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Welcome to tastingmenu.com. My repository for thoughts and notes on my eating experiences. Hopefully you'll find something enjoyable, entertaining, or informative. Click here to see where I'm coming from.

 

Sunday, March 30, 2003, 6:53PM


Everything's relative. In a space of a couple of weeks we got to eat at the establishments of father and son Armandino Batali's Salumi in Seattle, WA, and Mario Batali's Babbo on New York City. The son is a Food Network TV chef. The father was a career employee of Boeing, who in retirement opened up a lunch place downtown. Both are firmly routed in Italian cuisine. Let's start with the father. Open almost exclusively for lunch Salumi is tucked away on an odd corner outside of Pioneer Square downtown. It has room for about ten people to sit down in the back of the long narrow establishment. During the height of lunch hour the line snakes out the door and onto the sidewalk. As Italian lunch places go on the east coast Salumi is very very good. As Italian lunch places go in Seattle, Salumi is unreal, fantastic, and alone. Salumi on the east coast would be wonderful, but it's uniqueness in Seattle, along with the star factor of being Mario's father's joint gives it that special something that gets it write-ups in all the food magazines, and a local cult following. Circumstances aside, Salumi deserves the accolades. It's more than just the food, the atmosphere is wonderful as well. The people behind the counter couldn't be nicer. At the beginning of the line you're often offered little samplings of yummy meats to tide you over until you make it to the end of the line and get your lunch. In addition to making you feel very very welcome, it also whets your appetite and encourages you to order more. This hospitality isn't limited to while you're in line. Despite the fact that the place was full, the staff made every effort to find the four of us a spot to sit down by the time our food was ready. They also brought us a couple of extra dishes in the middle of our lunch cause they thought we might want to try them. Essentially it was like eating at my grandmother's. We felt spoiled and great. :) What did we eat? The sandwiches were wonderful - meatball; a wonderful fennel sausage; veal cheeks; and grilled lamb. Additionally the proscuitto and gorgonzola with homemade day old mozzarella was great. So was the grilled eggplant. The food was hot, fresh, full of wonderful flavors, and authentic. Despite the hype, they surpassed our expectations. Lauren wants to go once a week. It should be noted that up on the wall was a chalkboard featuring the menu from their last dinner. Once a month they put on a dinner for their best and most regular customers (we heard it takes about two years of making appearances to get invited). From the looks of the menu it appears to be a worthwhile investment.

