Drinking Eating Experiences Food The Chef Travel

March For Our Lives

Over a decade ago, the last time I was in the nation’s capitol, I took a couple of days to take part two of the foreign service exam. I had been teaching for over a decade, and was looking for a different challenge.

I just missed passing by two tenths of a point. Had I passed, who knows how I would feel now working for the current administration. Failing that test closed a door, but opened up a path to move to another industry. I assessed my skills and interests, and the intersection pointed towards a career in food and wine. My whole life I have been experiencing new places through food and culture, and figured that this was an obvious calling.

I must have been so preoccupied with the exam test results that I failed to plan a proper exploration of the food scene while in DC. In fairness, I didn’t plan too much time in town, and didn’t have the urge to celebrate nor drink my disappointment away.

When the opportunity to spend a weekend in DC came up, I was anxious to fill in the blanks and see what DC was all about, and check out a few monuments and historical buildings along the way.

A bonus in the timing of the trip was the blooming of cherry blossoms, which DC has in abundance.

What I hadn’t planned on was another senseless fatal shooting, the Parkland tragedy, and the simultaneous scheduling of the March for Our Lives demonstration.

My first thought was that DC would be too crowded and difficult to get around due to the planned march. When I returned to my senses, I realized it was an opportunity to be part of the solution, and with enough advanced planning, would be able to eat and drink too.

Of course it snowed on Wednesday and Thursday, causing the airport to shut down service. Undeterred, I switched the flight to Friday and stayed through to late Monday instead.

The first place my wife and I visited was Chercher, a casual Ethiopian spot, that for under twenty bucks, put out a veggie plate for two that we could barely finish. Extra servings of the spongy injera bread were necessary.

We hit the museums and monuments running, worried that it would be difficult on Saturday due to the crowds and blocked streets for the march.

I scored tickets for the African American Museum, (offered on line at 6:30 am every weekday) and was overwhelmed by the content and interactive media. The experience is intense. So much to see, feel, and learn. It requires patience, focus, and planning. This is a must visit several times over. We were still too stuffed to eat at the soul food café in the museum. I would like to return just to sample the goods.

Time for cocktails, so first up, The Sheppard, near Federal Circle, a classic looking speakeasy, velvety and quiet, with happy hour drinks that hit the spot. We ended up at All Purpose, a new pizza joint near the hotel. We shared a bottle of Etna Bianco. Wine list was short, but well curated. And we really appreciated the classic Italian Rainbow Cookie. Pizza was good, but I regret not having gone to a more ethnic place, which is what DC is known for.

The March was well organized and well attended. We were unable to get close to the stage, but used the Smithsonian Art Gallery to witness much of the rally. The windows were situated just outside the main stage. It was a perfect vantage point with fewer than a dozen people. After several speeches and performances, we felt the collective energy of progress through peaceful protest. So many Americans do care about the controversial issue of gun control. Hopefully change is a coming.

Using the metro to get around, we headed to Florida Avenue Grill, an old soul food establishment that did not disappoint. History meets people meets great soul food. The fried chicken was proper. Mac-n-cheese, candied yams, pancakes, and scrapple were also on point. Finished with a sweet potato pie and sweet tea so sweet my eyes filled with sugar crystals. The only miss was the biscuit, which just wasn’t up to the standard of the rest of the food. It is always nice to dine in history.

Over on U street there are a great many bars and youthful energy. After a little shopping, we hit the tiki lounge Archipelago first, which satisfied my umbrella portion of the program. Then we found Service Bar, a fried chicken cocktail concept that serves up a mean happy hour for seven dollar drinks. Great hip hop and a what the cluck deal, a bucket of fried chicken and a bottle of Krug for $250. When I am rolling in it in the future, I am definitely returning for that special.

For dinner we chose Maydan, a new Mediterranean restaurant with open hearth and loud music, that seemed even more popular as a bar. We sampled lamb kebabs and lebneh, hummus, carrots and eggplant. Items from the open hearth were charred and smoky and best. The pita was passable, but not on the same level. The wine list lacked imagination and was disappointing.

