The Critic’s Critic

OK, so there I was yesterday, having lunch with a guy I know who owns several wonderful restaurants.  He opened a new place and invited me to lunch to see what I thought of the food and service and setting.  We’re overlooking the water: Gorgeous, unique Boston Harbor, planes landing and taking off at Logan.  Service is crazy chill and confident, a nice rhythm, and the room is lively.

“The Urban League is having their convention across the street,” my host explained.  He noted, too, that his restaurants have always attracted a diverse crowd.  (Code of course for a room that isn’t just filled with Pillsbury Dough boys and girls.)

The food was pretty wonderful.  Fresh, seasonal, simple in the best sense of the word.  We’re talking about a salmon pizza, guanciale with bucatini, fried grey sole, flank steak, foie gras on a chocolate brioche, and for dessert corn ice cream and a blueberry crepe followed by a cone of soft ice cream.

The man told some great stories.  He’s one of these guys who knows everybody, who takes an interest in big lives and small lives, and has worked hard to craft and modernize a family business.

Topic turned to critics.  Less said, the better.

 

The Palm

Tomorrow’s NY Times has a lovely piece by Sam Sifton on The Palm.  Originally from D.C., the restaurant now has a total of 27 locations, one of which is in Boston, Massachusetts, and that’s where I found myself last Friday for an extremely uncharacteristic lunch out.

Lunch for me usually consists of The Haas Supermodel Diet: Pretzels and soda water.  Upgrades are leftovers–Turkey meatballs, chicken parm–or canned tuna.

But I’d received a $50 gift card from AMEX this past month to celebrate The Palm’s 85th birthday and with an expiration date of 8/31/11, time’s a-fleeting.

Lunch was the deal as dinner, while good, I’m sure, would have exceeded fifty bucks.

There is lots to love about The Palm:

Stodgy room filled with guys talking about money, cars, women, and sports while drinking gin at one in the afternoon.  A white-coated waiter who is so Old School it was like being out with my dad.  A really delicious cheeseburger served rare on a toasted bun with crispy fries and lettuce and a tomato.  Partner in crime had a lobster salad she swears was amazing.

Downside:

The wait staff in training was very sweet but clueless: We’re talking an order of iced tea that arrives warm in a glass without ice.  No beer on tap: See, we’re gentlemen here.  We drink cocktails or fancy wine.

Bonus: Tab came to $52.  With a $10 tip, the whole shebang was $12.

Say I was paying?  Well, sure, I’d be back.  Why not?  Good beef is good beef, good lobster is good lobster.  Sometimes, just sometimes, it’s nice not to have to think about the food.

 

 

 

 

Where Are All the Cooks?

Restaurant chefs complain that they can’t find decent cooks.
Chef David Chang  tweeted, recently, “Cooks today not as skilled as past generations, labor laws too stringent, not a bad thing but certainly the demise of dining in general.”
Serious Eater had a discussion on the subject and invited a number of chefs to weigh in.  Here’s the link: http://eater.com/archives/2011/07/22/hot-topics-4.php.
The chefs, in general, inveigh against cooks who seek stardom, but don’t know how to follow orders, make stocks, and build dishes that have depth.
Paid critics, especially English majors (from small liberal arts colleges) turned food experts, would disagree, of course, but as a well-known restaurant owner noted to me: “The food always tastes better when it’s free.”
Maybe the solution is to run it like a sport, no joke:
You have a draft of 100 cooks.
The restaurants that want to participate in the draft get draft picks.
The cooks who are up to be drafted are ranked by talent scouts and ultimately the drafting organization.
You get chosen by Craigie or Le Bernadin or whatever, you sign a contract for 1-4 years to stay there.
The top draft picks have agents who negotiate a standard contract.
I mean:
Why not try this?
It’s a professionalization of the craft, it’s team oriented, etc.
The bonus is you get commitments; a broad criteria is established by the chefs rather than it being anecdotal, vibes, or friends, etc.
The minus is you think you’re drafting Garnett, but instead you’ve got some shmoe.
On the other hand, with a draft pick that’s good, you’ve got someone for years.

