Slither and yon

And I’ve had more than a few regrets, but not eating at elBulli is definitely not among them. I’ve written about this before, but the hostage situation my consort and I endured at Tetsuya in Oz was the tipping point for that sort of experience — we were begging the waiters to let us skip courses, and not because the food was underwhelming. Even with the most dazzling creations, even a trained palate has limits. There’s titillation. And then there’s Spanish fly.

Sue Taco Bell, push up ad sales

The kerfuffle over the bogus cups of tea has been revealing, mostly for the ugly acknowledgment that whoring publishers don’t want fiction labeled fiction because it’s not lucrative enough. No wonder the world winds up with reality books. I’m waiting for someone to bring up how much truth gets stretched in food memoirs. So far, crickets. But maybe that’s because savvy readers know what happens all too often when recipe writers try their hands at novels. Tums could do tie-ins.

“With ice, size matters”

I’m very glad the FCC is making sure bloggers disclose all freebies they take. Keeps the agency distracted from wine writers who persuade restaurants in the top 1 percent of prix fixes to cook eight-course dinners for their wives who drink only the finest. Even if the antichrist employer picked up the tab, you still wanted to pick up a pitchfork. Not least because the chosen wines ran with no prices given. Message: Let ’em drink “Yquem.”

Here is New York, in spring 2011

On my way back from the artificial hip-healthy gym, with the sun barely up, the AA cashier at the drugstore wished me Happy Easter and I wondered what made her think it was safe to say with Passover so close behind us. “Same to you,” I reflexively responded anyway. On my second outing of the day, clouds moving in, I went to the Greenmarket on 97th Street not because I needed any food while home alone but just to say hi to Ray Bradley and his sidekick Hardeep, back for the new season and selling first-I’ve-ever-seen cabbage greens, just picked from the warmed-up fields. I surrendered a hug to Hardeep but left with regret: I forgot to tell Ray that Dirt Farmer Larry in Iowa had Tweeted me to say hello to him (“he’ll know who you mean”). And on my third venture out into the chill light and rampant blossoms I passed a long Good Friday procession of Mexicans very far from Calvary — some on their mobiles, all accompanied by a creeping squad car. Down the block from our place I stopped to buy four bananas for a dollar from the South Asian couple whose fruit cart also returned this week after the wild winter. “I don’t need a bag,” I said (as always). But (for the first time): “Welcome back.” And the wife actually half-smiled.

Escort to the bathroom

What took us back to the consort’s boyhood home was a supposedly fun thing I’m not entirely sure I’d do again. I was lured up to be a judge for the local variation on Tin Chefs, and it was far more stressful than I’d anticipated. It’s one thing to sit in my little office and fire off digital darts. It’s quite another to have to contemplate shooting a dog in the head in front of a crowd. Luckily, the food was, overall, so impressive I didn’t have to either lie or be a total bitch. The closest I came was in saying Mae West might have been wrong in thinking too much of a good thing is never enough. And of course I only made it worse by saying one Course II would sell very well in Buffalo, where there seems to be a rule no diner is ever allowed to leave less than stuffed. As the chef who won pointed out, there’s no way he could produce a dish like that and make money (duck egg raviolo with sauce Choron and, and, and, and etc.)

Afterward I also pissed off the chef who didn’t win by saying he could open a restaurant serving what he had just cooked up for us judges. He contended he already does, but I strongly suspect his very good gastropub would have a tough time selling a savvy reinvention of floating islands, while a fresh start in the Wright/museum location would find huge demand for that retro dessert tweaked. His other dishes were also exceptional in showcasing the “secret ingredient,” which was duck eggs from Painted Meadow Farms: Course I featured a perfect deviled egg, a Scotch egg and a pickled egg paired with a little Bloody Mary. His II delivered the eggs baked over duck confit and shiitake mushrooms, teamed with toasts spread with chicken liver paté. (Try dunking those on camera, let alone slipping a bite to your consort in the audience.) Overall, Escoffier would have been proud.

But the chef who won seemed hellbent on dazzling, and he did, at least first and last. He, too, served up three twists to start: the yolk breaded and fried and laid over asparagus tips with tarragon vinaigrette to evoke sauce bearnaise when the fork broke the yolk and it spilled out, plus a little pig’s trotter brodo served in an eggshell to pour over the yolks to make a sort of egg-drop soup, and a Ramos gin fizz using the white. (These are, of course, Cliffsnotes — many adjectives and nouns have been omitted because flavors/details flew by in a blur.) His main may have been a letdown, but he came out swinging with his dessert: What arrived looking like a fried egg alongside a strip of bacon turned out to be a nice schmear of coconut meringue topped with a “yolk” of pineapple curd and accompanied by a chocolate biscotto. It really seemed and tasted like something you’d experience in France or London or, with luck, NYC. A near-skirmish broke out when I passed a taste over to Bob; some guy in the audience actually grabbed it to share.

