Saturday, November 27, 2010

Old-school French at Le Périgord

Given Le Périgord's reputation as one of the best French restaurants in New York, I was quite taken aback by the lack of fanfare and pomp I sensed as I crossed through the unassuming entrance.  To step into Le Périgord is to enter a time capsule:  Tiny lamp-shaded sconces and muted paintings adorn taupe-colored walls.  Antique leather chairs and brown cloth banquettes surround gold-gilded and teal plates over white linen.  The tuxedo-clad maître d' (read: "captain," as we would later discover on the tip lines our checks) greeted us with such a warm and genuine "Bonsoir," that I wondered if I had a separated-at-birth identical twin who dined here regularly.  No two words could more appropriately describe the scene than "understated elegance."

The walk to our table brought us past a group of two old money middle-aged couples enjoying what I assumed was a double date.  Their quiet conversation and genteel dress seemed perfectly suited to the location; I could almost see an old French proprietor purchasing a set of well-dressed old money couples as restaurant accessories, the same way Matt Damon in "Good Will Hunting" suggested a psychologist sent out for a "shrink kit" set of leather-bound books to add legitimacy to his office walls.  To those who might scoff at the "jackets required" dress code, I would say, "You don't get it."  I believe the point of Le Périgord is not to make the bourgeois squirm, but to preserve and transport oneself to a time and place when men unfailingly wore jackets to dinner.

The meal

Whenever I set foot into an unfamiliar restaurant, I put myself in my server's hands.  I ask him or her for recommendations that resonate the very soul of the restaurant, and trust that they will not simply push the most expensive items or the overstock from the walk-in because the manager told them to move the product.  I want those recommendations not only because they almost universally guarantee a good meal, but because I also cannot afford to eat this way regularly and have no idea when I might return.  It has been my experience that at finer restaurants, waiters are all too happy to share their love of the food of which you are about to partake.  Sadly, at Le Périgord, my waiter informed me that everything was good.  Thanks.


To start the meal, I ordered foie gras chaud aux fruits de saison, seared foie gras with seasonal fruits.  Being November, the fruit of choice was cranberry, puréed, and served with what may have been an orange gastrique, topped with microgreens.  I hate to admit that this was my first entry into the world of warm foie gras.  My waiter was kind enough to let me know that if I didn't like it, I could send it back.

I've enjoyed cold foie gras on many occasions and believe it to be one of the finest foods a person can eat.  The warm foie gras, while also meritorious, did not elicit the same eyes-rolling-to-the-back-of-your-head reaction I normally experience when consuming its chilled counterpart.  The cranberry and citrus, a natural pairing, complemented my duck liver.  But I could not help feeling that I was eating a high-fat (that's a good thing) hamburger with a smoother texture.  I asked myself, 'Would I rather eat this or a prime hamburger?'  Answer:  a prime hamburger.  I didn't send it back, though; I have a hard time returning a dish if I believe it to be properly executed just because I didn't like it.


For better or for worse, this establishment did not hurry.  In some ways, good:  perhaps New Yorkers need to relax every once in a while.  Also, the tempo of the restaurant helped to maintain that old world atmosphere I described earlier.  On the flip side, I grew hungry waiting for my entrée, and the wait staff, occasionally engaged in internal conversation on the floor, ignored my empty water goblet.  Also, I couldn't help wondering if this was a ploy to keep the house slightly more packed than it would have otherwise been.

I accepted an entrée suggestion from my waiter:  carré d’agneau rôti á la croûte de thym frai, roasted rack of lamb with a fresh thyme crust, served au jus with an English pea purée and haricots verts (French green beans).  Alas, my lamb, though moist and wonderfully medium rare, wasn't quite crusty.  Also, thyme is a strong herb, and if I had been asked to name the dish blindly, I would not have considered it a major enough component to warrant part of the name.

As for the accompaniments, the green beans were green beans and the pea purée was a pea purée.  I would have been proud to serve this dinner at home, but that was the problem:  it wasn't special enough.  I go out to eat to for the same reasons companies outsource:  either I lack the talent or training, or I do not wish to invest the time and/or money to execute it in-house.  This would have not looked out of place in my home.  If I were to do it over again, I would have opted for a traditional boeuf bourguignon.  It's not hard to make, but its virtue as a quintessentially French comfort dish might have ensured a home run.  (...although honestly, I'm willing to bet their take on it is pretty rustic, as well.)


Dinner at Le Périgord would not be complete without a visit from the dessert trolley.  If an obtuser diner were to miss the muted walls, forget the vintage furniture, and gloss over the guilded plates, surely the trolley would tell of the restaurant's antiquity.

Offerings included a chocolate mousse, a tart topped with fruit, a meringue pie of some variety, fresh fruit, and their famed île flottante (floating islands).  Perhaps it was post-Thanksgiving guilt that coaxed my order of fruits with a dollop of fresh cream over the floating islands.  As I type this, my inner voice is yelling, 'Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!'  It was as it appears in the picture on the left:  acceptable and tasty, but not even approaching memorable.


The notion question of memorability seemed to be the theme for the night.  The most memorable component of the evening was the $110 check for my portion of the meal:  $65 for the prix fixe dinner, a $15 supplement for the warm foie gras, a $10 supplement for the lamb, plus applicable taxes and a tip for my waiter, a separate tip for the captain, and a tip for the coat check.  Even with a $100 coupon from BuyWithMe split two ways, the total bill still hovered around $60 for me, and really cost about $85 because the coupon cost us $25 apiece.  Essentially, the coupon covered my tax and various tips.

To eat at a fancy restaurant is to witness steep diminishing returns on investment firsthand.   Even still, I know what $110 or $85 should get me in New York City, and this wasn't it.  Beautiful and worn (read: "broken in") and evocative as Le Périgord is, I cannot recommend a place that leaves me somehow feeling cheated by night's end.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

How to make candy corn

"I hate candy corn!"

I've heard those words before.  Never understood them, because I'm a fan.  But I'll bet those who have uttered such hostilities toward this Halloween tread have never enjoyed it homemade, before.  I first thought about making candy corn when I wondered how they actually make a candy with three colors in it.  Turns out, the way they do it professionally is not the way you make it at home.  On the assembly line, they make three colors of marshmallow fondant and pour them into a mold.

In the home kitchen, you need to make three candy corn snakes, mush them together, and cut.  Unfortunately, for the anal retentive like me, that leaves you with two types of more-fragile corn:  yellow-tipped, and white-tipped.  But, the trade-off is a product that I believe is far superior to its store-bought counterpart.

The way I see it, there are two basic recipes for making homemade candy corn:  One involves melting a marshmallow and combining it with confectioner's sugar (similar to the way they're made commercially).  The other involves combining corn syrup with powdered milk and confectioner's sugar (similar to the way they were first made). I discovered the latter first and have been using it for three years, so that's what I used, here.  I've never done the marshmallow method, but some day I will. I can't do it this year because a single recipe yields more than I can eat in a year.  (In fact, before I made my candies this year, I threw out last year's stale ones.)

The recipe

Almost every corn syrup candy corn recipe is just like every other.  So, the first hit on Google works fine.  Let's go to the pictures:

The dry team.  It may look like flour, but it's not:  confectioner's sugar, powdered milk, and salt.

The wet team:  granulated sugar, corn syrup, butter, and vanilla extract.  You boil the first three ingredients for five minutes, then add the vanilla extract.  The reason you add the vanilla extract last is because the alcohol in the vanilla extract is very volatile, and would mostly disappear if boiled.

Mix it up.  It's good.  (Aside:  Did you catch my obscure reference?)

Divide the candy corn into thirds.  (I divided mine into sixths because my workspace was small.)  Dye a third yellow, a third orange, and leave the other third white.  You may notice little white specks in my balls.  Those are undissolved clumps of confectioner's sugar.  Sifting the sugar before mixing might have helped that, but the next step of this process takes so long that I don't want to spend any more time on the other steps than necessary.  Kneading gets out the big ones, but really, nobody sees them in the final product.

