Category Archives: Cooking

EV Shuffle – HAPPY 5TH

Recently, Pata Negra had a five year anniversary.  It coincides closely with my own.  I thought about a celebratory party, but was so busy with business and life, I was just too tired to even plan it.  With some time to reflect on the birthday, I have come to realize a few things.

First, I am fortunate to have stayed in business for five years.  This is a statement of fact for several reasons.  New York City is ripe with people who work hard and open businesses every day.  In the restaurant industry, there are talented/celebrity chefs, savvy business people, and corporations with deep pockets who know how to play the game and survive in any economic climate.

Pata Negra opened in February 2008, and let’s just say that it was rough going for about three years.  As I look around me in the East Village, so many restaurants have come and gone, even long established ones with healthy reputations.  Pata Negra has survived real estate tax increases (+25% of the base rent), worker’s compensation fines (idiotic inspector/audit), unwarranted DOH fines, and stiff competition (Bar Veloce, Xunta now Nai,and Terroir to start).  When all the buzz is about David Chang or Motorino pizza or the populist Sarita’s Mac-n-Cheese, Pata Negra has survived despite these admittedly better business models for the demographic.

I am no celebrity chef, have no corporate backing, and certainly do not play/pay into the advertising game that exists (Yelp could blow up for all I care).  Frank Bruni has dined at Terroir and gave it a one star rating when he was chief critic for the New York Times.  The other night I saw him in the Duck’s Eatery (Leon’s replacement), two doors down from me.

I receive invitations to advertise weekly, from every deal site from GroupOn to Single Platform to you name it.  Every one of these firms claim they can get me more exposure on NY Magazine or Urbanspoon or whatever. And I am not even going to get into it about YELP.

My business is simple, Spanish Jamon, cheese, and wine, augmented by a few select tapas.  It is a European business model.  There is no paella (btw, there is no authentic paella in all of NY).  No croquetas or patatas bravas, in fact nothing fried (choice & kitchen limitation).  No take-out or delivery.  The point is to come in and experience Pata Negra, to be transported somewhere in Spain, with friendly, attentive service, great jamon y queso, and a nice glass of wine/sherry that I spend a lot of time and research choosing.

Pata Negra is not built for every one, every mood, or every occasion.  It is a civilized place for civilized people.  It functions pretty much the way I had envisioned it many, many years ago when I visited a bar in Barcelona just like it.

My staff and I are eager to please every one who steps through the door, and for 99% of those customers, we strive to make their experience memorable.  The other 1% may be rewarded with a sharp tongue from its owner, if they dare to post lies or refuse to follow house policies.  In these cases the customers are not always right.

I am still thinking of throwing a bash, with some artisanal beers and a pata negra jamon, but I would hate to leave any one of those who have supported me for so long out.  If you are reading this post, please forward me your e-mail address.

Pata Negra has made it through five topsy turvy years and to this I say, “Survival is the new success.”  The truth is that I wouldn’t have made it without the continuing patronage of many lovely, civilized people, friends and family who continue to visit and support Pata Negra, restoring faith in this project whose conception dates back to 1990, my first visit to Spain.  Of course, a huge thank you to my staff, some who have been with me through the whole ride, past and present, who allow me my jaunts to Europe, my siestas and wild moodswings, and my mom who minds the shop when I am ill.  Without them, I would be insane.

THANK YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART.

The following is a rambling of the landscape change within the last five years, just within a block or two of Pata Negra,  to illustrate how hard it is to stay open in an ever changing landscape and economy.

