Food in October

Did I just see Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to authorize gay marriages, meeting with Pope Francis?  No, of course not: They met in secret last week so that the pope, as the representative of the catholic church, could endorse her illegal action and tell her, reportedly, to “Be strong.”

Meanwhile, in the real world, one in which theocracy is trumped–yikes–by democratic tendencies, we are seeing the new season in everything go into swing.  Not full swing, but swing.

In NYC, Anthony Bourdain is putting investors’ money where his mouth is: He is setting up a wonderful and expansive, global food court at a wide pier in Chelsea.  He will have a raft of diverse foods, which ought to expand the mind and stomach.  Compare that to the pricey, claustrophobic food hall that opened in Boston just this August.

Farm-to-table and local are basically a country club mentality: Why not instead put capital into the agriculture of developing nations where it is most needed?

In the world of dining, Gabriel Kreuther opened up his eponymous restaurant facing Bryant Park–first-rate Alsatian inspired food that for $98 for four courses, plus tidbits, is great value.  Closer to home: Andy Husbands is serving BBQ in Kendall Square.  Pork, anyone?

And from today’s lively ** review of Houseman, written by Pete Wells in the NYT, there’s this: “Until recently, Mr. Baldwin was the chef de cuisine at Prune, which gives you the same sense. Prune’s owner, Gabrielle Hamilton, was underrated as a chef for years because, I think, she never seems to invent anything in the kitchen. She isn’t big on shotgun marriages of ingredients. But she understands the pleasure, part animal and part something else, that we take from food that is direct and honest.”

I like that phrase: “shotgun marriages of ingredients.”  It describes about 80% of restaurants in a certain city.

And this, too, which in terms of ideology of course the pope cares little about:   “But she understands the pleasure, part animal and part something else, that we take from food that is direct and honest.”

Restaurants and Cooking

Travel + Leisure has assigned me four stories on Switzerland, and I’m busy writing about mountains, lakes, villages and cities, all the while thinking about Gunther Kreuther’s new restaurant overlooking Bryant Park.  Kreuther, an Alsatian, got known through his great work at The Modern, and this new place, named eponymously, looks even better.

Meanwhile I’ve also been thinking about how home kitchens and many other restaurants have difficulty churning out good food consistently.  I thought of something the very wonderful and ebullient Patrick O’ Connell, chef-owner of The Inn at Little Washington, told me in an interview.

He said something like: “If you can get ten dishes right, at home, you’re way ahead.”  What he meant was that rather than try to come up with new ideas and new dishes and cook something you ate or read about it, learn ten dishes and do them again and again and again until you make them really delicious.

That’s the basis of regional and national cuisines, and of course history and social and economic circumstances add to or change what’s on the plate.  But the idea is to focus: Ingredients, execution, timing.


Two Nights with Giulia

Giulia is simply the best restaurant in the Boston area, by far, and with very few places that come close.  I was in two nights, Friday and Saturday, prior to a play (“Waitress,” which is Broadway bound, and very good, it’ll be a hit once they trim 30 minutes) and prior to jazz at Regattabar (Joe Lovano and John Scofield: Tight, tight, tight).


So it’s a dark, long room bound on the right by a bar counter staffed by two very engaging and pleasant tenders.  The tables are wood, without tablecloths, and set far enough apart so you have privacy.  Yes, that was Elizabeth Warren in the back, apparently she’s a regular.  The music is a mix of jazz and blues mostly.

Friday night it was chicken liver crostini and raw oysters, followed by tagliatelle with fresh Italian porcini and Chatham cod.  A first rate Sicilian Rose.  Everything delicious, perfectly salted (not too much), and lots of seasonal vegetables.  Great price point, too.

Saturday night it was raw oysters, tuna crudo (looked like blue fin), and tiny west coast clams in a corn brodo followed by corn and brown butter agnolotti with matsutake, emmer farro casarecce with braised rabbit (and chanterelles), and tagliatelle with fresh Italian porcini.  A first-rate Sicilian white: Donna Fugata.

