Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Most Important Food in America: Part I

I miss October. It is the best month. It is smack in the middle of my favorite season. It contains my birthday and that of my spouse. And, it is National Pizza Month. Are there really eleven other foods that warrant their own month? National Tuna Tartar Month? National Warm Frisee Salad with Farm-Fresh Poached Egg Month?

Pizza, of course, deserves more than a month, since it IS the most important food in America. It is our default food. It satisfies. We can have it any time without having to make it ourselves. We can feed tons of kids with 30-minutes notice. We can make it ourselves if we want. It cleans up easily. And the boxes make great construction material for children. It is much more important here than in Italy—really, it is. In fact, I think pizza should have more than a month of honor. We should celebrate pizza the entire 4th quarter of each year—or at least until Turkey takes over in late November.

Now, I have had dissenters tell me that Hamburgers are more important than pizza in America and that McDonalds alone is enough to make the case. First, fast food frankenburgers are not burgers. On the other end of the spectrum, if it is stuffed with slow-braised short-ribs topped with fois gras and a duck egg, it may be good food, but it is not really a burger either. A burger is meat, salt, pepper and a bun. Yes you can put some other stuff in, as long as the meat is the main thing.

And burgers aren’t particularly controversial. I like my hamburger medium rare. You like yours well done. I think you are a leather-eating cretin. You think I am a bloodsucking tick. I’ll eat mine now. You take yours off the grill, whenever the hell you feel like it, Conan. End of debate. No nuance, no subtlety. America's Most Important food must be ubiquitous. Burgers? Check! Established stylistic or regionally variations should exist. Burgers? Not Really. Able to form the foundation of an unresolvable debate that crosses decades. Nope.

So maybe Steak is America’s most important food? Sorry no, too highbrow where it matters. Not ubiquitous except among the non-PC elite. It apparently takes a bona fide American food expert to debate the merits of a good steak for more than a few minutes. Awhile back, Frank Bruni, then head restaurant critic for the New York Times, weighed in on the imperfections of various New York steakhouses. Much esoterica about wood & leather fixtures and creamed spinach (the anti-spinach)—cigars or not. He settled on the venerable Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn, and relative newcomer, Robert’s Steakhouse, which resides inside a Penthouse-operated strip club on Manhattan’s West Side. I guess atmosphere does matter in the case of steak. Of course, Bruni asserts he doesn’t go to Robert’s for the girls, just to read the menu.

I ventured to Brooklyn on a recent trip to try Luger’s and, despite my great anticipation, it didn’t float my boat. Surely it’s much better than Outback, but nothing transcendental. It felt like I was in a 100-year old landmark with surly waiters, decent food, and a room full of people, enjoying their meat because Zagat’s told them they were supposed to enjoy their meat.

I am still lobbying for a hall pass that gets me into Robert’s. To her credit, Susan is more concerned about my cholesterol than my fidelity. Or perhaps she believes that I am more likely to succumb to the Gold Label Kobe New York Strip, Creamy Mashed Potatoes and the pistachio ice cream, than the Gold-accessorized New York Stripper, creamy complexion and pistachio eye shadow. Nevertheless, I refuse to go there by myself, and have not yet found a companion brave enough to broach the issue with his spouse. Thanks to the Internet I can still read the menu.

Instead I visit local gastro-hero, Michael Mina, who slow cooks steaks in various fats before grilling them over mesquite at his Vegas spot, StripSteak and Bourbon Steak in SF. Hmmm, not enough fat on the inside of one of those Kobe rib eyes for ya? Now you need to encase a 70% fat hunk in a 100% fat shell. Definitely time to make more cardiology and diabetes investments (my real job).

I have to admit that Mina's “regular” (non-Kobe) rib-eye was a drool-inducing slab of umami amino acids and dispersing lipids, the likes of which I had not previously consumed. Yum. And the duck fries—I am not a fan of fries, French or Freedom--were alone worth the cab lines at McCarren Airport. These are potatoes fried in duck fat, not fried ducks as one companion assumed.

