Trick or Treat

I’ve been reading Andrew Scull’s magisterial, new book on the history of madness in culture, chiefly European, and the chapter on witches was both fascinating as well as disturbing.  Then the chapter on Erasmus and the virulent response of Luther and the RCC to his relatively secular outlook?  Wow.  I mean: Double wow.

Meanwhile, closer to this century, the houses in the neighborhood are decked out in orange and black, cobwebs and tiny witches, skeletons and monsters: And tomorrow night droves of kids are going to hit the posh Brattle Street palaces in search of C-A-N-D-Y.

I rather like a holiday that transmogrifies fears and placates them with sugar.  For one night, fear is coupled with pleasure.  Sadness meets anticipation.  It’s kind of a group experience of what madness may have been like in Europe during those dark ages when witches were tortured and then burned alive.

Nowadays the witches get Snickers.

B-grade cuisine

B-grade cuisine is popular in Japan, and in the U.S.A., and while there’s no set definition for it–I mean, this isn’t quantum physics–you know it when you taste and see it.

This is fun food–You’re hungry, you’re out with friends, you want to eat and drink in a noisy, convivial place.

In Japan this can include curry chicken, fried octopus, ramen, yakitori, etc.  It’s filling, satisfying, and maybe best of all: A night out with drinks won’t cost you more than about $30.

In the U.S., the big difference is that B-grade costs more.  Back in the day, a night out with friends in a decent place meant pitchers of draft beers, and wings, dim sum-like appetizers, burgers, sausages, or pizza.  This is still true, but nowadays this stuff is all served in places that call themselves restaurants.  And charge accordingly.  It’s B-grade food with A-grade prices.

Interestingly, restaurants in Japan are often identified by the food they serve and not who’s serving it.  The food is celebrated.  The chef?  Not so much.

There are exceptions, of course: People in Tokyo, for example, can name their favorite chefs at a range of places, but the standard is the food.  And, accordingly, B-grade food costs B-grade prices.


Restaurant Regulars

At this point, I’ll go anywhere and try just about anything, and if it’s halfway decent and the things disliked are minor or anticipated or just fun in a chaotic kind of way, I’ll return to the restaurant again and again and again.

It’s like a good book or good song or favorite team.

I mean: If you’ve found what you like, if it feels good being there, why not make it kind of a home?  And, sure, add homes, but stay loyal.  The fact is that there are precious few restaurants worth time and money.

So, for example, I was in ESCA on Friday evening (before Hamilton) and Saturday at noon (before Charles III).  RUBIROSA on Friday and the previous six weeks in twice.  IL BUCO ALIMENTARI a lot over the past couple of months.  BATARD: three times since August.  Good food, served with confidence and pride.  No fuss on the plate or in the room.

These are the kind of meals I prepare at home, too: Small plates that focus on fish, vegetables, Italian or Italian-American, and, yes, a bit of Central Europe by way of France.

Many places end up with what is, by any standard, bar food: High in fat, pork-centric, often fried, and salted to a degree that you end up buying drinks marked up, ballpark, 300%.

At home: I’m a regular with EATALY‘s housemate pastas: Agnolotti plin-style or fiori di zucca stuffed ravioli.  Is every cashier there from Queens or Staten Island?

Small Bites

I’m looking over menus recently, as usual, and I don’t know about you, but $11 for “blistered” Shishito peppers with yoghurt?  (Anyway, why not use first aid cream for the blisters?  Who’s writing the menu?  Dr. Gupta?)  Fingerling salad for $12?  I get it: If it’s date night, fine.  But otherwise?  $12 buys you a pizza for two at Babbo Pizzeria and Enoteca.  $11 gets you three pounds of peppers.  Picked by Peter Piper.

The idea of small bites is a good one: Healthy, fun, good for the palate.  But prices should match the brevity or reflect the rarity.  That is, if the ingredient is pricey–matsutake, caviar, bottarga, etc.–charge plenty.  But peppers and potatoes?  You’re kidding me.  See above.  $23 for that, plus tax and tip, and a $15 cocktail, and you’re out a Ulysses S. Grant.

Dining out should be easy.  A nice salad, as ma would say, a bowl of pasta or piece of fish, glass of good wine.  That’s how you build regulars.

Boston Dining, Chapter 12

The neighborhood places, old school, with limited, well-defined menus are truly the bedrock of dining in Boston.  The ingredients are solid, the room is a crowd chiefly of regulars, and the owners take what others might see as limitations and instead put these into the foreground.  It’s not nostalgia, but deep flavors.

Of the many places in Boston worth your time and money: Santarpio’s (easily one of the best pizzerias in the U.S.), Galleria Umberto (ditto), Meridien Market (the best subs in the city) and Sullivan’s (hot dogs, South Boston).