Cooked!

We had 4 people over last night.  I don’t like cooking much: Really!  But I prefer it to eating out because of the value, my ability to control what I put into the food, the chance to buy better ingredients than 90% of what restaurants serve, and the pleasure I get from feeding others.  So I cooked two huge batches of Sicilian eggplant parm; made a sauce of radicchio, sour cream, horseradish, onions, and olive oil for store bought mushroom filled ravioli (shout out to Russo’s!); and, blended up a big serving of gazpacho.  No recipes, 60 minutes, start to finish.
The total cost of the food was, ballpark, $25.  You try getting a meal out for six people for $25.  Go ahead, try.  OK, you win, Sully’s on Castle Island or Papaya King on 72nd.  Not bad, you got me!
The simplicity of the vegetarian food was called for, it seems to me, by the temps that were over 100.  My appetite was diminished.  I wanted to get back into bed.  Instead, I ran three miles indoors and lifted weights and read about Riga.
A funny aside: I’ve noticed that since I outed the food critic posing as some guy from JP that the comments from that character have stopped.
Funny the way it’s funny in, “Goodfellas”:
Henry Hill: You’re a pistol, you’re really funny. You’re really funny.
Tommy DeVito: What do you mean I’m funny?
Henry Hill: It’s funny, you know. It’s a good story, it’s funny, you’re a funny guy.
[laughs]
Tommy DeVito: What do you mean, you mean the way I talk? What?
Henry Hill: It’s just, you know. You’re just funny, it’s… funny, the way you tell the story and everything.
Tommy DeVito: [it becomes quiet] Funny how? What’s funny about it?
Anthony Stabile: Tommy no, You got it all wrong.
Tommy DeVito: Oh, oh, Anthony. He’s a big boy, he knows what he said. What did ya say? Funny how?
Henry Hill: Jus…
Tommy DeVito: What?
Henry Hill: Just… ya know… you’re funny.
Tommy DeVito: You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it’s me, I’m a little fucked up maybe, but I’m funny how, I mean funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?
Henry Hill: Just… you know, how you tell the story, what?
Tommy DeVito: No, no, I don’t know, you said it. How do I know? You said I’m funny. How the fuck am I funny, what the fuck is so funny about me? Tell me, tell me what’s funny!
Henry Hill: [long pause] Get the fuck out of here, Tommy!
Tommy DeVito: [everyone laughs] Ya motherfucker! I almost had him, I almost had him. Ya stuttering prick ya. Frankie, was he shaking? I wonder about you sometimes, Henry. You may fold under questioning.

Lucky Peach

My friend Jill–I call her my friend although we’re not buddy-buddy, not yet though maybe it’s in the cards, she’s so nice–who cooks at Craigie on Main turned me onto Lucky Peach, which is a spanking new magazine organized by Dave Chang, the chef at Momofuko Ko.

Along with Chang, you have Peter Meehan, who worked with him on his cookbook and memoir, and Chris Ying, who serves as editor in chief.  Zero Point Zero Productions, the outfit behind Anthony Bourdain’s Emmy award winning show, “No Reservations,” is involved, too.  The magazine is published by McSweeney’s, which is the outfit started by Dave Eggers, who is truly one of the great writers working these days.

So: It’s Dave and Dave, all day.

Here’s a link: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/luckypeach

Folks, I’m here to tell you that Lucky Peach, which you can order online from Amazon, is a gem.  It’s as if MAD magazine and Gastronomica had a baby and named him: Lucky Peach.

