Let there be blights

And reports that Tavern on the Green reneged on its cookbook deal are not exactly shocking. The only surprising aspect is that anyone really thought a catering hall never known for its food would have recipes worth the sacrifice of trees. I still remember the poor young Swiss chef who was canned back in the last century after the NYT, when it still mattered, awarded only a “fair” for his ambitious cooking. His wife, a then-friend of mine, had given me a tour of the kitchens and the watchword was obviously not quality, only quantity (the only place I think I’ve seen bigger vats was a pumpkin factory in Illinois where tons were reduced for canning). But it’s still a little unsettling to read reports implying potential concessionaires are pulling out because the staff is unionized (read: deal-breakingly expensive). If your plane is going down, would you prefer the pilot with training and benefits or the co-pilot who doesn’t know nothin’ ’bout no de-icing and had to come to work with a cold? Swine flu hysteria made no sense not least because no one wanted to consider how many food handlers can’t afford either a sick day or a doctor. And with sneezing and wheezing, those ridiculous latex gloves are not protection but kabuki. Especially considering the waiters long ago got kinder reviews than the food.

Soup is not food

Also, file this under WTF did I expect?: I wound up starving in the Chelsea Market the other lunchtime and stupidly decided a small square of Amy’s amazing pizza would leave me just unsatisfied enough to succumb to something else within an hour, so I stupidly decided on a cup of what the reeking seafood place sells as lobster bisque, for $3.50 plus tax. The first spoonful was confirmation of what I suspected: Neither word belonged in the description. I spooned up enough to realize I was just hoping for satisfaction where none would ever materialize and threw the rest into the trash can just being emptied. And went off to get that amazing pizza. Within 10 minutes my upper lip was puffed and throbbing. As scornful as I am of food allergies, it is funny that I have that reaction whenever I eat “lobster” or “crab.” But never when I eat lobster or crab.

Didn’t we just vanquish the water gouge?

Glad to see Panchito is finally exerting some investigative muscle, now that the evil dunce who gave him his nickname has been such a global wrecking ball. Now he wonders if charging for bread might be the Weapon of Mass Profit restaurants need. Leave aside the idiocy of commenters saying Mexican joints give you free chips and salsa (the surest sign of an ambitious kitchen is a charge for cheap fill-ups). I would settle for maybe half of all restaurants actually delivering on the promise of bread plate and butter. I can’t count the number of times our table has been cleared of dirty dishes and silverware along with those untouched accouterments [look it up]. Then again, training staff is probably much more expensive than wasting unserved bread and butter. And a guy who is paid so well a 5 percent salary cut will probably amount to far more than a busboy’s annual wages might not be the best advocate for adding extra charges in a time of belt-tightening. Or as his “The Malls Are Flatlined” compatriot would put it: Chew. On. This.

Head to tail, not eating but chasing

Of all my many mottos, maybe my most used is: Expect the worst — you’ll never be  disappointed. And never was that more applicable than when I got called for jury duty. I went kicking and bitching, feeling only slightly better when my consort pointed out that someone so obsessed with pol porn should give a fuck about how the system works. So I bought a weekly Metrocard rather than my usual $20 one, I brought 16 books to read and I was determined to stay mellow for the minimum-required two days and more-likely 10 days expected for service. Which of course meant I was liberated in midafternoon on my first day. I had plenty of time at lunch and afterward to wander around the neighborhood I still know best from the weeks after 9/11, when most of it had no electricity, let alone phone service. I was struck by how many restaurants are now Vietnamese, Thai and Malaysian, but after my Great Disappointment at Nha Trang, I suspect it remains a destination primarily for one cuisine. You can get better Asian all over town now. But Chinese might still be best there, at least in Manhattan. Unfortunately, Cambodian didn’t get much of a chance uptown. The little place I kept passing on Third in the Nineties but never crossing the avenue to try is gone. I used to think flacks would be the new dinosaurs, in this wonderful age of all-knowing blogs with their shoe leather-meets-cellphone street “reporters.” But obviously, without professional help in catapulting the propaganda, you’re doomed. Especially in a neighborhood where  the kool kidz don’t congregate.

A slice today

The best part of this silliness is that all the food bloviators bowing toward Bianco seemed unaware of St. Louis slices senza Provel. It’s a leading digital indicator that e-rule by the masses may not be sustainable. Don’t believe what you read in the comments. Or in your slick magazines, for that matter. “Hot food zone” within walking distance? Uh. Huh. If tuna burgers were on the menu at Shake Shack, maybe. 

