Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Alinea Conquers Spain (Or at least Spain’s Top Food Critic)

August 12, 2009

After reading a recent editorial by the famed Spanish food critic Rafael García Santos on the twilight of the Spanish Culinary Vanguard, I decided to browse his restaurant guide, Lo mejor de la gastronomía, to see who still makes the cut.

Like most readers of lists, I sought out the parts most pertinent to me, namely the few and far between American selections.   Therein I found Thomas Keller—Per Se, not the French Laundry—was up pretty high, a step above Pierre Gagnaire in fact, with an 8.5 on a 10 point scale.  Wylie Dufresne’s WD~50 also had a solid finish finish at 8.0.

Most notable however was Grant Achatz’s Alinea at number 2, with a stunning 9.5. He was, in fact, but one spot behind Ferrán Adrià’s El Bulli.  The answer to the question of what Adrià will come up with next may come not from his devotees in Spain but those working abroad.

If some argue that Argentina is a European country located by a quirk of God in South America, then Achatz is making a convincing case that Chicago is a small Northern Spanish town located by a quirk of God in Illinois.

Blowout at Blue Smoke : A Restaurant Week Winner

August 10, 2009

Fancy restaurants don’t usually succeed on the restaurant week downgrade.  They grit their teeth and toss out salmon and chicken that we grit our teeth and eat.  Yes, the toilet paper and linens are the same at Jean George, the Modern and elsewhere during RW, but the food almost always looks and tastes like the catering version of the real thing.

So why ask upmarket to go down when it’s so much easier for downmarket to go up? Abundance and variety are easily added. Cheap subs for expensive ingredients, however, are hard to hide.

With that thought in mind, I headed to Blue Smoke for a delightful feast at a relatively low price point.  Barbecue is all about making the most of cheap meat, so I had no fear of rubber salmon or chicken.  My optimism was amply rewarded.

Yes, there were some duds amidst the delights, but I’ll definitely be back.  Below are five picks and pans from the meal.

1. Too tart yellow tomato gazpacho with pickled onions: Way too tart, vinegar heavy to point of pain.  Also, a bit one note in the flavor and color departments.  An herb or two on top and a slick of olive oil could have fixed the problem in an instant.   Gazpacho is a very easy dish to make look good and a pretty easy dish to make taste good.  This was neither.  Since the chef was out front interviewing prospective employees, I will have to lay the blame on the sous chef.

2. Succulent short ribs: The meat was beautifully cooked.  The ribs were tender, flavorful and kept enough textural contrast to keep each bite interesting.  It tasted like those “mountains of beef” ads make you think beef should taste, kind of like getting a cup of coffee that tastes the way it smells.  N.B.: Lose or replace the succotash type base of brown sauce, lima beans and corn.  It added little to the plate.

3. Superb shortcake with blackberry ice cream and whipped cream: The highlight of the meal.  Moist steaming center on the shortcake with snapcrackle crust.  Best I’ve had in years.  Super ripe fruit was unexpectedly intense in flavor.  A bit of lemon in the cream balanced the tastes beautifully.  I’ve been to Blue Smoke a dozen times, but this was the first visit when dessert was the best part.  Like Otto, Blue Smoke has finally added sweets worthy of its savories.

4. Delaminating lemonade: Housemade isn’t always a good thing.  As overtart as the yellow tomato gazpacho.  I can’t imagine this teeth tingler was made by the same pastry chef who put together the shortcake.  Next time I’ll get an IBC root beer and damage my dentition at a more deliberate pace.

5. Superlative service: Not many people were eating at 3:00 when I arrived and none were dining solo and boozeless.  Neither feature stopped my server from being as attentive, friendly and competent as she would have been to a sixtop slugging Barolo and house bourbon.

Closing thoughts: The deviled eggs are too good to resist ordering even when faced with a plentiful RW prix-fixe.   They aren’t that filling, and they are that good.  Next time, I’ll add a “supplement” to my tasting menu.  I’d do the same with the toasted ravioli, though only if I had the fish special instead of the short ribs.  Even gluttony has its limits!

Blue Hill: Conscientious Calvinist Cuisine

August 10, 2009

I’ve been coming to Blue Hill since it opened, and I have always admired the ambition if not always the results of Dan Barber’s continual searching and reinvention.  There was a citrus phase, which was delightful during the lemon period but not so much when grapefruit was predominant.   And there was a time when asparagus was a little too ubiquitous.  On my last few visits those distortions were gone.  Local and seasonal no longer meant lapses into monothematic and monochromatic menus.

