COME SNAIL AWAY

A short while ago, I came upon an article in New York magazine entitled, “The Slowest Food.” It was all about snails, or as the French say, escargot

The point that the piece was making is that, for whatever reason, snails have suddenly become very popular.  Perhaps, they state, it’s because they have become an “ICON of the SLOW FOOD movement.”  Or maybe it’s the “obsession with adventurous eating among fashionable foodies.” 

So I decided to drill down into my flirtation and affairs over the years with the rubbery little cornu aspersumthe snail. 

Their origin as a food is presumed to be Italian, at around the time of the height of the Roman Empire.  But in all my trips to Italy, I just don’t recall ever eating them (I don’t even know that I’d recognize the Italian word for snail). I do recall enjoying them on numerous, numerous occasions in France, however.   

For some reason, over the centuries, they seemed to have migrated to France either deliberately or accidentally… and in a BIG WAY. Escargot farms are prolific there, especially in Burgundy. 

The farming methods are unique. Newly hatched snails thrive on green leafy plants and grasses that grow between rows of tilted weathered boards to which they eventually “barnacle” themselves while they mature. At the time they are harvested, they are removed from their shells and “flash-boiled” to remove toxins and any other impurities. Next they’re cooked in vats of aromatic “court-bouillon” before being canned and ready for distribution.   (Very, very few restaurants use snails fresh off the boards.)

By far, the world’s most popular (and many would argue, the most delicious) snail dish is ESCARGOT BOURGUIGNON (obviously created in Burgundy). The snails, put back into their shells, are tightly packed to the brim of the shell with high-fat butter, laced with loads of chopped fresh garlic, shallots and parsley. The resulting dish coming out of the oven is frothing in hot melted garlic butter anxiously awaiting a warm, crusty hunk of sopping bread. In my opinion, the hot butter-soaked sopping bread is equally as good as the snails themselves….maybe better.  And I do not think that I am alone with that opinion. 

This iconic French appetizer comes with a pesky little spring-loaded pair of tongs specially designed to grab and hold the shell in place while the snail is being carefully filched out with a tiny two-pronged fork. A word of caution: Once you have secured the shell, DO NOT squeeze the tongs again without thinking first. Due to the spring-loading, the result could be a butter-loaded snail shell missile flying across the table and on to a dining companion’s lap. 

But adventuresome chefs around the world, not content with tradition, are experimenting with new and inventive interpretations of snail dishes – delicious iterations that Joanne and I have enjoyed immensely during our travels. 

To name a few: Snails stuffed into tiny ceramic cups at LA COTE BASQUE in New York; DANIEL BOULUD’s snails soaked in Persillade butter (Italian parsley chives, almond flour and cayenne) served with potato croquettes to soak up the melted butter (I much prefer a warm baguette); VOL AU VENT, a larger pastry shell filled with goat cheese, mushrooms and other good stuff; escargot deep-fried or roasted in a whole onion; escargot soufflé at LE RECAMIER in Paris; snails with bresola, shallots, mushrooms and rich Bordelaise sauce atop creamy polenta at LE NOTRE in Paris; escargot incorporated into a salad with grilled lettuce, baby onions, mushrooms and pickled carrots at DINNER BY HESTON BLUMENTHAL in London; snails masquerading as LASAGNA; and again in London at SCOTT’S, where they’re prepared with monkfish cheeks and sinus-clearing garlic toast.  

However, Joanne has NEVER HAD A SNAIL FACIAL. 

Now, what I’ve been talking about are LAND SNAILS. BUT…. 

…there are also varieties of SEA SNAILS, of which we sampled more than our fair share while in Nice and Barcelona last summer. 

Not all snails are edible, but those that are suitable for consumption include: “knobbed whelks” (kind of like baby conch shells); “lighting snails,” served in a heaping platter at our favorite restaurant in Barcelona, BOTAFUMERIO; and another breed of sea snails are “whelks,” which are a frequent guest on those impressive seafood towers in Parisian brasseries. 

We enjoyed sea snails served warm with a garlicky butter dipping sauce, but most often they were served cold on crushed ice with homemade mayo – a welcome treat for us with the record-setting heat wave in Nice. 

And then there are the tiny, and I mean TINY, but delicious PERIWINKLES, so small that you release them from their shells with a needle. 

But…..ONLY PARISIANS WOULD THINK OF THIS….. 

A somewhat dreary but nevertheless delightful little restaurant that is DEDICATED to the snail. The name? You guessed it: L’ESCARGOT. It’s located not far from Les Halles, on Rue Montorgueil. And while you’ll find steak frites and French onion soup on the menu, no one comes for that. They’re here for the snails – Escargot Bourguignon, of course, but also Truffle Butter Escargot and Foie Gras Escargot.   

Get a half dozen for yourself or a dozen to share, or order 36 for the table. The good news: You can mix ‘em up. On our last visit, they were about one euro each – pretty darn good for Paris! 

However, if you are not traveling to Paris anytime soon, there’s no need to despair. Help is at hand and nearby. Escargot Bourguignon is always on the menu at SALUT (and with warm, crusty sopping bread).  

W.T. F. 

PHIL 

UNLUCKY CAT

MANEKI-NEKO, a Japanese term, refers to the cat with the waving paw that’s so often seen near the entry of many Asian businesses….particularly restaurants.   MANEKI-NEKO loosely translates as meaning GOOD FORTUNE or LUCKY CAT.  If the left hand is waving…it means good luck for BUSINESS.  If it’s the right hand beckoning, that means good luck with money for your family and household.

Enter British rock-star celebrity chef, writer, critic and TV personality….GORDON RAMSAY.

