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.
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