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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.

 

Wednesday, March 31, 2004, 11:09 PM

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Leslie directed us to this funny and well written blog - The Sneeze. It included several posts on the author's experiences eating various fringe foods.

Debbie has an extreme addiction to Diet Coke. We're not entirely sure what the long term effects are, but it grips her like so much heroin. The Black Table has an excellent history and overview of the monkey on Debbie's back.

Passover is around the corner. The Boston Globe discusses sponge cakes. The Los Angeles Times (free registration required) discusses Sephardic Passover. The New York Times (free registration required) also talks about Passover.

Every year at this time, newspapers around the planet try and make claims that there's a new crop of kosher wines that really aren't that bad. Here's an entry from this year from the Los Angeles Times.

We redid our links section. This section used to be a long list of websites about food. I tried to link to as many as possible regardless of their relative quality as long as they had something to do with food. No longer. From now on we list only sites that we frequent, enjoy, and deliver consistent quality food-related fun. I'm sure there are many other sites out there that I haven't listed, and I apologize if I've missed a couple. Of course, that's what Google is for.

Check back soon. Tomorrow's post is an overview of a small Italian bakery in Massachusetts. Not to be missed.

 

Tuesday, March 30, 2004, 11:58 PM

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Oishii Too, Sudbury, MA, November 11, 2003 — I know I said that it's not fair to judge a restaurant based on takeout. However, if it's great, does it matter? As a concession, I'll keep it relatively short, and reserve my limited word budget for the next time we're there. I've discussed many times the superb experience at Nishino, a Seattle sushi restaurant. It's run by Tatsu Nishino who once worked at Matsuhisa in Los Angeles. The chef at Oishii Too is apparently also a one-time employee of Nobu Matsuhisa. And it shows. Matsuhisa's style of creativity, South American influences, all melded with traditional Japanese dishes, shine through here as well. And the same modernity, excitement, and most importantly - flavor shines through here as well. Oishii is actually two restaurants. There is the small original Oishii in Chestnut Hill, a suburb outside Boston, and there is the larger Oishii Too in Sudbury, a suburb way outside Boston. We got takeout from Oishii Too.

Some of the dishes we had included: Paula's Maki - Salmon, Wasabi Roe and Avocado inside and Salmon, Tuna, and Lemon on the outside; Brad's Torch Maki - Cucumber, Tobiko, and Spicy Mayo inside with Seared Tuna on top with Mayo; Sunrise Tata - Salmon mixed with Wasabi, Sesame, and Chives, wrapped in Marinated White Seaweed, Topped with a Thin Layer of Mashed Mountain Yam, and garnished with Sterling Caviar; Tropical Sashimi - Blue Fin Maguro, Toro, and Hamachi sprinkled with Sea Salt, Complimented with a Chilled Tropical Shot; Spicy Scallop Handroll; and Diamond Shrimp - Clam, Crabstick, Tobiko and Spicy Mayo on top of Butterfly Shrimp.

If that doesn't get your mouth watering, I don't know what will. Things range from the traditional like Tamago and Pork Kush Age to the super creative like Barry's Passion Shooter - Sea Urchin, Quail Egg, Tabasco, and Light Soy Sauce. I have only been to Oishii Too and the original Oishii a couple of times. So I don't claim to have a real sense for the soul of the place. But I do know that if I lived in Boston, these are the only sushi restaurants I would go to. I wonder just how many former Nobu employees are fanning out across the country opening unsung (and unhyped) bastions of freshness and creativity. From my experience at Nobu in London, I know that not all the Nobu's scale to the quality that I would hope. That said, maybe part of the problem is that some of his best chefs leave to open little gems like Oishii Too. Take advantage before the celebrities start showing up and clogging the place.

 

Sunday, March 28, 2004, 10:39 PM

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02-Menu.jpgNo. 9 Park, Boston, MA, November 10, 2003Boston is a funny place, both in general and for me. I grew up there so I feel both a special affinity for the city as well as some expertise over the food there. Then again, I haven't lived there for seven years, and even when I did, I wasn't as adventurous as I am today when it comes to eating. That said, there is definitely wonderful food there. You do have to look for it though. Maybe only an insider with many opportunities for comparison could feel this way, but Boston is understated. Not as flashy or big as its southern neighbor, New York, or even as well developed in character as another fine non Los Angeles/New York city - San Francisco. Boston is surprisingly diverse, and mostly keeps to itself. And while there would be time to explore more of the unsung heroes of Boston cuisine, on this night we found ourselves at one of the darlings of the Boston restaurant contingent - No. 9 Park.

Located at it's eponymous address on the corner of the Boston Common, the restaurant was started by Barbara Lynch. After years working in other people's kitchens, Lynch opened No. 9 Park in the summer of 1998 (just after I moved to the west coast). And her restaurant taps into a vein that is becoming more prevalent among high end restaurants in the United States - refined approach/Italian roots. Chefs take Italian dishes and ingredients and combine them with French staples and techniques. Often they'll highlight local and seasonal ingredients as well. At its best, the result can combine all the effort and technique of the French food with the simplicity, freshness, and approachability of Italian cuisine. It can be pretty compelling.

We could only get late reservations but that was fine. We sat for awhile at the bar at this cozy but elegant restaurant. The ceilings were low, the light was quiet and warm, and the staff were friendly as we waited for our table. After a wait, we were escorted (with our drinks) to our table at the back dining room of the restaurant. I don't know that the restaurant could seat more than 50 diners at a time. It seemed small to me, but in a good way. Relaxed even in its formality.

Bread showed up soon after we sat down. Maybe it's not reassuring for me to admit this, but I am very bad at identifying different bread. I just don't really know enough about it. At some point I am going to need to take an intensive bread class to really know my way around. In the meantime, my best description of what we got is a good powdery French roll. The butter, was delicious, creamy. I did ask about the bread just to make sure to pass along some useful information and was told that it was a mix of pea and wheat flour baked for 18 minutes.

04-Fried Pernoquid Oyster.jpgFirst up was an oyster dish, Fried Pemaquid Oyster. The more I eat oysters the more I really like them. This one was fried and served in a yummy creamy sauce with the shell resting on a bed of salt. There was also Poached Butter Shrimp with Watercress Coulis and Caviar Cream. The shrimp was coated in a warm butter. The watercress coulis was slightly bitter on its own but a perfect complement to rest of dish. And the dish really was beautiful tasting. Next up were two dishes: Nantucket Bay Scallop Ceviche with Pumpkin Ravioli and Black Truffle Consommé; and Roasted Porcini with Wild Mushroom Ragout. The mushroom dish was wonderful! The sauce was so wonderfully flavorful, savory, mushroomy. Amazingly, Debbie (who hates all things mushroom) loved the porcini mushroom dish. Wow! However the scallop dish didn't work. The consommé was kind of flavorless and the scallop itself was not great. The advertised truffle flavor was just not there.

This was followed by two foie gras dishes: Poached  Foie Gras with Cranberries and (pink???) Lady Apple; and a Foie Gras Terrine with House Cured Duck Jam and Accompaniments. I am not typically a warm fruit kind of guy, but the sweet warm soup a wonderful "pillow" for the poached foie gras. The terrine was quite nice as well. It included aspic, mushrooms, vinaigrette, pickles, and the duck prosciutto. The terrine was nice and moist and when combined with all the other ingredients, bursting with flavor.

Next up was a dish of Truffle Veal Sweetbreads in Brioche with Ham, Mushrooms, Pearl Onions and Sauce Périgourdine. The rest of the table didn't like the sweetbreads but I did. Everyone loved the sauce. It was truly special. I think everyone's sweetbread aversion was more psychological than substantive. They just need more time with properly prepared versions.  We also got Lobster Cassoulet with Flageolets in Sea Urchin Sauce. It was certainly good, as lobster in a rich sauce is wont to be. But was it special? Not really.

13-Tagliatelle with Truffle Butter.jpgThe pasta course was next. Somehow pasta really is the true measure of an Italian (or Italian-inspired) restaurant. It's deceptively simple, but hard to get perfect. We got two dishes: Potato Gnocchi with Mimolette Creme and Mousseron Mushroom; and Tagliatelle with Truffle Butter and Parsley. The tagliatelle was superb. Light, delicate, simple, and rich with the buttery truffle flavors. Kira also loved the dish, and has become a full on truffle fan. The gnocchi dish had all the same superlative qualities as the tagliatelle dish, but it was topped with a wonderful cheese sauce. Using these pasta courses as a measure, No. 9 Park is accomplished and delicious.

