Three Square Meals

Back in the day, I loved eating breakfast out, it was the one meal I could afford as a student and later as a new employee.  Bottomless cup of hot coffee, two eggs sunny-side up, a side of crispy bacon, whole wheat or rye toast.  I don’t think I’ve been out for breakfast in decades.

Dinner soon made more sense: With little kids, it was fortunate and good to step out a couple of times a month for what I thought of as a fancy French dinner.  In retrospect, those dinners were chiefly service-driven: We were being taken care of after taking care of children, and the food?  It didn’t matter much, and although it tasted good at the time, it wasn’t very good.  It just wasn’t.

Nowadays I’m on to lunch.  I don’t get out much when I’m home: It’s work in clinics and hospitals, the gym, the dog, and the kitchen.  Most of the time I’m writing or reading.

So it’s good to have a break mid-day.

Yesterday was a first-rate chicken pam sub at J. Pace & Sons in Saugus.  The past few weeks have seen soup and a sandwich at Flour.  Noodles at Santouka.  A slice or two from T. Anthony’s.  I hear Night Market is open now for lunch Thursdays and Friday.

It’s a nice concordance: Lunch is what Boston excels at.  Good, simple, inexpensive food.

On the Plate

I’ve finished a solid version of my new book, after five passes through it, and by Friday it will be out of the house and into the able hands of my agent who will then send it soon to editors, some of whom will get it right away while others will wonder.  The trick is to get it into the hands of decisive editors with authority to sell the book to the publishing team.  Abracadabra!

Meanwhile my pieces on Japanese cheese production, micro-brewing in Japan (which really only took off when the tax laws changed in 1998), and Kyoto.  Done and done.

And look for this article in Gastronomica, published by University of California, out in May or June:

Hashiri, Sakari, Nagori: Toward Understanding the Psychology, Ideology, and Branding of Seasonality in Japanese Gastronomy

Light Years Better than Hi-Rise

Flour.

Now that we got that out of the way, and we’ll return to the subject momentarily, let’s look at the broader picture.  Boston excels at lunch.  And for lunch there’s no better place in the U.S. for bakeries.  The bakeries–Clear Flour, Hi-Rise, Flour, Swiss etc.–not only sell first rate breads, some sell soup and sandwiches.

Flour has a BLT that’s nearly as good as the one I make at home; if they used better quality bacon, it would be just as good.  The soups–a tomato with cumin, for example–are just the thing for this cold weather.  The overall selection of sandwich, quiches, and “pizzas” are really first-rate.

Clear Flour is a hole-in-the-wall in Brookline.  The breads–poppy seed challah, German rye, baguette, etc.–are among the best I’ve ever `enjoyed, and their selection of sweets is tops.  Now if we could just get the customers to stop acting as if the staff at the bakery are their new best friends–the one-way monologues go on and on, these buyers must be very lonely–we’d be all set.

Swiss Bakery needs to stop playing horrible music.  The staff is way too giddy.  The room itself looks a lot like the display area of the VW dealership it once was.  But the croissant?  Truly the best in the city.  I think it’s whole wheat.  Good crust!

Hi-Rise never was a friendly place, but the breads at one time were varied, and included the city’s best rye and a top walnut.  These days it’s not clear what’s happening.  I’ll have to stop by again soon to see if it has its groove back.

But for now?  It’s bread from Clear Flour and soup and a quick bite at Flour.

Food Trends: March, 2015

Well, the big “food” trend is the increase in cocktail prices.  Have you ever paid $18 to $20 for a two ounce pour?  If so, you’re a trendsetter.  Restaurants in East Coast cities have taken the time during the winter doldrums to figure out a great business plan: Charge more for a product that has a long shelf life, one that can sit there all winter when the restaurant is half empty (or half full, depending on how you see things) due to storms and cold.

It’s long been the case that the price you pay for a glass of wine equals the wholesale cost of the bottle, but this idea of $20 a drink?  That’s new.  Do the math.  A 32 ounce bottle of good rye will cost the restaurant about $28.  At $20 an ounce, that bottle is now worth $640.  Not bad, right?

So will the profits go into providing better food?

Nope.