06-pyramidswithromano.jpgA month before our trip to New York City I had to wake up early several mornings in a row to book our reservations at the places we wanted to eat. Many of the popular restaurants won't take reservations more than a month in advance. Since our flights were already booked I took no chances and called as they opened - 9-10am East coast time! There were eight of us eating on Saturday night. Some places we booked had tables for eight, some didn't. Those that didn't accommodated us by putting us at two tables. We understood and didn't expect to be near each other, just to have two reservations at roughly the same time. The snooty lady taking reservations at Babbo informed me that they didn't take parties larger than six. I said "no problem, just make two reservations for four." That was apparently not an option. Babbo literally did not take parties larger than six. The logic of this completely escaped me. I wasn't insisting that we sit near each other. A quick call to a friend (who called Babbo under a different name) took care of that and we had two reservations for four despite the crazy Babbo rules. This little wackiness started to give me a bad feeling, but I was really excited for some very high end Italian food and Babbo might fit the bill. Fast forward to our Saturday night in New York City. We sat in two groups - me and Debbie, Steve and Kira at one table, and Peyman, DebDu, Lauren, and Alex at a second table. As it happens we ended up getting seated right across from each other, which we found pretty funny. For awhile we tried to be discreet about the fact that we knew each other but it seemed silly after a bit. After all, if we'd seen friends out at Babbo accidentally would we have ignored them? On to ordering. There was one main reason I wanted to eat at Babbo - the pasta tasting menu. There were two tasting menus offered that evening as well as a broad a la carte menu. This diversity would have been welcome except that it was constrained by more rules. If you got a tasting menu, then everyone at the table had to get the same tasting menu. I understand when restaurants insist on everyone at the table getting a tasting menu, but this seemed kind of crazy. It was even worse at the other table as Lauren was a vegetarian and they wouldn't even accommodate her. She was allowed to pick one tasting menu, and then substitute one dish. Whatever dish she substituted everyone else had to have the same substitution as well. And if there was more than one meat dish she was out of luck. They ended up going a la carte. After my impassioned plea, we ended up all getting the pasta tasting menu. I took the fact that Babbo offered a tasting menu entirely of pasta as a challenge. Who could make a seven course dinner focusing entirely on pasta interesting? If Batali thought he could do it, I had to let him try. This reasoning did the trick. And I'm sure glad it did, because our dinner was absolutely fantastic. Four feet away at the other table the a la carte meal was certainly good but didn't reach the heights or the consistency of ours. Things started off with some decent Tuscan bread - no butter, no olive oil. Afterwards we got Chickpea Bruschetta in Olive Sauce - this was yummy even for non-olive lovers. Usually overtoasted (in my experience) this bruschetta was surprisingly tender in the middle. Next up was Black Tagliatelle with Parsnips and Pancetta serverd with a 2000 Pinot Grigio "Plus" Bastianich - Deb said this was the best pasta she had ever tasted. Kira said she couldn't stop smiling. It really was fantastic - a great dish with balanced flavor (including some nuttiness) which wasn't overwhelming and a very complementary wine. Despite the crazy rules at Babbo (the walls were dotted with little framed quotations - Alex thought they might be additional rules you had to live under while dining there), the dinner had started off wonderfully. And furthermore, I ascribe the uptight behavior entirely to the management staff. The waitstaff were wonderful. We would never want to make their life harder. Waiting tables is a very hard job. That said, there were occasions when the coast was clear that we would pass some morsels back and forth between our tables. Why should one table get to taste something and the other not? We came here to eat. We timed it so that it would never interfere with the service routine, but still got a dirty look at one point from one of the hosts. Oh well. We were determined to have a great time, and the pasta tasting menu didn't disappoint. Next up was Fennel and Potato Ravioli with Opal Basil and Brown Butter accompanied by a 2001 Alto Adige Sauvignon "St. Valentin" San Michele Appiano. They grated Crottonese Cheese on top. While the others thought that this dish was less exciting than the first and a bit undersalted, I really enjoyed it. I particular loved the unique quality that browned butter has as well as the striking contrast between the fennel and the fresh basil. The wine was also great with a strong mango aroma. Neat! Next up was Garganelli with Funghi Trifolati served with a 2000 Chianti Classico, La Massa. The Chianti was a little strong and crisp to accompany this particular pasta dish. But the past was excellent. The dream of the perfect pasta dish is comprised of perfectly al dente pasta, a balanced (not overpowering) sauce that is served fresh and hot in interesting combinations with the pasta. There is a joke about someone complaining to an Italian about how boring their cuisine is. The Italian responds proudly of the diversity of Italian food using the hundreds of different shapes of pasta as evidence supporting his claim. This is funny on the surface, but that evening on Babbo I knew the response to be true. The shape/thickness, etc. of the pasta has so much interplay with the other items in the dish that I truly believe these aspects are underrated in terms of how a dish ends up coming together. Other than some of the weird attitude issues, there were a couple of other minor nits. Deb wished there was some sort of salad as part of the tasting menu - seems like it wouldn't have been a problem to come up with something that included pasta. Also there were sometimes pretty long delays between dishes which made me wonder again why they were so strict about the ordering policy if they were going to be somewhat inconsistent with the timing between courses. Next up was Alejandro's Pyramids with Butter and Thyme served with a 2001 Aglianico "Donnaluna" DeConciliis. Pretty proud of myself for understanding the reference I asked the waiter if this Alejandro was Alexander the Great. Apparently Alejandro is the guy in the kitchen who makes these pyramid shaped pasta treats. Furthermore is Alejandro really Alexander in English? Who knows. Who cares. They were wonderful. Filled with braised shortribs and sprinkled with freshly grated Peccorino Romano we were worried about the heaviness of this dish, but it ended up being light and delicious - reminiscent of Dim Sum according to Kira. The parsley and butter on top were absolutely beautiful tasting. Next up was Pappardelle Bolognese served with a 1997 Valpolicella Superiore "La Bandina" Tenuta Sant Antonio. According to Steve this dish was "friggin' great". It reminded him and Kira of a heart soup. Again I found the parsley a surprisingly positive and noticeable addition. The flavor and texture balance were perfect. The pasta again was cooked to the exact and appropriate nanosecond. The best pasta comes together seconds before it's eaten. For this reason I understand some of the prickliness at Babbo around ordering. It's hard to pull this off as the window is so small before the pasta moves beyond perfection into something less. Dessert started off with Apricot and Carrot "Marmellata" with Goat Milk Curd served with Franciacorta Brut NV, Ca'del Bosco. Carrots for dessert? Cool! Debbie loved the sour and sweet combination. This palate cleanser was the perfect segue. Maybe to show they weren't so rigid we ended up with two different desserts - two of each. One was Saffron Panna Cotta with Citrus Three Ways served with a 1999 Malvasia Passito "Vigna del Volta" La Stoppa. The other was a Pineapple Crostada with Rum Zabaglione and insanely thin slices of dried pineapple. They must have made them with a deli meat slicer. This dish was truly and surprisingly wonderful. I'm not a sweet wine fan, but everyone else at the table seemed to like this glass. The chef had dared me to order his pasta tasting menu. I did and was not the least bit disappointed. I was in fact very very impressed. So impressed that even the wacky rules of the restaurant didn't bother me. On our way to get our coats I was greeted by the host who asked me how it was that they had two parties who appeared to know each other. I told him it was a complete coincidence. He responded "somehow I doubt that". I repeated my claim of innocence. It's true that we'd dodged their rules. And I wasn't admitting it in the face of a direct accusation. That said, who wants to be accused when they go out to dinner (and a very expensive dinner at that). The management knew that we had not played by the rules. Fine. What purpose did it serve trying to rub it in my face after I enjoyed my meal? If he wanted to ask me not to do it again, that would have been reasonable. But instead he had to stick it to me. What a jerk. And the food was so good I would still go back. Weird. That said, the experience at the other table had it's highs, but the experience was not nearly as consistent as what we had. So who knows. As we walked out the door of Babbo Tony Bennet passed us going in for his dinner. I bet he could have a part of more than six, and wouldn't get any dirty looks from the host. Since Alex and company had essentially a different meal/experience he took notes as well. We've included them so you can get the full experience.

