I’ll never forget going to see “Magnolia” one xmas day and an old guy in the audience storming out halfway through, bellowing: “What’s wrong with you people, just sitting here?” Early in our Saturday lunch I wanted to do the same thing at Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Chinatown, where the food was so soul-sapping I’m not going to give the place cover in Trails. By the second greasy dish I was mentally composing my Tweet: “This is why I always hated Chinese until we went to eat in Hong Kong.” The fried noodles not only tasted greasy but smelled burned-greasy, and not just from the charred scallions. The fried pork dumplings were doughy grease balls, and if there was even a hint of green in the filling you’d need an electron microscope to spot it. The turnip cakes were three oil sponges also seemingly absent of shrimp and Chinese sausage (by then I’d given up on flavor). The “scallion” pancake was like a disposable slipper soaked in oil and fried to a very brown crisp. Even the wasted greens were awash in nasty oil, and the hot sauce we had to request was, yes, oily — the table needed a BP cleanup crew by the time we’d been fully disappointed by a few tastes of each dish we’d over-ordered. And can someone please explain why a place with tea in its name would have the gall to serve bitter brown water and charge for it? (Also, too, I would say I hate to wonder why there were kitchen tongs in the wet-floor ladies’ room, but I already got some obvious answers over to the Twitter.) I’ll admit I was a sucker for old Chinatown/new generation in wanting to try the place, and I’ll acknowledge that the boss men were friendly and efficient (although the servers seemed to be the sort who believe “minimum” should only be modified by “bare”). But you can’t eat nostalgia. What’s most depressing is that the place was consistently packed, mostly with youngsters, way too many of them Asian enough to know better. This was the kind of slopped-out stuff you’d expect from a $25 & Under. Did none of those kool kids realize how close NY Noodletown is? I thought this was Generation Food. The only thing that would have made the whole experience more dispiriting would have been seeing “Kinfolk” for sale . . .
Archive for the ‘eating new york’ Category
Given that it’s been July in October here, my consort insisted we break away from our computers on Columbus Day for a long walk in the sunshine through the turning leaves. And it was long, maybe five miles up through the park and Harlem and back down through Harlem and the park. My fantasy was that we would stop for a drink at the Greatest Attraction, but we were still stuffed from our after-dinner-party-lunch when we got there. Now we’re determined to go back to eat, but in the meantime I have to note that the decor is so kitschy you expect the waiters to be bedecked with flair. (You have to see it to believe it, especially if you’ve walked from CPN up Lenox Ave/Malcolm X Bvld.) The staff could not have been more beautifully professional and welcoming, though, which made the reaction from the patrons in the front so unnerving. Maybe it’s because we only walked through without staying, but the vibe was as condescending as it was 30 years ago when we first ventured north of 125th Street in our neighborhood. Which is why I don’t think we’ll be going back at timid lunchtime but only for normal dinner, even if we do (allegedly) have to reserve 30 days ahead. The white balance has shifted.
I’m also so ancient I remember when the first thing you did on entering the kitchen (at least in restaurant school) was slap on a cap. Hair in the food is a preventable sickness. So every time I see a cooking video with un-netted facial hair, I have to click away. Especially now that someone on Twitter has started a debate on how cheek-and-chin fur is cleansed. Attention, Brooklyn cooks: After a certain length, maybe it should be shampooed. If for no other reason than to work out the loose hairs. The ones that wind up in the tilefish. Which reminds me: I once knew a guy, who actually dated a restaurant critic, who had one of those wild thatches off his chin and found a spider in it. Here it would be a roach.
The fiscal loons hellbent on starving the government/killing the people also want to cut money for food inspection just as Europe is literally shitting itself over tainted produce. (Cucumbers? Bean sprouts? What else could be infected with cow crap?) I’m not good with math, but I do know a restaurant could not survive just by reducing what it spends on ingredients and staff. It has to charge more. So tax the $135 Milos soup. Or at least those fools so easily parted from their money by the “free market.”
I’m sure I’ve recited one of my mantras many times: You can refuse to grow up, but you still grow old. And the downside to that is that your cranial sieve collects all the wrong bits. In the case of the JGold Wannabe’s review this week, that would be the fact that the shift-shaping restaurant of the week has had many game-changers over the decades. Who needs to reach into the way-back machine for Stieglitz and O’Keeffe when the JBeard Wannabe is so recent? Face it: If a name chef and a reinvention could lure New Yorkers into that desolate canyon, Mr. Artisanal might (might, I say) still be there.
