Category — Travel

Experience: A Taste of Revel

According to Google Maps, the journey from my office to the front step of the Revel Resort in Atlantic City is a relatively short 1 hour and 34 minute trip.  An invitation to join the Taste of Revel event, paired with the opportunity to cut out a little early from work last Friday, seemed destined to create the perfect gateway to the weekend.

What could possibly go wrong?

Two hours after leaving work, I had only just crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge into New Jersey.  Having experienced the rare joy of sitting in rush hour traffic both into Philadelphia and out of it, I was looking at arriving at the event exactly as it was scheduled to start, at 7pm.  Indeed, I pulled into the parking deck of Atlantic City’s newest casino hotel at exactly the three hour mark, with ten minutes to spare.

It took me twenty minutes, however, to find my way through the hotel, pick up my tickets, and find the venue.  Worth playing for?  Absolutely.

Taste of Revel was billed as a culinary showcase for much of what the new resort had to offer from a talented team of renowned chefs that includes Jose Garces, Marc Forgione, Robert Wiedmaier, Alain Allegretti and Michel Richard.  From what I was able to taste on Friday evening, it’s definitely a recipe destined for greatness.

Having grown up in New Jersey, I have a fond familiarity with Atlantic City, with memories of looking out at the hotel towers filling the horizon from the backseat of the family car.  But as I got older, my initial fascination with the buffets, boardwalk food, and cloned Asian/Italian/Deli/Seafood concepts offered by each casino gave way to a sense of frustrated limitation.  Built to appeal to gamblers and no one else, the casinos got away (for decades) with serving overpriced, standard fare to a captive audience that just wanted to cram their maws with food before heading back to the gaming floor.  The dining options at Revel are a clear step away from that formula, and a positive sign that the resort is reaching out to a new demographic that may never wager a single dollar at the property, yet drop just as much coin on food and entertainment.

I was able to secure a few moments with Nilou Motamed, Features Director and Senior Correspondent for Travel + Leisure magazine, the sponsor, along with its sister publication Food & Wine, of the weekend’s events.  Unlike my experience, Motamed had never really been to Atlantic City, so she was seeing Revel’s debut from a completely different perspective.  After sharing our surprise at such small details as the availability of Mexican Coke throughout the resort, we talked about Revel’s impact and what this cadre of chef-driven restaurants means for the future of dining on the Boardwalk.  Motamed noted that the public’s exposure to chefs as public figures, through reality television and increased food-focused programming in general, has increased the demand for the type of innovative, high-end dining that Revel offers.

So what’s good at Revel?  I made my way through the crowd, performing quick, surgical strikes to relieve the tables of their burdens, one plate at a time.  The Amada crew offered Jose Garces’ take on the traditional “grilled beef on a stick” concept, a spice-forward presentation that was tender, assertive, and the perfect introduction to the new level of dining now available on the Boardwalk.  From Azure by Allegretti, a cup of classic bouillabaisse, stacked with snapper, monkfish, shrimp, and mussels in a tomato broth tinged golden with saffron. One, Revel’s American grill restaurant, offered a playful take on a lobster roll, heaped high atop a miniature bun and topped with diced mango and avocado.  Standout dishes included a mini crabcake, along with crab mac and cheese accompanied by an onion-bacon tart, both courtesy of Mussel Bar by Robert Wiedmaier.  Other passed hors d’oeuvres, of no particular affiliation, brought a lobster corn dog and a small ice cream cone filled with pearls of raw tuna.

After the initial kickoff event, I headed to a different part of the resort for a Pastry Party hosted by chef Michel Richard.  Richard, a multiple James Beard Award winner,  worked the room as attendees noshed on passed plates of eclairs, caramel mousse, and a signature “chocolate bar” – a crisp chocolate truffle base topped with a rich whipped chocolate ganache, dusted with cocoa.

As I was about to leave to head home, Michel Richard paused in front of me just as I placed one of his desserts into my mouth.  Like a larger-than-life culinary Alfred Hitchcock, he watched me  and waited patiently for my reaction.  Unable to speak, I gave the chef an enthusiastic thumbs up.  A silent nod of agreement from Richard, and we headed our separate ways, both pleased with the results of his efforts.

My Twitter coverage of this event can be found at Storify.

