August 14, 2012
Two Eater editors declared their meal at New York’s Dans Le Noir the worst experience they’ve ever had in a restaurant. It wasn’t the touchy-feely service or the culturally-confused food, it was the lighting. Rather, it was the complete and utter lack of lighting. Part of an international chain, Dans Le Noir treats diners to a pitch black meal after leading them to their seats. Meant to emphasize and heighten the sense of taste, the concept left the two editors a little cold.
Located in the “armpit of Midtown,” just off Times Square, the restaurant seemed to have several strikes against it before the meal even began. As a gimmick, dining in the dark proved less than entertaining and the editors described themselves being in a state of near panic the entire time.
At first, the restaurant seems a clear case of conning New Yorkers into paying for an experience no one in their right mind would pay for. But the chain was actually founded with help from the Paul Guinot Foundation for Blind People as a way to raise awareness about what a simple meal out can be like. Perhaps the point of the review shouldn’t be how awful this restaurant is, but how awful most dining experiences around Times Square are. Noisy, crowded and uncomfortable, these are things we put up with in many other locations.
Writing for the Washington Post, Melanie D.G. Kaplan described dining at San Francisco’s Opaque with a friend who had been injured in Iraq and lost his vision. “He wanted friends to appreciate how hard it was for him to eat,” writes Kaplan. Hard indeed. Kaplan describes struggling to keep track of dish descriptions when the waiter rattled off ingredients. Fortunately, her friend was able to give her tips on how to manage a table in the dark: “run your fingers across the edge of the table to find things instead of knocking over water glasses en route to the butter.
No doubt the editors of Eater had a horrendous time. Midtown Manhattan compounded with the sudden loss of sight would be enough to induce a panic attack in even the steadiest of souls.
But done right, the experience can serve the dual purpose of showing what is lost and what is gained without sight. Dark restaurants now dot the globe. Organizations including the Foundation Fighting Blindness host dark dinners to raise money.
The ultimate conclusion? Don’t pay $100 to eat around Times Square. Just don’t.
August 2, 2012
“A glass of the Chianti. With ice on the side.”
While I’ve had more than a few raised eyebrows shot in my direction for willingly diluting my red wines with ice, my distaste for the acetic sting that accompanies warm wine far outweighs my concern for thinning out my drink with a cube or two of ice. I’ve often wondered about the age-old “rule” that red wine should be served at room temperature, while white wines should be served chilled. Personally, I’ve always found room temperature red wine to be, well, repulsive.
It turns out that my uncouth icing of the reds is not completely unjustified. Most red wines are served too warm; the “room temperature” rule originated in Europe, where room temperature is between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. On the other hand, chilled white wine came from the European cellar, where temperatures hover around 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
In America, to achieve the ideal wine temperature you actually have to cool red wines and warm white wines, assuming your reds are stored in a room temperature wine rack and your whites are kept cold (too cold!) in the refrigerator. Average room temperatures can be over 70 degrees and most refrigerators are a frosty 35 degrees Fahrenheit. One critic recommends putting a bottle of red wine in the fridge for 45 minutes before serving while taking a bottle of white wine out of the fridge 30 minutes prior to serving.
For those with a more refined wine-tasting palette, temperature can be adjusted to accommodate bold, dark versus light, fruity red wines, and white wines can be served warmer or colder depending on whether they are sweet and full or crisp and light. Between a robust Bordeaux and a bright Pinot Grigio, the temperature graduation for serving wine runs between about 65 degrees to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, give or take two or three degrees.
The reason temperature is so important to bringing out the flavor of wines is that warming or chilling wine can unlock different layers of flavors within the wine. Serving wine at a temperature too far from its ideal range may overpower desirable flavors with alcohol or tannins.
When wine is served too warm, the dominant flavor can be that of alcohol, masking the subtler flavors of the wine’s ingredients. This effect is particularly noticeable with strong red wines that have a higher alcohol content to begin with. On the other hand, chilling a wine brings out greater astringency, which means the wine tastes sharp and tart as the flavor of tannins is emphasized. The trick is to find the happy medium for each wine, especially important in bringing out a wine’s aroma. Goldilocks had it right about more than just porridge when she said, “Too hot, too cold….just right.”
The good news is that there are no hard and fast rules for the “exact” correct temperatures for serving wines; it truly is to the preference of the individual. The chart above page can be used as a guideline, but by experimenting with a wine’s temperature, wine enthusiasts can fine tune their favorite “flavor sweet spot” of aromas and flavors.
Even my habit of dumping ice cubes into my red wine turns out to not be completely unrefined, although the practice is definitely a point of contention between wine experts. Famous chef Mario Batali, who was featured on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” and his own cooking show “Molto Mario,” has been noted to chill and dilute his wine with fruit-juice-based ice cubes. I’ll consider that permission enough to continue my controversial use of ice.
