Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Santa Fe Notes (May 31 - June 3)


Santa Fe is an art town. Artists have been attracted to northern New Mexico for years (Georgia O’Keefe being the most famous), and the city is bursting with galleries as well as several top-notch museums. I’m restraining myself from writing too much about art in Santa Fe because I don’t think I have the background to write credibly about it. Still, I was so taken with one artist’s work that I can’t let it go unmentioned.

Emilio Lobato - Vago (World Traveler), oil & collage on panel, 48" X 48"

Emilio Lobato, who is represented by Santa Fe’s Nuart Gallery, is a Colorado painter and printmaker who works within the tradition of geometric abstraction, adding collage elements from book pages to his work. To this mix he brings a Southwestern spirit and color sense that creates a compelling, eye-riveting beauty, at once mysterious and concrete.

Canyon Road is home to quite a jumble of galleries, representing everything from Native American crafts, Southwestern cliche, Hallmark kitsch, Russian kitsch, and some truly excellent contemporary painting (there's at least one gallery, Deloney Newkirk, that hedges its bets by featuring almost all of the above). Nuart is one of the best of the bunch, representing several other interesting artists in addition to Lobato. Besides Nuart, the gallery that most caught my eye was Patricia Carlisle Fine Art. Sucker that I am for clouds, I enjoyed Jim Alford's cloud paintings, and I also got a kick out of Melinda K. Hall's whimsical work.

But enough of art. I trust my mouth more than I trust my eye.


My visit to Santa Fe afforded me the opportunity to spend some time with a couple of old friends, Melody Sumner Carnahan and her husband Michael Sumner. I consider Melody, who now publishes as Sumner Carnahan, one of the most compelling innovative prose writers of my generation, and I don't say that just because she's a friend. Visiting with friends who maintain their integrity and a strong commitment to their work always inspires me. I hadn't seen Melody and Michael for at least 17 years, since they left the Bay Area for New Mexico, yet it seemed as if hardly any time had passed.


Food was, of course, one of the main reasons I made this, my first visit to Santa Fe. New Mexico is known to have a very particular cuisine, albeit with similarities to Mexican, that somehow has never really been exported. You can find Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex all across the U.S., and much of the rest of the world too (authentic or not is another matter), but you rarely find New Mexican cuisine outside of New Mexico. I had to travel to its natural habitat. The chile pepper is at the heart of New Mexican food, but not all of it is incendiary; tastes and preparations vary.

Mark Miller took Santa Fe by storm 19 years ago when he arrived from the Bay Area (shortly before Melody & Michael’s exodus) and opened his Coyote Café, combining a California sensibility with local ingredients. I didn't eat at the very high-end Coyote's main dining room, but I went up to the casual, affordable Rooftop Cantina, which serves what I'd call near-Mexican bar food. I had a decent, but hardly memorable meal of grilled duck quesadillas (served with a nice spicy slaw with mango & pineapple), and a pretty forgettable sopa Azteca (tortilla soup). The Margarita was also forgettable, but I made up for it by ordering a Don Julio añejo after dinner.

I went to The Shed, which is famous for its red chile, and ordered an enchilada/taco combo with posole (a/k/a pozole) for lunch. In Mexico pozole (a stew of hominy and pork) is usually served as a soup with lime, radishes, and tostadas with refried beans on the side to be mixed in by the diner. In New Mexico it tends to be less of a production number, and is often served as a side dish on the plate with the other items (and, of course, without all the broth). The combo was a traditionally heavy New Mexican plate. It was absolutely delicious, but still, I can tire of that kind of heavy, cheesy stuff fairly quickly.

