Monday, November 30, 2009

The Bar-B-Q Shop and the Beauty Shop

After watching Michigan secure what proved to be its sole conference win of the year, Sossy and I celebrated by sampling some of Memphis’s finest comestibles. We began with a late lunch at the Bar-B-Q Shop, a restaurant and bar located in a stubby old storefront, a few miles from downtown. The Shop consists of a brown dining room with brown walls, brown carpeting, and brown tables and chairs. Neon beer advertisements provide the sole evidence that there are other colors in the visible spectrum.

Of course, design and charm are irrelevant when pork barbeque is involved. But I was skeptical of this small urban outpost that appeared to lack the capacity for a genuine pit. Barbeque is, at heart, a rural form of the culinary arts. In the dusty towns and farmland circumscribing Austin, Texas, where barbeque is at its zenith, the form is austere and primitive, reliant on nurturing pits, post oak wood, and a languid, dreamlike pace of cooking. Venerable barbeques in Texas often trace their roots to the beginning of the 20th century when they opened as butcher shops, a function many still have.

Accordingly, I asked our haggard waitress if the Bar-B-Q Shop even had an honest-to-goodness pit, a question that could be construed as insolent considering that the Shop enjoys a stellar local reputation. She assured me that the Shop is so equipped and steeped in Memphis staples like pork ribs and pulled pork. So Sossy and I ordered the crispy burnt rib ends, a house specialty, and a pulled pork sandwich on Texas toast, which, at the Shop, involves some double-thick white bread fried in lard. The burnt ends were attached to the pork ribs themselves and not served separately. The ribs themselves were too fatty for me. But the burnt ends—that charred, black-red crust that formed at the end of ribs—were delicious. Underneath that crispy exterior was some tender rib meat. The potency of that combination is a rejoinder to anyone wondering why people would travel across the country for barbeque.

I loved the smoky pulled pork sandwich and drizzled on some of the Shop’s piquant barbeque sauce. It was an expertly prepared sandwich in its own right, accentuated by the residual smokiness, and well-proportioned to bring out the flavors without overwhelming my mouth. Memphis barbeque may not reach the ethereal realm of Texas’s finest, but it is solid.

During our meal, the owner, Eric Vernon, came over to our table and introduced himself. He possessed a salesman’s affability and was pleased that we had found the Bar-B-Q Shop, which has not found its way to the guidebooks. Since the Shop does not offer dessert, we solicited some advice from Eric on where to go. He directed us to an establishment called the Beauty Shop, a place he said made an outstanding strawberry cake.

I expected to encounter a nearby, black-owned bakery that served heaping portions of moist red velvet cake made by cherished grandmothers hewing to ancient recipes long ago committed to memory. But to my surprise, the Beauty Shop was an upscale, white-owned restaurant selling $25 entrées of wild striped bass in what amounted to Memphis’s progressive neighborhood – or, at least, corner. (That is, the Beauty Shop was next to the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, and the bicycle was the neighborhood’s preferred mode of transportation. The locals were white, youthful and dressed like cheerful versions of Troy Dyer and Lelaini Pierce. You will see all of them in Austin within five years’ time.)

I asked the Beauty Shop’s manager why he thought the Bar-B-Q Shop recommended that we drive all the way across town for their cake. My real question, which he intuited, was why did the black owner of a modest barbeque send me to a high end restaurant for dessert? The manager answered matter-of-factly, “The Bar-B-Q Shop has the best barbeque in Memphis, and we have the best cakes. We send people to the Bar-B-Q Shop.” The cross-racial recommendations vindicated my sense of liberal hopefulness in the city of MLK’s murder.

In a chazerish mood, I ordered a slice of each of the six cakes: strawberry, chocolate, caramel, red velvet, coconut, and a Southern yellow cake. They were all interesting, but the chocolate and caramel cakes were the standouts. Both were rich and had alluring textures that somehow compelled another bite… and then another… and then another… until nothing remained. Their flavors were restrained, but I was not.

