NEW WAVE STEAKHOUSES

I first came face-to-face with a true New York-style steakhouse a few years before opening MANNY’S in the mid-1980s. It was THE PALM STEAKHOUSE on 837 Second Avenue in New York City (now with numerous other locations). Though it had been around since 1926, I had no idea that such a restaurant existed. From the unartful workaday décor to the saw-dusted wooden floors, walls stained ocher from decades of cigarette smoke, and the impatient brusqueness of the waiters, it exuded a masculine vibe that even its starched white linen tablecloths did nothing to extinguish. 

What caused me to drop a jaw was the deluge of whopping, perfectly charred NY Strip steaks and catcher’s mitt-sized Porterhouses being hustled to tables of well-suited businessmen. Oh yes, there were a few ladies…or should I say “knockouts?”

There were no paper menus. Waiters (not waitresses) recited the offerings tableside. They’d lead off with steaks, of course, and then – if pressed to admit it– somewhat reluctantly let you know that lamb chops and chicken were on offer, too. Sometimes the waiters wouldn’t even get around to the fish offerings.

BTW, I had never seen a whole Maine lobster in my life. So I practically leapt out of my chair when the waiter wheeled his trolley to an adjacent table and presented a 5-pounder – splayed out on a giant platter – to half a dozen balding tycoons. The guys tossed their neckties over their shoulders and dug into the beast, char-grilled and slathered with heavy cream and clarified butter.

All dishes were served matter-of-factly and unceremoniously…but then I realized: No ceremony WAS the ceremony! 

And YES, it was expensive – at the time, probably $35-40 dollars per person!

(But then again, I was looking at MANNY’S opening menu from over 30 years ago, and our signature 24-oz dry-aged Porterhouse was $24! Oh well…)

THE PALM was an original – confident and sure-footed. They knew who they were and what they stood for. I felt certain they never took a backward glance to see what others were doing.

So I set out on a three-year, self-indulgent steakhouse research venture that concluded with the opening of MANNY’S.

Along the way, I discovered that THE PALM was not alone. It was joined by several other “category killer” steakhouses.

Among those in New York were SPARKS STEAKHOUSE on 46th Street. In addition to its reputation for perfect steaks and a stunning wine list, it had the dubious distinction of being the site of the shooting and killing of Mafia boss Paul Castellano.

Then there was the iconic PETER LUGER’S, across the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. There the service wasn’t just brusque, it was downright confrontational, with surly waiters, reservations only for regulars, and – to this day – a no credit cards policy. The critics lambaste it for being so customer-unfriendly; nevertheless PETER LUGER’S rests secure atop the NY steakhouse scene. 

Another legend is KEENS CHOP HOUSE, the slightly bawdy and politically incorrect boys club in the garment district. It has served top-notch steaks since 1856, but is probably best known for its signature two-fisted English Mutton Chop, wolfed down by none other than Babe Ruth, Theodore Roosevelt, Liza Minnelli and Buffalo Bill. Oh yeah, and me.

I would argue, however, that the CLASSIC NEW YORK STEAKHOUSE thrives not only in New York City (and Minneapolis). First-class steakhouses have proliferated across the country – and indeed across the pond. In fact, one of the best in the world can be found in London’s Mayfair neighborhood. I’ve written about it before: THE GUINEA GRILL, famous for its dry-aged Scottish beef, meticulously sourced, carefully prepared, and proudly served by a staff of lifers.

Closer to home, in Miami’s South Beach, PRIME 112 reigns supreme. As you might expect of a restaurant smack dab in the center of “glam,” Prime 112 touches all the bases of a classic New York steakhouse and adds to them with more than a touch of celebrity. Look, there’s J LO and A-ROD (no longer dining together, sadly). And that’s KIM KARDASHIAN (although I can only see her backside).

Here’s what I know about the classic New York steakhouse:

  • It’s a proper sit-down restaurant.
  • It’s defined by crispy white linen tablecloths (they cost a helluva lot to launder, but they’re part of the steakhouse DNA)
  • Patrons feast on hulking cuts of the very, very best dry-aged beef.
  • Seafood lovers are catered to with luxurious, multi-tiered shellfish towers.
  • Maine lobsters, approximately the size of bathmats, will be available fresh from the tank.
  • Side dishes, socked with salt, butter and cream, are generous, indulgent and addictive.
  • Preparations are simple, but perfectly executed every time.
  • Cocktails are strong, and made from the best booze by highly skilled bartenders, served by professional servers (some with a cheeky attitude…okay, maybe several with a cheeky attitude).

While the New York-style steakhouse is eternal, the category itself is rich with innovation. In fact, during the past few years, there have emerged an array of alternative iterations looking to reshape and supplant “your father’s steakhouse.”

What are the traits of these whippersnappers? Best I can tell, they’re defined by:

  • Chic décor
  • Smaller portions (not quite dainty, but with an emphasis on 4, 6 and 8-ounce cuts, often available as flights.
  • An embrace of non-traditional cuts, like skirt steak short ribs
  • Meats beyond beef, including venison, bison, duck, pheasant, rabbit, and even – God help us – turkey burgers
  • Small plates that encourage discovery, with offerings like seafood crudo.
  • Loud, trendy music, a bustling bar scene, and a sexy vibe (as if balding tycoons aren’t sexy enough)

I’m partial to the classics, but I have to admit: There are some VERY GOOD alternative steakhouses. Check out G.T. PRIME and MAPLE & ASH, both in Chicago.

Then there’s the trendsetter in this category: STK, a quite successful chain with locations New York, Vegas, Miami Beach, Chicago and more. One critic described it as “a steakhouse for the stiletto set.” Joanne and I were seated in a nice booth at the Miami location, around 7:00 PM. The place must come alive at a much later hour, as we and another couple of a certain age were the only ones in the place. However, that did not stop the DJ. Throughout our dinner, a KitchenAid refrigerator-sized speaker was “thumping” (thumpa, thumpa, thumpa) directly over our booth at the decibel level of a 747 taking off at Miami International. Our steaks were fine…I guess.

