A Random Thought on Restaurant Criticism

January 14, 2016

Given all the recent noise about a restaurant review (and you know which one I’m talking about), I thought I’d post this little bit from Garlic and Sapphires.

To put it in context, this conversation takes place in the office of the Editor of The New York Times, Max Frankel in the spring of 1993. At the time I was the restaurant critic of The Los Angeles Times, and Max and his deputy, Joe Lelyveld had invited me into their office. The current critic was leaving the job and Max had just asked what I thought of their restaurant section. In an act of madness I told the editors of the most powerful paper in the world that they were doing things wrong.

“Your reviews,” I said, “are very useful guides for the people who actually eat in the restaurants you review. But how many of your readers will go to Lutece this year? A thousand? That leave out more than a million readers. And at a time when people are more interested in food and restaurants than they have ever been in the history of this country, that’s a shame.  You shouldn’t be writing reviews for the people who dine in fancy restaurants, but for all the people who wish they could.”

I remember Joe looking at Max over my head and saying, “This is interesting. And you know, we’ve heard this argument before. Only it was about books. What she’s really saying is that we’ve been selling restaurants, and that isn’t our business. We should be selling newspapers.”

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Dinner in the Tropics

January 13, 2016

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The picture’s not so beautiful.  The fish, however, was.  When we found a whole red snapper at the fish market here on St. John yesterday, it started speaking to me. The eyes were clear, the skin glossy, the scent clean and briny.

I’d forgotten how easy it is to cook a whole fish. We rubbed the fish inside and out with salt and then stuffed it with all the aromatics we had on hand. Onions, garlic, thyme, parsley all went into the cavity.  Then we massaged the snapper with olive oil, sprinkled it with salt and put it in a roasting pan.  I poured a bit of white wine around it, more for the way it would perfume the air than for any practical purpose. Then we put it into a 425 degree oven for about half an hour.

The aroma of wine and herbs mingled with the scent of the sea as the fish cooked in the oven.  It was the most enticing smell.  When I checked the temperature (the fish was about 3 and a half pounds), it was 135 at the thickest part behind the head.  I let it rest for ten minutes, then sprinkled it with lime juice and took it to the table.

So completely delicious.  And no work at all.

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Old Menus: Los Angeles, 1982, 1991

January 9, 2016

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Just found a folder of menus from my years at the Los Angeles Times.  There’s this one, from the old Spago (Wolf actually drew the cover himself), long before it moved to spiffy new quarters in Beverly Hills. This may be the first menu, although I’m not sure about that. Note that the highest priced entree is $14.50.

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Isn’t it interesting that there are two liver dishes, along with sweetbreads and squab? Also note the inclusion of goat cheese, which was then a new American product; Laura Chenel started selling America’s first fresh goat cheese in 1979

Then there are these menus from Thomas Keller, long before he went on to French Laundry fame.  I was a big fan of his food at Checkers Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, but the restaurant never really took off. One interesting note: look how much more adventurous Keller let himself be with brunch. Duck hash; chorizo gravy; peanut butter waffles.

This is lunch:

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Waffling Around

January 8, 2016

unnamedI’m crazy about my vintage cast iron waffle maker. (Not pictured.) It’s turned out perfect waffles for 40 years. It barely needs cleaning. And it makes heart-shaped waffles that are, frankly, adorable.

My most satisfying breakfast ritual begins with hauling the huge base – it must weigh at least five pounds – up to my stovetop. When the pan begins to sing with heat I cover it with Fannie Farmer’s yeast-raised waffle batter, carefully close the top, and wait.  When the top rises just a bit I turn it over and wait some more. The truth is that my well seasoned griddle cooks waffles almost as fast as my family can eat them – which is very fast indeed. They are always gone too soon. The only catch? My little Jotul waffle iron is no longer made, and the last one I found on Etsy cost way too much.

But I’ve just found a great buy on a humble version of my stovetop wonder. It has no base.  The triangles aren’t hearts. But it’s also 24 bucks, and pure cast iron. And just to encourage you, here’s the time-honored Fannie Farmer Recipe, which makes light, crisp airy waffles that nobody can resist.

Fannie Farmer’s Yeast-Raised Waffles

Sprinkle 1 package of dry yeast over a half cup of warm water in a large bowl and wait for it to dissolve.

Meanwhile melt a stick of butter, add 2 cups of milk and allow it to just gently warm up. Add it to the yeast mixture.

Mix a teaspoon each of salt and sugar into 2 cups of flour. Add this to the liquid and beat until smooth.

Cover the bowl and let it stand overnight at room temperature. In the morning beat in 2 eggs and a quarter teaspoon of baking soda, stirring well. Cook on a very hot waffle iron until crisp on each side.

This makes about 8 waffles, and will keep for a few days in the refrigerator.

Note: If you want to make waffles the same morning you make the batter you can speed up the sponge process. Place the covered bowl with the yeast mixture in a larger bowl of warm water for an hour, or until doubled, and proceed with the recipe.

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Another New Thing to Love

January 7, 2016

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This is silly.  I know it. How can you get excited about fried onions?

Maybe it’s growing up on those canned ones my mother loved so much – the ones she put into her famous “everything casserole.”  As I later discovered, they aren’t all that great.  So I began making my own. But getting a big batch of onions really crisp takes time.

So when I saw these in the market the other day, I pounced.  They’re natural. They’re imported from Denmark. They’re inexpensive. And they’re delicious.

Good to have on hand when you need a little lagniappe to perk up your vegetables.  Or simply to eat out of hand.

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