As in: B(est) o(f) G(astropoda)
In a season of bizarre book blurbs, the most surreal can be found in a little primer called “The Waiting Game: The Essential Guide for Wait Staff” by Mike Kirkham, Austin restaurateur Peggy Weiss and Bill Crawford (Ten Speed Press). Laura Bush of all people provided the foreword, which starts out warmly — “my husband and I love a good meal — especially one served with a smile” — and then turns sinister: “Many of us can relate to having a bad dining experience. You waited too long for a table. You waited too long for your food. You waited too long for your check.”As anyone who remembers the delicate campaign coverage of Mrs. Bush’s past will recall, the First Lady has a bit of a problem with waiting. In 1963 she blew through a stop sign in her tiny Texas town and killed a boyfriend in the car she slammed into.
In other words, if you know what’s good for you, get this woman her food. Fast.
One of the more fascinating how-the-sausage-is-made lessons I learned in 46 months at the New York Times is that a certain top French chef will do everything but fart backward to get his name in the paper. So when the new Dining section editor (motto: “awesome, dude”) said I would get “extra bonus super thanks” if I named a “multi-starred” restaurant in the lede of my last piece, on Mexican staff meals, I immediately put in a call to No. 1’s No. 2. She was out, but the assistant to the assistant was all gushes and promises. Not only was 25 percent of the staff at his three restaurants Mexican, she said, but his forthcoming cookbook just happened to include a recipe for posole that was a direct outgrowth of the staff meals at the big homme’s second restaurant. Of course we could have that recipe, and of course we could shoot in the kitchen.
Second thoughts set in about as fast as gas from frijoles. After emailing me the recipe, the assistant called in a panic to say no Mexicans were actually cooking at the restaurant, then emailed this message: “We would be delighted to prepare the Pozole Soup for the NYT to photograph. However, we do not wish to have photos taken of our staff having their afternoon meal. Although it is important to us for the staff to eat well and enjoy their dinner before they begin the evening’s service, it is simply not an issue we choose to feature in a photograph. We hope you will understand.”
The funniest thing was that every other chef I interviewed for the article all said the same thing: “Call over to The Top Place. They’ve got this guy Lupe who’s making the most amazing food. . . .”
When I read the NYTimes memo announcing Frank Bruni had been named restaurant critic, my first thought was: Judy Miller must have been busy taking Chalabi’s dictation. This was a move that had desperation written all over it, coming exactly a day after the NY Observer’s damning front-page story on the protracted bungle in the Dining jungle. If the idea was to promote from within rather than hire a famous writer or other culinarily clueless individual, why not Adam Nagourney, a solid reporter who is steeped in the New York restaurant culture and is also related to one of the better cookbook editors in town? Oh, right. He might want a future in straight news.
The new Craig Claiborne may “sneak food into his coverage of popes and presidents,” but he is better known for helping to sell a tragically limited, ethically compromised candidate as a harmless good ol’ boy with none of Gore’s earth tone flaws. (Dailyhowler.com’s archives hold the best documentation of these “memorable moments in the history of fawning.”) Like so many others, he was apparently charmed by Bush and his condescending nicknames, which does not bode well for his future in the notoriously manipulative food world. If Drew calls him Panchito, will he come running with that lost star?
Just back from 13 meals in Nantucket, I have new understanding of how the rich are different from you and me. They’ll put up with a lot more abuse. Most places we went, even the good ones, the attitude seemed to be: treat the CEO’s like shareholders.
The island is magical, but simmering right below the surface is definite contempt in a seasonal business. Restaurateurs like to push around patrons with No rules: no reservations, no credit cards, no bread, sometimes even no wine. And it’s not as if these are East Village-affordable joints. Local people say they don’t even think of eating in them.
At the Galley on Cliffside Beach, the fixed-smile lunch for a surgically enhanced crowd was priced for Jack Welch. Two crabcakes with a handful of mesclun went for $26, but that didn’t include snappy service. Small fortunes have been made faster than our food was delivered.
At Chanticleer, where we were lured by a longtime islander’s promises of “the real Nantucket,” we should have bailed when we overheard the sockless tycoon at the next table open the wine list, ask what was available by the glass and reel as the waiter responded: “Those are the wines by the glass.” The cheapest was $17. Give me the fantasy Nantucket any meal. Like fools, we stuck it out and were rewarded with a baby chicken as juicy as an old rooster ($30) and a dainty little lobster salad with frozen mixed vegetables ($29) — and it could have been worse: at dinner, duck for two is $80.
But the gouges were not without entertainment. The menu at American Seasons read like Food & Wine multiplied by Gourmet and minus SpellCheck: “seared rare porcetta rubbed tuna on a warm salad of fingerling potatoes & panchetta in a roasted tomato & saffron sauce with a spanakopita crisp.” And the one at Oran Mor could have been lifted from a Monty Python script with rap accents: “pan seared Ruthie B. summer left eyed flounder with a rustic garden provencal.” Translation: fish and sauce.
Almost exactly a year ago, I survived what felt like an untranslated eternity in an Italian hospital by traveling nonstop in my mind. I couldn’t walk to the bathroom three steps from my bed, but I could go back to every wondrous destination (and a few grim ones, too) where my consort has led me in 24 years of sharing a home (anniversary No. 2). And one day in one city gave me incalculable pleasure to relive: Thanksgiving 1994 in New Orleans.
I could lie in that miserable bed and somehow be zipping along in a rental car on an impossibly bright afternoon, crossing the Mississippi from Algiers back toward the French Quarter after turducken at Kelsey’s, John Hiatt’s “Buffalo River Home” blasting from the tape deck (“tearing through the cotton fields and bus shelters, the South running helter-skelter;” “I’ve been taking off and landing but this airport’s closed;” “just when you think you’ve been gypped, the bearded lady comes and does a double back-flip”).
I went that first time after my consort moved there for a couple of months to shoot it for National Geographic, back in the good old days when a photographer could actually be underwritten in his desire to live and breathe a story. I joined him for one week in slave quarters converted into a rental apartment in the Garden District, and we just soaked the place up, to the point that I noticed a Times-Picayune story about a do-gooders’ plan to serve 25,000 or so turkey dinners to the poor and had to make my way to the Convention Center to help. Surprisingly, almost more volunteers than takers showed up — it was pretty much a horde of white people in “Feast of Friendship” commemorative aprons standing around with a bunch of photographers. I remember being dejected but hopeful: Maybe poverty wasn’t so bad in a city that had already struck me as one of the most troubled in America, with blood almost literally running on the sidewalks. Maybe all the needy were off having the Norman Rockwell experience on their own?
I think I knew even then how silly that was. But that day we just blithely got in the car and went to eat turducken (overrated) and then to a run-down house where the young cooks from Nola were holed up and had invited us for their potluck after Bob struck up one of his singularly engaging conversations while we ate at the pizza bar one night. That was a revelation, too: guys sleeping on mattresses on the floor in otherwise empty rooms for the chance to cook with Emeril, a hero a couple of them had not even met. But they could cook — I had the best duck of my life, in confit with rosemary. Everyone had kicked in a specialty: pot stickers; smoked turkey glazed with roasted garlic; apple-habanero chutney; New Mexican carne adovada; mushroom soup, even canned cream corn, with six types of bread. It was so New Orleans (as was seeing a great-looking young black guy with his girlfriend being fawned over at Nola another day and wondering what celebrity he might be, only to learn he was an employee who was being treated to lunch to experience how patrons were treated — a concept every restaurant should adopt, actually).
The rest of the trip was a heady blur, although I’ll never forget the artist who shared a joint before taking us to a three-hour lunch at Galatoire’s and too many drinks at the Napoleon House, or Jamie Shannon serving us amazing gumbo and then driving us in his little red convertible to meet his seafood supplier and refusing Bob’s quicker route because he thought it was too dangerous, or Anthony at Ugglesich’s talking us into his trout Muddy Waters and barbecue oysters and crab cakes, washed down with a Barq’s and a $2.50 chardonnay, and the local arts official we ran into afterward at a coffee bar saying he could tell by the smell where we had just eaten. Duck at the Upper Line, biscuits at the Sonniat House, a muffuletta from Progress Grocery, a Ferdi po’ boy with debris at Mother’s, Vietnamese food after the surreal farmers’ market out near the Versailles apartments in New Orleans East, Sazeracs and snapper with crab at Brigtsen’s with Susan Spicer across the room on a Saturday night — those are memories I will always be almost able to taste.
It was a truly enchanted city. Bob was so smitten he wanted to move there for good, but reality reared its unavoidable head. Even then it was clear that it would be an impossible place to make a living in, and not just because temptation beckoned from every corner. A good friend once posited that the only way to thrive in New Orleans would be as an alcoholic millionaire. And has that ever been made clear, in the cruelest way.
Only a soulless dry drunk of a millionaire would let it be devastated and then just make photo-op cracks about the good times he let hurl there.