Fish was next. This included: Poached Salmon with Fresh Porcinis; and a Pan-Seared Halibut on a Basque Stew with Mussels. The halibut was super crispy and juicy, not oily. It had a very good sauce that was rich with tomatoey flavor. The cubed vegetables that came with it were nice and crispy. The salmon however was just good. Though the mushrooms that came with it were excellent. I have a theory that for chefs to do their best they need to really understand and appreciate the ingredients they use. It's so clear that at No. 9 Park they love mushrooms. It's not just because they use them all over the place, but even in dishes that weren't our favorites the mushrooms always came through with flying colors. Barbara Lynch and her staff love mushrooms. I'd like to eat a mushroom tasting menu at this place some day.

17-Venison.jpgWe were having a great time, but starting to get a touch full. But then the red meat dishes showed up. First was a Duet of Lamb - Lamb Chops and Loin with Yellow Carrot Puree. Steve and Kira loved the lamb. Kira the chop. Steve the medallions. Both were interesting. Definitely not boring. We also got the Venison Saddle dish. The venison was done in a venison stock reduction with huckleberries, braised wild mushrooms, parsnip puree. The venison had subtle but not overpowering fruit flavor from the huckleberries. They combined to make this a fruit meat combination (a type of combination that is not always my first choice) that I really liked. As much as we liked everything the meal could have used one less course, or maybe smaller portions. It's hard to balance in a world where customers freak out if the portions seem too small. But then again, I'm not sure customers who don't get it would be ordering a tasting menu at No. 9 Park.

Cheese course was next. Two lovely choices: Clacbitou, Chèvre Fermier from Burgundy; and a Muenster from Alsace. This was followed by a palate cleanser of sorbet. We either got the Belgian Pear Ales sorbet or the Kumquat sorbet. I'll admit that the flavors, while true to their moniker, were not my particular favorites, but the sorbets themselves were clearly of super high quality. The texture was among the best I've ever had.

A bunch of yummy desserts followed including: Black Pepper Cheese Cake with Pineapple Carpaccio - yummy; and a plate with a variety of chocolate tastes. The chocolate mousse in this dish tasted like chocolate air. Super good. We also got a Trio of Hot Chocolates. I will never have complaints when people give me a plate with three delicious mini-cups of different hot chocolates. The three were: white chocolate with lemon; milk chocolate with caramel; and dark chocolate with marshmallows. And they were each truly wonderful. Warm, interesting, contrasting, delicious. The hot chocolates were also served with Honey Date Cigars. I'm sure they were good but I honestly can't remember them as the hot chocolates themselves still occupy my entire memory. They were so good they didn't leave much room for anything else. And finally we got a small dish of yummy petit fours.

As I said early on, Boston is a funny town when it comes to food. Understated, diverse, unexpectedly good. That kind of describes No. 9 Park. Rather than copy the haute cuisine mold, No. 9 Park uses Italian culinary genetics to infuse a simplicity into its cooking that brings the flavors, and the environment, "down to earth". Sure it's a high end restaurant, but we felt comfortable and taken care of. We don't typically make any wacky requests at restaurants, but we often ask for multiple tasting menus for the table so we can try as many dishes as possible. The kitchen already had one they were doing and happily did a second so that we could each try two dishes every course. They didn't have to, but they were flexible. It  just wasn't a problem. I'd love to go back and explore more of the menu. I have a feeling that if I went on a regular basis I could really start to explore the boundaries of the creativity at the kitchen. Highly recommended.

 

Saturday, March 27, 2004, 11:59 PM

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Eggs are one of my most favorite foods. Emily Green of the Los Angeles Times (free registration required) agrees.

In Waltham, MA (where I was born, and where I went to college) Ritcey's restaurant is set to reopen. I realize most of the planet won't care about this. But Ritcey's was kind of a funny little restaurant. The best description is probably "lots of fried seafood".

Bar Masa, Masa Takayama's expensive new sushi restaurant in the expensive new Time Warner center was visited by the New York Times (free registration required).

The New York Times visits another restaurant I really want to go to - Spice Market.

I love this website. Exploring their cookbook collection one recipe at a time. I love the difference between the dream of the dish in the cookbook and the reality of making it yourself. I think the pictures are great too and I love the section that tells you what's coming up. Debbie wants us to do the same thing.

This looks interesting, Runaway Chef. Right now he's in Vietnam with bats and prostitutes.

 

Friday, March 26, 2004, 7:40 AM

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Appetito, Newton Centre, MA, November 9, 2003 — Why is it so difficult to find really good Italian food in the United States? I think that Italian food has suffered the same fate as Chinese food. Thousands of sub-par, lowest common denominator interpretations of a diverse ethnic cuisine, optimized for an assumption that Americans will eat anything as long as there's lots of it. This is a shame, as I think people eat what they know. And if the bulk of restaurants don't push the envelope then most diners will never know better is out there. For better or worse, I know. And most of the time it's worse as Italian restaurant after Italian restaurant disappoint. Appetito, in Newton Centre, MA was no exception.

And the truth is that Appetito was even more disappointing as it had some potential. This is all the more surprising as seeing sashimi offered on a menu at an Italian restaurant is a warning sign that things are about to go very badly. But despite this oddity, there really was potential. We ordered a variety of things: seared scallops with shaved fennel and a blood orange vinaigrette; carpaccio with Hubbardston goat cheese and greens; lemon honey grilled shrimp on a skewer with mango polenta and some veggies; pumpkin squash soup; a couple of salads; the pasta carbonara with lobster as well as pancetta; and a type of chicken dish - marsala or some such.

The pumpkin squash soup - a special - came out and was ok. The soup was not bad, but the scallions on top were so sharp that they took away from the milder soup. No big deal. However, the prosciutto came out and was frozen. I'm not using the term frozen as some type of exaggeration. It was literally frozen stuck to the plate. Obviously they prepare these plates earlier in the day and keep them in a cold place (like the north pole). This was a bummer. What's better than some delicious thin thin carpaccio with its salty porky flavor filling your mouth. Tough to put it in your mouth when it's stuck to the plate. After a minute of scraping with my fork I called over the waiter and sent it back. I almost never send things back. The waiter made it worse somehow by acting like frozen carpaccio was a normal thing. Told me they were all frozen and that all he could do was put it under the heatlamp. This of course would have had a wonderful effect on the salad veggies and fresh cheese perched atop the carpaccio ice. I declined and ordered the prosciutto with melon instead. The proscuttio was decent but the meat/melon ratio was way off. Less melon was a necessity to make this dish decent. I suppose i could just eat less, but there's something unsatisfying about having to edit your own dishes. That's what the folks in the kitchen are supposed to do. Not everything was disappointing. The shrimp dish was nice. The mango polenta combination was novel and tasted good.

This felt to me like a case of desperation. Appetito has an Italian name and a logo with a drawing of a ripe juicy tomato. How insulting to the wonderful tomato to ask it to be the standard bearer for this lame restaurant. Not confident in their ability to deliver good Italian food they started pandering to what they thought people would like - tuna sashimi, and shrimp on skewers. And to make matters worse their scattershot approach seemed clearly without care. When the waiter was so stupendously unsurprised (or disappointed) that my carpaccio was frozen onto my plate, it was clear that the folks at Appetito just didn;'t care. Even if the waiter had cared, the person running the kitchen clearly didn't. I know we should have tried one of countless places down in Little Italy instead. And I promise that next time, we will.

Please accept our apologies for the slowness of the site this past week. We know about the problem and are not exactly sure why it's happening. We'll be trying to get it fixed over the weekend.

 

Tuesday, March 23, 2004, 12:09 AM

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Carambola, Boston, MA, November 8, 2003 — I spent my college years in Waltham, MA, a little ways outside of Boston. Waltham is a funny place, always on the verge of complete gentrification, but always stifled by the lack of real mass transit reaching the city from Boston. That said, the city has always had a variety of interesting and often inexpensive restaurants. One that's super popular these days is Carambola — a Cambodian restaurant from the proprietors of the popular Elephant Walk restaurants in metro Boston.

Judging a restaurant on a takeout order is not really fair. That said, it's my only choice as we didn't have the time to head over there for a sit-down experience. We had four dishes: The Elephant Walk's Famous Spring Rolls; Shrimp Curry; Saiko Ang Kroeung - skewers of sirloin; and The Elephant Walk's Famous Salade de Beouf. The dishes were good, with fun and interesting southeast Asian flavor and color all throughout - peanuts, mint, basil, tuk trey, asian basil, shredded carrots, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, and more peanuts. You get the idea.

The food is good. And it's probably way better if you have it in the actual restaurant. The takeout was decent, but it loses something in the trip from restaurant to home. Temperatures weren't quite right, flavors got dulled, textures got soft, etc. It's not their fault, but still sub-optimal. Next time we eat on premises.

 

Monday, March 22, 2004, 11:51 PM

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LU Pim's Sensation Bars, February 2004 — I was walking in our local fancy supermarket and saw a stack of Lu Pim's Sensation Bar packages by the register. In classic impulse purchase style, I got two boxes, different flavors, chocolate and hazelnut. Both of these things look incredible on the package. One of those Lu biscuits wrapped in chocolate with more chocolate and Rice Krispies inside. The things look awesome on the package. I tried chocolate and hazelnut. They're super melty. The cookies are good. But there's a slightly bitter aftertaste. Also the hazelnut doesn't really taste that different than the chocolate. These do have a nice crunch to them. But they're not  even as good as Twix, and I'm not a huge Twix fan.