Of the newer places: Giulia (easily the best restaurant in the city), Babbo Pizzeria and Enoteca, Bar Boulud, Pastoral, Beat Hotel (live music!!!), Night Market, Santouka (ramen), Snappy Ramen, Scampo, and Pepe Bocca.

Why Eat Out?

Chiefly, it’s because you’re hungry and not at home.

Beyond that, there are three main reasons and I’ll tell you the others in a sec’.

Food in restaurants is that which you don’t have the the time to prepare at home.  You’re busy, distracted, didn’t shop, have a small pantry.

You also don’t have the skill to prepare the very best of what you eat while dining out.  All the books and articles and shows that purport to teach cooking don’t tell you the simple truth: Buy the best ingredients you can afford.  Learn to use salt and pepper properly.  Make an effort to cook a half dozen dishes until you can do them “perfectly” and fast.

Finally, it’s often a cultural experience to dine out.  The first “real” French food arrived in the U.S. due to the advent of affordable trans-Atlantic airfare, and people began to experience regional dishes, bistro food, and French fare that wasn’t informed by massive amounts of butter and cream.  Moving forward, Japanese food became popular around 1984; Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese, Indian all arrived.  It is a way to experience the foreign for most.

The restaurants that don’t fit into these three “categories”–Prep, Skill, Culture–tend to be about the chef, marketing, and fat.  They’re fun, especially when you’re on the road, but hardly memorable.

NYC Dining, Chapter 42

Prior to a last minute decision to see, “The King and I,” which was truly wonderful, a last minute decision was made to have lunch @ ESCA, which for the money is arguably the best restaurant of its kind in the country.

Salmon roe house cured, sea “truffle,” a pasta with tuna Bolognese, and fritto misto.  Killer service, lively room.  The tuna dish was fascinating–I’ve tried to make it many times at home, but this version was different and of course much better.  The tuna was ground as fine as meat in a true Bolognese and mascarpone thickened the sauce and made it a red-organge color.

In the evening, drinks at Lafayette because most of the bars in the neighborhood were jammed.  Great drinks and at $17 a pop, they had better be.

Then, finally, dinner at il Buco Alimentari.  My go-to Italian where every meal, lunch or dinner, is first-rate.  Some sort of terrific appetizer of radishes sliced paper thin with white anchovies and a light vinegar and olive oil along with salumi for two came before agnolotti with crab and spaghetti with bottarga.


Dining, NYC: Chapter 99

It was a busy Friday shepherding around a chef from Japan and having top secret meetings with chefs in NYC.  The sheer variety and level of excellence evident in each place we visited was familiar and yet astounding.  Few cities ever achieve this pinnacle in food, and yet maintain little pinnacles at each level of dining.

Lunch was at Betony where Shulman tore the roof off with a simple soup and chicken.  No setting in that part of town is more fun or more flavorful.

Dinner was at Batard where Glocker is truly at the top of what he does so well.  His refinement of rusticity made me think a lot of what Boulud does only this time with an Austrian twist, which here means use of vegetables used in that cuisine as well as certain favored preparations like pork schnitzel or a venison en croute.

The tempest that took the city made passage very unpleasant, which meant that the solace at each place was heightened.

Gabriel Kreuther: Great, New Restaurant

Gabriel Kreuther, the Alsatian born chef who led at The Modern, opened up this eponymously named restaurant recently across the street from Bryant Park.  There are duck or goose head handles at the large glass doors leading, and facing each customer to the left is a large, open, noisy, high-ceilinged bar.  To the right is the dining room.

I was in last night.

Front of the House has a blasé attitude, which is probably top down, and at the desk, with one person the exception to the we’re-doing-you-a-favor attitude.  She noted that, “The food will make up,” for what was a twenty minute wait on a Thursday night reservation.

She was right: The food was crazy-delicious.   Ultra modern, refined French served in a succession of delightfully small plates that had deep, deep, deep concentrations of flavor.  We’re talking: “Langoustine Tartar flying fish roe • salty fingers • cauliflower-macadamia purée” and  “Sturgeon & Sauerkraut Tart American caviar mousseline • applewood smoke” and  “Sweetbread-Black Truffle Dumplings summer corn purée • red currants” and “Crispy Frog’s Legs mousseron mushrooms • young garlic bouillon • fava beans” and Squab & Foie Gras Croustillant (for two)seasonal vegetables • bay leaf jus.”

The room itself needs work: It lacks focus and rhythm, and that’s probably just new joint willies.

I’ve been a fan of Alsatian food for many years, going back to Andre Soltner, at Lutece, and the Rieslings from this region are my favorite wine: Bone dry at their best, lean and yet packed with fruit.

Truly one of the better and more interesting meals I have had in ages.  I’ll be back.