ORDERING IN THE COURT

Situated in the western part of Central London, Clerkenwell is an urban sanctuary populated mainly by young professionals.

In the heart of the village lies the OLD SESSIONS HOUSE, built in the style in 1782. With its columned edifice and imposing presence, it bears some resemblance to the Pantheon in Rome. The building once served as a courthouse known as the “Old Judges Building.” Beneath its chambers were cells that housed the accused and convicted…who I’m sure were honored to be judged in such splendor.

After sunsetting as a courthouse years ago, it has gone through several iterations and today, amongst other venues, the complex houses a gallery and a small, 60-seat restaurant called THE SESSIONS ARTS CLUB.

It has become a toughest dining reservation in London.

Last year, just before it exploded in popularity, Joanne and I managed to book a table. The hard part was figuring out how to physically enter the restaurant. There is no sign. The entrance, while in plain sight, is virtually unfindable – hidden behind a red door with an unmarked doorbell.

Once we finally figured that out, we pressed the bell and the door opened into a very dark, claustrophobic little room. The initial welcome was a little weird. As our eyes adjusted, we discerned a man seated at a table lit by a single candle. (Was he a concierge? A greeter? IGOR the crypt keeper?). He asked our name, then invited us to take the stone staircase to the 5th floor. Sensing our dread of the climb, he then called our attention to a small lift off to the side. It creaked and groaned as it took us to the top.

Upon reaching our destination, we pushed through a set of really heavy red-velvet drapes only to encounter a jaw-dropping, sexy, decadent, soaring, 40-foot-high central atrium that is the SESSIONS dining room.

How to describe it…?

A once-elegant Italian villa?…tattered grandeur?…precisely distressed walls?…stunning textures?…prudently peeling paint and plaster?…a smart solution to the oft-abused term “shabby chic?”…delightfully unkempt?

I turned to Joanne and whispered, “Someone spent some serious money to make this place look so old.”

The restaurant critic, Fay Mascher, of the British fashion and lifestyle-focused publication, Tatler, recently proclaimed Sessions “the culinary hotspot on everyone’s lips.” I could understand why – and I hadn’t yet had a single bite.

The host greeted us with a warm smile, then led us to a catbird-seat table from which we could view the gorgeous expanse a dining room that seemed to be lit solely by flattering, flickering candlelight.

SESSIONS ARTS CLUB was founded by Chef Florence Knight and rock ‘n roll bad boy artist Jonny Gent (who has the dubious distinction of being best known for a painting called, Dog Licking Himself).

Fortunately, Chef Knight paints on a different canvas, and her artistry is unique in today’s fine dining world.

Trained in classic French cuisine and influenced by frequent travels to Italy, she has a culinary aesthetic that centers on fresh, seasonal, simple, but very cerebral and occasionally playful, whimsical creations – very different from the overworked, overhandled, tweezered food with saucy smears and swooshes on hand-made plates with dots of sauce that represents most chefs’ idea of fine dining.

LET’S HAVE DINNER.

The menu is not classified into appetizers, salads and main courses. It’s simply a listing of all offerings, whose size can be inferred by the prices. BTW, the price of our dinner, including wine for two, was a little over $200.

In 1948, Harry Cipriani created the ionic Bellini (made from white peach nectar and Prosecco) at Harry’s Bar in Venice. Florence Knight does a refreshing riff on the famous cocktail – her Rhubarb Bellini. Joanne and I each indulged in one as an aperitif.

We began dinner with two starters: Panisse, or four long sticks of chickpea-flour bread from the south of France, sprinkled with lemon-thyme and Maldon sea salt; and a single Brown Shrimp Croquette (at $6 for a single croquette, we thought WTF?) It turned out to be less a croquette than a shrimp, encased in a crispy-crusty potato ball laced with chili flakes, garlic and rosemary. When cut open, melty herb butter oozes out like a Chicken Kiev (sorry, Kyiv). We sopped up the herb butter with what was left of our Panisse.

Joanne, not being a fan of smoked eel, enthusiastically ceded the dish to me. Not only was it delicious, it was drop-dead gorgeous. I had to ask our server, “What the hell is in there and how in the hell did you make it?”

Asked and answered: It consisted of King Edward potatoes and smoked eel, thinly sliced on a mandolin, marinated in rapeseed oil, then stacked in alternating layers and pressed with a weight overnight. The rectangular little bricks that emerge are deep-fried, then married up with crème fraiche, arugula, salmon roe, and edible nasturtiums to brighten the plate. BTW the salinity of the roe countered by the tart sourness of the crème fraiche was really quite a nice experience.

I said, “This reeks of YES!”  Joanne said it reeked of NO!