Now Joanne and I over the years have been universally pleased with all of his London restaurants beginning with his Michelin 3 starred early success on Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea.  A few years later we had the pleasure of dining at his restaurant housed in CLARIDGE’S HOTEL in Mayfair.  Then ten years ago he opened MAZE also in Mayfair.   MAZE, a small plate sharing restaurant, proved to be a “target rich” venue for several visits by our PARASOLE CULINARY teams over the past decade.  Ramsay never had trouble plating up beautifully crafted and eye-popping dishes like the LOBSTER and LEMONGRASS RISOTTO illustrated below.

And so it is, that after a ten year run, that he “folded his tent” at MAZE.

That’s where the cat comes in.    His new place, LUCKY CAT, is a small plate PAN JAPANESE-ISH venue, that debuted last summer in the same spot as MAZE on Grosvenor Square.

It seemed to me that LUCKY CAT, being Asian, he took a bold, risky and “gutty” step in that immediate neighborhood because just a few short blocks away are already two knock-out ASIAN restaurants….BOTH MICHELIN STARRED.    One is UMU….on Bruton Place…. Chic and high fashioned AUTHENTIC JAPANESE cuisine.  The other, just down the street, is KAI…..a favorite of Joanne and mine…..”little plates of loveliness” that lean CHINESE with subtle  MALAYSIAN influences.    But then, what the hell do I know ?

Well, I do know this.  LUCKY CAT is good looking and very well “put-together”.  Jet black is the “mother color” and the space is very, very dark indeed…..a sort of “shadowy aesthetic”.  Little bespoke gold ceramic LUCKY CATS are everywhere….300 of ‘em….all cleverly positioned.  In a press release, Ramsay stated that the space is dark to prevent photography.   Good luck with that.

LUCKY CAT apparently was inspired by the EATING and DRINKING CLUBS and JAZZ DENS of the 1930’s that thrived in Tokyo and other Asian capitals.  Does anybody alive remember these ????

Being Gordon Ramsay fans, Joanne and I went to LUCKY CAT last month on a rainy Tuesday night in London.  The sultry dark space immediately felt cozy to our damp and chilled bodies as we were seated at a oversized sized deuce.

I should pause here to tell you that prior to our visit to LUCKY CAT, we had read the reviews in THE GUARDIAN and other London publications as well.   They were not good.

Grace Dent of THE GUARDIAN stated that the restaurant was too loud and waits between courses were way too long.  She opined that the DUCK LEG was sticky and fatty.

Service was chaotic.  And saying that the prices were so high that you “could wave goodbye to next month’s car payment”.

George Reynolds of the London Eater stated “It’s been a tough week for cats”.   Restaurant critic Fay Maschler and Reynolds both scratched their heads in wonderment of why the DUCK LEG is crusted in BONITO FLAKES….giving it a fishy flavor.   Reynolds, continuing his harsh review, citing that even a dead cat will “BOUNCE” if it falls from a great height.  “But, this feline in question just continues to free fall”.

So, fore-warned is fore-armed.  Knowing all of this, Joanne and I  “soldiered-on” and proceeded to work our way through the menu in spite of our waiter who knew PRACTICALLY NOTHING about the menu content and ABSOLUTEL NOTHING about the wine list.   Even though the delivery of our selections was out-of-sync….long gaps in delivery and then two or three dishes all at once, the food certainly had glimpses of the Ramsay touch…..full flavored, colorful and frequently clever.  We especially enjoyed the smallish CHAR-SIU PORK CHOP with NASHI PEAR as well as the previously mentioned DUCK LEG (which is actually for do-it-yourself BAO BUNS).

But …..what we especially DID NOT ENJOY was the NOISE LEVEL.   Our oversized deuce table proved to be too big and Joanne and I literally could not hear a single word the other said.  My guess is that the decibel level was somewhere between a LIVE ROCK CONCERT and a 757 taking off from Heathrow.

What we also did not enjoy were the EYE-WATERING PRICES.  Yes, I am aware that this is the most expensive neighborhood in London and consequently the rents are in the stratosphere.   But this is a SMALL PLATE RESTAURANT with scaled back portions.  Most plates are about 7 inches in diameter.   So when two tiny (albeit delicious) lamb chops cost $ 33 usd and a small single duck leg is $ 35 usd and a Negroni is $ 21….well….

I feel that if members of the British Royal Monarchy had dined here, I can say as Jay Rayner of the Gaurdian once said….”I, too, have been ROYALLY SCREWED”.

W.T.F.

PHIL

I’M A SCOTCH MAN

Having just returned from London, this post is practically a LOVE LETTER to London steakhouses and SCOTCH BEEF.

As you already know, London is probably my favorite culinary capital, primarily due to its diversity of cuisines – whether Indian, Pakistani, French, Chinese, Middle Eastern and, yes, even British.  (We’ll see what happens with Brexit however. Will time-consuming and tedious inspections and delays at border crossings cause lettuce and other perishables to go limp and lose their freshness while sitting in warehouses in France for days upon end? I just don’t know.) 

On this recent visit, we drilled down deeper into steakhouses that Joanne and I have previously enjoyed and particularly into Scotch Beef…the best of the UK’s prime cattle.

But first…our favorite London steakhouses.

GOODMAN…..several locations, but the one that we frequent is on Maddox street in Mayfair. Harden’s London Restaurant Guide, which gives it a 4 out of 5 for both food and service, says, “Every cut is prepared exactly the way it should be.”  They have a catchy slogan…“Good steaks for good men”(Is that sexist?)….HMMM? The Goodman group originally hails from Moscow and has added several other successful restaurants around London….the most notable group being the bargain priced BURGER & LOBSTER….as well as their new casual steakhouse….ZELMAN MEATS. (more about that later.)

HAWKSMORE…..six locations around town, many of them in basements. A lower-level location probably helps with lower rent, but it certainly does not help with the atmosphere.  The spaces, with their low ceilings, just seem a little dreary to me. But be warned: that won’t be reflected in lower prices. In fact, Harden’s says, “…it cost you an arm and a leg, but you can rest assured that the arm and the leg will be perfectly cooked.” 

