Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Sofyah 9, Istanbul

For all of its history and great architecture like Sinan’s dramatic yet serene Süleymaniye Mosque (completed in 1557) or his intimate and concealed Rüstem Paşa Mosque, Istanbul has the trappings of a modern city. It has a smart modern art museum with the requisite “industrial chic” bistro. But what makes Istanbul such a great European city is its urban vibrancy, especially in the large Beyoğlu district, as exemplified by a neighborhood meyhane like Sofyah 9. Sofyah 9 is located in the Tünel section of Beyoğlu, a gentrifying area with the extremely narrow, somewhat windy roads typical to cities with nearly two millennia under their belts.

The restaurant is an old narrow building on three levels, each of which holds a dining room seating perhaps 30. The décor is sparse, basically smoke-stained walls, some Turkish bric-a-brac, a cheap sound system piping in traditional Turkish music for strings, and a small Marlboro cigarette vending machine. We sat next to a group of eight men, probably in their thirties, immersed in cigarettes, raki, meze, and boisterous conversation. Sitting behind them was a group of six women, doing exactly the same thing and presumably on furlough from their cages.

Despite being in a Muslim country on the other side of the world, just sitting down in Sofyah 9’s cozy, intimate and blithesome second dining room felt, (yes, that dreaded cliché is on its way) like home. Sofyah 9 with its café spirit was actually a place that promotes drinking, eating, smoking and just as important, unfettered rhetoric, boasting, ridiculing, jubilant seething, and best of all, harrumphing. That the food was good but not going to win any prizes was beside the point.

As for the food:

Our waiter brought over eight cold meze from which to select. I chose four because Marisa was beyond caring about Turkish food. Kereviz, a simple dish of celeriac, olive oil accentuated with vinegar, and just enough greens not to be a garnish was delicious because of the celeriac’s moderately tender texture. We also had hummus made of fava beans, which was preferable to the chickpea version to which I am more accustomed. We also had taze fasulye, a plate of green beans, which in Monsieur Peckham’s words, “had been hanging around for awhile” and a tasty lakerda, small chunks of salted bonito with oil, red pepper and dill. I should really say “I” as Marisa wouldn’t touch the stuff. We then tried a few hot meze: kaşarlı börek, a flaky pastry with cheese that Marisa dismissed as Turkish mozzarella sticks. More interesting and much better was the pazi sarmasi, which resembled your basic stuffed grape leaf, but was swiss chard stuffed with minced meat and rice. The “entrées,” which were slightly larger meze plates for one, were less successful. I had an overcooked grilled fish while Marisa preferred her serviceable lamb shish to the meze.

A note on Istanbul: Culinarily, two items were standouts in Istanbul. I just about mainlined unsweetened Turkish coffee (türk kahvesi, sade) all over town. We also had success at an anonymous bakery specializing in baklava just outside the Grand Bazaar that Marisa literally sniffed out. We attempted to order two small pieces of pistachio baklava, but managed only to provoke the baker’s disdain. He just gave us our meager order for free. That fresh baklava was still warm and had the rich, proportionate, buttery flavor that French bakeries have perfected and which lingered for several more seconds than what seemed scientifically possible.

Sofyah 9

Sofyah Sokak 9


0212 245 0362

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Per Se: Thomas Keller's Waterloo

Upon entering the mall at Columbus Circle, I heeded the posted instructions for its “Restaurant and Bar Collection” and ascended four levels of escalators. Per Se sought to conceal the restaurant from the mall’s interior through the placement of ersatz California greenery and a small kumquat tree just outside its automated door. We entered through a long, luxuriously appointed corridor that served as the restaurant’s bar and were then seated in the dining room which offered grand views of a barren Central Park in late winter. Eschewing ornateness and Batalian insouciance, the dining room was an ill-conceived attempt at the modern formality necessary for a new Michelin three star. With its multiple levels, generous spacing between tables and high ceilings, the dining room created no sense of intimacy and had all the warmth of a corporate boardroom.

Per Se offered a choice of tasting menus, for omnivores and herbivores alike. It remains an enduring mystery however why any living organism fortuitous enough to be at the top of the food chain would decline to exercise plenary powers, especially when Thomas Keller is involved, and eat only vegetation and legumes.

While the menu was long, only three of the items were memorable, the first of which soured me early on the entire enterprise. The fatal dish in question was basically a cauliflower pudding on top of which sat a heaping amount of sturgeon caviar that bore absolutely no relationship to the pudding and which likely appears on many menus in Dubai. The caviar itself was delicious, but if I suffered from the genetic dysfunction that causes one to shop at vastly overpriced Petrossian, I could have bought the same roe there and served it on a cracker.