That said, it’s been a while since I’ve checked in, so I thought it was time this summer, when I’m using neither the season nor the weekend as verbs, to head to the island flagship.  I was especially keen to do so after enjoying Barber’s vegetable dish at this year’s C-CAP benefit.   He put together a striped beet dish with a horseradish cream that was visually stunning and tasty, a platonic ideal of Borscht.   If he could do such things with vegetables in February, I could only imagine what he’d have of on offer in July when things were really in season.

Hoping to get the widest spectrum of tastes, I opted for the Farmer’s menu.  It was by no means a disappointment, but it was also by no means a delight.  An opening amuse of oil slicked snowpeas, tomatoes and carrots on a bed of nails was whimsical in a retro-Inquisition chic/Grant Achatz house made tableware sort of way, but it didn’t taste good enough to justify the presentation. This was an Alinea-style setup without any payoff.

A followup series of spreads with Olive Garden type breadsticks was the most generous and hearty dish of the night.  The pork fat was tasty, as was the ricotta and the house butter.   Unfortunately, it was a last ditch burst of flavor before blandness and boredom set in.

Lobster on a bed of tomatoes didn’t make the case for the combination, which is usually a no-brainer.  Neither had much flavor and neither benefited from the pairing.  A much talked about chicken course was best for its broth but lacked the succulence of Bouley’s sous vide version—which Barber should know well—or the simple heartiness of a dozen roast chickens on offer elsewhere in the City.   It didn’t take Curnonsky’s maxim of food tasting of itself far enough.  The result, like much of the meal, was a course that tasted like high grade spa food.

No red meat followed the chicken—lamb, ostrich or beef could have done wonders for giving some weight to the end of the savory progression.  Rather, we went straight into what were somewhat deceptively labelled “desserts.”

A strawberry canneloni—more like a fruit rollup—continued the diet feel as did another unmemorable entry.   Here again, a single addition could have solved the problem.  A chocolate or caramel based dessert could have brought much needed closure to the meal and left me with a sense of the kitchen’s generosity.   Instead I felt a subtle nudge either to go take a jog or to go eat a few slices of lardo pizza over at Otto.

Additional thoughts: Food service was warm, intuitive, knowledgeable and flexible. Wine selections, especially a Loire sparkler and a semi-oxidized Alabariño were interesting, appetizing and well-priced.  Wine service was also well thought out with one exception: one person at our table stopped drinking after a certain course but was still charged the full pairing price, something I’ve never seen happen before.

Conclusions:  Avoid the tasting menu and enjoy excellent food.  Tasting menus have become tourist traps at far too many upscale restaurants.  People think they’re getting a greatest hits but end up with safe selections meant to offend no one—kind of like cruise ship fare—and excite almost no one.  The best, riskiest and most interesting selections were all on the a la carte menu, and that’s where I should have made my choices.

Sticking to my intuitions rather than handing over the reins to the chef, I could have pieced together a meal worthy of my memories of Blue Hill past.  Barber is a  man who cooks his own food and writes his own articles, which makes him 1) a rarity and 2) an artist and advocate worth supporting.  Next time I hope to get a better taste of his talent.

Jim Lahey’s Co.: A Wallet Whapper Worth a Walk But Not A Taxi

August 10, 2009

Jim Lahey has a great publicist.  What he doesn’t have is a great pizza.  His cheese and tomato sauce are pleasant enough on his margherita pizza—a good margherita is the litmus test for a good pizzeria like a good vanilla ice cream is for a gelateria—but pleasant doesn’t cut it at this price point or at this level of customer expectations.  Further, cheese and sauce are more about good shopping than cooking.

The real mark of mastery and the real story here is supposed to be the crust.  Not a surprise when the owner made his name baking bread at Sullivan Street Bakery.  Lahey’s turns out to be fine but nothing to start a blog war over.  On a pair of recent visits, the crust on my pizzas was inoffensive but also uninteresting.  There was not enough textural variety or taste intensity to make me want to continue past a second hunger-sating slace.  In short, nothing close to the New Haven coal oven canon of Frank Pepe’s, Sally’s and Modern where pot bellied pie heads order extra rounds of pizza like beerbellied barflies order extra rounds of drinks.

