one of the most enviable careers ever in journalism. I have to admit I was far more awed and admiring before I had to handle his food stuff, and luckily I did not have to do that very often. It was not just misspellings of fettuccine Alfredo that sent him around the bend (although that early fuck-up in his own obit should have brought him bellowing back to life). I remember once shaking for three days after I had to call him somewhere halfway around the globe to say the copy desk had found a couple of errors in his piece. It was like cattle-prodding a bull elephant. “Must be wonderful to have a bullshit job,” he yelled back, in all caps with exclamation points and a bit of boldface. No wonder I came in one day during the 2000 Republican convention to say I had seen a photo of Johnny Rotten at the solemn assemblage and a co-worker looked at me quizzically. “Why wouldn’t he be there?” she asked, not realizing I was talking about the punk rocker. I give the Times huge points for addressing that aspect of him, although my own evil side wonders if the obit could have gotten through any copy desk in the building without that graf after such a long and legendary career.

Johnny was the last of his kind, though, a consummate pro who knew his stuff and so much more. He sucked life dry, and shared. Even better, for a top god, he could be unbelievably human. I remember shaking for five days after I wrote a profile of Andre Soltner and came in the morning it was published to pick up a voice mail from Johnny, actually saying he was impressed. (On such small shreds we build our nest of self-esteem.) I can’t even begin to imagine how bereft the legendary Betsey feels knowing she will never again be able to deflect an editor by saying, “He’ll have to call you back. He’s in the bath.”

Sad that cookbooks and food memoirs are still issuing from the last horrific chapter in world history even as a craven Congress has officially handed the naked emperor a cat-o’-nine tails to stifle dissent. Maybe it’s time to start thinking of recipes that will work in the Halliburton “immigrant” detention centers that we who still believe in the Constitution may very well wind up inhabiting.

With a depression also upon us if the Chinese ever decide to shut down the pipeline financing this obscene war, here’s a good scam to remember. A guy at a table next to me in a restaurant ate his lunch with great gusto, got the check, stuck a credit card in the folder and handed it to the waitress, saying he was going out to feed the meter and would be right back to sign it. And of course that was the last we saw of him. Considering there are more banks than restaurants in this town anymore, it’s gotta be easy to take out and then cancel all the cards you can eat.

The reality of a kid dying from E. coli is appalling, but if there is one lesson to be learned it is that spinach has its place, and it’s not in the blender. A fruit smoothie made with the stuff is now a certifiable crime against nature. Dog owners tempted by the canned fruit desserts I spotted at the register at Little Creatures might want to think of that, too. The clerk told me people really do buy the idiocies, and then he picked up another temptation he thought was even funnier: A Snozzler, which is a pig’s snout dried into a chew toy. Maybe it’s because I have watched my consort eat the same appendage barbecued in St. Louis, where they go for that sort of thing, but it seems so much saner than berry cobbler and apple “torte” for one of those baby-and-a-boyfriend Chihuahuas women tote around.

Poor W magazine got left with foie gras foam on its trendy face by profiling the new Rocco just as he was being shuffled off to Philadelphia from his lofty perch in New York to “consult.” The kicker was the worst part: “Restaurants come and go. Chefs — well, I’m still here.” Then again, maybe he’s not the new Rocco but the new Chimp. Whose fault was it that Gilt was struggling? Not his. Blame the flacks and the marketers. I guess he never heard my favorite Yogi-ism: If people don’t want to come, nothing can keep them away.

Curious to see the Union League, I went to a panel discussion put on by a bunch of culinary overachievers that was surprisingly entertaining, if not just for the heavily padded CV’s alone. But my favorite part of the evening was running into a few women at the Champagne hour afterward who were about to be inducted. One, not realizing I was only press-passing through, acted as if I had peed in the punchbowl. “How long have you been a Dame?” she asked with the barely concealed disdain of someone wondering if she has been tricked into slumming. Obviously she didn’t realize any club that would have me is not one I could ever join. Besides, it looks as if it might be hell on your cleavage.

My other amusing party encounter was at Porter House, Michael Lomonaco’s promising makeover of V in the dread TWC. Having partaken of most of the excellent steak and hors d’oeuvres on offer, I was standing talking to a few food notables when a tall guy walked over, introduced himself and shook everyone’s hand, mine last as he announced: “I’m the prick’s scion.” Oops. Talk about words coming back to haunt me. But at least he was a good sport about it, stopping by on his way out to introduce his pretty wife and tell us business is great and his dad is a really a nice guy and we must come in. If one editor’s reaction is any indication, though, the octogenarians will continue to have the place to themselves. Normally the mildest of mannered women, she started insisting, “We’ve met many, many times, and you never remember.” Well, he is son of Sirio. But at least he’s trying. And I’ve long suspected his charming mom’s DNA might be stronger.

So much for arugula conquering America. The WSJ, in a piece on how it’s suddenly the new spinach, calls the green an herb (so does the dictionary, but it modifies the noun with “salad,” and by that definition so is watercress). But then the NYT was just as confused about what a lentil might be, referring to it once as a seed and another time as a bean. And that was not as peculiar as illustrating a story on a crippling shortage of said legume with photos of warehouses stacked high. Still, nothing was as weird as my weekly email from Tarla Dalal, the Betty Crocker of India, suggesting her subscribers give a little pizza party and make a few topped with baby corn and asparagus. Somehow it is hard to reconcile that recommendation with photos of women in peacock-worthy saris digging ponds to collect rainwater in an increasingly desperate country. Not to mention that the idea of the whole world eating like Americans can be leading nowhere good, let alone “gourmet.”

Whatever they’re smoking at the Daily News is even scarier. It insisted readers should switch to soy “milk” in response to the rising price of the real deal. I now see what a bargain $2 Ronnybrook at the Greenmarket is if the Key Food in Brooklyn was indeed selling industrial cow juice for $1.90 a quart “before the price hike.” Of the seven brands featured, five cost more that, substantially more. Either the writer and editor were using Pentagon math, or someone didn’t realize nonfat dry milk is not made from soy. And don’t get me going on the oysters-as-aphrodisiacs-that-aren’t nonsense. One reason we subscribe is for the comics, but the whole paper is turning into the funny pages — and it’s nowhere near as smart as “Over the Hedge.” Talk about cottage cheese as monkey brains. . . .

It’s too bad Panchito didn’t wake up and smell the sulfur sooner. Somehow I suspect voters before the first selection might have understood there is a big difference between “quit drinking and found God” and “alcoholic.” As more than one sage has noted, the media have been the worst enablers. And now no amount of O’Doul’s can save us.

It didn’t take the WSJ long to give Big Food a chance to spin the spinach fearstorm. I don’t know why I even open the editorial pages, but my latest reward was a piece concluding: “Finally, it is unwise to automatically consider everything organically grown to be safe, and food products that contain chemicals unsafe.” Got that? Eat your industrially grown, virus-sprayed, irradiated, preservative-crammed, carelessly processed, long-hauled supermarket garbage and leave your worries behind. It’s no coincidence that I thought the S on the can held by Popeye in the accompanying cartoon was actually a dollar sign.

Speaking of supermarkets, didn’t Dining feel as if George Bush the elder had hijacked it? “Gosh, wouldya look at this: scanners at the checkout!” I couldn’t read the Jetson piece, but the sidebar intro was good for a few laughs. Since when is Whole Foods not a supermarket? Since when is Zabar’s pricey? (Reach for the snoot oats at even the down-and-dirty Food City near me and be prepared to pay $3 more for a tin.) And is “the Internet” code for the one virtual supermarket in town for so many New Yorkers? The whole notion that anyone could winnow the average quadrillion foods in even a small D’Agostino’s is patently absurd, not to mention tone-deaf elitist. Really, the idea pool has been drained completely dry if this vintage chestnut is the best they can recycle. But then maybe it’s just a set-up. Once when my consort and I were in Barbados or Grenada he disappeared for hours with a bunch of little kids who promised to show him the perfect picture point. I was imagining the worst when he finally came back and said he had stepped out on a rock in the water with his camera bag and slipped and fell. Far and hard. When he resurfaced unbroken, the barefoot boys were all standing open-mouthed and one finally pulled it together to say, in awe: “You are a lucky mon.” Ditto for Pete. After this streak of idiocy, anything will look like an improvement.

