Text 10 Oct Coming Soon

Ok, so the weekend posting thing didn’t happen. I now have a huge backlog of content to catch up on (photos from Alinea @ EMP, Little Serow, Blanca, an upcoming dinner at Minibar), of course with accompanying commentary. I won’t promise a start date yet, but it is on my mind….

Text 6 Jun Summer Hours

Interning at the SEC is fun, but, alas, my internet is severely regulated which means i can neither research nor write during the day. since i don’t get home till about 6pm, i’m a bit too burnt out to put together posts during the weekdays. so, for now, i’m going to try to just put out posts for the weekends. if i feel ambitious, i’ll try to get some extra to post through the week, but at the moment i’m not keeping my fingers crossed.

Text 31 May Food Fan Service: Pickled Strawberries??

More Atera! Diver Scallops, yuzu, gin botanicals, pickled green strawberries. The scallops had just enough heft to make the dish satisfying; the pickled strawberries and yuzu were delightful, with the botanicals slowly melting in your mouth.

Text 31 May The Latest Salvo in the War on Obesity

So, Bloomberg wants to ban large sugary drinks. Are we cool with that? I am. This will be a two day post. Today will talk about what i don’t like about the ban but also why its not a big deal. Tomorrow will look a little bit more about the normative points underlying the issue.

Before we get into the why, let’s talk about what exactly the ban will do:

A. Drinks that have more than 25 calories per 8 ounce serving can only be sold in cups/bottles/etc. of 16 ounces or smaller. This means diet/low cal drinks are excluded.

B. This does not apply to fruit juices, dairy based drinks, or alcoholic beverages.

C. There is no ban against refills, selling multiple cups, etc. etc. Bloomberg was very clear you’re welcome to buy two 16 ounce containers at the same time.

(I love Satellite coffee. But their koku latte, with caramel, almond syrup, and i think some heavy cream, is a whole lot less healthy than a soda of the same size. Would it be banned? no.)

1. What I don’t like about the ban.

B and C are troubling to me. For a city that is so obsessed with health, creating so many exceptions in B does make this sound more like an antisoda effort than an anti obesity effort. Interestingly, that is the tack soda companies are taking, saying that they are being singled out. I don’t know if that’s *accompanied* by other messages about how consumers should have the right to choose, but even if it is to make the ‘persecution’ factor the bigger one is an interesting choice. Either way, as to the exceptions:

A. We need to get over this myth that fruit juice is somehow good for you if you are having 20 ounces at a time. The sugar in fruit is typically mediated by fiber, and you lose that benefit when you juice it. Instead, you’re just getting a lot of sugar, and some admittedly good vitamins. Still, it doesn’t outweigh the hundreds of calories you have. Granted, how many people do that? I think the exception may serve more of an effect of staving off a soundbite about how you can’t have OJ anymore than it would practical considerations).

B. The dairy drink one i can’t say i really get except that it would piss off that lobby. It seems that, post ban, i could go into starbucks, and order a syrup-flavored latte that is twenty ounces, and that’s fine because its dairy based, but not the same drink as a syrup-flavored coffee. This would be true even though the latter is healthier. what the what?

Again, alcohol, i have to assume its a lobbying/public outcry issue, which is too bad though perhaps wise.

C. As for the rule that you can buy multiple drinks etc. this is, i admit, necessary from a practical perspective. Otherwise you couldn’t buy drinks for friends without them being there to prove there were multiple drinkers etc. It would be a total mess.

On the other hand, depending on pricing, you do run the risk that people will just end up buying a 16 ounce and 8 ounce drink as opposed to 1. Similarly, i assume the ban would not affect selling litre bottles of drinks since they wouldn’t be seen as single serving (though this is speculation). Depending on how the ban is carried out, consumers may end up finding themselves buying more, not less, soda. Or, of course, given the alcohol ban, in some venues you may shift people into buying more alcohol. This seems less likely, buts its a possibility i hope they have considered. 

The net result is, if the ban would actually encourage bad practices, than maybe it oughtn’t to be adopted in the first place. Hard to tell without doing a little research.

(I could also still have a whole bottle’s worth of firecracker sake, or ginger and ginseng sake, from Miya’s!)

2. Why this isn’t a big deal

A. The large exception above make it pretty clear that its not going to make it hard for you to get another soda if you want to; this is hardly a significant limit on what you can drink. It is instead hopefully creating a more psychological barrier to drinking so much by forcing you to consider whether you need another soda after 16 ounces.

B.It should be noted that before trying to pass this ban, Bloomberg also tried to pass a tax on sodas as well as limit the ability to purchase sodas with food stamps. State legislature killed the first, federal regulators the second (I wonder how Michelle Obama felt about this?). 