Washington would turn Mother Teresa into Barbara Bush. Just trying to get a decent cup of caffeine brought out the bitch in me over the weekend. At the Hotel Rouge, the “cappuccino” was made with regular coffee and serious foam — it looked like dishwater with rabies. When we tried for tea instead another morning, there was one tea bag on the premises and a silver bowlful of loose leaves. When my consort asked for something to separate the leaves from the tea, the attendant belatedly brought two iced tea spoons. (Tea, naturally, was $1 more than coffee.) Even when we fled in search of a real breakfast the third morning, the cafe at the nearby Washington Terrace hotel — the only place open for blocks — was serving big glass pots of barely tanned hot water. And when we sent it back, we got more of that burned murky foam that passes for cappuccino in Washington. No wonder the government is so screwed up. Everyone’s half asleep.
Worse, the whole town seems to be on Bush time. We reserved at Bistro d’Oc for 7:45 and realized we would be a little late after leaving the movies (“Man on the Train” — go immediately). When Bob called to say so, he was warned that the kitchen closed at 8. On Sunday night. Just as I suspected, we were the only people in the place, and it was too dreary to contemplate eating tripe and pigs’ feet and cassoulet in a restaurant that empty. We walked out onto the emptier streets and soon felt like the only people on the planet. No wonder laws seem to be passed in a vacuum in Washington. They are.
Big mistake going to see “Knocked Up” the same night Panchito’s id treated a serious trend story like a Jell-O wrestling match. I will never be able to skim him again without thinking of the cretinous roommates frenetically miming oral sex. At least the arrested development onscreen was intentional. This was as unseemly as a wine writer bragging about gettin’ wasted, man. With no director to say: Grow up.
The other WTF was the obit of 12th Street’s Ken Lay. I know I babble about this constantly, but I have to recall my mom very calmly responding to my grade-school hypothetical about acquiring fame by killing someone; she just said, “No, that would be infamy.” Now I want to warn: Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Peter Kumps. Some crook who nearly destroyed the foundation will still get a memorial nearly as long as the visionary who founded it and built it up. The sausage-making machinery in that shiny new building must be really something. If it weren’t for the lapses, there would be no judgment at all.
In an ideal world, Philadelphia’s cloutiest restaurateur would be shoving a PETA picket sign up Paula Greed’s ample ass. He’s caving to foie gras protesters when she’s raking in the bucks promoting industrial pork? What’s wrong with that picture? Supersizing ducks as if they were humans driving through McDonald’s might seem cruel if not unnatural. But abusing pigs (and the environment) to produce cheap food is downright evil. The only mystery in this sellout world is why no one has thought of getting celebrity endorsements for literal shit. I can think of at least half a dozen greedheads who would line up to promote it with the right slogan: Merde — it’s what was for dinner.
Everyone in a tizzy over the garbage if not poison China is shipping us should pay the WSJournal to read what American farmers are feeding their animals now that ethanol producers are pushing up the price of corn (which was bad enough). The descriptions were straight out of “Darwin’s Nightmare” — I kinda doubt cattle were ever meant to eat Tater Tots and ramen noodle scraps. To quote just one graf, “Besides trail mix, pigs and cattle are downing cookies, licorice, cheese curls, candy bars, french fries, frosted wheat cereal and peanut butter cups.” We know what that stuff does to the human body, and it can’t be any more beneficial consumed secondhand, one step up the food chain. Then again, the creepy trend might yield the ultimate American dream foods: bacon flavored with chocolate, and burgers with the fries built in.
The Chimp Wannabe seems to be borrowing a page out of the Clinton playbook. According to the gossipy profile in New York magazine, his tiara-loving, dog-dissecting third wife absolutely forced him to eat at Le Cirque, night after night of food so rich he had to puke it up. Apparently his defense will be, “I didn’t digest.”
Probably the most idiotic letter I have ever read in a newspaper came from the soft-headed woman whimpering about foie gras who said she would not want a feeding chute jammed down her throat, therefore ducks should be spared. By that logic, the fact that ducks would not want shoes rammed onto their webs means humans have to give up footwear. Aren’t there online forums where this kind of nincompoopery can go hide?
Publishers must be as gullible as Panchito himself if he has a contract to tell the world how he morphed from Bush-whacked groupie to not-waving-but-drowning restaurant reviewer. The title pretty much writes itself: “Triumph of the Witless.
And of the many brilliant aspects of Bill Buford’s extraordinary take on Gordon Ramsay’s rough entry into what has become Hamburger Heaven, my favorite was his casual evisceration of the big paper’s little man at table. Manhattan has never seemed more like a backward colony than in this haunting piece, which gets right to the heart of a celebrity-addled culture. I only had Ramsay’s food at the opening party, so I can only suspect it could be all Buford describes. But I now wonder if everyone would be so enamored of Per Se if Keller cussed on the TV. Certainly the food served at a sit-down lunch during a Spanish wine event the other day was so restrained it would pass for unremarkable if you didn’t understand what went into it. But then a New York chef by way of California (and vice versa) can sing the theme song from “Freaks,” so he gets automatic beatification as one of us even though he may spend no more time here than the guy with the F image. I won’t soon forget the starry-eyed young writer at my table asking if the holy man would be coming out to greet us and being told very snootily by a waiter offering dueling waters: “No, he’s in Thailand.” London or Paris, of course, would cost him fucking stars.
Reading the Metro story about rats and their pivotal place in the food chain the other morning, I hoped the Porcine Pantload was choking on his Frosted Rodent Flakes. More likely that scurrying legal mind was already spinning another op-ed out of the revelation of what furry vermin consider a good protein breakfast. To summarize: Rats eat big disgusting cockroaches. Ergo, rats are performing a public service. In closing, get the health inspectors off infested restaurants’ backs. Really, there’s a place in the Justice Department for this guy. Maybe under Turd Blossom.
Now that the world knows the Chimp calls his own private attorney general Fredo, after the weakest link in the Corleone family, now might be a good time to remind everyone who gave Panchito his nickname. Even a friend of mine suddenly claims to be unaware of their BFF relationship back when a global menace was sold as an amiable cowpoke to a country that just wanted to have a beer with its president. The only encouraging thought is that Leni in a leopard print bathrobe will be too busy maxing out Pinch’s credit cards at the trough to hit the campaign trail next election; otherwise we’d be looking at a first lady in a tiara, and her husband in a dress. Fool us once. . . .
What do Ann Coulter and Mario Batali have in common, and I’m not talking gender? The same edamame-brain profiler, who has now taken on the local vs. organic debate, undoubtedly confusing a shrinking number of Americans (Time readers, that is). His piece whipsawed through the usual arguments, building his credibility throughout with loving allusions to such admirable food icons as Applebee’s, Froot Loops, margarine and of course the evilest empire, McDonald’s. Holy Foods? But of course. I have no idea what photos ran in the magazine, but I will be scratching my head until July wondering how an upstate New York CSA farm near the Vermont border would have the tomatoes, basil and two kinds of summer squash shown on the web in March. This story must have been in cold storage longer than those local apples he preferred.
Which two boy bloggers really should get a room? (I mean, it’s one thing to light your own farts. . . .) Which TV food fake literally demands what her brand marketing implies: “Eat me”? (No, the initials are not Rs.) And isn’t showing a certain bloated chef to lure suckers to a magazine’s promotional event taking Year of the Pig a little too far?
Some things I saw in Milan: Dentures made out of marzipan. A bar called Old America (presumably the one before the Chimp of Destruction). A guy taking a dump in the street in the financial district. Wine on sale in a health food store. Even dogs in fur coats. Some things I learned: Older Italians go to Cuba for dental work because it is faster and cheaper (message to New America: Keep your hands off Havana). There is something called heroic viniculture (in a valley north of Milan, the terrain is so treacherous they harvest by helicopter). Italians think of everything, including a special biscuit to eat with prosecco called a proseccino. Some places I loved: Biffi on Corso Magenta, for the excellent cappuccino, the great attitude and the extraordinary crowd management; Chocolat, for the macchiato, the scene and the glimpse of the new Italy (hint: it is the color of cacao), and my hotel, Locanda Antica Leonardo, for the service, location and price (95 euros!) One great thing I heard: My friend Diego Orlando, wandering among the booths in the basement of Palazzo Mezzanotte looking for a place to dump his wineglass and lamenting, “An empty glass is always heavier than a full one.” And one thing I should never forget: A quattro stagione pizza in Italy will always be bread soup. They do crust wrong.
Can you kill with banality? F&W is certainly trying with its new “blog.” One ponderous anecdote follows another, with attempted snark far outpaced by product plugs and self-references, not to mention the sense that editors are lurking (who else would not trust a reader to know what an ear trumpet is?) I always remember someone described Sunday Styles back when it began as a grandmother jammed into bike shorts. This sorry attempt at trendiness is Mrs. Doubtfire in a thong.
