LA in a New Mood

September 30, 2018

I loved everything I ate at Bavel, the hot new Mediterranean restaurant in downtown LA, but this malawach is the dish that floats through my dreams.  I wish I were eating that flaky layered bread right now, even without the dill-flecked creme fraiche, the grated tomato or the slightly sticky delight of that egg. The bread – an ancient Yemeni way with dough, is pure pleasure.

But so is almost everything about this large, light airy restaurant with the plants dripping down from the tall ceilings. Is it noisy? Very. But you soon forget the surrounding babble as you revel in the sheer delight of the food.

Hummus with duck n’duja. These flavors haven’t played together before, but they certainly get along well. Alongside, this adorable little puff of pita.

Z’atar -flecked farmers cheese

served with this solid square of buckwheat bread

Tiny okra, cooked so that even people who think they hate this sometimes slimy vegetable, suddenly don’t.

A perfect late-summer salad combines tiny tomatoes, plums and purslane in a mad swirl of sweet, tart and crunch.

Lamb tartare with burnt onion creme fraiche gave me an entirely new perspective on raw lamb.

And lamb neck, folded into schwarma with a host of vegetables, is the perfect showcase for this tender chunk of meat.

And finally, what might be the most seductive ice cream I’ve ever encountered.  Persian mulberries!

 

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Les Bons Temps

September 26, 2018

This, to me, is the taste of New Orleans. Seafood gumbo – deep, dark, murky, with an intense roux that makes the flavors sing.  I had mine at Peche, the ode to local seafood created by Donald Link, Stephen Stryjewski and Ryan Prewitt. Pure pleasure.

The crab salad of your dreams: a little cucumber, a little dill, a bit of lemon and a lot of crab.  Pure, clean flavors.  Wow!

We went on to other dishes – this is a lovely restaurant – but these two dishes are the ones that linger in my mind when I think of New Orleans.

Where do New Orleans chefs eat on their nights off? Kelly Field, of Willa Jean, took Dominique Crenn and Barbara Lynch to  Tan Dinh, a cavernous, barebones bowling alley of a restaurant with fantastic Vietnamese food.

These egg rolls don’t look like much, but I found myself reaching for another, then another, then…. Couldn’t stop.

This simple noodle salad, with it’s slim slices of chicken and whole ram rau leaves, was equally impressive.  Enormous squeeze bottles of various sauces allow you to spice your food to your own taste.

Lemongrass chicken wings: deliciously gooey and good.

But if I’m being honest, the best meal I had in New Orleans wasn’t in a restaurant.  It was red beans and rice at the home of my friend Pableaux Johnson, who among other things makes the best cornbread I’ve ever tasted.

Every Monday night Pableaux asks a group of people over to share the classic Cajun meal around his grandmother’s old table.  You bring whatever you want to drink, and show up when you want. People come and go all evening; as I was leaving, around midnight, a couple was just strolling up to the door.

It’s friends, strangers – a motley group of interesting people who gather to eat off mismatched plates and drink out of whatever glass they can scrounge up out in the kitchen.  But mostly you come to laugh, talk and meet interesting people. It’s the most perfect kind of entertaining – you leave completely satisfied: filled with great food and new ideas and blessed with new friends.

This, I thought, as I poured cane syrup over that incredible corn bread, is why people live in New Orleans.  Thanks Pableaux!

 

 

 

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Notes from Nashville and Nola

September 25, 2018

First stop in Nashville – always – the great Parnassus Books. If you haven’t been, go! The most wonderful book store: dogs roam, children laugh, and everyone has a suggestion for something you simply have to read.

Then, just around the corner for a bite of lunch at etc. restaurant, where Deb Paquette turns out the most beautiful food.  “We have soup tonight,” said our waitress,” but I’m not sure what it is. Deb’s out in the kitchen, staring at the ingredients, figuring it out.” In the end it was that gorgeous swirl of color.

