Saturday, December 4, 2010

San Francisco, Day One

Are there two better American neighborhoods than the Tenderloin and the Mission? Are there three more choice words to utter to a cabbie than "Eighteenth and Guerrero?" I think not. Wikipedia may allege, with its customary, solecistic élan, that "The Tenderloin is a high crime neighborhood, particularly violent street crime such as robbery and aggravated assault," but this charge is utter nonsense. The 'loin is the home of Blue Bottle Café, whose Italophilic espresso, unlike all the charred, overpriced Third Wave swill that is the true Starbucks legacy, is exquisite and can accommodate a macchiato so elegant and compelling that it is in itself a riposte to the sanctimonious black,-like-my-women purism that I am wont to espouse.

With bags in hand, Jim, Justin and I raced from SFO to Tartine Bakery, with collective eagerness to begin 48 hours of gluttony that we hoped might have a dash of refinement. We were greeted with a short line and plenty of Northern California sunshine, defying the laws of physics as much as that weird carom that rebuffed Ian Kinsler in Game 2 of the Fall Classic. Even as our luck seemed to turn, upon learning that the bakery was out of its stalwart croque monsieur, order was fast restored by the Jambon Royale & Gruyère, a pressed sandwich consisting of cured and smoked ham, the aforementioned (but now accent-less) gruyere, and Dijon mustard between Tartine's warm country bread. If nothing else, we presumed that the sandwich would make for a nice accompaniment to the ham and chard quiche and ham and cheese croissant. (Not to mention our appetizers: a gougère, the brilliant orange-zested morning bun, and brioche pudding.) Clearly we meant business.

Among this array of textbook quality bakery items, the sandwich was the knee-buckler. Owners Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson understand how to create a perfectly proportioned sandwich -- just the right amount of mustard in every single bite, the bread sliced somehow to the right width to accommodate the most classic sandwich fillings of all, ham and cheese. Moreover, Tartine does not scrimp on the quality of these key ingredients. They use the good stuff, including ham from the venerable Niman Ranch and proper cheese. (Note to the world: There is no mayonnaise on this sandwich.) So, yes, once assembled, the sandwich is a model of precision, but we are not talking about something sterile and soulless. The masters at Le Cordon Bleu in the 15th Arr. and the goons drinking beer in the late morning at Nick's Roast Beef at 20th and Passyunk would esteem this sandwich equally. That is, if the goons at Nick's would stop gambling and remove their attention from Philly Classic Sports broadcasts of keg tossing. The ham and chard quiche was just as flabbergasting, also in equal parts refined and guttural. And as simply delicious as the brioche pudding happened to be, it was a vehicle for the tart blackberries and plums that went into the oven inside it on that very morning. After solid espressos made with neighbor Four Barrel's beans, we ambled down to the local BART stop, dropped our bags off at the hotel, and headed to the Ferry Building, tacitly understanding that we would be returning to Tartine on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

At the Ferry Building, we first stopped at Boccalone, Chris Cosentino's shop for cured pork and sausage, or what Cosentino's marketing specialists have tagged "tasty salted pig parts," which is a far cry from the Hot Doug's much wittier "There are no two finer words in the English language than 'encased meats', my friend." We went in for a "salumi cone." We should have been warded off by Boccalone's lame locution, which did not augur well for our Incanto dinner later. Still, the mortadella, prosciutto cotto and whatever other parts were thrown into the paper cup were tasty enough.

We moved on to Il Cane Rosso, a meat-focused establishment owned by Daniel Patterson, David Chang's recent sparring partner in the recent Made-for-the-Internet "NYC vs. SF" debate. (If Patterson believes that New York follows San Francisco, then all of the Red Dog's pork and beef proves that San Francisco follows New York right back.) We split a braised pork sandwich with cracklings and a relish of sweet peppers and jalapeños along with a plate of meatballs, both of which were respectable, but underwhelming in the aftermath of our Tartine extravaganza. This criticism may be unfair, but that's tough luck. The most memorable item from the Dog was a side of ciabatta, i.e., carpet slipper bread, with a garlic flavor so acute that Patterson must have pillaged half the garlic in Gilroy.

