Saturday, December 5, 2009

The New Menu and Chef at Smith

When a restaurant you have come to love changes chefs, the conflicting emotions are unavoidable. On the one hand, you want the new chef and his menu to reveal all new sensations and creative approaches and techniques. On the other, you miss what was. I'm so pleased to be able to share that new head chef Chris Howell (late of Tom Douglas's Lola) and owner Linda have done exactly the right thing: introduced some (amazing) new menu items, while retaining tried and true favorites from the days of former wunderkind chef Eliot Guthrie (as they should, because they are deservedly classic and perfect for Smith).

This is further a great sign because it shows that Chris's ego -- and all chefs have them -- is not so large as to preclude acknowledging what already works and, instead of trying to build an entirely new menu on an all new foundation, he is constructing his legacy on proven, sturdy bedrock.

A quick word on what remains: the Smith burger (still only $10); marrow bones; sweet potato fries; poutine; Cuban sandwich; gruyere and onion jam sandwich; salt cod fritters; cured meat plate; beet salad with watercress, pecans and bleu cheese; and some other bits and bobs.

Now...the thrill of the new! How about rabbit stew braised with tomato, dark ale and root vegetables? Pork loin with sunchoke puree, kale and chanterelle relish? Hanger steak with goat cheese cauliflower and winter greens? Going in, I met two friends on their way out.

"How was it?" I asked.

"Fantastic," they replied. And, at the same time, two strangers walked by and said, "You have to try the hanger steak!"

This, folks, is what's known as buzz, and to see it developing on the street, before one even sits down to table, on the first night of the new menu is one hell of a good sign.

I elected to enjoy the Brussels sprouts with bacon and sultanas as my starter and the stuffed quail with chestnuts and mushroom orzo as my main.

The Brussels sprouts (misspelled on the menu, by the way) arrive beautifully roasted bright green while also char-grilled black in places. I love it when chefs are not afraid to really char a green vegetable. I guess it's carcinogenic, but so what -- a truly roasted vegetable is a thing of beauty. The sprouts are served in a low, ceramic oval dish, lightly awash in what must be just a splash of stock and chunks of thick bacon, baked apples, streamers of greens and the promised sultanas. They are amazing. I should only hope to create sprouts like this in my life. The good news is I do not need to because Chris has it handled.

I was only halfway through these little green ball of goodness when my quail arrived. Too soon, I thought, but I was already filling up on sprouts so asked to have them boxed. Also, the room was heaving and it's very difficult for a kitchen to time everything correctly. Still, I did point out to Britt and Michael that it seemed a bit early, much to their delight I am sure...

One orders quail at their peril -- a tiny bird, it can quickly go dry in the oven and toughen. Not so the quail at Smith. The bird itself is delicious and identical in flavor to a roast chicken -- none of the watery sweetness one sometimes gets in a Cornish Game Hen nor the gamey flavors of pheasant and other game birds. The quail is pull apart tender and the little charrings at the tip of the bones are a delicious crunch of skin and juices.

The orzo bed upon which it is served, however, was the knockout of the evening. In fact, it's one of the finest things I have ever had at Smith. The orzo itself, perfectly cooked, not as melty as a risotto but chewy and substantial in the mouth. And not just blessed with butter and mushrooms, but something more like the essential soul of butter and mushrooms. I could have eaten an entire other bowl of the stuff. It's that good. You must order it. You must.

I passed on dessert (which was just as well as, unbeknownst to me I was about to get kidnapped to another table of friends for another hour or two of drinking), but noted the addition of hard cider apple fritters with vanilla ice cream. You can be assured I will enjoying those soon!

I enjoyed a 2007 Mencia from Viña Reboreda in Spain with my meal. It has raisins and cherries with very light tannins so worked wonders with the sultanas in the sprouts and the hearty orzo.

Nothing will replace Eliot at Smith; I simply enjoyed too many gloriously mind- and tongue-altering moments under his reign. But you can move on, to new things, to other moments in a life of food. And I'm so pleased to announce that it looks as if that is exactly the promise Smith holds out to me now with Chris in the kitchen. I stopped back by the pass window on my way out and greeted him -- he was very kind and said he looked forward to feeding me many more things.

