Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Carnivore's Dilemma

One of my more recent decisions regarding what I eat involves cutting meat from my diet. It would be a lie to say that I don't eat meat at all; in fact, I live in a culture where meat is everywhere and where avoiding it, especially at restaurants, is almost a full-time job. I'm not one of those crunchy vegans, who thinks that killing animals is wrong. I do not, for the record, have any real ethical problem with killing animals for food. I do, however, have a problem with the food system as it currently exists. I don't want to eat Purdue chickens that are buckling under the weight of their own breasts, dying in droves, and picked up and tossed by low-paid workers in middle-of-the-night raids. I don't think that commercial beef cattle, for the short time they spend on this planet, should be standing knee-deep in their own waste, eating corn, which the bovine stomach simply isn't biologically engineered to digest. When I know the provenance of my meat--when I know, for instance, that my cows had access to real pastures, that my chickens saw actual sunlight--I feel much better about being an omnivore. But when I think about the compromised ethos of the meat industry, a calculated strategy of animal-torture designed to bring this country more protein that it will ever really need, I feel safe in my decision to eat mostly vegetables.

My local grocery stores do not carry local or organic meat, so, at home, I don't eat it. The restaurants I choose to eat at usually list the farms their cuts come from. On Sunday, I went to Minetta Tavern. Even though they don't list it, I know their beef purveyor, Pat Lafrieda, takes great pride in his meat. Most of the cows are pasture-bred and fed. These days, that's the best you can hope for.

I went to Minetta Tavern because I was able to score a last-minute reservation, yes, but also because I was dying for steak, weak from iron deficiency. My friend was in the mood for bone marrow, an item featured on a handful of city restaurants. We called, they had a table, and that was that. We began with cocktails, mine a crisp cucumber number without too much sweet stuff going on. It was supposed to have rhubarb in it, but if it did, it eluded me. Three large prawns arrived atop a cocktail sauce/mayonnaise and with three delicate artichokes. When it was gone, we had time to concentrate on our 1982 Prieure-Lichine, a steal for $300. According to the wine director, (who's attention we caught after having ordered a 60 ounce steak for two and an ancient bottle of Bordeaux), auction wines are practically free these days. Three-hundred is way out of my personal budget, but dinner was on my friend, just this one time.

The cote d' boeuf was glorious, and made me glad that I still eat beef once in a while. It had a solid, crunchy crust, born of heat and butter. The meat was cool and red in the center and the steak was flanked by three long bones, cut lengthwise so we could spoon the marrow onto our steaks. The dickle was so rich, I couldn't finish even my share. We managed to complete the steak, aside from that last bit of dickle and the rib bone itself, which, in hungrier moments, I would gladly have lifted to my mouth and gnawed on, even in a fine restaurant.

For dessert, we ate coconut layer cake and a chocolate "bomb" that didn't resonate. It didn't matter, anyway. The steak was the point and it absolutely delivered, needing no sauce, but only a hefty appetite. And perhaps our crowning achievement, having impressed the old boys at "impossible-to-get-into" Minetta, was the issue of two business cards with the restaurant's private phone number on it. Our names and telephone numbers were taken at meal's end, and we were added to a list of elite who can actually get a table on a normal night. They'll be disappointed to know, at my next visit, that $300 bottles of wine usually ain't my bag.

So, the rest of the week had to be cleaner. I had a lunch date with my cousin yesterday and I was thinking comfort food, meat-free. We met at Keste, where everyone I know had been telling me to go for a good Neapolitan pie. If you're a fan of a small, doughy pie, with fresh ingredients, a slightly soggy middle (that's how they do it in Naples), and a charred crust, go here. You won't be disappointed. I could have taken down two or three margheritas. The buffalo mozzarella practically disappeared, it was so light. I love a good, crispy New York slice, but this pie, on flavor alone, outdid half the artisanal pies in NYC. I'll be going back for another meat-free adventure.

