Sunday, September 27, 2009

Why I Write About Food

I've been asked why I write about food, and this seems as good a time as any to answer that question.

The truth is that so many of my memories are, in some way, about food.  From the dinners my mother made as a child and the restaurants my grandparents took us to in Florida, to the places we celebrated birthdays and occasions.  I remember the old pot my mother used to make meatballs and gravy, and a Chinese restaurant in Miami that my grandmother called the best she ever ate at - and it was.

Through college and law school I remember my early experiments in the kitchen, often having friends to dinner or throwing dinner parties as a way to socialize while improving my skills in the kitchen.  I used to throw an annual Valentine's Day party for anyone who was single, and served big trays of homemade lasagna.  Once I threw one of those murder mystery parties, where you buy that box and it has invitations and instructions for all the guests to play a specific part.  The only mystery I recall from that day was wondering how my turkey managed to cook in only two hours.  And my friend Stephanie and I still laugh about how I didn't have a decent carving knife - which wouldn't have mattered since no one knew how to carve a turkey - so we distracted the guests while ripping the flesh off that bird with our bare hands.

When I moved back to New York in 2004, my ability to re-connect with New York - a place I had left 15 years previously - was experienced through restaurants.  I worked my way through virtually everything that was covered in the back of New York magazine in the spring of 2004.

And so much of my relationship with Neil is a story told through food.  I remember the first restaurant we went to (Bar 89 in SoHo).  Shortly after we began dating, I threw a dinner party and realized I didn't have enough china.  I had always used my grandmother's everyday stoneware but each plate weighed, like, 50 pounds, and I had moved so many times that I got tired of carting it from state to state.  Since New York City kitchens were small, and - really - how often did I need a service for twelve, I gave half of it away.  I ordered a whole new set on two days before the dinner party. (Be careful ordering plates online.  These are pretty, but the color looked different on the website and it was impossible to discern that the plates were slightly concave - resulting in all sauces or other liquids pooling toward the center of the dish.  They can really only be used for relatively dry entrees.)

Food doesn't only track the celebratory occasions of my life, but the darker ones as well.  The trays of bagels and "appetizing" that marked the funerals of my grandparents.  The secret eating of my youth - all those hidden candy wrappers and pints of ice cream that helped me balloon to 265 pounds.  The secret resistance of food in my twenties - a plagued and dysfunctional relationship of desire and denial - caught between my love of food and hatred of my body.  And all the hard work involved in re-examining that relationship and establishing a much more positive approach that enabled me to embrace eating and myself, much more positively.

It's an inseparable story of my life, and I tell my stories through food, because I see eating - at it's core - as a social activity.  Eating alone is associated with so many of the painful memories of my life - but eating in the company of others is a story about making new friends or becoming closer to existing ones or falling in love or celebrating happy milestones.  It's the way I experience my life that enables me to share it.  I believe food should be accessible, and when I dine in a restaurant my fundamental evaluation criteria is accessibility; the food you order should be joyful and pleasurable and your response should be primal and come from the soul.  In the kitchen (and the recipes I offer) I aim for simplicity - allowing you to derive pleasure from the process of cooking and the act of sharing it with others.

That said, I want to tell you about a cute new cafe I had lunch at on Friday: Petit Cafe on Greenwich Ave between Seventh Ave South and W10th St.  It's funny: we often look for a place to eat lunch in that neighborhood.  Something inexpensive, something with variety, (something really fresh (hee).)  Petit Cafe has sandwiches and salads and soups, but decor, the experience and the quality of the food rises above the delis and bodegas that dot the landscape of Manhattan.  Further, they specialize in offering gluten free choices, making a great choice for anyone with Celiac's disease.

The owner was working in the cafe late on Friday afternoon when I stopped by, and was friendly and accommodating.  I ordered turkey, avocado and turkey bacon which he recommended serving on a whole grain roll (he was right).  Since I don't really love mayonnaise on sandwiches, he recommended a chipotle sauce that was perfect, and the sandwich was out of this world.  For less than $8 I had a terrific meal.

Friday night Neil and I went down to the Lower East Side and had dinner with Brette and her sister, who was visiting from Boston.  We ate at a Mexican restaurant called Mole, and the food was just fair.  Brette and Meredith really enjoyed their burritos, but Neil and I were disappointed in our entrees.  His cochinita pibil was covered in a very thick sauce that resembled ketchup.  The flavors were too pungent and aggressive, and the technique showed no subtelty or nuance.  My bistec a la Mexicana was kind of a train wreck: a huge plate of onions and tomatoes and meat that was totally wet.  The flavors were really muddles and the effect was one of fat and spiciness. Even the guacamole was disappointing, the tomatoes were a little mealy and the chips tasted like they came from a bag bought at the convenience store next door.

Adios, Mole, we won't be back.  For better Mexican food, check out Dos Caminos (the Soho location is better than the Park Avenue one, and has fewer annoying 27 year old drunk girls from Long Island) or Centrico in TriBeCa.  If you're uptown, check out Maya on the UES and Cafe Frida on the UWS.

Nevertheless, we had a great time.  Meredith is really cool - she writes the relationship advice column for the Boston Globe - and together, she and Brette are a riot.  One of the high points of the evening was a discussion about Shiitake mushrooms, during which I realized that the reason I don't care for them is the resemblance their texture bears to the female sex organ.  I haven't eaten either since I was 19.

