Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Is That Creamed Spinach or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

Jeffery Chodorow's crusade against New York Times' food critic Frank Bruni just gets better. This week Chodorow offered Caribbean vacations to employees who spot Bruni in his restaurants. You have to wonder what kind of veiled threat this really is. I mean, what happens after Bruni is spotted? Does Chodorow order the chefs to defile the critic's soup?

Bruni, meanwhile, came back with a pitch-perfect reponse to Chodorow's screed, one worthy of his background in Italian politics: he gave a star and rave review to Robert's Steakhouse at the Penthouse Executive Club. Yes, our fearless food critic braved a sea of lapdancers to sample the beef, and wrote about the night with a surprising sense of humor even though, Mr. Chodorow will no doubt note, he's not a comedian. I believe the steaks were good. But honestly, what's the point of this review? How many Times' readers are really going to go to the Penthouse Club for the steaks?

"If Chodorow lives up to his insane public rant, he now has to follow in Bruni's footsteps and sit down in a potentially spooge-soaked banquette for his own counter-review of this distinguished eatery," Anthony Bourdain observes. "The message seems to be 'even a freakin' strip club where you get lap dances offered between courses is better than your soulless, overpriced meat-emporium.'" In other words, if this was a poker game, Bruni, no pun intended, just raised the stakes.

"One might ask if it's ever a good idea," Bourdain adds, offering Chodorow a little good advice, "to spend $40,000 to remind the public that the New York Times think you suck and that you are the genius responsible for MIX, the lunatic-sounding CAVIAR AND BANANA, the public melt-down called ROCCO'S, the joke-magnet ENGLISH IS ITALIAN and the rumored SPOTTED DICK."

Your bet, Mr. Chodorow.--F

Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Weekend in Washington

I was in our nation's capital recently visiting my friend Anne, who left NYC for greener pastures (or more trees, anyway) last year. My dear pal gamely oriented me to the city, explaining its layout and basics. Naturally, I grilled her on what foods are quintessentially "DC." Understandably at a loss, she checked her Eyewitness Guide, but its suggestions, while mildly interesting, were generally lukewarm and included Caesar Salad and southern breakfast foods like grits. Not really in full food discovery mode anyway, I let Anne guide me, and wound up with some delicious meals.

She'd reserved us a table for Friday night at Petit Plats, a French bistro a few blocks away from her Woodley Park apartment. It was a lovely restaurant in a converted townhouse, with four (!) fireplaces and a French-speaking host, whose little daughter was doing her homework at the bar and chatting with Maman about le week-end. The pureed vegetable soup was excellent; it was followed by a classic herb-roasted chicken with french fries. Aside from the portions (which were huge), it was a très French meal and the perfect spot for us girls to catch up.

Saturday evening found us in Georgetown, where Anne and I did some pre-dinner shopping (including a stop at a great cosmetics shop called Blue Mercury, where I somehow got talked into getting a makeover). Made up in full Trish McEvoy fabulousness I stunned the crowd at Clyde's of Georgetown, a bar/restaurant established in 1963. Frommer's says Clydes is a hangout for "university students, Capitol Hill types, affluent professionals, Washington Redskins, romantic duos, and well-heeled ladies who lunch"--or dine, as the case may be. We started with a crab and artichoke dip (served with French bread) that had ample bites of both ingredients. I followed this with a burger with sauteed mushrooms that ruled. It was delicious. After dinner we progressed to another local watering hole, Martin's Tavern, which may or may not have been the place where young congressman John F. Kennedy proposed to journalist Jacqueline Bouvier (a guide to the restaurant's famous clientele, which was in a small frame on the bar, was rather unclear, and after a few glasses of wine we had some difficulty following it). Nonetheless, Martin's is a fine establishment with a homey vibe and good drinks.

But Caesar and grits, listen up: I'll be back.--S

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Somebody Call the Waaaaaaahmbulance!