This must be the season for geriatric chestnuts. One of the check-back-in lures of Mr. Cutlets’s new berth is a daily feature on the availability of tables for two at various restaurants at 8 that same night. It’s always fun to see the mighty “fully committed” publicly humbled, but you have to wonder why anyone would waste a dial tone on Barbetta. A table at 6 can be hard to come by even at a dive in the theater district. At 8 the joint is yours. But the bigger question is who is choosing which tables to heat-seek. The 800-pound gorilla? Bring us the head of DB.

Everyone’s having a good time yukking it up about the new Hawaiian Tropic restaurant in Times Square, but not, of course, because the chances of the hair in the food being curly have gone up radically. It’s interesting that the coverage seems to mention everything but the chef and food, which is funny because he’s so known for taking a “Jackass” approach to his career, blithely (and endearingly) chortling all the way to the bank. What’s weirder is that at the very same time the new Fort Worth outpost is being treated as a serious restaurant, and all you need to know is that it gave away branding irons at the opening party without ever mentioning what they are used for most often. No, the answer is not to “stake a claim on everything from saddles to farm equipment,” as the promo promised. It’s to burn animal flesh (sort of like what they did in a certain Yale fraternity under a budding torturer in chief). As restaurant decor, they’re about as cute as a noose.

Anyway, I suspected braving the party was a mistake when I passed Mimi Sheraton halfway down the sidewalk and she warned: “It’s a madhouse.” It was jammed, but I managed to snare a glass of wine, meet the owner (who actually tipped his hat, something I haven’t experienced since my dad died) and wriggle through to see the whole Jekyll-and-Hydey space. I passed on the kangaroo nachos (tell me again where the marsupials roam?) and heard some gossip. And then I walked straight out and back to the subway, Justin’s to the left and Duvet and Taj to the right, realizing what a fool I had been to think any place on that block would be about food. Hope that sweet chef didn’t think one gig at the Beard House meant Manhattan was clamoring for more. They say that to all the rubes.

Flacks must be also feasting on and fighting over Goblin Market. You can’t turn around without hearing about it (but not what the name means, of course). What they won’t tell you is that the cramped, awkward space is doomed. I have eaten in three restaurants at that address in the last few years, and I kinda doubt the fourth time will be the charm.

All the style coverage at the NYT has always been mocked as “The Buying Sections,” and the magazine makes it just as clear that the food page exists solely to snare the occasional Colavita ad. Still, it was surprisingly surprising to see how craven ribs could be. The layout was like a Spy magazine parody, and the copy read the way Minnie Pearl looked, with a price tag hanging off every other line. If it was all done to cut costs, with credit given for props borrowed or donated, I really wish that was reflected in my paltry Times stock. But mostly I wonder what Craig would think to see the earliest fumbling attempts to advance American cooking not just ridiculed but reduced to a Williams-Sonoma catalog giving a born-yesterday chef yet another a chance to beat off to his own brilliance.

I don’t know what was more stomach-churning on Patriot Day, the increasingly rabid Chimp parading around with only Republicans to distract from the gore he is wreaking in Iraq or New York magazine landing on my doormat filled with truly gruesome meat photos. This might not have been best week for any body parts, in black and white or color. But these would really put you off your goat.

The NYT definitely picked the wrong headline for the Nora Ephron book promo posing as a pop-ed. Shouldn’t it have been “I Feel Bad About My Dreck”?

Anyone who still doubts the wisdom of eating local has only to consider the reality that not only is there shit in the spinach, but that the shit is sold in three-quarters of all grocery stores in the country. Talk about a monoculture disaster waiting to happen (Natural Selection indeed). It was telling that the LAT report referred to the purveyor in question as a “farming operation.” About the only name it was not doing business as was Engulf & Devour. How easily we forget that clean food comes from a farm. It takes Big Food to dirty it up and sell it as prewashed. I suspected there had to be a price to be paid for baby spinach turning up in salads all way down the food chain. And I would be very wary of “organic” milk at Wal-Mart prices.

I have to say my spinach detector is also up about a certain off-the-radar Midtown restaurant suddenly awash in favorable press. The place is a burnout, but lately it’s hotter than Ad Hoc. As my friends out in Portland always say, free is a very good price. And “check, please” has evidently taken on a whole new meaning for certain diners.

All the New York lemmings also lined up to chorus the praises of the redesign of Picholine. Maybe I’ve had two experiences too many in the last year or so, but to me the place now looks like a funeral home. It was always dreary, but the opening party could have been God’s waiting room. That crowd is old, and that new color/fabric scheme is classic coffin. I stayed for one glass of pink Champagne and one weird blue cheese parfait and split when I saw the locusts around the cheese table; it was like a buffet scrum at a Jewish wedding. Mission Accomplished, though. They got the press, even if it had to be in the Large Type Weekly.

Call this the tale of two Littles. One had seriously good food, creative and beautifully executed, along with interesting wine, a very polished but inviting look and superb service. The other had workmanlike but well-produced food, interesting wine, a diner-crossed-with-a-cafe look and ragged service. When I came home from the second, struck by how overdressed the other patrons were, I went online and looked up their respective ratings from our boy Panchito. Yep, No. 2 was a two-star. No. 1 was rated half that. But this is not about there being no accounting for taste. It’s about how restaurants suffer when reviewers are over their heads, not raving but drowning. The second review was mostly about the food. Well, mostly about a pork chop. The other, published well over a year and a half earlier, was obsessed with what was on the iPod, back in the days when the Little lost boy was really struggling to pad out his essay questions. Learning on the job is fine when you’re swabbing toilets. It’s embarrassing in an archived world.

Congratulations to the Amateur Gourmet. Now that he has been shat on by Sirio, he can consider himself a real New Yorker. Interesting that a mere blog has the scion of Le Cirque all shook up, though. When Ruth returned the dump, it rolled right off the prick’s best side. Business must be booming in the new location if they’re actually worried about the little people.

A spy in the city of the Liberty Bell raises an interesting question about restaurant reporters who tell tales about moonlighting as propaganda catapulters. Is that “ethical” or “acceptable” or just “WTF”?

I can only hope no one else made the mistake of reading the profoundly sad but strangely uplifting front-page piece in the Wall Street Journal, on the Martha Stewart of Cuba, right before turning to the NYT magazine and the self-indulgent whining of yet another privileged white American journalist just overwhelmed by the difficulties of having too much. Compare and contrast. One steeps the water saved from rinsing rice rations with two spoonfuls of dark sugar for 45 days until it turns into something a little like vinegar for salad dressing, or a hair conditioner. The other is just incapacitated to the point of weeping by the stress of having to use up 10 over-bought staples rather than have the movers her employer would pay for box them up for California. One advises that wringing out towels with the grain of the fabric will make them last longer. The other recommends chicken stock over water in her lentil soup and runs out to buy creme fraiche to gussy it up.

The recipe that ran in the Journal was one of the bleakest I have ever seen in print, and it should make every American ashamed to think we’re “sacrificin’, payin’ a lot of taxes” while allowing a cruel and insane embargo devastate such a resilient population. The dish is “Syrian rice,” and it combines the ingredient in the title with crushed noodles, a fried onion and precious salt. The last line: “If you have a hot dog, chop and add.” One optional hot dog for four to six people, while here in the land of cursed plenty Ms. Comestible Poseur will be using her lupini beans for pie weights.