The Bar-B-Q Shop
1782 Madison Avenue
(901) 272-1277

The Beauty Shop

966 S. Cooper St.


(901) 272-7111

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Braving the Bazaar

It is fitting that the Bazaar is among the best restaurants in Los Angeles. The Bazaar is evidence that the city has matured, yet remains garish. The Bazaar is located in Sammy Boy Entertainment’s SLS Hotel, the brainchild of one Sam Nazarian, the Horace Cook, Jr. of present-day Los Angeles for you Mad Men fans – though within the entertainment industry, Nazarian prefers promoting nightclubs and hospitality to Cook’s jai alai. Just as HoHo Cook recruited the legendary Patxi to play for his jai alai franchise, Nazarian recruited prominent stylists from supposedly more pedigreed cities to outfit his hotel. Parisian interior designer Phillipe Starck decorated the sprawling SLS restaurant. Murray Moss, a dealer of modernist home furnishings in lower Manhattan, exhibited his venal side when he agreed to sell sundry curios in the Bazaar.

Nazarian engaged José Andrés, a Washington restaurateur and native Spaniard, to be the titular head of the Bazaar and make an occasional visit. Andrés is a protégé of Ferran Adrià, the experimentalist Catalan chef who literally spends six months each year in a Barcelona laboratory concocting recipes based on principles of chemistry. (One example out of a myriad, Adrià created an olive oil spiral which “you loop around your index finger and drop in your mouth, where it dissolves into thin filaments” according to blogger Clotilde Dusoulier.)

Despite all the class Nazarian threw at the Bazaar, the establishment confirms every New York and San Francisco snob’s worst conjuring of a fatuous City of Angels. Tall Eastern Bloc prostitutes run amok, attired in revealing dresses shimmering with rhinestones that serve their purpose of diverting attention from their weathered faces. The men, who could be tippling to repress thoughts of forbidding credit card balances, resetting mortgages, and personal dejection, ooze purported wealth, wearing the expensive suits that prove they concur with Sammy Boy’s business strategy.

The shibboleth about Los Angeles restaurants or at least those in West L.A. is that the entertainment industry and its supporting cast of rubes have corrupted them. Accordingly, a perception (not necessarily my own) is that L.A. restaurants have viewed swankiness and a good scene as the means to a healthy profit, allowing food quality to languish and evidencing a flagrant disregard for California’s agricultural bounty. If there were any truth to this, the Bazaar is in the midst of shattering it, as the quality of Andrés’s high concept tapas are of paramount concern, even when they do not succeed. As it turns out, the elite Hollywood scene whose business and presence Sammy Boy craves never materialized; that business goes to the more subdued and tasteful surroundings, if lesser food, at the Sunset Tower. (Admittedly, we at the Fress do love us some Sunset Tower in the wintertime.) Maybe it is still old times in Los Angeles, tinged as ever with ethnic rivalries and subtle prejudices that have rendered the Bazaar "too Persian" for the city's social elite.

In the 90’s José Andrés brought his aspirations and knowledge of Spanish cuisine to Washington, D.C., another city plagued by an inferiority complex and dearth of flavorful food. Back then, I was a semi-regular at Andrés’ first restaurant, Jaleo, the tapas joint located on Seventh Street between Pennsylvania Avenue’s office corridor and the seedy Chinatown neighborhood just beginning gentrification. Jaleo had an enormous menu of orthodox Spanish tapas in those days, but could execute only three dishes with consistency: sautéed shrimp in garlic and olive oil, octopus with paprika, and a preparation of blood sausage. Everything else was a crapshoot. But lawyers and lobbyists crowded the joint during the happy hour, thirsty for the plentiful sangria and the spectacle of flamenco shows. My crew of fellow misanthropic law students and I would put up with this riff-raff, because Jaleo was among the best casual restaurants in town, and after dinner we could take the Green Line to U Street’s nightclubs, always concluding the evening with a half-smoke, that sausage of unknown composition, from the legendary Ben’s Chili Bowl, the only establishment on the historic Black Broadway to survive the riots of 1968.

