28 September 2008

Overheard at the Farmers' Market

"I can't wait for the first frost to hit and kill all the damn tomatoes"

Fall has officially arrived, and I noticed definite fatigue from my friendly farmers at the Sunday market at 91st and 1st Avenue. The quote above came from a woman at the first stall, gripping a a perfectly plump, red specimen dangerously hard. Eighty hours of tomato picking a week can do that to even the best of us.

26 September 2008

Babbo, like you've never read it before

Last night Marcus and I celebrated our anniversary at Mario Batali's famed restaurant, Babbo. In case you didn't know, Batali is the darling of the restaurant world, and particularly in New York, his food is considered to be extraordinary - both crowd pleasing and culinarily innovative. Most critics and fans consider Babbo to be his flagship, the ultimate incarnation of the Batali brand.

Here is the bottom line: Babbo does not live up to its hype. I expected to discover another level to ethereal Italian cooking, and was let down to discover the food was hit-or-miss.

I am getting ahead of myself, however, as Babbo did get some points very right. The atmosphere was polished without being formal, and the service very well trained (although the discipline instilled in the staff was perhaps a little too stiff). Our waiter was friendly and helpful in navigating the menu, even if he pushed the wine on us a bit too fast. The wine list was comprehensive in both price points and varieties; I was particularly impressed by their two whole pages of Super Tuscans. We were both very pleased with our starters: the salumi platter with dense soppressata and aromatic lamb prociutto (although it tasted strong enough to have come from a mutton), and divine carciofi alla romana where the artichoke hearts were actually outshone by the spicy and garlicy outer leaves.

On the other hand, our main courses did not live up to the legend. My "chianti stained pappardelle with wild boar ragu" was disappointing: the shaved pecorino cheese on top, not the sauce, provided its punch of flavor. It was a recipe without finesse: the soffritto was too coarsely chopped and under seasoned so that the flavors (the holy trinity: carrot, onion, celery) did not melt together and intensify. The wild boar was not succulent enough to fall apart meltingly into the sauce, as it should. The tomato did not coat each strand of pappardelle sufficiently, so that as soon as it began to grow cold, the noodles molded together in an unpleasant block. Although the sauce of Marcus' linguini with cockles, salami, and chili was much tastier, I again found the the preparation sloppy: one of my cockles was full of grit. And why would they import them from New Zealand right when shellfish season is beginning for North America?

Worst of all, I awoke in the night with a mild case of food poisoning lasting all day; I believe the long-traveled cockles to be at fault. An update will follow as to whether and how the general manager returns my phone call... I wouldn't mind a token for dinner at another of Batali's restaurant, Casa Mono. With the facts of this little Catalan tapas joint surpassing his Italian flagship, and his recent and well-publicized tour around Spain with Gwenyth Paltrow I wonder if Batali's allegience has changed from Italiano to Español.

14 September 2008

Pleasure Shared is Pleasure Multiplied

I've received a surprising amount of flak in recent months for keeping a blog. At first I found it simply surprising that others would care that much, but then grew perturbed by the closed mindset of these critics. Having grown up in Poland at various points during the 1980s and 1990s, my mother describes the political environment as epitomized by how even the cookbooks lied. Blogs tend to keep people truthful, and allow for the circulation of new ideas that would probably not get space or time in traditional media.

Particularly on such a creative subject as food and drink, nothing is more worthwhile than gathering information across as many sources as possible to keep inspiration flowing as fluidly as a zesty Zinfandel at a cocktail party.

This weekend, for example, I had a ball of a time bartending at a private party in Park Slope. The couple were celebrating their combined 100th birthday, and dozens of close friends had congregated in their gorgeous Brooklyn brownstone to celebrate. These people lived luxuriously and took their hors d'oeuvres and alcohols seriously. A friend of an editor at Food & Wine magazine described a gorgeous vodka and latke party: he hollowed out red new potatoes to serve as shot glasses for the Belvedere. The vodka soaked through, which made the vessels pleasant to munch on afterwards.

Our host proved a conoisseur of single malt Scotch. He broke out some excellent bottles from his collection at the party, my favorite of which was an 18-year-old Bowman. It tasted very smooth and full of peat; like a hand rolled cigarette with excellent tobacco. Back in Eastern Europe, where cigarette fumes are like incense as opposed to bigger air pollution problems, I grew to be very fond of tobacco. I found a peaty single malt gave me the flavor of cigarettes I like, without the congested lungs associated with the latter. Nice. Behind that was an 18-year-old Caol Ila. It was also nicely peaty, but it had the astringency of vodka. Not nearly as smooth. This wonderful man paid me to tend his bar, then sat down and chatted for over the course of an hour about the east versus west coast of Scotland, accompanied by this tasting.