 

“First course: Duck egg with truffles and bacon. The truffles in this dish (shaved) had surprisingly little flavor, but nice mild taste. Good bread (toasted). Overall nice balance, I’d make this at home; Sformato of Butternut Squash- good taste, simple and mild; Salad of Root Vegetables - the brussel sprouts were delicious, melted in the mouth, rich. but overall a little oily, the goat cheese was lame, the pomegranates were a nice touch. Second course: Beef Ravioli- really good, very intense truffles; Pasta with Mushrooms (Garganelli) - Peyman- “I love it, good flavor of mushrooms, pasta” (this is what was served as part of the pasta tasting menu); Chestnut Tagliatoni with Rabbit - the rabbit was tender, pasta a little clumpy, maybe not cooked right, no noticeable chestnut flavor (I didn’t remember what it was until I saw the bill); Maccheron Chitara - pasta with red peppers, the breadcrumbs were the star here and created a great texture, though not enough spices, 10 for texture. 6.5 for flavor, garlic slices with very little flavor, I liked it, nice very subtle, but Lauren thought it was tasteless, it would have worked better if there was overall better taste balance. Third course: Beef Shortribs- most folks agreed this was the best 3rd course, the beef itself was tender, flavorful, with a rich wine sauce, the polenta was creamy but a weird contrast with the beef; Fish (Branzino) - very nice tableside preparation, subtle taste, side dish of lemon curds made the dish awesome; Duck with Pomegranate - somewhat bland, least flavorful duck I’ve tasted in awhile. Dessert: the pineapple thing was amazing. The banana thing was good. Wine: started with a white - Schiopetto (get name from bottle from Peyman’s pics), good, crisp, a bit of a funny finish; Red- Amarone Masi Serego 1997 - amazing, best amarone I’ve had in a long time. Amarone is one of my favorite Italian wines. Concentrated by raisining the grapes. This one nose was rich and grapey (in a good way). Taste was also grapey, with some currant, and backed up with nice solid tannins. Like most good amarone it opened up nicely over an hour unfolding different tastes and textures. I would seek this one out and buy some for my cellar. Dessert wine: Izbrani Pladovim Movia 1994 Late Harvest Tocai (Fruliano?) - from Slovenia, good, with nice round floral and orange, but not as deep and rich as I like. Grappa: Ribolla Gialla Nonino - Chardonnay Nonino - Grappa di Calabrone Bastianich - rustic. Reminds me of a good Armagnac, with a variety of tastes weaving in and out.”

 

I love both Salumi, and Babbo. If Babbo could have had more of the attitude we found at Salumi it would have not only had great food, but would have been a welcoming place as well. I will definitely go back to both places. Whether Babbo will have me back is a different story. I know Salumi will.

 

Saturday, March 29, 2003, 11:59PM


Back to our New York City trip. On Friday night -  after Daniel and the night before PizzaGanza - we stopped at a couple of restaurants that Lauren and Alex had found (and fallen in love with) a couple of days prior. First was Mamouns for falafel. I love middle eastern food, and Arabic food in particular can be fantastic. Having been to Israel many many times, I've gotten to taste quite a few dishes. The Israeli's have eagerly made many of the Arab dishes their own. And although I prefer the Arab versions often, falafel is a case where I prefer the Israeli version mainly because it's smaller. Alex just loved Mamouns. Afterwards we made a stop at Bar Pitti - a neighborhood Italian restaurant in the village. Despite it's unappealing (to me) name, Bar Pitti is a wonderful little restaurant - just the kind I wish existed in Seattle. They serve a series of simple Italian dishes that are super fresh, very full of flavor, and delicious. Why this deceptively simple combination is so hard to find, I don't really know. We had several dishes including Spinach with Garlic Clove - very fresh and "spinachy"'; Penne Arabiatta - al dente pasta with balanced spicyness, essentially perfect; Buffalo Mozarella and Roasted Red Peppers (Pepperonata); Melanzane Parmigianna; Carpaccio with Rucola and Parmigiano and Fresh Greens and Lemon - really yummy (and according to Steve) zesty!

 

Wednesday, March 26, 2003, 1:33AM


Our friend Lauren is a vegetarian. When it comes to food, this feels like a bit of a crime to me. For someone who loves food as much as she does, why does she limit herself to such a narrow selection of it? She always says that it's not because she has a love for animals, but that she hates plants. Joking aside, I think her days as a vegetarian are numbered. I think FatBurger will pull her onto the dark side in the next few months. And if that doesn't do it, these baked tofu snacks might do the trick.

Speaking of FatBurger, I think I'm going to start a national restaurant review section at some point soon.

 

Monday, March 24, 2003, 11:59PM


The Seattle Times has a review of a new restaurant - the LibraryBistro and Bookstore Bar. It used to be the Painted Table which never made much of an impression on me. Maybe this will be different.

 

Saturday, March 22, 2003, 2:01PM


Passover is coming up in a few weeks. I need to plan my menu. I'm torn between tradition and really doing something interesting. Whitefish sashimi and fresh wasabi instead of Gefilte Fish and horseradish? Probably need to do something in between (or both). The Los Angeles Times (free registration required) has an article about a restaurant in LA with amazing brisket.

 

Thursday, March 20, 2003, 10:26PM


The Academy Awards is coming up. The Boston Globe talks about nominated movies from a food perspective.

 

Tuesday, March 18, 2003, 7:13PM


Thanks to a site I enjoy (and have mentioned here before) The Making of a Restaurant, is this great link to "Cookin' With Google". This is very very cool. Basically through some hackery, you can type in any ingredients you want and then Google scans recipe sites to find a recipe that utilizes those ingredients. Just scan the fridge for scraps and have Google tell you what to cook. Cool.

 

Sunday, March 16, 2003, 11:02PM


DebDu sent an e-mail about an article this month in Vogue about truffles and truffle oil. Apparently, according to the author, very few truffle oils have ever been remotely close to a truffle. Most contain 2,4-Dithiapentane a "naturally derived chemical that duplicates the predominant smell of white truffles (but not the subtler aromas). Apparently, this chemical (sometimes referred to as "white truffle aroma" or "natural truffle flavor") is pretty cheap, which doesn't account for the huge markup on these tiny bottles of faux truffle oil. The author recommends: Urbani's Oil, Canolla White Truffle Paste (available at Garden of Eden in NY), La Truffiere White Truffle Paste (available from JR mushrooms and Specialties), and Chef Ready Truffle Butter. What a scoop!