In LA, at Wolfgang Puck’s CUT, the best of the meat was sittin’ on bar stools not served on plates. But what I could get for $75 was delicious, if undersized, and adorned with creative concoctions of chili, fruit or jus—not for the purist, but tasty. I am talking here about aged beef, of course not the under-aged variety at the bar.

For rank-and-file steak lovers there is another famous LA spot, Pacific Dining Car. It was good beef, seasoned and cooked right. The usual sides. Same experience at Morton’s in Orange County, Donvan’s in San Diego, Drover in Omaha, Smith & Wollensky in various towns and Ruth Chris’ in Dallas, except that the latter was scuba-diving in clarified butter.

Steak then is simple: buy very good beef, age it, liberal salt and pepper, hot, hot surface—get a char, and don’t screw it up by overcooking. I learned how to do this at Bonanza Sirloin Pit during High School—everything except the “buy very good beef” part. Nevertheless, if I did not mess them up by overcooking, the Bonanza steaks tasted very good. That is why, it never ceases to amaze me that you can still go to an otherwise spectacular restaurant, love everything in site, order the steak and have all the air pop out of your balloon.

It happened just last night at Skool in SF. Fabulous creative food: inventive cocktails, great fish, veggie and vegan dishes—crab cakes, baby aji fritti, surprising eryngil mushrooms with miso aioli, shishito peppers, squid noodles in a Japanese broth, the best salad “I have ever eaten in my life” says my wife. This restaurant wasn’t just good, it was amazing. Then the steak came: grass-fed Eel River New York strip. Promising start. But wait, you cooked it how? medium-well? Are you kidding me? Dry, tough, rough mouth feel with no lubricating juices, like french kissing a large thirsty cat—how is this possible? Just don’t f**k it up; the Golden Rule of steak. Yet, they managed. Don't get me wrong. I am going back to Skool. It was too good. Just won’t order the steak—ever.

So the most important food in America is not burgers, not steak and not, my vegan friends, tofu anything. I like Kale as much as the next guy, but it is still like eating some one else's green tongue. I do make a mean kale burger chocked full veggie umami bombs like double-concentrated tomato paste, parmesiano cheese, dried porcini mushrooms and crushed anchovies, with various nuts & seeds. But this variant will never take over the nation.

In Part II, I will make the affirmative case for pizza as America's Most Important Food. Set your ovens for 700-degrees.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Whale Tail by Foodcrunch Contributor Adam Grosser

I ate whale and I feel awful. A week later, I can still feel it lodged in my belly like a small dark stone. I can hear it castigating me for my moral ambiguity. It's amazing that the tiny piece I swallowed - I'd be stunned if it was more than a couple of grams - has grown over successive days to feel like kilograms of guilt.

I suppose you need some context. We were in Iceland touring the beautiful countryside. After a solid half-day in the outdoors, we were all starving. Our guide brought us to a hotel near one of the most active and theatrical geysers. Their restaurant offered a large buffet of traditional Icelandic fare. I started well, with a plate full of salad, poached salmon, and a bowl of vegetable soup.

My 14-year old is a carnivore. We count our blessings every time something green is coaxed past her lips. In perfect and predictable form, she went straight for the meat table with a ravenous gleam in her eye. If she doesn't eat something approaching 6000 calories a day, she gets faint and woozy. Apparently it is difficult to stoke the fires of 122 pounds of fast-twitch muscle. I wouldn't know. The meat table was sagging from the effort of supporting mounds of roast pork and something dark that looked like beef. She asked the server what it was, and the reply was, "whale." Undeterred, my daughter speared a couple of thick juicy slices.

The concept of whale meat didn't bother her a bit. She didn't bat an eyelash. I suppose we're all products of our time, and while I grew up in the throes of "Save the Whales" she most certainly did not. By in large, the whale war has receded to a background issue save for the occasional news item regarding Japan, Norway, and Iceland. The public outcry is certainly not loud enough or frequent enough to make it through the media veil that blankets today's teenagers.

So there I am at the table. My daughter is devouring the whale with gusto. Her elbows are up, sawing quickly with her knife, and shoveling it home. She declares it delicious, and cuts off a small corner. She spears the morsel on her fork, and holds it across the table. It glistens redly in the overhead lights. Our guide shrugged his shoulders and said, "When in Rome..."