Melody & Michael took me to Maria's, a Santa Fe institution not far from their home. Frankly, I was not too impressed by the green chile stew, a soup with pork, green chiles and potato that was surprisingly mild. The ribs appetizer, however, nicely smokey with a red chile glaze, was excellent. But I think the real highlight of the meal was my introduction to sopapillas, a staple of New Mexican cuisine, and generally unknown elsewhere. What is it about fried dough that's so great? That's what sopapillas are–puffy, chewy, flaky, crispy, delicious fried dough, usually eaten with honey. Beignets, crullers, zeppoles, Indian pooris, Modenese gnocchi fritti, and now sopapillas–I love 'em all.

Cafe Pasqual’s is another Santa Fe institution. They're famous for their breakfasts, which are served until 3 PM. For my 11 AM brunch I had “EL PRESIDENTE – Our Sauté of Smoked Poblano Chiles and Niman Ranch Beef Strips on White Corn Tortillas with Two Eggs Any Style and a Circle of Pinto Beans with Cotija.” The spice of the chile was bold but not overpowering, and it married so nicely with everything else. Niman Ranch are organic farmers who raise their meat without cruelty, leading to their products being called "happy meat." Happy meat is tasty meat.

The Plaza Restaurant is a time capsule across from the Plaza. It’s been there since 1918, and now has the look of a ‘50s American diner. I love the laid back vibe of the place. My cup of posole was not as good as the posole served by The Shed, and I learned that all sopapillas are not created equal, as Plaza’s were rather disappointing after Maria’s. I was, however, very happy with the Guatemalan tamal (stuffed with chicken, olives, pimentos and raisins), topped with green chile.

My one departure from southwestern cuisine was a dinner at El Farol, a highly regarded Spanish restaurant on Canyon road with a specialty in tapas. I ordered three tapas to start, two of which bowled me over.

The boquerones fritos, fried, sesame-coated Spanish anchovies served with a spicy lemon aioli were delicate and wonderful. The Israeli couscous (similar to egg barley) with creamy Idiazabal, a lightly smoked Basque sheep cheese, was rich and rewarding. The grilled pulpo (octopus) was less successful. It was overly charred and could have used more smoked paprika. It was, however, served with a very nice black olive tapenade. I should have quit there, but I wanted to try one more since two of the dishes were so good. Unfortunately, the dish I ordered was by far the worst of the bunch, the setas (Crimini mushrooms) with Jamon Serrano and Sherry. The thickish slivers of cured ham were too salty when cooked, and there was too much of it, so the ham ended up hijacking the mushrooms.

A mediocre ½ carafe of Sangria at $18 was a ripoff. I’d have been better off ordering two glasses of wine.


During my stay in Santa Fe I had weird, vivid dreams, each and every night, throughout the night. At first I thought it must have been the altitude, but I wonder if the chiles could have been the culprit.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Bay Area Bites, Part II – Hanoi Fish & Stinky Tofu

On Memorial Day I went Asian.

Bodega Bistro, in the Little Saigon enclave of San Francisco's tenderloin (the Vietnamese influx adding some family stability to this traditionally seedy neighborhood), is a fairly new Vietnamese restaurant I had heard a lot about and was eager to try. There are some excellent restaurants on the stretch of Larkin Street between roughly Eddy and O'Farrell. Pagolac is perhaps the best of the more traditional Vietnamese places. But Vietnamese food is also a true, non-contrived fusion cuisine, drawing on the long history of French colonial culinary influence. In Vietnam paté, yogurt and Laughing Cow cheese are ubiquitous, for instance. Bodega Bistro is a place that capitalizes on the French connection, offering some more "modern" Eurasian-fusion-type dishes in addition to its Hanoi-style cuisine (this itself something of a novelty since most U.S. Vietnamese restaurants are based in Saigon styles). The name itself is a pun, as each of the syllables in bodega represents a different type of meat in Vietnamese: bo (beef), de (lamb), and ga (chicken).