Afterwards we went to Mercury Lounge on Houston St to see a band.  A band!!!  So excited!!!  We never do this - it was like being transported to a scene from Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (cute movie - check it out.)  We were in the back of a small bar in a young neighborhood, and still have enough elasticity in our skin that - in the dark - we didn't look too old to be there.  Actually, there were several people over 50 in the room, whom we can only assume were related to band members.

People were drinking beer out of large plastic cups, and there was a little kiosk selling CDs and glow-in-the-dark frisbees with the band's logo.  I would have felt 25 again, if I still had hair and weighed 20 pounds more.

The band - the Adam Ezra Group - wasn't bad.  They had one or two original songs that seemed pretty good.  I mean, the music was fine, but you couldn't hear a lot of the lyrics because the lead singer either has terrible diction or was doing some serious drugs (we all voted for the latter.)  They did a cover of Pearl Jam's "Better Man" (told you I felt like it was 1995) and it took us three verses before we could figure out what it was.  By the time they got to an arrangement of (wait for it) "She Shook Me All Night Long" which began as a folk song and then turned into funk, I was ready to go.

You know, when it comes to new music, or stuff that's edgy, I feel the same way as I do about hallucinogenic mushrooms: everybody else seems to be having fun but I just don't get it.  I end up in the corner feeling a little lost and sort of nauseated (which could have been the meal.)

After a long run on Saturday, I stopped by Baoguette on Christopher Street.  I don't know how I feel about Christopher Street.  When I moved here, it was sort of a rundown relic of the Village circa 1983; the old leather bars and porn shops.  Now it has an Energy Kitchen and the gay coffee house is a Rag and Bone showroom.  It's cleaner, but there was something nice about that window into New York's past.  With the gentrification of Hell's Kitchen and the Lower East Side, and SoHo having been relocated to the Paramus Park Mall, there's so little left of what New York used to look like.

Still, I can't deny I love Baoguette.  An abbreviated menu featuring a handful of vietnamese sandwiches and pho (noodle soup), you can get an enormous tasty lunch for $5.  I ordered the barbecue chicken baoguette - chicken, jalapeno, cilantro, daikon, carrots - all served on a crusty roll with spicy sauce.  Mmmm. Slurp! If you are anywhere in New York - GO!  You'll thank me.  Five thousand times better than Subway - at the same price.

On my way home, I passed one of those psychic tarot card readers - you know what I'm talking about; those little storefronts with the card table outside and the woman who charges $10 to read your future.  So I'm walking by and there's a newspaper on the card table.  And I'm like - why would a psychic need the newspaper?  Wouldn't she know everything that happened before it made it to the paper?

Maybe she was doing Sudoku.

For dinner on Saturday night, Neil and I went out to dinner with another couple - David and Jason.  We've known them for a while but this was the first time we've gotten together socially.  We went to Eighty-One on 81st St (duh) on the Upper West Side.  The restaurant is beautiful - one of the nicest spaces I've seen on the UWS - lushly decorated with red banquettes and cream colored walls and espresso colored woods.  The look is spacious and lush and modern.

The menu is largely New American, and provides opportunities for virtually every taste and price point.  In addition to the chef's appetizers and entrees, there's a section of items in a minimalistic preparation (entitled "Simply" and covering chicken, steak, and salmon) and a prix fixe menu offering a selection of appetizers and entrees for $30.81.  There's even a cafe next door serving burgers and sandwiches, hovering around the $10 price point.

Neil ordered the scallop ravioli - a luxurious preparation in lobster broth - that delivered a substantial portion without being heavy.  I selected the Roasted Corn Soup, a creamy chowder with smoky corn flavor that was absolutely delicious.  For dinner, Neil had a hanger steak that was exquisitely prepared and served with creamy cracked wheat, preserved tomato and parmesan.  The flavors were terrifically balanced and avoided being overly salty.  I ordered the slow-roasted chicken with baby basmati rice and tomato confit.  The chicken was excellent, though the rice was a little too watery and the flavors were too subdued.

For dessert, we shared the sugared chocolate ganache donuts and the pastry of bittersweet chocolate, peanut creme and salted caramel.  Slurp, slurp, slurp!!!  Neither was too heavy or too sweet, and both were served with homemade ice cream which, to me, is a requirement at dessert.

It's raining today, which portends a trip to the gym, a trip to the (wretched Fairway) market, and several hours on the couch trying to work on my book and watching old episodes of House.  (He's such a scamp, I love that Hugh Laurie.  I'd totally be into him if he were, like, 70 years younger.  And circumsized.  It's that whole shiitake mushroom texture again.  What?  I'm just saying.)


DO THIS, New York:

Go to Petit Cafe.  It's really cute, and a perfect[place to grab a sandwich, sit outside, and people-watch.

Have a Baoguette.  If you don't want chicken, try the pork.  Mmm. Slurp!

Eat at Eighty-One: a luxury experience at a value price.

Make up your own mind about the whole shiitake mushroom thing; to each his or her own.

Watch House.  That show is good.  Did you see the season premiere?  Really fantastic work, and Andre Braugher and Franka Potente are always welcome additions.

DON'T DO THIS, New York:

Skip Mole.  Yuck.

Skip the porn shops on Christopher Street.  There are still a few - but they make for nostalgic ambience, not destinations.

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