 

Sunday, March 21, 2004, 11:57 PM

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Ingredients, March 21, 2004 — When this website first started it was relatively barren. We weren't exactly sure what it was going to be other than a log of where we'd eaten. And in fact if you look at certain pages in the restaurant listings (Madrid, Utah, Portland, etc.) things are still pretty barren. Still we're doing our best working across the planet trying to eat and document as much as is humanly possible without doing irreparable damage to our digestive systems. And even though we didn't (and still don't) have all the details worked out, this website was always going to be (as it says in the header) "focused on food".

And food comes from a variety of sources. While we've tried to do a decent job focusing on restaurants we've not really spent nearly enough time on some of the products and ingredients that are critical building blocks for every food experience we have — whether at home or in a restaurant. Don't assume that our opinions stop being formed just because we're eating at home. There are so many categories to explore, and so many things to try. Cheese, pickles, sour candy, chocolate, pasta, etc. (And don't even mention wine, which eventually we'll have to start documenting as well.) So, while it's sparse today, we are opening up the Ingredients section of our website. Over time it will get more populated both in terms of breadth (more categories of ingredients) and depth (more listings per category).

I expect there to be two ways that items make it onto those lists. The optimal method of course is comparative tastings. Blind is best. Line up eight olive oils, measure their temperature, parcel out equally sized chunks of bread that is efficient at clearing the palate, assign categories, and a points system, etc. I love a good obsessively detailed process as much as the next person. And frankly, it's our responsibility to try and be obsessive and detailed in our pursuit of good food. But America's Test Kitchen we're not. Those guys are amazing, and we may never have that kind of patience. That said, we'll still try and do some comparative tastings. The other way ingredients will get written about is just as we encounter them. Find something yummy (or not)? Write it down. Besides, is it even really possible to try every triple creme cheese from France? How about when we taste one we'll let you know what we think.

Either way, hopefully the ingredients section of the website will get deeper and more useful over time.

If you've had any trouble with the website lately, please accept our apologies. We've had some technical difficulties trying out different configurations. For a period on Saturday night the site was down, and the site has been slow also. Those issues should be mostly fixed. But we'll keep working on improving reliability.

Also, we should acknowledge that our recent spike in traffic is not only due to the James Beard nomination, but also to being a Yahoo! Pick and a USA Today Hot Site. Cool.

 

Thursday, March 18, 2004, 11:51 PM

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Commander's Palace, Las Vegas, NV, November 8, 2003 — I remember the first time my parents blackened tuna. Smoke filled the kitchen, but what came out of the pan was absolutely delicious. A thick tuna steak seared on every surface and raw in the center. The steak had been bathed in a pre-packaged spice mix called Blackened Redfish Magic. A drawing of Paul Prudhomme (1980's American celebrity chef) graced the package. If it weren't for the incredible flavor of this "Cajun specialty" I would be completely distracted by Prudhomme's uncanny resemblance to Dom DeLuise (of Cannonball Run and Cannonball Run II fame). But even more than their resemblance (I'm not the only who's noticed this) I remember the perfect tuna center inside the blackened mass and the spicy, savory, encrusted, seared surface of the fish. The taste was fantastic. I'm not entirely sure of how authentic our version was, mostly because I really don't know much (yet) about food from that part of the country. And it's odd as every time I eat some Cajun or Creole dishes I invariably enjoy them immensely. I'm going to need to visit New Orleans. Next March will probably be a good time to visit.

That said, I've learned enough to know that Paul Prudhomme (of spice fame) was the chef at Commander's Palace (one of the most famous if not the most famous restaurants in New Orleans), as was Emeril Lagasse en route to building his food empire. And while, as I noted, I have yet to travel to New Orleans, when you're in Las Vegas, places like Paris, Tokyo, New York, and New Orleans are all just a cab ride away.

And indeed, Commander's Palace has a branch in Las Vegas. Now I have written many times on two topics that are relevant here. 1) Vegas is an experience built skin deep. Depth is hard to find. So you need to appreciate Vegas experiences for what they are. This applies to the food as well. 2) Scaling is hard. Just because a restaurant is good in one place, doesn't mean another establishment of the same name will live up to the original. Though, since I'd not been to the original Commander's Palace, I didn't really have any basis for comparison.

Not long after we showed up they served us warm bread in a bag with garlic butter. I don't mind a little shtick, and you could serve me good warm garlic bread in a skull and I'd be happy. This was really yummy. The bag gave it an informal touch. You would reach in there for a warm surprise. Another good first impression was the fact that you could order a mini-tasting of their soups. When I saw Turtle Soup Gumbo and Crab Corn Bisque offered on the menu I naturally wanted to taste both. As I read down the menu I saw I could in fact get mini-versions of both for just that purpose. Now that's thinking!

We had brought some wine with us, but they had a no corkage policy. No big deal, but still a bit of a bummer. It's not like we brought a cheap bottle, or something they had on the menu, but, no biggie.

Our soups arrived pretty quickly. The Gumbo was smokey and savory. The heat was sharp and warm and crept up on you in a good  way. The gumbo also had duck meat in it. The Crab Corn Bisque was yummy. It had a stock base and had a nice peppery flavor but I the corn flavor overwhelmed the crab a touch. It was still good though.

I ended up with the tasting menu (unsurprisingly) and got a series of dishes. Things started off with Alaskan King Crab Antipasto - fresh Dutch harbor Red King crabmeat, housemade "crab-boiled" Creole mozzarella-prosciutto roulade and terrine of heirloom tomato en gelee, finished with a lemon-basil emulsion. The crab was somewhat interesting but not super memorable. The crab was followed by U-10 Diver Sea Scallop - griddle seared Maine scallop, with marinated haricot vert, tomato and shallot salad, finished with an aged sherry vinegar-black truffle vinaigrette. The scallop had great Cajun flavor but was not hot enough. The veggies however were good.

Someone else at the table got some alligator. It tasted like chicken-fried chicken. Not super interesting. I got Stir Fried Calamari "Noodles" - thinly sliced squid quickly sauteed with shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, poblano peppers, yellow nira chives and garlic, deglazed with Sauvignon Blanc and shrimp stock. This salad was ok. The sauce add a slightly bitter/smokey unpleasant taste. It wasn't really for me. At one point in the meal they brough me a new ice water because my ice had melted. I don't know why I thought this fact was noteworthy.

My next course was Grilled Venison and Buffalo Sausages - housemade venison dried tart cherry sausage and pecan-wood smoked buffalo andouille sausage served with pumpkin risotto and smoked black currant-port win demi-glace. The buffalo sausage was really good. It was slightly spicy and complex. The venison sausage was good too. It had a slight apple-y flavor. The pumpkin risotto however was unevenly cooked. Alex felt it had the capacity to be a really good risotto had it been served at the right time.

Our next dish was Pan Roasted Petit File of Beef with Fresh Alaskan Red King Crabmeat - Bristol Bay's finest cravmeat lightly poached in a butter emulsion with chanterelle mushrooms, buttermilk whipped yukon gold potatoes and a truffled maitre d'hotel butter. The outside of the steak was slightly rubbery. The crab was good and quite buttery.

Dessert was good and included a Strawberry Swirled Amaretto Cheesecake - Almond-Amaretto Di Saronno cheesecake swirled with strawberry puree, served over almond brioche with almond toffee and strawberry coulis. Though Michael did try to get cream for his coffee and had an unbelievably difficult time getting a small pitcher of cold cream. They showed up with milk, or warm cream. It was odd.

Commander's Palace didn't have to serve deep authentic Cajun food for me to enjoy it. But it did have have great flavor, texture, and temperature, and give me dishes that I would be longing for today. And unfortunately on that front it didn't come close. There were a few moments of vivid flavor but overall the meal felt muddled. I'm all for the skin deep spectacle and thin veneer that makes Vegas fun. But just because Commander's Palace has the window dressing of a Cajun culinary institution doesn't mean it gets to ignore the basics of a good meal. Even though this was kind of a bummer, I'd still love to go to New Orleans and eat at the original (not to mention about 50 other places to eat that I'm sure would also make me very very happy).