A SPECIAL NOTE…..HAWKSMORE was, along with MANNY’S, recently cited as “ONE OF THE 10 BEST STEAKHOUSES IN THE WORLD.” And indeed, it is very good.

ZELMAN MEATS…..this spawn of the Goodman Group is a decidedly more youthful package with, if you choose, lesser cuts and lesser prices. Because they butcher the whole cow on premises, they are blessed not only with the usual cuts of steak, but also with briskets, rump roasts and a never-ending supply of braised, glazed short ribs that surrender effortlessly to your fork. Large portions/fair prices.

MACELLAIO…..Meat, meat and more meat! This place is for hard core carnivores; a caveman moment for those dedicated to smoke and char.  Great haunches of beef hang in plain sight in the storefront cooler. The butcher’s counter sits in the middle of the dining room and beef, perfectly charred and hewn in big hunks unceremoniously lands on your table and dares you not to lick your fingers. 

This is not swimsuit food, folks.

So what about the beef?

It’s uniformly good…at all four places. But there are differences.

Although the preponderance of the best beef cattle is born and raised in Scotland, there is a first amongst equals. In my opinion the best I’ve had is P.G.I. SCOTCH BEEF. That is different from SCOTTISH BEEF which is unregulated.  P.G.I. Stands for Protected Geographical Indication. Animals so designated are raised in strict conditions and farmers are assiduously monitored to insure the best animal welfare, best practices and traceability.

These days people want to know exactly where their beef comes from and who raised it.  Like P.G.I. SCOTCH BEEF, that’s precisely why several years ago at MANNY’S we introduced our exclusive HERITAGE BEEF PROGRAM….documented, certified and completely traceable.

The animals must spend their whole life in Scotland, be processed in Scotland and their birth certificates kept on file for inspectors. The preferred breeds are ABERDEEN ANGUS, known for tenderness, and HIGHLAND known for its marbling. 

As far as I can tell, the steaks at the restaurants that I mentioned is primarily from grass-fed cattle. That doesn’t surprise me and it seems to me that the British, over the years, have developed a taste for it.

Grass-fed has its attributes. It’s leaner with less marbling, a bit gamier, a little drier and chewier, and has fewer calories than its counterpart…

…GRAIN-FINISHED BEEF. All Scottish cattle start out as grass-fed plus mother’s milk. But at around 6 to 8 months, some are transferred to a grain feeding facility to fatten up before going to market. The result is that grain-finished beef appears to be trending up among the British palates these days. Why? Well, it’s a little richer, more tender, more buttery, slightly sweeter, and that much juicier!

Enter my favorite steakhouse in London: THE GUINEA GRILL on Bruton Pl. in Mayfair (see my very first posting, which was about Guinea Grill, on March 15, 2016).

Aside from the coziness and small scale of the restaurant, as well as the royal approval of the Queen Mum, what sets it apart for me is the Scotch Beef.

Not only are the steaks consistently perfectly executed…so are the unmistakably “proper” English chips. The beef is grain-finished and is dry-aged for 25 days, unusual for London steakhouses since they often do not age their beef.  At some London steakhouses, it could be that the steak you’re eating tonight might have been mooing yesterday.

As we know from MANNY’S, among other things, dry-aging causes the connective tissue to dissolve, leaving nothing but concentrated flavor.

So, if your plans include a visit to London, you can try ’em all.  But be sure to include THE GUINEA GRILL.

GOOD LUCK, BORIS. And let’s hope that BREXIT doesn’t screw up my favorite steakhouses.

W.T.F.

PHIL

FESTIVAL ITALIANI!

FESTIVAL # 1

There was a piece in my recent issue of Time Out – New York on Little Italy’s FEAST OF SAN GENNARO. Saint Gennaro is the patron saint of Naples, Italy and more than a million folks descend on Mulberry Street in lower Manhattan to celebrate his feast day.

The highlight of the 11-day celebration is the Grand Procession involving floats, marching bands, celebrants and, of course, the statue of San Gennaro being carried on the shoulders of a dozen or so strapping Italians.

Some years ago I happened to stumble on the event, and saw women pinning dollar bills onto the decorative fabric of the elevated float that carries the statue through the pedestrian-congested street food stalls, with their offerings of hot beef sandwiches, cannoli and pizza. I also saw a parish priest strolling the food stalls, taking in the aromas of grilled sausage and just-baked pizza….all the while offering his blessing to each food vendor. 

FESTIVAL # 2

Reading about the Little Italy event got me thinking about another fortuitous festival experience Joanne and I had in the Puglian southern city of Bari, Italy.

That evening, as darkness set in, the center of the city suddenly burst into a spectacular light show, the likes of which we had never seen. The town square, buildings, and monuments – all lavishly and carefully adorned with thousands and thousands of tiny lights – came alive before our eyes. And suddenly a huge procession emerged at the edge of the town square, led by the parish priest or possibly the bishop. Serious pageantry ensued – including banners, military-like uniformed members of the clergy, marching bands, and throngs of locals dressed up in traditional costumes and carrying Catholic icons and relics, the most important of which was the statue of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of Bari, the protector of sailors. The priest recited a prayer for calm and peaceful seas as the procession ended at the Basilica of St. Nicola. 

The food stalls?   Local stuff….good local stuff:  pizza, of course; the signature pasta of Puglia, orecchiette; and from the sea, grilled baby octopus.

Italians love to celebrate. Their festivals are famous throughout Italy as well as in other countries and communities of Italian emigrants around the world. They are known for their scale, their local culinary specialties, their pageantry, the veneration of their patron saints…and occasionally their eccentricity (stay tuned for that).

FESTIVAL # 3

Our Parasole colleagues visited Venice, Italy a while back as part of a Parasole Wine Tour. Unfortunately, they were there in the fall and missed one of the most stunning and colorful festival spectacles in all of Italy: The Festa Della Sensa (the Marriage of the Sea) that takes place every May.

