Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hold the Sushi

New York has many specialty Japanese restaurants, places that focus on particular dishes or styles of cooking. Somehow sushi has become synonymous with Japanese food in the U.S., but that's just the tip of the iceberg. I've already written about Yakitori Totto, an izakaya (a drinking/eating establishment) specializing in grilled, skewered chicken. The same owners run Aburiya Kinnosuke, where robata grilling is the focus. Robata grill, or robatayaki, is an open hearth style of cooking. At the bar, which offers the best seats in the house, one can watch the food being prepared. Aburiya Kinnosuke has a fairly extensive regular menu, but the daily specials menu just about doubles the offerings. In addition to robata, they cook in a range of styles and also serve sashimi (but no sushi).

Click Me

A few other New York Japanese restaurants had featured robata, but Aburiya Kinnosuke, which opened in 2005, may be the first to make it the centerpiece. The Times' Frank Bruni kvelled about its authenticity in a piece titled "Tokyo in Midtown (English Optional)." The food at Aburiya Kinnosuke is pretty consistently excellent, and for me sharing lots of different dishes is perhaps the most fun dining experience. While not full entree portions, the servings are larger than tapas. The dishes all lend themselves to sharing by 2-4 people, and where appropriate the waiter will split them up into individual portions. Some of the premium items are pricey, so an evening of eating and drinking can burn a hole in one's pocket. I can't tell you what the cost was when I dined there because, happily, I was taken out for a belated birthday dinner.

Here's the rundown of what we had:

Since the grilled and cooked items would take some time, the waiter suggested we have some appetizers. We chose a sashimi salad, which had a light, refreshing, citrus dressing, and fresh tofu. The tofu had a custard-like consistency, and by itself was rather bland, but it is accompanied by three types of salt to enliven it: citrus salt, wasabi salt, and sea salt.

One of the restaurant's specialties, besides robatayaki, is organic egg dishes. We had the egg special of the day, with eel, which had a delicate rice wine flavor that complimented the rich eel flesh quite nicely.

The grilled items we had were tsukune (chicken meatball), U.S. Kobe beef tongue, toro (fatty tuna belly), and pork cheeks. The tsukune, which I loved at Yakitori Totto, was the only real disappointment here. I found it overly salty.

The tongue was delicious, grilled perfectly medium-rare and seasoned with black pepper, though the texture did bite back a bit.

Even nicer were the pork cheeks, also seasoned with black pepper, with just the right amount of pink to the meat.

The toro was, of course, very rich, and it was a good thing it was shared among three of us. I think, however, I prefer toro raw to grilled.

A non-grilled item on the menu we couldn't resist ordering was the organic Berkshire pork, simmered in brown sugar soju (soju is a vodka-like spirit). The plump chunks of meat were served in a wonderfully hearty broth with potatoes; this excellent dish would not have been incongruous in a "new American" restaurant.

For our starch course, pre-dessert, we each ordered an onigiri (rice ball). I had mine with crispy tiny fish.

We shared two desserts among the three of us, green tea tiramisu and black sesame pudding. Both were served with ice cream. The tiramisu was sorta kinda like tiramisu, and it had a deep tea flavor, but the cake part was a bit dry and I wasn't thrilled with it. The black sesame pudding, on the other hand, was wonderful. I suspect it had a tofu base, and the flavor was somewhat reminiscent of halvah.

Next time you think about Japanese food, you might want to put sushi on the back burner.

Aburiya Kinnosuke is at 213 E. 45th St., between 2nd & 3rd Avenues.

Aburiya Kinnosuke on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Restaurant Websites Redux: Responding to Suisman

A friend and reader who remembered my diatribe about bad restaurant websites forwarded me yesterday's edition of the MUG (Manhattan User's Guide) email newsletter. MUG is published by travel writer Charlie Suisman. In the June 20 newsletter Suisman nominated his favorite restaurant websites. It appears that, to some degree at least, Charlie and I have different criteria for what makes a good website. Suisman's picks are all graphically impressive, but several exhibit the same usability pitfalls that I railed against. Most were sites I had not visited before, as they tend to be for places that are outside my humble price range. All these sites were obviously designed by well-compensated pros, but the problem is that graphic design considerations almost always trump usability. There's no reason a website can't be both beautiful and user-friendly, but the design really has to be responsive to usability. In my opinion, graphic designers shouldn't even be allowed to think about a site until the information architects and usability engineers have established the framework.

