So I contributed a little something to a significant something but somehow did not get my links up. So here you go:
Survival Rule 1 for NYC: Never. Make. Eye. Contact. Walking to the C train after dinner after “Chef,” my consort and I paused in Washington Square to see what everyone was staring at in a tree (last time it was a red-tail hawk), and I stupidly linked irises with some over-tanned nitwit in a baseball cap with a beanie propeller on top who wanted to inform me that he could tell said tree was 200 years old. “I’m a vegan, and I know things about plants — I can commune with them because I eat them.” And it was hard, but I stopped myself from responding: “Yeah, I’m the exact same way with cows.”
I also think we’re definitely into the silly season when it comes to cookbooks. Archaeologists tens of thousands of years from now will wonder why climate-cooling trees were sacrificed for entire collections of recipes for cinnamon rolls, or for crap cupcakes with crap baked into them. Even so, I also understand why publishers keep committing. I just tried my first recipe from a best-selling legend (legendary best-seller?) and it was positively craptastic — the pan size had to be wrong, the effort was not worth the time/vice versa and the finished cake was a tooth slog with six times as much dough as peaches. Yet friends and others I trust are constantly raving about the titular creator’s comforting recipes. Now I’m wondering how many have actually taken them to the stove as opposed to bed. Can there be 50 shades of vicarious eating?
Deluded me, I thought the movement in Utah to get some imbibers on the liquor control board made a ginload of sense. But apparently there’s backlash from contemporary Carry Nations (lost in my Twitter stream, or I’d link). Come on — of course you want someone who does what normal people do to have a vote. Otherwise you get teetotalers advising we all hold a grape between our knees at happy hour.
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 . . .
Finally, I guess because I’m a bitch I haven’t been invited to a cluster fuck in a while, so I was happy to head down to that foreign country — SoHo — for the party for the most unlikely author of a family meal cookbook. It was quite civilized, but what really surprised me was the crowd. I recognized exactly three faces beyond the author’s and committed an unforgivable gaffe with a fourth I didn’t (Oliver Sacks and I have a syndrome). Flacks’ lists must have really gone bloggy. . . . I took my camera for the first time, though, and just want to say to the young ’un in the silly satin shorts hiked up in her back crack: Be glad I’m not bitch enough to post photos.
I wanted to blog about this over to the Epi Log but figured it would be too sensitive: Why is veal still a four-letter word? My consort came home the other night with a gorgeous locally grown, properly raised chop from Whole Foods, and, given that it cost $18, I did not want to fuck it up. So I went online, after flipping through half a dozen cookbooks and realizing timing in old recipes is way off with the new and improved meat you can buy today. And is veal the Israel of meats? Too contentious to discuss? Because, really, what industrial chickens, pigs and all-grown-up cows suffer is pretty horrific. Veal is not bovine Bambi. None of the old propaganda applies if you buy veal raised right. Otherwise, you might as well rail against poussin not being deprived of a long life. Or against eggs being scrambled before they can become poussin.
Forgot some mashed potatoes w/corn in back of refrig. Just opened container & think I’m halfway to cross between vodka and bourbon. . .
And the food cannot compliment the coffee, even if it lies. At best it can complement, and even then I’m not so sure.
And I myself was called quite a bitch way back when for attacking a certain hymnal to farmers’ markets, so I should feel a bit queasy about actually disseminating my own photo that makes said markets look just as annoyingly fey/elitist/romanticized. I should be worrying that I am regressing into one of those “I shop there for the community” Trumpmouths. But it’s taken me 20-plus years to acknowledge there is more to the markets than just fud. A photographer who lured my consort (and me) to Estonia back when it was joining the First Consumer World sardonically noted that shopping malls are the new cathedrals. Greenmarkets are Saints Peter & Peas. But I’ll try to get a grip in the future. If for no reason than that it’s easier being mean when they have no idea who you are. . .
I’ll confess I left some stuff out of my burger rant, thanks both to procrastination and performance anxiety. For one big thing, I should have noted how absurd it is that New York State lawmakers are actually trying to force restaurants to stop serving water unless requested and to stop using salt at all, even in their kitchens. Where is the legislation requiring burger joints to serve beef merely clean enough to eat? But at least you can’t smoke in the parks anymore. Tobacco companies should look into E. coli.
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.
After 27 years in this business, I’m not often totally gobsmacked (astonished/amazed/shocked, yes). But this week, dangerously late on a column I could not be late on again, I resorted to the last resort of desperate freelancers and hit a PR agency with a blanket request: HELP, find me a notable chef with three or four bits of advice to offer. Sure, sure, came the answer. And at the end of the day, I got exactly one quote from some obscure idiot that read like an outtake from a particularly cretinous episode of one of the cleaver-rattling shows on the teevee. I wanted to hit reply with: “This is a joke, right?” Instead I moved on, more confident than ever that dinosaurs are languishing between chefs and reporters. Surely those scores of restaurants could be putting those fat fees to better use. Maybe not coincidentally, my consort and I were just at a party where the photographer host was lamenting the shutdown of all the photo agencies that once marketed his work for a percentage. As I pointed out, why do you need the middleman in the age of the internets? One day, probably soon, a restaurant with a high-profile flack will be like a website with annoying music.
I don’t often delete my Tweets but had to last week after a chef called me out for unfairly mocking Molto in New York magazine’s excellent Thanksgiving feature. I fucked up. I felt even crasser after realizing no photos even exist of me and my mom alone together. And she was not as nice as his is. Obviously I’m determined to hit most of the points a certain spouse defines New York by: Guilt, greed, hysteria and hypocrisy.
For all my trashing of everyone else, I’m starting to think anyone who listens to me might as well follow Yelp. I’ve been flagellating myself for two weeks now since suggesting a Milanese reader try Keens for his steak fix on a trip to NYC; it had only come to mind because we were heading there again. He and his poor spouse soldiered through the $90 porterhouse, eating it all because in their country you consume what you pay for. In my nightmares, they, too, were shunted upstairs to the Disney DR rather than being seated in the charm space. The only consolation was heading to Fairway’s ambiance-free cafe and noticing the steaks there were $37. Admittedly, with potatoes rather than the $8 addition on 36th Street, but still. In between lashes, I’ll remind everyone I never claimed to be an expert on steakhouses. But I’ll take 260 extra for suggesting Les Halles, too, which he found to be both too Europeanesque and too loud. The awful truth is that great meat is so accessible in regular and farmers’ markets these days there’s no reason to shell out big bucks in hopes of decent creamed spinach. Nothing is easier to cook, especially if you buy from a good butcher who knows exactly how long to sear or grill it. (And let it rest.) For steak, there might be no place like home.