Against all my better judgment, I took her fork, chewed quickly and washed it down with some water. It was exactly like one of those reality shows where the people have to eat the fat, white, squirming grub to win the prize. Mustering the courage always involves closing the eyes, and I am no exception.

I have no idea what whale actually tastes like. I do know what the guilt tastes like, and it is bitter. I ate whale and I feel awful.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best Meals of the Decade 2000-2009

It is time for the best fine-dining restaurant meals of the decade. This list is heavily skewed to great restaurants that, despite their reputation, exceeded our very-high expectations. Note that we barely made it to Italy this decade, but on that trip we stayed pretty rustic preferring to experience small local trattoria on the advice of locals. Our hit rate here was pretty darn good. We did make it to Paris, Laussane, London, Barcelona, Geneva, Delhi, Bangalore, Shanghai and Tokyo, all of which provided amazing and sometimes bazaar experiences. Here is the list:

  1. Alinea-Chicago (4 times) each time surprised and satisfied.
  2. French Laundry-Yountville (4 times) each time satisfied, not always surprised
  3. Le Bernadin-NY (3 times) surprised and satisfied
  4. el Bulli-Roses, Spain (1 time) surprised more than ever
  5. The Bazaar-LA (1 time) lovely twist on a restaurant
  6. Drolma-Barcelona (1 time) One concept to relate: goat leg sous vide
  7. L’Altiere Joel Robuchon-NY and LV (3 times) The man
  8. Urasawa LA (2 times) Sushi in the hands of a master architect
  9. O ya-Boston (1 time) Rich from sushi to turf
  10. Bastide (under Lefevbre, now closed)-LA (2 times) Pasta with cinnomon scallops
  11. Babbo-NY(4 times) Beef Cheek Ravs., short ribs, rabbit 3 ways, ragu
  12. L’Arpege-Paris (1 time) vegetables sous vide with intense flavor, crazy choices
  13. SPQR-SF (1 time) the best potatoes we ever ate, and moore
  14. Ubuntu-Napa (2 times) The other best vegetables in the world
  15. Daniel-NY (1 time) Less formality than the Classics, no compromise on food. first frog legs
  16. StripSteak-Las Vegas (2 times) amazing rib eyes overshadowed by duck fries
  17. Cut-LA (2 Times) T bone
  18. Quince-SF (3 tImes) 11 course custom pasta meal
  19. Manressa-Los Gatos (2 times) Daniel West, with his own farm
  20. WD-50-NY (1 time) Wylie makes crazy good food
  21. Central Michel Richard-Washington D.C. (2 times) I cannot even imagine better chili
  22. Arola-Hotel Arts Barcelona (1 time) Tapas of love
  23. River Cafe-London (1 time) Sole soul
  24. Spago-Beverly Hills (1 time) Friend of chef took us to 3 hour lunch
  25. Michael Mina-San Francisco (1 time) 3x3x3
  26. Stonehill Tarvern-Orange County (1 time) lobster pot pie I could eat every night
  27. Topolobampo-Chicago (2 times) Mexicago cuisine as
  28. Momofuku Ko-NY (1 time) Joel Robuchon East
  29. Cibreo-Florence (1 times) It wasn't Offal, but it was
  30. Le Suite in Laussane. It was just very good, with amazing views, and I wore sweats. (Pretended I was an Italian basetball star.)
Can't wait for the winners of the next decade.

Check for the most disappointing meals of the decade.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mama, Say It Ain't So

It has been quite awhile since I last posted, but inspiration has its own clock, I suppose.

Ultimately, when I read that the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is trying to force Ben and Jerry’s to forgo cow’s milk in favor of ice cream made from human breast milk, I could be silent no longer. What are they gonna call it? Your Sister’s Cherry—Garcia? Chunky Mommy? Peanut Butter D-Cup?

Branding issues aside, my opinion on this matter is not polemic. There is some merit to PETA’s case. For example, we finally have a cogent argument to persuade Bill Clinton to do a “Got Milk” commercial. Perhaps white mustache and white cigar . At 25-cents per 8-ounce serving, we are looking at a tremendous material cost-savings over bottled water during the upcoming economic nuclear winter, many unqualified observers are predicting. And imagine the self-serve possibilities—which would greatly reduce labor costs at most eating establishments as well.

