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This is derived from several entries in tastingmenu.com including - 01/03/03, 02/17/03, 09/01/0309/23/03, 09/24/03, 11/22/04, and 03/02/05.

 

When I started this website I didn't really have a philosophy about eating except that I enjoyed it, and looked at every meal as an opportunity. Have bad food and it was an opportunity missed. Life is short. Why miss any? When i first wrote this down it had been something that was been brewing for some time but it finally surfaced in the form of a full blown epiphany.

I'm sure I'm not alone in having gone to countless restaurants where the appetizers are good to great and the entrees are disappointing. Why is that? Is every appetizer cook great, and the entree cooks aren't? Doubtful. Often it's the same person anyway. Things finally came into focus when I was reading from the French Laundry Cookbook. In retrospect it should be no surprise that the inspiration came there. Keller talks about "the law of diminishing returns". He talks about the fact that when someone bites into something delicious for the first time they have an amazing experience. However, by the 4th or 5th bite they're already bored no matter how wonderful the initial impression was of the dish. (As two friends have told me when I told them about my thoughts on this topic, "this must be why we like sushi so much".) Keller talks about trying to replicate that first feeling often throughout the meal always leaving the customer wanting just one more bite. (He also says that he overdoes it only with caviar and truffles feeling that most customers don't get to experience those as often. I think that's cute!) I've often wondered half-jokingly why there aren't restaurants that only serve appetizers. Yes, I know about tapas, but that's still pretty narrow and most restaurants who serve tapas also serve entrees (at least here in the U.S.). Why am I only half-serious when I make the suggestion of an all-appetizer restaurant? I think up until now I've been a little uncomfortable with the idea because after all, you have to have an entree. Don't you? Without an entree would society start to crumble?

The truth is that entrees are evil. They're a good appetizer violated. They're too big, too much, and I say that the current construct of dining in America is breaking under the weight of those overstuffed overly-emphasized entrees. I know there have been many people complaining for many years about the increasing emphasis on quantity in American food service. But that's broader than my focus. I believe the root of this sickness is the American belief that you haven't had a meal if you haven't eaten (or half-eaten) an entree. Once you can convince American diners that they don't need an entree the benefits are numerous. First and foremost is the emphasis on more first impressions of great food. These all appetizer meals do not need to be presented in the form of "tasting menus". They can just be chosen from a la carte. Or maybe they can even be offered in sets that the chef thinks would go well together. How many are right? Well if a standard meal is one appetizer and one entree, maybe a total of three or four would do the trick. I believe that bread should be served this way as well - not as an unlimited supply but as a prepared and thoughtful dish. (And while I'm at it, I can think of almost no reason on earth to ever not serve bread warm. Cold bread is lame. Warm is divine. The choice is easy.)

An additional possible benefit of the "eliminate-the-entree" approach is that people may eat less food as they'll get smaller portions over a longer period of time and they'll have a chance to feel full before they eat as much as they normally would. This approach to eating is not so foreign outside of the United States. Many countries (France and Japan come to mind) already often eat much more similarly to this style. I imagine in this country of "super-sizes" some people would say that these ideas would be nice but Americans love quantity. I say there's something everyone can do. Restaurants: offer an appetizer-only menu. If you can't go all the way, then at least highlight some appetizer combinations that people could order instead of entrees. Customers: go to restaurants and order only appetizers. Another trick of the trade is to order entrees but split them. This works best when the entrees are a la carte and not laden with side items. But even so it might work out. One key to the puzzle is telling the waiter that you're crafting your own tasting menu. You may feel a bit odd but don't worry, free yourself from the tyranny of the entree and you'll never look back. (Here's an example of us doing it successfully.) Make your own tasting menu. It's funny but when I came up with the name for this website I wanted a food related term for which the domain wasn't taken. The "tasting menu" theme came to encompass the small "bites" of food-related news and reviews that occupy the site. But now the name takes on additional meaning as I think we need to redefine how we think about eating to have an approach centered more around tasting as much as possible than eating as much as possible.

Ten years ago I used to love eating out at Chili's. Now even the thought of it makes me queasy. Five years ago I was making fun of Lauren and Alex for eating asparagus soup out of egg shells at a fancy restaurant in San Francisco. Now I'm licking the inside of the eggshell to get the last drop while I wonder how they got the edges so uniform. Something happened between then and now that I don't fully understand. I feel like in order to introduce other people to more interesting food, I have to understand how I was able to expand my own horizons.

First, some background. I grew up in a Kosher home (still keep Kosher at home today). No pork. No shellfish. No mixing of milk and meat. Two sets of everything - dishes, silverware, etc. Yet we did not keep kosher when eating outside the home (this is a dichotomy that may seem odd but that I'm comfortable with and can explain another time). While we ate "out" we typically avoided ingredients that were innately unkosher. For example, it was a lot more likely to get a cheeseburger (where the combination of the dairy and meat was the first contributing factor to the unkosherness) than a pork or shrimp dish (where no matter how it's prepared it's never going to be kosher). I ate my first shrimp at age 18 at a Chinese restaurant with friends. It tasted rubbery.