May 31, 2012   Comments

Reconciliation, Healing, and Charcuterie – Part 2

This the middle of the story.  If this looks unfamiliar to you, you may want to start with Part 1.

Even though I kept my eyes locked on the entrances to the rail tracks, Dave still managed to sneak up on me.  Since he’s not active on Facebook, I hadn’t seen many recent photos of him, and to my surprise, he looked substantially the same as he did in college, although I’m sure the same can be said about myself.  We were both older but no worse for wear. Not wanting to waste a moment of catching-up time, we decided to stay in the building while we plotted out our day.

We headed downstairs to the dining concourse and talked over coffee for a long time, cramming 13 years of status updates into conversation rife with interrupted thoughts, tangents, recalled memories, and misrememberances.  Talking to Dave now, much as I did so many years ago as we sat in Sloppy Louie’s at South Street Seaport, was like starting an old car.  You’re afraid that it won’t turn over, but after a few cranks, the engine roars to life, and a few minutes later you’re cruising the neighborhood as if it were yesterday.

Before we knew it, a couple of hours had passed, our coffee had turned cold, pastries were reduced to crumbs, and it was time for lunch.  Using my phone for research, I started rattling off the names of nearby eating opportunities, but as soon as the word “fondue” left my mouth, our course was set, with Artisanal as our destination.  In less than ten minutes, had exited Grand Central Station, walked a few blocks, and were breezing through the front doors. We had the fortune of being seated immediately.

Artisanal is one of those restaurants where, if you needed a long, lingering meal as a backdrop to conversation, you’d find it there.  We ordered way, way too much, starting with the fondue and augmenting that selection with bread, salads, pork belly hash, and unending cups of coffee.  We never ran out of food, and we never ran out of conversation, which is pretty much the perfect combination of unlimited things.  Service was invisibly efficient, and I don’t recall ever seeing the bottom of my coffee cup. Eventually, I looked up to see that the restaurant was emptying out, and we found ourselves between the lunch and dinner service.

Stuffed, we walked off the meal by heading north, on our way to the second declared destination of the day, Laduree, for macarons.  It was a long, necessary meandering, notable for our passage by several locations of former, familiar, landmarks.  FAO Schwartz, which has now become a shell of its earlier glory.  The Apple Store cube, now standing where there used to be a pit of forgettable dining establishments.  We trudged up Central Park East, stopping occasionally to check our phones to get our bearings.  Eventually, we hit the right cross street and headed east to Madison Avenue.

Laduree was packed, so much so that a line of about 20 people spilled out of the doorway and down the block.  There was no sale or special promotion to be had – this was an everyday occurrence.  After about 25 minutes, we finally made our way inside and were blown away by the display cases, which were filled with a colorful array of macarons in flavors that ranged from citrus to straight-up chocolate and vanilla varieties.  We spent too much, but as in the days of old, we did it in stride.

The sun was starting to set on Manhattan, and it was time to decide where to end the evening.  I had heard much of Eataly, some good (an astounding array of Italian food and drink) and bad (so crowded you can’t even move) – but given that we were just two souls with relatively light baggage, we decided it was worth weaving through the crowds.  We hailed a cab and rocketed downtown…

Part 3 to come.

May 4, 2012   Comments

The Las Vegas Taste Tour: Prologue

Photo Credit: Scott Roeben

The best croissants that I’ve ever had on this side of the Atlantic.  A tour of the kitchen of one of the top French restaurants in America.  Exclusive tastings of the world’s premier champagne and top flight tequilas.  Unprecedented levels of access to executive pastry chefs and chefs de cuisine. A treasure chest made of chocolate and filled with ice cream and cheesecake.  A tower of nachos that would defeat even the most gluttonous of Americans.  A scantily-clad woman, a volcano, and a vat of water.

These are a few of the highlights of four days spent in Las Vegas as invited guests of Caesars Entertainment on their first-ever Taste Tour, a whirlwind array of restaurant visits, cooking demonstrations, and behind-the-scenes peeks at the inner mechanisms of the culinary machine that drives the food service behind 11 properties.

Faced with a stack of business cards, a notepad full of scribbled observations, and a flash drive that’s been thoughtfully packed with professional photos that are much better than anything that I could have ever taken, my task becomes clear: document this adventure for you, the readers of The Best Food Blog Ever.