Minetta Tavern
113 MacDougal Street
New York, NY 10012

Keste' Pizza and Vino
271 Bleecker Street
New York, NY 10014

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Return To Big Apple

It was necessary to separate the Miami trip from all other food news, so please excuse the double-post. Upon my return to the City, my bf made good on his belated Christmas gift to me: dinner at Tudor City's Convivio. It used to be L'Impero, Scott Conant's baby. I never ate at L'Impero, though I did dine once at Alto, Conant's other midtown gem (which he abandoned when he abandoned L'Impero two years ago). I was expecting good things.

Of course we ran into someone we knew there. Of course. Sometimes I think I can't go anywhere. Good thing I wasn't wearing sweatpants. Convivio has what I consider to be one of the best deals around: four courses OF YOUR CHOICE for $62.00. That means that, rather get roped into some tiny portion fixed menu in which you choose between chicken and beef (snore), you get to look at the menu and actually decide for yourself. And the portions are appropriate human portions, not those silly pixie helpings they give you on most set menus.

We were given sparkling wine to begin, an expense saved that we immediately devoted to "snacks," which are extra. We ordered green olives with lemon zest, but we also received rich, thick-cut salami, marinated shitake mushrooms, and risotto balls that could best be described as Kraft macaroni and cheese rolled into a ball and deep-fried. In a good way. For our set menu appetizers, we ordered chicken liver crostini, which was almost liquid and served with divine caramelized onions, as well as hamachi crudo with delicately chopped peppers and herbs. My pasta course, hand-cut spaghetti with mussels, clams, and shrimp, lacked flavor, but my companion's rich carbonara made up for it. And then there was the fusilli, sent from the house. It came in a rich tomato ragu of cubed pork shoulder and made me forget all about my boring little seafood pasta.

He had a piece of dorade, served with delicate mushrooms. For me, the lamb, two small chops served over a bed of white beans and tomatoes. By then, the beans were too much; I ate one chop and donated the second. I wanted room for dessert and the remainder of my 2001 Taurasi (the wine list focuses on southern Italian wines, with an estimable Taurasi list; don't waste your time looking for Barolos here), and that wasn't a mistake. A gingerbread cake was topped with a light spiced cream and poached pears. The panna cotta, served in a glass, came with lime yogurt gelato and huckleberries. And the house again sent their regards, this time in the form of a parfait made from amaro gelato and a fresh shot of espresso. Not that we needed it.

45 Tudor City Place
New York, NY 10017

Bienvenido A Miami, ETC.

I spent the week following Christmas in Miami with my mother. Ever wonder how long it would take for your parents to drive you insane? I estimate one week. She would probably say the same about me.

I will run through the many worthy dining experiences I enjoyed during my week in the sun, though it bears noting that the so-called "local" food movement does not exist in Florida. I understand that the climate is warmer and that produce is seasonal for more of the year, but isn't this citrus season? Why, then, were tomatoes such a prominent part of every menu? Hudson Valley foie gras down south? What's the point? When I did see the word local used--and it was few and far between--it generally referred to corvina, snapper, or grouper. Yikes.

Which isn't to say that the Miamians aren't doing good things with food, because they are. But my trip south codified my belief that New York is lightyears ahead of all other American food cultures. Argue amongst yourselves.

Our first night warranted a trip to Sra. Martinez, Michelle Bernstein's tapas restaurant in the Design District. A plate of "pickles" was hardly enough to nibble on, though I'll forgive the mistake because the deep-fried eggplant disks were so good. Korean short ribs were, indeed, Hagi-style, with the bone in and the grill marks intact. You eat them with your hands. Don't confuse these with the Americanized "fall off the bone" version. I could have done without the overly sweet duck sausage, which came with large white beans, but I never would have passed on the charred and lemony Brussels sprouts--their aioli might have made the meal. Head-on prawns were messy, but worth it. The flan was entirely ordinary (and not my first choice).

Next up: News Cafe for lunch. I was underwhelmed with my extremely expensive egg-white omelet. I did enjoy watching the Ferraris on Ocean Drive, which may be the only reason this place is full all the time.

Then it was Wish for dinner. They serve their frozen mojitos (thumbs-up) in martini glasses with glowing green ice-cubes, an ecto-cooler for adults. Sliced hamachi was heaven: fresh, complimented by the modest heat of jalapeno. My scallops drowned in a sea of squash and (gasp!) whipped cream. That turned me off. Plus, the portions were too big. Maybe I'd stick to appetizers next time, and, of course, the lovely vanilla panna cotta, which arrived with a basil reduction. Delish.