I'll go through Suisman's picks in sequence and respond to the sites themselves as well as his glosses.

The Stanton Social

We're immediately treated to what I consider a capital crime, the useless splash page. We get a page that doesn't even offer us basic information, like address or phone number, just a logo and the dreaded words "Enter Site." As I've said before, I thought that's what I was doing when I typed the URL and hit the enter key. Why do I have to go through hoops to enter a site? When I enter the site what do I get? I get shitty music that I didn't ask for. Luckily by now I know I can turn the music off by clicking the thing that looks like a sound meter. But I found that trick out by trial and error on other sites. There's nothing that says "off." Three little letters. Is it so difficult to include them on your site?

Now that I've gotten to the flash site I'm presented with a motif of vintage mirrors. I guess that would mean something to somebody who has visited the restaurant. As far as a navigation menu is concerned, it appears that there are only four fairly useless choices: bookmark, invite a friend, mailing list, and contact. What about menus, location, reviews? Well, by now I've learned that restaurant site designers assume that users want to be treated like detectives. I'll bet the stuff I want is available, just cleverly hidden. So I start wiggling my mouse, moving my cursor all over the screen. Aha! That unlabeled yellow bar is hiding the links to all the information I really want (I was actually betting on the mirrors). I click on "Menu," and I get a menu of menus and each entry says "click to download PDF." I click, but my popup blocker has blocked the PDF. Maybe somebody should tell them that popup blockers are the norm these days. I give up.

What does Suisman say? "A gorgeous site that doesn't look like every other restaurant website." Yes, simply gorgeous, dahling.

La Grenouille

This one is promising. No splash page. The homepage shows me what all the options are. I click on cuisine and learn that they have a prix fixe lunch for $59 and a dinner for $95. If anybody out there would like to treat me to a meal at La Grenouille, I'm game. Clicking on any of the menu links brings up a small window, not blocked (by Firefox at least) that sits atop the main page. I think this is a reasonable solution to the menu issue. The Wine Cellar page works differently: you click a category of wines, and the list expands out on the same page. Reviews employs a different strategy. There is a little text box that you have to scroll through. I'm not a fan of scrolling, and you're stuck with the reviews in the order presented. I think they should provide links to the individual reviews. I do like the way they handle the wine lists, and I think a consistent approach across pages would be welcome. Overall, though, this site is not a major offender.

Suisman's take? "An old guard restaurant that gets the web exactly right with an elegant but unstuffy site." "Exactly right," I wouldn't say, but I'll agree it's elegant and unstuffy.


The first thing you get on this site is an intro animation of origami assemblage, with some minor sound effects. It doesn't last too long, and they do give you the "skip intro" option. The homepage tells me about all the celebrities who frequent the place, but it doesn't list an address or phone number. If I ran a shop or restaurant, I'd want to tell people where it was, not make them search for the answer. At least the navigation bar doesn't have hidden text. I click on "Menu" and am given a choice of menus (e.g. food, dessert, wine). I click on the basic menu link and what do I get? A nice photo of a shrimp dish and the instruction to "click to view menu." Silly me, I thought that's what I was doing in the first place. So I click, and I get a menu. All right, I have to scroll, I can live with it, at least they list prices. Also, there's a link for a printable PDF version of the menu. The "Decor" section offers photos of the interior.

It's quite possible that one of the practices I loathe, the multiple clicks to get you where you want to go, is intentional, a way to hit you with mouth-watering images that will make you wander like a somnambulist right over to the restaurant. Overall, the Tao site has some appealing design concepts and doesn't make me apoplectic like many restaurant sites do. The site also does a pretty good job of letting me know that this is a restaurant I wouldn't be caught dead in.

