Autostrade, Firenze-Roma, Italy, tasted on March 25, 2004 — After
lunch in Nonantola we had to race down to Rome as our flight left early
the next morning for Amsterdam. We stopped at an Italian rest stop. Not
Howard Johnsons, but the Autogrill.
It was gross. I
probably shouldn't spend an enormous amount of time talking about it,
but it really was quite foul. I don't know what was worse, the food from
the Burger King (note: I like a bunch of different fast food places) or
the significantly overweight Americans standing in line waiting for
their BK fix. I'll admit, it's not like the local fare was superb.
Though it did have an incredible selection of cheeses and hams as well
as better pizza than most cities in the U.S. I'm not trying to preach,
but I was still embarassed by the billion calorie dishes that Burger
King was hawking and the quadrillion calorie Americans rushing to eat it
up. For god's sake, they were in the middle of Italy, and Burger King
May 28, 2005 — Mark Bittman, New York Times food writer and
author of How to Make Everything, a super useful and popular cookbook
has a new
TV series and book. In the series Bittman challenges top/famous
chefs across the country where they both cook the same basic dish in two
different styles. The chef does their restaurant version while Bittman
does a homemade version. True to his "minimalist" identity his dishes
tend to simplify and reduce. And while not identical to their
counterparts, they appear to have an elegance about them due to their
simple focus and execution. In town promoting the show, Bittman stopped
by Lampreia to do one of these demonstrations (though not for the show)
with Scott Carsberg, the chef at Lampreia. Hsiao-Ching Chou of the
Seattle PI does a great job
describing the back and forth between the two as well as delivering
the recipes for the two dishes that resulted.
I love the Onion. I'm not sure if this is strictly on
topic, but it's pretty good nonetheless. Have you been to the new "Not
Quite Perfect McDonalds"?
It's funny (dumb funny not ha-ha funny) how different
foods get so trendy. I have always loved a good cupcake. Not the
supermarket frozen-in-time cupcakes in their see-through cages by the
baked goods, but a
fresh cupcake with creamy frosting and moist cake
from a bakery. I don't love them any more then I ever have (which was
already quite a bit). But given how suddenly so many "boutique" cupcake
bakeries have sprouted up you'd think they were a new invention. I
suppose it doesn't matter why people are suddenly trying to elevate the
cupcake as long as they do. The LA times (free registration required)
has the rundown of the
best cupcakeries in Los Angeles. The one near my house is called
Cupcake Royale in the
Verite coffeehouse. The one
cupcake I've eaten there was certainly serviceable. Not terrible, but
not spectacular. I should reserve judgment until I've eaten a few more.
That cupcake did however produce one of my favorite moments ever.
My son enjoying the last
remnants of his cupcake.
Nonantola, Italy, tasted on March 25, 2004 — While we were
planning our trip to Italy, my mom read an article in a magazine
about "the best pasta restaurant in the world". Honestly, I've
decided I'm bad at judging which restaurants to go to based on
recommendations from various websites and publications. My success
has been pretty inconsistent in picking which sources to trust and
which not to trust. But something about this article told me to go
Osteria di Rubbiara, and I'm glad I did. More than a restaurant,
Osteria di Rubbiara is an institution
founded in 1862 and continuously run since then by the Pedroni
family. Today it's run by father and son,
Debbie and I
arrived on time at the restaurant, but our travelmates were nowhere to
be found. Italo, the father, reputed to be a bit of a sourpuss seemd to
live up to his reputation. I've forgotten what it was in response to,
but his first word to us was "no". With every minute that passed we
worried that he would throw our asses out of there as our friends hadn't
arrived. Apparently having your cel phone ring in the restaurant is
grounds for permanent dismissal. Our friends finally showed up super
late blaming mid-day traffic jams. We wouldn't have believed them but
Italy is such a weird place. People drive like maniacs, but everyone's
late. And if you're worried about getting somewhere on time
accidentally, don't worry, at any moment the truck drivers will go on
strike and block roads by parking their semis in the middle of highways.
This was the excuse our friends used. Needless to say we were just happy
that Italo Pedroni tolerated our presence and their lateness. We'd come
a long way to try this pasta, and we weren't going to turn around now.
The menu was fixed and the food served family style.
Just the way we like it. First up was a heaping tray of
Ricotta and Herb Filled Tortelloni. These were beautifully butter,
not geasy. The were super light and packed with savory ricotta. They
were like puffy light cheese clouds - big but light. And of course, they
gone in a heartbeat.
We got more of Italo's attitude on a couple of fronts.
He made a point of serving the men first. When
Lauren said she was a vegetarian
his response was: "it's not that you can't eat meat, it's that you
won't." The pasta was so good that we didn't dare step out of line.
Strighetti with Meat Ragu was our next dish. We got "mountain
parmesan" from Casa Selcatica near Berceto on the side. It was still
white and creamy even after two years of aging. The ragu sauce was good,
not superb, but definitely good. However, the pasta itself (independent
of the sauce) was pretty fantastic. It was light, delicate, and butter.
Quite simply it was some of the best pasta I've ever had. It was light,
present, and flavorful. I'll admit I've never had that kind of an
experience before where the pasta itself was so uniquely special that it
made such an impression on me. But this pasta did just that.
Next up was a big 'plate-o-meat'.