There has been a lot of movement on First Avenue in the East Village lately. Since I rented the space on 12th street just off of First Avenue, storefronts have been transforming before you can decide to pay a visit.  On the corner of 14th street, there was a bagel shop, and they shuttered for a long time until Hot & Crusty moved in.  Next door, Tepito, a Mexican cantina opened.  Tepito shut its doors last Sunday.  Vinny’s pizzeria has been around for ten years, but recently a dollar pizza shop and new next door 2 Bros Pizza shop are putting the squeeze on Vinny, prompting him to counter with a dollar slice special of his own.  Michael Bao ran out of town after his Bao BBQ never caught on.  I still remember my first and last visit.  He gave me a free bottle of Red Boat fish sauce.  Too bad.  Subway moved in and has stuck around.  On the corner of 11th, the deli has changed hands twice, and Starbucks is officially planted on 11th street.  Two Indian restos and a Filipino joint were run off the block on 13th st. so that Lebanese Balade, Papa John’s and Tallgrass organic burger joint could open.  Significantly, the Red Head moved in to the former Detours space and is still thriving.  Jeepney has just moved in, adding to Maharlinka further down First Ave.  Kumo sushi has replaced a short lived barbecue spot as well catering to NYU sensibilities and budget.  Around the east side of 13th street, Ichibantei has changed hands and now is offering reggae music, frosty mugged Sapporo and great kara age, out went the octopus balls and strange marble floor.  On 12th street, Sara’s Mac n Cheese took the space to my left for a bustling take out business, a busted massage parlor for take out, and Motorino moved into Una Pizza Napoletana.  Thai terminal has changed hands twice as well, and Ducks Eatery is in the defunct Leon space, and seems to be here to stay.  The corner deli is being transformed into a restaurant now, hopefully a good addition to the block.  Of course Hearth and Terroir are still there, doing quite well (I imagine).  Up the street from me Angelika Kitchen and John’s are holding court, although I recently saw a sign stating that John’s is serving vegan and gluten free food, also posting a picture of Guy Fieri in an effort to keep up with the times.  Not a good sign if you ask me.  Shima rounds out the block and the tavern opposite corner.  Bar Veloce consumed Bar Carerra and is now open almost all day.  Milk bar has moved across the street to make room for Booker and Dax, a trendy nitrogen bar.  Further down first avenue, Polonia closed, Lasso took over a failed project by Veloce people called Solex, Ugly Kitchen saddled up next door, 1st avenue Pierogi has redone itself, and three sandwich shops opened, Little Piggy, Joedough, and Whitmans (burgers technically).   I prefer Porchetta. Yogurt shops have closed four times, as no one seems to understand that yogurt just doesn’t sell in the winter. There are three hookah bars, and two middle eastern halal spots, supported by the Muslim community associated with the Mosque and cab drivers.  The one Dominican spot on 12th still shines, as well as the last remnants of Italian joints hold on, Veneiro;s, Lanza’s, etc. The tapas bar on 11th , Xunta,  has become Nai, and Iggy replaced the beloved pizzeria Rosa’s.  Momofuku is there, lines and all. I can’t quite recall what The Bean replaced, but that is probably a good thing, Tarelucci y Vino is now surrounded by coffe competition.  Café Abraco is my choice, after a stop at Xian’s famous foods or South Brooklyn pizza (my go to lunch spots).   Coyote Ugly and Cheap Shots are still serving NYU drunks until the wee hours, better bars like Lunasa and the Irish pubs off St. Mark’s thankfully still around.  The only wine shop on First, Tinto Fino, sells a great list of Spanish jewels.

There are other shops on First Ave., thrift, technical, fast food and otherwise.  Check them out for yourself.  Obviously I will not mention those chain corporation that have come to replace defunct storefronts, the ATM’s and chain pharmacies that are so prevalent because only they can afford the rising rents and real estate taxes, the reason why neighborhoods are fast becoming non-descript and mall-like.

Chicago Redux

When an opportunity comes my way to travel to a city known for its food, almost any excuse will do.  When it is a town on my top five list, no arm twisting required. Living in New York City tends to narrow my view of dining.  More and more restaurants that open seem driven by the same formula: a downtown location, a sexy crowd, and food that serves the needs of those who treat food as dressing, while also appeasing to the so called discerning foodies.

