Friday, October 5, 2007

Some linakge for the long weekend

  • I haven't written much about this season of Top Chef. For a while, my poker game was rescheduled to Wednesday nights, and since I don't have a Tivo (my birthday is coming...hint, hint), I was forced to catch them at odd times. I did watch the finale, and I thought it was a great move on the part of the producers to pair the contestants with celebrity chefs for their final challenge. I wonder what the New York Times thinks about it, in light of this piece pointing out that celebrity chefs rarely cook anymore (at least not on screen)? (Thanks to Andy for the link.) Anyway, I thought Casey was a lead-pipe lock. I was wrong. She choked big-time in the finale, which opened the door for Hung, who put on a "See, I've got soul!" super push with his menu. But molten chocolate cake? That looked like something you could get at a Coffee Bean.

  • Two good recipes I tried this week that I thought I'd pass along. The first was Fried Cornmeal Shrimp with Butternut Squash Risotto. Risotto always seemed like the domain of seasoned chefs and kitchen masters. This might be because Angela Chase's dad had such a hard time making it on "My So-Called Life." I might seem like a prick right now, but I thought it was a snap. Okay, a snap might be a bit much, but it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. Edan did the prep work, roasting the squash and marinating the shrimp because, like most celebrity chefs, I'm above doing the little things. After that, it was simply a matter of stirring in hot stock over and over again. Not exactly rocket science. The other recipe that turned out great was Tuscan Onion Soup, which apparently isn't up yet on Epicurious. It's a simple recipe, using white onions, chicken stock, white wine, rosemary, and a one tomato, seeded and diced. The kicker is the proscuitto crisps that go on top of the soup. It's a nice change of pace if you're tired of the French-style onion soup (but why would you be? It's so cheesy and good). Enjoy your holiday weekend, folks. Happy Indigenous Peoples Day!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

From the Annals of Too Much Free Time

Come these Cheez-it Coasters. I've never been big on Cheez-its, but if I were, I would absolutely spend the requisite time and money to make these babies. My coffee table is in terrible shape. (Thanks to EDAN! for the link!)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Wine for Less (or maybe a little bit more)

I really like red wine. A lot. Probably too much. I probably like red wine as much as I hate reggae, which is a whole hell of a lot. The other day I found myself contemplating how much money I spend per year on red wine. I stopped when I got to the monthly figure. I vowed to cut back. But it's funny how much one day and two really good bottles of wine can change things.

After my trip to Mozza last Friday, I had a craving for Montelpulciano Quattro Mani, and I knew that Silverlake Wine carried it (It was there that I first discovered it). Now, Quattro Mani isn't that expensive ($7.50 a bottle), but once I was at the store, I couldn't stop with just one wine. I started looking around at all these bottles, most of which I'd never seen before. I usually buy wine at Trader Joe's because their prices are reasonable, and their selection is decent. But the selection is still limited, and sometimes it can get to feel stifling, like these are the only wines in the world. I'd decided a while ago that I was through with the lowest tier of TJ's wine -- the Two Buck Chuck's and what not -- and I've never regretted that decision. Spending $7 on a bottle of wine at Trader Joe's provides exponentially more value than cheeping out on the lowest of the low. Still, there are only so many wines in the $6-$8 price range that are acceptable, especially once one accounts for taste. For instance, I don't like Beaujolais ("The wine for people who don't like drinking wine!"), and Edan isn't crazy about a lot French wines, like Cote-du-Rhone, etc. You can see how this could limiting.

At the wine store, however, I found a bunch of new, exciting wines I'd never heard of, never tasted for roughly what I was willing to pay. I picked up something called a "Bistro red," which was an everything but the kitchen sink blend, called Hey Mambo. With my bottle of Quattro Mani, the total price was $18.00. Which isn't that bad. And neither was Hey Mambo. (One odd thing about Hey Mambo -- it didn't have a cork, it didn't have a synthetic cork, and it wasn't a screwtop. What held the wine in? A zork. This is the future, people. Buy stock.)

Why have I gone on this tangent? Well, the New York Times posted a list of great wines for under $10 (Thanks to Lisa for the link!). I like their list, and I've had some of them, but I do have one recommendation. They ought to publish little thumbnails of the labels next to each wine. With some of the foreign wines (Uruguayan reds, anyone?), I have trouble even finding the name. A label would be helpful. Maybe that's just me.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

More Links, More Problems

If there are links, it must be Tuesday:
  • Middled may be a new blog, but it's finding its legs with this post about St. Louis' native pastry attraction, the gooey butter cake. I wish I could photograph as well as Ryan does. It's a talent. Also, having a digital camera that, you know, focuses must be nice.
  • Anthony Bourdain posted his "Overrated Menu" over at Radar (Thanks to Max for the linkage):
    "Mesquite-grilled Amish organic free-range chicken, served with Fijian mango chutney and accompanied by foraged mushrooms: It should never take longer to describe your dish than to eat it. Mango chutney was innovative when Bobby Flay did it in 1978. Foraged mushrooms? Amish chicken? Who gives a shit about who picked the mushrooms or if the people who raised the chicken wear bonnets?"
  • Here's my flash review of Pizzeria Mozza, Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton's mega-successful wood-fired pizza joint on Melrose: it's really good. Go try it. The fennel sausage pizza was divine (literally, otherworldly, supernatural), and the chicken liver, capers, parsley and guanciale bruschette keeps me up at nights. Also, they have one of my favorite cheap wines, Montelpulciano "Quattro Mani," available for a scant $7. Sit at the pizza bar, have some wine, and be thankful that Osteria Mozza opened, attracting all the celebrities, and opening up seats at the Pizzeria for you and me.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Couple of Links for Monday Morning

Since it's Monday morning, and I worked Saturday, I needed a little something extra to get me up and moving. I figured a few quick links might be just the thing.
  • Slate has a piece from Mike Steinberger about counterfeit wines, a growing problem and cause for concern amongst serious oenophiles. I felt pretty good about myself when I recognized most of the wineries he mentions in the article (Cheval Blanc, Petrus, Lefleur), but this feeling of pride dissipated as I remembered that I haven't tasted any of them. I recognize their names only because I moved hundreds of cases of fine wine last summer as part of an insane temp job (Buy me a glass of wine and I'll tell you about it sometime).
    Steinberger only briefly touches on what I think is the most interesting aspect of the story: wine-lovers' insecurities about their palettes. If they couldn't tell that the '47 Petrus they sipped was a fraud, what does it say about their supposed expertise?
  • Ever wonder what those Beggin' Strips you give your dog taste like (or have you eaten them yourself)? The Sneeze is the source for all the foods about which you're curious, but wouldn't necessarily like to eat. Like pigs feet. And breast milk. (Thanks to Apronite Ryan for the link)
  • I'm not sure what's going on in this picture, but I'm pretty sure Tommy Hottpants wore this to the last MisShapes party (Thanks to Apronite Doug for the link):


Thursday, September 6, 2007

Two Words: Um, Ewww.

Regular Apronites no doubt recall my fascination with fast food advertising. Well, last night I was watching a little MTV (reruns of "America's Next Top Model" are strangely soothing) when I saw this bad boy.



What the hell is that? Who thought this up? Did they really believe that this ad would make people want to eat this Oreo monstrosity? This is part of the new breed of fast food commercials that cast bland hipsters, and attempt to cash in on the last, agonizing death throes of irony. The girl who enters at the beginning of the commercial looks like she's wearing fake hair and might be in an Emo-core band. Meanwhile, the younger hipster guy has the same haircut Willie Aames rocked on "Eight is Enough."



And that white sauce they're drizzling over the top looks more than a little like semen. Good call, Dominoes advertising team! I'm starving for Oreo Dessert Pizza now.

Monday, August 27, 2007

In Case You're Bored with Me...