The most ridiculous thing I have read in donkey’s years was by the Paris Hilton of food news bloggers, who said the Mexican president’s intervening in the price of tortillas saved America’s Super Bowl. Could anyone with access to a mouse really be that witless? No. 1, who makes Doritos from scratch? No. 2, why would the price south of the fence make the slightest bit of difference? And No. 3, does she have even the faintest inkling of the reality that the crisis was a crisis because poor people with no 2-for-99-cent Taco Bells live on nothing but beans and tortillas for protein? Pennies make the difference between life and privation. Maybe if we did more to address the inequity in the world poor beleaguered French chefs would not have to be bothered with Mexicans wanting to move up, literally. And maybe a great reality show would let mothers wondering where their next tortilla is coming from swap places with privileged cretins.
I see the Porcine Pantload has finally solved the mystery of how the whole world knows what Panchito is going to review before the paper even comes out. Is this the same Phat Phuck who presided over endless scurrilous-to-slanderous potshots while making oracular pronouncements on the inner workings of the NYT? No fool like an internationally exposed fool. But I guess when your whole life is devoted to the wrong end of the alimentary canal you have an excuse: It’s gotta be hard to see with your head up your e-rectum.
It doesn’t get much dumber than this: A press release for a new restaurant attempts to tout the food by suggesting, “Imagine a car crash between Provence & Northern Italy.” Okay. I’ll have the blood sausage.
I used to subscribe to GQ just for the food coverage, but that has been many years ago. Judging by the kerfuffle over the New Orleans story, I don’t think I’ll be re-upping anytime soon. Reading about it online made me remember the dismal day I went to lunch when I was still not weight-bearing and a guy walking out deliberately knocked my propped-up crutches off my chair; my surprised friend thought it was “like kicking a cripple.” Maybe the cooking really has gone completely to hell in one of America’s top five food cities, but now is not the time to blare that thought out, not while the people who staff the restaurants are so scattered and so many problems are clearly still far from solved. But in every debacle there is always a laugh, and mine came when I read the outrage over the outsized trout the poor critic was served. I guess he don’t know nothin’ ’bout no speckled trout. And we should all be glad no one attempted to serve him puppy drum. I can read it now: “Not only was it not a dog, I couldn’t beat it.”
No wonder we’re bogged down in a lose-lose situation in Iraq. There are actually people out there, in the media no less, who do not know how Panchito got nicknamed Panchito. (Big honkin’ hint: Not by me.) Thanks to e-pals who alerted me with reviews ranging from “semi-coherent” to “mean and pompous,” I looked in on holierthanthou.com (or is it circlejerk.com?) What is it with guys who read me and have to take to the fainting couch? It’s only guys, interestingly enough. Women must be more honest about how the food world works — not for nothing is it known as a coven. At least I don’t let my comment-monkeys fling the feces for me. And while I could never describe what it’s like being me, I can tell you what it’s not: boring.
The NYT definitely picked the wrong headline for the Nora Ephron book promo posing as a pop-ed. Shouldn’t it have been “I Feel Bad About My Dreck”?
I can only hope no one else made the mistake of reading the profoundly sad but strangely uplifting front-page piece in the Wall Street Journal, on the Martha Stewart of Cuba, right before turning to the NYT magazine and the self-indulgent whining of yet another privileged white American journalist just overwhelmed by the difficulties of having too much. Compare and contrast. One steeps the water saved from rinsing rice rations with two spoonfuls of dark sugar for 45 days until it turns into something a little like vinegar for salad dressing, or a hair conditioner. The other is just incapacitated to the point of weeping by the stress of having to use up 10 over-bought staples rather than have the movers her employer would pay for box them up for California. One advises that wringing out towels with the grain of the fabric will make them last longer. The other recommends chicken stock over water in her lentil soup and runs out to buy creme fraiche to gussy it up.
The recipe that ran in the Journal was one of the bleakest I have ever seen in print, and it should make every American ashamed to think we’re “sacrificin’, payin’ a lot of taxes” while allowing a cruel and insane embargo devastate such a resilient population. The dish is “Syrian rice,” and it combines the ingredient in the title with crushed noodles, a fried onion and precious salt. The last line: “If you have a hot dog, chop and add.” One optional hot dog for four to six people, while here in the land of cursed plenty Ms. Comestible Poseur will be using her lupini beans for pie weights.
As the ultimate annoyance, the silly mewl ran under a headline about a cookout(?) that promised “not a wiener in sight.” Aside from the editor, of course, who should be hiding.
Just because I’m convinced readers are not as dumb as some editors apparently think, I’ve been peeking in on certain online forums and have found easily the best parody of both the Gourmet supplement and most food pages in the NYT magazine. Copy-edited for esthetic reasons, it reads: “I’m writing a novel, ‘The Sausage Zinger,’ about a sausage I ate on the 4th of August 1960 at the Parque Retiro (Coney Island) in olde Buenos Aires. It’ll make you cry and laugh and think a lot.” On second consideration, I hope it’s a parody. Otherwise, brace for the inevitable reviews: “Proust had his. . . .”
I see the Porcine Pantload is about to drop another megaturd on bookstores. You could call it “The Joy of Gluttony,” although he is not so honest. Apparently it’s supposed to be “part satire, part social commentary” (think Ann Coulter with elephantiasis), but I wonder how amusing obesity will sound if he ever has to have surgery and spend months hauling his laudatory bulk around on crutches and he can’t even fit into X-rays. Obviously it’s no laughing matter to me, remembering my orthopedist’s warning that staying thin is the best way to keep my own hip and knowing there is a difference between eating and abusing food. But I do hope some breakfast TV interviewer manages to ask about the “sexual prowess” angle promised in this swinish celebration. I’ve been curious ever since my first newspaper job out of college, in a little town in Iowa where the police chief and his wife were both of a size that back then looked suited for a sideshow but is now the American standard. They had kids, so they must have “done it,” but it was hard to see how the necessary parts connected with such bellies in between. The story going around the local bars was that they used something called the X position to get over, under, sideways, down. A little elucidation from a celebrated overeater and the Pantload could be outperforming “Snakes on a Plane.”
A wind-up Molto Ego doll, as sickeningly reported on thefoodsection, could turn out to be the greatest idea since burgers in the rat-infested parks. There should be a whole line of these miniature chefs, and not just flipping spaghetti and meatballs. Imagine sales of the one that could fart backward.
The Hillary-panty-sniffing paper’s visual homage to Mrs. Kerry, on the other hand, was well worth the reads. Two things jumped out at me. One was yet another uncritical recounting of the restaurant clitic’s exploits. First as a reporter she lay down with a subject, then as a reviewer she routinely schtuped the chefs she was evaluating. Does no one else see any ethical issues there? No wonder it’s taken so long for food journalists to get the time of the Times. The other peculiarity was in Nora Ephron’s review of “Look Back in Indigestion,” in which she speculates about the authors’ home being cluttered with pickled okra and other cutesy vittles they’ve dragged back to Connecticut. I still remember interviewing them for some magazine whose name has long been forgotten, and that house had anything but kitsch in it. I’m starting to think Yalie bluebloods are bizarrely adept at masking their true selves — consider a certain graduate who no longer goes “home” to his “ranch” because he’s afraid to pass the antiwar protesters camped outside. Oh, well. At least no one got harmed in the making of the two-for-the-road show, despite the python-on-gazelle promo photos of the authors.
In case Per Se was not pretentious enough as a restaurant name, Keller has gone and dubbed his new place in Napa Ad Hoc. It should be In Absentia. And if he keeps emulating Wolfgang and Emeril and other chainsters, he can just start using Ibid. Or Ad Infinitum.
Maybe there is an allah after all. The batshit-crazy bane of my Dining existence has finally, finally been routed from her Aeron throne. To work for her, you had to be comfortable with either a stiletto in your neck or a knife in your back. Plus she knew as much about the food world, and journalism in general, as the Chimp does about nuclear science and disaster relief put together. Every closing was a cuss-fest; I could have done a memoir called, “Tuesdays With Hysteria.” The only mystery is what the tipping point was, although a not-so-unbiased observer pointed out that the paper has had a few more pressing personnel problems lately, including the Whitewater Crusader and more recently Ms. Chalabi.
The nut case’s replacement once ran the old Living section, so I guess we can look forward to more of the turgid features and musty bylines that have already started re-emerging. I’m not going to predict the Dining section could not get any worse, though, because somehow, every week for almost longer than I worked there now, they have managed to prove me Gravy Master wrong. But maybe I’ll be hearing fewer sob stories around town from freelancers about pieces being assigned and mysteriously withdrawn now that KK (as in Krazy Rhymes-With-Lunt) has been thrown to the news sharks.
Venice is so much better the second time around. I had gotten all the tourist obligations out of the way back in 1998, so it was pure pleasure just to walk and eat and drink in the magic. I did duck into the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, but mostly to see what kind of anal probes a museumgoer would have to suffer in Italy compared with nervous New York. (Answer: I had to check my bag, but only to protect the art, they said.) Otherwise I spent my days while my consort was teaching his TPW workshop wandering from market to cafe to pasticceria to restaurant and studiously avoiding venturing anywhere near the Piazza San Marco. We stayed at a wondrous little hotel in Canareggio, Locanda Martini, and it was almost possible to forget we were in one serious tourist town, at least if I kept my eyes off the garish pasta for sale everywhere (did the world really need Curacao blue or cocoa, let alone in gondola and penis shapes?)
