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New York City, October 15 – Breakfast

I don’t know which was the crazier idea: deciding to walk through 32 blocks of traffic and pedestrian-laden New York City streets, or ending that journey by casually strolling into the Hotel Plaza Athenee, sans reservation, for breakfast.

To my surprise, the hostess did not bat an eye at my denim-clad, slightly-sweaty form as I requested a table for one.  She ushered me into the dining room and tucked me away into a far corner, which gave me a full view of the space.  The chandelier lit a high-ceilinged area, yellow with cream accents.  Harp music played softly on an overhead sound system.  As I was presented with the coffee service, I lifted the urn and found it to be silver and heavy in the way that the carafes at IHOP aren’t.

Don’t get me wrong.  Usually, when I find myself solo in New York City, I’d be spending breakfast on the run, with a Krispy Kreme doughnut in one hand and a grande Starbucks in the other.  But today I was lured to the Plaza Athenee by their new Chinese Breakfast, which offered a broad variety of authentic Asian delicacies curated to appeal to the Eastern palate.  Intensely curious, and with no appointment until the afternoon, I decided that a thorough investigation was in order.

The first offering was a bowl of congee, which I had always referred to as jook when I was growing up.  Served with a side of chopped scallion, the presentation could not have been more elegant.  Yet, as is the case with most comfort food from childhood, I found the congee to have missed the mark.  As a preparation, it was textbook – grains of white rice, cooked until they’ve collapsed into a soft, smooth porridge.  The texture was spot-on.  Unfortunately, there was little flavor to be found, even after garnishing with scallion.  In my household, there would always be bits of salted pork or chicken mixed throughout, adding both flavor as well as a certain level of luxurious fat to the dish.  It occurred to me later that maybe it was my responsibility to season the dish, much like when you order grits in the South, but there was little indication that this was the case.

Thankfully, the meal improved from there.  The second course consisted of a two-tiered bamboo steamer, with three steamed buns (bao) on the upper level and a variety of dim sum underneath.  Each bun held a different filling, and I was pleasantly surprised to bite into the first to discover a sweet egg custard inside.  I’ve never had it before, and it was one of the best things that I’ve ever tasted.  From there, I proceeded to finish off the shredded pork bun (a classic filling that was well-executed) and the bean paste bun (never my first preference, but still fairly good).

The dim sum were the standard “safe” options, with three har kow (shrimp) and three shui mai (pork), with nary a chicken foot in sight.  Both varieties were excellent, bearing the expected thin dumpling skin surrounding very fresh, perfectly seasoned contents.  Along the way, the dining captain delivered a tea-boiled egg alongside a small bowl of soy.  The egg looked like an orb of alabaster, with streaks of gray where the tea had soaked through the cracks of the shell.  And yet, for all of that presentation, I still found it to be too similar, in both taste and texture, to a standard boiled egg.

I took my time finishing the meal, watching the servers and the dining captain cater to the small handful of occupied tables in the room.  Each dish may not have looked like a lot of food, but the cumulative effect was quite filling.  I asked for the check, expressed some sadness at the lack of a room number to sign it to, and took to the streets of Manhattan to walk off breakfast.

*the above photo layout is courtesy of Diptic.  Check them out on the App Store!

October 25, 2012   Comments

Summer Fancy Food Show – The Third Time’s The Charm

Pace yourself,” I was told as I picked up my badge at the registration desk for this summer’s Fancy Food Show.  Truer words were never spoken.

Three years ago, I attended my first Fancy Food Show at the Jacob Javits Center in New York, where I proceeded to utterly fail at pacing myself.  Upon entering the cavernous exhibit halls, I was immediately overwhelmed by the cornucopia of high-end cheese, chocolate, olive oil and other specialty food offerings, all accompanied by the background hum of the distributors, producers, brokers, and other industry representatives wheeling and dealing in a dozen different languages.  It’s magical.  It’s electric.  It is also very exhausting.

By the time we had reached the end of the second aisle, as measured from the front of the Javits Center to the back wall, we found ourselves full from samples, our progress slowing and hampered by our efforts to negotiate the crowds.  The worst part?  It took us close to an hour just to get through two aisles. Over the next two days of nearly constant walking, sampling, and frequent stops to rest, we only managed to see about a third of the 2,300 exhibiting companies that year.

