Showing posts with label on language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label on language. Show all posts

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Turns of Phrase - June 2, 2013

Another small measure of appreciation for the work of that increasingly rare creature: the gainfully employed, artfully perceptive food critic:
"The art of the possible is on display."
- Phil Vettel on Next (Vegan) in Chicago Tribune
"But when you pull your car into the parking lot of Lucy’s 24-hour laundromat/wateria, and you make your way up to the truck, you will find that the woman behind the counter is slightly unclear on the concept of tlayudas, but rather firm on the unavailability of carnitas, which sold out almost before it turned dark. You can leave, or you can settle for tacos made with trompas, which is to say a kind of carnitas made with the pig’s snout. You take a step back toward your car. But then you notice that the tacos are made not just with fresh tortillas but with tortillas made to order from little balls of fresh masa, and that the red-chile salsa seems to be hot enough to flush the neck of the tattooed dude who was a couple of places ahead of you in line."
- Jonathan Gold on La Tehuana in L.A. Times
"At first this prim choreography seems tongue-in-cheek, then earnest, and finally almost silly — and all the more charming for it, like much of the orchestrated seduction that is a night at Maison Premiere."
- Ligaya Mishan on Maison Premiere in New York Times
"The food is impressionistic, best appreciated as a series of lovely, fleeting moments rather than the sustained arc that typically constitutes a meal."
- Ligaya Mishan again

(continued ...)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Turns of Phrase - May 26, 2013

Following up on something I started doing last week - some of my favorite passages from the past week's food writing:
"But some tricks, like the disappearance of a marble up someone's nose, can be more curious than delightful."
- Tejal Rao (recently resigned food critic at the Village Voice, following in the wake of Robert Seitsema who was let go last week), on the culinary sleight of hand at Alder.
"Just as you’re pondering how to say “opportunist” in Italian, the food arrives, and it’s great."
- Jeff Ruby on Café Spiaggia in Chicago Magazine.
"It isn’t pretty, this murky brown salad. Take a look at those splinters of green papaya, gnarly rings of fried shallots and clots of air-dried beef. It could be a box of matches spilled in dishwater—certainly too homely for the pages of any respectable food magazine. But we’re evolved eaters here in New York City, too sophisticated to deny ugly things their fair shake. Taste it and understand the moral of a thousand children’s parables about inner beauty: This funky, crunchy bombshell of compulsive flavor might be the most interesting salad in Kings County."
- Jordana Rothman on Nightingale 9 in Time Out New York
"The waiter bends low, in his burgundy tuxedo. “Let’s talk about the process,” he says. He refers to the fruits of the kitchen as though they are his. (“All my veal tonight.”) The delays he does not own: “We are working on the drinks.”"
- Nick Paumgarten on Carbone in the New Yorker

(continued ...)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Turns of Phrase

So much food writing is actually dreadfully repetitive. There are only so many ways to describe a cooked piece of meat, only so many synonyms for "delicious" (though there are a potentially infinite variety of ways to describe a terrible dining experience; it's like a variation on the Tolstoy quote: "Great meals are all alike; every lousy meal is lousy in its own way."). Still, often when I read a  good review, there is a sentence, a phrase, a description that resonates; it captures the ear, the mind, the appetite, maybe even all three.

With talented, dedicated, gainfully employed restaurant critics becoming an increasingly scarce commodity (yesterday Robert Sietsema of the Village Voice was "shit-canned," to use his own words; in the past month or so Michael Nagrant of the Chicago Sun Times and Hanna Raskin of Seattle Weekly were let go; locally, Miami New Times let Lee Klein go last year), I'm increasingly grateful for those who still provide a unique, perceptive, captivating voice.

Here are a few turns of phrase that recently caught my attention:

"This is food at its simplest and most elegant, food that doesn't want to slap your face. This is food that is simply good, and defines a sort of normalcy in eating that no longer exists."

- Robert Sietsema on the diner burger, in his last post at Village Voice.

"Two Guys Walk Into a Bar ..." (just this whole damn piece, as good an ode to Sietsema as there could possibly be, by none other than ...)

- Jonathan Gold in LA Weekly.

"There isn't a plate he won't paint with limp berries or kumquats, smears of pastel-colored sauces, or nests of spun sugar—dishes that look as if they shot through a wormhole from 1993."

- Mike Sula on Vu Sua in Chicago Reader

"Caravaggio is defiantly elegant in an age that sees white tablecloths as a medieval relic whose sadistic power to stand in the way of a good time is second only to that of the chastity belt."

- Pete Wells on Caravaggio in the New York Times.

"For those who have yet to do so: eating these pigs was like seeing an old friend from high school who had lost a lot of weight and now dresses well. You can still recognize them; they are just better now."