In this Venice festival there is a procession as well, but this one takes place in the canals. Exuding bravado and flamboyance, the lead boat leaves from the Piazza San Marco and wends its way down the Grande Canal, horns blaring, followed by a colorful procession of rowboats manned by equally colorful costumed, swaggering boat-men.

The procession ends a few miles away at the church of Saint Nicolo. But there seems to be no evidence of Saint Nicholas anywhere. From what I can tell, there is only a vague religious link to the festival (called the Feast of St. Nicholas). Nevertheless, at a market close to the church revelers celebrate with Venetian Pizzas – featuring calamari, shrimp, clams, mussels and whatever other gifts the sea provided that day. Venetian pizza? DAMN GOOD!

FESTIVAL # 4

The next festival on my list flirts a bit with eccentricity.

That would be the original Feast of Saint Gennaro, held in Naples, Italy every September.

Unlike its New York offspring, the original is deeply religious. Thousands of believers gather in the cathedral as well as on the piazza in front of the cathedral to try and catch a glimpse of a cardinal bearing vials of red liquid believed to be the coagulated blood of St. Gennaro. The crowd watches anxiously to see if it liquifies, a sign that the saint has blessed the city (it usually liquifies).

Then the festivities begin. The procession leaves the church with the cardinal triumphantly in the lead and parades through the narrow streets of Naples with the statue of saint and the liquified blood in tow.

The food reward at the end?  PIZZA !!! (Duh, this is Naples).

FESTIVAL # 5

Perhaps the most eccentric of Italian festivals is the annual May celebration that takes place in Cocullo, a town in Abruzzo.

It’s called Festa del Separi, or the Festival of the Snake Catchers. Yup, that’s right, snakes are involved. Six-footers.

This bizarre festival celebrates Saint Dominic, who locals believe fends off wolves, bears and illness. The snakes – lots of ‘em, gleefully handled by the town folk – are draped over the wooden statue of Saint Dominic and paraded through the streets. Whoever, at the end of the day, rounds up the most snakes is dubbed…a HERO. HMMM?

I HATE SNAKES…..YEECH !!!!!

Fortunately, they’re not on the menu. At this festival, the crowds are blessed to feast on Porchetta and pizza!

W.T.F.

PHIL

STATE FARE: ICONIC REGIONAL DISHES

My son, David, just dropped off his son, Charlie, at a university in Massachusetts for his sophomore year.

It got me thinking about the times when Joanne and I road-tripped around the country, sometimes with our kids, other times on our own.

Naturally this gets us to food. 

I remember being intent on trying each state’s ICONIC dishes. There are too many to recount in just one post, so this will be the first in a series.

Let’s begin with Connecticut. Two spots come to mind.

Joanne and I traveled up to New Haven for our son, Steven’s, graduation in architecture and celebrated with a very nice group dinner at the UNION LEAGUE CAFÉ.  But typically we sought out restaurants (actually, joints) that define the state’s food culture.

First, LOUIE’S LUNCH.

Louie’s was created in 1895 and, according to the Library of Congress, was the birthplace of the hamburger.  Not only that, but the Travel Channel calls its signature offering “THE TASTIEST BURGER IN AMERICA.”

Now, the place is tiny – really tiny – and the burgers are flame-grilled on the original upright gas broilers. The meat blend is a closely held secret, but is rumored to be a combination of five different cuts of beef; a blend so tasty that Louie’s has extremely strict rules about eating their burgers. First, in order to experience the meat’s full flavor, you’re required to eat it on white bread toast. Ketchup and mustard will not be permitted. Toppings are restricted also. A slice of tomato is allowed. Raw onions are permissible, as is cheese. You want a portabella mushroom or bacon on it? You can get the f+++ out.

I recall the burgers are around $7, and I believe they come with a styrofoam cup of potato salad, to be eaten with long red plastic iced tea spoon.

Second: FRANK PEPE’S PIZZA, also in New Haven.

There were several of us that piled into three wooden booths on a quiet Saturday afternoon. But we got to see the original huge bank of white-hot, coal-fired pizza ovens that span the entire back wall of the restaurant.  Seven or eight pizziolas decked out in white baker’s uniforms navigate the pizza-making ritual with a show-stopping ballet that involves inserting, removing and landing their charred crust creation smack-dab in front of you with a soft thud on the marble counter. And the performance is choreographed with the use of 12-foot long pizza peals suspended from the ceiling…worthy of a 1930’s Busby Berkeley musical production.

They claim that their most popular pizza is “The Tomato Pie,” a mostly round, manhole-sized rendition. I’ve had it. It’s good. But my favorite, perhaps because I’m from the Midwest, is Pepe’s White Clam Pizza, loaded with clam bellies and crispy bacon.

However, just last week, according to a Facebook quote and published by The New Haven Register, the owner was spotted flashing a Trump poster reading “Deplorables For Trump.” This ignited a boycott by a sizeable group of local residents. Reportedly a contingent of outsiders is currently picketing the restaurant (reinforcing my belief that it is the height of stupidity for restaurateurs to wade into politics).

An Irony: Amongst Trump supporter Pepe’s recent guests are Bill Clinton, Barak Obama and Robert De Niro. (Like I always say, “Pizza ain’t political.”)

My Connecticut winner? Frank Pepe’s White Clam Pizza.

Our son Steven started his undergraduate education at Bowdoin, located at the end of the earth, in Maine. So when Joanne, Steven and I made the road trip to Brunswick to visit…well, it was all about Maine Lobster rolls, day and night. Well-intentioned operators, however, seemed to have corrupted the concoction. All too many spots offered renegade versions of this classic dish. Some served their lobster rolls hot. Some were bound with Miracle Whip. Some of them shamelessly included chopped tomatoes. We even stumbled on Creole iterations with remoulade and bacon. Outrageous.