Chicken with golden crispy juicy skin, pork ribs, pork cutlet, and
pancetta, were all heaped together. The food was rustic, hearty, juicy,
savory, and just yummy. I don't know why we were surprised that they'd
deliver such great roasted meat given their reputation for pasta, but we
were. Needless to say, our surprise was a pleasant one. In some ways I
was even more psyched with the dish full of
roast potatoes also adorned with pancetta and it's respective yummy
oil. There was a picture up on the wall of some vinegar. Peyman asked
Italo about a picture of vinegar on the well. Misunderstanding his
question, he went off, retrieved some of the (famous) house vinegar and
then returned to drizzle it generously all over our potatoes. I'm
embarassed to say that it never would have occurred to me to drizzle
balsamic over roast potatoes and bacon, but it came out incredibly. Just
tart, and roasted, and fatty (in a good way), and smokey. The potatoes
were herby and soft and super.
Some more observations. We got some
bread. It was the same dry floury crap that we got in most places in
this region of the country. An epiphany I had was that in Italy olive
oil is basically like ketchup in America. They put it on everything. And
it usually makes things better.
When dinner was over out came an
array of homemade liqueurs. These were laid down matter of factly
one after another. The included blueberry, walnut, ortiche, archibugio,
apricot, and orange. Peyman liked
the apricot. Alex liked the orange.
Dessert also arrived. The
cheese/sponge cake was sweet and dense but light and moist. Most of
all it was good. The
walnut meringue cookies were super walnuty, crunchy and good. The
coconut brownie was extra moist and also quite good. At one point Italo
yelled "cafe" out to the kitchen we almost dropped our brownies. It was
at this point that I wondered if Italo's attitude was a shtick. Later
when we took pictures with him and his son he softened and seemed to me
like a sweetheart. I was pretty positive it was all part of the Rubbiara
Speaking of the Rubbiara experience, it wouldn't have
been complete if we hadn't tried their complement of house vinegars. I
don't think we realized how renowned their vinegars were until we got
back to the states with our luggage chock full of them. Their
commercial quality vinegar was raisiny, sweet, and sharp. Super
basic (blue) tradizionale vinegar (this and the following ones are
regulated by the local regional authority) was 12 years old, and had
elements of prune. It was sharp and bright. The
gold level was 25 years old and was half way between the two we'd
tried but viscous and somehow smoother. There was also the 'Cesare'
named after Giuseppe's great great grandfather. Fifty years old and $175
per bottle with only 100 bottles produced per year. I own one and still
haven't had the guts to open it and try it with anything.
We walked out of there bags filled with vinegars and
liqueurs. But most of all we walked out really happy as the food was
truly special and somehow just the right amount. I admit, that when I
think about our trip to Italy this is one of the restaurants I miss the
most. There was something so natural and simple about the quality of the
food that made it an incredibly genuine experience. Having eaten at
quite a few restaurants over the past few years, simple and genuine high
quality experiences can be few and far between. When you find one, enjoy
every minute of it.
May 24, 2005 — I've always wondered about the almost
exclusively Japanese/Male domain behind the sushi bar. I thought I'd
heard that the (old school) conventional wisdom was that women's hands
were too warm to handle the fish. And, though I'm embarrassed to say so,
I admit that when I see someone who isn't Japanese behind a sushi bar a
small part of my brain (which while small is unfortunately a large
percentage of my brain) wonders about the quality and authenticity of
the sushi. This is seems even more wrong than judging the
quality/authenticity of an ethnic restaurant based on how many of that
country's citizens eat there. And I know people do this all the time. I
think it's food racism. Likely this particular brand of prejudice is
just as accurate as in any other domain. New York magazine writes about
Mexican-Americans becoming sushi chefs in New York City.
Sub Rosa sent us a link to a story all about what music various
winemakers listen to. Interesting. Here's
By way of Alex'
brother, here's a
comparison of New York's
Shake Shack to
Next time I'm in New York I will have to try Shake Shack. From the
pictures on their website it doesn't look better than In-N-Out but I
will reserve judgment.
A Full Belly has a post about
Gallagher's photo diary of the food he ate in China. I have to
figure out a way to travel more. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn't move
to Asia for awhile.
I think Frank Bruni has a
It's sushi, but you can't eat it.
Caseificio Notari, Reggio Emilia, Italy, tasted on March 24, 2004
— I haven't made it a secret that I shamelessly idolize Jeffrey
Steingarten based on his writing. His two books, collections of
columns he has written as the Food Critic for Vogue are favorites of
mine. Each essay has the perfect mix of delicious food, obsessive
focus, honesty, and humor. Almost every one of his stories begins
with him wistfully describing the most perfect instance of a
particular food he's ever tasted as well as the remote location
which happens to be the only place on the planet that this delicacy
can be had. Before you know it, he's on a plane traveling to the
very location to sample the food he has described as well as
understand with obsessive detail how it's made.
In the chapter "Decoding Parmesan" in his book
It Must've Been Something I Ate he describes Vacche Rosse, made
by Caseificio Notari as a "revelation. It was nearly two years old
but tasted like an adolescent - soft, deeply golden, lacking nearly
all grain, deliciously fat, and just starting to develop its
punti bianchi, the tiny amino-acid crystals. It had a
wonderfully sweet, complex flavor that only hinted at what it could
become." Needless to say we were in the neighborhood and couldn't go
home without hunting down this cheese. Made from the milk of red
cows (hence the name Vacche Rosse) this really was one of the best
parmesans I'd ever had. You can tell it's from this dairy as their
code - 101 - is prominently displayed on the side of any wheel
they've produced. The cheese lived up to it's name, and we even got
a tour of the factory. Why exactly they trusted us enough to let us
roam freely in their aging room, I'll never know. I suppose that
they didn't suspect I would build myself into a cheese fortress and
eat my way out. And I would have! But lucky for them I'd run out of
time and had to settle for several wedges that we snuck through
customs on the way home.