She ordered a lightly dressed Belgian Endive Salad, which is precisely what she wanted…NO EEL!

The next offering was Sicilian, which we also shared. Although we’ve been to Sicily several times, we have never, ever tasted or seen “Squid Rings, Datterini Soft Tomato Sauce, and Calamarata Pasta.”

First of all, what are Datterini tomatoes? And what is Calamarata Pasta?

Well, Datterini tomatoes are tiny red Sicilian tomatoes that explode with flavor. Calamarata are pasta rings shaped to be indistinguishable from squid rings. Paired up in the same dish, you can’t tell them apart until they’re in your mouth. 

I told you that some of Florence Knight’s dishes are playful and witty.

On to the main courses.

To my surprise, Joanne opted for the Smoked Icelandic Haddock topped with a Buford Brown Softly Poached Egg…one of cuisine’s adorable couples. I, of course, am a snout-to-tail man (which makes me wonder: Is SNT2TL available for a vanity plate?). After all, FAT IS FLAVOR, so I ordered the Gloucester Old Spot Pork Belly with Braised Fennel and Orange. One dish that Sessions is famous for, which Joanne and I only observed, was Rabbit with Minced Pork Sausage wrapped in a Hispi Cabbage Leaf resting in a pool of English Mustard Dressing. Oh well…next time. AND THERE WILL BE A NEXT TIME.

Astute food critics often say something like, “Who in the hell ever remembered dessert?”  (Are they too buzzed by then to remember?)

Well, I remember dessert – all three of them.

Panna Cotta…it either jiggles or it doesn’t. SESSIONS’ version jiggled properly and was served with fresh figs and a crispy Parmigiano Reggiano cheese crisp.

Nut Brown Chocolate Tart…deeply flavored, full-bodied, and served with a handsome dollop of Devonshire clotted cream.

And finally, finally…a hefty cleave of Pecorino Romano cheese with zucchini flowers, honey, and sourdough potato chips.

So there you have it.

Florence Knight is in a culinary world of her own…unique among other Michelin-starred chefs. She has flawless taste buds and proudly states, “My food is like a play…a single lead with two or three supporting roles. It is quite pure. It’s simple. Any more ingredients, and the plot becomes confusing.”

If Oscar Wilde were alive, I think he would say of Florence, “She’s just herself. Everyone else is already taken.”

WTF,

Phil

OH, AIR CANADA

A while back, I visited Toronto.

My flight arrived late at night, about 11:30 PM, but no worries. I had a guaranteed room booked at the huge ROYAL YORK HOTEL, Toronto’s Grande Dame.  

As I wearily approached the front desk clerk, an onslaught of disheveled people rushed in front of me and proceeded en masse to check in. Turns out that it was the traveling road cast of the musical Hair…..probably 30 cast members.

Finally, it was my turn. But after presenting my credit card, I detected some confusion amongst the staff. The were talking with each other and not to me. Finally a manager sheepishly informed me that the hotel was sold out and did not have a room for me…even though my reservation had been guaranteed and confirmed.

Welcome to Canada.

After a very unpleasant, loud and expletive-laced conversation (or confrontation), he relented and offered to put me up for the night in the Grande Ballroom. “Just give me a few minutes,” he said.

I thought, Poor guy is tired. He meant to say ‘Grand Suite.’

By now it was approaching 1:00 AM. He escorted me down a hall to a large set of double doors, opened them, and there it was…a single cot and tiny night-stand, dead center in the middle of a gigantic room about the size of a Target store.

Too tired to bitch anymore, I fell asleep only to need to pee a few hours later. So about 4:00 AM, in my underwear, I traipsed across the vast expanse of the floral-carpeted ballroom floor, excited another set of doors and found my way to the men’s room.

If I had it to do over, I would have relieved myself in a corner of the ballroom.  I figured with the loud floral patterned carpeting, no one would notice a little blemish.

Was it wrong of me to harbor such thoughts?

At any rate, last summer, with the announcement that AIR CANADA was introducing non-stop flights from Minneapolis to Montreal, Joanne and I decided to take our daughter, son-in-law, and the darling little grandkids on a weekend trip to Montreal. After all, they had been enrolled in a French immersion school and this would be a chance to test out their burgeoning skills in an actual French-speaking environment.

We had 7:00 PM dinner reservations in Montreal at LA CHRONIQUE, an essential dining experience in Montreal.

Despite our AIR CANADA flight being two hours late, we managed to arrive for dinner just in time.

Now would be a good time to pause and introduce La Chronique to those of you who might be planning a trip to Montreal this summer.

Located a 20-minute taxi ride from downtown on W. Laurier Ave, La Chronique is a small place – maybe 50 seats – that serves a sensibly priced set menu in a smart white dining room, decked out with white tablecloths. It’s wonderful.