With our circulatory systems nearing rupture, we secured a table on the Bay over at Hog Island Oysters, which is known for its quality oyster production in Tomales Bay, an estuary 50 miles north of the City in Marin County. We shared a dozen oysters -- regrettably we only ordered a half dozen of the tiny and deliciously sweet Hog Island kumamotos, which take two to three years to grow to maturity, and two to three seconds to ingest. Even mollusk-phobic J-Wy could not resist. We washed the oysters down with a glass of muscadet and I am here to pronounce that, pace Mr. Franzen, "comfortably dissipating . . . in coastal affluence" is sorely underrated.

Before leaving Ferry Market, we queued up for caffeine at Blue Bottle Café's north bar, which I later learned pulls single-origin espresso shots while the main bar pulls uses the mainstay Hayes Valley blend. Regardless of the blend, Blue Bottle makes a caramelly, Italian-style espresso, eschewing all the cloying efflorescence that I usually find in what is considered "American premium espresso." Indeed the macchiato was so delicious, its proportions so finely hewn that I found myself admiring the beauty in the otherwise preposterous form of expression known as "latte art." Don't people know that Arabica's perfectly segregated, layered cappuccino circa 1996—steamed milk on the bottom, espresso in the middle, and foam on top—will always be the ne plus ultra of coffee art even if those caps were a few notches short of potability? I trust that The Coffee House at University Circle has maintained the tradition, even if it has abandoned the upstairs smoking section.

Sauntering through the Tenderloin, our bodies demanding caffeine even though we just left Blue Bottle, we managed to admire all the aging, unkempt architectural gems on Howard and Mission Streets, plus the occasional steely dan manufacturer. We stepped over and around scores of homeless on our mission to overpay for the fancy coffee that we knew existed in the neighborhood, even if was less conspicuous than the local drug trade. We landed on quiet Seventh Street, home to the rehabilitated warehouse that is Sight Glass Coffee. Sight Glass is the latest San Francisco roaster to hang a shingle and roast and brew coffee with any array of methodologies and technologies. Despite a large and attractive space, it was off limits to civilians; Sight Glass's retail operations are confined to a coffee cart and two seats at the front door. But in the middle of the afternoon on a dreary and seemingly out-of-the way block, Sight Glass drew a steady crowd, which was no surprise because the coffee was really good. The slow-brew technique, which all the cool kids are doing these days, proved itself worthy and, if the espresso was not quite on par with Blue Bottle's, well it was nothing to scoff at either. Does any city anywhere have coffee this good?

Disaster then struck at Incanto, a farce of a restaurant possessing remarkable incompetence. (J-Wy questioned my decision to review the place because he figured it would be defunct by the time I got around to typing something.) During the afternoon, I attempted to move our 8:30 pm reservation up to 7 o'clock in deference to the two jet-lagged New Yorkers. But the restaurant claimed that it could not accommodate us. We nonetheless arrived at 7:30 and discovered a dining room as devoid of charm as it was people. Disconcerted by the deceit and solitude on what should have been a busy Friday night, we sat down at our choice of tables.

The waiter recited the specials. The chef, Chris Cosentino, has struck fame as a votary of cooking extreme offal and on this night, he offered cow testicles. Our waiter chose the biological term over the euphemism "Rocky Mountain oysters." Why not just say "testes," which seems grossest of all? Now I consider myself an adventurous eater and was mesmerized by the tartare of tête de veau at Pierre Gagnaire in 2004. But there is no way I would put a bull's balls in my mouth at Incanto or anywhere else.

Incanto's path of destruction began with a dish of ill-sliced sardines with sunchokes and sunflowers utterly sodden from some unfortunate marinade. We were forced to push the dish to the far corner of the table to minimize the pain to our eyes. An inexplicable mistake on our part, we ordered poached oysters, which were removed from their shells, served on a bed of what turned out to be a Twinkie-like polenta cake and accompanied with a side of heated mussels. These oysters were so gargantuan and slimy that it took us several minutes to identify them. In no mood for diplomacy, there was no need to conceal them in our napkins or under bread. Our diffident waiter began to suspect that we did not like the food.

