Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Katz Out of the Bag

The blogosphere was buzzing this week about the New York Times' Frank Bruni's planned review of Lower East Side landmark Katz's Delicatessen. The always entertaining was betting on zero stars. The question for Spoon and me, however, was why review Katz's, and more to the point, why now? The answer: because Katz's may not be there much longer.

I have a long, fatty and delicious history with Katz's. It is the reigning champ of classic New York Jewish delis. But as someone once forced out of my own Lower East Side existence by skyrocketing rents, I know firsthand how rapidly the neighborhood is changing. Now that the massive, 20-plus-story luxury tower across from Katz's on Ludlow and Houston Streets has taken form, can the old school, one-floor deli survive in its shadow?

The immutable natural laws of New York real estate say no, and Bruni takes the issue of Katz's future head-on in his review. Not surprisingly, the owners seem to be fishing for a buyer. "Now that real estate on the Lower East Side is so much more valuable, could Katz’s move again, or find itself subsumed by a condominium tower, or be threatened or altered in another way?" Bruni asks. Yes, answers co-owner Fred Austin. "Offer me an amount I can’t walk away from,” Austin said.

Bruni, meanwhile, was generous with his praise of Katz's, stacking compliments on the deli like its carvers stack meat, calling its famous pastrami sandwich "one of the best in the land... an eye-popping stack of brined beef that’s juicy, smoky, rapturous." Bruni even gloried in finer points of the deli's avant-shithole decor and luddite rituals: "the taking of a ticket at the door; the lining-up in front of one of the servers who carves that beef by hand; the tasting of the thick, ridged slices the server gives us as the sandwich is being built; the nodding when we’re asked if we want pickles, because of course we want pickles."

The verdict? A star! If you're keeping score at home, that's one more star than Jeffrey Chodorow's Kobe Club. As for the future of Katz's, I have it on good authority that the lucrative offer Austin would need to close down the deli may not be imminent.

Let's just call this good ol' New York deli-style gossip, for now. In April I found myself in conversation with a former business owner just down the block from Katz's on the same side of Ludlow Street. This owner told me how he did get that offer he couldn't walk away from, from a developer who planned to put in a high-rise, said to be at least 10 stories. When work began, however, the developer discovered that a subway tunnel happened to run a bit too close, limiting how deep the foundation could be dug. Foundation depth dictates how high a buidling can rise. So, in a turn of events a forced-out Lower East Sider can truly appreciate, after paying a hefty sum for the property the developer found his plans for a high-rise on Ludlow cut down to size.

This is not to say that Katz's also sits too close to that tunnel. But then again, it probably does. And that could very well mean that the kind of fatty offer one might get for property that could support a massive luxury tower, such as the one going up across Ludlow Street, may not be hitting Katz's carving board after all.--F

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Spring Is Busting Out All Over

It started with a lime sorbet I made a few weeks ago, and then continued with Fork's and my consumption of fresh rhubarb and strawberries from the market. Then I went on an asparagus bender, and following that, made more ice cream--orange, this time. And then I brewed some peach iced tea. I have hit my spring stride, people, and let me tell you, it's maaahvelous.

So this Memorial Day weekend, I was all pumped to fire up a grill and cook something over an open flame. Figuring I have the next three months to pig out on burgers and dogs, I thought, why not kick off the season with some grilled bivalves? My mom was in the mood for scallops, so we pulled out Micol Negrin's excellent book The Italian Grill, and ran with a recipe for Grilled Scallops with Tri-Color Pepper Medley. First we sliced red, orange and yellow peppers, and sauteed them with garlic and lime zest, sprinkling them with chopped basil once they were tender. Then we dipped bay scallops in olive oil, coated them in salt and pepper, and grilled them--on the Vebbah, of course--for about five minutes. And then we laid them over the peppers on a plate, and topped the whole thing with lime juice and chopped mint. On the side: white bean-tomato salad, arugula salad and potato salad. What a splendid alfresco meal.

Tonight I scored with a springtime veggie from the Greenmarket: Japanese turnips. I wanted to make something from a new cookbook I'm already loving, The Flexitarian Table, and the Butter-Braised Radishes with Their Greens seemed seasonally appropriate. The farmer told me I could substitute turnips for the radishes, and I think I should go back to the market on Friday to thank her. These turnips were great: surprisingly sweet and mild. They were a delicious accompaniment to Crispy Pressed Chicken with Garlic and Mint, which is similar to a dish my mom makes called Chicken Under a Brick. Both entail pressing the chicken with something heavy to speed up the cooking time and force out the fat, which results in crispy skin.

