Why We Eat in Restaurants and Why We Don’t

I stopped eating dinner out in Boston a few years ago.  Unless it’s a new place or a friend’s place, and then I go three or four times within the first six months before I quit, I eat my dinners at home.  Too many overpriced dinners, dinners so high in fat and salt I was sick afterwards, dinners with cheap ingredients cooked to burst with flavor that were soon forgettable, dinners of burgers, $15 beets, pork bellies, and a contest in which the chef tried to show how much he can put on the plate.

What’s odd is that this is a city with some of the world’s greatest fish and seafood, first rate cheese shops, first rate bakeries, and a few first rate stores selling fruits and vegetables.  So why are the restaurants so awful?

There are many reasons.

Collusion of critics who encourage chefs to do things new when, really, tradition not only has a lot to teach us in terms of taste, but, let’s face it, how many ways are there to roast a chicken?

Customers who like the big city feel of a $43 steak of choice (not prime) beef.  Chefs who lack imagination.  A base of people who want a quick bite of “ethnic” food before going back to work or home.  Etc.

That last observation–people and the quick bite–seems to be the overriding paradigm, which I hadn’t understood until recently.  Here’s the thing: This is a town with great indoor space.  When I go to people’s homes for dinner or eat at home, the physical space is pleasing in a way that a restaurant isn’t.  In contrast, in NYC, it’s very much the opposite: The indoor spaces are often cramped, restaurants offer a place to socialize and work.

In Boston that role is taken up by bars.  Of which we have plenty, and many are terrific.  That influences the cuisine: Burgers, pizza, fried this and that, spicy food that makes one want to drink more.

Going Out, Staying In

It’s something like ten degrees F outside, and, sure, I’m used to it, I’m hardy, I’m perennial, winter comes, winter goes.  You want to talk about what?  The weather?  Not here, pal, not by a long shot.

In order to waylay the debilitating effects of the cold and dark, a necessary period in this forsaken part of the world where hibernation is necessary, the city I call home has arrived at numerous activities.

When it comes to food, your best bet around here is to go to one of several good bakeries.

Hi-Rise has declined so much in the past year that it’s off my list: The prices shot up, the quality went down, the staff acts as if they are doing you a huge favor by taking a break from the novel they are writing.

The two bakeries that are pretty wonderful instead are Clear Flour and Flour. Unrelated.

At Clear Flour, you enter a tiny vestibule and face racks of freshly baked breads, sweets, and breakfast items.  There’s a German bent to what’s baked here, and I’m never disappointed.

Flour isn’t close to being as good re breads, but the vibe in its cafes is nonpareil. Delicious sandwiches, kind counter people, and good soups.

You know what’s nice?  Really nice?  I’ll tell you.  Make a pot of soup at home: Split pea, white bean, miso, etc.  Take that bread I mentioned, and dip it into the soup.  Pick up the Modiano novel about loss.

Feeling better?

 

 

 

The Signs are There

Did you now that one sign of emotional distress or incipient mental illness is an individual’s comfort with sustaining and expressing rage?  It’s true.  No matter how much hot and sour soup you enjoy, that rage obviates matters.  Wood ear fungus or no wood ear fungus.

Yesterday I watched David Chang on a You Tube video show viewers how to make chicken stock for Chinese soup and noodles.  Easy and delicious.  He acts enraged, Chef Chang, but he’s not.

Closer to home, it’s Modiano’s short novels, pea soup with chicken sausages, and spaghetti with tomato sauce of butter and onions that cooked over slow heat for three hours.

You can have all the fancy pants recipes, I’ll stick to basics.  Interestingly, Chang said that the soup is, “Just about the only thing I cook at home.”

But say you meet up with that person who feels alive with the rage and dead without it.  Do you serve them soup?

No, you do not.

Kitchen is closed.

Why the Food Tastes the Way the Food Tastes

Unlike their counterparts in some countries–Austria, China, France, Italy, Japan, Spain, Thailand–folks who turned cooking into a profession in the U.S. didn’t grow up with a set of rules or traditions that are culturally defined nor rigid.  Daniel Boulud, the best French born chef in the U.S., told me that he thought that one factor behind the molecular cooking movement was that chefs didn’t have a specificity that they needed to follow in their food.

Stateside, you have a lot of kids who don’t do well in high school, tend to be either athletic and/or socially awkward, and find that the idea of more education isn’t possible.  They might be good at sales.  They might be good at repetitive, physical activity.  They like money for work that’s immediate.  They aren’t good at delaying gratification.  They like to eat.

So they work as cooks and a few lucky ones, less than 1%, open their own restaurants or move up the ranks in already established places.

Not having much business sense, unaware typically of how money works except that they like to get paid in an hour or two for cooking, they form ties with business people who run the business.

The result is high-fat, sugary, salty foods that provide an immediate sense of pleasure.  These dishes don’t create memories, but they certainly are great fun for an evening out.

But wait and see: I’ll wager that we’ll see a revival of classics, more vegetable options, and depth of flavor based on umami.  Of course, until that happens, it’s gonna be offal.

 

Pizza, Pizza, Pizza

I’m back in Boston, land of skyrocketed restaurant prices, where limited competition has led to dinner for two, at even the most average of places, costing no less than $100, and where dining out at those establishments you’ve heard about runs, no joke, between $400-500.

You have got to be kidding.

I’m not kidding.

So thank goodness for places like BEAT HOTEL.  In Harvard Square, this restaurant/club opened a couple of years ago and, OK, the prices here aren’t different from many other restaurants at its level, but–and here is the key difference–there’s LIVE MUSIC!  We’re talking local acts who play with passion and skill, jazz and hip-hop, rhythmic or discordant, soothing or provocative.  This is the place to go for a night out.