I am, however, worried about street fairs, the scourge of Manhattan in summertime. I had the surreal experience the other day of fleeing overly perfumed Bloomingdale’s and walking right into a particularly smelly one, the first I’ve encountered this year, so I walked the length of it just to see how disgusting the food was and wonder, yet again, who might possibly be eating it. And it was dominated by the usual vendors from an alternate universe, hawking their scary charred starch on the cob and “mozzarepas” and Italian sausages reeking weirdly of urine. But I also passed a stand hyping Korean barbecue. And another serving up made-to-order lobster rolls and banh mi. What next? Falafel supplanted by schnitzel? And where are the fucking cupcakes?
Woke up yesterday morning and something gruesome unfolded in my hometown paper. Something that almost took me back to a certain younger inconvenience. Clots is clots, is all I’ll say. That was it for me with that section, especially given how I did ribs-in-the-oven spin four years ago (parboil/sauce/bake/no beer can required). But then a Twitter nudge made me check out the alleged Brie Syndrome just to the left of it, and I suddenly found myself shoveling Barbero droppings out of my cranial sieve. Having actually lived through the “cold wheel of Brie” era, I wondered where the editors were. Certainly not reading the business press, which has been industriously pointing out that other people’s money is the same as it ever was — selling off assets and digging in deep with debt until the golden goose is damn near hollow. What killed the biggest scam in underripe fruit was not changing tastes, or even a world of Fast Company-anointed chocolatiers. Assholes bought a solid company and bled it dry. Just consider that Pat LaFrieda and a million “Farmer Clarks” have stepped right up to the FedEx scale lately, but it’s a rare week when I walk into the elevator in my building and don’t encounter an Omaha Steaks delivery. Maybe those organ-transplant boxes, though, contain the fixings for another food cliché — as I have written many times, fondue is the Scandinavian furniture of food: always on the verge of a comeback but never really out of style. The real news was in the third paragraph from the bottom.
I was so excited about spring garlic at our neighborhood Greenmarket on Friday that I jumped on the 6 train to Union Square on Saturday, after many weeks, only to find the usual March Brownmarket. So I was up for distraction when I passed a woman strutting down Fifth with a stack of Eataly pizzas and headed straight there, and straight in. Where I spotted fresh morels for $75 a pound, easily the most I have ever seen them in 20-plus years of tracking them, and also asparagus that was described as “US” on the chalkboard but tagged with “produce of Mexico” on each bunch. I Tweeted about both, which clearly struck an “emperor’s new food” chord, which made me go back and Tweet that any asparagus this time of year should be labeled NA — not for “not applicable” but for North American. I personally don’t want imported asparagus, but it’s an artificial border in springtime for those with no patience for Jersey green. Still, this validates country-of-origin labeling. I doubt 99 percent of Americans give a flying spear where their food comes from. But what’s the harm in telling them?
Sometimes you just need to pull back the curtain and dispense with colorful obfuscation for everyone’s sake, and this is a case in point: I got invited to both a showing of the Danny Meyer documentary at MOMA and the reception beforehand. And I can happily report the latter was exceptional, with a well-edited guest list and demanding host and plenty of good food and drink (both sparkling and the Morgroni, a Meyer dad twist on the Negroni that, his son admitted, should have been served colder). But the film. Oy. Footage from 1998 supplemented with a few contemporary interviews does not an Errol Morris make. No wonder it went straight to DVD. But I was really glad I saw it because it took me back to those glory days of 1998, which was the year I went back to the NYTimes and the future looked so bright we had to take 401Ks. Danny says he was chagrined to be shot in an Armani overcoat with shoulders stretching from the East River to the Hudson, but it’s the right plumage for the time, an era when he complains onscreen about not being able to hire enough competent waiters or keep enough skilled craftsmen on the job to get both Eleven Madison and Tabla up and running within a month of each other. Watching those scenes in a roomful of old and rich people just brought home the answer to a question I constantly offer my enlightened friends: Are we doomed? Or are we fucked? No restaurateur today could even envision opening what Danny did in 1998 — what bank/investor would commit to a project that insanely ambitious? But what resonated most with me is how he saw the future and beat it. Only after a seriously good chef was kicked to the curb and a star magnet was installed did Eleven Madison finally take off, with food to match its glorious setting. Now it’s a restaurant reflecting its time, in a country where 400 people control most of the wealth. I ate there under Heffernan more times than I can count but suspect I will go to the crematorium without ever experiencing even its bar again. The literal bar is set too high. But he deserves the honorific of Saint when you consider his genius in starting the Shake Shacks. No one can be too annoyed at him for getting shut out of his temple of cuisine if there’s a “let ’em eat burgers” option so close by. . .
