Sunday, January 31, 2010

Per Se...

Palms sweaty like a teenager going to his first school dance, my hands were shaking with excitement and nerves as I approached the famous blue door of Per Se.

I have been waiting for this for a long time.

Per Se is a Mecca for culinarians...a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The New York outpost of chef Thomas Keller. A serene oasis located in the midst of a Manhattan mall.

It is also where I had lunch today.

Our coats were taken and we were led past the salon to our table on the dais level of the dining room. We sat, not in chairs, but on a cushioned bench with a breathtaking view of Central Park. The dining room was smaller than I had always imagined, and quiet.

I can't tell you how nervous i was...almost awkward. This is out of my realm of expertise. A crowded room...hustle and bustle...controlled chaos...those are the traits I am most used to in the dining rooms I frequent. Again, I was taken back to those prepubescent days in a darkened school cafeteria, when each decision weighed heavy. Which wine to choose? Which menu tasting menu? Who do I dance with?

Well, at least this time I could count on some wine to help me relax.

We started with the famous Gruyere gougeres, light pastry filled with a molten cheese center. The salmon tartare cornets with creme fraiche, more delicate than I had imagined.  My nerves were settling and the reality set in...I am eating at Per Se. Next, the famous Oysters and Pearls, another Keller signature, A taste of the sea and texture of a cloud. Now I was dancing to a song I knew...with the prettiest girl in school.

And then she kissed me...

'She' being the truffle custard with truffle ragout and chive chip.

It doesn't look like much...but, my God.

This dish was so rich, so smooth, so perfect. The ragout was sticky and unctuous, the heady aroma of truffles permeating the rich reduced veal stock. The custard just melted...ethereal ...ghostly on the tongue.
Even the chive chip, an aspect of this dish I had never considered exciting, was a revelation. Crisp, barely there, delicious.

I can die happy now. What could top this dish?

But wait...what's this? Is that foie gras? All of that? No, that can't ALL be foie gras can it? I've had foie gras...but not like this. That is practically a mound of fattened duck liver. Served with oat crisps, candied walnuts, persiminon puree and toasted brioche. Foie gras in a quantity that said, "Eat Me!" a quantity that encouraged you to slather...not savor. Paired with a vintage Sauternes, perhaps the epitomy of decadence.

A note on service...after a few minutes passed the servers replaced our toasted brioche. We weren't done with the brioche we just wasn't warm anymore. That was one of the nicest touches of the night.

At this point I was literally rocking back and forth with my eyes closed, humming to myself. Really.

Columbia River Sturgeon over a whole mustard coleslaw that was sweet and vinegary and bright. The sturgeon had a flavor that I can only place as Kentucky Fried Chicken, only the very best part of the fat and skin. Also, the best carrots ever. Ever.

Next up, butter poached lobster, duck gizzard tortellini and sauce hydromel. This was the first course that wasn't an out of the park home run. The lobster was cooked to perfection, but I felt it was overpowered by the sweetness of the sauce. Hydromel is a sauce made with mead or honey-wine. It had some sort of asian flavors as well. The sauce paired better with the tortellini, which had an amazing texture and mouth feel, but not enough gizzard flavor for me.

But then...

We went behind the bleachers...

All Day Braised Salmon Creek Farm Pork Belly. Are you kidding me? This was amazing. Pork belly. By Thomas Keller. What did you think was going to happen? This was a no brainer for me. The unexpected surprise came from the Scarlett turnips. Served roasted, braised, confit and shaved raw...the flavors, textures and colors were breathtaking. Did I fail to mention the tempura fried turnip greens? Forgive me. Notice the knife in the picture, I almost forgot to take a picture on this one.

Snake River Farms Calotte de Boeuf. I believe that Calotte translates as "Oh my God, that's good." Not sure on that one. Perfectly cooked, tender and well seasoned. Served with the best Bernaise I have ever had. Do yourself a favor and read the essay on Hollandaise in The French Laundry cookbook. Also, the best beets ever. The real star of the dish...the pommes Bouchon...that's the cylinder in the back. Our server, Olivia, told us they are cooked for hours in stock and butter. I need to know more. I must know...

At this point I am in a reverie. It can't get any better...

So they start bringing me desserts. Plural. For another hour.

I have never eaten so many sweets in my life.

First was Peanuts and Popcorn...popcorn sherbet with ground popcorn and salt and pepper Virginia peanuts. Just like cracker jacks. This is part of why I love Chef Keller's philosophy. This man, who has dedicated his career to a search of perfection maintains a sense of whimsy and humor. I respect a chef who isn't afraid to be a bit irreverant and play with their food.

