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Tuesday
November

22

2005
12:43 AM



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20 mcwilliams mount pleasant and penfolds grange hermitage.jpg

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The Classic Wines of Australia at Pinot Brasserie, Las Vegas, Nevada, tasted on October 22, 2004 — Wine is a funny thing. Once you really start to taste it, and I mean smell it, savor it, and recognize that it can taste wildly different at (at least) three distinct points in your mouth, you will one day remember that all these various flavors and aromas all come from grapes. Just grapes. All the more reason to admit that I'm embarrassed about my general lack of breadth and depth when it comes to wine. It's not that you need to be super educated. After all, I began to enjoy wine by just tasting them and writing down which ones I enjoyed. I didn't understand the difference between the varietals. I didn't understand how much difference various vintages would make. But it didn't matter, I just found wine I really liked. Even though Alex has been a good tutor on the topic of wine, and Eric has provided me with CellarTracker - great software to manage my collection, it's Jon Rimmerman and his crew at Garagiste that I've come to depend on most. Basically, through dedication and passion Jon has built a business by passing on recommendations and offers for some of the worlds best undiscovered artisanal wines to his mailing list. And if you hadn't surmised, Jon travels the world finding these producers himself. He is a passionate advocate for these small winemakers. He is eloquent in his descriptions of the wine. And he passes on these wines that are almost always below what you would pay after the  mainstream finds out about them. Frankly, I've had doubts about whether to publicize them because the selfish side of me doesn't want the competition for the best wine Jon finds. The truth of course is that Garagiste's loyal following grows consistently because of their high standards and consistency. Once in awhile Garagiste hosts special wine dinners. Sometimes they are previews of a new vintage from a particular region, and sometimes they host a wine featuring a special collection of famous and spectacular wines from decades past. This was one of the latter featuring the "Classic Wines of Australia" at the Pinot Brasserie in Las Vegas.

You may be surprised that Australia has classic wines. I'm no expert but I'll share with you what little I know. Wine has been made for decades in Australia. And its isolation means that some of the older vines survived the phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800's that destroyed huge numbers of vines in Europe and North America. These were vines that were brought from France and other locations to start a winemaking industry in Australia. Additionally, even though Australia's wine has become very popular over the last decade or two in North America, the wine being made there in previous decades was of a much more traditional style - not the Shiraz-based high alcohol fruit bombs that are in many ways the iconic representation of popular wine from Australia today (which by the way, I happen to enjoy). What follows below is a description of this dinner and the many many wines that we were fortunate enough to taste. Again, since my wine knowledge and appreciation are both shallow, and also because of my low tolerance for alcohol, my descriptions are more anemic than I'd like (especially towards the later part of the meal). That said, hopefully they will give you a sense of this great experience I was lucky enough to enjoy.

Dinner started with Chestnut Celery Root Soup, Smoked Trout Rillettes and Caviar. It had a beautiful aroma (chickeny savory), almost a veloute (which was warm). The fish had a very pure trout flavor (which was cold). The contrasting temperatures were great. I thought the caviar was mild... too mild for me. (Walter and Leslie disagreed on the caviar being too mild.)

Our first wine was 1992 Leo Buring Watervale Leonay Riesling. Hint of sauternes quality on the nose. Bright but monotonal flavor. That was followed by the 1981 Leeuwin Estate Artist Series Chardonnay. It had an aroma of slightly burnt toast and ocean/nori. It was also nutty. The wine had a light body with medium to large fruit and the pepper on the finish showed up on the sides of my tongue.

Next up was Seared Foie Gras, Petit Apricot French Toast, and Orange Vanilla Butter and Micro Greens. The french toast combined golden crispiness with toasty/buttery perfection. There was also a little sour apricot sunshine in the center. This was accompanied by a cherry-like fig. The foie gras had a great thick seared 'skin' and its center coated the tongue with extra 'butter'. This was accompanied by a 1991 Mount Mary Lilydale Chardonnay. The aroma was thick and sweet with some sherry on the nose and in the finish. The smell and the flavor were identical. It's odd to me why this is such a rare occurrence.

Then we tried the 1976 Penfold's Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet. A deep aroma with lots of alcohol. Additional alcohol and raisins on the tongue. I particularly enjoyed the 1977 Yarra Yering Dry Red #2. Prune on the nose. Raspberry/blackberry on the tongue. Very nice acidity. Amazing fruit for a 27 year old wine.

The next dish was Crispy Seared Pancetta Wrapped Halibut with 'Clam Chowder' Sauce. The halibut was a subtler dish. It may have been a victim of all the red wine we drank, but it felt like it didn't have enough flavor. Though, after the wine taste settled, the broth was creamy, sweet, super light, and delicious.