Perhaps, all these years later, Mainers have enthusiastically embraced such iterations (or should I say “bastardizations”) of the proper lobster roll. And who am I to tell a native which one is actually correct? However, I can tell you this: My favorite Maine Lobster Roll is dreadfully simple.

The base is a Pepperidge Farm hot dog bun with thin sides carefully sawed off. It’s generously brushed with butter and toasted on a flat-top griddle. The lobster filling should be in CHUNKS (ideally with lots and lots of claw meat), mixed with Hellman’s mayo (or homemade mayo that tastes like Hellman’s) and enough chopped celery to ensure that when you eat it, a crunch of celery in every bite serves as a counterpoint to the luscious lean chunks of fresh lobster.

Maine’s iconic food? The Lobster Roll. Hands down!

Next stop: Miami Beach.

I thought about the delicious Cubano sandwiches of PUERTO SAUGA at 7th and Collins, with their layers of roast pork shoulder, deli ham, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, garlic, lime juice, and bread & butter pickles. I also thought briefly about orange juice, but WTF is there to say about that besides “I like fresh-squeezed?”

Anyway, this blog is about food, and on that count one restaurant comes to mind before all others: JOE’S STONE CRAB, which I’ve written about on several occasions. Here, I’m selecting two dishes. You may not think I’m playing fair, but these two desperately need each other, like salt and pepper, liver and onions, Simon and Garfunkel.

By now you have probably guessed. Yes, It’s stone crabs and Key Lime pie!!!!

A TIP FOR YOU: If you try stone crabs I Florida, get nothing smaller than the Jumbos or the Colossals. And before, some key lime pies are made with regular limes. Not good. They Key limes are sweeter, full flavored, and pack a limey punch. (I imagine a squeeze of Key lime would be delicious in a glass of Florida orange juice).

Now comes Bobby Knight’s state: Indiana.

Here are two state favorites that are special to me – one that I discovered in later years when I started dining at steakhouses. The other? A sandwich that was a major player during my high school years, and helped me deal with rejection by the beautiful Bonnie in my junior year.

First, the steakhouse: SAINT ELMO’S in downtown Indy, specifically their world-famous Shrimp Cocktail. This is the dish that put Indianapolis on the culinary map. Saint Elmo’s is not only one of the great steakhouses in America, but it sports an iconic fiery shrimp cocktail like you’ve never experienced: chilled, fresh, plump, briny shrimp (five of ‘em). But the sauce is what’s special. It’s eye-watering, sinus-clearing, table-pounding (and my wife tells me, libido-enhancing), fresh-grated horseradish hell.

OHHH….but it hurts SOOO GOOD !!

Along with a killer shrimp cocktail and Bobby Knight (and let’s not forget the Jackson Five), Indiana has given us a truly iconic dish: its frying pan-sized, deep-fried, crispy pork tenderloin sandwich, made from a 7-ounce pork tenderloin that’s pounded and flattened ‘til it’s the diameter of a basketball, then floured, dipped in egg wash, and dredged in breadcrumbs before a trip to the deep fryer. Served on a normal burger bun, it’s usually eaten with raw onions, pickles and ketchup. Soooo good!

But what about Bonnie?

She was my high school sweetheart. Or so I thought. You see, Bonnie never quite saw things my way. I endured night after night of rejection and finally took to culinary revenge. On our evenings out, I resorted to dumping her off at home at 9:30 instead of the usual 10:00. Why, you ask? Well, the local A & W root beer stand closed at 10:00, and that gave me just enough time to ditch Bonnie for their platter-sized, deliciously greasy, Indiana-inspired pork tenderloin sandwich.

With my “culinary revenge gambit,” I think I’ve sorta managed to keep my dignity intact concerning Bonnie, so this seems like a good place to close. I’ve got lots more, though!…the Hot Brown, Maid-Rites, Nashville Hot Chicken, 5 Way Chili…And those are just the appetizers.

Stay tuned.

WTF,

Phil

FIRST-RATE DINING IN PARIS’ 6TH ARRONDISEMENT

When Joanne and I visit Paris, we always stay in a boutique hotel called the Saint Gregoire, in the 6th arrondissement near the Bon Marché. And because there are nights that we choose to stay in the neighborhood and seek out a simple but good bistro, I was surprised to discover on our last visit that there actually was a neighborhood place that I hadn’t heard of – one that suited us to a tee.

INVICTUS, a chic little bistro with an amber glow, is tiny (just 34 seats). You’ll find it on Rue Sainte-Beuve, a side street just steps from the Luxembourg Gardens.

In true Minnesota geezer fashion, I had booked our table for 7:00 on a Monday evening in June. We arrived just as the restaurant was opening. But to my surprise, we were greeted in a very un-Parisian fashion: The manager actually smiled at us at the front door and we were off to a delightful evening.

As the first to arrive, we snagged the best table in the house (#6), the only one by the window. Take note!

The menu was a French bistro charmer that seemed to have one foot in tradition and the other foot walking it forward. And there was not a whiff of pretention…only an earnest desire to please.

On this warm summer evening, we began by cracking a bottle of a cool, crisp Sancerre.

In our American restaurateur “piggy-style,” (yes, that’s an industry term, one I made up just now), it seems like we tried everything that they had to offer, beginning with a chilled pea soup scattered with crispy lardons and topped with a warm and perfectly runny just-cooked poached egg. Heirloom tomatoes were in season, so of course Joanne chose the tomato-burrata salad, adorned with fresh-cut basil and extra-virgin olive oil.

My starter of pickled herring took me right back to Reykjavik – though the flavors were typically French in their nuance and balance. It was served with baby onions, green apple, and intentionally luke-warm potatoes (12 euros). A pristine crab cocktail with marinated thin zucchini slices followed.

In a nod to neighboring Italy, we shared a second starter of white anchovies resting on a bed of grilled red peppers, with garlic bathed in fruity olive oil, perfect for sopping up with the accompanying crusty bread and sea salt.