Over the next few weeks, I beckon you to join me as I share my insight into a world that is rarely seen by most members of the public.  I’ve got a whiteboard that’s overflowing with entry titles, and it’s time to start crossing them off, one by one.

January 14, 2011   Comments

In Search of the Biggest Bellies

I have enjoyed a family connection to New England ever since my brother graduated college in the early eighties and moved to Massachusetts for his first real-world job, where he has remained ever since.  So, throughout the remainder of my teen years, through high school, college, and law school, and continuing today into my married life, I’ve been trekking up through the highways and country roads of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut to visit him for inexpensive vacations featuring good times, free lodging, and great local cuisine.  At first, I went alone.  Then, I went with my wife.  On this most recent excursion up north, I went with my wife and my daughter.  Life goes on.

On one of those early trips, probably fifteen years ago, if not more, we found ourselves at the Atlantic Seafood Company, a restaurant in downtown Boston.  I had ordered a basket of fried clams, having been raised on those frozen orange boxes of Howard Johnson clam strips, which, despite having the texture of rubber bands, were actually quite tasty to my inner-city palate.  When the order came, I was dismayed to find, nestled among the traditional strips of fried clam, bulbous bits that came across as foreign, alien, and decidedly un-clamstrip-like.  I eyed my meal with growing suspicion.

Sensing my hesitation, my brother explained that these were belly clams that were local to the area.  Having not even suspected that clams had bellies, the concept was intriguing.  I fished a particularly large specimen out of the basket and popped it into my mouth, and,in doing so, triggered the start of a lifelong quest for the perfect fried belly clam.

It was unlike any other fried clam that I had tasted before.  Instead of having an antagonistic chew, the meat was tender and delicate.  The belly itself gushed when I bit into it, releasing a wave of clam juice and brine that was more evocative of the sea than any fried clam that I’d ever had before.  Instead of a thick wall of breading, these clams were lightly floured and fried quickly to retain their lightness.  I was hooked from the first bite, but also destined to be disappointed for years to come.

Ever since that fateful night, I have purposefully sought out fried belly clams, reviewing menus in seafood establishments and interrogating servers as to exactly how much “belly” was on the clams.  In nearly every instance, my order should have been accompanied by the tuba-sound of disappointment, as I was presented with plate after plate of sturdy clam strips, accompanied here and there by “bellies” that more closely resembled bubble wrap that’s already been popped than what I had eaten in Boston.  Belly clams may be native to the region, but finding true examples of them was largely hit-or-miss.

On our recent trip, then, to see my brother in Massachusetts and to introduce the baby to more family in Maine, I had fried belly clams on the brain.  I had done some research, which led me to this wonderful New York Times article on the subject.  To my surprise and delight, punching in the address of the Clam Box in Ipswich revealed that it was only a mere 2 hours from my brother’s house, in the direction that we were already headed on our way to Maine.

It was on.

At noon, we packed up the car and headed northeast, bound for Portland.  I programmed the address for the Clam Box into our GPS, and by the time our breakfast began to wear off, we were leaving Interstate 95 and cruising through narrow coastal roads on the way to Ipswich, catching fleeting glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean between the houses as we sped along.  As the road curved ahead of us, I spied a small, single story building shaped like a massive takeout box – a takeout box full of clams, to be precise.

Pulling into the sunbaked, gravel-covered parking lot, I trotted to the main entrance to find a short line of customers waiting to get inside.  The queue was not unlike the scene at Pat’s Steaks in Philadelphia, and it moved just as quickly and efficiently.  While we were standing in line, I craned my neck to review the menu, which was posted above the order windows, and which only yielded more questions than answers – what, for example, was the difference between a “plate”, a “mini-meal”, and a “box”? Chatting with the woman behind me, who happened to be a 29-year veteran devotee of the Clam Box, I determined that the difference lay in the number of sides.

We soon reached the window and placed our orders.  On a small whiteboard that was posted next to the main menu, a thick blue marker had been used to post the note “BIG BELLIES ON REQUEST”.   I asked the woman for the mini-meal of big belly clams, and my wife ordered a plate of native clams.  We shuffled into the dark, nautically-themed dining room and waited for our number to be called on the PA system.  The kitchen is fast, no doubt because they only serve a few items, all fried.

