Summer’s Bounty

For a variety of reasons, I’m in NYC a lot more than usual, and this past weekend, for example, while many city residents lounged by the sea or in the mountains, I was there for an 18-hour visit.

Sweltering is about right.  The subway cars were ice cold as was every indoor space I was in, but waiting for trains meant that all of us were drenched in sweat by the time boarding took place.  Walking on the streets was a little better as the motion of walking created a little breeze.

I was near the East River so it was kind of, sort of cooler, too.  But not much.

Hit my favorite Italian place, on Great Jones, scored a corner table, preceded that with drinks at Lafayette.  Lunch at Second Ave.  Favorite places, lots of comfort.

Meanwhile, on the home front, thanks to the great Armenian store around the corner, we’re talking fresh dates and figs, fresh basil, and housemade tahini sauce.  From Vermont it was, via a farmers market, corn and tomatoes.

The days and nights this summer have been wonderfully slow, I’m reading two to three books a week, and making progress on a couple of book proposals.

Summer becomes a kind of winter in these ways–incubation.

Switzerland on My Mind

Trains in Switzerland are the best way to absorb the magnificence and unparalleled beauty of this mountainous country whose vistas are world famous.  No wonder: The top scenic train routes were devised and designed by English engineers in the mid-nineteenth century in the heyday of tourism made possible by wealth created after the Industrial Revolution and imperialism.  (That’s why Swiss trains roll by on the left side: It’s a nod to England!)  Nowadays, you can sit back and relax in plush compartments, take in the amazing sights, enjoy gourmet meals and good Swiss wines, and coordinate hiking trips with military precision by using the trains.

The Bernese Oberland is filled with great train rides.  The most epic ride not just here but in the entire country takes place on trains owned by a private rail company, and it’s really a must, something every visitor to Switzerland ought to do at least once.  There is nothing like it in the world in terms of engineering genius and stunning views.  The trip begins in the Lauterbrunnen Valley and takes you up through Wengen, then to Kleine Scheidegg, and finally through tunnels hewn out of the mountains until you reach the Jungfraujoch, which at just over 11,000 feet above sea level, is the highest altitude railway station in Europe.  While you can get out and walk around at stops along the way, save time for the top.  There’s a museum here that documents the massive sacrifices needed to create the train route, a good Indian restaurant, a new chocolate shop, little ski slopes, and flat out shockingly beautiful views of glaciers and distant peaks.  The one caveat is that during summer months the train takes up about 5,000 visitors daily.  It gets crowded.

If you want to avoid the crowds, no problem.  Switzerland has uber-famous routes that, unlike the ride up to Jungfraujoch, are covered fully by a Swiss Rail Pass.  (The pass offers a 50% reduction on the Jungfraujoch excursion.)   Certainly among the most majestic is the aptly named Glacier Express.  The train goes to and from Zermatt and St. Moritz, over long and stone bridges, past countless waterfalls, in view of primeval forests and past deep valleys.  Along the way, you go through Visp, Brig, Andermatt, Disentis, and Chur, and seated in a so-called, “Panorama Wagon,” with walls made of glass, you won’t miss a thing.

Another magnificent train ride is the Wilhelm Tell Express, which links German-speaking Luzern to Italian-speaking Locarno.  It’s a wondrous, five hour journey that begins by boat from Luzern to Flüelen.  This is where the Wilhelm Tell story began.  Heading south, you’re in Ticino, Switzerland’s canton where Italian is the language and norm:  Bellinzona with its famous castles; Lugano, which combines Swiss and Italian cultures; and, at last you are in Locarno, which is a lovely, lakeside town near the border of Italy that at one time was a quiet fishing village that inspired Hemingway.

Finally, take the Bernina Express.  It’s so extraordinary as to merit being part of UNESCO World Heritage.  The route is the highest altitude train journey in Europe, and takes you from Chur, in the region of Switzerland known as the Grissons, all the way to Tirano in Italy.  The Grissons are an ideal, rustic part of the country, ideal for remote hikes (as well as family walks in the National Park), and the train spares nothing in terms of vistas.

There are many other train routes of length worth taking in Switzerland—Golden Pass Line and Voralpen Express, for example—and several cantons have nostalgic and private train routes still open that use steam operated engines.  Among the best steam train rides in all of Switzerland is the privately run Brienz Rothorn, which takes you up a mountain above the pretty village of Brienz and at the top provides views in all directions.

A few words of advice.

