FRENCH COLONIAL HISTORY AND CULINARY EMPIRE

The French colonial empire extended across the world, ruling a wide range of places to varying degrees, from the late 16th century to as recently as the 1990s. In fact, France had the second-largest colonial empire in the world, second only to that of Great Britain. Consequently, local interpretations of French cuisine are still enjoyed today in unexpected places around the planet.

VIETNAM

From 1887 until its demise in 1954, the French colonial empire – collectively known as French Indochina – included Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian and Chinese territories across Southeast Asia. Well over half a century after the French left, their influence remains. For example, the architecture, particularly in Hanoi, is French inspired. And Vietnam is the only Asian country were French baguettes are consumed on a daily basis. VOL AU VENT, a delicate French pastry shell often filled with shrimp, is a popular dish. And, of course, the BANH MI remains the signature sandwich of Vietnam, served on a mayo-slathered French bread roll and stuffed with one or more meats like shredded pork or sausage, pickled carrots and daikon, cilantro, fresh cucumber, sliced chilis and often a slice of French pork pâtè.

FRENCH MOROCCO and FRENCH ALGERIA

The French first moved on Algeria in the mid 1800’s, went into Tunisia in 1881, and wrested control of Morocco in 1912. They stayed ‘til the mid 1990s before they were expelled and independence was declared by all three North African countries. The culinary legacies? There are French croquettes called MAAKOUTA BATATA, made from mashed potatoes, garlic, cumin, turmeric and mint…with honey-laced yogurt on the side. Yum!! GRILLED KEBABS of all stripes abound, typically marinated in some combination of cilantro, honey, mint, garlic, cumin and paprika. A classic dish is CHICKEN TAGINE with green olives and preserved lemon.

SYRIA

The kingdom of Syria surrendered to French forces in 1920. The French left in 1946, but their culinary influences so powerful that in recent years, when the country fell into chaos, rebels even issued a fatwa banning croissants (they said the pastry’s “crescent shape celebrates European victory over Muslims.”). French influences can also be seen in popular dishes like SHAKSHUSA, a brunchy concoction of red peppers, tomatoes, onion, cumin, and paprika topped with poached eggs. The dish originated in France, where it’s called PIPERADE. The only discernible difference that I can find between the two is that piperade uses a Basque spice called piment d’espelette, a dried chile sauce, instead of paprika. A distinction without a difference? Perhaps, but both are delicious.

THE FRENCH IN INDIA

In 1664 the French moved into southern India and established the French East Indian Trading Company headquartered in the city of Pondicherry. The main purpose at the time was to capitalize on the trade of luxurious fabrics and exotic spices. The French hung around the region, constantly quarreling with Britain, until 1950, three years after India gained her independence. But the French left quite a culinary imprint, including BOUILLABAISSE (yes, Bouillabaisse) but with a tropical Indian infusion of coconut milk and curry. Another is KING PRAWN CURRY with big fat shrimp in a curry spiked with ginger and turmeric containing hints of ginger and orange. A personal aside: I and members of PARASOLE’S culinary team dined at the legendary La Coupole brasserie on Rue Montparnasse in Paris a few years back and, among other delights, shared their signature dish: INDIAN CURRY. We brought the idea back home to SALUT and featured it as a monthly special ­– the most popular one we’ve ever run.

THE FRENCH IN CANADA

A large group of French folks emigrated to North America and settled in Acadia, or what we now call Nova Scotia. They were peaceful country folk who by and large farmed, hunted and fished for a living. But the British didn’t want them there and several wars occurred over the years until the British finally conquered them in 1710. Some decades later, around 1775, the Acadians migrated en masse to Louisiana and settled in the bayous just west of New Orleans. They called themselves Cajuns and lived off the local bounty, hunting and fishing and small farming. Their cooking continued to respect French technique. (BTW, the Creoles were more city folk and their cuisine embraced a much broader swath of cultures, from Spanish and Portuguese to Jamaican, African and French. Today the Cajun and Creole cuisines are by and large blended with only a few distinctions.) 

Oysters were plentiful for the French-Canadian settlers, as was game, seafood, pork, alligator and shrimp. Today iconic French-influenced restaurants thrive in New Orleans. ANTOINE’S, founded in 1840, was the creator of OYSTERS ROCKEFELLER and OYSTERS BIENVILLE as well as countless other iterations of delicious and inventive cheesy roasted oyster dishes.  Other significant French restaurants populate New Orleans today. GALATOIRE’S, founded in 1905, and ARNAUD’S, dating back to 1918, celebrate New Orleans’ take on French-inspired classics: CRAWFISH, QUAIL, SHRIMP ETOUFEE, CREOLES, GUMBOS and JAMBALAYAS.

