Archive for August, 2010

Four Ingredients

Posted 26 Aug 2010 — by S.E.
Category At Home

  

It is rare that I talk about foods that I prepare myself on this blog. However, tonight I ate a tomato that inspired me. While poking around outside my back door I discovered and harvested a beautiful ripe red heirloom tomato from the small patch of vegetables I tend. I was drawn to it by the fragrant aroma radiating from the group of tomato plants on this side of the garden. The smell and taste of fresh home-grown tomatoes are two of a handful of sensory experiences that define summer for me.

As summer begins its gradual transition toward shorter days and the autumnal equinox moves closer, I stop taking my fresh tomato supply for granted. By the time our first frost arrives I often have several dozen green tomatoes that have no hope of ripening on the vine. These are tomatoes with the best of intentions that will never reach their prime. Thoughts about the fading days of late August and the end of summer flash through my head as I carefully pluck the tomato from its stem with a heightened level of appreciation.

The lucky specimen I select is a plump, globe shaped Ceylon tomato although this Ceylon doesn’t look like the others I have grown in the past. It’s perfect round shape and lack of pronounced ribs cause me to wonder if this plant was an actual Ceylon or some other varietal. However, when I rinse, cut, and taste the tomato it is perfectly sweet with slight acid and good bite much like a typical Ceylon. Perhaps this is the real thing.

 

Across from my tomatoes, there’s an out-of-control group of broad leaf Genovese basil plants. They are full and healthy with perfect shaped shiny leaves and a deep and sweet aroma. I snip off a handful of leaves and bring them in to my sink for a rinse. After gently patting them dry, I roll and roughly chiffonade the leaves and toss them in the bowl with the tomatoes, a rough teaspoon of sea salt, and several grinds of fresh black pepper.

Four ingredients, that’s it. Four ingredients that when combined define summer and, after one bite, provide an unrivaled flavor experience.

Tini ~ Providence, RI: An American Food Bar

Posted 23 Aug 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Food Alert Trends

Tini is a terrific little restaurant located in Providence, Rhode Island. It’s the brainchild of Johanne Killeen and George Germon, owners of Al Forno in Providence and located in a space that at best is nine hundred gross square feet. When you deduct space for the kitchen, unisex bathroom, and back hallway, there’s roughly five hundred square feet left for the bar and seating. The place is tiny. Imagine a fine full-service restaurant with a great bar where you can sit comfortably and eat an entire meal with a friend. Now imagine that restaurant with everything else removed but the bar itself and you have an idea of what Tini is like. It’s a food bar; a restaurant bar without the rest of the restaurant.

My first trip to Tini occurred back in March with a group of restaurant industry friends. Since that visit I have watched the crew that runs Tini iron out the wrinkles that come with opening a new restaurant while consistently putting up great food. They added additional cool details including a back-lit sign outside and a fantastic custom lit stainless steel door handle with the restaurant name laser cut vertically into it. At night, the door handle glows neon blue from the light hidden in its hollow core. More recently, the crew placed four small tables for two and a couple large umbrellas on a custom platform on the sidewalk outside. The platform keeps the tables level on the gently sloping sidewalk and the additional tables add much needed seating to such a small restaurant (don’t worry, even with the additional seating the place is miniscule).

 

Due to its size, all nineteen of the indoor seats at Tini are located around a horse shoe shaped bar centered just inside the glass entryway. There are no printed menus at Tini. Instead, the menu scrolls on a large LCD screen located on the north facing interior wall. The menu usually features fifteen to twenty items along with one or two specials. Most items are less than ten bucks with many between six and eight dollars. Portion sizes are just right for snacking or for a light lunch. Two plates will easily make a meal. My two favorite items are the open faced smoked salmon and egg salad sandwich and the delicious house made French fries with garlic mayo and spicy sauce. The fries pair well with a cold glass of Gavi. Alicia, one of the servers at Tini consistently provides good food and beverage recommendations adeptly matching one of the nine wines sold by the glass to any food item you choose.

 

During my most recent visits, Alicia and I were chatting when I noticed George and Johanne sitting at the corner of the bar next to the kitchen door. Catching George’s eye, I waved, walked over and said hello. We spoke for a while and George and I shared a couple fish stories as he relayed his quest to catch a “keeper” striped bass this summer. I spoke of the scup a small group of us caught on Martha’s Vineyard earlier in the summer and we all agreed that this species is one of the tastiest (although bony) underutilized fish in local waters. Our conversation ebbed into a discussion of Tini, the food, and interior design. Johanne smiled as I told her that Tini now holds a top five spot on my all time “favorite restaurant bathrooms” list and shared how much thought George put into designing the restaurant (including the bathroom). Breaking away, I congratulated them for such a cool little place and both beamed with joy. It was a nice conversation.