Aside from high end restos, cheap ethnic dining is best, offering real value for your food, packed with real flavor.  If this were a BYO town such as Philly or Chicago, we would have something here.  But how would the restaurants pay the rent.  One can get easily caught up in the notion that New York is the center of the universe in dining, and neglect other foodtowns, USA.  New Orleans disproves this theory.  San Francisco, Charleston, and (fill in the blank)head the list.

This weekend Chicago was the venue, and year after year, I leave with a great impression of a food culture that is thriving and genuine.

After arriving on Thursday afternoon and checking into the Affinia Hotel, I was treated to a surprise, an authentic Chick-Fil-A.  We don’t have it in New York, and I haven’t tried it.  But chicken would have to wait, as I had a date with Carriage Bakery, a small shop run by scientific dudes, dedicated to making pot pies and pasties, British style, with all the trimmings, peas, chips and malt vinegar, mashed potatoes and gravy.  Country ditties on the screen reminded me of Deliverance, but the only revelation was just how great these pies were, filled with steak, chicken, stew meat, or the special of the day, cheese and potato.  Washed down with a hibiscus soda, I couldn’t help but think that in NYC, another meatball or bao bun shop opened up instead.  A necessary cup of coffee from neighboring upstart Bridgeport was proper and enjoyable.  Auspicious beginning.

That evening I headed over to the Purple Pig, which was hopping at 6 pm.  I always forget that in the Midwest, people prefer to dine early.  With no reservation and a party for six, we were grabbed a two hour wait.  The reservation system was handled on a piece of paper and not well managed.  They were overwhelmed.  We were crammed at the bar.  I checking in several times and witnessed several spaces we could have been squeezed into, but I was told that people were running late. I watched as a family of six with four kids arrived late and took the space.  A huge pet peeve of mine, no kids at wine bars during peak times.  They drink soda!  After some nice cocktails and cidre from Normandie, we ordered a bottle of lambrusco.  After 15 minutes, it was clear that our order was forgotten. Note to self, dine after nine in Chicago.

When the time had elapsed, the hostess offered us a table out in the Chicago cold.  I expressed my displeasure, and stated the obvious.  That If I had been informed after waiting for two hours standing at the bar, that I was to be offered seating outside, I would have left accordingly.  All was forgiven when we finally were seated and comped the Lambrusco.  We ordered off the vast menu.  Some dishes were quite memorable.   The charcuterie plate was bright anchored by a creamy testa. Pork rillettes were rich and devoured.  Almonds fried in pork fat was eye opening.  Iberico lardo on toast points will be stolen and put on my menu at home.  The star dish was a balance fried, sliced pig’s ears salad with pickled peppers and fried kale, a real stunner.  The quail and roasted marrow bones were tasty albeit small in portion size, the mussels and octopus less successful.  The wine list was well put together offering many reasonable choices.  We had a bottle of Movia sauvignon blanc, LDH Tondonia Blanco 2001, and a Cerasuolo di Vittoria, all at great prices.  The cheese course was tame, and I wished for more aggressive offerings.  Time spent in total: 5 hours.

The following day we took in the Field museum and the Genghis Khan exhibit, whose DNA is responsible for 16 million Mongolians, The Red Queen supreme.  We paid a visit to the Bongo Room for their famous brunch, and comparing it to certain NY bruncheries, it held up its own, with intellgentsia coffee and great bacon and pork sausage.  I will have to return for the pancakes, which looked fabulous.

Squeezed in a Chik-Fil-A which was not bad, but nothing to write home about.  Moderately moist chicken, sorry bun, interesting, albeit sweet sauces.

A quick pit stop for oysters and cocktails in the C-Room (the hotel resto), and all was fine, but one could not detect Chef Marcus Samuelson’s stamp on anything.  It certainly was no Red Rooster.  A trip to the United Center was only overshadowed in anticipation of an evening at Publican, my favorite gastro pub anywhere.