As the ultimate annoyance, the silly mewl ran under a headline about a cookout(?) that promised “not a wiener in sight.” Aside from the editor, of course, who should be hiding.

Just wondering . . . What kind of curdiot would think you can substitute Parmesan for Monterey Jack? What kind of Freudian slip is it to write that a chef previously “coked” somewhere? Did I really hear a vendor at the Real Food Market in SoHo say he would hate to be at Union Square because it’s “too cutthroat — the hustle and bustle would kill me”? (Come on, the Greenmarket can be either the underdog or the pit bull, not both.) And what in the name of Islamochrist were they thinking stuffing all that nutrition babble into a spinach bag so far past its sell-by date? The real news would fit in a tea bag. If it didn’t put you off that practice altogether. . . .

Lest we forget, it’s not officially 9/11. Our priorities-in-order Congress and Chimp in Chief instantly designated it Patriot Day five years ago next month. So if it’s gonna be a holiday, it needs a food. I suggest goat. Lest we forget, as Disney apparently did.

In another case of weapons of mass deception, Cargill is running the most astonishing full-page ads in newspapers lately. They actually contend its “special” cow feed is creating higher milk yields for Parmesan producers and thus “more of the famed cheese for all to enjoy.” If this is really going on, the EU is breaking down already. What makes Parmigiano-Reggiano so distinctive, to use the copywriters’ adjective, is the grass the cows graze on. It’s the quintessence of terroir. You can’t strap that flavor on with a feedbag. And as shocking as it is that the consorzio might be buying into good old American greedism, it’s even more disheartening to realize no one has learned anything from mad cow disease. Which also started with special feed for higher yield.

Bon Appetit seems to be mistaking a midlife crisis for a milestone. The unrelenting clutter of ads in its commemorative issue is an in-your-face expression of utter contempt for the poor sucker who pays 15 bucks a year minimum for a subscription. Everything blurs; all the overwrought wordplay and happy-all-the-time features are lost in a sea of selling. No wonder old media is struggling. In a world of Google-ad subtlety, it’s shoving billboards down readers’ throats. Hate to rain on the 50th-anniversary party, but this feels like a golden shower.

Speaking of being old in a young world, I’ll confess to a twinge of envy on learning the It Boys had been on “the culinary journey of a lifetime” for Travel & Leisure. Then I read their Odyssey and positively reveled in my antiquity. I’ve already eaten my way around Piedmont but didn’t have to take American advice on how to do it, thanks to my amazing consort and his TPW connections. As evocative as the piece was, as always with those two, I kept hearing that inimitable sound so many Italians tend to make when you pass along Willingeresque wisdom: Phhhht! And they’re right. Listening to Molto Ego about grub in Italy is like asking one of the Guido brothers where to eat in Denver.

If you can’t think of Saint Danny and “downtown” without hearing the Davy Crockett theme song in your head, you might want to avoid all news outlets for the foreseeable future. He has a book coming out, and the propaganda will be widely catapulted. So far the usually sentient interviewer in the NYT magazine is surprised the masterwork does not contain recipes. (Hint: Neither will Teresa Heinz Kerry’s inevitable memoir. There are chefs, and there are products.) Even weirder, at a publication that seems to think readers will happily swallow four figures on the price tag of a one-season bag, there is outrage that a meal could carry a $125 prix fixe. Maybe instead of that mystifying Key half-tonner (brink-of-crash advertorial, or just editors too embarrassed to compile a masthead?) they should start publishing yet another fat and glossy supplement to reflect the internal wacked-out condition of shock and awe on 43d Street. Call it Sybil. Or, better yet, Bi.

This is not the greatest of times to claim cooking as a career. One pro was just arrested in Maine on charges of killing four people at the B&B where he was staying while flipping omelets at another inn. And, in a truly sad case, another who worked at an IHOP was beaten to death in a robbery on Staten Island, apparently simply because he was Mexican. What’s interesting about both stories is how the papers for once understood the difference between “cook” and “chef” in describing key characters. Maybe it’s class, maybe it’s race, but it’s a huge step forward for semantics. And then there’s the fact that both depressing tales kicked the rock over to expose two realities in this country. First, the people cooking your food are anything but what you see on TV. Second, and most sickening, when the ostensible leader of an allegedly united country sets out to demonize immigrants, hard-working guys from Mexico who are great at their jobs and their families are going to get caught in the crossfire. The fish really does rot from the head down.

Sacha Baron Cohen could not have dreamed up a better ad campaign for the restaurants at a certain free-spending casino in Atlantic City. No matter what the cuisine — steak, steak, Italian, seafood, Italian, bastard French-Asian — or who the chef, the message is the same: Stupidly eat, drink and get laid. One spread has a woman wearing nothing but an apron and a cleaver, another shows an airhead looking like the poster girl for feminine hygiene. I can’t imagine a real woman responding to any of it, let alone traveling to a place with a slogan of “when food becomes art, hunger is entirely optional.” (Translated from the Kazakhstanese?) And what were Wolfgang and Flay and Susanna Foo(!) thinking? It’s all so sleazy you know that what happens in the poor man’s Vegas could not possibly stay there. And I’m not talking salmonella.

Some years ago Bob and I were in Trinidad midway between Christmas and Carnival and the music everywhere was mesmerizing, a wild mix of holdovers from the holidays and raucousness for the week-long party to come. I remember one night we went to a huge outdoor concert that was opened by a stand-up comedian who had the perfect rejoinder to someone who had called him an asshole: “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Toilet Paper.” But I will always hear the soca singer who followed him belting repeatedly, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” And, unfortunately, that refrain echoes against the great good news that the NYT has apparently finally designated a captain for that listing-to-sunken ship, the SS Dining. Judging by his taste in on-line reading, he is a superb choice. But never forget why “Rosemary’s Baby” was set in Manhattan.

Islamochrist, has it come to this? Rush Limbaugh blaming food stamps for fattening the poor? Clearly he never reads the news or he would have known they’ve found the root cause of the obesity epidemic: religion. And isn’t that what our “liberal” government, to use his epithet, is trying to force-feed us?

What is with the obsession with weenies this summer? First they’re organic and then they’re in blankets and then you have to wonder why Joel Robuchon would think there could possibly be a market for his exquisite food in a town so obviously full of bottom feeders. The only thing stranger is the endless drumbeat for Tony Luke’s. Seven shout-outs for one cheese steak purveyor on Ninth Avenue when Time Out can fill pages with restaurant openings every week? Somehow I smell a gold-plated bidet. A 19th-century French commode would be too obvious.

The Daily News, meanwhile, seems to be going for the gold in the idiot Olympics. What it ran, obviously at the instigation of the lethal combination of a TV flack and the Dublin Devil, was a feature so stupefyingly stupid it almost defies description, but the poor writer tried: “Celeb fare can be yours for less than you think.” So a bulimic walks into a bar and orders tuna tartare for $12. Cost-cuttin’ Dave turns it into shrimp paste for $3 partly by substituting shredded beets for “pricey shiso.” (Beets. For shiso. Why not weenies?) Foie gras teriyaki is allegedly cut down to $4 by using shell steak (beef at that price I would be very wary of ingesting), but would that really cover the sake and yakitori sauce? Even beyond the desperate inanity of it all was the sloppiness. Striped bass is swapped for pricier halibut (on what Pluto?), and the ingredients specify wild cod while the photo looks like none of the above. The New Frug advises buying grape tomatoes rather than regular ones, right now at the height of the season, and the photo is of Greenmarket Sungold cherry tomatoes. For once I think they should have turned the whole section over to Big Food’s “Hungry Girl” and her better eating through chemistry. It’s embarrassing to see grownups trying to mate Food & Wine with Tiger Beat. Even the right-wingers would have to say “abort.”

