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Showing posts from 2009

Stars

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I am unaware of any process in nature more volatile than that of rating a restaurant. The wildly-diverse experiences that wildly-diverse people can have even at the same establishment mimics the sporadic nature of earthquake predictions, snowflake patterns, or the formation of galaxies. To truly gauge a restaurant, all potential reviewers would need to dine on the same night with the same crowd, be cooked for by the same staff, served by the same server, at the same table, have the same tastes, having had the same prior dining experiences; already a staggering number of variables.

Another factor, as any professional restaurant reviewer can tell you and most people discover on their own, is that one's impression of a restaurant can change radically even between visits. Chefs make mistakes, servers have “off nights”, moods of diners vary wildly, and what someone is craving should be aligned (ore or less) with the cuisine of the restaurant chosen. If you're in the mood for a stea…

The Hooks

You grab a seat at the bar and, if this is your final destination rather than simply a "stop-over" in the wait for a table, there is often a quick search for a hook under the bar. I'm not even really sure when they came about. I don't have distinct memories of them from a decade ago, but surely they've been around for a while. It was an elusive solution to an obvious problem.

Those sometimes-knee-piercing little attachments are wildly-useful tools for storing the various accessories required to survive daily life. For women, it's an obvious purse hanger allowing it to be kept within reach, off the floor, and protected just enough from anyone who might be tempted by its contents, or the bag itself.
For men, it's a little less routine. Those bold enough to carry a "man bag" can use the hooks much like one would with a purse. They can also hold umbrellas, a camera, perhaps a small laptop bag or messenger bag, a bike helmet, the occasional hat, jack…

Speakeasy Culture

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A good cocktail is not simply a spirit cloaked in a Halloween costume, it is formally-dressed and in full makeup ready for its closeup.
Regardless of how “cutting-edge” you might consider yourself, everyone gets a touch of nostalgia now and then. It’s a natural human craving for a simpler time when efficiency and profitability didn't trample over quality, when having vegetables for dinner meant having to grow and harvest them first, when communicating with someone far away meant writing a letter, and everything was made by hand because there was simply no other way things could be made.

Cocktails have become automated and "dumbed-down" in the form of the ubiquitous "soda gun", pre-mixed high-fructose corn syrup-laden "juices", and cheaper versions of classic ingredients have become the norm. While organic and local food has swept into restaurant kitchens around the globe, their cocktail bars really haven’t kept pace. I can’t tell you the number of ti…

Going Clear (in cocktails)

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“Surprisingly, though, taste is not the only consideration. Presentation is the most important thing - garnish, colour, the glass. If the drink pleases the eye, the customer's mouth will start to water. Aroma is the next thing, then taste. We apply these criteria when judging a new cocktail in a competition.”

- Peter Dolelli, The Savoy Cocktail Book
In every high-end bar (and even some of the lower ones), there is a subtle ingredient in nearly every drink they serve; so subtle that it's downright transparent. Depending on the machine making it, it can be cloudy and milky or clear as glass and achieving that distinction is no simple feat. (More on that in a minute.) First, let's talk about how ice got in cocktails in the first place.

The mere presence of ice in cocktails is, in itself, a long story. The origins are fairly simple - someone discovered that in warmer weather, people preferred (but needed to become accustomed to) cold alcoholic beverages. Cold "softened&…

Natural Selection

I remember watching Wild Kingdom as a child and how it all seemed so cruel and unfair. A lion would stalk an hours-old, four-legged baby of some animal variety and, through the magic of camera work, when the parent was even the slightest bit inattentive, the lion would kill the animal, often under the helpless gaze of the parent The fact that it was cute wasn't helping the matter. Why didn't the film crew step in and stop it? How could they let it just get killed? The reality, which I couldn't understand at the time, was that while one cute baby animal died, a few other cute animals (cubs of the lion) would be fed, along with mom. As an ironic bonus, the parent of the sacrificed animal wouldn't be passing such inattentive genes on to the next generation. The impermanence of the universe wasn't yet clear to me.

Restaurants, too, have life-spans. Some as short as a bait fish in the ocean, born only to feed other animals while other restaurants seem to have the momen…

When a Superhero Disappoints you

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In the marketing business, "branding" is everything. Where once a brand implied an assurance of quality, it only now offers familiarity and bragging rights. In recent years, the allegiance to brand has trampled right over actual quality. A strong brand can get people to pay a premium for the brand name alone.

Sadly, both restaurants and the chefs who lead them seem to be falling into a similar trap. Outpost versions of classic restaurants only rarely live up to the the originals. Perhaps it's simply the absence of the famed chef who can't be in all locations at the same time, or maybe a shortage of staff with sufficient passion for food and service, or that some locations simply entertain less finicky clientele. Whatever the case, the disappointment of at such a restaurant can tarnish the original. Such was my case with Gotham Steakhouse in Miami; but first, a bit of history.

When my former chef-girlfriend and I broke up a dozen years ago, I was surprised at how much …

Check Please

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For all the uniqueness to be found in every restaurant, there is one process handled in a strikingly similar (if not identical) fashion by all of them; "the check" or "the bill".

Let's first make note of the cultural distinction between those terms. If you receive a "check" in the mail, that's usually a good thing. You now have money you didn't have before. A "bill" that arrives in the mail is the opposite; you now owe money you had just a moment before. Yet, Americans traditionally refer to the "meal invoice" as a "check".