And this time I was armed with excellent recommendations from Italians, so I thought we could escape the famous curse of Venice: gross food at gouge prices thrown down by surly servers. Mostly we did, until I went off the approved list after four great lunches in a row to try La Colombina, a restaurant right near the hotel that was listed in a (seriously outdated) Slow Food directory we found in the breakfast room. We should have known it was trouble when we peeked in at lunchtime and saw the closed dining room was a mess, with big stains on one table. But both of us had it in our heads it was where we should eat, even after superb and very filling cicchetti at Al Timon nearby. Big glasses of prosecco were immediately plunked down with the menus, I guess to blunt the shock of 20-euro antipasti. We were surrounded by Italians sharing huge platters of sliced meat, and I started worrying we had found the Venetian Il Mulino. But it got worse. We were given two choices of wine, pinot grigio or soave, and charged much more than water for the mediocrity. The antipasto was an artichoke sformata with shrimp and butchered scallops with roe in a shell resting on a lemon slice (don’t ask). I faced down a monstrous portion of black linguine with zucchini and tasteless tomatoes and exactly seven tiny shrimp, all resting on a slimy pool of polenta. Polenta. With pasta. It was like tucking into a Molto flight of fancy; all it needed was hairy legs and duck balls. Laying down 88 euros has never stung so hard. And of course I woke up a few hours afterward and started mentally counting over and over to see how the bill got so big. You guessed it: It was 10 euros off. Next morning, though, I felt much better talking to another couple over breakfast who were marveling at how badly they had been eating everywhere — and they came from Scotland. You know it’s grim when haggis looks good.
Did someone say wicked witch? About me? Hey, I’m just subscribing to the Alice Roosevelt Longworth credo: “If you haven’t got anything nice to say, come sit by me.” And I just wonder why someone looking for happy talk stays on the bile page instead of clicking through to sweetness and light. (Hint: I loved Philadelphia this trip.) But I really know the answer; it’s as close as the new Food & Wine. Kicking up one little guano storm has gotten it more attention than 10 years’ worth of heavily hyped “best new chef” declarations ever did. And there’s a thought. How long till they do a cover on “worst new blogs”?
After mocking all those suckers who heard the news about fat and went directly to McDonald’s, I’m now right behind them on my way to the trash can with my calcium and Vitamin D tablets. I started taking both after my little incident, even though my bones looked very strong on a density test and I had nothing but scorn for supplements before then. I always drank my whole milk, ate my fish and greens and cheese, got my weight-bearing exercise on a daily basis. But, down for the count, I wanted to do everything I could to get back to some semblance of normal and so I swallowed the official story. And I learned the very hard way that the cheap calcium pills are chalk and will shut your digestive system down, while the pricey ones with citrate are trouble with a lower-case T. In other words, they all have the very same effect Philip Larkin attributed to your mum and dad: They fuck you up. And so do the nutrition nazis.
Having reveled in multiple bicerins in two of three sojourns in Torino, I had one thought when I saw how the NYTimes chose to cover the sensuous subject. And no, it was not that old bit about travel writing being a mix of plagiarism and speculation (that apparently only applied to a Lithuania story). What came to my sick mind was “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” trying to describe what a woman’s breast feels like. If you’ve never had one in its hometown, one of the most seductive drinks on the planet undoubtedly would seem like a sandbag.
Rao’s was the subject of another conversation one night, over an excellent buffet dinner by a caterer called Canard (“It means duck,” one of the servers helpfully offered when I asked about it). One of our table mates was thrilled to have snagged a reservation at the conceptual prototype for Babbo, and of course I could not remember a single detail of what the group I went with was served, back in about 2000, only that it was all profoundly mediocre and staggeringly expensive, at least $100 a head. Instead I launched into my tale of one of the most surreal evenings ever, with a certain unsavory politician dancing with what looked like a hooker and with one of our party excusing himself for the men’s room and coming out to say he had seen said politician addressing his own dick, thanking it for “being a good guy, not expecting too much.” And of course what brought that to mind was an odd e-mail I got recently about nicknames. Strange, but women don’t tend to feel any need to give themselves pet names. Guys, though, are all too willing to “Little Al” away. (Or, as John Hiatt put it, “let their little heads do the thinking.”) And then they’ll eat anything.
One thing you should never discuss before dinner at WD-50 is the face transplant, let alone the incomparably creepy French horror movie “Les Yeux Sans Visage.” My friend and I had just long enough at the bar to trade details (a self-made expert on plastic surgery predicting that the “miracle” may literally fall off; the overlap between cinema and verite) before we were sitting down to food that, course by course, felt more like the grim churnings of a mad scientist than exuberance from a grounded sensualist. One of the best things, the shrimp literally converted into couscous, got my friend conjuring images of the wood chipper in “Fargo” (and you never want to think about a sock on an oceanic Buscemi’s tail while you’re eating). One of the strangest, the foie gras formed into a tight cylinder that oozed beet juice when sliced open, had both of us saying, “Eraserhead.” And by the end of the meal the weird straps on the back of all the waiters started looking like the leash attachments used to harness them in the basement like the dogs in the movie. It was nothing like my last visit, when the place first opened. And dinner a few nights later at Upstairs at Bouley Bakery really put it into context, reinforcing the simply extraordinary pleasure of great ingredients treated with intelligence, with only little tricks like passion fruit in a sauce needed to make halibut taste like something entirely new. No wonder I never see Wylie at the Greenmarket anymore. He seems to be fighting nature, not celebrating it. And “Cuisine Avec Michelin mais Sans Joie” is turning out to be one freaking sad movie.
My consort is the one in our house who studied psychology, but even I could read more into the triple-plantain extravaganza than just judgment from another planet, like Uranus. It brings back the headline an old, boozed-up copy editor at the Louisville Times would recollect at every opportunity on our early-morning shifts, the one on a story that ran after a British princess was forced to give up her commoner lover: “Lonely Margaret Still Longs for Peter.” Maybe we should just be glad it’s not cucumber season.
Speaking of which, someone should call a moratorium on screw-and-tell memoirs by restaurant critics. Cul-porn is one thing. But no one wants to be forced to conjure Clint Eastwood being mounted by Ben Franklin while Tom Jones belts, “You can leave your yachting cap on.” And Elvis? Enough already. Let’s hope this latest blow-by-blow is a case of a million little weenies.
Another Wednesday, another WTF: Was that really an alternative poster for “Brokeback Mountain,” that shot of the two sad sacks sucking limp noodles out of the same salad bowl? If the point was to get people talking, it worked — the mildest commentary at a superb dinner party that night was the consensus that the photographer was just pulling a Velazquez, “making people look fucked up,” but only because “they are fucked up.” The whole exchange was far more credibly entertaining than a critic doing an all-thumbs-up piece on a restaurant not even open yet, followed by a reprise only days later. When Molto Ego is involved, one big newspaper needs a new motto: Without fear or fellatio.
Wine spas are about the silliest idea since chocolate massages — everyone knows the beauty of alcohol comes from within. But I never thought of grape treatments as gruesome until I saw the Travel shot of a puffy broad up to her pits in a wine bath having what appeared to be her worst period ever. Unless they were trying to evoke “The Shining,” they really should have marinated her in chardonnay.
The happy occasion of this latest expedition to the far fringe of the civilized food world was a wedding of one of Bob’s childhood friends. And it was, as Michelin would say, vaut le voyage, but not for the usual reasons. What I got out of it was an epiphany about wedding cakes. I’ve always hated them because they’re more about looks than taste, but now I understand why.
This one was actually one of the best ever: the cake itself was moist, the berry filling was both intense and restrained, the frosting did not need a pickaxe to penetrate. But as I ate and considered, I realized what was so troubling. This cake had not been baked yesterday. It was a production, and it was tackled in stages. And there is no way it should have tasted as fresh as it did. Any more than a body at a funeral should look as good as it does.
I hate to say wedding cakes are unnatural. Embalmed is a better word.
Thanks to a gift subscription to a very lively little magazine, I now know where a certain literary light wound up after ceding her Sunday Times turf to the soon-to-be Bride of Latte. No, not the New Yorker. She’s writing recipes using fake sugar, with headnotes in perfectly direct, downright readable prose. (People rag on Rick Bayless for touting Burger King, but at least meat, even creepy meat, is food. Splenda is magic dust for mad scientists and calculating accountants.) Even more amazing, the wordsmith of yore is now also dispensing diet advice. As in how to lose weight. So that’s what happened to onefatass.com.
Howell Raines should not be the only high-flier wallowing in infamy right now. Larry Forgione deserves to be down there with him, judging by his latest incarnation of American Place, in Lord & Taylor of all ignominious ends. My lunch there was so bad I started off wondering how you can screw up water and left hoping it’s not really possible to confit a poodle haunch.
