I’m at the kitchen table sipping cold Maui coffee made from beans shipped to me from Porto Rico on Bleecker that had the beans shipped to them from Hawaii. Fog stripped the trees and houses of shape this morning on the first walk with the dog at about 7:15 A.M. I’m nearly done with the third volume of Elena Ferrante’s sharp and devastating Neapolitan trilogy, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.” If you think that title is brilliant, which it is, wait until you read her work. She’s quietly capable of getting into your head, like a cold, and staying and reshaping how you think and write.
Meanwhile, in the world of food, a review of Blue Hill in NYC in today’s NYT, granting it 3/4 stars. I’m sure it’s wonderful, well deserved, but what the author left out was the straight-jacket of a menu. I walked by it a few times recently and on offer was pork, pork, and more pork. You don’t know in advance of a reservation what’s in store. Hardly hospitable.
Speaking of pork, a little piece in today’s Globe on Rosebud, in Davis Square, in Somerville. The room, I recall, is lovely, an old school diner, with booths and a counter, which is our version of a sushi bar. But the menu discussed is pork, pork, and more pork. Does this interest you: BBQ Baconater Meatloaf Fatty” ($15.95)? Or this: Asian BBQ Hog Head ($36.95)? I didn’t think so. And what’s with the 95 cents? Round up, boys, round up.
Never mind the delicious and plentiful chicken wings and cocktails the size of goldfish bowls at 49 Social in the revitalized Downtown Crossing section of Boston, which on Friday night, looked like a New England version of Bourbon Street. The very next night MAST opened: I’ll be in soon; it’s a Neapolitan style pizzeria, vast in size, focused in ambition, and probably the real thing with a huge, red tiled oven and a pizza maker I spoke with briefly in Italian as English wasn’t his thing.
More to the point, speaking of Naples, is the new pasta counter at Russo’s where a young Neapolitan told me that she is now making the pastas in house, from ravioli to fusilli to spaghetti. It all looked wonderful, can’t wait to boil up a batch with a simple butter and onion sauce, thanks to the legacy of Marcella Hazen, the nonna I never had.
Speaking of nonna’s, I was reminded of my own when I bought, skeptically, a poppy seed bagel made by OMG and sold at Russo’s. Holy mackerel, it ‘s the real thing! Great crust, perfect doughy interior. These are bagels as good as the best in NYC.
I’m doing a piece for The Boston Globe on spots in NYC for that $1.25 coffee, which happens to be the city’s best at any price, as well as where to find the hidden old school bar and hidden new school bar, both quiet, both serene, and highlighting astonishing pizza where you skip the lines because the restaurant takes reservations, as well as lovely places that offer a few dishes of great flavor that omit the fried stuff, the pork, the offal, the name and address of the farm, and the chef’s latest vision.
So that got me thinking.
Why eat out at all? On the road, necessity. At home, in one’s own city, of course not.
Conviviality, boredom, the need for entertainment, etc.
The entertainment factor struck a chord.
Why we choose a place has everything to do with what it is like to be there. The food is the minimum. After that, it’s Omotenashi. Meaning a deep devotion to hospitality, a respite from life’s demands, concerns about the future, preoccupations with the past. The restaurant tries to create a series of moments that create an illusion that is made real through the food. This is why, in part, chefs became celebrated over the past decade or so.
And why so many places are established that attempt to create or evoke the experience. As in most things, it is the very few, I’d say less than 5%, who manage to succeed.
So it helps to know their names.
And now we bid a fond farewell to Hamersley’s Bistro, the restaurant that twenty-eight years ago raised the bar on Boston dining, and this month shutters its doors. It was here that I first went behind the scenes and learned to cook professionally. I was taught how to make duck confit from scratch, plate dishes, use and respect every ingredient, and work with focus and efficiency. Gordon Hamersley, chef-owner, was very much a mentor, and his generosity is evident in his food and community involvement in Roxbury.
Later still it will be a visit to Bar Boulud, opened in Boston about a month ago, which adds a layer of depth to dining in this city. An outpost of chef Daniel Boulud, refinement here is the key, and my second visit coming up is, I reckon, going to rival the first.
