April 17, 2014
I love the color of this little bowl, which is just large enough to cradle in the palm of my hand. Small but mighty, it's one of the most useful objects in my kitchen, and I find myself reaching for it again and again.
The bowl, from Davistudio, is the perfect place to plunk the soy sauce when we're eating dumplings. At cocktail time it's happy to hold olives, pistachios, or a bit of pate. It's just the thing when I'm separating eggs. And at the end of the evening, when I'm tempted to throw away the last few spoonfuls of mashed potato, I scoop them into the little blue bowl instead.
You never know when a leftover bite is going to be exactly what you want to eat.
April 14, 2014
Slightly Spicy Rhubarb Compote
“$15 worth of rhubarb?” I asked the cashier at Fairway. “Really?”
“Well,” she replied, “it’s $6.99 a pound.”
They had glowed at me, the long, thick ruby red stalks, in the gloom of the store. I’d gathered as many as I could hold. I couldn’t help myself. I kept thinking how delicious rhubarb would be with the ham I was about to cook.
I wasn’t sorry when I got it home; just looking at that bright red heap sitting on the counter made me happy. I went to the refrigerator and peered in, wondering what kind of condiment I might make.
I had ginger. I pulled that out. Capers! They’d be a lovely counterpoint. Especially if I threw some raisins in as well. And then, I thought, some red pepper flakes, for a bit of punch.
I began by chopping an onion fairly fine, and softening it in a bit of grapeseed oil, along with two inches of fresh ginger that I’d chopped. When that had turned soft and fragrant, I put the mixture in a bowl and set it aside.
I added a couple cups of brown sugar to the empty pan, along with a cup of red wine vinegar, stirred it all up, brought it to a boil and let it cook for 5 minutes or so, until it was reduced by half. Then I added a cup of golden raisins, a couple tablespoons of rinsed capers, a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes and a few healthy grinds of black pepper. I sliced the two pounds of rhubarb into half inch crescents, tossed them into the pan, gave it all a good stir, added the onion and ginger and cooked it for about ten minutes, until it had turned into a tasty, tender deep pink compote.
Served at room temperature it was fragrant, savory, slightly sweet and slightly spicy. It was a wonderful addition to dinner. But I've just eaten some with cold slices of ham – and it's even better.
I'm off to buy more rhubarb. I really love this stuff.
April 13, 2014
One of the great joys of working at Conde Nast was that Sushi Zen was just a block away. And, of course, that I had an expense account and could afford to go there. Although this wonderful restaurant flies beneath the radar, I think it's one of the truly great sushi bars of New York. Once Chef Suzuki gets to know your tastes, eating there is pure pleasure.
I'm no longer a regular, but when I have something to celebrate, Sushi Zen is the first place I think of. Last Friday, when we had some wonderful news, we went out for a feast.
It began with this elegant and very Zen arrangement of vegetables:
In the front, a dish of marinated ferns topped with a dice of yama imo. A tumble of textures and flavors, leaping across each other, waking up the mouth. In the back, burdock root rolled in sesame seeds and topped with a single goji berry. Eating these two dishes you imagine yourself high in some Japanese monastery; close your eyes and you can almost hear the wind blowing.
Next came that lovely arrangement of raw fish at the top, sitting on its own bed of ice. At the far left, raw octopus, more texture than flavor, a bite that really slowed us down. A rose made of tuna. A curl of hamachi. The freshest pickled ginger. Diced spanish mackerel, tossed with scallion. And that is only the front; give the basket a twirl and you find a few fantastic bites hidding in the back.
On the left, a dish of shirako (milt, or cod fish sperm). Like little clouds, all soft tenderness.
Next to it, snuggled into a shell, its edible opposite. The red clam is all brine and chew – and totally delicious.
A cooked course. Eggplant. Shiraku tempura. And a little uni handroll, wrapped in batter and deep-fried.
This was followed by one pristine piece of sushi after another:
to demonstrate just a few.
And finally, a delicate little dish of dessert, one shimmering round fruit suspended in a shining cube of aspic.
What I love about Sushi Zen is not only the superb quality of the fish and the artistry of the presentation, but the quiet pace of each meal. Leaving, I felt refreshed, happy – and eager to come back.
April 10, 2014
Any meal that begins with osetra caviar garnished with brioche (foam), egg (custard) and capers and onions (clear aspic) that is served with the suave 2005 Special Club Champagne is fine with me. More than fine.
But what makes Alinea such a fabulous experience is the sheer exuberant fun of the place. It's a carnival of food delight that takes you on a journey around the world; I found myself laughing throughout the meal. This is food as performance, food as surprise, food as you've never seen it before. I loved every minute – and the meal lasted more than four hours!
Who could resist this huge block of seaweed-draped ice, which arrived singing gently, murmuring of the sea (there was dry ice beneath the ice). On top, delicate little bites of sushi – abalone wrapped with green almond, ahi with avocado, kampachi mixed with quail egg yolk to spoon on crisp kombu crackers. A tiny oyster. A little bite of green almond, with its surprising softness.