Applebee’s has hired Tyler Florence to beef up its sorry sales with his fairy dust of “celebrity.” (“Who?” I can hear my in-law equivalent asking up in Buffalo, where this is one of the few chains.) I hate to say it, but they might have been better off taking on the One Fat Lady. The religious sorta do like idols in their own image.

File this under “there’s gotta be a pony in there somewhere:” A reader wondering why I am so unforgiving of Panchito actually answered his own question, then followed up with an observation I could not have put better. “With him worrying about the state of affairs of restaurant coat-check prices rather than propagating more Bush lies, the world is a better place.” Now if only they could convert Fox News into the Food Network.

For all my bitching about fake parties in the glossies, I can see why they think a set-up is the best bet. The new Dwell has a gripping photo feature called Family Meal, stark documentary photographs of Americans eating, and you want to avert your eyes. The more you look at it the more you sense why the editor just bailed. The magazine is as fat as a Vogue in December, and real life does tend to get in the way of the GE Monogram fantasy.

The biggest load of Barbaro droppings in donkey’s years has been deposited on Slate, which apparently fell victim to that increasingly pervasive affliction of the food world, what I call “born yesterday syndrome.” The site actually posted a big story tracing the origins of New York City brunch to Amsterdam Avenue in 1981. As some sports guy said, you could look it up. Forget the reality that the word was coined in 1895 in England. Just Google “Maxwell’s Plum Sunday brunch.” First hit is Fred Ferretti, writing contemporaneously of the lively scene all over Manhattan that my consort and I discovered 25 years ago when we moved north from Philadelphia, where people lined up every Sunday for omelets and better at the Commissary and other Center City mainstays. The only truth in this wispy epic of stenography was the quote about whole families of rats. I remember them well. On boss’s orders, we would set shortbread out for them every night, hoping the filthy creatures would be content with their designated dinner and leave everything else unchewed. (If there were rat turds in the sticky buns, at least they were sugar clean.) What’s scary is that 1981 is not the lost year of Marjorie Morningstar. It barely qualifies as recent history. Next up: Happy hour — invented at Crobar!

The greatest bar in town right now is the beer garden attached to Spiegeltent at the South Street Seaport. The wine sucks, and it’s poured in plastic cups, and the shrimp roll is scary (it’s from Heartland Brewery, after all), but the setting is the next best thing to being in Sydney. Sitting almost under the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges as the sun lights up the windows across the river while water taxis and cruise boats pass by almost as if choreographed is an excellent way to blow off a Sunday evening. What’s most amazing is that the hordes of waddling tourists packing the mall parts of the seaport seem not to have discovered this oasis, aside from a few who arrive bearing shopping bags from the Bodies exhibit. Think about it: There is apparently a gift shop in the show morgue. Or have another crappy pinot grigio and don’t think about it. Just marvel at being alive in a city where people cross bridges on foot, on bikes, in cars and in subway trains and you can see them all at once from your table in the breeze.

If a food can jump the shark, turducken has done it big time. I walked into a store the other day and found the (over)stuff in a can. For cats. And it gets worse. The same company makes a “California Roll” flavor. Next up has to be “Caja de China.” If not “Molecular Gastronomy.” Which, judging by the way my Siamese hoovers it, is the very definition of kibble.

More proof that you can’t believe what you see on the teevee came when a Republican politician pulled a faux FEMA trailer to Washington for dinner with the farting Chimp and got huge adulatory coverage from the same knaves and fools who always tell us just what Rove scripts. Dig a little deeper into that clumsy photo op and you find something called femagourmet.com. You read that right. Someone, somewhere actually thought there was gold in that disaster. I’m not sure blackened seasoning was the wisest choice for a roll-out product. But you have to admire the slogan: “When no one else will respond.” Next time you need help from your government, order spices online.

Hitler’s Cross may not have been the most ill-advised name for a restaurant, especially in Mumbai. That distinction should go to the new Dodo at the South Street Seaport. Considering the high rate of extinction among eating establishments everywhere, it’s asking for it.

The Daily News seems determined to make Panchito look smart. In lieu of an actual honest restaurant review, it offers up a solution to a “dining dilemma” (back to the dictionary for whoever dreamed that one up) by sending some poor birthday sucker off to Mama Mexico, a warmbed of mediocrity that becomes a true circle of hell once those mariachis get wailing among the baby strollers and the tequila-stupid. The same section treated readers to the sex life of oysters by way of selling clams, but in that round Good Living trounced Dining in its choice of mollusk photos. A stock shot over coals was actually appealing, while the big-budget paper squandered a freelance fee on what looked like something undoubtedly familiar to your average geriatric gynecologist. It’s very telling that the ad-hungry NYT thought it more urgent to hire a perfume critic than a food editor. And to demand deeper credentials of a reviewer of scented candles(!) than of the person charged with evaluating one of the most important art forms, not to mention key sources of income to the city. Thanks to Men’s Vogue, though, apparently what some of us have suspected is true. Panchito is such a lightweight he needs two trainers to keep his mussel-man figure while gorging like a mindless Apple. His predecessors got by with so much less. So who’s the twat?

The saddest evidence that this is the summer of food: Retired generals are speaking in kitchen metaphors. To be specific, one accused Donald (How Does He Keep His Job?) Rumsfeld of serving up “a huge bowl of chicken feces” to the military and expecting them to “turn it into chicken salad.” Unfortunately, given the way this administration polices the food supply, that somehow sounds like eating as usual.

Only the Brits cry for the chickens, though. A good story in the Guardian on the eight most unethical foods to eat lumped broiler birds in with Dole pineapple (labor abuse) and Fiji water (ecodisaster on a plane). So while Chicago nobly jumps in to save ducks from the cruel fate of overeating, supermarkets continue to be stocked with chickens that suffer “breast blisters and hock burns from sitting on soiled bedding” while packed 30,000 at a time into windowless sheds. No wonder McNugget is risking the flu.

The latest sign that the 800-Pound Gorilla’s clout has always been mis-overestimated: Vinnie’s Pizza on Amsterdam Avenue is being auctioned off. For years the rumor had been that it was highly rated for proximity’s sake alone, because the pizza was certainly nothing you would cross the street to try, not with Freddy & Pepe’s steps away (at least back when the latter used real mozzarella). According to the last Zagat’s foisted upon me, from 2003, this sorry little joint was as good as Solera and better than Pastis. I guess you can rig some of the ratings some of the time, but — to paraphrase Yogi — if people don’t want to eat crap, you can’t stop them.

The epidemic of shockingly bad managers is spreading, and apparently there is no vaccine. It’s like the CEO syndrome seeping down to food level. My latest exposure came at an otherwise excellent restaurant, up the stairs from Broadway, where we headed after my consort expressed a desire for steak. Given that he was tight on time with a flight to his new life in the wrong Athens the next day, I called to see whether we needed reservations and, on my second attempt, reached a woman who nicely took down his name, the number in our party and the time and even asked if we had a preference for a table. So we show up promptly at 8:30 and are greeted by a waiter who immediately sets off to clear and set a window table for us. While we wait, Humpty-Dumpty before the fall rolls up to ask if he can help us. We say we have a reservation and our table is being prepped and he interrupts: “We don’t take reservations.” “I just called.” “That’s impossible.” “I just called.” “We don’t take reservations because we can’t honor them. This crew just does what it wants.” “Isn’t there a manager?” My consort then pokes me: “He’s the manager.” “Oh, I get it. You’re herding cats.” “What do you mean?” “They do whatever they want, no matter what you say?” Luckily, the cat/waiter signaled us that his setting was done just then, and we could sit down to a perfectly lovely dinner, once I stopped steaming over being called a liar. Double luckily, I faced away from the sight of the fat boy chowing down at a table with friends, as usual, while his hard-working herd of cats ran the restaurant. Long may they run. And why aren’t managers being outsourced, anyway?

