485C

Last fall when Joanne and I went to London, COVID, while not gone, seemed to be on the wane.

Yes, we had to have proof of vaccination prior to leaving the states. And we were tested immediately upon arrival. And tested again the day before we left.

A pain in the ass? Yes, but only a minor pain.

The restaurants? Most had reduced their operating hours substantially – “Closed Sunday, Monday and Tuesday”…”Closed for lunch until further notice”…Open only until 9:00 PM.”  You get the idea. Whether the limited days and hours were due to COVID or labor shortages, I don’t know. Probably a combination of both.

A few days ago Joanne and I returned from London.

And things seem to be back to normal. London was packed. The hotels were packed. The theaters were packed. The restaurants were packed.  

In 2019 tourist visits to London amounted to 21 million people. In 2021 that number fell dramatically to 2.6 million. But 2022 forecasts are for a whopping 29 million and WE FELT IT. But we were glad to see London back.

So what were our takeaways this year?

Well, our favorite restaurant haunts appear to be fully staffed and back to normal hours. Also, there are some exciting new kids on the block. I’ll post about all of them in the coming months.

But this posting isn’t about restaurants or food. It’s about “beacons of tradition,” “cultural icons,” lost coins, and dropped calls.

We’ll begin with one of the most recognized archetypes around the world: THE BRIGHT RED BRITISH PHONE BOX.

It was all made possible by University College London grad Alexander Graham Bell, in 1876. A few short years later, in 1891, a telephone cable was laid across the floor of the English Channel, facilitating phone calls between England and France.

Truth be told, the vast preponderance of calls were between London and Paris. The countryside was basically left out. And for a few years, only very wealthy homeowners had phones (remember the Downtown Abbey episode about the hoopla surrounding their new home phone?)

By the early 1920s, even though the majority of middle class folks still couldn’t afford a phone in their house, the UK Post Office introduced the first phone boxes to the city of London, allowing the vast population access to the phone lines. The phone box, dubbed the K-1, was concrete on three sides with a bright red wooden door in the front. The concrete was not a good solution as it chipped, cracked, stained and deteriorated rapidly.

In 1924, a design competition was held to create a new and durable phone box. The winner was the well-known architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, who created the K-2: a cast-iron box that was strong, sturdy and tough…except for the wooden door. It was also painted bright red, some say so it could be easily spotted in the London fog. Critics claim that it was modeled after the Sloane family tomb in the burial yard of Saint Pancras church. The price of the K-2 was 40 pounds.

Celebrating the Silver Jubilee and his coronation as king in 1936, George VI (Queen Elizabeth’s father) commissioned another design competition to improve upon the K-2. The winner? Once again, it was Giles Gilbert Scott, creator of the K-8. That iteration of the box is most often seen in London today. It became known as the JUBILEE KIOSK. Comparing it to the K-2, the K-8 was about a foot shorter, had a slightly smaller foot-print and larger panes of glass to let in more light. Nineteen thousand were forged (with cast-iron doors this time) until production ceased in 1968.

And in 2015 the PHONE BOX was named THE GREATEST BRITISH DESIGN OF ALL TIME!

Phone booths had a pretty good run until the cell phone entered the picture. Almost at once, they became irrelevant, a symbol of a bygone era, and thousands sadly were regulated to the PHONE BOX GRAVEYARD of London.  

But…leave it to Londoners to get creative. Among the surviving phone boxes around town, many have been re-purposed – some as coffee bars, others as libraries, beer pubs, hard liquor dispensaries, defibrillator stations, furniture and, way too often, as PUBLIC CONVENIENCES.

So, on to THE ROYAL MAIL and the VIVID RED LETTER BOXES.

Introduced in about 1850, the original letter boxes were painted in various hues of green. There was OLIVE GREEN, SAGE GREEN and BRONZE GREEN, each for a different category of mail. But London residents complained that the green letter boxes were indistinguishable from one another and also hard to find (in the perpetual London fog). Postal officials attempted to address the public’s concerns with a band-aid solution that treated all the boxes with a coat of high-gloss varnish. Didn’t solve the problem.

In 1874, the postal service decreed that all letter boxes in existence and going forward be painted BRIGHT RED. Hmm, did the phone company take a page out of the postal service playbook by painting their phone boxes red?

Now the letter boxes are about to change…in a subtle way. I’ll explain.

The letter boxes each carry THE ROYAL CIPHER of the reigning monarch. A cipher is a secret way of messaging in order to disguise its meaning. Queen Victoria was the first to place her cipher on a letter box in 1901. George VI emblazoned the red boxes with his cipher from 1936 until 1952 when he died. Upon her coronation, Elizabeth’s royal cipher was cast onto the bright red letter boxes. And now the cipher of King Charles III will begin to appear on the new boxes.

And check out the ROYAL MAIL TRUCKS – bright, bright red. And the Royal Mail Trains. Just as bright, just as red.

I was puzzled as to why the phone boxes, mail trucks, mail trains, signage, the underground trains in the Tube, and even the buses of London all sport what appears to be the exact same red as their “Mother Color.” The London buses were painted red as early as 1907 and then came the classic RED ROUTEMASTER bus, which was introduced in 1956 and followed by the fleet of sleek and arresting red BORIS BUSES (yeah, named after him) that command our attention on the streets of London today.

And then I read that somewhere along the brand development of the Royal Mail, the Pantone Color 485C was designated as their official color. Did they hire a design firm to develop brand standards? Did the postal service, the underground and the bus company all hire the same branding outfit?

Or did they just copy one another because the bright red 485C stood out and was instantly recognized on thick, foggy days?  

I am very impressed with the brilliant branding that was achieved, but I remain puzzled as to how they all got there.

Branding with color is an important part of the “tool kit” that designers use in messaging to the consumer. Think about COCO COLA…McDONALDS…THE OLD SOVIET FLAG…KITKAT CANDY BARS. They all use red 485C – same as London buses, the Royal Mail, phone boxes and the underground.

A textbook example of branding with color, right here at home, is the University of Saint Thomas’ claiming of the color purple, specifically Pantone 2607C.

Saint Thomas uses purple for the lighting of their fountain, the carpeting in the corridors, the uniform of their mascot, the football team and fan regalia……

The sell purple sweatshirts…..purple coffee mugs……

It’s a brand so rich that everywhere you look, you drink it in.   And when you need relief, Saint Thomas purple, 2607 C, is there for you, too.

WTF

Phil

BABBO REVISITATA

When Mario Batali opened BABBO in New York City 20 years ago, his Italian fine-dining restaurant immediately became the darling of the city. New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl awarded it a coveted three stars. Reservations were all but impossible to procure. I know. I tried for three years to secure a booking for the Parasole culinary team before finally giving up.

Years passed. Then Ruth Reichl’s successor at the Times, Frank Bruni, revisited Babbo. Once again, the restaurant was awarded three stars – and I tried once again to land a reservation.

Somehow, I succeeded, and a month later the Parasole team sat down for a 7PM reservation.

Among the things that jumped out at us was that Babbo was hardly playing it safe – not with menu offerings like fresh anchovies, lamb’s tongue with brown beech mushrooms, goat’s head, beef cheeks with black truffles and a sauce of “crushed squab livers,” and fennel-dusted sweetbreads with duck bacon, sweet and sour onions and quince vinaigrette. At the time, I didn’t know if sweetbreads were brains or balls. (They’re neither.)

Something else we couldn’t help but notice: The soundtrack was blasting rock ‘n roll – Led Zeppelin, according to one of my dining companions. Irritating? YES. But perhaps someone figured the eardrum-blasting music paired nicely with the robust and lusty dishes on the menu, or that it was simply on-brand for Mario Batali. You can get away with shit like when you’re a celebrity chef in NYC.

Another discovery: the absolutely epic all-Italian wine list. Among the 1,300 bottles (I ordered Joanne to count them) were 130 Chianti Classicos alone!

Oh, and they didn’t sell wine by the glass. They only sold it by the QUARTINO – a smallish 250ml carafe, about a third of a bottle).

Now, by this time, Mario Batali had become a true culinary superstar – one whose every venture generated fawning press coverage. Along with Babbo, he had several other successful New York City restaurants (including Casa Mono, Lupa, and Del Posto) and additional eateries in places like Las Vegas. He was also involved with the tremendously successful Eataly food hall concept. He’d authored numerous best-selling cookbooks, headlined a TV show, and he had a line (maybe even several lines) of branded food products. Chefs don’t get any more famous than Mario Batali was.  

With crowds lined-up daily outside of Babbo, it seems that he could have easily swollen up the prices. But he didn’t. I recall that the eight of us paid around $70 each – including wine. Not bad, not bad at all!


So ALL IN we went, ordering items from the various and distinct regions of Italy, north to south, from VENICE to SICILY, and from the ADRIATIC to the MEDITERRANEAN. And as near as I could tell, all were faithfully executed (If you’re going to do goat’s head, there’s no point in trying to dumb it down).

Among our favorites: From TUSCANY, a 2lb dry-aged porterhouse for two…Bistecca alla Fiorentina. Osso Bucco, Riscotto Milanese and chestnut gremolata from MILAN. Grilled branzino with braised fennel lemon yogurt from…I-don’t-know-where (Italy is just one big peninsula, after all). I also remember a spectacular bone-in, thick-cut veal chop with morel mushrooms.

Now, here are a couple items that are outside the comfort zone of most American diners but representative of Babbo’s gutsy menu: Lamb’s Tongue Salad topped with brown beech mushrooms, a 3-minute soft egg, and of course the goat’s head – shared by all at the table (except Joanne). The sides of the FACE were tasty. The EYEBALLS? I don’t know. Didn’t see my way to trying them.

Beef Cheek Ravioli with Black Truffles and Crushed Squab Livers were delicious…and Babbo absolutely nailed the pride of SICILY: Pasta Alla Norma, redolent with braised chunks of eggplant, tomatoes and garlic, laced with fresh oregano and topped with ricotta salata.