The foie gras torchon was delicious if not as transcendent as the version I remember from our July 2005 lunch at the French Laundry that ranks as perhaps the best meal I’ve ever eaten – with a few notable rivals, not all of which were full meals: Guy Savoy, Nick's Old Original Roast Beef, Enoteca Pinchiorri 13 years ago, Paris Robuchon, the corned beef omelette at Slyman’s and the pizza at Forno Campo de' Fiori. The best dish of the afternoon—and the only one in which the kitchen took any risk—was the sautéed calf’s brain with some light brown mustard on the side. This dish was a knockout, for its tenderness and texture, flavor and muted spiciness, and above all for its successful sublation of haute technique and homier, traditional cooking into a culinary masterpiece. The kitchen clearly relished the opportunity to cook the dish, which was an added option for diners. It alone, literally alone, warranted the high price of admission.

The majority of dishes were very good, but literally not memorable as I cannot recite the list, a sea bream and a lamb perhaps. The desserts were also tasty if instantly forgettable. Aside from the cervelle, the menu was safe and predictable. The kitchen’s execution was more akin to a Toyota assembly line’s efficiency than a master sculptor’s studio. The entire atmosphere was antiseptic and boring, which comported well with the food. The crowd looked and dressed like Judge Smails’ entourage.

The wine list was a joke. For a restaurant with a distinguished Napa pedigree, one would presume that some interesting producers would be represented. Instead the safe names of Silver Oak and other prominent négociants predominated. Half bottles of smaller producers like Kamen and Patricia Green were offered, as if Per Se were perfunctorily acknowledging the new and idiosyncratic.

And later that night, among the distinguished company of the very funny blogger Heinous of Brooklyn and his even funnier better half, Mrs. Heinous, it was a relief and a joy to be at Michael Symon’s Parea, which offered delectable mezedes, good wine (and mephitic, non-potable Macedonian digestifs) and, above all, great bonhomie.

Per Se
10 Columbus Circle
4th Floor
New York
(212) 823-9335

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Letter from Brooklyn: Of Tacos and Cupcakes

“Who am I, why am I here?” – Admiral James Stockdale

While I’m sure this post will carry the same weight as a vice presidential debate, read by helpless Marc Jacobs-framed foodie insomniacs with Macs and high speed Internet connections, debated with the fervor of armchair politicos with unutilized poly sci degrees and subscriptions to the Nation (which, has anyone noticed, seems to be printed on a $140 HP deskjet from 2002, appropriate for its high-school newspaper sized circulation), when Heinous (a moniker earned in college, during which time he sported a removable tooth and took showers best described as intermittent) asked me to guest blog from an outsider’s perspective on the most important culinary aspect of L.A.’s food scene, I could and did put it off for a few weeks, hoping he would forget. But then I realized that to be offered the opportunity to expound on the Taco Tour of Los Angeles, a minefield of shifting demographics and offal disguised by foreign language (lengua, anyone?), was to be bestowed the highest honor by a great friend, and I would be remiss not to give it a shot.

As the first guest contributor, I owe you readers, many of whom are undoubtedly friends or colleagues, but a few of whom may be stumblers upon, a word about your hosts, who offer up opinions on what they eat, but are less forthcoming about who they are. While the Internet Privacy Act restricts me from divulging too much, know this: however exacting and demanding they are in their views on food, they are as generous and thoughtful as people in all other respects. Whether they loved their meals (“I thanked him for what my wife and I thought was their best performance in all of our visits to Hatfield’s”), or could not leave the Chinese restaurant fast enough, they were undoubtedly cordial, pleasant and thoughtful hosts throughout. They love food, and they appreciate the rare talent necessary to consistently and inventively produce it, which shines through in their writings. I have no similar ideals, however, and while this post likely reflects Steve and Marisa’s views, it bears none of their style, grace or polysyllabic adjectives.

Back to the Stockdale quote – the answer is tacos. I love Taco Bell. Maybe not quite as much as the rats at my local outlet on West Fourth Street in Manhattan, but who can say no to a run for the Border, particularly when you don’t have a lot of pesos to spend. But when my wife and I were out in California visiting the Heinouses at their anything-but-Heinous abode, the highlight of our trip was to experience real Mexican tacos with our learned guides. This would be a brazen tour to the corazon of L.A.’s Mexican-American heritage, in a Prius, of course.

The first stop was Tacos Baja Ensenada, a restaurant specializing in fish tacos, which we thought would be a good warm up for the tour. The drive from West Hollywood to East L.A. conjured a run for the border (all we needed was a white bronco, alas those run on gasoline). With each successive block, the colors on the buildings got bolder, and signs of English more scarce. Soon after passing a Juicy Fruit striped muffler shop, we arrived at the relatively clean and welcoming stand. We quickly ordered the special of the house – fried fish tacos – as well as a shrimp ceviche dish. Fearing that the water may have lost its potability as we drove deeper into East L.A., we ordered the first of many Jarritos Tamarindos. Within a few minutes, I noticed a sign proclaiming Tacos Baja as the best restaurant in Los Angeles, and tried the tacos that backed up the claim. Despite being fried, they were light and crispy, and the fish was moist and fresh. While the size of the shrimp in the ceviche made Red Lobster’s popcorn shrimp look like jumbo Tiger prawns, they made a nice, cool accompaniment to the main draw. Within minutes, it was back to the electric Taco Tour mobile, buzzing off to El Parian, which carried more hype than an Angelina Jolie baby snatching in US Weekly.