A few pros: Décor is a step up on the ratty old pie houses of Wooster Square and its environs.  Beer and wine by the glass are well selected and not quite punitively priced.  Finally, service at Co. is warm and competent.  The staff skews young and male and sort of looks like a  Midwestern JV football team.  Not quite Danny Meyer land but also a far cry from the surliness of Sally’s.

Conclusions: No reason why this shouldn’t be a local favorite.  No reason why it should be a citywide phenomenon. I’m not saying they need a gimmick like Beau Jo’s Colorado style supercrust for after meal honey dipping—though I’d love to see one here—but something needs to be added to the mix to make Co. a magnet for Metro Area pizza pilgrims.   Next time you want to head on a pie pilgrimage, save your money for Metro North tickets and head north.

Eleven Madison Park: Overdue for an Extra Star

July 28, 2009

For a year or so, Danny Meyer has been declaring the rise of the quick turn improvised meal and the fall of the long format prix fixe lunch and dinner.  Putting his money where the mouths are, he’s added greater flexibility to nearly all of his restaurants’  dining options.   There’s one exception to this trend of letting people determine length, order and quantity of their meals, namely Eleven Madison Park’s stubbornly rigorous multi-course lunches and many course dinners.  I think the reason is simple: Such are the apparent requirements of the Times 4 Star review, the one accolade that’s eluded Mr. Meyer.

EMP is definitely an ambitious restaurant, Meyer’s most ambitious restaurant, and on some nights this past winter, it seemed like Meyer’s folly.  I have to imagine he took a hit to keep it running at full speed when the crowds thinned.  Fortunately,  Meyer has had a restaurant empire to keep this place going during the rough patches.  And when we come out of this downturn, it should join the City’s elite.

Why bump it to four stars?  Because it’s not the same restaurant it was a few years ago.  Meyer’s restaurants always get better with time.   Name another restaurateur so intent on relentlessly revising and improving his restaurants based on guest feedback.  Name another restaurateur whose restaurants consistently get better after their third or fourth years under a chef.  That’s why  Meyer’s restaurants nearly always merit a rereview.

Fans are everywhere, and so are a few major doubters.  That’s fine.  But if you’ve been to 4-starred Daniel, Le Bernardin or Jean Georges lately, you have to ask what they have that EMP doesn’t.  Yes, their chefs are far more influential–each has at least one national trend to his credit–but they’re also far more leveraged.    While  Goldman is down to leveraging its money 14:1,  Jean Georges seems intent on leveraging his flagship’s name and stars at ever greater ratios.  Just how many kitchens can he visit?  Boulud isn’t far behind.   Even Keller has joined the expansion fray.

Yes, Humm doesn’t have a foie and short rib stuffed burger or salmon cornet with his name on it, but he does have a restaurant executing gorgeous and delicious food  with service to match.  He also has the best wine program in the City.  It’s time for the critics to set the record straight.   Go forth and add the star, Frank.  EMP is ready to join the club.  Present day fans already know how far the restaurant has come.  Potential fans should know as well.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: Five Features to Cut or Keep at Gahm Mi Oak

July 28, 2009

Below is the best and worst of a recent meal at Gahm Mi Oak ((43 W. 32nd St.)

1. Poolside Putrefaction: The restaurant smelled like mildewed pool towels.  Perhaps the spa next door shares an air vent?  Perhaps neither has an air vent?

2. Too Tough Kimchi: Servers scissored the kimchi tableside, which was fine since forks and knives aren’t offered, but they needed to scissor every subsequent bite.  These were some tough leaves!  That said, a hint of effervescence from fermentation was pleasant enough.

3. Kimchi Bin Dae Duk: The Real IHOP Pancake: If only IHOP would start serving the world’s true bounty of savory international pancakes, starting with Chinese scallion pancakes and finishing with these delightful Korean mung-bean pancakes. Unlike greasy scallion pancakes though, these thicker numbers are delicate enough to make me forget what brought the goodness together, hot oil.  An added bonus, here they’ll serve a single disk to a solo diner.

4. Bibim Bap.  Presented beautifully with all the components segmented out into pie chart wedges.  It was a childlike pleasure to swirl them together with bean paste and broth.  Resulting flavors skewed towards the musty earthy side, which was fine, but a little more clarity of flavor components would have been nice.  I could see the variety of ingredients but I couldn’t really taste it.