BTW, for only $3,222.72 you can
have your own (not including shipping).
Trattoria del Tribunale,
Parma, Italy, tasted on March 24, 2004 — Walking through the
streets of Parma at night we really didn't know where to go for dinner.
We stopped in a wine bar but the smoke was so thick we thought we were
going to choke. It's so funny to me how a country that's so enlightened
about incredible flavorful food, can so aggressively kill their ability
to taste any of it by smoking like chimneys. Weird. Anyway, eventually
we happened upon a
small entry to
Trattoria del Tribunale. What we thought was a small restaurant
ended up being incredible
deep, and having a surprise second floor with
multiple dining rooms. Each entry way was an arch made of bricks leading
to rooms with
exposed rafters and beams.
We sat at our long table and started off with a plate of
bread and crackers. We knew better than to expect magic at this point in
the meal. And while the rolls were dry and floury, the slightly puffy
crackers were very crispy and surprisingly good. "Hey, what's that?
Salt? Nice to see you." From our previous experiences you would think
that putting salt in your baked goods was against the law.
First up was a salad. This was not just any salad. The
Insalata Rustica in Agrodolce was some traditional vegetables lace
with warm sautéed ham and onions. This was shockingly good! I loved the warm/cold
combination/contrast as well as the (now) salty oily yummy and crispy
vegetables. One of the dishes I was most surprised to see in Italy was
Anolini in Brodo - dumplings in broth, typically a rich and
delicious chicken soup. The consomme had a strong salty (in a good way)
flavor and was protecting a large flotilla of squat cheese-filled dumplings
Just after we finished our soup a plate of buttery
cheesy fluffy dumplings came by -
Tortelli di Erbetta. Yummy. I really enjoyed the
Tagliolini al Culatello. This pasta was beautiful to look at and had
a range of salty, savory, and bright flavors that I credit mostly to the
generosity of the ham chunks throughout the dish. It ended up a touch
greasy and I didn't care one bit. Super good.
Next up was
Picollo Gnocchi di Patate con Melanzane. These were really nice and
firm gnocchi - small gnocchi coated with a velvety cheese sauce studded
with chunks of eggplant. We also had a bowl of
squash soup. My notes said the waiter said the soup came with Orzo,
but it tasted like barley to me. Either way the soup was a good solid
effort with only slight sweet undertones. In the interest of full
disclosure, a lighter touch with sweeter flavors really is the right
balance for my particular palate. And this dish struck a great balance
in my opinion.
Super soft veal cheek in tomato sauce -
Guancialetti di Vitello alla Diavola - had a slight kick. The meat
was falling apart it was so soft and good. At first I thought the veal
Nodino di Vitello alla Griglia con Patate - was slightly dry and a
touch boring. But right after I'd made my judgment the waiter returned
with some olive oil to be distributed liberally over my veal. It made a
big difference. It's amazing how one key ingredient can have such an
effect on the flavor and texture of the dish. It was neither dry, not
boring. But now it was quite delicious, savory, and juicy. Three points
for olive oil.
We had two other steaks -
Tagliata di Manzo all'Aceto Balsamico which had good texture and
decent flavor though it was a touch oily; and
Filetto di Manzo alla Griglia which held its own. We also ordered
Involtino di Melanzane Asparagi e Formaggio. This combination of
cheese, eggplant, asparagus and other good stuff had a good meaty flavor.
But it was served at a psychotically hot temperature making it inedible
for a few minutes until it cooled down. We didn't mind munching on the
Patate al Forno on the side while it cooled. The potatoes were sweet
a tthe start, with soft insides, and excellent crispy outsides.
What better way to wrap up our meal than with some
Parmigiano di Collina made by Gennaio Giugno in 2000. The crunchy
chunks of cheese almost sparkled. There was also a tiny bitter undertone on
We were only in Emilia Romagna for a handful of days,
but after eating at this simple and delicious restaurant - Trattoria del
Tribunale - that we basically wandered into randomly, I couldn't help
but wonder how many other restaurants there were in this region that
were just as good, but I wouldn't have time to find. I'm thankful that
at least I got to eat at this one.
Il Nabucco Ristorante Pizzeria,
Salsomaggiore Terme, Italy, tasted on March 23, 2004 — We're
long overdue to wrap up our trip to Italy. So let's make a mad dash to
the finish starting with our stop at a spa town in Parma - Salsomagiorre
Terme. We were there offseason so many of the hotels and restaurants
were empty. But we did manage to find a spot to sleep, and decided to
head out for a quick bite to eat. Beggars can't be choosers and we chose
Il Nabucco Ristorante Pizzeria. Here's the quick scoop.
Overall it was not a positive experience. The Spaghetti
alla Carbonara was gloopy. We got Gnocchi di Zucca Tartufa as well. The
squash filling in the gnocchi was a touch sweet and the truffle was too
subtle for my taste. I suppose that last fault wasn't surprising given
that it wasn't truffle season, but what am I expected to do when
truffles are on the menu? Not order them?
We also got a bunch of pizzas: a Napoli with tomatoes,
mozzarella, anchovies, and oregano, and an artichoke pizza with
artichokes (duh), olives, mozzarella, and grana a scaglie (parmesan
style cheese from a different region). The pizzas were not great, but
not bad. The crust was thin, and the sauce decent.
