Archive for December, 2006

Top Features of Telepan (And a Few Things to Fix)

December 30, 2006

Lo bueno:

1) Welcoming waiters: No problem being the first one through the door, nor seating me without my date. A server showing real warmth and Midwestern cheekbones started my meal off right. Place filled fast, but bustle never turned to rush. Someone’s managing this team effectively.

2) Wine list with room for everybody: Good variety of prices suggests wine director on customers’ side. Looking to cultivate clientele, not exploit them. Second glass of Barossa a bit warm, but it may just have been sitting at the bar too long. Also fun to imagine occasions for ordering jeroboams, double magnums, nebuchanezzars and other whimsically named mega-bottles on offer.

3) Doubling down on Trout: Salmon is the chicken of the sea for cost-conscious prix-fixe menus. Trout gets you to the same place price-wise without evoking bad wedding dinners. Particularly liked the cold trout dish.

4) Circulating chef: Friendly but not overbearing. Telepan made the rounds with sincerity and speed. Long enough face time to let me know he’s really here, and short enough face time to let me know he’s really cooking.

5) Potent espressos: Wickedly strong work. Cut right through two glasses of wine and had me skipping to Levain Bakery for a post-lunch snack. N.B. Do not order a tasting trio of Levain’s cookies and eat them sequentially after lunch at Telepan, unless you have good milk, of course, or access to a vomitorium.

Lo malo:

1) Terrible Tomme: Stingy and sloppy cheese plate. No shape or design to speak of and truffle-like portion size.

2) Bread: Impossible to eat without making a mess. Inconsistent quality and insufficient variety.

3) Surcharges belie the bargain lunch: Unfair number of supplement charges for a short menu. Be realistic, you’ll make the money on wine by the glass anyway. Don’t make me feel ripped off and I’ll spend more.

4) Cauliflower main is a weed in the entrée bouquet: Cauliflower dish was beautiful in conception but not in execution. A little “enchanted broccoli forest mid-70’s vegetarian” for such an accomplished chef. Flavors were indistinct, and some florets were unintentionally (I hope) overcooked.

5) That’s it: The good far outweighed the bad in a restaurant I’ll continue to root for.

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5 From The Frontline: Spirit of Vanguard Spain in New York

December 30, 2006

Favorite ways to get a cocina de la vanguardia food fix in the confines of New York City.

1) Savory Spain : wd~50*

Grounded in the Adrià brothers’ spirited taller culture, Wylie Dufresne performs the best of his workshopped dishes at wd~50 for a devoted and largely foreign (non-island) clientele.

Now seen as the fourth Beatle to the Chicago food Mafia power trio (Bowles, Cantu, Achatz), Dufresne deserves a bigger and more consistent local patronage than he’s found on the otherwise welcoming shores of Manhattan. Perhaps 2007 will be his year.

*(wd50 if you can’t find the tilde)

2) Sweet Spain: Room 4 Dessert (see separate post)

Goldfarb headed the 2006 Sweet Pack, but will need to hold off Pichet Ong, Sam Mason and Iacopo Falai in 2007. Better yet, maybe the four will build a vanguard destination dessert culture to match Chicago’s success with savory gastro-tourism. Until then, he’s given us an updated Espai Sucre for NYC.

3) Spanish Food and Wine Education: Instituto Cervantes

Preeminent center for Spanish language and culture instruction offers themed weekly food courses combining lecture, discussion and dinner. This semester Penelope Casas’ series begins with foundational ingredients and dishes of Spain–olive oil, paella, acorn fed pork, etc.–and finishes with front-line experimental fun.

Wealth of weekly courses give the gamut of Spanish wine grapes and regions their due. This is the place to imbibe Iberian oeno-enlightenment.

4) Best Places for Visiting Spanish Chefs: James Beard House/Dining Room at UN

A series of high-end Beard benefit events in 2006 and 2007 are bringing New York the top tier of Spain’s experimental culinary world. Admirable inclusion not just of the best-known established stars but also up and comers. Tickets run around a thousand dollars a person, so the major dinners are not for the faint of heart or thin of wallet.

For the rest of us, consider the dining room at the UN. In 2006 a series of ambitious weeklong guest-chef events highlighted various regions of Spain. As a bonus, heavy duty sponsorship kept meals well under forty dollars a head. One of the best values in town and likely to be repeated in 2007.