 

Wednesday, March 17, 2004, 11:46 PM

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Some administrative notes. Traffic to this site has spiked sharply over the last couple of days. (Thank you James Beard Foundation.) So I am working to make sure the site is as efficient, useful, and easy-to-read as ever. One of the common requests I get is to publicize the date I actually ate the food that I'm writing about. We've actually already had this on the site for awhile on this page. But people have asked to see it right in the entry. I worry about causing confusion between the date of the posting and the date of the eating. But hopefully everyone will recognize the difference. I've added them for the set of entries on this page as appropriate so you can see how they look (see below). Being more transparent about when the meal happened also has the unintended result of showing how far behind I am in posting. I suppose it will encourage me even more to catch up as quickly as I can. Luckily I'm not so far behind that I think the information is no longer relevant. We've also added the recent entries listing down the right hand side. Hopefully people will get at some of the good stuff buried in the site even if it's not on the front page. We've also added thumbnails of pictures on each restaurant listing page. I'm also considering making the date header of each entry be the "permalink" for each entry. More improvements are coming as time allows. And big new sections of content are coming soon as well (it's a surprise!). Feedback is welcome on the changes current and proposed.

 

Tuesday, March 16, 2004, 11:58 PM

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09-Cheeseburger.jpgIn-N-Out Burger, Las Vegas, NV, Tasted on October 30, 2003 — Sometimes it irritates me when people assume that I am only on a mission to find quality food that's expensive. I admit that many of our favorite experiences haven't exactly been cheap. But we've also had quite a few fantastic experiences with food that you can get for practically nothing. The amazing tacos that come from a truck (yes, a truck) parked at a Seattle area gas station (yes, a gas station). The bowls of inexpensive noodle soup at a chain of restaurants across London. The yakitori joints at Shinjuku train station in Tokyo. These are all testament to our love of good food, expensive or cheap.

And while it's a relief to get that bit of defensiveness off my chest, I do have to admit there are a few reasons why many of our positive experiences are fairly costly. Unsurprisingly, great food usually involves a lot of work. And work costs money. It takes work to find (and create) the best (even if not rarest) ingredients, and the talented people who prepare that food are hard to find as well. It's not as easy to find cheap wonderful food as one might think. Certainly you could make it yourself and that's something we'll be exploring more over time. But when it comes to restaurants, cheap and wonderful often elude discovery.

Now you may scoff at this, as you can crawl through stalls of street food in hundreds of cities across the planet and find incredible flavors by the dozens. But, that aside, it's still hard to find restaurants that are inexpensive and wonderful. Not because they don't exist, but because they simply don't get the press. When I go to a new city to try and find its best food, I scour sources far and wide, personal and professional, to get leads on where to eat during my limited time there. And the small, cheap, great places often fly under the radar.

Of course, the largest class of (mostly) relatively inexpensive and well known restaurants across the planet are the "chain" restaurants. McDonalds is of course the iconic representation of a chain restaurant but chains cover the gamut. Fast food like Taco Bell and Krispy Kreme are everywhere but there are also "next rung up the ladder" places like Cheesecake Factory and Applebee's. And while many of these are well known everywhere in the U.S., and often almost everywhere on the planet, there are regional chains as well. In the Pacific Northwest there's Pallino Pastaria. There are even "upscale" restaurants like Ruth's Chris steakhouse that's become a surprisingly large chain with around 90 branches in North America and outlets around the world, including one in Taiwan (a location which Ruth's Chris' website calls "exotic"). Can food produced at scale ever be good food?

Heitz Cellars, one of the oldest and most respected wineries in Napa Valley, has a variety of wines they offer. Among their most renowned (and most expensive) is their Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. It's a great wine. How many bottles of the Martha's Vineyard did Heitz produce from their 1997 vintage? Keep in mind that 1997 was one of the recent great vintages from Napa Valley and a bottle of Martha's from that year went for roughly $140 a bottle. They produced 67,440 bottles of that wine that they released for sale. This was not an artisanal run of a few hundred cases. They produced this wine by the truckload. Now of course, there's scale, and then there's scale. They can't compare in quantity to the hundreds of thousands of bottles of two-buck chuck and other super-cheap wines that get produced, but still, it's not a small amount. What's the point here?

Large-scale is definitely not particularly conducive to making a great food experience. But that doesn't mean it makes it impossible. So today we add a section in our restaurant guide for "chain" restaurants. We'll need to evolve the definition of what makes a restaurant a chain over time. Does the local Thai place with three branches qualify? I don't think so. Does the local pasta place with 8 locations that's adding more every couple of months qualify? I think yes. I admit it's not scientific, but I'll try to get more specific over time. And since we're not going to bring any prejudice to our judgment of "chain" restaurants, whether something's in that category or not doesn't really matter. What matters is whether the food is any good. And that brings us, finally, to today's topic.

01-IN-N-OUT.jpgAfter our trip to Los Angeles, we were lucky enough to stop for 24 hours in one of my favorite cities on the planet - Las Vegas. Although we were in a hurry to get to the hotel from the airport, we weren't in such a hurry that we didn't ask the taxi driver to make a detour through the nearest In-N-Out Burger so that we could get our fix. Seattle doesn't have In-N-Out Burger. Yet.

Let me take a moment to explain why we made the stop by way of my wife Debbie's love for pizza. She LOVES pizza. And I will admit that I have had pizza in my life that I have loved. But I don't love it unconditionally like she does. I do feel that way about hamburgers. I absolutely adore them. I love the juicy savory meat (medium rare please). I love fresh crisp vegetables. I love cheese on them. I love when they put ketchup and mustard on them, or even thousand island dressing. I don't mind themed burgers with things like mushrooms and onions and barbecue sauce, though I'll admit I draw the line at pineapple. I also don't like soggy bread, or when the hot parts and cold parts have decided to meet somewhere at a mediocre average temperature. I have eaten hamburgers at McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's, Fatburger and more. I have made hamburgers at home in the oven, in a pan, and on a grill. I have often made hamburgers that resemble the ones described in Eddie Murphy's standup act when he used to be funny. And although he makes fun of them, I love the ones with big chunks of onion and pepper. And in the interest of full hamburger disclosure, I have never had Daniel Boulud's famous $30 burger at DB Bistro (though some close friends have partaken a couple of times and have said it was worth every penny - I will get there eventually).

But on this day we were out to eat what is currently my favorite hamburger on the planet, the one made at (as far as I can tell) any In-N-Out Burger with uncanny consistency. One thing I've found in terms of making great food at scale - less is more. Some of the best least expensive food I've ever eaten was from vendors who made only one item. In-N-Out's menu is a monument to simplicity. There's the Hamburger, the Cheeseburger, the Double-Double Burger, French Fries, Chocolate, Vanilla, and Strawberry Shakes, and a variety of sodas. The burgers come with or without onions, with lettuce and tomato, and some "spread" (which seems like thousand island dressing to me). Very simple.

But of course, I am a sucker for any marketing gimmick that makes me feel like I'm "in the know" or part of the club. I'm so transparent that even a hamburger chain knows how to appeal to my insecurity about belonging to the group. The "secret" menu (of which they publicize only a portion of on their website - more brilliant marketing) contains items like the 3x3 - three patties, three slices of American cheese (yes there's a 4x4); Animal Style - add mustard, pickles, grilled onions, and extra spread to your burger; Protein Style - burger minus the bun, wrapped in lettuce; and the Neapolitan Shake - a mix of all three shake flavors.

And here's the funny thing - their shakes are very good but not mind-blowing, and their fries are honestly mediocre. They make them fresh right in front of you but there's something limp about them that the freshness can't make up for. (You can order them “well done” but that didn’t make a huge difference in my opinion.) McDonald's fries (when they were fried in animal fat) were way way better. And none of that matters. Because their hamburgers are to die for. The fries and shakes were just filler in my opinion. The name of the place isn't In -N-Out Fries or In-N-Out Shakes. It's In-N-Out Burger, and that's what they do well. Very well.

The patty itself is thick and relatively small in diameter. It's not a broad flat patty so it's not convenient to store, and doesn't lend itself well to stacking. It's an unwieldy (almost) ball of meat. The bun is freshly baked, and serves its purpose. It's not there to shine. It's there to deliver its contents in a package that doesn't get your fingers completely greasy. The rest of the contents of the sandwich can only be described as slathered over either the meat or the bun. The cheese and spread are generously oozing from your sandwich opening as it sits peeking out of its paper holder. I got mine with fresh onions as I love the bite and the crunch. Biting into this burger fills your mouth with absolute essence of hamburger. It's not fancy. It's basic. It's hamburger distilled into it's most simple and perfect form and then concentrated to pack one monster hamburgian punch. The contrasting temperatures, the mix of textures - all combine to make for a diverse and yet simple experience. And ultimately (at least for me) all the anticipation is rewarded by that first comforting bite. And unlike many fast food chains (or chain restaurants that optimize around speed) there's no sick feeling after I'm done eating.