- Joshua David Stein on the "pigs in a blanket" at Alder in New York Observer.

"The Caesar salad, the golden retriever of restaurants (friendly, good with kids, dumb), is smartly redone as Caesar nigiri."

- Joshua David Stein again on Alder.

"You might get to thinking that DeLucie is a bit of a carpetbagger, who hasn’t rescued the memory of Bill’s so much as co-opted it—lopped off its balls and sold it back to you at a staggering markup."

- Jordana Rothman on Bill's Food & Drink in Time Out New York (Rothman, the TONY food and drinks editor, is filling in as the restaurant critic on an interim basis after Jay Cheshes, who held the post for five years, recently left).

Monday, January 2, 2012

Goes Around ... Comes Around - Gray Lady Edition

It seems somehow a bit petulant to start a new year off on a sour note. And yet ...

While doing a little archive-diving for an in-the-works review, I stumbled across a New York Times review of Gigi, the Midtown den of pork buns and noodles that opened in the summer of 2010. The NYT review begins:

Many restaurants are born when a chef has a concept. Gigi in Miami’s Wynwood district started with a concept in need of a chef. Last year, the restaurant’s owner, Amir Ben-Zion, placed an ad on Craigslist seeking a chef who could turn out "cutting edge, high performance, Asian-inspired and freshly prepared cuisine" that is "affordable, innovative comfort food for the modern, educated, discerning palate."

Which actually sounded kind of familiar. Then I remembered why. Because nearly a half year earlier, I'd written this:

Sakaya (Richard Hales), Chow Down (Joshua Marcus) and American Noodle (Michael Bloise) each started with a chef's own vision, and were very much personal projects. Gigi came about things from the opposite direction: Gigi was a concept in search of a chef to execute it. Amir Ben-Zion, who also runs Bond Street and Miss Yip on South Beach, Sra. Martinez in the Design District, and the Bardot nightclub right down the street from Gigi in Midtown Miami, placed a Craigslist ad looking for a chef about six months before the restaurant's opening. The ad was not lacking for hype: "Its cutting edge, high performance, Asian inspired and freshly prepared cuisine is affordable, innovative comfort food for the modern educated discerning palate."

I guess since Gigi was stealing its concept from New York's Momofuku, a little inter-city turnabout is fair play?

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 ...

(continued ...)

Thursday, March 31, 2011

New Times' Route 9 Review Takes Some Twists and Turns - UPDATED

Yesterday must have been something of a roller coaster for Paola and Jeremy Goldberg, the young proprietors of Route 9, a humble neighborhood restaurant that opened up in Coral Gables almost exactly two months ago. The Goldbergs, who met while at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York (hence the name of the restaurant, for the area's main thoroughfare) woke up to find a fairly glowing, three-star review from Victoria Pesce-Elliott in the Miami Herald (full version now available here). She described Route 9 as "a cozy and endearing spot," and that the Goldbergs' "greatest talent seems to be creating a welcoming environment with good food and drinks at a reasonable price." So far, so good.

Then, the Miami New Times posted its review (yes, I know: you will get a "Page Not Found" message when you click on that link. We'll get to that. Here, try the cached version a revised version now appears on the site with the statement "This story was removed from the Internet overnight while several factual errors were corrected. We apologize for the inconvenience."), which was not nearly so kind. Though New Times' restaurant critic, Lee Klein (?) (just wait), starts off with the "sweet, old-fashioned story" behind Route 9 and its owners, things quickly go downhill from there. The menu "could have been written in the year the Goldbergs graduated from the CIA" - 1991, according to the review. And just about every dish has some flaw: the chicken wings should have been described as spicy, the poblano peppers stuffed with smoked marlin could have used another component, some of the meatballs were uncooked, the tomato soup tasted like Campbell's. The fish tacos were too expensive, the vegetable accompaniments to the entrées ranged from "meh" to "awful," the pasta was too thick. The menu should have had quotes around "pie" for the banana cream pie because of the sloppy presentation.[1]

No restaurateur likes a negative review. But upon reading it, the Goldbergs thought something wasn't right. Among other things, the facts. You can look at the picture of Jeremy and Paola that accompanies the review and pretty quickly conclude that it's fairly unlikely they graduated from the CIA in 1991. As Goldberg told the Random Pixels blog: "I was 9 years old in 1991."[2] The menu couldn't put quote marks around "pie" because - well, because the pie isn't even on the printed menu, it's a verbal special.