Our old friend, Ryan, who wrote about the many herring-based dishes of Russian cuisine for this blog, has started a new blog called Middled. Join him as he acclimates himself to life in the Midwest. Ryan is also looking for work, so help a brother out.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

I Promise to be Better

I haven't posted anything since June (fabulous guest posters aside). I can't really say why. Could it be the distractions of baseball season? Maybe. Soul-crushing depression? Possibly. The fact that my computer died and it took me a few weeks to convince myself that buying a laptop was an absolute necessity? Perhaps. For whatever reason, I stopped writing. And I don't mean just this blog. I stopped writing everything. Screenplays, notes to friends, emails, grocery lists. Nothing. This must change. I will make it change. Thank you, Blogger, for not deleting my blog. Thank you, good reader, for occasionally checking here to see if I've returned. I hope this post finds you well. As an apology for my months of absence, I give you several flash reviews of restaurants I've been to recently:

Intelligentsia Coffee: Located in the Sunset Junction, near the fabulous Cheese Store of Silverlake, this is the first LA outpost of the Chicago-based coffee chain. I went to the kickoff party the night before Sunset Junction (What's that? No, no, I didn't go to Sunset Junction. Why? Because it's a huge, expensive, hot, waste of time.). The joint was packed, and the coffee was free. Each cup of roasted coffee is brewed fresh as you wait (It does take a minute), and it is good. They have different roasts or beans or what have you, and they treat coffee more or less like wine, talking about "hints of blueberry on the nose." The design of the shop itself is very hip, and there's plenty of outdoor seating. Try the Iced Angeleno, which Edan has been raving about ever since the opening.

Edendale Grill: My father-in-law took me there last Monday night, after four different restaurants were either closed or deemed unacceptable. Expensive drinks, but a pleasant patio, and good enough food. I wasn't floored by the beat salad or by my Shrimp, Asparagus, Artichoke Couscous. The calamari was good, and the atmosphere and pleasant ambiance will probably bring me back again, but it was far from a home run.

Cobras & Matadors (Los Feliz location): Just as good as the one on Beverly, with more seating and wine by the glass and bottle. I'm never leaving Los Feliz again.

Scoops
: Bizzarro ice cream flavors abound at this cute little shop in a very weird area off Melrose Avenue. I had Vanilla Jim Beam (yum) and Brown Bread, which was exactly what it sounds like -- like eating a loaf of pumpernickel, yet strangely good. Edan had Spiced Cheddar, which was very good as a sample but cloying after a few bites, and Vegan Cinnamon Tiramisu, which was good.

Best Fish Taco in Ensenada
: Strange fish taco stand operating out of a storefront on Hillhurst. They have three items on the menu: fish taco, shrimp taco, and drinks. Cheap and yummy, on all accounts. I got the spicy mango salsa, which tasted good, but which my body greeted roughly as it would a shot of petrol. The pleasant woman running the register waited a very long time before accepting our payment. She was seriously focused on her knitting. I can see myself eating many a lunch at this place.

Alegria on Sunset
: Gourmet Mexican food, with many vegetarian options dished out in a cute, but unassuming location in a strip mall with a Baskin Robbins (Somebody really ought to write about how many totally ass-kicking strip mall restaurants there are in Los Angeles. Off the top of my head, I can think of Alegria, Cafe Suanomaluong, Carousel, and Zankou Chicken. Seriously, somebody get on this already). Our group shared potato tacos, which were good, and I had a steak dish, whose name I cannot recall. I enjoyed it, but it wasn't cheap, and as we were leaving, there seemed to be a substantial wait for tables. On a Monday night.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Russia, A Real Place -- Homecoming

Ryan is back again with the (perhaps?) final post in his series on Russian cuisine. Perhaps in the future he will enthrall us with tales from that other gastronomic hot-spot, Missouri:

Having supped new flavors from a southern sea, we weren’t sure how well we’d reacclimate to mayo-based salads and pickled herring. Russian cuisine is better suited to winter months when you need something that’ll stick with you, like a devoted friend. Once the te
mperature climbs or piddles upward, as it turns out this summer, there are a few standbys that offer relief. Though it’s no gazpacho, cold borsch can help a northern body through a hot day. The recipe is a play of raw vegetables, such as cucumbers and radishes, onions, carrots and enough beets to put some pink in your socks. It’s usually garnished with a boiled egg, parsley, dill and sour cream. Another popular chilled soup is okroshka, but its story begins with a beverage that wants description.

With the sun lingering past midnight, every other corner in St. Petersburg is now occupied by a woman dispensing drinks out of a yellow fuel tank or a great barrel that is meant to look old-timey. The presumably ancient beverage, kvass, is also bottled and sold in supermarkets, but the keg version is superior. Made from fermented bread, this summertime refreshment has a polarizing affect. Many Russians are sentinmentally bound to the sweet, soda-rye flavor, but even among their lot, some would rather dip their head in the Neva than take their bread in a glass. I enjoy it on rare occasions, but find the quality inconsistent. Bliny Domik on Kalakolnaya Street, whose staff appears almost natural in its village dress, serves a decent glass. Nonetheless, it seems a stretch to pour such a beverage into a bowl, add some cucumbers, spring onions, radishes, boiled potatoes, eggs and maybe even ham and call it soup. I admire the audacity of such a recipe, but the magic is lost on me.

As August approaches, another summer novelty appears in proximity to the enduring drink sellers in the form of onion-shaped tiger cages. Each of them is painted green, perhaps to stifle the sense of alarm they naturally inspire amongst the pedestrians. For two weeks they stand empty, during which time last summer my mother remarked, “I hope those aren’t for people.” Actually, they’re for watermelons as well as some other kind of melon that looks like a torpedo-shaped cantaloupe. So, there are alternatives to cola soup.

Having just holidayed in a region where the temperature was flirting with the thirty-five-degree mark (that’s centrigrade, so multiply by 1.8 and add 32), Natasha and I were less than overwhelmed by St. Peterburg’s tepid conditions. We decide, therefore, to whip up a heavy-hitting off-season favorite. I’m not going to get into the debate about the national origin of the cabbage roll. When I ate it in Poland, they called it gwombki (apparently translating to “little pigeons”) and it’s also rumored to be a source of pride amongst the Ukranians, who know it as holubtsi. In Russia they refer to these precious pillows as golubtsy, and I’m willing to wager that it’s their simplicity that has made them enduring. Ingredients: pork, rice, onion, and a big head of cabbage.



Once the cabbage leaves are steamed and supple and the pork has been processed in the electric meat grinder (you’ve got to pick one of those up for yourself), you mingle the rice and meat along with any other surprises your loved ones might appreciate and pretend your putting together what could be construed a low-carb dumpling.

It helps to flash fry the bottom of each kitten-sized package, ensuring a proper seal, then delicately arrange them in an oven pan for a good long bake.

The Poles often accompany this dish with a tomato-based sauce, but in our kitchen we eat golubtsy with Russia’s favorite food lubricant, sour cream. It’s best to keep two hands on each plate when serving, as these babies are quite weighty, and to breathe between bites.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Russia, A Real Place -- Hinterlands

I have no way of proving this, but I think that if you asked the majority of Americans to describe Serbia and Montenegro, they would describe a gray, dreary industrial landscape. Kind of like Utica, with a Central European accent. And of course they would be wrong. Ryan and Natasha recently took a holiday in Montenegro:

Apparently the youngest independent republics in the world are Montenegro and Serbia, having been born on the same day in June 2006, indicating, perhaps, that a conjunction can’t hold a nation together. I’ve never been to Serbia, but having now visited its former other-half, I pity its citizens for the loss of their Adriatic coast, though they retained the more interesting capital. Tourism in the neon-lit town of Budva had a refreshingly local feel with most people carrying themselves as natives or once-natives, though I resided with the Russians. Natasha and I also enjoyed a high level of linguistic comfort, speaking both Russian and English with the hotel staff, waiters and hawkers of beach inflatables. Serbian itself often comes across like Russian with an Italian swagger.

Though we did find one restaurant serving what any Russian would identify as a “business lunch” (pronounced, beezniece lanch), meaning chicken soup, shredded cabbage salad, a meat and starch combination, and a beverage for three euro, Montenegrin cuisine happily failed to resemble the things we eat back “home.”

Once you travel beyond the sickly luminance of Budva’s strip and the hum of its blown out club speakers, your attention can play between the very blue sea and the arid mountains, beyond which diligent people are running vineyards and harvesting the honey that the locals dab on their donuts. We stayed in a dinky town called Rafaelovich, something like Budva’s half-corrupted, but still honest cousin. In the mornings I jogged along the water past stacked beach chairs and umbrellas and more than one café advertising pizza dressed with ketchup. The final outpost was a little bar being built by an old man with a hammer and an axe. After that, the beach got rockier and the ruins of some early-twentieth century resort (cement slabs and a few aquamarine tiles) peeked out amongst the shrubs. On the second morning, I noticed a doorway set in the foliage and a sign that read, “Zoff’s Fish Bar.” Natasha and I returned that evening, armed for hunger and disappointment.

