Tuesday, January 30, 2007

I'll Take Manhattan

In the latest James Bond movie, Casino Royale,we finally understand why our hero chooses the vodka martini as his signature cocktail. It has nothing to do with the inherent sensual allure of this tasteless concoction, but rather, it is the easiest drink in which one might be able to detect poison. And, when you spend your most productive hours killing people and sleeping with women others hold dear, the possibility of poisoning is more than an academic consideration.

I come by my personal drink, the retro, straight-up Manhattan, by a different route. But, like Bond, it gives me the excuse I need to drink my favorite distilled beverage, 90-proof All-American Kentucky Bourbon, in as pure a way as possible, without feeling like a complete degenerate. A large splash of vermouth, a shake of bitters and a cherry or lemon twist, give the bourbon a degree of respectability.

Manhattans were medicine, not cocktail, in the Matteucci household of the last century. My Nonnie (deal with the fact that a middle-age man is using the word “Nonnie” with a straight face), who lived with us, used to “put them up” in old Canada Dry ginger ale bottles, so that there would always be 64-ounces available in case some one came down with something. Nonnie would “take” one Manhattan-a-day prophylacticly to ward off the possibility of disease. The $5 per bottle Old Crow whiskey, which the family would buy multi-case from “some one in the business”, was the central theme of this miracle drug.

Others of my relatives would show up for their doses occasionally--I assume mostly during cold and flu season, which apparently lasted pretty much year-round in San Francisco.

This wasn’t the only family snake-oil. Nonnie would also drink, each afternoon, a concoction of lemon juice, water and ginger ale, which may have been medicinal, but I think was just her way of emptying Canada Dry bottles. In the sweltering 68-degree San Francisco summers she might augment all of this with one 18-cent Brown Derby beer.

Now, one drink a day as a tonic strikes me as a perfectly reasonable solution to viral invasion. My mother, on the otherhand, drank not at all, except for soaking fruit cocktail in crème-de-menthe and scooping it over vanilla ice cream during the holidays. After a second helping, we might find her dancing with her sisters in the kitchen as they slurred Italian songs and waved dish towels. My father didn’t drink much—well not much for a man, who lived with his mother-in-law.

Like most Italian children, I enjoyed a taste of fermented grape now and again, with permission, from my parent's glass at family gatherings. I didn't drink alcohol with a purpose until the morning of my Junior Prom, when I proceded to exhale the remains of a pint of Old Minors Gin into the face of my buddy's silky terrior. I thought it might be funny. The dog, apparently a comedy-critic attached its jowels to my face in protest. It took several seconds of shaking my head back and forth to get the two-pound rat-mammal to disengage after which I wore make-up to the Prom.

My life and Nonnie’s intersected for approximately two decades, during which I came to understand the concept of personal power. At 4-foot nothing, and 16 years young, she emigrated alone to America to marry a man she had never met. Upon arrival, she decided she did not like him, so she broke up the deal and eventually married another man. True-love #2, legend has it, was a familial non-entity, who died shortly after fathering his third daughter, my mother. Nonni raised her three girls during the depression by taking in laundry and boarders, one of whom eventually became a son-in-law. I was actually conceived in her Hattie Street house in the Castro district of San Francisco. It has been suggested that I may have been one of the last people conceived in the Castro district of San Francisco. Who knows?

By the time we met, Nonnie was commanding a hundred-plus extended family of sisters, half-brothers, third cousins, nephews, nieces, son-in-laws, daughters, grand children and a couple of cats. She held this group of gumba-misfits together by the strength of her will and her high expectations of all of us. Lots of love; no excuses. She communicated without English, even to us youngsters, who knew no Italian. To this day, I can understand a language I cannot speak.

No one made an important decision without consulting her. No one wanted to disappoint her, let alone cross her. Yet she had no material currency, save for the $1 a month us grandkids lined up to receive from her meager accounts. She had no ability to affect our lives except by her opinion, and by what control we willingly allowed her. And, amazingly, virtually all of us, dozens of children of the ‘50s and the ‘60s, made something of our lives.

She accomplished this while traveling life’s highway, first with a cane, then a walker, then a wheel chair and finally by being carried as arthritis riddled her body. In short, she was the most powerful person I have ever known.