But say you’re tired, incapable of imagining yourself in a room of happy people, varied in age, race, and gender.  Say you feel that wintertime is best spent in front of a fire reading Kawabata.

Then of course, and I’ve said this many times before, you can quote me, Boston rules when it comes to pizza.

A couple of times a year I deviate from from favorite places and go to Santarpio’s.  Located in East Boston, this old school joint has hidden toppings, and a hidden back door where the guys act tough and may, for all I know, be tough.  Tough or tender, the pies they make and sell are inimitable and very delicious.

And: You’re up about $75.  Two pies: $25.

The Hunger Gains

How many small pizzas, half anchovy and half sausage, with fresh mozzarella, can one person eat before surrendering?  Look, I’m not saying the pies from Armando’s and T. Anthony’s aren’t delicious–they are–but I’m hungry for more.  Who isn’t?

And I don’t mean burgers, wings, fried anything, offal, or tacos.  Sometimes Boston seems like one humongous college campus.

On a positive note, not eating out, not wanting to given what’s out there, means I stay in a lot and write.  This just in: Gastronomica, the country’s preeminent food journal, is publishing my piece in May:

Hashiri, Sakari, Nagori: Towards Understanding the Psychology, Ideology, and Branding of Seasonality in Japanese Gastronomy”

 

It’s a radical take on Japanese food and ideology, and while it was meant at one time to soothe, now it’s scalding in parts.

So maybe the limitations of the food in this town have a purpose, and maybe the humongous campus is really true: Like many in Boston, I tend to stay at home more often than not, reading and writing.  And what better relief from that than a sausage and anchovy pie?

Dining in Boston, Fine

After ten days of working in Japan, where dining is so deeply competitive and consumers are informed and experienced, where a fine dining experience costs no more than $42, all inclusive, and day to day dining for lunch costs about $12, I’m back home in Boston.

Now here’s a town that knows its pizza.  So many choices.

There are the stoner pies: Otto.

The great old school varieties: Pinocchio, Santarpio’s, Armando’s, Galleria Umberto.

The upscale choices: Posto, MAST, Pastoral, Cambridge One, Area 4.

And that’s not including the literally dozens of hole-in-the-wall joints.

But for my money, the go-to place, where we went last night, and brought home a large half anchovy, half sausage pie, is T. Anthony’s.  Thin crust, baked until crispy, with a sweet and savory and thick tomato paste based sauce, and fresh mozzarella, this is as close to a NYC-NJ pie as Boston gets.

 

成人の日: Coming of Age Day in Japan

Uh oh, lock the doors, stay off the roads, and hide the sake: It’s the second Monday of January, and that means, “Coming of Age Day,” throughout Japan.  That’s right, turning twenty here is marked by ceremonies and revels and dissolute responses to the burgeoning opportunity to have adult privileges.

Me, I’m going for a run, having breakfast, and heading home to Boston.  It’s been nine days of interviewing and writing.  Micro-brewed beer, cheese production, noma in Japan, and planning for stories to write in the near future.

Yesterday, parting ways with two of our group who flew to Cambodia, the two of us remaining strolled around Ginza and Shinjuku, enjoying the Sunday crowds and balmy weather.

Lunch was at Keishoan, hidden on the 6th floor of the Lumine Building across from the West exit of Shinjuku station.  By night it’s yakitori, by day it’s chicken in stews or fried.  Delicious and at $13 per person, including everything, a great deal.

Planning ahead, we went to the food hall of Isetan to stock up for the plane ride home.  Fried chicken, stewed fish, fermented yam, and unagi.  The unagi, or river eel, was crazy expensive because it was from Japan rather than China.  Like many informed consumers, I won’t knowingly buy anything edible from China.  You pay a price for that position.

And then at last we met up with Kanna and Rie at L’As, which is a remarkable French-Japanese restaurant hidden in an alley in Ometesando.  The chef here, Daisuke Kaneko, trained with Alain Senderens, and his focus and use of Japanese aesthetics and French technique, along with a great wine list, yield playful, memorable, deeply flavorful results.  And with a prix fixe menu of six courses at $42 person, it’s pretty amazing.  In NYC this is a meal that would cost three times as much.  Watch and see if Kaneko-san isn’t written up in major media.

 

Sunday in Tokyo

Fuji-san looked enormous from the Hikari Shinkansen.  Snow capped and volcanic.  We had a train picnic of grilled chicken and a cold Yebisu.

Park Hyatt Tokyo was the destination.  I’ve been a guest many times for many years. Never disappointed.

Dinner at Butagami, near Roppongi Hills, in a little side street.  One of my favorite places in Tokyo.  Delicious pork in a pleasant setting.

Today, after a run, it will be time to go to Shinjuku to bid a brief farewell to those of us heading to work in Cambodia and then a subway ride to Ginza and Nihonbashi.  Sunday means closed main streets and first-rate people watching.

 

72 Hours in Kyoto

Kyoto is so pleasant, so varied, so accessible, and so open that a few days here yield delights readily.

Yesterday, for example, I visited a brewery in the southern district of the city.  A sake brewery that has added the manufacture of beer to its repertoire, the company produces small batches of micro-brewed beer from hops and malt imported from Germany and Canada.  The results are delicious.  Visitors are welcome.   Kizakura.

Later in the day we walked to a favorite, old soba shop in the center of town, hidden in an alley, where for $12 one has bowls of good broth, fresh noodles, and a choice of duck, prawns, fried tofu, or yam: Misoka-an Kawamichi-ya.

A bath in a big, sunken tub, a nap, cocktails at Touzan, and then back to Gion.

Obanzai is a winter stew specific to Kyoto, and we enjoyed a version in a hole-in-the-wall: Yasukawa.  No sign, sliding door.

This late morning we board the train back to Tokyo.