Suisman calls the navigation "clever." Is that a good thing?

Sushi Yasuda

First, Suisman's comment: "Most designers wouldn't even consider a site that has no flash." Thank heaven, a site with no flash.

And thankfully the address and phone number are on the home page. The problem is, there's too much text, in large blocks. In fact, the site is all about text, and it isn't very useful to me. I don't have time to read all this stuff. Next.

The Spotted Pig

I'll occasionally grant an indulgence for a cardinal sin if there are mitigating circumstances. The Spotted Pig does the hidden links thing, but they do it cleverly and in a fairly easy to figure out way. The homepage consists of a butcher's diagram of a pig, and each section is a link, the text of which is revealed when you scroll over it. Clicking on "Food" brings you right to the menus, lunch being the default. The menu is readable, and it's all on a single screen. To the left of the menu is a no-nonsense navigation bar, and to the right are a few nice, simple food photos. The "Press" section is nicely organized, with links to PDFs that pop up in small windows atop the original page, so you don't lose your place. The "Info" section gives me just what I want: hours, address, phone number, a map including subway coordinates and other potentially useful information in an FAQ section. Finally, a restaurant website I can endorse.

I haven't been there, but Suisman claims the site captures the spirit of the place, and he correctly praises the site for its lack of "moving parts."

Mas (farmhouse)

The first thing you see is a slab of wood. Then after a few seconds a photo of the restaurant entrance appears. You're stuck waiting for this photo. You can't go anywhere until it appears. Then you can enter the site. Yes, the site you were trying to enter when you clicked the link or typed the URL. Once you're there you get a fairly clean layout, with a clearly marked navigation bar. Clicking on "Food" gives you a narrative in one of those little boxes you have to scroll through. No menu. OK, they tell me they change the menu daily, but some sample menus would be nice. If you click on one of the food photos on this page it will pop up and obscure the rest of the page. It's not clear if the now hard-to-see links will still work, but they do. Something about this site freezes up Firefox and makes it difficult to swap tabs, a pain if you're trying to write a blog post about the site. Overall, I find the Mas site pretty useless

Suisman doesn't make much of a case for the site, except to praise the food photos and the lack of music (we agree on that one for sure).

In response to my original piece on bad restaurant websites a reader asked me for some examples of good ones. I couldn't come up with any at the time. I'd probably offer The Spotted Pig as an example now. As for some of Suisman's other picks, perhaps these are indeed examples of some of the best New York restaurant websites. A shame if it's true, though.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Anorectic's Feast, Part II

And now for the thrilling conclusion:

I was not a very emblematic child. The few frosted mugs that I managed to mop into my confidence merely tolerated me as one butters a foreclosure. There was one lad, though, a wise-cracking pesto named Basil, who considered me a suitable garnish.

It was Basil who first taught me to fulminate. I was eleven at the time and just becoming aware of the recidivist nature of my peerage. Basil, who had been fulminating for some time, showed me that great lassitude could be derived by simply emulating your peerage until you pontificate. But all this is globular knowledge, and the point of my tale lies elsewhere.

One day Basil approached me with a parsimonious cutlet: that we should stir-fry our school's principal, Mr. Minutia. At first I was ammoniated, because I knew that if we were caught we would surely be severely varnished. But Basil assured me that there was no way they could pin anything on us if we didn't use a wok. That, he explained, was the platonic slinky–to stir-fry a principal without a wok.

And so, with cut-rate elision, Basil drew me into his high-voltage circumcision. My job was to calibrate the sputum. I was to do this sweetly and without amnesia. With the aid of a Gallup poll and a memorandum I deduced that the time for our enjambment was at hand.

We found Mr. Minutia in his office, his molars propped up on a comatose ottoman. He was reading a starchy copy of Anarchism and the Single Girl. Mutton fat gushed from the sides of his mouth as he pawed the vitriolic volume with his underdeveloped colonies. Basil and I careened at each other. It was now or never–stir-fry or be stir-fried. Basil lunged at Mr. Minutia with a well heeled corsage. Mr. Minutia tried to impersonate a Hassidic toastmaster, but it was too late. Basil was too droll for the non-nutritive, artificial Minutia. Within pinched nerves Mr. Minutia was moo shooed into non-existence.