We mostly stayed home to eat. My mom did almost all the cooking. It's funny but I don't remember much about the range of dishes she made but there must have been a variety as she cooked almost every night. They were also all from scratch... no pre-made dinners at our house. A few standouts do come to mind: the beef, tomato, and noodle dish that was made many times during the early years of our family when we couldn't afford much more - it wasn't one of my favorites especially when it had green peppers in it; Friday night (Sabbath) dinners which were good with  chicken soup, chopped hard boiled eggs with a super delicious fried chicken fat (grieven - sp?), and chicken wings - I loved the ones that look like little drumsticks - "drumettes" they're called by Empire Kosher; there were also wonderful apple pies and hamentaschen (little mini triangular apple cookies for the Jewish holiday of Purim) that essentially were like mini-versions of the apple pie; and a really tasty meatloaf my mom used to make - I never understood why they always made fun of meatloaf on sitcoms - I loved the one my mom made.

Our standard exception to eating at home was going out for Chinese food. And while my parents wouldn't partake of any of the meat or seafood dishes, my sister and I would wolf down "Peking Ravioli" at Hsing Hsing Chinese restaurant in Central Square, Cambridge, MA. I loved hot and sour soup too (even with the bits of pork in it). (Now that I've had time to reminisce a bit we also ate out at this little Italian place in Newton Centre, MA every so often - I think they're long gone and the name escapes me.) (Note: someone wrote me and reminded me. It was called Cantina Abruzzi.)

Once in awhile my Dad would do the cooking. Two things stand out: getting cold cuts at the neighborhood deli and eating them for weekend lunches, and him making us large meals of Italian food out of his one and only Italian cookbook - Food alla Florentine, by Naomi Barry and Beppe Bellini. He would work for hours on meals of pasta with tomato sauce and veal marsala. These were always among my favorites. These days he's expanded his repertoire and spends quite a bit of time baking.

My grandmothers left some lasting impressions as well. One made the best chicken soup I've ever had in my life - a rich yellow, with pools of delicious chicken fat, and an intense chicken flavor. She fried up eggs as "loction" and cut them into strips to put in the soup. Up until recently we thought she had taken her soup secrets to the grave. We have the recipe, but have been unable to reproduce her soup. We had all sorts of theories - the water in Toronto; the chicken in Toronto; she cheated and snuck in a bouillon cube, etc. For awhile we think my mom was doubling the water - that didn't help matters. This past year I thought maybe it was under-salted as my Mom accidentally put in "too much" salt, but for me it was just right. There was a point at which the soup started to bring back memories of the original but later it turned into something else entirely. I might have left the parsnip in too long. And finally, just during the last couple of months, my father is convinced he's figure out the secret by adding a bit of sugar to the soup. Anyway, the conclusion of this quest is something for later. This same grandmother made mandelbroit (kind of a biscotti - no anise) and moon cookies (poppy seed cookies) that I loved as well. My other grandmother had her signature recipes as well: smoked carp, peppery gefilte fish, and apricot "pasties" (not for strippers but apricot filling in little soft dough "purses" for dessert). Yummy.

Back to the question of how I made the transition. Actually, maybe the question should be how did I start the transition to lover of all things food, as it's by no means complete. I may have painted a slightly bleaker picture than really existed. There were seeds of the future. I always loved to cook. My mother says I was watching Julia Child on TV religiously at a very early age. My dishes may not have been fancy: creative milkshakes after school, "egg-in-a-nest" and a variety of omelets, salads and salad dressings, but I did have fun making and eating them.

I also had a healthy appreciation for a variety of ethnic foods. Aside from the Chinese and sometimes Israeli food I grew up liking, during (and just after) college I fell in love with Thai, Korean, Vietnamese and Indian as well. (Waltham, MA where Brandeis University is located had a bunch of super cheap Indian restaurants as well as a very inexpensive shack cum restaurant serving Vietnamese yummy goodness. I guess lack of money drove me to some of these cuisines.

It was also at that time that I somehow fell in love with sushi. This is  incredibly odd as I only remember two points on the spectrum: going out to dinner with a friend and his family and them having to beat on me to even try a cucumber maki, and sometime later not being able to get enough sushi. Ever. How that evolution happened I'll never know. However I still was relatively sheltered compared to my current habits and awareness of food.

I think the thing that eventually drove me to a more diversified set of food adventures was my metabolism slowing down. In college I weighed 135 pounds. I'm not tall by any means but this was still pretty skinny. I looked weird - like Anthony Michael Hall in Breakfast Club. Skinny geek. Sometime soon after college my metabolism started slowing down. By 5 years after college my weight was up to 182. I remember seeing my uncle Nat one day and in the way of the very old (and the very young) he unceremoniously pronounced how fat I'd gotten. Me? Fat? It freaked me out. I was a "skinny guy". By 1999 I was on track to getting married and didn't plan on looking puffy at my wedding. Since exercise is against my religion (not Judaism, but my own personal religion that forbids me from spending countless hours bored out of my mind), I needed to find a way to eat less. The first thing I realized was that since through college I was able to eat any amount of any food at any time and continue to be hungry that I had basically become immune to my body's own signals that I was full. To turn insight into action I came up with a new rule. Translated into plain English it goes something like "don't eat when you're not hungry." It is amazing to me that something so simple appears (at least for me personally) to be a challenge of significant proportion.

I started noticing several interesting behavior and thought patterns that for years had existed only in my sub-conscious. 1) I eat food I love. If there's a plate full of sushi, I'll eat it - whether I'm hungry or not. Some shrimp sitting on a plate? I'll eat them. Doesn't matter that I just had 500 shrimp. There are two more sitting there and I love shrimp. 2) I eat food I don't love. I don't like waste. This is deadly. The meal is over. I'm full. There's some leftovers on one of the communal dishes? I'll eat them. 3) I eat out of boredom. Bottom line: there was no situation where I said "no thank you". As soon as I realized this I started noticing this "sick" feeling I had after many meals. I started to feel a little nuts. At every meal I would stuff myself until I was sick and not even notice how yucky I felt. After this realization things started to progress naturally. And while I did get a bunch of the weight off in time for the wedding in 1999 (hopefully not to the point where people are confusing me for Anthony Michael Hall) it was only a few weeks ago that I realized the most important lesson - most people focus on quantity of food. I now focus on quantity of tastes.