After the halibut we tried the 1982 Jasper Hill Georgia's Paddock. The Jasper Hill had a round aroma. The flavor was a little light in the center but had warm and round flavor around the edges. This was followed by the Baby Lamb Rack, Miniature Provencal Vegetables, with Panisse and Black Olive Lamb Jus. The lamb was dressed with olive oil, and was a slice of tangy/savory goodness. My lamb came a touch cold. That was a bummer, but not as much as the croquette which (according to Walter and Leslie) had a rancid whole wheat flavor. Yucky.

Then we had the 1984 Mount Mary Quintet.  This wine had nice acidity and decent fruit. After that was the 1989 Mount Langi Ghiran, Langi Shiraz. This wine had nice tannins and also some decent fruit, but there was a touch of alcohol on the finish. Things really started to get going with the 1980 Penfolds Coonawara Cabernet Kalimna Shiraz Bin 80A. We started off with a brilliant ruby color and a chocolate aroma. On tasting there was spice and pepper at first and light fruit ont he finish which went on and on and on!

After those three wines we were served the Pan Roasted Duck Breast served over Duck Confit Ravioli, Poached Figs, and Foie Gras Sauce. The duck had great flavor, especially the crust which had an excellent salty quality.  The meat was a bit too chewy however. Figs aren't typically my thing (at least in this incarnation.) The ravioli was good and the confit flavor was deep.

To complement the duck we tried the 1990 Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz. Some molasses on the nose and the sweetness in the taste mirrored the nose. This was followed by the Cured Pork Shank with a Ragoût of French Lentils and Brunoise Vegetables. When the dish arrived we were greeted by a gorgeous bacony and lentily smell. The dish had really warm and balanced flavors. That said, there was a little too much fat for my taste and the roasted garlic was somewhat bitter. Next up was a 1988 Virgin Hills Cabernet. It had a tiny lemon aroma at its core with light fruit and fine tannins.

Perhaps the two most exciting wines of the evening were the next two. First was the 1966 Penfold's Grange Hermitage Bin 95. The Grange had a brownish color, with sherry, dark leather, and tobacco flavors. Second was the 1966 McWilliams Mount Pleasant. A leather aroma on the McWilliams as well and it had an almost neon color. The flavor was sherry-like to me. These two wines were very impressive and just had a round almost syrupy aged flavor that really was special.

We were still hungry of course, so the kitchen sent out Braised Prime Short Ribs, Chanterelles, and Israeli Couscous. These were super soft and couscous is always yummy. As was the Brie de Meaux, Walnut Raisin Bread and Apricot Pecan Compote. The combination of its deliciousness and my drunken stupor means that all I captured in the picture were the few remnants of the compote left when I finally remembered to photograph the dish. Oops!

A few more wines before dessert: 1986 Wendouree Shiraz Estate. Hard to taste the flavor as it was mostly minerals on the tongue. 1990 Yarra Yering Dry Red #1. Quite enjoyable with nice fruit, light tannins, and clean flavors. 1994 Plantagenet Mount Baker Cabernet Sauvignon. This had a sherry aroma with a dark flavor that had a touch of fire on the finish. 1996 Houghton Jack Mann Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz. Nice tannins, but no blueberries on the tongue.  And finally the 1994 Bannockburn Geelong Pinot Noir Estate. I honestly don't remember this one. The wine was really affecting me by now. But not enough to ignore dessert - Chocolate Soufflé with Vanilla Ice Cream and Strawberry. Light, puffy, and a tiny hint of cinnamon. Nice. 

This was a really enjoyable evening. The meal was good in a Vegas way. The wine and expert annotation from Jon Rimmerman was really over the pale. Often I wondered whether I really had the depth to truly appreciate the wines we were getting to taste. But in the end I was just glad I had the experience.

 

Thursday
November

17

2005
12:57 AM



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Eating out with Young Children - Practical Advice for Parents (as well as Waiters, Chefs, and Restaurateurs), November  17, 2005 — I love to eat out at restaurants. Mostly because at the good places, they cook way way better than I can. But it's more than that. I love the atmosphere. I love the social experience - it's fun to talk to the people at the table without any distractions. Food just keeps getting placed in front of you and you can focus on eating it and chatting with your partners in this particular meal. And for some people, that's enough. But for me, I also had this nagging urge to procreate. Ultimately, Debbie and I enjoy each others' company and figure that more people just like us in the world can't be a bad thing. And in fact, we've long believed that going out to eat with friends, and having kids ultimately are aligned goals. Since they'll be our kids, they'll enjoy going out to dinner too... with us. We had it all planned out. Of course, as any parent knows, things are not that simple.