Mired in law school at the time, I had never heard of Ferran Adrià or his cutting edge recipes. For a fledgling Jaleo, educating the public about Adrià’s cuisine would be an ultra vires act. Andrés, a shrewd businessman, knew not to unleash the results of a chemistry lab on conservative Washington eaters in a violence-prone neighborhood. The fact that he was serving Spanish food at all was challenging enough. After leaving Washington, I never thought too much about Jaleo, a good but not great restaurant. I knew that he had opened two more branches in the suburbs as well as the more formal Café Atlántico and a few restaurants with other themes, all in the same section of Washington. I had heard that he dedicated a modest six seats within Atlántico to the chemical cuisine he learned from Adrià.

A decade later, José Andrés turned up in Los Angeles with a menu as ambitious as Nomi Malone in Showgirls. There are scores of traditional tapas, as conceived by Andrés. Then there are the modern tapas, which involve unusual flavor combinations and rare ingredients as well as Señor Adrià’s recondite techniques. In Washington, Andrés serves these more intricate tapas to a mere six patrons at any given time. But in Nazarian’s domain, they are being served in a veritable banquet hall that Andrés spends little time in.

Andrés may have developed his culinary skills, as a technician and a thinker, at Adrià’s almost mythical El Bulli, which is a few hours north of Barcelona near Roses, Spain, and open to only 50 customers a night in the six months when Adrià is not cloistered into his lab. But Andrés learned the art of operations, which is perhaps more difficult and important than cooking prowess, through years of trial and error in his busy Washington restaurants. He took that expertise to Bazaar its spacious kitchen, an efficient machine, preparing and dispensing a thorny menu to a crowd that could have been as indifferent as Washington’s could have been bewildered. Instead, Andrés has a runaway hit, though he owes Los Angeles Times critic Irene Virbila a tithe of the gross for her exuberant praise.

Marisa and I visited twice in recent months with varying experiences. On our first visit, with my visiting parents, the standout dishes spanned the entire menu. The traditional sea urchin pipirrana--a preparation of fresh, creamy urchin served on top of cucumber, onion, plum tomatoes, and red and green peppers, all diced to one eighth inch, in a mixture of olive oil and sherry vinegar--was so delicious that we quickly ordered another. The salmon-like arctic char with chick pea cake and the Greek tzatziki was as flavorful as any I have had. The lamb loin with potatoes and mushrooms was uncomplicated and delicious, as were the scallops in a spicy romesco which possessed the nuanced robustness in flavor that I prize when eating the mollusk.

On the modern tapas front, I was taken by the twin juxtapository olives, which seem to be the work of a magician, but are an old Adrià specialty as I later learned from Dusoulier’s blog. Bazaar served each person two olives side-by-side in white ceramic soup spoons. The first was an olive containing a briny anchovy and a morsel of piquillo pepper and was plenty tasty. The second was a simulacrum of an olive that involved the trapping of olive oil inside a green sphere. The olive oil exploded into my mouth when I bit down, and yet it tasted like an olive, even superior to the real olive. Adrià devised these faux olives through a process of his own creation called process of “spherification” that involves hydrocolloids, which according to the Gray Lady’s Kenneth Chang is “a suspension of particles in water where the particles are molecules that bind to water and to one another. The particles slow the flow of the liquid or stop it entirely, solidifying into a gel.” The science notwithstanding, I loved this derivative olive. It was more precise and tasted better than anything we had a few years ago at Comerc 24 in Barcelona, whose entire menu consisted of juxtaposing traditional dishes with reconstituted or deconstructed variations.

There were a few misses, an inevitable occurrence on such a bold menu. The most obvious example was the ajo blanco, a white garlic gazpacho garnished with a tiny salad of tomatoes, grapes, and raisins, the last of which I quickly noticed and brushed away before eating the soup. The soup’s gelatinous texture alienated me, and I cannot understand how the inclusion of an inedible, indigestible desiccated grape of all things would overcome that.

