Archive for July, 2010

O Ya Restaurant ~ Boston: Seeing and Eating the Finer Things

Posted 25 Jul 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

Every once in a while I dine alone. The solitude is relaxing to me and my sense of observation is heightened when I am by myself. Being alone forces me to take things in at a slower pace and to view the world undistracted. Perhaps this is due to the hectic pace that runs like a raging river through my life. I love charging ahead each day with full force but realize that I miss the details of life from time to time. I am surrounded by people who live this way, the successful people I run with fully engage life. No one is sitting on the sidelines and we tend to run in a pack. Because of this, it’s rare for me to be alone, let alone, eat alone. When I do, my senses are heightened.

Tonight, to further enhance my experience I plan to eat at a restaurant within one or two miles of the waterfront hotel where I am staying here in Boston (again). From time to time when travelling, I walk from my hotel to a restaurant to soak in a city at street level. Walking, so long as the weather is good, helps slow things down as well. It provides heightened details about the neighborhoods and environment surrounding the restaurant that you can’t see, smell, or feel, when riding in a vehicle. For tonight’s adventure I select Tim Cushman’s O Ya which is exactly one mile from my hotel at 9 East St., in Boston. The sky is blue and sunny and I am heading that way on foot.

I leave the hotel at 7:00pm walking northwest on Congress street toward the city. The sun is just starting to dip below the Boston skyline and the city arteries are slowing down as rush hour eases. It is still 80 degrees out, so I pause for a moment and consider jumping on the Silver Line bus that runs under the seaport directly to South Station. East Street is a stones throw from South Station and riding would save me from the heat. The Silver Line station is absolutely deserted and strangely clean. This makes me uneasy for some reason so I head back up the stairs and out the door. To hell with the bus, I could use the exercise anyway.

After passing the intersection of A Street and Congress I notice a huge piece of graffiti by (now famous) Shepard Fairey pasted to a building. Fairey is the artist best know for riffing on an Associated Press photo of Barak Obama creating one of the most recognizable posters of the 2008 campaign and a heap of copyright infringement trouble for himself in the process. Four stories up next to a fire escape is a large four foot by six foot stencil of “Obey” Fairey’s 1990 ode to the professional wrestler Andre the Giant. If you drive down Congress Street you will miss this work because the building is set back behind a parking lot parallel to the street. There are thousands of these images stenciled on buildings around the world now, if you miss this one, there will be others. I click a few shots of it and move on.

A few minutes later I am on Atlantic Avenue heading south toward South Station. The stone façade of the station is speckled with sunlight reflecting off of a sky scraper across the street. Studying it for a moment, the light shifts and the building entrance, windows, and clock are lit by the reflection. What a beautiful image.

Crossing the street I am now just a minute or two from O Ya. I continue down Atlantic Avenue passing Essex Street and make a right onto East Street. O Ya is just ahead, hidden on the south side of the street. For some reason Tim Cushman and his team designed an entrance that is so completely understated that you could miss it. Located in a multistory brick building, O Ya’s street presence consists of a small sign and a door that appears to be made of graying slabs of rough hewn barn-board.

 

I enter into a small vestibule and approach the maître d’ station. The hostess greets me and escorts me to a table. I order a beer and scan the room taking it in. O Ya has an industrial feeling, loft like interior with concrete floors, exposed ventilation and brick. The dining room consists of a long sushi bar with eighteen bar stools on one side and, on the opposite wall, a long banquette with eight tables for two. Three large arched windows provide natural light. The wall above the banquette is painted a pastel green with natural colored wood trim and the tables are a lightly stained cherry. Wooden chopsticks on small ceramic rests are located at each place setting. My pair is made of Yew and rest on a green ceramic fish.

 

When my waiter arrives to take my order, I ask him to have Cushman send out four courses of what ever he feels like sending so long as it doesn’t have Wagyu or Faberge in the name. He smiles with delight and tells me I wont be disappointed.