We met a relative for Sunday brunch at the Federalist Pig, a utopia for barbecue, with a proud, efficient staff serving very good barbecue. The pulled pork and brisket were excellent, and the brussel sprouts and mac-n-cheese also good.

Sunday night we headed over to Thip Khao, a Laotian restaurant that specializes in very specific regional cooking resulting in an acid driven, spicy, tasty combination of flavors.

Grilled chicken hearts in lime, fermented chili fish sauce pig ears with tamarind salt are just some of the standouts. The laab salad is a perfect blend of galangal, chili, cilantro, mint and other spices dancing a happy jig. It was too warm out for the soup, but every table around us seemed to be enjoying it. The aromatics alone almost changed our strategy. There are curries and goat stews, fermented fried rices and pork bellies, catfish and sesame jerky. This is a to be continued DC resto for us.

It turns out that on Mondays, many of DC’s finest are closed for lunch. We respect that, but here is where we would have been better off flying in on a Thursday instead.

Luckily for us, a surprisingly great lunch was served up by Duke’s, near Federal Circle. Duke’s came to the rescue.  Duke’s is just a great little café that puts a lot of thought into their menu, both wine, beer and food. The kind of place I wish we had back home on the Upper West Side. Some of the items on hand for a Monday were elote style local corn, a luxurious acorn squash soup, braised oxtail mash, truffle mac-n-cheese – it is too difficult not to want to skip the flight, stay the day and eat. The sandwich section alone would keep me as a regular most days. The vibe was chill, with Prince on the airwaves and daytime happy hour to boot. Nice sendoff for us indeed. Thank you Duke’s.

A quick meringue at Un Je Ne Sais Quoi, and off to Regan Airport via metro, quite seamless really.

We left DC reflecting on the rights of Americans to peacefully protest for change. DC seemed to be well integrated with like- minded people who care about their community and the nation at large, a place for many immigrants to settle down and showcase their culinary best. The cherry blossoms were blooming at the right time for the march. You could find them all over town, reminding us of the beauty and fragility of life.

Drinking Eating Experiences Food The Chef Travel

Basquiat to Bowie

Untitled, one of Basquiat’s major works from 1982, sold for 110 million dollars, is on display at the Brooklyn Museum .  It is a singular masterpiece, the kind one can spend a couple of hours in front of, and is a bonus if you are lucky enough to score tickets for the Bowie retrospective.

Trains to Brooklyn pose a challenge on weekends, but there are copious rewards at the end of the tunnel.

Hit up MeMe’s Diner for a filling brunch.  Start with the bagel babka and eggs with chili oil. After the show, walk over to the Brooklyn Library to score a slice of Salted Honey pie from Four and Twenty Blackbirds, sold in ready to go containers from the small cafe.  Head over to Barboncino for some reasonably priced Neopolitan style pizza, or Glady’s for some Caribbean jerk or curried goat and drink specials.

Snag a seat at the long bar at Tooker Hall.  Proper cocktails with friendly bartenders, who also provide skilled, balanced libations.

Leave with an image of SAMO.



The Chef

In The NY Times

Read about Chef Mateo in The New York Times Dining In section. Renowned Food & Wine Critic Eric Asimov writes a feature article about Chef Mateo and a Haitian Thanksgiving – November 2007


The Turkey That Stopped in Haiti on Its Way to Dinner

RAFAEL MATEO is a man of many flavors. By day he is a teacher, with a flock of seventh and eighth graders in East Harlem, and by night a devoted cook and wine lover who is planning to open his own cafe and wine bar. He is also a writer, working on a book of recipes and lore inspired by his Haitian and Dominican heritage. That is, when he’s not on the mat: he is a serious martial artist with black belts in judo, Kokushi-ryu jujitsu, Tomiki aikido and karate.

With such a taste for life, Mr. Mateo is not about to settle for the proverbial flavorless Thanksgiving turkey. Not when steps can be taken to improve its lot. The turkey, after all, is not wholly responsible for its banality. The problem is a want of imagination. Overly plump of breast and drained of color, the big bird is trotted out each year for its moment in the carving table spotlight, its alabaster slices dry, monotonous contrasts to the far more vivid companions on the plate.

