Is Pyongyang next for Chefs?

With all the talk of “buying local,” and “sustainability,” and “food and the environment,” I must say I was a little surprised by the depth of silence from the many chefs from Europe and North America who own restaurants in Hong Kong when the pro-democracy forces took to the streets over the weekend.

Chefs from the West in Hong Kong include: Alain Ducasse, Joël Robuchon, Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, Pierre Gagnaire, Mario Batali, Paco Roncero, Michael White, and Jamie Oliver.

Look, I get it, it’s hard enough–brutal, some might say–to make the business of a restaurant work without having to worry about economic and social issues.  But if chefs are speaking up about GMOs, “farm to table” produce, an array of health issues, school lunches, and everything (except increasing the minimum wage), it stands to reason that they would be concerned about what is happening in Hong Kong.  At the very least, as The Wall Street Journal reports today, it’s not good for business when people take to the streets.

It’s going to be even worse for business when the crackdown starts.  Tomorrow, October 1, is the annual celebration of the communist revolution in China.  Let’s see what happens to mark the day.  (Anyone remember The Great Famine?)

Still, there’s hope: If Hong Kong implodes, and the work environment becomes bad for the hospitality industry, chefs can always head to Pyongyang, North Korea.  Now there’s a country that’s all about sustainability.

Dining Out: Not the Usual Suspects, the Usual Suspects

Something is happening in restaurants, and I’m not referring just to This Year’s Trends.  OK, here are this year’s trends: For those with deep pockets and small waistlines, it’s wine bars with small plates, and what’s served is French, Spanish, raw, Italian, or fried.  (Fried if the joint is selling, “local,” and American stuff gussied up.)  For those on a budget: Food trucks.

But also emerging are restaurants for Adults.  Focused menus, driven by ingredients that are chiefly vegetarian and from the best sources and not just in-state.

In Boston there are now: Bar Boulud, Giulia, Pastoral, and Legal Oysteria.  All worth your time and money.

NYC has more of the places which fit into the trends noted, but we also see: Rotisserie Georgette, Il Buco Alimentari, and Batard.

Bar Boulud Opens in Boston

Opened just three days ago in Boston, Bar Boulud raises the bar.  We’re talking about a reasonably priced, varied menu that has one dish after another that’s appealing.  You know how you go to some restaurants and pick your way through a menu and at last find that there’s something you can eat?  This is the opposite.  You have to narrow your choices.

And everything we had was delicious, whether it was the gougères, pate of foie and pork, chopped salad of cabbages, lobster, or boudin blanc.  Wine by the glass was good.  The vibe in the room was good.  The service was good.

Let’s just hope it lasts.

There are numerous restaurants in Boston that call themselves French, a term that helps raise prices when in fact what’s being served is modern American (whatever that means), and when one of the world’s great chefs turns up, their livelihood will be threatened.

Simply put, restaurants serving dishes with between six to eight ingredients that show us that the chef knows his way around a pantry, but add nothing to the dish other than, ironically, to muddy flavors; or, restaurants serving a chef’s highly personal interpretation of a French dish, which tells us more about the chef than the food.  These places are going to be hit hard when customers encounter French food that’s presented in a room by servers all of whom and which might as well place you in a French city.

On the other hand, perhaps raising the bar, as he did in NYC, might lead current and future chefs to consider doing what Andre Soltner said needed to be done.  Chef Soltner, whose Lutece was to NYC what Daniel is to NYC today, said. when he saw cooks in his kitchen trying to change how he wanted the food prepared,  “Guys!  Roast the chicken!  There’s a right way to roast the chicken!  Do it the right way.”

Only probably not in those words.


Great Products Now Available

Topping the list is Icelandic lamb at Whole Foods.  The stores stock the lamb once a year, and then for about two months, starting just after the rettir, the annual round-up of lamb in Iceland.  Whether it’s a bone-in leg, which at $58 feeds between 8-10 people, or the loin chops, six of which feed two people at about $15, this lamb is truly the pinnacle.  Juicy, good fat content, and deeply flavorful.  Maybe it’s feeding on salted grasses, roaming on mountain pastures, and being single breed.  Dunno.

Then there are the matsutake, chanterelles, and porcini.  You can order these, as I’ve said before, from  Well worth the expense.

Beef?  Sales have been slow over the summer for some of the big purveyors due to the price increase.  According to the USDA, a drought in 2012 (that continues), increased costs of grain and fuel, and decreased breeding has led to the increase.  That said, sales are on: DeBragga (NJ), Snake River Farms (Idaho), Lobel (NYC), Pat LaFrieda (NJ), all have great deals on prime, dry aged, and waygu style.

