Sunday, December 30, 2007

Les Deux Gamins

I was recently out with a couple of culinary gamins, wandering Greenwich Village looking for a good meal. It was Leanboy 2000's birthday, and we were out à trois with his sister, LeanGirl. At first we attempted to enter the longstanding Spanish joint Sevilla, that old stodgy stalwart, that paella purveyor. But the place was mobbed. We wandered down the street and came upon another Village fixture, the French bistro Les Deux Gamins. The decor is all quintessential bistro, with smoky mirrors, dim lighting, bentwood chairs and leather-lined booths. It was empty and the sagebrush was blowin', so rather than perform the extended, tortured ritual of looking for a "better" place, we grabbed a booth.

LeanGirl, a powerful and ruthless lawyer, insisted that she "just ate," and "wasn't hungry," yet proceeded to order numerous items from the menu, muttering something like "money is no object."First to arrive was the charcuterie plate, a classic French spread that includes paté de campagne, duck liver mousse and cured ham. In addition to the cornichons (de rigeur, mais oui), the pistachio-raisin bread was a nice touch.LeanGirl was also very keen on the roasted beet salad with mozzarella and frisée lettuce. The large wheels of beet were unusual and visually appealing.Little baguettes stuffed with roasted peppers and merguez (spicy lamb sausage) always bring me back to my days living in Paris. At that time, merguez frites was just about the cheapest sustenance available. Definitely beats Lo Mein, which is probably the New York equivalent.And what would a night at a French bistro be without a plate of ultra-garlicky escargots? Served without shells in a purpose-made plate, they were awfully fun to eat (although I'm one of those wimps who needs to constantly resist thoughts of "snail trail").
The mushrooms vol-au-vent were also a treat, slow-cooked with wine, topped with a dollop of goat cheese and nestled in light and crispy pastry.
The quality of the appetizers was consistently "not bad," and the main courses were no different, although the tuna was probably the most successful dish over all. The fish was cooked to pinpoint perfection and served with fluffy mashed potatoes, but the spinach side nearly stole the show. It was formed neatly with a ramekin and had a delightful mousse-like texture.The menu special, a generous portion of baby rack of lamb, arrived attractively plated and was juicy and tender. It was encrusted with ground coffee and cacao beans, lending a curious bitter note and a slight crunchiness to the sweet and slippery fat lining the meat.
The dessert, a chocolate mousse topped with what tasted like Cool Whip, was disappointingly workmanlike. And as you can see, through no fault of the photographer, the mousse was served slightly out of focus.

The only aspect of the meal that wasn't at least decent was the wine. We had ordered a bottle of white that turned out to be mediocre. When we polished that off, we tried to upgrade to a better red. The waiter was kind enough to bring us samples of two reds, but after Leanboy and I argued with LeanGirl over which was better, we could only agree on the fact that they were both pretty nasty. Then we tasted two more reds: even worse.

Finally, LeanGirl called the waiter over and, after repeating her "money is no object" trope, asked simply and sincerely, "Do you have any wine that's, um... good?"

"We get that question a lot," the waiter replied.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


I came across an interview Terry Gross did with Maurice Sendak, author of many classic children's books including Where the Wild Things Are. It says a lot about that powerful, primal, intimate and soulful act we call eating.

Terry Gross: Can you share some of your favorite comments from readers that you've gotten over the years?

Maurice Sendak: Oh, there's so many. Can I give you just one that I really like? It was from a little boy. He sent me a charming card with a little drawing. I loved it. I answer all my children's letters -- sometimes very hastily -- but this one I lingered over. I sent him a postcard and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, "Dear Jim, I loved your card." Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, "Jim loved your card so much he ate it." That to me was one of the highest compliments I've ever received. He didn't care that it was an original drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A Goyishe Christmas

Tonight was the 40th anniversary of the Waldman family Christmas Eve party. The fact that I have been attending for the last 17 years should sound like a lot, but compared to 40, it doesn't seem very long.

Growing up Jewish, I never much regretted not having a Christmas tree or not hanging stockings or any of those trappings. But missing out on singing carols, that's another story. "Good King Wenceslas," "The Holly and the Ivy," "The Little Drummer Boy," and the list goes on. Christmas music is some of the most beautiful I know and I always felt sorry to be excluded from that.

Until 1991, that is, when I first attended the party at Bob and Judy Waldman's house on the Upper West Side. It's like a clandestine gathering where New York Jews can indulge in the somehow guilty pleasure of Christmas carols and songs. No need to stay home and be silent! Sheet music is passed around and everyone sings (preferably in four-part harmony).

