Category Archives: Eating

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

NOLA

October rolled by quickly, but not before I gave a yearly check-up to one of my favorite food towns, New Orleans.  The climate in New York has been whacky, what with the lack of seasons.  October is just about the time NOLA is tolerable, warm, but not balmy or humid, sunny, appetizing, and thirstworthy.

I usually over plan, scheduling three solid meals, leaving room for street fare and oysters in between.  Upon Saturday arrival and an early Monteleone check-in, I made a b line for a new joint, Sylvain on Chartres St.  A quaint resto with outdoor seating, clearly a place where cocktails are taken seriously.  My eating companion Michelle and I tried the aviation, aunt rose, pressure drop, mojito, and bloody mary, all delicious and well concocted.  The menu, albeit limited for brunch, still stood up to the bar skill.  The meal started with an app of bright smoked salmon rillettes, pickled beets, and a warm potato soup.  We split a large plate of pan fried pork shoulder and grits, tender and crispy.  After watching the buttermilk fried chicken sandwich parading around the room, I had to order that too, overkill, but worth it.  I am certain the nightlife there must get hot and sweaty, and is duly noted for my next visit.

After an obligatory siesta at Café du Monde, and a few beignets, a walk through the French market was warranted along with a little shopping and enough time for a nap and a Ramos Gin Fizz at the Carousel.  We walked to my favorite street pronunciation, Tchoupitoulas, to have a grand meal at August, chef John Besh’s upscale financial district restaurant.  We had drinks at the bar, which serves as a rather gloomy waiting room dressed in dark wood sans any NOLA charm. Inside the dining area was another matter entirely.  High ceilings revealing towering bouquets and bright crystal chandeliers, solid brick set against soft hues, an inviting atmosphere indeed.  There is a connecting cellar room, which is extra cozy and romantically lit, juxtaposed to another room with tall banquettes.  We decided to sit surrounded by the steep and narrow wine staircase library above us.

It was difficult to make choices because many of the menu items sounded very tasty.  But the staff is very southernly hospitable, and the sommelier really knew her grapes. The focus of the menu was clearly farm to table with a foundation on Louisiana roots. First course a lemonfish crudo, bright with citrus and clean.  A consommé of gulf shrimp and bacon Ramen was next, surprising in its flavor profile versus everything else on the menu.  The noodles were tight, the yard egg a real zinger.  Crispy zucchini blossom filled with sweet corn and heirloom tomato was a satisfying winner.  The Pfeffingen 2006 riesling paired nicely throughout.  Apparently everyone orders the gnocchi and who could argue with accents of black truffle and bluecrab elevating the pillowy creamy clouds of gnocchi.  The topper was a Mangalitsa pork tenderloin, crispy and tender, accompanied by cheek raviolo, sweet corn, purple plums, and chanterelles.  For sweets, we had the exquisite banana rhum cake and the napoleon nougatine, a real treat, paired with a glass of Chateau Laribotte and macchiato, splendid way to end a great meal.

We had enough steam to grab late nite cocktails, but surprisingly, the Hermes Bar and French 75 Bar were winding down.  Maybe a sign to pack it in.  The next morning we ambitiously but foolishly tried to walk to City Park from the Quarter, when a streetcar ride on Canal would do.  Live and learn.  The brunch destination was Ralph’s on The Park, a convivial brunch place across from the park with a piano player (although he played in the adjoining room away from the diners).  Ralph’s offers various types of bloody maries, from mild to spicy with twists such as basil.  As turtle soup is not a standard in NYC, we had to share a bowl of that with the obligatory sherry, as sherry improves just about anything from a dish to a bad mood.  The biscuits were recommended and worth it, dense and flaky all at once.  Perhaps the unnecessary splurge was the pigs in the blanket, but I had A Confederacy of Dunces in my head.  Chicken and waffles did not disappoint, and neither did a very rich plate of slow cooked lamb and eggs, knocking us right on our NYC behinds.  The bonus was walking through City Park, with its majestic and stately trees, solemn air and various bridges, all the way to the NOMA (museum of modern art), nice if you have the time.  The real attraction is the sculpture garden, which is not to be missed.  Streetcar back to the Quarter in time for oysters and football game.  Alas, the Saints lost.

We took a long cab ride way out to Feret Street to try the libations at Cure.  We started with the classics, a Manhattan and a sidecar, bourbon (I prefer bourbon).  Proper and civilized,  we moved on to the punch and the Angel drink, got hungry (surprise) and noshed on the meat and cheese plate (lacking in ham), stuffed dates, Jamaican meat pie, and banana and black rice.  Pretty good, if not strangely eclectic.