Cheers to that.
July 3, 2012
Nathan Handwerker ran a nickel hot dog business at the corner of Stillwell and Surf that became as much a part of Coney Island as Dreamland, Steeplechase and the Wonder Wheel. In the summer of 1916, according to one of the more apocryphal tales about the workingman’s lunch, Nathan’s held the first in what would become its annual Fourth of July hot-dog eating contest, a competition that pitted four immigrants against each other. The winner scarfed the most hot dogs as a demonstration of his American-ness. The contest still endures but it wasn’t the stand’s only stunt that brought in hungry visitors, nor was it the most convincing.
Handwerker, a Polish immigrant, got his start in New York as a dishwasher at Max’s Busy Bee. On weekends, he moonlighted at Feltman’s in Coney Island, an ocean pavilion home to Tyrolean singers, Swiss wrestlers, carousels and, according to one writer, its hideous noise. (The owner of the place, Charles Feltman, may have, in 1867 or 1874, commissioned a wheelwright to make him a wagon with a burner unit, thereby inventing the practice of serving sausages plonked inside a sliced “milk” bun, although Feltman railed against these mobile vendors in 1886, telling the Brooklyn Eagle, “Sausages must go.”) “A swank place, Feltman’s charged 10 cents for its hot dogs,” The New York Times wrote in 1966. “Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor, then singing waiters at Coney Island, complained that a dime was a lot of money for a frankfurter.”
So, in 1916, Nathan opened his eponymous hot dog stand and sold frankfurters for five cents each. The crowds, he later recalled, were initially stand-offish and a cut-rate frank remained a suspect food. This was 1916, remember, only a couple decades after the birth of the term “hot dog” and inexpensive meat came with questions. “Hot” was code for dodgy, and, as Barry Popnik, the co-author of a 300- page book called Origin of the Term “Hot Dog” writes, the phrase probably originated a kind of joke. Take, for instance, this popular 1860 song:
Oh! Where, oh! Where ish mine little dog gone?
Oh! where, oh! Where can he be?
His ear’s cut short, and his tail cut long:
Oh! Where, oh! where ish he?
Tra, la la….
Und sausage is goot: Baloney, of course,
Oh! where, oh! where can he be?
Dey makes ‘em mit dog, und dey makes ‘em mit horse:
I guess dey makes ‘em mit he.
Customers in Coney Island had good reason to suspect Nathan’s original five-cent dogs would be of lower quality, maybe even the sign of an unscrupulous horse- or dog-killer—taboos that would become more un-American as the 20th century progressed. The Times had also reported that the “rottenest of all” the offal from New York’s hotel ended up in Coney Island’s frankfurters. “So Mr. Handwerker hired whi[t]e-jacketed young men to stand in front of his stand munching hot dogs. This brought in the ‘class’ visitors. They had decided that Nathan’s franks ‘must really be good because all the doctors are eating them.’”
The stunt with the “doctored” hot dogs apparently worked, immortalized as recipes for success in books like Selling: Powerful New Strategies for Sales Success. Medical marketing claims still sells food (“nitrate-free” hot dogs, anyone?), although the American carnival in Coney Island only, on rare occasion, includes any scientific, made-for-TV gastrointestinal scrutiny.
Moreover, the early gimmicks proved to be neither the first nor the last on the boardwalk. In 1954, Handwerker went to Miami Beach and left his son, Murray, in charge of the store. A man named Leif Saegaard approached him with a proposal to include a 75-foot long, 70-ton embalmed finback whale. Soon, Nathan’s Famous had a cetecean display, but thanks to an unexpected heat wave, the whale soon became a stench and was towed out to sea.
January 31, 2012
From guest blogger Jeanne Maglaty
Earlier this month, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled a new portrait of Alice Waters, the legendary owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, and pioneer of the farm-to-table movement.
In the photographic portrait, a mulberry tree looms over Waters, looking chic in black in the Edible Schoolyard, her organic teaching garden and kitchen project in Berkeley that connects kids to “real” food and encourages healthy eating.
“The thing that I love most is that I’m very small and nature is very big,” said Waters as she stood beside the portrait, teary-eyed.
Waters’ acolytes gathered around her as she spoke in the museum’s Kogod Courtyard, some as teary-eyed as she. But hundreds of other hungry guests dared not move closer and risk losing their place in line for the food at the event.