More recently, we dined at PAPI STEAK, located in Miami’s South Beach. Even though it was early evening, our experience at this fancy new hotspot began outside with a velvet rope and a doorman. Sporting a tight black T-shirt and an uptight attitude, he stopped us cold as we were entering. “May I help you?” he asked with a glower. “Yeah,” I answered. “We’re going to dinner.”

The restaurant, at that early hour, was only about 20% full. But that didn’t stop the bored hostess from behaving like we were interrupting her day.

The place is small, with only 93 seats. Guests, many in stilettos, dine in plush, deep red velvet booths. The vibe is sultry, sexy and dark. It feels private and quite exclusive. Most notable, however, is the volume level, dialed up well past 11. Do not come here for a quiet meal.

But maybe you prefer your music loud –and like to dress even louder. Then welcome to Papi Steak, a magnet for men in shirts open to the navel, wearing amulets the size of hockey pucks and gold chain necklaces that run the gold scale gamut from 24K to outright fake. One guest told me that he suspected the restaurant has a secret committee for encouraging BAD TASTE.

Within an hour or so of our arrival, the place was hoppin’. But our experience was diminished by our server’s warning that we had to be out of there in two hours. I wondered, did they need the table for an 8PM reservation, or did they want to ensure we were gone before we could kill the vibe? Adding to my annoyance was the bathroom attendant. First of all, I’ve learned to pee all by myself.  Second, while I’m washing my hands, I don’t need someone hanging over my back brushing dandruff off my shoulders.

But at least I wasn’t alone in my annoyance. Throngs of guests packed in the foyer were vocal in their disapproval as the hosts ignored their overdue reservations while providing immediate seating for what appeared to be the owners’ friends and assorted VIPs.

Bottom line on PAPI: It feels like a Vegas nightclub masquerading as a steakhouse that just happens to serve food. And actually, it was pretty good food. But this place doesn’t really care about being a great restaurant. It just wants to be a hot one.

So let’s talk about “hot.” Have you heard of NUSR-ET, currently experiencing warp-speed, worldwide openings in places like Istanbul, New York, Dubai, and London? Joanne and I went to the Miami location on Brickell Ave.

It’s a big space that checks all the steakhouse boxes, with premium fittings and a big polished wood and glass meat locker holding haunches of beef.

It’s outrageously expensive. I say outrageous because I suspected  – and recently confirmed – that our steak was wet-aged, not dry-aged; the difference being that dry-aging is a costly process that justifies higher prices. Wet aging is a money-saving shortcut for operators.

If PAPI STEAK has cornered the market on gold chains, NUSR-ET has cornered the market on GOLD LEAF. How, you may ask?

Well, they offer a 50-ounce, wet-aged Tomahawk chop for $250. But hang on!! For a mere $1,000 you can have THE GOLDEN TOMAHAWK CHOP. It’s the same exact steak, except it’s clad in 18K gold leaf (which, by the way, adds NO FLAVOR and NO TEXTURE to the meat. It’s all bling.).

But the real star of the show? That would be the owner, NUSRET GOKCE, a Turkish chef, food entertainer, media figure and restaurateur known by his nickname, SALT BAE (which translates to “before anyone else” or can be slang for “sweetheart” or “baby.”) 

Why should we care? Well, Nusret Gokce has won fame for the way he salts your steak tableside. It’s no perfunctory salt sprinkling, it’s SHOWTIME! Salt Bae, who always sports a low-cut, scoop-necked white t-shirt, gold watch and dark glasses (does he ever take them off?), arrives in tandem with your steak. He scoops up a generous portion of coarse Maldon salt and in a peculiarly sensual way salts your steak with a wrist flick of saline swagger. The salt cascades down his forearm, past three fingers and finally waterfalls onto your steaks.

That’s it.

No, really: THAT’S IT.

Would I go back?  Hmmmm, maybe, if I were certain that SALT BAE was going to be in the house. But with restaurants around the world, what are the chances of that happening? And though I appreciate his mastery of kitsch and theater, the restaurant is REALLY F***ING EXPENSIVE. As Steve Cuozzo of the New York Post put it, “NUSR-ET is public rip-off #1.”

So, am I a fan of these new interpretations of classic steakhouses? Yeah, as I said. Some of them.

What about the future? Will the next steakhouse be worth the wait? Or one to avoid? Keep reading, and we’ll find out together!

WTF

PHIL

THE ROOTS OF A RESTAURANTEUR

Thank God …..COVID is winding down.

Now that restaurants are actually open, I plan to resume my blog again. As you will remember, my posts aren’t reviews. My goal is simply to share discoveries with those of you who enjoy travel and dining as much as Joanne and I do. I’m no restaurant critic; I’m a restaurant STALKER.

I thought I’d take this posting to share a bit about my culinary roots as I scratch my head to see if there is any connective tissue between my childhood food memories and my food and restaurant pathology of today.

So…welcome to the inside of my brain. And please forgive the disorganization, messiness and clutter.

I grew up in the 1950s in Kewanee, Illinois, a factory town of 16,000 people in the central part of the state.

And only today do I realize that during that time there was almost a contempt of American food. The newspapers banished food to the women’s sections of the papers, amid articles about needlepointing and flower shows. There were no culinary magazines to be found in our house, I have no recollection of ever stumbling on any TV cooking shows.

For me, that was a good thing. With no high-brow chefs or notebook-bearing critics to inform me that we were in any way deprived, this grubby, acne-faced adolescent reveled in the food he was served.

And why shouldn’t I have warm & fuzzy feelings about our meals? After all, I lived in a house with a dirt-floor basement and three families crammed into two floors: My Swedish grandma Nana, my Aunt Rose and newly returned WWII veteran Uncle Don, and my mom and dad, June and Ollie. Every evening around 5 o’clock, we sat around the round oak table with the ball and claw feet in the kitchen table and had dinner. Only we called it supper.