08 September 2008

Food for Thought

"And it became clear to me that things which are subject to corruption are good" (Augustine's Confessions, Book VII, Chapter 12)

Put another way, if things are capable of going bad, they must have been good at some point before. Truly this is the same with food.

Right now in my fridge lurks a container of Duncan Hines Creamy Home-Style Dark Chocolate Fudge icing that I'm sure will long outlive me if I just gave it a chance. This is an example of very bad food, as its ingredient list long with various preservatives testifies. It certainly has already outlasted 3 trips to the farmer's markets and all the produce purchased, all the while lurking in the back of the fridge and intimidating a fresh bunch of radishes into shriveling. I worry slightly whenever I get a craving for this chocolate bad boy in a tub, and I am on the lookout for an easy recipe for chocolate icing to whip up in its place - a recipe preferably that includes a whole lot of perishable food items...

06 September 2008

A Tale of Two Dinners

Manna from Heaven or colossal bomb: two restaurant reviews in and around New York City. Both restaurants had been rated 4 out of 4 stars by the New York Times and topped the Zagat charts, yet only one lived up to its billing. It made me wish restaurant reviewers were more anonymous in this town...

Per Se: Subjective Memories of an Objectively Perfect Supper

After a year of stashing away our change inside an old Glenmorangie scotch box, my boyfriend Marcus and I took our savings to the most expensive restaurant in town, Per Se. Zagat’s concise review, “you’re worth it”, definitely piqued our interest. Their tasting menus were to be the ultimate indulgence of our enormous and curious appetites, and a peek into the lives of the fabulously wealthy who unlike ourselves, did not need to crack open their piggy bank for their dinner. It was hard not to be intimidated the night of our reservation as we dressed up for the evening. A student and a young professional were about to blow a quite substantial sum of money for one night’s experience, and we feared disappointment. Could it possibly live up to our hopes of unadulterated gastronomic bliss?

We held hands as we walked through Keller’s famous blue door, into a cavernous entryway. A dark, Zen-like interior immediately cooled us down from a sticky summer’s night: a sophisticated décor appealing to men in expensive suits. Marcus immediately loved it. The hostess and wait staff greeted us as if they had been expecting us for a long time – I suppose not so surprising given the mandatory 2 month advance notice on the booking. Our worries started to melt away once seated at our centrally located yet private table on the lower level, offering a panoramic view of the southwest corner of Central Park. To our right sat three generations of a family celebrating with tasting menus and many, many bottles of expensive wine. The elderly gentleman who paid for the evening seemed to enjoy it the most. On our left a table of four regulars flitted in and around, greeting each other and the staff with air kisses and laughter. They seemed to hardly taste their meal.

Marcus and I, on the other hand, were eating it all up. The evening started with a vintage year Rosé champagne served from an old-fashioned, wide-bottomed bottle, followed by their signature hors d’oeuvre that I feel epitomizes Keller’s dining experience: a miniature savory ice cream cone presented on a custom, solid silver tray that held the cone upright, like you might find at an ice cream parlor. Ethereally fresh smoked salmon minced and formed into a tiny scoop rested on whipped crème fraîche encased in a thin and crispy brioche cone. It’s been almost a year since I’ve tasted it, and I forget now whether it was chives he mixed in with the salmon, but I’ll never forget its cool, crisp, and creamy texture and the way it melted and then evaporated in my mouth. Yes, food in a three star Michelin restaurant is highly conceptualized, but it doesn’t have to stop being fun at the same time. There is no way anyone could eat this dish with a knife and fork. Keller was like an indulgent uncle, allowing us dessert before dinner.

Full disclosure before heading onto the next course: my last piece of seafood had been a fish stick at age seven. However, going into this meal I knew that if I was ever to overcome my phobia of seafood, it would only come from one of the most extraordinary kitchens in the world. Thus, although I opted out of the show stopping “Oysters and Pearls” with Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar, I devoured with relish the kitchen’s milder play on another caviar classic. They served me tender slices of the sturgeon itself, wrapped up in tiny, light blinis, accented by the smallest dollop of crème fraîche. I hardly allowed Marcus a taste I enjoyed it so much. In fact, and to my great surprise, by our unanimous vote of two the best dish of our entire four-hour meal was the “Crispy Skin Fillet of Royal Dorade” served with sungold tomatoes, summer squash, cipollini onion and marble potatoes with banyuls vinaigrette. I still dream of it. The flesh flaked off into substantial chunks that simply dissolved after a couple chews. The skin had not an excess drop of grease, with the texture of a very thin potato crisp possessing an innate sea salt flavor. It’s an accomplishment that I even remember the vegetable side, which I attribute to the intensity of its pan-roasted flavor.