When our order was ready, my wife returned from the pickup window with a plastic tray that overflowed with huge plates of fried seafood.  As it turns out, ordering “big belly clams” by name actually did make a difference, as the clams in my order were a bit larger, belly-wise, than those that occupied my wife’s plate.  There was little distinction, though, to the taste – both the native clams and the belly clams featured a bright flavor that would be a revelation to anyone who’s ever been limited to frozen fried seafood.  These clams were the absolute ideal representation of what a proper fried belly clam should be – plump, light, full of clammy flavor, accompanied by a nice dish of cole slaw, with fries and onion rings on the side.  A paper cup of tartar sauce, spiked with fragments of sharp pickle, paired perfectly with every bite.

Traditions are good things, and perhaps there is nothing better than realizing that you have taken your first step in creating a new one.  This was a meal that was definitely worth repeating, and will undoubtedly become a regular occurrence on our subsequent trips to New England.  Our stop at the Clam Box served to bring me back to one of my fondest memories of the past, while making me yearn for that day in the future where I get to introduce my daughter to the taste of a real fried clam.

June 14, 2010   Comments

New York Stories: Shelter from the Storm, and a Huge Pastrami Sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen

On a temperate summer day in New York City, the wind turned blustery, the blue sky transformed into a menacing shade of gray, and within moments, the heavens opened up.  The rain was intense, and the streets and sidewalks were mottled for only an instant before they became completely saturated, the gutters failing to keep pace with the rushing waters.  Pedestrians caught unprepared huddled together under the nearest available awning or bus stop shelter, forced to invade each others’ respective personal spaces by an Act of God.

All of this meteorological chaos was perfectly fine by me, because while it was happening, I was sitting in Katz’s Delicatessen, shoving an enormous pastrami sandwich into my gaping maw and tipping back a bottle of Brooklyn Lager.  We did not take an umbrella with us, but if there’s a place to hole up as you wait for a summer rainstorm to pass, you couldn’t ask for better.

In the weeks leading up to our trip to New York City for the 55th Summer Fancy Food Show, we had firmly decided that we wanted to make a return to this classic deli on the Lower East Side.  With our memories of our first experience quite fuzzy (in our defense, it was 2:30am and we had just emerged from a nearby nightclub), we knew that we wanted to experience Katz’s Delicatessen during the daylight hours.

The scene could not have been more different. At 2:30am, we were one of only a handful of occupied tables in the vast wood-paneled dining hall, which is decorated with framed pictures of famous people who’ve eaten there.  I remember reviewing the selection of items that is displayed on the wall above and behind the cutters’ stations, walking up to the lone cutter on duty, ordering our sandwiches, and making small talk as he assembled our meal.  This time, I stood at the end of a substantial line of people that snaked through to the front of the restaurant.  Here’s a helpful hint: each cutter has his own line, but most folks go to the line that is nearest to the entrance – move further into the hall to shorten your wait at a shorter line.  Almost every table was occupied, and when we managed to squeeze ourselves into an empty space, the back of my chair butted up against a neighboring table.  When I reached the counter, I had to raise my voice to call out my order.  I honestly think that it was the same cutter as from our first trip.

I made it through ordering the corned beef and pastrami sandwiches without incident.  I knew that I had a fifty percent chance of getting the next thing right.  “I’ll take one corned beef, one pastrami, and…a…knish.”  I had pronounced it “nish”, in the sincere hope that the ‘k’ served just as useful a function as it does in the word ‘knight’.

“You mean a “KA-nish?” the cutter replied, deadly serious. I was glad to have the counter serve as a barrier between us.

“Um, yeah.  That.”  He motioned me to the other counter to place the knish order.  That’s the quirky thing about Katz’s Delicatessen – if you want a sandwich, you go to one of the many cutters in the center of the counter, if you want a hot dog or knish, you go to the station at the end.  Want a soda?  Go down to the other end.  Want a beer?  Go back to where you ordered the hot dog.  You could skip all of this exercise by asking for table service, but where’s the fun in that?  Plus, if you go to the counter to get your sandwiches, the cutter will always provide you with a sample of the meat for your approval before he begins carving your order.

