Saturday, September 29, 2007

Alinea: Pretty Food, Strange Experience

Well, after years of looking at the food porn in countless articles on Alinea--named Best American Restaurant in the October 2006 issue of Gourmet magazine--I finally bit the bullet, plunked down my credit card and had the smaller of the two tasting menus. So strong is the restaurant's reputation, that it's name doesn't appear outside the space except for on a small sign advertising the restaurant's $10 valet parking. It's simply a non-descript, but clean and crisp, charcoal building.

When you walk in, you are in a long hallway with panels jutting out from the wall so that it looks like you are walking into a funnel. There's seemingly no place to go, but then a sliding door that looks like an elevator with no buttons opens and you are greeted by the staff. The first question I was asked was, "How did you arrive?" It threw me and I didn't answer right away, so she followed with, "Did you valet park a car?" "No..." "Did you come in a taxi?" "Yes..." "OK, then we'll have one waiting for you when you finish your meal." "OK, thanks..."

So, the first dish that came out was accompanied by very detailed instructions on not only how to eat the dish, but also how to hold the vessel it came in. "I'm going to ask for your help with this one. When I hand you the dish, pleas do not set it down on the table or on the monocle. The weight of the fork will cause the bowl to tip and spill," he said. "Please do not dip the fork into the soup below. Eat it as a single bite, set the fork down on the monocle, and them drink the soup. At that point, you can set the bowl down and it will not fall over." And that was all before he got to the description of the food in the dish. It was a surf clam with several garnishes and chilled nasturtium soup.

The rest of the evening progressed in much the same way. Everything was carefully scripted and orchestrated with perfect precision. I'm sure the staff had memorized the script and choreography much as I had done when I did musical theater during high school. Our silverware was replaced for each of the 14 courses we were served, but not in the normal way...

"As you can see, we designed the restaurant with mahogany tables and no cloths. I'm setting down this pillow so that we can rest clean silverware on it for you. We ask that as you use it, you do not replace any used silver back on the pillow so that we can keep reusing them. Please rest the used pieces on your plate and they will be removed."
Like at WD-50, I didn't enjoy every item served. The ones that failed, for me, were those that attempted too many complex treatments on a food that can be so good on its own. Specifically, the wagyu beef. It was a single bite on a pin with matsutake mushroom served in a bowl underneath a forest of cedar branches. Unfortunately, I thought the scent of the cedar was so strong that the beef and mushroom--both imported from Japan, no doubt--were overpowered.

On another occasion, though, scent was used more successfully. The tomato course, the fourth served, the plate of varied tomato preparations was placed on a pillow that had been filled with hardwood smoke. It smelled like campfire and added a pleasant dimension to the cold plate filled with several single bites, all prepared differently. The plate, balanced precariously on the pillow, caused the smoke to slowly waft out under its weight.

Chef/Owner Grant Achatz, formerly of Napa Valley's French Laundry among other top restaurants, apparently has a fondness for courses needing to be eaten as single bites, pulled off a pin or cinnamon stick with the mouth, and spheres that explode--sometimes violently--in the mouth. At least three times that I can remember, we were told to take an entire item in our mouth and then close it immediately so that nothing is spilled when it explodes.

One flavor combination, in particular, comes to mind as being unexpectedly delicious. The chocolate course, a long, winding tube of dark chocolate ganache, was served with soy sauce in three ways: as a jelly, a marshmallow and a powder. On it's own, soy sauce isn't a common dessert ingredient, but with the chocolate it worked. If you've ever had a dark chocolate covered pretzel, you already know what salt can do to chocolate. And what is soy sauce, if not a very salty ingredient?

I wish I could recount each of the dishes, but it would take far too long. Instead, be sure to look at the restaurant's photo gallery. For me, the presentation was almost more exciting than the food, anyway.

Monday, September 24, 2007

TONY's Eat Out 2007

Tonight I attended Time Out New York magazine's Eat Out 2007. It's an event to benefit the Food Bank for New York City while giving attendees an opportunity to sample food from 40 different New York restaurants. I tried my best, but I only managed to sample food from 17 of the restaurants. That's a 17 course tasting menu... And boy am I stuffed!