08-Box of Burgers.jpgMy friend Alex generally eats three of these in one sitting. He used to get two Double-Doubles, but felt the singles had better crunch. More patty didn't necessarily equal more enjoyment for Alex. And I have to agree. It's the entire sandwich as a unit that sparks the enjoyment. I eat two cheeseburgers with onions. These are not White Castle mini-burgers, but they're not oversized monstrosities either. They're just right. If they were any smaller, you'd end up with too much bun. If they were bigger, then by the time you got to the last third or so of the sandwich, the temperature of the ingredients and the crunchiness would be well past their acceptable ranges of goodness. As with so many things that are great, what seems like simplicity can actually be relatively complicated, and is certainly well thought out, even if in its final form, it's a simple pleasure to enjoy. In-N-Out is a simple pleasure.

I live in Seattle and don't get to eat at In-N-Out very often, but when I lived in Northern California I remember being willing to eat lunch at 2pm to avoid the seemingly endless lines that snaked out of the local branch. Don't think that at 2pm the lines were not there, just more tolerable. I'll admit it's rare to find a large-scale chain that serves something so delicious, but like I said - I don't care whether it's cheap or expensive, I don't care what business model they employ, and I don't care whether they have a national ad campaign, or a hand- painted sign over a wooden table. I just love food that tastes great. And In-N-Out Burger's hamburgers fit squarely in that category.

 

Sunday, March 14, 2004, 4:36 PM

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13-Baked Crab Tempura Maki.jpgNishino, Seattle, WA, November 1, 2003 — Back to our thread on Los Angeles and our hunt for the best and most creative sushi and Japanese food in the United States. First a word on the word "best". You will never see a top 10 list on this website. They are artificial. What is the "best"? How can you determine the best restaurant, chef, dish? You can't. This website is not about reviewing restaurants or products. It's about finding food that tastes wonderful anywhere on the planet and telling people about it. There is no best. There's only food that tastes great, and everything else. It's not possible to say who's #1. There's so much about this that's subjective.

That said, we still wanted to know when it comes to our favorite sushi restaurant in Seattle, Nishino, how does it compare? We traveled to L.A. partly so we could make comparisons to restaurants that appeared to be striving for the same type of experience. We had some interesting creations at Hama Saku, and excellent non-sushi items at Matsuhisa. We weren't looking to see who was "#1" but we definitely wanted to see whether our love for Nishino was biased by the fact that we live in Seattle and the options are simply not as vast as they are in other larger cities. The answer? Nishino rocks. Read on for more detail.

Things started off with some of the basics. Miso soup and bowls of hot steaming perfectly salted edamame. We also got small plates of fresh wasabi for later when the sushi arrived. It's amazing how many people don't know that 99% of wasabi you get in sushi restaurants is not fresh, but made from powder. I don't turn my nose up at the powdered stuff as it has a nice kick. But there's simply no substitute for fresh. I think of them as two completely different condiments.

03-New Style Sashimi.jpgWe started off with some of the specials and non-sushi items off the menu. New Style Sashimi - hot oil drizzled on raw fish and arugula at the last second before serving came to the table first. We ate it in a hurry. I love dishes with temperature contrasts and this is one of them. The downside is that you have to eat it right away. Even a couple of extra seconds can significantly detract from your enjoyment. The dish was beautiful tasting. It filled our mouths with warmth and a nutty flavor.

Another classic (also borrowed from Nobu) was the Rock Shrimp Tempura (which we always order with extra spicy creamy sauce on the side). The combination of the fresh tempura shell, the steaming shrimp inside, the spiciness, and the tanginess of the sauce all make for something that not only qualifies as delicious, but for me is clearly comfort food. It makes me happy. We also got the classic Oshitashi dish. Seaweed rolled up with sauce. As always, Nishino refines the dish so it meets even the highest expectations. The Miso Black Cod was no exception. Sticky sweet glaze on flakey tender perfectly moist fish. Delicious.

07-Mori Rolls.jpgOur first hand rolls showed up next - Mori Hand Rolls. "Mori" after Mori-san who is one of the sushi chefs and created this temaki for us. Tuna, Salmon, and Yellowtail, chopped fine with spicy sauce, wrapped around Yamagobo (a super crunchy orange Japanese vegetable), and a perfectly tempura'd slice of avocado. This is yet another example of great temperature contrast with the super hot avocado and the cold fish combining for an incredible effect in your mouth. The textures are something to behold as well. How the avocado stays perfectly formed and soft while being housed in it's crunchy tempura shell I really don't know. It seems near impossible, but every time we order this roll, it happens without fail.

A plate with some basic but delicious sushi showed up next. Tamago, Maguro and Kampachi Temari Zushi. The first is the simplest item on the menu and some say is the baseline by which you measure the quality of a sushi restaurant. Nishino's tamago is warm, dense, slightly sweet, and delicious. The latter is a special type of ngiri called temari-zushi where the fish is wrapped around a sphere of rice. This one is kampachi wrapped around rice with a shiso leaf stuffed between the fish and the rice. The item is topped with some Ume (sour plum) flavored sesame seeds. The combination is so simple and so delicious. I typically don't like shiso but for some reason in this dish it all comes together for me. The herbal qualities of the leaf, the freshness of the fish, and the sour spikes of flavor from the sesame seeds make a perfect triumvirate of flavor in my mouth. Make sure to put it on your tongue with the top facing down so you get maximum flavor.

Ginger Dungeness Crab Cake with Pineapple Mint Salsa was up next. This dish was served with Kabocha Salad on the side which was a mixture of Kabocha, Apples, Cranberries, Ham, and Corn. This yummy item was only the beginning of our crab adventures. We also got: Baked Snowcrab Tempura Maki and King Crab Tatsu Special. The maki was filled with snowcrab tempura and tobiko with spicy mayonnaise and was like a warm morsel of crab tempura goodness. And because the whole thing was baked, the rice got slightly crispy around the edges and chewy on the insides. Really special. The King Crab was great as well. Alex and Debbie loved it. Peyman and I loved the maki.

10-Kinoko Maki.jpgWe always ask for a couple of new sushi creations every time we go to Nishino. The kitchen is always happy to oblige. The Baked Crab Tempura Maki was one of the dishes we got for the first time, and it didn't disappoint. We got a couple more. One was Kinoko Maki which was a combination of  shiitake, shimeji and oyster mushrooms with cilantro aioli. Wow. This had a really special earthy flavor and still retained its Japanese roots. It was absolutely delicious.  The other was Toro and Arugula Maki which was just ok. It was certainly good, especially compared to 99% of sushi restaurants you go to in this country, but not special. It doesn't matter. The fact that every time we go we ask for original creations and that even a third of the time what comes out of the kitchen is not only delicious, but good enough for us to want to order it every time we go back is really incredible. We'll take the "good" with the great. It's the burden we must bear.

As if we hadn't had enough delicious food, a whole bunch more dishes were on their way to our table. The first was Maguro Kushiyaki with Roasted Garlic, Ponzu. Seared tuna, with delicious garlic and ponzu sauce. Yum! Next was one of our perennial favorites - Renkon Hasami. This is lotus root and shrimp slices deep fried, salted, and served with lemon on side. These little morsels were super delicious, special, and fresh tasting. They had a great crunchy and chewy texture and excellent shrimp flavor. They're like super high end snacks.

23-Tatsu Watches Over Everything.jpgOur next item was a tribute to simplicity - Akakabu Ngiri. This is pickled red turnip on rice ngiri style. A simple fresh pickled vegetable, and yet it looks and even tastes almost like fish. We will definitely have this next time. Then came the Foie Gras Ngiri. This is slices of foie gras, their buttery meaty goodness slathered with a soy and red wine reduction. This is so very good. If that wasn't enough, the Garcia Roll came next. Also named after one of the sushi chefs who's been nicknamed "Garcia" on the golf course. (I don't know squat about golf so you'll have to ask Chris to explain it.) This roll is a combination of crab, mango, cilantro roll. I think it's even better when done with asian pear as the flavor balance is even better. And finally we got a platter composed of pieces of Spicy Tuna Tatsu Special maki. Each piece was filled with concentrated, spicy, crunchy (from the tobiko), loveliness. So very good.

As I said earlier. There is no best. But there are certainly restaurants, chefs, and food that transport you. There are certainly food experiences that are memorable and ones that are not. I eat a lot of different food, and document almost all of it. It's easy to note when I look back at pictures of food I ate weeks and months ago and know whether I can still bring up the flavor in my brain or not. And unsurprisingly, the ones I can recall are the ones I love the best. They made an impression. Nishino makes an impression. A great one. They don't have a big PR machine, or a world famous chef. They just have Tatsu Nishino serving a mix of creative, authentic, and always delicious Japanese food to Seattleites who don't know how lucky they are.

 

Saturday, March 13, 2004, 11:59 PM

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Leslie sent this one in.

Hopefully the New Yorker won't mind as I linked it back to the page where you can purchase the print.