Great seats by the kitchen, artisanal craft beers and pork rinds, heaven’s gate now open and the true games begin.  Hamachi crudo, pickled corn, onions, and pickles, boudin blanc, and more pork rinds, ethereal cheese and vinegar spiced, the perfect bar food.  The beer list is so well selected, you almost can’t bring yourself to order wine, but slightly sweet gruner and halb-trocken Riesling cut right into the fat of the steak tartare, brilliantly prepared.  The service is impeccable, and I truly lament that they don’t open a branch in NYC.  To follow up, lovely cocktails were had at Maude’s, a sleeper in my book.  Their house smashes took me out.

The next day I had my mind set on a burger, and we were advised to experience Kuma’s Corner for some heavy metal and all the fixings. There was a three-hour wait, so we ordered take-out, which was prompt, seven burgers and fries, mac n cheese in half an hour.  It was a little chilly for a picnic, but that was the only viable venue option.  Aside from the novelty nomenclature, I found the burgers to be good, enormous, and the toppings to be slightly more interesting than the burgers themselves.  No comparison to Pat La Frieda’s black label or The Burger Joint here.

Quick digestion was necessary, as some hard to procure seats at Schwa for 8:30 were waiting, a meal I have been looking forward to all month.

Outside Schwa looks like a shuttered storefront, shades down and abandoned looking.  The cab offered to keep the meter running.  We walked in without an escape plan, and to our delight, they were open, alive and kicking.

We were well armed for the BYO nine-course affair.  Larmandier Bernier Terre de Vertus Blanc de Blancs, Domaine Servin Les Preuses Grand Cru Chablis 2008, and Mastrobernardino Radici Taurasi 1999 Riserva purchased fom Binny’s, apparently the only game in town.   There was no Chamber’s Street in sight, and I will have to look into the wine selection availability more in depth in the future.

Enter a non-descript rectangular room anchored in the rear by an open kitchen as seen through a square porthole, with smoke and fire wafting through the ceiling, as modern hip hp blares and thumps thorough the Polk speakers.  At first it seem disjointed, all that rap, and the recessed down attitude.  But after we were seated, you just have to surrender, which was upon observance the only option exercised by the rest of the patrons.

One menu, nine courses, and service by the chefs who finish a dish and bring it out to the table.  Silver-plated ceiling above, back graffiti sprayed walls surrounded by silver blinged lighting fixtures: Odyssey 2000 meets Harlem meets El Bulli on American soil.

One could say it’s all about the food, but the music is there, thumping, causing you to rock back and forth or bow your dome in rhythm, a rap opera setting.

Menu

Amuse:  Chocolate cherry bomb Manhattan, Flower tonic

Cassoulet : deconstructed w pig ears

Baked Potato deconstructed into a soup

Raviolo Truffle Egg

Tortelloni Crab Apple Celery broth

Roe, Passion fruit, violet

Fruit Loops

Salmon Sous Vide

Cocoa Crusted Halibut in apricot and curry

Squab w/ Bourbon flavors, Dr. Pepper

Rice Crispies

 

The cooking is inventive, refreshing, and ballsy.  The flavors are balanced, bright with acidity, and artistic on the plate.  This is no apology cooking from Chef Carlson and crew.  You can tell they are doing it “my way” and if you are open for the experience it all makes sense in the end, expert technique and an approach to food that is playful, whimsical, thought provoking, and delicious, a feeling I had not had since dining at El Bulli.

In New York, Romera tried its hand, and failed, panned by critics and misunderstood by New York’s “educated” and “sophisticated” diners.  I wonder what reception Schwa would receive in NYC.  It is a shame that this type of cooking does not exist in my home town, save for Chef Wylie.

Followed up the great performance with some jazz from Joanna Connor at Kingston Mines, swizzling Goose Island until close.

Couldn’t leave Chicago without a deep dish pizza, but logistics steered me local for some rather good Hawaiian and meat stuffed pies, nothing that will replace the Napoletana craze back home.  Next time I want to try Smoque BBQ.

I leave Chicago with much respect, a little bit of envy, great satisfaction, basking into the arms of my diversely ethnic melting pot of comfort food, celebrity chef type and people watching venues that stand in for restaurants nowadays in NYC, anxiously waiting for the food to be the star.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Escape from New York?

