The Regina Carter Experience

The show last night at the Regattabar in The Charles Hotel was wonderful.  I love her music, you might, too.  She coaxes joy from what I think of as fundamentally a sad instrument that invokes flight and loss: Think of the fiddler on the roof, no kidding.  But in Regina’s hands, the moment comes alive and the result is transcendent.  She finds happiness, which I think is at the heart of jazz–think of Louis Armstrong or Miles or Ella performing during periods of profound hatred and the general barriers placed before them.  She creates a space of safety and assurance.

And our seats were good: Because it’s a very small jazz club and I go a few times a year and they must have seen we’re back tonight, we were at a front row table sipping scotch.  On the way home, I grabbed a slice of pepperoni @ Pinocchio’s, which makes fresh dough: I saw them doing it as I waited.  Preceded all by sauteed toro and eel at home.

The Swiss Connection

Last night I was invited to attend the 10th anniversary celebration of Swissnex-Boston, which is the world’s only science-technology consulate.  I never go to these things, but as a Swissophile and a lover of science, I could not pass it up.

Located in Cambridge, within walking distance of my home, the consulate hosted an impressive array of dignitaries, from Manuel Sager, the Swiss Ambassador to the US, to Swiss Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter.

I love science: Facts, not anecdotes.  Evidence, not impressions.  Commitment and not dithering.  Responsibility over shirking.  We’ll get to ethics at some later date.  Stay tuned, I promise.

One person spoke of funding young geniuses: The Sandbox.  A brainy medical researcher discussed biomarkers: Identifying discrete characteristics early on so as to prevent catastrophic outcomes.

What, you may well ask, does this have to do with food?

They fed us.

Easily the best food I’ve had in Boston all year:

Little glass jars of cream and saffron

Assiette of ham

Wild mushrooms

Rosti with bits of sausage

Filet of venison with vegetable “hay”

Small grilled white fish with salt from Geneva

Chocolate ravioli with truffle oil and salt (it doesn’t sound like it would work, but it did)

All prepared by cooks and chefs and students from École hôtelière de Lausanne.

Portions were bite size, just the way I like ‘em, and the convivial atmosphere led to animated talk and lots of networking.  A very Swiss evening in its quirky, pensive, reaching out.

NYC and the Soda Laws: “Pouring on the Pounds”

Drinking sugared soda causes excessive weight gain and can lead to a plethora of medical illnesses–chiefly, diabetes–so of course–of course–I am 100% behind Mayor Bloomberg’s effort to curtail soda consumption.  The only sentient creatures opposed to the mayor’s big plans are the lab monkeys who get to drink sugared sodas in nutritional trials, the companies that manufacture the sodas, and The Tea Party members who’ve drunk the Kool-Aid.

So when I read today’s piece in the NY Times on soda–www.nytimes.com/2010/10/29/nyregion/29fat.html?hp–it was disappointing to see that the city is using an ad campaign imprecise in its language.  The ad states: “Drinking 1 can of soda a day can make you 10 pounds fatter a year. Don’t drink yourself FAT.”

The problem is: The claim doesn’t have scientific validity.  The article quotes the city’s chief nutritionist, Cathy Nonas, who, in an internal memo, wrote, “CAUTION.  As we get into this exacting science, the idea of a sugary drink becoming fat is absurd.”

The article continues:  “Ms. Nonas, along with at least two of her colleagues and a Columbia University professor they consulted, expressed strong doubts about the weight-gain message of the video and urged the department to rethink it. They pointed out that, on an individual basis, the conversion of calories into fat depends on factors like exercise, genes, gender, age and overall calorie consumption.  ‘Basic premise doesn’t work,’ Dr. Michael Rosenbaum, a professor of pediatrics and clinical medicine at Columbia, said in an e-mail to Ms. Nonas on Aug. 18, 2009.”

I think the City should initiate a campaign to come up with a great ad slogan that’s fun and accurate.  Maybe, “Drink this and Die,” or, “Drink Your Way to Diabetes,” I don’t know, I just work here.  But someone must have a better answer.

It’s the fat thing?  Things get fatter with Coke?  I dunno.

How to Cook

It’s Wednesday, the Food sections are out, and as usual I feel like a curmudgeon and a surly one at that after reading articles and recipes in them.

Take the vindaloo recipe in today’s Boston Globe.  No marinade, no mustard oil, and the meat is cooked with the spices rather than prior and added to them as is one of many unifying techniques in the most basic Indian cooking. Kinda makes ya wonder if writer or editor understands what’s what on the subcontinent.

But never mind.  Let’s be positive.

Let’s pretend it’s Paxil in the water and not Fluoride.