5. Best for Boys’ Night Out: Once again Korean food shows itself to be a less refined—artful edibles not edible art—and far more virile version of its regional competitors.  It’s also a great reason to start, continue or recover from a drinking bout.  That said, these virtues are possessed by many a Korean restaurant, and are better represented on the block’s barbecue and chicken restaurants.

Conclusions: Not quite a clip joint, but you’d do yourself a service to head to Queens for better-priced, better-spiced fare.  There’s a reason so many diners here have rolling suitcases.

Hitching Post II: A Beard House Disaster

July 27, 2009

It’s hard not to please food fans when fat, sugar, caffeine and alcohol are offered in unabashed abundance.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve liked nearly every meal I’ve had at the Beard House.  Nearly every meal.  Once in a while a visiting restaurant manages the mean feat of making  me wish I’d stayed home.  Such was the case with the Hitching Post II.

So next time they’re in town, avoid the temptation to give the sequel a second chance.  Instead, order “Sideways” from Netflix,  broil up a couple of Lobel’s steaks and open a bottle of Sea Smoke Southing.   Miles and Jack would do the same. 

Below are a few observations from a meal that sent me running East  to Otto for a restorative lardo pizza and grappa chaser. 

1) So-so starters: Sweet potato puree congealed over toast rounds with shredded pork. The half-full trays going back to the kitchen made clear that I wasn’t the only one voting with my stomach.  Fifties style rumpus room quality mushroom caps set the amateur tone for what followed.

2) Chintzy Chardonnay: Forget about the oak vs. steel and malolactic vs. natural fermentation debates.  This wine had bigger problems, like going corky on the nose and flat on the tongue.  I now know why Miles stuck to Pinot.

3) Substandard Steak Frites/Hyposubstandard Steak:  French fries do not belong at the Beard House;  bad french fries really don’t belong, particularly on a plate with gray and grainy banquet hall steak.   N.B.: Forget the mesquite; upgrade the meat.  I’d have sent the wan flesh hunk back if I’d been in a restaurant and fed it to my least favorite pet if I’d been at home.

4)Sour grapes and a bitter ending: Dearth of Dessert made a bad evening worse.    Closer was not big or good enough.

5) Conclusions: Barbecue travels about as well as panda bears and orchids.  Either go for a local urban product–Blue Smoke, Hill Country, etc.–or go the source.

Another Roadside Distraction: Amagansett’s Lobster Roll (Lunch)

July 27, 2009

The oyster pan roast and the lobster roll are two dishes that need to die.  Both used to be poor men’s suppers; both are now willful and wasteful anachronisms.  Luxury ingredients need to be showcased not hidden.  And luxury ingredients gone bad or borderline need to be discarded not disguised.

Such is the case with Grand Central Oyster Bar’s overhyped oleaginous oyster stew.  Their version is all cream, potato, paprika and bivalves on the edge of e.coli overload.  It tastes less of the sea than the sewer, as do the restaurant’s raw offerings on the bookends to the workweek.

For its part, Lobster Roll’s (1980 Montauk Highway E.) version of its namesake dish is undeniably safe and inoffensive but also inexcusably bland.  First do no harm, sure, but then don’t bore me either.  In any case, neither restaurant is more than a road or rail side distraction in its current form, and neither dish merits the time or money.

If you are going to stake your name on a single dish at least do what you do right, as Rebecca Charles does at the West Village’s Pearl Oyster Bar.  Unfortunately, rather than putting me in mind of the superior bread, texture and flavor intensity of her lobster roll, or her oysters for that matter, this Amagansett offering had me reminiscing about the Rt. 9 Westborough McDonald’s seasonal lobster roll. A lesser road and a lesser restaurant on paper but not on the plate.

In both places, the lobster tasted of nothing, the celery in the salad hid what little flavor was in the meat, and the roll was unbuttered and uninteresting.   That said, McDonald’s has much better fries and much lower prices, coupled with much better managed customer expectations.

Yes, Lobster Roll does offer a sense of place.  Blond servers of surprisingly diverse ages—prom queens past and present—speak to a long history in a single locale, and Capt. Jack kitsch décor is a pleasant reminder of old seafood shacks everywhere from Ann Arbor to Anna Maria.  Also, the celebrity endorsement page of the menu is endearingly outdated: “newlyweds Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin” and seventies heavy—Cheryl Tiegs to Peter Boyle.  And that’s about as good as it gets.