Those are my recollections from several years back. There were some minor bumps, though. At Babbo, reservations were treated casually, at best. Our party of eight waited outside for about 40 minutes for our 7PM reservations – no acknowledgment or apology. Our waiter, while knowledgeable and pleasant, seemed to drop out of sight for lengthy periods, leaving our wine and water glasses empty. When asked if they could lower the music volume so we could carry on a conversation, the manager said no. The skin on the grilled quail was soft, gray, and flaccid.

Now, this was not catastrophic. We had an excellent meal.

But then something catastrophic did happen…around 2017-2018. Mario Batli was kicked out of his empire amid a flurry of sexual harassment and assault allegations. He surrendered his ownership in all his restaurants. The Las Vegas properties closed. His TV show, Molto Mario, was canceled. And Target pulled all the Batali Pasta Sauces from its shelves.

And if that weren’t enough, then COVID hit. Double whammy!!!

Babbo, like all restaurants, was closed off-and-on during the next couple years.

WHAT WOULD HAPPEN? COULD IT EVER REOPEN – ESPECIALLY WITHOUT BATALI?

Well, Babbo survived. And just a few short weeks ago, we returned.

Truth be told, it wasn’t our first choice of restaurants. But reservations weren’t available at NYC’s newest hotspots, so we “settled” for Babbo, wondering how it could possibly maintain its standards after losing its chef and enduring a pandemic.


WELL, STAY TUNED.


A lot has changed at Babbo. And a lot has not.


For openers. Our party of eight was seated immediately…and with a smile. The music was in the background, not the foreground. And though I didn’t recognize the artists, I can tell you that Led Zeppelin wasn’t on the playlist.

We revisited the grilled quail with salsify and were delighted to find that the bird was expertly prepared with crisp, taught crackly skin. Then there was the inventive amuse bouche of tiny polenta cracker sandwiches stuffed (I think) with chicken liver mousse that had been kissed with French onion soup. Sounds strange, TASTED GREAT.

Grilled octopus with gigante beans and a sassy limoncello vinaigrette was followed by beef carpaccio with a satisfying and generous addition of thinly shaved black truffles and a drizzling of extra-virgin cold-pressed olive oil. Next was something you rarely see: Castelfranco Lettuce Salad with candied pecans and pomegranate from Castelfranco, Italy. I call it pink radicchio.

Babbo has always been known for its pasta. It even offers a five-course pasta tasting menu that I’ve got to try. One of the scrumptious creations we enjoyed was rigatoni with arugula, pesto, pine nut gremolata, and fiore di latte (soft and creamy cow’s milk cheese). Also, Babbo’s deeply rich Pappardelle Bolognese should not be missed. It’s perfect.

“ONE HUNDRED LAYER LASAGNA?” What’s what? It’s just that: one hundred layers for $36. Also on offer was a Venetian classic – Squid Ink Black Spaghetti with Rock Shrimp and Bacon. YUM.

We had Stinging Nettle fettuccine with black walnuts and morels.  (stinging nettles? sorta like ramped-up spinach).   Loved the Casunziei….beet and poppy seed ravioli in butter and sage.   Nice fall offering.

And now the test:

In the North, pastas that call for grated cheese are typically crowned with Parmigiano Reggiano. Further south, around Rome, chefs are partial to sheep’s-milk cheeses, like Pecorino Romano.

Ah, but in the south, in Sicily, where it’s much too hot to raise sheep and dairy cows, the prevalent pasta sprinkling by far is bread crumbs – glorious, nervy, pert and crispy bread crumbs.

So I had to test Babbo and order the popular and luscious Sicilian Pasta Con Sarde (bucatini pasta with sardines, fennel, toasted pine nuts and hot red pepper flakes). The test will come at the table…Will the server grate cheese over the pasta? And if so, which cheese? Or will he do it the Sicilian way  – the correct way – with bread crumbs?

I should have known.  I might as well have been in Catania, Palermo or Taormina because as the platter of Pasta Con Sarde was set down in front of me, right on cue…HERE COME THE BREAD CRUMBS.

They know their stuff.

Proteins followed:  Lamb chops with broccoli rabe pesto, lemon yogurt and mint…duck breast with chicory, preserved lemon, kumquats and pickled rhubarb vinaigrette…bathmat sized Veal Milanese…fresh red snapper…ribeye steak drizzled with Manodori balsam vinegar…and rabbit with carrot vinaigrette and autumn caponata. . All good.

The signature dessert? Olive Oil Cake with Gelato. Authentically Tuscan…authentically delightful.

But AUTHENTICITY can be dangerous.

The lone example at Babbo?  Northern Italy, near Milan and Parma, is the home of PROSCIUTTO HAM. After harvesting the bulk of the pig, including chops and ribs, they get down to the question: What the hell do we do with the feet?

One answer, of dubious distinction I might add, is, “Let’s turn the feet into Pig’s Foot Milanese.” You prepare it by grinding up the small amount of flesh between the toes on the feet, (ICK) adding rice and beans to the mix, then pressing the mixture into a patty to be fried in olive oil.


It’s certainly an AUTHENTIC offering at Babbo….but it’s NOT EASY TO LOVE – that is unless you savor gooey, gelatinous, gummy, greasy, and gluey taste sensations.

JUST BECAUSE IT’S AUTHENTIC, DOESN’T MEAN IT TASTES GOOD.

WTF

PHIL

P.S.  If you plan on traveling to New York, and you have a hankerin’ for REALLY, REALLY GOOD ITALIAN, I highly recommend BABBO.

A SEAT TO HISTORY

The other day, I got to thinking about Paris and all the wonderful times Joanne and I have had there over the years.

And indeed, there have been breathtaking moments and experiences during our visits.

I suppose people will immediately think that I would instantly start spouting off about the wonderful, sometimes breathtaking, restaurants that we’ve visited in the City of Lights. And while that’s certainly truth, there is another truth. More about that later.

Dining in Paris (and London, of course), where it’s not uncommon to find yourself eating in a restaurant that’s far older than you are, I wondered, how far back do restaurants actually go?

The history is a bit murky. It’s said that sometime during the 1600’s, some people started opening up their homes to weary travelers – restoring them with beverages and, later, simple food offerings like omelets and sandwiches. (In fact, the word “restaurant” comes from the French word for “restoration.”) The first bona fide restaurant to open in Paris was PROCOPE in 1686. BTW, It’s still there!!!

Cafes and home-cafes began cropping up all over town. Enter MICHAEL THONET, a German-Austrian furniture maker who, in the mid-1800’s, was experimenting with steaming and bending beechwood into chairs. The rest is history. His classic bentwood chairs populated most every café in the balance of the century and are still wildly popular in today’s restaurant world. His timeless #18 chair won the Gold Medal at the Paris World Fair of 1867 and even today resides at modest places like BRASSERIE BALZAR near the Sorbonne, as well as the large, award-winning Art Nouveau BRASSERIE BOFINGER in the Marais. Toulouse Lautrec even incorporated the classic chair #18 into his impressionist paintings.

Incidentally, you can enjoy your dinner tonight comfortably seated in the #18 Thonet Chair at SALUT. Yeah, little ‘ole Salut.

What was the source of the Thonet chair’s appeal? Aside from its good looks, it was affordably priced,comfortable and offered impressive durability at a light weight.

Meanwhile, at about the same time that restaurants were growing in number, Napoleon III commissioned well-known master city planner GEORGES-EUGENE HAUSSMANN to reimagine the geometry of the Paris boulevards. Extremely talented, and thought by many to be arrogant as well as an autocratic jerk, Haussmann forged ahead full steam – routing his boulevards through the heart of the Paris slums. Some say it was to crush the popular uprisings in order to allow the French army to deploy quickly and quell any revolt of the people.

By 1870 Haussmann had transformed the city into a metropolis of stunning, broad, networked boulevards and long, wide, straight avenues. These were the new “highways” of Paris and became home to the city’s first big brasseries.

That’s all I know. Except for this: The result of his extra-wide sidewalks along the boulevards and avenues of Paris caused an explosion of sidewalk cafes at bistros and brasseries. This was the birth of the Parisian café culture – as much a part of Paris today as the Eiffel Tower and croissants.

The fact is, there would be NO sidewalk cafes in Paris if there were no boulevards.

Enter another furniture maker….around 1885: LOUIS DRUCKER. It was a match made in heaven. The frames of the Drucker Chairs were made of rattan, an aggressive climbing palm of Southeast Asia. The saddle and back were of woven “rislan,” a derivative of castor oil. The chairs were comfortable, sturdy and light weight. They were easy to move, stack and put away at the end of the night. Moreover, they withstood the harshest temperatures – from -58°F to 158°F.

What’s more, Drucker’s core design was produced in an almost endless variety of color combinations and models. There was even a child’s highchair. In collaboration with couture houses, sweaters were fabricated to match the color combinations of the chairs.

Drucker chairs were on the Titanic. Dogs love ‘em. Celebrities love ‘em. Lovers and loners love ‘em.

In the 1920s, legendary figures like HEMINGWAY, SARTRE, EZRA POUND, PICASSO, GERTRUDE STEIN, J.D. SALINGER, F. SCOTT and ZELDA FITZGERALD, and other members of the “Lost Generation” gathered at these sidewalk venues in search of escape from the memories and ravages of World War I. And the cafes – the epicenters of enlightenment – were always there for them, including the Drucker Chairs.

Today – especially today – Drucker chairs spill out onto the sidewalks of the most well-known bistros and brasseries.

So…back to my best memories of Paris.

Without a doubt our Parisian restaurant experiences were AMAZING, ASTONISHING, JAW DROPPING and SURPRISING. How could they NOT BE?