My schedule only allowed for a solo lunch, so I couldn't try as many dishes as I'd have liked, but the two things I did try were winners. Nom is a shredded green papaya salad with "beef jerky" (small pieces of dried beef) and peanuts, in a lime and herb dressing. It was refreshing, with complex flavors. I also ordered the cha ca Ha Noi, Hanoi-style fish filet (flounder here, though traditionally catfish) served on a sizzling platter with a side plate of lettuce and herbs for rolling the filets into finger food, rolling food in lettuce being a favorite Vietnamese pastime. Bodega Bistro served little Boston lettuce cups, as opposed to the Romaine leaves I'm used to. Accoutrements included two aromatic leaves: the somewhat soapy herb I know as shiso in Japanese cuisine, and another, even more soapy leaf whose name I don't know, and which I've only been served in Vietnamese restaurants. I do not like the latter leaf. Then there was the enormous pile of cold bun (rice vermicelli), which one rolls in the lettuce along with the fish.

The fish was lightly breaded with what was probably a thin egg & flour batter, providing a subtle crispness that kept the fish wonderfully moist. It was sauteed with dill, onions, shallots and peanuts, the dill being the real surprise. Dill is apparently a common enough herb in Hanoi-style cooking, but I had never had it in Vietnamese food before. It worked wonderfully, and got along quite well with the other ingredients. There is also turmeric in the dish, but it was very subtle. Two sauces were served with the fish: one made with savory fermented shrimp-paste and the other a slightly sweetened fish sauce. I alternated the sauces as I ate my lettuce-fish rolls.

Bodega Bistro's refined take on Vietnamese food seems for the most part utterly earthy and authentic. The restaurant may ultimately give The Slanted Door a run for its money among people who care more about food than buzz. The Slanted Door, by the way, is a real darling among Bay Area foodies. They serve a very good, but not that good nouvelle version of Vietnamese cuisine, and I frankly never understood what all the fuss was about.

* * *

Spices 3, in Oakland's Chinatown, is a Sichuan restaurant that apparently serves Sichuan cuisine as it's prepared in Taiwan. Its number 1 and 2 sisters are in San Francisco's Richmond district. The restaurant bears a subtitle: Szechuan Trenz. When Robert Lauriston showed me the menu at his Memorial Day barbecue I was fascinated by the description of many of the items, even if all did not sound totally appealing–the large selection of stinky tofu dishes, for instance. There were dishes with "explosive chili pepper" and others with "flaming RED oil". Other dishes contained "Numbing" in the description. I wondered whether that was the name of a Chinese city, but Robert set me straight and explained that it's a translation of "ma la," which means "numbingly spicy." Also on the menu were plenty of entrails as well as some Taiwanese noodle dishes. We decided to go there the following night.

The food was good, but nothing spectacular. And it was not nearly as dangerous as it sounded. We ordered the following dishes (there were four of us):

Numbing spicy cucumber: a cold dish that was slightly sweet along with a hot spice that was actually moderate–hardly numbing, but quite tasty.

Chinese bacon steamed with spicy flour: Spare ribs steamed with spicy rice flour is one of my favorite dishes at Wu Liang Ye. This could not compare, and I don't think the preparation works as well with the fatty bacon anyway.

Fish filet with explosive chili pepper: This was served in a tacky wooden boat. Fried filets with a spicy breading were smothered in dry red chilies. The fish was delicious, perhaps my favorite dish, but none of us exploded.

Sizzling lamb with cumin spice: I'm not used to cumin in Sichuan cuisine. The dish was all right, if a bit lackluster. The cumin/lamb combination reminds one of Muslim cuisines.

Ong-choi with garlic: There's not too much to say; as long as simply sauteed green vegetables are seasonal, and not over-salted, they usually tend to be pretty good in most Chinese restaurants. Ong-choi, sometimes known as Chinese water spinach, is more commonly found in Cantonese than Sichuan cuisine, and Cantonese places tend to do it better.

Stinky fried tofu: Yes, we did it. Robert insisted, and I think he was the only one who ate more than one piece. Fermented tofu is often used as a condiment, and it works nicely as part of a sauce for green vegetables, but this funky stuff is not my idea of food proper.