Hence, Coffee and Doughnuts.

I will follow the recipe.

I will follow the recipe.

I will follow the recipe.

The cappucino semifreddo was worth it.

More desserts...chocolate mousse...pot au creme...variations on pear...peanut butter truffles...creme brulee...caramels...tiny pulled sugar candies bursting with flavor...too much dessert. I asked our server which part of the floor I was allowed to roll around on. Please stop. My head is spinning. It hurts.Not another bite.

Wait...did you say curry chocolate candy? Olive oil white chocolate candy? Fennel? Pink peppercorn? Ok... maybe just  a few more bites. The curry chocolate may actually have been THE highlight of this incredible meal.

And then, it was over. Stretched out over four hours...and gone in a flash.

Awash in a mix of emotions, unsure whether to laugh or cry. yearning for a chance to do it all over again.

So...yeah...just like a school dance, per se.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On any given Monday...

Basically, I just wanted to post these incredibly sexy pictures.

As I've stated in previous posts...I don't follow's just not my style. My brain doesn't work that way. I tend to never make the same dish twice, at least not in the same way.

So, you probably won't find any actual recipes on this site...just ideas and jumping off points.

Also note my most prized possesion, my Wusthof santoku.

I have a number of ways to deal with sprouts. Roasted with pancetta and finished with Balsamic. Shaved and sauteed till it's browned and crispy. In a corn bread and bacon stuffing. Recently, I had them as a pizza topping.   I often treat them with a rougher hand...I feel that the caramelization brought on by high heat brings out the nuttiness.

But look at them...they demand a gentler touch.

So, I brought some leeks to the party. I don't use leeks as often as I should. I love them, but so often overlook them. However, I love the mild, gentle flavor they bring to a dish. So I decided to introduce the two.

I shaved the leeks and sprouts, after removing the larger outer leaves for some varied texture. The leeks went in first with a bit of olive oil and butter at a low temp, with just a quick squeeze of lemon at the start to add a little brightness.

I let them melt down a bit before adding the sprouts and......truffle butter. I love having that hint of truffle as a hidden, background anchovy or fish sauce, just bring on that umami. It's like slipping on some Al Green and turning down the lights.

A splash of heavy cream to thicken and bind and...oh, hell...just because I love it.

Left to do their thing and mingle...a very happy marriage.

Unfortunately, the marriage didn't last long...because I ate them.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On my radar...

Well, I have a lot of stuff coming up in the near future, so I thought I should share a taste of what is on the menu...

This Sunday is one of the penultimate culinary experiences of my or anyone's lives...I am dining at Per Se. (Cue the sound of angels singing and a light shining from the sky.)

Right after that, Luke's Kitchen is hosting back to back seven course tasting dinners. The first for our more experienced and daring diners and the second to ease newer guests into the format. We also just comitted to doing three tasting dinners during Maplewood's Restaurant Week in March.

We follow that  with Super Bowl Sunday and my take on porchetta. I have a fanatical love for all things pork and all things that take hours to cook. I also was very dissapointed with Porchetta in NYC. My turn.

The next few weeks are up in the air, but towards the end of February...The Breslin! I have been a huge fan of The Spotted Pig for awile now and can't wait to try their newest outpost and shrine to meat and gluttony.

So, that's the plan for now...who knows what is going to pop up in the meantime. I is Restaurant Week in NYC, so anything can happen.

Cooking without a net...

It starts with an idea...
A classic dish...
A picture...
A memory...
An ingredient...

Then...something else do you round it out? What do you find at the market? What speaks to you?

I try hard not to go to the market with too much of a plan. That never works well for me. I have actually gathered all the ingredients for a dinner I planned ahead, only to wander around for an hour before putting everything back on the shelf and starting all over with a completely different meal.

Today, it was brussel sprouts and leeks.

That's where it began.

Brussel sprouts are my favorite vegetable and I had them on the brain thanks to The Leftoverist. I started to envision a dish with pan roasted salmon nestled in a bed of melted leeks and brussel sprouts with fingerling potatoes sliced into disks and arranged artfully around the plate with the leaves of the sprouts. Perhaps a mustard-horseradish cream sauce. Perfect...

Until I got to the market.

The salmon didn't look great, especially at over 15 bucks a pound. The only fingerlings available were Purple Peruvians, which are nice, but not for my purposes. Why did I even walk in the door with such expectations? I know better. That's not how I cook.

Some people, like my sister follow recipes. Follow them to a tee. Every detail, every step, every ingredient.

That just isn't me.

So, NY Strip steaks on sale...check. The horseradish goes into mashed potatoes...check. Stick with the melted leeks and sprouts...check. Still needs something...I've had a paprika onion confit idea swirling around lately...check.