The set up was simple with no more than four tables under a palm-leaf roof and an open kitchen. A cement patio went right to the water where an old woman, who turned out to be Zoff’s mother, was lounging in topless repose. Our waiter (a guy in swim trunks) helped us through the menu and we ended up with calamari and some kind of white fish that was never translated. The seafood was seasoned simply with garlic and served with eggplant, all of which were grilled by Zoff himself, who stood in his unbuttoned tropical shirt, blowing kisses to Natasha throughout most of our meal.

We came back twice after that, treating ourselves to the lobster and the sea bass, with the latter winning Natasha’s vote for best meal of trip. At the end of our final visit, Zoff joined our table and provided his abridged life story in labored English and some homemade wine that must’ve scored an alcohol content of around twenty percent. Though he was openly cozy with Natasha, I liked Zoff. For eleven years, he’s only been serving fish that he or the two Bosnian refugees that he employs have caught themselves. He believes a good dinner should span several hours and considers all of his customers personal friends. I’ve never been to a better restaurant.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Did You See Me on Good Morning America This Morning?

I'm not even sure if the spot ran or not, but I was interviewed outside my local Albertsons about the recall of Veggie Booty. I told them I haven't eaten Veggie Booty in years, so it looks like I dodged the salmonella bullet again. I did express growing concern (that's news talk) about the number of food recalls. I also asked why Americans eat so much processed food. Then I took my bacon home to eat. No, I wasn't being interviewed because I am a food blogger of high regard (who posts as many as two times a week!), they just grabbed me leaving the store. I was wearing flip-flops. I meant to watch the show this morning, but then I slept in, and when I turned it on, they were doing one of those awful concert in the park type things with Bon Jovi or Seal or some other musical act I can't stand, so I turned it off.

On a related note, no more Chinese farm-raised shrimp, catfish, eel, basa, or dace for you!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Village Idiot

For my father-in-law's birthday, Edan and I took him to one of the newer restaurants in his neighborhood, The Village Idiot. The Village Idiot serves pub food -- bangers and mash, fish and chips, etc. -- along with pints of Boddingtons and some local brew from the Craftsman Brewing Company, a local Pasadena microbrewery. I'd heard good chatter on the food blogs ever since the VI opened in the old Chianti space last January. As if I needed further encouragement to try it, Jonathan Gold recently named it one of his 99 Essential Los Angeles restaurants.

The VI is spacious, with high ceilings, dark, black wood, and exposed beams. The south side of the restaurant features large windows that open to the street, giving diners a view of the sort of people who frequent Melrose Avenue. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, but it does give the rest of the place a lot of natural light and a pleasant breeze -- nothing to scoff at in a place that has a partially exposed kitchen. I called on Saturday afternoon to book a table, but was turned away, as the VI doesn't accept reservations. Because I am a professional worrier, I was certain we'd have to stand at the bar for an hour Sunday night. Not so. We didn't get a coveted window booth, but we were seated at a table right away. On a Saturday night, I could see waiting a while for a table, but there's always the bar.

The menu is pretty upscale for bar food -- butter lettuce salads and ale-steamed mussels -- but most of the items are some variation on what you'd find at a typical pub. We ordered a romaine salad with caramelized red onions and a parmesan crisp, as well as the aforementioned butter lettuce salad, which included granny smith apples, walnuts and bleu cheese. Both salads were good, but the romaine was clearly superior. Edan can't stop thinking about it. We also ordered the ale-steamed mussels (regular readers should know that Edan can't pass up a good mussel dish, despite Anthony Bourdain's warnings). Aside from the large serving (there were more than enough mussels for the three of us) and the tasty sourdough "mops" (croûtons), the dish was forgettable. Not as tasty as the mussels we make at home, but not bad, either.

For entrees, Bob got the cornmeal-crusted catfish, served with black eyed peas and greens. Edan got the burger (with a slice of Gruyeres) and fries, and I got pork sausages over mashed potatoes. My dish was good. Very reminiscent of the sausages and wine I like to make in the wintertime. The sausages themselves were nothing special (Again, why is it so hard to get really good sausage?), but the red wine sauce was quite good. I tried Edan's burger, and I thought it was great. Very tender meat, cooked exactly as she ordered, and a light, fluffy bun. The fries were fries -- nothing more, nothing less (well, maybe a little less). They were a bit like In-N-Out fries -- very airy, but sort of hollow at the same time. The catfish, which came with a spicy andouille sausage and tomato sauce on the side, looked great. Both Bob and Edan thought it was good.

Since we were celebrating, I demanded we get dessert. The best thing on the menu seemed to be the chocolate chip cookie with a scoop of almond-fig gelato. The cookie was as big as a plate, and served warm. Other than the romaine salad, it was the best thing I tasted all night. The cookie was so rich that the gelato was very much a necessity to temper it a bit.

The Village Idiot would be a great place to grab lunch or an afternoon beer while you're out looking for vintage sneakers or a pair of spiked, black leather thigh-high boots on Melrose. Grab a booth by the windows, if you can, and enjoy a pint of something cold. I'm not sure I'd recommend it as a dinner destination, per se. The atmosphere was pleasantly casual, but as we were leaving it was filling up with folks at the bar, and getting pretty loud. For a casual dinner, though, it was great.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Upstate

Upstate New York doesn't exactly have a signature dish. Unless you count salt potatoes, which, for those who don't know, are small potatoes cooked in enough salt to pickle a horse. They are quite good, but if eaten too often they will burn the taste buds off your tongue. I didn't have any salt potatoes on my return trip to Upstate. Growing up, I ate a lot of Italian sausage. Good, spicy sausage, packed with fennel. I figured this type of sausage was common everywhere. It wasn't until I moved to the Midwest that I discovered that we in Upstate had something special on our hands. The night Edan and I arrived we had grilled sausage and peppers. It was the perfect welcome home, even though my father's twenty year old grill has only one hot spot left, and it's roughly the temperature of the sun.

For our second dinner, we drove into the big city -- Syracuse. Another long-standing Brown family tradition is the trip to Cosmos Pizzeria on Marshall Street. A popular campus pizza place for about as long as Syracuse University has existed, Cosmos serves something like New York style pizza. The crust is fairly thin, but not crisp, and the sauce is sweet, with a fair amount of oregano. It's the best sauce I've ever tasted, and other than getting our wings at the same time as our pizzas, I had no complaints about the meal.

After two days of lounging about, doing laundry, and walking my parents' dog, Talulah, Saturday arrived, and we all headed to the Finger Lakes for a little wine tasting. I know what you're saying, Wine tasting? In Upstate New York? Well, yes. Despite what must be the shortest growing season of any wine region (unless there's some Siberian Sauternes being produced that I don't know about), the Finger Lakes turns out some very fine wine. Almost all of it is white (they make some reds, but the weather really prohibits much in the way of good reds), but it's not bad.

For lunch, we met my friend Lucia, who happens to live on the coast of Seneca Lake. She knew of a little cafe a few miles from her house. I wish I could remember the name (I'm almost certain it was Full Moon Cafe, or maybe Blue Moon Cafe), but it was very quaint and very tasty. I had a hot roast beef sandwich with grilled onions, and we all split some cookies afterwards. If you ever find yourself on the East coast of Seneca Lake, I highly recommend it.

With our bellies full, we were ready to do some serious tasting of wine. The first winery we stopped at was called Lakewood Vineyards. We had a free tasting of some good dry wines, some white and some red. The highlights were definitely the Pinot Gris, which was a perfect summer afternoon wine, and the longstem red. We tried their Pinot Noir, which was bad. It tasted a little like wood, and not in a good way.

The second stop on our wine extravaganza was Glenora Wine Cellars, a bigger winery that initially reminded me of Frass Canyon, from Sideways. Thankfully, their wine was up to snuff. We went on a tour of the winery, where they showed us the oak barrels in which the wine ages, and the expensive and complicated piece of Italian machinery they use to bottle the wine. After the tour, we sampled a good selection of wines, including two Chardonays, one aged exclusively in oak and the other aged in stainless steel then finished in oak. I preferred the oakier Chardonay, which probably means I'm a heathen. Also at Glenora we saw a bachelorette party, most of whom looked fairly sauced. One of the girls was wearing a dress so tight I could see her digesting the wine after she drank it. Just thought I'd share.