If you decide to skip this last step, you could have candy corn in 30 minutes.  But rolling the balls into snakes, pressing them together, cutting out candy corns, and rounding out the edges by hand takes a long time.  You will spend hours doing this if making them the same size as their commercial counterparts.  Though this batch was made to commercial size, I recommend bigger ones.  After all, who eats just one candy corn piece, anyway?

The final product.

The taste

I think we all know what the commercial stuff tastes like.  This has a much more natural feel; the butter, powdered milk, and lack of carnauba wax bring it a little closer to other candies we regularly enjoy, like butterscotches and caramels.  In fact, I've wondered if you dyed a piece, say, brown, and shaped it into a rectangle instead of a cone, would someone on the street recognize it as candy corn?  I don't know.  But I do think they'd find it delicious.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Burgers at Good Stuff Eatery

(Sorry, no pictures for this post.  No camera.)

You remember Spike Mendelsohn from Top Chef Season 4: Chicago, right?  Well, the Fedora-clad Bouchon, Le Cirque, and Mai House alumnus opened up his own Good Stuff Eatery 25 months ago (July 2008), only a month after Top Chef Season 4 concluded.

I don't chase chefs around just because they were on Top Chef, but I knew that he had a burger joint in DC, and I was going to be in DC to meet up with some friends for an inexpensive dinner.  For me, I've never had a burger that made me roll my eyes into the back of my head...and I've wanted to find one. Perhaps this would be the place.  Good Stuff Eatery also promotes local food, sustainability, and charitable donations:  all things I highly support.

And hey, the Top Chef label doesn't hurt.  Despite finishing on the bottom several times, Chef Spike survived pretty far into the process, packing his knives only two rounds from the final.  So the guy clearly has some talent, and I was curious to see what he does.


As I drove down a museum- and tourist-packed Pennsylvania Ave, I was shocked at how quickly it morphed into a residential street.  The avenue's restaurants and bars, including Good Stuff Eatery and Chef Spike's latest creation next door, We, The Pizza, sit on a on the edge of what I assume is an impossibly expensive collection of tree-lined brownstones and a small, but pretty urban interruption:  Seward Square Park.

My initial impression of the neighborhood may have been falsely elevated, as a parking spot materialized before me right in front of the restaurant!  But leave it to my notoriously bad luck to set things straight:  street signs stated that parking was metered until 6:30 pm but the meter said 8:30 pm.  Add to my worries a ticket-adorned vehicle behind me and a meter maid decorating another car down the street.  Pressing my parking meter's "Maximum Time" button deducted $3.00 from my credit card.  At $1.50 per hour it should have given me two hours' worth of time -- enough to get me to 8:10 pm -- but instead gave me 20 minutes' worth, enough to get me to 6:30.  (It should've been called the "Maximum Money" button.)  I assumed that the meter's 8:30 pm sign was wrong, but with a conspicuous meter monitoring presence on the prowl, I was going to sweat bullets all throughout my dinner.

The Interior

The restaurant interior pretty much aligned with my expectations:  a deep but not wide interior space, an informal ordering counter, menu on the wall, visible chefs cooking the food, and polite staff who take pride in their work. You pour your own fountain drinks, though I don't know why anyone would want one when the restaurant hypes up its selection of hand-spun shakes and a handful of Boylan's old school soda choices beckon from a refrigerator before the counter.

Stairs lead up to the main seating area, where with two flat-screen TVs on the wall, one for MSNBC and one for CNN.  (Hard to tell you're in DC, huh?)  The Unpaid Gourmet said that their TVs premiered Top Chef Season 7:  Washington, DC this year.  I don't know if they show all Top Chef episodes every week, but they are open late enough to do that.

The Menu

The menu was what I'd consider to be an appropriate size:  too small and it's labeled not creative enough; too large and it's unfocused, or at least gives that appearance.  To lengthen the menu would mean more ingredients and perhaps the need to compromise on what could be sourced locally versus purchased in lower-quality bulk.  Those are my thoughts, anyway.

At the time that I went, there were three "handcrafted" burgers, and 10 standard burgers (they aren't handcrafted, too?), including a 'shroom veggie burger and a turkey burger.  One also has the option to "cluck it" (hardy-har-har) and turn a burger into a chicken sandwich.  No word on whether the 'shroom burger applies or if the restaurant possesses the alchemy necessary to turn a turkey into a chicken.

The burger menu at the time of my visit:
Handcrafted Burgers
  • Farmhouse Burger:  natural farm raised beef
  • Farmhouse Cheese:  dairy fresh American cheese
  • Farmhouse Bacon Cheese:  applewood bacon and American cheese
Our Original Burgers
  • Spike's Sunnyside: dairy fresh cheese, applewood bacon, a farm fresh fried egg on a brioche bun with Good Stuff Sauce
  • Blazin' Barn: pickled daikon and carrots, mint, cilantro, Thai basil, lettuce, spicy mayo
  • Free Range Turkey Burger: chunky avocado, muenster cheese, ruby tomato & lettuce on a Pennsylvania Dutch whole wheat bun
  • Colletti's smokehouse: applewood bacon, sharp Vermont cheddar, fried Vidalia onion rings with chipotle BBQ sauce
  • Big Stuff Bacon Meltdown: double patty, lots'a bacon, double cheese, ruby tomato, onions, lettuce & pickles with Good Stuff Sauce
  • Good Stuff Melt: melted cheddar & muenster, caramelized onions & mushrooms with Good Stuff Sauce
  • Uncle D's Chili 'n Cheddar: topped with spicy chili, cheddar sauce & green onions & a spoonful of sour cream
  • Michelle Melt Free Range Turky [sic] Burger: caramelized onions, Swiss cheese, ruby tomato, lettuce on a freshly baked wheat bun with southlawn herb garden mayo
  • Prez Obama Burger: applewood bacon, onion marmalade, Roquefort cheese & delicious horseradish mayo sauce
  • Vegetarians are People Too 'Shroom Burger: organic portobello tops stuffed with muenster & cheddar, flash fried with Panko crumbs, ruby tomato, onions, lettuce & pickle with Good Stuff Sauce
(There are salads, too, but I don't live in DC, and I wasn't about to try one on my first visit.)

Were it not Barack Obama's birthday yesterday, I might've ordered myself a Spike's Sunnyside to inspect the orangeness of the egg yolk (orange is a sign of grass-fed chickens that get more beta carotene) and to find out what that secret sauce is all about.  I don't know what's in it other than molasses and homemade mayonnaise.

Or, I might have also ordered the Blazin' Barn, as it's the most out-of-the box burger on the list (it sounds kinda like bánh mì).  If I were really hungry, I would've also ordered a simple farmhouse burger on the side to see what their unadulterated product did for me.  ("Unadulterated" is a relative term, here.  I don't know anybody who sits down to a naked patty on a plate.)

Prez Obama Burger

But, it was the President's birthday (August 4), so I had to order a Prez Obama Burger.  And this is quite appropriate as it seems to be one of the most talked-about items on the menu.  A John McCain burger (Southwestern chipotle mayo, corn and roasted red pepper salsa, jack cheese, lettuce, and tomato) also graced the menu during the 2008 presidential election.  While that sounds pretty good to me, Serious Eats says the Obama burger outsold the McCain burger four to one (for politics or for taste?).   So McCain got lopped off the menu.  Who knows what would've happened if the McCain burger outsold the Obama burger, or if the Obama burger stayed the popular one but McCain won the race.


The burgers arrived separate from the shakes we ordered...odd because they buzzed us from the first floor and then took my buzzer; I had to get it back from them.  They came individually (and tightly) wrapped, then packaged in a paper bag.  Strange that a place with a Web page about its environmental commitment would use paper bags to serve food in-house.  When I'm eating in, I don't need all that paper, and I certainly don't need a restaurant nudging my head into fast food mode.