 

Thursday, March 11, 2004, 11:59 PM

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James Beard Award Nomination, New York, NY, March 11, 2004 — I know I said we'd finish our sushi roundup, but we're going to interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for a neat announcement. James Beard was a key early figure in the world of food in America. The foundation that bears his name was started after his death when Julia Child and others spearheaded an effort to buy his house, and preserve his name. Today the foundation does a variety of things including giving out awards every May. There are actually two broad categories of awards: one for people who make the food, and another for people who talk about it. A few months ago, almost on a lark, I sent in one of our write-ups from 2003 to the foundation. And today the nominees (not winners) were announced. I'll admit I was pretty surprised to see that the list of nominees for the category "Internet writing on food, nutrition, travel, restaurant and beverage" included this site for our story about bagels published originally on April 24, 2003. Cool! The other nominees in the category are nataliemaclean.com, and The Frugal Oenophile.

I also noticed scanning through the list that one of our perennially favorite (and somewhat unsung) chefs in Seattle, Scott Carsberg of Lampreia, is nominated (him for the second time) as well. Well deserved on his part, and very cool overall.

 

Wednesday, March 10, 2004, 10:37 PM

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Teaching kids to cook seems like fun. If only my two year old liked stuff beyond peanut butter (Editors note: he actually started eating macaroni and cheese recently. No orange powder cheese though. Plugra and parmesan for our kids.)

I am having a very hard time keeping up with all the various fads of what is and isn't healthy. In this culture of over-reaction and then over-reaction in reverse everything in moderation seems to be the only constant. Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers are starting to lose their trans fatty acids.

I think sometimes patrons of restaurants forget that the restaurants are businesses, and not there to endlessly cater to the customer's every need. That doesn't mean there can't be incredible connections made where the customer and business owner both get their needs met and walk away happy. Just that sometimes one party or another forgets it's a two way street. The Los Angeles Times recounts some examples of this type of behavior (free registration required). I'm not sure putting your wristwatch into someone's wineglass isn't also lame behavior, but the author's point still stands.

The New York Times has probably one of the best food sections of any newspaper on the planet. Articles currently online include a writeup about eating cheaply in Tokyo (one of my favorite cities in the world),an article about Iron Chef Michiba, and a review by William Grimes (temporary?) replacement Amanda Hesser of Marcus Samuelson's new restaurant Riingo (free registration required). We ate there recently as well but you'll have to wait a few weeks for our writeup.

We wrap up our sushi roundup tomorrow.

 

Tuesday, March 9, 2004, 11:59 PM

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05-Rock Shrimp Tempura.jpgMatsuhisa, Seattle, WA, October 29, 2003 — We were still in L.A. and still on the hunt for some references to other innovative Japanese restaurants to baseline our Nishino experiences. Nobu Matsuhisa's original restaurant Matsuhisa beckoned to us, and as Tatsu Nishino had worked there earlier in his career we needed to try it out. And while it's the precursor to the Nobu restaurants and located in Beverly Hills, it was actually surprisingly understated. This hominess was actually inviting and refreshing. I don't know what I expected but "down-to-earth" wasn't it. The place was packed even late at night, and the odd series of silhouettes that lined the walls all contributed to the atmosphere.

Things started off with Tiradito Whitefish. The chili sauce and super yuzu flavors knocked you on your ass. It was killer with the spiciness and cilantro combining in your mouth.Next up was Lobster Ceviche with Limestone Lettuce. This was unbelievably fresh tasting. Tangy and savory as well. We also got Rock Shrimp and Scallop on Limestone Lettuce. This had a different tangy and savory set of flavors. The hot scallops were delicious and gorgeously prepared.We of course sampled the Toro Tartar with Caviar. It's a classic Nobu dish. Same with the Rock Shrimp Tempura with Spicy Creamy Sauce. It's covered with those classic little chives that Nobu's restaurants sprinkle over so many of their dishes. The straight prawn tempura was also very well done. Not too oily. Fresh. Hot. Tender.

We of course had to order some sushi as well. This included Negi Toro Gunkan Maki - chopped tuna and scallion maki where the rice forms a base with a nori border wrapped vertically around the edge to hold in the fish. We also got Negi-Saki Maki - salmon scallion maki. It had a cool thin style but honestly zero flavor. It was weird how absent the flavor was. We had the obligatory Spicy Tuna roll. Michael questioned whether it really was "extra spicy".

This was kind of an odd experience, but actually in retrospect surprisingly (and not surprisingly) like some of our best Nobu experiences. We really didn't know what to expect. I think we were caught off guard by the relaxed atmosphere of the restaurant, whereas the Nobu restaurants are all "designey" and more high end. And then the non-sushi items really were absolutely delicious. So packed with flavor and spark. Better even than some of the similar (or identical) dishes I've had at various branches of Nobu. The sushi however was relatively mediocre. And this odd dichotomy is also reminiscent of my experiences at various Nobus. Bottom line: while the sushi wasn't my favorite, I would definitely go back to Matsuhisa. The creativity that makes Nobu Matsuhisa's cooking interesting is there in perhaps it's rawest (and maybe most original) form. And for that alone it's definitely worth the trip.

 

Monday, March 8, 2004, 11:51 PM

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Hama Saku, Los Angeles, CA, October 29, 2003 — It should be noted that while we're looking for a comparison to Nishino, Nishino is not strictly a sushi place. I'm not sure I've done a good job explaining that. It's basically a Japanese restaurant with an extensive sushi menu and a relatively deep menu of semi-traditional and innovative entrees and appetizers. Places like Nobu, Morimoto, and Matsuhisa which may or may not be noted for their sushi I think are fair comparisons as they are trying to represent the best in modern Japanese food in the U.S. Also, while I can really enjoy a restaurant because they do one thing well, I have to say, that it's not reasonable to say Nobu can't be measured on their sushi as they're not known for it. If you put it out there, I assume you want me to eat it. Don't have a sushi bar if you don't want to be judged on it. It would be reasonable to say, if you're looking to compare Nishino to the best sushi in the U.S. then Nobu and Morimoto are not the benchmark. That I agree with. However, I'm not sure it's just sushi we're looking to compare.

While we knew we had to head to Matsuhisa for sushi, we also wanted a counterpoint in LA. Noted for it's creativity, and having been previously visited and enjoyed by Alex, Hama Saku was the logical choice. The sushi restaurants in this country are not always bound by tradition, unless it's the tradition of American innovation and creativity. You may think them inventive, or wacky, but there are a class of restaurants with an incredibly diverse set of sushi combinations. Peanut Butter and Salmon Maki anyone? Hama Saku definitely has the basics but also scored points for creativity. They characterized their food as "California Japanese Cuisine".

Some examples include: G7  Roll - temaki tuna, yellowtail, salmon, spicy mayonnaise, and crunchy rice, wrapped in soy paper with a cucumber wrap; Tunacup - spicy tuna and crunchy rice wrapped in seaweed; Sushi Tacos - spicy tuna and avocado in a crispy shell with wasabi and sweet sauce; Magic Flute - spicy tuna with "crunchy" rice and soy paper wrapped in cucumber; JKX Roll - albacore with apple; Rainbow Roll; and the Lobster Roll.

The G7 was crunchy. It was the "crunchy rice" which was really rice rolled in tempura bits. It was a cool little trick and made for a great texture. It was spicy too. The Tunacup was good, but not super flavorful. The "tacos" were crunchy and spicy. The Magic Flute was wrapped in soy paper. An alternative to seaweed is certainly interesting, and this one was yummy. The roll was unique with sharp heat which crept up on you in a good way. The JKX roll was super good mostly because of the rich dark tangy sauce. We had the rainbow roll. Half the people at our table felt that there was too much stuff going on. The Lobster Roll was very hot (temperature-wise). It fell apart as we picked up the pieces, and it didn't have much flavor. Not super.We also had the Spicy Tuna handrolls. They were too smushy, kind of like a tuna smoothie. Most of us weren't fans.

We didn't just try the sushi. Among the things we sampled was the Spicy Tuna Ravioli. They were interesting. They tasted like shrimp. Michael wished that the tuna had staued raw inside this cooked ravioli. I'm not sure how that would be possible. But maybe it would be. I've seen Ice Cream stay frozen inside a tempura shell. The sauce for the ravioli was amazing. The little tobiko were so crunchy and yummy.

So where does all this leave us. The food at Hama Saku was definitely creative. Especially the textures. They had a few moves like rolling the sushi in crunchy tempura pieces or using soy paper instead of nori that were fun. They reused them but so what, normally everything's wrapped in seaweed. The flavors were less consistent. Once in awhile things would break through like the tangy sauce on the JKX roll. We also had gorgeous dessert plates that were beautiful to behold. But ultimately as interesting as things tried to be, the creativity seemed a bit forced. Only because none of the flavors really blew us away. The creativity around sushi and Japanese food is wonderful as long as it's ultimately serving the main values around superb ingredients and flavor. As soon as the experimentation is the main focus, ingredients and flavor take a backseat. I would try Hama Saku again, but there are probably a bunch of other places I would try first.

