Thursday, December 22, 2011
Three blocks from Halles de Lyon is Daniel et Denise, a restaurant that may or may not be a genuine bouchon—its business card claims the status even if that douche tiger Bill Buford demurs. Owned since 2004 by Joseph Viola, a chef with a stellar pedigree and the narrowly defined ambition to refine and interpret – without deconstructing or otherwise destroying – the Lyonnais classics, Daniel et Denise would be the perfect place to test Bill Buford’s incendiary claim that Lyon is, in fact, the food capital of the world.
After 18 hours of travel and grappling with the Wife’s concomitant jet lag, I was afraid disaster had quickly struck. (What he means to say is that I was fucking pissed because I wanted a cute, dark, romantical ristorante, and instead the lighting was positively FLUORESCENT, so, upon entry, I wanted to punch Steve in the face. But that could have been because I thought he could have been more polite. But, yes, the rest of the stuff bugged me, too.) My nonexistent “bonsoir” to the maître d' provoked her irritability (See what I mean? Say “bonsoir.” It won’t kill you.), which quickly became acute when we were seated in the restaurant’s incandescent back dining room. (Did you not hear what I said? Fluorescent, NOT INCANDESCENT. DON’T YOU READ THE NEW YORK TIMES?) For all its traditional décor, the room was as bewitching as an operating room. On a Friday evening, the restaurant’s final service of the week, the restaurant was filled with ordinary people dressed ordinarily, in sweatshirts and the like. It dawned on me that Lyon was not Paris. (Thanks, Genius.)
The Wife’s lingering displeasure proved fleeting once she was served a salad of greens on which the kitchen overlaid haricot verts, then a few creamy pieces of crayfish, and finally a thin wedge of foie gras terrine, all in a row. (I’m easy like that.) This salad and, let’s be honest, this preparation of foie gras still haunts Marisa’s dreams. (Does it? Does it now? Like I fucking sleep long enough to dream? STOP BLOGGING ABOUT WHAT YOU THINK MY DREAMS ARE, STEVE, AND GO CHANGE A DIAPER.) I stayed out of the way, but for a single, ethereal bite of foie gras that was unmatched the entire trip. At our waitress’s recommendation, I ordered the house terrine of God-knows-what; it was one of those sallow, jellied concoctions of different layers of animal parts, artisanal Mystery Meat for all intents and purposes, forced into the shape of a slice of Wonder Bread. I’ll confess that I enjoyed it, but there is no need to order it again. (It was fucking gross. And I say that as someone who walked around covered in my younger daughter’s vomit for an hour today before realizing the smell that was bothering me was coming from my own damn shirt.)
Marisa then struck gold with a Lyonnais classic, quenelles au brochet, sauce Nantua. The sauce is a béchamel plus crayfish, a local staple which provided the requisite fluvial nuance – a grand, seemingly weightless soufflé of pike, molecular cuisine if there ever was one, in which Monsieur Viola tossed in a few mushrooms and yet more crayfish for good measure.  (Oh my god, you’re verbose.)
I ordered a personal favorite, Le Boudin noir fait Maison aux Pommes, that is, black pudding with sautéed apples, a perfect autumn dish and accordingly a rara avis in the City of Angels. (Accordingly, this non-chef just had to master Bryan Miller’s straightforward recipe.) Daniel et Denise’s rendition uniquely served the pudding in two small casseroles, dispensing with the formality of encasing the meats. The sweet apples were of course the hoary, necessary counterpoint to the rich boudin noir, its globules of pork held together with delicious blood and fat. Ultimately, Viola’s goal was to prepare a Gallic standard to the best of his considerable abilities and with all due intelligence. I loved it. (Not for me, says the wifely mouse.)
The kitchen brought out two side dishes. The first was a platter of fried discs of potatoes, seasoned just right with salt and torn little shards of basil – just perfect for sopping up the remainder of the Wife’s sauce Nantua. But the heavenly gratin of what amounted to macaroni and cheese stole our hearts. Think the best macaroni and cheese hails from some venerable Memphis soul food house in spitting distance of an old-timey juke joint? Guess again. Crazy Joe Viola is responsible for the best. Creamy and rich and made with cheese from, yes, France, this dish is the very reason that comfort food is so comforting.
