Restaurant News: Chapter 93

The apartment on the LES opens up on 9/1/15, and in the cards are Rubirosa, Batard, Katz’s, il Alimentari di Buco, and Russ & Daughters.  Closer to home?  We’re talking salmon from Scotland, corn, tomatoes, cucumber, and English peas in the pod.

It’s been that kind of summer: Holed up writing and reading and cooking, with the occasional foray to a good restaurant.

Locally, the dining scene is interesting.

The high end places are worse than ever before, strangely enough.  We’re talking no fewer than seven ingredients on a plate so that flavors are muddied; products that are marketed as cool, but aren’t (wings, collars, tails; necks), and are only on menus because they cost next to nothing and yield big profits; and, F&B prices that are through the roof (Cocktails at $15-17; a glass of wine for $11).

On a positive note, we’re seeing more places that, finally, are taking a long look at Japanese food.  Emphasizing vegetables rather than meat.  All summer at communal tables with jazz playing, cold noodles are being served with tomatoes, arugula, bean sprouts, and two small pieces of stewed pork.  And that’s for $11-13.

The deal is to eat, run, read, and write.  My next two pieces are out in Travel + Leisure this week on Japan, Psychology Today just ran my essay on happy families, and my book about India flies the coop tonight.

 

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As Summer Winds Down…

As summer winds down, and thoughts turn to Christmas (What?!  Only 119 days left?), what have we learned these balmy days?

Most of all, it seems, human nature being human nature, that so many worlds collide, separate, and seem to exist in isolation.  It’s always been that way.  Murder and mayhem, doormen and a good table.

Meanwhile, less globally, on a personal level, it’s been disparate.  On the one hand, my new book on India is done, my novel is nearly done, and I’ve published about fifteen articles in the past three months about Japanese culture in Travel + Leisure, The Boston Globe, Gastronomica, KarryOn, Robb Report, Beer Advocate, Cheese Connoisseur, and Destinasian.  On the other hand, there’s a fleeting, moody, restless dissatisfaction.  The theory goes that the lability precedes the creative act, but there are other explanations surely.

In September I’ll start work on the Plainfield race riots of ’67, and continue to hole up.

Food?  Why, yes, of course.  The summer is ending with tomatoes galore.  Gazpacho in seven minutes, for example.  Two tomatoes, one red or orange pepper, one cuke, two little shallots, olive oil, mirin vinegar, sambal oelek.  Chill.

Best of Boston

It’s “official”–Clear Flour bakery is by far and easily the best bakery in the city. Unusually, it has first-rate breads and sweets.  Most bakeries do one well, if that; Clear Flour, in Brookline, excels at both.  We’re talking German-style loaves of dark rye, pretzels, Gruyere croissants, grainy baguette, and then, too, chocolate tarts and fruit pies.

Santouka, in Harvard Square, which is the 17th outpost of an Hokkaido-based ramen enterprise, is killing it with $13 plates of cold sesame noodles atop which is salad of greens and finely chopped tomatoes.  Front-of-the-House needs to go to charm school ASAP, but rude hostess aside, service is tops and there are no better noodles in town.

Meridian Food Market: We’re talking old school, you might as well be in Queens or Brooklyn, at this wonderful, homey Italian-American restaurant in East Boston.  Open day-time only, the guys are making subs so delicious as to be memorable, and the matriarch behind the cash register, standing beside the dollar-laden poster for a saint to be honored in a parade this summer?  She’s not fooling around.

For pizza, take your pick: Galleria Umberto, Santarpio’s, T. Anthony’s, Fig’s, or Iggy’s.  In that order.

Now what’s left out?  Hmmm….

 

TEN REASONS WHY IT COSTS LESS TO EAT IN JAPAN THAN BOSTON & NYC

  1.  Tax and tip are always included in Japanese restaurants and bars.  The price on the menu is the price on the check.
  2. Wait staff don’t push drinks or food.  You don’t buy more than you want.  Staff is trained to serve, and not sell.  No prizes for selling more.
  3. Because companies don’t typically use expense accounts to take out customers, prices are lower.  No bio-tech sales dinners that convince the chef to increase cost to ordinary customers.
  4. Because there is fierce competition between restaurants, prices are lower.  There are literally dozens of first-rate places in the cities.  
  5. Because many Japanese, especially under age forty-five, eat meals out four or five times a week, prices are low.  
  6. Beer tends to be about $6, sake/wine about $5, cocktails about $12.  
  7. Because “celebrity” chefs are rare in Japan, restaurants focus on the ingredients, which means that many places serve the same food, which means that prices tend to reflect the wholesale price of that food.  
  8. Seasonality in food in Japan means that food bought in season costs less than food bought out of season.
  9. Plates are often shared: You spend less when you eat a series of small dishes.
  10. Dining out is part of the day to day culture; a range of great places exists for little money.  You can have a great French meal for $50 per person, a great Italian meal for $35 per person, and any number of Japanese meals for the same or less.

