Gotham Gastronomy

A Virtual Vase for the Flowers of Food and the Whorls of Wine...

Monday, June 05, 2006

Genius in the Details

Last week, I was enjoying a summer afternoon with friends at the outdoor portion of Bread Bar, Tabla's casual counterpart. When our wine arrived accompanied by stemless stemware, we were all disheartened; the staff was happy to assuage our fears and supply us with proper glasses, but not before noting the rationale behind their original choice. It seems that their sidewalk cafe is a bit of a wind tunnel, and the stemware has a propensity to blow over, spil, and shatter. Hence, the restaurant delivers heavier, squatter, more wind-resistant glassware!
Such thought is exactly what distinguishes Tabla and Danny Meyers other restaurants from their peers and competitors. Blue Smoke, Eleven Madison Park, and Gramercy Tavern all boast tasty fare, but none are ever going to match the quality and skills offered by the likes of one-namers like Daniel or Ducasse. This is not to say that the food is poor; to the contrary, it is quite tasty, but the appeal lies in the details and the service.
For example, about a decade ago, I dined at Gram-Tav with a comely female companion. She commented to our captain that she was feeling cold, and he quickly replied with a question.
"What color shawl would you like?"
She selected charcoal, and sure enough, a stylish charcoal shawl materialized at our table almost instantly. My favorite part of the experience came at meal's end when she had grown so attached to the garment (not to mention attached to the four bottles of wine that we had downed) that she left the premises with the piece firmly, uh, shouldered. As we were hailing a cab, the hostess appeared to retrieve the garment. Having consumed my fair share of the vino, I offered a few hundred dollars in cash for the shawl.
Aghast the kind employee declined the money questioning, "What would the other patrons wear when they get cold?"
Now, that is true dedication!
On the afore-mentioned windy visit to Bread Bar, we caught glimpse of none other than Danny Meyer himself. Mr. Meyer's background is actually in politics which make explain his devotion to pleasing as many people as possible. He certainly looked the part last week in a sharp suit with a bold, yet tasteful chartreuse tie. We engaged him in a conversation which may have bordered on some outright ass-kissing, but he humored it graciously. We spoke about his love of details be it shawls or matchbooks, all of the highest quality.
Then as the conversation wound down, the weather followed suit. The winds stopped pushing glasses and began pushing clouds. A light drizzle began to flirt with monsoon proportions.
Mr. Meyer prepared to bid us adieu, but first he commented that his favorite detail is the umbrellas... Needless to say we left lunch happy and dry beneath some top-of-the-line Tabla parasols!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Book Review: History In A Glass

I am sucker for the impulse buy. For example, I arrived at a Memorial Day party bearing not just the prerequisite grillables, but also a cylinder of Normandy Butter because the latter is so tasty that I simply could not leave the market without it. Said lack of restraint manifests itself in the realm of books most frequently. So, when I stopped into Shakes & Co. to pick up a greeting card, it is was no surprise that exited with Ruth Reichl's latest.
Reichl is a grande dame amongst food writers, having served as restaurant critic for the New York Times in the nineties, before departing to helm Gourmet magazine. Unfortunately, her name's prominent positioning on the cover of History In A Glass was a bit misleading; in fact, Reichl did not pen the volume. Rather, she penned an introduction, and "edited" the work.
All the same, I was please with what I found. History In A Glass is a compilation of wine writing from Gourmet spanning the last sixty years.
The anthology offers all sorts of novelties which are delightful. A 1953 piece on dandelion wine by, scifi sultan, Ray Bradbury reads more like a short story from The Martian Chronicles than a n expository piece, but then again who cares? I really harbor no interest in making weeds into wine anyway! However, the writing is a joy to read. Likewise, many of the pieces within the book must be embraced as fun anecdotes or literary victory laps, not stared down as poor pedagogy.
However, historical significance is also quite present. The author list is littered with names like James Beard, Frederick Wildman, and Hugh Johnson, not to mention equally significant, but less familiar apellations such as Frank Schoonmaker and Gerald Asher. The volume presents the opportunity to understand why these titans became titans, not to mention the experience of reading some phenomenal food writing! The pleasure here is less a [product of education and more a sheer mastery of the language.
When one reads these writings, they realize how excellent our elders were especially compared with the crap in Wine Specullum (or in the blogosphere.) Here is a perfect segue to the last offering of the book which is a cross section of history. The act of reading American wine writing from such a long spectrum of time allows us to note how our nation's diction, as well as our views of wine have evolved... or how complex and non-impulsive our epistemology truly is!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Specks of Knowledge