Dessert, a “floating island of pink pralines” (Ile flottante aux Pralines de Saint Genix) was in actuality a giant cone of iridescent, pink sugar, the color provided by Lyon’s ubiquitous pink pralines. I remain bewildered by the dessert and frustrated that I didn’t have the presence of mind to order the poached pears au vin rouge. Oh well.
As for the matter of Lyon’s status as the world’s gastronomic capital, why not? Lyonnais allez lyonnais allez lyonnais allez. Even the Wife liked it.
Restaurant Daniel et Denise
156 rue de Créqui
Tél. 04 78 60 66 53
 Les Halles is the home of the fantastic centenarian, Maison Rousseau, a lunch counter beloved for bringing the best of the Atlantic coast and Mediterranean to the Rhône-Alpes region, including impeccable Belon and Papin-Poget oysters, subtle sea urchins which were much smaller than their Santa Barbara cousins, an absolutely epic fish soup—burgundy in color, smelling of the sea that, depending on one’s perspective and power of persuasion over the spouse, either moots or necessitates a visit to Marseilles—and plenty of personality and personalities, naturally.
 Paul Bocuse may be a deity, but his eponymous restaurant, located nine kilometers north of Lyon in Collonges-au-Mont-d'Or, like any house of worship, involves too much entertainment and kitsch, and is prohibitively expensive. Seven years ago, we found Paul Bocuse to be a theme park of itself: Bocuse's image was emblazoned on every wall, plate, and mug. The preparations felt more like the nineteenth century than the mid-twentieth. One example, a plate of Bresse chicken in loads of cream epitomized blandness. Toward the end of that meal, Bocuse found his way to our table to greet us and receive our plaudits. For the Vegas-level mediocrity and showmanship, we had to oblige.
As a matter of course, we’ll order the labor-intensive quenelles when appropriate, which is to say, whenever a restaurant will make them with pike. I ordered quenelles the following night at Café Comptoir Abel, whose chef, Alain Vigneron, is the only practitioner (and holder) of Eugenie Brazier’s original crayfish-less recipe. Ms. Brazier was the first French woman to earn three Michelin stars, over 70 years ago. With such a noble provenance, quenelles would seem the very essence of fancy, fusty French food as stereotyped in both the States and increasingly in France itself. For example, La Grenouille, the New York dinosaur that insists that its patrons wear jackets, sells quenelles to septuagenarians for $36.oo per serving. But in Lyon, the dish is standard fare for regular people. For all of his troubles and for such amazing quality, Joseph Viola charges a mere 15€.
Monday, July 25, 2011
Nearly half a billion people inhabit the Middle East, a region that sprawls from Morocco all the way to Iran and comprises nearly 19 countries, that is, because the Palestinians seem intent on taking their chances on statehood at the United Nations this fall. While portions of southern California share the same arid climate as the Middle East, the various cuisines of the vast Middle East are popularly conflated into something sunny and light. Falafel and tabbouleh, both Levantine staples, have long been popular among the unusual breed of people who are acolytes of Dennis! Kucinich. For carnivores, the smattering of kebabs and of course the shawarma, or jahy-roh as it is known in most parts of America, constitute the full breadth of the Middle Eastern diet.
However, these items would not seem to provide the succor requisite by inhabitants of the Arab World--a narrow corner of which is today’s topic--and you may have heard is unstable politically, fraught with autocracy and theocracy, howbeit now under sustained challenge, riddled by poverty and war, but nothing if not gritty. Amidst such strife, the Arab peoples would seem to prize comfort in their food and concomitantly soulfulness. While there is outstanding Middle Eastern food in Los Angeles, as a general matter, it tends to be, to adapt the embarrassing Angelenan coinage, Cal-Levantine in nature.