Conclusions: Next time you’re on the Montauk Highway, engage in some Emersonian self-reliance, and hit a roadside fish shop for whatever’s fresh.  Grill it up at your rental, house, or one of the nearby parks (Hither Hills, for instance) and call it a day.  There’s no reason to get off the road for this one.

Another Roadside Attraction: Amagansett’s La Fondita

July 23, 2009

La Fondita (74 Montauk Highway, Amagansett) is a sprawling taco stand dressed up and priced up for the Hamptons but well within the area’s expectations of restrained excess.

Every weekend its picnic benches fill with local surfers on the way back from Montauk and sundry Manhattanite families loading up before the journey back to the City.  Beers are sipped not slammed, even by the sun and wave addled day trippers and summer renters.

This is not a Cabo Wabo Sammy Hagar tequila shot crowd.  Rather, it’s more veteran seventies Saturday Night Live.  In fact, when I was last there, G.E. Smith stood waiting patiently for his order.  For the record, his leonine hair and Dick Tracy rock star chin are still in full effect.

That said, the attraction here isn’t bold-faces, but the authentic and informal food and feel.  Open kitchen doors and the attendant flies—locally raised and mainly organic—help maintain a refreshing rusticity, as do the coarse corn flour tortillas and quality meat fillings in the tacos.

Among the standouts, the pork in the carnitas tacos had delightfully crusty fatty crisped edges.  Some of the best fat I’ve eaten since I polished off a plate of Hill Country’s brisket and burnt ends.

La Fondita’s chorizo taco, however, was an unmitigated disaster, as was the torta made with the same base ingredient.  The so-called sausage resembled nothing so much as roseate baby pap.  Put another way, it looked like sausage flavored soft serve.  In a word, repulsive.  Fortunately, Baja style fish tacos were excellent and redemptive.

Given the inevitable wait for made to order food—this isn’t Chipotle Grill factory Mexican—it’s a good idea to pick up some chips and salsa to pass the time.  However, don’t even think about freshening up in a bathroom.  There’s none in sight.  Or rather, there is one in sight but not in a traditional form.  A few toddlers make pit stops in the “enchanted bamboo forest” that rings the property and obscures the view of the garden center next door.  Most adults show a bit more restraint…most.

As far as Mexican food goes, La Fondita is the best in the area for now, but given the burgeoning Latin American community on Long Island, it’s ripe for some competition, perhaps a more regionally specific restaurant with indoor seating…and plumbing.  I’d drink to that.

Getting Fried in the Hamptons: The Doughnuts of Scoop du Jour

July 23, 2009

Other than providing a conduit to Amagansett, there are few justifications for the continued existence of East Hampton.  Chief among them is the doughnut selection at Scoop du Jour.

The doughnut variety at Scoop du Jour is limited, which makes picking easy: get them all.  Three options are presented: plain, powdered and cinnamon sugar.  The latter two are made by extracting doughnuts from the fryer and applying confectioner’s sugar or granulated sugar mixed with cinnamon, the first by leaving the hot rings of batter in their birthday suits.  In any case, doughnuts and doughnut varietals are generally made to order.  Even if the doughnut comes from the countertop, chances are it’s merely resting from its oil bath rather than going stale from the night before.

Order a dozen–four of each should work–but don’t expect any extras.  No baker’s bonus comes with the twelve-pack.  That said, twelve should be enough for two good eaters.    The doughnuts are relatively small—about the average of a present day mini-bagel and an old-school water bagel—and of the cake variety.  They have a pleasant tooth tickling outer crust crunch and a soft core, not magma soft but definitely inner mantel soft.  The plain doughnuts should have the color, though not the exterior feel of a middle-aged sun worshiper, somewhere in the oaky tan range with a few cracks from the heat.

Don’t restrict yourself to breakfast consumption.  These guys work equally well with morning hot coffee as a wakeup or with mid afternoon iced coffee as a restorative post-siesta treat.   Finally, don’t forget to try the ultimate mash-up by ordering two scoops of vanilla—thus the name of the shop—and a trio of hot plains.  It’ll make for the best park bench dessert you’ve had in quite a while.  Enjoy the view of the Ferraris out front, then get back on the road.  These doughnuts make for a delicious detour, not a destination.