Thursday, December 31, 2009

Pete '09, The Year in Food

View of the year, Huaca Pucclana, Lima

Traveling extensively again, after about eight years mostly on the sideline, a lot of my memorable meals were consumed in other countries, and I got to try dishes--as well as animals--I had never eaten before.

I traveled to Peru in the summer, and in Cusco and the Sacred Valley I ate guinea pig and drank chicha. In Lima I dined beside a floodlit pre-Colombian ruin.

I made a second Latin American trip recently, for a long Thanksgiving weekend in Mexico City, where I had my most memorable dinner of the year, at La Tecla. Also fabulous were the Tostadas de Atun at Contramar. My first taste of grasshopper was not nearly as memorable, but ant eggs were surprisingly tasty.

Other candidates for best meal of the year are London's fabulous Keralan Indian restaurant, Quilon and New York's own Beacon. My feast at Quilon easily makes my top 5 all-time Indian meals, and my Restaurant Week lunch at Beacon inspired me to write a love letter to Waldy Malouf, the owner and executive chef of that midtown palace of wood-fired cooking.

Another love letter went out earlier in the year to the much humbler Blarney Stone. I also paid homage to another New York classic, P.J. Clarke's, which is conveniently downstairs from my office. At Amy Ruth's I ate Chicken and Waffles, a soul food classic that had eluded me all these years. Amy Ruth's version got a mixed review: great waffles, disappointing fried chicken.

A great cup of Joe (or Juan) is always cause for celebration, and Juan Valdez Cafe also serves fabulous sweet arepas.

In the spring I made the rounds of Brooklyn's kosher and kosher-style delis and discovered that a place that makes spectacular pastrami is capable of serving astoundingly dry and flavorless corned beef (Jay & Lloyd's).

In London, in June, I discovered the exquisite Jamon Iberico, the ham of hams. London also gave me the chance to sample three different Keralan restaurants (perhaps my favorite Indian regional cuisine).

The Chinese restaurant discovery of the year has to have been Hunan House, in Flushing. Finally, authentic (and excellent) Hunan cuisine has returned to New York.

On the Chinese down side, a visit to King Yum, in Queens, an attempt to recapture my lost youth's Chinese food, was a disaster. Kitsch and history could not redeem the dreadful food.

Several visits to several branches of Nyonya gave me the opportunity to write a piece I've thought about for some time, a tribute to Malaysian cooking as the world's great fusion cuisine.

And, of course, at least once a year a restaurateur has to earn my flying invective, and this year a special rant went out to Michael "Bao" Huynh, the conceited Vietnamese restaurateur who is flooding my city with watered-down Southeast Asian food for trendy New Yorkers.

Some of this year's winners:

Waldy Malouf's 10-Herb Chicken

Keralan Thali at Quilon in London

Fish Filet with Flor de Calabaza, La Tecla, Mexico City

Braised Pork Mao Style, Hunan House

Saturday, December 26, 2009


I had two memorable breakfasts in Mexico City, at two of the city's most famous restaurants.

I didn't eat at the original branch of El Cardenal, but rather the one in the Sheraton near Alameda Park, as it was an easier walk from my hotel on my last morning in town. I think I arrived at about 8:30 on a Sunday and the place was already half full. When I left about an hour later there was a line out the door. The restaurant gets great reviews in general, but they're especially famous for their breakfasts, especially the conchas con nata.

The concha is the quintessential Mexican breakfast pastry, a light sweet roll in the shape of a shell and covered with sugar. It's not overly sweet, and it has a fluffy consistency somewhere between bready and cakey. El Cardenal is considered by many to have the best conchas in the city (though some give the honor to a place called Bondy, in the upscale Polanco neighborhood). A concha is good on its own, but the icing on the cake is nata, which you order separately. It's actually the cream that forms on the top of milk when it's heated, though it's served cold. I guess there's a secret to making it just right without scalding. El Cardenal was my only nata experience, but it was positively culinary-erotic--an amazing combination of freshness, richness, and a sly come-hither sweetness that didn't even hint at cloying. An order of nata as served at El Cardenal is probably sufficient to cover about three conchas; I slathered mine on a concha and another sweet bread, this one bow-tie shaped.