For the first few months of our first child we actually thought things were going to be a breeze. During that time the kids mostly sleep. So we could even go out for fancy meals. The kid would sleep through all 12 courses. And if a little food was needed the leisurely pace of the meal afforded many opportunities for a quick feeding. Sometime before their first birthday they decide that sitting still for a couple of hours is no longer fun. And that's when your eating out days can be over.

I won't even get into the fact that my big ideas about what open-minded eaters my kids would be was shattered in my early days as a parent. That's a topic for another day. So after I realized that my kids were not going to organically come up with the desire to go out all the time for sushi, dim sum, and pho I had to come up with plan B. And in fact I'd kind of figured that it would be years before my kids started liking a broader range of food. Going out to dinner with them became more to meet my need to go out to dinner more often than to somehow address my desire to see them broaden their horizons. That's where it began. I like spending time with the kids, and I like to go out to dinner. Somehow we'll need to find a way to go out with them.

Of course when people think about taking little kids out for a meal they immediately think of the "panoply" of yucky fast food and chain options. The iconic representative of this array is the worst of the bunch - Chuck E. Cheese. The problem of course is that a) if the parents want to eat something decent, and b) if the parents don't want to constantly fill their kids with crap, then all the restaurants that optimize for children are not real options. As a parent who likely is short on time, it's a constant battle to not give in to the solutions that are designed for kids. You have to resist, and you have to be creative. To that end, over the past few months we appear to have struck upon a formula for solving this problem and today I'll share it with you.

1. Your real enemy in getting a decent meal is not your child, it's the clock. The moment you walk into a restaurant with your children an invisible timer starts ticking. You can't see this timer so you have no idea how much time you have left until it rings. But trust me, it will go off. And when it does, your child will become unmanageable and you will have to leave the restaurant. If you've done relatively well you may only miss your dessert. If you've done poorly you'll be leaving just as the first appetizers are being brought to your table.

2. Pick somewhere close. Since every minute counts, don't take your kids halfway across town to the place you want to eat. Even though I do not think you should not limit yourself to places that optimize around kids and server horrible food, there are some constraints you're going to have if you're going to make this work. Your best bet is to not have to drive more than 10-15 minutes. If that doesn't work see if you can drive from another location where everyone will be - grandparents' house, school, etc.

3. Pick somewhere good. The whole point of this effort is for you to get a decent meal. So pick somewhere you'll actually enjoy. To make this work you're going to have to be alert, so you may as well get the payoff of the decent meal when you pull it off.

4. Find a place with lots of small dishes. Never mind that small dishes are almost always better in terms of quality, small dishes can typically be prepared quickly. They have fewer components and can come out of the kitchen in a hurry. Think sushi, dim sum, tapas, or just restaurants with lots of appetizers.

5. Pick a restaurant run by people who are in it for the long haul. This is good advice in any case. Here's the deal. If you're going to find a restaurant with great food and train them in how to make it so you can eat there with kids, you want a waitstaff and a kitchen that are flexible, and care about retaining you as a regular customer. Smaller restaurants, non-chains, and ones that are family run all good candidates. Once you find a waiter who really knows how to make the meal work, you want them to be your waiter every time. People who are just there to pick up a check aren't invested in making your meal a positive experience. Ethnic restaurants are usually good candidates in this regard.

6. Go early. The restaurant is emptier. The staff can pay more attention to you. The kitchen can turn your food around faster. There are fewer people for your kids to bother. Your kids likely eat dinner early anyway. This is a no brainer, but even I forget it sometimes.

7. Compress the meal. Up until now your work has all been about the creation of an environment in which it's likely that you'll get a good meal for you and your kids. That said, this piece of advice may be the single most important, because if you don't execute well, all your planning will have been for naught. As I've said before, every second counts. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that you should be done ordering before your butt hits your chair. In actuality, the process is to plant your order with the waiter or waitress on their first visit to your table. Yes, even if they have just shown up to give you a menu. DO NOT LET THEM LEAVE YOUR TABLE UNTIL YOU ORDER. You can't afford to wait. If that waiter leaves your table it could be minutes until they get back. You should be thinking about what to order during the drive over. Before you place your order explain why you're acting  so oddly to the waiter. Usually by telling them about the invisible timer you can get them to realize the challenge. This last point is very very important. Make sure to tell the waiter that he/she should have the kitchen make all the food immediately and bring it out as soon as its ready. Restaurants, waiters, and kitchens all work very hard to time your meal flawlessly. Things come out in waves perfectly timed. This is exactly what you don't want. But make sure the waiter really understands what you're saying. You don't care about the order in which the food comes out. You just want it all as soon as possible. The best waiters will be back with a couple of the first items that are easy to prepare or already prepared in the kitchen (like a bowl of steamed rice) in 2 minutes. Every minute your kids are sitting there without food in front of them they're getting nutty.