By focusing on tasting as many things as possible I am becoming more and more averse to eating large portions of anything. And by looking for as high quality tastes as possible I limit myself even further so that when the opportunity arises to eat something that is high quality I have room in my stomach, and can enjoy it. I'm averse to eating large portions even of things that are of super high quality as I want to preserve the memory of those first few bites and not ruin the memory via repetitious overkill. I am aspiring to a state that exposes me to as much high quality food as possible, and keeps me within some reasonable bounds of being height/weight proportionate. In the interest of full disclosure I must confess that in practice my old ways do still find a home at my table. I find it almost impossible to leave a shrimp or piece of high quality sushi uneaten. But if I'm still on track to try as many interesting and superb dishes as possible is eating some extra sushi such a terrible crime?

My parents recently came to visit their new granddaughter here in Seattle. She and her brother are quite captivating (if I do say so myself), but I hoped to give my family some exposure to some of the best food Seattle has to offer - Lampreia of course.  It's a risky proposition to be honest. My mom is a picky eater. My father is semi-adventurous. My sister I think could be a real honest-to-goodness chef someday but all of them to one degree or another are much like the old me. Comfortable with the food they know and like. (Not to mention that none of them eat any shellfish.)

Of course, the right way to experience Lampreia is to let it's Chef, Scott Carsberg, cook for you. No ordering off the menu. Whatever the chef sends is what we eat. "What if we don't like it?" they all chimed in. The one restriction/request Scott has been consistently comfortable with is making a version of dinner vegetarian. Lauren has to eat too you know. Knowing that Lauren always has to share  bits of her dish with all of us while she can't eat many of ours, I thought this might be a nice solution. I'd order my family all vegetarian tasting menus and they'd have a hard time finding an ingredient they were averse to, and might even give dinner a chance.

Dinner was scheduled for Tuesday. On Monday events did not portend well for our trip to Lampreia. After a quick stop at Malay Satay Hut (well received) my father and I went out to Pike Place market to shop for fresh ingredients with which to make dinner. We came home with gorgeous raspberries, a variety of yummy vegetables, and some beautiful pieces of sashimi grade tuna. My mom immediately declared that she didn't like tuna. "Why?" I asked. "It's always too dry." Sashimi grade tuna, dry? Always?

I prepared the tuna with one of Tom Douglas' rubs and just seared the outside of it before depositing it on a bed of greens and drizzled some sauce over it. Despite the fact that we ended up getting her some salmon she ended up trying the "tuna salad". She said the tuna was great and not dry. Let's take her at her word (and not assume she was being polite) as I tried the tuna and it was definitely juicy and not dry.

This got me thinking. Throughout our lives we are trained to determine what we like based on what ingredients it contains and not based on the attentiveness with which it was prepared or the quality of the ingredient itself. First question asked by a person eating some type of ethnic food for the first time: "what's in it?" Would it matter if they knew there was fish sauce in the Thai food? First of all, fish sauce bears little resemblance to fish in its final form. Second, fish sauce bears little resemblance to the dish in which it's used as fish sauce alone is pretty powerful, yet when used as part of a Thai dish, strangely complementary despite its potency. What good would knowing what was in the Thai food help the first time diner with determining in advance whether they liked it? I suppose if you pick from ingredients you do like in other contexts then it helps with the transition, but it's still a pretty limiting way to think when it comes to trying new foods.

I took a moment after the potentially dry yet juicy tuna incident to muse on this new bit of insight to my family as a way of getting their minds more open for our trip to Lampreia. I knew they were still stressed out about going to a meal where they didn't get to pick their dishes, though the vegetarian filter their dinner was going to pass through calmed them to some degree, but we marched on. Tuesday night came and we went to dinner.

Dinner was of course magnificent. Things started off smashingly where the first dish we all received was only distinguished for the non-vegetarian orderers by the presence of duck carpaccio. Needless to say I immediately pounced and pointed out to my parents and my sister that their conservatism had deprived them of duck carpaccio. Though I made sure that I didn't deprive them of any and gave them some of mine. Score 1 for broadening your horizons.

The meal continued with a large number of wonderful dishes both ones that excluded meat and fish and ones that were not. The poached egg with truffle was absolutely delicious. Give credit to my shy family that they appeared to be genuinely enthused about the truffleness. The corn veloute was the perfect essence of just sweet enough corn in liquid form. And the encrusted lamb was yet another dish that made my family wistful for limiting themselves to the vegetarian dishes. Though I must say, if you're going to be a vegetarian, eating at Lampreia is still an incredibly enjoyable and luxurious experience. When we got to dessert and a super thin slice of pineapple was used as a dumpling wrapper we were all impressed. And it was delicious.

So what did my family think of the meal? They said nice things, and I think they enjoyed the adventure. But I think it definitely took them out of their comfort zone, and I'm not sure they really enjoyed it as a meal per se. I have a feeling that they were a little bummed at the (from their perspective) "small" portions (by the way, there were 7 courses - count 'em 7 courses and while the portions were not Claimjumperesque they were not microbial by any stretch). And of course the moderation of size is what made the courses enjoyable and let us try so many of them. Nobody walked away hungry.

