Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Four Star Heatwave

Where do you want to be on a sweltering hot Manhattan afternoon? A dark movie theater? The frozen food aisle of Whole Foods? Today I found myself in the climate-controlled, candlelit, private dining room at Per Se one of the city's best restaurants, indulging in a decadent lunch.

I wound up at Per Se thanks to my friend Kate, who invited me to a luncheon celebrating the forthcoming publication of The Elements of Cooking by food writer and blogger Michael Ruhlman. Ruhlman is apparently pretty good friends with Per Se chef Thomas Keller and helped Keller write The French Laundry Cookbook. So, what better place to commemorate a book that teaches you the most fundamental aspects of good cooking than Keller's magnificent New York dining room?

Ah, yes, lunch. The cocktail hour and hors d'oeuvres were great, but the real fireworks started once we were seated in the dining room. The first course was Cranberry Bean Agnolotti, little ravioli made with a small, round piece of flattened pasta dough. The sauce was a "cassoulet" of summer pole beans, tomatoes and parsley. Then came the main course: Snake River Farm's "Calotte de Boeuf Grilee," which was unbelievably tender and juicy, served with a black winter truffle "pain perdu," a savory twist on French toast that pretty much knocked the dish out of the park.

For dessert, "Tentation au Chocolat, Noisette et Lait," a sort of chocolate/hazelnut streusel with condensed milk sorbet. Finally, the most adorable tiered trays of "mignardises" arrived at the table, brimming with tiny pastries and cookies. Everything I tasted was magnificent.

As delicious as the meal was, Fork was more interested in hearing about Anthony Bourdain, who was seated at my table. Fork is a pretty big fan of Bourdain's. They share a life philosophy of good food, booze, music, writing and a hefty dose of smart-ass. Bourdain was pretty subdued compared to the stories I've heard, but he managed to crack everyone up with his observations about food and culture and his plan to discourage his now four-month-old daughter to stay away from McDonald's: "Ronald McDonald is an evil man who smells funny and eats children."

Oh, yeah, the guest of honor, Michael Ruhlman. He was charming. And, he has written a book that deserves a spot on top of refrigerators across America. His advice on everything from making stock to his explanation of what makes a cookie a cookie are fascinating, entertaining and useful to any home cook. Also check out his 2006 book, The Reach of a Chef, which Fork loved.--S

Monday, June 25, 2007

Do Me a Flavor

I've decided to celebrate summer this year by making a different ice cream every week of the season. That means between now and Labor Day, I'll have made 11 varieties. Although I have owned an ice cream maker--the Cuisinart Pure Indulgence Frozen Yogurt-Ice Cream & Sorbet Maker, ICE-30BC Series--for nearly two years and made about 14 flavors (pictured at right, green tea, from last fall), there are many varieties that I have yet to try. I hope a weekly routine will force me to step up and face some neglected classic flavors as well as some wacky experimental ones. It's going to be a grueling challenge, I know, and I'm going to be counting on your support to help me make it through. Support, in this case, will mean eating a different variety of ice cream every week until September. I know this is a lot to ask, but remember, there's no "I" in the phrase "We all scream for ice cream." Or no capital "I," anyway.

Here are the rules:
1. One frozen dessert every week. Acceptable frozen desserts are ice cream, sorbet, sherbet or granita. I'm leaving frozen yogurt out of this, since I made it once and it was awful.
2. When possible, ingredients are to come from the Union Square Greenmarket.
3. Recipes are to come from a variety of recent cookbooks:
Ice Cream and Frozen Desserts by Peggy Fallon (DK, 2007)
Ice Creams & Sorbets by Lou Seibert Pappas (Chronicle Books, 2007)
A Passion for Ice Cream by Emily Luchetti (Chronicle Books, 2006)
The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz (Ten Speed Press, 2007)
4. No repeats.

The games began yesterday, when I tackled the iconic Mint Chip Ice Cream, from Luchetti. No fake-green wintergreen here; this ice cream is a lovely cream color, looking more like vanilla than anything minty. But the flavor is definitely there: the recipe calls for steeping 3/4 cup mint leaves in warm custard (made from heavy cream, milk and egg yolks) for 15 minutes. I then strained out the leaves, and chilled the mixture overnight. Then, this morning, I churned the ice cream, folded in chopped bittersweet chocolate and froze it. The ice cream is fabulous. Cool and crunchy, not overly minty but surely refreshing. Happy summer.--S

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Best Fishes

"They're like the French fries of the sea," said the potbellied guy with the suntan, stubbly beard and New Yawk accent. He was probably in his 50s, wearing a sports jacket and Dockers, and stood with two other men in nearly identical get-ups. They balanced tiny cocktail plates in their huge hands, rhubarb Bellinis sitting on the buffet table, sweating in the Manhattan humidity.

These Dockers-clad angels turned out to be David Pasternack's fishing buddies, hard-working Long Island natives there to toast their local boy at a party celebrating the fisherman-turned-Manhattan chef's first book, The Young Man and the Sea: Recipes and Crispy Fish Tales from Esca. I piled some of these so-called french fries onto my plate, figuring if these guys say they're good, they're probably right. The french fries they spoke of were actually fried sand eels, crisped up with fresh mint. They were sensational.