FRENCH POLYNESIA

French traders and crewmen working on whaling ships were among the first westerners to encounter what became known as the French Polynesian islands in the mid-1800’s. Catholic missionaries arrived about the same time. France finally sent in a gunboat and in 1842 Tahiti was declared a French protectorate. The French archipelago is made up of over a hundred islands and atolls, the most populated being Tahiti and the most remote being Pitcarin Island, with a population 50, far away to the southeast. Today, Tahiti sports 5-star hotels where rock-star chefs create dishes with French underpinnings and bold tropical ingredients. One iconic French-inspired offering is a riff on CHICKEN FRICASSE except instead of chicken braised in cream sauce, the use of coconut milk, mangoes, ginger and pineapple provides a bright Polynesian punch. With the abundance of local fish, it is not surprising that the French authored a wide range of marinated raw fish appetizers. POISSON CRU was reimagined in Tahiti, where AHI TUNA is marinated and cured in lime juice along with coconut milk, tomatoes and fresh ginger.

THERE, YOU HAVE IT…(well almost)

The French being French, wine is part of the dining experience even in the South Pacific. And it’s not all imported. There’s actually a vineyard (small, just 15 acres) that somehow produces grapes from the inhospitable coral soil. A Frenchman winemaker from the Burgundy region named Sebastian Theperier, planted the grape vines in the 1990s and produces Muscat (white wine) and Grenache (rose wine). Although I’ve never sampled Tahitian wine, I’ve read that they are both pretty good.

What also looks pretty good: The idyllic life that the mutinous English Royal Navy officer Fletcher Christian of the HMS Bounty discovered on Pitcarin island. It’s good to be a mutineer.

FROM CLEVER TO CREEPY: SOCIAL DISTANCING IN RESTAURANTS

Hi, folks –

It’s been awhile.

But now here we are, dipping our toe back into the water.

Since the end of March, it made no sense to me to write about restaurants you wouldn’t be able to visit. That would be torture for foodies!

But…my antenna have been up and I’ve managed to tune into how restaurants are handling the pandemic. You may find it amusing.

First there are the baby-blue masks…and then are those fashionistas that color coordinate their masks with apparel. Others make their own, while some appear to mask up and celebrate the Carnevale di Venezia – the Venice Carnival.

SOCIAL DISTANCING…on the sidewalks…in the grocery store…even at Burger King (or maybe especially at Burger King).

And in the restaurants…

CAFÉ-KONDITOREI in Germany attached swimming pool noodles to straw hats as a social distancing measure.

Giant inner tubes solved the issue at FISH TALES BAR in Ocean City, Maryland.

At MEDIAMATIC ETEN, a vegetarian restaurant in Amsterdam, you can practice distancing by dining in your own private greenhouse.

If you want pandemic safety in Paris, visit H.A.N.D. restaurant near the Louvre and dine under your personal giant protective transparent lampshade suspended from the ceiling over your head and upper body.   It was created by noted French designer Christophe Gernigon.  He claims that his transparent dining pods actually enhance the dining experience by trapping in the food aromas.   HMMMM!….B as in B. S  as in S.

Now, as you already know, restaurants are required to eliminate roughly 50% of their tables to ensure distancing safety. But what to do with all those pesky unused tables?

In London, in Knightsbridge, bright red plush teddy bears occupy the forbidden seats and tables.

THE INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON, a Relais & Château five-star, five diamond-rated restaurant located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, resolved the issue by dressing mannequins and seating them at the empty tables to make the restaurant seem full. A little creepy? I was just wondering.

And speaking of creepy, check out TRATTORIA DE LUIGI in Royal Oak, Michigan (just north of Detroit). Instead of achieving social distancing by removing tables, they’ve converted chairs into white-draped ghosts. Calamari with a side of Casper, anyone?

Even creepier: OPEN HEARTH in Greenville, South Carolina seats empty booths with blow-up dolls (no doubt mail ordered and delivered in plain brown wrapping paper – after all, what would the neighbors think?)

All amusing…all creative…some creepy…. and all bizarre.

It’s funny – but only the first time. Not so funny on the second visit.

No, I’m a firm believer that restaurants are where you go when you want to leave concerns, troubles, drudgeries, duties and worries in a pile by the door – a place where life changes the moment you step inside. It’s kind of like a little vacation from yourself.

WELCOME BACK!

PHIL

GRACIOUS RAILWAY DINING: HAS THAT TRAIN LEFT THE STATION?

As a little kid growing up in a little town in central Illinois, a daily highlight for me was the 8:21 AM of the arrival of the sleek and speedy, Chicago-bound CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR at the Kewanee train station. About once a year my mother, grandmother, Aunt Rose and little Phil would board that superliner for a 3-hour ride to the big city to visit Aunt Edie – always occupying a table in the dining car, and I, always ordering pancakes.

To this day I retain my childhood amazement with train travel, especially the pleasure of luxuriating for hours in the dining cars.

So it was that last summer Joanne and I – grandkids in tow – traveled through France and on to Barcelona aboard the glossy TGV trains, cruising along at 300KM/H (190 MPH)…all the while anticipating gracious lunches served by smartly uniformed stewards.

After all, some of our fondest travel experiences were aboard Europe’s grand trains.  Back in the day, Joanne and I traveled to Italy regularly on business for the Buca restaurants. We’d always fly Northwest Airlines to its European gateway, Frankfurt, then journey by rail to our final destination. Train dining at that time was serious business, with starched linens, silver service, the sound of clinking glassware, and meals prepared to order over open flames. As we rolled into the Alps, and finally through the Brenner Pass, gaping at the spectacular views, we’d assuage our souls with ample amounts of wine. Life was good.