By this point, it was clear that the meal would be an abject failure. In one dish, some beautiful chanterelles were denuded of all chanterelle flavor. Three half orders of pasta--handkerchief noodles with pork ragù, paccheri with calamari in squid ink, and a macaroni cacio e pepe, were so hopelessly awful that we bellowed in laughter to the point of tears. I was afraid that I would choke. The ragù could have been Ragù, and the cacao e pepe was sin pepe. The ink was as bland as John Thune despite a potent appearance, and the calamari was downright quaggy. We quickly skedaddled. This meal was as indelible as it was inedible.

(More on the Gaycation to come.... Stay tuned, intrepid readers.)

Tartine Bakery & Café

600 Guerrero Street

San Francisco

(415) 487-2600


Ferry Building Marketplace, Shop 21

San Francisco

(415) 433-6500

Il Cane Rosso

Ferry Building Marketplace, Shop 41

San Francisco

(415) 391-7599

Hog Island Oyster Bar

Ferry Building Marketplace, Shop 11A
San Francisco
(415) 391-7117

Blue Bottle Coffee

Ferry Building Marketplace, Shop 7

San Francisco

(510) 653-3394 ‎

Sight Glass Coffee

270 Seventh Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 861–1313


1550 Church Street
San Francisco
(415) 641-4500

Friday, September 3, 2010


As Boris Yelnikoff conceded, "Sometimes a cliché is finally the best way to make one's point." So here goes: in Los Angeles, the Mediterranean cuisines with their similar climes have been adapted to California's cherished agricultural and piscatory products to salutary effect. While this practice has produced such cringeworthy locutions as "Cal-Ital" and the antipodean "Cal-French," I will trade their regular utterance for the work product of Suzanne Goin, chef-owner of Lucques and the city's foremost practitioner of Cal-French and for that matter Cal-Maghrebi. (She prepares an expert lamb tagine.)

But until the advent of Momed, the great cuisines of the Eastern Mediterranean--from Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon--have never received their due Californication. Granted there is no shortage of falafel shops around, owing to Los Angeles's large population of persons of Middle Eastern lineage. I plead to an especial weakness for the lamb's tongue sandwich at Falafel Arax despite its dreary location. But Arax and its ilk are yoked to a specific Old World sense of tradition that nevertheless yields an everydayness well suited for Los Angeles, owing to their various foods' lightness of flavor and casual sensibilities.

Momed was conceived when businessman Alex Sarkissian, an émigré from Iran by way of London and of Armenian lineage, somehow linked up with chef Matthew Carpenter over their shared interest in the cuisines of the Eastern Mediterranean and, to a lesser extent, the Maghreb. In thinking about menus and recipes, Sarkissian and Carpenter explored Athens, Beirut, and Istanbul, a city that is the dream that the otherwise trenchant Paul Keating says it is. Along with GM Vasilis Tseros, they did not want to be serving basic shawarma and hummus a la Arax. Carpenter, it should be noted, is no prima donna and is prone to setting up Momed's patio tables and chairs in the morning hours.

With Beverly Hills's many pedestrians and Semites, management settled on the suburb for its location, the very same Beverly Hills that is home to the original Cheesecake Factory; the opulent hook bar known as Cut; Crustacean, known for its soi-disant Secret Kitchen; and best of all Mr. Chow's whose popularity has endured despite being derided 28 years ago by the Stern Critic of the Contemporary Scene as the spot where narcotics salesman Jive Miguel celebrated at midnight with "Szechuan dumplings / After the deal has been done." Accordingly, Momed's cultivated sense of style and charm, which is an extension of Mr. Sarkissian's personality, and the elegance of its informal service make the restaurant one of few in Beverly Hills where an unironic meal can be had.

Dips are a staple of the Levantine kitchen, and Momed has engineered several twists on the familiar that are as clever as they are agreeable to the palate. The avocado hummus tastes as creamy and green as its looks with a flavor that splits the difference between the chickpea and the avocado. A single bite overcomes any initial fear that the dip is as contrived and off-putting as a grocery store California roll, or for that matter, a Kogi taco. The balanced, spicy eggplant dip, which--it has been intoned--is not baba ghanoush, gradually reveals its flavor and gentle spice over a period of seconds. Momed does offer a standard hummus for the timorous and hidebound, but its overly thick texture yields one of Momed's few missteps.