The cover photo shows two hands lowering two plucked, raw chickens into a pot.  A Pope’s nose, a.k.a. a chicken butt, faces the viewer, and surrounding this image are varying typefaces announcing, tabloid style, articles such as:

BOURDAIN, DUFRESNE, & CHANG DRUNK & RANTING

The first magazine is: THE RAMEN ISSUE, and indeed it has articles such as, “Tokyo Ramen Gods,” “Seventh Ward Ramen,” and, “Mankind in Noodlekind,” by Mike Houston, John T. Edge, and Karen Leibowitz, respectively.

The publication is genius.  I don’t use the word lightly.  I don’t mean “genius,” as in, “Robin Williams is a genius,” but genius as in: Writers and cooks who see things others folks don’t and who are capable of articulating a vision that changes how we see and perceive reality.  No kidding.

The magazine is extremely funny, smart, frank, and informative.  For ten bucks (or less through Amazon), you’ll have a great time learning about why ramen is delicious, where to buy ramen, how to make ramen, regional differences of ramen, etc.  I felt like a noodle after reading the publication.

There is nothing like this magazine out there and one only hopes that it will spark some kind of revolution in how people think and read about food, how they eat in restaurants, and what they cook at home.

Here’s Dave, for example, on fine French cookbooks, in an interview with Ivan Orkin, a nice Jewish boy from Syosset who has runs one of Tokyo’s best ramen shops: “Escoffier, what a fool.”

Got to love it.

Here’s an added irony: In Boston, in a review in The Boston Globe, the reviewer compares Chang to Chef Philip Tang (who opened a restaurant called, “East by Northeast,” about a year ago).  She writes that Tang and his restaurant “have much in common” with “famed and famously foulmouthed” David Chang and his meat-centric Momofuko restaurants.”  The only things the two chefs have in common is Asian ancestry, childhoods spent outside of Washington, D.C., and restaurant ownership.  When a French guy opens a restaurant is he or she compared to Daniel Boulud?  Could race be a factor in making the comparison?  And “foul mouthed?”  Um, ever spend time with any chef?  Like their brothers and sisters in the military, they all swear more than civilians.  It’s a way to relieve stress.  I mean, hello?  And “meatcentric?”  At Ko I loved the raw fish, the broths, and the vegetables.  Meat was delicious, too, but the menu wasn’t centered on it by far.  Nor was that true at Ma Peche.  What…are…you…talking…about?  Like she’s tripping.  But I digress: I’ve eaten at Chang’s places and I’ve eaten at Tang’s places, and lemme tell ya, Tang ain’t no Chang.  Not by a long shot.  Not never, not ever never.

Buy Lucky Peach and you’ll see what I’m talkin’ about.

 

Buddha’s Delight

In the online edition of The Guardian today, a delicious story: The Dalai Lama agreed to appear on, “MasterChef,” an Australian reality T.V. food show as a guest judge, but His Holiness refused to judge the food.

Here’s the link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/jul/20/buddhist-dalai-lama-masterchef.

The D.L., as he’s known to friends, said, “As a Buddhist monk it is not right to prefer this food or that food.”

Well, OK, Yer Holiness, but what if you were reincarnated as a food critic in a major American city like Boston or New York?  What then?  Would you refuse to award stars to some silly New England version of frou-frou French?  Or would you kvell–look it up, D.L.–over the truffles?  In NYC, would you feel at home dropping $200 for two at the very estimate Kajitsu and then say nothing to your B.B.’s (Buddhist Buddies) about the experience?  C’mon, Yer Holiness, what would Buddha do?

Who’s to say?

The Guardian story noted that the D.L. loved what he ate on the show, ” particularly the yummy Sri Lankan vegetarian curry,” but that he flat out refused to render judgment.

The author of the piece, Barbara O’ Brien, writes subtly of the complications of judging and not judging.  She notes that likes and dislikes get in the way of enlightenment, but that sometimes we must judge,  The example she gives is wonderful: “However, it does not mean to walk by someone doing harm to others – putting a child in danger, for example – when you can step in and stop it. Sometimes judgments must be made.”