In Syracuse, we ate dinner at a tapas place called Dante's. The atmosphere was cozy, lots of exposed brick, and a little basement area that reminded me of a European restaurant. The tapas was mostly good, although too many dishes were served in one large piece, making sharing them difficult. At dinner, we talked about a lot of things, including Syracuse food critic Yolanda Wright, who once reviewed the Olive Garden.

I probably gained five pounds on this trip, despite all the walking I did in New York. We lucked out with the weather, we didn't miss any of our flights or trains (despite Amtrak and American Airlines best efforts), and I'd say we lucked out on the food, too. Except for Les Halles.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

New York, and other things

I haven't posted here in quite a while. I'd like to say I was phenomenally busy, but that wouldn't be true. The truth is that I went into semi-electronic isolation. I checked my email, and that was it. No more blogs, no more message boards (except the baseball related ones...it is the season after all), no more anything, really. You know what? It was kind of refreshing to not see Britney Spears' genitalia for a few weeks. I think I'm going to keep it up. But that doesn't mean I haven't been cooking and eating.

Edan and I went to New York City for a few days, and then up to visit my folks upstate. In the city, we stayed at my sisters' place in Brooklyn. It was very cute, and quite comfortable, and a good spot to jump off to all the things we wanted to see and do and eat. The first order of business for me was to get a bagel, a real New York bagel. Science has put a man on the moon, but it hasn't figured out how to make a New York bagel in Los Angeles. I guess it's the water. At any rate, I wanted a bagel. With the nearest Ess-a-Bagel several trains away, my Brooklyn tour guide, Doug, suggested I try a place called La Bagel Delight. I ordered my usual--an everything with plain cream cheese--and I was impressed. I would rank La Bagel Delight behind Ess-a-Bagel, but a little ahead of H&H, another bagel shop by which many a New Yorker swears. La Bagel Delight features large bagels, with the perfectly fluffy insides that are so hard to get right (it's a popular misconception that bagels should be chewy), and plenty of cream cheese. All in all, it was a perfect way to start my New York vacation, especially because I remembered to order my coffee black (many times I've forgotten to specify and gotten a cup full of cream and sugar).

After a day of shopping and walking around Brooklyn, Edan, Doug, my sister, and I headed to Manhattan for dinner at Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles. Now, you know I'm a Bourdain guy. I love his writing, he's great when he's on "Top Chef," and his cookbook is really well designed. So it pains me to say the meal I had at Les Halles sucked. We went to the one on Park Avenue. Maybe the other one is better. Our reservation was for 7pm, and the place was more or less empty. It's a big place, which is OK, but as Edan said, it feels a little like a restaurant at Disneyland. It's like a French TGIFridays, playing loud American pop music to tourists in shorts and golf shirts. Of course, we were tourists, too, but I never wear shorts, and I told Doug he couldn't wear his golf shirt. I know this is what the old-time brasseries of France were like -- working men at the end of their shifts sitting next to artists, etc. -- but I think I wanted a slightly more intimate environment...and maybe some damn accordion music. Despite the lousy ambiance, I was still willing to give the food a chance. Edan and I split the pate de champagne, while Doug had French onion soup (I tried a bite, and it was good, but frankly, I think it was better when I made Bourdain's recipe at home...this would be a theme for the night). The pate was pate, good but unspectacular. I wanted steak au poivre, while Edan and Stephanie both got onglette with shallot sauce. Doug got a chicken dish that I didn't try. I thought Edan's steak was terrific -- flavorful, tender, and with a very tasty sauce--but she felt it was undercooked (the waiter may have had trouble hearing her over the Ashlee Simpson song blaring from the speakers). My steak was another story entirely. It was cooked correctly and the sauce was good enough, but it was so damn tough that I burned more calories cutting it and chewing it than I gained through eating it. Seriously. Should I have sent it back? Probably, but I'm no good with confrontations. The fries -- which the cookbook touts as possibly the best in New York -- were not sensational. Another of life's tiny tragedies. Was it the worst meal I've ever had? No. Was it disappointing? Of course. There are few things in life worse than eating at a restaurant you've been dying to try, and then wishing you'd gone someplace else, but that's what happened.

The next day, I woke determined to put eat better than the day before. After another morning in Park Slope (and a decent pain au chocolate at a little bakery), Edan and I set out for some shopping in Soho. I wanted to get a pair of jeans, so I could finally be the sort of person who owns two pairs of jeans at one time. Instead, Edan got a pair of jeans. This always happens. But I digress. After buying a new pair of Converse and wandering aimlessly for an hour or so, Edan and I stumbled onto something truly wonderful -- the Vosges chocolate shop. For those who don't know, Vosges makes all sorts of incredible chocolate bars. Infused with things like ancho chilies, sweet curry powder, and wasabi, Vosges bars are the only chocolate bars I've had that approach gourmet status. Moments after we entered the store -- a sleek, boutique style shop where chocolates sat in a display case like jewels -- an intense thunderstorm broke over the city. It couldn't have been better timing. Edan and I ordered a hot chocolate with cinnamon and chili, and sat and watched people huddle under the scaffolding in front of the Burberry store. Since the rain didn't let up for some time, we got a few truffles as well -- one with sweet curry and coconut, and one with anise seed. Wow.

After our chocolate lunch, we road the subway up to Artisanal, a mecca of sorts for cheese lovers. Edan scoped out the selection of cheeses, and we sat at the bar and enjoyed a very young raw Camembert (so young, in fact, that it may have been illegal), an excellent Benedictine bleu, and a goat cheese called Valencay. I had a glass of Rioja. It was perfect.

For dinner, we met an old college friend of mine, Roscoe, and his girlfriend Susan at a place in Brooklyn called Melt. Roscoe chose the place, and he chose well. Melt features a Tuesday tasting menu for only $20 (in LA, it would've been twice as much). To start, we all shared a few orders of duck confit spring rolls, which were every bit as good as crack. The first course was a sugar snap pea soup, which was light and foamy, and absolutely perfect for a hot summer night. The second course, I thought, was even better than the first. A seared scallop next to a little frisee salad. The only disappointment was the final course, a pork cutlet served in a sauce I thought was a touch too salty. Otherwise, a terrific meal, and one that featured great conversation about everything from sustainable farming to Scientology. Roscoe made sure they kept the wine flowing, which didn't hurt, and we all had a great time.

Tomorrow, I will write a little bit about the second half of our trip, and some of the terrific things we ate in Upstate. Right now, I have to start dinner (salmon in a citrus sauce, with baby carrots roasted in honey and orange juice).

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Food Miles and Sustainability

Last week the Monterey Bay Aquarium hosted its 2nd annual Sustainable Foods Institute panel about what 'sustainable' actually means. Food writers, organic farmers, and even a few folks from Walmart participated in panels on the future of food production, both on land and at sea. With an official government definition and enforceable guidelines about what 'organic' means, sustainability is destined to be the next hot button issue. But can we ever completely and absolutely define sustainability? Some are skeptical:

"Sustainability is a term like truth or beauty," said Fred Kirschenmann, a senior fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. "We struggle but never get there." It means something different to different communities. "When asked if my farm is sustainable, I say, no," he said. "We're working on it. I have to keep changing, keep trying new things, keep adjusting.

"Sustainability is not something we can accomplish and be done with it. It is a matter of conscience, a moral commitment to a way to live," Kirschenmann told the group. Without question, the Earth's energy supply will dwindle, water resources will shift and the climate will change. "If we are serious about sustainability," he said, "we've got to think about it in [the context of] this future."


Tangentially, yet heavily related to sustainability is the term "food miles." Food miles is "a calculation of the environmental costs of transporting food long distances." Michael Pollan discusses this concept in The Omnivore's Dilemma, saying that when you eat that organic asparagus you buy from Whole Foods in January, you are consuming a fair amount of petroleum, as well. That's bound to make your pee stink.

Most people, I think, intuitively grasp this concept when it comes to produce and meat, but what about processed foods? Are you willing to give up that bottle of San Pellegrino or that sixer of Czech beer you love at Trader Joe's? How about French wine? And how the hell are you supposed to find locally grown coffee? I mean, here's a product that celebrates that it's Costa Rican or Ethiopian. A few years ago, some bloggers I was reading at the time were participating in the Eat Local Challenge. There were exceptions made in the challenge for food products not indigenous to the local geography. Things like coffee, chocolate, and wine could be brought in from far off locals, just as some food from the local region would undoubtedly be shipped out to places where they don't have Vermont maple syrup or whatever it is your area produces. This still leaves things like San Pellegrino on the outs. Maybe that's the price we have to pay for reducing our ecological footprint. I'll be honest -- I'm not sure I'm ready to become a food miles purist. I'd like to be, but it seems like a big sacrifice. So I put the question to you. How far is too far when it comes to eating locally? What are you willing to sacrifice, and what will they have to pry from your cold dead hands, to borrow a phrase from our gun-toting brethren?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

How do You Roast a Chicken?