So, while the food was pretty good, some of it very good, the menu ultimately was more interesting than the food itself.

Bodega Bistro on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Bay Area Bites (May 27-30), Part I

On Saturday, May 27, the day of my arrival in San Francisco, a couple of good friends took me to a favorite place of theirs, Vivande Porta Via, on Fillmore Street. The restaurant has been around for quite a while, and it has a very good reputation for artisanal Italian cooking with the best imported ingredients. Well, my meal unfortunately was a dud. The three of us shared their signature pasta dish as a first course: scrigno di Venere (Venus’ jewel box): beggar’s purse of pasta filled w/spinach tagliolini, rosemary ham, and peas; served on besciamella sauce w/prosciutto and parmesan.

Is it just me, or does the name of that dish sound like an ancient Italian euphemism for the vagina? The restaurant is known for its pastas, and this one sounded intriguing, but it also sounded overly rich, so the decision to share one as a first course was a happy arrangement. For me, if food is layered, stuffed, or made into a Chinese box, there ought to be a variety of flavors and textures. Well, poor Venus's box was rather monotonous. First of all, to make the pouch, the pasta has to be cooked soft enough to make it pliable, which is not the way I like my pasta. The stuffing had neither a different taste nor any texture variation to speak of. Overall, the bechamel, with it's cheese accent, overwhelmed everything. I felt that our $19 had purchased us a glorified mac & cheese. My main course, pollo al mattone (boneless chicken breast, marinated in rosemary, sage, and garlic; seared under weights, and drizzled w/a warm balsamic reduction; sautéed swiss chard w/garlic) suffered from an over-saltiness of the meat and the greens. I shall not return.

* * *

The soul food weekend brunch at Luka's Tap Room in Oakland was a pleasant surprise. I'd heard it was good, and good was all I was expecting. Well, it was better than good. The first thing they brought for the table were some small squares of a delicious black pepper cornbread, accompanied by a mini-jar of honey. We ordered some beignets for the table (3 adults & two kids), and they were spectacular: hot, flaky, chewy, non-greasy, subtly luxurious, and served with a blueberry coulis and dark chocolate squares. I ordered the eggs with catfish filet and hash browns. The catfish was tasty, though the breading could have used more spice. I only made a dent in the massive hunk of hash browns, but they were quite good. I don't know who their bread supplier is, but the whole wheat toast was wonderful, and they served some excellent strawberry preserves to go with it. Luka's also has a large and interesting beer selection, and I hear that their dinners are good too. Good food is a good reason to head to this otherwise non-destination area of downtown Oakland.

* * *

I often go to the Bay Area for Memorial Day weekend, and one of the main reasons is for the amazing pot-luck barbecue my friends Robert Lauriston and Gail DeProsse throw every year. There are usually about 30 guests, and most are serious foodies, so the event is always a cornucopia. This year was different only in degree–somehow the food, in general, didn't match last year's bacchanal. This year's highlight was the mini-burgers made of Buffalo meat that one of the guests had brought and cooked on the grill. Here’s what I had to say in a pre-blog email about the 2005 event, the standard by which I’ll judge future Lauriston-DeProsse pot lucks until it’s eclipsed:

“Robert & Gail are psycho-foodies, and many of their friends are too. There were about 25-30 people there. I’ll try my best to remember what was served, or at least what I tasted: noodle kugel, Basque chicken salad pintxos, eggplant salad, 3 kinds of potato salad, bay shrimp kebabs, grilled prawns, kalbi (Korean marinated beef short ribs), steak, spicy dry rub baby back ribs, sweet & messy spare ribs, pork belly with star anise & cardamom, boudin blanc, Italian sausage, chocolate cookies with a hint of chili & ginger, Grand Marnier cookies, blueberry pie. . . . I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch.”