This is Italian food that’s as good as the best you find in Italy and NYC.  Simple, well-defined, a precise menu, and few ingredients.  You can readily forget about every other restaurant in Cambridge that calls itself Italian.  This joint is world-class, the others are pretenders: Busy menus that either draw attention to the chef or so many ingredients piled on a plate you feel as if the buffet has come to your table.

Speaking of things brought to the table: Servers at Giulia are tops–smart, pleasant, confident, well-informed.  Back of the house and front of the front, this place is nonpareil.


Where To Find Good Food

It’s interesting how cities with limited private space–Tokyo, NYC–have such dazzling restaurants.  Well, it makes sense, doesn’t it?  The restaurants are adjunct to the apartments that are often too small to have people over.  In cities where the private space has for a long time been greater, the retail food shops are often better than the restaurants.  NYC and Tokyo, with their huge variations in incomes, have both great restaurants and great retail food shops.

In Boston the bakeries are first-rate, for example, with Clear Flour getting better by the month: Their ryes and pretzels are delicious.  Many of the Asian markets, like Hong Kong, in Allston, have terrific selections of produce and pantry items (from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan; stay away from the mainland Chinese stuff).  New Deal has some of the best fish on the East Coast.  Tropical Foods, in Roxbury, is renovated and huge and has a wonderful array of Caribbean and African and Central American produce and packaged goods.  Russo’s is a top drawer Italian-American market.  Soon, in 2016, EATALY is coming to town.

It may be that as rents rise in Boston/Cambridge–1 BR in Cambridge is about $1900 a month, about the same  in Boston–we’ll probably see better restaurants.  But at the cost of people living with less home.


Waning Days of Summer

It’s down to about 120 hours, and then it’s Fall, and this past week it’s been naturally intoxicating with spells of intense heat in the afternoon and parallelograms of light.  I’ve been holed up writing about Japanese whiskies for Whisky Advocate and Tokyo eyeglasses for Travel + Leisure.  All the while trying to open–just to open–the file of a book that is crying out for plot.

To while away the hours, I’m reading the enjoyable, “we don’t know what we’re doing,” a collection of stories by Thomas Morris, of Wales now residing in Dublin.  When you cannot write with fluency and alacrity, it’s best to read.  Uh oh: I’m reading three books a week.

Between being stumped by the unopened file, and feeling that many modern stories I’m reading place the narrator in so precarious a position as to obscure those being invented and observed, I’m cooking nightly, as usual.

Grilled chicken apple sausages, grilled swordfish, turkey meatballs.  Sort of a diner with good ingredients.

And looking forward to: Giulia, Rotisserie Georgette, Betony, Batard, Fung Tu, Rubirosa, and Esca.

Restaurant Demographics

A decent sized restaurant well funded by investors has a business plan.  That plan includes the range of customers it seeks with its menus.  Some restaurants cast a wide net with huge menus designed to please as many people as possible, from those with lots of money to those on a tight budget; young and old; food knowledgeable and those who kind of don’t care, but enjoy eating out; folks who like lots of food to those who want small plates; and, so on.

Good examples of the big menu places are the Italian-American places that have opened up over the past five years: These are trattoria-style, with pizza, pasta, big main courses, and great side dishes of vegetables.   The best example in Boston is Babbo Pizzeria and Enoteca; another great place is Pastoral.

It’s the family-style Chinese and Italian-American that historically have been crowd pleasers.

The challenge though, beyond that model, is to find restaurants that are well-defined and specific in who they are trying to reach.  It’s a riskier endeavor because the restaurant is deliberately focusing on a smaller, presumably regular, and well off enough customer to ensure high and routine revenues.

In Boston, you have Giulia.


Fall Restaurant Openings

The NY Times published today its list with brief descriptions of restaurants opening this Fall in the five boroughs.

There are certain trends: The chefs and their investors are expanding by opening new places; there are lots of Central American and South American menus; a few new American restaurants; and, several spots which emphasize vegetarian cuisines.

Among the places in NYC that I find exciting to think about and visit are:

Avant Garden.  Vegan.