Life got even better on other trips to visit our daughter who was living and working in Switzerland. After a short stay with Jennifer, Joanne and I would again book a train trip over the Alps – only these times we’d take a less direct route, heading east toward St. Moritz through the hair-raising Bernina Pass, savoring the breathtaking scenery and meticulously prepared dinners in equal measure.

Dining on five-course dinners in a full-scale, softly lit dining car as the Alps flash past your window is certainly a romantic experience. Maybe not quite as sensual as the famous dining car seduction in the film North by Northwest involving Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, but definitely worth booking a private cabin for.

In 1974, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express introduced movie audiences to the glamour and elegance of perhaps the world’s most famous train. Watching Albert Finney confidently assert “I am probably the best detective in the world,” I wondered if it was Hercule Poirot’s self-possession that got Mrs. Hubbard all hot and bothered – or was she in thrall to the silk-swathed luxury of the train? All I knew is that one day I, too, would travel on the Orient Express (with Joanne as my Lauren Bacall).

Some years later while in London, we discovered that we could book a lunch trip on the Orient Express as it embarked from Victoria Station on its three-day journey to Istanbul.

How?

Well, the train (known as the Belmond Orient Express in England) leaves London around 11:30 AM. Champagne in their private boarding lounge at Victoria Station awaits. The train arrives two-and-a-half hours later at Folkestone Harbor on the southern coast of England – giving you just enough time to enjoy a lavish, Champagne-soaked lunch. From Folkestone, Joanne and I took a chartered motor coach back to London.  Passengers who are continuing on to Istanbul cross the Chunnel on the Eurotunnel train. And upon arriving in Calais, France, they board the Venice Simplon Orient Express to continue on their adventure.

Having tasted the experience of traveling – not just across England but back in time – on the most storied 5-star vintage train carriages in the world, we decided a few years later (on our anniversary or something) to actually do the Full Monty and book the train’s Asian sister, called The Eastern and Orient Express, for a trip from Bangkok to Singapore through the lush jungles and greenery of Thailand and Malaysia. With heavenly, mouthwatering cuisine, romantic mood lighting and crisp sheets, it gave new meaning to “civilized travel.”

And NO, it didn’t break the budget. You see, we saved on two nights in a hotel and all meals were included as well as transportation for two to Singapore (900 miles).

So how was our more recent experience on the TGV?

First class in every way – EXCEPT IN THE DINING CARS!!

It appears that nationalization has infected train transportation and has set out to diminish the experience of travelers. Today there are no sit-down dining options save for one meal period, during which you’re served airline-style at your seat. The Pullman style full-service dining car has been replaced with what is called a “Buffet Car,” where you line up, order, pay and STAND UP to eat. And eat, you shall: carb after oil-drenched carb.  Sugar, sugar and more sugar.  Salt, salt and more salt. At least you cover the railroad three basic food groups….GREASE, DOUGH and SUGAR.

I’m reminded of the London Guardian’s restaurant critic, Jay Rayner, as he commented on a breakfast that he recently endured on a train. “The croissant was so flaccid that no form of culinary Viagra would ever get it to stand up again.”

W.T.F.

Phil

A MEAL INTERRUPTED: THE HISTORY OF BRITISH CUISINE

As you all know by now, I firmly believe that London has become one of the best food cities in the world, boasting a huge diversity of cuisines as well as an incredible array of award-winning restaurants.

But just a few short years ago, London was mocked for its drab, boring cuisine – the culinary manifestation of a Puritan ethic that regarded the spending of anything more than necessary on food as just plain wrong. The self-denial cultivated by Protestantism yielded bland, dismal renditions of dishes that could have been (and, competently prepared, can certainly be) delicious: Bangers and Mash, Toad-in-the-Hole (sausage and sometimes kidneys) baked in Yorkshire Pudding Batter…Pork Pie (mmm, innards)….Fish & Chips (often greasy)….well-done (very well-done) Sunday Roasts with the drippings utilized on wash-day Monday to bind leftover potatoes and cabbage into dinner patties called Bubble & Squeak.

Then came World War I. Artisanal farmers and dairymen abandoned their fields and flocked to the cities to work in factories. Artisan cheese all but vanished. France, Italy and Spain held on to their peasant culture and set up Appélations Controlées to protect their unique ingredients. (Today Britain has only one: Stilton Cheese.)

And if that weren’t enough damage to British food, World War II hit the country with a double-whammy because England imported roughly 70% of its food and Germany intended to starve the Brits by sinking their shipping convoys. England was locked in a war of national survival.

The best and most nutritious food needed to be allocated to the troops. Consequently, rationing was introduced to the folks on the home front on a vast scale. A typical weekly food ration for an average adult was 4 ounces of bacon, 2 ounces of cheese, a single egg, and 8 ounces of sugar. Rubber, paper, metal pots and pans, and even bones were collected on a regular basis from households.

BTW the fat content from a single pork bone could supply an explosive charge for two rounds of ammunition (and here you thought the risk of pork fat was limited to heart attacks).