I was anxiously anticipating Monday lunch at the famous Parkway Tavern.  Heaven in a Po’boy.  Roast beef, fried shrimp, lots of gravy, sweet potato fries, Barq’s in a bottle.  Picnic benches out back.  All walks of life setting there, enjoying the moment.  True NOLA.

More oysters, the JETS game, and Cochon for dinner.  Rabbit Livers with pepper jelly, alligator, wood fired oyster roast, gumbo, chow chow shrimp, smoked pork ribs with watermelon pickle, chicken thigh washed down with a Kurt Darting Riesling.  I know it’s a crime but no room for the cochon or smoked ham hock (at least I had it last year).  Room for upside down pineapple cake though.  Superb.  My kingdom for a Cochon in New York.  Some more cocktails at French 75 bar, followed by a great discovery of an upscale dive bar called Bar Tonique on N. Rampart St., which featured a $5. Pimm’s cup special, and five dollar specials every night.  Proper.

Breakfast Tuesday morning at Cake Café Bakery, a sleeper of a joint with great cupcakes but solid breakfast and lunch fare, such as shrimp and grits, or egg salad sandwich.  Serve and seat yourself, and this place grows on you by the cupcake.  Locals only it seems.  Try to dress the part.  Pre-flight drinks next on the list, but not before a stop at Central Grocery for a muffelata for the plane ride back and late nite snack.  We headed to the Roosevelt Hotel for another take on John Besh’s Italian fare at Domenica, which has a fabulous happy hour from 3 pm to 6 pm of half priced pizzas and wines by the glass.  Best deal in town, and we New Yorkers are pizza snobs/fanatics.  There some crazy large 900 degree oven churning out those bad boys with great crust, excellent toppings and serious wine program.  Leaving that bar was tough.

Back in NYC with NOLA blues, Spotted Cat still on the brain, great cooking still on the palate.  Until next year, adieu New Orleans.

Heat Wave

Trying to acclimate to NYC, with its inexplicable absence of spring or fall seasons has been more painful than watching the Red Sox sweep of the Yankees.  Having recently returned from France where the flowers were blooming, the skies blue, the sunshine bright and the breezes blowing, this weather makes me want to defect.  Maybe New York is just not the place to be in the summer months any more.

There are some saving graces such as the Highline, food truck mania, the upcoming BBQ festival at Madison Park, reservations practically anywhere, but who wants to go out into a thicket of humid air mass?  My only solution is to treat this summer like a winter.  Hibernate.  I hit the 97th St. Farmer’s Market and bought everything in site.  In the comfort of A/C, I will make pesto, tomato sauce, pickle vegetables, hot sauce, and ice cream.  I will freeze all the fresh meat products for a balmy day and only come out of my cave when the temperature is below 85 degrees.  With food, wine and a/c, I will survive this harsh summer.  Cooking will take the heat off.  Being in the kitchen, where it is supposed to be hot is far more gratifying than the alternative – traveling via train anywhere.

Let’s start with a simple pesto recipe, one I used recently with some fresh spinach and cheese ravioli from Eataly.

PESTO

2 cups basil, 1/2 cup evoo, 2 cloves garlic, 1/2 cup pignoli (pine nuts), 1/2 cup grated parm reggiano/pecorino romano

In a food processor, add all ingredients while slowly drizzling olive oil.

Store in a tight jar with a film of olive oil on top to preserve color and freshness.

Puerto Rico Eats

Puerto Rico Eats

Any time I vacation in El Caribe, I get very excited for obvious reasons.  I spent summers in Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico as a child and teenager, and hold onto fond memories of food and fun in the sun.  It has been over ten years since I’ve revisited, partly because of life changes and other travel destinations, and partly because I’m concerned over the modernization of islands which are pristine in my memory, a time with few cars and no fast food franchises.  But, alas, even third world Caribbean islands have caught up in this internet age, and finding the petals that were once flowers has proven elusive, given the over development of resort tourism.

Tired of the extended NYC winter, I booked a great deal to San Juan, PR in the Condado area of Santurce.  Tropical breezes met fickle weather, but for the most part sunny and temps in the 80’s.  It only occurred to me that I needed research on where to eat and drink, and that not much has been written about PR outside of Frommer’s and Trip Advisor.

My encounters in PR dining was very mixed, with lots of tourist traps, high end criolla cuisine and in betweens, topped off by a diamond in the rough.  Criolla refers to a style of cuisine prominent on most Caribbean islands, a marriage of European technique and local ingredients and native cooking, and is unique to each island but universal in approach.

In this respect Puerto Rico, Dom. Republic, and Cuba serve very similar tasting food, with slight nuances and touches.  Tropical fruits, fried foods, rice and beans, and fresh fish, stewed and grilled meats are core ingredients, adapted pasta dishes and the like are add-ons from Euro-recipes.