Ultimately I give credit to my family for trying. Among our friends there are parents that wouldn't even be willing to give it a shot, and mine definitely did. Afterwards I thought to myself that maybe I had pushed a little too hard for them to broaden their food world view. They were comfortable where they were, why should I push? My measure of a meal I love is often that there's at least one dish that I can remember with deep affection months or years later. These are courses that make deep and lasting impressions. A week after our trip to Lampreia I get a call from my mother and my sister: "Hi, we're trying to recreate the corn soup from Lampreia. Any tips?" Maybe our trip to Lampreia was the the tipping point for my family after all.

Postscript: my mom and sister's attempt at recreating Scott Carsberg's Corn Veloute was unsuccessful. While I need to ask him how he did it, I conveyed to them that I was sure it involved some ungodly number of hours of preparation, possibly a vegetable stock that didn't give away a hint of its presence except to support the essential "corn-ness" of the liquid, and an amazing amount of straining through a chinoise. This simple soup was not so simple anymore.

I got to thinking about the new lesson learned from my adventures exposing my family to new and different foods. We are raised to determine what we do and don't like in advance based on what ingredients it contains and not based on how it's prepared. If my two-year-old is any indication there must be biological roots in this pattern of behavior. Maybe to avoid poisons children are biologically programmed to taste enough foods to give them sustenance and then stop trying new foods for fear of being poisoned. Then again, maybe not. Maybe (whatever the biology) humans just like the comfort of the familiar. It's easy to eat things we like. It's hard to try the unknown.

And to a certain extent this serves us well. There are some ingredients that people just don't like. It doesn't matter how many times you try it, in what form, how it was prepared, or by whom. That said, I have been out to eat too many times with picky eaters only to see them try something prepared by a talented chef with an ingredient they don't like only to see them new fans of said ingredient with a religious fervor reserved exclusively for recently reformed smokers.

How do you explain cilantro? Two years ago, a fouler green did not exist on my flavor roster. The smell? Atrocious. The taste. Overpowering. In my food? No thanks - makes it taste soapy. "No cilantro please" was my motto. And now???

I can't get enough of it. It has an incredible smell and flavor that brighten everything it's in. I keep it on hand at home in bunches and think about things I can make with it. In the same time period, this cilantro conversion has happened to two other people I know. Did the genetic makeup for cilantro crops world-wide  change over the last two years to make it suddenly pleasing and palatable? Were we somehow hypnotized by the "Cilantro Council"? Or did something more insidious happen?

What happened is that I got used to it. And once I was familiar with the flavor, I wanted to get familiar with it as often as possible. If this could happen with an ingredient I used to despise, why not with any ingredient I simply don't like or prefer. And remember, it wasn't just me, this happened to two other people.

This is even more counter-intuitive than it seems. It's not just people's likes that define them, their dislikes are equally (if not more) visible  signs defining their personas. People love to proudly declare their dislike for various foods. And it's not just limited to the fast-food set. The "enlightened" can be even worse, deriding simple pleasures like good street food, and breakfast diner buttered white toast. As hard as it may be to put something in your mouth that might not taste good, once you've decided you're brave enough to do that at least once per food item, you realize that by trying things you might like them. And what if you all of a sudden like the food that for years you've made fun of your friends for eating?

The weirdest (and for me most embarrassing) thing is that not all of these dislikes are based on actual experience. Yep. I've found that not all things people dislike have they actually tried. In fact (while I await funding for my scientific study) I will venture a guess that most foods that people claim to not like, they have never tried.

I realized recently that I like cherries, capers, and beets.

Given that I've been writing this website for over a year, it's pretty shameful to admit, but that's right, I hadn't really eaten a cherry up until recently. Thirty-four years without tasting a real fresh cherry. The funny thing is that I was absolutely certain I didn't like cherries. How did that happen? I think Cherry flavored cough syrup was the main culprit. I still find that flavor vile. Of course only recently did I realize it tastes nothing like cherries. It tastes like cough syrup. Of course I did have lingering doubts about my cherry phobia only because the medicine-ish cherry-flavored Luden's "cough drops" are so yummy.

With capers, it was just that they looked yucky. And then I realized (after I actually tried one) that they were little pods of salty goodness.

With beets, I never tried them and they somehow ended up in the dislike bucket. I admit that I wasn't immediately super in love with their flavor, but golden beets have a lighter flavor that led me to fall in love with the whole beet family. How many people are out there not eating yummy food because of cough syrup. I believe people have a list of food they eat and a list of food they don't. Long gone are the reasons items showed up on the don't list.

The psychological warfare I am engaged in with my two-year-old son sheds a little light on the subject. Before his birth and during the first few months of his existence when his diet was pretty regulated, I planned long and hard about all the food adventures we'd have together as soon as he could eat real food. I imagined us going to dim sum every Sunday morning, fighting over the last piece of sushi at dinner, and hunting for the perfect Vietnamese restaurant together. The picky eater that took over my son's body has no place in my fantasies. Months of peanut butter on matzah forced me to develop new pathways of creativity when it comes to getting him to try new foods. Reasoning with a two-year-old is not a path to success.

For awhile I thought his preference for certain foods was really about their flavor. I was so proud the day I got him to eat chicken satay at the Thai restaurant after I shoved it with some peanut sauce between the toast points they gave us. I started to wonder if it really mattered what was between the pieces of toast. It seems that the satay benefited from the peanut sauce, which he was already comfortable with because of his peanut butter obsession. That said, when he does taste a new flavor it does take him a minute to adapt and decide whether he likes it or not. And there are so many things that I wanted him to try that I thought wouldn't work between two pieces of toast.

