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Le Plat du Jour: Tuesday March 20, 2012

Le Plat du Jour: Tuesday March 20, 2012

Yesterday, the much debated and I guess anticipated James Beard Award nominations were announced in New York. As many journalists like to describe them, the James Beards are the “Oscars” of the food world.

Indeed they are like the Oscars in terms of prestige and an excellent representation of where we are in the context of film and gastronomy today compared to history. Comparing David Chang to Câreme is similar to “The Artist” with “Wings”…well, in the case of the Oscars this year there certainly was a blast to the past. Any way you look at the James Beards, you must understand, just like with films, that there is truly no “best.” What they present to the world is a collection of very deserving chefs, mixologists, writers, restaurateurs, and anybody else involved in the food and beverage industry, who excel at this highest caliber of what they do.

I don’t use the James Beard Awards nominations list as a guide to which restaurants I must go to. I do certainly use them as a factor in the process, much like the Oscars for viewing films. I do attempt to view the nominations as an attempt to see how best we in the culinary community are doing in strengthening the vision half a century ago of the awards’ namesake. Mr. Beard loved the pizazz of life. It was in his personality to his love of myriad cuisines to his signature kimonos. He also loved simple, subtle purity in his food and his writing. Beard loved grandiose haute French cuisine feasts, but always appreciated simple fresh fish grilled over the campfire, like he often prepared in his Oregon youth.

This year’s nominations certainly show the wide spectrum of culinary ideas and platforms in 2012. Just look at the nominees for best outstanding chef.

David Chang, a chef known for his outspoken personality, unwavering love for pork, and cuisine where east and west mingle spectacularly, competes with the modern haute European vision of Daniel Humm, the dreamy pizzas and capreses from Nancy Silverton, modern Louisiana cuisine of Donald Link, the new American cuisine with Midwest influences of Paul Kahan, and the veteran of the group, Gary Danko, who’s menu hasn’t really changed in a decade and isn’t afraid to keep old French standards of butter sauces, souffles, foie gras, and truffles on nearly every table’s plates.

Right there are six deserving chefs who represent the passion for cuisine Mr. Beard always had, along with the state of restaurants in 2012.

After running through the nominations a few times, here are a few quick thoughts:

Big congratulations to Grant Achatz, Mark Bittman, Dana Cowin, Emily Luchetti, Wolfgang Puck, and Charlie Trotter. All of them have changed the way we eat for the much, much better. If it weren’t for Mr. Puck I would never have fell in love with food as a young boy in California and thanks to Mr. Bittman, I look at fruits and vegetables as ingredients that can be equally special as steak or chocolate.

For outstanding restaurant, Vetri was the premier dining experience I had in the United States in 2011 and the Blue Hill group are some of the hardest working, kindest people I’ve ever met. They all deserve the gold.

Rising Star Chef: After a visit 2 weeks ago to Flour + Water, I’d say it’s hard to consider Thomas McNaughton a “rising star” when his food is far more riveting and better executed right now than one of the outstanding chef nominees (see Danko).

Melissa Chou, Joanne Chang, and Dahlia Narvaez make dessert absolutely mandatory. Excellent to see Michael Mina honored for best service, something the rest of my dining party mentioned to me as we left the restaurant last month. Interesting to have Pierro Selvaggio’s Valentino group compared to receive so much praise despite every critic forgetting about it. My experiences there the past few years were far from inspiring.

I could never choose between Bar Agricole, Pegu Club, Aviary, and PDT for a cocktail. I can however certainly choose a Dogfish Head beer any day over Brooklyn Brewery. Frasca Food and Wine and A16 continue to revolutionize Italian wines to American diners.

AQ has shaken up San Francisco with its literal seasonal approach, but if Next doesn’t win best new restaurant, I’ll be more shocked than seeing Lehigh beat Duke. Then again, is Next even a restaurant? Or is it a show?

Excellent as always to see a John T. Edge writing piece honored. Seeing Jonathan Gold go up against Alan Richman is like if you pitted Humphrey Bogart versus Clark Gable: the legends with their own distinct unique style and voice, love them or hate them, they have changed the landscape of food journalism.

Lastly, very interesting to see all three nominees for best restaurant design and two of the three for best restaurant graphics are from New York. Is it that the architects are more thought-provoking in Gotham or just like why the Yankees and Red Sox always get more air time on ESPN? It’s probably a combination of both, though Bar Agricole in San Francisco did win last year’s best restaurant design price. It’s so spectacular it should win again this year.

Speaking of the aforementioned literally seasonal restaurant AQ in San Francisco, where the entire restaurant changes the menu, decor, and even the waiters’ uniforms each season, what happened today?

Winter became spring. No menu yet however on the restaurant’s website.

The first major review is out of Danny Meyer’s North End Grill with Floyd Cardoz, formerly of Meyer’s Tabla, behind the stove.

And nobody ever said it was easy to be a dining critic…eating out every night, sometimes even twice. How about when you’re a critic with a focus on “food crawls?” I usually limit my crawls to 2 or 3 places. Try 16!

Indeed these are great tips by Carey Jones. From my experience, the most important rules are the two bite rule and the walk/public transit route, which was impossible when conducting taco crawls in Los Angeles. The two bite rule is a must. The first bite tells if it’s worthy of a second bite. The second bite is for investigation. Then doggy bag and bounce.

Happy Spring everybody!

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