The concha was just the beginning. I also had another house specialty, the tortilla con escamoles--an omelet with ant eggs. You heard me, ant eggs. And they're much tastier than grasshoppers. Escamoles are considered a delicacy in Mexico, and they're quite expensive. I believe they're most often served mixed into butter to spread on corn tortillas (Restaurante Chon, where I ate my chapulines, serves them that way).

The escamoles have a subtle, nutty flavor, nothing like what I'd imagine a "formic" taste to be. They look like little off-white capsules or large rice grains (if you click on the photo above you can see a few wayward ones on the left of the plate--don't confuse them with the cotijo cheese on the beans).

The other memorable breakfast was at a restaurant so legendary that a Mexican rock band took its name for their own--Cafe de Tacuba, established in 1912. It's right in the historic center, and once settled in the vintage interior you'll feel as if you've traveled back in time. Like El Cardenal, Cafe de Tacuba serves three meals a day, which is not that common in Mexico City. Locals love the place and it seems to have maintained the quality of its food all these years. The waiters have an endearing dual nature of attentive and friendly yet somehow bored or pissed off, so as a New Yorker I felt right at home. And the waitresses wear these wonderful white-as-snow uniforms with headgear that makes them look like a cross between nurses, nuns and maids. At Cafe de Tacuba I had huevos con mole and a hot chocolate (Mexicans make so-so coffee but great chocolate), which is served with semi-dry biscuits.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

They Don't Taste Like Chicken

When I was in Oaxaca, about fifteen years ago, I was too sheepish, or chicken, to try grasshoppers. I finally ate them last month, in Mexico City, where they're not commonly eaten as they are in Oaxaca. But they're featured at Restaurante Bar Chon, which specializes in "pre-Hispanic cuisine." Chapulines are small grasshoppers that are toasted on a clay griddle with garlic and lime, and seasoned with sal de gusano (worm salt, a combination of powdered chile, salt and gusano--a caterpillar that lives off the agave plant). My little grasshoppers were served with guacamole and tortillas. They were a little crunchy in texture, but perhaps more like sawdust, and while the flavor wasn't at all vile, it didn't win my heart. The aroma was a bit musty and reminded me of the dried baby shrimp you see at Chinatown markets.

I also had a bowl of sopa de medula, which is made with marrow from the spinal column of cattle, served in a consomme. The medula itself had a kind of dumpling-like consistency, weirdly like matzoh balls. Interesting, but not wonderful.

My third item was a tostada with salpicon de venado. A salpicon is a shredded meat salad, but I didn't know the word venado. The waitress pointed to a painting of a man wearing antlers. I figured it was venison, not human, and later research bore me out.

The restaurant is in what appears to be a working-class neighborhood near the bustling La Merced market. Bustling is an understatement. The metro let me off right in the middle of the indoor market that was overwhelming to even a mild claustrophobe like me, and all the surrounding streets were an extension of the market. It took me quite some time, and several attempts at directions to find my way out of the market area to the street that would take me to the restaurant. On the way back to my hotel it was much easier and quicker to go in the other direction to a station that was technically about a third further than the market.

Restaurante Bar Chon has a large and interesting menu, and I'm sure much of it tastes better than the stuff you'd eat on a self-imposed dare.

There aren't many things I won't try once. Really there are only three I can think of: dog, monkey and poutine.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Blonde Like Me

I went to the Soviet Union in 1990. It was still the Soviet Union, just barely. I had been advised to bring plenty of items that were scarce in the Soviet Union (which was really just about everything), to give out as gifts, tips, bribes. Especially important were packs of Marlboros. There was a serious shortage of cabs in Moscow and Leningrad (it was still Leningrad), and many people moonlighted as gypsy cab drivers. Flashing a pack of Marlboros was the best way to hail a cab. I also brought coffee, cassette tapes (for some music industry people I had introductions to), and hair dye.

