Japan and…small plates

It’s been a week of comings and goings, ups and downs, and disappointments and achievements.  Suicidal pilots, carnage and mayhem in former Aden, and the new Chinese-led development bank.  That bank?  That bank is the story of the year, wait and see where its investments go.

On a positive note: My piece on the Japanese cheese industry came out yesterday in Cheese Connoisseur.  The piece discusses the cheeses made in Japan and the cheese makers.  The cheeses are chiefly soft and they are delicious.  Local mozzarella for first-rate pizza, etc.

Then there’s a really interesting piece on the first page of the Food section of today’s NY Times about “small plates” in restaurants.  This used to be the sort of thing in western Europe and North America reserved for tasting menus.  Nowadays with increased affluence among the few who can afford to eat out routinely, and with a health consciousness among that group which dictates diet, small plates are appearing on all sorts of menus.

Well, all sorts of menus in NYC, anyway.

The idea is to share a number of appetizer-sized portions.  You get a few bites and move on.

It’s a great idea for developing a broader palate.  Good for the restaurants that know how to price a beet at $14, too.  No kidding: That beet really cost $14.

Small plates will never replace the large portion places: Restaurants that want you to leave feeling full.  But they add to the mix.

Meanwhile I’m still thinking about the China bank and its investment strategies.  They are operating on the basis of strategies rather than tactics.  It’s the difference between big plates and small plates.

Bars & Restaurants

I’ve been going to a number of Celtics games lately, now that the weather allows for that, and once again am rediscovering the joys of the informality and unpretentiousness that drew me to Boston in the first place just over thirty years ago.

No other North American city I’ve been to has a better bar scene.  Even the restaurants are de facto bars.  A good night out means a couple of drinks followed by some stuff.  You won’t leave hungry.  These are big plates of food, and if conversation lags there is usually a T.V. posted on a wall showing sports.  The newest restaurants in town have focused on their Beverage programs to satisfy the demands of customers.

It’s a win-win: The restaurant generates revenue from alcohol, which no matter what a “mixologist” tells you, is a no-brainer.  The customer drinks: $28 later, plus tax and tip, and the customer has had four ounces of alcohol.  Do the math: That’s nearly $10 an ounce or $320 a bottle, which cost the “restaurant” $20.  Few food items outside of pizza yield that profit margin.

Which explains the food.

A new restaurant in Downtown Crossing has an entire list of Negroni’s.  Guess what?  They all taste pretty much the same.  Other restaurants have their P.R. teams talk about innovation in the cocktail menus, and it’s all true.  They are innovative.

I had a great night, for example, at a terrific restaurant in Harvard Square on the way back from a game: Tuna carpaccio, pork ribs, salmon in a bowl for a friend, and two drinks each: $130.

So, hands up, surrender, drink up, and enjoy it.

 

 

 

Sakura Hana?

Snowflakes are falling and it’s quiet outside.  Earlier this week, I heard European starlings, robins, cardinals, and sparrows.  Today?  The birds are probably huddling in their nests.

The only cherry blossoms are several thin branches in a tall, glass vase on the kitchen countertop.

I tried to jumpstart Spring by ordering a couple of pounds of blond morels.  They arrived from Oregon and I’m using them over five dinners.  Then I ordered two pounds each of European turbot and Dover sole shipped from Browne Trading in Portland, Maine.  That will be good for eight dinners.

But it’s still wintry.

On a positive note, I received the uncorrected proofs of my upcoming piece with the University of California Press:

Hashiri, Sakari, Nagori:

Toward Understanding the Psychology, Ideology, and Branding of Seasonality in Japanese Gastronomy

 

On an even more positive note, my new book, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Presenting Family of the Year,” is out with an agent-to-be.

Now if the weather would cooperate…

Choices Made By Chefs

I was reading an interview with Alain Passard recently; he’s the chef-owner of L’Arpege, which is located on a small hard-to-find street in central Paris.  He noted that he had not been to New York, and I found this puzzling, amusing, and oddly inspiring.