Bob, an accomplished composer of Broadway musicals such as "The Robber Bridegroom," leads the chorus from the piano, although in recent years, I have been lending a hand (or two). His son Price, a Broadway actor and a friend of mine for the last 23 years, lends his resonant bass-baritone voice, which one would normally need to pay $100 per person to hear.

And what would a Jewish Christmas party be without plenty of Jewish food? Fortunately, Judy and Stanley Zabar, of Zabar's gourmet emporium fame, happen to live in the building and bring the smoked salmon. It is beautifully plated in the shape of a fish.
There is also white fish salad, artfully covered in cucumber slices, also in the shape of a fish and presented between the head and tail of an actual fish.
There's the egg salad topped with caviar in the shape of -- just for variety -- a Christmas tree.

After singing through the entire songbook, everyone repairs to the library for a cup of hot soup. It's always the same recipe: a cream based broth with comforting chunks of potato and green pepper. And dessert: Gevalt! Besides a sinful assortment of lemon squares, and pecan cookies that taste like butter making love to sugar, there is the famous (infamous) chocolate yule log.

As Price puts it, it's like a giant Drake's Devil Dog, except with luscious whipped cream swirled inside instead of "creme filling."

And to make sure the tradition goes on for another 40 years and more, Price's son Jasper has begun to play the piano. Here he is looking like the 89th key at the bottom of the keyboard.

So let the yuletide ring and let the Jews of Upper-West-Side-istan gather. Music is for all the world to enjoy, and enjoy it we shall. Secretly. With just a touch of Jewish guilt.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


The other night I went on a double date with my old college buddy, who is now a movie director out in Hollywood. He had met a beautiful blond Swede named "Barbie" last time he was in town and wanted to see her again. Can't blame him. This time Barbie was traveling with her compatriot, Sabina, hence the double date. When my friend comes to town, he generally takes me to the toughest "doors" in town. In other words, we go to places famous for turning people away -- one of the perks of being a Hollywood director, I guess.

The four of us eventually ended up at Bungalow 8, a trendy club in the Meatpacking District with a heli-pad on the roof for celebrity drop-ins and a very large bouncer out front. In a recent interview with the New York Times, my friend described Bungalow as "like my living room." The club has a neon sign out front declaring NO VACANCY. Kind of says it all, doesn't it? I guess GO AWAY, YOU PIECE OF BRIDGE-AND-TUNNEL TRASH didn't fit in their window.Before we hit Bungalow, we stopped in at the Rose Bar in the chic, redeveloped Gramercy Park Hotel. Our Swedish friends seemed to know half the people in the place. Obviously, this is their regular scene.

But before any of that craziness, we began the night at 10 pm in a new Cuban restaurant/bar called Socialista. According to the Zagat guide, Socialista is "the latest challenger for the 'it' restaurant crown," and there is a "secret reservations phone number." Since it's so hard to get into, I was eager to find out if the food was worth all that fuss.

Two Americans and two Swedes eating Cuban food had the makings of an interesting experience, if we could hear ourselves think over the din of the rambunctious "in" crowd. Sabina requested the warm autumn vegetable salad, and it turned out to be a good choice. The hen-of-the-woods mushrooms arrived marinated and moist, accompanied by roasted beets and cauliflower, with tomatillo salsa and crispy nettles. The salad was plated on a bed of creamy dressing and topped with sage leaves and minced chives.

Next we had grilled squid stuffed with chopped seafood, presented with picturesque grill marks, served over a savory coconut milk broth. A nice touch was the addition of what appeared to be cape gooseberries.My favorite dish of the night was the duck breast, cooked just right and accompanied by rich and comforting butter-cooked cabbage. On the side was what I took to be a dollop of duck fois gras on toast -- a nice perk, considering it did not appear on the menu.

Barbie's choice was the not-particularly-Cuban New York strip steak with carrots and parsley and an herbed marrow emulsion. It was perfectly medium rare, although I wondered what happened to the potato croquettes listed on the menu. As you can see, the steak is served sans croquettes. That's okay; neither Barbie nor Sabina actually took a bite anyway. They were too busy with the wine, and with being glamorous and giddy.

By the time we were finished with the Rose Bar and then Bungalow 8, it was 4 in the morning, and the bouncer was kicking everyone out of the joint. But the girls were just getting started. There were a couple of private parties they wanted to check out. Oy! I'm getting too old for this!

I took this photo in Socialista at the beginning of the night, before they really let down their hair.

Free Rice

'Tis the season for giving, so this is a good time to give food to the needy. In the vocabulary game known as "free rice," rice is donated to the Third World for each correct match of word and definition. The game is free on the internet and the rice is paid for by the banner ad. I can't stop playing this. It's got me hooked.