To eat lustful, comforting Arab food, shorn of any sense of a Californian sensibility, for example, what a Hamas fighter might crave after assassinating a few collaborators and then joining his friends in a game of whack-a-mole with the IDF, the intrepid Angeleno must venture down to the Olive Tree in Anaheim’s Little Gaza section. While the Olive Tree may be initially unsettling to the kafir, the restaurant’s lusty, heartfelt food assuages those anxieties with the ease that it soothes the locals’ craving for a taste of the old country or, as it were, the occupied territory.
The Olive Tree occupies a drab dining room in an anonymous strip center, minimally decorated with Arab bric-a-brac, junk really, with the only noticeable color coming from the green and red in the small Jordanian and Palestinian flags, the so-called Flags of the Arab Revolt (designed of course by a Brit who later supported the Balfour Declaration before reclaiming what I am sure was his deeply held anti-Semitism) that hang by the front door.
At 7:30 or so, despite being moderately busy, not a single female customer was present, and the man who exited the restroom had an addled, malevolent gaze directed at no one in particular. My brother and I hoped his peculiar behavior was the product of nothing more than cocaine. Did I mention that we were the only Jews, not that anyone would care or notice since we were without our Jew-caps, and in Anaheim of all places, a “town somewhere between Buchenwald and Belsen” according to Ed? That is now two distinct sets of anxieties with which we were forced to grapple.
We ordered the two specials of the day, a lamb shank with rice and the meatballs in yogurt or, kibbe labneh and then took in the scene. The well-coiffed chef with movie star looks toiled assiduously in the open kitchen behind a deli counter of sorts. We attempted to keep abreast of our intoxicated friend, but our eyes could only follow those massive portions of lamb being distributed to the tables and which could have been served in a mead hall feast. I read the menu carefully, but saw no item described as a full-fledged Iftar. What could we have missed?
Nothing as it turned out. An order of the lamb shank was a feast for one. After they brought our shank, two middle-aged gentlemen, who by their physiognomies could have suffered at least a few scrapes at the hands of TSA, ordered by simply pointing at our shanks as if we were the experts, two Jews from Pepper Pike, Ohio. By this point, any lingering unease of ours was neutralized.
Most importantly, the shank was so tender, so delicious that our server’s failure to provide us with knives could have been a stroke of the restaurant’s bravado or maybe mere server forgetfulness. Regardless, only the four tines of our forks were needed to carve the shank up into bite-sized portions. Accompanying the shank was the Olive Tree’s version of an Arabian peninsular rice dish called kabsa, a fantastic and hearty agglomeration of innumerable spices, deftly balancing, inter alia, cinnamon, cardamom, and saffron plus currants and almonds. I asked our waitress what spices the chef used, but she declined to answer as if I might steal the recipe.
The kibbee labneh was equally as satisfying. The labneh yogurt was served like a tangy soup-sauce, with old-fashioned kibbee intermixed with bulgur wheat and spices. I remain infatuated with what was for me a dish of first impression. The thickly textured hummus also exuded hominess and careful preparation.
The Olive Tree’s traditional Arabic coffee was just as I like it: ugly and unsweetened. Before making the trek back to antipodal Beverly-La Brea, we walked over to the Forn Al Hara bakery and shared assorted baklava and other treats which in that late hour were fresh and restrained in their sweetness, a fitting finale to a surprisingly fun dinner.
The Olive Tree
512 South Brookhurst Street, Suite 3
Saturday, March 19, 2011
According to Husret Hoja of Erzurum,* “Coffeehouses are places where pleasure-seekers and wealthy gadabouts sit knee-to-knee, involving themselves in all sorts of vulgar behavior. . . Do the poor have enough money to drink coffee? Men frequent these places, become besotted with coffee and lose control of their mental faculties to the point that they actually listen to and believe what dogs and mongrels have to say.” While this may be an accurate portrayal of the scene at the Intelligentsia over on Sunset Boulevard, the Hoja would have overlooked Espresso Profeta. He simply never would have found it. I struggled to find it, concealed as it is in a jewel of a old brick building on a quiet stretch of Glendon Avenue, closer to Westwood’s office towers than to the UCLA campus.