M.F.K. Fischer, who wrote artful personal essays and books about food, once famously said, “Our life requires three basic needs: food, security and love.” I aced it in all three categories.

With three women sharing the cooking in our house, our meals were influenced from three different backgrounds…or should I say four, because my dad and Uncle Don were hunters and fishermen who occasionally prepared their catch for us.

As I flounder in my memory, two things strike me about the food: It was UNCOMPLICATED. And it was UNIMPROVABLE!

I don’t think that I ate in a restaurant until I was probably 8 or 9 years old, unless you count the local Dairy Queen, where on summer nights my parents and I would stop in for a 5-cent cone….” the cone with a curl on top”….on our 16-block walk to Northeast Park to watch the Philadelphia Athletics class C farm team play baseball. I clearly remember the evening when, in my mind, Dairy Queen took a giant culinary step and offered to dip my cone into a warm chocolate bath that immediately hardened into a dark shell encasing the white vanilla soft serve. That treatment cost a dime. It was maybe my first exposure to food as theater.

If it wasn’t the first restaurant I ever visited, the MAID-RITE on 2nd Street in Kewanee was certainly one of my earliest experiences dining out. I know now that Maid-Rite started out in Iowa and later expanded on the strength of its popular “loose meat” sandwiches (something Roseanne Barr used to talk a lot about)….but the taste was great: juicy steamed ground beef topped with a dill pickle chip and a squirt of mustard on a steamy, soggy bun. Absolute heaven.

At home, meatloaf was our version of loose meat, smothered with ketchup (wonderful, wonderful ketchup) and served at least weekly. When we were in the mood for something exotic, Mom obliged with CHINESE CHOP SUEY. It involved at least two cans of La Choy (or maybe Chun-King?) vegetables and crispy fried noodles.

My mom was consistent in her nomenclature. Chop Suey was Chinese Chop Suey, and spaghetti was ITALIAN SPAGHETTI. I loved it! Capers, anchovies, Gaeta olives from Lazio, San Marzano tomatoes…None of that ever made an appearance. My mom, however, did spike her sauce with a few drops of olive oil – carefully metered from a tiny bottle. I think, at that time, she could only buy olive oil at the Berg and Dines Drug Store on Chestnut Street. The local A&P had no audience for such exotica.

On Saturday nights, all the downtown Kewanee stores remained open ‘til 9 o’clock. The farmers from Henry County brought vitality to the local economy and flooded the shopping district. Dave Benson and I followed girls in and out of the stores until they caught us.

My mom worked in a dress shop and when she closed up at 9:00, on very rare occasions we would walk a block down the street to DAVIDSON’S RESTAURANT. That’s where I met and fell in love with…CHICKEN-IN-THE-ROUGH, a half fried chicken accompanied by French fries and a drop biscuit and honey. Served without silverware, it came in a wicker basket accompanied by a small finger bowl of tepid water…which, on my first visit, I drank.

Other stuff that I liked and remember: PINEAPPLE UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE, GREEN JELLO made with cream cheese, evaporated milk and walnuts. BURGERS served up on sliced WONDER BREAD (“builds strong bodies eight ways”). What I know now that I didn’t know then is that LOUIE’S LUNCH in New Haven, Connecticut – oft-lauded for having one of the BEST BURGERS IN AMERICA – also served its signature burger on sliced white bread. So there!!!

And then there were ROAST BEEF SUNDAY AFTERNOONS, when my Aunt Betty and Uncle John, along with their sons Johnny and Bob, would drive up from Peoria and we’d all manage to squeeze around the kitchen table. The beef, likely a rump roast (NEVER Prime Rib) was always roasted well, WELL done. Hmm, I wonder if that had anything to do with Nana coming from Swedish Stock. I was just wondering.

By the time I was a junior in high school, I was smitten by a girl named Bonnie. She, however, was not entirely smitten with me. Consequently, on date night, I would be certain to drop Bonnie off at home no later than 10:30…..because….the A&W ROOT BEER closed at 11:00. A manhole-sized DEEP-FRIED PORK TENDERLOIN SANDWICH and FROSTY MUG OF ICE-COLD ROOT BEER easily trumped my in-vain love affair.

No surprise that the A&W’s marquee offering was pork; Kewanee is the OFFICIAL HOG CAPITAL OF THE WORLD. I can still remember the balmy summer evenings when the gentle breeze was out of the west and the aroma of ammonia from hundreds of hog farms wafted over the town.

PAN-FRIED PORK CHOPS (breaded when Mom was feeling fancy) were a treat, a rather special treat.

Today I realize that the women of the house frequently found ways to stretch our dollars and still provide a satisfying meal for six. A real crowd pleaser was SAUERKRAUT AND SPARERIBS (lots of sauerkraut and potatoes, but maybe one or two spareribs at most per person).

My Mother shopped the A&P grocery store, and she told me that on occasion the butcher would simply give her PORK LIVER, no charge. I guess they couldn’t sell it. I HATED LIVER. Mom would bread and pan-fry it with lots and lots of fried onions. My friend Dale, the son of the Baptist minister down the block, also hated liver. But his mom would spruce it up with BACON. Alas, there was no liver and bacon at 205 East Central Blvd.

It was only after we moved to Minnesota that I discovered that liver could a delicacy. Think FOIE GRAS. I also remember long-gone HARRY’S CAFÉ in downtown Minneapolis, where the signature dish was LIVER STEAK (the size of a MANNY’S New York Strip) smothered with fried onions and bacon.

Other economies at our house? CHICKEN POT PIE. Fried Chicken was only for rare occasions, but with the added bulk of potatoes, carrots, Bisquick drop biscuits and chopped celery, this dish provided an affordable alternative. Moreover, my mom’s version was DELICIOUS and there was always PLENTY OF IT.

As I said, my Dad and Uncle Don fished and killed game for food.