I stopped in only out of morbid curiosity while shoe shopping, having eaten at every one of his previous pompous homages to James Beard and American cooking. The menu looked promising, and the place was draped with his laurels, including what the host told one woman was “the Academy Award of culinary.” But the first warning that I was making a huge mistake came not when I realized there was no wine but when I heard the Japanese woman at the next table ask for bread and be told, “It’s coming — the kitchen is behind.” She turned to me and said: “Everything I ask for, there’s a problem. And look, they have half the dining room closed off.” The other half looked and sounded like a motel coffee shop with an odd mix of overdesigned accoutrements (skinny-handled knife guaranteed to slide off the square plate; silly silver dome over sloppy slab of butter).
When the flatbread finally arrived, well after my salad, I suspected Mario Batali was moonlighting as baker. It was tough, brittle and tasteless. The water had an oily aspect, so I ordered iced tea, which achieved the bizarre state of being both weak and bitter. But the real horror was the duck confit salad. It was based on the same mix of overcooked, uninspired vegetables every other table seemed to be getting under the salmon, doused with a Coke-sweet pineapple-chile sauce. But the leg was downright creepy: the skin was uncuttably tough while the meat was cold, old and lumpy, not fibrous and fatty and tender. After a few bites, I stopped when I suddenly remembered a photographer friend who traveled all through Vietnam asking for duck and being refused until the last night, when his interpreter confessed: “I thought you were saying dog.”
Levity was the one thing missing at St. John, the culinary cathedral in London where innards are not just dished up but downright worshipped. Absolutely no snickering is allowed: not when the special is announced as venison faggots, not when another dish is Gloucester Old Spot (and definitely not when the waitress looks like Dick and Jane both). Eating there was like going to weird mass, with Monty Python officiating. The deadly earnestness as the staff tried to make the bizarre seem everyday gave the dining room all the warmth of a morgue, and a rictus-lipped headwaiter in mortician wear didn’t help vanquish thoughts of “Dirty Pretty Things.” The more they tried to make it feel white-clean, the creepier it felt. (Contrast that with a great Chinese restaurant where your fish is presented to you first live, then on a platter, steamed to a state beyond denial.)
Offal is never my thing unless it comes from a diseased duck or goose, but when a newfound friend who lives nearby steered us there, St. John looked oddly appealing after four days of wiener schnitzel and Salzburger nockerl. And it seemed safe enough, with about half the menu given over to either vegetarian choices or good old fish and chips (plaice and tartare sauce, I mean). Maybe it was the “cheap and cheerful” bottle of wine we’d socked back at Carluccio’s Caffe beforehand, but suddenly even I was changing my appetizer order for smoked mackerel and horseradish to the terrine once the unsmiling waitress explained what it was made from: Pork. And offal.
Was it ever. The flavor was like liverwurst that had been on a week-long binge. I was only too happy to pass my plate around the table, but not when I tasted my consort’s salad of crispy pig’s ears and watercress. Babe Jerky is about the best description for the dainty strips of meat. Bob also succumbed to Old Spot, which was a very juicy slab of pot-roasted pork with prunes, but it was hard to eat without thinking of the geriatric hog that had died for his dinner. Our friend Chris too generously shared his deep-fried skate cheeks (who knew skate had cheeks, top or bottom?) and then the faggot, a meatball that brought back childhood memories: My dad killed at least one deer every fall that he would butcher and freeze and my mom would cook and force us to eat; when every other part was gone, she would boil the heart to a pungent death in her pressure cooker. I’ve worked very hard for 40-some years to get that taste out of my mind. Now it’s back, and I’m afraid for good.
The scariest part of the whole meal was that my entree was the hands-off winner. Thinking literally “no guts, no glory,” I ordered the chitterlings after Ms. Grimserver explained that they were salt-cured and pan-seared and served with splendiferous lentils. They had to be better than my last taste of that particular organ, at a swanky restaurant in Harlem years ago where Bob was seduced by “chitlins and Champagne,” only to be presented with a plate of plain boiled and coiled intestines and a flat glass of bubbly. These were truly spectacular, both charred and somehow succulent, but it was hard to look at them and cut. With hanger steak you can fool yourself. There’s no mistaking the exit route on a cow.
Just back from India, I’m feeling as disoriented in New York as Bush must have in Baghdad. But I have to eat here.
After nearly two weeks when so many meals were preordained perfection, I’m struggling to decide what to survive on. One of my complaints about this country is that we have no cuisine, only a smorgasbord that’s open all night. Now I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as Indian food — instead there’s Rajasthani and Gujarati and Punjabi and Bengali and more — but at least the disparate states have come together on a general pattern of eating. And none of what they put out is anything like what is pawned off on untraveled New Yorkers. As more than one very proud acquaintance pointed out, it’s the Bangladeshis and the Pakistanis and the North Indians who are the economic refugees who have to go into the food business here. South Indians can either live well at home or find a higher calling overseas. And the world’s table is a poorer place for it.
Eating Indian style, and with abandon, I actually lost eight pounds. Part of it may have comed from forgoing flatware, which does keep you from inhaling. In India, eating is a contact sport: you use your fingers, even with rice. Otherwise, I think I had four bites of fish, one beef dumpling (in a Tibetan restaurant) and one taste of Bob’s tandoori chicken in all my time away, and I see why India has no five-a-day campaign to promote fruits and vegetables. You can live very well without indulging in flesh. At least you can when the food is so varied and vibrant and wondrously seasoned. One of the most amazing experiences among dozens was loving every fingerful of a 12-dish thali at Teej in Calcutta, then noticing on the check that I was in a vegetarian restaurant. I never missed the meat.
I also didn’t miss the wine that’s usually my water, once I tried a local red from Grover Vineyards and a local white from highly rated Sula. When Kingfisher tastes good, you know the grapes are grim.
Now that I’m back, I’m dazed, hungry and adrift. Looking for the antithesis of Indian, I stopped at Pain Quotidien on 72d Street for the first time and got a duck pate tartine to go. I should have been nervous when my cat refused to share, but I plunged ahead with $8 worth of buttered bread and pate dabs, with unripe mango, less ripe cantaloupe and anemic tomato on the side. It all said welcome home with a vengeance. Lunch with a friend at Rosa Mexicano was even more of a shock to the system. That has to be the most inconsistent restaurant in 15 boroughs. The once sublime enchiladas suiza were greasy and cold, with a broken sauce and cheese only partly melted, and I think I flew from Delhi to Calcutta in less time than they took to slide out of the kitchen.
Maybe the only thing to do is to go back to India and learn how to make rotis and chapatis and parathas and puri and pappadum. I could live on bread alone.
In other cover developments, you have to wonder what writer, editor, art director, publisher and sales staff could possibly think a Linda Lovelace poster wrapped around a collection of recipes would be appealing. This one has everything but Sammy Davis Jr. and the donkey. Blurb by Batali, though, so it must be good. Or at least the chapter he read is.
I would have missed the latest influential cookbook roundup by a certain pompous repeat offender if not for an email from Jessica’s Biscuit offering deals on his choices even before his review was posted online on the official site. But for once I have to say that I’m awed, and not just because he consistently gets away with reviewing cookbooks he apparently did not cook from. This guy has never struck me as the most agile of writers, but somehow he managed to pull off the most astounding feat. Not only did he rave about a friend’s cookbook straightaway, but he went on to froth over another book that he boasted includes one of his own essays. I never thought it was possible, but clearly there is such as thing as logrolling while blowing yourself.
What’s even funnier is that a certain porcine pantload is now sanctimoniously expressing alleged dismay at the brunibrilliance. Thanks to a sharp-eyed and certainly strong-stomached friend who wades through the fertilizer on his end-of-the-alimentary-canal forum, I hear that the guy who allowed no end of high-tech — and humor-free — eviscerations that are cached forever is now wiping his brow with a frilly hanky in sympathy for the fool: “As a human being, I think it’s a bit scary — a demonstration of the dark side of blogging.” Mrs. Friend and I might even agree here, without directly quoting Dick Cheney’s most memorable suggestion: just go do it.
Why is it that only bloggers seem to know how to use Google, and not “legitimate” journalists? Almost as soon as the ink had dried on the Chicago Tribune’s fawning Laura Bush interview in which she proclaimed, “I don’t bake cookies; I’ve never really baked cookies,” one cyber eagle eye had rifled through the official White House web site and found the recipe for “Laura Bush’s cowboy cookies” that was sent out to so many women’s magazines during the 2000 campaign. Forget about weapons of mass destruction and the Medicare bill and imminent threats — it’s a sad day for America when you can’t believe a cookie story. Now even “her” guacamole looks suspect. What true Texan uses shallots? Aren’t those Freedom onions?
Given the lump in the bed’s history, though, it’s probably not surprising that “her” recipes turn out to be lethal weapons. One is for a soup made from leftover baked potatoes with two cups of cheese and about as much heavy cream, sour cream and butter — it’s a heart attack in a bowl, and if only they’d serve it in the bunker. Even the cookies she doesn’t bake have been enriched to the edge of overkill, with coconut and pecans on top of three sticks of butter and three cups of chocolate chips. Except for the chips, none of those were in the cowboy cookies I really did bake when I was a kid. Mine started with shortening and were stretched out with oats. We were too poor for the recipe on the back of the Toll House bag. The one on the White House site would have bankrupted us. Which, come to think of it, is the one true Bush formula.