We both had the “Peach Melba” Foie Gras, which served with peach jelly, glorified Rice Krispies and Melba toast, transported me back to childhood breakfasts of charred bread slathered with butter and jam. A succulent piece of lobster tail meat poached in butter followed. It was the first time I had ever enjoyed this crustacean, and the counterpoint of barely steamed baby peas and carrots served as the perfect counterpoint to highlight the meat’s inherent sweetness. The next plate of duck breast with slow baked beets, red current, jelly, and bulls blood greens in juniper wood aged balsamic vinegar sunk deep into our bones after this lighter fare. It was a pleasure to have a meat I could chew on as I sank even deeper into my hedonistic trance. Marcus and I went our separate ways on the next course, as I had roast lamb with corn, fava beans, polenta, and a fig and truffle sauce, and he couldn’t resist upgrading to a pan roasted sirloin of Blackmore Ranch’s Wagyu beef. We each insisted that our respective dishes won that round.

The five courses of dessert might have just passed me by, save by the sheer stunning skill of their pastry team. They left us with a goody bag of the most decadent, fudgy brownies of my life, which Marcus and I rationed well enough to last for a whole week of dark chocolate paradise. The evening, the meal, was a stunning leap above even what we had fantasized about the past year, to which my limited word allotment cannot do justice – never to be surpassed, except, perhaps until we go back again.

A Meal from Hell: Sinking my teeth into Xavier’s at Piermont

“This will be the perfect romantic weekend!” Marcus was so hopeful. We both desperately needed a break – him from his job, and I from the confines of the city. He pored through guidebooks, train, and bus schedules, using all of his networks and resources to surprise me with the perfect plan. Eventually he settled on Peter Kelly’s restaurant, Xavier’s at Piermont. We had watched Peter Kelly win on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef” reality television competition, and the Zagat review couldn’t have been more complimentary, with a food score higher than Per Se! An extremely rare score of 29 out of 30 for food! Not only was this a sure bet for a candle-lit dinner, but he also had found a cute B&B within walking distance so that we could turn it into an overnight trip. He could hardly believe how both clever and thoughtful he was.

When he had made our reservation for Friday evening, he had already requested the nine-course tasting menu with an accompanying wine pairing. We found it strange, then, when we sat down at our table in the tiny dining room, that the waiter and sommelier audibly whispered, debating whether to check our IDs. We should have known better at that point than to leave ourselves in these tactless and incompetent hands, but we were young (an over-21-type young I might add), and naively assumed the wait staff at such a fancy and expensive restaurant would have our best interests at heart.

Turns out they should have checked our liver function instead of our IDs as they increased the pour count on our wine and cognac with each grimace we made at the food. We were incredibly drunk by the end of the meal as glass after glass was pushed on us. Service could not have been more bored and indifferent. Our waiter could not be bothered to pay me any attention. He turned and walked away from our table in the middle a question I was asking him – twice! He showed up only to rush us into each successive course and glass of wine, urging us to gulp down the last dregs of the previous glass so that he could get on with the next. We were slurring our observations on a remarkably disappointing meal when we stumbled our way to the hotel that night. However, as is often the case with suffering through a traumatic event, we learned some valuable, practical lessons on fine dining:

1. When ordering a tasting menu, always specify your tastes and dislikes ahead of time and send back any dishes that do not cut muster.

Both Marcus and I prefer robust, savory flavors that pair well with red wine. After the meal began with 3 relatively interesting fish courses, we were excited to get to the main, hearty elements of the tasting. Yet the dishes grew progressively more forgettable and tasteless. A piece of steamed cod encrusted in plain, black poppy seeds was followed by a blanched chicken breast that had hardly even been seasoned with salt and pepper. I bit my lip to stop from laughing out loud when the waiter proudly announced, “This is the finest Murray chicken!” We buy Murray-brand chicken at our local store because they are the cheapest humanely raised birds available. The idea that his chest would swell with pride while serving me an unimaginative dish I could have cooked better at home was ludicrous and epitomized this failed dinner. At least that taste of my lipgloss temporarily woke up my bored taste buds.

I had previously assumed that I would always follow the kitchen’s lead with a tasting menu, using the opportunity to expand my palate and try dishes I wouldn’t normally. However, after suffering through 5 fish courses even after mentioning that I wasn’t too fond of fish or seafood, I have decided from now on to take a much more active role in deciding my next tasting menu. Any restaurant worth its grey sea salt will welcome feedback to create an unique menu.

2. Read reviews of restaurants outside of the New York metropolitan area with a skeptical eye.

While I am sure that there are some wonderful destination restaurants outside of New York City, I have yet to meet one. I was shocked at the disparity between the several reviews we had read and the reality of our evening at Xavier’s. I have come to realize that the only way to ensure the quality of a restaurant is the presence of vibrant competition. Xavier's would never have gotten away with such a substandard experience in Manhattan. It would have been more recently reviewed, its substandard quality exposed, and pushed out of the market by much more reliable competitors of the same bracket, such as Jean Georges or Gramercy Tavern.