Invictus offered two iterations of roasted chicken, both featuring the Landes breed of bird, a southern French rival to Bresse chickens. To nobody’s surprise they were really deeply flavored and juicy, especially the version stuffed with a confit of garlic cloves. I suspect that a pound or two of butter may also have contributed to the juiciness. Both dishes were flanked by salt-flecked baby new potatoes.

Fearing that full orders of the thick-sliced Argentine rib-eye might throw us into a food coma, we decided to share a single order. Invictus gave the steak a teriyaki glaze and prepared it perfectly, the meat surrendering to the gentlest nudge of my fork. Still, Joanne declared her choice “best in show” – a piece of steamed hake about the size of a deck of cards, luxuriating in a lemon-grassy Thai broth that was at once spicy, sour and sweet. Included with it were glass noodles and a mix of fresh vegetables.

We also found room for a gorgeous baked cod accompanied by a hollowed-out eggplant, stuffed and baked with ratatouille, as well as two French bistro icons: a textbook Sole Meuniere (36 euros) and a Fergus Henderson-ish snout-to-tail rendition of veal kidneys in red wine. I was slightly embarrassed when I asked for mustard. It was like someone at MANNY’S asking for ketchup with their rib-eye.

Desserts?   OH, YEAH!

We started with a generous slice of Tarte Tatin brightened by a scoop of salted caramel ice cream. A gorgeous, bouncy, all-red dessert of strawberries, raspberries and red currant ice cream burst with flavor. The dessert winner, however, was the warm vanilla millefeuille. I’ve downed my share of this classic dessert, but never have I had it warm. Nice touch.

Bottom line: This place is good….really good.

One thing to note: Burdened by out-of-control labor costs and government rules and regulations, many French bistros (including ones you may have heard of or even dined at) have been forced to abandon the scratch cooking that brought them success. The Boeuf Bourguignon that you may have enjoyed on previous visits may today arrive at the restaurant in a plastic bag, Applebee’s-style, ready to be re-heated.

NOT SO AT INVICTUS. The restaurant is under the thoughtful, brilliant culinary guidance of Chef Christophe Chabanel, who trained in South Africa and now sports a pedigree that includes the multi-Michelin starred Paris restaurant, APICIUS.

You WILL need reservations. Even though we were lonely diners at 7:00 PM, by 7:30 the place started to fill. And by 8:00 there was a butt in every single seat and people were being turned away at the door.

What we also like about INVICTUS is that it does not break the bank. Dinner ran about 75 euros/person – INCLUDING WINE!  Rare in Paris.

It’s a place that we will return to, often…..a place that I will always remember….remember what I had for dinner, and who I was there with.

This is a FIND. Relish it!

W.T.F.

PHIL

FOUR SEASONS, ONE LEGENDARY RESTAURANT

I was a kid, still in school. The year was 1958 and the Canadian distiller and Seagram heiress, Phyllis Lambert, had just witnessed the completion of the soaring, Mies Van de Roe-designed Seagram Building, at the corner of Park Ave and 52nd Street in New York City.

A year later THE FOUR SEASONS restaurant opened there. It was designed by the influential architect, Philip Johnson (best known to Twin Citians as the man who gave us the IDS Center).

The spectacular space was ahead of its time. So, too, was the food philosophy of its owner, Joseph Baum. Before anyone was talking about seasonal food, local sourcing, or farm-to-table cuisine (this was years before Alice Waters revealed that notion to California), Baum introduced what he called New American Cuisine, which was predicated on quality, freshness and seasonality. Mimi Sheraton, who later became the New York Times food critic, and James Beard were menu consultants.

The restaurant was a magnet not just for New York’s A-Listers, but for the global elite. To cite a few: The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Jack and Jackie (although not together…hmmmm?), Sophia Loren, and a young Henry Kissinger (who’s reported to have always ordered the $40 truffle-strewn baked potato). In later years, Martha Stewart, Princess Diana, Tina Brown and even the Dalai Lama and his saffron-clad entourage frequented the restaurant. The table-hopping was discreet…no lingering…almost orchestrated, like a ballet.

We’ve all heard the term “Power Lunch.” Esquire magazine coined it in reference to the Four Seasons in 1979. This was the place where book deals were signed, decisions made, and mergers were negotiated. Potentates plotted and planned. Business victories were celebrated, marriages were made and ended here.

The main action took place in the Pool Room, an absolutely breathtaking space with 22-foot-high ceilings and a white marble-clad 20-by-20-foot pool, dead center. The pool’s four corners were anchored by trees that honored the menu offerings and changed with the season. The other dining room, The Grill Room, boasted the same high ceilings and lustrous walnut walls, but it was definitely a step down. I’ve heard it said that the Grill Room was a country club; the Pool Room, a cruise ship. 

During the mid-1970s, I was traveling to New York on a regular basis, about every other week. Knowing my deep interest in food and restaurants, and feeling sorry for the deprivation I endured as a native of the “fly-over” Midwest, my Big Apple clients enjoyed taking me to New York’s newest and finest dining destinations, including legendary restaurants like Lutece, La Caravelle, Quilted Giraffe, Tavern on the Green, 21 Club, and Le Cirque.

So it was on one of my first trips that I was lucky enough to be invited by a client to The Four Seasons for a drink. The square-shaped bar was centered beneath a gigantic seasonal spray of dazzling flowers, hanging from above. The lofty windows were draped with metal beads that rippled softly from a gentle breeze emanating from hidden floor vents. This midwestern bumpkin felt like he was at the center of the universe, where only important things could happen. 

Over the next few years, I went back to the bar half a dozen times. Only once did I dine in the restaurant. It was early – probably around 5:30 or 6PM – the only time we could snag a table without an impossible-to-secure reservation. The host guided us to – and through –the see-and-be-seen Pool Room to “Siberia”: the ass end of the Grill Room.