The next year, having obviously not learned my lesson from the prior year, I made the naive commitment to covering the entire show, all floors, all booths.  Over the course of three days, I hit every vendor from every nook and cranny of the culinary universe – from the largest European pavilions down to the Mom and Pop businesses selling products based on a family recipe.  On the third day, after visiting the most remote booths of the lower level of the convention center, my mission was accomplished.  But instead of feeling a sense of achievement, I felt burned out, unable to process all of the information into a coherent thought.  My legs and back hurt for days afterwards.

This year, I settled on a hybrid approach to covering the Fancy Food Show, one that would focus on discovering the vendors and products that were nominated for sofi awards, considered by many to be the Oscars of the specialty food industry.  I would bypass any vendors that were already familiar to me, or whose products I had already sampled in earlier visits.  I would seek out products that were awarded the sofi Silver awards, with special attention to those that were in the running for sofi Gold awards.  I was intent on walking the entire exhibit floor, but not necessarily stopping at each exhibitor.  It would be the equivalent of strolling through an art museum, but not reading the description of each individual work.

There are, of course, always exceptions to the “no familiar vendors” rule.  It’s an imperative to visit the Vosges booth to sample such wares as their Black Salt Caramel Bar (sofi Gold winner for Chocolate) and to indulge in what was probably the best brownie that I’ve ever had in my lifetime, still warm from the oven.  Nueske’s produces the finest bacon and smoked meat products on the planet, so it would be ludicrous to bypass a free sample.  Sometimes, you can even be caught off guard by a food that’s familiar, but produced at a level of quality that far exceeds anything you’d expect from a packaged product, as was the case with the Hancock Gourmet Lobster Co.’s line of products that included lobster pot pie, lobster corn chowder, and lobster mac and cheese that you would swear were never frozen.  sofi Gold winner for Outstanding Product Line?  Absolutely.

One of the thrills of attending a Fancy Food Show is being able to spot and taste innovative products before they hit the mainstream, and sometimes before they’re even released for sale to the public.  For example, one of last year’s most interesting new products, black garlic, is just now starting to appear on grocery store shelves.  Not the same as roasted garlic, black garlic presents itself as a sweet and savory flavor that’s hard to identify at first, and it’s starting to see integration into restaurant dishes.  Garlic also played prominently in this year’s awards, with the sofi Gold award for best new product going to GarLic It!, which describes itself as a private reserve caramelized garlic finish.  Having received a sample of GarLic It! a few days ago, I popped open the jar and stirred a tablespoon of the bronze shards into a pot of orzo, transforming it into an upscale accompaniment without any effort whatsoever.

It’s the thrill of these types of discoveries that keeps me coming back to the Fancy Food Show.  I even found the change of venue to Washington DC, triggered by long-term renovation work at the Javits Center, to be refreshing, since I was able to leave the convention center and be within walking distance of the hotel and other points of interest.

August 16, 2011   Comments

Scenes From a Birthday Party

You wouldn’t expect a birthday party for a six year old to include house-cured duck prosciutto and steak tartare, but then again, it’s not every day that a restaurant has a birthday party.

We had the fortune of being invited to the sixth anniversary birthday party for Alison at Blue Bell, Chef Alison Barshak’s second venture since her return to the Philadelphia area in 2001.  As the sunlight of late afternoon faded into an early evening dusk, we mingled among roughly a hundred friends, family, and associates, all of whom had come to celebrate the restaurant’s entry into its sixth year.  That, and also the pig.

That’s where this story actually begins, with a tweet about a pig.  On Twitter, Chef Barshak had started following me, and having heard a great many good things about her, I followed her back.  Over the course of a week or so, I followed her updates and watched with interest as she started mentioning the preparations for this party.  She noted that they were pit roasting a whole pig for the event – an exchange of DMs led to an invitation to join the fete.