Wonder how hot dogs under a brick would be...--S

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Rhubarb and Me

I may have grown up eating Jersey tomatoes and my grandfather's homegrown hot peppers, but one piece of produce my childhood in the Garden State deprived me of was rhubarb. I think I'd heard of it, but I put it in the same category as rutabega and collard greens--Vegetables I've Heard Of But Know Nothing About. Fork was the first person I met who actually knew what to do with rhubarb. Turns out the stuff used to grow wild in his upstate New York 'hood. His grandfather used to plant it, too, and his grandmother would make a rhubarb sauce to go over ice cream, and rhubarb pie. His mom makes strawberry rhubarb ice cream.

Six years later, I'm proud to say rhubarb and I are pals. I've made rhubarb pies, rhubarb crumbles, rhubarb muffins and rhubarb sauce. I've learned a little bit about the vegetable--yes, it is a veggie, though in his excellent On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee says it "often masquerades as a fruit." Rhubarb appears in early spring and lasts through mid-summer. Its leaves are toxic, but its celery-like stalks are edible, and quite tasty--once you cook them. Raw rhubarb is extremely tart; however, it mellows somewhat when you bake or cook it (it's often paired with strawberry in pies to create a lovely sweet-tart effect).

I picked up some of the season's first rhubarb crop today at the Greenmarket, along with a pint of tart little strawberries. We've been eating the strawberries out of the carton, they're so tasty. The rhubarb, meanwhile, has made its way into rhubarb muffins. They're delicious. The cinnamon sugar on their tops is a lovely contrast to the tart muffin below. And with ice cream season practically upon us, I'm sure I'll be attempting the rhubarb version soon.--S

Cinnamon Rhubarb Muffins
12 muffins

Muffins ingredients:
1/2 c packed brown sugar
1/4 c butter, softened
1 c sour cream
2 eggs
1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
3/4 t baking soda
1/2 t ground cinnamon
1 1/2 c sliced 1/4-inch fresh rhubarb

Topping ingredients:
1 T sugar
1/2 t ground cinnamon

1. Heat oven to 375°F. Combine brown sugar and butter in large bowl. Beat at medium speed until mixture is creamy. Add sour cream and eggs; continue beating until well mixed.
2. Stir together flour, baking soda and 1/2 t cinnamon in medium bowl. Stir flour mixture into sour cream mixture just until moistened. Gently stir in rhubarb. Spoon into greased or paper-lined 12-cup muffin pan.
3. Stir together 1 T sugar and 1/2 t cinnamon in small bowl. Sprinkle about 1/4 teaspoon mixture on top of each muffin.
4. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until lightly browned. Let stand 5 minutes; remove from pans.

Recipe courtesy of Land O'Lakes

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Going Bananas in Martinique

Take the decadence of classic French cooking--rich sauces, wine reductions, a liberal use of butter--and combine it with a tropical flair--exotic fruits, fresh fish--and you've got an idea of the kind of food I've been eating for the past week in Martinique. Pretty fantastique.

Martinique, is a "department" of France, one of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles, situated between Dominica and St. Lucia. It geographically resembles the US and British Virgin Islands in that it's mountainous (a volcano actually erupted there in 1902) and lush, especially on its Caribbean (versus Atlantic) side. But unlike other islands I've visited, Martinique has loads of fruit trees growing wild--mango, papaya, lime, breadfruit--and is covered with banana plantations and sugar cane fields. The pervasiveness of these tasty crops, coupled with the French and Creole culture, means you eat well--very well--in Martinique.

Breakfast is croissants and pain au chocolat with guava jelly and sliced pineapple and mango on the side; café au lait and papaya juice to wash it down. Lunch and dinner are seafood spectaculars. I ate lobster, prawns, conch, cod, crayfish, red snapper and mahi-mahi, all from the waters around the island. The restaurant at the beautiful hotel Cap Est served a blowout four-course lunch, including snapper carpaccio, seafood mousse beefed up with aged rum, and rum granita (see photo; note the planteur in the background). Le Brédas, a restaurant in the town of St.-Joseph, with Martinique's big-deal chef du jour, Jean-Charles Brédas, made an amazing banana/foie gras mille-fueille. And the humble Chez Tante Arlette, in the adorable fishing village of Grande Riviere, wowed me with grilled lobster and prawns. No matter where you are in Martinique, there's a good chance your meal will start with accras, which are codfish fritters, light and extremely tasty. Desserts often combine fruit and rum; my favorite was the banana flambée with aged rum at Cap Est.