Burger names marked up the wrappers in scribble -- a language in which I am sometimes illiterate -- so we had some work to do before distributing.  As I peeled back the layers of taut hamburger packaging, I found an unevenly-smushed, ordinary potato bun glistening over a small stream of pooling beef juice.  Observing this soggy scene unfolding before me, I opted to only partially fold back the paper and eat it as a burrito.  The wet burger tasted quite good:  it was cooked on the high side of medium (I didn't specify doneness...wonder if I could've ordered it medium rare), and the flavors blended nicely albeit a little too weakly for my taste.  Burger purists might argue that as a good thing, but I don't see burger purists ordering an "original burger" in the first place.

The Roquefort on my first bite was awesome.  When I peeked under the hood, I discovered the unfortunate reason why:  all of the cheese had slid to one side.  I fixed the problem, but then lost the intense cheesy goodness because each bite only had the normal, prescribed amount of cheese.  More cheese!  More flavor!  My burger also missed a satisfying crunch I would've expected from the onion marmalade and the bacon.

My other dining partners had an Obama Burger and a Michelle Melt.  Sadly, neither were impressed by their burgers, either.

One of my friends also didn't like her peaches n' cream hand-spun shake...I thought she was crazy for thinking so, but only badgered her a little over it because I became the recipient of said beverage.  It was very good.  So was the Oreo shake that I ordered.

(By the way, I don't know what "hand-spun" actually means.  Good Stuff and Chick fil-A throw that term around a lot and I can't find a definition from a reliable source.  As far as I can tell, it simply means that they are made to order, as I would expect.)


So what went wrong with the burgers?  I place a lot of blame on the packaging.  The tight paper probably squeezed some juice out of the burger, greasing both the top and bottom buns.  It panini'ed my bun so it lacked some of the springy quality I like to see.  Who moved my cheese?  The bun probably did.  I think losing the wrapper would solve 75% of the problems this burger has.  "Squished," "ugly," and "wet" are not adjectives I like to see with my burger.

In my mind, changing out the potato roll would solve another 10%.  If my bun wasn't mass-produced, I couldn't tell.  If they want to go from "good" to "great,"  they should a) make their own buns, or b) source them from a local bakery (realistically, option b).  They should also give us the option to toast.

Another 10%:  More toppings, more flavor.  That extra Roquefort made a big difference in flavor intensity.  I imagine that a little more of everything would have helped.  Even the horseradish mayo.

The last 5%:  More crunch.  I don't know how, though.  I'm sure the onion marmalade probably takes some crunch from the rings...maybe a mixture of fresh onions with marmalade onions could do the trick?  Doing so, though, would sacrifice the marmalade intensity. I wouldn't want that.  Nor would I want them to cook their bacon longer for extra crunch; I'd rather have bacon than charcoal.  Perhaps that bun toasting would take care of the extra 5% by itself.

Good Stuff Eatery was kind of a letdown for both me and my friends.  But if the room were full of dissatisfied customers, you wouldn't know it by looking.  The place has no shortage of business, though I do wonder to what extent the celebrity chef appeal drives their business.  Spike doesn't have his own TV show (though he does have a Web show), so I wonder:  if he stays out of the public eye long enough, would he and his would-be chain still remain popular and "relevant?"  I guess time will tell.

I wish him luck, though.  Anyone who uses their celebrity to promote causes such as local food, sustainability, and charitable donations is okay in my book.  I'd still come back, and I'd like to check out that pizza place sometime.  I just hope he doesn't wrap his pizzas.

[Teditor's Note:  When I left the restaurant, no ticket on the car!  Phew!]

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Rockaway Taco

Even though I write a blog that talks about food, I don't really read other food blogs.  So I was surprised to learn that a much-hyped taco stand stood but minutes from my cousin's place in the Rockaways.  Fortunately, my cousin's on top of the blogs, or I never would have discovered this place.

The neighborhood

A beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Note the rooftop plants.  Those plants
supply Rockaway Taco.
The Rockaways of Queens, New York are a strange mix:  part beach-side bedroom community, part dense urban jungle slowly undergoing a for-better-or-for worse gentrification.  Rockaway Taco shares a street with a condemned, boarded-up tenement.  Take a guess at their side of the tracks.

But there is nothing too worrisome about the neighborhood or the people, particularly those in line in front of you who, as my cousin pointed out, are most definitely not locals.  Should you find yourself here on a warm, sunny summer day, you will undoubtedly rub elbows with Brooklyn hipsters, Manhattan surfers (the water is not even a five minute walk down the street), and simple, plain curious foodies such as myself.

The wait will be surprisingly long, though.  Not Shake Shack or Grimaldi's long, but even after you surmount the perhaps 8-10-deep line out front, you will find yourself in an adjacent, almost makeshift, outdoor waiting/dining room shoulder-to-shoulder with another 18-20 noshing and waiting patrons.  Use some of this time to grab one of the house-made salsas .

But do not lament the hold-up, for the food here is surprisingly good.

An important aside

"Fresh and local ingredients fill many
of the plates expedited from the
kitchen...plantains may be an
exception to the rule."
When in the every part of the USA except Southern California, the thought of Mexican food conjures up notions of pools of refried beans, kilos of shredded cheddar, and cinder blocks in the intestinal tracts of all who dare partake of its goodness.  Now, I use "goodness" with purpose, for I enjoy Tex-Mex food as much as any red-blooded American.  But it is important to realize that Tex-Mex is not the same as Mexican.

What are the differences?  There are probably two, maybe three main differences between Tex-Mex and Mexican food:
  1. The first doesn't apply here, but it is probably the biggest distinction:  Simply put, there is a greater variety of Mexican dishes than Tex-Mex dishes.  Just as you can go into nearly any Italian-American or Chinese-American restaurant and order one of a dozen dishes, so can you at nearly any Tex-Mex restaurant.  But on US menus, you generally won't find the sour orange chicken or pork dishes pollo pibil or poc-chuc from Yucatán, where citrus grows wild, or huachinango (red snapper) a la Veracruzana, from the ocean town of Veracruz.  In fact, Mexico has six distinct culinary regions, each taking from its geographic surroundings and seasonal bounties.  The food is diverse; to paraphrase Mexican celebrity chef Rick Bayless, that from one region to the next you'd hardly believe you were eating food from the same country.  (By the way, there are also a few Tex-Mex dishes that Mexicans don't eat.  Nachos are one; they were invented in Mexico in 1943 for American military wives.)
  2. Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes of the same name don't often contain the same ingredients. The most obvious example:  the hard taco was invented in New York City.  (New York City?!)  Ground beef in tacos?  Gringo-style.  Contrary to the picture American chain restaurants may paint, you won't find cheddar on a Mexican menu; in fact, you will find a large variety:  queso blanco, queso fresco, asadero, manchego, oaxaca, and cotija, to name only a few.
  3. This is sort of a corollary to number two:  Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes of the same name may contain different proportions of the same ingredients.  Americans eat twice as much meat as Mexicans, so clearly their cuisine contains higher proportions of non-meat ingredients.  Another example:  Americans think of mole as a chocolate sauce.  While Mexican mole certainly contains chocolate, it plays a much subtler role in a team of several dozen ingredients in the moles found in Oaxaca (wa-HA-ka) and Puebla, two adjacent states known for their moles.
What does this have to do with Rockaway Tacos?  The stand's chef spent four years in Mexico.

The Food

Visible from the street, chef Andrew Field's rooftop garden tomatoes and peppers are emblematic of the approach he takes to food.  Fresh and local ingredients fill many of the plates expedited from the kitchen...plantains may be an exception to the rule.  Of course, a rooftop garden's tomato and pepper yield cannot nearly fulfill the needs of a taquería, particularly one as popular as this.  The Atlantic tells us that he sources additional tomato and peppers from Red Hook, Brooklyn's Added Value, and organic cabbage from Blooming Grove, NY's Blooming Hill Farm, and eggs from urban locavore Manny Howard and Knoll Crest Farms in Clinton Corners, NY.

Think outside the Bell. These are real
This short radius mirrors what Mexico, and quite frankly, most of the world, practices out of necessity.  The result?  Peak freshness in every bite.