But when people ask me to recall the thrill of it all, the thing that I’ll remember the most is….DOING NOTHING, just wiling away the day at a sidewalk café reading a book or the Herald Tribune or simply people watching. I’ve even been known to sneak in a little snooze. I never really thought about it at the time, but I realize now that I, too, am part of Paris’ centuries-old café culture. The art of just being there, for hours, outdoors, experiencing the rhythm of the city, relaxed and savoring the moment, just doing nothing…nothing at all.

One of my fondest memories is this:

We had rented an apartment in the Marais, and around 4 o’clock every afternoon I would settle in at a sidewalk café near our place on Rue St. Antoine, order a double espresso, and open my book…The Da Vinci Code.

When I came to the chapter concerning the “Rose Line” and the secret society of The Priory of Sion, with the disturbing historical secret it was protecting, I realized that the Rose Line was embedded in the floor of, and passed directly through, the Cathedral of Saint Sulpice, just a few short blocks away from where I was sitting. 

My God, I thought, I’m reading this worldwide bestseller and here I am, sitting in Paris, discovering the alleged core secrets of the Catholic Church! So of course, I bolted out of my chair and made a beeline to the cathedral. And, behold, there it was: a bronze sunlit straight line in the marble floor, in the South transept, running on an axis of pure north to south.

And I wondered……was it true? Was the Priory REALLY protecting the symbolic and  mysterious  secrets of the Rose Line, the Holy Grail and the untold story of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene? Or was it a Myth?

Read The Da Vinci Code…and then you decide.

Meanwhile, I continued to return each and every day to my favorite sidewalk café to finish my book – on my rather large, albeit well-clad, ass, firmly planted in a comfy DRUCKER CHAIR.

WTF

PHIL

A GEOGRAPHY OF SANDWICHES

At best, I was a marginal student at the University of Illinois…..let’s just say “a gentleman’s C.”

But I did make the honor roll for wretched excess….that included eating and beer drinking. And the beer hall of choice was KAM’S at 618 Daniel St. where I could be found on Friday afternoons and frequently into the late evening.

After a few wasted hours of trying, without success, to meet girls (the U of IL ratio at the time was 13 men for every woman), I would give up and nestle into a KAM’S ITALIAN HOT BEEF SANDWICH: a two-fisted, messy concoction boasting a half-pound of thinly sliced beef stuffed into a deliciously soggy, beef broth-ladened hoagie bun.  

But that wasn’t all. What made it truly special were the pepperoncini peppers – lots of ‘em. This sandwich didn’t just sop up the remaining alcohol in my stomach, it pickled it.

Now there are a lot of really good Italian beef sandwiches around…..some with cheese….some, like AL’S ITALIAN BEEF in Chicago, with roasted red peppers. But I’ve never seen an Italian hot beef sandwich quite like the ones in Champaign, Illinois, loaded up with Pepperoncini peppers. They barely nudge the SCOVIL HEAT SCALE (about 200).  But their juices packed a real punch.

So I got to thinking: Just about every region, city or state has some sort of sandwich that they are known for…..a source of civic pride…a unifying force that binds the populace.

Think about…

CHICAGO
While AL’S is certainly popular, it’s the working-class Chicago Hot Dog – humble, affordable, immigrant-embracing – that truly represents the City of Big Shoulders (and Protruding Paunches).

Just what is a Chicago Hot Dog? Well, it’s made with a fresh-steamed poppy seed bun – piping hot – that’s substantial enough to withstand the onslaught of a Kosher Vienna (and ONLY a Vienna) shiny all-beef hot dog in a casing that SNAPS when you bite it. It’s methodically topped, in correct order, with neon-green sweet pickle relish, a generous squirt of yellow mustard, two bright-red Roma tomato wedges, chopped white onions, a dill pickle spear, sport peppers and celery salt. Never, EVER does ketchup enter the equation. That’s a law.

What’s it called? “Dragged Thru the Garden.”

NEW YORK
The Big Apple’s signature sandwich has to be PASTRAMI ON RYE. But not the version you’ll find here in the heartland. A proper Pastrami on Rye – the kind you’d get at the now-defunct CARNEGIE DELI – boasts 14-16 ounces of astonishly flavorful, juicy pastrami, stacked high, not on flimsy white bread, but on Russian Rye.

This is a sandwich too thick to be eaten as a sandwich.

And the final question: “Fat on? Or fat off?” The answer is FAT ON – or we will NEVER BE FRIENDS.

PHILADELPHIA
What could it be other than the PHILLY CHEESESTEAK? Famous long-time rivals, GENO’S and PAT’S, are directly across the street from each other in South Philly, a working-class neighborhood largely made up of Italian-Americans. Each claims to be the home of “The Best Cheesesteak in Philly.” But it sure doesn’t seem like this iconic sandwich has much to do with Italy, as both places pack the soul-comforting hoagie bun with juicy, thinly sliced ribeye steak to maximize the juice (aka FAT), along with caramelized onions. The meat and onions are then lavishly adorned with large ladles of KRAFT CHEEZ WIZZ, right out of the can. Yeah: Cheez-Wizz. Having said that, the sandwich is really good. Philly, you can be proud.

MUSCATINE, IOWA
This river town, known as the “Pearl of the Mississippi” in reference to its past history as the global center of pearl button manufacturing, is home of the slightly famous MAID-RITE SANDWICH, made right in Muscatine by the Maid-Rite Corporation. Over the years, several restaurants (and copycats) migrated from the area to Illinois and Indiana, and it was in my hometown of Kewanee, Illinois where I devoured these loose-meat delights on a regular basis.

PITTSBURGH 
I’ve never eaten the archetypal CAPONE TALL BOY at PRIMANTI BROTHERS in Pittsburgh. However, at 1,040 calories, it’s famous enough to have landed a slot on 60 Minutes a few years ago, maybe in a segment on heart attacks.

This sandwich would have been just the ticket for me during my college years. Sandwiched between two thick-cut slices of soft white Italian bread is a quarter-pound of pastrami, along with another quarter-pound of corned beef, and two slices of Swiss or Provolone cheese. It MUST be slathered with Primanti’s own spicy mustard and one cup of French Fries. Yes, that’s ONE CUP OF FRENCH FRIES.  Capone’s Tall Boy is a worthy specimen to represent the brawny Steel City.

MINNEAPOLIS
Here in the North Country, we have two contenders: The 5-8 CLUB and MATT’S BAR.  Both are home to the same burger, with different spellings. The 5-8 Club is known for its “Juicy Lucy” and Matt’s serves up a “Jucy Lucy.” As far as I can tell, there is no difference between the two. Both are wonderful.

How could they not be? Start with a soft butter bun, holding two 3-ounce stuffed burger patties with Kraft American Cheese INSIDE the meat instead of on top. This looks like an ordinary burger, but be very, very careful when you take that first bite because its molten core of cheese will melt your tongue off. On one of his trips to the Twin Cities, President Obama ate here.

The list goes on…..

MIAMI
South Florida’s most iconic offering is probably the CUBAN SANDWICH from VERSAILLES RESTAURANT in Little Havana. This abides by a strict formula of ham, Swiss Cheese, pickles, and mustard on a buttered Cuban bun. It’s ALWAYS cut in half on the diagonal. Screw that up and you will be deported.

KANSAS CITY
This is a stockyard town, known for BEEF BARBEQUE. The standard-bearder here is ARTHUR BRYANT’S BBQ and its BBQ Brisket “Burnt Ends” on a bun.

NEW ENGLAND
Maine, Boston, take your pick – each is known for the LOBSTER ROLL. Note, these sandwiches are as EXPENSIVE as they are GLORIOUS. A few short years back, one would set you back $20 – quite a bit for a sandwich – but these days, you can expect to pay twice that. Some friends just returned from Provincetown, Massachusetts, where a lobster roll runs a whopping $45!

In its defense, a lobster roll’s filling is pretty much ALL lobster, held together with a little mayo and a touch of lemon. Make note: The iconic lobster roll bun is a brown-crusted Pepperidge Farm roll.

A word about lobster: It was once available in such abundance that the upper classes considered it junk seafood. The state bought it in bulk to feed prisoners. Pet owners fed it to their cats. (Back in the day, canned beans cost more than canned lobster). Things changed, however, in the early 20th century when transportation routes opened up new markets for lobster. Populations that had no association whatsoever with the food tried it and – big surprise – fell in love with it, creating a surge in demand that, essentially, has never subsided.

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY
All hail the HOT BROWN. Created by the BROWN HOTEL as a midnight hangover alternative to bacon & eggs, it’s an INDULGENT MESS made up of turkey, crisp bacon, and tomatoes, topped with creamy Mornay sauce (white sauce with cheese) and served on a slice of toasted white bread. It’s what’s known as a “knife and fork” sandwich. I have a somewhat “fuzzy” memory or downing a Hot Brown in the hotel after getting myself smashed on Kentucky’s own Maker’s Mark Bourbon (for more info on that debauched adventure, see my posting of May 26, 2016 – “Blackout at the Brown.”)

KEWANEE, ILLINOIS
The “Hot Capital of the World” loudly and proudly proclaims the glory of the “Manhole-sized Deep Fried Pork Tenderloin on a Bun” served up at the local A&W Root Beer Stand. It’s not world-famous – and maybe not even Illinois-famous, or for that matter North Central Illinois-famous. But it IS highly acclaimed in South Kewanee, and that’s not nothing.

NEW ORLEANS
Near and dear to my heart is, of course, THE MUFFULETTA. Joanne and I discovered this New Orleans classic while strolling down Decatur Street in the French Quarter 40+ years ago. The Sicilian creation consists of marinated olive salad, provolone cheese, ham, salami and mortadella. You know the rest.