Espresso Profeta is a beacon of quality and independence among all the Starbucks and Coffee Beans in Westwood Village where there is an alarming scarcity of charming collegiate cafés serving our local branch of the University of California, that is, unless Boba Loca draws your fancy. Drawing a crowd of actual intelligentsia -- graduate students and professors, and even a few undergrads -- Profeta is all UCLA has. Profeta offers a serene courtyard with plenty of seats for reading and quiet discourse. Whoever designed Profeta’s sunny interior understood that an appropriate amount of table space is required to read the newspaper and enjoy a coffee.
The Hoja might remonstrate that Profeta’s espresso is of such superior quality that men are sure to become besotted with coffee. Profeta’s baristas draw short, thick espresso shots using the dolce beans from Espresso Vivace, the Seattle institution dating to the Queen City’s halcyon flannel-and-grunge era. (Pace Longfellow, there is nothing queenlike about Cincinnati or Catawba wine.) The Vivace beans, as interpreted by Profeta’s baristas. have their own style: they are darker than most and taste on the chocolatey side with no residual bitterness or saccharine fruitiness.
It may be a shame that UCLA undergrads lack a proper coffeehouse with the requisite clunky brown mugs, racks of local weeklies, and late hours, but my guess is that Bruins do not care. After all, the UCLA campus is graced by a branch of a certain restaurant famed for its cheeseburgers and crossed palm trees which happens to be open very late. If their coffee sucks, who cares?
*Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red, p. 12 (Translated by Erdag Goknar.)
1129 Glendon Avenue
Monday, January 10, 2011
On Saturday morning, we followed the essential ritual, coffee at Blue Bottle, and then a big breakfast at Tartine. We devoured an orange bun, exquisite frangipane and ham and cheese croissants, and another order of brioche pudding. If one has to discriminate, the brioche pudding was still fantastic with apples, but lacking the blackberries from Day One, it was not as gaspingly majestic. The de rigueur quiche was cooked on this particular morning with swiss chard and chanterelles.
After the Incanto debacle, we decided not to fuck around. Accordingly, we strolled down to perennial favorite, Zuni Café, which opened in 1979 and, in a stroke of genius, lured Judy Rodgers to its kitchen in 1987. Still reveling in San Francisco sunshine, we sat in a nook along Market Street, pondering the most logical way to approach Zuni’s indispensible roasted chicken, the one served atop a bread salad that soaks up all the fat and drippings. It also happens to be a dish that takes a good hour to cook. Of course the key to avoiding table listlessness, especially at Zuni, is more eating. So we ordered three antecedent courses, beginning with a plate of magnificent cured anchovies, accompanied by thin shavings of parmesan cheese; thinner, hyperbolic shavings of fresh green celery; and tiny black niçoise olives. Celery, it should be remembered, is foul: Its peculiar bitterness and disturbing crunchiness suit the vegetable for diets. It is probably the reason that kids hate vegetables. So I submit that the knife work necessary to extract celery’s concealed sweetness, somehow a natural accompaniment to the cured anchovies, is a technical feat on par with whatever biochemical tricks those zany Catalan folks are attempting.
After Incanto’s reckless evisceration of chanterelles from the night before, we required continued corrective action, which took the form of a slender cheese and chanterelle pizza, deftly executed and cooked to an enviable point on the crispiness-chewiness continuum. Always offering one pasta dish during its lunch service, Zuni coaxes improbably rich flavors out of ingredients that would be humdrum at most other restaurants. On this day, I happen to be talking about spaghetti al farro, a wheat trendy during those halcyon days of the Roman Republic. A decade ago in San Francisco, farro returned to prominence, according to the Chronicle, as “chefs like Judy Rodgers of Zuni … seem to be taken with farro's rusticity and its association with rural Italian peasant cooking.” History aside, our spaghetti al farro was in a sense a pauper’s dish in that it contained no luxury ingredients — that is, other than the farro which I’ll guess cannot be found at Ralph’s, but is subject to a healthy mark-up at Whole Foods. In other words, the spaghetti was prepared with julienned red and green peppers and onions in olive oil and was completely satisfying on this warm afternoon with the few sips of Bandol remaining in my glass. Cooked to the tooth, the spaghetti and those delicious peppers epitomized clarity of flavor and purpose, giving the dish the aura of effortlessness just like so many other delicious items on the Zuni menu.