But when Mr. Mateo finishes with a turkey it is anything but bland. The exterior is crisp and a deep, burnished coffee brown, almost daring you to reach in for a nibble as it is being carved. The meat — even the breast — is rich with character, and each bite is packed with a complexity that did not come naturally to the turkey.

How can this be? The answer is a recipe that virtually tattoos the bird with flavor, developed by Mr. Mateo’s grandmother Madeleine Marcelin in Haiti, where she and her husband, Andr?lived before fleeing the Duvalier regime in the early 1960’s. To this day Mr. Mateo loves to watch her cook, observing each movement and technique.

”She has the hands of a chef,” he said. ”Anything she touches somehow is magically transformed, whether it’s a boiled egg or anything else. She looks at something once, and she knows exactly what to do to it.”

Those who are not familiar with Haitian cuisine assume that everything is hot and spicy. While it is true that chilies have an important place in the pantry — Mr. Mateo uses Scotch bonnets in his turkey preparation — good Haitian cooking is more accurately characterized by piquancy in which the heat of the chilies is balanced with garlic and thyme, vinegar, tangy citrus or earthy beans. The flavors are vibrant, a perfect approach for livening up an essentially blank canvas like a turkey.

Mr. Mateo begins by, as he puts it, ”Creolizing the turkey.” With a paring knife, he makes an intricate network of slits all over it: breast, thighs and legs. (The wings are optional.) The slits are about a half-inch long, a half-inch deep and maybe a half-inch apart, and he uses his fingers to widen them. He then rubs the turkey with lime juice.

”I use it basically like soap,” he said. ”It gets rid of anything on the turkey. I also think the acidity acts as a balance to the heavier things that you eat.”

Then comes the good stuff. First, Mr. Mateo inserts deep into each slit a paste he has made by mashing garlic, salt, thyme and oregano with vinegar and lemon juice. He follows the garlic paste with a bit of French ham, and then some diced red pepper, Spanish olives, red onion, parsley and, finally, slivers of Scotch bonnets.

It can be time-consuming, but a well-organized cook can do it all in an hour and a half for a 20-pound turkey. As a last flavor-enhancing touch, he pours a bottle of dry red wine over the turkey — the slits help absorb the liquid — and leaves it to marinate in a refrigerator overnight.

This last step is an American adaptation. In Haiti when his grandparents were younger, refrigeration was a luxury. They raised turkeys in their backyard. When it was time to cook one Mr. Marcelin would feed lemon juice to the turkey as a disinfectant and, after it was killed, brine it for four hours.

Nowadays, cooks still brine turkeys, or have someone else do it for them. And while a brined turkey is an excellent candidate for Creolizing, the red wine marinade helps give the bird moisture and character, making brining optional.

Cooking the turkey the next day is the easy part. Mr. Mateo makes a basting liquid with some of the marinade, along with chicken stock, olive oil, vinegar, tomato paste and the ground spice mix called achiote, which, with the red wine, gives the turkey its wonderful color.

While the turkey is roasting, Mr. Mateo prepares the other Thanksgiving dishes that will surround it: earthy red beans and rice; stuffed mirliton, a pear-shaped vegetable also known as chayote that is given added zest with minced chilies; a quichelike carrot casserole; a creamy macaroni and cheese; and maybe a simple green salad. For dessert his grandmother’s bread pudding, redolent of star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, may call for a taste of Barbancourt, the national rum of Haiti.

But the turkey is the star of this meal, its luster returned by the Haitian preparation. This is a turkey that you won’t want to wait until next Thanksgiving to taste again.

Haitian Turkey
Adapted from Rafael Mateo
Time: 3 to 3 1/2 hours, plus overnight marinating

8 cloves garlic, peeled
Salt to taste
8 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
8 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs oregano
1 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 4 lemons)
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 20-pound brined or kosher turkey, trimmed of excess fat and skin, and rinsed; neck and giblets reserved
6 limes, halved
2 tablespoons adobo
Freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup ham, finely chopped
2 Scotch bonnet peppers, diced
8 sweet small peppers known as cachuchas or ajicitos dulces, or 1 large Cubanelle pepper, seeded and cut into 1/3-inch dice
1/2 cup red onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup manzanilla olives with pimento, finely chopped
20 capers, finely chopped
1 bottle dry red wine
1 teaspoon ground achiote
6 ounces tomato paste
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups chicken stock or broth
1/2 red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 red bell pepper, thinly sliced.

