Thursday, April 28, 2011

Goes Around ... Comes Around: Italian Edition

In a piece that will be appearing in this Sunday's New York Times magazine (apologies to anyone shut out by the new paywall), former NYT restaurant critic Frank Bruni writes of the latest obsession of the New York trendsetters, Torrisi Italian Specialties. I've heard very good things about Torrisi, and I'm intrigued by the thesis of the piece, which is that Torrisi's unorthodox grab-bag approach to culinary traditions represents a new direction for Italian - or, maybe more precisely, Italian-American - food.

Having said that ... the couple of examples he gives of culinary brainstorming that supposedly reflect Torrisi's "fierce and sometimes mischievous creative itch" sounded mighty familiar.
"What about repackaging scungilli along the lines of escargots?"
Hmm - you mean like Michelle Bernstein's escargot-style baby conch that she was serving back in 2007 at Michy's?

"Italian-Jewish would be the term for a Passover-pegged riff on porchetta that the group deliberated at even greater length. Porchetta is a classic Italian pork roast, but they wondered aloud about substituting lamb. And, for a glaze, what about using Manischewitz, a semisweet kosher wine? Would the nuances be right?"
I dunno, maybe you could ask Ilan Hall, who was doing Manischewitz-braised pork belly when he opened up The Gorbals in 2009.

Va Intorno ... Viene Intorno

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Route 9 - Coral Gables

It seems I've already had a good bit to say about Route 9 without actually giving my own opinion. After New Times came out with a mostly negative review (subsequently corrected for several factual errors), and the Miami Herald gave it a three star review the same day, some people asked which I thought was "right." To which I initially responded, "I actually can get where both are coming from. I contain multitudes." Upon which I expanded: "if you were to ask me right now, I'd tell you that it's neither as good as the Herald review makes it sound, nor as bad as the New Times review makes it sound."

It's actually somewhat remarkable - and perhaps a bit unfair - the degree of attention that's been directed at Route 9. This was not some highly heralded, loudly trumpeted celebrity chef opening. It's a small-scale place, run by a young, first-time restaurateur couple, that had been open less than two months when both reviews dropped. But the trope is that any publicity is good publicity, and that would seem to be true here: the place was busy and bustling this past weekend, when I went in once again to see what's been going on.[1]

The young, first-time restaurateur couple is Jeremy and Paola Goldberg, and the name "Route 9" comes from the location of their alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Though their prior work experience includes time spent at local restaurants including Timo, Johnny V and Escopazzo, they both look barely old enough to drink at their own restaurant. They took over a spot along the more northerly end of Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables that was previously occupied by the unheralded Mexican restaurant, Don Chile. With some paint and elbow grease they've turned it into a cozy, clean-lined place for which they've assembled a menu of mostly straightforward, comfort-food style dishes with some Latin and Mediterranean touches.

The selections lean more heavily toward starters and small plates than entrées, particularly if you include the "charcuterie and cheeses" section that leads off the menu. Here you will find, among other things, an item described as "Roasted Hebrew National Salami with Spicy Mustard." And it is pretty much exactly as described: a thick round of old-fashioned Hebrew National salami, scored deeply with a hedgehog pattern, given a bit of a sweet glaze, roasted till warmed through, and served with some spicy deli mustard. It is something of a nostalgic pleasure, bringing back fond memories of salami and eggs at Rascal House. But while technically accurate, it is also something of a stretch to call this "charcuterie" - and to charge $13 for it, for that matter.

A better value is the guacamole and chips, listed among the "sides" (all $6), which brings ramekins of both a creamy guacamole studded with diced tomato, and a pleasantly ruddy, thick salsa, with an almost pesto-like texture and an assertive but not overwhelming dose of spicy heat. Freshly fried, crisp and ungreasy tortilla chips are provided for scooping (and they're glad to bring more if you just ask). Even better still is the grilled feta salad, with hearty chunks of tomato, cucumber, and red onion, well-dressed in a pitch-perfect vinaigrette punctuated with oregano, all crowned with a big cube of nice feta cheese that's been seared on the grill and warmed through.

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Friday, April 22, 2011

More Eating (and Drinking) than Writing

There has been a lot more eating than writing going on over here lately, for which I feel somewhat guilty. Also, more traveling than local dining. Here - if for no other reason than to assemble something of a to-do list - are some of the places I've been lately, and hope to write about eventually:


Jeffrey Brana Common Threads Benefit Dinner

Washington, DC

Café Atlantico (Nuevo Latino Dim Sum Brunch)
Central Michel Richard
We the Pizza


Purple Pig
Saigon Sisters

Some general thoughts by way of preview:

(1) Brana is the real deal. I hardly got to his brief-lived Coral Gables restaurant before it closed several years ago, and it's great to have another opportunity to sample his cooking. He's doing a series of private dinners for groups of 8-10, and from my experience at the Common Threads benefit dinner he put on, it may be among the best meals you'll find in Miami, in a restaurant or out.

(2) Overall, Chicago met pretty high expectations, while DC fell a bit short - though I can hardly claim that a brief visit of a few days can give any really meaningful impression of a city's dining zeitgeist.

(3) That said, one of the things that really stood out in Chicago was the multiplicity of funky bars with serious cocktail agendas. We stopped in at Maude's Liquor Bar and Watershed, and were completely charmed by both places. Maude's is a crowded, bustling place on the West Loop, newly opened but stocked with mismatched reclaimed furnishings and decorations for a purposefully dilapidated look and feel. They have a short list of classic old-fashioned cocktails (including five different smashes and a respectable, if unexceptional, Sazerac), great music, and a menu of mostly simple French bistro style fare put together by Chef Jeff Pikus, an Alinea alum.