Local, shmokal.



Restaurant Franchises, Restaurant Brands

Daniel Boulud, Legal Sea Foods.

Chef Boulud has restaurants around the globe, from his base in NYC to Vancouver to D.C.  Legal Sea Foods has a couple of dozen restaurants stretching up and down the East Coast, from its upscale room overlooking Boston harbor to airport outposts. Boulud is never called a franchise, Legal Sea Foods often is.  What’s the difference between the two?

Let’s look at what’s similar: Both have an extremely well-defined business model that addresses, in great specificity, service and food.  Both, as a result, deliver consistent products and experiences.  Whether you are at a Boulud restaurant in Florida or NYC or a Legal Sea Foods in Boston or D.C., you can depend on a reliable and familiar relationship.

Both are brands that people can count on.  Even when service or food go off kilter, the parameters of the failures or mistakes are within a branded context.  Think of it this way: When a BMW stalls, the driver sits comfortably in the luxurious interior and waits for BMW road side service.

The difference is that Boulud is driven by the name of the chef, which implies to customers that Boulud is lurking somewhere in the restaurant.  In today’s Boston Globe, for example, a columnist writing about Bar Boulud, which opened today in the Mandarin Oriental, is expected to be in Boston “every six weeks.”  That’s a good one.

In contrast, Legal Sea Foods has the name of the enterprise.  There’s no association to a chef who, in the fantasy of the customer, is standing behind a stove or going from table to table asking, “How is everything?”

It’s a fascinating juxtaposition.  Brand association through product, in the form of fish and seafood, or brand association through the chef.

In the short run, both have equal access to the imaginations of customers.  In the long run, the brand that is associated with a product, rather than the name of a person who will retire, may have the advantage.

It makes me think of other chefs and brands: Silvano Marchetto, whose cookbook I helped write (Bloomsbury), with Da Silvano.  Or Mario Batali: Not one of his restaurants has his name above the door.

It will be interesting to see what happens.

Confidential Boston: Prelude to a Site that Will Never Happen

Just down the street from the house I’m in is Crema cafe, Dunkin’ Doughnuts, and Au Bon Pain, but rather than that I defrosted half a bagel from Ess-A-Bagel, toasted it, and spread salted Amish butter and Hero strawberry jam on it.  A hot cup of coffee from Porto Rico, we’re all set.

I could have driven to the wonderful Swiss bakery, but is 20 minutes r/t in a car worth it so early in the morning?

Later today the choices abound: Should I get pizza from Armando’s, Otto, Just Crust, Pinocchio, or Iggy’s?  Or falafel?  Or a burger from one of the many farm-to-table restaurants in town?

I wonder: Same farm?  One farm is supplying all these tables?

But, no, I will defrost half a bagel from Ess-A-Bagel and spread Italian tuna on it.

Tonight: Fried rabbit?  Pork belly?  Burgers?

Or: Pasta from Eataly with tomato sauce?


Where to Eat on A Saturday in NYC

If you find yourself in East Village, as I did, you could go to Veselka, which has been there since time began, and feast on dumplings and food meant to help you forget about the cold and the Russians, this being a Ukrainian joint, but, me, I like Tompkins Square Bagels, as I’ve mentioned before.  A little goes a long way.  You can always change your mind: Veselka is open 24 hours.

At 10 A.M., Eataly opens its market.  The fresh pasta is the deal of the century, and I always buy lots.  1/4 pound per person translates to about $6.00 per half pound so for $24 you get four meals for two people.  That’s $3.00 a dinner plus sauces.  They have baby matsutake in this week at about $48 per pound, and for $12 you can pick up six, slice thinly, and sauté in olive oil and some herbs and add to a pasta dish.  The $12 catch yields two dinners for two people.

I’d intended to go to Lafayette for lunch, but went back to Il Buco Alimentari with a craving for pasta that was satisfied by a delicious, perfectly al dente carbonara.  The fried cod panini N had was good as well.

Why not go to Rubirosa for dinner?  On Mulberry, it has paper thin pizza, one of the best vibes in the city, and, bonus, they take reservations.  Don’t mind the tourists, they don’t bite.

After Odeon Pope, James Carter, Pharaoh Sanders, Reggie Workman, and Geri Allen @ the Blue Note, an uptown subway ride from around the corner to Rotisserie Georgette for duck cracklings, salad, duck foie, country pate, and roasted bunny.  Adults only.

After stepping off the 6 in Union Square, I made my way through careening drunks, all kids, to my place.  I’d had too much food, they’d had too much drink.

