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Tuesday
July

26

2005
12:12 AM



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In-N-Out Burger & Lee's Sandwiches, Anaheim, CA, tasted on May 3, 2004 — There is something about southern California and high quality fast food. Never mind the incredible Mexican food, I mean American chain fast food. The kind decried in Supersize Me (which have you noticed, now that guy is committing his own crimes of scale - ok I should wait to see his new show before passing judgment). The really gross stuff. Or is it? It's kind of ironic that for our first really positive food experience around Disneyland we had to go to the places that embrace their mass marketness, and don't try to pretend they're anything different.

First off, I'll admit, I love fast food. It's delicious. I'll also admit that I almost never eat it since I decided not to be a fatass. Unluckily (or luckily) my two favorite fast food chains in the world are not located where I live in the pacific northwest. However in southern California they are everywhere. Just a few minutes from Disneyland an In-N-Out Burger and a Lee's Sandwiches live not 50 yards from each other. I'm thinking of setting up a tent in the parking lot.

Here's the deal. You can turn up your nose at fast food all you want. But I claim that most of the great food in the world is fast food. After all, what makes for great food in general is focus, simplicity, and freshness. And the original fast food on this planet is street food. Street food often by necessity is focused, simple, and fresh. It's focused because they have to differentiate from the competition of which there's usually a lot. It's simple because how much choice do you have when you're working out of a cart (or a box) in the street? And it's fresh because, where would you store the ingredients?

The big guys in American fast food, McDonald's, Burger King, etc. have tuned their menus into choice after choice of item tuned to stimulate our fat and sugar pleasure centers until we're passed out in a puddle of... well... fat and sugar. It's like a drug. You keep needing more to get the same high. And frankly, that's why I love eating Big Macs and Egg McMuffins. They taste absolutely great when I eat them. But afterwards I feel sick. One day I simply stopped thinking that the sick feeling was normal, and since then they've been a once a year treat.

But back to southern California. In-N-Out Burger, about which I've written already, and Lee's Sandwiches get it right. In-N-Out was actually not the best In-N-Out experience I've had, but it was still better than everywhere else. Not sure if this was a fluke for their Anaheim location, or a pattern. Hard to say until I go back. But Lee's was exemplary.

Lee's is basically a Vietnamese deli done at scale. I'm not a fan of colonialism, but if there's any upside to the French presence in southeast Asia it's Vietnamese subs. The combination of fresh Vietnamese ingredients - various hams, cilantro, hot peppers, jicama, etc. on a French baguette is pretty amazingly delicious. And Lee's has a huge variety. They even do them on these extra thin baguettes which for some reason I find even more delicious as they have a less bread to contents ratio. I could eat three of these sandwiches in a sitting. Lee's also tries to expand a bit by making European sandwiches. I'd tell you how they are but I can never bring myself to order one as the Vietnamese subs always beckon me with their siren song. Those harpies! Lee's also has a host of Vietnamese appetizers and drinks. You can check out the whole menu here. Lots of smoothies, and cool southeast Asian teas and coffees. And Italian sodas? OK. Never mind. That and the weird wireless internet access with a time limit based on how much money you spent are just odd. But that's part of the charm of Lee's. The Delimanjoo pastries are another. These are from a cool Korean machine that just creates pastries in front of your eyes. For the complete description of these check out this report from the Fancy Food Show when we first encountered them. I think the folks at Lee's corporate are experimenting. More power to them as long as they keep focused on making simple great food.

And to the folks in Southern California, please a) create more fast food chains like Lee's and In-N-Out, and b) please let them have some franchises outside of California. We're dying out here.

 

Wednesday
July

20

2005
12:35 AM



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Desparately Seeking Decent Food Around Disneyland, Anaheim, CA, tasted on April 29 - May 2, 2004 — I really love Disneyland/World, etc. I love it in the same way I love Las Vegas. I'm all about authenticity, so how could I like something so obviously fake. It's the exuberance with which the fakery is executed that really wins me over. There's no shame. No embarrassment. And the authenticity is really the energy with which they try to create this manufactured experience. And I find it impressive and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, Disney is also a place for families. In a country that already is misguided when it comes to the values it cherishes in its food (quantity over quality), food for families is often the pinnacle of this misguidedness (is that a word??? It is now!). Combine that with my general inability to pick restaurants I haven't eaten at, and you get the meals we had during the first half of our trip to southern California.