My father, in his great haste to eat everything, did not see the raisin. But his tongue sensed it and alerted his brain, which understood that a crisis was afoot and that drastic action would be necessary to prevent any lasting damage. To my amazement, my father’s brain took over the controls from his stomach. The brain positioned his head over the plate, and then caused him to bow his head and open his maw. Alas, the offending raisin fell harmlessly onto his plate, saving all of us from untold amounts of future kvetching and perpetuating his napkin’s usefulness.

Marisa and I returned a month later, still celebrating our fifth anniversary. While we lacked a reservation, we knew that each dining room has several counter seats that are available on a first-come, first-served basis, just like at a sushi bar. Not a single seat was occupied during the entire two hour period when we there with my parents.

We checked in with the front desk, and its two hosts sized us up with a whiff of condescension, as if they had been just been culled from the ranks of Sammy Boy’s army of velvet rope minders. “Let me check if we have any availability,” the ingenue said and then scurried off to the dining room. Her counterpart, a young gentleman wearing a suit, observed our conversation, but quickly returned his attention to the computer screen, indifferent to our suspense. A few minutes later, the host returned. “We have two seats for you,” she said smiling. Of course every seat at our counter was vacant, which the host whose only responsibility is to greet and seat must have known beforehand, and we could see that only two seats were taken at the opposite bar. We faced two assistant chefs who were preparing plates of ham and cheese and assembling the cold seafood dishes. The large wait staff ignored us for some period of time, and finally one of the assistant chefs summoned a waiter for us.

We ordered a series of modern tapas, a few repeats from the prior meal and several we had not tried, most of which were not Adrià-style chemistry experiments, but an amalgam of aspects of East Asian and Mexican cuisines. Within a period of 30 minutes, we received practically everything we ordered, and we felt like we were at our very own buffet table. All the intricacies of these dishes were lost on us. I longed for Hirozen’s unagi after experiencing the cluttered Japanese “taco” of grilled eel, perilla leaf-- an herb more commonly known by its sexier, Japanese name, shiso--cucumber, wasabi and fried pork rind, i.e., chicharrones. A pretty preparation of Japanese eggplant with yogurt, flakes of tuna, and a Japanese stock infused with honey could have been lifted straight from the recipes books of local schlockmeisters Café Sushi or Tengu. The worst offender, a banal serving of tuna ceviche, wrapped into a long sushi-style roll with shaven avocado replacing the seaweed, was sodden from a surfeit of coconut dressing.

For Marisa, the Adrià-esque tortilla de patatas “new way,” redeemed what proved to be an unsatisfying meal. A Spanish tortilla prepared the “old way” is “[i]n its most basic form . . . a potato and egg open-faced omelet that derives most of its flavor from olive oil” according to Mark Bittman. It is a ubiquitous comfort food in Spain and often delicious. At Bazaar, Andrés reconfigured the tortilla as an haute French egg, served as an amuse-bouche, albeit ordered a la carte. Bazaar blends potato foam, egg yolk and caramelized onions and serves it cleverly in a trimmed egg shell. The combination was delicious, and its saline, comforting appeal captured the essence of the original. We will return, but not without a reservation.

The Bazaar at SLS
465 S. La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles
(310) 246-5555

Monday, August 31, 2009

Church & State

In that God-forsaken cranny of the world between Skid Row and East L.A., just west of an abandoned outdoor sewer with the unfortunate appellation "Los Angeles River," there is a proper French bistro. Church & State's location is as unlikely as that flickering outpost of Gallicism in Apocalypse Now Redux where Captain Willard takes a surreal respite and a few hits of opium. Indeed, the provenance of the restaurant's curious name must lie in the lack of both Church and State in these parts.