I say: Refine the dishes of your childhood, adolescence, early love life as an adult, and your travels.  That’s what chefs do.  That’s also cooking based on passion and experience.

Take burgers.  Most chefs?  They’d love to open a burger joint.  Pitchers of beer, rare meat, good music.  Chill.

One reason why so many of the top chefs are selling burgers on their menus.

But say you’re vegan, like Bill Clinton, as reported in today’s NYT Food section: Take the spices, textures, and temperatures from times noted and apply them to items that never had legs or eyes.

The trick is cooking from the heart while employing skills.

What skills?

Sharp knives, salt, and pepper.  You get that down, the rest is easy.

What Global Food Crisis?

With all due respect to those of us losing sleep over local, organic, sustainable, and humane issues as they pertain to eating at home and fine dining, I’m sorry to say that greater problems loom:

In today’s online edition of The Guardian, we find news of a “Global food crisis,” being forecast: www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/oct/25/impending-global-food-crisis.

Here’s the deal:

• “World wheat and maize prices have risen 57%, rice 45% and sugar 55% over the last six months and soybeans are at their highest price for 16 months.”

•  “Longtime hedge fund manager Mike Masters, who has worked with The World Development Movement (WDM), which is self-described as, “A UK-based anti-poverty organization, ” said: “Because there is already much more capital available in the world than hard commodities, speculators can increase the price of consumable commodities, like foodstuffs or energy, much higher than traditional consumers and producers can react. ‘When derivative markets are linked to commodity markets, this nearly unlimited capital from the financial sector can cause excessive price volatility.'”

• “According to the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission, speculators on the trading floor of the Chicago Exchange bought futures contracts for about 40m tonnes of maize and 6m tonnes of wheat in the summer.”

Among other things, folks, bets are being placed on basic food supplies by some of the same guys who are ordering the nine-course tasting menu paired with artisanal wines.  The bet?  That the food will be in short supply.

A few weeks ago, the NYT Business section noted a little on soybean prices.  Don’t we need more information on what seems as if it might happen to global food supplies?

Towne: A Review

I finally made it to Towne last night.  I’ll be back.  The restaurant is a collaboration between chefs Jasper White and Lydia Shire and impresarios and investors Patrick Lyons and Ed Sparks, and nearly everything about it is good.  Next to the Hynes Convention Center: A welcome mat to delegates from around the world, which helps, in part, to explain big portion sizes and varied menu items.

Towne is pure Boston, which means that when your wine glass is half full or half empty, the server appears to ask if you want more.  Well, of course, I want more, but aren’t we here to eat?

But we’re not just here to eat, apparently, and that’s gotta be a top down message.  I understand, but still: There’s a bar.  This is a restaurant.

The room and menus and food are frivolous.  Think Le Cirque off steroids: Crowd pleasing, eclectic dishes in a lively setting.  Our table of four went through lots of food.

The fettucini Alfredo wasn’t fettucini, but it was al dente, not overly sauced, and so buttery you couldn’t stop feeding your face.  It’s a corny dish, but here it was done well.

The lobster bisque: Creamy.  What can be said about lobster bisque that hasn’t already been said?  You tell me.

A plate of six ravioli–meat, veg–was pretty good.

On to the entrees:

Porchetta: Thick slices of roasted pork with fruit to balance the delicious, layered fat.

Crispy duck with a great charred crust and moist interior.

Swordfish with clams that were perfectly cooked.

The dishes were plated in ways that inspired hunger.  The open kitchen added to the low-key feel of the overall experience.

Portion sizes are way too big, but, again, we’re talkin’ Boston where value is seen as BIG.  Me?  Like many people who spend many hours in restaurants, writing or eating, I’d rather have small portions of interesting dishes arrive in succession.  But I bet, too, that you can’t lose serving big plates next to a convention center.

Nonetheless, this is eclectic dining and a big cut above most places in…town.

Address: 900 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02215
Phone: (617) 247-0400
Email: info@towneboston.com

Market: A Review & The West Cambridge Question

I really love Market. It’s a restaurant “brand” operated by Jean Georges Vongerichten, who opened a place with the same name in Vancouver.  I went there last night before a play.  Second visit.  It’s in the new W Hotel in downtown Boston.  We’re talking:

Ice cold, bone dry Plymouth Martini’s with tiny onions.

Raw chopped tuna with avocado and a hint of sesame oil.

Grilled lobster tails.

A rare cheeseburger with a smidge of Russian dressing.

A cute little pizza with specks of black truffles.

Warm beet salad.