Well I can assure you, chef, you'll have no trouble convincing me to keep coming back to try all your new offerings!

Friday, December 4, 2009

FLASH! New Menu Debuts Tonight at Smith

I'll report from the front this weekend, but word is it includes rabbit stew, quail and other delights. The new chef is named Chris, and I have not met him yet. I plan to attend about you?

How do you feel about menu changes? Do you like fully redone menus, no changes ever, or do you like to see old favorites kept while the rest changes?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

You've Heard of Popcorn Shrimp?

How about popcorn chicken?

Here is a chicken recipe that also includes the use of popcorn as a stuffing -- imagine that. When I found this recipe, I thought it was perfect for people like me, who just are not sure how to tell when poultry is thoroughly cooked, but not dried out. Give this a try.

4 - 5 lb. Chicken
1 cup melted butter
1 cup stuffing
1 cup uncooked popcorn
Salt/pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Brush chicken well with melted butter salt, and pepper.
Fill cavity with stuffing mixed with popcorn.
Place in baking pan with the neck end toward the back of the oven.

Listen for the popping sounds. When the chicken's ass blows the oven door open and the chicken flies across the room and lands on the table, it's done and ready to eat.


The accompanying illustration is by the amazing Brian Britigan.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Do Good by Eating Well

Late notice, but it's still worth highlighting that Linda Derschang and the gang at Oddfellows are donating a percentage of proceeds from tonight's special menu to Capitol Hill Housing, an affordable housing organization.

Nice move, Linda!

Photo from

Book 'Em Part 2: FARMfood

Cookbooks, when they are well-written and filled with quality photography, can be highly evocative of times and places. They can take you to countries and cultures to which you have never been, and bring a part of that unknown experience into your life in the form of images, flavors and smells.

Fewer cookbooks still can do you the most wonderful favor: take you home.

As a Hoosier boy, raised in the cornfields of southern Indiana, I remember a childhood of fresh meats and vegetables, almost all raised within bike-riding distance of my house. I went to school with the farmers' children, picked my own vegetables, timed meat purchases to the seasonal slaughter of farm animals, kept track of hunting and fishing seasons (and my friends who were coming home with venison and bluegill and perch)...effectively living the "locovore" lifestyle long before it became popular.

From this same small town in Indiana, Daniel Orr, one of my former childhood ice hockey teammates, eventually left to become a renowned chef, working in three star Michelin restaurants in Europe and eventually helming such culinary icons as La Grenouille in New York City, among others.

Dan has now published a cookbook called FARMfood (Indiana University Press, 2009) that is a loving, masterful tribute to that food of my youth -- and has proven that its gorgeous freshness and simplicity is attainable today, not just behind the corn silk curtain of Indiana, but across the country in cities and small towns, alike.

FARMfood is an exquisite publication -- not only are the recipes amazing, but the photography and writing is as warm and embracing as the Midwestern people who grow and cook the food on which it focuses. I cannot recommend this book more highly; I literally am having one of those Julie and Julia moments where I want to cook every recipe in the book.

And as a further note, if you are ever in Bloomington, Indiana, you can go right to the fountainhead -- Dan has opened FARMBloomington, a restaurant where he serves the delectable delights he presents in his book.

If you know a foodie, a weekend cook, or anyone interested in living a greener, more sustainable life FARMfood is the cookbook to buy them (or yourself)!

Stay tuned for updates on my attempts to cook from this book. I can't wait to "go back home" to the roots of my Life of Food, courtesy of chef Dan Orr!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Breaking News: Big Changes at Smith

I can reveal that last night, November 28, 2009, was Eliot Guthrie's last night as chef at Smith. This is heartbreaking news, but I trust owner Linda Derschang has another good chef lined up.

Eliot will always be one of my favorite chefs, and I look forward to following him to his new job, wherever that may be. Good luck and thank you, Eliot!

