Set to uke

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.

No gloves were harmed, though

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.”

Or, breakfast bars in closets

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.

Three for the price of two

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.

Artisanal stake through the heart of the sausage cliché

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.

No WiFi, no cry

The digital ink was not even fading on the Elaine’s death notice when the snideness started. And somehow I suspect more bile will ooze out, not just about the notoriously lame food but also about how the legend treated “host” as shorthand for “hostility” for anyone not in the club. I still laugh thinking of the inimitable Seymour Britchky’s description of her waddling through the restaurant hoisting up her underpants — it always made me realize her devotees perceived her more as the help they had to tolerate than as one of them. But of course those devotees, and their children, are perpetuating the myth. No wonder the employees took out a big homage. The ding-dong doesn’t sound quite so celebratory when it was the witch who signed all the checks.

No fake Playbill restaurant reviews, either

Obviously, I don’t get out enough. My consort treated me to “Long Story Short” on Broadway, and I was first stunned to see not just a whole new hotel at the top of the subway stairs at 44th Street but a whole new, and huge, Shake Shack. And then, as we rushed to our seats, bypassing the bar, we were both amazed to see a woman working the aisles, as if we were in a baseball stadium, hawking wine and candy and Jell-O shots. This is what the theater is like these days?

As for the performance, it was well worth seeing, a smart connect-the-dots on empires and hubris through history, but I wish I had not read Monsieur Ami’s stilettoesque take on the director in the New Yorker on the C train to Midtown. I liked one line in the monologue about America being “a bouillabaisse of failed states” until I learned the annoying comedian was responsible for it, and of course I then started thinking what a dumb metaphor that is. Bouillabaisse is not a melting-pot concept; what goes into it is pretty rigidly codified. Figures Mr. Jessica would slip something deceptive into a real thought piece. Eat your spinach. It’s someone else’s brownie.

Born in 2007

I Tweeted a version of this but still think it’s worth repeating: A new cookbook from an old Appalachian restaurant includes a top 10 set of business rules, and one is one I hope the Seconda Tenuta guys do not read: “If you consistently have lines of people waiting to get in, your prices are too low.” Scammin’. You’re doing it wrong.

Locking in juices with a ranch-style sauce

How bad are things at the Four Seasons? Giving-away-wine bad. How clear was it that Bon App needed a shake-up? A 10-pound cookbook in the age of Epicurious just arrived on my doormat. How embarrassing is it that Seconda Tenuta’s birth was off in print by half a decade? Enough that I want to send a sympathy card to a critic clearly eating so hard his sidebar echoes his mainbar and his workload makes Sisyphus look like a slacker.

Double your duck rillettes

My consort was bitching that I spend too much time housebound (maybe soon I can reinvent myself as a Paula Deen recovering from “agoraphobia”?), so I picked myself up, dusted off my Metrocard and headed for the Essex Market, with Chinatown or maybe Curry Hill as my final destination, as they say at 30,000 feet when you really don’t want to contemplate what that really means. And what do I wander into but the Grub Street food festival, where the lines for anything interesting were absurd. So I was happy the next day to find everything at the New Amsterdam Market instantly accessible, whether Porchetta’s daintily stuffed panino or Luke’s excellent lobster roll. But what was good for us is bad for those superb vendors. They — and the city — need a covered market that runs 362, like the Ferry Plaza in San Francisco. Bloomberg claims to care so much, so why can’t he water one of the worst food deserts, the South Street Seaport? Walking back to the subway, passing all those sidewalk cafes dishing up tourist fodder, we just wondered why bigger signs weren’t posted to steer the lost souls to the great regional stuff. And then we realized we’d answered our own question. That crap is what makes New York run.

“A tube of bologna wrapped around a breadstick”

This is, as our friend Leslie Wong always said, a city where “the more people get fucked the more they like it” — the longest lines are always at the pizza shop with the crappiest slices. So when sensible friends reported they tried to go to the Seconda Venuta and were dissuaded by the queue halfway down the block, this old cynic only wondered if the “crowd control” might not really be a scam to pump up demand. People, after all, once swarmed to Mamma Leone’s.

“I believe it’s weal”

And this is just hearsay, and clearly she had an ax to hone, but a farmer at one of the Greenmarkets this week overheard me talking to a chef about the Seconda Venuta and snapped: “It’s a hoax!” Apparently they promised to buy a cornucopia. Maybe local grows on espresso beanstalks?

Dinner party Q: What’s up with fruit carts?

Speaking of which: Years and years ago we met a filmmaker couple at a dinner party who said they hated Sunday Arts & Leisure because it was nothing but promo pages for whatever movies/plays/concerts were opening that week. But at least it made sense for that section to do a huge fall-season blowout every year — Broadway gears up after touristy summer, and the Film Festival kicks into gear, and music venues have their schedules set for cold nights. But restaurants, let’s be serious, are a different sort of animal, not least because people gotta eat no matter what month it is. So it’s always sad to see Dining reduced to whipping up excitement for a bogus phenomenon as if it were just another weekly magazine (before the internets, I used to keep copies of fall preview issues just to see how many restaurants opened way past schedule or, too often, not at all). I guess you can fool some of the readers some of the time. And it did manage to sell four times as many ads as usual. As in exactly four.


Speaking of unnerving sourcing, one of my favorite restaurants is looking far less alluring since a friend emailed to say she had spotted a Perdue delivery there. I don’t know if it’s true, but it does make me wonder how I could be so dumb as to think you can eat so well for so very little in a sit-down joint, even one that does not allow asses to linger in seats.