You’ll see all sorts of names for things on the menu: Humane, grass fed, sustainable, etc.  But what does that have to do with taste?  Nothing.  The fish is often branzino, monk, Canadian turbot, etc.  The meat?  Pork and choice beef.  The vegetables have exotic names and, like strippers with exotic names, their backgrounds are ordinary.

What’s happening is the Bar-ification of American restaurants.  Folks who write about restaurants would be doing us all a favor if they chose as policy not to write about any place that served burgers, fried anything, and…$20 drinks.

Culinary Code Cracked: Harvard Square Gets Good Dining!

It took a long time, but, finally, my neighborhood of Harvard Square where I can walk to have something to eat, has restaurants worth visiting.  Night Market opened in the past few months.   Santouka opened a few weeks ago.

Night Market is a pan-Asian restaurant with a counter in a cellar setting with a small, focused menu of small plates which emphasize vegetables paired with chicken, beef, pork, or tofu.  Many items are Thai-inspired, some are Taiwanese, a couple are Japanese.

Santouka is the 32nd outpost of a ramen franchise that opened in Hokkaido almost twenty years ago.  Thick, milky colored pork broths, great noodles that are outsourced, and a room where jazz plays and the North American staff greet you in Japanese.  You might as well be in Tokyo except for the prices.  In Tokyo a bowl of ramen at Santouka, tax and service included, is $9.  Here it’s $15.

Both new restaurants share an appreciation and understanding of flavors, textures, serving sizes, atmosphere, and presentations that are associated with several Asian countries.

You can be sure that their approach will catch on here and throughout the city.

In five years you’ll see the dinosaurs of restaurants die out.  Bye-bye burgers, offal, $15-18 appetizers of vegetables with fancy sauces, stuff fried in duck fat, so many ingredients on a plate that you know the chef must be a genius, pork or veal fourteen ways, and the chef’s interpretation of what he or she thinks is French food.

Asia.  Think Asia.  Focused plates with a few perfect or near perfect ingredients that draw on tradition and create new versions.  The idea is to please the guest.  What a concept.

 

The Italian Genius

OK, so Chinese comes close.  Very close.  If you’re cooking at home and know what the Hell you’re doing.  But Italian cooking is proof positive that there are laws hidden in nature about the power of food and the ease of cooking it if you look around and pay close attention.

Cooking Italian is genuinely a sensual experience.  I don’t mean that in a Nigella way or some miserable person’s discovery that the okra is better than the sex.  I mean that when you cook Italian food, as is true with any cooking, you need to use your senses.  The difference between the sensuality of Italian cooking and, say, French, is that there are an immediacy and improvisation to it.

You smell that the onions are done.  You touch the pasta to see if it’s done.  You hear the water about to boil.  Etc.

Take last night.  Seven minutes start to finish.  Except for boiling the water and waiting for the pasta.  That took about 22 minutes–but I’m reading while the water boils and the pasta cooks.  (A collection of poorly translated early stories of Kawabata.  Got to finish that so I can get back to “Act One” by Moss Hart.)

Anyway, where was I?  Right, the dinner.

OK, take a cast iron frying pan.  Add about four tablespoons of good olive oil. Put the heat on low.  Add about 1/4 teaspoon of dried, crushed chili peppers.  Slice 1/2 an onion.  Slice two garlic cloves.  Turn the heat up as high it can go.  Add the onion and garlic.  Stir until gold in color.  Take a decent sausage.  Squeeze it out of the casing.  Add to the pan.  Stir and press down until it breaks up and turns brown.  Turn off the heat.  Add about 1/2 cup of Pomi chopped tomatoes.  Turn the heat on low.  When the pasta is done, add it.  Serve hot with grated parmigiano.

Total cost for two?  About $2.50.  Italy.  I’m telling you.

雛祭り

Well, I don’t have to tell you what day it is tomorrow, you already know.  But in case your neighbors or office mates are living in their own worlds, please let them know that it’s Hionmatsuri.  Exactly.  Girl’s Day in Japan.  Every March 3rd.  Write it down.

Time to reflect on a girl’s happiness and past, her future prospects, maybe…maybe even her role in society when she becomes an adult.  Who knows?  It could happen.