El Parian is located in the shadows of downtown L.A. (itself a shadow of a city center). As we drove by the front of the restaurant to circle back for parking, the restaurant itself looked closed, with bars over the grimy window and a gate across the door. Was it open? Had it been opened in the last three years? As we found parking in the rear, we saw that the entrance is at the back of the restaurant, and the kitchen is located in the front. There are two sections to El Parian – the left side of the restaurant permits alcohol consumption with the meal, while the right is reserved for white people. Naturally, we were seated to the right, near an enormous glass encased refrigerator, not unlike those found at 7-Elevens, but which contained nothing but beautifully (and artificially) colored bottles of Mexican sodas and cerveza, which we were not permitted to order (despite a menu which proudly proclaimed that the restaurant “reserves the right to serve alcohol to anyone”).

The house specialty was goat. I was not going to eat fucking goat. Even Steve, who orders calf brains at Per Se just because it comes with brown mustard, wouldn’t eat fucking goat. Instead, we ordered carne asada tacos, the second-choice of the house. It’s generally never a good idea to go to a restaurant and not have anyone at a four-top get the signature dish, even if it’s fucking goat, and as punishment Steve’s order of tacos came replete with a Corona bottle cap in the center of the plate (remember, we’re in the dry white person section). We don’t know where it came from, and it certainly didn’t stop any of us, least of all Steve, from digging into the tacos. Steve had mentioned that the tacos at Parian are maddeningly inconsistent – if the restaurant isn’t busy, they are ephemeral, delicate, juicy and generously proportioned on homemade tortillas. Of course, that level of taco will draw a crowd (even if you cleverly disguise your storefront as closed), which they are unable to handle. Needless to say, despite the respect I give them for making it difficult to find them, segregating white people to the non-drinking side by the cooler, and placing a bottle cap on Steve’s plate, I was disappointed in the end. A great story, but a bad taco.

Next and last on the tour was El Taurino. As we embarked on our tour on Domingo, each of the places we tried was mobbed with people, generally families celebrating the day off together. El Taurino clearly followed suit, with two snaking and slow moving order lines and a clown in need of some cheering up of its own. If you have coulrophobia or ochlophobia, you confirm our East-coast bias against soft, trendy Californians, and also should avoid El Taurino. There are a few rent-a-policias patrolling the restaurant and parking lot (which itself includes an outpost from the restaurant if you’re looking to avoid the clown), and while we didn’t get close enough to check, I think their badges all read “Rodriguez.”

The two principal taco tour themes came together at El Taurino – the house specialty and offal (unless it’s goat). First, the house specialty. At some restaurants, such as El Parian, the house specialty is listed proudly on the menu, with other dishes as afterthoughts. At others, you need only observe what others in the restaurant are eating. At El Taurino, every third table was enjoying a Fred Flintstone beefsteak specialty, which was essentially a flank steak on a bone. Although it looked appealing, I could not see cutting the meat with the only available cutlery, plastic forks and knives, and passed. Had I been more observant, I would have noticed not only what regulars were eating, but how, and simply eaten the steak with my hands. Next time. As for offal, I’d sooner donate a kidney than eat one, but this is where Steve shines. He enjoyed his lengua taco, but the rest of us had to take his word for it. Offal eaters are a lucky bunch – they try others’ dishes, but nobody wants a return bite. The pork tacos were good – flavorful and hearty – but not worth the wait on a Sunday afternoon. I would suggest a quick trip during the week, or perhaps on a day when the clown has forsaken her painted smile for a beefsteak.

We followed our taco tour with an impromptu cupcake tour of L.A. While we were generally impressed with the quality of cupcakes available in the city, particularly given the comparison to Magnolia and its progeny in New York, special mention goes to Sprinkles in Beverly Hills. A transplanted Midwesterner wants to decry everything precious, and as much as we wanted to hate Sprinkles, for its name, its location, its precise display and, more than anything else, its price ($3.25 for a cupcake?), we were dumbfounded by the quality of the cupcakes. The cake itself was moist and delicious, and the frosting sweet and flavorful without the cloying effect that dooms so many other efforts. The Red Velvet and Banana Chocolate deserve special mention. Judging by the quality of the offerings and the crowds they drew, L.A. is clearly turning into a cupcake town. (We even had a celebrity sighting – Laurence Fishburne outside of one of the shops, looking as if he should have chosen the Trim Spa pill with Neo).

L.A. is a town of tours – Universal Studios, star homes and, thanks to the generosity of our hosts, Steve and Marisa, tacos and their natural complement, cupcakes. When in town, check your blood sugar level at the door, and enjoy a Tamarindo and a cupcake on your way through.

Tacos Baja Ensenada
5385 Whittier Blvd.
East L.A.
(323) 887-1980

El Parian
1528 W. Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles
(213) 386-7361

El Taurino
1104 S Hoover St
Los Angeles
(213) 738-9197

Sprinkles Cupcakes
9635 S. Santa Monica Blvd.
Beverly Hills
(310) 274-8765