Mothers and housewives were forced onto a wartime footing in the kitchen. The British diet changed forever and homemakers were severely challenged to put nutritious meals on the table without the protein they were accustomed to using. It was all about making do with less.

Factory workers would come home to a nutritious dinner of Woolton Pie, a casserole of root vegetables in white sauce smothered with a thick layer of mashed potatoes. Black Pudding (blood sausage) was not rationed, nor were organ meats apparently, because Haggis – an assemblage of liver, sheep’s lungs, heart and tongue, ground up and baked in the lining of a cow’s stomach – assumed a new popularity.

Chicken livers on toast become a staple, as did kidney pie. Spam found its way to the breakfast table, and smoked cod ended up in a potato-like chowder called Cullen Skink. (Cullen is a town in Scotland. I don’t know about Skink.) With sugar tightly rationed, Apple Brown Betty became Britain’s go-to dessert because the apples provided the needed sweetness.

Victory Gardens sprung up on every little plot or scrap of available land…even directly in front of the Prince Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens. And women took to fruit and vegetable canning on a massive scale. Kraft Cheesey Pasta that was ‘cheese-flavored” was a thrifty choice.

In fact, when I saw the image of the Cheesey Pasta, I recalled my own somewhat vague childhood memories of the war, because in our house the same Kraft product was called Kraft Dinner. Growing up in a house with three families, I recall my mother and grandmother feeding us Mac & Cheese quite often. It must have run five cents a person.

I also recall, as a five-year-old, rummaging through a kitchen drawer on the hunt for ration stamps emblazoned with mighty tanks, warships, cannons and fighter planes. With a fistful of stamps in hand, I’d sneak off to my room and carefully arrange them on the linoleum floor. Most kids who stole those valuable stamps would have received a ration of punishment. But for little Phil, living in a house with three women (my grandmother, my mom and my Aunt Rose), the best they could muster was, “Isn’t little Phil cute?”

Another wartime frugal dish that my mother fed our extended families was Beans and Dumplings. If memory serves me right, it combined the taste of water with the flavorful touch of flour.

Back to England.


There were weekly drives in the neighborhoods to collect items for the war effort – even bacon grease. But not all animal products were gathered. Rabbits, which bred year ‘round, were a plentiful source of meat, and many Brits built rabbit hutches in their backyards. Chicken coops, too. Pig Clubs were also established. Neighborhoods would pool their money and buy a pig, fatten it on scraps of food, and eventually butcher it. Nothing went to waste.

Rationing was finally retired in 1954. By that time, British food culture had sustained major damage; an entire generation forgot how to cook. Food in Britain was stunted.

And then.  AND THEN!!!

Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, and the boom that followed solved the problem. Suddenly it was okay to have money and to spend it. Dining out became acceptable, not sinful.

The enfant terrible chef, Michael Pierre White, opened HARVEY’S and was awarded two Michelin stars. LE CAPRICE arrived on St. James Place. And LE TANTE CLAIRE was crowned with three – count ‘em, THREE – Michelin stars. After Le Tante Claire closed in 2004, Gordon Ramsay opened in the same spot on Hospital Road.


London was suddenly becoming an outward-looking global city. RIVER CAFÉ was, and still is, enjoying Michelin star-studded reviews. QUAGLINO’S arrived with great fanfare. And the world-renowned designer, Terrance Conran, resurrected Bibendum in Kensington – still going strong today with Claude Bosi in the kitchen, fine dining (crazy expensive fine dining) upstairs, and an oyster bar, serving giant pristine shellfish platters, on the ground floor.

Joanne and I prefer the oyster bar.


W.T.F.

PHIL

Peak Value From PRIME FISH.

I’ve been spoiled by MANNY’S – a steakhouse that sets the bar so high that almost every other steakhouse ends up disappointing me one way or another. Sure, a lot of them are fine; and many are good – the steaks are delicious, the service is crisp and efficient. But most of them, including some of the legends, end up leaving me cold. They’ve checked all the steakhouse boxes, but there’s no wit…no attitude or edge…it’s all prose, no poetry.

As Maureen Dowd wrote recently in the New York Times, “You can teach someone to dance, but you can’t teach ‘em to boogie.”

But I do have my favorites, many of which I’ve written about here. One of them is PRIME 112, a Miami steakhouse run by the Myles Restaurant Group, that city’s dominant restaurant company, which also has concepts called PRIME ITALIAN and PRIME FISH.

All three places are well-located and well-run. The principal thread of continuity, however, is the approach they take to dining. They’re about “big food” that’s also really, really GOOD FOOD. And it comes at a steep price. To most folks, they fall into the special occasion category – splurge places where you’d celebrate an anniversary, birthday, or a business success.

At PRIME 112, steaks hover around $60 – $70, and top out with a 16 oz. Japanese Kobe ribeye priced at $230 (that’s not a typo, folks). A platter of Asian chicken wings and an appetizer of five wagyu gyoza dumplings each clock in at $25.

Now, make no mistake, these dishes are generous and they are delicious.

Same with PRIME ITALIAN across the street on Ocean Drive: good, but steep. The Calamari appetizer costs $23. Pastas – all good, all bountiful – average north of thirty bucks a plate.