I'm also sad to report that Smith manager Keara is moving on. Keara was (is) the hardest working person in the food industry; it was rare not to see her hustling about the room, taking care of customers, and generally exuding an air of accomplished authority that people with ten times her experience in years have trouble exhibiting. Keara will land on her feet.

It's always hard to see these kinds of changes at a beloved restaurant, and frankly, the reasons behind the changes are none of my business. I can just hope that Eliot and Keara have bright futures post-Smith and that their successors are as good as they were.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Feast Family

The White House has released details about the First Family's Thanksgiving dinner.

They are hosting about 50 guests including family, friends and staff. Obama's favorite Thanksgiving dishes are turkey and pumpkin pie.



Honey-Baked Ham

Cornbread Stuffing

Oyster Stuffing


Macaroni and Cheese

Sweet Potatoes

Mashed Potatoes

Green Bean Casserole

Banana Cream Pie

Pumpkin Pie

Apple Pie

Sweet Potato Pie

Huckleberry Pie

Cherry Pie

That's one hell of a mess o' pie! And may I simply say hats off to the White House chef for preparing that grand old staple of my own Thanksgivings: oyster stuffing. Here's how I make mine:

1/4 cup finely chopped onions

1/2 cup chopped celery

1/3 cup butter

4 cups bread cubes

1 teaspoon pepper

2 eggs, beaten

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground sage

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon poultry seasoning

turkey or chicken broth

8 whole oysters

2 cups cracked hazelnuts

Sauté onion and celery in the butter until softened. Combine onion mixture with bread, pepper, eggs, salt, sage and poultry seasoning in a large mixing bowl. Add oysters and finger-push them aggressively throughout the stuffing, allowing them to come apart and merge into the stuffing. Add the hazelnuts and toss and fold into the stuffing mixture. Stir in broth until well moistened. Bake in a greased covered shallow casserole at 325° for about 35 to 45 minutes. Take the cover off the last 5 - 10 minutes to brown.

You cannot go wrong here, folks! Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Esca from New York

This is the last in my New York City vacation series. You can all breath a collective sigh of relief! In the truest sense of saving the best for last, I invite you all to revel in the splendor that is the chef's tasting menu at Esca.

Here's what Esca has to say about themselves: Created by James Beard award-winning chef Dave Pasternack, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich in October 2000, ESCA is revered for its less-is-more approach, for its elegant simplicity. In his 3-star New York Times canonization of ESCA as the ultimate Italian seafood destination in New York, Frank Bruni coined Dave as "an honest-to-God fisherman, in love with the ocean, and ESCA is his ongoing ode to it."

Mario Batali? A 3-star Bruni review? Italian seafood in NYC? I smell perfect storm...

And a very fine meal is what I got when Preston and I sat down to the six course tasting menu, accompanied by a wine paired to each course for $120 per person.

We were first served an amuse-bouche of thin sliced sashimi grade tonno with sea salt, paprika, black pepper, and the same rich olive oil I remembered from my previous visit. We had chilled vodka with this as our cocktails were not quite empty from having initially sat down.

The first proper course was a Crudo del Mercato, which that day consisted of sea urchin. Now, I'm not going to lie; this was a stretch for me. The look of the food itself was odd but the innards on the tongue resemble a cross between an oyster and that weird gelatin that sometimes shows up in chicken stock. Funky. The flavor is somewhat like that of a mild oyster; you smell the flavor through your nose more than taste it on your tongue. But while the flavor was somewhat underwhelming it was also a new lesson in food, so very welcome in the end. This was the only unknown item to me on the menu, so I appreciated the chance to try it, even if it was to come to the conclusion that I would likely not order it again. The wine pairing was a NV prosecco from Flor, Veneto.

The next course was Burrata, a magnificent combination of mozzarella and cream -- the outside is firm, pure mozzarella and the inside is mixed with cream to create a heavenly, spreadable cheese. This was topped with a generous dollop of spoonbill caviar, a light grey egg from the American sturgeon. I'd say it most resembles Sevruga, for you Caspian purists. Preston and I both loved this course which was paired with Pecorino "Aries," Ciavolich 2008 Abbruzzo.