Consider getting a Swiss Pass before leaving for Switzerland.  Note: It does not cover the private routes fully; it does cover the famous national routes.  When you decide which routes you want to take, be advised that you must reserve seats.  If you wish to have a meal in the train restaurant, reserve in advance as well.

Bon voyage!

Swiss Interlude

Landlocked Switzerland, denied access to seas and oceans, makes great use of its rivers and lakes.  In addition to swimming and the extensive use of water for hydroelectric power, the Swiss have developed an astonishing infrastructure for terrific boat rides that offer visitors (and locals) first-rate sightseeing.  Not only that: While on the boats, you can enjoy musical events as well as good wining and dining.  There are fifteen principal lakes for boating in Switzerland, and five of these are epic in terms of a world class experience.

Hint: In order to fully enjoy the boating experience in Switzerland, use the Internet to reserve tables for dining or special events.  You can use trains and buses to coordinate pinpoint timing of arrivals and departures, and return to your starting point.  It’s flat out magical.

Vierwaldstättersee. The name means, “four-forested canton lake,” and it’s a gem.  The enormous body of water is pristine, quiet, and has little private traffic.  You can take short excursions from Luzern—Vierwaldstättersee is also known as Lake Luzern—to the Swiss Transportation Museum (perfect for families), which has a great public beach next to it; go further to Weggis and then board a little train to the top of Rigi; head even further southeast past the Rütli, where the Swiss like to say that the country declared its independence in the 14th century from the Habsburg Empire; or continue deep into canton Uri.  Several boats are steam-powered and provide  old-fashioned, romantic travel.  Enjoyable dining with seasonal menus and good Swiss wines add a lot to the experience.  In the Fall, for example, a menu of wild game is available, and the dining and boating get very entertaining.  Each season has an array of special events.

Brienzersee and Thunersee. These two deep alpine lakes, divided by Interlaken, which means of course, “between the lakes,” are beautiful, green-blue, and serene.  After hiking in the Bernese Oberland, where they are situated, a day’s excursion on either or both is a great antidote to fatigue.  You can book online and with military precision arrive by train at a docked boat that will take you on a trip that can last a few hours.   Fondue evenings are offered seasonally on boats on both lakes; accompanied by traditional and live Swiss folk music, it’s a fun and genuine cultural experience.  Other culinary events include fajita trips, raclette evenings, and Christmas celebrations.  Steam ships add to the luster, and whether you are seated on an open deck or at a fancy table enjoying a meal, your position will give you wonderful views of mountains and forests.

Zugersee.  It’s a small lake and perfect for a day a bit away from crowds that head to the better known lakes.  A day spent stopping at the villages on the lake is like a mini-cruise, and if you’re so inclined you can try to get on board for an evening of dancing and live music.

Lac Leman.  Also known as Lake Geneva, this long and boomerang shaped lake has boats that offer great day trips with views of Swiss wine country as well as France.  As is true with the Swiss-German boats, meals are served in both first-class and second-class.  Bonus: The food is French-Swiss.

Lago di Lugano.  Lake Lugano is a marvelous lake that unites Switzerland and Italy, and for over a century it’s been a retreat for the world’s elite.  These days you can continue to enjoy its unique charm and indolent pleasures, and there is no better way to do so than on board a Swiss ship.  The food is Italian, and the atmosphere can be festive.  If you time it right, you will find yourself at a salsa festival, a tango night, or an evening of what the shipping line calls Boogie Woogie.

In the Soup

Over the past ten months or so, I’ve discovered just how much I enjoy making and eating a good bowl of homemade soup for dinner along with good bread and a glass of wine.

In the winter, I started making chicken soup from scratch for the first time.  Couldn’t be easier.  Whole Foods sells frozen backs and for about $5 you get a package, defrost it, and put it with about six cups of water and one carrot and one onion and salt and pepper in a pressure cooker for maybe 12 minutes.  Then let it simmer for an hour.  Then remove everything and let the broth stay warm in a pot on the stove for about eight hours.  Correct the salt.  Add noodles or matzoh balls in bowls.  Bye-bye, winter.

Summer means cold soups.

Cold tomato soup is also easy: Four tomatoes, 1/2 a cucumber, a small red pepper, a little olive oil, a pinch of sambal oelek, salt, and pepper.  Blend in a food processor.  Correct the salt.  Put in fridge for at least three hours.

Cold beet soup is easy, too: Boil four beets and a few baby Yukon potatoes until soft.  Reserve liquid and cool beets and potatoes.  Place beets and potatoes in a food processor with salt, pepper, a bit of red wine vinegar, some fresh lemon juice, a cup of good sour cream, and there reserved liquid from boiling the beets and potatoes to create desired thickness.  Put in fridge for at least three hours.