He likes to eat apples. We always have granny smith in the house, so those are apples. Anything else round and edible is a different colored apple. For awhile, oranges were orange apples. I used to disabuse him of this notion. Now I leave it in place. The association is critical to him being comfortable with eating the fruit. When he insisted on eating a "red apple" recently I made no objection or correction. And now he's a big fan of plums.

The proudest moment of inspiration was recently when somehow I got him to take a bite of a red pepper - and he liked it. I sliced the top off, emptied out the insides and then called him over to show him how I could open and close the pepper like a little container with a top. When I took a bite of the top, that was fun, so he took one too. Progress! Before we knew it, we had eaten so many bites that what was left of the piece attached to the stem of the pepper was no longer an effective top for the pepper "bowl". With the fun gone, his willingness to eat pepper disappeared as well. I offered him any part he wanted of the other 90% of the pepper, but tops were all he wanted. I started to scheme furiously at how I could use up all that extra pepper with him only eating pepper tops. (The similarity to the Seinfeld "Muffin Top" episode was not lost  on me.) And then inspiration hit - pepper stars. Sure enough, the very same pepper cut into little star shapes was acceptable and even considered yummy by my son.

Freud aside, I think in some ways most people are stuck at two when it comes to food. The list of foods we don't like, won't try, have never eaten, etc. is not necessarily rational, but it exists. Maybe if people try the food they dislike in the shape of stars or hearts their worlds might open up a bit. As much as I love pepper stars, I have to admit, I am already counting the days until my infant daughter starts eating solid food, as the first Sunday following, she and I will be taking a road trip to Vancouver, B.C. to wolf down some dim sum.

All this musing leads me to shamelessly steal a page from Jeffrey Steingarten's book - The Man Who Ate Everything. I will go on and on praising him and his incredibly inspiring book in a later entry, but for now I will take a page from his [play]book. When he started out as food critic for Vogue he realized that to be a completely neutral observer of all things culinary he needed to dispense with any of his prejudices. He spent long hours determining that biologically there is almost nothing we can't eat, and in fact - as human beings - we're supposed to eat as many things as possible - we're designed for it. He lists out everything he dislikes including Greek food, desserts served at Indian restaurants, and blue food to name a few. He then goes on a program of exposure and open-mindedness where he overcomes essentially all his food phobias. I did note when I read the book that he didn't include bugs. Though in the sequel - It Must Have Been Something I Ate - he does come back to bugs and in fact has made progress in that arena. I will not be discussing bugs either. Not now, not ever. Bugs are yucky. Maybe if someone decides to pay me to do this job then I'll consider it, but doubtful even then. Anyway, back to things I don't like other than bugs. Here it is: my all time list of major dislikes when it comes to food. These are the items that will cause me to not eat something. These are things I will pick out of other things:

  • Raisins. These are the cockroaches of the dried fruit world. Yes, I like grapes. Yes, I like other dried fruits - apples, apricots, etc. Yes I like grapes. Yes I know that raisins are just dried grapes. But I cannot abide raisins. They are small, and chewy, and usually inserted into dishes where they don't belong as tiny invisible smart bombs of yucky overly sweet chewy fruit taste when I was just enjoying my Persian rice or my challah. I don't know if I'll ever get over my hatred (and yes, I mean hatred) of raisins.
  • Coffee. My parents loves coffee. They consider themselves coffee gourmands. They have all sorts of apparatuses for grinding, filtering, and brewing it. I grew up around it, and never fell in love with it. Quite the opposite. Coffee tastes to me like someone found an old car in a junkyard that belonged to a chain smoker, scraped the ashtrays, added hot water, steeped, and poured the resulting liquid into a mug and offered to dilute it with cream and sugar. (I always hear of incidental association between coffee and cigarettes as a fine pairing for people who are into both, but that's something to investigate another time.) The funny thing is that I've grown to love the smell of coffee. Brewing, roasting. It smells great. You'd think I was halfway there, but every couple of years I take a sip (of high quality stuff I'm told) and I find it yucky. Fall back to the slew of coffee-type products - the frappucinos with all sorts of enticing flavors - even coffee ice cream; I don't like any of them. I will admit to having mixed a tiny bit of ground coffee into my recipe for chocolate spread (it gives the spread a bittersweet tinge). But beyond that I really just don't like coffee.  As their appears to be a crack in the armor of my dislike, I think there's a fighting chance coffee will eventually leave this list. At least in one of it's watered down forms - like the multitude of desserts or dessert beverages that are so overloaded with dairy and sugar products that the coffee is reduced to a mere essence.
  • Tea.  This is coffee's "friendly" cousin. Take the recipe from above and substitute flowers for ashtray scrapings and voila - tea! I know tea lovers across the planet are horrified at my generalization. I must be referring to herbal tea. Nope. It all tastes like flower water to me. I'm not entirely sure of the odds of overcoming my dislike of tea. I think in order to be on the road to solving a problem you have to be able to visualize the solution and frankly I just can't picture myself drinking tea.

Note: my aversion to the world's agreed upon hot drinks is especially difficult for waiters and waitresses at the end of meals, and hosts and hostesses in cultures where serving someone a hot drink when they visit your home is missed only on pain of death. Hot chocolate? Hot water with lemon? Chicken consomme? None seem to be realistic alternatives when a friendly host is pushing their ashtray/flower water on me. Though I will say Starbucks' menu of "Coffee Alternatives" (they're alternatives to tea as well but the Starbucks folks didn't mind this technical inaccuracy) is quite delicious. They have a vanilla "creme" drink that's like a warm vanilla milkshake. Not an appetizing description but quite nice once you try it. Their caramel apple beverage is also excellent. Thanks to Steve and Kira for turning me on to these. Anyway, back to my food therapy.