We arrived right at 5pm to find Alison at Blue Bell nearly empty – the kitchen was in its final moments of preparation, and guests who shared our sense of timing were standing around making small talk.  We were offered our choice of sangria or beer, and we settled into a table, nursing our drinks while partaking of pita wedges and hummus, only a mere preview of what was soon to come out of a kitchen that was clearly running on all cylinders.  By the end of the evening, I was glad that we arrived when we did – within an hour, all of the seats and tables in the small bistro would be filled, and latecomers would find themselves standing for much of the meal.

Standing turned out to be not as bad as one would expect.  Service was flawless, with the servers flowing through the crowd with trays of passed hors d’oeuvres like a performance of culinary ballet dancers (kudos to the server who, after witnessing my repeated failures in getting a sample of the bacalao fritters, made a priority out of dashing from the kitchen straight to our table when the next tray became available).  In addition to the constantly rotating offerings that were emerging from the kitchen, a long table running the length of the dining room featured platters of oysters and bowls heaped to overflowing with caesar and garden salads.  I typically don’t expect great things from salad, but the garden salad caught me off guard, bursting with the flavors of mint, tomatoes, radishes, tarragon, and snow peas in a light vinaigrette.

To date, I am still amazed at how well the handful of servers at Alison at Blue Bell managed to cater to that many people, with such a grand variety of dishes.  There were the aforementioned bacalao fritters, small marble-sized croquettes of fish, quickly breaded and fried, the delicate nature of the cod offset by the salty hit of a disk of chorizo sausage.  Wooden skewers bore small pieces of sweet melon wrapped in the house-made duck prosciutto, a combination that was only enhanced by a small dollop of mint pesto.  Small anchovies, known as boquerones in Spain, were accented with baby artichoke and bread crumbs.  The mozzarella en carozza were light pillows of cheese, breaded and flash-fried – the perfect food-on-a-stick, something that ought to come by the dozen in a paper cone at the ballpark.  Hangar steak tartare was served on crostini, topped with a sharp gorgonzola.  Bowls of lamb meatballs and tomato sauce were a surprising departure from standard beef-pork-veal combination. Small dishes served to bear a single ravioli, a delicate envelope of pasta wrapped around an eggplant filling and served with a sauce that bore the unmistakable tang of goat’s milk.

Among this panoply of treasures were more than a few outstanding preparations worth noting specifically.  Hollow egg shells were transformed into serving cups, holding an absolutely heavenly spring pea and parmesan custard, its foamy lightness tempered by the slightest hint of earthy truffle.  Shot glasses were filled with warm sunchoke soup blended with the irresponsibly decadent combination of foie gras and truffle.  Of these, I probably ate more than I should have, but I would have regretted it had I not.  You know those dishes that haunt your dreams?  I now have two more.

While all of this was going on, the pig slowly rotated on a spit outside, its skin having turned to bronze from the heat of the charcoal beneath it.  My overindulgence meant that when it was time to serve the pork, I admittedly wasn’t very hungry anymore, but when Alison Barshak presents you with something that has spent the better part of a day in the making, you don’t refuse.  It was an interesting choice to serve the slices of spit-roasted pork with a tonnato sauce, that concoction of tuna, olive oil, and mayonnaise that is more traditionally served as an accompaniment to veal.  I ate maybe three-quarters of one slice of pork before realizing that I had to throttle back to ensure that there was enough room for the cake.

Cake? Cake!  Of course, every birthday party needs a cake, and this party was no exception.  Like the prosciuttio (and, I suspect, everything else) the cake was made in-house, but that’s not really surprising given the caliber of the kitchen.  The really outstanding aspect of the cake, something that has made me completely forget mostly all of the other details about it – was the filling.  Running throughout the center of the cake was a layer of burnt caramel filling, the best of all worlds sweet, smokey, and dark, which pulled everything else about the cake – the frosting, the crumb, into a perfect synergy of flavors.

Happy birthday, Alison at Blue Bell.  You sure know how to throw down.

May 16, 2009   Comments

Interviewing Twitter about Food

Over the course of a week, I posted a single interview question every morning to Twitter and recorded your responses.  Some observations:

1. When it came to rating a meal as the “most memorable” or wanting to repeat a meal as your final dish ever, emotions definitely come into play, particularly regarding who would accompany you at the table, or who would prepare the meal for you.  The food, in these situations, was not as important as the company.

