A Busy Week!

It’s been a busy week at the intersection of food and commerce.  The NYT reported a few days ago that Governor Cuomo recommended an increase in the state minimum wage.  So that the top tier don’t feel left out, the paper published a piece today on how to get a table at incredibly expensive and exclusive restaurants: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/25/your-money/how-to-connive-a-reservation-at-that-oh-so-popular-restaurant.html?ref=business&_r=0

Meanwhile, on a personal note, I’m immersed in my book on Indian-American lives. With twenty-one chapters written, and nine more to go, plus a preface and afterward, I’m near completion of a solid rough draft.

And editing a novel that is due with an agent at the end of the summer.

To say nothing of reading the latest book by Oliver Sacks: Writing that is as observant as it is honest.  Just thrilling.

And detritus written this week: A piece on Mount Fuji, a piece on anago (conger sea eel), pieces on artisans of Ishikawa and Hokkaido…


Minimum This, Minimum That

Of course, the big news this week was the recommendation by Governor Cuomo to raise the minimum wage in NY State to $15 an hour.  It’s a great start, and while the restaurant owners are going to cry poor, it’s obvious that new business plans will evolve to accommodate this much needed change.

One thing that’s got to happen is for servers to recognize, once and for all, that their job is: To sell.  They are no more and no less than the culinary equivalent of a salesperson in a retail store.  Get up close to the customer, anticipate and satisfy his or her needs and wants, and sell, sell, sell.

By selling more, their wages will be paid for.  The restaurant owner will be happy.  We’re all friends here.

Sell the stuff that doesn’t cost the kitchen much.  AKA: Buy low, sell high.  Pretty basic stuff.

Why just the other night, last night, in fact, I was sold a $12 bowl, the size of a big cup, of cold beet soup.  Made thicker and richer, it cost the restaurant about 25 cents.

In the very same restaurant, the gentleman at the table next to mine, so close that it was as if he and I were having dinner together, asked the server: “Why is the steak $60?  How can you justify that?”

Nonplussed, the waiter said, at first, that it was, “the dry aging,” that added the cost, which is flat out ridiculous.  The cost comes from the grade of the beef: Choice or prime.  This was choice, which costs about 40% less than prime.  Seeing that the customer wasn’t convinced, the waiter then said, “I don’t set the prices.”

Well, that’s not a very good answer.

The food at this place is OK.  Not bad, really.  After the beet soup was a murky plate of mushrooms, fancily called, “boletus,” on the menu.  I guess if you use Latin, you can charge $18 for what turned out to be dark mixtures of what may have been 1/2 a porcini and some other mushroom that tasted like shitake.

Anyhow, it’s, “The Shepherd,” and it was my third visit in six weeks, and probably my third visit in a year, if you catch my meaning.

Meanwhile: Minimum wage and restaurants.  It’s exciting to see what will happen next.

Dining Out

It was my 5th visit in a little less than two months to Babbo Pizzeria and Enoteca in Boston and, folks, let me tell you, it doesn’t disappoint.  Lively room, great service, delicious food, and good price point.  There’s a lesson to be learned here.

Then, too, Pepe Bocca in Davis Square, Somerville: The best breads in Boston, good sandwiches, and a family that runs the joint with a sense of humor.  The old man tells me that he’s from Arthur Avenue, the son, when I buy guanciale asks if I’m going to make an amatriciana, and when I say that I am, he says, “Attaboy!”  This storefront grocery-cafe could be packing them in if they marketed better.  Let’s hope.

Finally, Russo’s: Retail wing of the wholesale produce supplier, now selling decent in-house pasta.

Hmmm…all Italy all the time!

Hot Plates

It’s summertime in New England, which means droves of tourists throughout Boston in hope of chowder and lobster, and they do not leave disappointed.  We have plenty of bivalves and crustacean in the cold Atlantic waters.

Closer to home, we’re talking bread and sausages.  Although Hi-Rise bakery is pretty much on demise, Clear Flour has the dough.  Although the beef, pork, and lamb around town is a crying shame, decent chicken sausages, local and from across the country, can be found at supermarkets and small stores.  Grilled or pieced out to make a Bolognese-type sauce?  Dinner.

All in all, these food experiences fuel.  I’ve got an article a week in Travel + Leisure, and a chapter a day is being written in my book on Indian resiliencies.

Hedge Funds & Food

In today’s NY Times’ Business section, there’s a great piece about the Union Hospitality Group’s buying a stake in the fast food chain, Tender Greens: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/15/business/dealbook/union-square-hospitality-buying-stake-in-tender-greens-chain.html?ref=business&_r=0.

Danny Meyer is the CEO of Union Hospitality.

Long lines, food that tastes the same with each bite, lots of salt and animal fat, voila!  A business plan.

The article also notes, far more interestingly, that Union Hospitality is an asset of this hedge fund: Leonard Green and Associates.  It notes:

“In 2012, Mr. Meyer was on the receiving end of a private equity investment when Leonard Green & Partners acquired a roughly 40 percent stake in Union Square Hospitality.  That investment from Leonard Green helped fuel the growth of Shake Shack.”

What else does the hedge fund Leonard Green have significant investments in?    Here’s a partial list: BJ’s Wholesale Club, Del Taco, J. Crew, Palms Casino Resort, and Petco.