The salads, in constant variation, exemplify seasonality and an adaptation of the Mediterranean. The tabbouleh swaps parsley for fresh watercress, not that there is a shortage of parsley on the Left Coast. One constant salad is a showcase for samphire, a seaweed resembling baby asparagus that is tossed with green beans and actual asparagus. (I have only seen samphire used elsewhere in Casa Mono's fideos, where I used it to sweep away that dish's mayonnaise, a surefire emetic.) When in season, Momed serves roasted artichokes with fava beans and peas, a dish that appears much less oleaginous than the comparable version served at Tawlet Restaurant el Tayeb, a restaurant profiled in the recent "Back to Beirut" episode of No Reservations. My favorite salad is a simple helping of roast potatoes—sorry, Weiser potatoes—served room temperature with a tapenade of the First Triumvirate, namely anchovies, capers, and olives. I can assure you that Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey would have concurred.

Of course Momed offers an array of meats and seafood cooked on skewers. I am most taken by the pepper-laced lamb and beef koefte, which is always a model of succulence and spice. Accompanied by lightly grilled watercress, mint, and cherry tomatoes, the heat can be elevated with a helping of muhammara, the delicious red dip of roasted red pepper, walnut and pomegranate. Underneath the koefte lies one of Momed's toothsome and delightfully chewy pide, the pocketless Turkish flatbread that is a Momed specialty. Despite the considerable restraint required, one must allow the pide to soak up all the escaping juices and not devour all the muhammara at once. When the pide is all mucked up with koefte remnants and the piquant muhammara, the taste is irresistible. Patience is a virtue.

For my tastes and proclivities, which have always favored seafood to meat, the Byblos seafood salad is the standout. Named after the ancient Phoenician seaport near Beirut, the plate overflows with tender marinated shrimp, octopodes of various stages of adolescent development, and calamari. Bolstered by fennel, herbs, and the occasional schmear of avocado hummus, the salad is dressed just lightly enough with an admixture of lemon and raki, the anise-flavored spirit popular in Turkey. At the suggestion (and compliments) of Mr. Tseros, I had a glass of the Domaine Spiropoulos, a Peloponnesian white wine made from the autochthonous moschofilero varietal which has a striking pink tint. The combination of wine and all that octopus and fennel instantly transported me back to Mr. Tserors's native and bustling Salonika, where I once spent two days drinking wine and eating olives along the Aegean. Reality only re-intruded when I finished a section of the Gray Lady, looked up, and found myself in Beverly Hills, California.

Momed is so comprehensive with its coffee that it offers both mild and dark roasts of Turkish coffee which Momed has re-christened as "Mediterranean coffee" in the spirit of ecumenism. (In this vein, the wine list spans Greece and Turkey, Israel and Lebanon. If only it were that easy.) The mild roast, which is from Edna's Coffee in Glendale, is the best coffee in Los Angeles, that is, when the single barista trained to make it happens to be on duty. Momed's genius is to imbue every sip with physicality; the coffee has the thickness and color of the waters off the Louisiana coast, perfect for Turkish coffee if not life itself. The Four Seasons at Sultanahmet in Istanbul could not approximate such quality. For this luxury, I deem Momed's sin of using Intelligentsia beans for espresso expiated. When Edna's mild is coupled with a sweet, walnutty ma'amoul soirée cookie, any afternoon would be complete.


233 South Beverly Drive

Beverly Hills

(310) 270-4444

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Heinous Returns For One Last Taco On U.S. Soil

My favorite pop-up, guerilla gay bar is naturally in my adopted city's most fashionable neighborhood, home to what Our Hero has called "the most evolved shopping area in Los Angeles." This bar boasts enormous street cred since it was borne as an unlicensed taco cart, stationed on a sidewalk across from a bus stop at Santa Monica Boulevard's eastern terminus. Eventually the cart's popularity and the need to avoid pervasive MTA effluvia prompted a move into the sizable garden of bric-a-brac that is part of the nearby Mi Alma Collective. This gay bar, which goes by the name Ricky's Fish Tacos happens to make the best Baja-style fish taco in Los Angeles, even if the competition is less than vigorous.