On Ashford Avenue, I ate small meals at La Hacienda, a PR-Mex place which has basic fare from both sides, cheap drinks, and a resounding view to the ocean.  Some highlights of the menu are flautas, mole and chimichangas as well as fried pork chunks and fried snapper fish.

There is hotel eating which can be perilous.  I had some decent small plates at Pikayo in the Conrad Plaza Hotel.  There were some proper cocktails had and a credible wine list, albeit curious one.  To watch the NCAA b-ball finals, I had some forgettable pizza at Mike’s, where I’m sure the product is tailored towards Latin flavor profiles.

Also near the hotel is a resto called Ropa Vieja, which served a proper plate of mofongo with shredded beef.   I would return for that one dish alone.   We consumed an obscure bottle of Yunquera Albillo 2009, a delicious bottle and a bargain at $28 USD.  I say USD because at lunch at El Jibbarito in old San Juan, a couple of tourists asked the waitress if the resto accepted USD or would they have to convert to pesos.  God Bless U.S. geography lessons. The food was fair at El Jib, but not worth a special trip.

In Old San Juan, there are lots of restos spending way too much on tourist décor and palates, overpriced with very fruit juicy sangria and wine lists heavy on Californian wine.  If I want 15% in my wine, I’ll stick to rum and coke.  Most of the wine lists seemed synchronized by the same importer, and the prices varied wildly.

A more successful visit was made to La Bombonera, which reminds of the typical luncheonette in the Bronx and El Barrio in NYC.  Cuban sandwiches and strong coffees.  La Mallorca, the specialty of the house is divine.  This is a must have sugar attack.

Academically speaking I was very interested in the Spanish restaurants, which are well known in PR.  I was very disappointed in many ways.  First, the wine lists seemed the same.  Second, the dishes were all familiar, but poorly executed.  The jamon guy should have been taken out and….   The paella looked terrible, again perhaps a modification for the local tourists, and key ingredients were left out of classics as interpretations of the chef.  At Picoteo, at least there was 5 star Mahou beer in a beautiful setting.  At Compostela Santiago, some wines on the list were a steal, such as a “94 Pesquera for $125.  The Pulpo ala Gallega was served without potatoes, but the octopus was tender and juicy.  The arroz a banda was an imposter, and the cochinillo, priced at $45.,  came two portions sizes too small with no sides.  The only salvaging part of the meal was a great bottle of Sameira from the Ribeiro and a standby from Ribeira Sacra, Vina Caneiro.

After a nice conversation with the Maitre d’Hotel, whose brother is the chef at Macondo on Houston, he tipped me off to a place off the beaten path in the Plaza de Mercado in Santurce.  The neighborhood houses a small plaza with fruit and vegetable vendors and lots of local makeshift bars with outdoor seating serving cold Medalla beer, rum, and fritura (fried foods).  After several attempts at local GPS (asking around), I came up to a house off to the side with no sign.  This was the house (resto) of Jose Enrique, chef and proprietor.  Once through the front porch and door is a scene, one that instinctually I know is the “promised island”.  A non-descript room with a bar, bustling with people in the know, speaking Spanish and having long lunches full of tropical drinks and colorful plates.  Eureaka!  Save that there were no available seats in the dining room and a 1.5 hour wait.  But in the patio…I was afeared there was no AC, but this patio was adorned with ceiling fans, wooden benches and salsa over the speakers.  All that was missing was a hammock.

Fresh juices with or without rum to start, followed by sangria and a good short wine list.  Who is going back to work after this outing?  Amelia brought over a handwritten menu on dry erase board with apps for the day.  Every one seemed tantalizing.  Homemade longaniza, empanadas with tiny fish, crab salad filled arepita cups, smoked, fried pork chunks, head cheese, langoustines, scallops, tomato and eggplant salad, salmon fritters.  A meal could be constructed from these.  My partner and I could only eat five.  Then the main course billboard comprised of whatever was caught or from local farms, skirt steak, mahi mahi, sea bream, tuna, yellow snapper, filet mignon empanizada, and so on.  Just what was available for the day Amelia assured us.  The meal was brilliant, just what the essence of criolla cuisine is:  not a fancification of home cooked dishes, just home cooked dishes using the freshest and best of the island.  Twists on classics such as mofongo and mamposteao, playful deconstruction of a dessert classic like temblake.   This meal stacks up against any of the fine meals from my recent memory of the big five (Italian, French, Spanish,  Japanese, & New American). Convivial atmosphere, feeling at home, great staff and a desire to return for my next meal.

Amelia tells me there are many regulars, and no reservations, which can prove difficult in terms of planning a time for a visit.  I suggest to come when you please and have a few beers at any of the next door bars while you wait.  It’s worth the trip.