Passard’s food is first-rate.  He switched from a varied menu a few years ago to one that is chiefly driven by vegetables.  I’ve been twice to his restaurant and was dazzled both times by his ability to coax flavors from food that has no fat in it.  (OK, he adds butter.)

I began to wonder if the busy plates of most North American chefs–on which one ingredient after another is piled on, showcasing the chef’s ability to use things–are a cultural artifact.  Meaning that the desire to draw attention to the food and the person who led the team to cook it are bold in the way that other things around us are bold.

Like the big, noisy novel I am reading now by Atticus Lish.  So much happens in it!  But the depth isn’t there.  We get distracted by the excitement and forget perhaps that in life not much happens at all, and that this not happening is at the heart of storytelling.  Ironically.

Maybe it’s a good idea to keep things simple: http://www.bonjourparis.com/story/alain-passard-man-who-loves-vegetables-buzz/

Desire & Dining

It’s interesting how the cultural shift and obsession with food takes place among certain people and places during a time of aimlessness and despair.  I sometimes wonder what the people who open restaurants/cafes/bars with no talent for food or hospitality would be doing years before the work became socially acceptable and a way to make a living.

Probably in sales.

And the writers, I’m guessing, would be teachers or bookstore managers.

At the end of the day, food is meant to sustain.  But it can also serve to distract.  And that’s a good thing because life is tough, but another question might be: What is tough and how do we make it less tough?

 

24 Hours in Boston

My Hyatt credit card gives me each year a free anniversary night at a range of its properties, from the luxe Park Hyatt’s in Toronto and Saigon, to ordinary hotels in many cities.  They used to include a motel-like building off of 5th in the Twenties, but that stopped last year when they must have found that they could charge $200+ for the room.

So that left, for me, Boston and also Portland, Maine.

We stayed at the Grand Hyatt in Downtown Crossing, behind Tremont Street, in Boston.  It was magical from the outset to be a hotel guest in a city I’ve called home for three decades.  I saw the city with fresh eyes and pretended I was a visitor who had not been here before.

Everyone was friendly.  The new and old architecture was beautiful and clean.

We walked to a hidden bar, Wink & Nod, in the South End.  It is inside the old digs of Icarus, a lovely restaurant at one time.  Wink & Nod serves as a pop-up for itinerant chefs who stay a few months.  We weren’t there for the food.  We sat at the bar and had good classic drinks: Manhattan, Martini.  First-rate.  But word to the bar: Stir the drinks, don’t shake them.

Then we walked to Bar Boulud, which is inside Mandarin Oriental, in Back Bay.  Delicious starters of a trout pate, gougeres, and tete du Cochon, followed by cassoulet and a cod dish with clams.  This is French food that is better than anything, bar none, I’ve eaten in Boston the entire time I’ve been here.  There are/were “French” restaurants here that are actually French in name only.

Bar Boulud is what you find in Paris, NYC, or Tokyo: Straight ahead bistro type dishes prepared with the best ingredients at prices that are meant to make regulars out of guests.  And a service-driven model that is unpretentious and flat out fun.

The next morning we walked through Quincy Market inside Faneuil Hall.  I hadn’t been since I lived in the North End in the 1980’s.  The food portions were huge: It was like being in a children’s movie where kids see everything as BIG.

Coffee at Paradiso in the North End.  You could have been in Italy.  Great veal from Sulmona Meat Market, great buffalo milk ricotta from Salumeria Italiana, and slices at Galleria Umberto–Ralph asked me, “How you doin’?” and shook my hand, which I still have not washed.

Back through Haymarket–a buck for a quart of strawberries, and then through Government Center to Park Street for the subway ride to Cambridge.

What Lies Ahead

I’ve wrapped up the six stories on Japan from recent trips in January and February, sent my new book out to my agent, and am about to return to developing narratives for the eighteen interviews I did with prominent Indian-Americans for my book on that subject.  Both books ought to be published next year.