I killed the lunchtime mood on Saturday by mentioning the death of the 575-pound spokesmodel for the Heart Attack Grill just after a heap of French toast, barbecued short ribs, bacon, poached egg, Cheddar and onion rings arrived on one plate, with a huge side of fries. Which was dumb, because the friend who ordered that irresistibly bizarre combination is such a careful eater he can indulge in overkill on any occasion. But you do have to wonder about a country so confused that a restaurant could make international news by proudly promoting killer food while Mrs. O continues to be attacked for suggesting maybe we could all eat better and move around more. As I noted over on the Epi Log, though, lard is the last four-letter villain in the piece. The offending restaurant may have boasted that its fries were cooked in the white stuff, but that’s the least of the problems. Consumption has dropped as asses have ballooned over the decades. Which is just one more reason I wish the Egopedist had been required to do a little more reading before being allowed to step onto the soapbox. A lot happened between the Depression and the Great Backside Inflation. Just Wiki Earl Butz, and not for loose shoes and warm places.
And my cynical side always goes into overdrive when staff meal comes up. I know I did a piece on Mexican cooks feeding the “family,” but even that was fraught with deception. I remember what my classmates ate in restaurant school, and it was nothing you’d write a book about — whenever a reporter comes close, the food always improves. Staff/family meal is the “celebrity chef upgrades airline food” BS all media outlets swallow. So I was happy to have a server of a sort validate my negativity. He split for a bit to eat and hear about the night’s specials and returned to say, when we asked: “Family meal is the most horrific part of working in a restaurant.” The best you can hope for is “protein, starch, salad.” The worst you can fear is food poisoning. Especially in this economy, it’s hard to feed staff (or family) for free. But it was pretty funny to ask: “Have you ever had Mexican for staff meal?” and hear: “No. But that would be the best.” Tell it to the Homme.
Judging by Twitter reaction, this is not for the squeamish: The dirty little secret of wannabe Sex&City types was on unnerving display at FishTag the other night. Our table was squished between two crammed with big bottoms who kept squeezing in and out between courses, of which there were way too many. After about the sixth go-round, I told my consort this reeked of scarf-and-barf. He looked at me as if I was nuts. Then he exited the unisex bathroom on our way out and reported: “Greens were floating in the toilet.”
Apparently hospitals are the latest to follow the airline model of chefly promotion. I read the NYTimes feature on Sloan Kettering’s tailored food for pediatric patients and was very glad for any extra effort for kids going through hell. But it still seemed a little off. This is a hospital, after all, that has probably the worst cafeteria offerings I’ve ever encountered, and I have eaten Buffalo General’s. There’s a reason McDonald’s and other unhealthy chains have made inroads in what should be bastions of nutritional sanity. Who wouldn’t prefer a heart attack on a tray over steam table crap and overpriced salads on their last leaves? But I should have known this was a planted puff piece, and sure enough, here comes an e-release touting the CIA’s new course on hospital “cuisine.” Why don’t they just hire a few celebrity chefs’ names and call a press conference? Maybe at a Duane Reade with growlers. And, imagine this: sushi.
Over on Trails I give deets on the eating, but right upfront I have to say the Seconda Tenuta was more what I expected on my third encounter. The theme park feel only got more pronounced as my friend and I walked from cheese counter to meat case to seafood counter to bread bar. By the time we settled at the bar of the seafood ride I had had about enough jangle. And I was furious at myself for getting suckered into waiting for a table/seats/anything on the pizza/pasta ride. On the plus side, the longer we spent, the more I flashed on DDL Foodshow. This, too, will undoubtedly pass. Maybe one day we’ll be flocking to the Chinese, or Indian, upgrade. Meantime, I have to note that I was very happy to find an Arneis for $28 on the wine list. And I was even happier when my consort came home from the heartland with the menu from his dinner at Lidia’s offering the same bottle for $36. Next stop for Disney Italia: KCMO. Real Americans are easily snookered.
Of course, that’s the old food world. By chance I finally caught up with the desperately unamusing Xmas windows at Barneys and realized they might count among the last gasps of Tin Chef mania. Teevee is fading. The new superstars of food will be those who pushed hard to get the child nutrition law passed, those who are fighting for food safety, those who make it possible for small farmers to at least dream of competing with taxpayer-subsidized corn/soy conglomerates. Etc. Our next-door neighbors’ daughter has switched her major to food policy, which to me represents a huge leap forward from the possibilities open to me when I decided to leave journalism to go into food in 1983. Once upon a time we only had to lead Americans to food. Now maybe you can teach them how to think.