There was one highlight, the Culatello di Zibello. It's
tough to be unhappy with cured pork, and culatello (yet another regional
specialty of Emilia Romagna) is a prime example. This particular one was
salty and delicious.
Not exactly a great meal, but at least we had some great
Food News, May 17, 2005
— Leslie found a new service that
lets you make (or maybe gather) your dinner, and then take it home to be
eaten throughout the week.
She loves it.
Kate at Accidental Hedonist discovers that
Swiss cheese is not actually Swiss. What the hell???
A new blog that's
all about hamburgers.
OK. This is a really good find. A new candy blog called
- strangely enough - Candy
Blog. The thing that really made me fall in love with this blog is
the perfect description of the new
White Chocolate Reese's. First of all, the fact that the author
chose to focus on White Chocolate Reese's at all. There's an epidemic of
variations of favorite candy bars. White chocolate, dark chocolate,
peanut butter lovers, chocolate lovers, etc. And not only does this blog
not ignore them, it embraces them. I like that there's no candy
snobbery. The author also pointed out that the ratio of chocolate to
peanut butter in Reese's miniatures is way better than the big cups. I
100% agree. Bottom line, I wonder if I ever need to write about candy
anymore as this blog appears to be nailing the job. Nice.
Seattle, WA, tasted on April 16, 2005 — I have two children.
They are four and almost two years old respectively. Before they arrived
(and even for a little while after they showed up) I spoke cavalierly
about all the values that I would impart to them. And while I'm not
abdicating responsibility for them, I quickly realized that they have
been their own "people" since the moment they were born (and likely
before) and frankly there is very little I can do to convince them to do
anything much less "impart my values". In many ways this has been the
most evident in their extreme pickiness when it comes to food. I know
this is relatively normal for kids of their age but I can't help but
look at it as anything but exactly the opposite of what I expected.
Except that is when it comes to cheese. My children have gotten mine and
my wife's deep and abiding love of cheese in spades. This, I
think, is a good thing.
A few months ago a small cheese shop opened in a nearby
Seattle neighborhood -
I wasn't sure what to expect, but when I visited the shop a few weeks
ago the young woman who runs the shop made a couple of recommendations.
And frankly, based on the quality of her choices, I'm pretty happy that
she (and her shop) are nearby.
The first cheese she offered was
Stilton Pepperton goat cheese. This was a quite good example of a
peppery goat cheese with a traditional texture and flavor. But still
clean and quite enjoyable. And if this cheese was merely good, the
follow on was spectacular. It's called
goat's milk cheese, this one from Spain. But frankly it was unlike any
goat cheese I have ever eaten. And I wonder (based on the relatively
mild descriptions I've been reading on the web) if the Garrotxa I ate
wasn't aged quite perfectly. It was creamy and savory, but a more
complex and strong flavor snuck up on the mid-palate and a few
well-placed sparks flew as the cheese melted on my tongue. This cheese
really was fantastic.
My kids liked it too.
Seattle, WA, tasted on September 25, 2004 — The other night
Debbie and I ate at a local Seattle restaurant and realized that we
still hadn't posted our description of our last meal there. Rather
than wait any longer, that post is here right now. And to be honest,
while it's taken awhile, I think it's worth the wait. Eating at
the last few years has been somewhat of an evolution. And even
though we've only been there a handful of times, the evolution of
the restaurant is quite clear. To be honest, things started out
rocky way back when we first tried to eat at Mistral. That first
visit and our second chance visit much later are documented in
detail here. But since then we've eaten at Mistral twice, and it's
now become a place we like to eat regularly. Let's get to the
I hate to characterize restaurants in some
broad categorical way, but I do think a high level description of
Mistral is not without its usefulness. Mistral is a cozy modern
restaurant, tucked away on a downtown Seattle side street. The food
is essentially modern French cooking. And strangely enough it
reminds me mostly of French meals I had in London,
Pied à Terre
in particular. Think refined, minimalist French. Definitely not
overly sauced like more classical French cooking. Fresh seasonal
ingredients. Extensive tasting menus. Mistral offers three different
tasting menus - The Market Menu, The Chef's Tasting Menu, and The
Mistral Experience. That last one is the most expensive and of
course, the most inclusive. So of course, that's what we got.
It had been two years since we'd eaten at
Mistral. I hadn't quite remembered the
a little dark in a romatic way, quiet, and comfy. Clean lines. We
started off with a half bottle of Champagne - Billecart Salmon Brute
Rose. It had a lemony touch to it. The amuse followed quickly -
Hamachi Tartare with Cucumber, Yogurt, and Dill. It had simple,
clean, tart, and fresh flavors. Kind of a Greek touch to it.
Soup was next. Specifically the
Mushroom Soup with Seared Sea Scallop and Rosemary "Cloud" (cloud
means foam/emulsion). The soup was thick and rich like a yummy mushroom
shake. Believe me this is a good thing. The scallop had little bursts of
Indian spice as well as little crystal salt spikes on the tongue. The
soup was quite delicious, but what followed was I think the emblematic
dish of the evening -
Sablefish, Kohlrabi, Chanterelles and Vanilla.
Sablefish is another word for Black Cod. The
Vanilla was a nice touch. The grapes were little sweet and sour jewels
dotting the landscape. The fish was beautifully cooked with a perfectly
crispy top. The brussel sprout cups were also crispy not to mention
crunchy and delicious. Yum! I need to give some context for this dish.