Obvious as it might seem for a restaurant to tally up your meal and give you a summary - their per-unit cost multiplied by the number of units you ordered, totaled at the bottom with the ever-present sales tax - a quick Google search indicates that the entire idea is patented. Who knew?

For those in a hurry at the end of a meal due to prior obligation, the company at the table, or in my case, …

"Us" vs. "Them"

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A book, or article, or blog I've always wanted to write (and may yet if I can figure out how to retire) is an in-depth study on the differences between home cooks and restaurant chefs. Aside from the obvious (formal training), what do they know that we don't? Michael Ruhlman took a good stab at it, trying to bridge the connection between home cook and restaurant chef, offering an education on the process in snippets, but I think there's more information to be had. What - in one sentence or even word - do they do or have or know that we don't?

This elusive "thing" was what I wondered about first as I began to really discover food. An ex-girlfriend, a former chef in San Francisco at Square One and Stars, was the first to enlighten me. As she would cook even a casual meal, I'd study and question every move, cut, grind, amount, and method; as if even obvious maneuvers held secrets.

She did clear up a few things, but there weren't really any big mysteries in…

The Green Fairy

I've heard any number of people blame a particular spirit for a bad “night out”. “I can't drink tequila any more” is a frequent mantra, the (inaccurate) presumption that the drink, rather than the state of mind of the drinker at the time, was to blame for a sordid evening. Those bruised by imbibing too much are destined to forever connect a whiff of the offending liquor with physical revulsion; it's the body's way of protecting itself from being poisoned. Again.

One spirit has a reputation for going one step further, beyond the normal effects of alcohol into a completely different realm. Just the name “Absinthe” conjures images of people in woodcut images passed out (or dead) on the streets as if a green liquid plague had swept through the population. Any substance deemed so dangerous as to be banned almost guarantees that someone will seek it out.

Presumably we were too content with the normal variety of alcoholic beverages and needed something a bit more dangerous. M…

Extraterrestrial Life and Busty Waitresses

Back when people began to ponder the heavens separately from their astrological baggage, H.G. Wells wrote about the possibility of life on other planets and what might happen if they were to visit us. What might they look like, be like, think like?

While his interpretation wasn't terribly flattering, his willingness to consider the possibility of their existence was a quantum leap forward. Not long before his time, this way of thinking would have been viewed as heretical and could even be life-threatening if it undermined the teachings of various churches. It takes an amazing mind to suggest the notion of life elsewhere when there has never been any evidence to suggest it and a certain boldness to promote such an idea.

Mr. Wells was the first person I thought of when I learned I had lost a dear friend, mentor, and boss, Edward “Bud” Sweitzer. Bud passed away having suffered from what most people secretly aspire to – old age and a robust, story-filled life to to go with it. He, too…

False Prophets

Religions who "market" door-to-door also happen to be the most restrictive in what they allow their followers to do. Fitting that those most easily "sold" on a belief system would also be the most likely to "stray" from it.

Zealotry begins identifying what people are most likely suffering from. Uncertainty, loneliness, lack of "direction"; all manner of perfectly normal human traits which can usually be alleviated over a beer and a conversation with a good friend.

What's all this got to do with food? Let me tell you.

A friend of mine (more specifically, a co-worker) from long ago added me as a friend on Facebook. Her posts were mostly inane; bike riding or going out to a movie. And then, out of the blue, she posted a link to a site that shows before and after pictures of people who had chosen to eat nothing but raw food. The results, as you might expect, were similar to those of vegans; the "before" pictures were of plump, apparently …

A Return to New York

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The second anniversary of “Food and Whining” just happens to coincide with my return to one of my greatest joys surrounding food – dining in New York city.

I haven't been here in over two years; two long, complicated, stressful, and painful years (the first more than the second). The demands and uncertainties of divorce, combined with the loss of my father, overshadowed any sense of optimism and long-term thinking. I was occasionally convinced I might never set foot in New York again. “Things will get better”, assured those who had endured either (or both) types of loss. Things did get better; a great deal better. After that unintended hiatus, I'll be here twice in under a month.

I had nearly forgotten the trademark intensity of this place, but a simple taxi ride from Laguardia into Manhattan can serve as a quick reminder. My driver, like all other New York taxi drivers, used the accelerator pedal as more of an on/off switch while the brakes for near-brick-wall-stops. Rapid f…

Food's "other" roles

It surprises me sometimes how we "use" food for purposes other than the obvious. Business meals are, if you think about it, thinly-disguised bribes. (Ironic that in business lunches or dinners, we busy with food the same orifice necessary for conversation.) The phrase "let me buy you lunch" often accompanies the knowledge that the person doing the inviting wants something and food is a fantastic bribe for getting it.

In the romantic world, a man inviting a woman to dinner allows for intimacy, conversation (hopefully minus the business transaction part), an opportunity to show good taste by his choice of restaurant, demonstrate the ability to support by picking up the check, and - let's face it - pouring a drink or two into someone loosens both the conversation and the occasional bit of clothing. In both of the above situations, food is merely a vehicle, a means to an unrelated end.

In other situations, food is less about enjoyment and more about need. Hunger is a…