8. Make your own kids' menu. I'm going to claim that in this unenlightened age just about any restaurant that has an official kids' menu does not qualify as "good" according to rule #3 above. Thai restaurants have chicken satay, steamed rice, and spring rolls. Mexican restaurants have chips and salsa and tacos. Japanese restaurants have steamed rice, egg sushi, shrimp sushi, tempura, and little cubes of tofu they usually put in miso soup. Guess what. My kids LOVE tofu. Who would have thought. And now every time we go out I try to get them to eat something new. It's typically a marketing challenge with them. Pick something you know they'll love, and give it a name they can get behind. The other day we called California Rolls - "Children's Rainbow Sushi". It's colorful, and as you can tell from the name - It's for children! Maybe my kids aren't that bright but this worked. Don't underestimate what your kid might eat with the proper marketing from you.

9. When the last dish arrives at the table pay for the meal. It doesn't matter if you're done. You want the financial transaction at the end of the meal to happen well before your kids are ready to go. This way the moment the timer goes off, you're already done. You can grab your jackets and go. If you're cutting it close and not worried about the accuracy of the bill, you can "ask" for the bill by just handing the waiter your credit card. That cuts several minutes out of the entire process.

10. Tip big. I try to generally tip 20% at a meal without kids. I ratchet up to at least 25% for one of these blitzkrieg meals. If your waiter isn't super attentive and understanding of the challenge you are screwed. And if you can find a waiter who knows how to make this exercise work you want to cherish them, reward the, and rely on them time and time again. They have a hard enough job as it is. If they're willing to make this kind of meal work, they deserve every bit of an oversized tip. And though it may seem excessive, compare the extra 5-10% tip to what it would have cost you to hire a babysitter for the evening.

These are ten simple rules for giving yourself a shot at eating a good meal with your kids. But those on the other side of the equation can also do their part.

  • Waiters. Understand the process above. Recognize parents who are trying to employ it. And especially recognize parents who don't know how to make their meal enjoyable. You can educate them on how to make it work.
  • Chefs. I would NEVER ask you to put some crappy hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets on your menu just for kids. (Fantastic hamburgers and hot dogs would be another matter entirely.) That said, there's no reason why you can't have a few options for kids that are dishes you can be proud of. You don't even have to put them on the menu, just let the waitstaff know to offer those options to kids who show up.
  • Restaurateurs. Just because people have kids doesn't mean they like to eat garbage. Addressing the needs of parents who don't want to take their kids to McDonald's but still want to eat out  want great food - not great relative to McDonald's (think CPK and other "upscale casual concepts" or whatever they are called) but truly GREAT food crafted with love and care. It may be as simple as setting up a few toys in a quiet discreet corner of the restaurant and letting people know that kids are welcome. You may be shocked at what you find. I think most businesses think that in order to welcome kids into their establishment they need to be kid-focused  In fact, I think most parents would prefer just an establishment that's adult-focused, but kid-savvy. (And if you want to go all out, a little novelty never hurts. My son goes nuts for the sushi place with the conveyor belt. If only their sushi was high quality we'd have a place that both he AND I love.)

This may seem like a lot of work. And it's certainly not for the faint of heart. That said, I used to be VERY stressed going out to dinner with the kids as I knew it would always end poorly. Now, even though it's a little bit of effort, I am much less stressed. And one week at a time we're finding more and more restaurants that can accommodate this type of meal. And the beauty is that not only will you end up feeling like you haven't completely sacrificed your ability to eat out for your kids, but your kids will start to learn how to eat out themselves. And someday down the road going out to eat with your children may be a shared positive experience enjoying great food together. I couldn't help but smile tonight when my kids complained that we were eating Thai food instead of sushi. A couple of years ago when all they ate was peanut butter at home this is a problem I would have begged to have.

 

Tuesday
November

15

2005
10:09 PM



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Taranta & Mike's Pastry, Boston, MA, tasted on  July 25, 2004 — Given how ubiquitous Italian food seems to be in the United States, it's amazing how much of it is not very good. It's simple for me and pasta is my litmus test. I want homemade pasta with a natural texture and flavor in its own right that's perfectly cooked (for me that's just barely past al dente). I want it to have just been tossed with a sauce constructed from extremely fresh ingredients where the flavors are simple and the sauce hasn't been mushed until every bit of texture has been eliminated. In fact, in the best cases not only does the sauce have texture, but it is composed of a small set of flavors - each bright, singular, distinct, as well as integrated. And honestly, I rarely get pasta in this country that meets that bar. And quite frankly Taranta was a mixed experience. But the high notes were the pasta dishes. And some of them were very very good. Onto the meal.