Keep an open never know what may come of it.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The new face of evil...

So folks, if you are around my age, you may remember a series of Captain Crunch ads from the early to mid-eighties featuring his battles against the Soggies. The Soggies were a milk based race of creatures who committed a number of heinous acts, including kidnapping Spider-Man.

But, their number one nefarious goal...sogging up the Crunch Berries.

Crunch Berries were adorable, singing, dancing and all around  kind hearted talking berries. They were pretty much defenseless. So...when the Soggies came a-calling...they had only one hope.

The heroic Captain himself.

He would swoop in and drive away the Soggies in some creative and clever way. The Crunch Berries were saved and every one would celebrate while the Soggies slunk back to their milky lairs.

And then...

Captain Crunch would kill the Crunch Berries to put them in his cereal.

They never show that part though, do they?

One week away...

Nuff said...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

What is a human_ortolan...

I suppose some explanation is in order.

The ortolan bunting is a small song bird that under goes a rather dramatic culinary transformation. They are blinded or kept in a dark box which causes them to gorge themselves on millet, figs and grapes until they swell to four times their normal size.

At which point they are drowned in Armagnac, plucked and roasted whole.

They are eaten whole, bones cutting into your gums, Armagnac burst into your mouth. Served so hot that you can't chew at first...forcing you to breath in the heady liqour.

All this is done, in a practice credited to Brillat-Savarin, with a cloth or napkin over your head, for two very important reasons. hold in and savor the incredible aromas. hide your face from God for commiting such an unspeakable act.

This is a bit awful.

This is now illegal in France.

This is how I would like to go if I was to be eaten.

I am currently in the fattening up stages.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Bin 14...a nice find in Hoboken...

I am not often found dining in Hoboken. I have nothing against the town, I just feel I would rather drive a bit farther and be in the greatest city in the world. My previous favorite meals have been the sliders and a giant mug of Sam Adams for $8.95 at Black Bear.

However, my friend's band April Smith and the Great Picture Show were playing at Maxwell's with Langhorne Slim, so I decided to make a whole night of it. But where to go? Luckily the same NY Times article that mentioned us at the end of the year listed Bin 14 as well.

We entered the narrow restaurant at 7 PM and the place was already bustling with a full bar and only a couple of the dozen or so tables empty. I immediately had a good feeling about the open kitchen, exposed brick and massive wall of wine cubbies. We got a table towards the back, right near the kitchen.

The philosophy of the restaurant was immediately apparent and right up my alley. With a large menu of small dishes meant for sharing and a great wine list available in 2 oz pours, we were encouraged to graze and sample...heaven IS a place on Earth!

Our server, attired in a black t shirt and jeans... again, my style of casual service...was Mike and he instilled us with confidence from the start. We gave him the green light to pair wines for us and then we proceeded to order pretty much half the menu.

Ok, I exaggerate a bit...there was quite a bit that we didn't get to sample...but 11 courses later...we got a pretty good snap shot.

First there were 3 types of bruschetta...Lobster Club, brightly flavored, with copious amounts of lobster, avocado and prosciutto. There was just the right amount of mayo and a touch of celery really stood out for me. The Beef Tartare was a healthy portion that lacked a bit in the seasoning, but that was made up for by the topping of raw quail egg yolk. We also had a special of Foie Gras mousse with the slightest layer of strawberry jam. From the wording, I had expected an actual piece of Foie and not a mousse...however, it was still excellent.

Next came calamari dusted in chick pea flour and served with capers and hot peppers. No clunky sauce at all was needed. I have had calamari with chick pea flour before and enjoy it. Our server had said the calamari changed his life...I won't go that far. The mussles on the other hand were transcendent. In a broth of Pernod with caramelized fennel and blood orange, I could have eaten several bowls.

We also had a Brussel Sprout and Pancetta Pizza...I know you are getting jealous by now. This was an inspired combination on a pizza. I love my Brussel Sprouts, as anyone who eats my dinners can vouch for. But even I had never thought to put them on a pizza. They crisped up and caramelized in the pizza oven and the crust was crsp and chewy at the same time. This was a real standout.

More Brussel Sprouts next...this time breaded and fried with...

I love sweetbreads. I never get to have sweetbreads.

So, sweetbreads and Brussel Sprouts and pancetta...
I was about to do my Meg Ryan impression but, once again, I am trying to keep my girlfriend. The only thing I would have done differently would be to cut the sprouts smaller and the pancetta bigger.

At this point we had our first miscue of the evening. The lamb sausage was just OK. It had a very familiar taste and texture which I couldn't identify. My dining companion, Alex, put his finger on it. Chef Boyardee. Not the best...though we still ate every bite, so... not that bad either.