The party, not coincidentally, was at Esca, the Mario Batali/Joe Bastianich-run Southern Italian seafood mecca in Midtown where Pasternack has been the chef since its opening in 2000. (pictured:Iron Chef judge Jeffrey Steingarten, Pasternack and Batali at the party). I'd been to Esca only once before, to celebrate my 26th birthday with Fork. We were blown away by the crudo, sort of an Italian take on sashimi. Before I tasted crudo, my only experience with raw fish was with soy sauce and wasabi, or lime and cilantro, a la ceviche. But at Esca, the fish was accompanied by flavors comfortingly familiar to me. Extra virgin olive oil. Lemon. Basil. Rosemary. Garlic. Crunchy sea salt. The restaurant also impressed us with its whole roasted fish and pasta dishes, too. I remember a linguine with rock shrimp that was out of this world.

As my colleagues and I sauntered up to the buffet table yesterday, we were tantalized by the offerings. It all looked splendid. Of course, we weren't sure what everything was. That's where the Pasternack's buddies came in. Like the finest fishing guides, they steered me toward whole roasted striped bass, ivory salmon crudo, Nantucket bay scallops, and razor clam crudo, served in the shell and topped with diced red pepper and julienned mint leaves (pictured). I eyed a baked stuffed clam that was laced with prosciutto, having a flashback to the recipe my Aunt Ann makes every year for our Christmas Eve vigil.

One of the fishermen smiled as I happily scooped a clam onto my plate. "If Dave made it," he laughed, "it's going to be good."--S

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Shout-Out to Clotilde

I just got a finished copy of blogger Clotilde Dusoulier's Chocolate & Zucchini: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen... and am I impressed! I'm used to seeing cheap-looking pre-publication galleys turn into glossy finished books. So when Clotilde and I met back in February, I wasn't surprised that her book at that point looked like most other galleys, its pages dull and photographs grainy. But the transformation of Clotilde's manuscript to book is much snazzier than usual.

Unlike many cookbooks that have a couple of pages of full-color photos inserted into an otherwise colorless book, C&Z has gorgeous full-color photographs throughout its pages. And what's even cooler is that all the photos are taken by Clotilde herself. She mixes images of Paris's culinary offerings--dried sausage hanging in a gourmet shop window, asparagus and tomatoes at a market, Sacre Coeur and the carousel at the base of the butte in Montmartre, where she lives--with photos of the food. Most cookbook photographs are taken in fancy studios, with serving pieces that are chosen strictly for their looks. But the food photos in C&Z show Beef Bourguignon, Soft-Boiled Egg with Artichoke Bread Fingers, and Lavender Apricot Compote on Clotilde's own dishes. This is the real deal, and it's just beautiful. Looking at the up-close images, you can see how fluffy the Fava Bean and Mint Frittata is; how intense the Chocolate Caramel Tart is. And if the glam shots aren't enough to get you into the kitchen, Clotilde's charming recipe introductions and stories should be. She begins each recipe with an explanation of where it came from, what it is, and how you can tweak it. And the recipes themselves are a refreshing blend of old-school French and international chic.

Congratulations, Clotilde!--S

Monday, June 04, 2007

Great Northern BBQ

Fette Sau
354 Metropolitan Ave.
at Havemyer St.
(L train to Bedford or Lorimer)


OK, I’m going to attempt to do something few publications can do: write about a place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn without using the word hipster. Here goes: Hipsters who aren’t cool enough to be vegans will love... wait... ah, crap! OK, for real, here we go: From Kim and Joe Carroll, the lovely people who brought you Spuyten Duyvil, Williamsburg’s Belgian beer heaven, comes the next big thing for a neighborhood already annointed the next big thing. Fette Sau (translation: Fat Pig), a rib-sticking barnyard bbq fiesta, replete with communal picnic table seating, 55 bourbons and a slate of delicious, ice-cold local tap beers.

I visited with my bandmates last week and we did it up right: gallon jugs of Brooklyn Lager off the tap, tumblers of Blanton’s bourbon, neat, of course and a chef-picked meal for four that included pulled pork, two racks of ribs, beef brisket, flank steak, and a tray of sides including a paper cup of delicious, tangy baked beans; cold potato salad; a massive pickle; spicy red-pepper flecked broccoli; and sauerkraut. The verdict? Pretty damn good, though still a rung below the city’s more established BBQ emporiums.

I give high marks to the pitmaster. The highlight of the meal was the pulled pork, juicy and flavorful. The ribs were also excellent, blackened with a tasty dry rub. The brisket was a bit dry, but delicious. Those of you who prefer a lean brisket versus a brisket marbled with fat will love this one. Besides, the BBQ sauces, served on the side, can alleviate any, uh, dry meat issues. The sides were utterly forgettable, though forgivable.

I have to imagine it takes time to properly work in a massive gas-and-wood-fired smoker, so it’s understandable if Fette Sau, which has only been open since March, isn’t quite firing on all cylinders just yet. It can also be confusing to order for first-timers. There is no table service, you order by the pound right from the counter, which is really just fine, and authentic to some of the best BBQs I’ve been to. But, unless you know how many ribs are in a pound, you’re better off asking the chefs to help you out. They will, and will do a fine job.

There are ways to do Fette Sau without breaking the bank, but be prepared to spend, especially if you wish to drink. We spent $200 on dinner for four with beers and bourbon, and that's without table service. Somehow, Jack Daniels becomes a $7 glass of bourbon (2 oz.) when featured next to its more aristocratic counterparts on the whisky menu. That’s just wrong.

But Fette Sau gets it mostly right. So many other BBQ restaurants trip all over themselves trying to be authentic “Southern” BBQ, a mistake Fette Sau avoids, preferring instead to embrace its Brooklyn environs and to prove that, yeah, we Yankees can light a good fire, too.--F