Things I Love 1

October 8, 2010

Yama Imo, the mysterious “mountain potato” of Japan, has the most exotic texture of any food I know. Pure white, it has a bite, a crunch, a crispness that quickly dissolves into a creamy paste and then, while you are chewing, breaks down again, becoming stickier and stickier until it is pure slime. This transformation never fails to entertain and delight me, and I love to carve it into sticks and eat it for breakfast, with umaboshi (the plum paste of Japan, for which it has a great affinity), or simply drizzle it with soy sauce. It creates a little circus of the mouth, the perfect way to start any day.

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Talking with David (Chang) and Rene (Redzepi)

October 7, 2010

Rene Redzepi and David Chang are two of the most thoughtful, charismatic and entertaining chefs today. But I couldn’t help thinking about the irony of the evening. We were talking about eating culture, about the need to create a truly local cuisine. We all agreed that restaurant cooking has become so homogenized that if you closed your eyes and simply tasted what was on your plate, you would have no way of knowing where in the world you were. You could be eating the same dishes in Sydney, Shanghai, London or San Francisco. For these two young chefs, the creation of a truly local cuisine is the next food frontier.

But while they may be thinking local, they’re living global. David looked exhausted, and he had to run off to catch a plane to London, where he’ll be cooking a meal with Claude Bosi of Hibiscus. Meanwhile Rene’s whistlestop tour has taken him to three continents in the last two weeks, and he’s still wearing his traveling shoes.

Some more thoughts:

Favorite Moment: Rene pointing out that chefs would make great terrorists, because they’re so single-minded and obsessed. (Although I may have been the only one who laughed.)

Favorite Audience Question: The young chef, who stood up in front of all those people and made a pitch for a stage at Noma next summer. How could Rene say no? He couldn’t, although I suspect he’s opened the door to many more requests along the way.

Favorite Food in the Goodie Bag: The wild kiwi from Maine.

Second Favorite Food: Sea Asparagus.

Favorite Noma Dish: The incredible vintage carrot (which wins the ugliest food on the planet award).

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Lunch at Daniel, 2

October 3, 2010

Colman Andrews, who arranged the lunch at Daniel, wrote to tell me that my Iphone had very graciously changed “cuisses de grenouille” to “cuirass de grenouille.”
“Rather leathery, don’t you think?” he asked. He also pointed out that my phone had decided that foie gras en gelee should be foie gras glee – which both of us rather liked.

Then we continued a conversation we had started at the end of lunch. He said that Americans don’t like French food anymore, and that French cookbooks don’t sell. I pointed out that Balthazar is the hardest restaurant to get into in New York; it is packed from the moment it opens for breakfast until well after midnight. So clearly we do like French food.

This isn’t “writing”; it’s just a casual conversation, but I thought you might be interested. I asked Colman if he’d let me let you listen in.

COLMAN to RUTH

Was thinking later about your contention that Americans DO like French food, they just don’t like to cook it, and I think there’s something to that. The whole point of the kind of stuff we had yesterday, though, is that NOBODY should try to cook it at home. It’s restaurant food and depends on a whole repertoire of stocks and other fonds, many hands to do the work, etc. That incredible multi-level soup, for instance… I mean, I guess somebody could reproduce something along the same lines if they wanted to go to the time and expense, but why would you? We might fool around on the fiddle but we don’t think we’re Pincus Zucherman. Why should we assume that we can cook like Daniel (or Jean-Georges, or Michel Richard, or….)? Whereas if you want to make, say, Italian food, all you really have to do is cook like Mamma—which of course is equally impossible, but much easier to imagine. Anyway, it makes it hard to write a book about cooking French food (though we did it, in a way, with the Saveur Authentic French book), which just leaves books about eating it I guess.

Would be nice to think that “nouvelle cuisine” was the next big thing, though. Yeah, right.

RUTH to COLMAN

That’s why Americans love the idea of provincial French cooking so much. Bistro food books do sell. Our French home cooking covers always did well on the newsstand. People want to make cassoulet and poulet a la creme….all that cuisine de bonne femme.

As for chef cooking – I don’t get why anyone at all buys any of the chef cookbooks. Not just the French guys; you look at David Chang’s recipes, and every seemingly simple dish requires about a million steps. For me, part of the joy of that meal of Daniel’s was being reminded of how much pleasure there is in that kind of cooking. That soup was extraordinary – on so many levels – well, it all was. I don’t eat at big deal French restaurants much anymore, and it made me want to make the rounds again.

The one place I wish he’d gone in a different direction was dessert. I was trying to remember great nouvelle cuisine desserts, and I couldn’t. Or is it just that the new desserts are so much more interesting?

COLMAN to RUTH

Yes, you’re right. I do think it’s interesting, though, that people (“our” people, the serious food folk) tend to think that they should be able to—that they have the right to be able to—reproduce the most elaborate and labor-intensive of restaurant dishes, when they would never think themselves capable of playing serious music or painting museum-quality art or imagine themselves capable of leaping into Scorcese or Coppola territory with their Flips.