The hair dye was courtesy of a friend who was working as a product manager for Clairol at the time. He had come up in the world, having recently left Ty-D-Bol and Cincinnati. "The women will love you," he said.

Back then the hotels had floor attendants, women who were stationed on every floor of every tourist hotel. Obviously they were there to keep tabs on the guests, to make sure Soviet citizens didn't come up to the rooms, and perhaps to make sure that only approved prostitutes gained entry. My floor attendant in Moscow was a chubby woman of indeterminate age with thinning, dreadfully bleached blonde hair. The first night in the hotel I unpacked my bags and brought a package of Clairol hair color to the lady at her station.

"A gift," I said. "For you."

She looked at the box. "Blonde!" she exclaimed gleefully. "Like me!"

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dinner of the Year! La Tecla, in Mexico City

Fish filet with zucchini flowers and huitlacoche sauce

Yes, I think this was indeed the dinner of the year, at a cozy, understatedly elegant and quite reasonably priced restaurant in Mexico City's Colonia Roma neighborhood. Serving "nueva cocina Mexicana," the Mexican equivalent of nouvelle cuisine, La Tecla gussies up traditional Mexican dishes and ingredients while remaining true to the culinary traditions.

I started with an appetizer of mini black bean gorditas (i.e., black bean was mixed into the corn masa) stuffed with shredded cochinita de pibil (a Yucatecan specialty of citrus-marinated pork, cooked in banana leaves), and topped with escabeche (pickled) onions.

That set the meal off to a wonderful start, but it was outdone by my main course, a perfectly cooked, thick fish filet (sea bass, I believe), stuffed with oodles of flor de calabaza (zucchini flowers), and served with a huitlacoche sauce (huitlacoche is the wonderfully earthy, aromatic corn fungus).

My truly indulgent dessert, prepared tableside, was a plate of mini-crepes in a coffee-brandy caramel sauce, topped with chopped walnuts.

Service was impeccable, and with a half bottle of Spanish white (Rueda), the total cost, including tip, was about $38.

As I walked back to my hotel I was literally beaming.

La Tecla
Av. Durango 186-A
Mexico City

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Thanksgiving in Mexico City

I spent the long Thanksgiving weekend in Mexico City. I'd been in Mexico City once before, about fifteen years ago, but I only spent two days there, one of which was a taken up by a day trip to the pyramids at Teotihuacan. The rest of the trip had been spent in Oaxaca and in the colonial cities of Queretaro and Guanajuato. This time I spent three and a half days in Mexico City.

I had my Thanksgiving lunch (the main meal of the day in Mexico) at a place that was at the top of my restaurant list, Contramar, considered by many the city's best seafood restaurant. I had spent the morning visiting the Castillo in Chapultepec Park (above), and would return to the park after lunch for the Archeological Museum (which I had missed the first time around).

I was told that Contramar, in Colonia Roma, a quiet residential neighborhood not far from the park, didn't take reservations, but when I got there they had a long list of reservations and gave me a seat at the bar (it's still not clear whether they take reservations from just anybody, or just "certain people"). I started with the waiter's recommendation, tostadas de atun. The crispy tortillas had a first layer of chipotle mayo atop which sat exquisite slices of sashimi-grade tuna loin carpaccio, garnished with avocado slices and crispy leeks. This is one of Contramar's signature dishes and it's worth signing up for. I noticed later that a number of restaurants in the neighborhood serve the dish, but I think Contramar may have invented it.