The sandwiches at Katz’s Delicatessen are immense, heavy with the weight of 121 years of tradition.  They are true deli sandwiches, served with a combination of sweet and tart pickles on the side and a swipe of sharp yellow deli mustard that serves to cut the richness of the fatty meat.  The pastrami sandwich is a full two inches of meat, precariously balanced on a comparatively small and thin platform of rye bread, its beefy edges crusted with spice rub.  The corned beef is similarly endowed, but with a juicier, fattier aspect that is characteristic of a superlative brisket.  As good as the corned beef can be, you can reach for epicurean nirvana by ordering a classic corned beef Reuben, which pairs the meat with a mountain of tangy sauerkraut and a layer of Swiss cheese so thick, you could ski down it.

The knish is a rectangular pillow of dough wrapped around a densely packed filling of potato and onion, fried until golden.  I highly recommend it if you’ve never had one.  You should be aware, though, that there are two varieties of knish.  The Coney Island knish is as I have described; there is also a traditional Jewish knish that is round and baked.  I tried one once and didn’t like it as much as the Coney Island, but you should taste one of each since it’s a matter of personal preference.

The last thing you need to know about Katz’s Delicatessen is this – they work off of a ticket system.  When you come into the deli, you’re handed an orange ticket, and as you order different items from the counter, the countermen take your ticket, mark it with what you’ve ordered, and pass it back to you.  At the end of the meal, you hand your ticket to the cashier, who totals it and takes your money.

Don’t even ask what happens if you lose your ticket.  You, and your wallet, really don’t want to know.

July 20, 2009   Comments

The Best Food Blog Ever Meets The Hottest Chile Pepper Ever

(If the video is all stuttery, you can switch to HD Off and it will play much more smoothly)

The Best Food Blog Ever Eats The Hottest Chile Pepper Ever from DDL on Vimeo.

Shortly after arriving on the exhibit floor of the Fancy Food Show at the Javits Convention Center, having progressed through Argentina and Mexico, we came upon the booth for Blair’s Death Sauces and Snacks.  It was festively decorated in the way that heavy black cloth, skulls, flames, and madness tend to liven up things.

As we passed in front of the booth, a woman extended a tray of spicy potato chips for my perusal.  I would have sampled a few, but my attention was immediately drawn to Blair Lazar, who had a ceramic knife in one hand and a wooden cutting board in the other, liberally coated with the dark crimson shards of a dried chile pepper.  With all of the flair of a carnival hawker who already knows the outcome of your gamble, Blair was offering tastes of his newest product, a smoked and dried Bhut Jolokia chile pepper.  His eyes locked on me, and he beckoned me forth with the tip of the knife waving in the air in front of him.  “Come try the Bhut Jolokia,” he shouted above the din, “the hottest chile pepper on the planet!”

We had only just arrived at the show, and I had forty-five aisles of samples yet to come.  I really wasn’t keen on trying the pepper, even though I’m a fan of spicy food, but when you have a food blog, a video camera, and Blair Lazar himself offers you a smoked Bhut Jolokia chile pepper, I realized that there’s really no other option other than to rise to the challenge.  Not familiar with the Bhut Jolokia?  Read on.

The Bhut Jolokia is native to India and is officially classified by scientific authorities and the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s hottest chile pepper.  It is also known as the Naga Jolokia and the Ghost Pepper – presumably because after eating one, your soul just vaporizes out of your pores, leaving you an empty, smoldering shell.

The standard measure of the spice level of a chile pepper is the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU).  A typical jalapeno pepper measures around 10,000 SHUs.  An orange habanero pepper, one of the hottest of that variety, clocks in at 357,729 SHUs, which would surely test the  tolerance of the most dedicated chile aficionado.  By comparison, the Bhut Jolokia pepper blows the curve completely, measuring at an astounding 1,001,304 units of heat.  Indian defense scientists are looking to use the Bhut Jolokia extract in grenades for riot control purposes.  In paste form, the Bhut Jolokia is used to repel elephants.  I am not joking.

We turned on the camcorder and started recording.  A small crowd had gathered in front of the booth, spectating in the same way that one would watch NASCAR for the fiery crashes.

Blair tipped the knife, and a small fragment of Bhut Jolokia cascaded into the palm of my hand.  I gave it a cursory examination, sniffed at it, then tucked it into a corner of my mouth like chewing tobacco.