We were served some olive oil with a hot pepper floating in it as well as some bread. The hot pepper was kind of a tease as at the start it was strictly for decoration and hadn't imparted any of its flavor into the oil. It was better once we mushed it up a bit. The bread didn't make a great impression on me. It was cakey, hard, and dry. It too got better over time but only once it was drenched in the oil.

Next up was a Caprese salad. It was fine. The mozarella was fresh but the tomatoes didn't have very much flavor. This bugs me as if the tomatoes don't have flavor why even bother putting this on the menu. Flavorless tomatoes don't belong on any plate of food to be consumed by humans. Kira tried the tomato and thought it was among the best tomatoes she's ever tasted, which is to say - not very good. Kira doesn't like tomatoes. She's insane and clearly never had a good one. We'll have to work on that.

After the salad we had (what has always seemed to me to be) a unique Boston item - Fish Chowder. This version also had leeks, potatoes, and yellow peppers. I thought it was thin on flavor though the spice on the finish was nice. Steve thought "not enough fish and too much potato". Debbie and Kira liked it. I added salt. That made my soup salty and still not flavorful.

The seafood dishes were ok. The shrimp was slightly bitter and dry and I'm still not a huge broccoli raab fan. The octopus had a nice red sauce - Steve and Kira liked it. And the mussels were decent with a nice wine sauce.

At this point, you may be wondering why the hell I'm even writing about this place. I had honestly almost given up on our meal at this point. And to be honest, the more average food that showed up the more it was going to take a pretty strong finish to be able to say anything redeeming about Taranta. And shockingly, the meal basically completely turned around at this point.

First up in this "second wind" was the Calzoncinni. The flaky crust was nice, light, and buttery. But the lamb filling was particularly great. It was warm, savory, and lamby but not too strong. Delicious.

Even better however were the pasta dishes. The Homemade Pappardelle with Grandma's Sauce stopped me in my tracks. The pasta was good but the sauce was awesome. Bright, fresh, simple, amazing. Sweet and savory in perfect balance with a hint of roasted garlic on the finish. Yay grandma! I would eat this dish every day if I could.

We also got the Pappardelle with Prosciutto, Broccoli Raab, and Brown Butter Sauce. Great. The pasta was covered in a buttery, smokey, thinner sauce, that was simple and delicious.

I also enjoyed the Lobster Ravioli. The sauce was nice - lobstery. slight bittery undertone. Kira liked it more and more as it went on. Debbie liked it from the start.

The Gnocchi was decent. The sauce and meat were both enjoyable. Brisket and south american spiciness. funny combo but good.

If we were enjoying our pasta too much, next up was the tuna dish to remind us that Taranta is basically only good at making pasta. The tuna dish was random and all over the place.

I'm really torn about recommending a restaurant that's so inconsistent, but their hits seemed so localized to one spot on the menu that going there and only ordering pasta seemed like it could be a reliable method for having a very enjoyable meal. If that's not enough for you, do what we did and bring your own dessert - specifically cannolis from Mike's Pastry.

Mike's is down the street from Taranta. If you're going to the North End in Boston for Italian food it's really not ok to leave without some high quality Italian pastry. Kira's absolute favorites are from Mike's Pastry. The cream was not too sweet. And even though I typically prefer plain, I did enjoy the Chocolate Chip version. I think Michael has his own idea of what's best (hopefully he'll post a comment with his perspective). He and Kira can duke it out over who has the best cannolis.

 

Friday
November

11

2005
12:49 AM



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Kupel's Bakery, Brookline, MA, tasted on  July 25, 2004 — As you may have noticed to try and make up some time and catch up with our backlog I've stopped writing about eating experiences that I am not eager to repeat. It's not that I'm excessively positive or have lowered my standards. While I try only to eat places that I'll want to return, it's still hit or miss. For example, during May, June, and July of 2004 I had 36 meals that I considered writing about. Of those I wrote about 17 to recommend them. Batting almost .500. Not bad, but still skipping a bunch. Despite that, today I'm writing about Kupel's Bakery. And the news isn't good.

I grew up in Brookline Massachusetts where Kupel's bagels are legendary. I think I used to get them growing up because everyone told me they were good. I didn't really think about what I was eating then nearly as much as I do today. But I do remember thinking that while I guessed they were great cause everyone told me so, they didn't leave a strong impression on me. In the meantime I've spent some significant time thinking about bagels. Last year I found myself in Brookline, MA around the corner from Kupel's and in the need to see what they taste like against the backdrop of my new obsessive perspective.