2. Generally, bad service can cast even the best food in a bad light.

3. It is possible to get bad pizza in NYC.

All responses are in their original form and remain unedited.  And with that, on to the questions:

Question 1: In the 60s/70s, Duck a L’Orange was the iconic symbol of haute cuisine. What, in your opinion, is today’s equivalent?

@ElBueno Hmm… Foie gras seems to get a lot of attention, but never interested me. Is ‘I don’t know’ a valid answer?

@StephWeber 3 things come to mind- foie gras, caviar, truffles. They’re not in my diet, but they seem to have a *shmeh* aura about them

@melomel Any dish involving molecular gastronomy has become increasingly popular. And truffles. Everyone’s nuts about truffles.

@sgabarik – tapas / asian-anything fusion.

@banana_stand i’ve been to and work at a restaurant that does a take on poutine, the classic canadian comfort food. With fingerling potatoes, artisinal cheese, fois gras, and a fine brown sauce, it has infinite potential for excellence!

@HannahAmick tuna tartare

Question 2:Describe your most memorable meal, including what made it so special. Remember, responses should be two tweets or less!

@multikulinaria For me memorable and humbling was when visiting with our interpreter’s elderly parents in a poor village in Bangladesh.They cooked two of their chickens for us. Not even sure any other chickens were left to them. I hardly think so.

@ElBueno BD dinner for my fiancee. Made bruschetta, duck over bacon/arugula crepes, and apple tart over hot cinnamon ice cream.

@SmokeInDaEye Windows on the World dinner after asking my wife to marry me. Don’t recall what I ate but wish I could do it again

@StephWeber Dinner at Alba in Malvern, my X-mas gift to my husband. Most delicious, juicy, flavorful steak & pork dishes we’ve ever had

@melomel It’s a tie between the engagement dinner party that you and Jen threw for us (amazing grilled cheese and tomato soup) and Ray and my 2-year anniversary dinner at Vetri last summer…wonderful melt-in-your-mouth pasta! Both meals were great.

@TailgatingTimes Jean-Georges 5 course dinner with wine on the company in Internet heyday. Kevin Bacon & Kyra were across the room.

@domesticDIY Last Thanksgiving we did an Asian theme. General Tso’s chicken, thai soup, eggrolls, pot stickers, and fried rice. Yummy!

@banana_stand A traditional hangi meal of chicken, lamb, potatoes, and other things cooked in a dirt hangi pit and left to roast all day – New Zealand on a Maori marae by the nicest ppl. old school cooking culture at its best. Truly an amazing people and culture

Question 3: Whether homemade or dining out, describe your most disappointing meal, detailing why it was so awful.

@ChefAsata 2 words: bad service. What a downer. Nothing sucks worse that being treated like an imposition.

@StephWeber When I was first teaching myself to cook (I must have been 19 or 20), I tried making my own recipe, lemon-garlic chicken. At the time, I didn’t know garlic burned quickly, and it ruined the whole dish. I ate it anyway, but I was very discouraged

@melomel I had a pretty awful Shepherd’s Pie at McGillin’s Olde Ale House…the chef didn’t use enough salt (or any) and the meat…was a strange texture. The final blow was the lack of salt and pepper on the table. I couldn’t even fix it myself!

@zoeythegreat Most disappointing meal: $22 plate of “onion-crusted grouper” that was clearly breaded with French’s Fried Onions. Horrid.

@uglyhermit Bland, flavorless pizza in a New York city parking garage turned pizza parlor.

Question 4: When it comes to dining out, what contributes more to a great meal – the quality of the food or the service?

@melomel The quality of the meal contributes more to a great meal; if the food sucks but the service is good, it’s not the same. But, if the food is amazing and the service is outstanding, then that makes it a meal you can’t stop talking about.

@Greg888 Too long for RT, but bad service dinning out is the least forgivable mistake a restaurant or diner can make

@alandaviddoane Good food trumps good service, but both are a must for a truly great experience.

@StephWeber Definitely the food. I don’t care if the service is so good that they give me a back massage during the meal, the quality of the food is what I’ll remember. Servers are mostly salesmen for the meal.