  • Shellfish in the shell. This may seem like a nit since I've overcome my "dislike" of shellfish. In fact it never was quite that. More of a fear since I grew up in a house without - Kosher. Now I adore shrimp, am having a love affair with scallops, guzzle clam chowder, and even like buttery morsels of lobster tail. But serve those in their native homes and I am grossed out. I think this is too reminiscent of the bug ban. A big lobster in the shell looks too much like a cockroach for my taste. Sucking on those spindly legs (are they legs?) is just too much for me though I'm sure the flavor is quite lovely. This one may never get fixed. (On a related note: I also find certain shellfish too rubbery in certain forms - squid, octopus, cuttlefish, etc. Though I've had them roasted or in other forms that were quite nice so I guess they don't really count.)
  • Ethiopian food. This one is probably too silly to mention. I tried it once at a restaurant in Washington DC. Lentils are ok. But this was like a huge mash of tasteless gray lentils spread across an enormous pita. I should probably try a good Ethiopian restaurant and be converted.
  • Stews. They're just a big soppy mess. Everything kind of merges together and gets dull. Paella counts too. I have to assume that there's a stew out there that will blow me away.
  • Cooked green peppers. For years I thought I didn't like peppers. My first exposure too any kind of pepper was cooked green peppers. The bitterness that's more prevalent in the green pepper (versus the other colors) is accentuated in a distasteful way (in my opinion) when you cook it. My phobia of all things pepper went on for more years than it had to likely because my budget didn't allow for spending $5 a pound on a red, orange, or yellow pepper. Needless to say, when I finally realized what I was missing, I measured my career success by whether my salary let me buy red peppers without a second thought. That's rich!
  • Black Licorice. Gross. Though, maybe it's the concentration that bothers me. I love anise and fennel. I couldn't imagine my vietnamese pho without that flavor.
  • Root Beer. Maybe I should put this one under the tea phobia. It's kind of flowery to me. My friend Steve knowing that I'm not shy about taking food from other people's plates, drank root beer all throughout college even though it wasn't his favorite, just so I wouldn't take any.
  • Mint flavored desserts. I've been working hard trying to pinpoint the issue here and only figured it out recently. At first I thought I didn't like mint. But I brush my teeth with minty toothpaste, and eat minty gum. Then I thought I didn't like mint mixed with anything else, but in fact the mint in Vietnamese dishes like Goi Cuon or Pho is quite delicious and essential. Then I thought I didn't like mint in desserts, but I've had a couple of sprigs on a sorbet that were refreshing. And then it finally distilled into its essence: I don't like desserts where one of the main flavors is mint. Mint ice cream is really gross. The only thing worse is the combination of mint and chocolate. Truly despicable.

That's it. The whole list. I've tried to be exhaustive here even to the point where it's just embarrassing. But nothing can be done about that. I figure, if I'm going to try and be as honest as possible about the food I love, then it's critical that I'm just as honest about the foods I avoid. Everything else is pretty much "on the menu". Some things I love. Some I'm just ok with, but I'll eat them all. I can't promise that I'll overcome each of these dislikes, but I am doing my best to put them behind me by exposing myself to the best in each category when I have the time (and energy). At least now though, you can read what follows enlightened about my blind spots.

 

 

This website exists to document my experiences with eating great (and sometimes not-so-great) food. Invariably, when you write almost 300 posts, most about meals and eating at various restaurants, cafes, bakeries, and food stands, people are going to call you a “food critic”. On the one hand there’s no doubt I think critically about the food I eat. But a “food critic”? I have to admit that title feels a little like an epithet to me.

Let’s start at the beginning. Anywhere there are creative people expressing themselves (especially for money) there grows a cottage industry around criticizing what those creative people do. I’m not (at least in this post) trying to get into a discussion of whether cooking is art, craft, or something in between, but cooking and creating food in general does appear to be one of those creative endeavors that has inspired a legion of people who spend their life and make their living criticizing other people’s cooking and creativity.

Some of the people who write about food for a living (possibly even many of them) are simply thrilled about sharing their love of food with others. Many are counting their lucky stars that their paid to do this. Others do it even without being paid – note the hundreds of food blogs that have sprouted up all over the net over the last couple of years. Others however (and by my take this is the majority) appear to be taken mostly with themselves as opposed to the food and food producers they’re paid to write about. How do I know this? I’ll tell you.

There are two things that tell me. The first is the myth under which most food critics operate. The second is the drivel most food critics produce. Let’s start with the myth. The myth is one of objectivity. It starts with the employers of most food critics in the nation – commercial media, mostly newspapers. The people who write for newspapers are called journalists. Journalists build their credibility on the notion that they are objective. The more textured among them will fully acknowledge that complete objectivity is impossible, and their real goal is to be honest, fair, and balance (though the latter of those two have been co-opted in the most sad and ironic fashion by a media outlet that clearly is neither). My point here is not to take a position on some part of the red/purple/blue spectrum but rather to point out that the notion of being objective in writing about food is silly.