A prominent clock on the wall is permanently set for ten minutes to five, which in French-chef lingo is that magical moment before dinner service begins.

Warning: This place is not for you if you are looking for a vegetarian, low-fat, low-calorie, gluten-sensitive, diet-friendly and sugar-free menu. You need to be a fan of “FAT IS FLAVOR” to experience the complete culinary euphoria of La Chronique.

Consequently, upon being seated, the first words out of my mouth were, ”I’d like some FOIE GRAS.”

Spring Pea Soup loaded up with lump crab meat and garnished with deep-fried chicken skin crumbles came next, and was followed by Ricotta Gnocchi with nuggets of, mmm, foie gras.

I warned you…..this place is NOT FOR SISSIES.

Main dishes around our tabled included Shrimp and Iles de la Madeline Scallops in a shellfish emulsion, sauteed milk-fed Veal Sweetbreads, a surf ‘n turf with a big fat Newfoundland lobster claw, Sauteed Sea Bass, the restaurant’s creative take on Seafood Paella, and Wagyu Beef Tenderloin dopped with a sturdy lobe of…oh, more foie gras!

Asparagus was in season, so we all shared a couple side orders of white and green asparagus with shrimp and Parmigiano Reggiano crumbles.

Dessert was all about chocolate…Black Forest Cake with Amareno cherries, profiteroles, and one called “Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate.”

La Chronique was a DELIGHT.  I highly recommend it if you are ever in Montreal.

What was NOT a DELIGHT was the rest of our trip.

After checking in two hours before our scheduled 6:00 PM departure, we headed for the AIR CANADA Maple Leaf Lounge to relax, only to discover that it was closed due to a toilet that had overflowed and flooded the club.

We headed for our gate and were prepared to sit there for an hour-and-a-half. We were hungry, but decided to wait till we were in the air for a promised snack on board.

But…we were on the slippery slope of AIR CANADA. Our flight was delayed. 6:00 PM became 6:45. 6:45 became 8:30. 8:30 became 10:30, and 10:30 became midnight – at which time AIR CANADA CANCELED OUR FLIGHT and bluntly informed us that all hotels near the airport were full.

So it was back to downtown for a hotel (which Air Canada was to pay for. More about that later). However, ours was not the only Air Canada flight cancelled around that time. As a result, the airport was packed as we had to reverse our way through customs and immigration, which were clogged with other stranded passengers and woefully understaffed with very unpleasant people. Moreover, we couldn’t retrieve our luggage in the middle of the night because most of the baggage handlers had gone home.

Pick a word or phrase to describe our experience with Air Canada:  CONFUSED…CHAOTIC…BEDLAM…UNHINGED…BAFFLING…SNAKE PIT. You choose: There are no wrong answers.

But I managed to put on my BIG BOY BRITCHES and convince myself that I could deal with this. We’d simply have another day in Montreal and catch the (only) flight to Minneapolis the next evening at 6:00 PM. However, an embarrassed but kind Air Canada gate agent informed us confidentially, and likely at her peril, “that flight to Minneapolis gets canceled almost every day.”

I awoke the next morning, feeling pretty good, only to have a message on my phone from Air Canada:  “YOUR FLIGHT TO MINNEAPOLIS TODAY HAS BEEN CANCELLED!”.

WTF? REALLY? AGAIN? WTF, AIR CANADA? WT F**K ?

So here’s the end: We rented a van and drove to Boston, where we caught a Delta non-stop to Minneapolis.

But, even though they had promised, Air Canada STONEWALLED us and PAID FOR NOTHING – not our hotel, nor our transportation to downtown. No reimbursement for meals. No refund for the unused tickets for the return leg of our flight back to Minneapolis. No reimbursement for our transportation to Boston.

Even after hours on the phone, Air Canada refused to make any reimbursement whatsoever…NONE.

I can only imagine a future Air Canada captain making the following cockpit announcement to the cabin:

“Thank you for flying Air Canada. We know that you have a choice of airlines. And today you chose the wrong one. Have a nice day in Montreal – BECAUSE YOU AIN’T GOING ANYWHERE.

WTF

PHIL

JAX COMES UP ACES

A few months ago, on a snowy and bitterly cold evening, the thought came to me: ”Let’s go to JAX this Saturday night.”

Because it’s located on the other side of town from where we live, we hadn’t been there in years. But Jax has…90 years to be precise. Yep, it opened in 1933 which makes it perhaps the longest-standing restaurant in the Twin Cities. For nearly a century, Jax has proudly served refined supper-club fare, including prime rib, steaks, chops, chicken and fish…with a slight Polish footnote. 