I think my favorite was the Spicy Beef and Pomelo Salad from Mai House Vietnamese. Another memorable dish was the Rabbit anticuchos from Palo Santo. Now, I've had rabbot before. Hell, I've even cut up a whole rabbit and cooked it. Multiple times... But I'd never had rabbit heart before. Luckily, I'd eaten various chicken organs growing up in the Midwest and the idea of eating an animal's heart doesn't horribly disgust me. Anyway, my point is that rabbit heart tastes just like chicken heart. In case you were curious...

For the record, anticuchos is a Quechuan word for kebab. And the Quechua people are an Andean ethnic group that lives throughout South America in places where the previous Incan Empire extended.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Mayonnaise Kitchen -- My personal hell...

Honestly, Stephen Colbert said it so perfectly in the following video clip that I really don't have anything to add. You know I don't like mayo (unless it's fried by Wylie Dufresne) and Tokyo's Mayonnaise Kitchen restaurant isn't likely to change my mind!!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Wylie Dufresne, Mad Scientist

Last September, as a full-time student at the Institute for Culinary Education, I was given the opportunity to volunteer at the 1st Annual International Chef's Congress in NYC. Specifically, I was supposed to be helping out backstage in the staging area for the various chefs' demonstrations. It turned out that my most important job as a volunteer was to stay out of the way (every chef brought their own assistants). I didn't mind, though, since I did get to meet some really cool chefs and watch all their demos. Susur Lee was there—he was only one to engage me in conversation. And so was Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. I got a photo with him even though I hesitate to show it off since my culinary school uniform was an unflattering eight sizes too big for me. (Shaq could probably fit into it...) Among many other chefs that I got to meet was Wylie Dufresne, Chef/Owner of WD-50. And that is where I had dinner last night.

After Dufresne's name came up during a freelance project I was working on recently, my editor and I decided to try the restaurant's tasting menu since neither of us had been to the hot spot before. The tasting menu consisted of a dozen courses: eight savory and four sweet, but I'll spare you the play-by-play and stick to what was truly memorable a day later:

Pizza pebbles, pepperoni, shiitake
"These taste like Combos," said one of my dinner companions mere seconds after the plate was set down and before our server had left the table. "Many people say that," he admitted. Well, I wasn't about to argue. They did have a taste very reminiscent of the not-so-healthy, guilty-pleasure, gas station fare. Nevermind that the "pepperoni" component of the dish was a few small dollops of sauce, the "pizza pebbles" were loosely held-together spheres of bread and cheese flavored powder, and the shiitakes were paper-thin slices of dehydrated mushroom. A couple oregano leaves added a green touch to the plate which was resembled nothing even close to an actual pizza.

Knot Foie
This had to be my least favorite dish of the night. Now, I love foie gras and I don't plan on ever caving in to the claims that PETA and other save-the-animals types make about the "inhumane" treatment involved in foie gras production, but PLEASE don't reduce foie gras to something that could pass as the love child of bologna and Spam. I don't care if you have managed to take the normally fragile offal and shape it into a clean knot. Unfortunately this interpretation of foie gras smelled like "cat food" according to others at my table and, in my opinion, hardly had any of the rich flavor that I normally associate with the delicacy. Not even the quince sauce or cilantro stems could rescue the dish. Sorry, Wylie, but this one earns an F from me.

Beef tongue, fried mayo, tomato molasses
Again not a favorite of mine and it had nothing to do with the fact that I was eating pickled beef tongue. Those of you who know me, know that I have an aversion to mayonnaise. Plain and simple, I'll avoid it given the option. Now, I could have told our server that I didn't eat mayo or I could have left it untouched on my plate, but—if for no reason other than to satisfy my curiosity—I ate the fried mayo. I can happily report that the process of deep frying can make almost any food delicious. So, while I still may not care for cold, gloppy mayo from a jar or squeeze bottle, I am a fan of warm, fried mayo. Even if it does contain a secret ingredient or two from WD-50's famed wall of food-grade chemicals.