MEXICO
The town of Peubla is where the TORTA was born, but Mexico City made it the country’s national sandwich. And justly so: It’s cheap to make, easy to carry and scrumptious to eat. There are infinite iterations of the Torta. Some are meat, some veggie, but almost every version will include tomatoes, lettuce, onion, jalapeno, beans, chipotle, pepper, avocado and mayo. Its history is a bit clouded. Some claim its creation was influenced by the French occupation of Mexico in the 1860’s.

VIETNAM
Speaking of the French, Catholic missionaries from France were in Vietnam as long ago as the 17th century trying to convert the VieCnamese to Catholicism. The country eventually became known as French Indo-china and was under French colonial rule until the Vietnamese finally kicked ‘em out in the 1950s. But the French impact on the cuisine remained. Shortly after they exited, the BANH MI SANDWICH surfaced.

It’s a fusion of French and Vietnamese goodies.  From Vietnam: Cucumbers, chiles, pork, soy sauce, pickled vegetables, daikon, cilantro and lemongrass.  From the French: baguette, pork liver pâté and buttery mayo. The Banh Mi delivers a flavor profile of salty, sour, savory, sweet and aromatic – all at once.

ENGLAND
England is known for Fish & Chips, but it’s not a sandwich. Still, most any “chippy” (fish and chips restaurant) serves up a CHIP BUTTY: a batch of French Fries between two slices of white bread slathered with a wincing amount of butter and lashings of ketchup, mayo or H.P. Brown Sauce, and sometimes Heinz Malt Vinegar. A football chant called “The Greasy Chip Butty Song” (sung to the tune of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song”) is the fight song of the Sheffield United Football Club. It’s just about as working class as a song can get. Oh, by the way, Burger King in England tried adding a Chip Butty to its menu. Social media erupted. “Burger King is guilty of cultural misappropriation!” The Butty was banished.

ITALY
In Florence, the nighttime street food of choice is a PORCHETTA PANINI, laden with the fatty, savory, moist whole suckling pig that’s roasted on a wood fire or on a rotisserie. The salty rind, or crackling, is always eaten and is INSANELY FLAVORFUL. And salty is good, because the Florentine bread in a panini contains no salt whatsoever and is thus flavorless. The go-to place in Florence for a porchetta panini is the MERCATO CENTRALE in the heart of the city. And the go-to place within the Mercato is NERBONE’S, a stand-up corner stall (#292 on the first floor) where the sandwiches are made to order, hand-carved, and loaded with roast pork, dripping with juice. NO CONDIMENTS ARE SERVED, but you may ask for extra cracklings.

MINNESOTA (AGAIN)
Ever heard of the ALL SQUARE CAFÉ? This is a craft grilled cheese shop at 4047 Minnehaha Avenue, sporting a unique array of ramped-up adult grilled cheese sandwiches of all stripes – sweet, savory, three cheeses, bacon, avocado…you get the idea. NO KRAFT SINGLES HERE. Even the Kids Grilled Cheese gets real cheddar. And for the grownups? How about fontina with hot and sweet peppers…or prosciutto with brie, crushed almonds and onion jam…or mozzarella and provolone with basil pesto…or rotisserie chicken with Swiss, provolone and guava jam?  OH, NO…NOT THAT AGAIN! These are the best grilled cheeses I’ve ever had.

And on the topic of GRILLED CHEESE, I have a question. A grilled cheese sandwich that would put a smile on every face….a hot, melty, sweaty, arousing, runny, drippy, lubricious, creamy, steamy, ooey-gooey lusty grilled cheese sandwich….shared by three people.

Would that be called….A FROMAGE À TROIS?

I was just wondering.

WTF, Phil

REAL ITALIAN ON THE RIVER

Joanne and I have often wondered what exactly causes people to fork out $100 for a bottle of wine or twenty times that for a Ferragamo or Prada handbag. Is it the assurance of high quality that we frequently accept as going hand-in-hand with a high price tag? Are these products actually better?

With that in mind we booked a table at THE RIVER CAFÉ for our last night out in London, back in October, 2021. Now, any review of The River Café is going to mention price. Jay Rayner of the Guardian described the restaurant as “peasant food at plutocrat prices.” A.A. Gill of the London Times was a bit kinder. He said, “The River Cafe is all about simple food…seasonal ingredients cooked without complication.”

Reservations are hard to come by…..and the restaurant is hard to get to – a 40-minute taxi ride from central London. But we persevered (anything for you, dear reader), and were rewarded with a coveted window table on a nippy October night. Snagging that real estate was no small feat – just a pointless one. Instead of looking out to the Thames, all I saw in the darkness of the evening was my reflection in the window. Good thing I’m such a looker.

While reviews of The River Café point out that it boasts a Michelin star, a few critics complain that the lack of FRENCH fancy frills is at odds with the high cost of your meal. And indeed, prices are high, but not stratospherically so. Antipasti run $20-25, primi (pastas) are $20-30. Secondi (main courses) are priced at about $30-40, and desserts cost about $10-12. You’d pay two or three times those prices at various Alain Ducasse or Helène Darroze properties.

I attribute the negative reviews to critics’ lack of basic understanding of the fundamentals of Italian food.

When my partner, Pete, and I were in cooking school in Italy under the tutelage of the legendary Italian cooking writer, Marcella Hazan, she drilled into us daily the difference between Italian and French haute cuisine. By no means did she disparage French food (although she did crack that the French “can’t get pasta right.”). She accurately described it as high quality, rich food that relies on butter and cream, complex sauces, and human endeavor in the studied composition of pastries, terrines and elaborate presentations.

Italian food represents an utterly different philosophy. Regardless of which part of Italy it comes from – whether from the affluent north or impoverished south – it should follow the “KISS Method” – “Keep it simple, Signora!”  Flawlessly simple, with incredibly fresh, seasonal ingredients, lovingly cooked, perfectly seasoned, served in generous portions with all flavors singing in harmony.

More Marcella-isms: 

  • – “Bring out the flavor that’s INSIDE the ingredients.” When chefs add a little of this and a little of that…that’s “ADD-ON cooking.”
  • – “I’m a little afraid when chefs mix Italian with some other cuisine, they end up with food that wears the Italian uniform but is NOT Italian.”
  • – “PARMIGIANO REGGIANO cheese should always be cut fresh, directly from the wheel.”

A note on Marcella: She passed on in 2013 at the age of 89. I will always treasure the opportunity to have studied under her. She had a gruff voice and blunt speech – not the type of person you argue with. But underneath it all, she was the sweetest teacher you could ever imagine.

All of which, brings us back to The River Café and its faithful adherence to real Italian cooking with simple ingredients prepared and presented simply. Under the command of founder/owner/chef Ruth Rogers: What sourcing!! What ingredients!!

April Bloomfield, the world-acclaimed chef and River Café alum, described the food as “earthy…clean…and vibrant.”  Well said, April!

The menu is hand written and changes daily depending on the availability of ingredients, including fresh seafood from Scotland and the southwest coast of Cornwall. The tabletops are paper. The napkins are linen.

Joanne and I started our evening with Char-Grilled Squid with red chili and rocket salad, Fritto Misto, served with a wedge of Amalfi lemon (Yep, sourced all the way from the Italian coast), deep-fried “accuge” (sardines from the Mediterranean).

True to the restaurant’s philosophy, salads are simple – but can be exotic, with the bitter, wonderful and rare pastel-colored lettuces of Castelfranco, grown in Treviso, Italy. Ever seen pink radicchio? I hadn’t. The River Café flies it in overnight from the Milan food market.

Ribolitta in the fall and winter.  It’s the classic Tuscan  white bean soup, punched up with root vegetables and hearty day-old bread and a bit of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

When Americans make Risotto, we usually use Arborio rice. Not good enough for The River Café. Only Carnaroli from Verona will do. And of course, San Danieli Prosciutto.

Buratta-filled Ravioli was on offer and – in a nod to the season – the menu featured a spunky Wild Rabbit Ragu with pappardelle pasta, perfect for a cozy evening. BTW, they do half portions of pasta.

Among the pastas, you may be surprised to find the simplest of simple dishes. You may also be surprised by the price – about $30 for Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil. But you will be ASTOUNDED by the flavor, which was love at first bite!! I don’t know the secret, but I’ll bet it all starts with San Marzano tomatoes from the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius near Naples, peeled and seeded, and slow, slow cooked. I detected the taste of garlic, chili and basil, but they were nowhere to be seen in the dish. My guess is that they’re heated in olive oil and then strained so that only the infused oil is added to the tomatoes. The result: Subtlety…depth…complexity…and utter deliciousness!

Wonderfully looking simple renditions of grilled baby lamb chops as well as wood roasted lamb with a grilled artichoke appeared at the table next to us. And a waiter was kind enough to stop by our table just to show us the sliced Italian Chianina sirloin steak with Borlotti beans. He was very proud.  Oh, that we could eat here more often.

But we couldn’t have been more pleased with or our secondi, or main course. Joanne ordered char-grilled Langoustines from Scotland and I a Costoletta di Vitello (veal chop), wood roasted with rosemary and lemon…..yes, from Amalfi.

And rounding out our evening: the luxurious Chocolate Nemesis – 70% bittersweet chocolate and 100% decadent– and a Polenta, Almond and Lemon Cake, a darn good-looking and honest cake bursting with intense lemon. Just good Italian flavors.

So carry on, River Café. You’ve got good Italian bones!

Or, as dinner guest Paul McCartney might say (or sing) to owner Ruth Rogers……”Will you still need me ? WILL YOU STILL FEED ME ?  When I’m 64 ?

WTF

PHIL

TRAVELING ALONG THE BARBEQUE BELT

Growing up in Kewanee, Illinois, in farming country, our town had the dubious distinction of being crowned “Hog Capital of the World” due to our having the most hogs  of any county in the United States.

