Where To Dine Out

Tastes change.  Back in the day, it didn’t matter where or what, it was just fun, not thinking at the time of how better to spend time, just to have the money to buy food in nice digs.  It was all new to me.  I hadn’t eaten in a fancy restaurant until I was thirty-one years old.

Up until then, it had been old school, red sauce Italian-American, big portioned and immediately delicious.

Or Chinese with mostly fried bits of pork, beef, or chicken so peppery and sweet that I didn’t have to think about anything.  It was a great experience.

Things were “exotic,” too, with stuff from Ethiopia, Mexico, India, and Vietnam.

Over time I took an interest in food, especially ingredients, and then it all got murky.  Thing is, and ask any chef this, you can buy better ingredients and make better, simple meals at home.  If you know what to do with what you buy.  You don’t have a profit margin, investors to please, a staff to take care of, or a room to feed.

All that said, last Saturday I had the night free.  Pastoral was booked.  Giulia was booked.

Grilled yakitori: ground chicken for tsukune; thighs (momo); etc.  The sauce is easy to make: Google classic yakitori sauce.

It all comes back to focus, doesn’t it?  Not trying to do ten things.  Just one.


Dining Out & the Minimum Wage

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, you probably have, but with all this noise about sustainability, farm to table, “natural” food, and “buy local,” the matter of simple economics has been noticeably absent.  Look, here’s the thing:

Restaurants, like most other businesses, depend for their success, in part, on the people who work in them.  So all the noise about the product–whether it’s from Pete’s Chicken Farm in neighboring Pootsville or the line caught, oil poached halibut that killed itself to be on your plate–is a distraction from the #1 concern shared by anyone who owns a restaurant.

Paying the workers.

The organization that has been fundamental in leading the charge against the minimum wage is the National Restaurant Association (NRA).  The organization, based in Washington, D.C., has relentlessly opposed any increase in the minimum wage, and has lobbied hard to prevent lawmakers passing legislation that would so so.

Weekly, the NRA cites spurious data.  This is from one of their recent news releases: “A mandatory wage increase would hit business owners, many of whom operate on narrow profit margins, with additional costs that likely will force them to cut costs or increase prices, the economists wrote. That could mean fewer jobs, as was noted in arecent study on wage increases by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO).”

It’s a self-serving argument that egregiously ignores the fact that most people who work in restaurants as servers or cooks cannot afford to rent apartments, save money, or plan for their future.

But if increasing wages means a less than 5% increase in profit?  No to minimum wage.

Meanwhile the noise gets louder: Buy local, eat natural.


Stepping Out

Is there a better place than the Boston/Cambridge nexus for bakeries and pizza and all around inexpensive food perfect for snacks and lunches?  I didn’t think so.

Just yesterday in the food court at the front of Super 88 in Allston the array of Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, and Korean joints offered up great sounds and aromas.  Ginger, garlic, soy, onions.

And all over town we find bakeries, new and old, with first rate breads and pastries.

Pizza is showing up everywhere.  And why not?  Do the math.  For about $1, the kitchen sells a product that can run about $20.  Now that’s a good business plan.

More broadly, it’s a region with sleepy, busy academics who eat at all hours what’s placed in front of them.  Spicy or big, as long as it’s plentiful and fun, why not?

The Morel Festival 2014

Every year, for the past few years, I’ve been buying morels from Oregon as soon as they become available as a sign of Spring.  (www.oregonmushrooms.com)

This year my shipment of one pound of black morels and one pound of blond morels arrived on Tuesday.  What’s great about morels is their versatility and simplicity. You can use them in many dishes and you are better off doing as little as possible to them.  The purity of morels as an ingredient, their ability to express earthiness and depth, is astounding.

I was first introduced to them by my wife 27 years ago when she saw them on the menu at Lutece at a dinner to celebrate my father’s sixtieth birthday.  They were served then in little copper pots in a cream sauce, and immediately I got it.

Here the menu each night with the morels is expressive.  We’re talking:

• A Japanese style “nabe” or stew of black morels, dashi, minced ginger, and sesame oil

• Risotto with Hokkaido rice, miso broth, blond morels, fava  beans, and ramps

• Sauteed black morels on toasted bread with melted Gruyere and chopped chives

• Tiny pasta with blond morels, miso broth, duck breast, ramps, and white asparagus

• Poussin in a stew with blond morels

You get the picture.  What’s marvelous, too, about morels is how little animal protein is desired when cooking with them.


Organic Food & Marketing Mania

Great piece in today’s NYT Business section on Walmart’s decision to sell  top of the line organic food products at prices discounted so that working and lower middle class families can enjoy the perceived health benefits.