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Room 4 Dessert 2 Pop-Up w Chef Will Goldfarb

I suspect when you're around Chef Will Goldfarb, you often feel like you're playing catch-up. He always seems to be about three steps ahead - he thinks fast, he moves fast, he works fast. Last week, he made a quick stop in Miami for a one day pop-up, dubbed "Room 4 Dessert 2." The name, anyway, is a spin-off from his well-regarded if brief-lived New York dessert-and-drinks place from about five years ago, but trying to keep track of everything Chef Goldfarb has done is a bit like trying to nail jelly to a wall - a stage at El Bulli, a tour of Australia including work with Tetsuya Wakuda, back to the U.S. at Morimoto in Philadelphia, Cru in New York, his own sandwich shop, Picknick, a sojourn in Bali to work as pastry chef at Ku De Ta, a business supplying provisions for the contemporary cupboard, WillPowder, and the list continues to go on.

Chef Goldfarb is an unabashed practitioner of what goes by the various misnomers of "molecular gastronomy," "science cooking," or most recently "modernist cuisine."[1] Which is simply to say that he eagerly uses any and all ingredients or techniques available to him - hydrocolloids, gelling agents, emulsifiers, stabilizers, liquid nitrogen, and so on (much of this stuff is conveniently available for purchase at WillPowder).

It's interesting to me that even less adventurous diners seem to take a little less umbrage to the use of such things in a dessert format. When used in savory courses, you often hear complaints that people don't like their food "manipulated" and that it doesn't "look like" food any more. But we're already accustomed to eating desserts that are manipulated, and to using processed ingredients in desserts that don't taste good on their own (baking powder, cocoa, or even flour for that matter). Everybody loves a chocolate mousse, but very few people think about the processing of the ingredients that leads to its creation, or complain that it doesn't resemble its "natural" form. As Chef Alex Stupak (former pastry chef at wd~50, now running his newly opened taqueria, Empellon) put it: "Birthday cake is the most denatured thing on earth."

Here's a run-down of the event; you can see all of my pictures in this R4D2 flickr set. You can also get a look from inside the kitchen via Chadzilla, and another take on it from Mango & Lime.

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Monday, April 4, 2011

Route 9 Revisited - What Does It All Mean? - UPDATED

The short version of the Route 9 / Miami New Times review kerfuffle, now that all the facts anyone is willing to disclose (and some they maybe didn't want to disclose) appear to be out: Miami New Times posts a fairly harsh review of a two-month old restaurant to its website; owners complain and note several factual errors, express concern that critic never actually visited or relied on information provided by a chef from a soon-to-open local restaurant; newspaper briefly pulls review from website; the next day, newspaper reposts review with several factual errors corrected; editor acknowledges that critic dined with another chef, that they "are old friends and once had planned to write a cookbook together," but says that concern over influence on review "doesn't hold water;" categorically denies that the critic didn't dine there. Meanwhile, the same day, the Miami Herald posts a fairly glowing three-star review.

Having had a chance to digest, and at risk of prolonging the discussion past the point of utility, I have some further questions and thoughts:

(1) Should a critic dine - for a review - in the company of a chef from another local restaurant? The Association of Food Journalists' Food Critics Guidelines doesn't expressly speak to it. The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics only vaguely says that journalists should "remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility." My initial reaction was that, while it is unlikely to "compromise integrity," it could well "damage credibility." In my day job, it's what we call the "appearance of impropriety."

I'm confident that New Times' critic, Lee Klein, is able to form his own opinions; but I also understand how a restaurateur could feel that opinion was influenced by the presence of "competition" - particularly, competition that had been identified as a "difficult table."[1] The notion that a critic doesn't take into account fellow diners' opinions is unrealistic; any claim that Klein doesn't do so is belied by the fact that he has previously described his dining companions' views in his reviews.

I found New Times editor Chuck Strouse's dismissal of these concerns - because the other restaurant is 20 minutes away, and was not yet opened - a bit too blithe. I might have felt differently if Klein's fellow diner, Chef Klime Kovaceski, worked at an established restaurant that had already been reviewed. But that's not the case: his restaurant, Trio on the Bay, is opening the same week that this review dropped (something he could easily know since he was eating with Klein a week before), and it's not unreasonable to think that any buzz from a positive review for Route 9 might take away from Trio's opening week buzz.[2] Again, I'm not saying that's the case, I'm only saying that it is understandable how such an impression could be made.

But it was interesting to me that in an informal twitter poll, most diners and chefs who responded were not bothered by it. The typical response was that "Integrity, honesty and personal opinion should dictate." With that, I completely agree. Speaking of which ...

(2) Should Lee Klein be writing about Chef Kovaceski's restaurant? To me, this is a no-brainer, but one that has slid beneath the radar as discussion has focused on the Route 9 review. We now know that Lee Klein and Chef Kovaceski are "old friends," and are close enough that they "once" had plans to write a book together (the cached version of Kovaceski's website referred to those plans as recently as a couple weeks ago).[3] Klein has already done two posts on Kovaceski's new restaurant on the New Times Short Order blog: a puffy preview piece back in February, and just a few days ago, a "First Look" promising even more posts next week. Is there any circumstance where a journalist should be writing about the restaurant of an "old friend," without at a minimum disclosing that relationship? Seems to me Klein shouldn't be writing about Kovaceski's restaurants at all. And I wonder, if this all hadn't come out, if Klein would have been writing a review of Trio a couple months from now. Speaking of which ...

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