C. The ban, if anything, does make it more likely to make soda at high volumes more expensive. Given that obesity disproportionately affects the poor, it may make the ban more successful than if the problem were more evenly spread across the population. of course, one can claim the fact that it will disproportionately affect the poor is a larger civil liberties concern, but i’ll get to that tomorrow.

The benefit of this tactic is that it should not require approval outside city hall. Part of me likes the check on power this represents: there’s no doubt in my mind lobbying played a huge role in the legislature’s vote. It creates a counterbalance to this, and a way for legislators to fight back, to viably say “hey, if you don’t let us pass this, the mayor will just do something that might piss you off more on his own.” It’s too bad the government won’t see the revenue gains it would have from a tax.

New York already has a slew of other health regulations that have now been adopted by other cities. I think the ban is over and underinclusive, which is too bad. But, given the other attempts to address the issue, i don’t have too much sympathy for soda companies.

Text 30 May Culinary Content Curation: Ratings

Google + Zagat: maybe that should be ++. Now, Google + will have its own review system, based on Zagat’s to compete with Yelp. I’m intrigued: your friend’s reviews show up first, and you have to use the Zagat scoring system which is symple but much clearer than Yelp’s since you can split food, service, etc. I wonder how people will respond. of course, who uses Google +? [Grubstreet]

Ma Peche switches up its large format: no longer beef 7 ways. now high end halal. lamb shoulder+yellow rice, chicken+yellow rice, or combo of the two. traditional accompaniments, natch. when do i get to go? [Momofuku Tumblr]

Srsly? “Porcheta.hob” opens a few blocks from Porchetta. Chef concerned with name, not their food. “They serve theirs cold, we serve ours hot and fresh. In terms of quality there is no competition.” [East Village NYT]

NY to Ban Big Sugary Drinks: Breaking news from NYT. Sweet. (pun intended). [NYT]

Text 30 May Food Fan Service: Chicken

I know. Blurry. But i mentioned the chicken at Craigie on Main, and so here is the pic of me, devouring the carcass at the bar at Craigie. I was a bit buzzed, and hacking away, when the couple next to me said “why don’t you just pick it up?” So i did. The bartenders loved this.

Text 30 May Comfort, Adventure, Trends Part II

How appropriate that Devra First of the Boston Globe had an article on roast chicken’s new hipness (including the wonderful roasted chicken at Craigie on Main, which i’ve feasted on at their bar, carcass and all) as I look now to the split in fidi trends of food meant to indulge expectations versus food meant to challenge. Both represent viable trends in dining, with each having distinct advantages and challenges.

(Fremont Diner’s lamb hash certainly qualifies as elevated comfort food that indulges fantasies. certainly.)

1. Indulging Expectations

The first trend I mentioned yesterday is the trend towards communal meals and food that does not challenge the customer’s expectations but instead indulges them. These are restaurants that capitalize on the trendiness of the burger, pizza slices, and fried chicken. They are not necessarily limited to comfort food, but they are places that stake their claim on offering something familiar to you but at an extraordinary level. 

The major benefit to restaurants like these is their accessibility. Not just in terms of price (which largely will depend more on the neighborhood/hipness of the place than the food served) but in terms of the concepts offered. These are the gateway drugs of fine dining; once you understand just how good food can taste, maybe you’re willing to be a little more adventurous next time. 

There are two major risks to establishing a restaurant around these concepts, the first of which i’ve mentioned before.

A. The problem with taking a familiar food and elevating it is that there tends to be room for only one or two people in the city to really take any given food and bring it to that level. Once you’ve had the ‘best burger’ somewhere, there’s a whole lot of disappointment waiting for you as you try ten other places hoping to live up to that ideal. Instead of indulging your fantasy, all these other places become knockoffs, the way (i hear) drugs never have the same payoff after the first hit. This is not even to speak of the place that are *active* knockoffs and cheap simulacra just trying to profit off the trend. 

(Bohemian’s mac and cheese, with tomato butter toast, is a steal at 5 bucks. The cheese runs like liquid with a deliciously burnt crust).

B. Stagnation. Certainly, there is innovation to be found in this cuisine; better ingredients, better techniques, better pizza etc. That said, these concepts are by definition playing to the familiar; they can only stray so far before they lose that allure. Certainly, this is a common trend- how often does a place list something as a ‘pizza’ and sound delicious, but hte product that comes out is more like a flatbread, or pita, or cracker. There may be infinite variations within the theme of familiar foods, but they are all still circumscribed within a narrow set of bounds of the indulgences we grew up with. This can migrate over time, perhaps, but, that is on the scale of generations. In the mean time, as we throw ourselves into indulging fantasies of burgers, mac and cheese, and lobster rolls, we risk turning ourselves off to more interesting cuisine and innovation.