The highly distinguished food blogger, Heinous—formerly of Brooklyn, currently of Sydney—was taken back when a promised taqueria greeted him not with urban grit, never mind a narcocorrido anthem, but with speakers blaring Madonna's "Like a Virgin." Through prior visits, Heinous became accustomed to the colorful shenanigans of East L.A.'s Tacos Baja Ensenada, which in a fit of immodesty, hung a sign proclaiming itself as the best restaurant in Los Angeles. He understood the mercurial ways of El Parian, with its prison cell-like, trompe l'oeil front door and a menu that expressly states that it "reserves the right to serve alcohol to anyone." (El Parian's decision to alter its carne asada recipe a few years ago remains a source of continuing frustration.)

Instead the bonhomous Ricky, with his signature straw hat, gave us a warm welcome while he lorded over the deep fryer, ever eagled-eyed in his weekend pursuit of preparing only the most flavorful fish and shrimp tacos. A perfectionist, Ricky makes his own batter and salsas. He heats the tortillas on a small griddle which, if my dated investigative efforts remain accurate, he buys in the mornings from a North Hollywood mercado. I have no doubt that he would make his own tortillas if circumstances allowed him to do so. An assistant dresses the tacos with shredded cabbage and pico de gallo. Patrons are invited to complete the tacos at the salsa bar with its assortment of delicious offerings. However, the spicy chipotle salsa, if applied injudiciously, overwhelms the taco taste.

Since the operation is unlicensed, Ricky and his friends quite justifiably see no reason not to offer visitors a glass of Tecate from the keg. If an invitee felt so obliged, he could donate a mere $3.00 to the kitty. Who is to say that these enterprising young capitalists are doing anything wrong? After all, a concern specializing in the distribution of a Schedule I substance flagrantly disregards the CSA from a Sunset Boulevard storefront within sight of Mi Alma. In fact, Ricky is probably smart to sell tacos within a stone's throw of all these potheads.

Once ensconced into a nook away from the techno-dance cacophony pulsating out of the speakers, we were able to eat the tacos. I love both the shrimp and the fish, both of whose freshness is indisputable. Ricky is a lot more adept with a deep fryer that I was during my tenure as a Burger King fry guy. (To be sure, I made a mean Whopper.) My preference is for the pescado over the camarón. The light catfish filets are a better complement to the thick batter than the dense shrimp, though the Wife disagrees.

We were in Silverlake, so a dose of irony is in order. When Ricky's cart was at the bus stop, it suffered from spatial constraints and those mephitic fumes. Yet the hipsters would queue up for a taco like tourists outside of Sprinkles or Pink's. But now that Ricky's Fish Tacos has moved into a lovely and festive oasis complete with a keg of beer, the crowds seem sparse.

On our way out, Ricky informed us that a disc jockey appears on Sundays. I don't know if the jovial O-Bar in West Hollywood is still around. Touch Supper Club, my old spot in Ohio City where I enjoyed several raucous nights, used to have some interesting Latin food. But there is no way they made fish tacos this good. Neither does anyone else in this town.

Ricky's Fish Tacos at Mi Alma Garden

4016 Santa Monica Blvd.


Sunday, April 18, 2010


Lou, a paradise of urban oenophilia, is hidden in the elbow of a wretched Hollywood strip center somewhere between an incandescent lunch counter called Flaming Patty's and a rub-and-tug joint that advertises itself as a "Thai massage parlor." Yet such a humble setting is not unbecoming, even though the proprietor, Lou Amdur, with his immense vinic erudition, has earned a more propitious location. For Lou, the restaurant and the man, are most approachable and democratic, and display not a trace of condescension or imperiousness. There are no special dispensations for celebrities, even for those persons with lead roles in Coen brothers' movies who were turned away a few months ago. You're darned tootin'!