Though Andrew Field may have spent years in Mexico perfecting the optional Puerto Vallarta recipe for salsa negra (says Cool Hunting), to me the real star of his famous fish tacos is not in the spicy mayonnaise, the optional guacamole, or hand-pressed tortilla -- all good things.  Rather, the crispness of the red cabbage and the snap of the red radish steal the show.  Gone is the Tex-Mex I-swallowed-a-boat-anchor feeling; roughly-chopped fresh cilantro and a squeeze of lime add a brightness to the delicately-battered and fried tilapia.  Afterward, one feels that they have eaten an entrée salad; not surprising considering the amount of green and red drapery over the fish.


Some people complain about the price.  $3 for a taco?  $1 extra for guacamole?  Some may find it to be nothing more than pretense.  They are entitled to their opinions, but the fact is that organic food simply costs more to the consumer.  Current laws on the books favor big agribusiness, leading to a seemingly paradoxical condition:  produce picked underripe on a large pesticide-spraying farm, pumped with ripening ethylene gas, and trucked across the US can often cost less than one grown organically next door.  Labor accounts for some of this difference.  Another factor is that consumers do not pay for the externalities associated with conventional farming, for example, groundwater pesticide runoff and truck pollution.  Eating locally and organically means shouldering more responsibility for one's actions; in many cases, it also means a superior product.

Rockaway Taco may be one of the few New York joints to momentarily convince homesick Southern Californians that Rockaway Beach sits to their west. The most negative thing I could say about their food is that I want more of that mayonnaise on my taco.  Perhaps if it were offered as an extra in the salsa bar.

There is little profound in what they do; I believe that the secret to their success lies in their ingredients.  Ironic that a breakthrough concept in the United States can be so banal elsewhere.  I'm glad that Americans are waking up to it.

    Monday, July 5, 2010

    Independence Day in New York City

    I spent my July 4, 2010 in New York City.  Despite of having lived near or in the Big Apple almost all my life, I'd never been to a fireworks display on July 4.

    Unfortunately, doing anything like this involves a lot of waiting in uncomfortable temperatures.  You can't just show up an hour beforehand and expect a good view.  At New Year's Eve in Times Square, I waited for six hours in below-freezing conditions.  The second time I did Rockefeller Center's Christmas tree lighting, I faced freezing rain. The second time at the Esplanade in Boston for July 4, the measured temperature on stage was 49° C / 120° F.  (That day turned my perfectly good white t-shirt yellow.)

    Fortunately, this time wasn't so bad.  It was about 40° C / 105° F, which sounds terrible, but there was a pleasant sea breeze that made it not unbearable.  And there were things to entertain me, like helicopters flying low overhead, jet fighers flying in formation, and fire boats spraying red, white, and blue water into the Hudson River.

    The fireworks display was slated to be 30 minutes long.  My camera's 4 GB memory card had space for about 30 minutes, 25 seconds' worth of video.  To be safe, I started recording about a minute into the display because the last thing I wanted to do was miss the ending.  Ultimately, it ended up being a few minutes shy of the half-hour mark, so I could have captured the entire show.

    One other problem I faced was not knowing how long my battery was going to last.  To save energy (and thus battery life), I watched most of the fireworks display through my camera's viewfinder.  Afterward, when asked how it was, I said, "Eh."  But on the train ride home, one of the people next to me said to his buddies, "That was the best fireworks display I've ever seen!"  Looking back on the video I took, I have to say it's a lot more impressive than I thought it was.  I'm sure that if I'd seen it with my own eyes, it would have been nothing short of amazing.

    Here's my video of the fireworks display, as seen from the grass north of Chelsea Piers at 24th Street.

    Sunday, June 6, 2010

    NASA Tweetup at the World Science Festival

    Washington Square Park
    Not every day you get to sit next to a Noble Prize-winning scientist.  But there I was, chair back to chair back with Dr. John Mather, 2006 Nobel Prize winner, sitting at the 2010 World Science Festival NASA tweetup.  The guy is a rock star in the scientific world, a Nobel Prize winner, the guy who gave us early versions of this picture (a map of cosmic background radiation in our universe), and lead scientist on the James Webb Space Telescope (the so-called successor to Hubble, slated for launch in 2014).

    Like a 14-year-old with a crush, I debated:  "Should I say something to him?  Do I dare?"  I didn't.  For one thing, his back was to me and I wasn't 100% sure it was him.  I've had enough bone-headed experiences where I thought someone was someone else and looked like an idiot.  More importantly, the tweetup started before I had a chance.  Saved by the bell.

    Kimmel Center
    The World Science Festival is a multi-day event designed to bring together like-minded science enthusiasts and reinvigorate and inspire the public with accessible scientific presentations.  Stephen Hawking was the honored guest at the inaugural event in Lincoln Center, a full-size mockup of the aforementioned James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was placed in Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, and there were plenty of discussions around New York City on topics ranging from black holes to the human genome to life on other planets.  There was even a panel on the science of Star Trek.  This tweetup, held at NYU's Kimmel Center in Washington Square Park, was yet another of these discussions.

    Dr. Greene and Stephanie Schierholz
    After a brief introduction by NASA spokesperson and tweetup coordinator Stephanie Schierholz, Dr. Brian Greene, theoretical physicist, professor at Columbia University, and founder of the World Science Festival took the stage.  Truthfully, I didn't know who he was before coming to the tweetup.  But when the first question he fielded from the audience covered string theory, I thought to myself, "Oh man, what did I get myself into?"  I first heard of string theory when I was a college freshman, and I distinctly remember telling my professor, armed with my "vast" knowledge and expertise in cosmology, "I don't believe this is possible."  Since then, it's been this intractable, how-do-you-wrap-your-head-around-this sort of idea.  (C'mon!  The world is made up of one-dimensional vibrating strings and we live in an 11-dimensional space?!)  But the answer he gave was refreshingly simple and easy to understand that it made me understand why he created the World Science Festival.  His goal with the World Science Festival was to bring science to the forefront of people's imaginations.  He said he wished we'd all feel a connection to science as much as we do to music and literature.

    Dr. Mather and Stephanie Schierholz
    The next guest speaker at the tweetup further illustrated that point:  Dr. John Mather, the guy sitting next to me, the lead scientist on the James Webb Space Telescope, said that science doesn't always have to be about math.  Pretty interesting thought coming from a guy with his résumé.  He said something that really stuck with me:  'Would you enjoy swimming if you were made to memorize facts about it?'  Probably not.  I asked Dr. Mather a question, and a rather naïve question when I look back on it.  Because the JWST mostly deals in infrared light (if you want to know why, read this Q&A with Dr. Mather on, I asked if we could still expect from JWST the same kind of jaw-dropping photographs we'd seen from Hubble.  His answer:  'Oh yeah.  We could see a bumblebee at a distance as far away as the moon.'  (That little factoid got a lot of tweets!)

    Sandy Magnus, Leland Melvin, and
    Stephanie Schierholz
    Concluding a program was a pair of astronauts, Sandy Magnus (@Astro_Sandy on Twitter) of space shuttle mission STS-112 and International Space Station's Expedition 18 (going up on STS-126 and landing on STS-119), and Leland Melvin (@Astro_Flow) of space shuttle missions STS-122 and STS-129.  Both talked about their work and their experiences in space.  Leland Melvin said that it took him hours to adjust to zero-G but days to adjust back to one-G.  Sandy Magnus said the same thing; she said it was amazing how much the planet is pinning you down.  After being in space for just two weeks aboard the space shuttle, she could barely lift her arms upon returning to Earth.  She also said that the body forgot how to do things; for instance, when you jump on Earth, you naturally land on the balls of your feet.  However, when she jumped for the first time back on Earth, she (painfully) landed flat on her feet.  Of course, mundane tasks on Earth can also be problematic in space.  Sandy mentioned toe nail cutting; easy on Earth, but in space, the pieces fly everywhere.  Her solution:  duct tape.  An audience member asked Leland about sleeping in space, which is basically done in a sleeping bag that keeps you from floating around.  Leland seemed to have no problem with it, but I know from previous talks with astronauts that sleeping in zero-G is not as comfortable as it sounds.  Sandy said that up in space, you miss a lot of things.  Family, obviously, but also breezes (she was ecstatic after returning to Earth from 134 days in space when the shuttle hatch opened and a breeze of Florida air came through the cabin), and foods that exhibited the characteristics of "crunchy" or "fresh."