Walter Manzke presides here, proving that his former employer, Joe Pytka – infamous for his ad infinitum overhauls of Bastide over on Melrose Place – is a complete meshugeneh. Manzke actually prefers to toil for another goof, Steven Arroyo, in this urban netherworld than in Pytka's stunning Andrée Putman-designed space. Manzke saves Arroyo from what could have been his worst idea yet, which is to say, even worse than Goat, the former restaurant on La Brea whose lifespan approximated that of a midge and which melted down like Joba Chamberlain on a hot night in Cleveland two summers ago.

To the hordes of self-anointed cognoscenti, attracted to what Jonathan Gold calls – without a whiff of sarcasm – an "art-world restaurant," Church & State's geographic isolation must be among its chief charms. So are the spacious room and its high, post-industrial ceilings, which ably approximate a French brasserie (though with enough hints of purported insouciance so as not to resemble a Keith McNally theme park).

Manzke's team executes with ease. On a recent visit, the Santa Barbara spot prawns were impeccably fresh, naturally sweet, and thoroughly irresistible. A light butter sauce brought out their flavor, and the prawns' own pink roe and a smattering of capers provided a modest counterpoint of salinity. The foie gras terrine with port wine gelée was as deliciously rich and creamy as I expected, though it was not lusty in the way that, say, Bistro Jeanty's foie blond is. (I admit to bias. Outside of France, there is no better bistro in my book than Philippe Jeanty's Yountville outpost.)

My lunchtime companions, to their detriment, lacked ample appetites; so per my custom, I took more than my fair share. I salivated over a beautiful croque monsieur, its melted gruyere glistening across the table. I worked an angle and devoured half of it, and while it was very good, the proportions were imperfect due to a surfeit of béchamel. I concluded with a delectable slice of mission fig tart, which had a nice buttery crust; it was a fitting coda to an enjoyable lunch. I intend to return soon, even though the neighborhood is ugly and depressing.

Church & State

1850 Industrial Street

Los Angeles

(213) 405-1434

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Attari Sandwich Shop

Within “Tehrangeles,” the local Iranian diaspora of an estimated 600,000 sprawled across Los Angeles, Westwood’s tiny Attari Sandwich Shop may be its most beloved restaurant. Attari is a gourmand’s retreat that captures the unusual nuances of Persian cuisine and demonstrates that it is right at home in the warm California climes. Moreover, Attari does not invite religious discord, as it is neither obviously halal nor kosher, though it does not offer pork.

During a recent lunch, I loved their roasted eggplant – the unpronounceable kashk-e-bademjan – which was simple and sophisticated, yet utterly exotic. Attari roasts their eggplant in grilled mint oil that, together with the addition of assorted fresh herbs, gives the dish a lush green appearance. This seemingly simple eggplant dish is unique in that its texture boasts a natural creaminess, and its flavor is pure aubergine, judiciously accentuated by the herbs. Deliciously crispy caramelized onions and dollops of yogurt-like kashk, or fermented whey, provide the requisite balance.

I also enjoyed the sosis bandari, essentially a cut-up hot dog sandwich studded with small chunks of potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce. Based on its etymology, it would seem to have roots in the southern city of Bandar ʿAbbās, whose denizens speak the dialect Bandari. The sosis bears a close resemblance to my Bubby’s weiner goulash, my favorite stew from childhood. Since a lifelong Clevelander’s channeling of ancestral Vienna should have nothing in common with an Iranian standard, maybe there is a historical link between the two. Or could the similarity be proof of the Jewish conspiracy to defeat the Islamic Republic by stealing its culinary heritage? Shall I blame Britain?

As much as I posture about not travelling west of Doheny, I freely confess that a lunch at Attari followed by an espresso at Euro Caffé, which is a mere block from Rodeo Drive, makes for a perfectly pleasant afternoon. (Hypocrisy is underrated.) I’ll be back soon for the tongue and brain.

Attari Sandwich Shop

1388 Westwood Blvd.


(310) 441-5488