1) My first course is the Diver Scallop with Sage Tempura, Olive Oil Bubbles and Meyer Lemon. Five pieces of scallop arrive on a pastel green square platter. Each is topped with a tempura fried sage leaf and a rich, lemony, olive oil foam. The texture of the scallop contrasted with the sage leaf is fantastic. The olive oil foam adds an almost heavy cream like richness to the dish with a wonderful lemon perfume finish.

2) Next, I have the Hamachi with Viet Mignonette, Thai Basil, and Shallot. Three, fatty, skin-on, perfect slices of Hamachi arrive. They are simply presented with a chiffonade of Thai Basil, the Mignonette, and a dusting of dried shallot and spicy red chili. The Himachi is pristine and the combination of flavors wonderful. Halfway through the first bite, the basil cuts in with the saltiness of the mignonette. After a few more bits, the chili kicks in for a nice warm, lingering finish. 

3) I have had these Fried Kumamoto Oysters with Yuzo Kosho Aioli, Squid Ink Bubbles before. They are tiny little oysters that are flash fried and served warm and sexy. The squid ink foam, when it arrives at the table, is almost purple in color and sits atop each oyster. Beneath each oyster is a small “button” of aioli that serves as a flavorful glue, keeping the oyster attached to the sushi rice. Excellent!

4) Out comes a Soft Shell Crab with Soy and Sesame mousse. Topped with a fine julienne of scallion, this dish is explosive in flavor. The soy and sesame mousse is so perfectly balanced and thick in texture that it coats my palate while I crunch on the salty, oceany flavored crab. As I dismantle the crab, small wisps of steam escape perfuming the air. Another winner.

5) Tea Brined Fried Pork Ribs with Hot Sesame Oil, Honey, and Scallions. I anticipated that this item would have some flavor overlap with the crab since several ingredients are used in both dishes but this wasn’t the case. When I took my first bit of the Pork Ribs I inhaled just before putting the fork in my mouth and got a full head of the complex flavor that made Frank Bruniof the New York Times swoon over this dish back in 2008. The tea Cushman uses in the brine adds such a depth to this dish and, surprisingly, the subtle notes of flavor from the tea remain fully intact after frying.

6) The festivities end with Soy Milk Blancmange with Chilled Thai Tea, and Thai Basil Seeds.  This is the one dish that I ordered on my own.  I chose it because the description was interesting and I have yet to find a soy cream of any sort that meets my expectation. When the blancmange arrived, I was a bit disappointed at the presentation but this changed once I tasted it. This was the smoothest, most flavorful soy dessert I have had in years. The basil seeds floating on top added such a wonderful perfume and crunch and the cream was spectacular. Heads up all you lactose folks. I would order it again.

Six courses later and I am ready to walk back to the hotel. The past 90 minutes went by quickly but I feel great. Portion sizes were perfect and O Ya is just as good as I remember it. Having a great meal like this leaves me resonating with a love for the culinary profession. I think I will take the long way home!

O Ya

9 East St.

Boston, MA 02111

617-654-9900

Inspiration and Innovation: One Chef’s View

Posted 20 Jul 2010 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends

Tim Ryan, President of the Culinary Institute of America, starts his presentation by stating that 1946 is a seminal year in American history. He flashes several photos of events that occurred in 1946 across the screen to prove his point; the founding of McDonalds, the launch of Tide Detergent, the founding of the United Nations, the release of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart. He has selected 1946 as the inflection point in the development of modern dining and foodservice in the United States as part of his presentation today titled “Inspiration and Innovation.” Dr. Ryan, one of the brightest men in foodservice and the only master chef (ACF) on the planet with an earned doctoral degree (University of Pennsylvania), smiles subtly and also states that 1946 was the year that the CIA was founded on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. A wave of quiet laughter rolls through the room.

Dr. Ryan transitions in preparation for the topic of innovation, to a discussion about trends vs. fads. He asks the audience to describe the difference between a trend and a fad and one bright woman replies “a fad shoots up quickly in popularity only to drop just as quickly.” Dr. Ryan agrees and shows a slide with an animated trend line shooting up, then down rapidly over time (a fad) along with a trend line that rises and remains steady over the same period (a trend). Implied is the fact that trends are a product of innovation, remain intact, and produce change over time, and fads don’t. To make his point in the context of foodservice, he also compares the current black garlic fad to the sun dried Tomatoes fad of the 1980’s as an example (one that most of the forty-and-older crowd in the room can relate to) and people nod with agreement. Fermented black garlic isn’t going to change foodservice, perhaps the overriding Asian flavor trend in the country will.  