And then there’s PRIME FISH. This is a restaurant I was especially eager to try. After creating the Oceanaire Seafood Room, probably the nation’s first “power seafood” chain, I wanted to see how the Myles group ventured into the territory suggested by its name.

I was expecting something bright, unadorned, and masculine – like a Joe’s Stone Crab on steroids – but that’s not the ambiance of Prime Fish. This isn’t the seafood equivalent of a New York-style steakhouse. The ambiance is warmer, with a tropical feel appropriate for Miami (it has a beautiful courtyard). It’s a gorgeous restaurant.

Based on my experiences at Prime 112, I expected to be wowed. I wasn’t. Not on my first visit, anyway. As I recall (this is a few years back), the evening did not start well. I wanted to enjoy a simple salad, but all their offerings were composed (fussily, as I recall) and ran about $25. I noticed, though, that a few of their salads contained arugula, so I asked our server for a small arugula salad with a little olive oil and salt. A couple of minutes later he returned and informed me that the chef refused.  

“We’re not happy ‘til you’re not happy.”

Joanne had a kale Caesar (today’s price is about $19). I can’t remember my salad. Joanne followed with an absolutely superb bowl of Lobster Bisque, redolent with little lobster knots that ensured a taste of lobster in each and every spoonful. You’ll pay $27 for it these days.

For our main courses, Joanne had King Crab Lasagna (for $49. Yikes!). I had Swordfish Saltimboca, priced similarly.

With a bottle of wine and Red Velvet Cheesecake for dessert, I think our bill came to just under $13 million dollars.

Remember, I go through this so you don’t have to. And what I discovered on subsequent visits is that you don’t have to break the bank at Prime Fish. Consider our follow-up dinners there. They took place fairly recently (it took a while to digest their refusal to give me the salad I wanted).

On the first of our recent dinners, remembering not just the sticker shock of the check, but the bountiful portion size, Joanne and I approached our dinner a bit more practically. We split an order of six deep-fried Oysters Rockefeller. That worked out to $11 a person. On another visit, we shared a Grilled Octopus appetizer reminiscent of Dirk Diggler as well as a whopping, immensely refreshing salad of chilled watermelon, feta cheese and roasted pepitas – perfect for a hot Miami night.

Our simply grilled Fresh Grouper entree (a 10 oz. filet) was plenty enough for the two of us. And on another occasion when a three-course dinner just seemed like too much, we shared a Fish & Chips. You could also split a Tuna Burger or a Lobster Roll and Fries – all substantially less costly than a main course entrée. Next time, just for variety, we just might make a dinner consisting of four or five appetizers. And wine. Of course.

With a little creativity, it’s possible to finesse expensive restaurant menus. Now, you may be afraid that your server will shame you into ordering more, but I don’t think that will happen – not at restaurants as well run as Prime Fish and its sister operations. They know that if you have a good experience, there’s a great chance you’ll be coming back. And we will, because on our two recent visits we left Prime Fish perfectly satisfied, having spent about $150 for the two of us, including wine. That’s not cheap, but for an absolutely top-tier restaurant in a market like Miami, it’s worth it for the food and experience. Remember, good seafood isn’t cheap (because cheap seafood isn’t good).

BTW, full disclosure…Joanne and I most always split courses at Manny’s.

W.T.F.,

Phil

JAPANESE-PERUVIAN FUSION

Around the turn of the 19th century, a rumor spread throughout Japan that a place on the opposite side of the ocean called Peru was full of gold. Furthermore, it was a paradise with a mild climate, rich soil for farming and beautiful beaches.

Consequently, several thousand Japanese – mainly farmers from tropical Okinawa – emigrated to Peru and signed four-year employment contracts to work the farms and sugarcane plantations. After fulfilling their contracts, many migrated to the city and set up small retail shops as well as Japanese-influenced restaurants. I say “influenced” because in the early years they discovered that they could not consistently get all the Japanese ingredients that they were accustomed to using – things like matcha, ginger and miso, as well as soy and teriyaki sauces.

Typical of immigrant restaurateurs, the Japanese introduced new cooking techniques to Peruvians while incorporating native ingredients in Japanese dishes. Over time, they were able to secure the ingredients they’d left behind, but not before they became well-versed in cooking with local staples such as Aji Amarillo peppers, purple potatoes, and different breeds of colorful corn.

The marriage of Peruvian and Japanese cuisine had been consummated, and the new blended cuisine was called “Nikkei” – Peruvian food through a Japanese lens.

For example, the most popular national dish of Peru is called ANTICUCHO. It’s skewered beef heart marinated in red wine and cumin, then grilled. The Peruvian/Japanese version will more likely resemble YAKATORI, but the beef heart skewers will have been marinated in sake, ginger and teriyaki sauce before grilling.

Nikkei cuisine was validated by none other than Nobu Matsuhisa, who in 1977 opened his first NOBU RESTAURANT in Lima, Peru, and went on to become a global icon of high-class sushi fare. More recently, the Nikkei restaurant MAIDO in Lima was ranked #8 in the listing of the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants.”

If you can make it to Peru, by all means sample Nikkei cuisine. There’s quite a bit of it. Japanese-Peruvian residents number over 100,000, representing the largest minority in the country (In fact, Peru even elected a president of Japanese descent, Alberto Fujimori, in 1990).