Meanwhile, just this morning, the four blood oranges I squeezed for juice yielded about three ounces.  Why is that OK?

Up ahead: Bar Boulud in Boston.  The restaurant opened in the Fall of 2014, and I want to get in as often as possible before it closes shop.  You can get a table there most any night within a day or two of trying and while it’s clear that the food and service are the best this city has ever seen, no joke, it won’t last.

It will join Market, Rocca, Om, and others the names of which don’t come to mind.

It’s unfortunate that restaurants with well-defined, small menus that focus on small plates of high-end ingredients just don’t make it in Boston.

On a positive note, this means more time at home getting work done.

What Are Restaurants Today?

Assets in hedge fund accounts or investment portfolios.

It’s true.  We’re at the early to middle stages of a financial “revolution” in the hospitality industry that is a lot like what took place in the entertainment, healthcare, and sports industries about forty years ago.  Investors have identified correctly that the hospitality industry is undervalued and in need of business models that will generate profits that maximize the value of the asset.

And there you thought it was about food.  About GMO’s, sustainability, humane slaughter, and organic produce.  Nope, those are marketing terms.

What this means pragmatically is that most restaurants that want to survive and have a future will join up with investment groups that will create for them the capital to expand, save for the future, and allow the chef to develop projects that are not immediately profitable.  That is the real meaning of sustainability.

Those restaurants that do not get financial backing at that level will become like small record labels or indy music bands.  Some will attract investors–think of the bands, “Beirut,” or, “Arcade Fire”–and benefit from investment.

What this means for cooks emerging from culinary schools or years of on-site training in restaurants is that unless they can get attract the attention of the hedge fund managers or big investment groups, they’ll be broke most of the time.  Cooking good food maybe, but broke.

 

What Chefs Talk About

I just finished writing up a long piece about a very famous chef who visits a very famous city.  I sent the piece to a magazine that wanted it, and now we have entered negotiations.  The editor had thought that chefs, this one in particular, talk about food.  But they don’t, and he didn’t.

The big chefs I’ve met and spent barrels of time with talk to me about their families, the difficulty of making a living, staying in business, staying in shape, keeping a staff for years, how to stay both current as well as loyal to traditions of service and prep, and the challenge of expanding their presence globally while maintaining the brand.

Sort of like most people: Trying to be loved, stay loved, be healthy, stay healthy, and plan and hope for the future.

It’s a lot like what musicians write about.  In the memoirs I read the past couple of years–Hancock, Richards, (George) Clinton, Osborne, et. al., music factors in, but what the authors note most of all is the enormity of the task of the work, and how that focus erodes relationships in their marriages and friendships.

Same with chefs.  It’s not about the food.

East Boston: The Queens of New England

I decided to spend about an hour in East Boston yesterday in the early afternoon before picking up L at the airport, which is in East Boston.  (I never thought that the day would come when I would write, “East Boston,” twice in the same sentence.  Yet that day is here: Who among us can know the future?  Especially when it comes to proper nouns.)

I love Santarpio’s: It’s one of the top ten pizzerias in the United States.  But solo the idea of wolfing down an entire pie was obviously not a good one.

There are numerous Mexican, other Central American, and Brazilian restaurants in East Boston, and many looked good and probably are very good.  In fact, it seems to be a community in which immigrants, like long ago, open up simple places where food is sold.  In Boston and Cambridge, the rents are too high for this level of entrepreneurship.  That’s too bad.  These places add a lot both from culinary and social perspectives.

I settled on Meridien Food Market.  It’s a storefront restaurant with a few tables in front and a deli counter in back.  The chicken parm sub I had was first-rate.  The staff was friendly in that curious, confident neighborhood kind of way.

It’s good to discover a neighborhood like East Boston.  I wish it wasn’t cut off by the bridge and tunnel.  Few places have its ability to convey identity through food.