Cafe Altro Paradiso.  From Ignacio Mattos, who runs Estela.  Ought to be first rate.

La Sirena.  Batali and Bastianich @ the Maritime.  Simply, two of the smartest guys in the business.

Le Coq Rico.  Birds from *** Alsatian chef Antoine Westermann.  Expect the best.

In Boston Eater, the list of new restaurants appeared on 8/26/15.  Here the trends are taking street food and bar food and giving them a home.

Among the places in Boston that I find exciting to think about and visit are:

Coppersmith.  Basically, a big bar in South Boston that promises to be a place where the unattached can get attached or the recently attached can meet.  In the words of the chef quoted in the article: “Exceptional seasonal ingredients, a focus on flavor, easy to understand dishes…”  I love that he wants to “focus on flavor.”  Indeed, why not focus on flavor?

Whole Heart Provisions.  Looks like terrific vegetarian cuisine with a North American emphasis though some noodle dishes will be there as well.

Smoke Shop.  A BBQ place from Andy Husbands.

Other Boston places will feature Greek food, which everyone knows is The Next Big Thing; an upscale place selling shrimp scampi and chicken parm; a new steak place from the Del Frisco franchise with 300 covers per seating; several burrito places; and, some pan-Asian joints.  At Pink Samurai, creativity is the nom de guerre, according to the chef, who is quoted in the piece: “Probably won’t see a lot of traditional stuff on the menu,” Cunningham previously told Eater. “Plenty of dumpling places do the standard dumpling house really well, so I’m focusing on more fun and creative stuff — pork and fermented sugar pea potstickers, dumplings with foie and apple kimchi, squid ink bao — stuff like that.”

Now you know where to satisfy that apple kimchi and foie craving.


On the Menu

Well, it’s over.  Summer, that is.  Another tumultuous summer: Eventful, slow, mostly spent indoors.  I’m about fifty pages from finishing Ferrante’s final novel of the Neapolitan series, and while it’s riveting, it’s also a huge disappointment, so enormously off kilter as to make me question the lasting value of the previous books.  Simply: She externalized the conflict and made it so dramatic as to obscure what it means to be human.  In the new book, the humanity of characters, and of readers by implication, is defined by huge tragedy.  While that’s no doubt true, fiction diminishes when the external conflict becomes of greater interest than the psychology or spirit or the characters.

Meanwhile: Is there anything better than cold buckwheat noodles at home?  Dipped into a mirin-soy sauce?  Or grilled chicken wings in a similar sauce?  Both sprinkled with a yuzu-pepper spice.

Between Ferrante and noodles and chicken: Latest piece on Japan in Travel+Leisure last week about onsen:  My book about India?  At the publisher.  Novel revision?  Check.  Research on Plainfield riots?  Check.

Now if there was some place decent to eat in this town for dinner we’d be all set.  The round-up: Giulia, Babbo Pizzeria & Enoteca, Pastoral, Bar Boulud.


It was a harried 48 hours in NYC what with storage facilities, a bed, a mattress, cable installation, two guys painting, and what-have-you, but all in all the stars were aligned and nothing bad happened.

Rivington is nothing like it was ages and ages ago when, as a boy and then teenager, I’d visit periodically first with my mom and later with college friends whom I took to Katz’s.  Many people older then me seemed scary: Defined by their work, age, and relationships, it didn’t seem likely to find ways to affiliate.  Most of all, as a result, a lot of observation took place as if from a distance though people were, in fact, proximate.

These days the Lower East Side is a heady mix of Spanish-speaking residents, most of whom seem to be from the D.R., crazy-hip Chinese or Korean young people, aging hipsters dipped into ink and covered with tattoos, and white kids on their way up or down in a variety of states of employment.

Essex Street Market is an astonishment: Stall after stall of beautiful, fresh fruits and vegetables, Porto Rico coffee, two fish stalls, a butcher, etc.  The side streets have a number of very well known and first-rate hole-in-the-wall restaurants, from Ivan Ramen to Mission Cantina, and sake bar after sake bar.

Chinatown is a few blocks away.  Little Italy just past that.  You can touch East Village.