Fortunately, you don’t have to go that far to find a spectacularly good exemplar of the cuisine, because CHOTTO-MATTE is crushing it in Miami Beach. Located in an alley just behind Lincoln Road, this gorgeous restaurant boasts beautiful wall murals, a bar whose ceiling opens to the sky, a resident DJ, and some of the most flavorful food you’ll find anywhere.

Joanne and I had been there a few times during the past year, but two weeks ago we celebrated her birthday there – and with nine family members (plus a few hangers-on) in tow, we were able to sample practically the entire menu. And GOOD IT IS.

Fortified with orchid-garnished TRADER VIC’S-like tropical drinks, we began with cocktail snacks which came in a wooden Japanese sake box. They included crunchy seasoned giant corn kernels as well as deep-fried Peruvian yuca and sweet potato chips with guacamole and mango salsa dip.

Next up: Three orders of gyoza Japanese dumplings in Peruvian spicy yellow tomato salsa for dipping. That was followed by a sushi sampling platter – straight-forward and pristine. Then two NIKKEI versions of maki rolls arrived, one crowned with a handful of crispy plantain straws, the other rolled in Peruvian quinoa, then torched and toasted tableside. This is inventive stuff, folks.

I love grilled octopus but have never had it with dollops of purple potato puree.

Lobster ceviche, “cooked” in fresh-squeezed key lime juice, teemed with hunks of claw meat, “Nikkei-ized” with cubes of sweet potato and yellow tomatoes.

TRADITO is the name of Nikkei Sashimi – the difference being that the Peruvian sauce is a little spicy and the dish is often topped with salty purple potato chips.

Chotto-Matte devotes an entire section of the menu to tempura and pulls it off with a delicate hand. Crispy soft-shell crab was sitting atop what I think is called “yum yum” sauce: mayonnaise spiked with paprika, sugar and garlic. I don’t think “yum yum” sauce is Japanese or Peruvian or Nikkei. It sounds sort of like something I’d have on a potato hot dish at a church supper in Alabama. But DAMN, IT WAS GOOD with the tempura crab.

Maine Lobsters play a significant role here. One was paired with vegetable tempura. Another came on a bed of Japanese fried rice laced with Peruvian sweet potatoes, jalapeno peppers and deep-fried giant corn kernels, each the size of my thumb nail (these are also offered as a side dish).

Be sure to try the pork belly with orange peel, cilantro and a seven-spice mixture called Shichimi-Togarashi.

It’s impressive how naturally the Japanese and Peruvian flavor profiles marry up, but the cuisines haven’t achieved total union just yet. Neither Chotto-Matte or any other restaurant that I know of offers a Nikkei rendition of CUY – the rodent (a guinea pig to be precise) commonly hawked in Lima food stalls. It’s typically grilled with its feet, tiny claws and teeth intact.

However, those of you out there who may just have a hankering for something unusual to eat, let not your heart be troubled – for with three days advance notice, CHINO LATINO will come to your rescue. We sell three to four cuy a month (Really, I ain’t lyin’) and THEY’RE DELICIOUS.

WTF,

Phil

A STAKE IN THE HEART OF PETER LUGER

Parasole’s culinary folks have made countless dining trips to major capitals around the world and have found as much inspiration in New York as anywhere on the planet. Over 30 years ago, MANNY’S was birthed after dining at SPARK’S, THE PALM and KEEN’S CHOP HOUSE, all in the Big Apple.

Subsequent trips included PETER LUGER STEAKHOUSE in Brooklyn – clearly a bucket-list restaurant for steak lovers, and for good reason. This place was different.

With spare finishes, weathered and worn wooden floors, and an absence of crisp linen tablecloths like you’ll find at Sparks, Peter Luger kept the focus on the steak. The servers were all men, seasoned and gruff, but in an amusing sort of way.

Thirty years ago, the restaurant was dubbed “The Best Steakhouse in the World.“ USA Today crowned it, “The Best Steak in America.”

Since then, Peter Luger’s primacy in the steakhouse world has largely gone unchallenged – until recently, when New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells surprised the nation by dropping a ZERO-STAR review on this national institution…this Holy Grail of Steakdom. Foul! Sacrilege!

Jay Rayner, critic for the Guardian newspaper in London may have been the stalking-horse of restaurant reviewers when, a few years back, he panned LE CINQ at the Four Seasons George V Hotel in Paris. His takedown generated a hue and cry from readers, especially the French, who probably felt that an English critic had no standing to critique a temple of haute cuisine. The review generated a spike in Guardian readership, however. The paper’s daily circulation averages about 130,000, and a typical Rayner review gets 70,000 views (100,000 is extraordinary for him). But his crucifixion of Le Cinq pulled in an astonishing 2.2 million readers – a record for the Guardian.

For demolishing one of the most revered of the city’s extravagant restaurants, Rayner was accused of transparently attempting to boost his own profile in order to ensure job security amid the tide of declining circulation at the paper.

Back home, Wells’ headline read, ”PETER LUGER USED TO SIZZLE. NOW IT SPUTTERS.”  The New York Times doesn’t report page views, but you can bet Wells’ readership spiked with this review.