One of the rules of travel is to always let a local to take the first bite. Our guard must have been down big time in Tallinn, though, because we blithely accepted our connection’s advice in a bizarre restaurant he assured us was frequented by Estonians as well as the hordes of tourists thronging the central square and side streets of the walled city. It was a medieval theme park, with only candles for lighting, Disneyesque musicians playing in a hayloft, waiters in “Holy Grail” costumes, a leatherbound illuminated menu in ye olde script (and on sale for 50 euros). Descriptions of all the dishes were also Pythonesque (Grand Beef of the Mighty Knight, Berries of the Highly Blessed Olive Tree), and the variety was a little staggering considering how little was probably available 500 years ago, even to rich merchants who lived in houses like that.
We were seven at the crowded table, drinking the spiced and honeyed beers forced upon us, and then the spiced vodka, and we didn’t really notice what everyone else ordered; we just took the insistent advice to try the specialty: bear (I sea-chickened out with salmon). We dug into all the appetizers, the smoked herring and the baked cheese with juniper and herbs, along with everyone else. And then the main courses landed. Exactly two of them, one really loaded with bear. Waiting politely for the rest, we were stunned to hear: “Go ahead. We didn’t order anything. We don’t eat that.” (For the record, it was true mystery meat: it could have been anything.)
The real joke, though, was coming home and finding Olde Hansa has about as much connection with Tallinn as Babbo does with Naples. The corporate web site indicates it’s a chain, looking for investors to expand on the five-year-old prototype. And that 50-euro menu is free in cyberspace.
Estonia is pure magic, and not just because people there say their president “is an idiot, too, but he’s harmless,” or because the supermarkets make Wegmans look Soviet. We saw it through the shimmering eyes of a native, one who had booked my consort for a slide show and us into the very idiosyncratic and comfortable Olevi Residents and who steered us to good locals’ hangouts like Cafe Anglais and Elevant. Not surprisingly we got a completely different impression from the ones in the travel articles friends had sent me before we left — those were the kind that can only be formed at the end of a press trip leash (it’s bad when an article filches directly from a hotel brochure, right down to the misspelling of Hans Christian Andersen).
In one piece fully 300 of the 1,500 words were devoted to the hotel, maybe double that to the deep and thoughtful insights of Carmen Kass, allegedly the world’s most famous Estonian, who had led the awestruck poodle of a writer around. We went to inspect those splendiferous $300-a-night lodgings out of curiosity one night and could have walked into the W on Union Square. The place did have a great library, though — the trick is to stay at the 100-euro Olevi and read at the Three Sisters a few blocks away. Just as revealing was our trip with our connection to one of the too-hip cafes touted in the story. As we were leaving, he said: “You know that model you were talking about? She’s right there by the window, smoking.” Which only made me wonder: Who’s the freeloader with her?
Culinary tourism always seemed like a great idea, a way to save the world by showcasing local food. But a return trip to the Mercato Centrale in Florence flipped the sunny rock over to the buggy side: so many slaves to food lovers’ guides have tramped through that the place has metamorphosed into Pike Place Market.
Last time we were there, in the mid-Nineties, it felt much more like a real city resource. I remember watching my consort eat a fat-dripping beef sandwich while we stood near a workmen’s lunch counter after pushing through the gritty aisles admiring the overload of produce and cheese and meats and fish. Now the lunch counter is so well-known that mostly fellow travelers were lining up and then taking their Florentine Little Macs to a special cafe area with a mural straight out of Little Italy. Wild strawberries were one (inflated) price downstairs and another upstairs, where the stalls were a little darker and rougher (although even there the Faith Heller Willinger effect could be discerned: a sign over a three-foot snake squash read “widow’s pleasure” — in English). The wine shops were run by Asians, with signs in Japanese; the grocery stalls carried pasta shapes shamelessly designed for tourists and curried risotto mixes no Italian would be caught dead ripping open. And when we stopped to look at some olive wood bowls, a clerk ran over to help us, again in English (after close to a dozen trips I think I can safely say: that’s not Italian). Even the cheese counters looked tricked out more for Kodak than for locals. Tripe and udders and deep red horse meat were also on view in the antiseptic shops, but I couldn’t help expecting some hollering fishmonger with his eye on the cameras to toss an Alaska salmon my way.
When I was thinking of leaving journalism to go into cooking, in 1983, I wrote craven letters asking for advice from a cluster of chefs I admired. I heard back from two, Pierre Franey and Leslie Revsin. The 60-Minute Gourmet caught me off guard by calling only a few hours after I had gotten home from the NYT around 2 a.m., but he was extremely charming and seriously encouraging despite my sleepy inarticulateness. Leslie, though, earned points into perpetuity: She invited me to come meet with her at the Bridge Cafe, where she was temporarily moored, and we spent a good morning talking about just how brutal and demanding professional cooking really was. Having broken into the all-male kitchen at the Waldorf less than 10 years before, she advised me to have no illusions but be prepared to love it.
When her husband called to say she had died, it felt weirdly like a personal loss. I met Leslie only once after that first encounter, at an early Women Chefs and Restaurateurs event, and I only spoke to her when she did a couple of pieces for the Dining section (as a writer, she lived up to her headstrong reputation), and we exchanged only a few emails. But I always felt I knew her well through her recipes, starting with the ones in her “Great Fish, Quick,” every one a masterwork of imagination, flavor and technique. The short ribs in her next book, “Come for Dinner,” are the best I have ever cooked, let alone eaten. Her husband said she was testing recipes over and over for her next project even as she was debilitated by cancer and its treatment.
Like Julia, Leslie Revsin was the real deal. She earned her time in the TV spotlight by going where no woman had before. And, more important, by so willingly extending a hand to those behind her.
I know you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but can we talk about Jeff Smith? He made his name and his money on television and in print selling an image as a man of god, warm and generous and the very model of moral superiority. In my one telephonic encounter, though, he all but told me to go Cheney myself, Madam. Thanks to a starstruck editor in the mid-Eighties, I had to approach him for a recipe for a magazine story and it was if I had dialed Tourette’s Central. Suffice it to say he did not end the conversation with “I bid you peace.” Nasty as the experience was, it does make me look back in wistfulness on those days of innocence when you could just call a celeb straightaway. Today he would have handlers shielding the real Frug, and seven guys would be wondering if anyone would ever listen to their allegations.
After several years of wondering what ever happened to the greatest restaurant critic New York has had in my 23 years here, I now have the sad answer. There is no more Seymour Britchky to tell the tight truth and nothing but about the food scene in the city. In his newsletter and guidebooks, he meted out stars for dummies but counted on his readers to be smart enough to read a whole review to understand exactly what they were in for. His one-star take on Le Cirque in 1991 could not have been said better, especially this acid-toss at “poor Sirio,” who “is not aware that, though the moneyed and powerful are his clientele today, in any reverse revolution, he and they will be separated at the first cut.”
I owe my most transformative early food experiences to those kinds of baroquely composed but still terse assessments, one of which led us Meursault virgins to Le Lavandou, Jean-Jacques Rachou’s “baby bistro,” in 1982, where we paid a shocking $125 with tax and tip for a meal that opened up another world. (We went back again when it was Le Pistou and the review was just as on-target.) Even better, Britchky could verbally take us to places we would never want to go. I can’t think of Elaine’s without seeing her through one of his reviews, lumbering through and hiking up her underpants.
“The Five Obstructions” is not just one of the most dazzling movies I’ve ever seen. It also has an extraordinary food scene: A Dane in a dinner jacket tucking into a sumptuous meal on a filthy street in the red-light district of Mumbai with only a translucent plastic scrim separating him from a real-life horde of frighteningly poor onlookers. As he pours his Chablis and forks up his fish and sauce, the expression on one young girl behind him steadily turns from longing to hate. Nothing I’ve ever seen on a screen so powerfully illustrated the gap between worlds in this world. Maybe I’m soft-headed because I’ve been on both sides of the scrim in my life, but it’s hard not to believe we’ll never win the war on the abstraction until we share the fish.
Just back from two weeks in Italy, I’m having a tough time assimilating, probably because I spent most of my excursion looking at ceilings, and not of the Sistine variety. One impression will stick with me, though: Compared with Italian cooking shows, the Food Network is Masterpiece Theatre. Even Emeril never has to kiss a man-size cartoon character of a beet, and repeatedly at that. And even Mario looks positively Armaniesque compared with the pubic-permed hostess in denim sausage casings who afflicts Italy’s version of Iron Chef, where good ideas like mortadella stuffed into fried zucchini blossoms get lost in a frenzy of shrieking inanity.
Commercials were actually a break: My favorite was the one for Guylian featuring a slug sliming to the big city to be eaten in chocolate form, to the haunting sounds of “Everybody’s Talkin’at Me.” (Maybe you had to be there.) Trapped in a trauma bed with this kind of pap all day and half the night, I started to wonder if a country that invented cappuccino and Parmigiano and Arneis could really be a colony of mental deficients, and then someone mentioned who controls the airwaves in Italy. And I could only be glad the Bush empire sticks to oil. Rove’s Kitchen is not anything I would ever want to see, in sickness or in health.
