One of the founders and I go so far back I can remember when Dover sole first came flying into New York thanks to him, but I still have to say I was not surprised to see the oddest upscale food emporium in my neighborhood go belly-up suddenly. All of us who hate Barzini had high hopes for it, and I will never forget spotting the nervous owner of our neighborhood downscale market cruising through on reconnaissance on opening day. But the reality was that the prices and the mustard-museum esthetic kept it from becoming a destination, which is ironic if you go back far enough to the coinage of “mustard museum.” I admire OotF for not whining about the rent going up or blaming brutal competition from either Holy Foods or the coming Westside Market. The place took its lumps of coal and shut down. And jeebus, did it shut down fast. I stopped in on Tuesday for a croissant on my way to the hip gym (and I mean that adjective sardonically) and the shelves looked tidier but by no means under siege. On Friday a hyper-local blog announced everything was 50 percent off, and by the time we walked over around 5 the whole cavernous space looked as if locusts had been through. As my consort said, it was most fascinating to see the left-behinds: Not just obvious Karo and Crisco and Cajun roux in a jar but a huge chunk of the fresh Mexican deli shelf (corn and flour tortillas, Wholly Queso etc. [Can you say Las Palomas?]) The last cheese sitting was halloumi, in a processed form. I was happy to grab Liquid Smoke — what fools West Side mortals be in not realizing what a great, useful, natural ingredient it is. The fish counter had a big sign reading something like “thanks for all the fishes” while a couple of slabs of shrink-wrapped something once-finned were tucked into the case with the unsold broccoli rabe and cucumbers. And that was what was most unsettling. In a big store stripped nearly bare, the fresh food was still languishing . . .
We get the actual “hometown paper” only on Sundays, so just before heading out to the 7 Train Across the Universe I happened upon one of those bizarre obits it has taken to running for dead people who achieved nothing in life beyond breeding (and not of accomplished spawn). I always read them looking for clues as to what in the name of Zelig merits inclusion alongside the likes of Lennon but always wind up recycling the paper in frustration. On this particular Sunday, though, I was glad I had wasted the time. The DPWAN of the morning was a “proud Irishwoman.” Who, it turns out, was born in Queens. Come on. This is America. You’re American if you popped out of Mom here. (And I say that as the daughter of a Belfast-born Marine.) After reveling in the Louis Armstrong House/Museum in Corona, the disconnect seemed even more obvious. As the exhibits showed, Satchmo moved into a white neighborhood that became black and is now Latino. Four of us walked to lunch on sidewalks where we were the minority. After a great Mexican lunch, we spent a long time in a supermarket gawking at shelves stocked with at least two dozen types of chorizo and a dozen types of bacalao plus endless aisles labeled not by food but by country. As one of our friends who was just back from Mexico noted, what unites us all is consumerism. No store he saw south of the border was that overstocked (or even half-stocked). Assimilation begins when you come for the tomatillos but walk out with the ketchup. I’m sure even Mrs. O’Leary-Byrne-Collins learned to love Tater Tots. And maybe even to douse them with sriracha.
One of the many reasons I’m glad I chose the affordable Evelyn Wood School of Cooking over the mega-debt institute on the Hudson is that I learned as much about business as about where bechamel ranked among the mother sauces. Pricing out recipes to guarantee a profit was an invaluable education, especially when I was floundering around catering after leaving school. (Wanna end bridal ambitions fast? Inform them what dreams sell for.) Unfortunately, the older I get the more I feel conned. Latest case in point: I finally tried a Kati Roll, something I never experienced in Kolkata, and it was quite good. But it was five fucking dollars. Which might sound cheap until you do the food-cost math on a few chickpeas, a little onion and some spices. And notice experienced eaters have all ordered two. Talk about rolling in dough . . .
Until Mayor Billionsberg showed his true-green(back) colors with Occupy Wall Street, I pretty much tuned out all the complaints that he had become the city’s nanny. But the other day we were in a crap-ass cafe for a quick lunch that was arriving slowly when I noticed how many signs are now required on the wall. Of course there is the once-brilliant, now-muddled choking poster. And the No Smoking warning. And the “pregnant women who drink ate so stupid they must be shamed.” But there was also a big scary poster on the risks of food allergies. A notice on the location of the CPR kit. Etc. By the time our dispiriting food arrived, I actually started to worry when a couple came in with two little kids, one of whom they strapped into the grimy communal highchair. Had no one warned them what might happen if the chair tipped over or the strap was too tight or the tray table had peanuts on it? It all reminds me of that old Joe Jackson song about how “everything gives you cancer” — fear is immobilizing. How did we ever eat out before we were warned? On the plus side, though: If a pregnant woman had too many margaritas and her companion started choking her, everyone would know just what to do. Start smoking.
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 . . .
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.