All three soups cure bone spurs.

Christmas in July

As July winds down, and acorns start showing up on sidewalks, some leaves appear yellow, and neighborhood bunnies get bigger, one can’t help but think: Why, it’s almost Christmas!  I know what you’re thinking, and of course you’re right: Time is running out for gift buying, but there’s still a few months to spare!  So drop what you’re doing, go online, and start spending.

Between shopping sprees–the knitted wool socks are amazing–I’ve been reading and preparing for the future.  A literary festival in Colorado, a hospitality congress in Tokyo, and day to day lots of delicious vegetarian and pasta-driven dinners.

Why, just last week, though it seems long ago, I was in NYC and from Rotisserie Georgette to Il Buco Alimentari, Russ & Daughters to Second Avenue Deli, Lupa to Balthazar Bakery, one experience was as good as the next, and led to ideas for home cooking.

That home cooking will be enhanced by a big order of beef from DeBragga that arrives on Friday.  We’re talking steaks and burgers, dry aged prime and prime that isn’t dry aged.

Fire up the grill!  Deck the halls!  Ho, ho, ho!

Sometimes You Have to Eat Out

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make a decent version of cacio e pepe, but the one I had last night at a place I won’t name in Boston was gummy and unctuous, overwhelmed by a way too buttery sauce with so much cheese that strands of pasta stuck together.  The person I was with had trout swimming in olive oil, which had been added after grilling.  Throw in a glass of white Arneis from Piedmont and a martini?  $85 for two.

People think it’s easy to cook Italian.  It’s not.  It requires restraint. Johanne Killeen, who owned al Forno, in Providence, R.I., said to me years ago what best describes it: “You buy the best ingredients you can afford and do as little to them as possible.”  That’s so not Boston, in fact it’s the polar opposite of what passes for restaurant cooking here, Italian or not.

Look, it’s nice to grab a bite before a movie, right?  And Ghostbuster II made going out worthwhile.  But it’s pretty odd that Boston still has restaurants that are almost completely unfocused, with an emphasis on concept rather than execution or ingredients.  Or bad food.  Just really bad food.  There’s a reason why folks from out-of-town eat at Legal Seafood: Dependable, fresh, and delicious.  And frankly unique to Boston.

Meanwhile, on the home front, I received three ounces of black truffles and a pound of fresh, blond morels from Oregon, stopped by New Deal in Cambridge where I got flounder filets and tilefish filets (both cut then and there), and John Dory filets.  All told, fish and fungi: $150, and enough food, with vegetables, for four dinners for four people.  Throw in Kermit Lynch red, by the case, or a good Rosé from Provence, at $10 a bottle (case discount is 15%), and you get, let’s see…dinner for two is…$20.

And that cacio e pepe?   I make a version that’s a whole lot better…you need really good cheeses, two types, and not a lot, a wooden spoon to stir, pasta of high quality that’s not quite done when you add it to the sauce, lots of freshly cracked black pepper, a familiarity with great versions you had in great restaurants, and for goodness sakes, don’t add salt at the end!  The salt is in the cheese.

 

Front of the House

“You can get away with bad food, but you can’t get away with bad service,” said Ken Aretsky to me years ago for a piece I was doing on restaurants.  Mr. Aretsky used to manage “21” and owns Patroon, a terrific steak and American restaurant in Turtle Bay with a first-rate, hidden bar.

The cool thing about good service is that it generates income at no cost to the restaurant.  And it’s not related to the type of place.  Sure, the high end restaurants employ as many as a half dozen servers per customer who shuttle to tables and hover.  But even a hot dog stand, like Sullivan’s, in East Boston, on Castle Island, excels at making its customers feel welcome.

It’s a shame that most restaurants in Boston don’t have a front of the house that encourages people to come back.  Not much in the way of greetings or goodbyes, servers who don’t know what they serving, a real lack of enthusiasm, an inability to sell, and a kind of foggy outlook on the customer, a willful forgetfulness.

Think of dining as going into a new car showroom: Frankly, there’s not a whole lot of difference between cars within the price range you can afford.  Customers return to dealerships based on how they are treated: Friendly, as honest as possible, engaging.

Servers are salespeople who work on a commission basis, it’s as simple as that.