My foodie co-conspirator Leanboy 2000 E-mailed me the link one day and within hours I was hearing about it on the radio, on TV -- seemingly everywhere -- proving once again that Leanboy is one step behind the zeitgeist and two steps ahead of me!

He predicted I would be good at this multiple choice game, and he was right.

Arbalest means:
1 fluid
2 province
3 crossbow
4 low body temperature

Yes, indeed, it is a crossbow! As usual, the more useless the knowledge, the more sure my grasp of it.

Piccalilli means:
1 friendliness
2 lyric poem
3 relish
4 moral philosophy

You guessed it: relish. Equally useless. Had I never lived in England, I would never have known.

I know what you're thinking: this has nothing to do with food and doesn't belong on a food blog. That's what Colonel Mustard said about my grammarian rant on the commonly used non-word "restauranteur"! Well, a restaurant is certainly food-related, and now we've all learned about piccalilli, haven't we?

Play the game yourself and you'll also learn about lekvar, eructation and other food-related topics. I really can't stop playing this game. Thanks, Leanboy, for ruining my life!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Market Table

Just like the old Shopsin's restaurant was part corner store, part diner, the new restaurant debuting at the same location is part high-end deli and part sit-down New American comfort-food emporium. Hence the name Market Table: part market, part table. In the photo below the dining area is in the foreground and the store shelves are in the distance beyond the door. Located at the corner of Carmine and Bedford Streets, the dining room features butcher block tables and tasteful lighting. There is definitely a rustic country house feel, but as one reviewer said, they don't hit you over the head with a rolling pin about it.

My adventurous dining partner Jamie and I managed to snag a reservation for last Friday night, but we had to resort to the 5:30 time slot. So the part market/part table became part lunch/part supper. Lupper.

We began with a winning medium-bodied white wine from the Cinque Terre region of Liguria, Italy. Jamie ordered the crispy calamari, which were moist and not at all rubbery. But there were surprises to be had! Tucked away in the pile were a few pieces of intense white anchovy. Eek! Fish bomb! And if you look very closely at the photo, you will notice that at the top of the pile are a few thin cross-section slices of lemon, breaded and fried. Now, that was a delightful surprise!I ordered the gnocchi with short ribs, escarole and parmesan, because short ribs are my weakness. Oh God, don't get me started. And these ribs didn't disappoint, although the gnocchi were a tad gummy.
Next Jamie went for the Maryland crab cake, singular in this case, and a lovely, rich specimen at that, presented atop a bed of savoy slaw and twinned with perfectly browned hand-cut fries. Talk about comfort food!
I couldn't resist the grilled Arctic char, a lean red fish akin to wild salmon. The last time I ate Arctic char was actually in the Arctic, but this was even better. The fish was perfectly cooked to buttery, melty medium-rare perfection. But the skin was the real surprise here. Although I usually eschew fish skin, this time I decided to chew it! The skin was crispy and light and provided the perfect contrast to the tender flesh. The blackening lent it a bitter undertone, but a few plump and sweet golden raisins resolved this nicely.
As good as the char was, the supporting character in this dish almost stole the show. Nestled beneath the fillet was a generous warm dollop of mushroom-radicchio risotto. A number of different types of mushrooms added interest, and the cream of the risotto was balanced nicely by the acid notes of balsamic vinegar drizzled around the perimeter.

Well, no meal is complete without a fine dessert, so Jamie ordered the pistachio muffin with a schmear of mascarpone cheese and an accompaniment of roasted pear. It's a playful touch to see a muffin on a menu like this. Nothing thrilling, but the pears were nice.
Did someone say "thrilling"? In moments like these, it's hard to beat chocolate. That's why I ordered the devil's food cake with chocolate-sour cream frosting and chocolate gelato. Oddly, the cake was a bit dry and almost tough, but all was forgiven (in fact, forgotten) upon tasting the gelato. I mean, I didn't just forget about the cake, or even the preceding meal; I forgot my name and address. This gelato was sick. My eyes rolled back in my head, and just as Jamie was about to dial 911, I managed to utter the phrase, "Try the gelato." She did so, and was "stirred."After a little research, I discovered that the gelato comes from an outside source, namely Il Laboratorio del Gelato of the Lower East Side. I sense a field trip coming on (and subsequent blog, of course). This photo is really quite telling because, as Jamie observed, "It looks like the cake is licking the ice cream (and who could blame the cake?)." Who, indeed.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Scream

Respect the chili. Always, always respect the chili. The habanero pepper is one of the hottest peppers in existence. (India's Naga Jolokia -- also called "Ghost Pepper" -- is tops, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.) How do they know? Because the substance that makes foods hot has been identified as capsaicin (8 - methyl - N - vanillyl - 6 - nonenamide), which is measured in something called Scoville Units. The habanero pepper, also known as the Scotch Bonnet, contains up to half a million Scoville Units. A jalapeño pepper, by contrast, has less than ten thousand. Pure capsaicin has 16 million. Don't mess with that stuff. Respect the chili.