There was something else too: Jeremy Goldberg had his doubts that Lee Klein had even visited the restaurant. Why? Well, it's a small restaurant (about 40 seats), Jeremy is pretty much always working front of house, and it probably wouldn't be too difficult to recall a repeat customer who had ordered the items mentioned in the review. And, in fact, Goldberg eventually did recall a recent customer who had ordered many of those items, and was, as Jeremy described it to Random Pixels, "a difficult table." But it wasn't Lee Klein. Rather, it was Klime Kovaceski, formerly the chef at Crystal Café in Miami Beach, and recently tapped to be the chef at the about-to-open Trio on the Bay. Goldberg suspected that Kovaceski either wrote the review, or provided the information to Lee Klein from which he wrote it. Sound crazy?

Goldberg called New Times' editor, Chuck Strouse, with his suspicions. (You can get something of a real-time account from Route 9's twitter feed). After calling, he said that Strouse was "investigating major inconsistencies" with the article. A few hours later Goldberg tweeted:
Chuck Strouse, editor New Times is stand up. Killing the New Times story for first time in 13 years based on Lee Klein lack of credibility.
And indeed, shortly thereafter, the review was pulled from the New Times website. Strouse told Eater Miami, "Story had some error. Will be reposted tomorrow." So far that hasn't happened. Strouse also told me last night that he would be commenting on the review that was pulled, and why it was pulled, today. So far that hasn't happened either. (See update below.)

(continued ...)

Monday, February 14, 2011

In Defense of "Foodies"

I know, I know. Not exactly a title I ever expected to write. I hate the infantilistic word "foodie," am often less than enamored by those who self-identify as such, and don't particularly relish having it applied to me either. And yet, a recent, bilious polemic in the Atlantic monthly, "The Moral Crusade Against Foodies," has done the unthinkable: it has inspired me to come to the foodies' defense.

Though subtitled "Gluttony Dressed Up as Foodie-ism is Still Gluttony," and using as its platform several recent food-related publications (Anthony Bourdain's "Medium Raw," Gabrielle Hamilton's upcoming "Blood, Bones & Butter," Kim Severson's "Spoon Fed," the "Best Food Writing" compilations[1]), as well as older works like Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma" and Jeffrey Steingarten's "The Man Who Ate Everything," the piece seems less about gluttony, and more an outraged indictment of the very notion of writing about food at all. It's clear where this is going from the very start: "We have all dined with him in restaurants: the host who insists on calling his special friend out of the kitchen for some awkward small talk." In other words: if you actually know a chef, you must be a douchebag. It's all downhill from there.

B.R. Myers is unhappy when people pay too much attention to their food; he's unhappy when they eat mindlessly; he's unhappy when food writers care about sustainability and animal living conditions; he's unhappy when they don't; most of all, he's unhappy when people actually care enough to write about food.[2] Which of course might make you wonder why he chose to write about food books at all. In Myers' moral universe, it appears that any interest in food as a subject of writing whatsoever equates to gluttony, making it ever so easy to indict the entire genre. The proclaimed "moral crusade" is undoubtedly the right reference: Myers pursues his task with all the grimly self-satisfied smugness of a soldier doing battle against the infidels.

In doing so, his diatribe suffers from any number of logical fallacies, but the most egregious is the repeated over-generalization from specific examples, even when the evidence against such generalizations is staring him in the face. To him, "foodies" are one monolithic tribe, such that the voice of any one speaks for the whole. Chefs, food writers, and eaters all get tarred with the same broad brush as being members of a "unique community" of "so-called foodies." It takes him little time to conclude that "In values, sense of humor, even childhood experience, its members are as similar to each other as they are different from everyone else." This is, of course, patently ridiculous. In what universe do the caustically snarky Anthony Bourdain or the deadpan Gabrielle Hamilton share the same sense of humor with the primly self-righteous Alice Waters or the wryly analytical Michael Pollan?[3] Prove to me that Alice Waters even has a sense of humor!

(continued ...)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Special Guest Post - Michael's Genuine Food and Drink (Little Miss F)

I am honored (and relieved, given my less than prodigious output lately) to bring you a guest post today - and also fairly bursting with pride. You see, as we were going over my 10-year old daughter's school projects for the past quarter, I came across an assignment her class did on the five senses. The project was to write descriptive passages, in various styles (poem, newspaper article, essay, story) that involved the five senses. So what did the little bugger do? She wrote a restaurant review! She's been gracious enough to let me republish it (entirely unedited), and so here is Little Miss F's review of Michael's Genuine Food and Drink. It may be time for me to retire.

I am a food critic and today I am going to Michael's Genuine Food and Drink. I walked into the restaurant to be greeted by their friendly host who asked me, "Excuse me, do you have a reservation?"

I answered him, "Yes, of course!" After that, they seated me at a little table in the corner.