I don’t remember what exactly we had for dinner except that there was an abundance of theater, with tableside preparations and plenty of flourishes. I also remember that it was insanely expensive.

Perhaps the restaurant was at its best when New York was at its worst – with Mayor Ed Koch trying to get a handle on the crime-ridden, crumbling and bankrupt metropolis. I don’t know if folks realize how much the Four Seasons must have meant to the city during those troubled times.

Servers, formally attired in Tom Ford tuxedos, served specialties like Long Island duck for two, deftly carved tableside ($150!). Sole Meuniere, deboned before your eyes, set you back $95, but was worth a visit for that alone. Other signature dishes included black bass ceviche ($35), crab cakes ($64), hand-carved roast lamb ($65), sea urchin ravioli, chocolate souffle, a chocolate/salted caramel tart, and a $38 tuna burger. Regulars were treated with a touch of whimsy….a basketball-sized cloud of pink cotton candy delivered at the end of their meal. The guests loved it, and their ratings were reflected in the Zagat Guide’s perennially stellar ratings for the food.

I don’t know for sure, but as good as the cooking was, the menu may not have even been the point. Perhaps the Four Seasons was, first and foremost, a stage for superstar luminaries.

But all stars fade eventually, and beginning in the late 1990s, the Power Lunch had begun to lose its luster. Over the next two decades, formal, stratospherically expensive cuisine was long past its “use by” date. People had just stopped eating that way, and the Four Season’s clientele had moved on. To make matters worse, Julian Niccolini, the affable and gracious host and partner, was very publicly accused of multiple sexual allegations about the same time that the Me Too movement was gaining traction. Women ignored the place.

And so, after 57 years, the landlord declined to renew the restaurant’s lease.

New investors, however, promptly stepped in. Probably buoyed and maybe a little starstruck by the name, they ponied up over $30 million to build a new Four Seasons a few blocks to the south.

Now, let me pause for a little “inside baseball” wisdom. The rule of thumb is that sales need to double the investment in order for your restaurant to succeed. So do the math: Invest $30 million, you better do $60 million in sales.

Guess what?

The new Four Seasons permanently closed in June of 2019, less than a year after it opened.

The New York Post, in article entitled “Why the Four Seasons Revival Never Had a Chance,” commented that even though $30 million was spent, and despite bringing aboard a talented chef with a pedigree that included Le Bernardin, the restaurant was doomed. The new space didn’t have the drama and grandeur of the Seagram Building. The décor was tasteful and pleasant, but ceilings were low and the dining rooms lackluster. The place felt like a feeble imitation of the original. But the real problem was that the restaurant’s time had passed. People just didn’t show up. The kind of dining experience was no longer relevant to them.

As it says in Ecclesiastes 3: 1-22, “For everything there is a season…a time to be born, a time to die.”

RIP, Four Seasons. You were significant. You important. You were meaningful. You were good.

You had a LARGE LIFE.

WTF, Phil

Blog Schedule Change

With the busy fall season fast approaching, my upcoming heavy travel schedule and my wish to just spend some personal time … I’m going to temporarily publish WTF with Phil Roberts every other week instead of every week.

The good news is that I’ll be gathering a treasure trove of new and exiting material.

See you next week!

WTF
Phil

SALADE NIÇOISE AMONG THE NIÇOIS

It was July. And it was hotter than hell. We were in France last month when the temperature reached 114 degrees, a record high for the country.

Luckily, we happened to be in Nice at the time, where a prevailing soft breeze from the Mediterranean made the temperature endurable. Still, the air was hot, heavy and humid. And in weather like that, just about the only lunch dishes that appealed were salads.

This being Nice, that meant Salade Niçoise (“the finest summer salad of all,” according to celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay).

Now, I thought I knew a lot about the dish. After all, we feature a great Salade Niçoise right here at SALUT. And over the years, I’ve encountered endless versions and perversions of it. Salade Niçoise Pizza, anyone? What about a Niçoise Burger? 

As for the salads, sometimes they’re tossed, other times carefully and artfully composed. Occasionally they’re deconstructed. One was crammed into a jar and subjected to vigorous shakes before the server emptied the contents on my plate.

On this most recent trip, what caused me to snap to attention was my first Salade Niçoise in Nice. It arrived without green beans or new potatoes – just anchovy, tomato, egg, canned Ventresca belly meat tuna, and little black Niçoise olives.” A grande deception!!!

But it didn’t stop there. None of the Salades Niçoise that I ordered in Nice (probably six to eight) came with green beans or potatoes.

I had to find out why.

After a little investigation, I learned that I was the idiot….  (well, maybe not an idiot….but unaware of a longstanding controversy on just this topic.).

For decades, French culinarians have divided themselves into two camps (we’ll call them the Traditionalists and the Innovators) regarding what ingredients should or should not be included in a Salade Niçoise. It’s reported that in the early nineteenth century, the salad simply consisted of fresh tomatoes, anchovies, hard cooked egg and olive oil. Hewing to this recipe, Traditionalists like the French politician and cookbook author Jacques Medecin said, “NEVER, NEVER, I beg you, include boiled potatoes in your Salade Niçoise.”

It would appear that the traditionalists have prevailed in Nice, but everywhere else the Innovators have gained the upper hand, trampling tradition by adding red peppers, artichoke hearts, shallots, red onion, garlic, and basil – even shrimp – not to mention the evil green beans and new potatoes.

Then again, green beans and potatoes were good enough for Auguste Escoffier, the father of classic French cuisine. Likewise, the esteemed French chef and restaurateur Helene Darroze endorsed a more modern version when she posted a potato and bean-laden recipe online. Reaction to her post was swift and severe, however. Purists called it a “MASSACRE OF THE RECIPE…A VIOLATION OF ANCESTRAL TRADITIONS!”  In response, Darroze acknowledged that “It’s dangerous to innovate.”

So the first big battle line was drawn: potatoes and beans, “Oui” or “Non?”