Not so says the Association of Food Journalists. In fact, in their "Food Critics' Guidelines", they claim that “Good restaurant reviewing is good journalism. Reviewers should subscribe to the same accepted standards of professional responsibility as other journalists.” The give specifics on how to achieve this: “The Association believes that the primary responsibility of food journalists is to serve the public interest by reporting the news accurately and as objectively as possible. (1) Gifts, favors, free travel or lodging, special treatment or privileges can compromise the integrity and diminish the credibility of food journalists, as well as that of their employers. This includes commercially sponsored contests. Such offers should be avoided. An example is a contest promoting specific food products that is open to food journalists only. (2) Similarly, food journalists should not use their positions to win favors for themselves or for others.” There are a bunch of others, but my favorite is “(8) Because of the controversial nature of many food-related topics, food journalists accept the obligation to acknowledge opposing views on such issues.”

Now I am sure that most restaurant critics do their utmost to follow all these rules to the letter, but my take is that it’s borderline impossible to follow these rules, and completely impossible to follow the spirit of them. Whether they want to acknowledge it or not, most reviewers portraits are plastered to the bulletin boards of kitchens all over their respective “beats” right next to the OSHA mandated postings. Waiters are trained to look for the critics and relay the information when one is spotted to the folks in the kitchen who do their utmost to treat the reviewer like a king (or queen as the case may be). Additionally, many reviewers get discounts and freebies. Maybe not at the actual meal where they are reviewing the restaurant, but at others. Chefs and restaurateurs have confirmed this to me privately. And let’s say for argument’s sake that a critic goes through all sorts of trouble to stay unrecognized, refuses all freebies, and follows all the other rules and guidelines. They still are not, in my opinion, able to follow the spirit of the guidelines.

Again, I know it’s a generalization, but my impression is that many food critics get carried away with themselves. Everyone has met people in life who squeeze every last drop of leverage and superiority from the small positions of power they wield. In the worst cases this small taste of power results in an overinflated sense of self-worth and expertise. There’s nothing worse than critics who feel that their positions on newspapers and other media outlets somehow make them experts at food. This is like disc jockeys who get their job because of the quality of their voice, but have come to believe they are now experts on music, determining what’s good and what isn’t. The best journalists food or otherwise readily admit their biases, the things that color their opinion, and the context for their thinking.

Recently the editors of Slate magazine decided to tell the world how they were going to vote in the Presidential election. In “Our case for journalistic disclosure” Jacob Weisberg says much more eloquently than I ever could when he explains that one of the reasons they did it was “to emphasize the distinction between opinion and bias. Journalists, like people, have opinions that influence their behavior. Reporters and editors at most large news organizations in the United States are instructed to keep their opinions to themselves to avoid creating an impression of partisanship. Len Downie, the executive editor of the Washington Post, famously goes so far as to avoid even voting. Slate, which is a journal of opinion, takes precisely the opposite approach. Rather than bury our views, we cultivate and exhibit them. A basic premise of our kind of journalism is that we can openly express what we think and still be fair. Fairness, in the kind of journalism Slate practices, does not mean equal time for both sides. It does not mean withholding judgment past a reasonable point. It means having basic intellectual honesty. When you advance a hypothesis, you must test it against reality. When you make a political argument, you must take seriously the significant arguments on the other side. And indeed, Slate writers tend to be the sort of people who relish opportunities to criticize their own team and give credit to their opponents. Or so we'd like to think. By disclosing our opinions about who should be president, we're giving readers a chance to judge how well we are living up to these ideals.” And while the practice of writing about food is not of the same importance as writing about politics (in either direction depending on your outlook on life) here at tastingmenu we try to live up to these same ideals. And why aren’t these the ideals of the Association of Food Journalists?

The thing is that it is impossible to be objective about food. Food is an emotional component of our lives. You cannot convince me that Bella Cooperman, my father’s mother, didn’t make the best chicken soup ever in the history of planet earth. Nor can you convince me that my other grandmother, Goldie Jackson, didn’t make the best small apricot filled pastries(the unfortunately named Apricot Pasties). And while I’m sure each and every one of you would agree with me on how perfect these dishes were (if only my grandmothers were alive to make them for all of us) the flavors in these dishes are so intertwined with my memories of my grandmothers that it’s really impossible for me to separate the two. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has wonderful memories that involve food. Smell is a critical part of tasting food, and smell is also linked very closely to memory (both positive and negative). It doesn’t bother me that objectivity is impossible. What bothers me is people who under the mantle of objectivity spout their opinions as if they have some greater value than any other person’s perception. Even, Jeffrey Steingarten, his quality writing I aspire to achieve a fraction of, said at one point that there were several restaurants he loved so much he frequented them regularly and therefore would never write about them. I say why not? Do I imagine that just because he’s become friendly with the chef that all of a sudden he loves the food even if it sucks? Maybe he became friendly with the person making the food because the food was so good in the first place. I feel cheated not knowing the names of those restaurants. Because as much as I respect the opinion of Steingarten, I’d still like the option to make up my own mind.

And while objective food criticism is a joke if not in practice, then in spirit, just look at the quality of the content and the recommendations to know for sure that most food writing (especially in newspapers) sucks. (Luckily food blogs are starting to fill the void.) The main signpost for me is the relentless focus on trends. How many articles have you seen talking about what foods are trendy at restaurants? The latest interesting ingredients that “everyone” is cooking with? I remember running into a local food personality once and asking her what her favorite restaurants were. This is a question that in the worst case helps me get context for what kind of food the person is into, and in the best case lets me know about cool restaurants I didn’t know about. At first I was surprised that it took her a full 30-40 seconds to come up with even one name. This person is in the food business and has lived in Seattle for many years. And when she finally did come up with some names, they were all of restaurants that opened in the past 12 months and were considered “hip”. Distressing to say the least.