I waited barely over a minute before another waiter came and got me a glass of water. The same waiter came again and it was as if he knew exactly what I wanted, they brought me falafal! I ate it slowly but I enjoyed every bite! It was full of parsley, mint, and other earthy, warming flavors. It came with something to dip in in that was creamy and smooth. It was like a very soft yogurt.

I ended up ordering the burrata salad. I took a tomato, it was fresh and sweet. Then, I took a bit of burrata which was milky, creamy, mild and delicious! I tried them together and it was crisp but smooth and so good!

For dessert I got a mint tea. Even though it was a tea bag, it tasted like it was freshly picked! The tea was an absolutely perfect way to end a fabulous dinner.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What's Your Beef?

Several months ago, Miami New Times ran a feature story by Jackie Sayet, "Bogus Beef," on local restaurants' mislabeling of beef sourced from American or Australian producers as "Kobe beef." The article confirmed that many South Florida restaurants were blithely describing items on their menu as "Kobe beef" that in fact were not.

Genuine Kobe beef, which comes from a particular breed of cattle (Wagyu) raised in a particular prefecture of Japan (Hyogo), is among the most prized (and expensive) in the world. In recent years, producers in other parts of the world have sought to duplicate the product, and there are now farmers in the U.S. and Australia who raise Wagyu and cross-breeds. The product is often quite good, though not of the same quality as the genuine Japanese article, and carries significantly lower prices. Though there seems to be a good bit of confusion, this is really not a complicated issue: if the beef doesn't come from Kobe, Japan, you shouldn't call it Kobe beef. As the article details, that simple rule is supported by Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which said:
The use of the term Kobe beef on a menu or special board is a misrepresentation. ... Use of the terms Wagyu beef, American-style Kobe beef, Australian-style Kobe beef, and (country of origin) Kobe beef are acceptable, providing the operator can provide supporting invoices and product to match.[1]
It was a well-written and well-researched piece, and I'm happy to hear that it is in line for a Sunshine State Award from the South Florida Society of Professional Journalists.

When the matter was brought to several restaurateurs' attention during the writing of the article, many of them claimed to be unaware and pledged to make immediate changes on their menu to correct the mislabeling. There's just one problem: it appears that virtually none of them have actually done so.

(continued ...)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Obsessed With the Food-Obsessed

In the past year I have written about more than eighty restaurants. Not once have I felt compelled to use the word "foodie," nor any of the hyphenated euphemisms for it that the New York Times' editorial policy appears to require (as I've previously noted).[*]

Meanwhile, in nearly half of the sixteen restaurant reviews he has published since taking over the helm last October, Sam Sifton has given us some variation on the "foodie" theme (never, though, actually uttering the word, which apparently has the same effect as saying "Beetlejuice!" three times). His first three reviews brought us "food-obsessed mouths," followed the next week by the converse, a wine list that "may run unfamiliar to nonobsessives," returning the following week to the "food-obsessed in New York."

There was a brief respite, but it seems to have returned with a vengeance. A few weeks ago the "food-obsessed" came back to discuss the decline of French cooking in New York. Then someone apparently broke out the thesaurus, as we heard last Wednesday about the "food crazies," (who know from Chef April Bloomfield - at least the New York "food crazies" do), while this week brought us the "food-enthralled" (who apparently call guanciale "face bacon").

I'm not sure which bothers me more: the incessant reference to what the food-obsessed/crazy/enthralled think or say, or the pussyfooting around over using that most dreaded word - "foodie."

As for the former, honestly, who cares? Aren't I reading to find out what this one particular food-obsessed critic has to say, not what the rest of the flock may be gibbering about? It's all the more frustrating to me because Sifton clearly has the ability to communicate with a unique and witty voice. This is someone who described The Breslin as "Hogwarts for hipsters," who in describing the crowd at La Grenouille says that "some have spent too much time in the sun, doing nothing much more than turning the pages of a book," while others "examine the restaurant and chart customers as handicappers do horses at Belmont." Please, more of that, less about the "food-obsessed."

As for the latter issue - "foodie foodie foodie" - look, I don't like it either. But these tortuous euphemisms are certainly no better. Which brings me full circle to a question I briefly pondered (and quickly abandoned) when I started writing here: if not "foodie," then what? Well, what do we call someone who enjoys and appreciates art? Or music? If "art lover" and "music lover" will do, why not "food lover"? Is the concern that we'll confuse a "food lover" with the "Chicken Lover"? Actually, in his latest review Sifton gives another alternative: "gastro-nerd." I'd take that over "food-obsessed" any day. At least I don't have to be reminded of this:

[*]Actually, "foodie" makes regular appearances in other parts of the NYT, so this must just be a Sifton thang.