A speck of what? This eccentric ingredient has be known to make a cameo or two on high-end Italian menus (notably accompanying ramps in a delicious pasta dish at A Voce.) However, few people, including waiters, can explain exactly what it is. Hell, my bible, Larousse Gastronomique does not even offer an entry! For that matter, neither does the dictionary at Epicurious or the otherwise overpopulated Wikipedia.
However, the ingredient is well worth knowing!
Speck derives its diminutive moniker from the German word for bacon, but like the old George Carlin routine about driving on the parkway and parking on the driveway, the term is misleading. Bacon and speck are of the same cured pork family. (Also of note from the boot are the less flavorful prosciutto and more "bacon-like" pancetta.) However, speck is far leaner than bacon and prepared entirely differently. Further, unlike bacon, speck is made from hogs' legs.
Speck is brined in garlic, black pepper, juniper berries, saltpeter, laurel, and bay leaves. After the initial treatment, the rectangular blocks of boneless pork are allowed to rest for a month. Subsequently, they are moved to a smoke house where the swine is treated a cold smoking of some mix of beechwood, laurel, juniper, and maple. The final stage of the process is several months of air drying, or dry-aging.
Alto Adige is to speck what the Cote d'Or is to Burgundy, and in fact, the government protects the distinction with a PGI designation for the meat. Here, the curing is still performed in small batches and primarily by farmers, not large companies. Hence, the speck season peaks in autumn as the slaughter is generally in February.
The end color resembles a medium rare steak that it is a bit more rare than medium, and the taste is logically) a combination of smoke, salt, and just a bit of fatty goodness. The meat can be eaten in slices a la prosciutto or diced. The product is also extremely versatile; it can be eaten unto itself or mixed into a dish. In the latter case, it pairs well with shellfish, pasta, risotto, or even a pizza.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Urban Grilling

Southerners will tell you that we do nopt know how to barbecue here in the Big Apple.
And, for the most part, they are right. Indeed, despite the recent explosion (R.U.B., Blue Smoke, Dinosaur, etceteras) we are about a century behind those on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line when it comes to the art of slow smoking meat to tender goodness. However, being suckers for semantics, even the staunchest, southern stalwarts will concede that we can grill up here.
Unfortunately, apartment living makes the task a bit difficult, logistics wise. So, today, we tackle the topic of urban grilling.

First of all, NO!
In New York City, starting a fire on your terrace or roof is not legal even if your end intent is not more malevolent than a rare Porterhouse! (Come on, think about it, people.)
So, clearly, the entire post at hand is purely hypothetical, as GG would never endorse any transgressions to the wrong side of the law. [And, if one must violate the never-petty-legislation of the City of New York, please (seriously) keep an extinguisher or bucket of sand handy.]

One must also note that while superior, charcoal burning grills throw off smoke, a lot of smoke. If one is grilling on a terrace with neighboring apartments in the, uh, line of fire, those neighbors are probably going to be pretty irritated when their homes start assuming the smoky smell of your supper. Hence, a gas powered Hibachi is the best way to go unless you are living this suburban dream on a roof. In the latter case, there is no question; do you really want your food to taste of propane?

The quality of the grill itself does matter. It is tempting to hit the Duane-Reade (well, it is never tempting to patronize a D-R, but...) and purchase a cheap piece of equipment for under thirty dollars. However, you will regret the move when your successful inaugural run inspires and encore, and you discover the grill has begun rusting over the course of a week. Instead, I urge y'all to purchase a Weber. The company is the undisputed standard of the industry and for good reason. They make four models in the "portable" or city-friendly class, all available for well under a hundred dollars. Acquiring one is an investment akin to your first Creuset dutch oven.

The key to working with one of these smaller size units is planning. (The old army adage about preventing piss poor performance is pertinent.) Lighting a 160 square inch grill is not conducive to chimney cylinders, and there is little room for fiddling later in the process. So, if one desires indirect heat, be sure to deal with this arrangement of the briquettes from the onset. Further, I recommend the use of aluminum foil to folded upon itself to create barriers for the coals or small pans which can hold the likes of apple juice and other moisture infusing liquids for pork products such as ribs.

Ribs bring us to the next issue which is a case of measure twice, cut once. Unfortunately, items such as full racks of ribs, and larger steaks will not fit on the average hibachi. So, if one plans to cook them bring a ruler to the market (really) or be prepared to cut to size. In the latter scenario, do not simply snip off the excess, but instead divide into two larger pieces to maximize flavor.