Honestly, my first reaction to the biggish sesame bagel I bought was "eh". The flavors were clean, almost cool, though there was lots of sesame goodness. It was chewy with a moist dense texture but too thick for my taste. Bottom line, while these are decent if you are desperate for a bagel, and they are better than the overly chewy oversized New York monstrosities, Kupel's bagels are not special. There, I said it. Residents of Brookline, Massachusetts, flame away.

 

Wednesday
November

9

2005
12:03 AM



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Rami's, Brookline, MA, tasted on  July 25, 2004 — The venerable falafel stand is a staple of many a street corner in Israel. Israeli falafel is made mostly of chickpeas, unlike Arab falafel which has an emphasis on fava beans. Sometimes the two are mixed. I like both kinds, but I prefer the Israeli falafel. Not as much because of its chickpea basis, but because of its size. The Israeli falafel is typically smaller than its arab counterpart. I think that's part of why I like it better. But one of the best parts of the Israeli falafel stand is the dazzling array of salads that line the counter over which you place your order. In some establishments there are a handful - pickled cucumbers, marinated onions, some tahini, etc. But in the best there are dozens - all manner of pickled items, chopped salads, and delicious sauces. And the best part is that you sit there eating your falafel (or shawarma) sandwich and every time you eat a layer of your sandwich you build it back up again with generous portions of the various salads and sauces. I'm no size queen but you do end up eating almost twice the original volume of your sandwich with the constant salad replenishment. When the falafel is good and the salad/sauce selection is wide and fresh, life can be very happy indeed.

Unfortunately, Rami's in Brookline Massachusetts forgoes the help yourself salad bar for your falafel or shawarma. But given that they are one of the most authentic Israeli falafel establishments in the United States with very little competition in the country (and probably none in Boston) maybe they don't need to compete by offering unlimited salads. (Not sure, but the health department may also have an issue with people ladling more salad onto their half-eaten sandwich. Not in the middle east, but that's a different story.)

Rami's is awesome. A super selection of Israeli salads to complement very authentic falafel and shawarma. The sandwiches are simply huge. Maybe too big. The fries were pretty good as well - crispy, fresh, and flavorful. Two of the sauces in particular were quite good. The "schug" hot sauce was sharp and fresh, but the amba was even better (I found a recipe here). It's a mango sauce with an almost sweet, but somewhat bitter, tiny spicy flavor. It was delicious. I poured buckets of it onto my sandwich as I ate. All of these ingredients as well as the crispy brine pickles found themselves nestled in very soft pitas (which I particularly enjoy).

Rami's is street food with super fresh quality ingredients, a healthy does of cleanliness,and a line of people to the door who know that if you want authentic Israeli falafel, crisp, fresh, and soft on the inside with an array of delicious salads and sauces, this is the place to be.

 

Monday
November

7

2005
12:56 AM



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Part I of my Forthcoming Food Education, November 7, 2005 — Sometimes it's embarrassing to be so food focused. As I've mentioned before, I really have no qualifications, no education, and no expertise. It's just that life is short, and there are so many wonderful things to experience in the world, that there's no reason to waste time on things that aren't memorable. Often, aspiring chefs (i.e. people who really do typically have qualifications, education, and expertise) go through their own period of time where they do things to expand their perspective and experience when it comes to food. They do stages (internships) at restaurants, they take classes, and they travel. We'll see whether I'm able to do all three, but for now, it's time to do the third - travel.

Part of being employed in the high-tech industry is dealing with the expansions and contractions of the high tech industry. I worked at one company that was having a tough time and got laid off. I can't say I was thrilled about it, but I had always wanted to take a trip to Asia. I'd only been to Tokyo once for a few days up until that point and spent almost all of the trip stuck on a trade show floor. I was pretty confident I could get another job, but I knew that I would take a month off to travel alone across Asia before I went back to work. Turns out that my new employer wanted me to start immediately and my trip would have to wait. That was almost nine years ago. In the coming months it's time to take that trip.

For me Asia is filled with possibility. I have had a fascination with Asian culture, and especially Asian food for as long as I can remember. While I've been all over Europe and spent time in the Middle East, to date I've been to Tokyo several times, Kyoto once, and Seoul once for a couple of days. Asia is so rich with diversity and opportunity to see new things, and eat great food, that even though I love the time I've spent there, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. Actually, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of the surface.

This is Tokyo after dusk.

I love how because of the high cost of land the city is built vertically. A friend said to me once, Tokyo is ready for the day they invent flying cars. They think nothing of putting a restaurant on the 10th floor of a 50 floor building. I don't know why this is so intriguing for me, but it is. I guess it's kind of an iconic representation of a different set of core assumptions about what goes where and how things should be. And even though the skyline of Tokyo and the markets in Phnom Penh bare little visual resemblance, the amount of exciting opportunity contained in every compressed nook and cranny in both cities is what I'm looking forward to exploring.