 

Tini, in calling itself a food bar, has established yet another restaurant genre similar to the gastro-pub but on a much smaller scale. It occupies a space somewhere between a diner and the bar at a fine restaurant (without the restaurant). I am not sure how Johanne and George make their numbers with nineteen seats and eight dollar plates but I hope it all works out and will do my part when in seeking a meal in Providence. A food bar…now that’s cool! 

Tini

200 Washington St.

Providence, RI 02903

401-383-240

Future Foodservice Innovation: Look to Where Food Sucks and Establish Integrity

Posted 18 Aug 2010 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends

I have a theory about culinary innovation that’s pretty simple but worth talking about. If you want to find the next area of innovation in foodservice, look to where food sucks. It’s not hard to do; there are lots of places where food is sold without regard to quality or integrity. When entrepreneurial chefs find these pockets of low food quality they transform them for the better and find success along the way. The food truck revolution of the past three years is an example. Food trucks used to suck. So are the phenomenal success stories of Chipotle Mexican Grill in the fast casual segment, Stonyfield farm in the yogurt category, and Amy’s organics in retail. Each of these companies established integrity within a category where it was lacking. The list of places where you can find food with integrity is long and getting longer. However, there are still some dark spots out there that present an opportunity for innovation and need fixing.

Recently, I had two food experiences while traveling that confirm my point. While riding the Amtrak Acela to Penn Station in New York I visited the dining car to check it out and get a snack. The set up was nice with approximately one third of the car dedicated to a small pantry, service counter and cashiers station and the rest of the car set with a small counter with seating and places to stand with food. It was nice enough except that there wasn’t a single item on the menu worth eating. Like an airliner, the dining car was outfitted to transport cold food cold and hot food hot but was ill equipped for fresh food preparation. Out of desperation I ordered a turkey sandwich and went back to my seat and unwrapped the sandwich. The turkey slices were compressed into a solid clump centered in a soft roll with a slice of tomato and a limp and bruised lettuce leaf. Needless to say, I didn’t eat it. It seems to me that the Amtrak folks and their designers and consultants place convenience over quality when it comes to food. Amtrak should be able to deliver a high quality turkey sandwich on board with very little fuss and a reasonable price. What a shame they haven’t taken the time to do things right. My prediction: someone’s going to figure out how to bring some credibility to Amtrak’s dining car or the dining car will die a slow death. Integrity with proper control yields financial success, convenience over quality yields failure.

My second example comes from a recent Southwest Airlines flight. That both these bad-food examples occurred while I was trapped on a moving vehicle is noteworthy. Travelers like me become captives with no other food options while on a train or plane. Is this what allows the people in charge of foodservice at these entities to set the bar so low? It pains me to bash Southwest, I actually like the airline on many levels and think they provide tremendous value to travelers. However, the food options on board their flights are weak. I avoid eating the crap they serve in most cases but couldn’t avoid it on a recent trip. By the time I deplaned at the connecting airport on this trip I was starving. The airport was small and regional with no quality food options (captive again!). Sullen, I walked to my gate, boarded my flight and was sitting in my seat before hunger surpassed my idealism. I pulled a Southwest menu out of the seat-back pocket and read it to see if there were any real options. Aside from peanuts, pretzels and Nabisco snacks, there were none. The flight attendant allowed me to select one of each and I sampled.

Studying each of the small packages, I notice that none make any kind of statement about food integrity. I wonder where the peanuts are from, whether they are conventionally sourced, whether my crackers are free of transfats, and whether my pretzels are organic (no) and lye-free (no). For more than five years researchers have been working to genetically engineer the allergens out of peanuts. Are these peanuts modified? I would love to know. No need to open the peanuts, my stomach is turning.

Studying the Nabisco Cheese Nips I notice the product has nineteen ingredients. All of them are generally regarded as safe (GRAS) but if given an option I will pass when it comes to eating the partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, monosodium glutamate (flavor enhancer), sodium caseinate (casein neutralized by lye), and acetic acid (flavor enhancer) in these nips.

My view is aligned with Professor Kelly Brownell at Yale and Professor (and rock star author) Michael Pollan at Berkeley when it comes to foods with more that a few ingredients. Pollan recommends only eating processed foods with five ingredients or less and Brownell questions whether foods with as many ingredients as my Cheese Nips are actually drugs or controlled substances in disguise. Again, I am left searching for food integrity. At this stage I toss all three packets into the trash when the flight attendant passes by. Southwest has made famous their meager food options as part of their cost containment and low price strategy. This is fine. However, if you serve a snack of any kind, make sure it has integrity. Find a sustainable, scalable source for these types of snacks with high food integrity or ditch them all together.