So, off we went.

Parking was convenient – Jax has a lot just across the street – and the restaurant’s main entrance leads you directly into a serious bar. I say “serious” not only because it extends the length of at least 12-15 stools, but because the bartenders clearly know what they are doing. They know how to concoct no-nonsense drinks both for today’s trendiest hipsters and stodgiest oldsters (Both will be happy with Jax’s perfect Negroni). Anyone in the mood for a crème de menthe-laced Grasshopper? Or perhaps a Brandy Alexander? (Joanne is!).

The restaurant flirts with refinement, comfort and familiarity…crisp white linen tablecloths and napkins, patterned carpet, a main dining room with a grand piano, professional wait staff and the requisite old standby: sanitary bathrooms. 

NO site is quite as satisfying as walking into Jax’s dining room on a cold winter’s night.

The restaurant has been in the same family since the beginning. And it shows. On a crowded Saturday evening, the place positively hums. The food is high quality and generously portioned. Service is solicitous and ticket times are prompt. Jax is a well-run restaurant with a continuity perfected over the generations. IT’S GENUINE.

Expect to travel back in time…perhaps the ‘40s or the ‘60s…to a restaurant where the menu is driven by classic American cravings.

To open-up the dinner we shared appetizers including a Jumbo Shrimp cocktail (a classic presentation), deep-fried tempura shrimp (distinctly contemporary), five fat, spinachy, cheesy, blistered Oysters Rockefeller (back to the classics), and in a nod to its Eastern European roots, an order of Pierogies, rich with buttery sauteed onions.

Salads were crisp and cold (no brown lettuce edges to be seen).  In addition to the expected Caesar and wedge and green salads, I was surprised and pleased to see a WALDORF SALAD. Hadn’t had one of those since I was a kid in Kewanee, Illinois, treated to a “Preacher’s Comin’ Sunday Night” dinner at the Roberts’ house.

Jax has always been known for their steaks – and deservedly so. Lobsters are fresh and briny and buttery. And why wouldn’t they be? The restaurant has its own live lobster tank.

By the way, Jax also has its own trout pond out back, by the lovely, expansive patio (to which we’ll surely return when the weather warms up). You can net your own trout and have it prepared on the spot for your dinner. And you don’t even need a fishing license!

Jax sits on the corner of University & 20th street as an oasis in what once was a blue-collar neighborhood in the heart of “Nordeast” Minneapolis, the traditional home to Polish immigrants as well as Germans, Russians and Slovaks. And to some degree that heritage still makes up a preponderance of the population of the area.

Parts of northeast Minneapolis have become dicey over the years. Other portions have been claimed by hipsters and gentrifiers. But Jax carries on as a neighborhood institution – the go-to destination not just for a pleasurable night out, but for wedding receptions and rehearsal dinners, sweet sixteen parties, prom night dinners, breakfast with Santa, hunter’s game dinners in the fall, and mother-and-daughter brunch, as well graduation, retirement and anniversary events. People meet for lunch before Gophers games and pile into buses for the stadium. They pack the place on St. Patrick’s Day. Jax may even does Lutefisk Dinners.

So I ask myself, “Is Jax a supper club?  Is it a steakhouse? Is it a restaurant that functions as a social club?”  I think the answer is YES…YES…and YES.

BUT IT SEEMS TO BE EVEN MORE THAN THAT – because Jax isn’t just about getting fed. It’s a true social event. The ambiance is nicer than a normal place, with walnut-paneled walls and sorta-swanky napkin folds on the table. People were kinda dressed up in slightly nicer-than-normal outfits. They knew one another. They laughed out loud.  The crowd comprised SEVERAL GENERATIONS united by the fact that what they wanted most was to HAVE A GOOD TIME.  Jax is just well connected to the rhythms of the neighborhood.

HERE’S THE BOTTOM LINE:

Jax is a treasure – not just for the neighborhood. Not just for the Twin Cities either (although it is surely that). Jax is an institution. It’s living history. It’s a time capsule in which the history of American dining comes to glorious life.

FOLLOW MY ADVICE: If you have kids or grandkids, bring ‘em to Jax on a Friday or Saturday night for an experience that surely won’t be around forever. They just don’t make restaurants like this anymore. Even some of our other dining institutions no longer deliver this kind of experience. Murray’s, for example, carries on serving fantastic food, but long ago it shed its swanky pink décor, trading it for a more generic wood-paneled dining room. Live music echoes only in memory, and its dance floor has been claimed for additional seating. Elsewhere in the city, the classics of the past, like Charlie’s and The Blue Horse are long gone.