Come with me to the banks of the Hennepin Canal that ran from Chicago to Rock Island, and passed 10 miles north of Kewanee.  My Dad would take me there in the evening and throw a “TROT-LINE” across the waterway. Fixed up with appendages including a dozen or so TREBLE FISH HOOKS that would rest on the bottom, it reliably lured catfish.

I have two vivid memories of CATFISH.

My first recollection involves an obligatory stop at the Sears & Roebuck to pick up the cheesy catfish bait which we rolled by hand into golf ball-size portions and squished onto the treble hooks. It was the STINKIEST, FOULEST, MOST PUTRID, NOSTRIL-PENETRATING CRAP that existed on the planet – vomit married with cat feces. 

But, OH MY…the next morning…Did we catch fish? YOU BET WE DID!!!!

My SECOND MEMORY? My Mom’s DEEP-FRIED CATFISH DINNERS ….always with KRAFT MACARONI & CHEESE (VELVEETA, as I remember.)

CRAPPIES and BLUEGILLS…pan-fried, not deep fried. Watch out for bones.

Here’s where things get interesting…and illegal as well.

In the winter, my Uncle Don had a car. He and my dad would take me along as they very slowly prowled the back country roads along the hedges looking for wild rabbits….which were plentiful. Dad and Don would shoot them from the car (that’s the unlawful part). My Mom would bread and pan-fry the rabbit, add a can or two of CAMPBELL’S CREAM OF MUSHROOM SOUP and a bake it in the oven.

The unpleasant sidebar is this……

THE SKINNING and CLEANING of the RABBITS.

Returning from the hunt, Dad and Don would head for the basement (the basement with the dirt floor), where they’d nail their prey to the rafters, then slit, skin and gut them. Next to the cleaning zone was the big and roaring coal burning furnace. Too convenient to ignore, its blazing fire offered easy disposal of the skin, fur and guts.

And therein lay the problem. The antiquated coal-burning furnace in the 100-year-old house was a forced-air system and thus the stench of burning fur, skin and rabbit guts spewed up and through the floor registers throughout the house and hung around for hours.

But now for the GOURMET part. I had no idea at the time but, in early April and the month of May, on Saturday mornings my dad, uncle and I would drive about 15 miles southwest of Kewanee to forage on a farmer friend’s property that had a few hundred acres of woods.

Forage for what? MOREL MUSHROOMS!!!

This wasn’t a Martha Stewart-type forage with a wicker basket on your arm, a Pendleton flannel shirt on your back and a Kooringal Bora-Bora straw hat on your head. No, this foraging team wore jeans, boots and wool baseball caps with flaps to cover your ears on frosty mornings. And we toted GUNNY SACKS, which, by the way, we frequently filled to the brim.

Around noon we’d arrive back home. My mother had already filled the sink with cold water and a cup or two of salt in order to soak the morels and drive the bugs out.

After she thoroughly dried the mushrooms, the cast iron Lodge 12-inch skillet hit the stove along with a one-pound block of high-fat local farmer’s butter. When the foaming stopped, in went the flour dusted morel mushrooms, which were greeted with hefty shakes of salt and McCormick’s ground pepper. No wooden pepper mills in our house.

At last we’d all sit down at the table…a heaping bowl of buttery, salty hot morels in the center with a big spoon sticking out, as we plopped the heart-paddle little buggers of the delightful fungus on our plates. My dad and Don had a beer.  I had a bottle of Royal Crown Cola. LIFE WAS GOOD.

I really hesitate to say, at this time, that any of this stuff played a vital part in shaping my passion for food and restaurants. But then as now, food for me has ALWAYS BEEN ABOUT PLEASURE…whether in Kewanee, Illinois or Paris, France.

The hunting was especially good in the fall. My step-grandpa had a farm near Sheffield and on the property was a walnut tree grove of about an acre. Squirrels galore. SQUIRRELS LOVE WALNUTS.

And yes, we ate squirrel. We ate it often. Same cooking drill as the wild rabbit – pan-fried and then baked with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. Did it taste like chicken? YEAH, maybe a little bit.

I think the last time that I ate squirrel was in the late ‘50s when I came home from college for a weekend. My uncle Ben, part of our extended family, was living with us at the time.

I recall that it was the Sunday afternoon family dinner, just before I was to head back to Champaign, that we sat around the dinner table and Ben said, “PLEASE PASS THE CAT.”

W.T.F.

PHIL

PERMANENTLY CLOSED

The late restaurant critic for the London Guardian, A.A. Gill, wrote, “None of us know how many dinners we have left. To look back and realize that you’d wasted any of them on egg white omelets, green salads without dressing, or broccoli would be too distressing.” 

Or to paraphrase Oscar Wilde: “Too many of us know the calories of everything and the taste of nothing.” 

That’s why I will always cherish my list of restaurants that we have lost over the past year due to COVID (and, in some cases, civil unrest).  

While very good, these restaurants were not the sort that dominate the Michelin Guide (which, by the way, has now resumed operation after a year-long hiatus). Michelin favors the kinds of places where dishes are pelted with white truffles and the prices make your wallet squeal like a pig. No, I’m talking about restaurants without a whiff of arrogance; places where Joanne and I have been treated well despite my wearing jeans. Some of these restaurants served marvelously nuanced food and drink, while others assaulted your tastebuds with weapons-grade fat and flavor. All had wine lists that didn’t make me feel inadequate.  

Joanne and I were never regulars at the following restaurants, but we dined at them often enough over the years to appreciate their greatness and develop a real affection for them. 

And now they’re gone. And gone forever. 

So here goes… 

NEW YORK 

21 CLUB.  On West 52nd Street. It had been around for over 90 years and was a Manhattan social and cultural haunt for the likes of FDR, George H.W. Bush, Richard Nixon, Liz Taylor, Sophia Loren, and other celebs too numerous to count. The prices were comically expensive, and the only dish I ever, ever ordered was the 21 Burger (which, the last time I ate there, years ago, cost – you guessed it – 21 BUCKS. 