So that’s my strategy; I look for where food sucks and consider the discovery a revelation. If you are an entrepreneur, seek out where food sucks and you will find your next great opportunity. If you are a major manufacturer, develop products with true integrity and ditch the engineering. It is only a matter of time before the wave of integrity that is washing over American foodservice cleans out these last remaining pockets of bad food. Serve us food with integrity and we will come!

Sra. Martinez: In Miami The Food is Hot!

Posted 08 Aug 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

It seems strange to have dinner in Miami with the sun still shining. Even though its 8:30PM, it seems so early that I feel like I am here for the early-bird special before heading home to soak my false teeth (joking here, I dont have false teeth!) It’s just too bright out to have dinner. I usually don’t even head out for dinner in this town until its dark, regardless of the time of year. However Sra. Martinez is starting to get busy and I think we may have beat the rush. We take a table on the outside patio, order a couple glasses of wine and settle in.

We selected Sra. Martinez because I am a huge Michelle Bernstein and David Martinez fan and I am curious to find out how things are going. Sitting outside allows me to fully absorb the beauty of the 1920’s era Post Office that David Martinez and Michelle Bernstein, aka Señora (Sra.) Martinez, converted into a hip tapas style bistro. The exterior of the building retains many of its original features including a majestic carved stone eagle perched above the main entry.  As I sip my wine, I notice my water glass coated in condensation. Taking a closer look I find the wonderful logo that Bernstein and Martinez created for the restaurant printed on the side of the glass. It’s a black outlined ellipse with “Martinez” in bold lettering and a small bright red pig in profile in the center. The umbrellas above each of the outdoor tables are adorned with this logo as well.

 

Memories of my first introduction to David flash through my mind. It was March 2005 and I was two courses into a twelve course dinner at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago when he and his delightful fiancé (now wife) Michelle Bernstein came in and sat at the table right next to us. Michelle and I had crossed paths over the years and I was delighted to see her but didn’t recognize the person she was with, David and I had never met before. She waved just before being seated and I reciprocated. At that moment Charlie Trotter came up the back stairs and over to our table to say hello to us. After a brief conversation I pointed Michelle out to Charlie (he recognized her right away) and walked over to her table with him. She jumped up to give Charlie a hug, introduced me to David and she and Charlie had a polite chat while I engaged in conversation with David. The main thing I remember about this first introduction to David was how gracious and kind he seemed and how much taller he was than Michelle. I also recall Charlie asking Michelle what she was planning to do now that she was on her own and Michelle relaying a vision of opening a restaurant of her own in the near future.

Five years later and Michelle and David have opened more than a couple restaurants, consulted, participated in multiple television shows and launched Sra. Martinez as their latest venture. One of the beautiful things about Michelle, other than her ballerina like grace and wonderful culinary skill, is the energy she gives off. She never sits still. She’s always on the go, there’s no holding her back. I already know, from talking with friends in town who know her better than I do, that she’s not at Sra. Martinez tonight. She’s cooking dinner for a small group of patrons who won the bidding for her services during a charity event a few months earlier. As busy as she is, she still has time to give back. David is probably here though and I decide that after dinner I will head inside to see if he’s around.

We decide to share four dishes and ask our server to pick them. Descriptions of two of the four dishes follow. The first is the Egg Yolk Carpaccio with Sweet Shrimp and Crispy Potatoes. This dish has received some publicity and I am curious to try it. When it arrives I am stunned. The dish is exactly what it claims to be, a “Carpaccio” of egg yolks. That is, a plate full of whipped raw egg yolks topped with sweet shrimp, crispy shoe string potatoes, and a drizzle of olive oil. My first thought is a knee-jerk fear of the raw egg yolks. Knowing Bernstein, there has to be more to this dish. I wonder if she cooks the eggs sous vide prior to whipping and plating them. My fear fades away after thinking about who’s in charge of the kitchen. I trust Michelle and she probably knows the exact farm from where these eggs were sourced and the names of each of the chickens who gave birth to them. Fear aside, I dig in and am not disappointed. The egg yolk flavor is intense, fatty and smooth. Each shrimp is just cooked and seasoned perfectly. Their buttery sweet flavor and texture offer an appropriate and complimentary contrast to the yolks. The crispy potatoes provide the final touch and make the dish complete. It takes a bold chef to offer this type of item and an even bolder one to pull it off so well. What a great item! 

 

We also tried the Butifarra; a dish consisting of giant white beans, Foie Gras duck sausage, and Port Wine. Bernstein serves this item on a large, narrow, white oval platter. The white beans are huge and the duck sausage rich with Foie Gras. After a quick flash in a sauté pan the sausages are deglazed with port wine, reduced with duck stock and topped with the white beans. As I eat this dish I sop up the sauce with a thick piece of bread, enjoying the light coating of duck fat that has collected on the surface of the sauce. This is another bold flavored dish and one that I assumed would be better in the fall than in summer. Again, Bernstein proves me wrong with this dish. Although bold in flavor and rich with Foie Gras and white beans, the dish works well in the heat of Miami.