This explains why, as a twenty-year old man, I spent her last summer at her side, some days literally—lying next to her as stomach cancer took her from us. That summer, I would make the daily trips to Fred’s Pharmacy to pick up the opium enemas that would ease the pain, and listen to her last stories, admonishments and instructions. Finally, I witnessed her last breaths.

I think this might also explain why I have so little tolerance for a culture where a hangnail apparently entitles some one to victim status and collective retribution. When you watch a diminutive, crippled, non-native speaking, poor, female emigrant run the micro-world that is most significant to your existence with imagination, love, strength, determination and multi-generational perspective, you want to say to those with moderate obstacles not of there own making:

Get Over It, and Use the Gifts God Gave You To Conquer Your World. And If You Don’t Reap the Reward Directly, Your Children or Grandchildren Will, Because You Gave Them the Life Skills They Needed to Thrive. And if You Don’t Believe In God—Then I Submit that Evolution Teaches the Same Lessons More Mercilessly. So, Again, Get Over It.

Easy for me to say since I am the Grandchild--huh!

Anyway, this is why I drink Manhattans. Now for the important question: how do you get a good Manhattan. One way is to befriend Robin Selden at Logitech and convince her to let her young son, Spencer, make one for you. Spence has a knack for the perfect Manhattan, and I don’t believe he actually drinks them.

Barring this eventuality try the following:

Standard Manhattan

Fill a shaker with ice then add:

2 parts excellent bourbon like Knob Creek or Woodford Reserve (I like saying "parts" because then you can make them as big as you want).

1/2 part (or a little more) sweet vermouth

2 dashes of angostura bitters (available at your liquor store)

Shake well and pour into a wide-rimmed cocktail glass

Finish with a marachino cherry or twist of lemon


In a pitcher or a jar combine:

750 ml of good quality bourbon like Woodford Reserve.
3 cored and diced (large) Jonagold apples (you can use Granny Smith in a pinch)
4 cinnamon sticks
2 whole vanilla beans, sliced open longwise

Refrigerate 2-5 days stirring or shaking daily.
Strain back into the original whiskey bottle.

For the Manhattan make as above but substitute Amareno cherries from Sicily.

Here’s lookin' at you, Nonnie!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sweating from the Heat of the Bamboo Pickle

It has been more than a year since we heard from FoodCrunch buddy Adam Grosser on these pages. This time Adam is in India reporting on the most important meal of the equatorial day. My regular postings will return soon with dispatches on the politics of eating at my house and the perfect Manhattan. Talk with you soon.

For the business travelers among us, the stultifying routine of waking up in a distant hotel, on some one else's clock, and choosing between the standard array of disappointingly prepared western breakfast choices – American Breakfast, Continental breakfast, and the newly invented but no less grim Fitness Breakfast - can only reinforce that you’d rather be home with some cherry scones in the oven. If you’re really lucky, a high-end hotel will offer a Japanese breakfast, which, while usually wildly over-priced, offers some welcome diversity, or at the very least a box of Total.

Enter the lucky visitor to India. I, know, it’s really far away. Especially from California. But, turns out, it’s worth the trip just for breakfast. I started my first day with Akuri eggs, a dish common to the Parsi region of Western India. The eggs are scrambled with red chilies, ginger, turmeric, tomatoes, and freshly milled cumin. They are served with mango chutney, and a griddled paratha (whole wheat flatbread) to scoop it all up. The eggs are cooked in ghee (clarified butter), so they have a light, fluffy consistency, and the fresh spices are in full song. The chilies are bright, but not overwhelming and the resultant mélange turned out to be the ultimate breakfast burrito sans pico de gallo. My traveling companions thought I was nuts.

The next morning, I ventured further afield and had a Dosa – a staple from Southern India. Dosas are a thin – perhaps 1.5mm thin - crispy slightly tart pancake made from a batter of fermented rice. They are typically cooked only on one side, which forms their famous crust. You can order dosas filled, buttered, or plain. I had the Masala Dosa, which consists of the aforementioned giant pancake folded in half, with a dollop of soft potato and lentil curry in the middle. The curry was rich with ginger, mustard seed, and coriander. Words do not begin to do the flavors justice. It was perfect. When I had the first bite, I couldn’t speak for at least a minute. My traveling companions thought I had graduated from nuts to bananas.