Choose your poison.

Confidential Manhattan Prelude

The day started at Tompkins Square Bagels, which is on First and 10th, facing the park, where the lively, attentive staff sell bagels that are hot, fresh, firm, crisp on the outside, and just doughy enough inside to accommodate lox cream cheese spread as delicious as the bagel.  TSB lacks the PR machine of Black Seed, over on Elizabeth, but it’s just as good, and more NYC.

Later that day I had a meeting at Century Club on 43rd and 5th.  High ceilings, what appeared to be Stickley furniture, rooms so silent and beautifully lit, I thought of staying, but it was evident that staff there did not share my way of thinking.

Lunch at Mailino with a finance guy in the restaurant industry, that rare person who not only has a vision that really will revolutionize things, but someone with the skills and stamina to do it.  Crispy, baby artichokes and Bombolotti all’Amatriciana.  First rate food and service.  In a town where pasta is on every block, Mailino excels.  (Nothing like competition to make one play harder.)

Prior to dinner, drinks with N at The Brandy Library on North Moore.  Here is a subdued, subtle, perfect bar with cool jazz and well poured cocktails.

Dinner was at Batard, just up the street, where start to finish, from the short rib and tafelspitz terrine to the veal tenderloin, from the octopus “pastrami” to the duck breast with figs, to the chocolate and cherries to the stone fruits, everything was so good as to be deeply memorable. (Tafelspitz, I recalled today, is a classic Austrian boiled beef dish.  Here it was a few wonderful tablespoons, reduced to their essence, inside a cube of baked dough.)  Made me think of my first visit to the old Bouley many, many years ago.

Heading back to East Village, having a nightcap in a quiet bar was an idea, but that’s just not possible on Second Avenue where one bar after another was crowded and noisy, the bartenders pouring fast.  It hit me that back in the day I’d have gone in anyway, and that I have no memory of anything that was said.  I don’t just mean now, years later, but even back then.  We were talking about getting things done, I think, but we didn’t get anything done, or little of it, and our observations were limited to the little we thought we knew about ourselves strictly.

Then it was time to call it quits.

Notes on Where to Eat & Drink in NYC

Plans are afoot to launch a portal that will guide onlookers and outsiders and others overwhelmed by the massive array of choices in Manhattan for eating and drinking. With that in mind, here is a preliminary report on the past twenty-four hours.

We begin with a visit to a charmless coffee shop on the corner of Stuyvesant and 10th streets where the guys behind the counter perform as if they have been miscast as guys making coffee and instead should be at barricades.

Lunch was a step up.  Bar Primi where the three ping-pong sized meatballs ($12) benefitted from a delicious, thick red sauce, and had great texture and density.  The spaghetti with tomato sauce, priced somewhere in the teens, was once al dente, it had to have been, but when it arrived 40 minutes into our sitting down it was soft enough for a guy with dentures to eat without complaint.  The tables next to ours all had food about twenty minutes before ours in far more plentiful portions.

For dinner it was time to head to Barchetta, over on 23rd, housed in what was once a fun, old school French place I was just at last year.  I met my friend S there for dinner, and she’s very particular and knowledgeable about food, which is a pleasure.  The crudi tasting was first rate and the pompano was the best I had ever hard with a charred, crispy skin and a moist, thick interior that had me thinking of Dover sole.

Afterwards, around 9:30, I met N at Angel Share, around the corner from the apartment I’m in.  It’s a hidden bar on Stuyvesant Street with Japanese cocktails and service and although pricey is first-rate.

Eating in East Village

The apartment is on the fourth floor, in the rear of the building, on 10th Street between Second and Third, and my, how the neighborhood has changed since I was a boy.  Why, back in the day, we’re talking 1971, which might as well be during the Civil War, which, come to think of it, was an approximation of what was happening back then, things here were falling apart, to some degree.

Fillmore East was open–it’s just around the corner–and the streets were filled with junkies, and those who looked cast off.  Nowadays, you have lovely shops and plenty that’s upscale.  Izakayas,  Japanese grocery stores, fancy-pants dumpling shops.

The street I’m on is redolent of marijuana smoke, but no dealers in sight.   That’s different, too.

And nearby, on Great Jones and also on Lafayette, are two of many restaurants worth visiting.  I had drinks last night with N at restaurant Lafayette; saw my friend the chef hanging out at the pass, and booked a table for later in the week.  Dinner at my favorite go-to Italian in the city: il Buco Alimentari.  Earlier in the day, on 13th off of First: Motorino–I’ve never had a better pizza.