Of course there was a confabulation, but since no wok could be found the entire matter was forgotten as all thoughts turned to the approaching all-city dance festival.

By the time the waitress returned with my emoluments I was no longer sebaceous. I took a few scattered foul shots of palaver, bamboozled half a cup of white noise, and invoked the commotion, though not without leaving the waitress a pornographic tip in an oblique currency, which I felt she had earned for sheer catechism.

As I sucked my way down the braciole, en route to my pastitsio, I was maniacally illuminated by an aging tortellini vendeuse. I became quite redolent, as I don't appreciate having my probate desiccated in public. "Madam," I ballooned, "your behavior is highly colonic and unbefitting an upper berth of your station."

"What do you know about suffering?" she replied. "For centuries mankind has been burdened with inexorable flotation. And do you know why? I'll tell you why. It's the vintners and their damn clam-digging pugilism. Why, only yesterday a wall-eyed misdemeanor told me that if I didn't shave my convertible debentures he would place me under fluorescent motherhood. Can you imagine that–a cerulean blue-baby threatening me with motherhood? Why, I'm old enough to be his stop-gap measure!"

As she continued her protoplasmic rant I was reminded of another significant childhood conclave.

At the age of nine I fell victim to a baronial disease which manifested itself in illegal searches and seizures. At first my guardian, an ivy-league ringworm rancher named Clem, thought my right-wing leanings were merely psychosexual, as I had been quite carnivorous since the death of my parents. But as the disease progressed there were further glitches. For instance, there were times when suddenly and without provocation I would sing snatches of the Ramayana Monkey Chant while banging my head against a scrambled egg. Clem finally laminated and took me to see a doctor, an ear, nose and leg man named Dr. Coolidge. Dr. Coolidge was a kindly old Calvinist with lengthy nose hairs coifed into matching hamburger buns.

Dr. Coolidge plied me with a licentious series of tests. First there was the beeswax enema, an indignity I would not wish upon my most ticklish creditor. That was followed by an electro-candygram. When both of these tests proved furtive, Dr. Coolidge took a high culture and a low culture. Then he presented me with a loving cup for a true or false urine test. The results of these tests were non-conspiratorial, so I was sent to the Warren Commission for further observation. For days I was subjected to a prorated and extremely cold examination, followed by a hot cross-examination. The discomfort was more than I could bear. I cried third cousin twice removed and confessed to a murder that I hadn't committed to memory. I was given a slap on the wrist and a week's supply of penicillin. The penicillin cured me, and the rest is history.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Anorectic's Feast, Part I

Note: This was originally published in the anthology Blatant Artifice No. 2/3 in 1988.

An alkaline thing happened to me on the way to the recrimination. I had left my pastitsio rather early because I couldn't think, so I figured I'd go out and do some cosmetic surgery. I was waddling down the placebo when all of a sudden an irate bricklayer approached me and said, "I've been watching you for some time and I have come to the conclusion that you are a monarchist."

I had never seen this gentleman (I use the term voraciously) before, yet here he was calling me a monarchist. Well, what was I to abdicate? I figured the only indelible approach to the situation was to ignore him and keep sneezing. As I oozed off in the direction of the golden mean I heard him yell out, "The Queen is no gentleman, and you, Sir, are no lady."

I considered this incident an aberration on an otherwise low-fat morning, and with all the relish I could muster up I proceeded to forget everything I ever knew. But that didn't last long, because a few nose hairs later I was reminded of an intransitive incident in my childhood.

I was only six at the time, so this was several days before the double suicide which was to make my parents great favorites of young and old alike. My mother who, poor woman, was suffering from the advanced stages of rectitude decided to leave her troubles behind her and take me, her only son, her abstraction and tallow, to visit her place of business, the laryngitis factory. It was a veritable first communion to my young and incendiary eyes. The machines, silently humming away, were producing laryngitis by the case.