As I mentioned above, I've almost only tasted fish prepared like this in
Europe. And Mistral is definitely the only place that prepares it like
this in Seattle. Imagine a cube of perfectly flaky buttery fish bound to
a square of crispy skin and dotted with a few select perfectly cooked
vegetables. It's just a singular experience and Mistral does it well.
The fish that followed,
Halibut, Lobster and Beansprout "Risotto", was good as well, but as
Mary Alice put it, the first
Foie gras was next.
Foie Gras, Passionfruit Jelly, and Crispy Apple. The apples were
definitely crispy and extra thin. The foie was decently salty. The
passionfruit jelly was super delicious. The foie could have been even
crispier but the salt spikes and fruit acidity were a good combination.
The entrees showed up next. Two of us got the
South Moulard Duck, Berber Spice, and Cauliflower, and the other two
Rack of Oregon Lamb, Organic Chard, and Fingerling Potato Puree.
Both the duck and the lamb were quite yummy each with consistently warm
savory tones. The extra smooth wide flavor of the respective meat in
each dish expands slowly in your mouth and feels uniform across your
We wrapped things up with some
cheese not to mention
and a bit of
cake. The dessert was refined, deliberate, and good.
Two years ago we felt that if Mistral kept
working at it, they could really become a destination we'd want to eat
at repeatedly. They have. It's not only that the cuisine is unique in
this area, it also happens to be quite good. And when we went back this
past week, Mistral didn't disappoint.
Surprisingly, Seattle is not the only place
where you can eat Mistral's food. There's now a
Mistral Bangkok. Neat.
May 10, 2005 — More food blogs arrive every day. Here's some
new ones that seem particularly cool for your enjoyment. (Note, they may
only be new to me.)
That should keep you busy for awhile!
Vancouver, Canada, tasted on March 17, 2005 — Awhile ago I
started getting bummed about the state of food in Seattle. After a
bit of back and forth with faithful tastingmenu readers, other
bloggers, and various rankings of populations in major cities across
the country and the planet, I had to concede that given its size,
Seattle is pretty good when it comes to food. That said, I also must
point out that when it comes to food I think I'm only really truly
happy in a world class city like New York, Tokyo, or London. (I
really do love living in Seattle, but it's simply not New York.) The
diversity in those cities is pretty much incomparable. But one
thought gave me hope. It's a bit of a drive, but if I consider
Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver as one large metropolitan area
(with a 6 hour drive from the top to the bottom) then I can feel
like I am not quite so far away from a wide selection of high
quality eating experiences. And Vancouver really does hold its own.
Down the road I'll do a proper post on what Vancouver's all about.
But in the meantime the main thing to know is that there is one
restaurant in Vancouver that is mentioned every time anybody tells
me about their experiences eating north of the border -
Run by a husband and wife team - Vikram
and Meeru - Vij's is quite simply the pre-eminent Indian culinary
experience on the west coast. I have long said that when it comes to
ethnic food I crave either homey authentic small ethnic hideaways,
or I crave super refined but still authentic versions of a specific
country's cuisine. Either makes me happy. The latter is pretty rare.
I count Hakkasan
in London as one of the best examples I've ever seen of that
archetype - refined dim sum and Hakka style Chinese food. Vij's is
an excellent example of this archetype as well.
We got there early as they don't take
reservations. We sat out by the fountain. Since we got there so
early we got seated right after they opened. And while we got some
yummy fried Indian snack delivered to the table, the waitresses (and
Vikram himself) often take small snacks to the people standing in
the nightly line to keep them happy while they wait for a table.
Such a small touch, but it's so essential to making Vij's a
memorable and welcoming experience. Almost everyone who went to
dinner had already been to Vij's. As much as everyone else was
looking forward to the meal and experiencing their favorites again,
I felt intense pressure to catch up. So naturally, we ordered just
about everything on the menu.
The meal passed in a blur. The appetizers
Beef and Ginger Kebobs in Vij's Masala Curry;
Greens Grilled Butternut Squash, and Bacon in Cumin Seed Curry;
Cakes with Celeriac Puree;
Cayenne Pepper Marinated and Grilled Sablefish in Tomato-Yogurt
Goatmeat in Fennel, Kalonji and Indian Thyme Curry; and
and Chickpeas in Green Onion Curry.
And only after that intense array of
dishes did the entrees start showing up including:
Pomegranate Glazed Specialty Chicken Breast with Coconut Onion Curry
and Vegetable Rice Pilaf;
Short Ribs in Spicy Cinnamon and Red Wine Curry with Cauliflower and
Breast and Coconut-Green Chili Rice Pilaf in Lime Leaf Curry;
Pork Tenderloin, Filled with Khoa and Potatoes in Porcini Cream
Curry with Spiced Whole Almonds; and finally
Marinated Lamb Popsicles in Fenugreek Cream Curry.
I'm not entirely sure how to describe the
array of bright, intense, and exciting flavors that oozed out of
every nook and cranny of every bite served to us over the evening.
The Lamb Popsicles, in many ways the iconic dish of Vij's. The
popsicles are chunks of lamb on a bone that's conveniently empty of
meat at one end. The bright yellow sauce is simply unforgettable. A
uniquely Indian herby aroma arises from a creamy and super tangy
pool of goodness. The meat and sauce combine for the kind of dish
that inspires extra effort gnawing at the bone, and surreptitious
plate licking. Just about every dish at Vij's was like this. The
rice perfectly cooked. The naan buttery, light, and flaky.