Over the top? Silly? Definitely. Inside that log with the metal straws was a cold nasturtium soup: its rather austerely prickly flavor seemed like a contradiction, the opposite of its presentation. On top, a tiny little bite of frog's leg to wrap up with more nasturtium. The tiny tangle of flavors reminded me of nothing so much as the Thai appetizer, miang kam. It was especially lovely with the S.A. Prum 2009 Riesling, all sweetness edged with acidity.
More silliness here, but great fun. Hidden in this twig basket are two strips of salsify jerky. For a moment I was afraid we wouldn't find it. In the end, it was a purely tactile search: the jerky was softer than the branches.
For this dish we're in India. But it's a gentle India, the curry of the lobster tempered by little dots of coconut and cubes of Earl Grey aspic. My favorite flavor on the plate was the almost candied cauliflower in the back and those little pearls of grapefruit.
Wine: Vin de Pays de L'Herault Mas Julien 2008
This is black truffle – lots of black truffle – resting on a bed of bone marrow and the first asparagus of spring. Served with a 2006 Puligny Montrachet from Benoit Ente it was, hands down, one of the most luxuriously delicious dishes I've ever tasted. I think I actually said wow!, although I'm sure I did so under my breath.
Now we're in China – sort of. A little take-out box containg tiny bits of fried sweetbread with ginko nuts in an orange sauce. The fun here? Eating it with "chopsticks" made of two long cinnamon sticks.
Wine: Vouvray Domaine du Viking 2011
And back to Japan. Ebi. Celtuce, the beloved lettuce stem of Asia. Yuzu.And lovely little sea grapes, popping gently in the mouth.
Charcoal? Yes and no. Hidden in that pile of binchotan is a cube of wagyu beef and another imposter, a rectangle of parsnip. Rescued from the fire, the charred lumps are carved, at the table, to reveal a heart of red in one, a pristine white interior in the other. Pure delight.
Junmai Ginjo Sake, Sudo Honke Shuzo
A little palate cleanser of sliced lily bulb with rambutan and tiny little beads of finger lime, each one a single squirt of juice. Extremely refreshing. Afterward we're handed a heap of newspaper (it was even my hometown paper), and asked to create a tablecloth. And out comes….
which brings us right back home. We're solidly in Chicago now, eating lake Michigan smelt.
To drink: a sparkling Riesling Brut Sekt from Von Buhl.
All night a branch of rhubarb has been circling just above our heads, suspended from the ceiling on an almost invisible wire, twirling silently. Now it is cut down, and we get this lovely little dish…
crisp rhubarb, gentle celery, and tying them together, an almost invisible slick of licorice that makes this more salad than dessert. With it, the loveliest candy-pink rose from Arnot-Roberts in Clear Lake.
A tiny bite. An edible pun. Wood ear and pig ear, with a frisk of cracker, a squish of black garlic puree, some garlic blossoms. The joke here is that the pig ear is, by far, the most delicious morsel on the plate.
Wine: Priorat Clos Figueras 2006
"Truffle explosion." Need I say more?
There was a duck dish before that, all smoke and fire spreading across the table, but my pictures, I'm sorry to say, do not do it justice. And then, just a few desserts. This, for starters
The flavors are pistachio, strawberry, black walnut. The bites are tiny. The wine is a Sauterne, Chateau Tirecul la Graviere.
And then this…
A balloon made of green apples and helium, that turns every diner in the place into an instant child.
This would have been a perfect ending to the evening. But wait! There's more! This show never seems to stop. The chef came striding into the dining room and right there, at our table, constructed a chocolate tart. It was an astonishing performance, Grant Achatz using the table as a canvas, dotting it with cream and violets, making a painting and anchoring it with a tart, much in the fashion of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It was so beautiful, and so delicious that I found that I did, in fact, still have an appetite.
And that, in the end, is the genius of this restaurant. Eating at Alinea is so exhilarating that you find yourself eager for just one more experience, one more flavor, one more moment of being completely and utterly in the moment – and happy to be exactly where you are.
April 8, 2014
The other day, at the New York Culinary Experience at ICC, a woman brought me this fantastic box of living microgreens. Tiny pea greens, sweet and sassy, over there on the far right. Radish greens, with a bit of bite. Tiny mustard greens, their flavor hinting at wasabi. Dark red shiso greens, with a distinctively minty, musty flavor. Upland cress reminds me of watercress, a taste so sharp and pointed it almost snaps your head back. And on the far left, borage greens, which carry a faint and piquant hint of oysters.
The plants are still growing, and I'm told that, kept at room temperature, they'll still be good two weeks from now. Produced by a company called Koppert Cress on Long Island, they're sold only to restaurants. Which is a shame; I'm thrilled with this present and would love to be able to offer it to other people. Can you think of a better hostess gift?