I believe Ben & Jerry’s is only the beginning. What about picketing the folks at Yoplait until they offer a human replacement for their trademark brand? I humbly suggest “Yo Mama”. Natural food for the hood!

Imagine the opportunity to change the shape of the milk carton to more closely resemble the swelled-form of the nursing mother. Mrs. Butterworth went down this road with syrup, but “shapely and sticky” is no match for “milky white and wholesome”. I can envision legions of strippers with tattoos of missing children needled to their mammaries. I will try hard to not lose sleep over this image now that I said it out loud, but I bet we find more of them this way.

Still, we must remain cautious. The possibility of tainted Chinese milk will require close inspection of the source of imported dairy products. OK, let’s not always see the same hands. And please, no jokes about Mad Cow Disease being the new name for PMS. That is purely and simply disrespectful and I will have none of it.

Joking aside, the PETA people have a point about how we treat animals, but somehow I don’t think the solution is to herd nursing mothers into feedlots and force them to gorge on vegetable remnants until they burst with metabolized fats and proteins. (Oh no—another image that will haunt me the entire evening.) Turns out, Fresh Choice has been doing this for two decades without noticeable relief to our bovine cousins.

In the end, we should probably keep milking cows, sheep, goats, yaks, rabbits, whatever, while treating these lactose dispensers with more respect than—well—than we would treat the average nursing mother just trying to stop her baby from crying on the bus. Factory farms are a scandal, be they dairy- or meat-inspired. We are daily turning a blind-eye to a situation that none of us would put up with if it were occurring within our ability to observe directly—and it is time to observe directly. Perhaps that is PETA’s genius—create an image we want to observe to make us conscious of one we are ignoring.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dessert Matters

It isn’t often that you can get your wife’s permission to spend three-days with a dozen attractive, passionate women. And to do so, without the excuse of an old buddy’s bachelor party in Vegas is completely unheard of. But that is exactly what happened to me last weekend, when I joined Tori Richie’s Food Writing Class, courtesy of Tante Marie’s cooking school in San Francisco. Three days with a group of women passionate about food. How good was it? Well I missed a Forty-Niners game to attend the final session. You do the math.

If any of you guys are considering following in my footsteps, you ought to know a couple of things up front. First, when you break bread with a group of women over three days, don’t worry about dessert. Some one will always bring dessert. On the other hand, you likely will have to BYOM—bring your own meat. Maybe it’s that animal carcasses don’t fit neatly into their bags, or perhaps it’s the threat of blood drippings breaching a butcher paper barrier. But whatever the reason, if you want to eat meat, bring it yourself.

I did meet one classmate, who is planning an October trip to New York and already has reservations at—not Per Se, not Babbo, not le Bernadin—but Peter Luger, the venerable Brooklyn man-joint and steakhouse. I did not get to know her very well over only three days, but this one piece of data suggests that she might, in fact, be the perfect women.

Second, when women think “food”, the context of the meal is at least as important as the quality of the actual hydro-carbons they consume. So expect a great deal of conversation about candles, centerpieces, scents and other accrutements. The good news is they don’t seem to notice when you completely glaze over during these discussions.

The class itself was at once inspirational and cautionary. Writing for a living is hard work, and much of the reward comes from the act of writing itself, rather than the resulting fame and fortune. The people I met were “hungry” to become accomplished food writers, which was inspirational. Even more inspiring were the chocolate chip cake and lime macaroons these ladies brought for sharing. Tangy molten centers oozing fresh citrus oils. Did I just say that? I must be succumbing to their influence. Somebody bring me a pork chop!

Some gems from the weekend:

Tuesday Recipe . Sign Up.

Bay Area Burger Blog

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Politics of Eating at My House: Part I

Since when did it become essential to reference a laminated wallet card to figure out what constitutes acceptable cuisine? Wild Salmon from Alaska—Good. Wild salmon from the Atlantic—Bad. Farm-raised salmon—Bad, unless you know what it has eaten. Farm-raised shellfish-Good, however. Foreign shrimp—Bad. Domestic shrimp—Good. Yellowfin tuna—OK. Bluefin tuna—Bad. I don’t know about you, but most of the tuna I eat doesn’t have the fin attached to the can.