A few too many loud encounters with Italian Jeopardy also had me deluded into thinking anything written in English was almost Nobel-quality literature. And then the first few confections from the NYT magazine came my way (downside to the internet: there’s no escape). All I can say is that the motto for T should be “Not Waving but Drowning.”
That an employee of a publication widely derided as Pravda on the Hudson if not White House Officials Said could mock another country’s newspaper as “hilariously one-sided” was juvenilely offensive enough in a recipe column. But the arrogant new feature that aims to out-Bittman Nigella had the high tone and lame language of a 1960s Sunday supplement and the depth and context of frosting from a can. Worse was the verbal equivalent of a Keane painting, wide-eyed and artificially innocent. Certainly many is the time I’ve tucked into morels in an expensive restaurant on assignment and thought: I’d love to meet the guy who checked these into the kitchen; it would add so much to my understanding. Last laugh goes to our old friend the Big Homme. He gets a couple of gullible press types into his lair for major publicity and he makes sure the Mexicans are eating lobster penne for staff lunch. The idea of Mario Batali writing for Vanity Fair, and about music rather than food, seems less and less absurd every hour I’m home.
Of all the phrases Julia Child ever uttered, probably my favorite was, “If you can beat a pound of butter into a pound of spinach, you’ve won.” Her truly un-American fearlessness when it came to fat was a huge part of who she was (“if you’re afraid of butter, use cream”). The fact that everyone in one of the nastiest professions on the planet almost universally revered her was also remarkable. But it shows the depth of the lack of understanding in certain quarters that those kinds of references were wiped from the record. Her great statement that we’re terrified of French food and yet “you don’t see all those big fat people over there that you see lumbering around Disneyland” was also deemed not fit to print, although it was gleefully repeated on NPR and television as just the reflection of outspoken character it was. The suckers who were stuck with day-late print did learn, however, what the French master thought of Italian. Does everything in life and death have to come down to Mario Batali?
One of the greatest things about living in Manhattan is what E.B. White called the gift of anonymity. But the longer I spend here, the more I realize this vast ocean is really just a fishbowl. Exactly how dangerous it is to forget that came clear on our way to the D’Artagnan party, on an hourlong bus ride in a treacherous snowstorm. Around 14th Street a woman who looked vaguely familiar got on and immediately started reaming out the driver, railing that she had been waiting 20 minutes and that he had not pulled up close enough and had made her walk too far from the shelter. As she bitched and moaned, another passenger, a young woman, finally moved near her to say quietly, “Ma’am, just call the MTA. He can’t do anything for you now.” But she kept carping even as the driver was skidding and sliding and telling her how hard it was to pull close to a stop on the ice. Finally a second young woman called out, “She’s right: Call the MTA and pipe down.” Now it turns into one of those great “you’ll never see these people again” bitch-slaps, with the older woman yelling, “It’s none of your business,” and the other one responding, “It is our business if you’re distracting the driver and he gets us in a wreck.” Just when it’s sounding interesting, we pull up to our stop and she and we get off and I lose sight of her while concentrating on my own slipping and sliding.
Next day, in the party post-mortem, a friend asks me if I had seen a certain well-known cookbook editor there because “she’s lost a ton of weight.” And then I realize: “That was the crazy lady on the bus.” Remind me never to flip off anyone who honks at me. It’s undoubtedly someone I know.
After an eternity essentially confined to my little office, I’m feeling like Rip Van Winkle lately. As I travel farther and faster (the subway is the Concorde compared with buses and cabs), and can walk more than a few blocks, I keep bumping up against all the ways the city has changed while I was sleeping: buildings have gone up, and come down; restaurants have opened, and closed; Wild Edibles has spawned like salmon; Jamba Juices are busting out all over; Sullivan Street Bakery has added more desserts and raised its prices. But then I’ll open an ostensibly hot-off-the-presses newspaper and it feels like Groundhog Day all over again. Best diners reprised in the Daily News? And delivery in the Times? Didn’t we go through all that back in the Living section? Repeatedly? Next they’ll be telling us where to buy roast chicken. Oh, right. That old hairball was already coughed up.
Jacques Tati’s wondrous 1967 “Playtime” showed for only a week at Lincoln Center, but it could run forever if the creepy TWC had a movie theater like any other self-respecting mall. One long sequence features a restaurant in meltdown on opening night that makes Thomas Keller’s fire seem no more consequential than a smoke alarm going off. The best bits reminded me our pit stop at Cafe Gray, or my long lunch at Asiate. We didn’t have a succession of waiters coming by and seasoning and saucing and otherwise mucking with our whole fish on gueridon without ever serving the thing. But the general confusion felt the same, and I could just imagine a maitre d’ back in the kitchen putting more energy into making sure waiters were not sneaking swigs out of the flambe bottle than tending to patrons. Best of all was the Tati waiter describing a special: “poached in beurre blanc, doused with cream, napped with . . . .”
It would all have been even more amusing if we had not walked seven blocks north afterward to find a favorite restaurant having its own crisis. Too late we realized the chef was away and the kitchen thought it could play. Steamed pork dumplings were the size of meatballs. My usually crisp crab cakes were like soggy clumps of gray lint. My consort’s chicken seemed not roasted but battered into submission. And it all took forever to come to the table, giving us way too much time to do the math on the wine list. The Matua Valley sauvignon blanc I buy for home for $8.99 a bottle was $36. It’s a sad night when you walk out thinking: at least we didn’t get broken glass for ice.
I haven’t been to Las Vegas since I was 10 or 11 years old, but I see signs that all the new glitz has not obscured its seedy core as the con capital of America. Bon Appetit is running a tout for a casino overlord’s “first property that he’s put his name on,” laying it on thick about how “you can bet he has seen to every last detail” and including a pageful of shiny, happy faces of chefs lured out to join the dream team “at the forefront of America’s culinary movement” (actual quote from actual chef). Unfortunately, I read this guano right after coming from a party where a restaurant critic from down south was gossiping about one chef who uprooted his family only to come up hard against the house. All he did was tell an interviewer that he would not be serving chicken because the quality-minded god of the casino was “too cheap to spring for a rotisserie.” Quicker than you can say “you will have hot dogs on the golf course” the guy was leaving Las Vegas. Luckily, though, hype springs eternal. Odds are good any of these chefs could be coming soon to an awards ceremony near you.
My only contact with the big besmirched awards was a purveyor party where the commemorative cocktail seemed like something (neon blue and oddly aromatic) you would measure into your washer. But it was worth the C journey for this exchange, with an engaging reviewer in from out of town who was marveling at what passes for top tier. “Have you eaten across the street at Spice Market?” he asked. “It’s nominated for best new restaurant in the whole country.” “Overpriced joke, right?” I said. “Oh, you have eaten there. We wound up leaving and going to the Spotted Pig for dessert. Have you been there? Best new restaurant?” “Pretty lame, no?” “Oh, you have eaten there. And what about this Latino place . . . .”
As if booting Bob Edwards were not unforgivable enough, NPR devoted long minutes on a Saturday morning to a segment on a guy whose own handlers once told me was plucked out of kitchen obscurity not for his Escoffier potential but simply because “the camera loves him.” Does no one else find it surreal to hear serious radio promoting vacuous TV? I guess I should just be glad Paris Hilton was too busy getting waxed to stir-fry.
Maybe it’s because the San Francisco Chronicle kicked ass with its series on “The Taking of 167 West 12th Street,” but my local paper is filling me with less hometown pride than usual, if you can imagine. Scornful as I am, even I was surprised to spot a headline that essentially read: Nyah, Nyah, Nyah. The estimable Christian Delouvrier is out of a job and the most embarrassing critic in the history of restaurant reviewing is allowed to piss all over him claiming the credit. It’s as if the only way the paper can justify hiring a joke is by holding up a little fanny-pack belt with a notch in it. Time was when the Times would have been more modest, even self-effacing; in both my stints on 43d Street any mention of the paper in the paper had to be cleared all the way up the command ladder. Now, a full year before he’s scheduled to retire, it’s clear that Al Siegal has left the building. But at least the world has been made safe for martini drinkers at Ducasse.
Apparently women don’t have it bad enough in the restaurant business. A hypercelestial blogger is running a ridiculous contest to name the chef with a correct chromosome who should take over the White House kitchen. Could there be a more thankless job than peeling bananas for a chimp, brewing nicotine for his real wife, trying to persuade his pretend wife to eat and whipping up good-and-greasy Hangover Helper for the skank twins? Especially when Clintonesque state dinners seem to have given way to hand-holding photo ops by what Tom Toles has labeled petrosexuals at the “ranch”? Somehow I don’t think this is quite the path to “women rule!” glory it’s being sold as.