A fastidious curator of his wine list, Lou is, by definition, opinionated -- and he more than most -- so his knack for self-deprecation and clever, even nerdy wit come in handy. For example, after the oft scorned wine critic Robert Parker, a proponent of wines from Down Under and supposedly of "power and concentration over subtlety and nuance," commented that "once very expensive Aussie shirazs [are] out of fashion among the anti-flavor wine elites," Lou countered "that's us, just a bunch of snooty clueless assholes."

The small bar is the best place to sit for a whole host of reasons. Lou stations himself there, and his idiosyncratic charms drive the restaurant's personality. As far as I am concerned, l'état, c'est Lou. Moreover, the bar ameliorates any lingering claustrophobia from what Lou has himself described as a "wallpapered shoebox." The chalkboard wall, which can best be studied from the bar, boasts a half-drawn map of the United States and demarcates the boundaries of only those states from which Lou sources cheeses and meats. He lists the purveyors' names on the map, as geographically appropriate. The rest of the country, we are left to deduce, is a vast nothingness. Naturally, Ann Arbor is at the center of the map and "Zingerman's" is displayed prominently. But directly south of the Michigan border and east of Indiana is an uncharted abyss. Could it be a forgotten vestige of the old Northwest Territory? A western nether region of DFW's toxic wasteland, the Great Concavity? No one knows for sure.

The wine list consists of, in Lou's words, "wines that are grown with minimal or no dependence upon synthetics in the vineyard and winery, fermented using natural (wild) yeasts, and made without dependence upon fancy technologies . . . and wines made from groovy indigenous grape varieties, old vines, sometimes, very, very old, and traditional winemaking techniques." In short, obscure wines from France, Italy, and Spain predominate. Wines from other European countries and the Western Hemisphere complete a short list that is in a state of Hericlitean flux. There are few wines from the most famous and expensive regions; to sample rare wines from Bordeaux or La Côte-d'Or, a trip to Bastide will have to suffice.

I was especially taken with the Chamonard Morgon, a Beaujolais that Lou poured for me a month or so ago. Its various subtleties and complexities, and overall wonderful flavor, loom larger in my mind every day. This past week, I loved the Eric Chevalier Fié Gris, an old varietal from the Loire that is a predecessor of the sauvignon blanc grape, and the anagrammatic Causse Marine Rasdu, which is made from the duras grape in the Southwest. (I will leave the business of describing wine to Jay McInerney notwithstanding his comparing Dom Pérignon to a Porsche, and not for the purpose of disparagement, in his very first column for Murdoch's Wall Street Journal.) Ultimately, Lou is incapable of pouring an uninteresting wine; the common thread running through the list is that all of his selections have unmistakably distinct flavors and are steeped in regional histories and tales. But drinking Lou's wine is no academic exercise. The best of his selections, with their flavors and bouquets, transport me to the countrysides and villages where the wines come from.

Lou is able to hover around the bar and go about his business as wine pontificator and dispenser of snarky witticisms, because of his good fortune to work alongside chef D.J. Olsen. Those hip-hoppy initials belie his actual background, a classical musician originally from Minnesota (like Lou) who decided to attend culinary school later in life. In light of the breadth of D.J.'s experience, his cooking is lucid and self-assured in a way that more prominent chefs in Los Angeles wielding more distinguished culinary résumés cannot match.

D.J. makes the bacon for the pig candy, a delectable pre-appetizer whose balanced use of cayenne paper and brown sugar adds a complexity to the simple genius of bacon and offsets the gimmickry of the dish's name. D.J. also brings a light touch to a smoked trout salad with apple and endive. Purveyor Michel Cordon Bleu smokes an ethereal piece of fish using only hickory, salt, and sugar, plus a few green herbs for good measure. Somehow the trout somehow retains its fresh taste, yet is balanced by a light and subtle smokiness. Avoiding any conceptual flight of fancy, D.J. ensures that the trout is front and center, accentuating the filet with thin slices of apple, short endive leaves, farmer's market peppercress, and a few pecan halves for extra crunch. An unobtrusive champagne vinaigrette binds the components together and adds just the right touch of sweetness to prevent the endive from overpowering the dish. I could eat this dish every night.