Do fries go with that shake?

I’m not saying that one shouldn’t enjoy burgers and fries at Shake Shack.  Go right ahead.  But bear in mind: If you are interested in income inequality, each bite adds $$$ to private equity.

Monday, Boston, Summer

It’s Monday morning, in sultry Boston, and the early summer rains have come and gone so now it’s time for the unrelenting, sticky heat of July and August.  Having returned from Japan a little more than 48 hours ago, my sleep is disrupted by vivid dreams and during the day I experience somnambulance, which I rather like.  The pleasant disorientation makes me think of August Kleinzahler’s essay about visiting his parents in the Palisades of New Jersey after arriving from France at 4 A.M.

It’s also good for writing: Being discombobulated.

I have pieces out in Travel + Leisure every week.  Pieces due for them, Robb Report, and Destinasian.

And what?  A book due by early December, and a revision of a second book at the same time.

The A/C keeps me indoors.



Japanese in the USA

After an uneventful flight from Narita to JFK, blissfully long and quiet and meditative, with an eki-ben of yakitori washed down with sake, and then a layover at the airport, I arrived in Boston and at home a couple of hours prior to midnight.

The noise and color of the airport in Queens were deafening.  People shouted into cell phones.  Here’s one sentence I heard: “Of course I’m not happy about losing the deal!  I lost 15K!”  Why do we need to know that?  And people were huge and lumbering, reminding me of Pooh on his behind with a honey pot between his paws, never sated.

Up at six with the remains of Santarpio’s pizza: Is this one of the best pies in the US of A?  It certainly is, and it makes returning from the airport synonymous with delicious pizza.

After spending the morning writing a bit, soon it will be time to see patients at the hospital and drink more iced black coffee.

Tokyo, Tokyo, Tokyo

It’s been a long working holiday here.  Eighteen days pocked by long and informative interviews interspersed with onsen, good food, and good friends.  My Japanese inches forward, and like a child I know the names of many animals: Nekko, inu, kitsune, deke, torii, kuma, kuni, ebi, sake.  And so on.  Not exactly making for a rollicking conversation.

Tokyo has opened itself up again to me: Neighborhoods I know, neighborhoods I am getting to know.

Two Rooms for drinks.  L’As (again) for dinner.  An evening with R that was lively.

This morning: Shinjuku.  Isetan for eki-ben, etc.

JR Express to Narita, but back again soon.

“One morning I woke up in a strange, new place in which everything looked familiar, but no one made sense.  I knew immediately I could not let on.”

東京! 東京! 東京!

A brief flight from Sapporo to Haneda and a JR ride to Shinjuku, the world’s busiest train station, and we were soon back in the rain to Park Hyatt.  Fog shrouded the city.  A hot bath in the onsen, and soon we were at NY Grill with Y for drinks before dinner at Birdland, Marunouchi branch.  I love the casual vibe here, and the jazz, and the good yakitori.

After a 5K run this A.M., a decidedly non-working day, nice for a change, and instead time spent in Nihonbashi and Ginza.  It poured, and the rain was beautiful, and the kasa shot up: 傘.  

Lunch was on the 12th floor of a building near the Printemps Department Store: Hitsumabushi Bincho.  Probably, no easily, the best unagi I have ever eaten.  Grilled over bincho charcoal, crispy skin, juicy interior, and served Nagoya style.

Meaning: Eaten with rice; eaten with thinly sliced green onions and fresh wasabi; and, eaten as a broth with a pinch of spice.

Far better than any unagi in a lively room of adults who showed interest in today’s world.

Tonight meeting up with R at Matt’s place, Two Rooms, for drinks and then over to L’As in Omotesando.

24 Hours in Sapporo

The drive along the NW coast of Hokkaido first took us through cherry farms and past the famous Nikka distillery in Yoichi.  Through Otaru with its canals and crowds and huge stone buildings.  Finally: The coast on the Sea of Japan where eroded cliffs stood beside charging waters.

Sapporo is a new and modern city.  The air in summer is cool.  Light rain fell.  Three million people, but sparse sidewalks.  Underground tunnels with cafes and shops and restaurants.

We had a plan to go to an Italian restaurant a friend recommended, but it was closed, and restaurants outside of Tokyo and Kyoto stop serving at two or three so we found ourselves at a terrific place named Brooklyn Gardens.  A first-rate cheeseburger and fries and a cold beer, which was a fun turn from the delicious Japanese food we’ve been eating nearly the past two weeks.

Our hotel, Sapporo Grand Hotel, is in the center of town, and it’s a lovely, renovated place, the oldest Western and yet Japanese hotel in Sapporo.

A quick rest and Y met us.  We went with her to Sapporo’s largest Shinto shrine where minutes before the drum was banged and the gates shuttered, we bowed and clapped and made a wish.  Then we saw the remarkable Olympic ski jump.

In the evening we went to Maruyama 9, a neighborhood pub for craft beer and later met up with Y’s husband K for yakitori and sake at Shiro before heading to Maruyama, an upscale bar where we sipped Takestsuru 21 and 17 while Billie Holiday recordings played.

The women who brought over the drinks were dressed in black from head to toe.