One of the more indigestible lunches of my Dining days was with the Egotist, and not just because it involved the spectacle of him reflexively rubbing his pate stubble while mocking our old-line French waiter’s crude rug. The high point came when I asked why in the name of Pierre Franey he had taken on the drudgery of a weekly column for such a paltry fee. “Are you kidding?” he shot back. “The exposure makes everything else possible.”
Turns out there’s exposure and there’s flashing. The acres of type in his own words devoted to his TV masterwork gave new meaning to the word indecent, not least because the NYT failed to disclose what the show’s web site does: It’s underwriter No. 1. Bad enough Rick Bayless has been pilloried for shilling for Burger King while “I Am the Greatest” shamelessly lured chefs to his book party at another fast food sponsor. But blowing yourself is not a technique anyone expects to see demonstrated in a family food section.
Say one thing for the NYT: It couldn’t get Clinton, but it did take down a chef in the sunset of his career, and apparently no one is going to be allowed to forget it. The latest chest-thumping came in the New York Observer, in a piece that would leave Hans Christian Andersen rending his raiments for all the testimonials to the critic’s new talents from eminently recognizable co-workers. Apparently the guy knows much more than a sentence referring to a “rum baba dessert” would indicate. And if that’s the case, he’s guilty of a sin far more grievous than cluelessness, at least in journalism: failure to communicate.
None of it would be worth expending another gram of mental energy on if not for one consideration: Through his fawning coverage in 2000, this anything-but-the-food reviewer now ambling through restaurants helped elect the chimp responsible for a morass that has consumed more than $300 billion and killed more than 2,500 Americans and who knows how many Iraqis. The same trait that left him vulnerable to a dry drunk’s seduction is clearly at play in the restaurants of New York. Recognize him as Panchito and he’ll put his lips together and blow stars all over you.
A writer friend was just in town lamenting his exile from the NYT book review, but judging by what ran under the Cooking rubric, he might be in a better place now. This thing read like a FreshDirect order, but with less soul — some of the subtitles took up more lines than the critical evaluations. “Bills Food,” however, is singled out for indictment as “a collection of recipes that look suspiciously untested for American kitchens,” which almost comes off as a confession that these cookbooks were just flipped through, never messed up. (No one “reads” cookbooks. You have to work them.) Worse, Molto Ego is included as one of the chef “hunks.” Anyone who believes that deserves to be mopping a pork butt, and not with cider vinegar.
Knight-Ridder News Service has just discovered a trend that was declared peaking about five years ago: chefs as hunks. When Dining did it, we joked about them as “chunks.” And even way back then no one was saying star chefs had previously been “stereotyped as either old, portly or balding,” let alone as “a combination of Chef Boyardee and James Beard.” As always, though, the lamest story can cough up a nugget. This one revealed that LA’s stud croissant, Ludo Fefebvre, strutted his steamy stuff in a cookbook at the urging of Judith Regan, who “sees me as sexy.” As I recall, the last guy who got her stock boiling was Bernie Kerik. And that queasy-making thought brings back memories of a card someone gave me right before the paper of record declared chefs hunks: “You know you drank too much on your birthday when you’re up all night blowing chunks . . . and Chunks is your dog.” Could someone get out that Vitamix blender, please?
Which editor has become the Dick Cheney of food publishing? She reviewed all the possible candidates for columnist and decided only she was suited for the job. I smell a flaccid fragrance, and it ain’t truffle oil.
I have to confess I read about the second confirmed case of mad cow disease in this country and went straight out to the opening at the Heart Gallery of New Jersey and ate a scary little packet of something gray and doughy passed by a waiter who called it “beef Wellington.” No one would ever accuse me of looking on the bright side, but I figure it’s too late to worry about my brain getting riddled from eating ground-up cows raised on blood and chickenshit. My version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” would plot out a scary future where the careful few shunned beef and kept their health and wits and environment only to wind up having to care for the addled masses and masses who ignored all the warnings and happily ate those 19-cent tacos and honking Skankburgers. Besides, to quote a certain simian who talks to God, who cares about history? We’ll all be dead.
A faithful correspondent sent me an e-rumor that Panchito “got the axe,” but I knew immediately it couldn’t be true. Now that even political bloggers are spoofing the Liberace of literature, half the internets would have to shut down if he were 86ed.
As if being caught in a misguided war started on lies is not horrifying enough, apparently the troops are being forced to listen to Christian “jaw-jacking” while they eat, as ever-vigilant Jesus’ General noticed. Am I missing something, or wasn’t this country founded on freedom from religion? As the eloquent correspondent to Stars & Stripes put it, “I don’t go into chapels to eat my breakfast.” So what are gospel singers and proselytizers doing in mess halls? Halliburton must have the faith-based contract.
It’s come to this: A bare-legged chef as commencement speaker. I guess Rachael Ray was booked. But then if the Dissembler in Chief can be set loose at a podium to say American weapons “can target the guilty and protect the innocent,” why shouldn’t Rutgers graduates hear that life is just a bowl of spaghetti, dude?
My geriatric Siamese was a kitten with balls when I ate at a certain Filipino restaurant in SoHo for the first and last time. Aside from the duck’s tongue I brought home for his fleeting amusement, there is not a single detail that sticks with me about the place. So I was not exactly surprised to find Panchito lavishing it with a long appreciation; visions of him sitting up and poring over Zagat late at night, looking for the last lost thing, are just the price you pay for flipping through to the Food Emporium ad on Wednesday. But it did illuminate why “critics” are being left in the dust. As soon as a restaurant opens anymore, the believable reviews begin instantly, in the real world Al Gore invented. No one had to wait for the garbled similes lavished on Diablo Royale in old media — regular people went, they ate, they hated, and they weighed in without detouring through rogetsfordummies.com. Ditto for Mercadito Grove and Centrico. What’s saddest for a diehard newspaper reader to admit is that the reviewing bar has dropped so low that some fake-named stranger outraged at $18 tacos with no refries can actually have a better take on a place than some guy with an unlimited expense account who seems to have spent too long eating with the pope. Either that, or he’s been fixed.
I’m sure none of this could possibly be true, but it’s too moist not to repeat. A big name is coming out with a big new thing and has already been warned: You won’t get TV. The official story is that this is Rachael’s and Giada’s world — old doesn’t sell. The view from inside the studio is more brutal: She talks with her mouth full. She uses her dress as a napkin. And her dresses are always too short — you can see her underwear when she wipes. And then there’s what one of her alleged pals told me: She farts in public. But that can’t possibly be true.
It will take me some time to assimilate all the sensory overload I was subjected to on this trip [to Piemonte], but for now I can sum up one half of the Slow Food segment with two encounters of the cow kind, both thanks to my consort and his camera.
Early one morning we switchbacked nearly to the top of a mountain outside Bussoleno to meet a family who make a cheese called chevrin with equal parts goat and cow milk. Halfway up, we started hearing what sounded like a new-age symphony just as the road snaked alongside a deep green meadow full of black-and-white cows busily chewing up the scenery. As their heads rhythmically dipped to the grass, the bells around each of their necks almost sang. It was one of those “whoas” you never forget. But what was even more amazing was what I flashed on after moving closer. These cows, a particular Piemontese breed, were the most gorgeous I have ever seen anywhere, and I’m no sucker for udder-bearing animals. Their coats were lustrous, their muscles rippled, they exuded health. For the first time ever, I could understand how the first human looked over at his usual milk supply one day and thought: I bet that would taste pretty damn good. It certainly explains the Piemontese passion for carne cruda.
The other revelation was less savory. We went back to another farm that raises special gray rabbits and also produces cheese so that Bob could shoot the evening milking, and I couldn’t watch. Ten freaked cows at a time were herded into a smelly room with a pit and hooked up to machines to pump them dry, with Rove-Gro flying everywhere. I fled and found our translator out in front of the farm’s shop, happily spooning up her second gelato of the day. I spent my first four years on a farm with goats, and still I can only say: Forget sausage. You do not want to see the ice cream being made.
Just back from Piedmont, I finally understand why America is afflicted with so much abysmal Italian. The Italians teach it. Or at least they take money to try.
I lost half a morning watching students from Denver at the Italian Cooking Institute for Foreigners bumble through a simple pork dish and was only happy I could not stay to see the hash they made of fresh pasta. It was scary. An Italian chef stood in front of the class with a translator by his side and TV screens overhead showing close-ups of his every move, while the pampered kiddles in their important hats seemed to be cooking from a whole different channel. He would say “check the onions” stewing into jam and they would keep slaughtering their salt pork. He would say “sauté over low heat” and they would crank the burners up to the smoking point. Most of them showed no signs of knowing how to dice an onion, and here they were collecting a line of credibility for their resumes. While the teacher was still plating his minimalist assemblage, they were lining up to have him taste their abortions, oblivious to the rivulets of butter seeping out of the red wine slopped over the charred tenderloins.
At least they showed a tiny bit of self-awareness, even if it was way too late. One kid came back to his station and reeled off his translated grade: “The meat’s too cooked. The onion’s too raw. The sauce broke. It sucks.” And then he happily ate his F work. Just think: Coming soon to a trattoria near you.