On the first night we ate at Yamabuki, a sushi restaurant in one of the Disney hotels. I mistakenly thought that in trying to cater to Japanese tourists they would invest in having a really high quality Japanese restaurant. Incorrect.

The next night we decided to eat actually in Disneyland at the Blue Bayou in Frontierland. This was Cajun food. Well, it was more of an insult to Cajun food. It was awful. In a weird attempt to show off, the waiter informed us that the cooks in the kitchen were "so good at their jobs" that they were able to predict exactly how much of what dish would get ordered each night, and as such prepared it all hours in advance. Hours. On the positive side you could see the boats floating by from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride as you ate what you could of your dinner.

Back in the "plus" column, the hotel we were staying at was really quite nice. The Grand Californian is a beautiful craftsman hotel. Every detail is really well done. If you're a hotel snob and only like small art hotels designed by Philippe Starck then this isn't for you. But if you have kids, or don't mind being around them, and you even enjoy big hotels, this one was quite lovely. The beautiful design of the place extended to the "high end" restaurant on the premises - the Napa Rose. We got a babysitter for the night and headed down to see what they could do. It seemed promising. And in fact, they were clearly trying. All the old favorites were there - small courses, lobster, foie gras, a nice wine selction, etc.  And aside from our quite friendly but unfortunately named waiter - "Stanko", Napa Rose was predictable and kind of boring. Some of the food tasted flavorful, but for the most part, the place had scored high on the trappings of a nice restaurant, but the soul was missing. Countless restaurants around the world are trying to do this kind of high-end food. Call me jaded for having eaten at many of them, but since I can make comparisons, Napa Rose just couldn't keep up. It was too bad as the place was beautiful.

We trekked a little farther into the Disney nightlife area outside the park the next night to eat at one of Joachim Splichal's restaurants - Catal. Catalonian food sort of. I'd eaten at one of his places - Patina, and really enjoyed myself, so we thought we had a chance here. And of these four experiences, this one came the closest to being one we'd want to repeat. The eggplant and pomegranate dish was tangy, bright, and yummy. The lobster mushroom soup was super interesting with strong lobster flavor and a tiny bit of smokiness. It was almost too salty, but not. The flavor hit the side of your tongue. But the carpaccio salad was off balance. The filet mignon was juicy but not super interesting. And while the vanilla on the fritters made them somewhat interesting, they were not crispy enough. We had a scallop that was nicely caramelized, but the pasta underneath it was undercooked and the sauce had no flavor. The bread pudding and churro dishes for dessert helped end things on a somewhat positive note. In the end Catal was trying hard to be creative, but the execution was so inconsistent that it was hard to imagine going back.

I can imagine that some might ask me what the hell I was expecting eating on the Disney premises. I think that it's a reasonable question. That said, I still think it's possible that a company so focused on making great experiences might eventually figure out how to make ones that center around food. In the meantime, have no fear. We salvaged the trip and ate at several good places during the rest of the week. Stay tuned.

 

Tuesday
July

19

2005
12:18 AM



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15-chilled sweet corn soup.jpg

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The Inn at Langley, Whidbey Island, Wa, tasted on July 7, 2005 — Given that I can't travel all year long it can be hard to visit places more than once. And while many people who write about food think that it's unfair to write about places you ate at once, I don't really have a choice. I figure that you can't be worse than your worst day and you can't be better than your best. And given that I'm looking for places with a healthy dose of consistency, they should fare just fine. In this spirit, a little while ago I posted about our visit to the Inn At Langley last year. The next day we went back and had dinner again at the Inn at Langley's restaurant hosted by their resident chef - Matt Costello. What difference did a year make?

Well, it's kind of funny. In one way the meal we had was completely consistent with the first meal we had about a year ago. Overall, quite enjoyable. On the other hand the context of revisiting the restaurant was valuable as well. The things we liked were just as good if not better, and the things we didn't love, well, now we were certain of it.