5) Loading the larder: http://www.willpowder.net

Goldfarb gives us the keys to the Wonka factory. You’ll have to be your own Oompa Loompah,though.

5 Little Joys in a Restaurant

December 22, 2006

These are a few of the things that make me feel valued as a customer and like I’m getting value, that is, as much or more than I’m paying.

1) Amuse gueule/bouche: The name says it all. It makes your face happy, it makes your mouth happy. Often a bit more risky, always free, and often footloose and fanciful, it’s a small promise that you’re going to be taken care of, and get more than you’d expected. I’ve never had a bad meal after a good amuse bouche.

2) Half-bottles priced accordingly: When half-bottles are reasonable and abundant, I can’t help but order several. I take more risks, I play with pairings I don’t settling for the neutral, safe easy could have bought it in Yorkville choice. In short, I feel like I really get to know a place

Landmarc has mastered the half-bottle menu, and more importantly the impression of giving good value with the half-bottle menu. Daniel is surprisingly strong as well, perhaps in deference to French culture where the demi-bouteille at lunch is considered a model of near-Puritanical restraint.

3) Luxurious bathrooms: The one thing nearly every private club gets right.  The washroom should be a refuge, a place that conveys calm and comfort, even if it’s just a five-minute break from your dinner guests. Real cloth towels, big deep sinks for washing up, stalls the size of studio apt. kitchens–restaurants have so many chances to win guests over, and this is one more.

4) Foreign newspapers on a stick: I love reading foreign papers and taking a late lunch, especially in a place like Café Sabarsky or Artisanal, where so much effort goes into making the setting feel effortlessly like somewhere I’d rather be. Of course, I can’t read German, but I like having the option and I do read Le Monde at Artisanal.

5 ) Stemware that’s as nice or nicer than the wine I’ve ordered: Nothing seems stingier than serving the good stuff warm or in a thick clumsily blown glass. Nothing seems more generous than dressing up my bottom of the menu selection with the newest crystal from Austria.

5 Best and Worst Evansville Eats: Joys and killjoys

December 21, 2006

1) Hilltop Inn. Parking lot promisingly packed with broad-bodied sedans and the enthusiastic eaters who stress their suspensions. The clientele is heavy on hairspray, light on cynicism and full of enthusiasm for the best of the animal kingdom.

Order the fried brain sandwich once–it’s justifiably advertised as the house specialty– and you’ll never doubt again. Deeply, delicately and lovingly fried, the pork brains are as slippery rich as grilled foie gras. A tempura light coating holds them snug and moist against the good locally baked buns.

Veteran cerebrophages proclaim “There’s no better way to get smarter than to have more brains.” Who am I to argue with such compelling logic? Some grouse that the pig brains aren’t as tender and delicious as the calves’ brains that the Hilltop used to serve—the switch was made when Mad Cow Disease broke out—but for my money, Wilbur the Pig’s smarter than Ferdinand the Bull, and just as tasty.

Add the greaseless onion rings and a brace of beers for the perfect Friday lunch.  Fried pickles are also a must.

2) Gerst Haus: A jewel on the German West Side of town. Thanks to its seamless repurposing of an old dry goods store, this recent Nashville transplant feels like it’s been around for years. Dozens of beers on tap or by the bottle, a great selection of sausages and schnitzels and, above all, creative sides from the less noble animal parts. Kraut balls sound unappetizing, but they transform castoffs into fried meat ball magic. Especially tempting to hoard when paired with tart cream cheese sauce. Dig into an order or two, plus pig knuckles and fried pickles. N.B. If you’re a mustard fan, bring your own. The house only has ballpark French’s. I tried a dab once on my brat–it was like the first scratch on a new car.

3) Madeleine’s: I include this restaurant more for great ambition than execution. It’s Evansville’s loudest and bravest salvo against the kudzu-like growth of chain restaurants on Green River Road and a laudable outgrowth of the movement to restore dowtown’s old homes to their former glory. Nonetheless, this restaurant and this downtown have a long way to go.

Use of fresh and seasonal ingredients is laudable, and often successful. Who can argue with the chef’s own garden tomatoes, especially when they’re far more varied than the garden varieties we grew up with? Regional meat sourcing, including delicious elk steaks, are also an impressive demonstration that Midwestern cuisine is not an oxymoron.