Friday, January 8, 2010

What's in a Name?

For several months now, Miami has played host to the ongoing brouhaha between Michael Chow, founder of the Mr. Chow restaurants (including a new one in South Beach), and Philippe Chow (supposedly a/k/a Chak Yam Chau), who started the Philippe restaurants (including a new one in South Beach), which Mr. Chow #1 says are improperly trying to capitalize on his good name. (Though after this review, perhaps they both should change their names). The lawsuit has been quite entertaining, including allegations that Mr. Chow #2 was a mere "chopping assistant" in a Mr. Chow restaurant before going out on his own, and that Mr. Chow #1 invented such dishes as chicken satay with secret sauce (look out, next he will be claiming to have invented the question mark).

Is it possible there's another naming kerfuffle on the horizon for Miami?  Recently opening up in Coconut Grove is "The Ivy at the Grove" (in the former Christabelle's Quarter space). There is a long-standing London restaurant called The Ivy which has been around in some form since 1917, though perhaps more famous these days for who eats there than what they eat. It would be natural to think they're affiliated (indeed, New Times initially reported that the local Ivy was a branch of the London restaurant before being corrected) - but they're not. Indeed, buried within The Ivy at the Grove's website is a quiet disclaimer, given with typical British reserve: "Please note that we are not affiliated with the Ivy in London nor the Ivy in Los Angeles" (though they are affiliated with the Raffles private club in Chelsea). About a month ago, Eater Miami did a bit more investigation (a couple phone calls!) and not only avoided the error New Times initially made, but found even more mystery.

Wow - in one story, two trends I wish would die a quick death: unaffiliated knock-offs of restaurants that were mediocre to start, and the restaurant/lounge "concept."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Straight Outta the Hamptons

The next culinary trend? Forget fried chicken and food trucks. Rap is where it's at.

I'll give credit to the good Mr. Sifton for getting this party started in his first New York Times review, wherein he said of Daniel Boulud:
His food game, as they say in rap precints, is tight.


Now everyone's getting in on the act. None other than Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart are proclaiming their hip-hop allegiance, as picked up by Eat Me Daily this morning.

Though I genuinely feared viewing the video might prompt a reaction similar to the "entertainment" from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, I was able to safely screen the first few minutes without going catatonic; enough, at least, to experience this exchange quoted at EMD:
Martha: Puffy's having his birthday party next week... and I got an invitation. Did you?
Rachael: No I didn't...
Martha: ....All those rappers are cute. Don't you think?
Rachael: I think they're all pretty darned cute. The ones that have come by my show... but it didn't get me invited to anyone's birthday party.
Martha: I think I have something on you. They like me for my wherewithal.

So when did "wherewithal" replace "badonkadonk" in the Urban Dictionary?"

Here, look how cute they are!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sifton Through Some Things

While it was perhaps not nearly so momentous to me as it may have been to some New Yorkers, I followed the changing of the guard for the New York Times' food critic post with some interest. Despite all the sturm and drang of late over the decline of printed media, the NYT remains one of the most powerful reviews in the country, with the perception still holding relatively firm that the doling of stars can have a profound effect on the success - or failure - of a restaurant.

The scouting reports on the new guy, Sam Sifton, seemed promising, and from reading some of his earlier work it was clear he could turn a phrase or two. His first reviews upon taking over the job seemed to engender mostly enthusiastic responses. Hey, he has a working knowledge of 1970's punk rock and can sure make Daniel Boulud's food sound really good (wait, is that so hard?). He'll venture out to Queens for Cantonese food. He looks just like that dude from Shaun of the Dead (do you think Simon Pegg is wondering why he keeps gets multiple dishes "from the chef" and such obsequious service every time he goes out in New York City these days?). And no doubt, the reviews of DBGB, Marea, and Imperial Palace prompted that "I want to go to there" reaction from me.

And yet ... certain things have nagged at me.

1. Phrases that initially sound so elegant, but upon further reflection signify little or nothing:

- A restaurant that "bears masculine charms atop its cool concrete floors." Can a restaurant bear charms atop its floors? Maybe it's that in a fit of dyslexia, I keep thinking that the restaurant charms masculine bears atop its floors. Which would be pretty cool indeed, actually.

- A burger that arrives "as if a passenger on an old Cunard ship, with confitted pork belly, arugula, tomato-onion compote and a slab of Morbier". Is that what the dress code on those old cruise ships was like?

- A dish that "offers exactly the sensation as kissing an extremely attractive person for the first time - a bolt of surprise and pleasure combined." That sounds witty, but you know what? Some extremely attractive people kiss like cold fish.