 

Sunday, March 7, 2004, 11:00 PM

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SUSHI, March 7, 2004 — I don't really remember the moment when I started liking sushi. My parents never took us to eat it when we were kids. And then in the summer after high school I spent a lot of time with a friend who's family ate sushi. I remember going out with them, and not wanting to eat any sushi. I'll have teriyaki chicken thanks. I remember they got me to try a cucumber maki (even the California roll was too weird for me; in our house we grew up without eating crab, even k-r-a-b krab). I remember the taste of that first kappa maki. Nutty, seaweed, fresh, cool cucumber, and warm rice. Crunchy, soft, delicious. Well, I think I remember the taste of that first kappa maki. Because after that bite, my sushi history is a blur and it's as if I've loved sushi since I can remember anything. And yet, I don't remember eating it in college. Probably because I couldn't afford it. But I don't remember loving it in college, or not loving it for that matter. I just don't remember it at all.

After college I lived in Washington, DC for a few months. It was there that we found a small restaurant with an all-you-can-eat sushi bar for $25 for dinner or $15 for lunch. Today, all-you-can-eat sushi raises a red flag for most sushi lovers. How good could it be? Usually sad little pieces of low grade fish on big pieces of rice, poorly formed, by sushi "chefs" trained the previous day. And while I'm sure that place couldn't compare to some of the best sushi I've had today, it really was pretty decent. Three Japanese sushi chefs sat behind a small bar putting out hundreds of pieces of ngiri and maki as well as making hand rolls to order. I can't tell you how many times we walked in there and ordered 12 spicy tuna hand rolls off the bat - for four of us. I ate a lot of sushi while I lived in DC. We went every week and sometimes twice.

The first restaurant I sought out when I moved to Seattle almost six years ago was a good sushi restaurant. We were recommended a place called Shiro's down by the Space Needle. It was hardcore traditional. No spicy tuna here. And it was good. But it didn't move me. After a time we finally found Nishino, a medium size restaurant tucked away in an affluent neighborhood of Seattle called Madison Park. Nishino was named for it's sushi chef Tatsu Nishino who quietly ran the place and oversaw the creations coming from the sushi bar and the kitchen. I've written many times about the numerous wonderful experiences we've had at Nishino  (09/30/02, 10/26/02, 12/17/02, 02/07/03 , 04/27/03) and don't need to recount them all here. That said, I have often wondered just how good is Nishino? Have I been swayed by the fact that it's local to where I live? By the warm and generous atmosphere created by Tatsu and his wife Eri? There is simply no question that the quality, creativity, and most importantly the flavor of the food there is fantastic. But how does it stack up against the best sushi restaurants in other cities in the U.S.? I'd been to Nobu (in New York, London, and Las Vegas) with mixed results (London was a bummer, the others were very good). I'd been to Morimoto in Philadelphia, run by Iron Chef Japanese Masaharu Morimoto. It was a wonderful experience, though most of the sushi was actually not super. Nishino worked at Matsuhisa, Nobu Matsuhisa's original restaurant in Los Angeles and the influence was apparent in dishes like New Style Sashimi as well as some of the Peruvian influenced ceviche like dishes. But I hadn't eaten at Matsuhisa. There are other extremely high end sushi restaurants that certainly deserve a visit (Masa Takayama's new $350 - $500 a head sushi restaurant in the new Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle in Manhattan is one of them). But Nishino sits in the center of the spectrum with super traditional sushi on one end, and wacky Americanized sushi on the other. The food is innovative and exciting, but respectful of tradition and its roots.

So back to the primary question. Nishino isn't just good. It's great. And it's definitely one of the best Japanese restaurants in the country.  But we needed to compare to know where it really sat. We were in Los Angeles, and this was our chance to make some comparisons. So on one night we decided to hit Hama Saku and Matsuhisa. Detailed reports coming up next.

 

Thursday, March 4, 2004, 10:41 PM

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Fast food nation downsizes.

Kosher Cajun? Here's an article with recipes for Purim from the New Orleans Times Picayune.

Maybe I'm a little too obsessed with food and restaurants. Would anyone else find a restaurant gossip column interesting?

How hard would it be for websites to print pictures of things that need visual description? Like Romanita tomatoes. I just want to see what they look like.

Maybe I'm in a complaining mood, but I find these food fashion articles irritating. Here's what's in fashion, food that tastes good. So many people are so much more obsessed with what's cool over what's good. Don't they understand... when it comes to food, good is cool.

 

Wednesday, March 3, 2004, 11:53 PM

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01-Patina.jpgPatina, Los Angeles, CA, October 28, 2003 — Joachim Splichal is one of those celebrity chefs who travels the world opening restaurants, writing cookbooks, and most often having other people cook at his restaurants. I'm not making a value judgment. And even if it's not Splichal cooking at his restaurants, that doesn't mean the chefs who do cook there aren't making wonderful food. And Patina, Splichal's flagship has had many chefs running the kitchen. There was a new one there the night we arrived. And to make matters more interesting, we showed up on Patina's first night in their new digs at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

We arrived, a large group, and the place was super modern, and brand spanking new. Champagne for each of us courtesy of the restaurant helped get everyone relaxed in in a good mood. The staff was super friendly and happy to see us. Even though it was their first night, the place seemed to be operating without having missed a beat. The previous night they had been open had been at their old location. Cool.

It can be a crapshoot going to restaurants of famous chefs who aren't in the kitchen. I'm just not sure that they can scale. Again though, that doesn't mean that the people in the kitchen aren't doing a great job. And lucky for us, they did on this evening. Things started off with Golden Oscietra Caviar on Potato Pancakes with Creme Fraiche. The latkes were like pillows. They were delicious topped with the perfectly salty creamy caviar. Lauren got the veggie selections and started off with Carpaccio of Beet, Frisee, Caramelized Pistachios, with Blood Orange and Lemon Vinaigrette. Lauren loves beets.

Michael came and brought a lovely bottle of wine - 1999 Flora Springs Wild Boar Cabernet Sauvignon. The flavors were round and warm, with smooth tannins and a soft bite on the finish. We gave it 93 points. Next up for veggies was Braised Vegetables, Baby Field Greens. The rest of us got Sushi Tuna Sashimi, Hot Oil Infused Tobiko Mayonnaise, Seaweed Salad, and Wasabi Cream. When you serve a raw tuna dish, it's hard not to be cliché. But when you do the cliche in a world class way it's not longer cliche, it's classic, or in this case, a fresh take on an old favorite. The cubes of fish were like tuna jewels. And with all the accompaniments around the perimeter you got different flavors as you ate your way around the entire plate. The tobiko was also extra delicate and delicious.

Various breads arrived. They weren't super but they were warm. The butter was super creamy.

At this point the dishes were good, even great. But they were in the comfort zone a bit. Caviar and raw tuna give any dish a leg up. And then Tahitian Vanilla Bean Risotto, Champagne Cream Sauce, Poached Lobster in Lobster Stock, Ground Lobster Coral, and Chervil arrived in front of us. Granted Lobster gives dishes a leg up as well, but this treatment felt special and unique. The lobster was super tender and gentle. Soft lobster morsels and a perfect risotto texture. Simple and interesting. Lauren got Truffle Gnocchi with Beurre Blanc and Chanterelles. If you love truffles this dish would make you very happy. The gnocchi were airy and delicious and not a bit glutinous.

Next up was Hand Rolled Spaghetti in Parmesan Crisp and Lt. Porcini Mushroom Sauce and Emulsified Porcini Stems. The parmesan crisp was fabulous, so sharp. This was followed by Slow Roast Salmon with Fennel Emulsion and Chili Pepper Oil with Fennel Salad. The Salmon was beautiful. Walter and I both uttered "beautiful" at the same moment. Walter characterized it perfectly. "It's like heated sashimi." Translucent and transcendent. There was an amazing slight sharpness of the oil coming through the fennel flavors. Apparently Walter's spot on observations about the Salmon weren't enough. He also noted that every dish we got was designed to serve exact right amount of food.

The salmon was followed by Red wine risotto with Radicchio and Endive. It was pretty wild. The endive alone was slightly bitter. But when you ate it with the risotto, the flavors were like magic. Hearty, earthy, warm, slightly tangy, and great. Like chemistry. Cool. Then we got Rare Venison Napoleon, Polenta, Porcini Mushroom, and Slow Roasted Foie Gras with Cranberry Pear Relish, and Brussel Sprouts Marinated in Gin and Juniper Berries. This dish was like an entire meal on one plate in terms of the sheer number of flavors. Peyman in particular was blown away that the flavors were so different and yet were all on the same plate. The venison had an incredible game flavor but it was still alive and fresh and rich. The foie gras and polenta were yummy. Walter and Peyman spent a little too much time figuring out all the mathematical possibilities of the venison dish.