Lamb belly, black chickpea, cherried cucumber
Did you know that "lamb belly" is just a confusing way of saying "bacon"? Granted at least one of my many food reference books probably defines "bacon" as something uniquely porcine, but, for the sake of argument, if you take the fatty belly of an animal, cure it, slice it thinly and then fry it, it's going to resemble bacon. And bacon makes me happy. End of story.

Fried butterscotch pudding, mango, taro, smoked macadamia
Again with the frying. Frying, if done well, takes anything up at least one notch. (Several in the case of mayo.)

Soft chocolate, avocado, licorice, lime
Chocolate isn't my favorite (unless it's a nice piece of unadultered dark chocolate) and I tend to find it boring, but there's a photo of this dish on the restaurant's Web site, so I thought I'd include it so you can get a taste of how the various dishes are presented.

In such an experimental place, it's no surprise that even the restrooms are worth mentioning. We were lucky (smart?) enough to ask about them before embarking on an exploratory jaunt around the restaurant. The conversation went something like this: "Where is the women's room?" "Oh, they're downstairs." "They? There's more than one women's room?" "Well, just go downstairs and push on the wood panels." "OK..."

Turns out, the restroom is a set of unisex restrooms with communal sinks nestled in a basement nook. The doors to the stalls are flush with the wall and, aside from seams in the wood paneling, more or less hidden. Nice touch.

That's all folks. I've already rambled on for far too long.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Haute Barnyard, not Haute Couture

Today I had some time to kill while I waited in my doctor's waiting room. I had intended to do the crossword puzzle in my New York magazine, but I didn't have a pen and the receptionist was nowhere to be found. So I flipped to the restaurant reviews and started scanning. My eyes stopped at Perilla because it was one of the few review-worthy restaurants I've eaten at so far. New York only gave Top Chef Harold Dieterle's West Village restaurant one star out of five, but I can honestly say that my parents and I had an absolutely wonderful meal.

Anyway, part of the review reads, "The menu is dotted with the kind of pretentiously unpretentious specialties we've become accustomed to in the Haute Barnyard era." And it's this concept of "Haute Barnyard" that I'd like to talk about.

"Haute Barnyard" is, to me, a nice way to describe my love of pork products, fancy fowl, chicken pieces other than skinless chicken breast. To some, eating saturated fat-laden meats is considered to be a very masculine thing. Women should order salads and other dainty foods and leave the pork belly to the guys, right?

WRONG!! Certainly not now, when so much care is being taken by certain small-scale producers to build awareness of heritage breeds and to raise them in generally "greener" ways by using less or no antibiotics, giving them more room to roam and a more varied diet. To pass up a chance to taste something so lovingly created is blasphemous in my eyes. It has more calories, you say? Well, it also has a hell of a lot more taste, too! It costs too much? Fine, I'll brew my own coffee and lay off the venti, non-fat, sugar-free, vanilla lattes that also cost too much. Nothing is going to stand between me and a perfectly good opportunity to eat some good food. Not even a first date. And yes, I know that "pork belly" is just uncured, unsliced bacon. (Mmm... Bacon...)

And it's the higher-quality products that allow for simple recipes that shift the focus back to the ingredients themselves. And this is where Harold Dieterle's cooking is successful. Creamed corn? Doesn't sound special, but he uses only the best ingredients and takes the time to prepare them perfectly. He doesn't rely on some convoluted, experimental combination of ingredients to impress people and I appreciate that confidence and simplicity.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Delivering the Love

Today I did a good deed and volunteered at God's Love We Deliver. It's a non-profit organization that's been providing nutritious meals to New York's seriously ill for over 20 years. It started during the height of the AIDS epidemic, but has evolved as it's grown and now serves people with a variety of debilitating illnesses. Despite the name, it's not a religious organization--a common misconception.