I hope the magazine publisher who I heard just dropped $500 on a profoundly disappointing dinner at Del Posto doesn’t happen to read the latest Departures, which my consort trash-picked from the recycling bins in our back hallway. In the requisite homage to Molto Ego, it discloses that he washes his 30 pairs of orange Crocs in the dishwasher and wears them while still hot. It’s a lovely thought to contemplate while chewing a $70 guinea hen and wondering whether what is caught in your teeth is freckle or hair. If only he wore them with the Paul Smith socks he claims to buy.

A friend came up with the best spelling of the name of the newest alcohol-dispensing outlet on Columbus Avenue: Wine & Rose$. One glass on the list of whites is nine bucks, but most are double-digit insults. Which would be okay if not for all the other annoyances. First were the baby carriages, pushed in by desperate couples. As another friend, a mother, said, you can’t relax while waiting for the occupants to start shrieking (“shitting time bombs” is what I call them). The very sweet bartender/waitress reeked of cigarettes from her repeated smoke breaks on the sidewalk. The busboy was hellbent on busing our table whether we had finished our economical bottle of $32 Arneis or not. The nice bar snacks of cheese Triscuits and olives arrived without either cocktail napkins or a receptacle for pits. But the ultimate turnoff was the wraith who materialized partway through our bottle, looking as if she had been tied up in the basement and starved between face-lifts. No wonder one guy at the bar wore his earphones. He needed blinders. Admittedly, it is August. But if this is the new Upper West Side, take me to the wrong Athens.

Just back from joy riding around mid-coast Maine, I was so happy to see Manhattan again I could have kissed the filthy pavement. Turns out that would have been less disgusting than indulging in either Starbucks or Shake Shack while I was away. Workers at the former in Manhattan are claiming the stores are infested with vermin, while the latter is now reassuring patrons that at least there’s no shit in the meat. If both hang on long enough, though, they won’t have to clean up their acts. Our government by and for big business will rubber-stamp some remedy like the spray-on viruses just approved to treat deli meats for listeria. That’s a solution so insane it makes David Burke’s new “lickable body sprays” look irresistible. And come to think of it, those might ward off both bugs and bacteria, especially the “frosting and passion fruit” flavor. Courtney Love should try them.

The London freakout over gels on a plane may have had exactly the effect Darth Cheney intended, forcing people into their cars to burn more overpriced gas to benefit his oil benefactors. But an encouraging thing happened when my consort and I insisted we bypass the shit-in-the-meat chains and find something decent to eat on the long drives north and south with our good but carb-fearing friends: We went a little farther and ate much better. The weakest link was one slow and overpriced futzy breakfast at a peculiar “bistro” in Portsmouth, N.H., where the omelet mucker-upper was a self-mutilated kid whose name had to be Pierce. And I did get exactly what I deserved for ordering an iced cappuccino in a doughnut shop near Worcester, Mass., where the special was blueberry-cinnamon iced coffee. But mostly I realized how easy it is to buy into the notion that you’re a prisoner of Burger King on a highway to anywhere. Funny that this country was settled by people who kept pushing relentlessly westward and now their successors will drive around a McDonald’s parking lot five times looking for a space rather than detour five minutes into the great unknown where real people might be cooking real food. If Laura Ingalls Wilder were writing today, the series would have to be “Big Asses on the Interstate.”

A few forests are apparently being felled to generate enough paper to print all the releases being mailed out about one Texas chef moving to the big city. His flacks are calling him “a bona fide cowboy,” which must mean he’s not like that reckless chimpanzee in the big hat who has driven the country into the ditch. Even more questionable is the claim that his “urban Western” cooking “favors seasonal, local ingredients” and “is heavily influenced by the people who settled the Old West.” I guess I grew up in the wrong West, because I do not think kangaroo belongs on nachos. Everybody knows you use jackalope.

One way this techno-dunce has retained relative mental health over the last four years is by almost never linking. But now the first anniversary of the wipeout of America’s most seductive city is almost upon us, and the son of Barbara Rhymes-With-Rich has still not been shamed into delivering on his promise to bring it back. With luck Spike Lee will get the rabble sufficiently roused with his documentary to make a country mindlessly squandering $11 million an hour in Iraq start asking why the “homeland” is so neglected, not to mention insecure. But in the short term a supremely creative thinker has a modest proposal for a ritualistic Katrina dinner that should give anyone ever smitten by New Orleans hope that its unique gumbo might be salvageable despite the diaspora. And no gefilte fish will be harmed in the celebrating of it.

If you want to know just how badly this country has declined, consider the news that George Washington’s distillery is being recreated at Mount Vernon. In less than two and a third centuries we have gone from a president smart enough to make his own whiskey, and make money doing it, to a failed oilman who cannot be trusted near nonalcoholic beer without blowing up the Middle East. Thomas Jefferson must be spinning in his garden.

Freedom is clearly on the march in Congress, too. The cafeteria has reverted to serving “French” fries. Unfortunately, that flip-flop doesn’t go far enough, given the idiocies being proposed anymore by all those crooked Chimp enablers. Let ’em eat pommes frites.

Looks as if the two tabs in town are ratcheting up the competition. The Post saw the Daily News’ blackout recipes and raised them with a piece on super-cooling restaurant dishes during the heat assault. First up: a Bloody Mary oyster shooter, in the same week 91 people were laid low by a certain raw shellfish the wise avoid in the hot months. And the main course? Steak tartare, of course, another bacterial hotbed only made safer by Hades temperatures. Now the next round is up to the Devil from Dublin, and I suggest she flagellate the staff a little harder and get something really smart out of them. Cooking omelets on the sidewalk, say.

The idea of an obesity vaccine sounds so American you have to laugh: a shot to thwart a self-induced condition. Apparently scientists are working away on it, but if you think about it they would be better off focusing on a willpower drug. When would you get this magic bullet: before you balloon, meaning you waste away, or after, when the cows are completely out of the barn? Gullible media swallowed it all unquestioningly, but the key line in the “news” about tests in mice noted that they lost their weight on low-fat, low-calorie diets. Nah, that would never sell.

I would read the real Panchito rather than the parody before I ever watched any sport but the Kentucky Derby (for old home’s sake). If it doesn’t involve broken bones (Barbaro, Olympics) or destroyed hips (the Testosterone Kid), it just doesn’t exist. So I’m probably not the best person to ask why in the name of OJ anyone would want to see soccer played by chefs. For 75 bucks, no less. It’s being billed as an insider event for groupies, but it’s hard to imagine anything more likely to dispel illusions than seeing two whole teams dressed like Molto Ego and sweating like Iron Flay in his most memorable competition. An all-woman team, however, might be interesting. And that would be true in the restaurant business, too. Just imagine a level playing field.

I can’t believe I have lived in Manhattan for 25 years this month without ever even noticing Prime Burger, directly across from St. Patrick’s. But when a blog stranger offered to buy me lunch there, it didn’t take long to get excited. A good friend raved about “the little desks” and about going there while pregnant with her first son; I noticed a New York eater with a good name ranked it in his top five burger joints. I suspected we would have issues when the menu on the web site noted tomatoes on any order would be 50 cents extra, but I was game. And it was pretty much what I expected, right at or below the level of Corner Bistro’s sorry little pucks even though my benefactor insisted we get them cooked fresh rather than “par-broiled” (what the hell is that all about?) The beef was virtually tasteless, the “cheese” was processed, the bun was the kind that makes you worry your teeth are decaying as you chew, the lettuce was iceberg and the mustard was French’s. The tomato was worth the 50 cents; clearly, they could make a mint charging a dollar for Romaine or Cheddar or Maille. I loved the place and the people; it’s the Sears Fine Food of Saks country. But what it serves is not a burger worth risking mad cow disease.