 

Saturday, March 15, 2003, 11:59PM


09-totonnospizza.jpgRecently I asked a bunch of friends (who regularly appear on this site) the following question: what is your favorite food? Unbelievably, eight out of ten said "sushi".  Lauren (the vegetarian) said something I've since forgotten (risotto?). Debbie said "pizza". Last year on Debbie's birthday we did a surprise trip to Las Vegas with a bunch of friends. Hard to top.

This year we were going to stay in Seattle, but do a big pizza tasting (and scoring) event in Seattle for her birthday. When we were discussing this a few months ago, Steve pointed out that the best pizza is in New York (not in Seattle), and Lauren decided the right thing to do was to have the pizza event in New York. So that's exactly what we did.

And although we had scheduled several hours during the day on Saturday to eat Pizza, walking around the Village after our dinner at Daniel, Debbie couldn't wait to get the PizzaGanza™ (named by Steve) started early. So late Saturday night we did some warm-up pizza eating at Pizza Box, and Bleecker St. Pizza. Debbie's quick impressions were that Pizza Box had good crust, oily cheese, and not enough flavor. Bleecker St. Pizza had good crust and a sauce with a bit more flavor. Just some quick feedback given that these were the warm-up/baseline pizza places.

The next day, at 10:30am a Lincoln megastretch limousine pulled up in front of our hotel. Ten of us piled in and were off to the races. Some context is necessary up front. How did we pick the pizza places to try? Basically, I scoured the web, polled friends, checked out articles, and compiled a list of best bets. Debbie was hardcore about her pizza so any place with a "fresh take" on pizza or a "new style" of pizza or a "unique approach" to pizza was automatically disqualified. Once we had a list of places to try, we needed to come up with a scoring system. Five categories seemed right... the first three were easy - crust, sauce, and cheese. After that "ingredient balance" seemed like a good choice, but we still needed another category to round out the set. Pizza is a portable food, and also one you eat with your hands. "Foldability" is key to both of those, so it seemed like a good category to add; basically, how well the slice holds up when it's folded. This category would later be a source of great consternation and debate. Each category was rated by each taster on a scale of 1-5 (with 1 being the worst, and 5 being the best). Billy our awesome limo driver (who brought Italian music and Godfather videos) voted as well, and Debbie's votes counted twice since it was her birthday. And finally, what kind of pizza would we try at each place? A simple slice. No pepperoni, no additives. The only way to judge is on a slice.

The limo took off and we realized a few things: 1) pizza places in New York city don't open until 11:00-11:30am at the earliest on a Saturday, 2) Coney Island (Totonno's) and Harlem (Patsy's) are far apart, 3) many places don't serve slices - whole pies only. As it happens we only made it to four of the five places we wanted to try since it took much longer than we expected (3.5 hours total for four pizza places). And the no slice policy wasn't too much of an issue as there were 11 of us so we ordered pies anyway. Ok... back to the limo.

We were a little early for pizza so we decided to start with Totonno's located all the way in Coney Island. There's a Totonno's located in Manhattan, but I read that many people swear by the original in Coney Island. We showed up a little early so we bummed around on the boardwalk for a bit. It was freezing, so hot pizza was just what the doctor ordered. Totonno's was definitely the place to start. What can I say, it just kicked ass. While we watched them make our pizza, they served up some mozzarella slices to get us in the right frame of mind. I thought the Totonno's pie was unbelievably fresh and delicious. If I had one tweak it might be that as good as the sauce was it could have been even more flavorful. This was definitely the best pizza I had ever had. Steve agreed. Lauren said that the crust was perfectly thin but not salty/tangy enough, with a light sauce. But she felt the cheese was a little salty. Leslie thought the crust was great and smoky (in a good way). We all loved the atmosphere. We ate our pizza right in the shop.

Next up was Grimaldi's. We ate there. Grimaldi's (also in Brooklyn) didn't do as well. Their pie was oily and didn't have enough flavor. Debbie was not a fan. Lauren felt the crust was crispy but there wasn't enough cheese or flavor. Alex said "oily, very plain". Leslie felt that fresh garlic made it better (what doesn't it make better), and DebDu loved the fresh basil. Debbie however felt that the basil compromised the pizza and the purity of the contest. This was a major point of contention.

Up next was Lombardi's. Lombardi's (in Manhattan) is a long and narrow establishment with a big coal oven in the way back. The front of the oven is tiled with the date of its creation 1905. The wait was long, but not worth it for what we got. Debbie hated it. Lauren said the crust was "soggy". Steve just said it was "wrong". Debdu felt the flavor was up there but the consistency wasn't.

Finally we went to John's Pizzeria. John's on Bleecker brought us full circle to where we had been the night before. Overall their pie did better than the previous two. Lauren said "chewy cheese, soggy crust, sweet sauce". Steve rated it highly but felt it was a little overcooked, DebDu felt there was too much cheese. We wanted to go to Patsy's but there wasn't enough time and we were pretty pizza'd out. It took me figuring out how to use pivot tables in Excel but we were able to tally up the scores. Note that Totonno's cleaned up scoring the highest in every category but the controversial Foldability category where Grimaldi's came in first.

 

 

Pizza Place

Crust

Sauce

Cheese

Foldability™

Balance

 





 

Totonno's

3.91

3.82

3.82

3.36

4.18

 

John's

3.00

2.45

2.27

2.91

2.18

 

Lombardi's

2.00

3.67

2.78

2.33

2.11

 

Grimaldi's

2.44

3.11

3.00

3.67

3.22

 

Original data from which scores were compiled.