As for that roasted chicken, there are few dishes as classic yet consistently botched in kitchens beyond 1658 Market Street. For at least 24 hours, Zuni salts its chickens, which, according to the restaurant’s accompanying cookbook, should weigh 2.75 to 3.25 pounds, as such chickens “flourish at high heat, roasting quickly and evenly, and, with lots of skin per ounce of meat…are virtually designed to stay succulent.”
But, arguably, it is the bread salad, the dish’s literal substratum, soaking up all the glorious chicken drippings, that has propelled the dish to great heights. A stuffing for all intents and purposes, Rodgers's euphemistic bread salad, is awesome proof that Zuni has earned its timelessness while yielding none of its modernity. Those hunks of bread, some chewy and some crispy, are moistened by wine vinaigrette and dripping fat. Emboldened by garlic, scallions, currants and pine nuts, the bread salad brings a necessary lustiness to the perfectly cooked chicken.
We were just getting started. Flaneuring up Valencia Street, we stopped for an espresso at Four Barrel, a café whose odious poseurdom matched its grotesquely over extracted coffee. Like Sight Glass, Four Barrel has a massive, industrial storefront, most of which is dedicated to roasting; only the front section is used for beverage preparation and seating. Four Barrel is so affected that it conspicuously employs disc jockeys to spin vinyl, as if to say, We and our record collection are hipper than thou. Let’s be clear: Four Barrel is the Dave Eggers of coffeehouses. Its espresso is heartbreakingly overdone and its disc jockey is a pointless footnote. (I do concur that vinyl is superior; there is no other medium that does Bud Powell justice. But Dave Eggers is loathsome, and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius could be the most grating literary work published in English.) On their own, Four Barrel coffee beans are of unimpeachable quality and are far better utilized by the skillful hands of Tartine Bakery’s baristas.
We wound up the afternoon at Humphrey Slocombe where we encountered a gaggle of nerds manipulating their DSLRs while their ice cream melted. After a long meander up Harrison Street, I enjoyed my refreshing olive oil ice cream, which was much more lemony than Otto’s standard-bearer. But the black sesame confounded me. We all loved J-Wy’s tin roof sundae; the Tahitian vanilla was so pure and rich that the recipe could have been stolen from Guy Savoy, and hot fudge and the salty sweet genius of frosted peanuts only amplified its greatness.
Building to an appropriate crescendo, we and our already full stomachs, later made the 50-mile jaunt south to Los Gatos for a dinner at Manresa, a restaurant swiftly becoming the Chez Panisse of its day. David Kinch, Manresa’s chef, believes that he builds on Alice Waters’s emphasis on quality local produce by insisting on vegetables that are “biodynamically” grown at the Love Apple Farm, located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a mere 20 miles away from the restaurant. Biodynamics is little understood, but its proponents can be accused of lunacy — literally. After all, biodynamics, the brainchild of Rudolf Steiner in 1924, involves planting seeds based on lunar phases because of the “link between growth and the life force of the moon and sun.”
Steiner actually favored “burying a cowhorn stuffed with manure at the time of the autumnal equinox,” because—and here is where the logic sputters—through the burial “we preserve in the horn the etheric and astral force that the horn was accustomed to reflect when it was on the cow. Because the cow horn is now outwardly surrounded by the Earth, all the Earth's etherizing and astralizing rays stream into its inner cavity. The manure inside the horn attracts these forces and is inwardly enlivened by them. If the horn is buried for the entire winter—the season when the Earth is most inwardly alive—all this life will be preserved in the manure, turning the contents of the horn into an extremely concentrated, enlivening and fertilizing force.” Jesus fucking Christ.