AUGUSTINE. This French restaurant in the financial district was founded by restaurant genius Keith McNally in the fall of 2016. The New York Times critic Pete Wells said McNally “nailed it” in recreating “vintage Paris.”  It was just two years ago that Joanne and I, along with Parasole colleagues, enjoyed a festive and wonderful evening here. Upon closing, McNally spoke as a true restaurateur and said, “Hope to see you all at my other restaurants: Pastis, Balthazar, Minetta Tavern…or debtor’s prison.” 

DEL POSTO. An ambitious Italian restaurant in Chelsea, this New York Times 4-star destination opened in 2016. Despite the antics of Mario Batali and the toxic workplace conditions, it was COVID that did ‘em in last March. 

THE MERMAID INN. A tiny storefront in the East Village, the Mermaid Inn had a “crab shacky” character that charmed diners for 17 years. The lobster rolls were epic, the oysters pristine and the crab cakes superb. And everything could be had at ultra-reasonable prices. But great food, ambiance and value couldn’t save it from the pandemic. 

CHICAGO 

BLACKBIRD. One of Chicago’s most acclaimed restaurants, this Michelin-starred West Loop institution closed after 22 years.  I have fond memories of the Gascony inspired  Duck Confit. 

THE ORIGINAL MORTON’S STEAKHOUSE.  Located in a basement at State & Rush since 1978, this place set the tone for luxe steakhouse dining across America. Joanne and I ate there dozens of times (Joanne got the Filet; I went straight for the man-hole sized Porterhouse. So sad! 

3 FORKS STEAKHOUSE.  This Dallas-based steak powerhouse near Millennium Park. Even they couldn’t survive the dining restrictions that came along with COVID. 

LAWRY’S PRIME RIB.  Now here’s an oldie. This “busload-friendly” touristy beefhouse thrived for half a century on Ontario Street. I’ll miss the kitschy sterling silver trolley and the theater of master carvers serving up endless slices of Prime Rib tableside. It shuttered its doors on New Year’s Eve, 2020. COVID and civil unrest did them in. 

MINNEAPOLIS 

FUJI-YA.  I loved this place, first in its location on the river, and then in Lyn-Lake. I think it was the first Japanese restaurant in town. More recently it provided Joanne and me the opportunity to expose our grandkids to sushi and vegetable tempura. Alas, Fuji-ya succumbed to COVID and the riots after 60 years in business. What a shame. 

GRAND CAFÉ. This was as close to Paris as you could get in Minneapolis. Parisian elegance, wit and whimsy abounded here. Home of a fantastic brunch, it served a spectacular crab meat omelet made with “eggy” Jipori eggs (the best), as well as cacio e pepe dumplings topped, of course, with Jipori egg. 

THE BACHELOR FARMER, BURCH, OCTO FISH BAR, and BELLECOUR will also be missed.  

LONDON 

THE LEDBURY. This Notting Hill restaurant by chef Brett Graham wowed diners and critics alike since 2005. WRONG simply didn’t happen here. Michelin gave it two stars; I’d have given it three. Riding back to our hotel in a classic black London cab, I’d swoon over my just-completed meals. It was a must stop on Parasole dining trips.  

TRAMSHED.  Mark Hix’s tribute to beef and bird was a show-stopper – partially because of the food, also because of the art, including a Damien Hirst cow and chicken embalmed in a huge formaldehyde tank mounted on a giant plinth dead center in the cavernous dining room. It was a not-so-subtle signal that you could eat anything here as long as it was steak or chicken (with its little feet reaching for the sky). Yeah, I know, it’s a little creepy, but the chicken was really good. And you could lick your fingers to boot. 

PARIS  

Now Paris is a little difficult for me to figure out. Many of my favorite restaurant websites are vague in informing diners that they are CLOSED or TEMPORARILY CLOSED. Only a few say PERMANENTLY CLOSED. And unfortunately, BOUQUINISTES falls in the latter group. Located along the Seine across from the book sellers (hence its name), this restaurant was owned by super chef Guy Savoy, but it was a bistro, not a temple of gastronomy. Joanne discovered table #6, giving her a picture-postcard view of Notre Dame (Me? My back faced NOTRE DAME). The Parasole gang dined there on two occasions. The favorite of the group was always the SEA BREAM.

So, what does it all mean?   

Well, I for one will genuinely miss the opportunity to return to these spots. Will I survive? Sure. 

But maybe it’s a little like PRINCE. Yeah, we’ll still have music. We just won’t have PRINCE. 

And other new and compelling restaurants will spring up. I promise you, they will !!  Because imagine if restaurants didn’t exist. There would be nothing for that SPECIAL MOMENT. You’d be denied that little TWO-HOUR VACATION from the quotidian, that brief time WITHOUT A CARE IN THE WORLD. And most of all, you might miss the simple JOY OF JUST BEING ALIVE! 

I suppose that the fond memories of permanently shuttered restaurants will gradually fade from our consciousness. But if you can manage, I ask you as I paraphrase the words and wisdom of Dr. Seuss: “DON’T CRY BECAUSE THEY ARE OVER.  SMILE BECAUSE THEY HAPPENED.” 

W.T.F. 

PHIL 

Tarte de La Phlegm

Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for the London Observer, said…..”People adore bad reviews.  Nobody would be interested in reading the good ones. Bad experiences are simply funnier.”

Brendan Behan, the Irish poet and playwright, once said, “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem. They know how it’s done. They’ve seen it done. But they’re just unable to do it themselves.”



By and large, that’s probably true. My guess is that Ben Brantley, the New York Times’ talented and feared Broadway theater critic, has probably never written a successful play. And his colleague, art critic Roberta Smith, has most likely never had a showing at a significant gallery. Likewise, the pop music critic for the Times may never have learned to play a Fender Stratocaster guitar (and certainly can’t play like Jimi Hendrix).



For the past several years, I have thoroughly enjoyed following important restaurant critics here in the United States as well as a select group of reviewers from across the pond.