- Geoduck that "explains in one bite why men would dive amid huge swells to retrieve the things from the angry Pacific." "Huge swells"? The "angry Pacific"? Do they harvest them on "dark and stormy nights"? But perhaps more significant: geoducks are harvested from mud flats. About the worst thing that can happen is you get your pants dirty:

- "A hunk of striped bass acting as pack animal for a load of sturgeon caviar"? Actually, that doesn't sound at all elegant. And that was for a dish that he liked!

- "Sable served sizzling over more black bean sauce, like a special at Nobu or a gift from a friend." What? A gift ... of fish?

2. "food-obsessives"

This is apparently the Timesian translation of "foodie," and variations on it appeared in each of Mr. Sifton's first three reviews:

- "More food-obsessed mouths, however, will desire sausages."

- The wine list at Marea "may run unfamiliar to nonobsessives."

- "Among the food-obsessed in New York, interest in Cantonese food has faded as it has risen in the spicy (and tasty!) flavors of China's interior."

Enough obsessing over the "food-obsessives."

3. "meh"

Firstly, "meh" is no more a "New York expression" than, say, "yummy" or "delish" or "FAIL". Secondly, like those others, it has no place in any serious restaurant review. And a "Your mileage may vary" too, in the same review? Why not just "YMMV"? OMG! Please: never again.

Friday, July 3, 2009

<-- Traditional ------------------ Creative -->

Buried in a footnote to my last post was the comment that the presentation of a caviar dish with six foams at an old-school, traditional restaurant like Bern's Steak House in Tampa supported my contention that there is no such thing as a "molecular gastronomy restaurant." To which a commenter queried, "How does that prove any point?," and suggested, kindly, that my disdain for the term "molecular gastronomy" was clouding my judgment. I suggested, instead, that it was all the steak and wine that was clouding my judgment.

I actually have no disdain for the term "molecular gastronomy," I just think it is an inapt descriptor for any restaurant. "Gastronomy" is a field of study, not a school of cooking, and all cooking is "molecular" depending on how you choose to look at it. To borrow the examples used in the comment, I would submit that wd~50 and minibar are no more or less "molecular" than Bern's, and indeed no more or less "molecular" than a bakery.

Tell me exactly what defining characteristics make wd~50 and minibar "molecular gastronomy restaurants."
  • Is it that they alter the natural textures of ingredients? Then what of Bern's various foams paired with the caviar?
  • Is it that they use hydrocolloids? What if Bern's is using methylcellulose or xanthan for its foams?
  • Is it unusual ingredient pairings? How unusual do they have to be? Is caviar and curry enough?
Here's my thought of the evening: all restaurants fall somewhere on a continuum between traditional and creative. Both "traditional" and "creative" can refer to a number of things: preparation methods (both hardware, i.e., immersion circulators, and software, i.e., hydrocolloids); ingredient combinations, plating techniques, and so on. Some restaurants are more traditional; others are more creative, some truly cutting edge. But it is a continuum rather than a strict categorization.

How can it be otherwise, when Bern's is serving caviar with six foams, and Alinea is serving Pigeonneau a la St. Clair?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Gravy?

Rack's Italian Bistro hosted an opening shindig yesterday evening, apparently to much acclaim. I missed the festivities but was sufficiently inspired to take a look at the menu. And something about it triggered a little itch in my head, some stray memory that I could not place. Specifically, it was this menu description: "Meatball - Whipped Impasata + Sunday San Marzano Gravy." My first thought was this:

Isn't it a little goofy to be going all retro/homestyle with the "gravy" reference, while simultaneously going all upscale/snooty with the "San Marzano" reference?
But then the further nagging thought was:

And where have I seen this before? What other place would refer to "San Marzano gravy" on the menu?
After a little searching around I placed it: Devito South Beach, whose menu features an "Original Old School Meatball - Whipped Ricotta, Nonna's Marzano Gravy". Hmph. But that's not all. Consider the following:

Devito: Calamari Devito - crispy calamari, peppers, spicy Marzano tomato sauce
Racks: Calamari "My Way" - Lemon + Spicy Marinara + Cherry Peppers + Basil

Devito: The Original Italian Chop - Salumi, provolone, diced vegetables, tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers
Racks: Italian "Chop" - Salumi + Aged Provolone + Onion + Chick Peas + Tomato + Egg

Devito: Whole Branzino - Spiced tomato jam, aged balsamic vinegar, Olio Verde broth
Racks: Branzino - Tomato Jam + Cracked Olives + Capers + Lemon + Oil Verde

Both also offer their salumi and formaggi (almost identical selections) with accompaniments of truffle honey and amarena cherries.