So, please consider the suggestion box open. I am traveling to:

and I need your thoughts. I apologize if this is boring, but let me remind you. I am not looking for eating experiences that you enjoyed or found fun. I am looking for food that is simply amazing. I don't care about atmosphere. Bad service doesn't bother me. I am not biased to only expensive restaurants - I love street vendors. The only thing that bothers me is food that isn't memorable. I have way too little time in each place to waste it eating somewhere that has a great view or a fantastic atmosphere. Those things are fine, but I'm going for the food.

As an aside, I've been scouring the web for weeks trying to find recommendations that I can trust for where to eat, and frankly, I'm super disappointed. It's not that this site is so great or brilliant. We're not. But the one thing we try to do well is a) have high standards, b) describe our experiences in detail. That combination exists in very few places that I have found on the web. I need more sites to do what we do here. What other way will I find out where to eat? This is where you come in.

Before you send your suggestions, I'm not going totally blind, I do have some restaurants and markets cued up in each city, but I'm not sure yet that I'm really going to be spending my time wisely. I do have somewhat of a strategy though:

  • Hong Kong - trying to eat at the speakeasys (the "private" restaurants in people's home kitchens). Dim sum is a priority as well. This might be the city in which to try an interpretation of another cuisine like French or Japanese.
  • Bangkok - I think I'm going to focus mostly on street food and one dim sum. I'd like to eat at one or two restaurants, but I worry about choosing well. Not sure if I should make time for some Indian food.
  • Phnom Penh - Street food.
  • Siem Reap - Not focusing on authenticity here. The high-end hotels compete on the food front. I think I will try that.
  • Tokyo - It's going to take everything I've got not to go back to old favorites here. I have no plan yet.

Don't be swayed by my focus in each city. I am open to changing my mind based on good advice. Just don't be hurt if I don't heed your wisdom. I'll do my best to weed through everything I get and try to choose as best I can. And yes, you can also feel free to tell me I'm dopey for picking the itinerary I did, and going for as little time as I'm going.

And no matter where I go, I promise to report back as best I can, and of course in as much detail as possible. Thanks.

 

Friday
November

4

2005
12:08 AM



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The Seasoning of a Chef, November 4, 2005 — For some reason I am fascinated with books that detail people rising in their profession. I used to only read the books about CEOs of technology companies, but now I also read about chefs. There's something about understanding the choices they made, the skills they learned, and the luck they encountered. I especially like reading the person's own version and then the critical version written by others. This is typically only possible with CEOs as not a lot of people are writing book-length criticisms of chefs. That said, the new book The Seasoning of a Chef - My Journey from Diner to Ducasse and Beyond by Doug Psaltis (the Chef) with (his brother and literary agent) Michael Psaltis, and the response to it encapsulated in this thread on eGullet come about as close as you can find.

I've been delaying writing about this book because I'm not sure how I feel about it. And frankly I'm a little gunshy given the reaction to the last time I wrote about a book. But let's dive in. Flame wars are always fun. The book is definitely readable. It only took me a couple of days to rip through it. Some of the literary maneuvers (like telling a story out of order for dramatic effect) seem tried on for size almost like the author has seen others do it and decided to see how it worked. But when a chef is writing a book (even with his brother who is said to have some skills in this area) this can be forgiven. I liked hearing the details of working in these kitchens. It's basically voyeuristic fun especially when you get to see the author treated to special privileges and perks by the Ducasse organization including visiting and working in his other restaurants. When I look at the individual parts of the book it adds up to the notion that I enjoyed reading the book. And in fact I did.

And yet, there's also something unsatisfying about the book. It's kind of like a meal that has great technical execution but no soul. How do you separate the fact that your mouth is satisfied, but your heart isn't getting what it needs? That's kind of how the book was for me. Psaltis was telling his own life story. Even sharing intimate details about how he was feeling and tradeoffs he made, and yet the characters all felt two dimensional. Psaltis moves up the ranks of professional cooks in Manhattan methodically, and while he shares some of the tradeoffs he made, I never really felt them. In fact, I just really had no idea what kind of a guy he was. I walked away feeling that I'd gotten a somehow sanitized version of what happened. Not because he necessarily took out all the ugly details (though he did remove some) but the story just became one of a few repetitive notes: worked hard, learned stuff, sometimes encountered challenges, sometimes overcame challenges, sometimes got rewarded, moved on.