I like to think that my ideal living arrangement/lifestyle would be eight months in New York City, three months in Europe, and one month in the Caribbean.  I measure my success by the approximation to that goal.  So far this year, I have been late to travel, and only managed to squeeze in a week in Cancun to satisfy the “beach” element to my program.

It almost felt unnecessary to leave NYC, given the spate of warm weather, but a beach is still a beach.  I was warned about late January weather in Mexico, but found this to be a true bonus.  It rained the Friday I got in, and was cloudy the day I departed.  In between, however, sunny to partly cloudy skies, a fabulous constant breeze and mild temperatures.  The kind that allows for tanning without scalding, sleeping and reading on lounge chairs without sweating, encouraging for late night starry walks without the company of mosquitoes.

The other piece of advice I received was to stay in Playa del Carmen, a newer, less touristy, hipper part of Cancun, but because of the deal I sought out, Cancun it was.

There are two main problems with staying in Cancun.  One is that most of the hotels are all inclusive, which for a person looking to sample local cuisine, is a death trap.  Eating the same hotel food day after day is boring, often inedible, and not adventurous.  I chose a hotel with no all-inclusive, Le Meridien.  There are two buses that travel directly to the center of Cancun (R-1, R-2) which are inexpensive and run frequently.

After reading countless reviews on Trip Advisor and spending some time at the Barnes and Nobles travel library, I jotted a few places to try and decided to wing it.  Instead of being my usual obsessive self about the food, I decided to not to sweat it.

After establishing that the food at the hotel was inedible, the strip of the Zona Hotelera revealed various pitfalls as well, but I got a little lucky.  A small cafe at the back of a touring/rental company served a basic menu of eggs, tacos and sandwiches with drinks  with a view of the laguna.  Fred’s House, seafood restaurant, sister of the more expensive Harry’s Grill, did a great job with ceviche and grilled fish.  The chocolate (named for the shell color) clams were pristine, and oysters on the grill meaty and good.  The chef prepared the local hogfish with a 7 chili rub and various habanero sauces.  I struggled through a bottle of sauvignon blanc fom Mexico, but more on that later.

At Captain’s Cove, also on the strip, there is a Sunday buffet with omelettes and tacos to order.  They served cochinito pibil and rajas, but the stars of the meal were the hominy and pork crackling soups, deep, earthy, and hangover relieving Yucatan specialities.

A big blank was drawn at an attempt for sushi at Katsu ya, which prepared barely edible rolls, and were out of sushi grade tuna and hamachi.  I know what you’re thinking, but I just had an obviously non brilliant thought that fresh fish equaled good sashimi.  Not.

The saving grace to all of these establishments were their proximity on the laguna.  There is something to be said for dining at tables waterside, feeling the breeze, listening to the waves, and watching the sun or starry skies.

Then there was the afternoon of trying to find bars with working satellites to watch sports, (more Knicks games televised here than in NYC) which was responsible for drinking at Maragaritaville (ugh, during a kids party), and Champions outlet bar (double ugh).  Some satellites worked, others didn’t.  You can’t follow your sports team in Mexico unless its Chivas.

But, among those bad experiences good decisions were made too.  A romantic relaxed evening at Habichuelos complete with garden and tableside Caesar’s salad preparation made for a memorable meal of soft shelled crab, ceviche, mole, whole snapper and banana chocolate crepes. Behind the Parque de las Palapas, there is a plaza with street vendors selling tortas to tacos  of all varieties.  Mexico at its best.

On the bustling Avenida Tulum, a great show can be caught at La Parilla, a Tex Mex stalwart with giant drinks, flaming food, and a theatrical circus waiter who balances everything on his bald head.   Mariachis swing from table to table while the waiter climbs a ladder to perform a pyrotechnic Mexican coffee.  Pictures secured by camera phones and safety disregarded when it sure looked to me like everything was going to come crashing down on the patrons.