Dining Out & Income Disparity

No investors, no restaurants.  The days when cooks and families could open storefront restaurants and hope to get by aren’t over yet, but they represent in the restaurant industry a quaint and totally outdated business model.  They either: Won’t last; will serve a loyal, local group and have to work sixteen hour days six days a week; or, they will be bought out by those who see ways to monetize their efforts.

The biggest growth in the restaurant industry are the franchises: Heavily capitalized with extremely well thought out and well organized business models, smart marketing plans, and uniformity in what is purchased (wholesale) and sold to customers.  That is: Buy low, sell high.

Then, too, there are the wonderfully idiosyncratic restaurants with high prices, dinners going at a minimum of about $175 a couple, drinks at $17 a pop, and wine at $9 a glass.

Where were we?

Investors.  Right, investors.

These days the investors aren’t the guys from the old days.  Back in the day, a small group of businessmen would put together some money and buy “shares” in a local place. They’d go in on Saturday nights, throw their weight around, and go home happy.

Nowadays, the top restaurants are owned, flat out, by hedge funds.  They are no more and no less than assets.  That won’t change, and in fact it’s likely to develop further.  There is money to be made, and the restaurants need the investment.  It’s chump change for a big hedge fund, has enormous cache for the investor, and it’s a fun way to show off to friends.

You didn’t stop buying CD’s when the record companies were monetized, or stop buying books when companies were turned into assets.  And you won’t stop eating out.

So maybe it’s worthwhile to look deeper into the ties between the 1-4% who control the economy and the food we eat and celebrate.  What is the influence of capital on dining?

 

Japanese & French Cooking: Differences/Similarities

Two cuisines, with numerous subsets, have captured the global imagination for decades through the depth of flavors in many of their dishes: French and Japanese.  The differences between them are stark.

In Japan, the celebrity is the ingredient.  In  France, the chef is the celebrity.  People who think about food know the names of today’s most revered French chefs.  People who know about Japanese cooking know the names of ingredients.  The result is that people who have limited experience or skill in real French cooking take the celebrity part and apply it to themselves: It’s a self-appointed, market strategy; they make themselves celebrities.  Those who cook Japanese focus on  what they serve (or should).

In Japan, the way to create a great dish is to decide what to leave out.  In France, making a great dish means adding ingredients–creating sauces, for example.  Japanese cooking is a process of subtraction, French cooking is a process of addition.  The result is that people who think they know French food pile on as many ingredients as they can: Flavors are muddied.  Those who cook Japanese create plates that simplify and reduce.

The best French chefs combine elements of both French and Japanese cooking: Their names are known, the ingredients are stellar, the simplicity is evident.  Their humility is reminiscent of the Japanese chef whose presence is felt, but not emphasized.

The best Japanese chefs combined elements of Japanese and French cooking: Their influence is understood and not necessarily seen, ingredients are combined in original ways, and the aesthetics of simplicity are enhanced by ways of placing them which may not have been seen before.

The Week Ahead in Food

The towns have emptied out, and streets are clear of traffic, which makes repairs the only challenge in getting from Point A to Point B.  Restaurants are asleep at the wheel, mostly, this time of year, which means that it’s best to stick to simple joints where the money is so tight that chefs and managers are still there rather than on a beach or in the mountains.

The challenge is that these simpler places just don’t do it for me much any longer: Things are OK, but if I want a burger, a hot dog, a salad, or a sandwich?  I’ll stay at home.  Why pay more?  And why pay $14-17 a cocktail and $8-10 for a beer?

The supplies arrived, in fact.  About four times a year, shipments are delivered from purveyors across the country.  Mark Bittman got that right in his piece in today NYT magazine: He described picking up a $60 steak and cooking it at home for four people.  (Why he insisted on calling it “local,” is anyone’s guess.  The best beef in the country comes from Idaho, and other places out west.  But never mind.)   Anyhow, he’s 100% on the money: For $60, you can have a meal at home that tops 90% of restaurants.

