The Monday Club Bar: A Review

With the NYC cousins in town for the week, it was time to get out of the house and find a bite to eat.  I’d cooked turkey meatballs and penne and then, the next night, it was jerk chicken, but these cousins offered to host us in a restaurant and who am I to say no?

Harvard Square is just down the street and with 7 of us, that made the most sense.

At The Monday Club Bar, the informal rooms of Upstairs in the Square, we were given a killer, round table with views of the postage stamp park.  Menus, water, drinks.

The service here is just about the best in Boston and Cambridge: Pleasant, efficient, rhythmic.  Never mind that the dishes did not come out at the same time.  We’ll ignore that, OK?

Anyhow, the app’s of bacon wrapped, almond filled dates were good though at two bucks a date, the mark-up is goofy.  We won’t ignore that.

A deconstructed Caesar salad with “toad in the hole” (poached egg in brioche) was exceptionally delicious.

Entrees of duck, ravioli, a burger, tagliatelle, and tomato soup with grilled cheese?  Got to say that the ravioli were good.  The soup tasted like sauce.  All in all, very good food…sort of an extremely low-key version of Union Square.

Best dish?  Hands down, the lettuce leaves and the poached egg.  What’s that tell ya?

Market: A Review

Before going to hear Nicholas Payton perform at Scullers the other night, a joyous event, by the way, we had the chance to eat at Market.  This has been my favorite restaurant in Boston since it opened a couple of years back.

The setting is refined and yet bustling with life.  The energy is evident, the crowd diverse, the room pleasant.

The food, as usual, was wonderful: Beautiful apps of salmon sashimi, scallops sashimi, and tuna sashimi.  Followed by lamb, a delicious and rare burger, red snapper, and slow cooked salmon.  The food is informed by restraint, respect for ingredients, and simple platings that are thankfully not over-abundant as is often the case in this town where size matters.

No wonder Market is so good: The executive chef is Jean Georges Vongerichten, Alsatian born chef, whose mastery of Southeast Asian products is achieved through French cooking techniques he first learned at Auberge d’Ill.  Now there’s a restaurant worth a detour!  When I have interviewed Jean Georges, he has often spoken of that transformative experience.  Later he combined it with the tastes of Bangkok.

Jean Georges got his U.S. start in Boston before hightailing it to Manhattan as excited as a 12-year old seeing his or her first Broadway play.

The menu at Market has several of his classics also to be found at Nougatine in NYC.

The service still lags–one had to help the waiter decide when to fire dishes, clear plates, etc.–but the food trumped.

Food Prices Going Up, Up, Up: Why is That?

A front page story in today’s Boston Globe on surging food prices made it all so mysterious: Rising fuel costs, low yield of crops, increased demand are the cause of the price increases.  However, these are not the principal reasons for the increases here and abroad, nor do they explain why it is happening now.  What kind of reporting is dat?

Paul Krugman, writing in The New York Times, has added to the debate by describing the role that speculation plays in the rising prices of food commodities.

William Pfaff, writing in TNYT also, summed it up: “The conventional explanations for the flare in prices are population growth, diversion of corn and soybeans to biofuel production, rising Asian and Middle Eastern demand for high-value foods, higher transport costs and crop failures.  Oddly little has been said about the role of speculation in the rise in commodity prices generally and specifically in food.  On the Chicago CME Group market, which deals in some 25 agricultural commodities–it is a merger of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Chicago Board of Trade–the volume of contrasts has increased by 20% since the start of the year and now has reached the level of a million contracts per year.  This will soon exceed the rate of growth reached in all of 2007.  The hedge funds are now active in commodities and are playing the futures contracts, where upwards of 30 million tons of soybeans for future delivery are contracted for every day.  They are also buying the companies that stock.”

The Guardian reports the same data and applies them the the developing  world where consequences are dire:  www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2011/jan/23/food-speculation-banks-hunger-poverty:

“Olivier de Schutter, UN rapporteur on the right to food, is in no doubt that speculators are behind the surging prices. ‘Prices of wheat, maize and rice have increased very significantly but this is not linked to low stock levels or harvests, but rather to traders reacting to information and speculating on the markets,’ he says.

‘People die from hunger while the banks make a killing from betting on food,’ says Deborah Doane, director of the World Development Movement in London.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation remains diplomatically non-committal, saying, in June, that: ‘Apart from actual changes in supply and demand of some commodities, the upward swing might also have been amplified by speculation in organised future markets.’