1. To prepare for marinating the turkey, use large mortar and pestle or small food processor to mash or pur?garlic with pinch of salt, 5 sprigs parsley, 5 sprigs thyme and oregano. Transfer to bowl. Add lemon juice, 1 tablespoon vinegar and 2 teaspoons water. Set aside.
2. With long paring knife, make slits 1/2 inch to 1 1/2 inches deep about 1/2 inch apart all over turkey, including legs and wings. Widen slits with fingers or spoon.
3. Rub limes over turkey, squeezing out juice and massaging into the meat. Discard halves and excess juice.
4. Sprinkle turkey all over with adobo, and season with salt and black pepper to taste.
5. Strain the garlic-herb pur? reserving liquid. Place pur?in a mixing bowl, and add chopped ham, Scotch bonnet peppers, sweet peppers, chopped onion, olives and capers. Mix well. To protect hands from being irritated while handling the hot pepper mixture, wear thin latex or rubber gloves.
6. Press large pinches of the hot pepper mixture into turkey slits. If any mixture remains after holes are filled, place it in cavity, along with reserved neck and giblets.
7. Place turkey in deep nonreactive pot, and pour reserved juice from garlic pur?on top, massaging it in well. Pour wine over turkey, cover and refrigerate overnight.
8. To prepare for roasting turkey, set oven rack low. Heat oven to 375 degrees.
9. Reserve 3 cups of wine liquid, and set aside. Discard rest.
10. Into wine, stir achiote, tomato paste, remaining tablespoon vinegar, olive oil and chicken stock.
11. Place turkey in roasting pan along with sliced onion and redbell pepper and remaining parsley and thyme. Pour half the wine mixture over turkey. Reserve rest for basting.
12. Begin roasting turkey breast side up, basting every 15 minutes. Every 30 minutes for the first two hours, flip turkey, first breast side down, then breast up. After the first two hours leave breast side up, and continue roasting and basting 60 to 90 minutes longer. (Turkey is done when thickest part of breast registers 160 degrees on meat thermometer and thickest part of thigh registers 165 degrees.)
13. Remove from oven; cover with foil, and rest 20 minutes before carving.
14. Strain pan juices into small saucepan, skim off and discard fat and serve drippings as gravy.

Yield: 12 servings.

Photos: A PIQUANT BIRD — Rafael Mateo, below, tucks a garlicky paste and slivers of Scotch bonnet peppers, near left, into slits in his turkey. It is a trick he learned from his grandmother, who developed it in Haiti.; A GOOD SOAK — Mr. Mateo pours a bottle of red wine over the bird, then marinates it. (Photographs by Julien Jourdes for The New York Times)

Drinking Eating The Chef Travel

A Little Bit Country and a Little Bit Rock-n-Roll

If you are looking for a city enjoying a renaissance, where there is music everywhere and the bar and dining scene rising, look no further than Nashville, Tennessee.

Over 100 people are moving to Nashville every day, average age of 29 years old, according to the locals I met in many bars while sipping Tennessee whiskey.

And you can feel the youthful, millennial energy in the air. Pedi-taverns parading up and down Broadway, honky tonks like Tootsies, Robert’s and Layla, Acme feed and seed, and legions of bachelorette parties snaking in like a party train into every bar with a musical pulse.

You can experience and sense the pride in the cocktail parlors like Old Glory, a converted laundry factory, or Patterson House, and old standby.

Cooking Drinking Eating Experiences Food The Chef Travel

Happy Anniversary Pata Negra, the little Jamon bar that could…

On February 8th 2017, Pata Negra turns nine Years old.

Due to the ever changing Real Estate Market of New York City, specifically the East Village, I have been reflecting over the last near decade of restaurant landscape volatility.

If I were to throw a dart in the air, I would guess that over 100 businesses have come and gone since 2008, the year I opened Pata Negra. I assure you this is an under estimation. There are still over 50 closed storefronts with “for rent” signs and I am only referring to a ten block radius around 12th street and 1st avenue.

The question is why?