The foreman, Mr. Toggle, was a lightly sauteed man of precarious effluvia whose face bore the scars of adolescent delicatessen. But he was kind to me. He showed me the works and the workers. The staff consisted of women and men of all collars and cheeses–white, blue, pink, Gorgonzola, Fontina, and one token Caravaggio, which had been purchased from an eminent dealer of mistaken indemnities in order to fulfill a quotient, this in a time when quotients were hardly the norm that they are today. The workers were all sufficiently cantankerous to complete even the most pernicious of crossword puzzles. My favorite, a rather top-heavy agnostic named Mamie (though some of her fellow chameleons called her Miss Tuna Helper, after her well known habit of clearing her throat before making a major decision) took me under her wing and introduced me to the pleasures of algebraic posturing (modesty prevents me from elaborating any further on this matter).

I was given a misguided tour of the plant by Mr. Toggle, whose mind was sliding into second. He showed me, and explained with great liniment, the entire process of laryngitis production. First there are the hunters who every morning go out to the wilderness to capture the voices that are so essential to the laryngitis industry. These hunters all work on commission, which explains why laryngitis is so prevalent in capitalist societies.

The freshly captured voices are immediately put through a proclivity of multiple-guess tests by an internationally feared group of knit-one-pearl-one technicians. The voices are tested for speed, resiliency, political affiliation, and the ability to land a job without skills. Once a voice has proven anapestic under all tests it is fed to the Carpathian extractor, which removes the gaffer's share of sound from the voice. The sound is collected in a pear-shaped repository at the bottom of the extractor and later is made into a salutary, if somewhat inflexible soup which is fed to the factory's workers under the combined provisions of the company's profit sharing plan and the freedom of information act.

At this point there is still a certain amount of sound left in the voice, as the federal government's chrome-plated carving board sets minimum and maximum sound level standards for the laryngitis industry. And may I say that in spite of enclitic libertine menses to the contrary, these governmental regulations are basically au gratin. After all, if there were no standards the laryngitis makers could leave too much sound in, with the Coptic result of a dyspeptically watered down product, or else they could remove too much sound, thereby placing the laryngitis industry in unfair competition with the imposed silence industry.

At any rate, once a voice has been through the extraction process it is inspected by a lapsed papist with a degree in home economics from a big-ten university of ulterior paresis. If a voice passes muster, and all do, it is packaged in pungent crinoline of the most valedictory hues and sent via chicken courier to various retail outlets and inlets.

Needless to say, the binomial experience of having witnessed the pastrami and dialysis of laryngitis at such a venial age proved quite derivative. Throughout my pro forma incentive period, the ages of six through twelve and half a dozen of the other, I was fallaciously tattooed with the Cyrillic sludge of laryngitis. Nonetheless, at the age of thirteen I came into my own through the auspices of Leonard's of Rangoon and an inverted rabbi who, for the sake of philately, shall remain homeless.

Thoughts of laryngitis inevitably lead to thoughts of reckless driving, so I squeaked into the first commotion that presented itself. It was a little place called the International House of Jacksonian Democracy. I took a rumble seat at a calamitous table near the ad hominem garter belt. Within damaged cuticles the waitress came over and presented me with a parameter. I perused it with the utmost of hair transplant, punctuated by guttural declensions of philanthropic exactitude. The choices were Sephardic: sliced polyps with gingivitis, boiled mensch in analysis, an assortment of strained metaphors, and a brutish word salad. Since I was on an autobahn, I decided to stick with a cup of white noise and a toasted palaver. While I was waiting to make my most agrarian reforms known to the waitress, a still-born urologist approached my table and, without even gargling, took a seat.

"Excuse me, Sir," I said, "but you're vitiating at my preponderance."

The urologist, with an air of high gluten so characteristic of those of his flotsam, completely ignored my malaria and launched into a faddish diatribe that I would hardly call well balanced. "My carburetor," he began, "doesn't understand me."