As good as the food was, the warm
atmosphere, Vikram himself moving from table to table making sure
each customer is happy, there were other key details of our visit to
Vij's. Rangoli is the cafe/take-home market next door. Many of Vij's
dishes (not to mention the spices to cook with) are available there.
There's one other interesting detail, when
I snuck a peek at the kitchen I noticed the kitchen staff was all
female. I think it's safe to say that if you look at restaurant
kitchens almost anywhere in the world the vast majority are staffed
almost entirely by men. Seeing women in the kitchen is not rare. But
seeing a kitchen staffed with all women definitely is. This may or
may not have something to do with the fact that Meeru (Vikram's
wife) took on the role of managing the kitchen and creating the
menus (according to the Vij's website). There are other examples
where restaurants run by women staff almost entirely (or entirely)
with women. While I won't assert that women in the kitchen
necessarily make a difference, I think it's likely that there's a
different dynamic in terms of the dynamics between the people making
the food. And I do wonder if it's possible to recognize that
different dynamic in the food.
Whatever the reason, a deep and passionate
commitment to quality, consistency, and exciting flavor is resonant
in every bite of every dish you'll have at Vij's. And when it comes
to eating out, I really couldn't possibly ask for more.
Food News, May 6, 2005 — The Chicago Tribune decided to do a
blind tasting of a series of coffee liqueurs. Since coffee isn't
really my thing I suppose I'll have to take their word for it.
Still, it was neat that newcomer Starbucks, yes Starbucks won the
tasting. I think it's cool when a big company still can focus on
doing things with high quality. In many ways I think it's harder for
big companies to deliver quality than small ones.
It's so weird but I'm now getting 1-2 offers
per week from various PR folks to review products. It's mostly books,
but this week I got an offer to try out a pre-release of a new brand of
disposable "tupperware". Freaky. I think I'll pass on that one, though I
do always appreciate the offer of free stuff. I think employees of PR
firms are taking seminars where they tell them how cheap it is to get
bloggers to write about their products. We're not used to getting free
If you're in New York on May 17th you may want
to check out "The Cuisine
of Queens and Beyond" a sort of food festival presented by Dish du
Jour magazine. Honestly, I have no idea what this magazine is, or what
the event is all about. But Debbie
thinks Rocco di Spirito is "hooooot", and as he'll be there, I imagine
there's others that would like to get a glimpse of him as well. Is he
still even cooking? Or does he just go around being good looking. Debbie
says: "I don't care."
Passover has been over for a few days now (I
needed bread so badly) and Amy at Cooking With Amy did her own
Passover post as well as a roundup of a bunch of other Passover
posts from various food blogs.
One of our readers, Aaron, pointed us to this
comparison of various salts
from Slate. Jeffrey Steingarten had a great article about whether salt
could really taste any different. The conclusion I've come to is that
since salts are chemically identical, dissolved in water there is no way
to tell the difference between them. That said, I do think that
different salt crystals have different shapes, and before dissolving, I
feel the shape can dramatically affect the flavor as the salt crystal
hits different spots on your tongue.
We're going to Hawaii for a few days at some
point down the road. Is it wrong for me not to be enamored of Hawaiian
food? My experience with Hawaiian food is generally large portions of
shredded meat (usually pork) and overly sweet flavors. I'm sure this is
an unfair generalization, but it's based on my semi-limited experience.
The other food I've seen in Hawaii is high-end Japanese restaurants
catering to Japanese tourists - authentic but somewhat antiseptic, and
"higher end" chains like Roy's. Bottom line, does anyone have any
suggestions on where to eat while in Maui? Thanks.
I feel like food scares are somewhat faddish.
Then again, you never know what to really listen to.
Got Mercury has a mercury
calculator to see if all that sushi you're eating is slowly killing you.
Though, if you eat that much sushi, how bad a life could it have been?
You know what a wiki is (actually, you very
likely might not, so here's a
definition). You know what a recipe is. But a
New York, NY, tasted on March 5, 2005 — I want to take a
short break from our Italy trip and document a couple of more recent
meals that really stood out. The first meal is from my second visit
to wd~50 in
Manhattan. Before we get into the details of this meal, I think a
short discourse on the current state of food and innovation is in
Here are some things I believe: a) good food
requires focus, b) removing variables usually drives creativity and
innovation, c) almost always, the best way to have focus and fewer
variables means cooking food within a regional/traditional framework
that's evolved over decades or centuries. And while I believe A and B
are always true, I admit that there are exceptions to C. The exceptions
essentially fall into two categories: 99.99% (or more) in this category
are random restaurants that claim to have an eclectic mix with a little
of everything when in fact they are just all over the place; a tiny
fraction (the remainder) are considered the most cutting edge
restaurants on the planet. These include: El Bulli,
Fat Duck (for which I haven't yet
posted my write-up), and wd~50. I have never eaten at the first, but I
have eaten at Trio
when the Chef was
Grant Achatz who I believe was also cooking in this vein.
Staying focused and removing variables without
cooking based on a traditional framework is only for the very talented.
Because basically it means that a) there's nothing for the chef to rely
on in terms of a basic value system. It also means that there's no
obvious touchstone for the diner. Or more accurately in the case of
these restaurants there are multiple touchstones. With Trio and Fat Duck
not only was there a tour of different culinary traditions, but there
was cleverness, humor, and sometimes shtick. Most of the time at these
meals these elements were innovative, interesting, challenging, and
enjoyable. But sometimes I admit they seemed overly clever, and honestly
not something I'd really like to eat on a regular basis. The
from Trio and the parsnip cereal (basically a box of frosted flakes made
from parsnip, and served with a small pitcher of parsnip milk) from Fat
Duck are cases in point. These are the exceptions and not the rule, and
in both cases I really quite loved my meals at Trio and Fat Duck.