While at home it’s been a week of turbot, Dover sole, matsutake, and porcini. Take a porcini, slice it, roll it in egg, roll it in breadcrumbs, fry in olive oil, salt lightly , squeeze a little lemon over it. Is that perfect food or what? Poach the turbot. Pan sear the Dover sole. Toss thinly sliced porcini with tajarin.
French out, Italian at home.
“Prosperity is around the corner,” but at the moment signs point to belt tightening. Why, in today’s NY Times alone, you have a front page story on the trend to serve chicken wings in restaurants. Folks, I don’t eat chicken wings at home, and I’ll be gosh darned if I’m dropping eight bucks for a deep fried plate of fat, bones, and as much meat as you find on an Ortolan.
In the same section of the paper, we are provided with a recipe for pork schnitzel. Here economizing is the impetus: Fry a piece of pork in oil. Thanks, but no thanks. The only pork being fried in my home is bacon, and then when it’s snowing and so bitterly cold that the dog struggles–you can see it in his face–to give voice to the thrill of being outside.
The paper goes further: A recipe for lentils, the return of boilermakers in bars, and the opening of a taco joint by Alex Stupak on St. Marks and Second.
Ironic then that the very same newspaper on Sunday devoted its magazine to pieces on how to get kids to eat right. Reminds me of the old days when parents told us not to smoke pot as they looked at us glassy eyed after a second highball.
Me? I’m heading for the hills, thanks for asking. I just published my Q & A with Charles Blow in Bay State Banner, a piece on Glarus in Cheese Connoisseur, am up to page fifty in my book on the psychological resilience of NRIs, up to page one hundred on a book about families, and am in the middle of an Elsa Ferrante reading marathon.
Talk about prayers.
Black Seed Bagels: I’ve just returned from a long walk to lower Elizabeth Street, below Houston, that started here at the apartment on W. 3rd & Thompson. Having the dog as companion meant more time was needed than usual since he attracted loads of attention and also stopped often in response to scents and other dogs. The destination was Black Seed Bagels where I picked up a poppy seed bagel with pickled belly lox spread, alfalfa sprouts, and raw red onions. It is delicious, but do we really need a new school bagel? It lacked the NYC flavor of crispness followed by doughiness and the lox seemed to struggled with having been pickled.
Yesterday started at Tompkins Square bagels and while not quite hoity-toity, it was just wonderful.
Followed by a morning of four pages in my new book that I can live with, and then lunch with N at Marta, which is Danny Meyer’s newest place. It’s inside The Martha Washington Hotel on E. 29th. Beautiful room, killer service, and delicious, thin Roman style pizzas, but compared to Rubirosa, and I know one shouldn’t compare, not so much. But if you find yourself in that area, by all means go, you won’t be disappointed.
Dinner was at Yakitori Tora, which just opened a couple of weeks ago, on Kenmare. Might as well be in Japan: Cool jazz, great chicken (kawa!) and vegetables, delicious draft beer. They need to work on updating the music selection to at least the 1950s, but the place has great potential, and I’ll be back. Mind: If you’re not used to spending about $70 p.p. for chicken, be warned. It is worth it.
After the bagel, after the coffee, and after more of Elena Ferrante’s brilliant and raw, Troubling Love, about the death of her mother, the dog and I returned to Washington Square Park, one block away, for what has become a customary stroll through its long familiar loops, first experienced by me when I was about ten and then regularly over the years.
From Ferrante: “I knew that I was losing my mother definitively and that it was exactly what I wanted.”
Not exactly Oprah.
Meeting T at Bar Primi to discuss plans was very productive, and I’m glad I returned to the restaurant. Only a couple of weeks before a series of missteps over lunch by wait staff and perhaps confusion in the kitchen led to a delicious lunch spoiled by bad timing and odd portion sizes. This time the service was in order and the pastas as good as before. The vibe here is more pleasant than many places with food just as good.