And that made me realize that for so many unevolved experts who obsess on burgers the gold standard is fast food. I’m old, so I can remember a world before McDonald’s was as omnipresent as Starbucks. I care about what I put in my mouth, so I can appreciate the huge advances in American food that have made a burger more than a thin grey slab in cotton. By unhappy coincidence, I had already eaten a burger just days before this revelation. The one at Fairway Cafe is exceptional: a fat chunk of good meat, cooked evenly, in a substantial bun with real Cheddar, mesclun, tomato and onion to add at will, serious mustard if you want and a nice sauce if you don’t. Biting into it, you never think of White Castle. But you do think; you don’t just chew. A quarter of it is perfect, half is more than enough. You would never even consider seconds. Trust me. If you want a great burger, don’t ask an aficionado. He buys them by the bagful.

Note to Sunday Styles: You might want to lay off wine. That rose-is-the-new-Cosmo/frolicking in St.-Tropez story ranks high among the all-time most embarrassing features ever published in the NYT, and that is saying something. Worse, the double byline proved that two heads can actually be emptier than one. What were they drinking?

Dumber things may have been published in newspapers — a taco is a series of tubes, for instance — but it was still hard to keep my jaw together on reading the Daily News’ response to a “reader” wondering what to cook with no electricity. It actually printed a chef’s recipe for seviche. I know I certainly had fresh shrimp, calamari, “whitefish” and octopus right at hand in our blackout. Not to mention four kinds of fresh herbs. I’m starting to think there’s a mole 10 blocks south trying to make Dining read less dim. The funniest part is that the “reader” wanted something “more sophisticated than a peanut butter sandwich.” And here I thought that was next up at the plate after the nadir of Old El Paso for Dummies.

Interesting that only two days after yet another faux exaltation of low-end dining Virginia Heffernan would say, in a review of the new Alton Brown travesty, what so many readers are thinking: “. . . that pose: the near-hysterical enthusiasm for diners, drive-throughs, burger joints, pizza parlors, sandwich shops. Haven’t we had enough? Doesn’t anyone want to say that, sure, a grilled cheese can hit the spot, and cherry pie is great, but French food is still harder to make, better balanced, more beautiful and more delicious?” Merde, it doesn’t even have to be French. I’d settle for Mexican discussed intelligently and accurately. Someone could make a fortune accepting corrections for an ad-supported web site, since the elitists seem to keep 90 percent of submissions from ever seeing print. Call it craigclaiborneslist, after a guy who has to be spinning at the thought of so many resources squandered on such inanity week after week. Or, better yet, firsttheduckmustbedead. You know it’s bad when vintage corrections are more clever than current stories.

The straits are also looking awfully dire for Saveur. Colman’s departure is not a good omen, given the penny-squeezing publishers’ track record with once-wonderful Islands magazine (to put it succinctly: they ran it into the sand). Worse is that I just got a menacing letter from a collection agency looking for the $29.97 I paid by check last August. When you’re pointlessly dunning not just a charter subscriber but an infrequent contributor there must not be many bushes left to beat. And that last bit of energy might be better expended trying to find someone, anyone, who will advertise in a husk of a magazine that is driving its last readers away.

Why does the phrase “practically on my knees” sound a little peculiar when it refers to a flack allegedly begging a guy not to name a restaurant the Spotted Dick? (And if you believe that protestation, I have a bridge to nowhere to sell you. No buzz is worse than bad buzz in this business.)

I hope the drug industry did a classier job of buying off Congress on the Medicare bill than it apparently is doing with doctors. Judging by a front-page story that has the naive in a tizzy, doctors are selling their souls for General Tso’s chicken. If they can’t hold out for lunch at Jack Abramoff’s restaurant, the least they should demand is better than Dunkin’ Donuts. And as a reader, I can only wonder why such petty graft gets such huge play when we’re in the middle of an epidemic of pillaging and looting. Business as usual doesn’t sound like much of a scandal when Congressmen are taking real bribes from military contractors while soldiers are getting killed at a frightening clip. Next they’re going to be telling us reviewers get cookbooks for free.

Just because I’m convinced readers are not as dumb as some editors apparently think, I’ve been peeking in on certain online forums and have found easily the best parody of both the Gourmet supplement and most food pages in the NYT magazine. Copy-edited for esthetic reasons, it reads: “I’m writing a novel, ‘The Sausage Zinger,’ about a sausage I ate on the 4th of August 1960 at the Parque Retiro (Coney Island) in olde Buenos Aires. It’ll make you cry and laugh and think a lot.” On second consideration, I hope it’s a parody. Otherwise, brace for the inevitable reviews: “Proust had his. . . .”

I see the Porcine Pantload is about to drop another megaturd on bookstores. You could call it “The Joy of Gluttony,” although he is not so honest. Apparently it’s supposed to be “part satire, part social commentary” (think Ann Coulter with elephantiasis), but I wonder how amusing obesity will sound if he ever has to have surgery and spend months hauling his laudatory bulk around on crutches and he can’t even fit into X-rays. Obviously it’s no laughing matter to me, remembering my orthopedist’s warning that staying thin is the best way to keep my own hip and knowing there is a difference between eating and abusing food. But I do hope some breakfast TV interviewer manages to ask about the “sexual prowess” angle promised in this swinish celebration. I’ve been curious ever since my first newspaper job out of college, in a little town in Iowa where the police chief and his wife were both of a size that back then looked suited for a sideshow but is now the American standard. They had kids, so they must have “done it,” but it was hard to see how the necessary parts connected with such bellies in between. The story going around the local bars was that they used something called the X position to get over, under, sideways, down. A little elucidation from a celebrated overeater and the Pantload could be outperforming “Snakes on a Plane.”

As if it weren’t bad enough to have the Chimp eating like a pig and swearing like a Cheney, he has to go and pander to the fundamentalists who have completely gotten over their wild objections to IVF after raising a shitstorm when Louise Brown was conceived in a lab. If this “culture of life” gets any crazier as babies’ heads are blown off, we aren’t going to be able to eat eggs. Potential chickens will have a right to be hatched so we can fry them.

You know things are grim at Bon Appetit when the most enticing — and deepest — thing in the magazine is the “wild salmon Florentine in a delicate sauce with garden greens.” And it’s cat food. Flip through the latest issue and you can halfway hear Gertrude Stein commenting on the absence of there. Unfortunately, the special supplement with the new Gourmet really makes you realize why Fancy Feast ads are so valuable. Unbroken pages of story after story with the same inherent theme leave you longing for some GE Profile fantasy to break up the trudge. Even usually brilliant David Rakoff was unfinishable, and don’t get me going on the Road Fooders dirging along unwittily for miles of type. I slogged all the way to the end of the Trillin meander and realized the problem was the same as it ever was with advertorials versus advertising: Words expanding to fill the space allotted, rather than being distilled to one sharp idea. It’s bad when those bizarre tourism-in-Rwanda sections the NYT runs start looking almost as pithy as Brillat-Savarin.

Gordon Ramsay is going to have his scales full when he crosses the Atlantic. W reports he’s going to force his New York kitchen staff to weigh in monthly because he hates 250-pound chefs. If he feels the same way about patrons, he’d better abandon all hope of opening in Las Vegas.