Jeffery Chodorow, the successful (just ask him) Manahattan restauranteur who brought us such gems as, well, Rocco DiSpirito (!) has lost his mind. How best to punish the New York Times for a bad review of Kobe Club , Chodorow's latest adventure in bad judgement? By placing an expensive (between 40K and 115K reportedly) full page ad of course!

Pissed off from one too many bashings from Times critic Frank Bruni, Chodorow snapped. He challenged Bruni's credibility, a tired subject at this point. "The drama critic is probably not a plumber," Chodorow writes. "The art critic is probably not a CPA. The fact that he's a good writer does not make him an expert on restaurants." Chodorow makes his point by noting that in Rome Bruni covered Italian politics, not food. Don't you just love the egomaniacal self-importance infused in that sentiment? Sure, this Bruni guy might be able to make sense of the arcane political systems that underpin all aspects of Italian life, but understand what goes on in a kitchen? Naaaaaaah!

This tearjerking excerpt is the best part of Chodorow's ad, though:

"Ever since my ill-fated collaboration with Rocco DiSpirito on the TV show, The Restaurant, critics for the New York Times (and certain other publications) have been very hard on me. This was no exception. Admittedly, there was that one errant clam (out of a 3-tier seafood tower). Unfortunately, bad clams happen, occasionally, but how does a review in which the main player, Kobe beef, is acknowledged by Mr. Bruni to be perfectly prepared, warrant zero stars?

I don’t know what I actually did to engender these personal attacks on me. I opened Rocco’s with the best of intentions. After all, what’s a better story than a talented
avant-garde chef going back to his roots to cook the food he grew up on with the mother he loves. I also love my mother so it was easy for me to be seduced by the
idea. I don’t think anybody could have predicted that outcome."

Allow me to explain, Mr. Chodorow. How does a perfectly prepared Kobe steak warrant zero stars? When it is served in an ugly room and is laughably overpriced. Personal attacks? I did not percieve this review as an attack on you, but if you did perhaps it is this narcissim that contributes to the underwhelming performance of your restaurants. For example, a "better story" than an avante garde chef cooking old favorites with his beloved mother is an an avante garde chef cooking great avante garde food! As for no one seeing Rocco's collapse coming, I vividly recall an episode where Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain visited and sampled the food. I'll quote Bourdain: "This utterly blows." How's that for fair warning that that your restaurant might suck?

"I fully understand why Jeffrey Chodorow would be disappointed by the review I gave Kobe Club and some of his other restaurants," Bruni said in response to Chodorow's attack. Ha! Me too! In giving Kobe Club zero stars, Bruni dismissed the restaurant's design (which features 2000 samurai swords hanging from the ceiling) as "bad theme park" and said while the swords shouldn't scare diners, "the food and the bill should." Oh, Snap!

OK, so Bruni can be a bit harsh. He's pretty much on point. Mr. Chodorow can't say the same, although The Restaurant, which was filmed on Spoon's block, was awesome train-wreck TV. But restauranteurs like Mr. Chodorow should really trhink twice before attacking food critics for not being chefs or kitchen professionals. After all, Mr. Chodorow, who do you think eats in your restaurants?--F

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Tale of Two Cookshops

156 Tenth Ave.
at 20th St.


One lazy day late last summer, Spoon's parents generously offered to drive in to the city to take us out for a nice Sunday dinner. After a few unsuccessful phone calls seeking last-second reservations, we succeeded at Cookshop, a relative newcomer in Chelsea we'd heard good things about. It was a good choice. We had a sensational meal that evening: casual, delicious, and drawn from an imaginative menu with excellent service from a fun, chatty waiter who was only too happy to engage us about the menu, the neighborhood, the chef and a few other fun topics. It was one of the best meals of the summer.

So when our friends Cara and Bryan had to cancel plans for dinner at Cookshop last Saturday (hope you're feeling better, Cara!), we called an audible: rather than scrap a night out, we changed what would have been a fun dinner for four into an intimate dinner for two. Once again, Cookshop impressed us. But if consistency is the hallmark of a great restaurant, Cookshop is not quite there. In contrast to our Summer Sunday, this Winter Saturday meal was rushed, crowded and loud; and the food and service uneven at best.