But Jax still has live piano music on the weekends. It retains that magnificent bar and graciously appointed, widely spaced tables in the main dining room. Baked potatoes still come wrapped in foil. There’s a proper bread service. A maître ‘d still greets you at the host stand. You don’t feel pressure to give up your table after an hour-and-a-half.

Older folks will be thrilled to reexperience the past at Jax, and your kids and grandkids need to be introduced to it.  

It’ll be the most delicious history lesson they’ve ever had.

WTF

PHIL

GOUT AND ABOUT IN MIAMI

Joanne and I have been blessed for the past several years to take our daughter and grandkids to Florida for spring break.

And being the grandchildren of restaurateurs, their expectations for dining out are rather high, especially as they grow older. To prevent disappointment ­– and, let’s be honest, enjoy the vicarious pleasures of introducing them to the new and delicious – I strive to treat the kids to the hottest, most memorable, relevant and challenging restaurants Miami has to offer.

With the prospect of reckless abandonment on my brain, I dismiss all my present protocols for sensible and restrained eating. It’s “balls-out” dining for Phil.

On our most recent visit, we started at JUVIA, the renowned rooftop restaurant on Lincoln Road that features French, Japanese and Peruvian cuisine. Wading knee-deep into the fattiest and most indulgent offerings on the menu, I began with deep-fried calamari, followed by a 6 oz. hunk of fatty braised crispy pork belly on a bed of tamale cream and mustard-agave syrup. That was followed by chocolate profiteroles with high-fat-content vanilla ice cream.

Off to bed…..

The next morning I was awakened by the grandkids screaming that they wanted to go to BIG PINK (home to BIG FOOD) for breakfast. What could be more satisfying than a platter of deep-fried chicken & waffles – unless that might be the cheesiest of breakfast nachos, or eggs & bacon…lots and lots of bacon.

NOTE: For the rest of our trip we ate breakfast at home. But due to the declaration of my granddaughter, we went through 5 lbs. of Nueske’s bacon in the remaining six days.

I didn’t mind.

Next was PIZZA NIGHT.

And the best by far pizza in Miami Beach is from FRATELLI LA BUFULA, the Naples, Italy-based pizzeria. Its cheesy, crusty, garlicky, oily and gooey…all at once.

A three-scoop chocolate banana split for dessert topped off the evening.

That night I had heartburn. It hurt SO GOOD.

Well, one can’t go to Miami Beach without dining at PRIME 112 STEAKHOUSE (see my WTF PHIL ROBERTS blog posting of September 15, 2021.

Off we went, grandkids in tow. Steaks, of course, were involved. But I was on a roll by then and thought I needed something beyond an acceptable amount of wretched excess. So, naturally, I chose the appetizer of sauteed whole foie gras, which in French translates to “fatty liver.”  It was rich, buttery, and sublimely velvety.

It only made sense to a slab of red velvet cake for dessert.

Your Minneapolis restaurateur, blogger – and now SATISIFED PIG – was out of control!

The following morning after a breakfast of bacon (lots of bacon), fried eggs and buttery toast, I felt a slight discomfort in my ankle. The morning after that, the pain was sharper, and I thought that perhaps I had broken a small bone in my foot.  By Friday morning, the pain was excruciating.

I could no longer put weight on my foot. I could no longer walk. I could no longer wait to see a doctor.

The diagnosis…..

GOUT!…… F**KING GOUT.

According to some in the medical community, the cause of gout has to do with one’s genetic makeup. Others, as well as the general public, attribute it to overindulgence in rich foods – conjuring up an image of dissolute slobs slouched in wing-back chairs downing tankards of ale. No wonder they call gout “the disease of kings.”

Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine a condition that gets such little respect as it’s usually depicted as a disease caused by SELF INDULGENCE and consequently garners NO SYMPATHY WHAT-SO-EVER.

And what did the kings of yore like to eat? The very culprits that apparently cause gout: red meat…bacon…deep-fried food…organ meats (like that foie gras)…and high-fat dairy foods.

HMMMM……..

So there you have it. Was my four-day romp indulging in the richest, fattiest foods that Miami Beach has to offer worth it?

The initial SENSUAL PLEASURES of eating certainly were. But….catching the GOUT…..and experiencing pain whose severity one can liken only to male childbirth?

All I can say is……”BUT THE FOOD WAS SO DAMNED GOOD!”

WTF

PHIL

NOMA NO-MO

“Nobody just happens to eat at NOMA,” said the late Jonathan Gold, food critic for the Los Angeles Times. “The seat lottery for a reservation makes the Powerball seem like a sure thing.”

He goes on to say, “Noma, as you have probably heard, is the Copenhagen restaurant considered by many people, including me, to be the most influential in the world, the place where dominant strains in world cooking, localism, seasonality, sustainability, and science – come together in a whole.”