I find that the American reviewers are uniformly excellent and entertaining writers no doubt providing valuable information to millions of their readers as they make their dining out choices. (If it weren’t for Grand Forks Herald columnist Marilyn Hagerty, for example, how many people would have never experienced the pleasures of Olive Garden? Okay, maybe that’s not the best example.)

One of my favorite writers is Pete Wells of the New York Times, who wrote, after a fairly recent visit to the legendary PETER LUGER STEAKHOUSE in Brooklyn, “After I paid, there is the unshakable sense that I’ve been scammed.”


Wells also opined on TV rock star Guy Fieri’s multi-million dollar restaurant in New York: “Somewhere within the yawning, three-level interior of GUY’S AMERICAN KITCHEN, there is a refrigerated tunnel that servers have to pass through to make sure that the French fries, already limp and oil-sogged, are also served cold.”


Back to the Olive Garden: The late Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times (perhaps reviewing it as a joke) dubbed the chain’s famous breadsticks, “doughy things slicked with grease and oil.”


With American critics, this is about as critical as it gets. Their reviews tend to be accurate, informative, amusing, and occasionally a little harsh. But, if it’s true, all is fair.

On the other hand…

BRITISH FOOD CRITICS are SNARKIER, BOLDER, WITTIER, FUNNIER and MORE BARE-KNUCKLED.


To wit, the late (and great) A.A. GILL of the London Times:



“It tasted like PRESSED LIPOSUCTION.” (This was in reference to the paté at the famous Parisian bistro, L’Ami Louis, that American tourists love)

“The rest of the meal [at a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant) was one bland, watery compost that could BARELY INCITE FLATULENCE.”

More from his review of L’Ami Louis:


Foie Gras: “…intimidatingly gross flabs of chilled paté, with a slight coating of PUSTULAR YELLOW FAT.”


The dining room: “The cramped tables are set with labially pink cloths, which give it a COLON-LIKE FEEL and the awkward sense that YOU might be the SUPPOSITORY.”


Servers: “Surly waiters in a DUNG-BROWN dining room”

In sum: “It is, all things considered, entre nous, THE WORST RESTAURANT in the WORLD.”

From Gill’s other reviews:

“They tied vegetables up with string and then sprayed them with raspberry vinegar like TOM CATS on the PULL”.


“THE soup was as cold as a PROCTOLOGIST’S FINGER.” (from a review of a London restaurant called Bouillabaisse)


”It’s laughably overpriced, but doesn’t take credit cards. But all that is just by the by compared with its unique horror. To get in, you have to be kissed by a woman called Mara, who must surely have been around to do tongues with Garibaldi.” (from a review of the London restaurant, San Lorenzo)


“Somehow the heat had welded them together into a gray, suppurating renal brick. It could be the result of an accident involving rat babies in a nuclear reactor. They don’t taste as nice as they sound.” (referring to the broiled kidneys at, you guessed it, L’Ami Louis”


“How clever are shrimp-and-foie gras dumplings with grapefruit dipping sauce? What if we called them fishy liver-filled condoms. They were properly vile, with a savor that lingered like a lovelorn drunk and tasted as if your mouth had been used as the swab bin in an animal hospital.” (from his review of Jean-Georges’ 66 restaurant in New York).


“The bean soup arrived cold around a mash of something that might have been peas, but also might have been ear wax.”


Now, my current favorite London food critic, JAY RAYNER:


“Brits understand the simple joy of comparing a rude waiter to an UNLUBRICATED COLONOSCOPY.”


“The steak slips down like something that has SPENT IT’S LIFE CHAINED TO A RADIATOR IN THE BASEMENT.” (When Smith & Wollensky opened in London)


“My dish of blood-rare pigeon might fly again if GIVEN A FEW VOLTS.”


“My advice? Don’t go. Keep not going. Keep not going a lot.” (From his review of Novikov, the wildly popular spot in Mayfair, London)


And last but not least, from his review of the crazy, goofy, nuts, wildly expensive Paris restaurant, Le Cinq, in the Four Seasons Hotel:  “The dining room was decorated in various shades of taupe, biscuit and F**K You.”


Well, there you have it: CRITICAL REVIEWS PRIOR TO COVID-19!

The pandemic really changed everything. In March of 2020, the jubilant restaurant scene came to a screeching halt. THE JOY WAS GONE.


The industry worldwide was on its knees. COVID-19 was not just a blip; it’s a once-in-our-lifetime event (one can only hope).


Stoves were off. Chairs were set on tables upside down. Staff was furloughed.

How do restaurant critics cover this massive blow to the entire global restaurant industry?  Will they?… should they?… be…cheerleaders?… Or, shifting to a newsier mode, should they just report the facts?


You may have noticed how Pete Wells of the New York Times responded to the crisis. He stopped rating restaurants with stars, presumably to go easy on them. But he also wrote, “Our primary job is to serve our readers, not the restaurants. Being a cheerleader does not serve my readers.”

On the other hand, in New Orleans, Brett Anderson pivoted from criticism to straight reportage. Why? “If I started pontificating whether the panéed rabbit was up to snuff, I would have been missing the bigger story….which was about recovery.”  


Laura Reilly, who writes for the Washington Post, says, “I simply put reporting before criticism. How useful is it to talk about some restaurant’s garnish being off when you’re standing in three feet of water?”

And finally, Jay Rayner sums up the posture of most of the critics that I followed during the pandemic: “I prefer to accent the positive. That doesn’t mean giving good reviews to bad places. It just means that if I can’t be generally positive, I won’t review and I’ll just move on.”

To illustrate the tone of criticism during the past year, it was not brutal at all. It was more along the lines of….

“The venison was so undercooked, you could practically hear it snort.” (perhaps that’s a little harsh)


Or…“Authentic is not the same as good. Ever tried chicken feet? Jellified cartilage.”


And then this: “If I see someone eating chicken wings with a knife and fork, I know that we can never be friends.”