Four-star debt

Don’t ask who smuggled me in, but I finally got to eat as the DI/DOers do in the towering monument to a depleted gene pool. Of course I walked in predisposed to bitch, especially after seeing everything was upgraded but the phat phucks at the security desk — no wonder the stock I bought in the high $30s is worth about what a Papaya King feast is these days. But it was all rather excessive, very “Brazil,” as the home for a business that once was scrappy and anti-establishment and gray-collar (between blue and white). The first two big-city newspapers I worked at were lucky to have vending machines, not in-house dining. The third had a pretty basic buffet line, even in a city undergoing a restaurant renaissance. By the time I wound up on 43d Street the first time, I knew enough to corral the other young copy editors on the national desk to go out and drink our dinners. When I came back, from 1998 to 2002, I dubbed the joint the Cafe Regret. No matter what I ordered, it expanded in my stomach, making me think how much processed crap I had ingested even while ordering carefully and avoiding the bacteria bar frequented by the healthful eating expert. 

So I was equal parts dazzled and dismayed on entering the new incarnation of CR. It had everything in a light and airy environment: a “carvery,” a hot food table (none dare call it steam), two salad bars, a sandwich station, a sushi station, desserts, a wall of waters and other pricey drinks. I have no idea what came over me, but I succumbed to the special pastrami sandwich with fries at the carvery, a choice that would never have been possible back in the day of the passive-aggressive grill jockey who took his sour time with anything cooked to order, knowing it would dissuade the hungry from ordering and making him actually work. My consort, astonishingly, braved sushi, which everyone at our table insisted was the best bet, and he finished it all. While I slowly gnawed away at my sad sandwich and grease sticks, hoping for a hint of satisfaction, only to have it all balloon internally in all-too-familiar fashion. 

The whole experience would have been less absurd if the cafeteria had been miles from nowhere, but there are a Dean & Deluca and two restaurants (so far) on the ground floor and untold cafes and delis within minutes’ walking distance. Captive audiences do not make enterprising journalists, I would say. No wonder $50 dinner parties don’t include wine, only industrial pork. 

Go ask Britchky; I think he’ll know

I’m wondering about this depression we’re in since I was out again two days later for a 25th-anniversary soiree that I assumed was just your average gangbang. I didn’t even check my coat, just ducked in for a glass of whatever and a taste of whatever else and a little chefspotting, only to be informed that it was a relatively small sit-down dinner. Five courses, in fact. (Seven, actually.) It suddenly seemed like a hostage situation, and I said so, but I felt better when other people agreed: We’d had no idea we were RSVPing for a feast. And it was quite a feast, apparently inspired by Mae West with her “too much of a good thing is wonderful.” Memory Lane was paved with tuna tartare, lobster pasta, steak, and chocolate cake, while the Future Freeway was represented by sea urchin ice cream, fennel soup topped with an Adria-esque beet emulsion and “peas and carrots” consisting of the former in a mold and the latter as an oozing puree. (You had to be there.) All around our three freeloading tables, the place was packed. Only a cynic would wonder if that was a reassuring set-up in the realm of $25 apps, $44 entrees.

I’ll take the olive fork in silver

Also to be filed under “WTF were they thinking?” was the City piece about the good times rolling on at brunch at a couple of Euro trash heaps. I confess I couldn’t slog through the whole reeking morass, but I see some smart bloggers are extracting the damning quotes by the new welfare princes, Wall Street guys whose bankster employers now have taxpayer money to burn. I walk around this city every day and see more for-rent signs in every block, more blocks torn apart for construction that cannot possibly be completed, more bums, more poop unscooped. And the biggest story in all boroughs was let ’em swill Champagne? Heckuva job, KB and your phony Sunshine Band. Then again, I spotted baked apples at Eli’s for $6.95. Apiece. And frozen crab potpies, box of four, for $75 at Dean & Deluca. Those Madoff millions must be around here somewhere. . . . 

Like kebabs in Lucca

For years we’ve all been reading how museums, like airports and ballparks and other culinary-hostage situations, have been trying to upgrade their food offerings to reflect the great advances toward something approximating American cuisine. So it was beyond surprising for my consort to try to walk into the Met on Saturday with our market bag bulging with tuna belly and broccoflower and Illy espresso from Chelsea Market, along with a doggie bag from lunch at the New French. The security guard refused to let him pass. Absolutely no food is allowed inside, he insisted. The bag could not even be checked in the coatroom. Bob headed home dejectedly while I stayed to meet a friend as planned. But it sorta makes you think you would never want to eat there. What the hell do they serve if food is forbidden? Dendur dust? 