The last morning I realized I needed to try everything on the breakfast menu I hadn’t yet ingested. I had no idea what some of the dishes were, but given my early triumphs, I was boldly optimistic. I ordered the tomato Upma, the Vada Sambhar, and another Masala Dosa in case I didn’t like my first two choices. The Upma is made from a semolina batter that’s prepared similarly to soft polenta. Compared to the other foods I’d had, it was more lightly spiced, but that only allowed the freshness of the tomatoes, onions, and coconut to shine through. The Vada is a savory donut made with lentil flour and spinach, served with a thin spicy curry for dipping. It was a more substantial breakfast – the Indian equivalent of bacon and eggs. All of these dishes were served with mint chutney and a large bowl of pomegranate seeds. By this time, my traveling companions had not only decided I’d gone completely native, but went so far as to suggest that perhaps I should eat at my own table. Sweating from the heat of the bamboo pickle, but thoroughly content, I managed to ignore their feeble attempts at conversation.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

To Be Alerted Each Time There is a New FoodCrunch Post

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Las Vegas--I Think It's Nevada

Tonight I met Jimmy Rooney at the Podtech BlogHaus. Yes--Mickey Rooney's son. But more importantly he is the new Mel Blanc. Remember Mel? The voice of just about every cartoon character you have ever known--"what's up Doc, Tweety-Bird--very entertaining. You can check him out at www.jimmyrooney.com. He is truly amazing.

The Consumer Electronics Show is CRAZY as usual. Tomorrow the Adult Entertainment Expo begins (I will not be attending), which is just this industry's way of showing the geeks what is really driving the sale of all those silicon wafers, plasma screens and universal remotes.

As the porn stars poured into my hotel last night, I had two thoughts:

1. These people are as much like the people I know as the "panini" at Jack-in-the-Box are like real Italian snack food. The women are like Cheetahs. Strangely beautiful, but you are happy they are behind thick glass so they can't bite you.

2. The CES push towards higher and higher resolution is not a boon to the porn industry. High definition is definitely not a positive development for some of these stars--at least not from the neck up.

Anyway, back to food. Linda Furrier of Podtech.net persuaded me to post about restaurants in Las Vegas, while I am here at CES. I have eaten at a great many lousy Las Vegas Restaurants over the years and a dozen or so very good ones. But for now I will start with my Top 6 (really 4 plus 2 special mentions)

1. Bartollota @ Wynn Hotel--The best Mediterranean seafood restaurant west of Barcelona. Think red mullet, langoustine and much much more. They bring you a platter of pre-cooked whole fish for your inspection--the piscine offerings having flown first class from the Med only moments before. Some of them were still wearing their complimentary head phones.

2. L'Altelier Joel Rubuchon @ MGM Grand--Eat off the small plate menu and order everything venison, chestnut, langoustine, or oyster--oh yes--finish with a Hamburger. Sit at the counter so you can see a whole lotta cooking goin' on. The guy who sounded the most French was from Austin--go figure.

3. Mesa Grill @ Caesars--I was prepared for a remote celebrity chef disappointment, but loved the food. First time reservation last year, got bumped when Ellen Degeneres showed up with her entire audience and took the place over--but when we went back the next day they apologized and treated us like celebs. You know flashing pictures and chasing us in their vans--great fun.

4. Michael Mina @ Bellagio--formally Aqua. Spectacular lobster pot-pie. The first time I ate there 4-years ago I met a great couple that actually had their wedding reception at the French Laundry in Yountville. That is soooo cool.

5. Bellagio Buffet--because more than half the people there are fatter than me.

6. Yolies Brazilian Steakhouse--OK, the food is only good, but the way they carry the big hunks of meet around and slice it to your plate just makes you feel like a man.

Places I want to try (let me know if you've been).