Still, plenty’s off with the chef’s vision. Appetizers were an unappetizing mishmash of Asia, Mexico and mid-80’s California, more confusion than fusion. Mains were paired with far too many sides. The idea was abundance; the effect was incoherence. Plenty of potential, just a lack of editing.

Service was also a bit off, as one would expect in a smaller market. Madeleine’s struggles to reconcile the sophistication of its menu with its woefully undertrained front of house. Dropped plates, dropped orders and a compulsive need to educate–calamari is Italian for squid–didn’t suggest ill will just poor preparation.

To get the front of house up to speed, I suggest that Madeleine’s hit up the University of Evansville’s excellent Drama School for some new servers. Those aspiring actors know how to carry themselves, carry an order and memorize a script (no peeking at the specials lists during the recitation). Besides, if they ever want to make it in New York, they might as well work on their inevitable full-time job skills as soon as possible.

Finally, wine servers needs to control wine temperature–room temperature doesn’t mean room temperature–and denote vintage years. With a bit of time to work out the kinks, I’m hopeful that Madeleine’s wil be the place to raise Stoplight City’s dining standards.

4) Lic’s: Quirky spelling aside, you won’t get your “Lic’s” on Rt. 66. Rather head to Lincoln Avenue for the best milkshake in town. Pick up a shake to go and cruise aimlessly. Try not to think how expensive gasoline is.

5) Aztar Casino: The name is suggestive of the quality of food. Plus, a little traipse through the slots room can make for the most expensive meal of your life. Why not go to Louisville for the night and pronounce yourself frugal for having avoided the one-armed bandits? Have a second mint julep while you celebrate beating the house by never going there in the first place.

York Grill: Lo bueno, lo malo y lo feo

December 20, 2006

Lo bueno:

1) Warmth of service at the door: Maitre d’  projects relaxation and comfort.  He’s happy to see you, but not desperately so, even if, or especially if, you’re  not a regular.

2) Bar space up front: Bar stools and lounge seating are comfortable and sophisticated touches, especially in the gastro-desert around Asphalt Green. 

3) Abbreviated wine list: This is not Veritas, nor does it purport to be.  Ten reds and ten whites allow for a quick and easy selection, just what you want at a neighborhood non-destination dinner.  Of course, one would think the list  would be updated often enough that they wouldn’t be out of the Malbec on the menu. 

4) Easy reservation, full house:  No problem calling for  a table at the last minute, but feels full when you get there.  You’ll sense that you made a good choice.

5) Comforting cuisine: Easy, recognizable dishes generally well prepared. Menu leans towards chops and well sourced poultry.  Good hearty sides are perfect for a restaurant that lives and thrives on regular local business. 

Lo malo y lo feo:

1) Wine service: Bottles opened at room temperature, literally.  Reds are straight off the bar rack and could easily stand to drop 15 degrees.

2) Wine markup: Far better restaurants across Manhattan offer less expensive options and a lower markup.  If you’re going to serve Smoking Loon, Yellowtail with a different bird, then at least don’t mark it up 3 times, and serve it warm.  And if you don’t have my selection, please offer a better wine at the same price.  Better yet, reprint your wine list.  It can’t cost that much to keep it up to date. 

3) Unabbreviated specials list: Offering the same number of specials as regular menu items renders the term “special” meaningless and suggests an inability to make hard choices.  This is not a Tasting Room or Cookshop style market driven menu, so please edit the menu down.    

4) Waiter logorrhea: The servers spend way too much unprompted time explaining dishes.  Elio’s does a similar soliloquy, but at least the heavy accents make for a vague form of cultural tourism.  Here it’s a time warp to mid-50’s Continental restaurants.  And please don’t pronounce four out of five dishes your favorites.  It would be more efficient to tell me what you don’t like, which happened to be what I wanted to order.

5) Skirt steak isn’t your best chop:If it’s your house specialty (not to be confused with the house specials), it should taste special.  Mine was electro-broiled and accompanied by bland potatoes.   With flavorless cauliflower soup, this would have made for a perfect meal to grind up for an infant or infantile picky eater.   I felt like I was eating with a badly congested nose.

Conclusion:  Worth it for the neighborhood diners.  Beats Sharz for quality, but at a price.  Much that’s good, but too-high Zagat ratings reflect typical lowered standards applied to this area.  Restaurants don’t live up to overly glowing reviews.  They live down to them.   

Top 5 Tastes of New Haven: Food Finds around Yale

December 20, 2006

When you’re tired of the usual suspects, here are 5 underrated and undervalued instances of Elm City deliciousness.