Very nice Oaxacan cuisine at Calenda, in case you missed out on your chapulinas (grasshopper) fix.  Moles, and stuffed peppers round out the menu.  And don’t forget the mescal.

More mescal and proper tequilas can be had at the Plaza de los Toros, in the bars surrounding the bullfighting ring.  There’s a style for every one, just make sure it is your style.

After the thirtieth margarita, my palate leans back towards wine.  I found that virtually every wine list had the same list of wines on the menu, only changing the price according to the type of restaurant.  The choices were awful, and overpriced as if I were in Venice.  I tried to taste some local wines, but could not stomach the alcohol content, and the oak.  Apparently, there are just two importers in the area, and they dictate the wines to be sold.  Oh well, back to mescal.

I found my appetite to be somewhat diminished and tame.  Perhaps the limited options did not inspire, or maybe the sun provided enough nourishment, but after seven days of eating in Cancun, I couldn’t wait for my 9:00 pm res at Mas La Grillade in the West Village.

Postscript:  Mas La Grillade was great, smoked romaine salad!  Thanks to Shiraz and Galen for a memorable evening and welcome back to my home town.

Critical

The Role of the Critic

With all the shuffling going on at the New York Times Dining Out section desk (Bruni to Sifton to Asimov to Wells), I can’t help but reflect and compare the writing styles, pedigree, and accuracy of the reviewers.  It brings me to think about the deeper question in a more macro sense of what the role of critic means.

First, I would like to list what I want in a critic.  Above all, I want a critic who is experienced, world traveled and fed, and knowledgeable.  It is a plus if the critic actually cooks, or even better, has been a chef in a kitchen.  Chefs can appreciate good food, and know what painstaking efforts it takes to open and run a successful restaurant.  Then there’s integrity of course, which I understand is difficult to keep in line especially when one is spotted and drowned in freebies and preferential treatment.  The third component is writing, which must illustrate verbally the overall picture, ultimately spending the heart of the review discussing the food and the alcohol.

Now taking into consideration the NYT readership and who the Dining Out section is actually marketed to is important.  Certain restaurants must be reviewed, as popularity demands it.  Same goes for chefs of celebrity, and in an attempt to be politically, globally correct, ethnic cuisines to follow.   Since there are few if any top tier ethnic eateries that makes the decision making quite simple.

I have tried my hand at a few reviews myself on my own personal web blog, and can tell you that it is a lot of work, albeit fun.  To get a real sense of the place you have to dine there at least three times, and true anonymity is a great advantage.  The only special treatment I received was a result of fostering a relationship with the staff, or having dined with a restaurant, which I can assure is a night and day experience.

I try to take into account the ambiance, the food and beverage, and relate it to the price as compared to other experiences.  Consistency is important, and not falling prey to your own tastes and fads is difficult.  For example, I am not much of a vegetable lover, but make it a point to try the vegetables offered on the menu to judge the cooking.  Moreover, I tend to review restaurants that I am interested in.  Finally, if I don’t like a place, I won’t write a word about it.  Again it is incredibly difficult to make a restaurant work, and just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean others won’t too.  If a concept or effort falls short by my standards, that doesn’t mean effort and hard work are not being put into the project by real people.

Critics are useful to me especially if I can align my taste with theirs.  For example, Parkerized scores in wine help me to do my shopping.  A 95 score means fruit bomb and a no no for me.  Conversely, I might look more closely at a bottle that scores an 89.  Customers do this all the time.  I trust Chris’s judgment at Chambers Street Wines because we have similar palates in Spanish wine.  I also know he does his homework.  So when he recommends something out of the ordinary such as an albillo, I go for it.  At the very least, I know I will find the wine interesting, even if not to my exact taste.

Which brings me to the New York Times reviewers, who I have found to be good in certain aspects of their body of work and also limited in certain respects.