As it says in the Bible, "There are many ways to light Europe." So, too, are there many ways to roast a chicken. For a few years now, Edan and I have been experimenting with different roasting techniques and ingredients, trying to find the perfect roast bird. We started off using Edan's family's recipe, which calls for an incredible amount of salt, garlic slipped under the skin, and some lemon juice (stuffing the lemons into the cavity of the bird, of course). After reading Anthony Bourdain's constant warnings not to break the skin of the chicken, we stopped cutting little slits for the garlic. We tried Bourdain's recipe, which has butter, onions, garlic, and white wine, and it was good, but I missed the lemon juice. In the past few months, we've set out on our own, taking a little hints from one recipe while stealing ingredients from another. Once, I put rosemary, sage, and thyme all over the chicken (not bad), while another time, I filled the cavity with raw chorizo (not good, the chorizo never cooked). Last night, I think, was about the best we've done (although we can do better).

We started by squeezing some a lemon all over the chicken, thoroughly soaking it in the juice. Then we salted the shit out of the bird (this is imperative; the first time I made this recipe alone, Edan told me, "You'll think it's too much salt, but it isn't."), and gave it a good whack with fresh crushed pepper, as well. Next, we took some garlic and slipped it under the skin (being careful not to tear or cut the skin). Into the cavity went the lemon halves, the garlic, and some salt and pepper. Edan had gotten a big, thick piece of prosciutto from her work, one that was too thick to eat on a sandwich, so we chopped it up into little cubes, sprinkled some atop the bird, and threw the rest into the cavity (Isn't it great eating food that has a body cavity? Mmm.). Finally, we stuffed a few whole sprigs of rosemary into the chicken and trussed it.

We cooked the chicken for 30 minutes at 375, turning it several times so that it would cook evenly. After the 30 minutes, I jacked the oven up to 450, poured about 3/4 cup of white wine over the bird, and cooked it for another 30-35 minutes. What resulted was a terrific blend of our old salt/garlic/lemon recipe, Anthony Bourdain's classic roast chicken recipe, and some unique flavor from the prosciutto. The only change I would make is to sprinkle some fresh rosemary over the bird, rather than just stuffing it into the cavity. There really wasn't much rosemary flavor at all.

Which brings me to the titular question -- how do you roast a chicken? What great tips do you have? What strange and exotic ingredients do you use?

(I wish I had better pictures for you, but they all came out blurry; I need a better camera. You'll have to trust me when I say that the chicken looked like the hand of God descending to rub my belly.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

How is Culinary School Like Film School?

I've often wondered how recent graduates of culinary schools make ends meet. You pay something like $60,000 to go to culinary school and graduate to a physically demanding job making $10.50 an hour (and it's invariably on the night-shift, to boot). According to today's New York Times, the answer is simple -- they don't make ends meet. Culinary school grads -- their numbers ever ballooning thanks to the celebrity chef phenomenon and the Food Network -- are defaulting on student loans at a rate of 11%, more than twice the national average:

Although the restaurant industry is expected to create two million new jobs in the next decade, the Department of Labor reports that in 2005, the latest year for which data were available, the average hourly wage for a restaurant cook was $9.86.

“The problem isn’t getting a job, the problem is getting a high-paying job,” said Susan Sykes Hendee, a dean at Baltimore International College and a member of the American Culinary Federation Foundation Accrediting Commission, which accredits many culinary schools...

Many culinary students come from blue-collar families and do not have the financial experience to navigate the world of college costs, Ms. Sykes Hendee said. “The majority of students are the first people going to college in their families,” she said. “It’s not the rich and famous going to culinary school.”

Once I got my haircut at a fancy barbershop in Los Angeles, and the woman cutting it had gone to some high-end cosmetology institute. She said she owed more than $20,000 from that experience. In her words, "That's a lot of $10 haircuts." I tipped her well.

As a film school graduate, I can sympathize with people swimming in debt with no real prospects of getting out, short of exceptional professional success. It can make you feel hopeless. I'd tell anyone considering going to film school to work on a few movie sets to make sure they enjoy it. Then I'd ask how they are at real politik, since that's the most important skill necessary to earn a living in the film industry. Then I'd tell them that it is the equivalent of going to a $100,000 trade school to learn a trade that nobody really needs. You're not learning something useful, like how to perform ligament transfer surgery, or how to probate a will. People actually need someone who knows how to do those things, and there's no (legal) way to learn how without going to medical school or law school. Anybody can make a film, even a good one. In other words, when you get out of medical school or law school and you pass your board exams, you are a doctor or a lawyer, and you have the marketable skills necessary to pay back $130,000 worth of student loan debt. When you get out of film school, you are merely unemployed and in debt. You might be a filmmaker, but then again, you might have been one before you started school.

Since my experience only applies in an analogous way, I recommend that anybody considering culinary school read David Lebovitz' fine post on the subject.

(Thanks to Apronite Kiki for the link. Kiki!)

Monday, May 7, 2007

Providence

Friday was my six-month wedding anniversary, meaning that I've been married five and a half months longer than most celebrities. Edan and I had been preparing for the anniversary for a while now, and we'd decided that Providence would be the restaurant of choice for this particular celebration. We'd read rave reviews on Chowhound and the LA Times, reviews calling Providence "the most ambitious new restaurant to open in Hollywood in a long, long time," and we had to go. Luckily, we'd been saving. Since moving into our apartment we've been dropping any spare change we have into a mason jar. After about eight months, it was pretty full. $75 dollars full, it turned out. This was good, since our meal at Providence was not to be cheap. What it would be was an experience that I won't soon forget.

Providence sits on an unassuming block of Melrose Avenue, farther east than the more fashionable section where you can buy leather chaps and vintage T-shirts. I've passed it many times and never even knew it was a restaurant. Hard wood slats form a sort of exoskeleton around the building, and a small, very subtle sign announces that this is, in fact, Providence. Inside, the restaurant is divided into several small rooms, each one fitting a half dozen tables. The room they seated us in featured a view of the impressive wine cellar. The ceiling of the room had a series of flat glass lamps overlapping one another that I thought vaguely resembled the hull of a ship seen from beneath (not that I've ever seen the hull of a ship from beneath, but you know what I mean). This effect was enhanced by small paper "barnacles" that haphazardly covered the upper parts of the walls and ceiling. The subtle "under the sea" theme continued on the tabletop, as a candle nestled in a bed of "sea anemone," small orange and red beads on wire strands. It was a little elementary school art project-ish, but if you squinted, it was beautiful.

Once seated, the sommelier (a dead ringer for Ewan McGregor) came and helped us each choose a wine we would like. I got a glass of nebbiola from Paso Robles that he described as having subtle Coca Cola tones. Finally, somebody understands what I really want from a wine. Edan got a malbec that was very fruity (We tend to have different tastes in wine, but I sipped hers and like it as well).

The menu at Providence is divided into a tasting menu, a section of market specials, and then the the main menu, which has appetizers and main courses. While the tasting menu looked very tempting, we ended up choosing a main course each, and two appetizers. Before any of our food arrived, they brought us the amuse bouche, Mexican shrimp in creme fraiche with tiny cubes of mango gelatin accompanied by a tiny beer stein of blood orange yogurt and champagne foam. The blood orange yogurt was a little sweet for before dinner, but it was still a very good taste that pointed towards a good meal to come. Another good sign was the bread, which was warm and fresh and came with excellent butter and sea salt. Our first appetizer was the kampachi, which came centered on the plate surrounded by a soy gel lime espuma and tiny balls of avocado shaped like little peas. This is one meal I wish I'd taken photos of because the visual component of it was so important. Each dish as it came out looked like a work of art. It's nice to eat a meal like this and be reminded that food can be as appealing to the eye as it is to the tongue...which is the long way to saying, the kampachi tasted as good as it looked.

Next out was the chowda (sic), which came unassembled. The server placed a bowl before us, containing a handful of chunks of potato, clams, diced carrots, and slivers of bacon. She then produced a carafe of creamy clam broth and poured it over the veggies and clams, creating a steaming hot soup as we watched. At the risk of sounding like a total rube, it was frickin' cool. And the chowder was the best I've ever had. As Edan pointed out, the veggies and bacon were so much crispier than if they'd been stewing in the broth the whole time. I've never tasted anything quite like it.