Next up was another strong showing from the kitchen: Seppiolini. These grilled whole cuttlefish were served with radicchio and chili oil. Now, I don't mind saying that this dish made me go out and buy a bottle of chili oil the next day I returned home -- I had forgotten how wonderful it can make seafood taste with just a drizzle. It also makes great salad dressings. But I digress. The waiter advised us to be very careful of the ink, as it had a tendency to sometimes squirt out (one is reminded of Grouch Marx and a fountain pen...), but luckily Preston and I emerged without that atramentous baptism! This course was inspirationally paired with Zelen, Guerila 2007 Slovenia.

The fourth course was the only complete miss: Orrecchiette pasta with mussels, razor clams, Berkshire pork sausage and rapini. Outrageously oversalted; I mean, this bowl would have attracted deer in the forest. It may have been Lot's wife in a previous life. Preston and I both found it to be inedible and the waiter, otherwise magnificent, two-stepped around the issue by blaming the brine in the razor clams and leaving the bowls sitting on the table, untouched, even after we'd complained.

I would have been more angry but two things happened at this point to brighten the evening. The first was the wine pour -- Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi "Domini," Pievalta 2006 Marche. This unknown-to-me wine was a very special white, rich in nose and flinty in its flavor. Yum.

The second good thing that happened was Rufus Wainwright came and plopped down right next to us. Hi Rufus!

Once we finally rid ourselves of the Bonneville salt flats, the next course arrived and signaled a return to form for the kitchen. The Spigola Striaca is a local wild striped bass with wild mushrooms and braised leeks. Again, an inspiration -- I'd never served fish with both of these items together and this was the perfect fish with which to pair these substantial representatives of the produce world. Meaty, substantial but flaky and melty in the mouth fish. Excellent. And paired with our fifth glass of wine -- Lacrima di Morro D'Alba, Conti Buscaretto 2008 Piemonte (finally, a Piemonte!) -- it was even better.

Finally our desserts were served. Mine -- a collection of gelati with a caramelized cookie -- looked like a sex organ. Maybe the chef thought I was one for complaining about the salty orecchiette. Maybe he is in Freudian analysis. Whatever the case, the tasting included other sweets such as mini-cookies, biscotti, and a pear tart with pear-mint sorbetto. And yes, mother of god, there was another wine pour: Moscato d'Asti, La Spinetta (one of the GREAT Italian houses), 2007 Piemonte.

Nearly two and half hours later, Preston and I were pleasantly full and really quite tight. We walked back to our hotel through the bright lights and madness that is Times Square, enjoying the memories of a generally fantastic meal (bar one course) and welcoming service (again, minus one stumble).

Tasting menus -- whether omakase, French, Italian or New American -- are exceptional affairs and I try to avail myself of them whenever possible. I like the mystery, the extra effort chefs put into them, and the thoughtful, educated pairings of wines (some unknown by me) with the food. It's like reading several short stories by an author you love -- you finish each little fully-formed adventure sensually intoxicated and ready for more, in just a little while.

I heartily recommend Esca. This is the second time I've dined there and, rest assured, there will be a third.

Do you have a tasting menu you remember fondly? Where was it and what was served?

Monday, November 16, 2009

New York City: Don't Cry for Meat, Argentina

The meal I was most looking forward to on the NYC jaunt was our first because it was to be spent with friends including Preston, George and Michael (above; Michael runs Bergdorf Goodman's restaurants), as well as the great Jamie & Michael and Colleen (below; I'd just met Colleen for the first time and she and I share an obsession with our Blackberrys...girl, put that down!).

We gathered at Industria Argentina, on Jamie's suggestion. The restaurant features furniture, décor, wine, a chef...all from Argentina. And, of course, the cuisine reflects the flavors and styles of that culture.

My knowledge of Argentine cooking is very shallow...I was aware that there was a heavy Italian influence on it, and that it was very meat-focused. Based on that, I ordered the mollejas (pan-seared sweetbreads, over potatoes, scallions and bacon crumbles) and suggested to a friend that we share the Parrillada Completa (grilled meat selection for two including: skirt steak; sweet breads; lamb chops; sausage; blood sausage and short ribs served with mesclun and frites).