He is not alone. In fact, five times Nova was named “Best Restaurant in the World!”

The Danish dining mecca is the brainchild of the now famous chef, Rene Redzepi, who in his younger years learned and honed his skills as an intern under such culinary giants as Ferran Adria at EL BULLI in Roses, Spain as well as Thomas Keller at THE FRENCH LAUNDRY in Napa.

His culinary mission is to redefine classic Nordic cuisine itself with a focus on foraging and reinterpretation. His creations are wildly innovative and labor intensive. They’re vastly expensive, too.

Redzepi has his own farm complete with a greenhouse to buttress his focus on local vegetables. Run by a squad of local farmers, it has an organic bee farm on the grounds. There are acres of prolific meadows where interns forage for berries, herbs and the day’s edible flowers. The farm also boasts a fermentation suite where grains, fruits and yeasts are brewed for later use in sauces, bitters and who knows what.

Now, even though you’ll probably never go to Nova (I’ll tell you why later), it’s worth noting that if you do snag a coveted reservation this year, you should prepare yourself to spend an eye-popping $800-900 per person (not a misprint). But if you’re very, very, very lucky, you’ll be sumptuously rewarded. Again, Jonathan Gold: “You will taste foods you never thought about tasting before.”

And Pete Wells of New York Times rhapsodizes, “A scallop is likely to be the sweetest you’ve ever tasted.”

Chef Redzepi, a slave to following the seasons, offers three menu frameworks a year.  Seafood Season runs late winter through spring. Vegetable Season spans summer, and Game & Forest Season fills out the fall and winter.

Joanne and I have never been to NOMA, but we can’t help marveling at Redzepi’s creations. Among them…

YOUNG ARTICHOKE on a bed of lemon-thyme flowers

RAZOR CLAM SALAD

COD ROE WAFFLE with roasted grains and hazelnut oil

DUCK FEET glazed with chocolate and caramel

RAW SEA URCHIN

PICKLED VEGETABLES with Arctic herbs

REINDEER HEART

CRISPY MARIGOLD TEMPURA with whiskey-egg sauce

COD HEAD with CHEEKS

VENUS CLAMS

DUCK BRAINS

REINDEER PENIS RAGOUT (served cold)

WHITE CHOCOLATE with flowers

WOODRUFF ICE CREAM with PINECONES

SAFFRON ICE CREAM with chocolate

I could go on, but you get the gist of Noma’s imagination and ambitions.

SO WHY IS NOMA ABOUT TO CLOSE FOR GOOD?

I guess one could blame the French because it all began in the late 19th Century in France with Chef Auguste Escoffier (the king of chefs, the chef of kings). He created the brigade de cuisine, a military-like hierarchy system for precision in kitchens, detailing who does what in every instance. Decades later, the legendary chef, Paul Bocuse, of Lyon, France, introduced the brigade system to kitchens around the world. The strict method of kitchen organization he resurrected was incorporated into a host of ultra-fine dining restaurants everywhere.

As you can easily guess from the attached kitchen brigade organizational chart, there is a category of worker at the very bottom of the hierarchy called “STAGIAIRE.” Stages, (pronounced “stahjes”) are rarely paid and subjected to grueling conditions in exchange for the precious experience of working in a top kitchen under a celebrated chef. Rene Redzepi was no exception. One stagiaire reported that she was required to make dozens of intricate FRUIT-LEATHER BEETLES every day…and that was all she did during her tour of duty. So much for her unpaid culinary education at Noma. According to news outlets during the last year, a few unpaid disgruntled workers, fed up with working 16-hour days in Redzepi’s kitchen, began to grumble about working conditions. At about the same time, the New York Times published a damning report on sexual harassment and a toxic work environment at Noma. Some cite verbal abuse by Redzepi. Oh, and no one was ever permitted to laugh in the kitchen.

So, here’s the math:

Noma seats approximately 40 people and has one lunch seating and one dinner seating. Recent accounts put the number of workers at the restaurant at around 65…of which 34 are stages (paid or unpaid? I don’t know).

FULL DISCLOSURE: Lift the curtain behind Noma, as well as other ultra-fine dining, labor-intensive, restaurants, and you’ll find that they cannot exist without a certain amount of skilled culinary workers. Thus, as the French culinary brigade dictates, they rely on a steady supply of unpaid stages (maybe we should call them stooges). Feeling the pressure, Redzepi agreed last October to start paying his tweezer-wielding minions. That added an additional $50,000 to his payroll each month. Even charging $500 a person, without wine, he discovered that he couldn’t keep the doors open. 