According to Wikipedia, “The customary drink for the festival is shirozake, a sake made from fermented rice. A colored hina-arare, bite-sized crackers flavored with sugar or soy sauce depending on the region, and hishimochi, a diamond-shaped colored rice cake, are served.  Chirashizushi (sushi rice flavored with sugar, vinegar, topped with raw fish and a variety of ingredients) is often eaten. A salt-based soup called ushiojiru containing clams still in the shell is also served. Clam shells in food are deemed the symbol of a united and peaceful couple, because a pair of clam shells fits perfectly, and no pair but the original pair can do so.”

 

Simple Pleasures in Food

I’m finishing up my piece on craft beer brewing in Japan, how from prefecture to prefecture, styles vary, alcohol content varies, and while some of the beers are an homage to German beer or I.P.A’s, others have a deep, quirky originality about them.  They are essentially like so much production in Japan: An uneasy mix of mimicry, precision, and woeful creativity.

Woeful because it’s a struggle culturally to diverge from what’s seen as the consensus.  Which makes the creativity that does emerge at last shocking and spectacular.

Meanwhile, closer to home, I enjoyed a pizza from Santarpio’s last night.  This East Boston restaurant ranks among the top ten in my book.  I’ve never been inside the dining room–I go to the back where the guys scoop sauce from a small, burned pot onto the perfect dough and then add toppings and then hide the toppings underneath mozzarella.  Into an oven the size of the wall, and soon we’re talking perfect pies.

Mine was supposed to be half anchovy, half sausage.  Where were the anchovies?  If you think I’m calling them up to complain that they forgot to add them, you have got to be kidding.  Maybe I couldn’t find or taste them, OK?  You got a problem with that?  Look, I’m busy, tell your mother.

 

How To Lose Weight

I’m not saying there’s nothing to eat in Boston.  There’s plenty.  Got a hankering for burgers, pizza, wings, fried food that’s bastardized from an array of Asian cuisines?  You are all set.  Eager for pig’s ears, fried rabbit, tails, squid, and the cheapest fish this side of tilapia?  Pull up a chair.  Celebrating?  Why, dinner for two at mislabeled “French,” “Italian,” or “Japanese” joints can run you easily and routinely no less than $300 per couple.

Whew.  Glad I got that off my chest.

Seriously.  Ask around in the hospitality industry both in the city and elsewhere and they’ll tell you the same thing.

Take last night.  Please.

It’s 7 P.M. I’m hungry.  Long day dodging piles of snow and plows.  Looks like there’s nothing in the house to eat.  I check out delivery sites on the web.  The best bets are Soul Fire (Allston) and Felipe’s (Harvard Square).  Both are actually terrific restaurants.  But, gee, I don’t know, do you feel like having pork ribs, delicious though they are, or tacos, flavorful as can be?

So then we do we go out?  Night Market is wonderful.  And so is Giulia.  But that wonderful on a night when the temp is under 20F?

The spa diet is on hand: I find two waygu-style burgers in the freezer I’d ordered in December from DeBragga.  There is a bag of baby Yukon’s in the fridge.  A sliver of Emmental.  And miracle of miracles!  The last two sesame seed buns from Martin’s!

Now that’s something to eat.

Culture Shock? Culture integration?

Contradictions aren’t really contradictions, there’s no science or nature to suggest that events which seem to be at odds with one another are really at odds.  It could very well be that it’s the anecdotal experience or perception which makes for discordance.  In other words: Things actually fit together.  There is affiliation between what appear to be opposites.

Pragmatically, we’re talking about:

A thin slice of fried tofu I brought back from my friend Mika’s favorite tofu “factory,” in Kyoto–the factory is a hole-in-a-wall beside the Kamo river.  She recommended I place it on a hot skillet to crisp it.  She was right.  Served up with a tiny dish of soy and powdered spices, including powdered yuzu, and sake from Niigata.  In front of a blazing fire.

A large fresh mozzarella pie, half sausage, with a cold Lagunitas “Little Sumpin,'” so strong and bitter I could only finish half a glass.

And, finally, dried Blenheim’s with chocolate squares from Japan chased by a sip of Nikka Yoichi 15 year old–has to be the best whisky I have ever tasted.

Am I in Japan?  New England?  Italy?  Home?  Visiting?