Speaking of rum, it's a huge part of Martinique's culture, society and economy. Unlike most rum, which is made from molasses, Martinique’s rhum agricole is made exclusively from fresh sugarcane juice. I visited three rum distilleries (Clément, Neisson and Saint-James), and even though I'm not much of a rum drinker, they were worth seeing, as living connections to the history of the West Indies from their earliest colonization by Europeans. No pina coladas or daquiris here; Martinique serves its rum either as ti-punch (short for "petit"), an extremely potent concoction of white rum, sugarcane syrup and lime juice; or as planteur, which I much prefer, a refreshing mix of rum, fruit juice, sugarcane syrup and spices. As it's part of France, of course, Martinique also has great wines.

All this, AND gorgeous beaches, cool zouk music and fabulous hotels. Vas-y!--S

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

No Accounting for Taste

In what’s being touted as a victory for free speech, Chez Josephine restaurateur Jean-Claude Baker prevailed in a lawsuit over the U.S. Postal Service, which refused to mail annual postcards to patrons because the image was too racy.

Chez Josephine, on 42nd street in Manhattan, is a Hell's Kitchen staple, named after Josephine Baker, chanteuse and Folies Bergère star, who took in Baker “when he was a boy living alone in Paris after World War II.” In memoriam, every year Baker sends out a postcard to patrons featuring an image of Josephine. But this year Baker’s image choice (pictured) was rejected by the Post Office as “pornographic advertising.” Clearly the U.S. Post Office is unfamiliar with pornography.

I ask you, was it worth thousands in taxpayer money to fight mailing this postcard to a patrons of a French restaurant? You can factor the cost of bullshit legal fights like this into this week's $.02 postage increase. I guess it's true there’s no accounting for taste, or when it comes to government, no taste.

Anyway, I'm in a sort of downbeat, Frenchified mood today because Spoon is away in Martinique sans moi. I just may have to hit Chez Josephine tonight for the lobster cassoulet to cheer up and to thank them for, you know, fighting City Hall.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Keith McNally, Defender of Women?

You have to love the New York restaurant world. Where else could a superstar restauranteur like Keith McNally, who once said he'd like to use actress Maria Bello as dinnerware for his last meal, use the occasion of a one-star review from Frank Bruni for his latest venture, Morandi, to morph into a defender of women? In a bizarre "response" to Bruni's review, McNally dropped off a letter to accusing the critic of sexism. His proof? Bruni has never given more than one star to a female chef. Morandi's chef, Jody Williams, is a woman, so...

McNally writes:

One can only wonder whether Bruni would still have his job at The Times if he himself was a woman. Based on the unremittingly sexist slant of his reviews one has to say no. The surprise is that The New York Times continues to condone it. But until it refuses to, its message, through Frank Bruni, is loud and clear: If you're a woman and talented, the one place you'd better get out of, and fast, is the kitchen.

Oh, Keith. We rather expected this kind of drivel from theme-park restauranteurs like Jeffrey Chodorow. But not you, especially when Bruni's review was consistent with every other review we've read , if not kinder. We also can't figure out what he means when he questions whether Bruni would still have his job if he was a woman. You mean, like his predecessor, Ruth Reichl?

If McNally was truly seeking to defend women in the kitchen, he'd take up the issue in the restaurant industry, where bias is far more real and prevalent than the bias he conveniently reads into Frank Bruni's reviews. Bruni's predecessor, Ruth Reichl, has written and talked on this sexism extensively. In reality, and Reichl would surely agree, New York's three and four star restaurants are usually from culinary traditions that harbor deep sexism in the kitchen, notably French and Japanese. It seems to me that while railing against sexism in reviews, and worse, on the occasion of receiving a disappointing review, without addressing it the kitchen is balatanly disinegnuous. This feels like a low blow if not outright defamation. And, it makes me think that McNally is, well, kind of an asshole.

Spoon did a delightful interview with McNally not too long ago, and really enjoyed talking with him. We both enjoy his restaurants and love his cookbook. I can't help but remember, however, that when Spoon showed up at Balthazar "for the interview" at the appointed time, they instinctively gave her an application and sent her off to wait in line with the other waitress applicants.


Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Anchovies

I pride myself on eating almost anything; there are few things I won't touch, and they include commonly disliked foods like organ meats and brains. But one food block I can't seem to get past is anchovies. Whenever I order a Greek or Caesar salad in a restaurant, I ask the chef to hold off, and I never cook with them. To me they've always tasted a little too fishy. And they're hairy, too. Yuck.