I’m still trying to figure out what pizza was doing on the menu.  (The kitchen sent it out.  I don’t know why.)  Then again it had as much right to be there as the burger.

Service was very reliable.  The server was a bit on the TMI side, providing a very detailed history of her life in the business to the eight top next to ours whose eyes glazed over when she hit the midway mark.

The room was chill.

Easily, one of the best restaurants in town by way of Alsace & NYC.

On another note: Today’s Boston Globe had a long piece on West Cambridge.  Yo, yo, yo: M’hood.  The odd part was, leaving aside the fact that the BBQ noted at Formaggio isn’t BBQ (it’s grilled) and isn’t good and is way overpriced and not saying much about Sofra, which is so pricey as to seem silly to the Armenian grocers in that neighborhood whose cuisine the restaurant has mimicked, how is it possible, really, that a piece on West Cambridge could not even mention Hi-Rise Bakery?  Hi-Rise is the only bakery in the Boston-Cambridge nexus to be included in the book on artisanal baking in America, it has the best bread in the region, and is a hub of activity seven days a week.  I think I know why.

One Story after Another

Hmmm…

The first story below, which I wrote, appeared in The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine on 4/20/08.  (By the way, those are the editor’s words, “petite brunette,” not mine.  The only time I have ever used that phrase was when I referred to Napoleon as “A petite brunette.”  Further, I hasten to add, I would never place a person’s marital status in a story unless it informed the narrative.  As in, “Albert Desalvo, who is married, later became The Boston Strangler.”  The good news?  The check received for the story did not bounce.)

A raw-food chef turns nuts into cheese (and performs other delicious miracles).

By Scott Haas April 20, 2008

The restaurant Grezzo, which, in Italian, means “rough or raw,” opened two months ago in the North End. Its owner, Alissa Cohen, a petite brunette who is married and who divides her time among three states, is the author of the cookbook Living on Live Food, which prescribes eating only fruits, vegetables, sprouted grains, and nuts, with nothing cooked to temperatures above 112 degrees – a little warmer than a baby’s bath water. Her restaurant does the same.

Grezzo sliders. The patties are made of sunflower seeds, carrots, red bell peppers, cashews, and an Indian-inspired spice blend. Grezzo sliders. The patties are made of sunflower seeds, carrots, red bell peppers, cashews, and an Indian-inspired spice blend. (Photo by Wiqan Ang)

Yes, it sounds odd. But the food at Grezzo is complex and delicious. Using a dehydrator and an amped-up blender to create textures and deepen tastes, chef Leah Dubois and her kitchen staff manage to produce an ever-changing menu of imaginative and flavorful soups, “pastas,” and “cheeses.” (Though calling something “buffalo milk mozzarella” when it is, in fact, ground almonds or cashews is a lot like playing house.) Why bother? Cohen, who is 40, turned to a raw diet 20 years ago when, she says, she was suffering from “fibromyalgia, bone aches, and pains.” She was working in a health food store and learned about raw food there. This daughter of the Mel who ran Mel and Murray’s Deli in Lynn (closed in the late 1980s) believes that cooking food destroys natural enzymes that the body can use for healing. “Within six months of switching to an all-raw food diet, I was cured,” Cohen says. “And my eyesight was healed, too. I didn’t need glasses anymore.” (There isn’t much science behind these claims. “We don’t get our enzymes from food,” says Dr. Meir Stampfer, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Our bodies produce them.”)

But don’t let this – or the laminated brochure on each table outlining 40 more “reasons to eat raw” – bother you. The simple fact is, the food at Grezzo is wonderful, and isn’t that the best reason to go out to eat? Service here adds a lot, too: The staff all have a certain contented, healthy look about them and are well-informed and pleasant. Maybe it’s all that raw food they’re eating.

This story appeared today in the “G” section of The Boston Globe:

G FORCE | ALISSA COHEN
The Boston Globe

Living in the raw

The Boston native and author has been feeling fine for 20 years eating only living foods

By Sheryl Julian Globe Staff / October 20, 2010

Q. What is a raw food diet?

A. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, sprouted grains, all raw. You can cook to 112 degrees. After that the enzymes begin to get destroyed. That’s why you don’t want to cook the food above that [temperature].

Q. How long have you been on it?

A. Over 20 years. I started when I was about 19.

Q. What prompted it?

A. I was a bodybuilder, and a vegetarian since I was 16. I had candida, which is a yeast infection (not everyone knew what it was back then), and headaches. I was moody, I was sensitive to light and sound, my skin broke out, I had fibromyalgia. I thought it was from years of bodybuilding and working out. I felt like I was 80. I had been dabbling with raw food and noticed that I felt better on the day when I ate just raw food. I decided to go 100 percent raw. I felt better within a week. You notice within days. People have been eating this way for thousands and thousands of years.