    I had a chance to speak with both astronauts after the tweetup concluded.  I told Sandy that I'd been to a number of launches and then seen the shuttle and space station over my head at night.  I explained to her that once the shuttle lifts off the pad, it no longer becomes a tangible thing but rather a concept.  I couldn't convince myself that, once it got into space, the shuttle was real.  I asked her if she felt that way when she's looked up and seen the space station overhead.  Her response:  'If I didn't have the pictures to prove I was up there, I wouldn't be able to believe it was real, either.'  I asked Leland something completely non-space related:  he grew up in Lynchburg, VA, and my brother will be moving there in a few months.  He and I had a great chat for a few minutes, and while I was talking with him, astronaut Clayton Anderson (@Astro_Clay) replied to a tweet I sent him, instructing me to ask Leland about Foley catheters!  (Astronauts love giving each other hard times.)

    Hanging out with all of these movers and shakers in the science world helped do something important for me:  it brought them down to Earth.  A Nobel Prize winner said that science doesn't always have to be about memorizing facts.  Astronaut Leland Melvin said that anybody could become an astronaut.  While I don't truly believe that, it was still inspiring to hear.  Most of all, it was an honor to share a room with these guys for a few hours.

    Saturday, May 22, 2010

    Watching space shuttle Atlantis liftoff from Kennedy Space Center's press site

    When it comes to fulfilling my bucket list items, I consider myself to be pretty fortunate.  I actually saw a space shuttle launch (STS-94) about ten years before the term "bucket list" had even been invented.  But I put it on the bucket list, anyway, because I saw it from a motel on Cocoa Beach, and I wanted to see it up close where I could actually see it clear the tower and feel the rumble vibrate my skull.

    Well, last year, I went down for STS-125 only to discover that a lot of other people had the same idea.  So I saw STS-125 from Kennedy Space Center, but instead of being up close and personal, I was at the Kennedy Space Center visitor center, where you can't see the launch pad, but you can see it shortly after it clears the tree line.  Not close enough.  Finally got my wish on STS-127, which was the best shuttle launch I'm probably going to ever see.  Amazing.  STS-128, my first night launch, also amazing.  STS-130, a dark moment in my life when we stayed up until 4:30 on a very frigid Florida morning to watch the shuttle launch from the NASA causeway, and it scrubbed.  (Did you know that it gets cold in Florida?  Neither did I!!  And my lack of preparedness showed for it.)  Had the opportunity to do it the following day, but I was so dejected that I went home.  And the it launched the following night.  I watched it, grumpy, from a computer screen.  Didn't bother with STS-131.

    So here I am, now, a space shuttle launch veteran.  I don't know how many of these it's gonna take for this addiction to wear off, but it hasn't yet.  And now, the real fun part is bringing others into my hobby.  I greeted my cousin's wife, Ali, at the gate in Orlando International Airport, and away we went!

    Now, I've been to NASA's HQ in Florida many, many, many times.  But I've never reached the security gate on my own; it's always been while sitting inside of a Kennedy Space Center tour bus.  But Ali and I were actually special guests of NASA, as part of a tweetup!  Our names were given to the desk and when we arrived, we had security badges and vehicle permits and a welcome packet -- the works!  Driving around NASA that day was honestly almost as thrilling to me as the launch, particularly because I've been there so many times that I could navigate around the base without a map.

    And with this special access, we toured the Vehicle Assembly Building, the International Space Station, met Stephanie Schierholz, our tweetup host, astronauts Janice Voss (who, believe it or not, was on my first space shuttle launch, STS-94!) and Dave Wolf (who, also believe it or not, was on STS-127, the best launch I've ever seen!) in addition to a member of the air force's weather squadron, a member of the cloesout crew, the robotics instructor at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and a host of other people!

    (By the way, one more coincidence:  Michael T. Good was a mission specialist on this flight.  He was also on STS-125, the second shuttle I've seen launch.  This would be his final trip into space.)

    The third-most thrilling thing we did was this, below.  This is where we actually witnessed the launch:  from the countdown clock that is in the footage of every space shuttle launch that has been.  I went up to it and touched it, and noted that it makes a whirring noise when you're close to it.  I wanted to make sure that I knew that anytime I saw that clock in the future, I'd know that my hands had been on it.

    The STS-132 tweetup group
    I'm in there, somewhere.
    The second-most exciting thing to happen was to be standing within frisbee-throwing distance of the space shuttle, watching the "Rotating Service Structure" (or RSS) rotate away from the orbiter, thus exposing it to the open air and getting ready for launch.

    But, of course, that leaves the most thrilling part:

    It was unfortunate that it went into its own launch plume before the solid rockets separated.  For me, Ted Shevlin, disgruntled veteran, that was a disappointment.  But for Ali, her first time seeing a launch, she was crying.

    Listen to the sound in that launch:  It's every bit that impressive and then some.  When that sound hits you, you feel it in your being, the way thunder hits you.  It's really something else to imagine that people traveled on that thing, and more importantly, safely returned to Earth.

    Sunday, May 2, 2010

    Grass-fed cheese at Bobolink Dairy

    For all his snark and (as far as I'm concerned, unjustified) judgmental attitude, I still like and watch Anthony Bourdain. He tries to bring travel destinations to you from angles that your typical travel show doesn't bother with. A floating hot dog stand in the Hudson River?! Who knew?  Well, now I do, thanks to his "Hudson Valley" episode.  It aired in February, and the sight of home-cured and smoked sausages at Quaker Creek Store in Goshen, NY inspired a trip north. While up there, I thought I'd also stop at nearby Bobolink Dairy, an artisinal cheese producer featured in his third-ever No Reservations episode, "New Jersey."

    Bobolink Dairy

    Effective June, 2010, this will no
    longer be Bobolink Dairy's home.
    My first stop was at Bobolink Dairy in Vernon, NJ [Teditor's Note: the dairy is moving to Milford, NJ in June 2010].  This place interested me not just because 1) it produced artisinal cheeses that, according to Bourdain, were good enough to be the first US cheeses to be exported back to Europe, and 2) it's located in my perpetually underrated state, but also because 3) the dairy lets their cows roam free and eat grass.  In America, a combination of consumer demand and government corn and soybean subsidies have led farmers to feed dairy and beef cows, chickens, turkeys, and other farm animals (even increasingly, farm-raised fish!) ground-up corn and soybeans.   The animals, who in the wild would never touch corn and soybean, get sick off of it because their bodies lack the proper mechanisms for digestion of said grains.  (Close confinement indoors doesn't help, either.)  The conventional farm solution is to put antibiotics in their feed, which leads to antibiotic-resistant microorganisms that can infect both cattle and humans, among other problems.

    The practice of feeding grain to animals is not limited to conventional farmers.  Many certified-organic farmers do it, too; they just do it with organically-grown grain.  So when the rare farmer comes along who believes in feeding animals grass, I feel the obligation to support and write about them.

    Jean-Louis and Frolic cheeses with
    Alfio Moriconi wine.
    I stopped in for a sampling of their cheeses, including their cave-ripened cheddar, drumm, Frolic, and Jean-Louis, plus a bleu cheese whose name escapes me.  I did not take notes, and even if I did, I am an inexperienced cheese taster whose opinion basically doesn't count.  But I can say that the cheddar bore little resemblance to its mass-produced supermarket counterparts, exhibiting slight bitter notes and a fuller, more complex taste than anything you'd find at the local mega mart.  I loved the Frolic, which my inexperienced cheese-tasting palate would describe as medium-bodied and comparable in flavor to...I dunno, manchego?  (Don't take my word for it. Seriously, I don't know what I'm talking about.)  I left carrying small orders of Frolic and the earthy Jean-Louis, the latter of which was named after the famed French-American chef who inspired others to strive for better ingredients.  When I arrived home later that day, I discovered the Jean-Louis to be much more bitter than I had remembered it at the farm.  Had I tasted at the farm what I tasted at home, it would have remained in the store.  However, on a whim, I paired it with an inexpensive, medium-bodied Alfio Moriconi pinot noir (pictured above, with two pieces of Jean-Louis in the background and a single piece of Frolic in the foreground) and discovered that I had accidentally made magic.  What a pairing!  A cheese that I dreaded finishing a minute before suddenly became a decadence I had to hold back from finishing too quickly!