But my pride got the better of me this week, when, thanks to Mark Bittman's NYT video on the pleasures of anchovies, I decided to bite the bullet. Bittman did make me feel better about my phobia:

"There are places in the world where anchovies are revered, the Mediterranean chief among them. The little fish, usually salted and preserved in oil, is enormously popular on every continent except our own. There are two reasons so many Americans aren’t wild about anchovies. One is that we typically buy those of inferior quality. The other is that anchovies are strong flavored and undeniably fishy. Those of us who can’t get enough of them see these characteristics as assets. You probably will, too, if you buy the right anchovies and cook them in this familiar pasta sauce whose other main ingredients are garlic, chilies and tomatoes."

And I noted that Marcella Hazan, in The Classic Italian Cookbook, writes, "there is no good kitchen in Italy that gets along entirely without anchovies." That was enough to put me over the edge. I needed to do this.

A recipe for Pasta with Garlic, Anchovies and Tomatoes accompanied Bittman's video, and I made it last night. I'll admit I went a bit heavy on the garlic and tomatoes, and used two anchovies instead of 20 (I was making a half recipe! I realize that should've meant 10 anchovies, but baby steps, okay?). Everything about the recipe was right up my alley: the entire thing took less than 20 minutes, and entailed cooking the garlic and a dried chili pepper in olive oil; adding the suspicious and slightly--ahem--hairy anchovies; then adding halved grape tomatoes--all while the penne was cooking in a pot of boiling water. The anchovies kind of melt in the hot oil, and when the pasta's cooked, you add the sauce and top with chopped parsely.

The verdict? I didn't have seconds, but I wiped my plate clean. The pasta had a deeper flavor than it would've sans anchovies, a sort of rich saltiness that kosher salt could never add. It was pretty good. And now I have a jar of anchovies in my fridge. While I may not be ready to throw them on top of a salad, I'll definitely use them in cooking again.--S

Pasta with Garlic, Anchovies and Tomatoes

1/4 c extra virgin olive oil
10 garlic cloves, peeled
2 or 3 dried chilies, optional
20 anchovy fillets, more or less
2 c halved cherry tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound cut pasta, like penne
Chopped fresh parsley leaves for garnish

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Put olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat; a minute later, add garlic and chilies, if using. Cook garlic so it bubbles gently. When it is lightly browned all over, add anchovies. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about a minute, until anchovies begin to fall apart, then add tomatoes. Adjust heat so tomatoes bubble nicely, and cook until mixture becomes saucy, about 5 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper as necessary.

2. Meanwhile, cook pasta until tender but not mushy. When it is done, drain it, reserving a little cooking water to thin sauce if necessary. Serve pasta with sauce and parsley.

Yield: 3 to 6 servings.
Recipe courtesy of Mark Bittman

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Do You Smell a Rat?

Restaurant closures have more than tripled in the weeks after local news showed rats running wild inside a KFC/Taco Bell. According to figures in various news reports at least 250-300 restaurants have been shuttered in the two months following the rat report. Want to guess who’s ultimately picking up the tab for those closures?

“It easily has cost restaurants several million dollars,” Chuck Hunt of the New York Restaurant Association, told reporters. You can add to that lost wages for hourly workers, food spoilage and lost tax revenues for the city. The Department of Health issued a report last month on the KFC/Taco Bell incident, but its recommendations only heightened my suspicion that the agency, like most political animals, has no real agenda other than to shield itself from criticism.

In practice, the city's health inspectors have obviously been given a directive, either implicitly or explicitly, to send a message by closing more restaurants. That message seems to be: you make us look bad, watch out. But ultimately it makes no sense to respond to a problem that was admittedly enabled by bureaucratic incompetence with an even greater display of bureaucratic incompetence. Look at this way: the public witnessed a restaurant it knew to be filthy stay open until it was literally overrun with rats. That screamed incompetence. Now, we're watching our favorite restaurants, which we believe to be clean, aggressively being closed. Does that not also scream incompetence, if not something more nefarious?

The end result of this food cop reign of terror is nothing more than an unfair "tax" on kitchen laborers, less money in the city’s coffers, hits to their reputations that many restaurants may not recover from--and less confidence among citizens that the Health Department knows what it is doing. The real issue here is not dirty kitchens but dirty government. The proper response from the Health Department to the KFC/Taco Bell incident would have been to concentrate on cleaning up its own filthy house and restoring public confidence. Instead, they're feeding us shit.--F