In a way writing a book like this is almost impossible as nobody is ever going to be happy. If you aren't glowingly positive about everyone then people get insulted. (And sure enough Mario Batali and Jacques Pepin regret the blurbs they offered for the back of the book. My feedback to them - you get what you deserve for putting your name on something you didn't fully review. I would be more embarassed admitting that I put my name on something I'd never read than the fact that I endorsed a book that wasn't 100% glowing about Thomas Keller. Isn't the whole point of a chef's good name that they ensure their own personal stamp of quality is earned by every single thing they put in front of a customer? I wonder if you do the same cursory review of food you sell before you put your name on it?) And if you are glowingly positive then you've written a puff piece. It's clear that Psaltis is trying to strike what in his mind was probably a reasonable balance and set of tradeoffs that took into account being honest and not trashing people unreasonably. Mysteriously names of restaurants and chefs disappear or are changed whenever Psaltis has negative things to say about his experience. And in the case of his discussion about the French Laundry where he can't anonymize the tale, with every criticism of Keller and (mostly) his restaurant he loads us up with praise for the very same. I feel like I understand the goal, but unfortunately the book comes off as inauthentic. After reading it I enjoyed many of the details of the inner workings, but feel mostly unsatisfied. And after reading all the eGullet machinations I also end up wondering how much is true. Of course when you write your own story you're bound to put it through your own lens so some of that should be forgiven.

In the end, this book kind of reminds me of the "reality" show The Restaurant with Rocco diSpirito. The book is entertaining. The backgrounds are from a world I like reading about - the world of professional cooking. But I never feel like I'm really seeing the truth. Things feel manufactured. One telling thing, with the Rocco show I kind of suspected that the food they were making wasn't something I would enjoy. And reports I've seen claim that I wasn't wrong. With Psaltis' book, I often wondered, do I want to eat this guy's food? I almost wanted to wait to write about this book until I've eaten at Psaltis' new restaurant - Country in Manhattan. Is it fair to look at the quality of a book based on the food prepared by its author? I say yes. Because ultimately if the food reflects the makeup of the book - entertaining but without soul, then my conclusion will be that the book in its worst light is a reflection of the author. But if the food is great, then I'll conclude that there's a great chef doing his best to be balanced and just misfiring in terms of coming off genuine. I don't know why this context should make a difference in my final estimation of the book, but for some reason it does. I guess its just hard to know how much credibility to give a chef/author when you've never eaten their food.

 

Wednesday
November

2

2005
12:22 AM



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12 the most pizza.jpg

Click photo to see entire album.

Patsy's, East Longmeadow, MA, tasted on  July 18, 2004 — Ultimately opinions about food are just that... opinions. Nobody is really an authority, nobody is an expert, and nobody is objective. And even more importantly, when someone's childhood memories come into play, it's almost impossible to weed out the judgments of the food vs. the feelings of comfort and happy memories. But in order to provide this service, we must wade into that quagmire. Of course, we're discussing one of the most difficult and contentious topics in the food world... The humaneness of foie gras? No. The fairness of the Michelin star allocations? No. The accuracy/shittness of Doug Psaltis' comments on Thomas Keller and his walk-in? No. We're talking of course about... pizza. At last - something truly important.

So much about food has to do with expectations. I would claim that while there are a wide variety of styles of pizza in the United States (and of course across the world), that there is still a leader in terms of the style of pizza that represents the iconic perfect pizza in the U.S. It's a crust with medium thickness, and a balanced and integrated combination of cheese and sauce. No one part distinguishes itself over the others. The key is balance. Personally my favorite pizza is a little closer to the Italian style where the ingredients are integrated but still have their own identities. Pizza where you can almost see the original shape of the slice of mozarella before it melted and oozed all into the sauce and on the crust.

Patsy's is a small family-run "pizzeria and restaurant" in western Massachusetts - East Longmeadow to be specific. Debbie grew up in nearby Springfield. First I'll let her wax rhapsodic. According to Debbie: "It's real New York style pizza. And it has the perfect balance of sauce cheese and crust. It's simple. The crust is crispy without being brittle. It's got the perfect singed (not charred), nice, floury, slightly burned aspect to it. The sauce is not too sweet which is the downfall of most pizzas. And there's a perfect amount of it. And the cheese is congealed enough so that you could take it all off in one fell swoop but its not too rubbery. It's just awesome."

It's clear she loves this pizza. For me I thought it was very good. In fact one of the best examples of a classic iconic American pizza that I have ever had. The sauce had excellent flavor (not overly herbed which is the biggest crime I usually notice). Either way, if you find yourself heading through western  Massachusetts for some crazy reason, you can't go wrong stopping at Patsy's for a slice, or better yet a whole pie. We got an entire pie.

On an unrelated but still delicious note, when not causing riots, Peyman and DebDu are eating their way through Paris one arrondissement at a time. Check out their latest yummy post. The diagrams are perfect!

 

     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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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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