Merle Armitage was the Benjamin Franklin of LA modernism. He was an old-fashioned connoisseur and impresario (he facilitated the work of George Gershwin, Henry Miller, Martha Graham and Edward Weston, among others). He collected art. He loved to cook. (And here he is, as drawn by Henrietta Shore.)
But his true love was typography.
When he first met Henry Miller, Miller said,
“I’ve heard you were an author?”
Armitage confessed: “If the truth were to be known, I write books so that I may design them.”
Looking at this cookbook – and these recipes – one can’t help but believe the guy. It’s a beautiful, lovingly-designed book:
A later edition included the tagline “For those who like sophisticated food.”
He includes these incredible Edward Weston vegetables:
But then we get to the recipes. Candied ginger, mayonnaise, celery – cooked pears? Quite the time capsule.
“Can you talk to me about tablecloths?” a reporter asked last week.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“I’m writing the history of tablecloths, and I thought you’d be able to address trends in restaurants.”
Sorry; wrong woman. Tablecloths, it turns out, are one of my blindspots. I must have written about them, but no tablecloth ever left a lasting impression on me.
Still, thinking about the once ubiquitous white tablecloth (or the occasional red checked one) left me considering how much restaurant design has changed in recent years. A leisurely leaf through this Manhattan Menus Guide (published in 1980, edited by Marjorie Cohen, Carol Stanis, and Jane Warwick), was a reminder of many old favorites. The menus are fairly predictable (think rosemary chicken, steak bordelaise) ……
….but the pictures of all those empty dining rooms was something of a shock. How different our restaurants once looked!
Here’s The Algonquin; I was twelve by the time I got there, and the Round Table crowd was long gone. What I remember best is that the waiter served amaretti with my parents’ coffee, and then dramatically set the wrapper on fire and tossed it into the air. It flamed furiously, fizzled quickly, and simply vanished into the aether. I was charmed.
The stark simplicity of Tamura, across from The World Trade Center. (I never had the pleasure).
Lutèce. My mother always longed to go there, and it was one of the first places I took her when I finally had the money. I can almost picture the lovely Andre Soltner standing at our table, discussing the menu in his endlessly gracious manner.
Tavern on the Green: Another favorite of mom’s. (She could never resist a circus, and in the hands of Warner Le Roy that’s exactly what it was.)
And finally, the pool room of the Four Seasons in the Seagram Building, one of the most famous dining rooms of all time. The Four Seasons is still open, but if you want to check out that superb space this may be your last chance. The restaurant changes hands in five weeks.
The weather’s been radiant, so bright and fresh it pulls me outside, enticing me to wander the city. Days like these, passing people offer secret smiles to one another; aren’t we lucky?
My day began at Sadelle’s with the best bagel I’ve ever eaten. It makes those soft, slack, silly circles that masquerade as bagels hang their heads in shame. It’s got such tooth and flavor I’m tempted to simply eat a naked bagel. But that would be sad when there’s Sadelle’s salmon, supple as silk and barely salty, just waiting to perch on top. Excellent egg salad is also on offer, and it proves another worthy partner to these sublime little rings.
A walk through SoHo, an encounter with that curious black cat on Spring Street, and down the Bowery to Little Italy. I’m headed for my favorite city shop, Di Palo’s, where there’s always something new to taste, always lots to learn. Today Lou’s cutting a golden wheel of autumn parmigiano: rich and crumbly, it tastes like concentrated sunshine. Afterwards some of Di Palo’s just-made mozzarella. Never refrigerated, it sits on the counter weeping milk, too voluptuous to contain its own richness.
Down Elizabeth Street, through teeming streets, to Dynasty, a raucous Chinese emporium that’s like a quick trip to Hong Kong. Tripe, sausage, black chickens, goose intestines…. they have it all.
Pork uterus anyone?
And then a turn north, to dinner at Upland. I don’t think Justin Smilie has ever made a dish I didn’t like, but for me it’s impossible not order his crazy mushroom: a huge hen-of-the-woods, crisply fried and served with soft fresh cloumage cheese.
But it’s Justin’s smoked duck with cherries, a new dish, that takes my breath away. Where has this version of the bird – like the most intense bacon I’ve ever eaten – been hiding all my life?
And finally, I stop in at Maysville for a nightcap; a little hit from their astonishing bourbon collection is an extremely satisfying way to say good night.
For eleven years Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonos have been pondering that question.
So if all you’re looking for is a delicious dinner, their flagship, Alinea is not the place for you.
In the years since they launched their first restaurant, they’ve opened others.Next, The Aviary and most recently Roister.But their main playground has always been Alinea, and when they closed it for a complete renovation, everyone with an interest in the future of restaurants wondered what it would now be like.