I’ve gotten accused once or twice myself of showing favoritism. Consider this post my response. I write about food because I love to eat. And due to some dysfunction in my personality when I love something I get just as much pleasure from getting other people to feel the same way about it as I do. I have no qualifications, no expertise, and no right to judge anyone's cooking as I am not very good at it myself. The only thing that fuels my efforts is my unhealthy obsession with documenting my life, and my willingness to dedicate what little spare time I have to doing so. I don’t expect everyone to agree with all my opinions, but I know from much of the supportive mail I’ve gotten that often people have had great experiences with food they read about first on this site. And that moment, the moment of shared discovery of something wonderful is why this site exists. So when you see me writing about food I love, ingredients I adore, and people who’s cooking fills me with wonderful memories – be it a person with 3 stars from Michelin, a person manning a street-side food stall, or my grandmothers – understand my exuberance is just that. And I hope that on occasion you’ll find a reason to share it.

 

 

"Love, Like, or Other?", March 2, 2005 — I spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about how to evaluate food. Mostly restaurants in fact. I also spend quite a bit of time lamenting why I can't find more restaurants that I really like. These are essentially the same topic in my mind. The truth is that I feel a natural affinity for people who dislike critics. After all, where's the art in criticizing others? And where's the humanity in it? These people put their hearts on the line every day. And critics come along and render their "expert" opinions, shooting arrows from a distance. From the comfort of their keyboard. For over two years I have made it clear that I love two things. I love finding wonderful food experiences, and I love sharing them with others. That's not criticism. Is it? That's just passion for food. But really that's not entirely true. This site already contains what are essentially hundreds of restaurant and food reviews. And now we're on our way down the slippery slope.

The next step is coming up with shorthand. Three stars from Michelin (now surveying New York for the first time), four from the New York Times... we have Love, Like, and Other. The definitions are here. But the truth is that they are difficult to define for us. Remember something... writing about food is completely subjective. Yes, there is a general framework for how to evaluate a food experience, but it is simply impossible to be objective. And because so much of one's own expectations color their opinions of a food experience, eating (and deciding what food you enjoy most), it's ultimately very very personal. And so this site is really a personal expression.

But that said, we still have the shorthand. What does it really mean? Well, we never talk about the shorthand as we write about a restaurant as there's always texture. But when you review a list of restaurants in a city, we put them in categories for you. Categories that give you a sense of which we think are better than the others. Every meal we eat together ends with a simple question: "love, like, or other?"

Sometimes we've even considered creating a fourth category, for the highest echelon of eating experiences. But it's not clear what the point would be given how few there are.

Ultimately here is the key: Making good food is easy (even I can do it if I really try). Making great food is hard. Making great food consistently is really really hard. Making great food consistently for a lot of people is nearly impossible. Great food can be from a street vendor, or a 20 course tasting menu at an expensive restaurant. Great food doesn't discriminate. But the physics of making great food is consistent - like gravity. Standards, focus, and lack of compromise are what make great food. And just as with figure skating at the Winter Olympics, there are degrees of difficulty. But unlike the Olympics, we don't discriminate. If you do a simple jump and it's a ten, it's a ten. If you do a triple lutz, they give you extra points. We don't. Is that the right thing? I don't know. On the one hand I think that people should get credit for trying something with a greater difficulty. On the other hand, I also feel like if you try to do something more complicated, you made your bed. And if we only gave our highest recognition to restaurants trying to make the most difficult food, then our "Loves" would look like the list of four star restaurants from the New York Times: Daniel, Jean Georges, Le Bernadin, Masa, Per Se (Ducasse lost his fourth star recently). They're all very expensive, and until Per Se and Masa were added they were all very French. (I think this list is complete, but for some unknown reason the New York Times website has eliminated the ability to search based on star rating).

It's nice to know that even the very chefs who've earned these stars know that not all good food is expensive: "Mr. Keller says he used to have a weakness for Burger King's Whopper with extra cheese and French fries, but now that he lives in California, he has switched his allegiance to the cheeseburgers at In-N-Out Burger, with French fries and a milkshake." It's also nice to know that these same chefs follow the same protocol as we do when going out to eat: "How often to eat can also be an issue. Mr. Trotter, for one, limits the number of evening meals on his travels to one, but 15 years ago, he said, he would pack away "three full dinners - I don't mean grazing - just to see what's going on." When you're young, you can do it, " Mr. Trotter, now 45, says. "I would eat for two hours at 5:30, for an hour and a half at 8 p.m., and then I'd eat again. I'd be with two or three other people, and we'd order six appetizers and eight entrees. I was like an eating machine."

So we're back to standards, focus, and lack of compromise. And art and commerce don't mix. Not compromising doesn't seem so admirable when nobody's coming to eat in your restaurant. Not compromising, and making a successful business is nearly impossible. Nearly. And so there are restaurants that stay focused. That have maniacal attention to detail. And ultimately believe that quality and consistency are one in the same. Those are the ones I'm looking for. Those are the ones we try to talk about on this site. And while you might expect that someone who spends all this time criticizing might enjoy being negative, I swear it's not true. I get the most personal enjoyment from finding something great and sharing it with others. I wish I could do it more often.

     
     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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Tastingmenu is focused on superlative restaurant experiences from two perspectives: behind the plate and behind the stove. Tastingmenu is written by Hillel (professional eater) and Dana (up-and-coming professional chef) in Seattle, Washington.


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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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