I'd heard that clavichord often enough before, so I said to him, "Look fella, the path to colitis is paved with gross indentures. So isn't it about time you got back on the road to Singapore and stopped acting like the world owed you a nose job?"

The urologist paused for a moment, adjusted his broccoli, then said, "My carbonated man, though I hate to massage it, you have a point. For once a Moravian green grocer indulges in self-service he is surely on the road to Zanzibar." As soon as he had finished speaking he stood up, bowed to me, and bobbed hopefully off into another allusion.

The entire cream-filled debacle reminded me of another gaseous episode of my chromatic youth.

To be continued . . .

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Leaving Momofuku to Others

I had three hours to kill between a doctor's appointment and a showing of a short film about my once and future musical collaborator Lee Feldman, at the New School.

I passed an hour or so at the Yuca Bar with a couple of $5 mojitos and a nice conversation with the Peruvian bartender.

Then I decided to make my first visit to Momofuku, the trendy noodle bar and small plates eatery around the corner from my old digs, on First Avenue and Tenth Street. Momofuku has gotten lots of buzz and rave reviews. It's a small place, and for the longest time, perhaps still, there were lines out the door at prime dining times. It's an upscale, non-traditional take on the traditional Japanese ramen bar (perhaps a sly joke, the restaurant is named for the inventor of instant ramen). The proprietor is David Chang, who honed his craft at the very upscale Craft restaurant. Times food writers Mark Bittman, Peter Meehan and Frank Bruni are all gaga over Chang, and online food boards are bursting at the seams with ecstatic paeans to Momofuku, especially the steamed buns with pork. I wondered if there was real meat to the buzz, or if it was a case of the Emperor's New Clothes. Having an aversion to the trendy, I kept away for quite a while.

Chang's obsession is quality pork, and he uses cream of the crop Berkshire pork, ham and bacon from a select group of boutique organic breeders. Berkshire pork is not cheap (a bone-in loin can go for $20 a pound). It is especially popular in Japan, where it's known as kurobuta. Berkshire is to pork as Kobe is to beef. The pork buns are small steamed white buns in which are placed several slices of fatty pork belly, hoisin sauce and cucumber slices. The price tag is $9 for two rather small buns. I have to concede that the pork was perfect: moist and richly flavorful, the fat wonderfully buttery. Still, after all the hype I was left asking: is that all there is? And, of course, two little buns do not a meal make.

I also ordered a baby octopus salad, served atop konbu seaweed in a soy vinaigrette with a perfect blend of garlic, ginger and chili. This was a $13 small plate, so a quick, not too filling meal set me back $28 with tax and tip, and not a drop to drink besides water.

The thing is, it's a small, bar-only place with minimal decor and service, and it's best suited to a quick in and out. The ingredients and execution may be admirable, but given the physical limitations, I'd say the menu is at least 25% overpriced. On the menu they list their meat suppliers, but also the designer of their stools. They were nice enough stools, I guess, as far as backless stools go, but give me a break. Overall, I just don't get the allure. If I'm going to spend real money I want comfort. New York has too much good, reasonably priced food for me to become a Momofuku groupie. I leave the place to the tastemakers and their followers.

When I lived in the East Village (1979-87) a place like Momofuku most likely wouldn't have been possible (not to mention that nobody had ever heard of Berkshire pork in the U.S., regardless of the fact it's a "heritage" breed). Back then there were cheap Ukrainian restaurants, cheap Indian restaurants, old-school Italian restaurants, and scattered cheap restaurants of other nationalities. An upscale restaurant like Hearth would have been unthinkable, as its well-heeled clientele did not frequent the neighborhood, except, perhaps, for drugs. Still standing across the street from Momofuku is Sapporo East, a solid, traditional noodle shop that did open during my time in the neighborhood.

I was still hungry after my "snack" at Momofuku, so I went around the corner to Veniero's, for a legacy East Village dessert, a slice of Italian cheesecake. I used to love Veniero's Italian cheesecake, but I probably hadn't tasted it in about twenty years. Well, I was disappointed. It was not the creamy, moist, eggy cake I remembered. This one was denser and less flavorful, or so I thought. But then I wondered: had the cake changed or had I changed?