Starting with Mr. Frank Bruni, I have found his reviews to be very well written, with a global touch, as influenced by his station work in Italy.  He quite often nailed what a restaurant was like, the all important vibe, which can often be more important than the food, especially in this town, where I feel the majority of readers rely on to be seen at the next trendy hot spot.  Bruni was great at this.  I could just close my eyes and imagine a scene, and more often than not he was spot on.  My issue with Bruni is that there was never enough discussion about the actual food and wine.  Like leftovers on a plate that a waiter whisks away when you turn your head for a second before having the opportunity to mop up the sauce with the bread, I seldom got the impression that Frank actually likes food, or even enjoyed himself.  Then when his book came out about his struggles with food and obesity it all made sense to me.  Every meal was a struggle, as well as each review, and therefore something forgiving was left out, like the love needed to make a great red sauce.

Then came Sam Sifton, whom I have met a few times, ambitiously minded for higher work, and it showed.  I trusted in what Sifton had to say because I felt like he enjoyed dining out with his family and friends.  He looked for value and real cooking, but wasn’t critical enough.  I followed suit on some of his reviews and found his information a bit off, his experiences a bit different than mine.  There is a margin of error there as he may have received the aforementioned special treatment (I knew nary a resto that didn’t have his photo pinned to the bulletin board).  But I suspect that while he was hard at work, his mind was elsewhere, like dining and eating, two pleasures I rarely combine, as they are too competing and interfere in my taking in the experience fully, the path to real understanding.

I must obviously make mention of my relationship with Eric Asimov, a friend, dining and travel companion for years, who I met a long ways back training in martial arts together at the Kokushi Budo Institute.  His food journalism credentials are all there, having written and created the 25 and Under column, and I have been lucky enough to be a guest at many of those meals.  I have also been privy to a few road wine trips in recent years, and watched as he created a chief wine critic position to follow his passion about wine, beer and spirits.  When Eric says he is tired of eating molten chocolate cake it is because he has been served it a million times.  He is brave enough to take the chicken dish at order time and really reports on what’s what.  We always voice our opinions.  He listens, but does not sway.  In his recent review of Fatty Cue, he awarded the resto two stars.  Solid one star in my book (* but the star system needs changing). His writing style is not flowery or full of fancy imagery.  Rather he is telling you a story, a short history about food as it evolves.  Most importantly, he has the common touch.  Until his photos became available, he was as anonymous as could be, like dining with the average white guy.  On most occasions he received no special treatment.  His experience would be most likely yours too.  Things have changed of course, as his connections are vast and he is spotted everywhere, but Eric has remained the same.  Just trying to tell a story man.

As for Pete Wells, the actual impetus for my writing this blog entry, his body of work as chief critic is open and short, but it is his last review of Romera that has me worried.  I have not been to Romera, but do plan to go, at the behest of trusted eating partners from my crew whose opinion I trust.  From reading his review, and knowing something about the type of cooking being performed at Romera, it is probably true that there were consistency issues.  A few degrees here or there can alter the state of the dish, especially on that high level of cooking.  But what is modernist cooking?  I am waging that Pete just missed the point.  There is a reason why the most important food movement of our time hails from the Basque region of Spain.  There is a reason that these restaurants cannot be found in what is supposed to be the dining capitol of the world.  The foodies or sophisticated diners of this town are simply not ready for it.  It takes a certain amount of eating and drinking evolution to appreciate what is going on at Romera, and most foodies think they have a more developed palate than they actually do.  They think that if they follow Grub Street, Dining Out, Eater, Serious Eats, and watch Tony Bourdain’s show, that constitutes understanding food and wine better.  They think that if they can snag a res at Ko, get into Minetta Tavern, and Locanda Verde that they know restaurants.  Which on the surface is somewhat true, but only to a certain degree.  It’s great to go from PBR to Geuze, but the journey is paramount, and cannot be attained with shortcuts.  I once spoke to a wealthy wine collector who ate at El Bulli and told me his meal was garbage and forgettable.  I was fortunate enough to dine there once and had one of the most magical dining experiences of my life.  Perhaps because I have been traveling to Spain for over twenty years to follow food and wine gave me a different perspective.  Perhaps because I cook and own a Spanish wine bar that helps my appreciation too.  I am certain that ten years ago, I would not have understood what Ferran was doing either.