2. Challenging Expectations

On the other side, we have restaurants that are heirs to the modernist cuisine folks, working on inventive dishes but (hopefully) focusing more on flavor and satisfaction. Clearly, the advantage here is the foil to comfort food: innovation is king. Even as molecular gastronomy recedes, its techniques still inspire and drive new ideas within cooking. As i’ve mentioned before, new nordic cuisine, and Noma, the new goto spot for chefs, largely embraces the fundamental ideas of modernist cuisine of trying to use any ingredient in any capacity, with any technique, possible, to produce a great dish.

The challenges:

A. Accessibility. Again foiling the comfort food trend, cuisines like new nordic are often more inaccessible. This is not like modernist cuisine, per se, where you have to be willing to adventure with foams, gels, smoke, etc., but more a willingness to adventure with what kinds of ingredients you eat and how you are presented them. I think a lot of people would balk at cucumber being used as a spice, or pine needles as an ingredient in a dish. There is some sweet spot in which a dish can be described and created such that it both expands horizons but gives people a lead in to feel comfortable ordering it.

This of course, rests on the notion that accessibility is desirable in the first place. There’s a lot to be said for chefs cooking what they want without compromise, and if a restaurant can attract enough customers to survive that’s good enough. On the other hand, if one is more interested in food becoming/staying the new rock and roll, this is not an acceptable tack to take in the abstract.

(Clever, clever dish. Softshelled crab, brown butter sauce, amaranth sediment. Basically, like eating a crab on a beach, sand included. brilliant.)

B. Replicability. With comfort food, there is a problem of replicability that, often, once you’ve found your spot for fantasy X, there’s no reason to go somewhere else. This does not mean however, that its impossible to reproduce fantasy X somewhere else (just look at shake shack). Often the problem is more about individual preferences, or lack of effort on chefs parts, than it is really a lack of ability to create a great piece of X. Innovative food, on the other hand, is by its nature much more bound to the person who came up with the concept. There is a higher risk of quality drop off when someone tries to imitate it. Even if food is accessible then, it might not be possible for many people to access it because its simply hard to reproduce. 

The answer to this issue, of course, is that is exactly why these chefs become the goto spots for the upandcoming to train: so that there ideas can disseminate and evolve. 

More than anything, looking at these two trends highlights what great complements they are for each other. By splitting fidi trends this way, you have cuisine that lends itself to those who might not be interested inherently in good food, and, once you have them hooked, you have other restaurants paving a way for innovation. The fact that a chef like David Chang really does embody both trends (fried chicken at noodle bar v. dishes at Ssam Bar and of course Ko) show how well they work together. I wonder as this plays out how true these trends are for nonmajor cities: can they have innovation in the same way, or, as more people become (hopefully) interested in food that challenges their expectations, will major cities by default become even more of a destination spot for a new generation of foodies? Could regional cities become increasingly known for their high execution of local comfort foods? Will I stop being part of a very small percentage who is willing to fly across the country for food? I hope not. I count on that for actually getting places. jeez.

Text 29 May Culinary Content Curation: Bourdain to CNN

This will be the last season of No Reservations: Bourdain, and his production crew, are moving to CNN. [Eater]

Modernist Cuisine… at Home: A followup to the original, made for the home but.. not available on IPad? At least this one’s only $115. [Grubstreet]

An Offal Retrospective: YUM. [Seriou Eats]

A look at chefs taking on foreign cuisines: Ricker of Pok Pok, Stupak of Empellon, Dieterle of Kin Shop, and more. A look at the biases in play both for and against these chefs as opposed to natives cooking the same food. [NYT]

Text 29 May Food Fan Service: Best. Beet. Ever.

Dried beet at Atera with roe, spinach, and a crustacean sauce that was heavy on uni. The beet was crunchy and clean with the sauce and roe adding a nice dose of brine and a welcome variety of textures.

Text 29 May Indulgences, Subversions, and Fine Dining’s Future

After being thrown off by the move to DC and the holiday, I am back. I also had one of the best meals of my life at Atera this past weekend; those photos will show up throughout the posts i’m sure. Today I want to get back a bit to the idea of postmodern cuisine and where the intellectual capital of chefs (ie what’s trendy these days) is headed. This mostly serves as baseless speculation/post-hoc narrative writing that is frowned upon these days in real academy; but what’s the point of writing about food, and on a blog, if not to get away from those sorts of constraints. So, another look at the shift in fine dining (fidi?) that has taken place over the last 5-10 years.

(Who would think that zeppoles at Caseus would be one of the best things on their menu, and one of the best desserts ive had recently. Fresh fried, with lemon curd and caramel on the side. Loved the lemon curd, and reminded me of beignets at Pete’s Panini near Mobile, AL.)