As with most chile peppers, there’s a certain delay before the true onset of spice on the tongue.  Blair, ever the showman, narrated cheerfully as my Bhut Jolokia sample began to unravel its mysteries upon my palate.  I chewed the Bhut Jolokia once, twice…then everything in my world turned white-hot.  The Bhut Jolokia had opened up like an angry bronco unleashed from its pen.  The Bhut Jolokia is fury.

With most hot peppers, the burn begins as a tingle on your tongue that, for particularly spicy chiles, escalates to discomfort within a few seconds.  The Bhut Jolokia is unlike any other – the entire right side of my face flashed numb with pain just as soon as the burn hit, the heat radiating from the spot in my cheek, spreading across my face and down my neck.  While other peppers come on like an upward slope, the Bhut Jolokia takes off like a rocket, only this rocket incinerates the launch pad and every single living creature within five miles of it.  It’s a nuclear detonation inside of your mouth.

It was imperative that I refrain from panicking.  This is, of course, more easily said than done, because panic is your body’s first reaction to the incredible pain that visits upon your senses as you realize that this, truly, is the spiciest thing that you will have ever tasted in your lifetime.  Panic, thought, would only lead to breathing faster, possibly to the point of hyperventilation, which only causes more air to move across your tongue, which serves to magnify the burn even more.  I willed myself into a Zen state of calm, breathing as normally as I could muster as the oils from the Bhut Jolokia tormented my senses in an unbridled, full-on assault.  Beads of sweat began forming on my brow as I rode out the pain, every second bringing heretofore undiscovered levels of spice.

It’s also crucial, surprisingly, to avoid drinking any water for the duration of the burn, a critical error committed by many novice pepper eaters.  Oil and water don’t mix, so the only effect of downing a bottle of water would be to distribute the volatile oils throughout your mouth, spreading them around your tongue, your cheeks, and down your esophagus.  The only thing that defeats a Bhut Jolokia is time.  Actually, let me amend that – the only thing that defeats Bhut Jolokia is time and massive quantities of ripened soft cheeses.  It’s a very good thing that we were at the Fancy Food Show and surrounded on all sides by breads, cheese, and crackers.  After about fifteen minutes, and several samples of brie, the pain that had been so intense at the start had subsided to a gentle simmer, enough to allow me to continue my tour of the exhibit floor.

July 14, 2009   Comments

New York Stories: On the Floor at the 55th Summer Fancy Food Show

Imagine a place where you could sample the best, most perfectly ripened cheese you’ve ever had, followed by a bite of decadently rich chocolate, which is then even further enhanced by a shot of red wine, all finished off with a spoonful of the finest extra virgin olive oil to ever cross your lips.  Now imagine doing that every hundred feet or so, over and over, until even the notion of a single sea-salt encrusted artisanal paper thin wafer seems grossly unappealing to you.  That, in a nutshell, was our weekend at the 55th Summer Fancy Food Show at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City.

To say that it’s possible to tour the entire Fancy Food Show in a single day is much like saying that one could see all of the artwork in the Louvre in an afternoon.  Sure, you could do it, but it would involve a lot of running through crowds, you would only catch a superficial glance of each piece, and you wouldn’t enjoy yourself in the least.  And, in perhaps the greatest of parallels, your feet and legs would hurt for days.

Consider the numbers – 140,000 food products from lands both near and far, large and small.  Two floors of exhibit space, ranging from narrow booths hosted by small producers to immense, towering pavilions representing entire countries.  Over 2,300 exhibitors from 75 countries, all vying for the attention of over 24,000 visitors, each booth with its own selection of samples.  Given those numbers, and the vastness of the Javits Center itself, The Fancy Food Show is at all times exhilarating, exhausting, and overwhelming, yet I find myself already counting the days until its return to the East Coast next year.  The scope of the Fancy Food Show is so gloriously outlandish, I may never want or need to go to any other food convention.  Only next time, I’ll be much better at pacing myself.

This was my first trade show since launching The Best Food Blog Ever, and the difference between industry events such as the Fancy Food Show and public conventions can be summed up in a single word: Power.  At conventions that are open to the public, the audience attends for a leisurely experience, and the vendors pull in customers by selling products, giving away coupons, and increasing recognition of their brand.