Dinner started off with an amuse of Marinated Anchovies on Tomato Chutney with Lovage. Fishy spicy sour but clean. This was like fish sauce but with no Asian overtones. The dish was striking. And the tiny strips of lovage were surprisingly flavorful with their celery-ish tones. This was followed by Chilled Sweet Corn Soup with Sweet Onion Panna Cotta. The soup was cold but the flavor was warm. It was beautiful to look at too. Just sweet fresh corn taste. If I had one complaint it would be that I couldn't taste the onion in the otherwise yummy panna cotta. I wish I could have. I bet it would have made it even better.

The salad was Baby Beets and Figs with Orange Confit and Vanilla Vinaigrette. As with last time, the rule of three was operative here in a couple of dishes. Three flavors making interesting combinations. Each has to be a great counterpoint to the other two. And this is what makes it interesting. I also liked that none of the items were the star. Each shared the stage. I am not a big fan of fig or orange confit but these were both quite good. And as for beets, I'm pretty sure that I am completely, deeply, and passionately in love with them.

Palate cleansing was on the menu next with Apricot Sorbet with Muscato and Lemon-Flavored Herbs. The sorbet was very good. The herb counterpart helped. Typically flowery overtones are not my thing, but here they were complementary and quite good. This was excellent.

It was at this point in the meal that the juxtaposition of the two experiences really made it clear to me that Chef Costello is providing (what I imagine to be) a true Whidbey Island experience on his plates. It sounds so trite and cliché to say that a chef is trying to express the region around him in his dishes, but in an unassuming, and not pretentious way, that's exactly what this food was. Simple. Not hyper-original-on-the-edge, but not run-of-the mill by any means. Structured, colorful, balanced, and frankly fresh, clean, and interesting like the air on the Island. Remember, interesting is important.

It was also clear to me when the entrees came why I'm a small plate fan. One of the entrees was the Halibut with Potato-Cauliflower Puree, John Peterson's Cabbage and Penn Cove Mussels. The other choice was the Roasted Pork Loin on Local Green Beans with Tiny Zucchini and Tomato-Red Wine Sauce. I have no doubt that if Chef Costello had pared these dishes down to the size of the previous ones, they would have shined. But there is something about the entree where I think chefs can lose focus and try to do too much on the plate. On the plus side, the pork crust was super savory and the various beans and zucchini were perfect. The sauce was good too but the pork, unfortunatley was, overcooked and dry. With the halibut there was interesting seasoning, but the fish itself was not very interesting in flavor or texture. The cabbage underneath however was excellent. Instead of giving everyone a choice of the entrees, why give everyone both at 1/3 the size. I bet they'd come out way way better.

Again it was impossible not to notice that the Chef was doing basically all the cooking by himself. Neat!

Luckily the cheese plate again reminded me of how good the dishes there could be. The cheese course consisted of Brillat Savarin Cheese with Cherry Crepes and Shallot Jam. Rather than featuring the cheese with some bit players as accompaniments (even carefully prepared bit players), Costello makes the cheese share the stage with two other items served in (relatively) generous proportions. In this case the theme could have been "bitter" in a good way. The cheese, cherries, and shallots all had that undertone, It was really quite enjoyable especially in constrast with the soft texture of the blintz.

And finally for dessert we had Rum-soaked Almond Cornmeal Cake with White Peach Sorbet and Rum Custard. This was really nice as each element of the dessert had a completely different yet entirely cream texture.

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Entrees aside, we really enjoyed our meal at the Inn At Langley. Chef Costello is obviously super talented. And in some ways he has found a pretty unique voice in terms of his cooking. In a time when even the most cutting edge restaurants can often seem to be derivative and repetitive, Costello doesn't hesitate to make his food and say something about his surroundings. I have a feeling that the areas that weren't quite as enjoyable go against his grain. I can't get inside his head, but I think chefs often serve these entrees because they're expected by the typical restaurant diner. I bet if Costello really let loose, the entrees would disappear and the meal would be elevated that much further. If that were to happen I bet we'd make the long trek out to Whidbey Island more than once a year.

 

Wednesday
July

13

2005
11:24 PM



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Mashiko, West Seattle, Wa, tasted on July 13, 2005 — My deep and abiding love for Nishino in Seattle has made me a bit gun-shy about trying other Japanese restaurants around town. I'm always disappointed by the competition. And usually doubly so as I think about the meal I could have had at Nishino. And unfortunately, tonight's meal at Mashiko in West Seattle was no exception.