You can go home again, but home is a river.

Momofuku Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Camphor Tea-Smoked Duck at Wu Liang Ye

I've written about Wu Liang Ye several times before, but that was before I had become comfortable with shooting food photos, so the posts were unillustrated. I had a camera with me for a recent lunch at the 48th Street branch of Wu Liang Ye, and I shot this photo of the camphor tea-smoked duck, perhaps my favorite item on the menu.

This may well be the most remarkable duck I've ever eaten. The meat is juicy, with a bacony smokiness that complements rather than masks the essential duck flavor. The skin is perfectly crisp, with just enough fat left to add another texture to the ensemble. The preparation differs at the various branches, however. At 86th Street the skin was much less crisp, and the overall result was a greasier, fattier duck (albeit with wonderful meat). I've also tried the tea-smoked duck at Szechuan Gourmet (39th Street), Grand Sichuan International (Hell's Kitchen branch, now closed), and Spicy & Tasty (Flushing). While most Sichuan places do a respectable version of the dish, none can compare with the rendition at Wu Liang Ye on 48th Street.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


We were having lunch at a Shanghai restaurant in Chinatown. Sitting at the next table was a Chinese man, dining alone, his back to us and his face buried in a newspaper.

"I just got called for jury duty," Masa, who is Japanese, said to me. "I'm not a citizen. How did they find me?"

"You have a driver's license, right?" I asked.


"That's probably it," I said. "In any case, they have ways of finding you if they really want to. It's a culture of surveillance."

At this point the man at the next table put his paper down, turned to us, smiled and said, "Culture of surveillance . . . I like that!"

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Di Fara Closed Indefinitely by DOH

I don't usually post breaking news, but having written about my return to this legendary pizzeria in my old neighborhood I thought this would be of interest to Word of Mouth readers. Eater reports that on the basis of having failed 5 of the past 6 Department of Health inspections, pizza wizard Dom DeMarco has been benched indefinitely.

It was apparent to anybody who ate at Di Fara that it was not the cleanest place, but that's apparently quite an understatement. Eater's post includes the DOH statement with all the gory details.

One wonders whether Dom will make the considerable effort to make amends, or if he'll finally throw in the towel and take a well deserved retirement.

Monday, June 04, 2007

In Praise of Ak-Mak

I can go for years without thinking about Ak-Mak crackers and then, all of a sudden, I'll see them on a shelf and think to myself, hey, I remember those being pretty good, I think I'll try them again. That's just what happened the other day at the local health food store, when I was looking for something to dip into the artichoke and kalamata olive hummus that had caught my eye. So I bought the box of Ak-Mak, and when I tried them again, after all these years, I said to myself, hey, these are better than I remembered. Ak-Mak crackers are the quintessence of simplicity. There's no Ak-Mak website, but everything you need to know is on the box. Ingredients: 100% "Whole of the Wheat" flour stone ground, clover honey, sesame oil, dairy butter, sesame seeds, yeast and salt. All good stuff. All natural. No chemicals, no preservatives. It tastes fresh. It tastes real. How many well distributed packaged products can you say that about? Ak-Mak crackers taste like they were baked by the family down the street, and the company is still family owned: the Soojians of Sanger, California.

I grew up on crappy crackers: Saltines, Ritz. Crappy cardboard crackers full of crap. Millions of people eat those crappy crackers. How can they eat that crap when there's Ak-Mak? The taste of Ak-Mak crackers is sublimely simple, a nuttiness born of the marriage of whole wheat and sesame, attended by a Platonic crispness. According to the box, the recipe is based on a traditional Armenian cracker bread with a 3,000-year history. The Soojians' version made its debut in 1893. I salute the Soojian family for resisting the advances of the Krafts and Nabiscos, who surely must have made overtures over the years. It's nice to know that it's still possible to find mass-produced products, like Ak-Mak and Almondina, that are good food, plain and simple.