There were some highlights. For an appetizer, we had razor clams served over fennel and my favorite green cerignola olives, the best dish we had all night. We also once again enjoyed a few dishes from Cookshop's "snacks" menu: fried hominy (pictured), and some sensational anchovy deviled eggs.
For our main courses, Spoon went with grilled whole Atlantic porgy, and I had the Berkshire pork chop, which I also ordered at my previous Cookshop experience and had declared the best pork chop on Earth. For dessert, pineapple upside down cake with butter pecan ice cream and an espresso.

My first Berkshire pork chop at Cookshop was served minimally, on a white plate propped up on a whole link of their own spicy, delicious pork sausage. On Saturday, however, it came on a plate covered in black beans, the chop completely smothered in a pineapple salsa. The sausage link was cut in two, depriving me of that mouthwatering pop one hears when first piercing a sausage casing. Cutting the sausage in two also served to let the juices escape, drying out the sausage noticeably from the juicy, undisturbed link I enjoyed this summer. My biggest question: why! Why take the best pork chop I've ever had, and completely obscure it, top and bottom, both its flavor and its visual appeal, with a rote, overused combination of pineapple and black beans?

Spoon's plate, meanwhile, was striking in contrast to mine. She asked that her whole fish be fileted for her, a common request, and it arrived as two filets all alone on a white plate, the spinach accompanying her fish served in a cup on the side. The fish was not terribly exciting. Minimally spiced and served, it tasted, well, fresh. Unfortunately, it was filled with little bones, virtually invisible in the restaurant's dim light. Yes, a few bones are part of the deal when ordering fish. But it is terribly frustrating to have to spit mouthful after mouthful of your $26 fish into your napkin.

Most disappointing, however, was the service. Our waiter had the faraway look of an aspiring actor just passed over for yet another soap opera. He could not have been more aloof or disinterested. When we needed a minute to decide whether or not we would drink a bottle of wine (the vintages were mostly unknown to us and there were only two under $40), he just walked away and gave us a good 15 minutes before returning to take a drink order. What, no sommelier? What's the fish like, Spoon asked? "Excellent," the Stepford waiter replied. Insightful. We like excellent fish. The worst, thing, perhaps: not one smile, or engaging word or even eye contact.

Don't feel too bad for us, however. The meal was certainly not a chore to get through. The company was of course delightful. And I still have the memory of an amazing Cookshop meal to counter this less than satisfactory Saturday dinner-rush experience. It's also hard not to root for Cookshop's owners, too, Vicki Freeman and her husband (and chef) Marc Meyer, also owners of Five Points. Their commitment to using local farmers and organic ingredients pays off when combined with Meyer's considerable culinary imagination.--F

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Go-To Brownie?

My Aunt Betty is a powerhouse when it comes to baking. She makes delicious, beautiful birthday cakes, gorgeous butter cookies and tasty, gooey cookie bars. Even her non-baked goodies, like her mom's Chinese New Year Cookies and her homemade ice cream, are awesome. So when she sends a brownie recipe my way, I pay attention.

The recipe Aunt Betty sent comes from a bakery in Red Hook, Brooklyn called Baked. Red Hook is an an up-and-coming neighborhood, but with no direct subway service it is a bit of a schlepp, so I'm sorry to say I haven't visited. It does however have a cute web site and, from the numerous media mentions, seems to be Brooklyn's version of the upscale, nostalgic American dessert bakeries (usually famous for their cupcakes) that are now ubiquitous in Manhattan.