In a recent review of Mas (Grillade), Mr. Asimov mentioned his experience at a Basque resto called Extebarri, which specializes in smoking all the ingredients.  Now a critic could have written about the use of smoke at Mas and done a fine job.  But he enhanced the review by drawing from his vast experience, in this instance a small mountain top shrine to charcoal and wood, the zenith of smoke shops.  Having dined there as well, I was transported; my memories took me to my first smoked foods, to that amazing afternoon with smoked butter and ice cream and sea urchin etc.  It lends to a deeper understanding and appreciation of what the chef at Mas is trying to achieve.  A vital element in any assessment, one that was perhaps missed at Romera.

There is no perfect critic.  We just have to trust in a knowledgeable, experienced, ethical writer who can best convey a dining experience so that we can either live vicariously through, or gain vital information for ourselves, perhaps learning a little something along the way.

 

* As a final note, it would be great to move to a five star system for rating restaurants.  I have dined at so many two star establishments, which would be one star on a five star scale.  Service being the main criteria for the downgrade along with quality vs. cost ratio.  For example, compare the cote de boeuf at Minetta Tavern vs. Fatty Cue.  Check out the portion size in relation to the price.  The extra star would allow for true wiggle room as many two star restos should probably be one star and the trickle down effect could follow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wines for Thanksgiving

As Thanksgiving nears, and our focus centers on which new recipes to use, exotic side dishes, to stuff or not to stuff etc., a good moment should be spent on what to drink with the feast, an important and often overlooked or least researched companion.  The old rule, to drink what you like, certainly applies, but I also adhere to variety is the spice of life, and like to have many options on hand for the different phases of the meal.

There are many tried and true stalwarts such as Champagne, Cru Beaujolais and zinfandel, but speaking from the Spanish side of things I have other ideas.

There has been a lot of buzz recently on the reemergence of sherry, and deservedly so.  The sherry of Jerez de la Fronters comes in many flavor profiles and is being crafted in such high quality,  just including one sherry in your meal plan will reap huge rewards.  Start with a fino or manzanilla as aperitivo, amontillado in the middle, and oloroso or PX for dessert.

As for the turkey time, I will proffer wines from two different regions of Spain, Terra Alta and the Ribera del Duero.  As you may already be familiar with the wines from the Ribera del Duero, big juicy tempranillos that often need bottle age to reach peak drinking, these wines are better suited to roast meats than their big brother to the east, La Rioja.  Getting your hand on a good bottle of reserva from 1998 or 2001 is no easy task, and can prove expensive.  Rather, Trust in the vintage.  Take 2006, for example a year built for wines to be consumed while young, offering immediate pleasure without sacrificing complexity.

Terra Alta is fast becoming a very well respected wine region, with innovative blends and pure juice being produced all over.  Garnaxta is the main grape, but great blends with tempranillo and international grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, and even merlot make for interesting wines to be paired with food.

As the soporific effects settle in, a return to sherry is a welcome respite to all of the carnage and belly busting.  Perhaps a great moscatel fom Malaga or Jerez may ease the digestion set forth for the long road ahead.

 

SHERRY PRODUCERS

La Bota

Gutierrez Colosia

Hermanos Argueso

La Garrotcha

La Cigarrera

La Gitana

Alvear

Pedro Romero

Lustau

 

RIBERA DEL DUERO PRODUCERS

Arzuaga

Pagos de los Capellanes

Pesquera

Emilio Moro

Roda

Torremilano

Astrales

Arrocal

Valduero

Fuentespina

Federico

 

TERRA ALTA PRODUCERS

Edetaria

Josep Foraster

N. SRA Portal

Vinos Sin Ley

Celler Pinol

Clua

Josefina Pinol

 

WINE SHOPS

Tinto Fino

Chamber St Wines

Astor Wines