    Quaker Creek Store

    Pine Island, the heart of the Black
    Dirt Region
    I left the farm and headed to the nearby Black Dirt region of Hudson Valley, Pine Island.  At one time really a swamp-surrounded island, settlers in the early 1800s drained the swamp, uncovering the second-largest deposit of impossibly dark, rich muck soil in the United States, remnants of a glacier from the last ice age some 10,000 years ago.  (The largest deposit in the United States is in the Florida Everglades.)  The soil is not to be believed; I could not imagine it even as I gazed upon it with my own eyes.

    The region's original settlers included Germans and Poles who formerly farmed soil similar to the muck soil found here.  Quaker Creek Store, formerly a general store but now a general store with a small eating area, lives alongside these fertile grounds on a road curiously-named Pulaski Highway (presumably connected to Casimir, but I do not know why).  Appropriate to the area, owner and CIA (Culinary Institute of America) grad Bobby Mateszewski (guess his ethnicity) serves pierogis, kielbasa, bratwurst, and various other sausages appropriate to the season.  Which is what attracted me to this place.  Seeing all of that meat, all cured and smoked in house, on the No Reservations episode was too much to bear.  I had to have some.

    You may have noticed that the title of this blog entry does not include "Quaker Creek Store."  That's because the food I had was a letdown.  Not really knowing what to order, I got the Polish platter:  pierogies with sauerkraut, kielbasa, and stuffed cabbage.  (Looking back on the episode, I realize now that Tony Bourdain ate the same thing.)  I'll be the first to admit that I do not, anything about Polish food.  It was good, and I'm sure it was true to its roots:  hearty, warming, filling...but it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi to bring it to the next level.  I think that if I had stopped by this unassuming roadside shop (that's it on the right, below) on a whim without any prior knowledge, I would've thought I'd struck gold.  But driving an hour for this place wasn't worth it.

    In other news, I met Bobby and his mother, both of whom were very nice.  Behind the register, his mom greeted regulars in the store by name and chatted up a customer about her husband's recent trip, oblivious to the guy waiting in line behind her to pay (me).  I wasn't upset, though; I was too busy fighting small town jealousy pangs.  I love it when people connect that way.  When it was my turn to pay I talked to her about Tony's trip up here.  She said that the producers came in on a Wednesday to eat, asked her if they could film, and then returned on Saturday to shoot everything in a day.  Pretty amazing how quickly stuff like that happens.

    In Conclusion

    Despite the food letdown, I was still glad to make the trip.  I satisfied my curiosity, I found the richest black soil I'd ever seen, and when I made it home I still had yet to discover how amazing the Jean-Louis cheese was with my pinot noir. All in all, not a bad day.

    Friday, April 16, 2010

    Buddakan Atlantic City

    Beaches, casinos, the boardwalk, restaurants, Monopoly streets and railroads.  How is it I'd spent most of my life in New Jersey and never been to Atlantic City?  I'd never really had cause to go there, but I'd always been curious.  So when the chance arrived to meet someone for dinner there, I made the 2.5-hour trek down to America's Favorite Playground.  (Yes, you can drive that long in New Jersey.  If you lived in the northern tip and drove to the southern tip, Cape May, it would take you four hours without traffic.)

    We agreed on Buddakan, a well-known modern Asian establishment in Caesars Atlantic City known as much for its food as the giant Buddha seated at the head of a large, flashy communal table.  I'm a decidedly un-flashy kind of guy.  At the risk of being too crude (or exaggerated), I don't know hip from my own ass.  And it doesn't impress me -- no, it worsens the experience for me -- if a flashy restaurant's food doesn't measure up to its décor.  For instance, Asia de Cuba in New York City:  Flash?  Yes.  (They even have a communal table, too, but it terminates in a two-story holographic waterfall rather than a Buddha.)  Good food?  Good, but not amazing.  Every bite told me, "You're paying for that waterfall."

    In a way, because of its flash, Buddakan had an extra hurdle to climb for me.


    My waitress clearly knew what she was talking about, so I had no problem asking her for her recommendations.  At her insistence, I ordered the edamame ravioli in a sauternes-shallot broth, garnished with baby onion sprouts.  My dining partner got the Alaskan king crab leg, served with a Japanese arugula salad with fried green tomatoes, chèvre, and a balsamic reduction.

    If you know me, you know that I'm not a fan of lobsters or crab.  (Gasp!  The horror!)  Yes, I don't care for the taste, for boiling organisms alive, and spending large sums of money for the cruelty and the flavor I don't particularly care for.  But, I once had an unforgettable Alaskan king crab at another Stephen Starr restaurant, Morimoto in New York City (my previous blog post on Morimoto did not include it; that was another dinner), so I was always happy for a taste.  I have to say, that salad was pretty good, but it really didn't reach its full potential without the king crab leg.  And that was a helluva small piece of crab for $14.  And it was not as good as the one I'd had at Morimoto.

    As for my ravioli, I was skeptical.  I thought that the edamame (baby soybeans) filling would be rough in texture as they are when you pop them in your mouth by the podful.  Fortunately, I was wrong; the puréed edamame filling was fluffy as a pillow and strangely familiar, though I'd never had it as a filling before.  The sauternes (French dessert wine)-shallot broth was an excellent, buttery complement to the ravioli. 


    Dinner was a sea bass with haricots verts, mirin, wine, dashi, shittake mushrooms, and butternut squash; and lamb with Japanese eggplant salad, garlic sauce, and a Thai basil garnish.

    How is Japanese eggplant different from the Italian and American eggplants most Americans (myself, included) are familiar with?  Beats me.  I even did a small amount of Internet research to find out and came up short.  However, the Cook's Thesaurus labels them as substitutes of one another, so there can't be too much difference in the flavor department.  I can also say that they made a ridiculously good salad.  I'm no vegetarian, but I could have eaten that bold, meaty, saucy salad alone.  The lamb, milder in flavor and slightly less gamey than I would have preferred (perhaps I'm weird, but if lamb isn't slightly gamey -- not too gamey -- it isn't lamb), was cake icing.

    The sea bass with haricots verts (French string beans), mirin (sweet rice wine), wine (don't know what kind...just rattling off what my waitress told me), dashi (Japanese fish stock), shittake mushrooms, and butternut squash sounded like quite an elaborate dish.  But did it work?  Yes, it did.  The haricots verts and sweet squash were excellent companions.  The rich, slightly garlicky (that's a good thing) sauce paired well with the perfectly-cooked fish without overpowering its delicate flavor.  But there was one notable asterisk I have to put forth on an otherwise scrumptious sauce:  white truffle oil.  I don't know what people's obsession with truffle oil is, but quite frankly, I think truffle oil is disgusting and can overpower a dish very easily.  (I felt justified in my repulsion of this stuff when I read an article quoting Anthony Bourdain as saying, "What is vile and disgusting and the single most overused ingredient in the repertoire of chefs is truffle oil. It must be stopped.")  Honestly, there was too much of it in the sauce.  When it comes to truffle oil, I think one part per million should be sufficient.  (My waitress disagreed:  "Don't you just love that truffle oil?"  "Mmm-hmm," I muttered, eye contact avoided.)  Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, the sea bass was great. seriously, it was.