1. Guy Savoy

Places not to spend your temporary winnings:

1. Picasso @ Bellagio--Very good vittles, but very expensive, stuffy and nothing special. Many better choices.

2. Nobu @ Hard Rock--OK, but you can do better at his abodes in L.A., London and NY or at Sakae in Burlingame.

3. Noodles @ Bellagio--Service? We don't need no stinking service.

4. Seablue @ MGM Grand. Except for the just OK food, crummy service, and out-of-stock menu items this place was 3-star.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

el Bulli and Micro-Sushi

A colleague of mine sent me this link to an article about single-grain sushi. Apparently a restaurant in Japan is serving up miniscule portions of nigiri sushi consisting of one grain of sushi rice, a pinpoint of fresh wasabi and a centimeter of succulent tuna belly, fluke flesh or shrimp side—pick your mercury delivery vehicle. Any of you, who have knelt through the traditional Japanese formal meal consisting of thirty courses, each about 2 grams in mass, all delicious, but none satisfying, understand the source of Japan’s minimalist culinary roots. But single-grain sushi is over the top--even within a Japanese context. In a future post I will discuss the trend of minimalist American eaters who restrict themselves to diets of 1500 calories per day (they really exist), in an attempt to lead far-longer-than-average and far-lower-quality-than average lives.

Of course, the sushi article has inspired me to concoct recipes for five grain risotto (warm the chicken broth in an eye dropper and use only two strands of saffron), and bottle-cap paella with braised bunny cheeks and krill substituing for the traditional shrimp. I considered a minimalist jambalaya, but it turns out to be difficult to cure ten grams of andouille sausage in a gerbil intestine casing. I figure that, with a little more thought, I may be able to construct an entire menu for an upscale restaurants catering to supermodels and female gymnasts. Of course I will include chili fries (1/32nd of a potato, one bean, one centimeter cube of grass-fed free-range beef, 1 gram toasted cumin and 1 gram chili powder) for the collateral male diners that the target clientele is likely to attract.

If you think all of this is a little extreme, this brings us to el Bulli named after the above pictured bulldog. It has taken me three months from ingestion to reflection to finally post on our visit to this foodie Mecca, about two hours up the Costa Brava from Barcelona. It took 1000 days to get a reservation, and I was successful only because one of my CEOs (I am a venture capitalist by day job) happened to have a son who worked at the restaurant a few years ago. So after thrice suffering rejection via official channels, we brought out the big guns, promised Tom Alexander we would buy dinner and made plane reservations for Barcelona with my wife Susan, Phil and Nancy Young, Tom and his similarly named son, Tom. Now this is the farthest I have ever traveled for dinner--just under 5,700 nautical miles. Though once when I was stuck in a loop of one way streets near 9th and Market in San Francisco, looking for a parking place, it seemed longer.

The facts:

Gorgeous place--middle of nowhere (Picture).

Surprisingly casual atmosphere. We were the only ones with ties, I having bought a 100-euro Armani in Barcelona just for the occasion. I destroyed this adornment about 4 minutes after we sat down, whence the restaurant staff proceeded an attempted resuscitation with sparkling water, only to deepen and lengthen the stain. I kept the tie as a souvenir and may eventually make it available on Ebay.

Creator: Chef Ferran Adria

Prices: Expensive, but less so than top U.S. Restaurants in New York and San Francisco.

Reputation: Unsurpassed among foodies for its molecular gastronomic innovations.

Now the food: There are plenty of places to go to get a play-by-play on the el Bulli experience including a recent article by Mark Bittman for the NY Times and an even more detailed version in one of my favorite food blogs, Chocolate & Zucchini. But I think I should warn you about doing too much research on the place if you ever hope to go there. You don't want to be reading "The Secrets of Penn and Teller" before you go see their magic show at The Rio. Like P&T, El Bulli is all about astonishment and bewilderment. I am convinced that the less you know the more fun you will have.

I will therefore offer my comments on a more conceptual level and only a few pictures. Dinner at el Bulli is like eating mushrooms while on mushrooms (an archaic reference for those of you, who did not live formatively during the 1960s and/or do not listen to Eminem in the current era). Nothing looks or tastes like it should. The Mango looks like caviar. The caviar tastes like Mango. Popcorn foam dissloves into quantum particles in your mouth. Olives are devoid of structure, but burst oily sensations all over your tongue. Seeds are a savory course. "Virtual" Iberian ham. It is the LSD of fine dining--the greatest culinary show on earth.

So now the hard question. Did I like it? Well I know I would not have wanted to leave this planet without having eaten Ferran Adria's amazing food. It was exhilerating, inspiring, confusing. I liked it like I like Disneyland. It was great fun, but I wouldn't want to go there every day. Especially since after ingesting 30 or so 2 gram courses. Susan and I went back to the hotel chirping about the amazing experience, while we cracked open the mini-bar and inhaled a bag of chips. Now that's satisfying.