Here are the final summary scores. Since there was such a fuss over the validity of the Foldability as a legitimate/definable/measurable category we added up the totals with and without it listed. It didn't make a bit of difference. Also, since Lauren and Alex felt that Steve was throwing off the weighting because of his own interpretation of the rules, we cross-checked the results with each person's stackrank of the winners.

 
 

Pizza Place

Score out of 25

Score out of 20*

 


 

Totonno's (1)

19.09

15.73

 

John's (2)

15.44

11.78

 

Lombardi's (3)

12.89

10.56

 

Grimaldi's (4)

12.82

9.91

 

*Foldability not counted in these scores.

Bottom line, Totonno's kicked ass (with or without Foldability). I think most folks felt it was the best pizza they had ever had - Steve and me specifically. While Debbie (our resident pizza expert) felt it was the best of the day but not the best she's ever had. That, she reserves for Patsy's (no relation) in Springfield, Massachusetts. We never did get to try the Totonno's in Manhattan for comparison, but I definitely will. Maybe you can get the quality without the commute. I've never been obsessed with pizza, but this day was helpful in putting things in perspective - Seattle pizza sucks. New York Pizza kicks ass. Totonno's rocks.

 

Wednesday, March 12, 2003, 11:59PM


Speaking of Zagat, I got the Zagat Seattle guide in the mail today. I'm not entirely sure why. I think I may have signed up on their website and rated participated in the Seattle survey. This was a few weeks before they became a pay site. The Zagat guide is funny in a way. On the one hand (after reading through reviews of several restaurants I'm familiar with) it doesn't seem entirely reliable as an indicator of whether a restaurant will really deliver for you. (Though some might say that about this site.) The collaborative survey-based reviews are mostly overly positive as far as I can tell with the "stinger" thrown in at the end of each review. What does it mean when one restaurant gets a 23 for food and one gets a 27? I'm not sure. That said, the guide is super useful to spark ideas about what to try when you're looking for something new.

Speaking of reviews, Jay Weston of Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter generously sent me a copy of his monthly 12 page effort. There used to be a really cool underground magazine called FactSheet5. It was a guide to thousands of tiny newsletters, publications and independent magazines called "zines". DIY publishing was pretty exciting 7-8 years ago, and then the web arrived. FactSheet5 finally closed a couple of years ago as all that independent publishing energy went into the web. Jay's newsletter is a really great regular publication featuring not only restaurant reviews (mostly for the Los Angeles area) but his casual musings on food, the food scene, restaurants, insider's secrets, food biz gossip, and all things restaurant/food related. Choice quote from this issue: "the Soprano Cook Book is a dreary and exploitive trash tome". That said, I wonder why the newsletter is still a print affair. It's a subscription, but there's no reason it couldn't be done online. And then it could be updated more often, and the pictures could be in color - for free! If you'd like to subscribe ($70 for 12 issues) you can contact Jay at jayweston@adelphia.net.

Bordeaux 2000. The best vintage in 20 or even 40 years. The Boston Globe writes about wine values that are to be found.

The food book hotlist from the Los Angeles Times (free registration required).

 

Tuesday, March 11, 2003, 11:37PM


This is pretty funny. All the quotes that Zagat couldn't print in their restaurant synopses. Alex found it.

 