@AteToTheBar Food’s more important. Good service helps but can’t really make up for bad food; but good food can trump bad service.

@seidson Bad service does ruin good food. I have vowed never to go to certain restaurants due to bad service

@ChefAsata bad service may ruin the experience, but amazing food always shines… like a sincere smile or a diamond in candlelight.

@uglyhermit Bad service can make or break a meal. Dining out is all about the TOTAL experience. I’ve had $200 meals with $2 service.

@floatingprncess Bad service absolutely ruins good food!

@Foodie_Chick I think bad service sours a good meal. Happened to me tonight! I’ve almost forgotten how much I liked my duck confit.

@cookerteacher Bad service definately contributes to the quality of the food. A restaurant is an entire package! Reputation is everything

Question Five – If you had a say in it, what would you select as your final meal?

@HealthySpices I am not ready to think about my final meal I am thinking about many more to come

@seidson 1st time I made apple crisp for my now husband. He asked me to marry him it was so good. :)

@StephWeber I’ve been trying to think of some amazing elaborate last meal since you posted the question, but I keep coming back to my mom’s chicken francais with angel hair pasta. Simple, delicious comfort food. Can’t beat that.

@melomel For my final meal, I would want Ray to repeat what he made for my 27th birthday. A meal made with love.Mango prosciutto cheese bruschetta, duck over savory herb crepes, and hot cinnamon ice cream over apples and puff pastry.

@ElBueno London broil, marinated in whisky, soy sauce, and lime, seasoned with dill. Fresh tomatoes and corn.Grilled outside (except for the tomatoes). Beer, choosing at the last moment. On a backyard deck with friends.

April 6, 2009   Comments

Notes from a West African Wake

Last weekend, my wife and I had just come home from grocery shopping and were in the process of unloading the car in our garage when our neighbor Nelson, who is from Cameroon in West Africa, came trotting up from across the street.

We know Nelson only peripherally, and have only had occasional contact with him since he and his family moved into the neighborhood last July.  He always smiles and waves to us at those times when we’re all out in the street getting mail or mowing the grass, but we’ve never really seen his wife and we’re not sure how many children they have.  We invited them to our Obscenely Big Barbecue Bash last summer, but considering they had just moved in, it’s understandable that they did not attend.

He explained that his wife’s father had passed away the week before, and that there were a bunch of friends and family coming over to their house that evening for a wake at 8pm.  We offered our condolences, and told him that he could have his visitors park in our driveway if need be, since we presumed that that was the reason why he came over to talk to us.  Instead, though, he invited us over for “some beer, and some coke, and some songs”.  We told him that we would be glad to come over, and that’d we’d finish up dinner and come by later.

So, at 9:30, we decided to make an appearance and walked across the street.  We met his wife, conveyed our condolences on the loss of her father, and entered the house.  As it turns out, Nelson had gone up and down the street knocking on doors, trying to invite people over, but we’re the only ones that showed up – the rest of the party was strictly friends and family, all recent immigrants from Cameroon.  A number of covered dishes were assembled on the kitchen island, but it was apparent that they had not begun to eat yet, as people were still arriving.

Over the next hour and a half, we sat there and watched various friends and family members arrive while the television played videotapes of West African Christian music videos.  Small talk was limited, as, surprisingly, we do not speak a single one of the dozens of languages presently in use in Cameroon, and the friends and family were deeply engrossed in conversation with one another in their native tongue.

At around 11pm, Nelson’s wife gathered everyone together and said a few words about her father (who, until his death, was still a police officer in Cameroon, and she was to embark on the 16 hour journey there the next day), read a passage from the Bible, and then we all sang a hymn.  At around 11:30pm, she invited everyone to partake of the food that was in the kitchen.

Which brings me to the point of this post, at last.

This was a fascinating experience, as I had never had the opportunity to try West African cuisine before, and this was even better because it was not restaurant-prepared.  As I made my way around the table, I could identify plantains, small bags of white stuff, a platter of barbecued goat, various beignets and other baked goods, roasted chicken, greens, and a tureen of soup.