I always say that if the food tastes great I find myself caring very little about things like service, decor, and price (within reason). That said, when the food isn't great, those things start to bug the crap out of me. Once I realized that the food at Mashiko was going to be almost entirely consistently disappointing the attitude started to bug the hell out of me. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First the food.

Basically average to below average sushi with lots of variety. The sushi spectrum usually starts on one end with hyper-traditional and goes all the way to the other end with hyper-creative. Both are good. (Nishino takes a left turn in my opinion preserving a very traditional foundation while introducing extremely creative and modern elements.) But anyway... Mashiko is closer to the creative side as they have a very large menu with all kinds of variety of sushi and other Japanese dishes. And while presentation doesn't count for much with me as long as something looks appetizing, usually the creative places at least have some flair. Not so with Mashiko. That wouldn't have been a big deal if the sushi was good. At it's worst the sushi at Mashiko was soggy. Soggy temakis. There's really nothing worse. Even I have gotten to the point in my own personal sushi making where I can make a hand roll with relatively crisp nori (seaweed). And if I can do it, they should be able to cause I suck. From my limited experience this is a sign that the rice was likely too moist and may have gotten into too much contact with the seaweed under pressure. Not good. On many of the rolls the ratios seemed off too. Too much rice, or too wide a roll. Not sure what the problem was. Though mainly it was that the food didn't have much flavor. Additionally, great sushi in my opinion is beautiful to look at. While I don't care about fancy presentation so much, this sushi looked plain sloppy. It can't help but have affected how we perceived it in our mouths. It looked like it was made by someone who didn't care or didn't have the skills to really make it perfectly. The one exception was the onion tempura roll with some tuna and creamy sauce on top. This had some nice crunch and the sauce gave it some decent flavor.

Among the non-sushi dishes the short ribs were actually quite good. Flavorful, tender. A little fatty, but they were supposed to be I think. I enjoyed them. The sauteed pea vines were also flavorful. But the stir-fried "bloodline" tuna fish (from the lean part of the fish according to our waiter) was oversauced and overcooked. The tofu curry (which I think our waiter forgot but didn't want to admit that when we reminded him) had decent flavor but was served in such huge quantity that it couldn't help but be a gloopy affair. Even without the size though it wasn't particularly memorable.

We ordered a whole variety of dishes but really almost nothing stood out, and everyone at the table kept remarking how disappointed they were. And this is when I started to notice how annoying the place was. Basically to go along with the "attitude" in their food they have some attitude in their environment and among their waitstaff. A sign at the front asked you to follow certain instructions "unless you were illiterate". I'm not so politically correct that I'm mortified on behalf of the folks who never learned to read. I am however deeply offended when people make jokes that aren't funny. This just seemed dumb. There was more on the menu where they went over the house rules including "shut up and eat". And our waiter was kind of like an overconfident skate punk. He just always had a borderline condescending answer for everything. I really almost never say a bad word about any waiter or waitress ever. I think they have incredibly hard jobs for which they get paid very little, and I would never want to be the cause of more stress for them. And in this case I think I shouldn't be because I think the waiter was projecting an image consistent with that of the rest of the establishment. It just so happens that since the food wasn't great, the swagger seemed more defensive than deserved. And to be fair to our waiter, we did sit at our table way too long and he was very nice about booting our asses out of there, which we had no problem with. They had folks waiting and it wasn't fair of us to keep hanging out for so long.

Bottom line. I feel like I may have been a touch more negative than is warranted. But I also want to explain why. At the end of our meal they gave us bumper stickers that said "sushiwhore.com". How... cool? I would whore myself out for good sushi. But I am also spoiled. When I go to a place I like or love I consistently get really enjoyable food. Mashiko is doing what hundreds of "hipster" sushi places are doing around the country. They have an attitude. They try to be creative (hey, let's wrap your sushi roll in soy paper). They have a boatload of items on the menu. Etc. And in all honestly, they're probably not even in the bottom quartile when it comes to restaurants like that. Still, that doesn't mean that if you look hard enough there isn't way better food available. And unfortunately in the case of Mashiko, better Japanese food is definitely available elsewhere.