1) Bar Salad at Bru Room@Bar (Crown): Only non-pizza dish on menu and well worth ordering. Bar Salad has lightly dressed greens and sliced pears, thus qualifying it as a salad, but they’re really just background. It’s the hunks of gorgonzola and the richly candied walnuts that make the dish so tasty. If you’re not that hungry, push the greens to the side and focus. I like to have the salad after my pepperoni and hot pepper pizza. It cools the mouth and is as close to a non-liquid dessert as you’ll get at Bar.

2) Chocolate Hazelnut Gelato at Caffe Bottega (Chapel): The look of this place is food-court chic, but the Bottega Giuliana gelatos are extraordinary. I’ve yet to order a bad selection here, so the above is merely my favorite. It’s a great closer to a dessert-less Bar meal or a pick me up on the way back to campus from Bentara. If you have a big night planned, add a scoop of espresso gelato affogato.

3) Gougères at Union League (Chapel): The perfect French condensation of all that’s best about bread and cheese. These slightly salty light little pastry puffs taste like a seventies cocktail party canapé…as prepared by your best friend’s disturbingly seductive Parisian mom.

4) Welsh Rarebit at Mory’s (York): Not a big fan of most of the menu here, but Welsh rarebit is great old-school roadfood. Cheddar-inspired cheese sauce broiled atop bread-inspired flour wedge makes for a greasily satisfying dish. Even better with egg and bacon add-ons. Paired with a noon beer on a Thursday, it’s a great way to begin a Yale winter weekend. If Toad’s is a 1970’s rock and roll time-warp, this is the 1870’s corollary, especially when the a capella groups are holding court. Pick your poison.

5) Belgian Frites at Rudy’s: Great fries, better condiments. The selection is vast, especially in the homemade ketchup, mustard and mayo families. A pitcher of beer per order is standard.

5 Most Overrated Restaurants in New Haven

December 18, 2006

(And Where to Go Instead)

1) Skappo: Small plates, big prices and brutally overbearing service. Forced jollity and intrusive conversation from owner will wipe the smile right off your face. Mawkish Medieval Town décor may be authentic, but it’s also authentically awful. Go to Modern or Bar for a far less Italian but far more delicious and high-value meal.

2) Louis’ Lunch: An historic restaurant with prehistoric food. “Soup Nazi”-style shtick with customers is paper-thin and unpleasant for locals who want the burger, not the bull. Patties are often not cooked to temperature and tend towards the dry and crumbly. Sliced bread in lieu of bun is a bad idea, even if it’s an old bad idea. Go to Yankee Doodle, eat better for less and leave smiling.

3) Gastronomique: Owner is genial but sometimes distracted by more compelling recreational interests. Some nights he’s made me high-grade steak tartare; others he’s been unable to make change. Super-slow even when empty, especially when sous-chef in training is at the stove. Go to Union League and get what you pay for.

4) Zinc: Promises too much and doesn’t deliver. Overambitious Asian fusion is incoherent, imitative and outdated. Erratic service does nothing to help. Nonetheless, generous portions, decent bar and cheap wine Sundays are pluses. Go to Pot au Pho instead or hop on Metro-North to NYC.

5) Claire’s: Putumayo Presents sensibility with grade school cafeteria execution. An unfocused amateurish EPCOT Pavilion of mediocre vegetarian options. Even the bagels are a disaster. Sidekick “Basta” will leave you saying “Enough” well before the check arrives. Bribe an undergrad, and eat in Berkeley College instead.

Best of Tabla: 5 Favorite Things

December 17, 2006

1) Chutneys and sauces: Cardoz proves that Indian cuisine, like Mexican, has as many great sauces in its repertoire as French.

2) Nonalcoholic drinks: Wonderfully fresh house-made citrus sodas make pregnant ladies feel festive. Husbands are likely to swipe more than their share of sips. Pomegranate gimlet is delightful for post-partum partaking.

3) Clear division between upstairs and downstairs: The spaces know what they are, and customers get what they want. Bread Bar feels more straightforwardly Indian, from the warm family style service, to the casual and varied attire of customers (tweed to Timberwolves jerseys). Upstairs feels far more French, but playfully so. If Parisian chefs ever mined North African food with the commitment and grace that Cardoz brings to Indian, they might produce a similar winner.