    I wasn't planning on having dessert, but I'd read that Buddakan has notably good desserts, and my trustworthy waitress told me that her favorite Buddakan dessert was not even on the menu:  white Godiva chocolate cheesecake with a candied walnut crust, Asian pear sorbet, pomegranate sauce, plus a secret ingredient.  How could I say no to a secret dessert with a secret ingredient??  Actually, it wasn't a secret dessert:  it was simply no longer offered.  But the kitchen had the ingredients on hand, and I knew that if I wanted a taste of this fleeting treat, I should do it now.  The thought that it might have been discontinued because of a lack of popular approval did cross my mind, but I trusted my spite of our difference of opinion on truffle oil.

    I'm not ga-ga over cheesecake in general, but it was delicious.  The cheesecake was particularly light, and the sorbet had a hint of ginger, not listed among the ingredients in the description.  My waitress clued me in on another ingredient not listed in the description:  the lightness came from tofu.  That was the aforementioned secret ingredient.  Well played, pastry chef!


    Buddakan is more than just a pretty face; it's a serious culinary heavy hitter.  And it's not surprising that its New York location produced a Top Chef contestant, Dale Talde, of Season 4.  Yes, I didn't like the truffle oil, and I had nitpicky comments here and there.  But few are the perfect meals in this world, and this was a solid one that I wouldn't mind repeating in the future.  Hope to see you again soon, Atlantic City.  And Buddakan, situated right near Boardwalk, and Park Place, I'll be visiting you if I don't land on Luxury Tax the next time around the board.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010

    TSA Incident at Orlando Airport

    Heading back home from the space shuttle launch on Monday, I began my journey at Orlando International this morning.  Shortly after I passed through the security checkpoint at 10:45 am, a chorus of shouting began behind me.  My first thought was that it was just a bunch of idiots back from some riotous trip.  Then, realizing that the shouting was coming through in surround sound, for one brief, horrifying moment, I thought the airport was about to be taken over by terrorists.  Fortunately, my fears were quickly allayed as I realized that the assertive, un-panicked yelling was coming from just about every TSA worker in the immediate area.

    Passing through security at Orlando International brings you to two monorail stations, each of which goes to its own set of gates.  Moving with purpose but without running, TSA personnel quickly blocked off the monorail stations and removed everyone from a boarding monorail train.  As soon as the trains were secured, they formed a human chain.  The checkpoint shut down:  Nobody went through metal detectors; conveyor belts halted.

    All passengers beyond security -- those about to board the monorail, those who just arrived via monorail, those like me who just cleared the checkpoint -- were all instructed to leave the area and enter the pre-security area of the terminal.  A TSA worker escorted all of us needing reentry to the airport/airline employee lane for re-screening.

    Ultimately, I never found out what caused the commotion.  I asked a TSA guy who told me, 'Someone went through and forgot something they weren't supposed to and they caught it in time.' Really specific.

    I was very impressed by the TSA today.  When called to do so, they snapped into action immediately.  I feel safer, today, after witnessing what I did.  Keep up the good work, guys!

    Wednesday, March 31, 2010

    Dear Valued Customer

    I sent an e-mail to telling them that their Google Checkout link magically disappeared from their page for a few hours. On their contact page, they had me fill out the usual form asking me for my name, e-mail address, order number, and a selection of possible subjects from which to choose.

    It caught me a little off-guard when their Order Number field was marked mandatory.  I didn't have an order number; how could I, if Google Checkout wasn't working?  Even if it were working, was ordering something a pre-requisite to contacting them?  Apparently not, as one of their (also mandatory) subject options read, "Pre-Sales Inquiries / Product Information." Really, guys?  You want people to fill in an order number before they've placed an order?

    A further sign of their staggering intelligence came when, after providing my full name on their contact form, I received a response addressed to "Dear Valued Customer."

    As a computer guy, I know how easy it would be to automatically personalize those outgoing e-mails with their computer systems. Yep, when you contact one of these large operations and get a human response, computer systems usually generate a little header and footer that looks human-written.  For example, if the below example were a real customer service letter, probably the only thing human-written would be the italicized line:

    Dear Samuel,
    Thank you so much for writing to Guy's Garlic Presses.  It is my pleasure to help you with all of your garlic press needs.
    Unfortunately, we discontinued the Justin Bieber-branded garlic press two months ago.
    Rajiv Patel
    P.S. - Did you know that April is National Garlic Press Month?  Well, it isn't!  But click here for an extra 10% off your next order in April.

    I know that most of my customer service replies are form letters.  But when I write to Customer Support, I like to suspend my disbelief for a moment and pretend that the guy (or gal) on the other end committed my name to their temporal lobe at least long enough time to type it into their terminal. Instead, I get, "Dear Valued Customer." Heh. And from a company that sells computers, too.

    The next time I contact, I think I'll start off with, "Dear Valued Retail Merchant." Because their business is important to me.

    Monday, March 1, 2010

    Chef's Omakase at Morimoto New York

    When I watch Chef Morimoto-san doing battle in Kitchen Stadium, it's clear to me that:  1) the man is dedicated to his field, and 2) he's highly creative, at least in the realm of Japanese cuisine.  So when the opportunity to visit Morimoto New York for a Restaurant Week lunch a few years ago, I jumped on it.  I've been back many times since, though only for Restaurant Week meals.

    One thing that's bothered me during my Restaurant Week meals was how the offerings haven't changed from year to year.  Where was the spark of creativity you see on TV?  I decided to find out by heading to Morimoto's and getting the top-of-the-line experience:  the chef's omakase (tasting menu).  I wanted to find out what happens when the restaurant puts its best foot forward.

    Visual Appeal

    The visual style at Morimoto is subdued though not unappealing, however I'm not convinced that they couldn't have done better.  The draped, but otherwise unassuming entrance gives way to a warm, off-white, room furbished with cream-colored drapes on the ceilings, Scandinavian tables, and a beautiful lighted glass bottle wall (okay, that part is pretty cool).  If you like house music, you'll love Morimoto, as it plays constantly and perhaps a little too loudly.  Personally, I'd be quite shocked if the Iron Chef had an extensive collection of electronica on his iPod, which begs the question of why they play it in the first place.  I attribute that to restaurateur Stephen Starr, owner of Morimoto and Starr Restaurant Group, who seems to care as much for "hip" as he does for food.

    Heading into the restaurant with the sole intention of ordering the chef's omakase, it was mildly amusing when my waiter recommended it to me.  "...Since you have been here a few times before, would you be interested in trying the chef's omakase?"

    "Actually, that is what I want to do.  You've talked me into it."  He drove a tough bargain.

    Omakase generally represents the best of what a restaurant has to offer at that moment, and in many cases there may not be a set price, as market prices tend to fluctuate.  Morimoto's New York outpost offers omakase at a fixed price of $120 per person.  Its flagship sister restaurant in Philadelphia offers an $80 omakase, $120 omakase, and an "and up" omakase.  I wonder why that discrepancy between the two restaurants exists, and why the lack of an "and up" option in a wealthy city like New York.  I suppose that because the omakase offering mostly consists of items already on the à la carte menu, there is no market price to adhere to, which probably explains why the meal underwhelmed me.

    Course 1: Otoro Tartare

    Toro is the belly of bluefin tuna, and one of the most sought-after delicacies of the sashimi-eating public for its melt-in-your mouth quality.  Toro comes in two varieties:  otoro, and chutoro, the first of which contains more fat and thus melts more readily.  My otoro came with several accoutrements, including (from left to right in the picture) freshly-grated wasabi paste, crème fraîche, nori paste, chives, avocado paste, and rice crackers.  In my photo, the garnish on top is either beluga or ossetra sturgeon caviar (I was told two different things and honestly, I don't know the difference), and a dashi-soy dipping sauce (the same stuff in which you'd dip tempura -- dashi soup stock, mirin, soy sauce, and sugar).  The yamamomo berry -- imagine a raspberry but without the tartness -- on the side is a palate cleanser.

    There wasn't too much need for a palate cleansing, though:  "delicate" was the operative word for this course; there's a reason why this was the first course.  Each accoutrement changed the character of the tuna drastically:  the nori paste added sweetness, the crème fraîche, not surprisingly, added a creamy, deliciously sour tinge. The wasabi made it taste like nigiri sushi.  I especially liked the toasty crunch of the sesame crackers.  It is probably a sacrilege to say that my favorite version was mishmash of everything at once.