I also have to consider the possibility that Xavier's does live up to its reviews – but only for special guests, including reviewers who must find it hard to be anonymous and drop by for a surprise repeat visit in such a small, out-of-the-way town. I sincerely hope this is not the case, and that Peter Kelly would never intentionally gamble his reputation while swindling a young couple of both their savings and a valuable Friday night.

3. Choose your dinner partner wisely

Peter Kelly’s magnificently underwhelming dinner would have been unbearable had I not had so much fun rolling my eyes, nudging, and whispering to Marcus about the surprising mistakes we endured at the hands of the wait staff and kitchen. The restaurant seemed frayed at the edges with lack of attention to details: no one folded our napkins when we got up to use the restroom, and we were given the wrong cutlery for a course. Since Marcus enjoys the pampering and attention to detail of a fancy restaurant as much as I do, we could marvel at this evening’s incompetencey together, turning it into an extraordinarily funny-if-it-wasn’t-so-expensive joke. We laughed about each different observation as we supported each other all the way to our bed. Dining and food is ultimately a social act, and although I still feel gypped out of a great meal, at least I didn’t waste my time as well.

[These and future restaurant reviews can be found on http://www.at-largemagazine.com/]

03 September 2008

Simple Vegetarian Pleasures

Day 2 of the Detox Diet.

One might imagine that trying to rebalance the body would require a bland palate of steamed vegetables and fish. Not so in this household.

Dinner was thrown together with the treasures of yesterday's market:

ELOTE ASADO - a stolen recipe from our favorite Mexican down the street. Roast the corn inside its husk in a 375˚ oven for 25-30 minutes. After allowing it to cool for a few minutes, peel back the husk into a convenient eating handle, pull off the silk strings at the tip of the ear in one tug. Season with a chili/paprika mix (a fajita powdered mix works really well), and grate cheese (I used parmesan here) over the still-hot cob to melt. Finish with several squeezes of lime.

TURKISH BREAD, AJVAR, FETA, AND TOMATO AND RED ONION SALAD - the Turkish market around the corner is a real find (92nd and 1st Av). Their bread is great, and I've already rhapsodied over ajvar in an earlier post, so I won't repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that simplicity is bliss, and that all this with a squeeze of lemon is even better.

...Today at Gourmet Garage NY Strip Steak was $11/lb on sale, Berkshire pork chops $5/lb... this diet may be over sooner than it began! More later.

01 September 2008

Post-DNC Eats: Vegetables are in again!

The Democratic National Convention inspired many of us to improve both ourselves and our country. To be better citizens. To make our voices heard. To eat better.

Campaigners and conventioners are notorious for both their long hours and poor diets: chips, donuts, and endless cups of coffee with the odd pizza thrown in. I shouldn't have been surprised then to have Marcus coming home craving nothing but raw vegetables. (You can read about his exploits and enjoy photos from his inside-access vantage point on his excellent blog on politics). I quickly hit the farmer's market and we made his recipe:

- 1 each red, yellow, and green bell pepper
- 1/2 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half
- 1 small to medium red onion
- 3 cloves garlic
- 8 oz. feta (this recent batch used Turkish feta, which is less briny and more creamy than the Greek or French styles)
- 2 lemons
- 1 bunch cilantro, washed, and chopped
- 2 cups dry couscous

Removing the stems and seeds, chop the bell peppers into small, bite-size, 1/2 inch pieces. Dice the onion into pieces the same size. Mince the garlic cloves roughly. Boil 2 Liters of water (I highly recommend owning an electric kettle). Just before the water's boiled, toast the couscous lightly in a large skillet, then add the water gradually, letting it cook in the skillet, for about 5 minutes or until the couscous grains have plumped up and are tender to bite.

Put everything into a big wooden serving bowl. Garnish with crumbled feta, cilantro, and lemon wedges.


Today, after weeks of Afghan rice and some kind of meat, I had more of the same- only this time it was Indian! 

There is a little place in Kabul that serves some delicious Indian cuisine. For lunch I had Spinach Mutton. The spinach was pureed and had a lovely, subtle aroma of cardamon and cinnamon that gave the lamb a lovely kick. I mixed in some steamed basmati rice and enjoyed! 

I was very excited about the garlic naan I ordered but it was soggy and too chewy. Ew! 

I forgave them for the naan once I (bravely) drank my sweet lassi from the plastic water bottle they put it in. It was only slightly sweet and was a great, soothing finish to a filling meal. 

The lassi bottling technique reminded me of the brandy Serbian grandfathers make and put in 1.5 liter Coca-Cola bottles. Classy!

Until we meet again,