June 11, 2016
Bentonville Arkansas (yes, the home of the Waltons of Walmart), is a big surprise. This is a fantasy of small town America as imagined by the very rich. The people are lovely, the streets are clean, the trees are green, the schools excellent. There’s a farmers market in the town square on Saturday, and one of the most beautiful museums in the world, Crystal Bridges, which is not only free but open until 9 at night.
And there is food. Really good food. I spent a single day there, eating as much as I could. But I need to go back; if you love art and food, this is a very good town.
I began with dinner at The Hive in the very hip 21 C hotel, whose lobby smells so enticingly of wood smoke you are drawn, irresistibly, into the restaurant. One of the dishes that emerges from the wood-burning oven are these spectacular clams with citrus, chili and breadcrumbs – a rural interpretation of the usually urban clams casino. Loved them.
I loved quail with strawberries too….
But what completely won my heart was hominy with mascarpone and parsley. It’s an homage to the polenta with mascarpone that Judy Rodgers made famous at Zuni Cafe – a dish so rich and wonderful it reminds you that you’re glad to be alive.
Lunch was at Crepes Paulette, a little cart in the center of town that is achingly popular. The line stretched on for 45 minutes. Le Jardin was worth the wait: the buckwheat crepe was filled with melted cheese, spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes. Even on a 100 degree day, I ate every bite.
Dinner at Eleven at Crystal Bridges was another impressive meal. It started off with the most wonderful ceviche with avocado, fresh greens and more of those fragile, fragrant local strawberries…..
went on to whisper thin slices of beef carpaccio…..
and a sprightly pea soup with bee balm and smoked herring.
The main course, this lovely composition of risotto, quail stuffed with sausage, ramps, and peas….
was followed by an equally artful dessert.
Because this wasn’t nearly enough food to fill a day, we ended up at The Pressroom late at night for drinks and snacks. Fanny Bay oysters, flown in from Seattle, were briny, clean, pretty as orchids and gorgeous in the mouth. As for these spicy shishito peppers with their little crumbles of crisped garlic – they were just pure fun..
The evening ended with those fried pig tails at the top. Crisp and succulent, the sweetness of the peaches framed the natural richness of the pork.
I can’t think of a more perfect little morsel to munch while drinking cocktails on a sultry southern night.
June 10, 2016
“Can we discuss your meal?” asks the head maitre d’.
It’s a bit after you’ve been seated, but not before the Champagne cart has come sidling up to the table, aimed at seduction. And not before you’ve opened the little gift box sitting so innocently on that creamy tablecloth. Inside you discover two little black and white cookies. These are not sweets: take a bite and your mouth fills with the savory pleasures of Cheddar and apple. And we’re off!
There are choices to make, courses to consider. Still, when the man mentions asparagus will be one of them, he neglects to note that it will arrive in its own private air-filled pig bladder.
There is, in other words, a great deal of drama when dining at Eleven Madison Park.
And when the pig bladder is burst open what is revealed? One single, perfect spear.
Oh, and did I mention the black truffle that managed to sneak into the sauce?
Luxury is very much on offer. To begin: a beautiful wooden tower breaks apart to reveal oysters (Widow’s Hole) on a bed of ice, sprinkled with caviar. Another tier holds little rye crisps encircling a puree of morels….
another produces fava bean croquettes topped with various pickled vegetables and, most wonderful of all, spring radishes and peas to dip into whitefish salad popping with tiny pearls of roe.
And then there is more opulent caviar:
served with tiny English Muffins and corn and ham-infused Hollandaise. The notion? You create your own little Caviar Benedicts. Eggs, in other words, and eggs.
None of these courses, of course, were considered courses. The real meal is about to begin. For starters you can choose the most beautiful fluke you’ve ever seen, marinated in grapefruit and perched on a bed of bright spring peas. On top? An Easter bonnet made of tiny sprouts, sprigs and blossoms.
On the other hand, you might have chosen foie gras instead of fluke.
And you would not have been the least bit sorry.
Lobster’s up next, a perfect little claw, poached in butter and served with two intense sauces: one lemon-drenched, the other made of the lobster’s own juices. On top, a punctuating bitterness of dandelion.
Now that asparagus, with all its attendant pomp and circumstance.
And then the main courses:
This intensely aged beef was, hands down, one of the finest pieces of meat I’ve ever indulged in. Just a couple of bites, but the flavor resonates in your mouth long after the steak itself has vanished.