For a main course, Edan got a Hawaiian tuna dish with purple haze carrots and vadouvan butter, while I had the Japanese tai snapper, cooked with sweet peppers, cipollini onions, and chorizo, with a chorizo espuma (that's chorizo foam, for those scoring at home). The snapper was seared, skin side down, creating a crispy crust that had the consistency of the hard sugar atop creme brulee. It cracked apart when I put my fork to it, revealing an incredibly tasty, buttery white fish. Edan's tuna had a consistency I've never seen in a piece of fish. It almost looked like a piece of beef. Cooked rare, it was perfectly smooth and beautiful in its simplicity. It was just a tad salty, and Edan felt the vadouvan butter was wasted (she called it a visual pun, a little green pile like the wasabi you'd get at a sushi place), but it was still an exceptional dish.

Originally, we'd thought we might skip dessert, since that's usually the easiest way to shave a few bucks off an expensive dinner tab, but we saw the menu anyway. You can probably guess that we couldn't resist getting something. I got a glass of calvados, and we split the milk chocolate-whiskey panna cotta, a cookie crumble topping, and coconut raviolo. Let's say I'm glad we did. In the end, unless there's nothing to your liking on the menu, it's always better to stay for dessert at a really nice restaurant. It completes the meal the way it was meant to be completed. When the server brought our check, it came with some petite fours, as well, which is a nice touch. Including tax and tip, we ended up spending $210, which ain't cheap. We each had a glass of wine. I had a drink after dinner, and we got dessert. Was it worth it? Absolutely. The visual artistry of the food at Providence was unlike anything I'd seen, and the flavors and textures were so complex, I swear I'm still tasting them now.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Russia -- A Real Place 3: Homefried Food

Here's the third in our continuing series on the wonder that is Russian cuisine:

In uninspired times, it’s best to stick with the basics—efficiency, sustenance, food in patty form. This needn’t be a death sentence for the connoisseur in you, the one sulking in the corner of your consciousness as you plunge a fry into mayonnaise or sip your cola through a licorice straw. Someone’s grandmother pushed you getting onto the metro, you saw a pregnant dog sprawled on the pavement, the nation’s leader attended a “no-rules” cage match with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Silvio Berlusconi while protesters were mauled in the street. You need a meal you can cradle in your hands.

Let’s complete the pancake trinity. In fact, this sphere of the Russian diet is an elegant multi-pointed star, but bliny, oladi and seerniki are empresses supreme. Before bowing under the third sister’s heavy touch, it’s necessary to delve deeper into dairy. I’ve mentioned kefir, the falsetto in oladi’s song, but there’s also tan, another digestive ally that I find tongue-numbingly salty. Open-mindedness aside, that stuff is gross. Smetana is numero uno. When I translated it as “sour cream” for some of my students, they were justifiably appalled. Smetana is light and simple in flavor, more than a guest-star on taco night. Russians dollop it into soup and tomato, cucumber and radish salads freshened with dill. Tvorog, on the other hand, is “curd” according to my dictionary. Sometimes it’s like cottage cheese, but it can also be sweet, packaged like cream cheese, fruit-flecked and eaten on its own, on a little plate, with a little spoon, topped with smetana, so I don’t know what that is. Anyway, the cottage cheese version is the launch pad for a seerniki wakeup call and looks like this:

The recipe is easy and best forgotten before eating. Eggs, sugar, salt and flour. Whip it into a curdy batter and fry in thick blobs (sorry, I’m still working on the foodie lexicon). Afterwards it will be golden and good, and I bet you can guess what to dress it up with...duh...smetana! This is no pre-jog snack.

Ready for lunch? Another classic you might nestle with your nose were you some furry animal fattening for winter is the cutlet. I’ve been eating them all week, so I’ll now try to resurrect the wild pleasure with which I anticipated that first Sunday serving. Having beheld the keystone in the triumphal arch of Russian cuisine, I wonder if we didn’t sell ourselves short crowning the ground beef patty our national mascot. The cutlet is more of a concept than a physical entity, an equation flexible enough to allow fish as a potential x-variable. We happened to choose regular-old pork, which went into the electric meat grinder/food processor (What, you don’t have one?), along with some onion, milk-soaked bread, and salo (don’t ask). Egg is essential, but only after cutlet consistency has been achieved. Now fry it, son!

Maybe you prefer some clearer semblance of nature’s design in the food you eat. But who will save us in that cold final hour? Hot dogs?

--Ryan

Monday, April 30, 2007

More Fast Food Linkage

After a prolonged absence due to a head cold I just couldn't shake, I'm back. I haven't been cooking too much (although Edan and I did make some killer mussels on Friday night), so I'll throw some links your way instead.
  • Thanks to Apronite Doug for this terrific link comparing advertising images of fast food items with pictures of the real thing. That Arby's sandwich is nastiness itself. (On a side note: The Fillet O Fish sandwich has always looked kind of nude to me, in an unsettling way. I also think it's gross that they put cheese on it. Cheese on fish? Pretty crazy.)
  • The Millions has a post about the newest and best theme cookbook, I Like Food, Food Tastes Good: In the Kitchen with your Favorite Bands. If you live in New York, you can go tonight to the Brooklyn Kitchen and watch some dude from Les Savy Fav make ceviche.
  • I finally got around to watching Fast Food Nation. Pretty disappointing. Big-time tone problems. The sections with Greg Kinnear as a fast food company executive were heavily satirical, while the rest of the movie wasn't. It didn't mesh well at all. Maybe it's because much of the movie was in Spanish, I just didn't get the nuances or....nah, it just wasn't that good.
Tomorrow, I should have another report from Ryan in Russia, and at some point this week I will write about something I cook, I promise.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tuesday Linky Goodness

Some big doings yesterday and today in the world of food:

  • The Food Network had its inaugural Food Network Awards. Apparently they weren't a big hit. Anthony Boudrain was horrified. I didn't watch them. Because I have a life...OK, you caught me. I was watching "The Bachelor: Officer and Gentleman." Edan and I played this drinking game wherein you take a swig of whiskey every time someone says "connection," "journey," "decision," or "love." I was faced by the end. Next week, I think we'll sub out journey for "here for the right reasons," since that seems to be a very big deal this year.
  • Jonathan Gold, food writer for LA Weekly, won the Pulitzer Prize for Outstanding Criticism. It's a big deal, since he is the first food critic to win the award. He celebrated by drinking alcohol from an enormous glass. (For a complete rundown on the Pulitzers, check out The Millions.)
  • Speaking of The Millions, there's a post up about Cooked, Jeff Henderson's memoir about learning to cook in a prison kitchen.
  • I have to admit that I stole a joke from Edan. In my fast food ad post, I said that the badonkadonk butt wasn't a bad thing, and I stand by that, but Edan actually pointed that out first. As a mea culpa, here's a video of Jamie Foxx singing his Tennis Ball song at the ESPYs. Enjoy.
Man I hope Jamie Foxx doesn't become the black Tom Hanks. You know, an actor who chooses only the most serious roles while saving all of his comedy for award shows. It would be a shame.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Breaking News! Mike Midgley Opens Catering Business, uses "Da" instead of Definite Article

Mike Midgley, my favorite contestant from "Top Chef: Season 2," has opened a catering business called Midgley Catering. On his website, you can find a brief Q&A with the man himself, as well as some very good-looking recipes. This is the sort of insider info I'm privy to as one of Mike's MySpace friends.