The UN is backed by Ann Berg, one of the world’s most experienced futures traders. She argues that differentiating between commodities futures markets and commodity-related investments in agriculture is impossible.

‘There is no way of knowing exactly [what is happening]. We had the housing bubble and the credit default. The commodities market is another lucrative playing field [where] traders take a fee. It’s a sensitive issue. [Some] countries buy direct from the markets. As a friend of mine says: ‘What for a poor man is a crust, for a rich man is a securitised asset class.'”

Restaurant Cities & Looming Food Riots

According to industry journals, there are 18,696 restaurants in New York City.  I tried to find out the number of restaurants in Boston/Cambridge, but nothing came up.  For sure it’s less than 18,696.

Chef Andy has a theory that NYC’s size trumps: That this is the reason why the city has so many good restaurants.  That doesn’t explain the specific success of certain restaurants nor why plenty of small towns and cities can boast of having unique dining spots.  That’s the reasoning behind “Destination” restaurants.  It’s also the idea behind Michelin’s designation, “Worth A Detour.”  A city’s size has very little to do with the quality of its restaurants.

Can’t wait to try Bondir’s beet for $10!  The retail price, on average, of beets is $2.07.  That’s a 500% mark-up.  That mus’ be one very special and delectable beet!  Mind, it does come with pumpkin seeds!  Yum, yum, yum!

Boston does have a few good restaurants where the value is evident in the food: Market, Bistro du Midi, Craigie on Main, Rendezvous, The Monday Club Bar at Upstairs in the Square, Toro, and East Coast Grill.  For lunch, I’d add Sichuan Gourmet, Flour, Otto, Hi-Rise, CK’s Shanghai, and Galleria Umberto.  The city still lacks a good Italian restaurant, a good izakaya, and a good sushi bar.  “It’s not a restaurant city, not by a long shot,” said Anthony Bourdain in a Globe interview I did with him.  Go ahead and rant that it ain’t so, but the real problem is that things will remain the same until customers demand change.  “Every city gets the restaurants it deserves,” said Ruth Reichl in that same Globe interview.  This is’t a matter of pining for the cuisine of another city, but recognition that Boston’s restaurants function way below their potential.  This isn’t my opinion alone; it’s widely held: By Michelin, the James Beard Foundation, and every national restaurant critic except the late, great Johnny Apple.

Meanwhile: The NY Times reports today that increased prices of basic food sources in 2011 are causing unrest and that tensions will increase.  I suppose that the only good thing to come of this will be regime changes in places where food prices soar.  Cuba being next.

Doughnuts & Coffee

The front page of  The New York Times has a marvelous juxtaposition pointed out to us here at Haas HQ by one of our minion of loyal readers (moniker: Madeline).

The headline, “Fighting Nears Tripoli, Where Qaddafi Keeps Grip on Power,” exactly next to this headline: “A Flowering of the Doughnut Arts.”

Get this man a doughnut!

The photo for the doughnut story shows two urban gawkers in front of a glass display case of doughnuts.  Meanwhile, the mind wanders to the tumult and uproar in Libya.  This is the kind of spectacular postmodern thingamajig kind of discombobulation that makes fiction kind of tertiary:  The real world is more amazing.

Note the worried look on the doughnut chef below.  Is the concern due to the bloodshed in Africa?  Or is it due to the crucial indecision of: If you only are permitted to eat one doughnut, which one would it be?

estimating cake female chef in white uniform and hat with  doughnuts Stock Photo - 7865856

Japanese Whisky, Ishikawa, and The Psychology of Chefs

I am supposed to be writing a piece for the Slow Food quarterly, out of Italy, about Japanese whisky and how it puts a lie to terroir.  Instead, working closely with two deliverymen, I am watching a refrigerator being installed as the old one went kaput last week.

Tomorrow, character being fate, as Heraclitus said, it’s a piece on Ishikawa prefecture.

The big news?  The book proposal on the psychology of being a chef is done, at last.

Sichuan Gourmet or The Coming Unrest in Cuba

I was this close–this close, a stone’s throw away–from going on and on about another delicious lunch at Sichuan Gourmet on Beacon Street in Brookline.  Yes, the hot and sour soup, Dan Dan noodles, and Old Sichuan Chicken were exemplary. By meal’s end, I was drenched in sweat.

Yet, more pressing matters:

Protesters are being strafed in Libya, the Egyptian and Tunisian governments are overthrown, and unrest mounts throughout the Arab world.

Warplanes bombing protesters in Libya!  Can you believe it.  And still: Where’s the best hummus in Tripoli?