Fianlly, do not forget potholders! These grills don't have too much weight. So, if you find yourself trying to scrape off that burger stuck to the grill too hard, the entire grill may fall of of your terrace onto Madison Avenue... and, that would be bad.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Finally... Turks & Frogs

Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison? Young Turks. Turkish Delight. Talikin' Turkey? . . .
The wordplay is endless, and I have only tackled the first word. So, I shall gather my composure and restrain myself from further punning.
Time to focus!
Earlier in the week, I finally paid a visit to Turks & Frogs. The visit has been delayed so long that the much bally-hooed destination is actually two destinations, the West Village original 325 W. 11th btw. Hudson and Joe Dimaggio Freeway) and a Tribeca satellite (458Greenwich btw. Watts and Desbrosses.)
By now, the story is well known. Owner, Osman Cakir, dreamed of owning a drinkery his entire life, but found himself in the antiques business. His little brother was a weathered pro having served time in da 'biz. One day, the two set about converting Cakir's antiques shop into a wine bar and the rest is history. Voila, instant hotspot!
However, before investigating the West Village original, Gotham Gastronomy first visited the recently unveilled way-downtown. Said small strip of Greenwich is no West Broadway, and Drew Nierpont is no where to be seen, but Gentrification is certainly in full force. Of the four storefronts on the block, one is T&F, the other, a quaint cafe, and construction permits heralded changes in store (pun intended) at a third. The big G was also inescapably manifest in the converted loft residences towering above. All the same, we enjoyed the block; save the disappearance of the cobblestone, some character remained and there was no suffocating Scene.
As for the restaurant... The key word here is restaurant! While the original is a wine bar, the Tribeca venue is a restaurant that happens to hold a bar seating about nine. The remainder of the interior is decorated with the typical arches and lanterns of Turkey or North Africa. The motif flirts with cheese, but the minimallism manages to spare such a fate. This location offered a full bar and the drinks were well made, and the service very friendly and attentive.
The wine list is similliar at both locations; so, I might as well tackle it now. The selection was fairly impressive, but not to my liking. Yet, if you are a fan of the Big Red, here is a place for you. There are all sorts of Zins and Cabs from the New World, the Southern Rhone is well represented, and there are ven some Turkish types thrown in in hommage to the owners' subcontinental roots.

While I did not eat a proper meal, we did sample some of the bar food. If one is to believe that a restaurant can be judged by the bread offered, then Turks & Frogs is looking good! The other selections offered were the expected mix of lebni and hummus (aka"dips") as well as concotions of coriander, lemon, eggplant, and olive available at the bar. All were of top quality, but one must remember that top quality hummus is a different bird than top quality foie-gras and adjust their expectations accordingly.

After a couple glasses of wine, not to mention a martini, we made our way uptown to the West Eleventh location. This location featured a bar, some seating, and a back room behind french doors housing lounge-like seating for about dozen or so more patrons. The menu was limited here, the bar offered only beer and wine (virtually the same list.) However, the appeal lies largely in the atmosphere. The customers are the mellow West Village chic, the staff extremely attentive, and the vibe homey in spite of the chic. It was raining during our visit, and the space was perfect to pass away such an evening over wine.

Monday, May 15, 2006

What is Curry?

If you want a sure-fire way to offend an Indian in an ignorant, latently racist fashion, tell them that they smell like curry. Rather than point out your racial insensitivities, they will probably ask you what curry is or simply tell you that there is no such thing as curry.
Huh? Is not curry a spice?
Well, not really.
Curry is an incredibly ambiguous term.
However, the term appears to be derived from the Tamil term, kari, which refers to a type of South Indian sauce. Before bastardizing the word, the British used the phrase to refer to a stew of sorts. Said application is not completely incorrect as Indian cuisine is often stew like, cooked at low temperatures for extended periods of time.
However, despite the Tamil roots, the term is rare in the south as are the stewed and meat laden dishes of the north a la Chicken Vindaloo. (Here is the Indian equivalent of ordering a n Extreme Jalapeno Popper in Mexico City.) In the ancient cuisine of the south, aromatics such as hot peppers, mustard seed, and hing are first toasted, then vegetables are added to mix and slowly cooked. The bouquet is essential and the cuisine is akin to Italian cooking as far as an emphasis on simple flavors in perfect proportions. The dish is often mixed with any number of lentil based concotions, pickled mango, and jasmine-esque rice flavored with rasam or samobar. The combination of these components results in that aroma and taste that confusion labels as curry.
Of course, the term has applications in North Indian and Thai gastronomy as well, but these appear about a millennium after the development of Tamil techniques; so, the explanation there can wait a day or two.
So, what is that smell?
And, what is that spice?
Well, curry powder does exist. It is the relic of imperialism to be exact. During the British occupation of the Subcontinent, the colonialist discovered that they enjoyed Indian cuisine, but found it difficult to replicate on the Isle. Consequently, they invented the fore-runner to shake n' bake: curry powder. The stuff is meant to imitate the stereotypical taste of Indian food, and is actually a mixture of dried spices. Those little jars from McCormick generally are a mix of cinnamon, clove, tumeric, cardamom, pepper, and mustard seed. The concept is that simply by seasoning a dish with the blend, it will taste "Indian"!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Gotham Gall