 

Thursday
July

7

2005
12:33 AM



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08-Squab Amuse Bouche.jpg

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The Inn at Langley, Whidbey Island, WA, tasted on June 26, 2004 — I grew up in Boston. And in Boston we had the Cape. Cape Cod to be specific. But my home is now Seattle, and we have our own coastal getaways - the Islands. And there are quite a few of them. Honestly my expectations of the best food on Cape Cod are mostly around the lobster rolls you can get from various roadside stands. Even Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket don't necessarily get me excited in terms of what restaurant food is available, though there are certainly some farm stands that are fantastic. I guess my expectations of the kind of food out in the islands off Seattle are really not that different. Some nice fresh produce in season, some local specialties, and that's good enough for me. But, last summer we stayed at the Inn at Langley, a super nice, Pacific Northwest archetypal inn. And somehow they managed to grab an accomplished Seattle chef - Matt Costello - to move out to the island, and cook in their restaurant. And while we were out there, I could understand the attraction. A small restaurant, sources for local ingredients, seasonal work, a beautiful locale, and operating at a scale that lets the chef really control many more variables than they might in a city restaurant. This could be interesting.

We started off checking out the wine list. At first we were put off that there weren't any wines by the glass. When there's only two of us we simply can't finish most of a bottle of wine. (For anyone confused by this it's mostly my fault as I fall asleep by the end of the second glass.) But then I noticed that they had a decent selection of half bottles. And the logic of this became evident. I'd rather have the wine fresh out of a newly opened bottle, than have a glass from last night's half-finished bottle. Cool. We got the NV Henriot Champagne Brut that was recommended by the chef. Frankly, we loved it. The bubbles were fine, and the flavor super creamy. It had the aroma of butter. On that night it felt like a 96 point Champagne to me.

As we savored our champagne, Chef Costello spent some time addressing the diners who were all going to be eating the same tasting menu on the same schedule. One seating, one menu, simple simple simple. He talked to us for awhile about Whidbey Island terroir. OK. I admit it, I hadn't thought about Whidbey Island as really being a source for various unique ingredients or particular types of items that can make a dish stand out. But in truth, I really know crap about where I live, and Washington state is actually quite agricultural. And apparently, the chef had spent quite some time scouring the island and getting to know the local farmers and producers. So I figured, as long as the quality of the food supported the promises of the narrative then we'd be in good shape. And we were.

First up was the amuse - Cardamom Squab on Balsamic Cherries and Sweet Corn with Fresh Corn Shoots. This was simply excellent. Sizable slices of  squab with both the sweet tones of the cherries and sweet flavors of the corn each having their own unique space but but still complementary. The squab was juicy and savory and the corn shoots were new to me. The corn itself as the base flavor was foundational to the dish and really made it whole. Debbie pointed out that every every element in the amuse had some hits in the sweetness spectrum but there were many other flavors present as well.

Next up was Fresh Shell Pea Soup with Lemon Crème Fraiche and Penn Cove Mussels. This pea soup was different than any other I've ever had. It had a light texture (and some hints of the flavor) of of avoglemono (no doubt due to the lemon crème fraiche. While mussels have never been my favorite they are indeed growing on me, and these in particular added a light savory component to the dish and they were not overly chewy. Some yummy bread came out at this point. It was served hot and there was a variety. Debbie approved wholeheartedly of the fact that the butter was not served ice cold. She prefers it to sit out and get a little softer before it arrives at the table. And just to prove that you can't please everyone, I actually don't like it too soft. In fact, especially with hot rolls, I like the butter kind of cold so I can get the temperature contrasts in my mouth.

Apparently our palates were due for some calming as a Trio of Gazpacho Inspired Sorbets showed up next. I wondered if they would be more "shticky" than yummy but in fact they were cleansing, refreshing, and simple. The cucumber was subtle while the saffron surprisingly, strong and good. My favorite was the tomato as it had an incredibly deep, fresh, and almost citrusy tomato goodness. Excellent! We munched some more on the bread and had some of the best potato bread ever. It was subtle but flavorful - and had just the right amount of salt.