Wait and see: Cuba is next.  Although access to the Internet is limited under the Castro regime, despite the policed state, word is out.  Crowds will be taking to the streets.  Wait and see…

The Cuban Sandwich: Symbol of Democracy

Grilled Cuban Sandwich  Stock Photo - 4612592

The Secret Coca Cola Recipe

The NYT reports today that Ira Glass on “This American Life” found the secret Coca Cola recipe in an old copy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Here it is:

Recipe:

Fluid extract of coca

Citric acid

Caffeine

Sugar

Water

Lime juice

Vanilla

Caramel

Alcohol

Orange oil

Lemon oil

Nutmeg oil

Coriander oil

Neroli oil

Cinnamon oil

I think this is very exciting news and look forward to making a big batch of Coca Cola at home.  Just as soon as I figure out the proportions.

Tico: The Review

After hemming and hawing, booked a table a week ago, went last night as a four top.  Signage–TICO–a dead ringer for BABBO in lettering.   Which hints at what’s inside: Frivolity, pleasure, reinterpretation of classics, a fun dining experience. Why, I can remember years ago at Radius how Michael trolled the room, all serious in chef’s white.  Last night?  He was giddy.

OK, so the wait to get a table and the wait to get the water were problematic.  The hostesses were overwhelmed.  One person, chill in tats, kept smiling, and that was satisfying, in its way, but little progress.

Look, we all make mistakes.  Even you.  Yes, you.  The question is: How do we correct our mistakes?  Here, TICO triumphed.  A bottle of sparkling wine, a few comped apps, and we were giddy, too.

I keep reading that the food here is Central American or Mexican.  In that case, so am I.

Actually, the food is simply smart, very flavorful bar food you might find in Japan or Spain.  Strange contrasts, but Robuchon teeters between these two cuisines, too.

We had 12 appetizers.  All of them were good, and included:

BCT: A bacon kind of snack in a taco.

Crunchy edamame in a taco.

Quail with mango.

Chicken with pomegranate.

Brussels sprouts with bacon and kumquats.

Sardine cerviche.

Tuna tartare tostados.

Grilled shishoto peppers.

Chorizo risotto.

Fried sweetbreads.

All in all, a fascinating and very pleasurable experience.  Very good for Boston dining.  And…they take reservations!

James Beard Award Semi-Finalists: 2011!

The James Beard Foundation has released its long list of finalists.  Soon to be culled down to the short or finalist list.

As was true last year, Boston/Cambridge made the culinary equivalent of Best Supporting Actor or Actress.

What does this tell you about the dining scene?  In a word: Solipsism.  If you read the reviews of Boston/Cambridge restaurants written by local critics and “foodies,” you might think we’re living with a cornucopia of dining options where great chefs, one after another, dazzle.  It just ain’t so.  The bar is set so low in Boston/Cambridge, you could step right over it.

Anyhow, here are the Beard Foundation 2011 highlights:

In Best New Restaurant, a national category, the only Boston or Cambridge restaurant listed is Menton.

In the category of Outstanding Chef, a national category, not a single Boston or Cambridge restaurant is mentioned.  This begs the question: Who is cooking at Menton?

In the category of Outstanding Restaurant, a national category, not a single Boston or Cambridge restaurant is listed.

In the category of Outstanding Restaurateur, a national category, the only Boston or Cambridge CEO mentioned is Roger Berkowitz of Legal Seafoods.

In the category of Outstanding Service, a national category, only one Boston or Cambridge property is noted: L’Espalier.

In the category of Outstanding Wine Service, a national category, one Boston or Cambridge restaurant is noted: Troquet.

In the category of Rising Star Chef of the Year, a national category, only one Boston  or Cambridge chef is noted: Will Gilson at Garden at the Cellar.

In the category of Best Chef Northeast, 20 chefs are listed.  Only two are from Boston or Cambridge: Tim Cushman of o ya and Tony Maws of Craigie on Main.

When Anthony Bourdain came to Boston recently to film an episode for his culinary travel show, he featured joints and bars associated with a movie made nearly 40 years ago: The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

When Emeril was in Boston last month, he filmed Boston’s oldest restaurants, noting Union Oyster House.

Michelin goes to Las Vegas, Chicago, and Los Angeles, but not Boston.  Why, do you suppose?  Can’t fill the pages?

Again, it’s really a shame that a city with the East Coast’s best fish and shellfish, with access to top produce, and with customers who know food simply cannot achieve at its potential.