Sometimes, we find ourselves with a nemesis in life.
Other times, we have a Newman.
A Newman is different from a nemesis in that "nemesis" implies one's equal, whereas a "Newman" is troublesome, but their residence is on a lower plane.
Gotham Gastronomy has found a Newman in a bothersome blog titled Gotham Gal.
The Gotham Gal seems to push all of our buttons! I won't stoop to comment on "virtual me" message attached to the avatar, nor will I lower myself to mocking the position of honor that Bruni's blog receives atop the the link list. (On a sidenote, another three star review? Did the NYT reduce their copay enough for Frank to beginning filling prescriptions for Zoloft?)
However, this week I shall let Bruni be. Dear readers, I may differ in opinion from the C-Section's scion, but I respect his knowledge. Unfortunately, the issue of respect is exactly the problem with said gotham gal.
Chefs and their colleagues in the front of the house (on all levels) practice an art, and one must establish a base respect for such skills before taking potshots at their work. A blind man should not critique a photo exhibit; Hilton Kramer does not ask for Nan Goldin to reprint her color creations in b&w before writing a review.
Yet, the gotham gals is apparently above such frivolities. Her recent write-up on Ditch Plains details her desire to order their dishes without garlic. For example, she orders the "standard" mussel preparation of white wine and shallots sans garlic. Uhhh... this classic dish has four components and she wants one removed? Okay. I have no problem with anyone else's preferences, but please do not portend any degree of expertise. Likewise, in regards to my favorite restaurant, Cru, she argues that, "they really MUST create a better more sophisticated ambiance to go with the fantastic food they are serving or honestly, we won't come back." Tense issues aside, I can not fathom a lack of sophistication serving as a source of criticism in regards to Cru. One means of improvement that the other GG suggests for Cru is the addition of flowers. Hmmm... well, Cru already has flowers. Perhaps, they were missed because the arrangements are understated. The rationale behind that probably has something to do with overpowering floral scents being a detriment to one of the largest wine lists in the world. Oh yeah, and something called class! Further, I must note that the idea Cru did not hire a decorator is absurd; the notion triggers a Proustian flash to Bruni's work on Urena and I realize that the gotham gal has achieved the impossible: improved my opinion of Frank. Alas, these criticisms continue on, as the gotham gal devotes character after character to confused criticism. At Perry Street, a "browned butter vinaigrette" was "good but rich. " Butter? Rich? Really? And, then there is Babbo's failure to receive "five stars" on account of rock and roll. Oh, I thought it was because the Old Grey Lady only has four to give.
Folks in the industry work very hard, and even in the purgatorial realm of the blogosphere, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves before trashing someone else's art and livelihood!
However, the respect issue most troubling is that of Judaism. I frequently crack jokes about my relations with my religion, but the gotham gal has taken the topic to taboo. To be exact, she needs to relax with the stereotypes, just a little bit. For example, I take offense at her professed principle that Jews judge one another's weddings based on the quantity of food served. (Damn, I must have left my scorecard at the last meeting of Media-Banking Conspiracy Club.) Likewise, her embrace of the medieval, stereotype of the penny pinching jew is a sad study in semiotics. On her blog, the jewess does not order dessert because she knows that the restaurant will offer complimentary petit-fours. This does not help our cause, at all.
I find solace in the fact that the g-gal does not confine her latent discrimination to our people. No, a Chinese restaurant must be good because the other patrons were speaking Chinese, not Mandarin, Cantonese, Hu, or Wakka, mind you. Never mind that like styles of cooking, these variations are basically different languages. Wow, they were speaking Chinese in Chinatown! Who'd have thunk it?
Thunk, well, think is exactly the issue at hand!
Try it sometime!