And every year on Labor Day weekend, the downtown streets were populated with dozens of highly…aromatic…hog pens, along with a Ferris wheel and a “barbecue” in the Peerless Theater parking lot where civic-minded volunteers would grill thousands of pork chops for the throngs of visitors from the surrounding towns. The chops, made into sandwiches encased between two slices of white bread, sold for 25 cents each.

Years later, at the University of Illinois, after a Saturday night of beer drinking and carousing, my buddies and I would drop off our dates at 10:30 PM (girls had a curfew then), and we’d head into north Champaign to PO-BOYS BARBECUE. It was as gritty and unpretentious as you could imagine. And the racks of smoked pork ribs – slathered with sweet barbecue sauce – were much deeper, richer, and smokier in flavor (not to mention fall-off-the-bone tender) than the Hog Day “barbecue” pork chop sandwiches of my youth. A stack of white bread accompanied each order.

Also, during my five years in college (it was a four-year curriculum…that’s another story), I would make occasional weekend hitch-hiking trips to Peoria, about 50 miles away, to visit Uncle John and Aunt Betty. As a starving college student, I could always count on a home-cooked meal at their house. But the highlight of the weekend was on Saturday, when my uncle would take me to lunch at JOHN’S BARBECUE on Glendale Avenue. 

BIG JOHN ROBINSON (he lived upstairs above the restaurant) was 6’1″ and 235 pounds, but he loomed largest as a legendary master of barbeque. When not minding the pit, Big John could be found strolling through the dining room, putting an exclamation point on everyone’s meal by asking his belly-groaning customers, “Y’ALL GET ENOUGH TO EAT?” Of course, we did, because in addition to the slab of baby back ribs, we’d gorged ourselves on stacks of – yep – white bread: a thrifty, “tummy-stuffing,” sopping-and-sauce-soaking device, if ever there was one.

And then I remembered: In Kewanee, in our house with three families crowded together at the supper table every evening, there was an 8-inch stack of Wonder Bread dead center for all six of us to share.

Between PO-BOYS and JOHN’S, I realized that the Kewanee Hog Day pork chops were not barbeque – they were grilled.

Grilling is grilling, not barbequing. Barbeque is smoking – “low and slow” at either side of 250° F. Grilling ribs on the Weber may take about 30-40 minutes.  Barbequing ribs in a smoker – low and slow – can easily take six hours.

Somewhere along the way, I came to learn of a thing called the “Barbeque Belt.” Not far afield from the Bible Belt, it roughly runs through the South from the Carolinas to Texas and Kansas. Each region has its own particular kind of barbecue. And each region is obsessive and obsessed that THEIR BBQ is the REAL BARBECUE. All others are pale imitations, imposters and interlopers. Feuding is rumored.

Take North Carolina, for example. It’s PORK, PORK and MORE PORK. In the eastern part of the state, the custom is to involve the whole hog. And their BBQ sauce, that packs a punch, is nothing but vinegar, dried chile flakes, salt and pepper. In the western part of the state, it’s mainly pork shoulder that’s been slow-smoked for hours, and the BBQ sauce mellows a bit with the inclusion of brown sugar and a little ketchup. It is, of course, delicious.

Memphis is home to the RENDEZVOUS BARBECUE downtown on 3rd Street. It’s somewhat hidden in an alley, but you can easily follow your nose to the front door. The restaurant is in the basement, as is its smoker, which was once a coal chute. The Rendezvous’ specialty is St. Louis-style ribs, which are typically smoked with a generous dusting of a mildly spicy, paprika-based herb blend. If BBQ sauce is served, expect a slightly sweet blend that includes sorghum molasses (due to Memphis being on the Mississippi with access to the far south states). Regulars, I’m told frequently order their slab. HALF WET and HALF DRY. I’ve had them both ways. And both are delicious.

Further West and a little bit north lies Kansas City, home to the114-year-old ARTHUR BRYANT’S BARBECUE at 18th St. and Brooklyn Ave. It’s a no-frills, no-salad, no-fish, no-chilli kind of place. Just get in the line that begins far from the front door, place your order, then pick up your food at the window.

Now, of course Arthur Bryant’s serves pork. But with the Kansas City stockyards close by, it’s no wonder that beef took up residence in Arthur Bryant’s hickory-and-oak-fueled smokehouse…mainly beef brisket. With around 15 hours in the smoker, the brisket came out with the edges charred and burnt – too chewy for sandwiches – so Arthur Bryant got out front with the charred edges and called them “Burnt ends,” now a staple of BBQ pits across the nation. Arthur Bryant’s sauce? The signature version is a sweet heat vinegar and tomato sauce, but he created a variety of them. They are all, dare I say, delicious.

Not to be confused with Arthur Bryant’s is SONNY BRYAN’S in Dallas: Again, a no-frills joint with the only seating being a collection of old school chairs. No surprise that with the Fort Worth stockyards in the area, beef became the meat of choice here. Smoked beef brisket platters as well as fat brisket sandwiches on white bread were crowd pleasers. My favorite: the hammer handle-sized gargantuan beef ribs – wonderfully, drippy, saucy and greasy. Beyond delicious.

Sonny Bryan’s sauce, served in Corona Beer bottles, is thick, tangy and homemade, purportedly a blend of brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard powder and ketchup, plus a healthy smack of lemon. Try as they may, no Dallas chef has been able to knock off the recipe.

Let’s be clear.  I am not an expert on barbeque. I just like it.  I’ve eaten various iterations throughout the South. The worst I’ve ever had was GREAT.

Others have devoted their lives to perfecting the nuances of smoking and saucing. They attend fierce competitions around the country. They experiment with different combinations of wood for their smokers. I’m not that guy.

Back here in Minnesota, I’m drawn to TED COOK’S on 38th street. The owner and pit master for over 20 years is Moses Quarty. Occasionally he’ll appear at the takeout counter, but I’m told he prefers to spend his time tending to his iron smoker, ensuring that the product is perfect. And to my mind, it is. I love his hickory and cherrywood smoked, sweet-and-hot-glazed ribs.

Another local favorite is DAVE ANDERSON’S OLD SOUTHERN BARBECUE at France Ave and 44th street. Two giant hickory wood smokers, in full view, set the stage for real, deep, smoked southern barbeque (BTW, I don’t know anyone with more BBQ knowledge than Dave Anderson). As I write this, I’ve got two of his barbecue chickens on my kitchen counter poised for tonight’s dinner. They’ll be slathered with Dave’s Dixie Red Sauce – robust, slightly sweet with a hint of smoke. It won 1st place at the American Royal BBQ competition.

So, let me take you back a number of years, when Pete and I had just started in business. Among all the hare-brained ideas we had at the time was opening a BBQ restaurant in Minneapolis. And as we toured the country conducting our research, we came upon restaurants with a wide variety of smokers – some rudimentary, others state-of-the-art. Finally, we ended up in the Windy City.

Chicago magazine had just bestowed its “Best Ribs in Town” award to CARSON’S BARBECUE. So after we had lunch at there – enjoying very good BBQ indeed – we approached the manager and asked him if we could see how they did it.

He replied….””Absolutely not! It’s a closely guarded company secret.”

Well, this being Chicago, I placed a $20 bill in his hand.

He said, “Right this way, Sir” and led Pete and me down a narrow back staircase to the BBQ room.

Along the way we passed cases of Open-Pit brand barbecue sauce and cases of Wright’s Liquid Smoke. 

HMMMM ?

And then…and then…we came across the rib cookers.

No BBQ pit. No smokers. Instead: 3 or 4 electric grills, each about eight feet long.

That’s it! I thought. THAT’S how they cooked and sauced “the Best Ribs in Chicago” – grilling them over electric coils, flavoring them with liquid smoke, and saucing them with Open Pit barbeque sauce!

And the irony is….after just touring the best-of-the-best, most authentic BBQ pits and restaurants throughout the South, Pete and I thought that Carson’s were PRETTY DAMN GOOD RIBS.

So, now I have exposed a secret recipe (albeit an obsolete one; I understand that several years ago, they changed over to smokers).

CARSON’S, FORGIVE ME, FOR I HAVE SINNED.

WTF

PHIL

A JOURNEY TO ISRAEL…VIA EASTERN EUROPE, NEW YORK & MIAMI.

A few years ago, Joanne and I were strolling down Ledbury Road in Notting Hill after a leisurely lunch, and we happened upon OTTOLENGHI restaurant.

Now, I had heard of the chef YOTAM OTTOLENGHI, but mainly from his famous cookbooks on Jewish cuisine. Since we had just finished lunch and weren’t hungry, all we could do was simply gaze at the explosively colorful array of creations, arranged on a buffet line unlike anything I’d ever seen.

Those memories came flooding back when I read that he was just at Temple Israel in Minneapolis a few weeks ago. And they got me thinking about Ottolenghi and his reputation as the new standard bearer for Jewish & Israeli cusine

Born in Jerusalem, the young Yotam spent childhood summers in Italy where he caught the culinary bug. As a young man he went off to train at Le Cordon Bleu in London, where he specialized in pastry. Afterward he worked as a pastry chef at one of our London favorites…LAUNCESTON PLACE in Kensington.

His creations – which extend far beyond sweets –  are known for honoring the ingredients and cooking methods from “the Promised Land,” including regions and countries around Israel as well as the greater Mediterranean. In addition to being works of art – a riot of color and contrasts, soft and crunchy, high and low – the offerings lean toward vegetarian:  Charred Broccoli with slivered garlic, chiles and cashews…Sweet Potatoes with figs, balsamic reduction, chiles and spring onions…Butternut Squash with strawberry cream, currants, olives, spring onions and ricotta…Coconut Prawn Stew and ricotta.

We had his Polenta Cake with Citron and Toasted Pistachios at Launceston Place on my birthday.

So I hadn’t thought much about Jewish – let alone Israeli – food for a couple of years (covid and all). But on a recent visit to Miami Beach, we visited a fabulous new Israeli restaurant called ABBALE (which translates to “Daddy”). It’s located in the “South of 5th” neighborhood in a little house with a fine patio.