Finally, we shared 3 entrees, which also come in smaller portions...thank God! A gnocchi with oxtail ragout was almost perfect. The gnocchi were soft and pillowy, not chewy and dense, as is too often the case. However, the ragout was a bit too sweet, as is also often the case. Duck risotto was good, not great.
The highlight of the entrees was a taglitelle carbonara with butternut squash and a poached egg. The pasta was soft, delicate and obviously made fresh in-house. The squash was an unusual but welcome touch, perfectly cooked and seasoned, and the warm egg yolk brought just the right level of richness.

Along the way, we tried 6 different wines, the names of which elude me now. At this point we were in a state of mild euphoria. The food ranged from good to excellent, with no single dish being life altering.

The experience, however was one of my all time favorites. Being, encouraged, to sample and graze and try so many things...has to be my favorite way to dine. The staff was casual, friendly, yet well informed and professional. It reminded me a bit of my favorite bar, Employees Only, in that I was comfortable enough to let go of the reigns, sit back and let things happen.

And that's how you become an ortolan.

Delis of the world unite...

Growing up in Elizabeth, one of my fondest memories is getting a Corned Beef and Pastrami sandwich from Goodman's Deli on Elmora Ave. This thick, juicy sandwich slathered with mustard on soft rye bread was my go to treat when having a bad day or feeling under the weather. My Mom always knew that if I had to stay home from school that she should stop there on the way home from work.

One day a few years ago, I was having one of those bad days. So I took the ride over to Goodman's only to find a Mexican restaurant! What?!?!? How could this happen. The place was an institution. I am not ashamed to say that I actually shed a tear. Remember the scene in Grosse Point Blank when John Cusack returns to his childhood home to find a convenience store? It was just like that.

I recently moved to Berkeley Heights and on one of my first shopping trips....there it was. Nestled in to a strip mall(this is, after all, New Jersey) next to a Stop and Shop and a Tae Kwon Do studio...

Goodman's Deli.

As Coldplay said, "God put a smile upon my face." I rushed in through the doors and took a deep breath.

The deli was bigger, newer, maybe cleaner. But the smell. The smell was still there. Steaming trays of meat, pastrami and corned beef. The faint smell of pickles, already wrapped in wax paper. The smell of my childhood.

I told the owner my story and of how happy I was to be right down the street once again. I get in there once every week or so now.  A few weeks ago, when my girlfriend was sick, I brought her a sandwich and some matzo ball soup, just like I used to have when I was sick. Today, they asked me how she was feeling. That is what you get when a place has heart

Delis of the world...learn a lesson...this is how it's done.

Also... I have graduated to pastrami and yourself a favor and click on this picture for a full screen shot...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hilarity ensues...

So, I found this flowchart to help out the decision making process. One has to love the fact that bacon is always eaten. Thanks to Audrey Fukman and Andy Wright at SFoodie.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Whistle while you work...

I work at Luke's Kitchen in Maplewood New Jersey.
It is tiny.
11 tables.
It is also a dream come true.

The chef/ owner has been a friend of mine for 6 years. He is an amazing chef with an incredible background. Simple food, done perfectly.

But that doesn't tell the whole story.

I work alone in the front of the house...wearing my normal clothes, listening to my music, serving people in my style. It's a revelation.

I've spent the last several years in management at some pretty big restaurants. They were great...I learned a lot. But somewhere, I stopped enjoying it. I got in this business because I didn't want to wear a suit and sit at a desk and I spent way too much time doing just that.

So, now I get to welcome people into my home each day. And I love it. So come check it out...I think you just might like it.

That was the self-promotion portion of this blog...please forgive me.

A New Year...

I guess I should start by telling you all a bit about myself.

I am about to turn 34.
I live in North Jersey.

I love food.

I have been in the restaurant business my entire adult life. I read books about food. I check all the food blogs. I take day long 'culinary adventures' into NYC. I have driven 1 1/2 hours to Waffle House at 2AM...passing one Waffle House to get to a better one. I cook dinner for my friends every Monday. My girlfriend gets mad at me because I sometimes hump her leg when talking about food.

She's going to kill me for that one.

So...I love food.

I have thought about starting a blog for awhile...what better time then now?

What to expect...
Details of my dining experiences...dinners at home...restaurants i visit...

Tales of my workplace...the restaurant I work at was named in the NY Times most memorable dining experiences of 2009...and they have no idea what goes on when no one is watching.

My thoughts on food and cooking...trends, philosophies and ingredients.

Also, I suppose, my thoughts life in general...