This duck , glazed with honey and lavender, was no slouch, but what I particularly appreciated was the rhubarb; crisp and cinnamon-scented, it is rhubarb reverently treated as a vegetable instead of the usual fruit.
On the side, the a remarkable morel custard, like the most extravagant chawan mushi you’ve ever encountered:
Potatoes showcase the many faces of the worlds most versatile vegetable. On top, the crackling regal magnificence of pommes Anna; underneath, the soft rich friendliness of potatoes cooked in cream.
Then there was cheese, not an ordinary slab, but sly little muffins hiding a warm nugget of Camembert baked into the middle. It was accompanied by two little spring compotes – rhubarb and sorrel – to slather on the top.
And then desserts – strawberries,
and finally Baked Alaska, which exploded into flames.
One of the great pleasures of dining at Eleven Madison Park is watching the light fade in that big, windowed room. As twilight falls the atmosphere changes dramatically giving you the sense of being in a theater where you are privileged to be on stage.
Tonight, just as the sun sank away a passerby leapt up to press his middle finger against the window. He was not visible, just that prominent finger. I was probably the only one who saw it, but in that moment he broke the fourth wall, brought reality crashing into the restaurant.
It made me ask myself, again, if luxury dining is something to feel guilty about, and I sat there for the longest time, pondering that question.
It is, admittedly, an idea that is rarely far from my thoughts. But at this moment, sitting in that comfortable seat, surrounded by solicitude as course after course of lovingly prepared food was presented for my pleasure, the question became especially acute.
There are no easy answers. We each indulge in luxuries of one kind or another – art, travel, theater, clothing, private schools – each ask ourselves if we should not be spending the money on others instead of ourselves.
But this is the main thing I took away from that wonderful dinner: if you’re lucky enough to celebrate the occasional meal at Eleven Madison Park, you had better revel in it. Because being blase here is just not okay.
June 9, 2016
Another from my bookshelf of vintage oddities: this cheap eats guide to San Francisco. The author, R. B. Read, exhibits a delight in culinary discovery so of-the-moment I had to check the publication date. (Though with a cover like that…) He takes us to an Afghani restaurant in Berkeley for aushak, down to the Peninsula’s Filipino restaurants, and through San Francisco’s Japantown, block by block. Is it really 1969?
But then I kept reading…. While Read revels in nasi goreng, he bemoans the lack of any “underlying rationale” in Indonesian cuisine. Excuse me?
Then I got to this entry on Connie Williams’ West-Indian Cafe, and froze. This was, for years, the place to eat in the Haight-Ashbury, and a favorite of black intellectuals: C.L.R James and James Baldwin visited every time they came to town. (Baldwin worked as a waiter in Williams’ restaurant in Greenwich Village, Calypso, in the 1940s. In The Price of the Ticket, he credits her influence in keeping him hard drug free.) I loved reading about Connie’s Trinidadian hospitality, about her coconut loaves and her chicken pilau. But as someone who actually went to San Francisco in the summer of 1967, with flowers in my hair, I was stopped cold by Read’s description of the impact the influx of hippies had on the neighborhood.
We were so blithely thoughtless.
But here – read it yourself.
This is Connie’s in the Haight.
And Calypso, in Greenwich Village, before it was razed to make way for NYU’s law school:
June 6, 2016
As promised, here is the famous chapter on flower cookery. I offer it to you, without comment, and in its entirety.
June 5, 2016
This remarkable little book, The Gentle Art of Cookery, published in 1925, is a reminder that interesting food from all over the world was being happily eaten in England long before Elizabeth David weighed in. The author’s basic philosophy, laid out in the introduction, is that one should “shop first and then arrange the dinner according to what is most plentiful in the market.” She includes an entire chapter on The Arabian Nights, with recipes for dishes like imam bayaldi and chicken stuffed with pistachios.
The book’s author, Hilda Leyel, was a famous herbalist with a remarkably modern attitude (among other things, she agitated for the use of compost as opposed to synthetic fertilizers). The book is valuable for its vegetable recipes alone, and is best known for the chapter on Cooking with Flowers, which includes recipes for Dandelion Wine, Chrysanthemum Salad, Violet Marmalade and Rose Ice Cream.
But what I found most fascinating is the ideas on cooking with children. A few of these recipes I’ve never seen before. I particularly like that “ostrich egg,” although I’m a little stumped as to where a modern cook would source the pig’s bladder.
Tomorrow: Cooking with Flowers.