Even though they have a liquor license, we started off with a bright and refreshing Frozen Lemonade.

Appetizers include a smoky Roasted Eggplant Babaganoush with Smoked Sea Salt, and an Israeli Crunchy Kale Salad loaded up with chunks of avocado and ricotta salata cheese.

A sampling of jaw-dropping small plates included a whole head of Yogurt-Roasted Baby Cauliflower with picked red onions, chiles, sultana raisins and sour cherries – well worth the $16 price, an open-face sandwich with avocado, egg, arugula and feta, a lamb kofta (in the form of baby meatballs), and a pita sandwich with hummus, black sesame tahini and pickled red cabbage.

Shakshuka (eggs in spicy tomato red-pepper sauce)…A Chicken Sashlik kebab with spicy sumac, tahini and pickled cabbage…and an order of polenta, feta and sweetcorn pancakes with a poached egg rounded out our lunch.

Except for…a block of Baklava topped with black-lime honey and a scoop of tahini ice cream. Never had that before.

As a matter of fact, I’d never had Israeli food before.

BUT WAIT!!!

What about the Ashkenazis?

Well, since about the 1500s, the Ashkenazis settled in Central and Eastern Europe (remember Fiddler on the Roof, set in Ukraine?). As a minority group they were generally forbidden from growing certain crops and vegetables, but were allowed to cultivate a limited variety of winter vegetables, including carrots, beets, parsnips, potatoes and rye, a close relative of wheat that grows throughout the winter. It provided their expert bakers with flour for rye bread and bagels.

The Ashkenazis weren’t exactly poor, but they had to make-do with less. Braised brisket, a tough working-muscle meat (chewy and juicy, just above the front leg of the cow) was affordable and rarely used by the gentile residents of the area. Same with chicken. The meat of the bird was, by and large, saved for the upper classes, while the livers were sold to the Jews. That’s good news on the culinary front, because we could have missed out on the emblematic Corned Beef and Pastrami sandwiches that we learned to love from the iconic New York delis.

Think chopped chicken liver, corned beef hash, and borscht from Ukraine…sweet braided babka, latkes, chicken schnitzel from Austria, stuffed cabbage rolls, and bagels from Poland…And let’s not forget “Bubbe’s” (Grandma’s) Matzo Ball Soup – the Jewish penicillin, able to stop colds in their tracks, nourish pregnant women and possibly cure leprosy. None of these might ever have existed.

Since the late 1800s a number of the Ashkenazi Jews from Central Europe immigrated to the United States – and most prominently to New York (KATZ’s DELI was founded in 1890).

So what happened? Why is Ashkenazi food rarely found in Israel?

First, the Holocaust. Second, in 1948, the declaration of the state of Israel.

Between 1948 and 1951, the largest migration ever to reach the shores of Israel occurred: 688,000 in all, mostly survivors of the Holocaust.

They arrived in Israel and were greeted by an entirely different, and much friendlier, climate than they’d known in Central and Eastern Europe. Harsh and long winters were replaced by warm, long summers. The new citizens of the Jewish state embraced the indigenous bounty. Vegetables, for example, became more than a side dish; they were even treated as an alternative to meat. Seafood varieties from the Mediterranean were galore. In the subtropical climate near the Sea of Galilee, mangoes, kiwis and bananas flourished. And “biblical” ingredients, such as figs, pomegranates and honey, populated dinner tables throughout the new state.

Cattle, the necessary first step for brisket, failed to flourish in the warm climate, as did the winter crop: rye. So new traditions took root, nourished by the agglomeration of regional dishes and cooking methods brought by the immigrants as well as the foods and recipes from their new neighbors, including Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia. Concentrated in this tiny region – a melting pot of flavors, textures, aromas and sensations – a new cuisine and new traditions were born.

While embracing the foods of their new home, perhaps Jewish cooks also sought to remove and erase the vestiges of the past? Why wouldn’t they?

So where does that leave us? WHAT IS JEWISH FOOD, ANYWAY?

Is it the local Israeli style that I loved at ABBALE in Miami Beach and that YOTAM OTTOLENGHI has made so popular – a cuisine that prioritizes vegetables and combines Mediterranean and Middle Eastern culinary traditions into riotously flavorful dishes?

Or is it the Ashkenazi-influenced traditions that I feasted on in New York delis – Katz’s, Carnegie Deli, Barney Greengrass, Russ & Daughters, and Zabar’s. Among their iconic dishes: Pastrami on Rye, Latkes with salmon roe and sour cream, Passover Meatloaf, Corned Beef Hash, Chopped Chicken Liver with matzo crackers, Bagels and Cream Cheese, Matzo Ball Soup, and Chocolate Babka.

I guess I really like them both. Not being Jewish, I don’t follow the Kosher rules – but there is one dictum that seems worth observing: As Milton Berle stated so eloquently…“Every time someone goes into a deli and orders pastrami on WHITE BREAD, somewhere a Jew dies.” I don’t want that on my conscience.

WTF,

Phil

Billy’s in the Bunkhouse

I got thinking the other day about smelly food and remembered the hot, sweaty and humid morning that Joanne and I walked Chatuchak Market in Bangkok.

Among the fruits, vegetables, dogs, chickens and lizards were stalls devoted to DURIAN – a spikey, basketball-size Asian vegetable. At the time, I had no idea what durian was. All I knew is that it announces its presence from afar. The closer we got to the durian stalls, the stinkier it got. I had no idea that people could eat this stuff…but I’m told that once you get past the putrid hull, the flesh inside is sweet and custard-like.

I will NEVER be able to get past the smell. And I am not alone in my opinion that the durian is unique in its putridness. The late great A.A. GILL, restaurant critic for the London Sunday Times, had this to say about it: “Durian horrifies travelers with the stench of sewage, stale vomit, surgical swabs and bat piss. It’s a vegetable that thinks it’s a cadaver.”

That led me to consider the stinky foods that I’ve grown to like. Obviously, cheese came to mind. While I could write about a host of foul fromages, I’ve narrowed the list to the ones I’ve actually tried and truly enjoyed. 

But first, a primer: Cheese in America must be made with PASTEURIZED MILK. This involves heating the milk to 161 degrees for 15 seconds – sufficient time to relegate our cheese to a FLAT NOTHINGNESS compared to the raw-milk cheeses of Europe.

By and large the cheeses that stink are EUROPEAN ones of the “rinsed rind” variety. And I don’t mean rinsed in Evian or San Pellegrino. We’re talking brine, brandy, wine, beer and other liquids that are thought to inhibit mold but encourage the bacteria that give cheese its distinctive aroma. Unfortunately they’re the same bacteria that cause STINKY FEET.

I remember my first encounter with LIMBURGER CHEESE. I was 6 or 7 and my uncle Don came home from the war in Europe.  We all lived in central Illinois (Kewanee) and Uncle Don and Aunt Rose shared a house with our family as well as my grandmother.  Whether Don had been in Limburg, Germany during the war, I’ll never know. Another thing I’ll never know is how such a beautiful little hamlet could produce such a vile-smelling product.

But I know this: Limburger was the foulest thing I had ever smelled in my life, even though three families in our house shared one toilet.

But then something happened: About once a week, usually Friday, Uncle Don would head downtown after work to buy provisions. Stopping first at the liquor store for beer, then at Steele’s Bakery for a loaf of pumpernickel (what the hell was THAT?), he’d proceed to the A&P for a red onion and a BRICK of Limburger cheese.

Upon arriving home, he’d ask if anyone wanted a sandwich. There were few takers. But one day I stepped up and tried Don’s sandwich of red onion and Limburger cheese on fresh pumpernickel. The combination of these ingredients had a peculiar effect. Yes, the cheese smelled like ass and ripe underarms, but once I got past the odor…well, I actually liked the flavors, which were pleasant with earthy grass and a slight tanginess.

Limburger sandwiches (occasionally with yellow French’s Mustard) became almost a Friday night ritual at 205 Central Blvd, Kewanee, Illinois.

I didn’t get a beer.

Joanne and I were fortunate enough to travel during our marriage. And food was always the primary focus.

So it was, on a rainy morning, that we took a day trip from Paris to Camembert, France to check out the cheese. Now, Camembert is rather low on the smell scale – particularly in the United States. FRENCH CAMEMBERT, on the other hand, is decidedly and unsurprisingly more rustic, less refined, earthier and more buttery than the American product. It has hints (but only hints) of barnyard and soiled laundry.

Notably, French Camembert can ONLY be made with UNpasteurized milk. By law!!

AMI DU CHAMBERTIN is made in the region of Gevrey-Chambertin in Burgundy, France. It’s another stinker that is washed in Marc de Bourgogne brandy, and the smell gets more pungent as the cheese ages. But the interior is creamy, salty, velvety and buttery, as well as slightly sweet. It’s actually quite good. Once you get past the smell. Brillat Savarin, the 18th century gourmand, described it as a “peculiar combination of vomit and seaweed.”  Ami du Chambertin is NOT WELCOME in the fridge. Others have described the odor as cat piss (not to be confused with A.A. Gill’s bat piss.)

Also from Burgundy is a cheese called EPOISSES DE BOURGOGNE. It hails from a village near Auxere and has been called the “funkmaster” of cheese. Its overwhelming stench reportedly has caused people to cross the street to avoid the smell. In Paris, the cheese has been BANNED from public transportation. People say it reminds them of an “outdoor fish market without an awning.” But if you survive the foul smell of the rind, you’ll be richly rewarded with a sweet, salty, yeasty flavor. Brillat Savarin dubbed it “the king of all cheeses.”

But had he thought to consider the competition on the other side of the Channel? 

Let’s head to the picturesque countryside near the Cotswolds in western England. Here lives THE STINKING BISHOP.