The meal was just fine. It was not a revelation of the meat cook's art (that would come later, back in Seattle and will be reported here soon!) but it was tasty. Some of the meat on the platter for two was a little they'd tried to cook everything at once and you know that never works out. The blood sausage was by far the best offering on the plate: rich, heavy, gorgeous chew and mouthfeel. The skirt steak was a bit charred, almost dry. The fries were a little limp.

But the food could have been much worse and the evening would still have been a success. Lots of laughing, lots of catching up, lots of tales told and just a little bit of gossip related. How can you go wrong -- this is exactly what a table filled with food should inspire and nurture! Viva!

Have you ever eaten in Argentina or had Argentine food elsewhere? What's your favorite aspect of the cuisine?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

New York City: Pret A Manger

Like many European corporations, London-based Pret A Manger, the readymade restaurant people, have established their first American beachhead in New York City (with a single store in Washington, DC, as well). Ubiquitous as seeds on a bun over in the UK, in New York it's a rare and welcome site.

Many's the time a quick lunch on the Kings Road in Chelsea is had at Pret. Egg-and-cress sandwich and a packet of pickled onion crisps. In New York City, because it's so close to the Royalton, I tend to visit for I did most mornings of my New York City vacation.

I love Pret because everything is fresh, everything is tasty, the people working there seem glad to be doing so and you get your food fast. They may not be the most picturesque dining rooms, but neither do they resemble the feeding area of a refugee camp. And anyway, the best part of eating at Pret is sitting out front at one of the aluminum tables, watching people, cars, jets hanging in the misty clouds above, making for Heathrow.

I also love Pret for its corporate voice. I don't like cute companies. But I sure do like clever and credible ones. Here's how they describe their food on their Web site:

Pret operates a bit like a restaurant. Every Pret has its own kitchen (except for one or two of the tiny ones). You won’t find ‘sell by’ dates on our fresh sandwiches and salads. We don’t sell ‘factory’ stuff. We offer our food to charity at the end of each day rather than keep it over. We shun the obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much ‘prepared’ and ‘fast’ food. Our ingredients are delivered fresh every day. We don’t mind that fresh and fragile ingredients go off quickly – we start from scratch each morning. Our menu is updated all the time, so check back often.

What's not to love? Creamy Greek yoghurt and honey with granola was my choice whilst Preston enjoyed a breakfast sandwich on croissant. Perfect fuel for a day busting around the New York Botanical Gardens and MOMA...

Where's your favorite place to eat breakfast when you travel? Let me know in the comments.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

New York City: The Royalton Hotel

When I visit New York City for work or pleasure I stay at the Royalton. It's close to so many desirable places and it's close to two major taxi arterials so hailing is never a problem. The interior design of the hotel, recently updating the original designs of Philipe Starck, is also a draw.

Upon arrival this time, they provided a decadent foodstuff as a welcome back gift. These were delicious but next time I want a bottle of Finlandia instead of the Fiji water!

New York City: Blue Ribbon Brasserie

One of the best New York restaurants my friend John Weiler has introduced to me is the Blue Ribbon Brasserie, which got its start way back in 1992. Strangely, I don't mind the near-three dimensional stacking of patrons atop one another, the tiny tables, the (usually brief) wait. The service brings me back, as does the food.

This visit was on Halloween night when -- after an abandoned taxi to Washington Square, a sudden squall of rain, a mad dash down 6th past crowds and floats and costumed denizens of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, and a slow walk through the damp charming side streets -- we finally arrived at the door. Of a very full restaurant and bar. And were promptly seated at the same table where I'd been seated with John on my previous visit. Thank you gods of tired and wet diners. We owe you, big time.