Classy of the NYT to have a skunk jump out of the birthday cake for the Greenmarkets. I actually read the whole story wondering first what the point was and second why it was in Dining and not Metro or Bizday. Neither question was answered. I guess the stated mission was accomplished, though: They did not print “just another love letter.” And why let reality get in the way? (Or photos, for that matter — those were mighty withered-lookin’ apples outshining the Bronx cherries.) Between that travesty and the info-lite column trawling in flip-flops, the section may be tortured into being “more accessible to regular readers” (at least those who think Rachael is the new Julia). But hollow victory may come at a nasty price, judging by the rather astonishing back-stories going around the markets and turning up in my email.

It’s more than passing strange, too, that corporate Trader Joe’s gets a love letter while selling primarily processed crap and the Greenmarket with its multi-tier mission gets pecked apart in a piece that — seriously — never mentions a big reason it exists: to save farmland from development. An idiot was actually quoted as saying she didn’t care where her food came from. It all made New York magazine look like the local hero with its beautiful and resonant feature on farmers and fishermen and cheese-makers. Somehow I suspect the issue is not the Greenmarkets “searching for a niche.” It’s a section in desperate need of an editor. Aren’t there any warm bodies over in Sports who could grab the wheel before the Greyhound goes over the cliff? Or here’s an idea: Snare someone from the Rome bureau. It worked so well last time.

So I’m waiting for the light at 57th and Lex after PT when I hear a woman behind me going on and on about how she is feeding her dog only carrots and celery because golden retrievers are prone to hip dysplasia, “which they get when they get too heavy.” I turn around to see more and find the concerned owner could use a few carrots herself. She weighs easily 300 pounds. The funny thing is that I spotted a product called Healthy Hips at the Fancy Food Show and thought it was a cool idea until I realized it was not for two-legged species. Maybe humans should be going to see vets.

At the show I ran into an acquaintance who asked if I was working or just eating and I had to respond: “You could write a thousand stories about trends here, and every one would be true and every one would be a lie. It’s just too big.” I did notice that the flavor of a rather substantial chunk of the 150 or so things I tasted would have been impossible to identify without reading the sign, though. And while I did succumb to the fake-roe Anchoviar, some things you wouldn’t try on a dare, like the pineapple margarita cheese ball and the chocolate chevre. After too many indistinguishable “BBQ lasagna chips” and “creme brulee almonds,” I sampled one of David Burke’s bizarre sprays — smoky bacon — and decided he may have the right idea: all flavor, no food.

The Daily News seems to have lost its mind in the features pages lately, most notably by replacing its regular restaurant review with a column in which a “reader”asks for advice on where to eat and is counseled by some uncredentialed byline who actually believes, in a city with more than 15,000 choices, that a place called Mumbles would be worth consideration. Apparently everyone knows it’s a nuthouse there although no one is saying why, but I think one hint might be in the new fixation on the word peckish. Maybe in the old country it means “somewhat hungry.” But I read it as the second definition: “cross; irritable.” And that’s how readers who thought the paper could have been a contender are feeling as solid food coverage gives way to In Style-meets-Myspace hysteric inanity.

Even at its most ridiculous, though, the News would be hard put to print some of the Barbaro droppings generated by the deep pockets daily. Forget the stop-the-presses revelation that you can get food with drinks (or not, if the photo is any evidence). Did it really run a recipe saying stick a Dutch oven under a broiler? With a column that gave deep new meaning to the word insipid? Every Wednesday I think of the cab driver in Barcelona when it was torn up for the Olympics, the one who kept shaking his head and repeating: “Es un disastre!”

What if you promised pato negro and everybody came? You serve them anything but the meat that even the Italians are saying is the best prosciutto in the world right now (well, at least my TPW friend from Bologna is saying that). True, the invite did not specify the actual certifiably rare ham, and there were chorizo and other salumi made from the fabled pig on copious offer, but it still felt a little bait-and-switchy. And when the one regular Spanish haunch on display was finally and ceremoniously sliced for what the importer called us “yearnalists,” the pieces handed out were as thick as bologna. No, make that baloney.

In other barnyard news, the Wall Street Journal ran a very long, very thorough examination of whether organic beef is safer and never once raised the strongest reason for buying it: Cows that are not fed ground-up other cows do not get that little disease no one seems to worry about while bracing for bird flu. The piece danced so enthusiastically around the central issue that by the 30th graf, I was wondering if the conventional beef industry had resuscitated Scott McClellan.

The best of many great cartoons lately was the one from the Christian Science Monitor showing a man in a bathrobe picking a morning paper off the lawn with a headline reading: “You’d Better Sit Down.” It could be a banner every day anymore, and not just because we’re on the eve of destruction while the Chimp bangs on his tray for pig (could he have chosen a more tone-deaf obsession than “unclean” pork right now?) First came the sinister news that kids at summer camp eating chocolate chip pancakes and wondering why they’re hyperactive are all ingesting legal drugs that will, of course, be excreted into the water supply, joining all the “antibacterial” pollution being pumped in from a billion unnecessary products. And then you read that tuna in the Mediterranean is so devastatingly overfished that the littlest specimens are being captured and sent to feeding farms on the Croatian coast. The flip response would be to wonder how long before the anti-foie gras forces intervene. But this is seriously unsettling. The planet is going to hell. If there is a Rapture, what will Jesus eat?

A forthcoming cookbook by a renowned pastry chef who thinks vanilla is an invisible essential actually calls it “the underwear of baking.” Sure, it smells. But you never want to take a spoonful of creme brulee and wonder: Boxers or briefs?

Anyone with a last ort of doubt whether honor and dignity would be returned to the White House had to hang it up on the useful idiot’s birthday. Not only did a Glasgow newspaper report the awful truth — blowing out candles, it said, he “looked more like a primate than a president” — but the most photographed of his many cakes was something Trailer Park Monthly would be embarrassed to run. I don’t know which was worse, the Gracelandish rhinestone “60” on top or the white chocolate mansion as the finishing layer of what looked like a stack of dark chocolate caskets in honor of Kenny Boy. Forget wars and diplomacy. This crew couldn’t do chicken right.

Speaking of the friendship that dare not speak its name, the death of the Chimp’s “acquaintance”certainly put Aspen in a sinister light. Then Colin Powell took sick at dinner in an unnamed restaurant there and wound up checking into the same hospital Lay did not check out of. Maybe only the altitude was to blame in both cases. But could Food & Wine please invite Dick Strongheart for its next Classic?

Clearly, I don’t get out enough. Riding up to an excellent engagement party in Newburgh, we passed an animal squished flat as a panino roughly every third revolution of the car’s wheels. After about the 50th slaughtered possum and fox and skunk I started worrying again about the poor lobsters. The insect of the sea has to suffer a little before getting dipped in butter for our delectation. It’s so much worse than trying to cross the road to find food and winding up a bloody mess not worth a second thought except for how high the price of gas is getting in a cars-are-king world. If those silly little fawns would only join the Holy Foods chain they might meet a caring end. Or at least get a decent burial under sauce.

The insane rains this summer have also turned factory farms for chicken into deathtraps — close to 100,000 specimens of McNugget material went breast-up in June in Maryland alone while cooped up awaiting normal slaughter. But through it all the class war continues unabated. An op-ed in an upstate paper actually worried that force-feeding ducks gives them “feelings of malaise.” And in the shrink capital of the world, that is so much more horrific than drowning.

It would be impossible to top Problemdrinker’s take on organic hot dogs on Gawker (no matter whether the udders grazed on the grass, you are still eating offally scary bits). But the very fact that the NYT idiocy saw print, a day late for the Fourth of Nathan’s, should be a warning that we will one day be reading about the happy-animal transformation of another Living perennial: Spam.