4) Wine list: Best wine list in the city for complementing assertively spiced haute cuisine, and its casual counterpart. Selection of whites has never disappointed in Bread Bar meals, especially surprising rarities like Argentine Torrontes. Reds are fun when dining upstairs, though long staircase dissuades me from overindulging.

5) Grapefruit spoons for kolfi: Charming and cheerfully proffered solution to eating a sometimes rock-hard ice cream like confection. For my money, Kolfi is tastier when warmer and softer, but if authenticity must be served, this is the way to do it. These days, I only bring out my grapefruit spoons once a year when the Albritton order arrives. If I can figure out the recipe for the chocolate dipped chocolate kolfi, I’ll have a second excuse!

Wish list: 

A composed cheese plate with Town’s elegance and Tabla’s flavor palette.

5 Yale Food Sluts: Top Talkers of the Table

December 16, 2006

1) The Sterns(PhD): The Alan Lomaxes of hearty American eating. Their travels along the byways of backroad American dining have produced more great food finds than all the Times critics combined. Perhaps the most joyful and unpretentious food writers in America.

2) Ming Tsai (BS): Greatest squash player in American haute cuisine. Never flaunts Andover-Yale pedigree, but definitely picked up something about great teaching on his tour of New England higher education. Along with Batali, one of the most creative, cogent and convincing culinary educators.

3) Harold McGee (PhD): Cal Tech BS meets Yale English Lit. doctorate. The French do things comme il faut. From searing meat to baking soufflés, McGee shows the why behind the what. Gave up the academy, but not a love of teaching. Extracts endless points of interest from apparently esoteric food industry trade journals. Has educated more professional and home chefs about the science of food than anyone else.

4) Dave Lieberman(BA): Bobby Flay meets Rachel Ray. Accessible, baby-faced, consummately amateur(ish) chef.

5) Bill Clinton (JD): Never met an attractive person, policy or plate to which he wouldn’t devote his full attention. Impressively egalitarian enthusiasms extend from McDonald’s cheeseburgers to Laurent Tourondel’s tuna tartare to Crabtree Kittle House’s foie gras. No president in recent memory has taken greater pleasure from the joys of the table. Somewhat chastened by heart problems, but still keeps his fork up. Admirable involvement in food education efforts directed towards obese children.

HALL OF FAME:

Calvin Trillin (BA): Took New Yorker house style and applied it brilliantly to profiling food and food-inspired travel. What others have produced since is largely a footnote to Trillin’s early work. Misguided claims to superiority of Bryant’s Barbecue over Gates are partly understandable if wholly unforgiveable.

Sip and surf: Top 5 Yorkville Hot-Spots to Get Wired and Go Wireless

December 14, 2006

1) DTUT (84th and 2nd): Darker, cooler and hipper than any other coffee house in Yorkville. Great mix of ratty lounge sofas and chairs, good music (not just the five albums you liked in college) and a relatively low stroller count.

If you want to wax Brooklyn euro-hipster, there’s a strong beer and wine selection for a mid-day glass. Not good for academic research, but great for a first screenplay. Blogger heaven. Top destination for the click and caffeinate set.  Update: RIP (Now Cafe Notte, arguably the worst wine bar/coffee shop I’ve ever visited. Stay away, far away.

2) Choux Factory (87th and 1st Avenue): Great unadorned pastry. No hiding when it’s just custard and crust. Beard Papa’s fine, but I’m a Factory fan. The texture is always dead on. Plain choux is best, but chocolate and strawberry are by no means pedestrian (Next time it’s your turn to do dessert, buy all three and make a tasty tasting plate).

Friendly employees greet you in Japanese, keep the place spotless and have set up enough powerstrips to let a dozen people surf for hours without getting hassled. Stop by Glaser’s aftewards for a mini-jelly doughnut.

3) Starbucks (Various) : Dull, obvious and adequate. Do put your bag down first, as competition for outlets is fierce. Wireless isn’t free either, so consider going off the grid.

4) Carl Schurz Park (East End): You can always grab a signal from one of the apartment buildings. Views are unbeatable, especially if you like barges and bridges. Remember, cyber-squatting is risky surfing, so don’t play Charlie Sheen with stock tips.

5) M. Rohr’s (85th between 1st and 2nd): Haphazard decor, lusophone and Spanish-speaking staff. Friendly ramshackle feel and outdoor smokers salon on the benches. Perfect for a leisurely sip and surf.