  

After sharing two more dishes and a few more glasses of wine, we cash out our check and move inside. The restaurant is full now and David Martinez is at the bar. He has just finished visiting each of the tables in the dining room and smiles as he sees us. We let him know that we have already had dinner and just stopped in to say hello. He shares a couple anecdotes and tells us that the restaurant is doing great. Sra. Martinez is close enough to Michy’s (their other restaurant) for the two to easily travel between them. David was over at Michy’s for part of the night and will remain here at Sra. Martinez for an hour before returning back. He still has that same gracious and kind vibe that I remember from our first meeting and, after such a good meal, I think he has much to celebrate.

 Sra Martinez

4000 NE 2nd Avenue

Miami, FL 33137

305-573-5474

Michel Richard’s Central: Home of the Lobster Burger

Posted 02 Aug 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

We arrive at Michel Richard’s Central at 1001 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. in a flutter. The rest of our party arrived an hour earlier, ordered lunch, and they’re waiting for us while trying to delay service. We are en route when one of our friends at the restaurant calls and asks if she should order for us because the kitchen is closing in five minutes. We are running out of time. “Where are you guys?” she asks in desperation as we walk through the front door and out of the sticky heat that blankets the city this time of year. Wilted but in good spirits, we sit down and order with less than a minute to spare relieved to be inside where it’s air conditioned.

Our server arrives, takes our order (adding it to the one already placed by the others) and heads toward the kitchen. I take a few moments to catch my breath and soak in the dining room décor. The restaurant is brushed with natural light from the west facing bank of windows that run the length of the dining room. This natural light compliments the high ceiling and two toned light fixtures that hang along the center of the room. It’s a large restaurant with what appears to be over one hundred seats including several large banquettes with neutral colored leather upholstery. Tables and chairs are a natural maple and the Berber carpet is tan in color giving the restaurant a bright, earth toned natural feel. Sleek, contemporary, playful, (there’s a huge portrait of Richard’s bearded face on display near the wine cellar) and comfortable come to mind as I sit looking around what is now a nearly empty dining room. Although our server is not rushing us, our food arrives faster than expected disrupting my wandering mind.

 

Classic Beef Burger with Cheese. This burger is special. Richard makes his own hamburger rolls on site, the beef is fresh ground, shaped into a one inch thick patty and perfectly cooked, and the French fries are fresh as well. There is nothing like a simple item, perfectly executed, to make me happy. Classic Beef Burger $17

 Lobster Burger from Heaven. Richard takes a couple of split lobster tails and intertwines them, grills them over high heat, plops them on a disk of lightly oven dried tomato sitting on the bottom of a fresh baked bun, tops them with potato crisps, a little special mayonnaise based ginger sauce, caps them with a fluffy, egg washed bun and serves. This is not an inexpensive dish but it is absolutely fantastic. The lobster is lightly charred from a hot pan but perfectly cooked, moist and toothsome (not easy to do with lobster) and the sandwich is big enough for us to split in half and share. When I cut the burger it remains completely intact. This makes me wonder if the lobster tails were dusted with transglutaminase (meat glue), I am assured they were not! No matter…it tastes wonderful. Lobster Burger $29

The only other guy at the table with me orders a simple New York strip steak. It arrives grilled to perfection with a topping of maitre d’ hotel butter, spinach and arugula salad and a side of those awesome fries. I like the way the fries are served standing up in a cup, it keeps them crisp and the salt evenly distributed. He takes one slice out of the steak and it is exactly medium rare, piping hot, and seasoned. NY Strip $32

 

Being an oyster fanatic, we order our first dozen and share them. Nothing fancy with the presentation but they are ice cold, correctly handled and delicious. Unfortunately, I am still so enamored with the lobster burger that I forget to write down the types of oysters we are eating. I think they are Hama Hama’s and Dabob Bay’s but can’t quite remember, probably because I was eating them so fast. Dozen Oysters $32

 

The same is true of dessert. We ordered four desserts to share knowing that Michel Richard earned his stripes as a pastry chef before starting a mini restaurant empire. Before I thought to snap a few shots of these items, it was too late, we had wiped out all but one; the bread pudding. What a shame, it would be nice to share a photo of Richard’s signature “Chocolate Bar” dessert. Bread & Butter Pudding $8

 

We were in an out of Central in about an hour. The food was fantastic and the setting comfortable and relaxing. Better yet, our server never once made us feel rushed, was gracious the whole time we dined, and walked us to the door with a smile.

Central Michel Richard

1001 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20004

202-626-0015