CIA Greystone

At this stage, Dr. Ryan shifts the audiences again by asking two questions: 1) where do you go to get great food, and 2) where do you get great ingredients.  This makes me (and the rest in the room) ponder the questions. My first though is that great food can be found at home, but that’s probably not the case for most people. Analyzing where great food has been served, according to public opinion, over the past 50 years is another way to answer this question and Dr. Ryan indulges us. After WWII in America, each decade had its own famous restaurant that defined fine dining (a place where great food could be found). He starts with what was arguably the most famous restaurant of the post war era, Le Pavilion in New York and famous chef Henri Soule. Jacques Pepin, Pierre Franey and others worked there and the restaurant maintained “best in America” status from the mid 1940’s to the mid 1960’s. Four weeks ago when I spent three hours on a plane with Jacques Pepin, he mentioned what it was like to work for Soule and how, at the time, chefs were no where near as important as they are today. The celebrities of the day were the front of the house maitre d’s, and many had regional if not national reputations. Ryan’s belief that La Pavilion was the best restaurant of its era was validated by Pepin just weeks earlier during our discussion.

Le Pavilion was replaced as “best in America” by Lutece in New York in the mid 1960’s and chef Andre Soltner maintained that position from the mid 1960’s until the 1990’s when he closed the restaurant. Ryan gives other examples including Café Des Artists but then he shows the dining counter at Momofuku in New York. He follows with a picture of the Kogi food truck in LA and notes that in recent months the New York Times has gushed over David Chang’s restaurants and that Kogi has met with tremendous success and critical acclaim. He reveals a startling change in what and where America dines and where good food can be found. His juxtaposition of the photos of Le Pavilion and Kogi Food truck reveal a major shift.  Kogi food truck is a source of great food, has found financial success and critical acclaim as well, but looks nothing like the grandiose surrounds that composed Le Pavilion and Lutece. Point made: good food can be found anywhere and in some of the most surprising places.

CIA Kitchen

Where do you get great ingredients? Dr. Ryan’s discussion didn’t quite answer this question the way it was stated. Instead, he answered the question “what are great ingredients?” by comparing what he referred to as the “holy trinity” of ingredients consisting of foie gras, truffles, and caviar to modern ingredients like pork belly, which David Chang  is known for, and pork shoulder, a Kogi food truck staple. Today, great ingredients are commodities (pork belly) instead of rarities (caviar, truffles, foie gras). This implies that demand is driving our perception of great ingredients downscale putting greater pressure on preparation, flavor and integrity instead of rarity.

This isn’t to say that old-school fine dining is dead. Fine dining has a great future if not a short term struggle due to the economy. Ryan showed a photo of great chefs including Bolud, Keller, Trotter, Ripert, Coliccio, Mina, and Achatz to name a few. By showing these photos, he proved that the number of great American chefs has grown exponentially since the time of Soule and brought tremendous renown to fine dining in the US. One glaring observation is that Ryan didn’t show one photo of a female chef during his presentation, not even a female CIA graduate of high regard like Melissa Kelly of Primo restaurant in Maine. With so many great female chefs in the U.S., I am surprised. Much can be gleaned from what is not said but I predict that the future of fine dining in America will include an increasing number of female chefs.

As Dr. Ryan wraps up his presentation he offers to answer questions from the audience. One attendee asks what he thinks of molecular gastronomy and Dr. Ryan, after a thorough response suggests that the molecular gastronomy movement is a fad that will eventually expire in the coming years. On this point I smile with slight disagreement. Molecular gastronomy will fade away eventually but the cork is out of the bottle with chefs when it comes to food science. Food science, as a culinary content area in training, will expand out of necessity and chefs will continue to develop expertise in science (the why of cooking) in addition to technique (the how of cooking).  Molecular gastronomy will forever be credited with catalyzing this trend. Our profession will continue to professionalize and become more technical.