He found himself cracking under the financial and emotional strain and taking it out on his staff. Among the things he said, “I was a bully for a large part of my career”…”I was the person I said I would never become and I hated myself for it.”…“And then one day, the lid came off and the smallest of transgressions sent me into an absolute rage.”

To his credit, Redzepi did something about it. He went into therapy to deal with his anger management and bullying behavior. Afterward, he concluded, “Ultra-fine dining…It’s unsustainable. As an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.” So Noma will be shutting its doors for good in 2024.

However, Redzepi has plans in the works for Noma to transition into a FOOD LABORATORY…Noma 3.0…a test kitchen for food innovation and development of flavors. HMMMM ?

I wondered, Is the closing of Noma, the best restaurant in the world, the “canary in the coal mine” for fine dining?

Probably not.

It seems to me that well-heeled foodies with bulging bank accounts are still going to be hard-driving and assertive for reservations at the-impossible-to-get-into, ultra-high-end restaurants around the globe. But at what price? If the work-life balance in restaurants continues to gain traction and the interns start getting paid and the $300 dinner becomes a $500 dinner and the $500-per-person becomes $700, what will happen???? Will the dining audience start accepting the true cost of dining at that level? Will folks that can well afford expensive fine dining feel guilty? (I doubt it.) Or could it be after three years of a Spartan existence cocooning at home due to COVID that “revenge spending” sets in and folks make up for lost pleasures with first class leisure travel and lots of expensive nights on the town?

Or will the kitchen brigade and the exploitation of stages contine?

Chefs and owners know it still exists…but will they continue the practice?

Food critics know what’s going on…but will they continue to celebrate it?

Diners may know it…but will they continue to book tables at these fine dining restaurants?

Don’t blame Redzepi…..he himself STAGED at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. And Thomas Keller was an unpaid apprentice at GUY SAVOY, TAILLEVENT and LE PRÉ CATELAN in Paris.   

How about Alain Soliveres at TAILLEVENT? I imagine he runs a brigade kichen, complete with stages. Are they paid? Dunno.

HELENE DARROZ at the Connaught in London? 

Michel Roux and, before him, his father Albert Roux, at London’s LE GAVROCHE since 1957? Stages or no stages? Bet they have ‘em.

And in New York, at LE BERNARDIN with Eric Ripert at the helm?

GUY SAVOY in Paris, the quintessential French restaurant. I can’t imagine him abandoning Escoffier’s and Bocuse’s brigade kitchen with stagiaires.

So what do you think that the folks who run these ultra-fine dining iconic restaurants will do? Stay as they are and preserve the “dirty little secret” that their restaurants run on free labor? Or raise prices to reflect their true costs and cross their fingers that customer counts don’t tank? Cut portions? NAW!

Will anyone mourn Noma, a restaurant that most all of us will never visit?  

And of those of you who have had the pleasure of dining at Noma: Will you miss the sly smirk of the waiter as he sets the plate of REINDEER PENIS RAGOUT down in front of you?

DAMNED IF I KNOW….

WTF

PHIL

FALLOW

One of London’s toughest dinner reservations is FALLOW in St. James’s Market. To book here, you must be prepared to wait at least a week or two. But through the grace of God and the ingenuity of Alexander Graham Bell, Joanne and I managed to wrangle a table there one evening last October.

Fallow was created by Will Murray and Jack Croft, alumni of chef Heston Blumenthal, founder of the Michelin-starred DINNER BY HESTON BLUMENTHAL at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge. Joanne and I have dined there only once and it was mythological; especially the “MEAT FRUIT” chicken-liver appetizer masquerading as an orange (or perhaps a tangerine). It was so clever, rich and satiny that it could have been face cream.

Murray and Croft, while harvesting their experience under Blumenthal, have established their own niche in the London culinary food scene. Throbbing with a buzzy, vibrant energy, Fallow is built around sensational food, local sourcing, creative cooking and sustainable thinking. Here lesser and local foods are given the opportunity to shine, and nothing is wasted.

Not even the meat of 12-year-old DAIRY COWS.

That’s right folks: geriatric dairy cows.

For upward of two hours, Joanne and I worked our way through the menu feeling pretty smug about ourselves, eating sustainably, saving the planet and all. But at one point we asked ourselves, “With all this purity, sustainability and local sourcing, could Fallow just be virtue signaling to the London dining crowd?”

We were just wondering.

But I don’t think so. Watching this insanely talented team in the open kitchen, I came to the conclusion that they were just too earnest, too loving, too focused…and too committed to ensuring that every plate was perfect. They even have their own farm outside of London, and they grow shiitake and oyster mushrooms in the restaurant’s basement.

Among the appetizers that Joanne and I got a charge out of were the CORN RIBS – deep fried and dusted with Kombu powder (edible kelp) with a burst of lime. £7.50.   