The answer: more theatrical.
You understand this most forcefully if you opt to eat in The Gallery, walking into an elegant dark room lit by ornate candelabras.A communal table? you think.Did I really sign on to eat with strangers?
But you gamely sit down – after all, you’ve bought into the experience – and watch waiters set beautiful little ice sculptures filled with fancy tidbits – caviar, truffles, crab, egg custard – while the maitre d’ circles the table pouring glasses of 2002 Bollinger RD.It’s pure luxury.
Next you are invited into the kitchen for cocktails, where you eat a deconstructed pickle and watch an arcane drink get whipped up on this antique contraption (“There are only thirty in the world!” Grant says happily).
And you file back into the dining room. Or a different dining room? In your absence, the set has been struck and the stage completely rebuilt; the long table and its candelabra have vanished, and small tables now float through the room. Your party has become a private one. This is disorienting in the best possible way; an announcement that this evening may be delicious, but it is going to be about a lot more than food. Fasten your seat belts.
It’s quite a ride.One of the cast – it’s hard to call this revolving troupe of servers anything so prosaic as waiters – appears with a beautiful little bowl filled with what looks like crinkled sheets of paper.
As he covers it with hot broth the aroma of just-picked corn fills the air and the paper begins to melt like the Wicked Witch of the West. Now they are supple sheets.Noodles? You wonder. Not quite. These are made of scallops, and they’re pure magic in the mouth.Even better are the little rolls of crisp nori that go crackling into the mouth to reveal a filling of creamy scallop mousse.
Up next: “Yellow.” Curry. Mustard in many guises – oil, seed, etc. Egg yolks. All wrapped around a bite of sweet potato and folded into flower petals.
“Eat this fast!” says the master of ceremonies, ladling a hot Parmesan dumpling into the bowl, where a little bubble of yellow tomato soup sits waiting.It’s all hot and cold, smooth and crisp, a little circus of the mouth and about the most playful dish you can imagine.
Behind you, a bowl bubbles merrily sending the scent of citrus wafting through the room as you watch a little mountain of yuzu foam breath above white asparagus cream laced with lychee and shards of lily bulbs.There’s more here:a lemon-scented bite of apple.
More citrus, this time topped with Ayu, the delicious firm fish that is a harbinger of spring in Japan, sitting on a tempura tangle of tiny fish.“It’s too beautiful to eat,” said the woman at the table behind me (she had, it turned out, flown in from Tulsa just for dinner).
But I noticed that her plate went back empty.
This little purple sculpture (blueberries and Lapsang Souchang tea), is a hiding place for morels – big fat ones – coddled in cream. What I liked even better was the onion composition on the side; onions finally get their due!
A mescal moment – which I forgot to photograph.I was so enthralled with the theater here, the way one server passed by with a cloth and handed it off like a baton, then smothered the fire sending the scent of pinon and other woods in the air,
that I neglected to take a picture of the Mexican flag chicken that came with this, or the little mescal-drenched bit of pineapple served on a colorful skull skewer.
But then there was this – to paraphrase Clifton Fadiman,lettuce’s leap to immortality. A humble leaf gets pride of place; draw back the crunchy curtain to find a little scrap of beef cheek nestled underneath. On the side, a slice of melon, magically transformed into something approaching a liquid.
Lamb, lamb neck, black garlic, blackberries. The most straightforward dish of the evening.
And then this: the Alinea version of a Reuben sandwich which involves, among other things, black truffles, crisped rye, cauliflower and gruyere.
With the meat courses gone it’s time for dessert.
And there are a few. Rhubarb, strawberry, anise and campari, all deconstructed.
Next comes the now classic edible balloon, which comes with complete with squeaky voice…..
And finally one of the actors climbs up on a chair….
removes a painting from the ceiling and the entire troupe comes tumbling out, like clowns emerging from a circus car, to dash around the dining room splashing food onto your plate, painting it with colors and flavors, constructing dessert. Fruit, chocolate, cream, crunch – it’s a crazy, wild, halcyon delight, more Cirque du Soleil than Paul Bocuse, and a delicious way to end this raucous experiment in eating.
What is a restaurant? Alinea’s answer is that a restaurant is a place that feeds your brain as well as your body.
I’m in Chicago for the Printer’s Row Literary Festival. Great event.
Had dinner last night at Sun Wah, home of the famous Duck Dinner (see above). It’s a casual barn of a place filled with huge families enjoying terrific food and having a wonderful time. Lots of birthdays, celebrated with the clanging of a gong.
We ate a ton of food: wonderful ong choy, great tripe, clams with black bean sauce, bittermelon and beef, congee…. But it’s the duck that’s the main event.