But at least that was not as uncivil, apparently, as a previous competition at which one attendee reportedly got so hammered he staggered downstairs and puked in an office. And that made me wonder something the next night, when we were in Toronto watching the premiere of “Top Chef Canada” and amazed at how many repeated takes of the food were repeatedly shown. Come on, fools — shoot the audience.

Limoncello shower

Name and identifying details are omitted to protect the guilty, but someone at the contest/show actually posited that chef challenges and/or upscale cooking are boojwah. And if I hadn’t passed out flyers with a union boss for my next-door neighbor last October when he was running for Manhattan DA I might not have objected — that organized father of boys said his kids were cooking thanks to the seduction of all the food on the teevee. But I contend that food is the only area of American life in which trickle-down actually applies. I’ve been eating for a living for a very long time, and I’ve seen how the tastes and indulgences at the top work their way to the masses. If you had told me back when most fish was frozen that sushi would one day be sold in every supermarket, I would have wondered what truffle oil you were huffing.

Astral Plane

And if you want to stay young forever, move to the state of denial. While shooting the breeze before the dazzle-off, I mentioned to one of the other judges that his restaurant (where Bob and I had surreptitiously eaten the night before) reminded me of Philadelphia back in its restaurant renaissance. I remember idiosyncratic spaces with mismatched tableware and quirky ambiance and really adventurous cooking. He looked at me blankly until I explained that I was referring to the age of wonder around 1978. To which he said, startled: “I was 1.” At least we’ll one day share the bond of no Medicare.

Altar bearnaise

Among the many reasons why I never (or rarely) bitch about going back to see the in-law equivalent is that the consort’s hometown has so many Olmsted-boulevard-side attractions. Like the Albright-Knox Gallery, home to one of my favorite paintings, one particularly apropos for this trip. We went to visit it, and to buy cards reproduced from it, and happened upon something even more stunning: a Chinese artist’s installation of an urban landscape constructed entirely of cookware, complete with waterways and skyscrapers. I was too shy to ask if I could take a photo, but I now see it really doesn’t communicate anyway. Only while walking around it does the message come clear: You can take the people out of the countryside, but you still need to feed ’em.

Dust in the chrusciki

I also insisted we spin by the Broadway Market immediately after detraining in Buffalo, thinking it would be fairly lively, what with Easter coming and the butter lambs getting fat. But jeebus, it was sad. Usually around food holidays this last vestige of Polish dominance downtown is a bustling center of Old World exuberance and edibles. Apparently we were a couple of weeks early, though, because we couldn’t even find a chocolate Jesus (only a $2 Last Supper, sold by earnest men from one of the dying cathedrals nearby). Otherwise, it was gimmicks and grimness. Except, surprisingly, for the butcher counters on the back side, two of which were two and three deep with customers packed in to load up on smoked turkey and pork parts and a cornucopia of sausages and honking huge slabs of beef. The third counter, the one with lots o’ little-and-big butter lambs, was deserted, with two young countermen basically twiddling their unbloody thumbs. And Bob put his finger on why: Their half-empty case was stocked with what the long-gone would buy — the ovine butter, un-housemade sausages, pork, chicken etc. — while the competition was stocked not just for Poles coming in for old time’s sake but for the people who actually live around there. On the way back to the car in the free garage, we looked out from on high to try to figure out where the Polish restaurant we once ate in might have been, 20-some years ago. And we talked about how downtown is increasingly becoming urban farms rather than inner-city blight. If ever a covered market was in the right place at the right time. . .

Open a drawer, pull out a buffalo pie

Partly because we took the manager’s advice at the Drake Hotel in Toronto and trekked to the Bata Shoe Museum (do not miss the fish-shaped toe ring), news that two tribes in South Dakota are getting federal aid for nutrition education struck me as both good and sad. Of all people who should understand how to eat well, the stewards of the land for tens of thousands (thousands of thousands?) of years should be at the top of the list. Once upon a time they knew how to extract both flavor and color from plants, the latter to dye leathers for amazingly artistic footwear. Now Big Food has done a number on them, too. As I keep thinking, the Mayans must not have taken Daylight Saving Time into account. We could be at 2012 already. . . .