The Devito menu is much more expansive than the offerings at Racks, yet does not feature the coal-oven pizzas that are provoking oohs and ahhs at Racks, so this is nowhere near the same magnitude as the outright menu-lifting which Nexxt Cafe did from Cheesecake Factory several years ago. And yet there are enough similarities to make me wonder: Is there some connection in the kitchen between Devito and Racks, or did Racks just like what it saw at Devito and try to mimic it? And regardless, can we please just nip this whole "San Marzano gravy" thing in the bud?

Edited to add: I should have also mentioned one other notable difference between Devito's menu and Racks' menu - prices. For instance, Racks' meatball appetizer is $11, while Devito's is a hefty $17 (!!!). That's one *pricy* meatball.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

You Must Remember This

maltitol Interesting news from the Far East, as Pierre Gagnaire and Hervé This are reported to have created the world's first "entirely synthetic gourmet dish". Described as jelly balls with apple and lemon flavors, creamy on the inside and crispy outside, they are fabricated from ascorbic acid, citric acid, glucose and maltitol (also known, more menacingly, as 4-O-α-glucopyranosyl-D-sorbitol).

Haven't these guys heard of a Twinkie? In any event, my question, as always, is: but how does it taste?

On a related note, Ian Kleinman of Food102 and O's Restaurant in the Westin in Westminster, Colorado, reports that Hervé This has a few words to say on the whole "molecular gastronomy" nomenclature kerfuffle (or, I should say, a few more words). This (for whom "cooking" is cooking, and "gastronomy" is the study of same) foresees the decline of "molecular cooking" as a descriptive term, as more chefs turn away from it, letting "molecular gastronomy" return to its original meaning as referring to the scientific study of cooking (though this seems to ignore the increasing traction "MG" seems to have in the mainstream press).

It's possible we're all reaching the "call it what you will" stage. Per Kleinman, "Our menu still says molecular tasting menu but I cannot wait for the day where we all are looking for the best technique, not the best label." And per This, "And to finish, let’s drop the question of science, technology, etc. The main question is « how best say « I love you » through food ? "

[My deepest apologies for the absolutely horrible pun in the title of this post; couldn't help myself.]

Saturday, April 18, 2009

goes around ... comes around

I've always been intrigued by how food ideas and trends work their way through menus and restaurants. Often the phenomenon is at its most acute in a place like San Francisco, which is a serious foodie town but is also, in many ways, still a fairly small town. I recall one visit several years ago when every place we went had a beet salad with goat cheese (yes, that one seems to have some staying power). On our last visit a couple years ago, it was in-house charcuterie.

It's not all that uncommon to see basically the same dish done at different restaurants. Sometimes - often - that can be the result of spontaneous independent creation, but it's also often the result of conscious or unconscious influence. Because there is little intellectual property protection for a recipe or a plating presentation, there's little a chef could do about it even if they wanted to, though culinary plagiarism has been a topic of robust discussion. You can call it, respectfully, "homage" or "inspiration," or pejoratively, "copying" or "plagiarizing," and the distinctions are sometimes difficult to assess. The perception (and, I suppose the reality) can depend on a lot of things: how original was the dish in the first place? how willing is the chef to acknowledge the influence of others? what's the relationship, if any, between the two chefs?

But that's not really my point here, rather I just find it interesting to watch how food trends work their way through the restaurant biz. This particular reverie was prompted by a Ruth Reichl twitter about a dinner at Animal, a much-talked-up new Los Angeles restaurant. Animal, opened less than a year ago, is the product of Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who were featured in a short-running Food Network show called "2 Dudes Catering." Little did I know, until looking at the Animal website, that Shook and Dotolo had South Florida roots, having gone to culinary school in Fort Lauderdale and gotten their start at The Strand restaurant with Michelle Bernstein as head chef.

But the South Florida connection that I saw was their menu - in particular, a couple of the dishes mentioned by Reichl. Pork belly with kim chee and peanuts? Fried hominy with lime? Sound familiar to any of you Miami folks?

For those not in the know, these just happen to be a couple of the mainstay items at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink. Now, it's not like Michael Schwartz would ever claim to be the first person to have combined these ingredients. Nor, for that matter, is he in any position to complain about someone riffing on the same tune that he's been playing. After all, another of the mainstays on his menu, the wood-oven roasted whole chicken (served with plumped raisins, toasted pine nuts and baby arugula) is, as I noted some time ago, pretty much the same recipe that Zuni Cafe in S.F. is famous for.[*] More recently, I had a porchetta de testa that appeared to be made using the same recipe that Chris Cosentino of Incanto had done in a video for Gourmet.