Some people put wd~50 in the same category of
innovative cooking as the others. And certainly
Dufresne's cooking is interesting, challenging, innovative, and
enjoyable. But I separate him from the others. His innovation is never a
lark. It's not that he has no sense of humor, it's just that cleverness
isn't the right metric for his food. There are no combinations that seem
only interesting to me; instead I'd want to eat each one again.
And while you may not recognize the framework from which his food comes,
that doesn't mean there isn't one. His food is reductionist and
beautiful. Ingredients are combined in new and interesting ways not
because they are trendy, uncommon, or clever, but because Dufresne
believes they will taste great together. In fact, what I've found is
that the "depth
of field" in his dishes is relatively narrow, but perfect when in
focus. What I mean is, it's always best to carefully assemble forkfuls
that have little bits of every item on a plate as the ingredients are so
carefully balanced that missing even one can result in a completely
different experience. Luckily the number of ingredients on each plate
are few, not to mention beautiful to behold. Is every dish a home run?
No. But many of them are not only super successful but delivered in such
a special and interesting way that they're unforgettable. I'm lucky
enough to get to eat in New York 2-3 times a year, but I must confess
that I probably think about (and crave) going back to wd~50 more than
any restaurant I know of in New York City. And to be clear, I've been to
quite a few restaurants in New
York City. It's not that I didn't love the meals I had at those
other innovative restaurants. I did. It's just that in a select group of
restaurants that are trying to do something new, from my experience, the
food at wd~50 is unique. Given how much I like to eat out, finding
something truly one-of-a-kind is a singular pleasure for me. OK. Onto
Things started off with
Sesame Flat Bread.
It was super crispy, and very flavorful in a warm and unobtrusive way. Next up was
Beet Juice, and Olive Soil. It was warm, savory with the beet flavor
foundation underneath and then olive on the finish. Definitely yummy.
(I'm embarrassed to say that we ripped into this so quickly that I
didn't get a picture until most of it was eaten. Oops!)
The next dish was
Grapefruit-Basil Crumble, and Nori Caramel. It was wild. This dish almost
defied description. Inky nori caramel, bitter and thin
seeps onto the
plate from a disc-shaped cavity in center of perfect cylinder of foie
gras pate. The key was to eat everything together in one bite to get the
effect. The salty croutons and acidic grapefruit combined with the foie
and nori filled your mouth with an explosive collection of flavors.
Alone the pieces were unremarkable. Together the ingredients were simply
After the foie explosion we had
Trout, Pork Belly, Cider Meringue, and Miso Paper. This dish was a
touch subtle for me except for the chip with its concentrated shoyu flavor. The meringue was
like an apple cloud. I was excited to eat these two dishes,
Anh were not thrilled by them.
However, Debbie and Anh's brother
agreed with me though.
Fried Mayo, and Tomato Molasses arrived. This dish was simply
beautiful. The cubes of fried mayo were still hot. Yes, fried mayo. I'm
still not exactly sure you fry mayo but I'm glad they did. The tomato
molasses had a really deep flavor. The super thin shavings of tongue
tasted as great as they looked.
As I recount the meal I'm reminded of just how
composed everything feels on every plate. The next dish was no exception
Mackerel, Smoked Banana, Juniper, and Pickled Parsley. I want to be
clear, some might jump to the conclusion that these ingredients were put
together here to be different. And there's no doubt that some chefs
confuse being different with being interesting. All I can tell you is
that it wasn't the difference that I walked away with after eating this
dish, it was how the fish was like a awarm tasty tiny pillow that
perfectly balanced with all the other flavors and textures in the dish
including the crispy crispy puffed rice and the crunchy saba skin.
Next up was
Egg, Parmesan Broth, and Tomato. It was certainly neat that the egg
was poached for an hour at exactly 176 degrees to get it to this great
soft-boiled state. But that's not why I loved this dish. The soup was a
gorgeous and crystal clear with the absolute "chewy"
essence of parmigiana reggiano. The egg in the soup gets split and leaks thick yolk
throughout. The dish ends up being almost some form of almost an eggdrop soup with crunchy bits
throughout. This dish was wildly
After the egg we were treated to
Green Daikon, Black Bean, and Chocolate Powder. The lamb belly was super fatty and lamby
but when combined
with the smokey eggplant garlic flavors that came from the rest of the
components the dish was simply excellent and well balanced.
Next up was the
Short Ribs, Smoked Flatiron Beef, Kimchee Spaetzle, and Papaya. This was one of the best dishes
of beef I have ever
had... ever. The rectangle of short rib had a crispy outside and a flaky
inside and the flavor was fantastic - deep and dark in a good way. The
combination with the savoriness of the spaetzle, the sweet tart of the papaya,
and the (what I think was) dried kimchee's spicy qualities, was
extraordinary. The addition of the flat iron beef took it over the top
with its bright savory juiciness. I tore through it as this dish was a
whirlwind of flavor. A juicy savory base filled with gentle bright
sparks of acid and heat.
