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

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