William Sitwell of the London Telegraph, wrote, “Don’t expect this kindness to last forever. You can rest assured that the sharp pen of the critic will return when the good times return.”

Critics’ knives will, once again, be unsheathed.


And I will look forward to it.

JUST MAKE ME LAUGH OUT LOUD ONCE IN A WHILE.

WTF

A Hobbled Giant

That’s how British food critic Jay Rayner of the Guardian referred to the restaurant business as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic of last year….that’s going to be hanging around at least through the first half of this year.

Well put, Jay Rayner.

But I hope that I’m not being pollyannish when I say, “There are green-shoots appearing out there.”  The greenest is, of course, the COVID-19 vaccine (if we can ever get our act together on distribution and jab one hell of a lot more folks).

As our industry slowly rises from the ashes, there are some new protocols in place that will most likely be with us for a long time, if not forever.  Among them: Sanitize, sanitize, sanitize…masks…touchless transactions…curbside pickup and delivery…social distancing…and food safety.

Regarding eating habits and trends, what do we see as we look back on 2020?

Well, for one, eating at home may become the restaurant industry’s biggest competition. And quick service and fast casual restaurant concepts enjoyed surprising success.

FRIED CHICKEN SANDWICHES at the likes of Mc DONALD’S, SHAKE SHACK and CHICK-FIL-A rose over 300% over 2019.  And while the worst fried chicken sandwich that I ever ate was wonderful, my favorite last year was the crunchy NASHVILLE HOT CHICKEN SANDWICH, loaded up with paprika, cayenne pepper and crunchy dill pickles.

AVOCADO TOAST exploded with a vengeance, with iterations involving smoked salmon, goat cheese and both scrambled and poached eggs.

BURITTOS, mainly from CHIPOTLE, surged…primarily from take-out.

And PLANT BASED BURGERS detonated across the country.  I personally saw that happen close to home, where – when they were open – SALUT and GOOD EARTH set records with IMPOSSIBLE BURGER sales.

LIQUOR STORE sales erupted as people made stock-up trips and drank more at home…maybe a lot more.

And we all felt the run for groceries as most all of us (including me) raided supermarket shelves for provisions when they were available (Does that make me a bad person?)

Here’s something else……

HOME COOKING revived. But with the economic stress present in all too many households, it’s been reported that when we’re feeling down, we seek out high-calorie COMFORT FOODS – dishes that speak not just to appetite but to memory

In my growing-up years, everything was home cooked…MEATLOAF…CHICKEN POT PIE…PB and J…PUMPKIN PIE and POTATO CHIPS with a dip of dry Lipton onion soup mixed with sour cream. 

Even restaurants saw an uptick in nostalgic comfort foods:  ROASTED  CHICKEN and FRIES…DAUBE (French beef stew)…CURRIES…SIMPLE SPAGHETTI

& MEATBALLS. 

You have to wonder, what does it all mean for future dining trends?

Predicting is a dubious exercise. 2021 is hard for me to read.  But here are some thoughts………

There seems to be several separate viewpoints – all to some degree, in conflict with one another. Try to weave these observations together and make some sense of it all.

1. HOME COOKING WILL REMAIN POPULAR……break out that BREAD MACHINE.

2. SIMPLER, SOUL SEARCHING and COMFORTING, COZY RESTAURANT OFFERINGS……(can NUTRISYSTEM and Marie Osmond be far behind ?).

3. After months of a sedentary lifestyle, will people yearn for HEALTHIER, MORE NUTRITIOUS CHOICES ON MENUS.

4. Although not as prevalent, escape will be a theme…… FANCY, PAMPERED, EXPENSIVE, INDULGENT and EXCLUSIVE………HMMMMM ???

5. Will the merging of science and food – i.e. MICRO-GASTRONOMY restaurants – survive?  Already several MICHELIN-STARRED spots around the planet have flipped the switch from $300 tasting menus to HOMESTYLE FOOD and BURGERS.

6. And what about TWEEZER FOOD and MANICURED COOKING?    I just don’t know. I’m pulling for them.

7. I also do not believe that 2021 will be a year of FRIVOLOUS FOOD.   PINEAPPLE PIZZA will not replace a PERFECTLY STRAIGHT FORWARD, CRISPY CHARRED, THIN-CRUSTED MARGHERITA PIZZA. Nor will BIZAARE and SILLY GARNISHED BURGERS edge out the JUCY LUCY’S of the WORLD.

One thing that I do know is WHAT WE ARE GOING TO DO AT PARASOLE…….

And that is this…….

Years ago, on a SWELTERING HOT, 95 degree summer day, I pulled up in back of a Chinese restaurant here in Minneapolis and observed a cook cleaning shrimp on the white-hot hood of his car……NOT GOOD. NOT SAFE. NOT GONNA FLY.

NO, people are going to want to FEEL SECURE in restaurants that they KNOW and TRUST IN THEIR SAFE FOOD HANDLING.

NO, people are going to just want to gather and socialize with dear friends and family while FEELING SAFE.  YES, FEELING VERY SAFE.

NO, I think there will be AN APPRECIATION OF THINGS DONE WELL…REALLY WELL….. just like I will cherish the comfort and simplicity of a YUMMY MELTY GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICH and a perfect bowl of STEAMING TOMATO SOUP.

NO, as our restaurants emerge, not a word on our menus will surprise you. We’ll do our level best to ensure that each of our restaurants will be A PLACE WHERE WRONG DOESN’T HAPPEN…..PLACES WITH LESS SILLY CHAT….”Is the Milady still working on her salmon?”

NO, our joints will be a place to WOLF-DOWN BOTTLES OF CABERNET, WITH FRIENDS, as if there’s no school tomorrow.

NO, when we dine out, we want it to be MEMORABLE.  Imagine the joy of the LUXURIOUS SIMPLICITY of a MANNY’S DRY-AGED, THICK, TWO-FISTED DEEPLY-CHARRED PORTERHOUSE STEAK, seared at 1800 degrees, blistering hot and just off the grill along with a FLINTSTONE-SIZED PLATTER of CRISPY BUTTER-FRIED HASH BROWNS .