Chinatown Brasserie has apparently chosen to live by Page 6. Let’s hope it doesn’t die the same way. The same day I read Bill Gates, Larry David, Paul Simon and Charlie Rose had been spotted “dining separately” there I met friends for dinner and, decor and waitron’s hair aside, could have been eating in Omaha for all the glam factor. Admittedly, it was Fourth of Nathan’s Eve, but seeing that ghostly-empty bar downstairs on the way out quite late I felt a very long way even from Spice Market. Given who the owners are, I can understand why they’re going for the glitz. But when you have steak, why promote only the sizzle?

Evidently I’m the Greenmarket snob. Friends were led into temptation by that silly panna cotta recipe and wound up with 24 ounces of liquid in 72 ounces of ramekin, among other glitches. Maybe their succumbing means an effete dessert is now mainstream American. But I will always have issues with panna cotta because I first encountered it on my first trip to Italy, when my consort’s gastronomic guide (and interpreter/fixer for National Geographic) kept talking about “fish glue” while shepherding us all over Genoa during the search for Columbus. What Massimo finally introduced us to was a rubbery, bland thing we ate standing up in a cafe just to say we had tried it. Its allure eluded me, and I realized why after Massimo sent Bob home from another trip with a box of instant mystery dessert. Translating the ingredients I finally understood he had meant gelatin. No wonder Americans have glommed onto it. You can mix fat with Jell-O and call it panna cotta.

But then I’m so twisted I hear tiramisu anymore and think the worst. I always knew it meant “pick me up.” But during my sojourn between the hospital sheets in Torino, I heard only “tiralisu,” with the pronoun changed to “you.” And that’s what the nurses would say when they brought the bedpan.

If Warren Buffett does nothing else with his life, let’s hope he at least has made marketers think twice before inundating my inbox with touts for the most expensive anything, whether coffee or burgers or leather chairs designed solely for sipping scotch. We now know what unimaginable fortunes are for, and it ain’t one-upmanship. Even better, we’re now freed from pitying the poor rap stars dissed out of guzzling Cristal just for the price of it.

Talk about putting out fires with gasoline: With the lobster-welfare issue at full boil, it’s a mystery why a magazine would run a recipe only Rumsfeld would approve, let alone wrap it in a text that lets a hostess trash her guests (shouldn’t it be the other way around on 43d Street?) What would The Ethicist say?

One of the many silly refrains in our house is from some story or book I once read, a cook defending her mole sauce by saying, “There’s got to be half a pound of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nuts in there.” But I still find it odd that the salmonella recall of the British company’s milk chocolate line has produced such a mellow, even jocular response. When cantaloupe had the same affliction, melons were treated like anthrax among the barely informed, and don’t even get me started on the perceived lethal weapon of raw eggs. Now we’re looking at full-bore Montezuma’s Revenge and it’s somehow no biggie. I often marvel that the most germ-phobic people in the world will always handle dollars that undoubtedly have been stored at some point up close and personal with a bum’s jewels. Apparently chocolate is the new cash.

The Wall Street Journal must not value me as a subscriber as much as it claims. The tribute box of caffeine it just delivered included a pack of “pumpkin spice” flavored coffee. The only thing more unnerving would be a container of that new laxative designed to be dissolved in coffee, sent without diapers.

I see Rao’s is finally making its move to Las Vegas, if you can believe all the ads. With so many big-name French chefs opening in the over-fountained desert, maybe there really was a gaping need for profoundly mediocre Ameri-Italian (when your three stars were awarded by Mimi, five critics and many fill-ins ago, it might be way past time to hang them up). I’m sure the place will be just as exclusive as the spaghetti sauce sold in supermarkets everywhere. Without Little Al, though, it’s less than Tom’s Diner.

Brad Steelman should be nervous. Right now he is heading for a record as longest-lasting chef of the River Cafe, and at that landmark it is no point of pride. Buzzy O’Keeffe famously says he likes to launch chefs, not capture them, and hanging around too long might send the wrong message.

But at the beyond-lavish 30th-anniversary party literally under the Brooklyn Bridge, it was easy to see why a chef might want to stick around. The setting is unreal, the restaurant is staffed and stocked to excess and the mood is so genial it was not surprising to find Steelman’s four predecessors producing the decadent but still restrained menu with him (starting with Larry Forgione’s “terrine of three smoked fish with their respective caviars” and winding through Charlie Palmer’s asparagus with duck ham, David Burke’s lobster “steak” and Rick Laakkonen’s roasted rabbit with cannelloni). But it was the wine director, Joseph DeLissio, who offered the most potent evidence of why someone might check in and not want to check out: When my consort and I stepped off the New York Water Taxi, magnums of Veuve Clicquot and Henriot were being poured, and waiters were soon warning us to save room for the Cristal and Dom Perignon. Each course came with some exceptional liquid (the wine magazine editor next to me at a window table was particularly awed by the Silex-D. Dagueneau 2004 Pouilly-Fume), and by the time Steelman’s lamb three ways landed, magnums of various knock-’em-dead reds were being poured almost faster than the excellent waiters could change glasses. It was an extraordinary show of generosity for the motleyist crew imaginable. This was no press mob scene or chef gang bang or even Le Cirque-style freak show (a k a crude customer cultivation). The Soltners, the foie gras queen, a peculiarly camera-shy Gael Greene and an M. Shanken contingent were among the relatively few industry notables; in the ultimate indication of careful culling, there was no Evil Monkey from the NYT. The photographer shooting hard was not the usual Mr. Magoo but a young woman from the Brooklyn Eagle. It was all unsettling.

On the ride back to the glittering island we had looked out on all night, the water taxi took a detour to spin us around the Statue of Liberty. The whole glamorous, luxurious experience felt so far from real life it only made me wonder why no one has ever produced the most obvious series: “Food and the City.” I could even put up with Sarah Jessica Parker as the chef, waiting to launch.

About 10 years ago I spent an entire 12 months cooking only what was seasonal in my small part of the world, developing recipes just for myself while keeping a diary of how hard and easy that all actually was. The most brilliant agent I know then spent another year shopping my efforts around, only to be met with a collective, “Huh?” So I am very happy to see the food world has finally evolved far enough that the NYT has started a cooking-from-the-Greenmarket column. But did it really have to begin with an homage to Marie Antoinette? Fava beans are easily among the most esoteric of local vegetables, sold at a fraction of the markets, and really, who ever comes home from Union Square with bulging bags of still damp and dirty, instantly eatable green things to think, “I know. I’ll make panna cotta!” (Maybe lemon balm brioche was too ordinary.) The great gift of the Greenmarket is that it takes so little to make so much of exquisitely fresh, in-harmony-with-nature ingredients. But for reasons I will never understand after seeing women paying with food stamps at the exceptional market in my neighborhood, something about the idea of eating seasonally and locally brings out the snoot in food writers. It’s not enough that the food is seasonal and local. It has to be tortured into effete. Before the summer is out, how much do you want to bet we’ll be reading a recipe for tomato water?

Just back from Italy, I’m dazed and confused but still not so addled I need pie defined. “The round fruit-filled pastry”? Does that go with the frozen dairy product or just the dark caffeinated beverage?

The good news is that you can get a quartino of decent local wine for as little as 1 euro in a restaurant (Miravalle, in Manciano). The bad news is that the Autogrill has gone to hell, or maybe just to America. I was looking forward to our last stop through the whole week, remembering how wondrous my first experience had been, way back in 1990 on the Autostrada outside Genoa. But the one we tried right outside Florence had the same tired and underfilled cardboard panini you now see in every train station, with the alternatives being a Spizzico counter and more junk food in huge packages than any human should ever have to face. It’s rea