Q. Can you explain raw vs. living?

A. Raw food encompasses fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and sprouted grains. To be considered a living food, it’s something that sprouts or is alive: fruits, vegetables, and sprouts are living.

Q. You used to own two Grezzo restaurants, which served raw food. Why did you close them?

A. It was a lot of work. It was getting to be too much.

Q. How do you make sure you’re getting enough protein?

A. There’s protein in sprouts and greens, small amounts of protein, but they’re easier to digest. Dark green leafies like kale and Swiss chard are high in amino acids, which are what create protein. There’s protein in fruits and nuts, but it’s the dark green leafies that are important.

Q. What is a favorite dark green leafy recipe?

A. I’ll put kale and Swiss chard in a fruit smoothie. It will turn the drink green if you use too much. Or for a Thai lettuce wrap, use collards or Swiss chard. You can marinate veggies and put them in the middle.

Q. If you’re traveling and looking for food or go to a restaurant, what do you do?

A. Even 7-Eleven has bananas or apples. Chefs like to be creative and you can call ahead. Sometimes they don’t understand and I have a huge salad. If I know I’m going out for the day or overnight, I’ll throw an avocado or some crackers in my pocketbook.

Q. As a kid, did you eat a regular diet?

A. I grew up in a deli, Mel & Murray’s in Lynn, then my brother opened a few in Boston. Mel is my father, Murray is my uncle. I never really liked meat. I sold corned beef sandwiches from the time I was little.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Sheryl Julian can be reached at julian@globe.com.

Food Critics

Most people don’t set out to become food critics the way that most people set out to cook.  Of the critics I’ve met, the good ones, the backgrounds are uniformly that of being writers: Having a sensibility that implies respect for what is observed, a capacity for observation, and an ability to document the observations.  The food?  That came later.

Mind, many of the food critics have a preoccupation with food: A unique relationship grounded in childhood or family lore or a history of having been from countries other than this one where food has cultural imperatives.

Certainly, speaking for myself, having a German father who spoke of the tastes of his childhood had its impact.  Not approving of the home kitchen, this led, too, to early experiences dining out at places where service and ambience were as key to his experience as what was on the plate.

In sum, it was never just about the food.

Certain critics (in Boston) set a low bar, which contributes, as one Boston chef put it last week, “To a dumbing down of food.”  Customers glom onto the same misinformed viewpoints as these critics and fail to understand the aims of chefs.

Here’s a recent example: High praise for taro gnocchi.  For goodness sakes, it’s hard enough to get potato gnocchi right, why bother with taro?

In contrast, a NY chef I spoke with was critical of a certain former critic there whom he likened to, “The professor who never gave an ‘A.'”  The bar, the chef felt, was too high, too much a reflection of the critic’s sensibility than it was of an ability to embrace the chef’s aims.

The overarching oddity is this: Few other professions outside of the arts have critics nosing around their work and giving out stars for their assessments.  Even in the arts, theatre and music and dance and art and architecture don’t typically get stars.

Imagine.

Rothko’s “Untitled, Mural for End Wall,” ***.

The Walmart Connection & Sustainability

As usual, today’s top story on food isn’t in the happy Features or Lifestyle sections of newspapers, but instead is in the Business section.

Major news, really: “Walmart wants to Buy More Local Produce.”  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/15/business/15walmart.html?_r=1&ref=business

For example: “In the United States, Wal-Mart plans to double the percentage of locally grown produce it sells to 9 percent. Wal-Mart defines local produce as that grown and sold in the same state.  Still, the program is far less ambitious than in some other countries — in Canada, for instance, Wal-Mart expects to buy 30 percent of its produce locally by the end of 2013, and, when local produce is available, increase that to 100 percent.”

The piece quotes top thinkers and advocates, like Michelle Mauthe Harvey of the Envoronmental Defense Fund, “who worked with Walmart on the goals,” and praises the changes.

Me?  I’m wonderin’, just wonderin’.

I see the good in all this, but wonder: Once Walmart, the world’s largest grocer, corners the market on local as well as global produce, what changes will it as a corporation be able to enact both in response to consumer demands as well as to shape consumer perceptions?

I mean, what if consumers want cheaper, bigger, genetically altered produce?  Will Walmart dictate terms to the farmers?

And what if the farm workers want to expand collective bargaining and unions?  Will Walmart be able to step in and say nyahh or its equivalent?

What if the corporation sees an opportunity to sell a cheaper product to a hungry consumer?

But, hey, it’ll all be local, right?