We had a pair of entrees. The Seared Black Cod on Crushed New Potatoes with Wild Morels and Tomatoes and the Muscovy Duck Breast with Plum-Foie Gras Tart Tatin and Dandelion Greens. The cod was light, buttery in flavor and texture, and had a crispy outside. Yummy. The duck was very very good. I wished for it to be cooked slightly rarer, but Debbie thought it was perfect. This is one of those judgment calls. And often I wonder if chefs make certain decisions as they know the bulk of their customers would send back duck that they considered underdone (even though in my opinion it would be perfect). But I shouldn't assume as I don't really know. And after all, Debbie is not exactly an inexperienced diner and she likes her meat on the rare side, and she thought the duck was just right. The dish also had surprising tart flavors which added a ton to the salty/savory duck crust. Again we noticed that Costello used sweet flavors well. I'm not usually a fan of a lot of sweetness but in these dishes it was neither syrupy nor cloying. Debbie also thought the spinach was very well prepared. I agree as it retained those essential fresh spinach tones. The entrees were too big for my taste, but then again they always are. I'm just a small plate guy. I get tired of a dish when there's too much. And if I had one other nit to offer it would be that the duck dish advertised foie gras but I couldn't find any. I have no doubt it was there, I just wonder if it's wrong of me to feel that foie gras in particular shouldn't be mentioned in the name of a dish if it's not really featured in a way I will notice. This may be short-sighted thinking on my part, or just testament to my deep and abiding love for foie gras.

The cheese course was surprisingly good. It was Delice De Bourgogne cheese with Candied Baby Beets, Bronze Fennel and Orange. I knew this cheese well and have eaten it many times. The beets, fennel, and orange formed an excellent combination. There's something about finding three flavors that go well together that has a sort of natural harmony and just strongly resonates with me when it's done really well. Maybe it's the odd number of ingredients, or the different combinations that can happen in your mouth. Whatever it is, when a chef balances three flavors really well (no more, no less) I find myself particularly moved. Debbie thought the beets were the perfect complement to the cheese. And I couldn't help but notice that it was really more than a cheese course. I liked that the cheese shared the stage with other items. Sometimes a cheese course can be overwhelming and this was really an enjoyable dish. Things finished up with a lovely Washington Cherry Sorbet with Cherry-Almond Strudel and White Chocolate.

I have always thought that scale is the enemy of quality. The best chefs can make excellent food consistently for a reasonable number of diners each night. Unfortunately many of them try to scale beyond even that opening multiple restaurants and putting their name on frozen food. This is the point at which I usually wonder why the hell I'm eating their food. It's not that I'm offended by someone trying to build a business. Believe me, I'm not. It's that almost always the expansion comes at the cost of the qualities that made the chef (and now the brand) special. At one point in the meal that I couldn't help but notice that the pacing was really great. This was all the more impressive as Costello appeared to be doing 98% of the cooking all by himself. His staff was doing some of the plating, but he was basically single-handedly feeding 22 people (I counted) in the restaurant all eating at once. Now there are ways to make this possible. All 22 people were eating the same menu. And the menu was no doubt designed so as much as possible could be made in advance. His staff also clearly were playing key support roles not only serving but doing some of the plating as well. Now while I don't know what was on Chef Costello's mind when he decided to leave being a chef in Seattle for essentially a part-time gig out on the island, I can't help but think he carefully scaled down his efforts so that he could exert even more control on the food he creates and serves to customers. And ultimately this seems like quite the opposite of what most chefs are doing, and unsurprisingly has the opposite effect. By scaling down his efforts, he can focus even more on every detail of the food we were eating. And it showed in the attention to detail, and the consistency of the vision throughout the meal. I know the words simple, fresh, and seasonal are overused to the point of being meaningless, but they really did ring true for this meal. I'm excited to go back.

 

Wednesday
July

6

2005
12:22 AM



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Aladdin Mediterranean Market & Deli, San Mateo, CA, tasted on April 3, 2004 — I try not to make this blog about politics. And given that a healthy love of food crosses political boundaries that's usually a pretty simple task. But a visit to a small middle eastern deli in a small strip mall in San Mateo, CA touched me in a totally unexpected way. For some context I should state my position on one of the most difficult and intractable problems on the planet - the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Without commenting on all the injustices suffered by both peoples (at each others and especially third parties' hands) I'll say that each deserve their own sovereign homeland. Israel deserves safe and secure borders, and the Palestinians deserve their own country. And every Palestinian and Israel deserve a happy and safe life. Somehow, this small market gave me a glimpse of how good a future filled with peace could be.