So what’s worse?

A company with disreputable labor practices and highly aggressive standards of competition or not being able to afford organic food?

The thing is that in the U.K. the government stepped in to stop companies from advertising that their organic products have any health benefits.  Numerous academics have done research that shows, at best, inconclusive data.  Maybe organic food is healthier.  Maybe it’s not.

FYI: Have a look at any of the frozen or prepared organic food you buy at a supermarket.  Manufactured in China, right?  The quality control in China is so poor that, organic or not, you have no guarantee that what you’re buying to eat is OK.

In the same section of the NYT today: A report that the “healthy” brands of pet food– Iams and Eukanuba–are being sold, by order of Pershing Square Capital Management (which owns Proctor & Gamble) to the Mars candy company.  Fluffy may get Snickers along with liver “flavored” crushed cereal.





Restaurant Reviews

OK, so in the NYT today there’s a well, deserved, glowing review of Jean Georges, which now nears two decades of first rate food, service, and ambience.  Delicious, ingredient driven cuisine with significant inclusion of Thai and Japanese flavors.  Pete Wells, the reviewer, notes that the chef, Jean Georges Vongerichten, uses few ingredients for each dish and does so with extreme focus such that the depth is evident. I love JG and the lesser lights within Vongerichten’s “empire,” enjoying his Alsatian bedrock and willingness to explore meaningfully.  I’ve learned a lot from eating his food.  Sad that he left Boston many years ago, and more recently when “Market,” closed.  Just not the kind of restaurant for this town.

No, we have Alden & Harlow, which received a 3 (out of 4) star review in today’s Boston Globe.  Highlight?  Chicken fried rabbit.  Here’s the reviewer, Devra First, on that dish:  “Chicken-fried rabbit is a delicious nugget with celery, apple, blue cheese, and chile oil, like Buffalo chicken fingers for the smart set. (The downside of the fine fry job is that this might as well be chicken; it’s hard to taste the rabbit beneath the batter.)”  Did you know that eating rabbit makes you part of the smart set?  Anyway, even if it does, why do it when, as the reviewer notes, it tastes the same as chicken?  Could it be that it’s “exotic?”  I mean, imagine a dish of “Buffalo chicken fingers” that costs $14 (that’s the price of the bunny).  [Rabbit retails @ $7.99 a pound.]



On the Menu: Spring

Well, it’s here, at least I think it’s here.  Spring, that is.  I’ve been out, every day, all winter, at least four times a day, what with the dogs, in eight degree weather and black skies at four P.M.  So the small changes seen in the past few days, some within 24 hours, cast a spell.

Like the willow’s tall branches that have a pale yellow at the highest points or the slight red on some young oaks around the corner.  Bonus: A cacophony of birds this morning, from robins to European starlings to bluejays.  Great commotion.  Cruelest month only if you are a grumpy poet.

Gustatorily, I’ve had some favas, ramps, and thick, fat white asparagus.  Next week we’re talking blonds and blacks; morels from Oregon.

In the restaurants, chefs are scooping up the good stuff, leaving us civilians with Brussels sprouts, cabbages, cauliflower, and broccoli.  As if.

But if you look high and low, you’ll find the essence of spring around you and on the plate.

Food and Harmony

The funny thing about eating in most restaurants worth returning to is that it’s not about the food.  Good food is where it starts, but, frankly, the food we cook at home is often more satisfying because we buy ingredients not based on a profit margin, and what we cook is familiar to us.

What great restaurants provide is a clear sense of harmony fueled by pleasure, acceptance, and having one’s needs or desires anticipated and met. No matter the cuisine or price point, the deal is to have a person walk in the door and leave feeling better.

That’s a big part of why Italian and Japanese cuisines are so globally popular.  In one case, it’s about creating the illusion of a family, and in the other it’s about service.

This Week in The World of Food

The big news for those with deep pockets, passports, and time on their hands is NOMA’s (Copenhagen) move in early 2015 to Tokyo for two months.  Chef Redzepi, smitten with the seasonality and refinement of Japanese gastronomy, is carting his restaurant to Japan for kind of an Ultimate Pop Up.

The broader implications are clear: Folks, the future of dining?  Not pig’s tails.  It’s simple, first rate, seasonal ingredients used precisely and sparingly.  It’s like Klee or Beckett on the plate.  And the power of Japanese ingredients?  Intense.

Why even at a pizzeria/restaurant Japan is showing up.

Take PASTORAL (Boston): Open six days.  Bonita flakes on a pie.  Delicious.

In NYC: More Italian-Japanese restaurants are opening, day by day.

So you don’t need to take off your shoes.  Just pull up a chair.