At a trade show such as this, though, and especially in New York City, the stakes are exponentially higher.  I glimpsed badges for retail buyers, trade affiliates, manufacturers, and distributors, some of whom had the potential to make purchasing decisions worth millions of dollars.  In some booths, men dressed in somber gray and black business suits sat in plastic folding chairs, hunched over paperwork, hashing out details of deals in progress, the intimacy of their discussions in stark contrast to the cacophony of the crowded exhibit floor.  Whenever we walked up to a vendor, you could catch the subtle downward glance at our badges – are we buyers for a major supermarket chain?  Restaurateurs looking for the next brilliant ingredient?  A guy with one of those whatchamacallits…a “blog”?  Compared to these movers and shakers, I barely registered a quiver.

We arrived at the Javits Center about a half hour after the show opened on Sunday morning.  After receiving our badges, we entered the exhibit hall armed with the same strategy that has consistently worked for us in many other conventions – start at one end of the hall and work our way up and down the aisles.  Only this time, as we neared the end of the third aisle, having tackled Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Germany, Morocco, Turkey, and half of France, we checked the time to discover that nearly two hours had passed, and we still had thirty aisles left to explore on the upper level, representing the remainder of the international vendors.  Seventeen more aisles of domestic products from states such as Texas, Virginia, and New York awaited us on the lower level.  In the hours to come, we would only be able to cover about half of the show floor before the exhibit halls closed for the day.

But, oh, how those hours were filled with decadence.  The best vendors were eager to chat and share the stories behind their products.  Some booths were staffed with representatives who demonstrated a full command of every nuance of their wares, fully capable of explaining the differences between their cheeses, for example, and those of other producers.  Others tempered their enthusiasm when they saw that I was not representing a major buyer.  In any case, we were able to sample chocolates, baked goods, jams, cheeses, and all other manner of edible nirvana.  Whenever we came across a particularly outstanding product, we’d take some literature, or ask for a press kit.  As the afternoon wore on, our plastic handbag grew portly and strained against our fingers.

In all, we spent about nine hours over the course of two days at the Fancy Food Show, and boy, do we have stories to tell.  For now, those stories have yet to be written, and you’ll just have to be a patient for a little while longer – I expect to spend at least two weeks, if not more, on the New York Stories, recounting both the Fancy Food Show as well as other food adventures.  Just as the Fancy Food Show can’t be experienced in a single day, I can’t possibly do justice to the weekend in a single entry.

I can tell you this – I ate the world’s hottest chile pepper at the Fancy Food Show, and we caught the whole thing on video.  Maybe I’ll tell you that story first.

In site news, The Best Food Blog Ever has been selected as the Blog of the Day for July 6 on the official website for the Julia & Julia movie.  I’ll be interrupting the New York Stories series for an entry about Julia Child on that day.

July 1, 2009   Comments

Goodbye to You – Balducci’s Turns Out The Lights in Manhattan

As I am sure is true for a lot of folks, I have a special place in my heart for Balducci’s, the gourmet food store that recently closed up shop in New York City, leaving Manhattan with one less destination on food tour itineraries.

Going to college, and then law school, in downtown Newark, New Jersey, it was easy enough for me to skip classes and hop on the PATH train from Penn Station, zooming under the Hudson, to 9th Street in Greenwich Village.  There, not fifteen paces from the PATH exit stairwell, was the bustle of 6th Avenue and the entrance to Balducci’s.  To me, that cramped, bustling shop was a treasure trove of undiscovered, almost forbidden, delights.  I was literally a kid in a candy store – a candy store that also offered cheese, and bread, and seafood, and all manner of top quality produce from faraway places that I had never heard of.

Many of the “exotic” finds that I would pile into my basket back then can be found virtually everywhere today, some even played out by 2009 standards.  The Balducci’s in Greenwich Village didn’t have a lot of space, but that didn’t stop them from stuffing every square foot with product.  I would squeeze my way up and down the aisles, pushing past the shopping carts of other patrons, gawking at the massive selection of fresh seafood on ice, marveling at the fact that there could be so many varieties of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, lusting after the biggest grapes I’ve ever seen.

Blue cornmeal, saffron, truffle-laced olive oil, prosciutto – these were things that were well outside of my realm of experience, and I would greedily snap them up and toss them into my basket.  The only problem was, I coveted these things too much – I remember buying a $3.99 package of red lentil dal and never opening it, for fear of screwing up a dish and wasting my valuable purchase.  It felt so good to find these things, I wanted to hold onto them and never let go.