Real Food for Less

Ever hear stories about people who couldn't pay their restaurant tab and had to wash dishes to make up for it? Apparently, it really happens. In the LA Times today is an article about the SAME Cafe (the name is an acronym that stands for So All May Eat), a Denver restaurant that serves good food on a "pay what you can" system. The restaurant, which serves 2 soups, 2 salads, and 2 kinds of gourmet pizzas everyday, uses seasonal ingredients and offers food to anyone, regardless of how much money they have in their pockets. If the patron doesn't have a dime to his name, he can pay for his meal by working for a while in the cafe, washing dishes, wiping down tables, or mopping the floor. Brad and Libby Birky, the owners of the cafe, manage to make it work with some unorthodox methods:
To curtail waste, the Birkys don't set portions for their food. Customers take plates from a stack by the entrance and tell Brad how to fill them: a taste of the couscous with olives and feta cheese, a full bowl of the creamy squash soup, a thin wedge of the pear-and-gorgonzola pizza. They are always welcome back for seconds.
What strikes me about this concept isn't just that poor people are getting a meal, but that they're getting a good meal, full of nutritional value and flavor. Edan and I were talking about this just yesterday, noting that, too often, the only food available to lower-income families is fast food or junk food. Here, for once, is a place that not only presents good food, it also offers varying portion sizes for varying budgets. If only this had been around back when Chris Rock was hungry for ribs.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Fast Food Ads: The Good, the Bad, and The Absolutely Horrible

A few weeks ago, I watched the first couple of rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament. In addition to wearing a deep groove in my couch, I was subjected to hour upon hour of ridiculous advertisements for everything from cars to insurance to underwear. While nothing could top the surreal terror of the Hanes underwear campaign that features Michael Jordan and Kevin Bacon inexplicably cohabitating (Huh? Do these guys even know each other? And what about their families? Really weird), the fast food commercials left the deepest scar on my psyche. Each one has its own problems. Let's break them down one by one (most of these are still airing, so you can probably see them tonight on prime time or during the sporting event of your choosing).

McDonalds

Mickey Ds is unveiling a new third-pounder burger made from Angus beef. A couple of things interest me here. The first is the rise of the Angus brand of beef, a topic too large to tackle in a post about television commercials. Surely you've noticed that, all of a sudden, the meat in the burger you are eating is branded. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, and I expect it to grow. I can't wait for the Neiman Ranch pork sandwich to debut at Burger King. The bottom line is that, while Angus beef is a high quality brand of beef, it isn't some exotic gourmet meat. Its rise is largely the product of a successful branding campaign. The second interesting thing about the McDonalds commercials is that they have chosen Southern California as a test market. When Edan saw the ad, she said, "I guess if it sells here they figure it will sell anywhere." This represents the prevailing national attitude about California, namely that we eat better than people in, say, Missouri. This is not entirely true. While there is a segment of the population that has popularized sandwiches with sprouts on them (these are the people to blame when you get a slice of avocado on your club sandwich), there are also more fast food joints in LA than anywhere I've been. Tons of taco stands, tons of old school burger places (like Tommy's), all of the national chains, and a bunch of big fast food chains that don't necessarily have outposts on the east coast (Jack in the Box, In-N-Out, Baja Fresh). Not to mention a million places that offer both donuts and Chinese food (a combination I'd never seen until moving west of the Mississippi). What was McDonalds attempting to accomplish by testing the burger in the SoCal market? I'm not sure. My guess is that Southern California, with its racial, economic, and ethnic diversity, offers a fairly realistic cross section of the American population as a whole (but that's just a guess). As for the ads themselves, they were among the least offensive of the bunch, despite one that included three idiots doing the worst Boston accent since those Jimmy Fallon SNL skits. Why is McDonalds introducing a 1/3 pounder? Doesn't this go against the grain in a society where so many people want (and need) to lose weight? Will it be successful or is Bill Maher right when he says Americans are too dumb to realize a third of a pound is bigger than a quarter of a pound?

Jack in the Box

I'm probably the only one who feels this way, but I can't stand the Jack in the Box advertising campaign (for those of you who live in a Jack in the Box-free zone, I'll summarize: Jack, a guy with a huge clown head, is CEO of the actual Jack in the Box restaurant chain). I don't like Jack. He thinks he's the smartest guy in the room, and everybody else is an idiot. In most of the ads, he's so snarky, I find it hard to believe nobody had sued his ass for discrimination or workplace harassment or something like that. And his wife is always portrayed as a closet sexpot suburban Stepford wife (Ooh, I hate that!). Also, if he has a giant clown head, and his wife has a regular human head, how does that work? Why does his kid have a smaller clown head? Shouldn't he have a grotesque half-clown, half-human head? How did she give birth to him? It must've been a cesarean. I know I'm the only one who thinks about these things. I have a problem. The other thing I hate about Jack in the Box is their "everything and the kitchen sink" approach to menu construction. I don't know about you, but something is wrong with a place that has fried chicken, pizza, tacos, burgers, and fancy faux-gourmet ciabatta bread sandwiches. Pick something and stick with it, Jack.

Carl's Jr. (or Hardees, depending on where you live)

Now we're getting to the heart of the matter. Carl's Jr. has always been known for their vulgar, hyper-masculine advertising (these are the people who made the infamous Paris-Hilton-washing-a-car-in-a-bikini-while-eating-a-hamburger ad), so I suppose I shouldn't really be surprised anymore when their ads portray men as brainless, sex-crazed calorie consumers. And yet I am. The most recent Carl's Jr. campaign involves a guy and girl...well, why don't you just watch it.

(I'll twiddle my thumbs while you watch the ad. Because I can't figure out how to make it appear here.)

There are many, many things wrong with this commercial, but I'd like to focus on a couple. First of all, why is the guy staring at the waitress so openly? He's with his girlfriend; is he retarded? Secondly, why is the waitress staring back? She's not a stripper, so why is she trying to seduce this dork? It doesn't make any sense. And the girlfriend, the only one in the ad giving a half-decent performance, by the way, would not just sit there and take it. I think she would throw her fries at "Sarah" and call her a slut. Or maybe that's just what I would do. On a production note, I would've cast a brunette for one of the roles (probably the girlfriend). The two women look too similar. Unless that's the point and I'm just not getting it, I would've tried to make them look as different as possible while still making them both pretty. But that's just me, and what do I know? I just have a Masters Degree in this shit. The bottom line is that Carl's Jr. makes a commercial that manages to offensively portray both men and women. Congratulations, Carl's Jr., mission accomplished (in a George W. Bush sort of way).

Carl's Jr. has always sold testosterone. That's nothing new. Their best ads were the "Burger, Fries, and a Coke" campaign, which emphasized the ease, familiarity, and simplicity of their 'cuisine.' It was successful on a number of levels, not the least of which that it managed to make the burger seem appetizing. This wing commercial does nothing, other than remind me why I'll never eat at Hooters again.

In N Out

The winner for the cheapest looking commercial, and yet strangely, maybe the most effective. All they do is show the burger, put up a really lame slogan relating to basketball or March Madness, and play the jingle. The burger looks good, the music is familiar. It actually makes you want to a burger. Funny how In N Out always seems to get it right.

Subway

Subway continues to push the fact that it serves healthier food than their fat-happy competitors (and continues to downplay the fact that their sandwiches taste like whatever condiment you choose to put on them and little else). The most recent commercial has a couple pulling up to the drive-thru and ordering some disgusting body parts like blubber, a gut, and a double chin. My problem with this commercial is that the woman orders a "badonkadonk butt," and she orders it like it's a bad thing. Jamie Foxx begs to differ, ma'am.

Wendy's, Taco Bell, and KFC

Wendy's ads have sucked since Dave Thomas died. There's just no getting around that. Taco Bell continues to push the concept of 'Fourthmeal', which is probably less healthy than eating a 1/3 pound of Angus beef. KFC, meanwhile, continues forcing Lynard Skynard down our throats. We get it, you're southern. Fried chicken, "Sweet Home Alabama." That's great. Keep it up. Also, they have a lot of ads where families sit down and eat a big bucket of chicken at their kitchen table. The idea is that KFC brings families together. But what I always take away from these ads is that the family is too lazy to cook and is probably going to die early from heart disease or diabetes. I might be reading the subtext here, though.

Anyway, there you have it. The current crop of fast food ads is not too sweet. But are they ever?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Russia, a Real Place -- Eastern Easter Eggs and Cake

Ryan sends another dispatch from Russia, where he lives and occasionally eats (And before you say it, yes, I know Ryan is a better photographer than I am. He has talent; I don't. It also helps that he uses a fancy digital camera while I have a shoe box with a pinhole in it).

Mmm, bliny.