    Toro is quite good, but honestly, I don't know what the fuss is about.  Bluefin is so popular in Japanese restaurants that it is on the verge of extinction.  Populations are down about 80% from the late 1970s/early 1980s and could be gone in the next few years.  The London Guardian states that roughly 1 million bluefin tuna were caught in 2009, while the current population is thought to be about 3.75 million.  Paradoxically, the Japanese government does not want to offer protection for the fish.  Had I known the numbers were that bad before dining, I would have asked for a substitution.

    Course 2:  Fluke Sashimi

    Course two was the highlight of my meal, an eyes-rolling-into-the-back-of-your-head experience.  I jokingly (but almost not too-jokingly) asked my waiter to throw out the rest of my omakase and simply bring this course over and over again.  He described it as a fluke sashimi, with a fin in the middle, rubbed in garlic in a soy and yuzu (citrus fruit the size of a small grapefruit) sauce sealed in with a hot sesame sauce and olive oil.  Dotting the fish is an array of ginger, mitsuba (an herb), chives, micro celery, and tiny slivers of shiitake mushrooms.  I never would have guessed it would be that complex had my waiter not informed me.  After having a bite of this sashimi, I understood why the Japanese invented the term "umami."  As with The Matrix, nobody can be told what "umami" is.  You have to experience it for yourself.

    Course 3:  Seared Kanpachi Sashimi Salad

    Unfortunately, though my kanpachi was fact more than good, it did not live up to the bar set by the fluke sashimi.  In fact, nothing else did.  My sashimi salad's salad was a simple assortment of baby greens in an apple vinaigrette.  The kampachi fish, AKA amberjack, was lightly salted, then excellently seared and drizzled with a "kuchinashi" sauce -- a soy, mirin, and sake reduction.  Why it is called a kuchinashi sauce is beyond me, unless it contains kuchinashi-no-mi, AKA cape jasmine seeds.

    By the way, "kanpachi" refers to the oldest stage of an amberjack's life, when the fish is over a meter in length and a beast to catch.  Its flavor is mild, but not flaky and delicate like other white fish.  The pairing of the salad with the fish was very complementary, as was the sweet and slightly acidic vinaigrette to the microgreens and the kuchinashi sauce to the fish.

    The lone olivey-looking thing in the picture is a simple kuromame bean, a sweet, black, and antioxidant-rich soybean.  (Yes, it is a type of soybean, despite its size.)  I wasn't quite sure what to do with it, so I finished it last as a palate cleanser.  It has a familiar bean-y texture, but the sweetness threw me, not for its intensity (it was an appropriate amount of sweetness) but for the fact that it was sweet at all.  I expected "olive."

    Course 4:  Oyster Foie Gras

    The name is a slight misnomer.  The uni, or sea urchin, in this dish inexplicably has no placement in the name of this item, available on the regular menu.  The steamed market oyster, uni, and foie sat in a teriyaki jus.  I have to laugh at the idea of calling it a teriyaki "jus":  "Jus" refers to the preparation of a sauce using the natural juices occurring in a food.  The "jus" from prime rib au jus is made by taking the prime rib drippings, reducing or thickening them and throwing in herbs and spices.  Teriyaki sauce has soy sauce, mirin and/or sake, brown sugar, and other things.  Did they kill a teriyaki animal and put its dripping into my teriyaki sauce?  Hmmm...I think they were just being pretentious.  But I digress.

    I love foie gras.  But I have some moral objections to it, and thus have only had it a few times in my life.  I'm used to having it with something fruity; I've never had it in a Japanese sauce before.  It was wonderful:  toasty, fatty, and smooth.  The uni was crumbly and sweet, and the oyster tasted like the sea.

    Course 5:  Nigiri Sushi

    I figured it was inevitable that a sushi course would appear.  I enjoy nigiri sushi, though I do not go crazy over it as many others do. Here, we had (from left to right in the picture), tuna, kampachi, red snapper garnished with a radish chiffonade, whitefish with scallion, and Firefly squid.  The squid were rubbery and chewy, as they always are.  Personally, not a favorite of mine.  My favorite was the kampachi; my least was the red snapper, not for the fish but more because I don't like wascawwy wadish, and I'm afraid that not even Morimoto-san could change that.  If I were a judge on an Iron Chef: Battle Radish, I would award points for omitting the secret ingredient.

    Course 6:  House-Made Ginger Ale (Intermezzo)

    That's right, folks; ginger ale doesn't have to come from the Coca-Cola factory.  You can make it at home.  It's actually not that difficult, either:  water, ginger, sugar, and yeast.  The ginger infuses into the sugar water, yeast do their thing, and in 48 hours, voilà!  (By the way, homemade ginger ale actually tastes like ginger...something the store-bought versions lack.)

    Clearly, the chef at Morimoto added other things to their ginger ale, as it was strong, mostly tart and slightly bitter, with a spicy, acidic bite that left its mark on the back of your throat.  To oversimplify, it tasted like Orangina infused with chile peppers.  A waitress advised me to drink it slowly.

    Courses 7 and 8:  Lobster and Wagyu Strip

    The main course, baby:  steak and lobster.  Wagyu beef in a ginger/soy sauce, lobster with Indian spices, and a lemon crème fraîche.

    Let me first say that lemon crème fraîche as a lobster dipping sauce is waaaay better than clarified butter.  But that is not an entirely fair thing to say, as I have an unhealthy love of crème fraîche.  I could spoon an entire tub into my mouth only to say, "Got any more?"  Unfortunately, I'm not the world's biggest fan of lobster.  I don't particularly care for the flavor nor the fact that it was probably killed by boiling to death.  I know, I know; I don't like lobster or otoro tartare.  Call me a cheap date; I'm sorry.

    Beef, on the other hand, I do love.  And this one came with lightly-candied potatoes, which made for an excellent, no, amazing sweet-and-savory flavor combination.  Wow!

    Both dishes were good for what they were, though I do wonder how the steak and lobster fit into a Japanese menu.  Well, I guess the steak was Wagyu beef, and it did come with a ginger/soy sauce.  And lobster is something many Japanese eat, if not with Indian spices and crème fraîche.  Oh well, it tasted good.

    Course 9:  Wasabi Tiramisu

    Beautiful as this dish was, it shouldn't have existed.  The little piece of orange spongecake in the picture's foreground was as stale as my sense of humor.  The tiramisu with white chocolate on the bottom was tasty, but ordinary.  The Java ice cream with bits of coffee bean married okay with the orange tiramisu, but it wasn't an Earth-shattering combination that made me want to jump out of my seat.  Also, there was no wasabi in the dessert.  (Though, maybe that was a good thing.)

    Sadly, this last course colored my vision of the entire meal.  As beautiful as it was, it tasted of mediocrity, and function always comes before form in my book.  I told some of this to my waiter, who seemed to apologize profusely, but made no mention of alerting the pastry chef or offering to buy me another dessert that wasn't terrible.

    I wish that dish didn't exist, as it colored my memory of the entire meal.  When I think of it, my mind immediately recalls "stale."


    Dessert aside, only a few courses wowed me.  Outside of the dessert, everything was executed well, but where was the originality?  A chef who became famous for thinking on his feet on TV owns this place.  Sure, I had luxury items like bluefin tuna, caviar, foie gras, Wagyu beef, and lobster, but they all tasted great because they were bluefin, caviar, foie gras, Wagyu beef, and lobster.  How were they prepared?  The tuna and caviar came with typical things I could get at Joe Shmoe's Japanese restaurant.  The foie gras in a teriyaki sauce.  I expected a journey to places I'd never been or thought of.  Imaginative cuisine.  Places where only a chef forced to make five courses out of beets would go.  Alas, that did not happen.

    All in all, it was a good meal.  But not worth $120.  It was worth perhaps 3/4 that.  I guess at Morimoto, it's back to Restaurant Week meals for me.