The main course they're most noted for is a grilled whole fish served with two sauces, a red chile adobo and a green parsley salsa. The size of the fish depends on the number of diners (they recommend a half kilo per diner), and all of the fish are over a kilo, so as a solo diner I had to go a different route. I was told they could prepare the filet of esmedregal the same way. Esmedregal (also known as cobia) is very popular in Mexico, and its meaty flesh reminded of a milder, less oily kind of tuna (though it's not at all related). The red sauce was excellent, but the green one was a bit too salty for me. Still saltier, unpardonably so, was the chopped spinach served with the dish.

Contramar is probably worth a visit if you're looking for an upscale afternoon meal in Mexico City, but I'm afraid my main course was a disappointment.

The Archeological Museum is overwhelming, and I really only saw the tip of the iceberg. I was exhausted by the time I got back to my hotel.

Later that evening I dragged myself out for dinner at a Mexico City institution, Fonda el Refugio, which has been around since the fifties. It's in all the guide books and is recommended by Antonio Banderas. A fonda is the Mexican equivalent of a trattoria--a simple, homey restaurant. El Refugio makes regional specialties from all over the country, and that evening I had pipian colorado, one of the Thursday specials. I've had pipians (pumpkin seed sauces) with duck and chicken in both California and New York. The ones I've had before were green, but the pipian colorado is a mix of pumpkin seeds, peanuts and red chiles. It actually reminded me of a West African peanut sauce, and it was great for dipping their wonderful homemade tortillas, but there was one fatal flaw: lukewarm meat. I was told that I had a choice of pollo or cerdo, and being a porkaholic I chose the cerdo. It was clear, however, that the meat was not cooked with the sauce, but rather some pre-cooked pork chunks were insufficiently reheated in the pipian. I suppose I could have complained and no doubt they'd have microwaved it, but I don't like to complain in a language I'm not a master of. Because when I complain I really complain.

The atmosphere at Fonda el refugio is pleasant enough, but I suspect the place is coasting on history and reputation.

Update: The grandson of the founder of the Fonda has announced on Chowhound that he has returned to Mexico to return the restaurant to its former glory. Best of luck to him.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

I Couldn't Have Done It Myself

That's what I love about collaborative writing: the result (when it really works) is something that neither writer could have written individually, but that sounds as if it were written by a single person. The latest collaboration I've published is, perhaps more than any of the others, something I couldn't have written on my own.

A while ago I sent an email to Marina LaPalma with the subject: I Rescue Abandoned Writing, asking her if she had any unfinished pieces I could work with. My preferred form of collaboration is to finish and refashion pieces started by other writers.

I met Marina in the Bay Area in the early eighties and I admired her work from the start. We had kept in touch on and off over the years.

When I looked at what she had sent me my immediate reaction was: how can I do anything with this material? (You'll see why, I think.) I thought of writing back to Marina explaining that I didn't think I'd be able to work with the piece she had sent. But I waited, and somehow a solution, a style, came to me in a flash the following day. I dashed off a draft and sent it to Marina. Marina liked it, but suggested several changes. After a little back and forth we came up with a final version we were both pleased with.

Read Eggs in Mung Being.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Word of Mouth Salutes Russ Feingold

Russ Feingold, the only U.S. Senator to oppose the "Patriot" Act, has made the following statement in response to last night's speech by the President of the Military-Industrial Complex:

Feingold Statement on the President's Decision to Increase Our Troop Presence in Afghanistan

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

I do not support the president’s decision to send additional troops to fight a war in Afghanistan that is no longer in our national security interest.  It’s an expensive gamble to undertake armed nation-building on behalf of a corrupt government of questionable legitimacy.  Sending more troops could further destabilize Afghanistan and, more importantly, Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state where al Qaeda is headquartered. While I appreciate that the president made clear we won’t be in Afghanistan forever, I am disappointed by his decision not to offer a timetable for ending our military presence there.  I will work with members of both parties and both houses of Congress to push for a flexible timetable to reduce our troop levels in Afghanistan, as part of a comprehensive strategy to combat al Qaeda in the region and around the world.