Night three: Douglas Rodriguez' Ola. Lovely ceviche of cobia over Asian pear granita. It might sound weird, but it worked. The waiter dropped the ball on our second ceviche, which arrived with our entrees (boo!), and it wasn't as good as the first, anyway: tuna, corvina, and salmon served over sweet potato. It lacked something. Our foie gras empanadas didn't sit right with me. Something about the idea of eating foie gras as a quasi-eggroll turned me off. I passed on my second half. But our pork Milanese was just as good as the best veal versions I've had. And the yelpers who recommended the deconstructed key lime pie were right on. It came with a separate crust and charred marshmallow. Not to be missed: the watermelon mojito.

For lunch the next day, I dragged my mother to little Havana for a Cuban sandwich at Versailles, the opulent Cuban diner on the far outreaches of Calle Ocho. It was the perfect sandwich (pork, ham, cheese, mustard, pickles, supple-yet-crusty white bread), complimented by sweet Cuban coffee. On the way out, I bought a buttery guava jam cookie. The caramelized sugar on top stuck to the inside of my mouth like the best peanut butter ever.

For dinner, it was Michelle Bernstein again, but this time her high-end outpost, Michy's. Brilliant concept: offer half portions of everything. This way, people like me can eat more. I had sweetbreads (fried) with mushroom escabeche, while my mother guarded her polenta/soft-cooked egg/lardon/truffles with her life--she allowed me one glorious bite. We shared a decadent carbonara, pasta made in house and decorated with crispy proscuitto and other porkiness, as well as a massive churrasco. For dessert, I insisted on jam and chocolate-filled donut holes. Pedestrian, but worth the trip down nostalgic "New York desserts of 2006" lane.

On Wednesday, it was Emeril's, our worst meal by far. My shrimp appetizer, served with a tiny biscuit, was too sweet, owing to the over-generous helping of barbecue sauce. My whole fish--a "local" snapper--was the best part of the meal, de-boned but served with head and tail and complimented by tagiasca olives, lemon, tomatoes, and summer squash (isn't it the wrong season?). My mother's duck, however, was massive--her plate was the size of a proper Thanksgiving serving dish--and sickly sweet, served over even sweeter mashed sweet potatoes. Our banana cream pie tasted completely pre-fab and the table in front of us had an absent sense of propriety, having arrived at dinner in very, very short jean cutoffs. Worse, a table in front of us remained uncleared and dirty for over an hour. Gross. I won't be trying my luck with Mr. Bam again anytime soon.

Thursday was New Year's Eve, and we ate at La Marea at The Tides. This meal, a holiday prix fixe, was not, I don't think, representative of the restaurant's potential, and so I will not mention it here. Suffice to say that New Year's Eve is a rip-off no matter where you dine.

I had been looking forward to our last meal, at Michael's Genuine Food and Drink, all week. This place has gotten a lot of press, so I thought I would be amply impressed. Not so much. Ok, the country pate with spicy mustard and cornichon was great, but it was also pretty boring. A rice cake (kind of like a fried risotto patty) with rock shrimp and egg was confusing. Tuna tartare with a quail egg was too finely chopped and really had no taste. The double-yolk wood-oven cooked egg was good, but very basic. Crispy slivers of fried pig ears may have been the best part of the show. I liked the chicken wings, but they were kind of sweet-and-sour saucy, a bit too much "sweet" for my taste. The Mounds Bar tart was the meal's redemption, served with a miniature root-beer float (most of which my mother drank).

Conclusion: Miami ain't New York.

Sra. Martinez
4000 NE 2nd Avenue
Miami, FL 33137

News Cafe
800 Ocean Drive
Miami Beach, FL 33139

801 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 33139

1745 James Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Versailles Restaurant
3555 SW 8th Street
Miami, FL 33135

6927 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami, FL 33138

Emeril's Miami Beach
1601 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 33139

La Marea at The Tides
1220 Ocean Drive
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Michael's Genuine Food and Drink
130 NE 40th Street
Miami, FL 33137