To those of us philosophy grads overly steeped in Berkeley and Hume, biodynamics would seem to be the object of cacchination, not strict adherence. But somehow Steiner’s ravings captured Kinch’s attention. All that aside, my sensory experiences over three meals at Manresa entail a conclusion that Kinch’s vegetables are the finest I have eaten in recent memory, at least since lunch with Jim (and, oh yeah, our wives) at L’Astrance in 2005, when it was a hungry Michelin two-star. Biodynamics is also employed by Domaine Romanée Conti and Domaine Leroy, which “are widely acknowledged to be among the greatest wineries on the planet” according to J-Mc. Where that leaves Steiner’s theory is another story. But I’ll chalk up Steiner’s recent prominence to being at the goofy nexus between hippydom and hipsterdom and to the meticulous, intensive, and small-scale farming that goes on in such agriculturally advantaged locales as Santa Cruz and the Cote D’Or.
Kinch differs from the Panisse mafia in that he takes enormous conceptual and technical risks, exemplifying his apprenticeships in Burgundy and San Sebastian, Spain, as well as in the Axis countries. Meals at Manresa always begin most propitiously with a rendition of the L’Arpege egg, paying homage to his ideological comrade Alain Passard, the iconoclastic and vegetable-focused chef of L’Arpege who first concocted this amuse bouche. This “hot-cold egg” contrasts a warm poached egg yolk served in its brown shell with cold cream and sherry vinegar as well as maple syrup with sea salt, plus some chives for good measure. It would seem that only an alchemist could transform a poached egg and cream into such a sophisticated little jewel that still tastes downright homey, owing to the presence of maple syrup. But we have Kinch (and Passard) to thank for this treat.
Manresa’s gargouillou, its “Into the Vegetable Garden” salad, is another modern French showstopper that in the right hands and with pristine produce, is a composition “of vegetables, leaves and flowers, each prepared in a different way and set upon a black ‘dirt’ of roasted chicory root and dried potatoes” that “showcase[s] the farm’s daily offerings, from roots to leaves.” Each vegetable is individually braised, and all of their collective juices are “combined to make the foamy emulsion that represents dew.” Michel Bras, a chef from Laguiole, France, specializing in modern haute cuisine, originated the dish over thirty years ago, and it tends to be served only in the most rarefied restaurants. Mugaritz near San Sebastian, Spain, serves it, as does Coi in San Francisco. Corton in TriBeCa achieves admirable results despite being in an unfavorable location, agriculturally speaking. Manresa’s gargouillou manages to be even snobbier. Kinch credits NOMA’s René Redzepi, a Dane who is perhaps the most cutting edge chef in the world, for inspiring the edible black dirt that is supposed to approximate the dirt at the Love Apple Farm. The dish is a perfect vehicle for testing Kinch’s thesis about a restaurant’s sense of place, and his work with vegetables that were grown 20 miles of the kitchen is electrifying. Perforce I examined each vegetable, considering and savoring every delicious bite.
My favorite dish of the night, Kinch’s own creation, was the ingenious rice-less risotto of big fin squid and Vietnamese lemon balm, mushroom, and parmesan. But I must first cavil before I kvell. I doubt that Manresa was serving big fin squid, which would seem impossible to capture. (This squid, which can be up to 23 feet in length, lives at depths thousands of meters under sea level, safe from commercial fishing operations. No adult specimen has ever been captured according to Wikipedia.) Regardless, Kinch and his staff, demonstrating tremendous physical stamina above all else, transform their squid into simulacra of grains of rice, possessing the same texture and color of an al dente risotto. With mushrooms and lemon imparted into the mix, parmesan would seem not to jibe. Yet at Manresa, the parmesan worked wonders as if the risotto really were rice, and not a delectable creature from the deep.
Totally sated after a weekend of hedonism, a full dessert course was not in the cards. But we managed to sample a few cheeses from the traditional cheese cart. Collectively we were most taken by a Portuguese cow’s milk cheese and an Oregon blue, and it is a shame that we—in our food-induced haze—never got their names.
1658 Market Street
Four Barrel Coffee
375 Valencia Street
2790 Harrison Street
320 Village Lane