I should know. I was once attacked with pepper spray in the Paris metro as I tried to be a hero by chasing after a thief who stole my friend's wallet. Big mistake. The thief turned the tables and got me good. I ran like a ninny into the Parisian streets and tried to wash my eyes out in a bistro bathroom. Oddly, it didn't hurt that much until I used the water on my eyes. That made me scream uncontrollably, which is considered in French culture to be a faux pas. So after being chased away by the bistro proprietor, my friends and I schlepped home on foot because we had missed the last metro. For several days, as the capsaicin worked its way painfully through my body, I took some consolation in the gaudy beauty of Paris.

I recently came across an unforgettable video of a kid who did not respect the chili. He tries to eat a habanero and is smacked down like the fool he is. He's quite nonchalant at first, munching away smugly, until the white light of pain suddenly strikes. His pathetic shrieks are haunting and ridiculous.

Remember: respect. Always, always, respect the chili. I bet this kid does now.

Only In Paradise

Only in paradise does chocolate grow on trees. This past summer, I was in Bali, Indonesia, wandering around with my friend Weja on a patch of unused land behind his house. This land had been inherited by Weja's family through more generations than anyone can remember. The property juts out to form a precipice then plunges down into a breathtaking ravine.
Just a few scruffy trees grow on the land, including a semi-wild cacao tree. Most of the cacao pods were already past ripe when we came upon it, and had been hollowed out by birds and weevils. But one pristine fruit remained. Weja twisted it off its stem and offered it to me because he knew of my passion for all things chocolate (on which he blames all my dental problems, by the way).Chocolate as we know it comes from the bitter purple-black seeds inside the pod, but that day I enjoyed a rare treat: the sweet-tart ivory flesh of the fruit. The texture is creamy and slippery, and has to be sucked away from the seeds.
I also brought home some cacao seeds, or cocoa beans, grown in the misty hills of Bali. Traditionally, the fruit pods are split and the seeds fermented under shiny banana leaves, then sun-dried. As much as I would love to make my own home-made chocolate bar with these seeds, it is actually extremely difficult to do. To try it yourself, check out this site. Personally, I enjoy cacao raw, chopped and sprinkled over my morning cereal. Raw cacao can now be purchased in lots of health food stores and online. Unadulterated chocolate may be an acquired taste, and it won't replace a good bar of chocolate, but it has a unique flavor and it's supposedly great for you. To buy raw cacao and to learn more about about its healthful properties, click here.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


Die-hard Fooditude fans may have been wondering where I have disappeared to lately and why my postings have been few and far between. Well, I can tell you that I have not been in the studio putting the finishing touches on my new rap CD.

However, if I had been doing that, I would call the CD "Unkillable," because, at least for now, that's what I appear to be. The fact is I have been convalescing after spending the better part of last week in the hospital. The cause of the illness is still a mystery. I personally favor a theory involving a radioactive spider, although my skeptical doctors insist such things are rare. But one thing that is very common, and pretty darn scary in its own right, is hospital food. If that didn't kill me, then maybe -- just maybe -- nothing can.

Here I am in a drafty gown with an IV in my arm, oxygen tubes up my nose, posing with a plastic cup of cubed pears in syrup. Since my heart came to a near standstill at one point, I was put in the cardiac ward and therefore I got fed the "cardiac diet." That meant low salt and low fat. Predictably, it turns out this food still contained more salt and fat (not to mention sugar) than I usually eat in normal life: I was left to gnaw on a boiled chicken thigh with skin or a gray turkey burger on a beige bun, and wash it down with vanilla pudding and cranberry juice cocktail. The food was certainly low on taste, but more importantly, it was mostly de-natured, processed, over-cooked and unlikely to nourish or rejuvenate an ill patient.

Eating healthful, living foods is never more important than when you are sick. Of course, a hospital is, in general, a terrible place to rest and recuperate. The atmosphere is impersonal and upsetting, patients' sleep is constantly interrupted so they can give blood or receive shots, and there is pain and disease pretty much everywhere. I concede that these may be unavoidable drawbacks, but lousy food is unnecessary and unhelpful.

So to all my secret operatives who smuggled fresh, whole foods into my hospital room, I offer my eternal gratitude. It is a far, far better rest that you go to than you have ever known.