My favorite dish on Lou's menu is whatever iteration of scallops D.J. is serving. Lou has served four sautéed mollusks, circumscribed around a puree of celeriac, a slaw of julienned apples and fennel, and garnished with strips of the bacon cured onsite. D.J.'s dexterity with the scallops' texture makes them so appealing; he can coax different nuances of texture in various spots in a single scallop. The creamy, pureed celeriac and the apple-fennel slaw's sweetness emphasized the scallops' robust flavor. However, the bacon was superfluous and a potential threat to the delicate harmony of the other flavors. So I waited to finish off the scallops before I made a pre-dessert out of the bacon strips.

The grilled flat iron steak is also an excellent choice. Served medium rare, the Niman Ranch cut of meat is topped with succulent grilled onions and a few stalks of asparagus and potatoes, both unadorned but of superior quality and obviously traceable to the farmer's market.

A self-respecting wine bar, Lou offers up a proper cheese plate. Recent selections include Cowgirl Creamery's Devil's Gulch, a very rich and creamy cow's milk cheese amplified by spicy, dried red pepper flakes. The cheese received its fullest expression from Lou's proper attention to temperature, which allowed the Gulch to possess an exquisite balance of softness and sturdiness that we were unable to match at home. I also enjoyed the aged cheddar which swiftly disarmed my normal harrumphing over a cheese that can so often be pedestrian.

This cheddar also finds its way to the desserts, where it accompanies a thin and very tasty apple tart. No mere garnishment, the dish is a bid to split the difference between dessert and a cheese course. On our last visit, we must have tried a dozen wines by the time we reached dessert, or so it felt. Now Lou was hauling out his Madeiras from the Rare Wine Co. to pair with the tart and cheese. By the end of the meal, when I looked around and saw that we were the ones closing Lou down, I realized that the following day would involve a lasting red wine haze.

Lou feels like home the way the old Arabica Cafés at Coventry and Shaker Square did. The restaurant's wine pedigree aside, there may be something about Lou's personality--its sense of itself and humor--that appeals especially to refugees from the post-industrial Midwest. I submit that it is no coincidence that Lou and D.J. are from Minnesota, if only for the irony that the actor responsible for the Twin Cities' own Jerry Lundegaard could not find a table. Regardless, I have Lou Amdur and his quiet sidekick D.J. Olsen to thank for building the rara avis of a genuine home-away-from-home.


724 Vine Street



Monday, January 4, 2010

Fried Chicken at the Momofuku Noodle Bar

David Chang’s success in the East Village with his acclaimed Momofuku restaurants is proof that any culinary rivalry between West Coast and East Coast, New York and Los Angeles, is at best a cliché and at worst a delusion. On the evening of our visit to the Noodle Bar, several employees were wearing t-shirts proclaiming affinities for the East Bay. Chang reveres Wolfgang Puck, the legendary Spago chef famous for fusing Western technique and Eastern dishes and being among the co-creators of “California cuisine.” Indeed, Chang credits Puck as the source of the Momofuku mantra, which appears on the corporate website:

"Ethnic crossovers also occur when distinct elements meet in a single recipe. This country is, after all, a huge melting pot. Why should its cooking not illustrate the American transformation of diversity into unity?"

But let’s be clear: Chang is not about to hold hands in a circle and sing "We Are The World." In a 2008 New Yorker profile of him entitled “Chef on the Edge,” he used the word “fuck” 59 times, and I am sure with great nuance and subtlety. His new cookbook, Momofuku, has received publicity for its Murphian levels of profanity. The chef, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, explained that “There are so many more f-bombs and terrible things that happen in restaurants. It's an ugly, nasty business, the cooking world. It's hard, hot and grueling. Other books choose not to document this." This realism is praiseworthy and effective marketing based on its ranking of 111 the last time I checked.