As years went by and the rest of the world caught up with Balducci’s, I moved on, getting married and leaving North Jersey for Central Jersey, and then eventually into Pennsylvania and still even deeper into Pennsylvania when we bought our first house.  I had heard that the Greenwich Village location of Balducci’s had been sold and turned into something else – the company opened up a massive store in Chelsea, but when we went to visit last year, it didn’t have the same homey feel as the old location.  As time marched on, I discovered Dean and Deluca, Whole Foods, and FreshMarket.  Internet commerce rose to prominence, and today I can order red lentil dal from Amazon and have it on my doorstep tomorrow.

In a sense, my sense of fascination in finding new food items has been dulled by the advance of time.  Today, we’re trained to walk into a gourmet shop, or even a local supermarket, and expect to find a well-stocked selection of imported cheese, or ten different varieties of sea salt.  For me, the end of Balducci’s in Manhattan represents the conclusion of a bygone era, when a small food store unveiled such broad horizons and vast opportunity for a college kid who never knew what he was missing.

I was holding onto that memory.  Today, I’m letting it go.

May 1, 2009   Comments

Yes, Please: ScrappleFest 2009

I love scrapple, and I always have.  So, when I found out that there was going to be a ScrappleFest down at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia last weekend, attendance became an absolute imperative.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with scrapple, Wikipedia defines it as “a savory mush of pork scraps and trimmings combined with cornmeal and flour”, which is pretty much a spot-on description.  Cut into slices and fried until crisp (but with the inside still soft), scrapple tastes, to me, a bit like breakfast sausage.  To my wife, who hates scrapple, it tastes like barn.  There is no middle ground when it comes to scrapple – either you absolutely love it or you can’t stand it.

A little more background exposition, for those readers who aren’t familiar with Philadelphia – the Reading Terminal Market is a large hall filled with a dizzying array of food vendors, produce stalls, fishmongers, and butchers.  Chances are, if you’re craving a particular food, you’ll find it there.  At the height of the weekend during tourist season, there’s barely enough room to move through the crowds that pack the aisles, either gawking at menus or waiting in overflowing lines to place an order.  Seating, as can be expected, is always an issue, and finding an open table feels like finding a parking spot at the mall during the holiday shopping season.

ScrappleFest took place in the middle of it all, in a central court that, I believe, is usually taken up by that all-important seating that I mentioned.  Thankfully, since we’re still in the off-season, the Reading Terminal Market was well-populated, but not too crowded, so the reduction in tables and chairs was hardly noticeable.  Imagine a large rectangle of scrapple vendors, and a line of scrapple enthusiasts performing a slow, rotating tour of all of them, and you’ve gotten the gist of Scrapplefest.  There was a recipe contest, as well, pitting various creative interpretations of scrapple against one another, but in all of the time that we spent there, I never saw where the contest was being held.  It’s a shame, since I would have wanted to see that, but the charm of ScrappleFest lies in the fact that it’s not well publicized, not slickly marketed, and it doesn’t have a dedicated website.  You kind of just show up and eat scrapple.

All of the major pork product producers were at ScrappleFest, such as Dietz & Watson and Leidy’s, as well as smaller companies and family-owned operations.  At each station, there would be one or two staffers dutifully frying up the signature slabs on portable electric griddles, or frying pans set over hotplates, and a tray of samples from which to pick from as you walked by.  There was even an offering of vegan scrapple, which I can at least now say that I have tried.  I must admit that the turkey scrapple was better than I would have expected.

Oh, and no writeup of ScrappleFest is complete without a mention of the scrapple sculptures.  There was a Phillies cake made out of scrapple – while the shout-out to the local World Series champions was certainly appreciated, in all other respects the cake was merely a large rectangle of porkiness.  But, the true awesomeness of scrapple artistry came from Leidy’s, whose table featured a small Leidy’s delivery truck, manifest as scrapple, with little cherries for lights, slowing bleeding crimson rivulets down the porky contours of the sculpture.

You can check out other writeups of ScrappleFest here and here.  Amazing that there aren’t more, really.

March 26, 2009   Comments

Oysters at Red’s Ice House in Shem Creek, SC

The Happy Hour special at Red’s – a bucket of steamed oysters for eight bucks, comes with a glove and shucking knife.

October 17, 2008   Comments