Here’s what I think.

Back in 1968, the Times’ restaurant critic, Craig Claiborne, awarded Peter Luger a whopping four stars. Nearly 30 years later, in 1995, Ruth Reichl gave it three stars – still a fantastic rating – albeit with faint praise that “I even liked the fact that steak is the only good thing on the menu.” (Wince!). Then in 2007, Frank Bruni further downgraded the steakhouse to two stars (“Very Good”), writing that, “Luger has cause to blush, not to gloat.“   Bruni continues …..

“I’ve loved it for a long time – the steak is as good as it gets – but it needs to give me more reasons to return, among them less dismissive service.“

So in October, Pete Wells stepped in.

“I don’t remember when the doubts began, but they grew over time.”

“Diners aren’t greeted at the door. They are processed.”

“A kind word or a reassuring smile would help.”

“The management seems to go out of its way to make things inconvenient.”

“The shrimp cocktail tasted like cold latex dipped in ketchup and horseradish…fortified by corn syrup.”

“Caesar Salad [had] croutons straight out of the bag.”

“The German Fried potatoes used to be brown and crunchy. Now they are dingy, gray and sometimes cold. I look forward to them the way I look forward to finding a new, irregularly shaped mole.”

On a recent visit with seven or eight Parasole colleagues, we found ourselves deeply disappointed in Peter Luger.  Even pissed at it. Oh hell, ESPECIALLY PISSED.

It used to be that a visit to Peter Luger was an affirmation of life itself; the headiest of indulgences, an experience to treasure. This time, we were treated with indifference by an unfriendly host, and with arrogance by our server, who used every tool short of a cattle prod to rush – and I mean RUSH – us through dinner. 

He opened by saying, “Okay, here’s what you’re going to do here. Two porterhouses for four. Four Caesar Salads. Four sliced tomato and onion salads (at $19.95 a pop).” And then, without a word, he walked away from our table and directly into the kitchen.

I get curtness in a NY steakhouse. I appreciate a bit of endearing gruffness. It’s local flavor and appropriate in this genre of restaurant. But there was nothing charming, witty, clever, campy or theatrical about the way we were treated.

Seconds – really, just seconds – later, our salads were plunked down at the table. And before we were even finished with them, our steak arrived. The service gave new meaning to the word “rushed” – and to the word, “screwed.”

We were in and out in 45 minutes!!!

Oh, and did I mention that Peter Luger is a cash-only restaurant? Just one more “F you” to the customer.

At Manny’s, we are positively obsessive about giving our guests a satisfying, memorable, extraordinary experience. And while we see our dining room populated with “suits” and other folks who can easily afford the tab, we never lose sight of the fact that there are also a bunch of people who have had to SAVE UP to dine at Manny’s for this special night. This isn’t their only visit of the year; it’s the only visit of their life. Peter Luger seems to have forgotten that. Or they just don’t give a shit.

Critics of Wells’ review harp that he is doing exactly what Jay Rayner’s accusers were carping about – using his perch to boost his own personal profile and to increases his job security at the paper.

HOOEY!!! This needed to happen.

So, Peter Luger: The heard truth is that Pete Wells is absolutely right. The sacred cow needed to be slain.

Let’s hope Luger can get its act together and restore its priorities – the first of which is THE GUEST.

W.T.F.

PHIL

P.S.  BTW, our steak was as great as ever. It was just the attitude and service that were rancid.

LOVABLE BRAT

On our trips to London, Joanne and I always stay in Mayfair, near Hyde Park, where it’s so easy – and such a pleasure – to visit the charming neighborhoods nearby…Marylebone, Chelsea, Belgravia (actually, Belgravia isn’t so charming these days; a huge portion of it has been purchased by asset-parking absentee oligarchs, making for a lovely, but rather barren area).

As we become more familiar with the city, however, we frequently venture out to neighborhoods and restaurants that don’t always appear in the tour guides. It can take some effort, and more than a few pounds, to get there  by taxi, but in our experience the rewards far outweigh the disappointments.

An easy place to start might be Spitalfields, populated by a preponderance of urban hipsters in slinky jeans, sipping flat whites. The neighborhood’s commercial centerpiece, the relatively new Market, boasts loads of tony and quirky independent retail, hundreds of food stalls and several good sit-down restaurant choices. BTW, the Market is totally covered, so don’t let rain deter a visit.

A couple of our favorite restaurants are nearby, including GALVIN La CHAPELLE and ST. JOHN BREAD AND WINE, Fergus Henderson’s legendary snout-to-tail spot where two years ago our culinarily adventurous 12-year-old grandson eagerly downed a plate of veal kidneys, as well as a dish of lamb testicles. The kidneys came with mustard sauce; the testicles came with bragging rights.

Inasmuch as Spitalfields was once a rundown part of town that has since become achingly cool and trendy, nearby Shoretitch is emerging from a neglected inner city neighborhood into an area of artists and musicians…many with gritty, bushy beards.

Since rents in Shoreditch are still relatively affordable, the area has become a target-rich environment for ambitious restaurateurs.