Often when Natasha and I want to be fed by professionals, we go for sushi,
which is more prevalent in this town than MickeyD's, or something Caucasian
(as in Georgian, Armenian or Uzbek). The Caucasian restaurants lay out
excellent spicy soups, skewered meats, and cheesy, eggy breads—hachipuri
being my favorite, a godsend in a nation where pizza sucks. If the
establishment has tablecloths, then it's a safe bet that they also have a
severely beautiful woman positioned under a hot light, accompanied by a
disheveled uncle-figure who strikes a few notes on his synth to juice up the
pre-recorded track. I'm always the evening's only patron who doesn't know
every song by heart, bringing into question the breadth of my own internal
classic romance collection. When the bill arrives, Natasha and I squeal at
the expected offering of gum. It's just Wrigley's, but in stick form, which
is a luxury inaccessible to the average consumer (it's just pellets for the
masses). Though my stomach is full and never entirely suppressed by the
efforts of breath refreshment, I typically get up from the table a bit
disappointed. My dining partner and the mock-traditional costumes worn by
the waitstaff were lovely and entertaining, but did the quality of the food
merit either the cost or my labor ordering in a language with six noun
cases, three of which I'm unable to use? The answer is hurtling towards "no,"
but a few very positive dining experiences keep hope breathing in this city.

The Russian Orthodox calendar gave us Easter this past weekend (it doesn't
always coincide with Easter back home), so we left the restaurateurs to their smoky
dens and questionable behind-closed-door tactics to face the challenges of our own
kitchen. Saturday morning doesn't hold up without some kind of pancake, so
we did bliny in the classic style and I was even permitted to wield the
spatula once the pan had produced a few successes, though the batter's
secret is still too heavy a burden for my weak foreign brain.

Breakfast led to a depression of will and napping, but we gathered ourselves
by the afternoon and trekked to one of the superstores, or hypermarkets, as
the call them, for a stock up. It started snowing mid-journey, with the sun
persistent in the sky, so we were intent on buying something kind of weird
by the time we got there. We left with a fully intact salmon and a bag of
squid. I generally expect tentacles from my squid, but these were large and
elf-hat in shape and Natasha said, "Of course they don't have legs," so
again I felt cheated by this persistent deficit of knowledge and personal
experience.

Legless squid.

We fried them up until they looked familiar and I poured beer while Natasha
gutted the fish, filled him back up with onions and lemon, and sewed his
belly with needle and thread. We left him baking in the oven and plotted
our next move.
Salmon, whole.

Natasha.

If you celebrate Easter, you may have recently found yourself maneuvering a
hard-boiled egg balanced on a customized wire doohickey into a Dixie cup
full of water and food coloring. Not so in Russia. Those of the Orthodox
faith take a more natural approach, which works for fabric too (so my sister
says). It goes like this: toss some red and yellow onion skins into a pot,
mingle with water and raw white eggs, boil for a while. They come out
looking like something produced by a very small pterodactyl.

Easter eggs, Russian-style.

So we ate ourselves to sleep and woke up to reddish-brown eggs and a
store-bought loaf of "kulich," which is the traditional bready cake of
Easter. It's basically raisin bread topped with a thin layer of frosting
and sprinkles, the kind that comes on those pink and white circus cookies.

Now we're fasting between weekends.

--Ryan

Monday, April 9, 2007

Notes from a Fromager: Quick Dinner

When I am both hungry and lazy, and when the fridge is empty save for some dog food and a few tablespoons of milk, I will watch the Food Network, hoping somehow to visually absorb a calorie or two. The other day, I caught an episode of Barefoot Contessa. While host Ina Garten waited for her stew with biscuits to cook, she made this easy and delicious (or should I say: delicious looking) chicken recipe. Ina sang its praises as she ate it, but then, of course, after a few performative bites, went out to cut some fresh tulips from her Long Island garden. (Which is what I always do after lunch too!)
A few days later I gave her recipe a try.

Here's what you do:

Take some chicken, and under the skin stuff some fresh basil and fresh goat's milk cheese. Drizzle olive oil over it, sprinkle some salt and pepper, and pop it in the oven to bake. The result is juicy, cheesy, herby, chicken goodness.

Despite my gourmet hook-up at the Cheese Store, I used some cheap fresh goat's cheese from Trader Joe's called Silver Goat Chevre with garlic and herbs, which was very good. I was thinking I might try this recipe next time with Le Roule (there should be an accent on the "e" there...), a hand-rolled fresh cow's milk cheese from France that bears a distinct swirl of garlic and herbs. Le Roule is similar to the popular Boursin cheese, except the herb and garlic flavors are stronger. (I can't eat it at work on the sly because my breath will give me away).

Try it, and tell me what you think.

-Edan




Where have YOU been?

I haven't written anything in a couple of weeks. Where I come from, that's called a vacation. Sorry if that doesn't sit well with your buttoned-down, traditionalist notions of a what a "blogger" is suppose to be. But now I'm back. What's happened since I last wrote? Not much. I ate some food -- most pretty good, some not so much -- restaurants opened and closed, and Anthony Bourdain smoked about twenty packs of cigarettes. So to kick off your post-Easter week, here's a few little appetizers of infotainment to help you through your sugar crash:

  • The New Yorker has an article by Adam Gopnik about food in fiction. He discusses the 19th Century authors like Trollope, who use food as "the Styrofoam peanuts in the packaging of classic narrative," as well as more contemporary examples from Ian McEwan and Robert B. Parker. Despite his ridiculously hokey jokes ("European mussels have fewer [beards], it's true -- more like soul patches."), he brings up some very valid points, especially regarding the contemporary fiction writer's repeated use of cooking as a means of meditation:
    "While you are doing all this, I was reminded as I did it, you are thinking about the bouillabaisse, not about life in our time. Or, rather, you are not thinking about the bouillabaisse, or about anything: you are making the bouillabaisse. And here, I suspect, lies the difficulty with using cooking as the stock for the stream-of-consciousness stew. It is the act of cooking as an escape from consciousness--the nearest thing that the non-spiritual modern man and woman have to Zen meditation; its effect is to reduce us to a state of absolute awareness, where we are here now of necessity."
    Indeed. One of the best things about cooking is that you have to worry about cooking, and, consequently, can't worry about student loans, bio-terrorism, or the Red Sox middle relief. Gopnik's analysis doesn't include the best contemporary food and cooking novel, Kate Christensen's The Epicure's Lament. Not only does Christensen create a memorable misanthropic protagonist, full of whiskey and cigarettes, she gives a smashing recipe for quick and painless shrimp Newburg as well. One of the great things about the book is that the main character, Hugo, cooks and eats because he's good at it, and because it brings him pleasure. The food scenes in the book are not excuses to ruminate on anything other than the food itself. And maybe women.
  • Edan and I went to Oakland last weekend and ate some really, really good food. Everybody in the free world had recommended that we go to a place called Burma Superstar, which, as you can imagine, serves Burmese food (I thought about suggesting they change the name of the restaurant to "Myanmar Superstar." You know, cause it rhymes. But then I remembered that the a-holes who are responsible for the name change run one of the five most oppressive regimes in the world, so I decided to keep my mouth shut). It did not disappoint. We had a tea-leaf salad, some spicy lamb, and a chicken casserole, made with rice and peas and a host of spices I can't name. Very delicious. A little like Indian food, a little like Thai food, but different. I highly recommend it. We also had a great dinner at a place called Cesar, which is tapas. The restaurant was the size of basketball court and had every kind of liquor known to man. I got to try both Booker's and Baker's, two bourbons I've wanted to try for a long time. Among the highlights were a hangar steak made olive butter and grilled chicories, spinach salad with grapefruit and bacon (wow!), and a bread pudding that saved dessert. After dinner, I sang a near-flawless rendition of "Piano Man" that brought the house down at karaoke. Surprisingly, the culinary low-point of the trip was our dinner at Cafe Chez Panisse. You all know Chez Panisse, so I won't bother with the in-depth background preamble. I'll just say that we ate upstairs at the cafe, which has a menu and is cheaper, as opposed to downstairs, which is prix fixe and expensive as hell. I had chicken al mattone (which means "under a brick;" basically they cook a de-boned chicken thigh and leg on a grill with a skillet on top of it to press it down), topped with chopped panceta and egg, and served with shoestring potatoes. For once, I ordered well and ended up with the best dish at the table. We all shared some very fresh, tasty oysters to start. Edan had a manilla clam and pea dish that was very heavy on the peas. She was quite disappointed. Others had a pizzetta of radicchio and Roquefort, which I tried. I loved it, but the flavors were intense. It made a nice appetizer, but I'm not sure I could've handled it as my main dish (as I write this, I'm tasting it right now. Isn't it funny how certain foods do that? Cinnamon always does this to me, too). Finally, on Sunday night, one of our hosts, Josh, made us a terrific Japanese noodle dish with beef and Japanese eggplant. Really delicious. Thanks to Diana and Josh, not only for putting us up at their place, but also for putting up with about four hundred stories about our dog.