Where this leaves the paid critics is anyone’s guess, but for certain they are unenlightened.

Om, om, om.

Where’s the Beef?

Just yesterday news reached here, via The Guardian, about beef in Japan carrying unsafe levels of radiation.  In today’s New York Times, the paper reports that, “Radiation tainted beef spreads through Japan’s markets.”

Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/world/asia/19beef.html?_r=1&hpw.

According to the piece in the NYT, “Japanese agricultural officials say meat from more than 500 cattle that were likely to have been contaminated with radioactive cesium has made its way to supermarkets and restaurants across Japan in recent weeks.”  Which means that there is no way of knowing whether the beef one eats in Japan is OK.  It might be OK.  It might not.

It is not just the beef.  From the NYT again: “Radioactive material has been detected in a range of produce, including spinach, tea leaves, milk and fish. Contaminated hay has been found at farms more than 85 miles from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, suggesting that the radioactive fallout has reached a wider area than first suspected.”

What’s the fuss?  Why not eat tainted food?  According to the article, here’s the story: “Japanese government officials insist that even at levels above government limits, radioactive cesium will not have an immediate effect on health. Longer-term effects are less known, however. Many experts say that prolonged exposure to radiation can lead to a higher incidence of cancers like leukemia.”

Despite this risk, the Japanese government did not ban products from the regions affected by the nuclear disaster.  The article notes: “For months the government balked at placing a wider ban on produce from the Fukushima region despite sporadic discoveries of contaminated produce, for fear of bringing fresh confusion in the disaster-stricken area, putting thousands more people out of work and adding to growing compensation claims for Tokyo Electric Power, which operates the Fukushima plant.”

For, “fear of bringing fresh confusion.”  I like that.  I mean: “Sorry, we won’t test or ban potentially radioactive agricultural products because we don’t want to confuse you?”  Gee, thanks.  I feel, well, less confused.

Of course, the burden of not knowing what you are eating has psychological consequences: Anxiety.  And: guilt, should loved ones, you as a parent or caregiver are responsible for, get sick from eating food that is unsafe.  This is what leukemia looks like when written in Japanese: (名) 白血病.

The impact on our Japanese brothers and sisters is sad and obvious, and what is the larger global message?  Doesn’t the Japanese crisis suggest that we need more government regulation independent of business in order to insure food safety?

Jonathon Tomlinson, writing in the 6/30/11 issue of The London Review of Books about medicine might as well be referring to food safety: “Increasingly, the political class shifts the burden of responsibility for health towards the individual: it is the individual’s duty to read the small print on a packet of convenience food rather than the government’s to legislate against junk-food producers.”

 

 

World Cup Soccer: Good News, Bad News

The good news?  For Japan it’s winning the world cup!  Sugoi!

The bad news?  For Japan it’s not having food that’s safe to eat.  This just in from The Guardian:   “Japan is poised to impose a ban on shipments of cattle from Fukushima prefecture – the scene of its worst ever nuclear crisis – after discovering that meat containing abnormally high levels of radioactive caesium had been processed and consumed.  The cows had been fed on rice straw containing high levels of the radioactive isotope that was harvested after the 11 March tsunami triggered a core meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  While officials said consuming the meat did not present an immediate threat to health, the incident has highlighted concerns over food safety in the wake of the crisis, which has caused contamination in milk, tea, leaf vegetables, fish and water.”

Here’s the link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/18/fukushima-japan-radioactive-meat-cattle.  (By the way, The Guardian site is stellar in its general coverage as well as its specific reporting on food and the economic forces shaping its production, marketing, and pricing.)

I like the way that’s phrased: “consuming the meat did not present an immediate threat to health.”  But you’ll let us know when it does pose that threat, right?  Who’ll be the first to know?

Oh, and that part about, “contamination in milk, tea, leaf vegetables, fish and water?”   What is left to consume safely?

Red card on the Japanese government!