Moreover, Chang is not some hippie chef serving compost or whatever it is that vegetarians eat. He is a stalwart proponent of cooking and eating pork. Fans of his original restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, prize the steamed buns stuffed with lardaceous pork bellies and the bowl of pork belly, pork shoulder, and a poached egg that happen to be accompanied by ramen noodles and broth. At Momofuku Ko, Chang serves a so-called tasting menu of several courses that can include everything from fried pork rinds, to what Ruth Reichl, writing in Gourmet, described as “triangles of pork belly . . . nestled up to an oyster on the half shell with a swirl of cabbage in a kimchi-infused consommé.”

The Noodle Bar on a Saturday night is a crazed event, since it does not accept reservations except for its special menus. Hordes of youthful East Village denizens bravely wait outside for tables, because diners inside appear to order anything the kitchen can produce. The restaurant is long and cramped, and has an open kitchen that is constantly swarmed with orders. There is no carpeting, and the wood floors and wall refuse to absorb a single conversation. Everyone thus has to shout to be heard, creating a perpetual frenzy in the dining room. The sheer volume of all this shouting inevitably leads to inter-table bonhomie and then exchanges of food followed by de rigueur expressions of gratitude, which always involve more and more beer and liquor and food. Finite gastrointestinal capacity breaks what would otherwise be a very vicious circle.

We Foxes and Graineseseses had a reservation for Chang’s fried chicken dinner. (If I am going to wait outside for a meal, it will be at Bar Pitti or Zingerman’s.) Momofuku serves two whole fried chickens, one Southern style and one Korean style. The Southern style was fried in a buttermilk batter and smothered in Old Bay seasoning, that amalgamation of celery salt, mustard, cardamom, and paprika, just to name a few ingredients, that is another oddball Baltimore tradition. The fried chicken itself was very good. After all it was chicken, deep fried by the hands of a very capable kitchen. Still, all that Old Bay, which should be used in sparing quantities because it tastes like spiced dirt, overwhelmed the chicken. On top of that, the plate of Southern style contained very little dark meat, which is far more flavorful than its dietetic counterpart.

I was more interested in the Korean version, as I love Kyochon, the large South Korean chain with a convenient western K-town location. Kyochon carves up a whole chicken into tiny pieces and then fries the pieces twice in a manner that "renders out the fat in the skin" according to the Gray Lady. Somewhere in the process, Kyochon brush the pieces with a spicy red chili sauce. Everything is made to order at Kyochon, and the wait for a chicken is a minimum of 20 minutes.

Momofuku goes one step further and fries its chicken three times. The platter of Korean fried chicken was primarily dark meat and of greater import placed right in front of me. It should be no surprise that Chang’s red chili sauce is superior to Kyochon’s, which has a medicinal aftertaste. Still I prefer Kyochon’s chicken. The chain’s central genius is its carving up the chicken, because all those little pieces with their bones have an ethereal crispiness. By comparison, Momofuku serves recognizable body parts, legs and thighs, which are larger and meatier but not susceptible to the Kyochon levels of crispiness. To be sure, Momofuku’s KFC is delicious and well worth a visit, but like a Spago hamburger, never quite as satisfying as an In-N-Out Double Double.

Momofuku accompanied the chicken with several superfluities: mu shu pancakes, spicy peppers, baby carrots, red ball radishes, shiso leaves, bibb lettuce, four sauces and a bunch of herbs. What these items had in common with fried chicken is an enduring mystery. I would expect all this accoutering at P.F. Chang’s, not at a premier New York chef’s original restaurant.

The small side order of standard kimchi warrants special mention. The cabbage had an excellent texture--sturdy enough that I had to bite into it, but not so thick that I felt like I was eating a wet notebook. But the kimchi’s red chili sauce was just outstanding. Its spicy, chili flavor revealed more and more complexities until I had to swallow it, regrettably. For all the kimchi I have sampled throughout Los Angeles’s expansive Koreatown, none has matched Momofuku’s tiny little batch.

We did manage to try Chang’s esteemed little steamed buns with pork belly and pickles. I will take the word of others that they are the ne plus ultra of steamed buns and fat. This art form and the bourgeoisie’s fixation on pork belly are lost on me. Yes, I just used the word "bourgeoisie.”

Momofuku Noodle Bar
171 First Ave.
New York
(212) 777-7773