Some background. Jews as a people have an interesting culinary heritage. Because the Jews haven't lived in any single place for hundreds or thousands of years, they have adopted the food traditions of the countries they lived in for centuries. The various Jewish cuisines much more closely resemble that of their adopted countries than they do each other. So it's no surprise that Israeli food often resembles that of the surrounding Arab cultures and countries. And this means that for me, an American Jew of Eastern European descent with plenty of experience living in Israel that my cultural cuisine is a mix of traditional Eastern European Jewish dishes and Israeli dishes that come pretty close to typical (and delicious) Arab food.

But markets in the United States simply don't break across these lines. You either have:

  • a middle eastern market catering to Arab-American customers and carrying no (or almost no) Jewish food or Israeli brands
  • a Jewish market carrying mostly Jewish and Kosher food with only Israeli brand middle eastern products
  • a supermarket with a sad little section of "traditional" Jewish food that almost nobody would eat on a day-to-day basis, and an equally crappy selection of American knock-offs of middle eastern favorites like bad flavored hummus

The last category pisses me off the most as it represents this benign ignorance where the people who stock supermarket shelves think Jews eat gefilte fish 365 days a year. (Not that there's anything wrong with good gefilte fish.)

So imagine my surprise when I walked into the Aladdin Mediterranean Market & Deli and found one of the best selections of Israeli food products in the U.S. being offered right next to food from Syria and Jordan in a market run by a Greek Orthodox Palestinian family from Jericho and Jerusalem. The food selections also included Greek, Turkish, Armenian, and Persian items. Hilda and George Khoury run the Aladdin Market and it's clear that their small shop is a labor of love and practicality. All day customers of all backgrounds, Jews, Arabs, everybody stream through the door to pick up their specialty food items. And many greet the Khourys warmly. It feels to me like some people hang out at the market for longer than they need to just buy their produce or dairy products. As soon as I expressed interest, Hilda took me under her wing and started giving me the tour as well as having me sample some of the delicacies they were offering.

There was Greek Easter bread with Cardamom. Turkish Tabouleh homemade by Hilda which included tomato paste and was a little spicy. Homemade yummy spinach pies were in a stack waiting to be eaten. The pastry tasted of lemon juice, spinach , onions, and a healthy does of olive oil. The shawarma was made from boneless chicken thighs and breasts marinated for 24 hours then stacked. It was not pressed meat Hilda proudly pointed out. I think I ate two of them. Mujadala - lentils and rice. Bastirma- Armenian cured beef. The closest I can come to describing it was that it tasted paprika-ish even though I knew it wasn't paprika giving it the flavor. It was however, fantastic and savory. Two sizes of falafel... of course! Muhamara from Alepo - Turkish peppers with walnuts. Hilda makes excellent Kubeh - bulgur wheat dough wrapped around ground beef with pine nuts. And finally, more feta cheese than you can shake a stick at. Israeli, Turkish, Greek, Bulgarian, and French feta to be exact. The French was creamy, while the Bulgarian was very tangy and more crumbly. The Israeli feta was super salty and unique. The bins of warm nuts staying fresh and giving off their comforting aroma also reminded me of time in Israel where this is a common site. Cashews, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and more filled the bins.

I hung out for awhile in the Aladdin market. Hilda made me feel at home, and it didn't hurt that I kept buying more food to take home as well as trying more creations that Hilda was proud of. They were all delicious. At one point I was asking about her background and she told me that from 1948 - 1967 they lived in Jerusalem, in Jordan. She let her words trail off. The implications for anyone who understands the history of the area is that in 1967 after the Six-Day-War, Hilda's family lost their home. In terms of sensitive subjects, losing one's home during a war pretty much ranks at or near the top, especially when it's clear that the person you're talking to is a supporter of the country that exists where that home used to be. And yet, when I asked Hilda how she and her husband George (who didn't seem too into my curiosity but was friendly nonetheless) decided to stock such a broad range of products that crossed political, religious, and cultural boundaries, she responded simply "we all live together over there. I wish everyone could get along like they do here."

And there it was. I think for the Khourys It's good food and good business.I know it sounds corny, but as I chatted with an Arab-American customer about the merits of the various pita breads for sale, and I noticed the Israeli and Syrian cans of olives sitting peacefully next to each other on the shelf, as well as the Arab cheese side-by-side with the Israeli butter, I thought to myself - wouldn't it be great if everyone really could get along? Imagine the meals we could all have. :)

 

 

 

 

 

   

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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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