Far be it for me to besmirch the hygiene of clerics, so please note: Stinking Bishop refers to the pears that go into the brandy used to wash this remarkably rank cheese – judged by the Brits to be the STINKIEST in all the realm. I don’t know why I remember this, but In 2005 the cartoon characters Wallace and Gromit did a bit where Gromit revived an unconscious Wallace by placing a wedge of Stinking Bishop under his nose.

Joanne and I have visited the Cotswolds a number of times and there are several very good restaurants in the area. At one of the best, DORMEY HOUSE in Broadway, we treated ourselves to an entrée called the “Best End of Lamb.” The wine flowed freely, and at the conclusion of the meal the waiter suggested that we try the local cheese….Stinking Bishop. I don’t know if it was the wine talking, but I said “Hell YES!” (loudly enough to drown out Joanne’s “Hell, NO!”)

I was served a slice of something that hovered between a rotting corpse and a rugby locker room. I think I gagged – but then downed a slug of wine and DUG IN.

If you can excuse the eau du rugby player smell, the cheese was EXQUISITE: creamy, mellow and quite delicate. It paired nicely with the red wine and was served with fresh figs and walnuts.

Now, I have excluded several cheeses, among them the BLUE CHEESES, which are only mildly malodorous, as well as GOAT CHEESE. But goat cheese puzzles me because I love all the varieties I have tasted, and yet many of my friends tell me they’re put off by the taste and smell, which they characterize as “goaty.”

So I investigated and learned this: Not all that many years ago, goat cheese makers were forced to hold their milk at the farm for several days (way too long) ‘til they had accumulated enough milk to justify a pickup from the milk truck.

I also learned that the fresher the milk, the better the cheese. After a few days, the milk starts to sour a bit, and becomes bitter. Today, with the number of farmers raising goats, that’s no longer the issue. So perhaps that was part of the problem my friends had with goat cheese.

Of course, another thing with goaty cheese could be….

During the breeding season, when a doe goes into heat, she’s penned up with a buck, who secretes a pheromone that stimulates the production of hormones that change the flavor of her milk. So instead of the cheese being mild, slightly tangy and creamy, it becomes GOATY and ANIMALIC, with that strong musky, he-man odor (that Joanne has always found so appealing in her husband). This is not a defect. It is a feature. Some folks prefer their cheese this way.

So BEWARE THIS SPRING…

…because BILLY’S IN THE BUNKHOUSE!!!!

WTF,

PHIL

CHINESE IN LONDON ON THE CUSP OF OMICRON

Expedia recently announced that the summer of 2022 will be the BUSIEST TRAVEL SEASON EVER!

And Boris Johnson has lifted most all COVID restrictions in England.

But a few months prior those important announcements, Joanne and I decided to “push the envelope” a little and visit London. The pandemic seemed to be waning, after all (little did we know that something called Omicron was on the way).

Following Britain’s, America’s, and Delta Airlines’ rules, regulations and restrictions for getting to London was an exercise in “jumping through flaming hoops” and an absolute PAIN IN THE ASS. In transit, as well as on arrival, we endured hours of mask wearing, temperature checks, and multiple episodes of swabbing and spitting into little test tubes.

We made it, however, and managed to visit some of our favorite haunts, including GUINEA GRILL, BENTLEY’S, ANGLER, RULES and SCOTT’S. All good.

What wasn’t so good was that many restaurants we wanted to try were still closed.  And WAY TOO MANY restaurants had restricted hours. Some were open Thursday, Friday and Saturday only. Others served only lunch or weren’t allowing sit-down dining at all, just takeout.

So we sorta caved…and spent a day at the IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM. But WHAT A DAY!!!

Stepping out of the black iconic London taxi, we were greeted by two cannons, each the size of a locomotive.

Inside we explored three floors of exhibits dedicated to the British during World War II – both the European and Southeast Asian theaters. Each floor boasted an arsenal of tanks, airplanes, cannons, bombs and captured loot, including a German V-2 rocket. We also inspected the remains of a pummeled Japanese Zero airplane, as well as a captured giant bronze stylized Nazi eagle with an embedded swastika. It probably adorned a government building during the height of the Third Reich.

Do go. The museum does not disappoint. Plan to spend the day and have lunch. BTW, reservations to the museum are highly recommended.

But here’s the REAL discovery of the day:

CHINESE RESTAURANTS WERE OPEN FOR BUSINESS – including three of our favorites. Don’t know exactly why.

NOTE: Why did so many Chinese people come to London? As near as I can figure, the migration began in the mid-1840s, at the end of the Opium Wars. But it really ramped up right after WW2 and into the 1950s with the relaxation of immigration laws due to labor shortages in England. London has been the beneficiary, with magnificent restaurants like…

KAI

A fine dining Chinese restaurant In Mayfair on Audley Street, near the old American Embassy. Kai boasts one Michelin star. It offers “Liberated Chinese Food” – that is, a compilation of regional Chinese dishes and alternative versions.

Joanne and I usually sit at table #2, near the front door. (Tony Soprano wouldn’t approve, but we like to watch the people coming and going). No matter; there aren’t any bad tables at Kai, either on the ground floor or in the equally elegant downstairs dining room.

The restaurant’s signature appetizer is Wasabi Prawns, flavored with wasabi mayo, mango and basil seeds (YES, they have a kick). Another appetizer that has us hooked is “Purple Charms” – steamed baby eggplant in lime-chili vinegar.

Speaking of KICK, you must try the Cashew Chicken– because you certainly won’t find anything like it at PF Chang’s. Only the name is mild.

Joanne and I shared the Steamed Bass with ginger and spring onions. Delicious, as you’d expect.

Kai also offers the obligatory Peking Duck, but we didn’t have it. The table next to us did, and Joanne almost up-chucked at the sight of its head dangling over the platter and resting on the table.

Dessert? YES. The “The Black Pearl of Eternal Fortunes?” YES AGAIN.

MIN JIANG

You’ll find this top-rated restaurant in Kensington on the 10th floor of THE ROYAL GARDEN HOTEL. The dining room is handsome, and the view overlooking the Kensington Gardens dazzles.

I celebrated my birthday here, at Table #28 next to the window, and feasted on an array of Szechuan and Cantonese creations – among them probably the best ribs ever: Sesame-Jasmine Barbeque Ribs.

They were accompanied by Roasted Pork Belly Squares with mini-steamed buns. We also sampled something called “Pinky Piggu,” a dish of Singaporan origin that showcases a crabmeat dumpling, poached in butter and served in a little fish bowl.

But the star of the show was the Wood-Roasted Peking Duck – probably the best I’ve ever had, and that includes renditions Joanne and I have ordered in New York and even Shanghai. If you have the hankering, MIN JIANG IS THE PLACE FOR PEKING DUCK!

A.WONG

Chef Andrew Wong’s eponymous restaurant in Pimlico is a little place, but it comes with TWO BIG MICHELIN STARS.

Here Wong commemorates his travels through the Chinese provinces. Standout creations include Chengdu Street Tofu. I’m not much of a tofu fan (really, who is?), but Wong’s version was perfectly crispy and married with soy, chili, peanuts and preserved vegetables. I could be converted.

Next came an appetizer out of the Grant Achatz School of Molecular Gastronomy:  two Steamed Custard Buns, each encapsulating a warm, runny duck egg yolk. I wonder where in China that came from?

A Prawn and Seaweed Cracker suddenly appeared at our table – a sort of mid-meal amuse bouche. But it was different than the plain, grocery-store iterations. Crispy and laced with shrimp base and black sesame seeds, it was topped with finely chopped cuttlefish, pickled vegetables and tangy seaweed.

(Not to self: Add “Prep cuttlefish” to Joanne’s to-do list next time we cook Chinese.)

One of the main courses that we enjoyed was the Soy Chicken Breast, crowned with a dollop of crème fraiche and Osetra caviar. I’m not certain how authentic it was – but then again, who cares?

The Cherrywood Peking Duck couldn’t have been tastier…unless you ate it side-by-side with Min Jiang’s Peking Duck. In contrast to that restaurant’s very theatrical presentation, Wong’s version was simply chopped “peasant style.”  Perhaps this is the way it’s served in the hinterlands of China….but I’m also uncertain that peasants in China eat much Peking Duck.

At the end we were “comped” with a pair of tasty little White Chocolate Mah Jong tiles, each hiding a raspberry filling.

NICE !

SO THEN…..the next evening Joanne and I went to CHINATOWN.

Located in the city of Westminster, bordering Soho and just of Shaftesbury Avenue, years ago, London’s Chinatown occupied the same general area it does today, but was rundown and in decay. Then, in the 1970s the area was reimagined, developed and consolidated into a tight and vibrant community of Chinese shops, services, grocery stores and especially restaurants. You enter Gerrard Street, a car-free pedestrian zone, through the magnificent China Gate that’s only a few years old and was fabricated by Chinese artists, then assembled in London.

Now, I’ve been generally pleased with dining in London’s Chinatown over the years, despite the fact that nearly all the men smoke with gusto. But this time we had a specific place in mind – the slightly up-market BAR SHU, by consensus the #1 Szechuan restaurant in the area. The Szechuan Province in southwest China is known for its spicy food – much, much different than the lukewarm Lo Mein dishes that are so popular on Chinese-American menus.

So it was that I went marching ahead – unmindful, unwitting, unknowing, unsuspecting – into the world of Bar Shu’s Szechuan combustible dining. No delicate or teasing Chinese meals for me! 

Instantly I glommed onto an arresting, colorful photo on the menu: “Fragrant Chicken in a Pile of Chilies.” (about $24.95).

Joanne said, “NO! Don’t do that!”

I replied, “I’m brave when I order.”