But first, this remarkable carrot tartare, all crisp, crunch and color, with pickled fennel, onion, peppercress and a lemon celery aioli.

And the restaurant’s signature dish, porcini cauliflower, which somehow combines roasted turnip miso, a yellow beet purée, mushroom thyme sauce, risotto, wonton wrappers… a vegan fantasy to make every vegetarian rejoice.

In town for the Music City Food and Wine Festival to cook onstage with Jonathan Waxman, I had only one free evening. (For the record, the food at the event was awesome; in 104 degree weather, the great Pat Martin set up a whole slew of fire pits and cooked some of the finest ‘que I’ve ever eaten. This little piggy was one of many porcine pleasures – not to mention prime ribs, brisket, salmon, loins… there wasn’t much Pat didn’t subject to low, slow heat.)

Later that night,  chefs from every great Nashville restaurant set up tents and offered tastes.  (For the record, the longest lines were for Emmy Squared burgers; this is a town that reveres meat!)

Everybody had a suggestion about which place to choose for my single dinner.  In the end I opted for Henrietta Red.  And was very glad: Julia Sullivan is cooking extremely appealing food. Dinner was long and wonderful, starting with wood-roasted oysters with green curry and bagna cauda.

 Sour cream with spring onion vinaigrette and paddlefish caviar.

Wonderful fried herring. And this…

homemade bread, with the most intense smush of anchovy butter.

Best of all, however, was this extraordinary stew: light little puffs of potato gnocchi tangled into pork and vegetables.  It wasn’t just that the textures were so appealing, or the flavors so fine, but that this is truly Italy in Music City mode.

A crazy night of music, headlined by the Kings of Leon and closed by The Struts – and then, after way too little sleep – it was on to New Orleans for the Symposium on American Cuisine and Hospitality – and the 125th Anniversary of Commander’s Palace. Wouldn’t you know that in true Commander’s fashion, a group of us zoomed in from the airport with a police escort complete with high speeds and flashing lights!

Dropped my luggage and went straight to Maypop for  Michael Gulatta’s Sunday morning dim sum brunch. Fun – and rather brilliant – it’s a southern take on an Asian tradition, and done with tongue in cheek. Up above, bacon scallion pancakes with oysters and cucumber kimchi.

Head cheese and blue crab soup noodle dumplings.

Blue crab and buckwheat noodle salad with peaches, eggplant and shiso.

Pork and cane syrup sausage-stuffed sesame balls with chili oil.

The most delicious fried oysters with a bit of manchego and a lot of spice.

Who could possibly resist boudin bao?

Tomorrow, more of NOLA: gumbo, red beans and rice, blue crab – and the best eggrolls I’ve ever eaten.

 

 

 

 

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Great, Easy, Unexpected Snack

September 12, 2018

I made James Beard’s “onion rings” the other night for the first time in a while.  Now’s the perfect moment for them – farmers’ markets are filled with sweet onions just pulled from the earth, and this is the best way I know to showcase that compelling flavor.  On top of that, this is the moment when all the parsley in the garden is proud and full.

Start with a loaf of sturdy white bread.  Or traditional Pepperidge Farm sandwich white.  Using a 2 1/2 inch cookie cutter, cut circles out of the bread. Slather them with good commercial mayonnaise and sprinkle them with salt.

Slice your onions very thinly.

Chop a good amount of parsley as finely as you like.

Put a slice of onion on a circle of bread and sandwich it with another circle of bread.

Spread mayonnaise on the edge of each sandwich and roll it in chopped parsley.

These keep surprisingly well; I just ate the last of the two-day old sandwiches.  It made a perfect 10 a.m. snack.

 

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More Old Menus

September 3, 2018

I’ve been going through old files, getting ready for the American Cuisine and Hospitality Symposium in New Orleans in a couple of weeks. I was there at the first Symposium in 1983, and I wanted to get a sense of what things were like back then.  At the time, we were very focused on California Cuisine – I was the restaurant critic at New West Magazine – and I  came upon this interesting letter.

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