The time between the park and after lunch was spent in the apartment writing. I’m up to page 98 in my new book about family, which apparently is fiction, and this third section (of six) is more difficult than ones preceding because the material is sad and scary, but I want it to be understood with humor from perspective. I achieved that yesterday with four pages, but it took all day.
Cocktails at Lafayette and then dinner at Il Buco Alimentari. Great room at the former, and both great room and great food at the latter, which has become my regular Italian in town.
I reached the city yesterday after a long drive on 9W above the Hudson, and parallel to the NY State Thruway, with views of deciduous forests changing color and the vaulting cliffs and low mountains above the Hudson to create a panorama of centuries of post-glacial beauty.
Once in town it was the usual crawl on the West Side Highway and then through old Village streets until I reached the apartment on Thompson. A quick walk through the park with the dog, and then since it’s down the street: Lupa. Dependable Lupa. An OK vibe, but better than OK pasta.
Dinner @ Rubirosa where the couple next to our table banked on being regulars by greeting everyone at work, not ordering from the menu, etc., before descending into a ferocious and loud marital squabble. They were merely in the early thirties. What lies ahead?
Afterwards, Chick Corea at a table literally an inch from the stage next to a lovely dad and daughter from Argentina in NYC for the first time. Four songs, tight set.
And what better way to start the day then by walking to Alphabet City to buy a bagel from Tompkins Square Bagel and then returning home to enjoy it with hot coffee from Porto Rico while writing for the next three hours?
If someone provides you with a service that costs less than his or her competitors, and the person is reliable, chances are that you will contract for the work. If the person has repressive tactics to keep his or her workers in line, and these methods yield higher productivity and lower labor costs, would you continue to work with him or her? In the case of China, it’s a resounding: Yes!
Look, business benefits from the repressive practices of the Chinese government: No unions, no requests from mainland workers for higher wages, no occupational/health regulations, no pensions, no required employee heath insurance, etc. The repression that is happening in Hong Kong, and is going to get far worse, is the natural outcome of the collusion of Western businesses with the dictatorial Chinese government. The irony is that while the West sheds a tear, few in the business community want to see democracy in China because it will cost them much more to pay labor.
China knows this and it literally gives the government a license to kill.
The numerous Western chefs who have opened in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macau are well aware of what’s happening to the labor force and to animal husbandry in China, but while talking about humane practices and buying local and environmental safety, it’s crickets when it comes to any sort of meaningful action.
Why is that? Hint: The chefs profit from low labor costs and incredibly cheap prices for food served in their restaurants. It’s not just that they don’t care about the repression, it is that they welcome it. Why do you think chefs are flocking to China? Huge profit compared to running restaurants in the West.
New idea for chefs: Cook and run restaurants. Don’t talk about politics unless you’re consistent. I’d rather hear about your kitchens than what you see on your way to and from work through the tinted glass of your BMW.
With all the talk of “buying local,” and “sustainability,” and “food and the environment,” I must say I was a little surprised by the depth of silence from the many chefs from Europe and North America who own restaurants in Hong Kong when the pro-democracy forces took to the streets over the weekend.
Chefs from the West in Hong Kong include: Alain Ducasse, Joël Robuchon, Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, Pierre Gagnaire, Mario Batali, Paco Roncero, Michael White, and Jamie Oliver.
Look, I get it, it’s hard enough–brutal, some might say–to make the business of a restaurant work without having to worry about economic and social issues. But if chefs are speaking up about GMOs, “farm to table” produce, an array of health issues, school lunches, and everything (except increasing the minimum wage), it stands to reason that they would be concerned about what is happening in Hong Kong. At the very least, as The Wall Street Journal reports today, it’s not good for business when people take to the streets.
It’s going to be even worse for business when the crackdown starts. Tomorrow, October 1, is the annual celebration of the communist revolution in China. Let’s see what happens to mark the day. (Anyone remember The Great Famine?)
Still, there’s hope: If Hong Kong implodes, and the work environment becomes bad for the hospitality industry, chefs can always head to Pyongyang, North Korea. Now there’s a country that’s all about sustainability.