 

Update on E Coli

Say what you like about Costco’s negative impact on local grocery stores and unions, but the huge company is taking steps to prevent E. coli in its beef and other food products at risk.  As reported in the Business section of today’s NY Times, Costco, along with Beef Products, Inc, both big suppliers of commercial, corn-fed, choice beef from massive farms, aren’t waiting for the U.S. government to put safety measures in place.   The link to the story: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/16/business/food-companies-act-to-protect-consumers-from-e-coli-illness.html?_r=1&ref=business

Costco, “tired of waiting for federal regulators to act,” according to the Times, “is requiring its suppliers of bagged produce, including salad greens and mixes, apple slices and baby carrots, to test for a broad range of toxic E. coli.”  Further, “the company also plans to test all of the ground beef sold at its warehouse stores. Costco operates a large ground beef plant in Tracy, Calif., and…the plant recently began evaluating testing procedures to detect the broader range of E. coli in the hamburger it makes and the beef trimmings that go into it. As an added step, the company plans to ask suppliers of the trimmings to do their own testing, starting later this summer.”

Wow, the irony!  So off you go to some Fancy Pants gourmet store buying organic, local products from sustainable, small family farms that slaughter humanely and place yourself at risk of E Coli and other food borne illnesses when the country’s largest warehouse food company is offering the safest product. Hand in hand with a non-union workforce–the majority of Costco outlets are not unionized–and the promotion of mass consumption, you’ve got a company that is putting its money where its mouth is on the critical issue of food safety.

It makes me think of what a close friend who is a dairy scientist said about artisanal cheeses and butters.  He likes them OK, but has nothing against the large commercial firms with products that do not vary in quality and safety.  The big companies have the resources to create safe, beautiful products reliably. This guy is Swiss and he often prefers products from the dairy company Emmi, for example, rather than what’s sold at the farmers’ markets in Berne where, week to week, the stuff just ain’t the same and nor are guaranteed hygienic.

The smaller farms do not have the economic resources to test their products for E. coli.  Maybe what they offer is safe.  Maybe, maybe not.   The solution is for the feds to empower the FDA to test all agricultural products that place consumers at risk.  Level the playing field so that Costco isn’t alone in providing safe food.

Of course, in the current fiscal climate, do you think the federal government is going to fund the FDA to test for food safety?  Show of hands.  I don’t think so either.  Maybe Grammy Bachmann has to eat tainted beef for the funding to take place.  Who knows?

So the next time you’re shopping for that yummy beef at a farmers market or those neat sprouts, think of Costco.  Scary, isn’t it?  Yeah, that’s me in my SUV stocking up!  Uh oh, spaghettio’s.

Now this may change if and when the U.S. government permits the FDA to implement the safety measures stalled currently in Congress.  Until then?  Throw the dice!

 

 

Business is Slow

Business is slow in July for restaurants in cities: Regulars head out of town for weekends or extended stays in the mountains or by the sea.  It’s a challenging time of year in many ways.  Salaries need to be paid whether the house is full or not; spoilage of ingredients that go uneaten is costly; folks who don’t know what they are in for show up hungry.

Certain places stay hot no matter what: Momofuko Ko, The Dutch, Lupa, Esca, Toro, Craigie on Main, and B & G Oyster, to name only a few.

That leaves most anywhere else and, with short notice, shorter than September-early June, you, too, can dine out in fun places and enjoy summer’s bounty.

Even better: Fire up the grill or, apartment dwellers, get a hibachi, and have a BBQ.  These days you can readily find beautiful product in many places.  Many, many places.  Take Tropical Foods in Roxbury: An astonishing array of vegetables, spices, grains, and pork you can use to make yourself crazy-happy.  In NYC, Citarella and Fairway rule.

Still, it’s pleasant to dine without being rushed in July, during these dog days, as you tuck into some critically acclaimed dish prepared by a crew trained by a good chef.