Three plates of cheese off the cheese cart arrived to start the last phase of the meal. The three were filled with mild, medium, and strong cheeses. Unlike the previous night at Bastide, the way the cheese was organized actually meant something. The cheeses really did reflect their characterizations. There were some yummy cheeses of note including: Chimay Biere - Belgian cow's milk cheese; Brin d'Amour - Sheep and Goat from Corsica with herbs; unpasteurized Camembert - Chantal Plasse (is this stuff illegal?); and Shropshire from Leicestershire. Yum! The fact that there was a knowledgeable maitre'd fromaggier helped as well.

Dessert included a dizzying array of delicious sweet dishes, including: Pineapple Tuile, Pineapple Mousse, Fresh Green Apple Ice, and Pineapple Dice - the flacors were super bright and fresh; Champagne and Vanilla Sorbet with Green Apple Sorbet; Chocolate Ganache Mousse Sorbet in a Filo Crust - the chocolate was deep and velvety; Orange Mousse Tuile and Candied and Grand Marnier Sauce; Tiramisu and Peanut Crumble; Caramelized Pear with Apple, Milk and Honey Sorbet; and Pear in White Wine Sugar Sauce with Quince. Wow. A great end to a delicious meal.

It's funny how a restaurant on it's first night in a new location could do so well with wonderful service and fantastic food, but still have the experience tainted by a genuinely dumb employee. I debated whether to even mention this part of our experience, but in the interest of full disclosure it seems only fair. That said, the star of the stupidity, the General Manager of Patina, Jay, hasn't worked there since two months after our meal. I can only hope/assume that the folks at Patina realized this guys was not on the ball and got rid of him. The basic story is simple. We booked the Chef's table at Patina months in advance. It was part of the reason we were excited about eating there. Two days before our meal I got a call from Jay the then general manager giving me a sob story about how hey couldn't seat us at the chef's table as construction wasn't done, there were wires hanging all over the place, it wasn't safe, and there was just no way for us to eat in the kitchen. He insisted that the corner of the kitchen where the chef's table was located was not finished, and wouldn't be for some time. He promised he'd treat us right, and what could we say other than ok. After all, the food was really the main attraction. No big deal. And while we still hadn't seen hide nor hare of Jay during our meal the rest of the waitstaff was generous and efficient so we didn't care. They even offered us a tour of the kitchen. We went into the kitchen and overheard one of the kitchen staff mention the party of 10 at the chef's table. We couldn't help but ask where it was. And sure enough they pointed us to a room off to the side with a window into the kitchen. Again, not my idea of a great chef's table, but there it was nonetheless. Jay just lied to us. There was so little reason for this guy to lie to us. It couldn't have been dumber. He could have called me and told me that they'd double booked. He could have told me someone more important showed up. He could have told me the owner needed the table. It really wouldn't have mattered. I'm not saying I would have been thrilled, but we would have come to dinner, and enjoyed ourselves anyway. What we couldn't take was being lied to. We couldn't help ourselves and asked our buddy Jay to come by the table and explain himself. Half the people eating with us were mortified that we'd confront him. But we really couldn't help it. We told him that he had been outed and he started doing a dance that I've only seen rivaled by Michael Flatley in terms of its sheer spasticity. He came up with numerous excuses telling us that the room for ten that the kitchen staff referred to as the "Chef's table" was not in fact the Chef's table but something else entirely. He then proceeded to blame everything under the sun including SARS, vibrations caused by construction in the Disney Concert Hall, and something about Hollywood producers that I didn't quite catch. Wacky. I can only say I'm glad he doesn't work there anymore, and I hope he doesn't work in any restaurant anywhere. Lying is so dumb. People are reasonable. Tell them the truth no matter how disappointing and they'll get over it.

Despite this wackiness, we really did love our meal at Patina that night. I wouldn't exactly characterize anything as extremely adventurous, but the food was very very flavorful. And even dishes with familiar ingredients were made to be special. Luckily our meal was memorable and not only for the wackiness of the restaurants General Manager. We'll definitely be back to Patina next time we're in Los Angeles.

 

Tuesday, March 2, 2004, 10:37 PM

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Bastide, Los Angeles, CA, October 27, 2003 — It was our first night in Los Angeles. There is this pattern that we're falling into that's kind of unsettling. I am just as thrilled to find a world class taco stand where I can spend $1.50 on dinner as I am to find an exciting high end restaurant that adds a couple of decimal places to the price. All I care about is finding great food, wherever I can. And when I go to a place I'm unfamiliar with I usually use a variety of resources to identify eating establishments I should visit. Unfortunately people typically don't recognize the brilliance in the simple taco stand, and they typically overestimate the brilliance in the fancy restaurant. Something to do with justifying the check I suppose. But what this means to me in plain terms is that I end up first eating mostly at higher end places and then only over time do I find the holes-in-the-wall. I need to do a better job over time of balancing this. Dim Sum as our first meal in LA was a good start, but that night we ended up at what was being touted as the best high end restaurant in the city - Bastide.

We pulled up to the restaurant and found our way through the large arched doors. It was kind of cool as we walked into a courtyard where there were tables and people seated. Only where the weather is nice is this possible. We walked past these tables supposedly on our way to the chef's table. Typically this is a table in the kitchen where you get a great view of the action in the kitchen. In Bastide's case this was just another table that was next to a small window with a view of the kitchen. A window which half the time had the blinds closed from the other side. I am loathe to judge an eating experience on almost anything but the food, but this was just disingenuous. A kitchen table with a partial view of the kitchen once-in-awhile does not a kitchen table make. Lame.

Three kinds of bread showed up: sourdough, green olive and rosemary, and black olive. Soon after we got a dish of Maryland Crabmeat with Salmon Caviar. This was a nice dish with avocado and strong Ikura. The crab was subtle but not lost. The ocean flavors came through. We also got Watermelon Balls in Watermelon Granite. This was really special. It tasted super fresh and had great texture.

Foie Gras was up next. Specifically, Canadian Foie Gras with Fig Compote and Homemade Brioche. This was accompanied by a 1989 Chateau Climens Barsac. The Table was blown away. One person at dinner felt it was the best white wine they'd ever had. The terrine was one of the creamiest ever. The figs were subtle and there was a nice sourness in the thin layer of fat. We also got a Porcini Mushroom Soup. It smelled like a perfect steamed mushroom. It was so light and rich. Like a satin mushroom comforter that's light but warm. The main vegetarian dishes we got were technically lovely, just not huge flavor.  But the palate cleanser, Grapefruit Sorbet in Noilly Prat Vermouth from Southern France, was yummy.

Next up was Sonoma Liberty Duck. Fig infused with Vegetable. This was incredibly juicy with almost a salt crust. I liked it though in the past I have not been a huge fig fan. We also got Veal Tenderloin with Wild Mushroom, Mushroom Coulis, Natural Jus, and Thyme Oil. This was good, but again, not super special.

They then asked us if we wanted cheese? They also offered us a fruit plate or a salad instead. We opted for the cheeses. They then asked us whether we liked sheep? Cow? Goat? Sharp? Mild? This was kind of cool as it seemed like they would target their choices to our tastes. Unfortunately not one of us recognized any of our preferences in the cheese plates we got. Weird. Desserts were decent and included Apple Crepes Caramelized with Dates, Pomegranate Napoleon, and a Grapefruit Sorbet and Tart.

What do you do with a restaurant like Bastide? The food was certainly good. And there were moments that were definitely highlights. But nothing really grabbed us. There were ten of us there and even though some dishes were quite good, none of us felt like we wanted to go back. I don't think it's dashed expectations, though a restaurant with a high price tag, and big press certainly does set some. That said, I think we gave it a fair shot, and nothing that we ate was truly memorable. We had higher hopes for our next meal in Los Angeles.

 

Monday, March 1, 2004, 10:17 PM

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Empress Pavillion, Los Angeles, CA, October 27, 2003 — While I've lived on the west coast for over seven years, I really haven't taken the time to investigate Los Angeles up until now. It seems kind of silly given that a city that size, with a super diverse population, and some money, should have some interesting food. And in fact it does, it's just taken me awhile to check it out. Unfortunately we only had a few days. But we made the most of our meals while we were there. First up, Chinese food, dim sum to be exact.

The Empress Pavilion was recommended as a great place for dim sum. When you're looking for hardcore dim sum, an enormous restaurant, filled with Chinese Americans, and bustling carts clogging every aisle is the way to go. So from that perspective we were off to a good start as Empress Pavilion fit the archetype. Unfortunately, the food was relatively average as well.

The selection was pretty standard. And the food we ordered was nothing to write home about. The duck was cold and greasy. The most interesting dish was the Chow Fun noodles with small chunks of green and red vegetables. It was like a fiesta! The sesame balls were gluey. The potstickers were chunks of "eh". They were over-fried and dry.

Empress Pavilion was disappointing. But we still had high hopes. We were in Los Angeles and we were sure there was good food to be had. The hunt continues...


 
     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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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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