Washington, D.C, culinary celebrities had prepared edible innovations for a glittery reception. Here’s who and what you missed if you weren’t there:
Chef Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve: Rappahannock River oysters with coriander migonette and green goddess vinaigrette
Chef Haidar Karoum of Proof and Estadio: Roasted winter vegetables with wheat berries and garlic and anchovy dressing
Chef-owner José Andrés of ThinkFoodGroup: Jamón Ibérico de Bellota Fermin—Acorn-fed, free-range Ibérico ham; Selecciónes de Embutidos Fermin—Selection of cured Spanish sausages
Chef-owner Mike Isabella of Graffiato: Crudo of wild striped bass with kumquats, cranberries and arugula
Chef-owner Nora Pouillon, Restaurant Nora: Winter root vegetable & Mushroom gratin with Ecopia Farms microlettuces
Chef-founder Todd Gray of Equinox Restaurant: Lightly smoked duck breast with savory fig chutney and French baguette crostinis
Owners Sue Conley and Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery: Mount Tam cheese—bloomy, rinded triple crème, mushroomy, buttery; Red Hawk cheese—washed rind, triple crème, unctuous, aromatic; Wagon Wheel cheese—pressed and aged cow’s milk cheese, medium strength, semi-firm
Bar manager Adam Bernbach of Proof and Estadio: Catoctin Creek Gin with Tarragon-Pear Soda
Who could resist a single morsel? My daughter and I went back for seconds.
Waters has espoused her culinary philosophy based on using fresh, local products for 40 years. I asked cheesemonger Adam Smith of Cowgirl Creamery if it was difficult to decide what to serve at a reception for such a prominent person in his field.
Not at all, he answered. He selected three cheeses that the Petaluma, California, creamery made from organic milk purchased from a neighboring dairy.
Nearby, Bernbach mixed cocktails using gin that was distilled (from organic rye grain) only 50 miles away from the nation’s capital in Purcellville, Virginia.
Dave Woody’s selection as the portrait’s artist came with his first-prize win in the gallery’s Outwin Boochever competition in 2009. You can see the new portrait of Waters on the museum’s first floor near the G Street NW entrance.
January 5, 2012
In the past we have seen how gelatin, ice cream trucks, raw chickens and vanilla extract have figured in to the criminal behavior those who think they can live outside the law. Food crimes don’t seem to be letting up, as evidenced by the following four incidents.
December, 2011. Port Richey, Florida. A pint and a bank job.
On the afternoon of December 22, John Robin Whittle ordered a beer at the Hayloft Bar, but left for approximately half and hour and then returned to down the drink. He was soon arrested by local authorities: Whittle fit the description of a man who robbed a nearby Wells Fargo bank but ten minutes before.
October, 2011. Punta Gorda, Florida. A slippery situation.
Why steal used cooking oil? This restaurant waste product can be converted into biofuel and on the open market it can command as much as four dollars a gallon. On the evening of October 17, two men were spotted behind a Burger King pumping cooking oil into their collection truck; however, their vehicle did not belong to Griffin Industries, the usual company that picked up the oil. The two drivers explained that the regular collection truck had broken down, but on calling Griffin Industries, the restaurant manager learned that none of their trucks were in the area collecting oil. By this time the two drivers had left with approximately $1,500 worth of oil. The manager called the police, who spotted the truck at a Golden Corral, again siphoning off used cooking oil. Two men, Javier Abad and Antonio Hernandez, were arrested and charged with grand theft. (And for a lighter take on this trend in food crime, check out the “Simpsons” episode “Lard of the Dance,” where Bart and Homer conjure up a get-rich-quick scheme by stealing grease.)
Marysville, Tennessee. July, 2004. Would you like extra cheese on that?
At about 5:00 in the morning on July 18, Marysville, Tennessee police discovered a car abandoned in the parking lot of the John Sevier Pool containing a pile of clothes and a bottle of vodka. A thoroughly intoxicated Michael David Monn, the owner of the car and the articles therein, was soon spotted running toward the authorities wearing nothing but nacho cheese. The 23-year-old had apparently jumped a wall to raid the pool’s concession area. In March, 2005 Monn pleaded guilty to burglary, theft, vandalism, indecent exposure and public intoxication. He was sentenced to three years probation and a $400 fine to cover the costs of the stolen food.
Santiago, Chile. 2004. Hot Stuff.
In 2004, Chilean hospitals began treating people for burns incurred after attempting to make churros, the treat of fried dough coated in sugar. In each case, the dough shot out of the pot, showering the chefs with hot oil. The injuries came days after La Tercera, a daily newspaper, printed a churro recipe—but neglected to test it. In December 2011, the Chilean Supreme Court determined that the suggested oil temperature was far too high and that anyone following the recipe to the letter would have ended up with dangerously explosive results. The newspaper’s publisher, Grupo Copesa, was ordered to pay out $125,000 to 13 burn victims, including one woman whose injuries so severe that she was awarded a $48,000 settlement.