CHILIES? CHILIES? Here’s something you should know – and something I wish I had known:

The heat of various peppers is measured on what is called the Scoville Heat Scale. Green bell peppers, for example, register zero. Poblanos come in around 1,000 – 1,500.  YIEN TSIN CHILI PEPPERS, imported from China, the kind that Bar Shu piles on the fragrant chicken, top out at 70,000!  That’s right, 70K!

The preponderance of offerings at Bar Shu are not simply lip-tingling or mouth-popping, but rather SCALDING and SEARING….DEBILITATING and NUMBING!

After two bites I CRIED OUT LOUD for a carton of milk…NOW!!!!! But one carton didn’t kill the pain. It took two, and that barely cooled it..

My suggestion: If you go there and you try THE FRAGRANT CHICKEN IN A PILE OF CHILIES, put a couple WET-NAPS in the fridge overnight…because even after only two bites…..IT BURNS TWICE!!!

WTF,

Phil

HAWAII DINING: SAY ALOHA TO CORONA

This is a W.T.F ALERT…ALERT…ALERT!

Last April, Joanne and I decided to treat our grandkids with a trip to London. COVID was appearing to show some signs of winding down, so we booked our trip for early August in order to be safe. As the weeks and months progressed, London didn’t seem to be making much headway in welcoming visitors to the UK. In fact, they put the United States on “amber alert” status, which meant that we would all have to quarantine in our hotel for 10 days upon arrival. As August grew closer and the London restrictions didn’t budge, we concluded that there was just too much brain damage and uncertainty to follow through on our plans.

What then?

Well, the grandkids wanted to go to Hawaii. And that seemed reasonable. Sure, Hawaii had some COVID “flaming-hoops” that we’d need to jump through in order to visit the islands, but they were manageable (though still a pain in the ass.)

So, off we went the first week in August. Aloha, Waikiki!

I’ve always assumed that August in Hawaii would be a sort of shoulder season – not particularly crowded since American, European and Japanese vacationers typically flock to the islands during the dead-of-winter months. To our surprise, however, the Honolulu airport was packed cheek-by-jowl with arriving tourists.

We didn’t think much about it until I sat down with the concierge at our hotel to make our first evening’s dinner reservations. Having taken my mother and her sister to Hawaii several times over the years, we had a hit list of favorite Honolulu restaurants to which I was eager to introduce the grandkids. And because we’d never had any trouble making reservations in the past, I made no effort to secure bookings in advance of the trip.

Imagine my shock when the concierge told me that nothing – and I mean nothing – was available.  Left with no choice but to capitulate, I said, “Well, okay, we’ll just dine at the hotel restaurant tonight.”

“Nope,” he said. “It’s completely sold out as well.”

Okay, did any of you see WHITE LOTUS on HBO? In this mini-series about a bunch of entitled guests at a fancy Hawaiian hotel, one of the characters pitches a fit when he doesn’t get the precise suite he booked. I found myself channeling him.

“BUT WE ARE GUESTS HERE!” I informed the concierge.

Still nope. Impossible. Sorry, muggy fudder.

I soon discovered that the problem wasn’t with the hotel. All of Hawaii had been hobbled by COVID and the Hawaiian government’s response to it. In fact, that very day, the governor decreed that all restaurants had to reduce their indoor seating from 75% to 50%. 

That was a massive headache for operators, and equally so for tourists. Consider that Europe was by in large off limits to vacationing visitors. Australia and any other South Pacific destinations were simply CLOSED. So guess what? After spending much of 2020 shut in at home, throngs upon throngs of vacationers from England, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, China, Korea, Canada and of course America made the same choice as Joanne and I. We all turned to Hawaii as the antidote to our cabin fever.

So, what did we do?

First we turned to Open Table. But according to it and all the other online booking resources we tried, not only was every restaurant booked that evening – they didn’t have any openings for the next TWO MONTHS! Really.

That left me with one option: Engaging directly with each restaurant manager – in person – to plead, persuade, and maybe offer one of the grandchildren in trade.

Occasionally, I was successful. Frequently, I was given choices like, “Would you prefer bar seating at 3:45 or a card table by the dumpster at 10:30 PM?”

The hit-the-pavement strategy is sound, however. When you engage someone face-to-face, it is more difficult for them to say no. Consequently, I was able to secure dinner reservations at some of my favorites. And when the manager finally said, “Well, okay…”, I immediately asked for a second night as well.

IT WORKED.

So, you winter travelers to Hawaii: FOREWARNED IS FOREARMED. Hawaii is flooded with tourists from around the world; all of them bound, determined – and largely unable – to visit their favorite vacation restaurants. Which means that if you’re planning to visit any of the islands this winter, call your hotel concierge and make your dinner reservations NOW!  RIGHT NOW! 

Here are some places where we succeeded in getting a table, and that we thoroughly enjoyed.  I think you will like them as well.

JAPENGO…..at the Hyatt Kanapali on Maui.

The setting and the sunset are drop-dead gorgeous and dining is open-air. It’s mainly Japanese but with pan-Asian punctuations. Entrees are enticing, but can also make a meal of small plates if you wish. We ate here twice, and believe me: The food does not disappoint. It’s artfully plated, witty and full-flavored. Please do not pass on the Crispy Pork-Belly Bao Buns with pickled Maui onions, soy/mustard aioli and hoisin sauce…..$11 each. It would also be foolish to pass on the Korean Seafood Pancakes, loaded with crab and shrimp, cleverly seasoned with Gochujang (fermented red chili paste) aioli, and served with a sesame soy sauce for dipping (four modest, albeit delicious, pancakes for $22).

WOLFGANG’S STEAKHOUSE, in Waikiki.

Why go to Hawaii for a NY steakhouse experience? WHY NOT, when the restaurant is the creation of PETER LUGER veteran Wolfgang Zwiener? Located on the third floor of the Royal Hawaiian Shopping center right on Kalakaua Ave, Wolfgang’s Steakhouse mimics the Peter Luger formula, and largely succeeds, especially with its magnificent Porterhouse for Two. BTW, I mustn’t forget to thank the Hapsburg Dynasty for the gift of Apple Strudel, which at Wolfgang’s is as good as it gets. What wasn’t so good, alas, was the service. Our server was pleasant and well-intentioned but had only been there for two weeks. She didn’t know the menu or many of the ingredients, and she forgot our Wolfgang’s version of our Peter Luger favorite: their signature crusty German potatoes. Oh well. She was trying her best.  

MOMOSAN, in Waikiki

Situated just down the street from Wolfgang’s Steakhouse, toward Diamond Head, is Momosan, one of two restaurants opened recently by dining legend Masahru Morimoto. The other, bearing its creator’s name, is geared more toward fine dining, and is located upstairs from Momosan.

Note that Momosan does not take reservations, so be prepared to stand in line. But the wait is worth it. Sushi, Nigiri and Sashimi reign, of course. The pan-fried Gyoza dumplings with their contrasting textures, supple and resilient bodies, and crispy edges tell you everything you need to know about yin and yang. If Soft-Shell Crabs are in season, by all means get them in the flash-fried crunchy Crab Bao Bun – $12, as a recall.

But occupying top billing are the several varieties of crazy-good RAMEN dishes. Now, great ramen is dependent on great broth (stream the documentary RAMEN HEADS for a delightful master class on the subject). And the greatest of Momosan’s ramen offerings is the Gyukotsu. Now, the testosterone count is not particularly high here, but Momosan’s Gyukotsu just might cause a metrosexual male to strip to the waist and howl at the moon. This is RAMEN FOR CARNIVORES – a clubable, strapping beef rib with fall-off-the-bone, burly beef nuggets that have been allowed to wallow for seven hours in rich, muscular, beefy broth and then loaded up with eggy noodles, bok choy, toasted sesame seeds, shitake mushrooms, and Korean-seasoned kale, then vividly garnished and flavored with a soft-cooked egg that’s been marinated for hours in soy, sake, mirin and sugar. The preponderance of the ramen dishes on the menu hover around $18. The Gyukotsu will set you back $28, but it’s well worth it. LIVE A LITTLE, BIG GUY!

SON’Z STEAKHOUSE, near Kanapali on Maui.

In normal times, we probably wouldn’t have done as many steakhouses in Hawaii, but SON’Z STEAKHOUSE is a worthy choice (and besides, how much poke can a fella eat?). Son’z is in the Hyatt hotel, but is an independently owned restaurant. Despite the labor shortage, our service was astute and seamless. The setting is a glorious Hollywood set, where outdoor tables overlook a swan-filled tropical lagoon with a waterfall.

It’s a typical New York steakhouse menu in many ways….and executed flawlessly.  We started with the obligatory Shrimp Cocktail and pristine raw sliced Ahi tuna resting in a bracing mustard/sake sauce. Lamb Chops, at $47, were expertly grilled. I had a 12-ounce NY Strip ($57). No, it’s not MANNY’S, but it was good. Just-caught Mahi Mahi, according to Joanne, was the star of the show. However, my grandkids might take issue with her, having chosen the Wagyu Meatballs and the Wagyu Cheeseburger, both around $30.

So there you have it: Crowded beyond belief. Impossible-to-obtain restaurant reservations (well, almost impossible, even if you’re crafty).  Congested roads. And a scarcity of hotel rooms.

Please, please plan ahead. These conditions won’t go away this winter.

You may ask, “But did we have a good time?”

The answer: “Did we ever!”

You might think that for us, that it’s all about the food, but the real pleasure for Joanne and me is watching our grandkids suck it all in – the beaches, the tropics, the monumental swimming pool with its own dark, secluded cave (outfitted with a TV for football games), and their discovery of ROOM SERVICE.

And something they’ll never forget: They learned to surf. They even managed to stand up!

Our biggest culinary disappointment…our favorite Hawaiian restaurant: MAMA’S FISH HOUSE…BOOKED SOLID THROUGH DECEMBER!!!  NOT TODAY…SUCKER !!!!

W.T.F.

PHIL