And how was it caught? Longline-Bad. Trolling-Good. Floated to the top after above-ground nuclear test—not referenced, but probably bad. Coaxed into the boat with soothing music and the promise of paradise in the next life—probably Good. Fresh? Good if caught recently. Flash frozen—OK if you must. Left on the loading dock in Honolulu for six hours, while some one tracks down the truck driver—Skip it. And, if you ask Thomas Keller, you should also know if it was packed in ice upright or flat on its side.


Chickens should range free, but what constitutes a “range”—certainly not a 20-foot by 4-foot wire enclosure attached to one side of an 80,000 square-foot, artificially-lit and heated windowless warehouse? Pigs should be pen-less; and cows grass-fed. Turkeys—heritage breeds only need apply. Tomatoes—heirloom! Mushrooms—foraged by some one you would trust with your life. Soon they will be telling us not to eat white asparagus, because the fact that it is shielded from the sun’s verdant-producing rays in its own vegetable-Guantanimo, constitutes a false imprisonment and an unprovoked denial of its God-given right to photosynthesize. And speaking of incarceration, my home state of California is changing its State motto from “Eureka, I found It” to “Eat a duck liver, Go to Jail”.

It is getting so it easier to do my taxes than to order a meal.

What about an organic approach to food? Well, it turns out this label means only no chemical fertilizers, antibiotics or hormones. It does not necessarily mean the animals were treated well or that the food is safe. After all, wasn’t it organic killer-spinach that Soprano-ed half a dozen people in 2006.

And the “industrial organic” food chain, Michael Pollan tells us, is not a substitute for sourcing our food locally and seasonally. We can get organic strawberries from Chile for Christmas, thus expending 50 calories in fossil fuel to deliver 12 calories of nutrition. Just last week, instead of contemplating the succulent flavors of my bowl of PEI mussels in their own broth, I found myself trying to remember where the hell Prince Edward Island is, and how far these briny morsels traveled to get to my dinner plate. Yes, I was actually calculating the carbon footprint of something that doesn’t have a foot.

But if we buy local, how do we support free-trade farmers in the Developing World. This is giving me a headache. All I want to do is have lunch without pissing people off.

Some believe the only safe and responsible way to eat is to gather and hunt one’s own food. Might work. Earlier this year, Gourmet Magazine encouraged New Yorkers to forage their way around their metropolis munching through the urban edibles available in parks, gardens and the cracks in sidewalks. An interesting idea, but is it scalable? Lets say only 10% of New Yorkers take the Gourmet sages up on their suggestion. Central Park would, in a fortnight, resemble the Bonneville salt flats, save for a few sunburned waterfowl cowering behind toxic rhododendron bushes.

Perhaps if the article had had less of a veggie-bent, the available rats and roaches could sustain the populace a bit longer. But in the end, my math says that the only way we survive a year as a society of hunters and gatherers is if we commence hunting and gathering each other. Trouble is that in the places on the planet where this is actually going on, real estate values are plummeting. No free lunch it seems.

So far we have merely scratched the surface of the politics of eating at my house. Next, we have to deal with my family’s idiosyncratic issues. My 3-year old sustains himself on fresh fruit, broccoli with chilies , blood orange juice, farmstead cheeses and pizza. Thank God for pizza! To get him to eat any meat, we have to tell him it is sausage. Ergo such inventions as steak sausage, roast sausage and my personal favorite sausage loaf.

My wife, who will unabashedly dismember a well-roasted six week old chicken, acts wounded when I attempt to serve rabbit or, my favorite, kid goat. Moreover, she is proselytizing her Save-the-Cute culinary philosophy to young Max with, I am pleased to announce, only mixed results. Last month, when Max spied a display of homeless animals at the Mall, he bee-lined to the rabbit cage. When the joyless but sincere PETA representative asked Max if he liked rabbits, my son replied “Yes. Bunnies are Deeeeeeeee-licious. Some days they just make you proud.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Eating the Friendly Skies

Some might assert that the most positive development during the last thirty years of the human experience was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Others might point to the decoding of the humane genome with the potential this holds for extending quality life.