That foodservice is such a remarkable industry where a professional can go from dish room to boardroom in the course of a decade remains a fact.  The profession has evolved to such an extent over the past two decades that the public’s esteem for chefs and culinary professionals is at its highest point ever. Today, chefs are entrepreneurs, celebrities, thought leaders, agents of social change among other things.  Dr. Ryan is an example of this.

There are very few people in culinary education and the foodservice industry as a whole that are smarter or better informed than Tim Ryan when it comes to food and cooking. The industry is lucky to have a guy like Dr. Ryan leading the Culinary Institute of America which, in my mind, is a national treasure and key cultural change agent in America. I agree with much of what he said though not everything and he still has me thinking…that’s a good thing.

Breakfast in the Rio Grande National Forest

Posted 10 Jul 2010 — by S.E.
Category Travel

 

It’s  sunrise and we are awake after a wonderful night of sleep in a cabin located at an altitude of 9000ft just outside of Creede, Colorado. The air is brisk at 55 degrees as we shake off the sleep, head outside into first-light and load up our SUV.  A few minutes later we are bouncing along, kicking up chalky dust as we go, driving southeast along a dirt forest service road, the headwaters of the Rio Grande meandering along to our right, the Rio Grande National Forest and its thousands of Spruce trees passing by gently to our left. Sunlight hasn’t yet crested over the mountains but a soft light is already illuminating the valley. Within an hour we will be eating breakfast at one of the most incredible locations nature can provide. We are guests of a friend who scored us an invitation to a “crack-of-dawn” mountain breakfast in the Rio Grande National Forest that has been happening from time to time in this community for multiple generations. This is a locals only, invitation only, insider event and, from what I hear, they deploy into the mountains with their food and equipment like a finely tuned military unit.  The forest service road comes to an end in a mountain meadow at just under two miles in altitude. I turn and face back down the road amazed at the view; a rolling meadow giving way in the distance to mountain peaks nearly denuded of snow.

 

Ahead, a small group of cowpokes who arrived earlier have two propane camp stoves lit rendering clouds of steam, the smell of fresh bacon spreading through the air as it cooks. I walk over and introduce myself and find out that these four gents are all summer residents of Creede and three out of four of them are from Texas. Throughout the morning they will cook a dozen pounds of bacon, stoves propped up on a modular wooden table made for just this occasion. As we are talking, a group of women from Louisiana (summer residents too) arrive, set up their own camp stove and, after fifteen minutes or so, begin cooking beignets, lightly dusting the golden brown puffs with powdered sugar as they stack them on plates ready for service.

  

As the sun rises higher, the air temperature begins to heat up to a comfortable 70 degrees; the sky is crystal clear except for a few small clouds and turning a deep Colorado blue. Another group of women arrives and within moments they are cracking dozens of eggs into a large bowls in preparation for a major scramble. It is obvious that these folks have done this before. I wander over to the edge of the meadow taking it all in and find a stream about four feet wide flowing along at a good clip. The water is ice cold whooshing along and the river full of slippery rocks. The sound of arriving vehicles rises over the rushing water. We are getting closer to ready and more people are arriving.

 

I head back to the meadow, set up a couple folding chairs and wander over to the table. This is more than a community catered breakfast; it’s also a major potluck event. Bowls of fruit salad, fresh muffins, quick breads, green chili egg casserole (our item), corned beef hash, and crispy home fries have been kindly contributed. The bacon is up, beignets crisp and ready, scrambled eggs just done and on the table; it’s time to eat. We grab plates, get in line and take our time gathering small samples of nearly every item. The hot food is hot, cold food cold, and everything looks delicious. Behind us, the bacon guys cook more bacon, the beignet ladies pump out more crispy morsels, and the scrambled egg station is in full motion. Rounding the end of the buffet table, we head back to our chairs, take a seat and begin to eat, the sound of the stream providing white noise behind us.  As we finish our first round I can feel what little stress left in my body drain away as the sun grows higher.