Hope for Restaurants in Boston

Throughout neighborhoods in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester are dozens of mom and pop restaurants serving delicious food that tastes of home.  We’re talking Cape Verdean, Vietnamese, Haitian, Cambodian, Salvadoran, Mexican, Cuban, Jamaican, Nigerian, Puerto Rican, and Somali restaurants, to name the most prominent.

Storefront and informal, priced so that a working person can afford a decent meal, the food served in these places brings you to nations and regions that reflect the city’s mosaic.  They don’t have media skills, they aren’t old school, they are off the tourist track, and if you want to know what many people will be eating in the future, all over the world, these are places worth exploring.

It’s interesting how cities like D.C. and NYC developed neighborhoods like Adams-Morgan and the Lower East Side, respectively, with restaurants serving locals as well as those who wanted to try traditional cuisines from other parts of the world.  This confluence led to more money coming into the neighborhoods, more jobs, and on a social level it meant that people whose backgrounds differed got to know a little bit more about one another.  All that leads to social change.

It would be lovely if Boston could embrace that trend.

Every City, Every Restaurant

Ruth Reichl, some years ago, said in an interview for a piece I did for The Boston Globe on restaurants here that “every city gets the restaurants it deserves.”  Eight out of the 12 restaurants in that piece that were scrutinized for high prices that didn’t seem to match what was served have closed: Rialto, Radius, Icarus, Pigalle, Sasso, Locke-Ober, Excelsior, Aujourd’hui.

Boston excels at lunch: No town in the United States offers a better and more affordable range of places where you can get sandwiches and pizza.  In the past few years, noodles have arrived: A big bowl of ramen will set you back between $12-15.  Not affordable day in and day out, but nice to enjoy once in awhile.

After reading the wonderful book by William Grimes about the history of dining in NYC, it’s apparent where Boston stands at this moment in time.  Long ago, NYC was a place for lunch–people went home for dinner or to private clubs.  It’s much the same here: The hoity-toity folks have private chefs.  Families eat as families at home.  When friends get together, it’s for dinner parties in homes.  (Ever been to a pot luck?)  It’s chiefly people dating or out-of-towners who as tourists or visiting kids at school that populate the restaurants for dinners.

That’s all changing:  Terrific informal places are emerging, and they are the future.  Chief among them is Babbo Pizzeria & Enoteca.  Added to this will be EATALY–not a restaurant, but an enormous store–that will influence how people think about food and what they expect from dining.

One big trend in NYC in dining is vegetarian dining or the appearance of vegetarian dishes on menus.  It’s a great approach, and clearly the future: A restaurant increases profit margins, it’s healthy, and it’s seasonal.  But it requires people who know how to cook.

 

SMOKE SHOP, KENDALL SQUARE, CAMBRIDGE, MA

So I got in last night, the place has only been open six days, and it was of course their first Friday night.  Folks: If you go, reserve in  advance or you’ll be waiting a long time.

The food is delicious.  Some BBQ has regionality or gutsiness or let’s say soul.  Not this place.  This place has great pork ribs with perfect texture and a dry rub followed by a light, sweet, and piquant sauce.  Generic.  It also has extremely tasty brisket sandwiches and pulled pork sandwiches: $11 each with one side, which is about 40% more than anywhere else outside of famous joints, but, hey, if you got it, flaunt it.  You could be anywhere in the USA eating it, it has no depth or character, which is something that will be of great help should they franchise, which seems likely.

Great sides though in tiny portions: Collards, mac ‘n’ cheese, cornbread, asparagus.

And just so you know you’re in Boston: About a half dozen T.V. screens showing sports.  Essentially, a reminder that this is a bar that sells food.

Of the bar: A very long and impressive list of American rye and bourbon–top drawer and down low so that if you want to have a big shot for $16 of Angel’s Envy rye, it’s yours.  They also list, “Andy’s Baller List,” (Classy, right?)  with whiskies in the high double digits.  (Google and Microsoft are down the street.)

FYI: The Mint Julep was pre-made, served from a squeeze bottle, and tasted as if it had as much bourbon as a one ounce pour.  If you’re not measuring per glass, it’s unlikely that the pour will be adequate.  On top of that, pre-poured drinks at something like $12?  You’ve got to be kidding.  (They’re not.)

Staff are really lively, extremely pleasant, and add an enormous amount to this venture.

This is not the kind of place that will attract regulars over the age of thirty-five, I don’t think, due to the fact that it’s chiefly pork, but it is the kind of place that could give Blue Smoke or Shake Shack a good run for the money–easy to envision a chain of these at airports.  Perfect food for flying.