Saturday, March 8, 2003, 11:59PM


13-choclate.jpgWhile over a thousand visits a month to tastingmenu.com are nothing to sneeze at, we're not under any delusions that we're a major media phenomenon (or even a minor one for that matter). This site is more like a minor minor minor minor one. That said, it's still fun. And a funny thing is happening along with it. On the plane from Seattle to New York I was writing up more reviews for posting on my laptop. The woman sitting next to me asked me what I was doing and if I was a restaurant reviewer. What am I supposed to say to that? I told her that a group of us love food, and are obsessively documenting our eating adventures on this site. As it turns out, much of it ends up being in the form of restaurant reviews that some number of people are starting to consult regularly. So I guess the answer to her question of "are you a restaurant reviewer" is yes. Now roll backwards roughly a month to me up at 6 in the morning frantically calling restaurants in New York for reservations (many of the best only take them exactly a month in advance). During one of my several conversations with the friendly folks at Daniel I asked if we might be able to meet the chef and/or visit the kitchen after our meal. The woman on the other end of the conversation took me by surprise by asking me if I was "in the business". I was caught by surprise. I told her about the site, playing it down and positioning it (honestly) as a journal of our culinary adventures that did in fact contain many restaurant reviews. According to the Association of Food Journalists (of which I am not a member), I had just committed a major faux pas. Their guidelines emphasize strict anonymity for restaurant reviewers. They discuss a variety of tactics (pseudonyms, making reservations from pay phones, paying with cash, etc.) to maintain that anonymity. While I realize that a restaurant will typically pay special attention to a reviewer eating at one of their tables, I also believe that a restaurant can't be more than it can be. A restaurant that's fundamentally mediocre can only be at their best of their mediocre range for a reviewer. They can't really do better than the DNA of the establishment will allow. If you think they can, then you're underestimating how much time, effort, and skill it takes to get a restaurant functioning at a high level. I also believe that at really great restaurants reviewers don't get treated better than any regular or enthusiastic patron. Well before we started putting reviews up on the web, we got treated wonderfully at our favorite restaurants just because we came on a regular basis, and we expressed a lot of interest in and excitement about the food they were serving and the people who made it. So, with that bit of preamble off my chest, let's get back to Daniel. A few months ago I read The Fourth Star by Leslie Brenner - the account of how Daniel got from three to four stars awarded by the New York Times (free registration required). Daniel is one of only six restaurants in New York awarded four stars by the New York Times - all are high end French. I love the behind-the-scenes restaurant books and this was no exception. The book had also filled my mind with mental images of every detail of Daniel - the dining room, the kitchen, and most of all the food. I was determined to see (and eat) what I had read about. When you're flying 10 people across the country to go out to eat, you confirm your reservations several times. Over those several conversations, the staff at Daniel was consistently and unbelievably friendly. I know this may sound like an odd thing to call out, but my experience on the phone with other restaurants (more on that in later reviews) was less than positive. Despite being commonly appreciated as one of the if not the best restaurant in New York City the people answering the phone were clearly trying hard. Fast forward to Friday, February 14, Valentine's Day - our dinner at Daniel. We didn't make things easy on the staff as we underestimated traffic in NYC. Reservations were for 5:45, most of us we're 15-20 minutes late, and a two of the folks in our party were an hour late. Traffic was crazy. Was the staff stressed? Pressuring? Unfriendly? Not even close. They were easy, flexible, and made us comfortable. We were much more worried about screwing up the timing of the service than they appeared to be. Alright, enough preamble, let's get to the food. The menu was a four course tasting menu for $155 (add $85 for the wine pairings). There were in fact two tasting menus - his and hers. I love that concept as it doubles the number of creations we get to taste. As long as you're companion is someone who wants to share, you're in good shape. First up was a tower of 4 different amuse bouche (small tastes to get things in gear). The first was a Parmesan Basket filled with goat cheese, pine nuts, and herbs - I've never tasted anything with as much concentrated (and fantastic) parmesan flavor, and such a long finish. The others included: Oyster Veloute with lemongrass, oyster, and sea urchin served in a spoon - I'm typically not an uni fan but I loved it; Tuna Tartare with citrus vinaigrette and Osetra caviar - what's not to love; and Fresh Duck Liver Tartlette - cold pates are not usually my top choice, but this was unbelievably smooth and sweet - perfect. At this point, the bread server started coming around on a regular basis. I usually try not to eat too much bread at dinner so as not to fill up and not be able to enjoy the later courses. Ignoring the bread at Daniel is essentially impossible. The choices included: walnut raisin; black olive; the best garlic focaccia I've ever had (and it wasn't even warm) with a perfectly roasted garlic clove buried in the middle of each piece; sourdough; butter roll; and three seed bread. Everything was great. Next up in the "Saveur" portion of the menu was Le Crabe at la Mangue - North Pacific Dungeness Crab Salad with Mango Jicama Mint and Coriander dressing; and Le Homard et le Curry - Chilled Lobster with a Thai Red Curry dressing and Coconut and Tapioca Veloute with Lime and Lemongrass. These dishes were so delightful that I forgot to photograph them. D'oh! The wine pairing was Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, Graves 1998. The combination of the tapioca and the lobster was a pleasant surprise. The crab dish was delicious and almost comforting in a way. Next up in the "Truffe" course was La Saint Jacques et la Laitue - Sea Scallops with Black Truffle, Braised Lettuce, Sweet Onions, Artichokes, and a Lettuce Emulsion; and Le Cabillaud et l'Endive - Roasted Cod with Truffled Endives, Leeks, Celery Root, Crosnes, and a Black Truffle Jus. The wine pairing was Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cry "Vergers", M. Morey 1999. The scallop was perfect - tender and grilled, juicy, flavorful, delicious. I can't say enough about that scallop. And who would ever imagine that braised lettuce could be anything to write home about? The timing required to get it to be tender but not soggy must be incredibly precise. They hit it of course. The Cod was also amazing with its flavor straining to get out but never pushy. Overall the Cod dish was mellow and deep. It was at this point in the meal that we started to see a theme to the dishes - each was an ensemble performance. The main ingredient definitely featured but not overpowering, and each dish almost focused on creating a new compound flavor. Peyman felt like every bite was a "new flavor medley". It was time for the "Epice" course: L'Agneau et la Pistache - Pistachio Crusted Rack of Lamb with Dried Fruit, Saffron, and Cinnamon Braised Shoulder and Cumin Panisses; and Le Pigeon et L'Orange Sanguine - Blood Orange and Honey Glazed Roasted Squab with Swiss Chard, Fennel Fondue and "Grains of Paradise" Sauce. The wine pairing was Chateau Calon Segur, 2nd Cru Classe, Saint Estephe 1994. The lamb was like butter. It was almost like a lamb infused foie gras. The squab was excellent as well - resembling an incredible steak. Dessert however, was unreal. The basket of warm madelines with a hint of citrus in them was certainly the star, but the rest of the many many items were fantastic as well. First was Le Manjari et l'Ananas - a trio of Manjari Chocolate, Passion, Pineapple, and a Tropical Fruit Sorbet (Debbie's birthday edition); and then Le Chocolat et le Gingembre - Extra Bitter Caraibe Chocolate-Passion Miroir with Passion Fruit Ice Cream, Raspberry and Ginger. Everything was great but the fruit glace in particular was mind-blowing. So simple, and so perfect. The sourness of the fruit came through beautifully. And finally, Petit Fours with wonderful little cookies and chocolates - some of the chocolates with perfect tiny hearts printed on their surface for Valentine's day. Dessert was accompanied by Champagne Taittinger Rose N.V. Tasty and pink for the occassion. It's nice to know that even at a restaurant as high end as Daniel there is still a sense of humor. There are some additional important notes to round out the description of the evening. Lauren was pretty disappointed in her vegetarian meal. While quantity is not usually a measure we're too concerned about there just wasn't enough food for her (especially compared to what we got). Given that they have a relatively rich and thoughtful regular veggie menu on their website I have to imagine that this was an oddity of the particular evening we were there (more on that in a bit). On balance though, Lauren also made it clear that the Risotto she had (mushroom with a little bit of truffle) was the best she's had in her entire life. She's a pretty demanding customer when it comes to risotto so that's high praise. The dining room was also very interesting. I had imagined an environment that was so rich I might not feel comfortable. I had heard that it was simply too big. While it couldn't be described as intimate, it was certainly very warm. The shades of red, peach, and apricot filled the room. The Red Vanda Orchids placed on the table in a simple glass cube also helped keep things accessible and comfortable. We were also fortunate to get a great tour of the kitchen from the Chef himself. I can best describe it as big (though smaller than I imagined from the description in the book), busy (but calm), very well designed, and beautiful with the copper pots contrasting with the French style green tiles that lined the walls. So, in conclusion, dinner was fantastic. And to be fair, compared to 99% of meals you have, the Daniel experience was not to be believed. But we're lucky enough to be optimizing our dining adventures around the best eating experiences we can find. And in that league, there was something missing from our meal. Each dish was technically flawless. But overall I still felt like we hadn't seen the truest essence of what the kitchen could deliver. It's not a question of quality but more of letting the true intentions of both the ingredient and the chef shine. It wasn't that anything was less than delicious, it was more that I felt like we hadn't seen the soul of the ingredients in some of the dishes. And we knew it was possible because on dishes like the tiny parmesan basket, the scallop, the madelines, and even the fruit glace, that soul came through loud and clear. I don't think it's a surprise that these dishes were also among the simplest we ate. When we were lucky enough to meet Chef Boulud in his kitchen our suspicions were confirmed. (BTW, meeting him was fun. You can't not love a Chef who's favorite TV show is Iron Chef. Especially since we've been to just about every Iron Chef restaurant ourselves.) As wonderful as everything was, he noted, that Valentine's day is the wrong night to come to a restaurant like Daniel. One local Seattle chef described February 14th as "tourists' night". This is the night when couples who go out to a fancy meal once a year, once a decade, or once in a lifetime, come out with all their high expectations, and their inexperienced palates. I'm not saying that Boulud dumbed it down for the Valentine's diners. In fact, I give the restaurant credit for recognizing who's coming and trying to give them a Daniel experience that's both authentic and accessible. If I sound spoiled saying that this wonderful meal was not the truest essence of what Daniel is capable of, it's because I am spoiled - pleasantly so. The experience was great. When I think of the dishes that spoke to me I instantly salivate. If anything, the entire evening makes me want to come back to Daniel as soon as possible so I can take the chef up on his offer to cook up a storm for us. And sure enough, despite the fact that there are thousands of restaurants to for me to try in NYC, on my return to the city, the first place on my list will be Daniel.