I tried to get a little bit of everything, but in a respectful this-is-a-wake kind of way and not, say, in a Old Country Buffet kind of way.  The goat was excellent, as tender as pork and not at all dry.  The plantains were very bland, as was the white stuff which I later discovered to be Fufu, and then later I realized that these bland foods are supposed to be paired with spicy dishes, serving as the starch base much like rice, grits, and pasta – all bland base foods of their own cultures.  I eated them wrong.

The greens were not unlike the greens that we find in the South, a little bitter and prepared with some bits of meat (ham, maybe?).  The roasted chicken was the most familiar food on the table, but with its own spice that clearly indicated its cultural origins.

Before we left, and at Nelson’s urging, I went back and got a small bowl of soup.  It was a simple broth, made a little cloudy by the spices and meat that was simmered in it.  I took a spoonful and found it to be incredibly rich due to the fat that had come off of the meat…and also spicy as all hell.  It was, at this moment, that I realized that there was a small group of people watching me experience my first taste of Pepper Soup.

It was amazingly hot, and amazingly good.  One of the family friends remarked that she felt nothing when she tasted it, and that the soup was what they would give to children in Cameroon.  As my mouth burned with the fire of Africa itself, I wondered to myself whether West African children would really give us Americans a run for our money in buffalo wing eating contests.

I soldiered on and finished the bowl, declining Nelson’s continued entreaties to get more soup, this time with the wiggly bits of fatty meat.  I would have loved to, but by this time it was well past midnight, and I’m trying to cut back on wiggly meat bits after midnight.

April 17, 2008   Comments

The Dry Run – Braised Short Ribs Over Polenta

We are hosting a dinner party for around ten people on April 26, and I’ve been menu-planning in my head ever since I first found out about it. The reason for the get-together is to celebrate the engagement of one of the couples in attendance, so I wanted to go a little further than your typical casual crowd food.

Last night, I did a dry run for one of the dishes that I was considering making for the dinner – braised short ribs over polenta. To make a long story short, while I can see tweaking this into a great dish, I think I’m going to continue searching for a better main course.

One of the problems that I ran into involved the translation of a recipe meant to serve several people into one that serves only one or two. I had bought about a pound of short ribs (three ribs, to be exact) and had seasoned them overnight with a mixture of salt, pepper, rosemary, and thyme. The next day (which was yesterday), I browned the ribs, added red wine, and then placed the covered pot into the oven to cook for the requisite two hours.

The original recipe, which I obtained from epicurious.com, calls for two bottles of wine and 8 or 9 pounds of ribs. I estimated, quite incorrectly, that two cups of wine were enough. As the evening wore on, the pleasant smell of roasted meat and red wine gradually turned harsher, and I checked on it just in time to save it from becoming a scorched mess. The wine had simmered away to nothing, but thankfully the fatty nature of the short ribs prevented them from burning. I added more wine and finished the cooking.

Following the recipe, I whipped up a quick batch of boxed polenta, and, taking a cue from a recent recipe that I saw in a magazine, added some gorgonzola and chopped almonds. As a final step, the short ribs are topped with a gremolata, which is a mixture of chopped parsley, lemon zest, and garlic. I’ve used gremolata before, as a finishing step to osso buco, so I was not hesitant to implement it here.

So, the end result is what you see here. The short ribs were very tender, with no hint of scorching at all, although you can see that simmering anything in red wine for two hours is going to turn it very dark. I was disappointed in the texture of the polenta, and vow never to make it from a box mix again. The gremolata could have benefited from being covered and cooked on top of the ribs for about five minutes, as the flavor of the raw garlic was a bit much. This is what I do with osso buco, and I should have carried the technique over to this recipe.

Ultimately, though, even though I know that these fixes would make the dish much better, I will not be making it for the dinner party for the simple fact that it is way too heavy for this time of year. Even after only one rib, I was completely stuffed, and I intend to serve about three courses at the dinner, plus dessert.

I could imagine this recipe for cold weather, but as the sun is finally up when we leave for work and when we get back home, and my tulip bulbs are blooming, it just isn’t the appropriate time of year to serve this dish.

The search continues.

April 14, 2008   Comments