The hip new life of the cupcake notwithstanding, I'll take a brownie any day. And Baked's brownies are fantastic. Their name--"Deep, Dark Brownies"--is pretty accurate. The brownies (made in a 9-by-9-inch square baking dish) use Valrhona cocoa powder and Scharffen Berger semisweet chocolate, accented with a touch of instant espresso powder, which Clotilde told me enhances the chocolate flavor.--S

Deep, Dark Brownies

3/4 c all-purpose flour
1 T best-quality cocoa powder, preferably Valrhona
1/4 t salt
1/2 c (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for pan
3/4 t instant espresso powder
5 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
3/4 c granulated sugar
1/4 c light-brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 t pure vanilla extract
3/4 c (4 1/2 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips (optional) [I opted out but Aunt Betty said she used mini chips and they worked well]

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-by-8-inch [or 9x9] square baking pan. Line with parchment paper and butter parchment.
2. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, cocoa powder, and salt; set aside.
3. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine butter and espresso. Place over low heat and stir until butter has melted. Add chocolate, and stir constantly until mixture is smooth, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in both sugars until well combined. [Aunt B says let the heated choco mixture cool before adding the other ingredients]
4. Add eggs and vanilla and continue stirring until well incorporated and mixture no longer appears grainy. Sift flour mixture over batter, and stir until just combined. Stir in chocolate chips, if using.
5. Pour batter into prepared baking pan; smooth top with the back of a wooden spoon or a spatula. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs, 28 to 30 minutes. Be sure not to over bake. Let cool completely on a wire rack. Cut into 9 brownies. [I then halved the squares diagonally into triangles.]

Recipe courtesy of Matt Lewis from Baked

UPDATE: (3/6/07)
A thrilling new twist on the Deep, Dark Brownies revealed itself this weekend when Fork suggested the addition of toffee bits. I stirred 3/4 cup of Heath Bar-brand toffee pieces into the batter just before pouring it into the baking pan. The bits melted into the brownies, making them even more delicious.--S

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Happiness Is

In anticipation of my upcoming interview with Clotilde Dusoulier, the author of Chocolate & Zucchini, I reacquainted myself with the delicacy known as the soft-boiled egg. For breakfast yesterday I boiled one (4 minutes to perfection), dug out one of my too-long-forgotten porcelain egg cups, toasted a slice of whole wheat bread and cut it into finger-sized slices perfect for dipping. Clotilde's recipe calls for coating the toast fingers in an artichoke dip, which sounds tasty, but at 9:00 on a Saturday morning I was sans-artichoke and too hungry for the torture associated with a trip to the Associated Supermarket. So egg and toast it was, and it was glorious.--S

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Trinity, French-Style

My rendition of the classic throw-it-together French meal (soup, salad, quiche) went off without a hitch last night. No, it wasn't the most groundbreaking meal I've ever cooked, but it sure was delicious, and had my friends Darren, Patrick and Kate happy and full.

The soup was Potato-Leek, a recipe that I've been making for a few years that has become one of Fork's favorites. It's easy (made even easier by my new immersion blender, a Christmas stocking-stuffer from Fork). The recipe I use comes from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, or simply "Bittman," as Darren and Patrick like to call it. (As in, 'How to you make soft-boiled eggs?' 'Ask Bittman.' 'What cut of beef do you use for Beef Bourguignon?' 'I don't know; see what Bittman says.')

Second course was a salad of butter lettuce (aka Boston or Bibb) dressed in oil and vinegar, and Quiche Lorraine, from the new Joy of Cooking. Did you know that a classic Quiche Lorraine contains no cheese? Neither did I, but as that's not a rule I care not to abide (in general, I am pro-cheese), I threw in about 3/4 cup shredded Gruyere. My guests apparently approved of my improvisation: everyone took seconds, and left only a small wedge for Fork to eat the next morning.

For dessert, a Marble Pound Cake (again, Bittman). I had never attempted this recipe before, and I was a little nervous about how "marbled" the cake would be, since I had some trouble mixing the two batters of different consistencies. My attempts at "swirling" them seemed more like glomming one around the other. But my oven worked its magic. When I sliced into the cake, the chocolate had run through the middle, nicely surrounded by yellow pound cake. Delicious.

What's better than a simple Friday night supper with friends? Oh, and props to the French for the inspiration.--S