I know what you mean about not going to big-deal French restaurants any more (though I do always try to go to one or two when I’m in Paris) and about wanting to make the rounds again. I don’t think there’s much of that kind of food left in NY though. We experienced together how things have fallen (or our expectations have risen?) at the Cuisses de Grenouilles. I didn’t like the last meal I had at Jean-Georges very much (though he is certainly capable of doing this kind of food). Per Se to me is a different thing, not French—which I would usually say is a good thing, though not necessarily in this context. Haven’t been to Citronelle forever, but I imagine Michel would still be a real contender in this arena if he wanted to be. It was this kind of cooking I had in mind when I called the piece I did on Michel Bourdin at the Connaught years ago in Saveur “The Last French Restaurant in the World”.

Re desserts, as you know that’s never been my thing, but I thought the fig tart was very good. I do think desserts are on a whole different level, conceived differently and using different technology, today. I can’t really remember any ground-breaking masterpieces from the old days either. Lots of sorbets and tarts as I recall, basically the same old stuff, though often very good. (You may or may not remember, but I recall vividly your reaction to the very very simple pear sorbet at the old Boyer.)

I tweeted about the menu and mused how wild it would be if nouvelle cuisine turned out to be the next big thing. It won’t of course, but I got a lot of comments back on that and all but one seemed to love the idea…

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My Lunch at Daniel

October 1, 2010

It’s been years since I sat down to lunch at noon and spent the entire afternoon at the table, slowly, dreamily, eating (and drinking) the day away. After today’s languid five-hour meals at Daniel, I wonder why I got out of the habit.

The idea for this lunch grew out of another long lunch, when Daniel Boulud and Colman Andrews boozily started reminiscing about the French food of the seventies. It was a halcyon time, the beginning of nouvelle cuisine, when young chefs were throwing out all the rulebooks. It was also the time when Daniel was starting out, working with French masters like Michel Guerard and Paul Bocuse.

And so, this “retour aux annees ’70,” an homage to all the great French chefs of the time. It was also, said Daniel slyly, an attempt to lure Colman (who has just written a book on Irish food and a biography of Ferran Adria), back to France.

As a seduction, I’d say it was entirely successful. We started with whole foie gras wrapped in a peppercorn jelly; the soft, rosy livers shining merrily inside their dark wrapping, their sweetness underlined by the prickle of the peppers. We drank an extraordinary sauternes, a ’62 Coutet (with its original price – $4 – still stamped on the bottle).

Back in the seventies you couldn’t pick up a food magazine without reading about the the truffle soup that Paul Bocuse made for Valery Giscard D’Estaing. A golden dome of puff pastry rose dramatically above the bowl. Daniel changed the recipe, creating a textural treasure hunt; every time you stuck your spoon through the pastry into the intense game broth, you came up with some wildly different texture. Now it is a bit of quenelle that dissolves in an instant, now a chewy little nugget of truffle, now a soft pillow of liver.

Georges Blancs frog’s legs, heady with parsley and garlic and served in a puddle of clarified butter, were so invitingly fragrant that it was impossible not to pick them up and eat them right down to the bone. The Raveneau Chablis (2004), was not only the most perfect Chablis I’ve ever tasted, but also the perfect wine for this dish, the acid cutting right through the butter.

Why did I forget what a shock it was the first time I tasted the Troisgros salmon? Eating this lovely little square of fish in its sorrel sauce, I suddenly remembered that moment, in Roanne, remembered thinking that I had never really tasted salmon before. Thinly sliced and barely cooked (and only on one side), it was, for me, the doorway to sushi. Eating it, slowly, thoughtful, I began to wonder what fish might taste like raw. It was then – and is now – the epitome of simplicity, and utterly satisfying.

Next we had an extraordinary tart of cepes and innards, an Alain Chapel dish from 1974. Even more appealing, at least to me, was the tender little kidney on the side; it looked like a rose just beginning to bloom, with a flavor so gentle it was hard to remember how kidneys usually taste.

As those plates were being removed a trio of large ducks was paraded about the room and then carved with great fanfare. The carcasses were put though an enormous duck press and the blood went into the sauce. The meat was deep red and deeply flavorful, with the primitive and faintly metallic tang that comes only from blood. The wine with that, a Domaine de la Grange des Peres 2000 impressed me more than the fancy 1990 Volnays served with the previous course.

Then there was a rare cheese Le Timanoix, a caramelized fig tart and a spectacular cake that Gaston LeNotre invented to honor the Concorde in 1978 (although with its mass of chocolate curls it looked more like an homage to Shirley Temple). They were both great, but even greater was the Boal Madeira from 1865. Think about it: We were drinking wine that was made while the Civil War was being fought.

And that, of course, is one of the great things about food. It is one sure way to remember the past. And as this lunch reminded me, the seventies are worth remembering.

(pictures follow)

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