Dessert began with
Consommé, Banana, and Rum Ice Cream. Even though Michael had not
deigned to try the egg dish, I had to conquer my own fears and try this
one filled with raisin. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised
that eating the ingredients separately instead of together yielded
completely different tastes. The raisins really were not a factor until I ate a spoonful of
the consommé alone that tasted raisiny (and as raisins go, it wasn't
bad). But before that moment the consommé was like a
tangy plum liqueur foundation for the bananas which were unusually
bright. Quite good altogether.
The only dish that bore some resemblance to a
dish we'd had the last time at wd~50 was the Carrot-Lime Ravioli with
Coconut Tapioca. (I must have been so distracted during this meal as I
spaced on this picture too, which is a shame because the ravioli were
beautiful to behold.) The lime flavor was quite sweet in a good way. Anh loved the coconut
tapioca. Altogether the dish was tart, crunchy, and even spicy. These
are Anh's favorite qualities in food as well as (I think) in people.
Panna Cotta, with Chocolate Sorbet and Basil was like the
Good Humor strawberry
shortcake on a stick - but chocolate. The cofee soil didn't bother me or
Deb strangely enough. And the apricot added a special quality. Nice.
Winding these down were the
Cider, and the
Candy. The cotton candy tasted traditional but with a subtle ginger fire on the
finish. Michael had never had cotton candy at a restaurant. To close we
had a bowl of
Almonds. These were cold, cinnamony, and calmed down and rounded out
The combinations of ingredients we had were
definitely new and interesting in many cases. Some people find some key
experiences in life enjoyable early on and spend their days trying to
repeat and perfect those experiences. To some extent I think everyone
has some capacity for that. For Debbie I think it's pizza. For me (at
least lately) it's Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches. But there are a subset
of people in the world (I think) that also enjoy trying new things. And
while new experiences only sometimes match up to old favorites, to a
certain extent it's the journey itself that's exciting. Luckily, with
wd~50 the journey and the destination are rewarding.
If you're not into trying new things, or if
you are but have never eaten his food, it might be easy to dismiss it as
a bunch of odd combinations. There was a time however when for each of
us some ethnic food was an "odd" combination simply because we didn't
grow up with it. And at least from my perspective, the food at wd~50 is
anything but randomly thrown together. It's delicate, deliberate,
composed, and exciting. The balance between the ingredients feels
measured to the millimeter to me. And ultimately even though I deeply
respect and appreciate the innovation and willingness to try new things,
none of these are the why I enjoy eating so much at wd~50. The reason?
The food tastes great.
Seven Second Delay,
May 2, 2005 — In crafting the exciting food persona that is
me, I carefully choose the venues in which I speak outside of this
website. The current rule I employ is that I will only be
interviewed by people that ask. I draw the line at appearing in
articles or programs written or hosted by people who have no
interest in me, my eating companions, and this website. After all,
we must have standards.
Luckily, Evan Kleiman at KCRW lowered her
standards a couple of weeks ago when she interviewed me for her show
Good Food. I'm a big fan of radio, and her show seemed great. What I've
heard since has made me a regular listener. Despite the fact that her
show is broadcast across Southern California, you can (of course) hear
it on the internet. The beauty is that (not of course) they make it
available via podcast (downloadable MP3 syndicated through RSS). This is
cool. Get it
here (at the time of this post the "listen" link wasn't up. If it's
not there when you click, check again later as it will be up soon).
Evan and her friendly producer were smart
enough to not interview me live on her show (who knows what I would say
on the air) so there was a two-week delay between the interview at the
local NPR studios and the airing of the show. Anyone who's a
semi-attentive reader of this site has likely noticed that the delay
between when we eat a meal and when it gets documented on this site. The
delay has grown longer than a year. This seems bad to me. I feel like
the value of the documentation goes down with the big deltas between
when we actually ate the meal and when it gets written up.
I have two options for how to correct this, a)
quit my job and start blogging full time, b) write less about less than
memorable experiences. I've constructed this table to identify the pros
and cons of each option:
Quit My Job and Blog Full Time
Write Less about Lesser Food
- I could catch up relatively quickly by doing nothing all
day but writing about food.
Everyone's doing it.
- I could catch up somewhat quickly.
- It's common practice in the media to not use as much
"ink" (wait, we don't have ink) on lesser subjects.
- The whole lack of a salary thing.
- Who needs health insurance.
- I could no longer afford to eat out or host this site.
This would be ironic.
- Those sub-par food purveyors don't benefit from the deep
and detailed wisdom we have to offer (oh wait, they don't
read this site anyway).
- Unimportant details of my life may be lost forever.
As you've probably already concluded, Option A seems a
little shortsighted. A real catalyst in the near-term but likely a
showstopper for this entire site (and other things I enjoy such as
shelter and transportation) at some date in the near future. So Option B
is the only realistic possibility, though it has its own tradeoffs.
<RATIONALIZATION>Quality is about focus. And I feel that
quality is suffering because I'm insisting on documenting just about
every single meal I have out. And I have to wonder how many people
really enjoy reading about meals that we didn't completely enjoy. I
already don't publish pictures of food I ate that I didn't "like" or
"love". It seems a natural progression to post less, or not much at all
about those same meals. So, in an attempt to focus focus focus, we're
going to spend more time on the good stuff, and less time on the bad
I feel very lucky at how many people appear to check out
this blog regularly. I'd really appreciate hearing from you on this
issue. The comments link is to the left of this post. Hopefully you feel
this is a good evolution of the site, but even if not (and maybe
especially if not) I'd like to hear your thoughts. Thanks.
Just in case you missed it, make sure to check out the
last post on our meal
at San Domenico in Imola, Italy. Definitely not a lesser eating