And a merciful end to Bloomingdale Road

Sometimes you read about a restaurant closing and just wonder what the hell took so long. Dennis Foy’s was Exhibit A, but the Roy’s near the big bad hole in the ground was always even more baffling. One of Panchito’s Predecessor’s finest lines came in his review of the overwrought joint: “If clowns had a cuisine, this would be it.” And for 10 more years, people ate it up. Docks was almost as mystifying, given how pricey it was for the neighborhood even today. The last time we ate there, at lunch, I walked out annoyed that we had not gone to Midtown and indulged in Mondrian for the same money. And that was so long ago Tom Colicchio was a working chef. 

Toasting with tap water

Then again, things could either be really bad or, as I often suspect, bad people are taking advantage of a bad situation to be even worse people. Some do it by laying off workers knowing they can get away with it with every headline reporting the same phenomenon. Others do it by arranging birthday dinners in restaurants where dessert comes with the meal. The other night in the quieter back room at the reliable Mermaid Inn on Amsterdam, the annoying thunder-thighed woman at the next table with a mellow guy looked absurdly pleased with herself when the waitress arrived bearing two tiny cups of the chocolate pudding the kitchen sends out to save on a dessert menu/pastry chef/table time. One had a candle in it. And I guess you could call it the cheesy course. 

Not that we don’t trust you

And talk about undercutting your emotion: A little sign in the bathroom at Klee is some variation on the old “live your life so fully that when death comes to you like a thief in the night, there will be nothing left to steal.” Followed by some variation on “please don’t pilfer the design touches here.” Suggestion can be powerful.

Gone with . . .

I know this is probably inappropriate. But when I got the email announcing the $12.95 deal-with-drink at a Meat District mediocrity, my first reaction was: Who will be the next to die for a mistake? Opening that restaurant in that location made about as much sense as aiming for high-end Italian when your forte is hamburgers. The guy once sent me gorgeous flowers after I dissed his schtick in the NYT, but somehow I suspect we are all Icarus now. If the last joints standing are Mexican, though, I for one am not going to be choking on $30 guacamole.

Can you spare a hundred?

All the hype about canned soup being a boom business also turns out to be hype, with Campbell’s starting to limp. Which I guess explains how restaurants are continuing to spring up with prices targeted at those good old days of gold-flecked desserts. I saw a new Mexican place opened in Chelsea and started to scribble the address in my notebook but thought to check Menupages first. Entrees are in the high $20s, and it looks as if you need to order $7 sides for a real meal. WTF? Worse was the menu my consort brought home from Buffalo, which has surprisingly good restaurants but is not exactly Paris on Lake Erie. He and his mom had dinner at a place near the boyhood home where the pork chops were $24 and surf-and-turf (filet mignon, lobster macaroni & cheese) was $34. Give the owners credit for creativity, though, and I don’t mean the “Brie Stuffed Mini Venison Burger” with “Jack Daniels Vanilla Bean Milk Shake for Dipping.” Last line on that menu reads: “Buy a Round of Drinks for the Kitchen — $8.”

When the peanut butter goes really bad

My truly cynical side constantly wonders if all the layoffs everywhere are really attributable to tough times rather than craven acts undertaken under cover of “everybody’s doing it.” Certainly the news is mixed on the food front, where restaurants should be folding like towels rather than warding off hordes of patrons (tried to get into the West Branch recently?) The other day two encounters reinforced both suspicions. The first was in a busy overpriced food market where the manager of a restaurant-related shop that would seem to be one of the first to bend over and grab its ankles in this economy is actually doing quite well (I’d name it, but even he said he was afraid he was jinxing a good run). Then I moved on to my lunch in a cozy little place that was packed just after 2. At the next table a 40-something guy was talk-talk-talking at a woman whom I presumed to be his mother; I tried to tune them out but could not overhearing: Tuition issues, teenagers’ weight issues, “I haven’t calculated how much the Cobra is going to cost but think have enough to get by for a year,” while older woman interrupts her silence only to complain that the filling in her taco is more fat than meat “and it’s never been like that before” and then to ask TTTer: “What about that story in the paper today, about people suing over being laid-off?” Yikes. They departed with him saying he was going home to curl up in a ball, her complaining that her soup was on the check as “special appetizer” and was “the most expensive thing on the bill.” Times are tough, but at least people can go out to eat rather than slurp soup in silence  at home. Special of the day? TMI.