And once you take a bite, then you will know that EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK AGAIN, AFTER ALL. 

And you will also LEARN WHY MANNY’S STEAKS MAKE EVEN BUTCHERS HORNY.

W.T. F.

PHIL

WE’RE NEVER GOING BACK

Anyone remember the movie, BACK TO THE FUTURE? This summer, someone created a parody in which Doc Brown says: “Marty, whatever you do, do not go to 2020!”

Well, the year isn’t over yet, and everything seems to have gotten worse. We’re dead on, balls-in-the-center of the worst pandemic in memory.

We all know the dire situation…a quarter-million deaths, depression, suicides, divorce, unemployment, businesses in the tank, nest eggs gone…and the list goes on and on.

The restaurant industry has been dealt a body blow (after body blow) and is one of the poster children of the pandemic disaster.

And yet, here we are: still open for business, still putting out awesome dishes, making life a little better for our guests, so thankful we have jobs. We’re social distancing, filtering the air, insanely sanitizing every surface over and over and over again. We’re faiythfully wearing uncomfortable face masks for hours and hours (please say a prayer for our cooks in our kitchens, some of them standing over a torrid scorching deep fryer for hours, all the while wearing a face mask).

So what have we learned these past several months? And what does the dining future look like?

We know that some pandemic trends are going to remain, even after a vaccine is available. Frequent hand washing and sanitizing are here to stay. So too is less touching in restaurants, with QR codes for menus instead of paper. Touchless payment devices will reign.

I expect that business travel will take a few years to return to some sort of normal. Restaurants will not rely as much on international travelers or domestic business travel and will move to attract more locals. Hotel occupancy will continue to suffer greatly. And urban centers and office buildings will be dramatically less populated as thousands of employees have become comfortable, productive and accustomed to working from home.

With a few clicks, meal delivery and curbside pickup will be a part of most every cosumer’s tool-box. Affordable comforting food will grow in popularity. Meal kits, while popular, will never be as good as a great restaurant.

Outdoor seating will be much more prevalent and more creative than ever.

And I’m wondering if a new hybrid of restaurants will emerge, one based on a fast casual model that’s more interesting and sophisticated where you order up at the counter but with a significant bar and really good food. I’m thinking of CENTRO in the North Loop.

So what steps are the fine dining and rock-star restaurants doing to cope with shutdowns and severe COVID-19 restrictions including 50% less seating capacity and curtailed hours of operation?

Well, just as Louis Vuitton is not morphing into The Gap, and the Four Seasons hotels are not becoming Holiday Inn Expresses, important restaurants are retaining their DNA and special allure while at the same time finding creative solutions that are less expensive and have big-time appetite appeal to a broader audience that they all desperately need right now.

World renowned ALINEA In Chicago, whose theatrical tasting menu was $365 and reservations were next to impossible to snag, has tabled their molecular-gastronomy offerings (the merging of science and ingredients, with a heavy dose of liquid nitrogen) and is now offering a comforting SHORT RIB WELLINGTON with mashed potatoes for $34.95 for curb-side pickup.

NOMA, in Copenhagen, known for its spectacularly imaginative (and stunningly priced) fourteen-course dining experience, and who for four consecutive years was named the “Best Restaurant in the World, has completely flipped the switch and become a burger joint. It must be one hell of a burger.

Michelin starred CANLIS in Seattle, now closed for indoor dining, has created a drive-thru on the premises. The morning queue starts at 7AM with a drive-thru menu of bagels of every stripe. Later in the day the switch to burgers – $14.95 with fries. I’ve read that they serve over a thousand burgers a day. A good reputation sure helps.

MANNY’S STEAKHOUSE, is boxing up combinations of its proprietary dry-aged steaks just in time for Christmas. Purchase Manny’s Steaks Here.

Restaurants need to focus on INNOVATION – because if we lose innovation we’ll no longer have any advantage over at-home eating. Such is the case with Gavin Schmidt at THE MORRIS in San Francisco, also Michelin starred, who was in the habit of serving fried chicken as an employee meal. Now, every Thursday, he’s showcasing “Fried Chicken & Champagne” as a feel-good and comforting solution to these wretched times. They sell out every week.

Even DANIEL BOULUD in New York, whose strict dress code mirrors his elegant menu offerings, has relaxed his exacting male attire requirements. Jackets and ties are no longer required, just “smart casual.”

So now…my opinion:

My view is that fine/fancy dining will diminish – not go away, but most likely recede in the public’s consciousness. Some customers are still going to want that pampered, special experience. But now is not the time to be cooking for egos or the press.

THE MICHELIN GUIDE has made the world insane. Chefs aren’t cooking for customers; they’re cooking for a TIRE COMPANY.

In an era of half-full dining rooms, have three-star restaurants gone the way of two-martini lunches and two-pack-a-day smoking habits?

Does anyone these days want to put up with a French waiter who is not there to please you, but for you not to disappoint him?

And are you going to feel comfortable being scrutinized by a well-intentioned lurking staff in a joyless hushed dining room? And ladies, if you are not decked out in a Hermes scarf or red-soled Christian Louboutin stilettos and spritzed with Jo Malone, just how are you going to feel?

How about wine lists that sport an entry-level price of a hundred bucks and you cannot even pronounce the maker?

I don’t know about you, but I’m a little tired of the awkward ceremony of hovering chefs at my table explaining their culinary philosophy.

It’s my belief that folks don’t dine out at MANNY’S just because they are hungry.

No, they go to MANNY’S because they just want to get out of the house, have an amazing steak, be entertained, be around people they like, feel the buzz of conversation and laughter, without a care in the world and just have a damn good time. At MANNY’S you are not ordering a DRY AGED NEW YORK STRIP to stave off rickets.

I’ll take a table for two there.

W.T.F.

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