So I doubt that Chef Schwartz would ever make a stink about it. And let me be clear, I'm not accusing anyone of "copying" anyone else. But it is curious how a restaurant on one coast should be getting kudos for dishes that sound mighty similar to the dishes that were earning another restaurant on the other coast kudos a year earlier, no? Could just be that everyone loves them some pork belly and kim chee, and some crispy hominy with lime. I know I do.

[*] I had the good fortune of trying the MGF&D whole roasted chicken within a month of a trip to S.F. and trying the famous Zuni Cafe chicken. My verdict - the MGF&D version was even better than the original.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

I'll Have What She's Having

Glad to know I'm not the only one pondering what to call this new-fangled cooking thing going on, but here's one I think I'll pass on: "ORGASMIC" ("ORganoleptics, Gastronomy, Art, & Science Meet In Cuisine"). I mean, I'm a big fan your spherified such-and-such and so on, but there's really only such much you can accomplish with hydrocolloids. For some things, you have to stick with traditional fare like Katz's Delicatessen (and she didn't even have the corned beef).

For more reactions, look here, or here, or here (everyone's jumping on the bandwagon!); but here's a heartfelt counterpoint.

Edited to add: let it be noted that this new proposed name has always been inherent in the original:

"mOleculaR GAStronoMy"

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Reading Material - Part III - James Beard Books

In Part I and Part II, I listed links to the pieces I could find that were nominated for James Beard Media & Journalism Awards. Finally, here's the nominees for the James Beard Book Awards:

Arthur Schwartz's Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited
Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans
Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook

BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking with Over 200 Magnificent Recipes
Baking for All Occasions
The Art and Soul of Baking

The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea
The Wines of Burgundy: Revised Edition
WineWise: Your Complete Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Enjoying Wine

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook
Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide

How to Cook Everything (Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition): 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food
Martha Stewart's Cooking School: Lessons and Recipes for the Home Cook
The Bon Appetit Cookbook: Fast Easy Fresh

Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta: Recipes from the World-Famous Spa
The EatingWell for a Healthy Heart Cookbook: 175 Delicious Recipes for Joyful, Heart-Smart Eating (EatingWell Books)
The Food You Crave: Luscious Recipes for a Healthy Life

Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China
Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lovers Treasury of Classics and Improvisations
Southeast Asian Flavors: Adventures in Cooking the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, & Singapore

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook
Decadent Desserts: Recipes from Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte
Haute Chinese Cuisine from the Kitchen of Wakiya

Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages
The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs
The Science of Good Food: The Ultimate Reference on How Cooking Works

Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes
Mediterranean Fresh: A Compendium of One-Plate Salad Meals and Mix-and-Match Dressings
The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China
Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef

And there you have it. Happy reading.

Reading Material - Part II

More links to the James Beard Award nominees for the journalism awards. Part I is here.

Made (Better) In Japan - Alan Richman, GQ
BBQ 08 (The Top 50 BBQ Joints in Texas) - Patricia Sharpe and staff of Texas Monthly Magazine
My Cherry Amour - Monique Truong, Gourmet

Jonathan Gold, LA Weekly - "A Proper Brasserie," "A Fine Palate," "Pho Town"
Adam Platt, New York Magazine - "Faux French," "The Mario of Midtown," "Corton on Hudson"
Tom Sietsema, Washington Post - "Great Expectations," "Robo Restaurant," "An Earned Exclamation"

Greens of Wrath - Barry Estabrook, Gourmet
What Good is Breakfast? - New York Magazine
How to Feed Your Mind - Rachael Moeller Gorman, EatingWell

BA Foodist - Andrew Knowlton,
Hunter Angler Gardener Cook - Hank Shaw,
Our One-Block Diet -

Dorie Greenspan, Bon Appetit - "Bacon-Cheddar Quick Bread," "All-Purpose Holiday Cake," "My Go-To Dough"
Corby Kummer, The Atlantic - "A Papaya Grows in Holyoke," "Beyond the McIntosh," "Half a Loaf"
Laura Shapiro, - "Campaign Cookies," "Why Does America Hate Ratatouille?," "The Lord is my Chef"

Revolution by the Glass - Jon Bonné, San Francisco Chronicle
Billionaire Winos - Jay McInerney, Men's Vogue
Viva La Revolucion! - Alan Richman, GQ


Gourmet Cookbook Club - Ruth Reichl,
The Test Kitchen - Ruth Reichl,
The Whole Hog Project - Mike Sula,

Knead, Pray, Love - Celia Barbour, O, The Oprah Magazine
Benedictions - Aleksandra Crapanzano, Gourmet
My Sweet Life - Alan Richman, GQ

If I can summon the energy at some point, there's also Book Awards too ...