As will happen in a restaurant with such proximity amongst patrons, immediately we were pulled into the conversations on either side of us: to the left, two men of near-60 discussed the major milestones of their lives and debated whether or not each had been worth achieving; to the right, one of those dozens, maybe hundreds, of couples pretending to be Isabel and Ruben Toledo (dressed a little bit like Dali and Gala; speaking just a little too loudly; accents of unknown origin; alluding to talismans of wealth: "When we go to the house this weekend." and "Have you called Bentley?").

Our first course consisted of fruits de mer in the form of one dozen Hood Canal oysters and a chilled half lobster, washed down with Santenay-Gravieres 2005 from Domaine Jessiaume. Sue me.

Blue Ribbon's menu is at once breathtaking and...breathtaking. In the former sense for its audacity (pigeon with toasted barley, sweet potato and apple! Really?!? Pigeon, in THIS city?) paired with some really rather gorgeous set-ups and, in the latter sense, for the inevitable discovery that something in this Mad Hatter's Tea Party won't be done as well as it might have been done if focus had been a bit more in attendance.

Nonetheless, tonight's entrées generally impressed one much more often than not. My rack of lamb with spinach and potato cake was an over-serving of meat, in my opinion. Two racks of that size would have looked more gracious instead of the cluttery trio. Nonetheless, one rises to certain occasions and with no lagging I did dispatch that rack and its two friends. And spinach. And potato cake. The lamb was served splendidly medium, as requested, and the sides, while not terribly memorable, did nothing whatsoever to detract as one might witness below. Call them neutral sides. All very Swiss, somehow.

I had a few glasses of Tempranillo, Vina Sastre, Roble, 2003 and it was entirely serviceable to the situation.

By the time we'd finished dining and slipped out the front door, into the rainwater-sheen streets, the two to our left -- after a titanic row over credit cards -- had already departed, having fully assessed their lives. And Isabel and her Ruben were still there, on the right, desperately trying to create one.

New York City: Coming & Going

Sorry for the tardiness that has informed my New York City food recap! I got sick and then needed some time away from the daily posting schedule I had established for myself here at A Life of Food. I am going to commit to "posting frequently" but not, perhaps, daily. Got it? OK, let's talk NYC chow...

I'm going to post several different articles about my dining experiences in NYC, but the first will encompass the first meal that I experienced as part of the vacation, as well as the last. That's right, the paragon of cuisine: airline meals!

Actually, my traveling companion Preston and I were in luck because I'd secured first class transcontinental tickets on Delta. Now, don't get me wrong -- I know that Delta's first class dining provision ain't no Pan Am-wheel-up-the-carving-table kind of service. But it's some of the best in domestic travel, and showed as much on this journey.

Breakfast to NYC (pictured above) consisted of a surprisingly delicious, fluffy cheese and mushroom omelet, roasted potatoes and hot links. All pretty darn good, and the serving size was generous in this era of airline "meals" consisting of a slice of dessicated salami and a thumbnail-size chunk of Laughing Cow.

The fruit on the side was also good, and notable for not being overloaded with the dread of the only foods I find truly abhorrent. Alas, the croissant was a dreadful, over-large affair, like several slices of Wonder Bread shaped to resemble what should have been an airy French pastry.

The trip back also held its rewards, featuring a dinner service.

The salad was quite large; the lettuce and bits and bobs all crisp and fresh. The small serving of grapes were all plump and juicy as opposed to withering and chewy-skinned. The wheat roll accompanying the meal was also fresh and substantial, perfect for mopping up the remains of the entrée: roast beef, mashed potatoes and steamed squash.

I have to say that the roast was delicious, nothing less than fork tender and full of flavor. The squash were also surprisingly well-cooked, holding some firmness as opposed to being a watery glop. The potatoes, while not bad, were the weakest link, having that flakes-from-a-box staleness about them, as well as a bit too much salt.

All in all, I'd have to say dining at 37,000 feet was delightful. For a foodie, airline meals will never likely achieve Hall of Fame status for taste and presentation, but I appreciate Delta's obvious efforts to source fresh ingredients and present simple dishes that taste quite good. It just goes to show that no matter where you are on the earth -- or far above it -- you don't have to leave your life of food behind!