So, I was there as the organizer of a group from the NU Club of Greater New York. (That's the Northwestern University Alumni Club, FYI.) It's my third time volunteering at the site with that group and my second as an organizer. I have to say, it feels good to be able to volunteer in a way that involves more than just cutting a check. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The money needed to buy all the food this organization feeds its clients has to come from somewhere, after all.

We spent the afternoon peeling and chopping two huge bags of carrots. Here's a little look into the kitchen:

Thursday, September 13, 2007

New Address!

FYI, you can now reach this blog by simply going to so update your bookmarks and check in often! Don't forget to leave comments to let me know what you think. I'm interested in answering your questions about cooking, but you have to ask them if you want me to answer. It's funny how that works...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mamajuana (not to be confused with the other Ma__juana!)

I'm a bit slow in posting this, but it required some research and I didn't want to leave anyone's curiosity unsatisfied. Anyway, this past weekend I attended a friend's roof-top housewarming party. I have a serious case apartment envy, but that's another story for another time. Rather than his 43rd floor panoramic view of New Jersey and the Upper West Side (or his glass-front Sub-Zero refrigerator), I'd like to tell you all about the mystery drink that he served.

It was called Mama Juana and he served the spicy-sweet pink alcohol out of a completely unmarked clear glass bottle. "Sip it, don't shoot it!" he ordered as he passed out the 1-ounce shot glasses. So adamant was his tone that it nearly warranted a hearty "yessir!" but I resisted.

The drink burned like a stiff martini, but had a complex flavor heavily influenced with rum and honey. So complex it was, that I drank shot after shot trying to figure it out. (Hey, it was research, people. Don't judge!) In one sip I noticed the honey, in another I thought I tasted cloves, or was it cinnamon, or both even? And was there vanilla? Maybe something from the citrus family? It was so mesmerizing that I kept "sampling" more, and the more I sampled, the more mesmerizing it became... Some people at the party hated it, but not me. I was intrigued more than anything else.

As it was explained to me, the drink came from St. Croix and was more or less a bootleg hooch made in the rainforest by a woman in a hut. The only way to buy it is to go there yourself and smuggle it back since its transport is not allowed. I was told you can get it a little more easily from the Dominican Republic, but that their version of the hooch isn't near as good. "Great..." I thought. "I have to fly my behind down to St. Croix and track down this woman in a hut in the rainforest to get the good stuff. That'll happen soon."

Or so I thought...

Further research (conducted completely sober, mind you) revealed that the Dominican Republic is actually much more widely known for the concoction. According to the (questionably reliable)
Wikipedia entry:

Mama Juana is a drink from the Dominican Republic that is concocted by allowing rum, red wine, and honey to soak into a bottle together with tree bark and herbs. The taste is quite similar to port wine and color is a deep red. It is seen and advertised as an aphrodisiac. Many Dominicans make homemade Mama Juana. Many Natives of the Dominican Republic claim that Mama Juana has similar effects to Viagra, stating that it increases sexual drive and desire and increases the Male Libido."

Hrmm... Libido increasing effects aside, did I do something stupid by consuming a drink infused with unidentified tree bark and herbs? Well, so far so good... It's now four days later and I've yet to hallucinate, convulse, experience heart palpitations or, worse, keel over and die.

So, my research has revealed that it's actually possible to purchase a bottle with a selection of the barks, herbs and other items for infusion. To be clear, the bottles are sold with just the dry infusion ingredients, but it's not difficult to follow the directions and prepare the brew yourself. Hopefully...

I'm ordering a bottle from Mamajuana Corp. Or, at least, I am once their Web site starts accepting payment again. As far as I can tell, this is the only option for acquiring the goods wthout a plane ticket and passport. Not that I'm opposed to traveling to the Dominican Republic or St. Croix, but I'm on a budget. Maybe if people start throwing money at me I'll be more inclined to hop on a plane in search of an authentic drunken experience. Until then, I'm going to have to be a little more conservative with my spending.

I'll keep you posted as I pursue my own Mama Juana "brewing" experience. Until then, I'll try to update this site more often.