However, I am pretty secure in my belief that the most positive development of the last thirty years for mankind is the decision of most airlines to no longer serve food in flight. This single set of corporate edicts has improved the existence of millions of annual travelers and spared the lives of billions of no-range chickens, flavor-deprived cow-food and overcooked carrot spears.

These days you’re lucky if you even get a beverage on some flights. On a recent flight from L.A. to San Francisco, I was told they had no orange, apple or tomato juice—only cran-apple. I have never even seen a cran-apple. And on a late flight from Chicago I was offered a choice of light snack—a package of cracker-cheese food sandwiches or a ginger biscotti, with the half-life of Dick Clark. I had the cookie, and if I deciphered the date code correctly, it had been flying around the country long enough to achieve Platinum Status. This might explain why it had been upgraded to business class.

Still as bad as it is, I am appreciative that they no longer attempt to serve an airline meal on most flights. Historically, experiences in this regard have been less than encouraging for me. The worst one followed a post-meal movie on a flight from San Francisco to London. Some time between the last bite of my chicken cordon-beige and the rolling of the credits on the first Indiana Jones movie, the fourty-ish guy seated to my right passed to the great beyond. I had fallen asleep just after the big round ball chases Indiana out of the cave and managed to get two hours of shut-eye before the kid to my left, on his first ever plane flight, tapped me on the shoulder and awakened me with a head-gesture toward our window-seated aisle mate and the words, “I think he’s dead”.

I swiveled my head from left to right and back left again to reply “Yep he’s dead”. Stiffer than my mashed potatoes and paler than an airline green been, the poor guy needed no official coroner to put an exclamation point on his fate. He was dead and the only consolation was that I had, at last, an opportunity to use my call button for a matter of import. “Ding”.

“Yes Sir, what can I do for you?”

“Well you can’t do anything for me, and I think it’s too late to do anything for him”.

The look on the young attendants face was—well special, as she nearly suppressed an “Oh my God!”, not wanting to alarm other passengers.

I will spare you the details of the subsequent ordeal that led to me and the kid standing in the back of the plane for several hours before finally being relegated to the attendants’ fold-out seats for the rest of the full flight. The young attendant was herself attended to, by a more experienced colleague who assured her that “this kind of thing happens all the time” on the “geezer-flight” from London to Sydney. “Just close their eyes and put a blanket up around them”.

In due course, the first flight attendant came ostensibly to check on us, but her first question was, “I have to ask you, what was your first thought when you realized the gentleman next to you had died?”

I replied that I was “glad I didn’t order the fish”. Now I can’t say for sure that the mini-brick of Chilean Death Bass, was the cause of this poor soul’s demise. But when I asked an official in London to share with me the cause of death, he replied ominously, “don’t worry sir, we’re quite sure it wasn’t contagious”.

Hmmm, not contagious. I could see he wanted to add, “You did have the chicken, right?”, but he maintained his Buckingham Palace guard stoicism in the face of a possible admission of liability. Clever, those Brits.

These days, while we are spared the threat of airline food poisoning, we are left to worry about what the passengers near us are going to bring on board to eat. Used to be you just sat there hoping that the fat guy (or in my case the other fat guy) doesn’t sit down next to you. Or if traveling from Paris, you try to fly on Sunday because you know Saturday is “bath night”. Now it’s “God, please don’t let the vegan-looking anti-shaver woman with the tupperware container sit next to me.”

So in the interest of good human relations, let me suggest the following rules for bringing food on to airplanes.

  • Nothing with fish sauce
  • No cooked fish whatsoever, sushi is OK
  • No blue cheese, Roquefort, gorgonzola, etc.
  • No BBQ sauces
  • Leave the onions off the chili
  • Come to think of it, No Chili
  • No organ meats
  • No leftovers prepared more than 24 hours ahead

I am soliciting other rules of thumb to add to this list in order to create the comprehensive “Let’s All Get Along” heuristics for bringing food on planes. Please send yours to

In the meantime, don’t eat the fish!