And nothing is easier to cook than steak.

More broadly, the # of terrific vegetables this time of year makes clear that dining at home is a great way to get things done.  Point A to Point B was never easier.

 

Where Are All the Cooks & Servers?

“Where Are the Cooks?  Where Are the Servers?’

When you read postings on Facebook by chefs about the extreme difficulty of finding staff for restaurants, and then go to employee sites–look at Craig’s List–you’ll find that the #1 complaint is finding cooks and servers to work in restaurants.

What this means is that restaurants are often understaffed and/or staffed by people who are unskilled.  What this means for food and service is that it’s going to be sub-par, especially in restaurants where the ambitions of the chef (and investors) require high-level, reliable skills.

Rather than trying then to create menus requiring skills, or staffing rooms that focus on anticipatory service, why not develop business models that make use of what you have?

This occurred to me when I think of Shake Shack and Tasty Burger.  Shake Shack, an asset of the Leonard Green hedge fund, is the 21st century’s McDonald’s, the Whole Foods version of an A&P supermarket.  Tasty Burger is turning into a first-rate burger joint run by Dave Dubois, the chef who ran Franklin Cafe, in Boston’s South End.

Both enterprises make great use of people who have the ability to make burgers, put them into buns, and hand them to customers who take seats, eat the food, and leave within about thirty minutes.

If the situation is such that there aren’t enough cooks and servers, chefs would go far by adapting to that reality rather than hoping that it will change one day.  It’s not likely to change until wages go up for servers (average salary: $20,000 per year, $400 per week, $10 an hour–plus tips!) and line cooks (average salary: $24,000 per year, $500 per week, $12 an hour), and that, too, will disrupt the ambitions of chefs who want more than burgers and fries.

Summer Dining In, Summer Dining Out

It’s basically all in.  What with tomatoes going for under $2 a pound and cukes at two for a dollar, and peppers lowballing it, it’s gazpacho just about every night.  Forget the fancy-pants version, and try this:

Food processor on.  Check.  One shallot, some salt, some mirin, some olive olive oil, some sambal oelek, a few tomatoes, a red or orange pepper, one peeled cucumber.  Seven minutes later, place in metal bowl and then in fridge.  Wait until it’s cold.  Serve with good bread.  It’s the $5 version that serves four rather than the restaurant version for $32-48 that serves four.

There are so many reasons to dine out and so many reasons to dine in.

Dining out at good places informs you of flavors you can add or subtract at home.  Conviviality is key in a happy dining room of a busy restaurant.  Conversation in public?  Different than at home.

I’ve been enjoying, for example, Sweet Cheeks, near Fenway Park, a perfect spot before a game.  $63 gets you two beers, a watermelon salad, a pulled pork sandwich, and a pulled chicken sandwich.  No sides, sandwiches the size of sliders.   Not a place one would think of going to unless it was before another event, but it’s fine.  Really, it’s good, it’s OK.  Way overpriced, but no one forces you to go, and, folks, it’s jammed!  Can’t get a table on nights the Red Sox are playing.

Even better is Galleria Umberto–perfect square slices of Sicilian pizza.  No place is better in Boston.  It’s lunch only.

 

Ghost Towns!

It’s been a slow week here in Boston, and in NYC, no one is at work, well, practically no one, except for the road crews that have shut down, literally, two bridges and several main thoroughfares.

Up and down the streets, it’s quiet, you can hear an acorn drop.  Families are hunched over T.V. sets in front of movies streaming in or, apparently, at homes and hotels in mountains and on the coast.  In Dudley, Roxbury, where I work two mornings a week inside a busy welfare office, cars go by blaring delicious sounding rap music.

Speaking just for myself, I’ve been principally indoors: Finishing up a solid draft of a book on Indian-American culture, which is due at the publisher very soon.  Putting in edits on a novel, which is due with an agent very soon also.  And writing short pieces about food.

Of food, the good news is the $ saved by not eating meals out much.  Sure, there is first rate BBQ at Sweet Cheeks; a tiny bun and three tablespoons of pork = $12.  And bakeries galore; Clear Flour is as good as the best bakeries I’ve been anywhere, bar none.  But dinners?  Sure, before a concert or a Celtics game, a few places.  A night out for dinner?  Not in years.

Come September the town, and others like it, will liven up, and people will work with vigor.  Until then it may be best to cogitate, sort of the summery version of being holed up in winter.