* * *

I had a pleasant lunch at the bucolic Lark Creek Inn, in Larkspur, with two old friends and a friend of theirs, all academics: an ancient historian (actually he’s relatively modern, if not quite 21st-century) and two research psychologists, one who studies visual perception and the other who studies lying (I’ve dubbed her a mendacitologist). Somehow, despite the assembled expertise, we never got to the question of whether all Cretans are liars.

The Lark Creek Inn was opened in 1989 by Bradley Ogden, who created a California version of American heartland cuisine. Ogden, now head of a mini-empire, had passed the Lark Creek kitchen on to others in recent years. The Inn is a beautiful 1880s-vintage house, and a meal there is a peaceful getaway. Though no longer a place with buzz, it’s blue chip. The appetizers were highlights: the Dungeness crab fritters were excellent (I just made the tail end of the season), and the ham hock raviolo (yes, singular) was unique and memorable. The raviolo is a signature creation, and I always seek out specialty dishes that are unavailable elsewhere. The large, open-faced raviolo was stuffed with slivers of smoked ham hock and Vella dry Jack cheese (new to me). The pasta was properly al dente. All in all, it was much more satisfying than the Venus jewel box of several days earlier. My main course, a grilled shrimp salad with smoked paprika, was good, but less interesting than the starters.

For dessert the four of us shared one butterscotch pudding. We could easily have skipped dessert, but Lark Creek’s butterscotch pudding has a reputation. Now, butterscotch pudding is not normally something I’d be attracted to, but a reputation makes me prick up my spoon. Well, the pudding was very sweet, too sweet, and frankly I can’t understand what the vaunted reputation is all about.

The ‘40s swing recordings and the ‘50s Sinatra ballads they played were just right for the mood of the place. The atmosphere is very WASP, but to their credit I felt right at home nonetheless.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

New Yorkers Unite! Come to my reading, June 25 at Bowery Poetry Club

This is your big chance to see The Mouth in the flesh. I'm reading at the Bowery Poetry Club on Sunday afternoon, June 25. I'll be reading a selection of short prose work written over the last 25 years as well as premiering a couple of bloggish rants. I'm sharing the bill with Holly Anderson, who was my personal choice for the event, and even if you find me unbearable you're sure to love Holly.

Peter Cherches & Holly Anderson

read new and seasoned work

Sunday, June 25, 4 PM


The Bowery Poetry Club

308 Bowery, New York, NY 10012

foot of First Street, between Houston & Bleecker
across the street from CBGB

(F train to Second Ave, or 6 train to Bleecker)

Full bar & cafe!

Pete and Holly are featured copiously in the forthcoming anthology, Up Is Up, but So Is Down: New York's Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992

Friday, June 09, 2006

On Menu Scouting

In the fall of 1984, fed up with my precarious freelance existence, I enrolled in an intensive computer programming course at NYU’s midtown campus. On the first day I learned that one of my classmates, Janice, now one of my dearest friends, lived near me in the East Village. Since we were both inveterate walkers, we quickly fell into a routine of walking to and from class together. I often aroused her ire, however, as I was wont to stop and peruse the menu at any and every restaurant that looked promising. She just wanted to walk.

A couple of years later she and her husband Derek adopted a dog from a shelter, a feisty Airedale they named Babka, in honor of the Eastern European coffee cake. One day Janice told me of her constant frustration when walking Babka. “Every two minutes she has to stop to sniff at something. It’s just like walking with you.”

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Bites, May 2006 - Part II

My New York dining highlight of the month was my first visit to Las Ramblas, a newish tapas bar named for Barcelona’s famed pedestrian boulevard. It’s an almost microscopic place, occupying the W. 4th Street storefront that was, for many years, home to The Bagel. Utilizing bar tables and stools to make the most of the tiny space, it’s not really a place that lends itself to a languorous dining experience, which is too bad, because it would be great to savor a number of the offerings over a leisurely evening of drinking.