 

Thursday, March 6, 2003, 11:22PM


I recently read “The Wife of the Chef” by Courtney Febbroriello. She and her husband/chef Chris Prosperi run Metro Bis, a not too large restaurant in Simsbury, Connecticut. I love “behind-the-scenes” books and seeing the inner workings of restaurants is no exception. You’d think after a couple of these I would be sick of them, but no. This book was fun. Easy to read, I finished it in a weekend. I liked the descriptions of all the craziness in the kitchen and the honest descriptions of what the people who make and serve the meals really think of the customers. There were certainly customers that they enjoyed, but also a healthy selection of customers who earned the hatred and ire of the waitstaff and the kitchen. The most uncomfortable chapter I read was when the author talks with disdain about people with what she called “Chef Envy” as well as “foodies”. I have to admit that I started comparing me and my friends to the profile she had of these people who she clearly despised. While I admit that I definitely like seeing the inner workings of the kitchen as well as meeting the chef (and maybe sometimes even enjoy meeting the chef a bit much), I also felt like I (we) came out relatively unscathed and did not fit the profile as I have neither a) offered to sire children for a chef, nor b) am I a frustrated in my current job, wishing I was a chef while venting my personal frustration by crapping on the people in the restaurant while telling them I could do better. Bottom line: the book felt honest, and made me want to eat at their restaurant.

 

Wednesday, March 5, 2003, 11:57PM


More on Bernard Loiseau from the Boston Globe. Burgundy Stars is the account of how he achieved his third Michelin star.

Israel has great food. Unbelievably fresh vegetables, great street food, and more. Just a fantastic food destination. One surprising star is the kebabs that are available frozen in every supermarket. They are so flavorful and delicious and for some reason impossible to get here in the states. I'm forever trying to come up with the right combination of spices to recreate that flavor. The latest (and closest) combination is: tandoori spice, curry powder, garlic powder, turmeric, cumin, salt, and pepper. I used beef, but a combo with lamb may also be on path. This time I also added diced onions and mushroom. I'll keep trying.

 

Tuesday, March 4, 2003, 11:59PM


Where better to look for excellent dumplings in New York City than at the Excellent Dumpling House. After our expensive and somewhat disappointing experience the night before, an inexpensive hole-in-the-wall offering self-proclaimed not great but excellent dumplings seemed just the antidote. We had a variety of yummy dishes. The Shau Long Pau and other variations of steamed pork dumplings were ok. But the Chow Fun Thai Style with Black Bean Sauce was quite nice, and the scallion pancakes were quite tasty and good – the Chow Fun felt like an especially interesting combination. This place really shined though when it came to the Chicken Dumpling Soup. A nice chicken broth was home to some incredible “gingerific” dumplings. The big slices of just cooked fresh garlic in the soup had a big impact as well. I was almost surprised by how flavorful the dumplings in the soup were. We loved it so much we ordered another bowl to split. Picky eaters note, the dumplings look like brains even though they’re made from good old chicken and dumpling dough. This is definitely a place I’d go back to soon if there weren’t thousands of other tiny ethnic restaurants for me to try in New York. Even so, I might go back for some of that soup.