This is where, on our recent October visit, Joanne and I dined at our new favorite London restaurant. Residing above a former strip club (now called The Smoking Goat), BRAT is not easy to find. The entrance is simply an unmarked doorway on Red Church street. After entering, you climb a narrow, steep staircase and suddenly find yourself in a lively dining room dominated by an open kitchen where sparkling embers fly from burning coals. Before you’ve even reached your semi-communal table, a deep charcoal aroma has your mouth watering.

(I can help you here: If, like me, you are not fan of community seating…then request a deuce table. Numbers 40, 50, 60 and 70 are all anchored against the wall).

Bratt is the brainchild of Tomos Parry, a chef who earned his first Michelin star at Kitty Fischer’s in Shepherd’s Market. Parry serves up a menu that celebrates his Welsh heritage by way of Basque peasant cookery, with hefty primal grilled meats being the focus.

Okay, this may not be to your liking (it certainly wasn’t to Joanne’s), but the first in our series of smoky revelations was a small loaf of grilled bread, pillowy like PITTSBURGH BLUE’S, drowned in butter, and draped with salty anchovies. I ate the whole thing.

The grilled bread was followed with selections from the menu – Small Bites, Starters, and Grilled Meats – all meant for sharing.

First came a trio of little toast “soldiers” topped with a piping of smoked cod roe and micro greens. But the standout was an order of chopped egg salad of all thing. This benign-sounding dish turned out to be dense molasses-laced grainy toast topped with scrambled eggs….warm, loose and with cozy softness. On top were paper-thin shavings of bottarga (mullet roe). The dish was so delicious and appeared to be so simple that after returning to Minneapolis I decided to treat Joanne and make it as an appetizer for a romantic dinner at home one night (it’s light enough that it won’t impede our athletic lovemaking). It seemed easy enough to recreate, but it turned out to be a massive disappointment and the evening ended badly. Joanne can be so strict and unforgiving.

Cockles seem to be the new clams in Europe and London. So we shared an order in light broth with crispy chicken livers and fat slices of grilled sopping toast. YOWZA !!!!

I’ll pause here in mid-meal and attempt to describe the Brat DNA that was coming over me. I recall saying to Joanne, “I don’t know if this is the wine talking….but I think we need another bottle of wine.”

Jay Rayner, food critic of the London Guardian, said it so well: “Some of the dishes that Tomos Perry cooks at Brat are simplicity itself….and some are simply perfect.”

As I sat in the tasty, sort of shabby-chic dining room that evening, I remembered what the Michelin Guide said about the restaurant: “You just don’t eat at Brat. You tuck in. There is something very joyful about this place.”

My observation about cool restaurants like Brat? Some are contrived, phony; they try too hard. But being cool is about NOT TRYING to be cool. Brat knows that.

Onward to the main event! (We skipped salads.)  

I, of course, had to have the Beef Chop – all blackened fat and pink meat resting in its juices – especially when I heard that their beef comes from DAIRY COWS – old dairy cows, in fact. This is unheard of at serious meat restaurants (although a dairy cow steak did, very briefly, appear on the first dinner menu at Tullibee restaurant in Minneapolis’ Hewing hotel). Old dairy cows are typically destined to become dog food. However, our server tempered the thought by telling us that they are finished with grain during the last couple months of their long life.

How was it? Actually, pretty good. Intense beefy flavor. A little chewy. And delightfully smoky. 

Was it MANNY’S? No. But I’d certainly order it again.

Joanne surprised me and had the RED MULLET. Mullet has always seemed too oily and fishy for my taste, but in this case it was perfectly grilled and had the crispiest of skin.

I’ve never thought that side dishes were compelling. Good? Yes. Must orders? Not so much. I just can’t imagine anybody saying, “Boy, I can’t wait to get back to Cheesecake Factory for those green beans.”   

However, there might be a few exceptions at Brat, which serves smoked new potatoes in a pool of butter about an inch deep. Holy heart attack! 

Ditto for Parry’s wild mushrooms, which come in a whopping bowl of salty melted butter loaded to the brim with chanterelles and porcinis, crowned by a big, soft poached duck egg.

Now, about the name: Brat. It apparently derives from an old English slang term for turbot. And grilled whole turbot is indeed the defining dish of Brat. Slow-cooked over indirect heat and spritzed from time to time with vinegar, it arrives at the table blistered and golden. You can order it in two sizes, priced at 55 and 70 pounds.

And finally, your two satisfied pigs seated at table #40 gorped out on dessert. Joanne swooned over an insanely good rice pudding that contained at least five pounds of sugar and just under a gallon of clotted cream. 

I had a wedge of warm “burnt cheesecake,” served straight from the wood-burning oven with poached rhubarb providing a counterpoint to the rich creaminess.

If you choose to go, YOU WILL NEED A RESERVATION!  And if there are just two of you and you’d prefer to dine un-communally, request the aforementioned tables 40, 50, 60 or 70. That will make you sound like a regular – and perhaps give you a leg up on securing a booking.

As Michelin said – and now I say – “There is something joyful about Brat.”

I’ll just never quite understand how Welsh and Basque cuisines became joined at the hip. But then again, with food this good, who gives a damn?

W.T.F.

PHIL

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