My usual rule of thumb for tapas, when making a dinner of it, is three plates per person, so my friend and I ordered six at first, three from the main menu and three from the specials board. The specials tend to be higher-priced than most of the main menu items, at about $9-12 each. The food was so good that we had to go for a seventh item before we left. With drinks, it worked out to over $50 per person (with tip), but one can probably keep it to $35 without too much trouble.

Every item was a winner, which is a not-too-frequent occurrence. Each dish had very particular, bold flavors, and the chef has clearly paid great attention to seasonings and taste combinations. Nothing was timid, nothing was heavy-handed.

The specials:

Serrano ham-wrapped monkfish: delicately flavored little filets, served atop a lentil salad that had a prominent, but not overwhelming, vinegar presence. The combination worked.

Morcilla salteado (sauteed morcilla): two kinds of blood sausage (one with rice), rich and flavorful without being over-salty.

The sliced duck breast special was served with a peach/muscatel sauce that was fairly sweet, but not cloying. It was a delicate balance, and in lesser hands it could easily have gone over the edge.

From the menu:

Banderillas con chorizo de pato: mini-skewers of duck sausage, with quail egg & pearl onion. Simple & tasty. I should have asked where the sausages (if not home-made) could be procured.

Patatas bravas: this version of Spanish fried potatoes with spicy smoked paprika and aioli is the best I've had in NY since the demise of Helena's on Lafayette St. This is a ubiquitous tapas bar item in Spain, but the best version, and easily the best fast food I’ve ever eaten, can be found at the multi-location Las Bravas chain in Madrid. Las Bravas has a patented (and highly addictive) secret sauce that they pump onto the potatoes as well as skewered meats.

Mushrooms with sherry & almonds: The aromatic sherry flavor, marrying with garlic, highlighted the earthy mushroom taste, the overall effect being parallel, compatible taste sensations.

We could have stopped after six plates, but as I mentioned above the food was too good to quit, so for our "dessert" we ordered grilled octopus, which was served with purple potatoes. The different-than-usual potatoes were a nice touch, the octopus tender and delicious.

* * *

I also had my first vatapá, a traditional Afro-Brazilian dish from Bahia. The restaurant was Emporium Brasil, on W. 46th Street, a/k/a Little Brazil. There are a number of Brazilian restaurants on the block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, but Emporium Brasil seems to have the best reputation. Vatapá is a very rich dish, described on the menu as: A Puree of Bread Crumbs & Smoked Shrimp, Peanuts, Cashew Nuts, Flavored with Coconut Milk & Palm Oil. The day I ordered this dish was within my window of opportunity: the day after my annual physical, but before I would get my cholesterol test results.

I think I first learned about vatapá from the song of the same name by Dorival Caymmi, the great Brazilian composer-lyricist whose music is a veritable encyclopedia of Bahian culture. The song is a recipe set to music:

Quem quisé vatapá - ô
que procure fazê:
Primeiro o fubá,
Depois o dendê,
Procure uma nega baiana - ô
Que saiba - mexê
Que saiba - mexê
Que saiba - mexê

Bota castanha de caju
- Um bocadinho mais.
- Um bocadinho mais.

Amendoim, camarão, rala o coco
Na hora de machucar
Sal com gengibre e cebola, Iaiá...

If you want vatapá –– ô
Try to make it like so:
First add the corn meal,
Then the African palm oil,
Look for a black woman from
Bahia –– ô
That can - stir
That can - stir
That can - stir

Add cashew nuts
A little bit more
Red pepper
A little bit more

Add peanuts, shrimp and grate
the coconut
Then mix it all together
Finally, season it with salt,
ginger and onions, Yayá! ...

My vatapá was tasty, but something seemed to be missing. It was tamer than I had imagined it, not the culinary samba I was expecting, and it definitely needed the malagueta pepper sauce they served on the side. Perhaps they didn’t have the requisite black woman from Bahia in the kitchen.

Stay tuned for Bay Area & Santa Fe bites, later this month.

Las Ramblas on UrbanspoonEmporium Brasil on Urbanspoon