1. Divergent Paths in Cuisine

A couple of transformations have occurred in fidi. First, molecular gastronomy, at least most of the techniques associated, are in the decline. This is true both in restaurants that center around it and those that simply incorporate it into the meal. i’ve said before i expect some key techniques to stay and even gain popularity (eg sous vide), and that it will shift into alcohol, but largely it will get less rather than more attention, at least in its current iteration.

Typically, people talk about communal dining, large format or small bites etc., as being the next big thing. Associated with this is a lot of upclassed versions of comfort food, ingredients we can understand but brought to the next level. Along with this are often much more informal dining rooms and a younger crowd willing to drop large bucks while sitting on a stool.

After eating at Atera, I realized this is only half right. Yes, a lot of fidi has shifted in the vein of Momofuku restaurants, casual and with big draws for fried chicken, ramen, pork shoulder, and simply served food (we’ll ignore desserts for now, delicious as they are). But, you also have places like Atera, Ko, BK Fare, and its ilk that go for a much different experience. Typically though not necessarily small, these are the large prix fixe menus with obscure ingredients and titles, coy servers who deliver dishes with a smirk and a wink (line of the evening at Atera: “here is a chicken bouillion with a noodle the chef’s been working with lately.” Noodle was made with cut up squid). Though these restaurants do not necessarily incorporate modernist techniques, they are much more the heir’s to the tradition than the Momofuku half. The fact that both exist though show a nonmutually exclusive split in what fidi is attempting to provide for customers that I find fascinating.

(The cheesecake at Atera features an aerated frozen cake, lavender, strawberries, ice cream. It is everything you want out of a cheesecake but very little of what you’d expect.)

2. The Shift in Expectations

At its core, we can describe modernist cuisine’s goal as subverting expectations (and hopefully providing delicious food at the same time, though i don’t that that is or has been its primary goal). Modernist food reimagines techniques and ingredients in a way that is foremost thought provoking, and it makes sense that for a long time this was the cutting edge of fidi. One assumes that the people who are most invested in fidi are the ones who have had the time and money to have already tried a lot of good food. Of course then, we can imagine that they are a bit jaded, longing for something new, and so turn to modernist techniques. This is true of both chef and consumer. 

There is a problem though basing a cuisine around this notion of course. First, as alluded to mulitply already, when you set your goal as subverting expectations than you don’t always end up with a great end product. Second, subverting expectations is only exciting when you already have a core set of well-developed expectations to begin with. In other words, modernist cuisine was always going to appeal to a limited audience that was already highly invested and knowledgeable about food. It’s much harder to provoke thought to a consumer who has no background as to why they should be surprised in the first place. Instead, you’re just weird.

(Atera’s lobster roll. A small bite served, I think, on a yeast meringue that was savory, ethereal, and a much better foil to the lobster than the typical roll.)

3. The Split in Fine Dining

A. The new trend of casual, communal dining largely gets away from subverting expectations. Instead, and this is seen best in the ongoing obsession with gourmet comfort food, the Momofuku style places are playing a different game: they’re indulging expectations, letting you live out your fantasies. These are the places that want to give you meat, or veggies, or soup, like you have dreamed was possible but never had. In doing so, the fact they are also casual makes sense: you never dream of eating the best burger of your life at Per Se, you imagine it wrapped in paper sitting at a table in newspaper. Or something like that anyway. Essentially, the shift in how we dine reflects the kind of product we are looking for. It’s not about price matching decor, its about the food experience indulging our expectations, not running against them.

B. Places like Atera address the problem by still trying, to varying degrees, to deliver an experience that subverts your expectations. However, they drop the need to use modernist techniques to accomplish this goal. These new restaurants have gone back to focusing on delicious food first, with the goal of a unique experience running along side, or subservient, to the primary goal of deliciousness. It makes sense that these places are so often small, and with a clear view of the kitchen. By still going for subversion, and charging a high price for it, you still need that audience who is well versed, and deep pocketed, enough to afford the food. As a result of this knowledge, this of course is the clientele who would want to watch the kitchen at work, ask questions, and learn as much about the meal as possible. 

These divergent paths are not of course mutually exclusive: plenty of casual fidi places deliver dishes with a clever twist meant to surprise you, and much of restaurants that subvert expectations do so by producing a ridiculously delicious, simple dish that would also indulge your fantasy of the platonic form of flounder.  That said, I do think they are unique trends that cater to a different set of ideals about going out for fidi, and more than that, as opposed to the previous obsession with modernist cuisine, i think both trends are viable and will expand separately to fit their niches. 

Tomorrow (or later today if i’m feeling ambitious and guilty about missing a day) i’d like to address some of the advantages and drawbacks of each trend in addressing the issues that plagued molecular gastronomy.

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