SHIITAKE MUSHROOM PARFAIT followed. It was creamy and savory, bombarded with a generous blast of house-grown shiitake and oyster mushrooms along with shaved black truffles….£18

And we savored a third starter of CARAMELIZED CROQUETTAS topped with black garlic puree and a grilled shishito pepper.

On to the main courses……

Joanne, surprisingly, ordered the MIDDLEWHITE ROASTED PORK, a pig native to the UK with a strong porky flavor that pushes the fat limits with its crispy crackling skin.

Not surprisingly, Fallow offers a PLANT BURGER for £16, or about $20.

What we did not order, but looked good, were the SMOKED BEEF RIBS. Same with the MUTTON KEBABS (Mutton? Old sheep, over 2 years old, strong flavor) accompanied, of course, by COLEMAN’S BRITISH MINT SAUCE.

Order LAMB’S TONGUE in most places, and you’ll get a salad made with the long spoon-shaped dark leaves that are similar to the size and shape of a lamb’s tongue. Fallow, however, serves up meaty DEVILED LAMB’S TONGUE topped with panko breadcrumbs and accompanied by a side of zingy gherkin ketchup.  I know, I know…it’s weird. But then again, anywhere else the tongues would be discarded.

But what’s really odd is Fallow’s signature dish, and their most popular main course: COD’S HEAD. Yes, the head of a codfish. Historically, they were discarded or ground up for animal feed. But here they’re grilled and served with Sriracha butter sauce. I’m told they’re meaty and delicious. Carving out the meat from the neck and jowls with a pointy knife is said to be an adventure as well. We didn’t order this menu item. Joanne winced at the thought of eating a face with an eyeball looking directly up at her.

SALMON BELLIES, more often than not, are also discarded, as most folks have habituated themselves to dining on the filets. And who can blame them? But the bellies? Yes, they’re fatty, but it’s the good fat packed with Omega 3 fatty acids.

Fallow celebrates the bellies by whipping them into a creamy, cheesy, smokey, luxuriously textured SALMON MOUSSE and then piping it into a marrow bone alongside a savory brioche. This will run you £18.

The menu has a separate section that offers steaks called “DAIRY COW CUTS.” Among them are a rump steak for £28, a sirloin for £38, and a bone-on ribeye for £42.

Since I have never eaten a dairy cow steak – particularly one trumpeted by a restaurant as exalted as Fallow – I had to try it.

But a little background first….

What’s the difference between BEEF CATTLE and DAIRY CATTLE?

DAIRY COWS are built differently…for a different purpose in life. They are bred for, and generally confined to, milk production. All the energy they expend results in a thinner, leaner animal.

After dairy cows get to a certain age, milk production slows and the cost of feeding them outweighs the milk revenue they produce. At this point they are “retired” – which typically involves getting processed into the ground beef bought up by fast food restaurants, prisons, and other institutional customers.

Beef cattle are born and bred to produce meat. ANGUS and HERFORD breeds dominate the population of beef cattle. They are stockier by nature and they fatten quickly on grain. They are also reliably well marbled, and their meat is more intense, tender and juicy with a buttery flavor.

So what’s the verdict?  I’ll get to that in a moment.

If you are in London, the second time you go to Fallow – and believe me, you will go a second time – you’ll find your follow-up visit to be as rewarding as your first. The food is astonishing…and rich enough to give you gout.

EXCEPT FOR THE STEAKS.

Don’t get me wrong. I strongly approve of their efforts with the old dairy cows, and I applaud their social responsibility and commitment to the environment. Moreover, Fallow’s steaks are reasonably attractive on the plate, they’re filling, and surprisingly tender. They’re also properly prepared. Fresh off Fallow’s grill, dairy cow steaks don’t taste bad….

But they don’t taste particularly good either. They are BLAND.

And BLAND is not a word ever to be said out loud in a restaurant of Fallow’s caliber.

WTF

PHIL

485C

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

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

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

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

A few days ago Joanne and I returned from London.

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

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

So what were our takeaways this year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WTF

Phil

BABBO REVISITATA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


WELL, STAY TUNED.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

And now the test:

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

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

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

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

They know their stuff.

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

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

But AUTHENTICITY can be dangerous.

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

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


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

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

WTF

PHIL

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

A SEAT TO HISTORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So…back to my best memories of Paris.

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

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

One of my fondest memories is this:

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

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

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

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

Read The Da Vinci Code…and then you decide.

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

WTF

PHIL

A GEOGRAPHY OF SANDWICHES

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The list goes on…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would that be called….A FROMAGE À TROIS?

I was just wondering.

WTF, Phil