But there’s a second battle, too. This one concerns the tuna: Should it be fresh or canned?”

At Salut, we use grilled fresh tuna. Cookbook author Jacques Pepin also falls into the Innovator camp, though he prefers sautéed fresh tuna.

On the other side is legendary New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton, who wrote that “Salade Niçoise with fresh tuna is a travesty and if you like it, YOU ARE WRONG!”

To round out the tuna wars, Guilliano Hazan, the son of Marcella and Victor Hazan, writes, “Fresh tuna cannot compare with the irresistible flavor of good Mediterranean tuna packed in olive oil. People who think that they can improve a Salade Niçoise by using fresh tuna instead of EVOO-packed canned tuna are making a big mistake.”

Well, there you have it. Experts disagree.

My opinion? I prefer the canned. But I don’t think that most Minnesotans would necessarily agree. My belief is that our population has been profoundly imprinted by Starkist and Bumble Bee for all too many years and even though the canned product Hazan recommends is Ventresca tuna belly meat (the sushi-grade tastiest part of the fish, delicate and buttery) many people would consider it a step down…just because it’s canned.

But really, there are no bad answers. If you use high-quality ingredients, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with Maldon salt, your Salade Niçoise will be delicious even if you feel the need to make it in a jar.

WTF

Phil

SOUFFLE AT LE RÉCAMIER

Earlier this summer, Joanne and I had the opportunity to revisit one of our favorite Paris restaurants: LE RÉCAMIER. Situated in the 7th Arrondisement on the Left Bank of the Seine, it’s a short stroll from the Bon Marché department store (site of Paris’ best food hall), and just across the street from the Hotel Lutetia (home in 1940 to the commanding officers of the German occupation forces).

Le Récamier was named after the early nineteenth century socialite, Juliette Récamier. Said to be a stunning flirt who operated a conversational “salon” in her home, she entertained the crème de la crème of Parisian society, including single ladies and not-so-single gentlemen. Politics and literature were discussed, and it has been reported that mistresses could be found and exchanged under her watchful eye. I am reminded (and I paraphrase) the quote by Claude Raines (Captain Renault) in the film Casablanca: “I’m shocked, SHOCKED to find that ****** is going on here!”

Charming and chic (but not fancy, pretentious or crazy-nuts expensive), Le Récamier attracts more than its share of celebrities. They range from diplomats and heads of state (Jacques Chirac, Michelle Obama and her daughters) to film stars like Gerard Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ron Howard.

The interior ambiance is tasteful and the seating comfortable, but on a nice day or a balmy summer evening reserve one of the 45 outdoor tables. We recommend #16 and #280, but actually there are no bad options. Alert: the restaurant is closed on Sundays.

What distinguishes Le Récamier, however, isn’t its design, but its menu, which is all about SOUFFLÉS – wonderful soufflés, extra-gooey, melt-in-your-mouth soufflés. They’re intensely flavorful, creamy, perfect puffs, light as air.

Wrote Vogue magazine: “Le Récamier…salty or sweet? This hidden gem has the best soufflés in Paris.”

The term “soufflé” translates as “to breathe, to inflate, to puff.”  Earliest iterations appeared in the 18th century, and to this day the recipes appear not to have changed much. They’re either savory or sweet, and all involve eggs and room-temperature beaten egg whites. I’ve been told that they are pesky little devils to make, that there is no room for error, and that when ready, they wait for no one. Five minutes out of the oven and they’ll fall. Oh, and DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN ‘TIL THEY’RE DONE!!! 

Hmmm, I just wonder – because when I peeked into the kitchen, the chef had the oven door wide OPEN with five or six soufflés baking away.

Is this, perhaps, a SACRED COW that needs to be SLAIN? We’ll soon find out. I’m gonna test the notion at Salut.

Now, there are a few – but only a few – non-soufflé items on Le Récamier’s menu. One could begin, as I did on one occasion, with foie gras. But…I could have a foie gras soufflé as well. For a main course, I observed a guest eating Steak Frites au Poivre. But he could just as easily have ordered the Boeuf Bourguignon Soufflé.

Other soufflé choices that we’ve enjoyed include mushroom, four cheese, spring pea, broccoli, asparagus and escargot (our adventuresome grandson had that).

The day we visited, fresh seabass was the featured special, along with a gorgeous version of a lobster roll. Both looked good, but heck, you’re at a SOUFFLÉ restaurant. Get a seafood soufflé for God’s sake. They’re offered in varieties including smoked salmon with dill sauce, crawfish, or lobster ($28.50 euros; the priciest item on a menu where entrees average $22-24 euros).

On to dessert….

Even though we shared a cheese plate, each of us indulged in our own personal dessert soufflé. They’re slightly smaller than entrees and will run you between $14-15 euros.

Le Récamier is respectful of the seasons, and changes out its menus quarterly. Once in October, I had a wonderful spiced pumpkin soufflé. Berry versions abound in summer – strawberry, apricot, blueberry and raspberry, among other options.

Whatever the season, you must order Le Récamier’s three signature dessert soufflés, which are available year-round. Don’t get just one of them. Get all three:

THE CHOCOLATE SOUFFLÉ.  No skimping here. The chocolate is 70% Valrhona premium chocolate.

THE GRAND MARNIER SOUFFLÉ.  This deeply rich vanilla rendition with orange zest whipped into the egg whites is topped tableside with a healthy dose of Grand Marnier.

THE SALTED CARAMEL AND SALTED BUTTER SOUFFLÉ.  Punctuated with deep, dark Valrhona chocolate sauce.

You can, and we did, craft a three-course meal of soufflés. NO REGRETS.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t hazards on the menu (a Cheeseburger Soufflé is  offered).

You may also regret the fact that Parisians appear to be treated better than tourists at Le Récamier. But WTF, they’re French and you’re in Paris. What do you expect?

WTF

Phil