 

Sunday, March 2, 2003, 12:48PM


To me New York presents a similar problem to Tokyo. With tens of thousands of restaurant how do you pick three? The answer is that you don’t… even with only three dinners we exploited the traditional concept of lunch, and the not so traditional concept of “second dinner” (and sometimes third and fourth). We figured “high end” at night and less conspicuous during the day (and way late at night). First up was Craft. This is the creation of chef (and owner) Tom Colicchio of Gramercy Tavern. Craft has a bit of a shtick which didn’t really bother me especially because it sounded super interesting. My understanding was that you look at the menu and only see a list of ingredients. You choose one from each column and then the chef creates a dish with those ingredient. Neat! I’d like a dish made from salmon, thai basil, and white beans. I misunderstood. In fact the shtick was less shticky than that. It can easily be described as pick an ingredient and receive it a la carte. Now, I have no problem with that as it lends itself to the general Tasting Menu “philosophy”. Smaller portions, not encroached upon by “side dishes”. And focusing like a laser on the main ingredient is certainly something I’ve found to be a consistent shared value in many great restaurants. So while I was a little surprised that it was not as expected I was certainly not disappointed. The Cannelini Bean and Black Cabbage on Toast amuse bouche sent out by the kitchen was a nice way to start things off. Nothing mindblowing, but an interesting taste to set the tone. The bread also was decent. There was a tangy white and a brown bread than Lauren compared to the “Upstairs Bread” served at Chez Panisse made by Acme Bread Company. It’s Lauren’s favorite so it’s no small compliment. There were 8 of us (amazing that we found a New York City restaurant willing to seat 8 people together) so we weren’t shy in ordering a good number of “first courses”. These included: hamachi – nice but not super interesting; yellowfin tuna – served with a lemon preserve condiment that had a bit of a bitter taste from the rind which I found surprisingly complementary to the excellent tuna; rabbit ballotine – I think I’m just not a fan of cold meats with aspic cubes; sweetbreads – which I thought were fantastic and tasted like the juiciest/smoothest chicken I’ve ever had; foie gras – “good but not spectacular” according to Debbie our resident foie gras fanatic; beets – which were “prepared beautifully” according to Lauren our resident beet fanatic; a truffle vinaigrette over frisee – not enough truffle, too much frisee; celery root remoulade – kind of like an uninspired cole slaw (I’ve had really good cole slaw recently); and an oversalted arugula dish. We also ordered lobster which unfortunately they had run out of, but the kitchen graciously sent out the cured marinated sardine dish which Peyman felt was the “surprise hit” of the appetizers. (He is not a sardine fanatic.) There were some high points, but also some low ones. While the dishes weren’t consistent (the arugula being especially disappointing for how grossly oversalted it was), by this point in the meal, none of us had made up our minds definitively about Craft and more dishes like the tuna or the sweetbreads would have been very welcome. When it came to the main courses and vegetables, we weren’t shy either. Phase II of our Craft dinner included: Tasmanian Sea Trout; Striped Bass – really well done, possibly the best entrée we had because of its totally present but not overpowering seasoning as well as its juicyness; an oversauced Kobe skirt steak; gnocchi – tender but too salty; a selection of mushrooms with a beautifully roasted hen-of-the-woods mushroom – we speculate that it was the most flavorful because its shape gave it the most surface area to soak up the seasoning; gratin – yummy but not special; brussel sprouts – nicely roasted according to Lauren; a nice butternut squash puree; duck leg confit; lamb shank; spinach; cippolini onions; salsify – tasted like a not hot enough and too oily french fry; potato risotto; herb and garlic risotto – which was tasty but not amazing; marinated chick peas; and a very expertly cooked plate of diver scallops. We got to bring our own wine which Alex was psyched about. These included a 1999 Pride Mountaintop Merlot that everyone liked, a 1997 Joseph Phelps Insignia, and a 1999 Delectus Georges III Beckstoffer Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon – the only pure cab in the bunch – which was round, smooth, and peppery, with a nice finish. Before dessert arrived a theme was emerging: one or two really nice items, some items that were just there, and someone in the kitchen who has been desensitized to the taste of salt. It may be unfair to assign the “salt” judgment on the entire dinner as only a few items suffered from it. But there were enough dishes that suffered from the same affliction that it really left an impression on us, and it’s all we essentially talked about after the meal. Dessert was a bit of a saving grace with our super friendly and helpful waitress recommending the Brioche Pain Perdu (essentially French toast), Banana, and Caramel Ice Cream combination. It was quite good. She was right. The Doughnuts with chocolate sauce were great as well. I particularly enjoyed the blood orange sorbet. Bottom line, our week did not start off with the bang we had hoped for. I believe that there is talent in the kitchen at Craft (and by the way the décor was cool too), but ultimately we were mostly disappointed in our experience. Bummer.

 

Saturday, March 1, 2003, 11:59PM


A couple of administrative notes to start off the month of March. The website is now getting about 1000 visits a month reliably. Neat! Also, to make things easier we've added a new search facility - see the right most link in the navigation bar at the top of every page. It's not fancy, but it works. To make room for it, we took out the link to the archive page, but all the past writing is already archived in the bottom left hand corner of the home page (immediately to the left of this paragraph). We joined the FoodBloggers web ring. And finally, we added a link to the overall philosophy behind eating that guides a lot of the perspective on this site.

The Seattle Times has an interesting article about how much of your tip reaches the sushi chef. Seattle Chef Tom Douglas also talks in the article about his new Seattle-based radio show.

Foodgoat - check it out.


 
     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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