Your Table is Ready

Plat du Jour: Monday April 16, 2011

Happy Middle of April Monday everybody! With summer temperatures in New England for the Boston Marathon and beautiful springtime sunshine here in the west, it seems like the perfect day to start cleaning off the patio furniture to eat al fresco once again!

The big stories of the day revolve around restaurant critics coming and going. I did not get the LA Weekly restaurant critic job, which went to Besha Rodell, formerly food editor of Creative Loafing Atlanta. Best of luck to Rodell as she fills the big shoes of Jonathan Gold, the only food critic in the country to win a Pulitzer Prize. Los Angeles is such a massive and fascinating food community and I’m sure Rodell will continue Gold’s trail-blazing path of discovering the small gems amongst the miles and miles of freeways and mini malls.

It’s interesting to see how the Village Voice Media owned La Weekly announced today the hiring of a new critic. Village Voice publications remain free, even jokingly referring to but not specifically naming the Los Angeles Times and New York Times creating pay walls for their online content.

At the other end, the San Francisco Examiner dismissed longtime restaurant critic Patricia Unterman after two decades writing about the Bay Area’s magnificent restaurant scene. Unterman was one of the “big four” in San Francisco (with Michael Bauer of The San Francisco Chronicle, Jonathan Kauffman of SF Weekly, and Josh Sens of San Francisco Magazine) who decided the fates of the city’s restaurants. They could often be found at the same new, high profile restaurant openings on the same nights, and almost never fully agreed in unison on an establishment’s merits (exept Benu, Coi…). That’s restaurant criticism though, no two experiences are the same.

The real message from the Los Angeles hiring and San Francisco dismissal is where the print industry is leading. Unterman’s dismissal looks clearly like a new publisher implementing a cost cutting method of cutting ties with a higher paid veteran writer. This seems to be happening all the time with newspaper food writers and over in broadcast television with sports announcers and news anchors. This is not a case of a food section closing. The Examiner has been the longtime second fiddle to the Chronicle as a general newspaper and in food sections. Since more and more people are refusing to pay for newspapers, this type of cost cutting will happen more and more until all metropolitan areas have one major newspaper, exclusively online behind a pay wall. I’m guessing food sections will be cut  before every newspaper resorts to be online behind a pay wall, however.

Yet, how do the Village Voice newspapers survive and actually still thrive, while being free? The restaurants reviewed do tend to be more of the bargain, ethnic eateries instead of Providence and Urusawa. Those are the reviews that people seem to be more interested in now. Professional restaurant reviews certainly help decide for diners which destinations restaurants are worth visiting for special occasions. It’s the every day restaurants that are hidden, affordable, usually hole in the wall mom and pop joints that Village Voice newspapers are so talented at uncovering, and diners are less willing to try without validation by a professional. Village Voice has found this niche and is thriving within it. I’m no expert on this business model of a free, weekly print newspaper-magazine. It seems to work and is very helpful in restaurant searches. We’ll keep reading Unterman’s reviews in San Francisco, even if they are no longer in a print newspaper.

Leaving the sticky world of comings and goings, let’s return back to the spring sunshine and think of…an afternoon glass of rosé on the patio. Eater New York has the opinions of many top New York sommeliers on what rosé you should be sipping this spring and summer. It’s interesting to see a Canary Islands listing, two from Corsica, and even one rosé from Germany. The most often mentioned region for rosé production, Bandol, Provence, France, does have a producer mentioned too with Chez Tempier.

If it’s spring time, that means it must be outdoor food festival time. I visited Northern California’s largest food truck festival, the San Jose Taco Festival, this past weekend. The festival had some two dozen food trucks, ranging from the classic Korean barbeque tacos copying Kogi to Louisiana blackened catfish tacos. There were of course some regular tacos from actual taco trucks on hand too.

I’d be able to write more of a review if I didn’t spend my entire time at the festival standing in line. Most popular food trucks require a 30-45 minute wait in a line of anxious diners. The problem with a food truck festival is that you want to sample. So one taco per line means…a lot of standing in lines. Once you get one taco, eat in the next line. Every truck sold tacos for $2, along with various other items that they normally sell (such as gumbo and jambalaya in the case of San Jose’s Louisiana Territory Truck). The entrance fee was quite steep just to set foot in the festival at $10 a person, too much in my opinion for the quality of the festival, which was nothing but food trucks, a couple loud, amateur bands, and a terrible beer and wine selection (a food festival where the best beer offerings are Negro Modelo and Stella Artois?!).

Louisiana Territory's blackened catfish and creole "seafood" tacos

I sampled from The Louisiana Territory and the Chairman Bao from San Francisco. Louisiana’s blackened catfish taco was excellent, with a beautiful cornmeal coating of the flaky, moist fish. The creole seafood taco was a watery mess, the tomato based broth covering your hands before the first bite. Strangely in my seafood taco, the main filling was andouille sausage. I could only find one tiny shrimp and none of the advertised scallops.

The Chairman Bao's crowd awaits

The Chairman Bao in theory makes “tacos,” since the steamed buns boast a clam shell to wrap around a filling. I appreciated the tender pork belly with turmeric pickled daikon and green shiso, though the meat needed a stronger, sweeter glaze. A tasteless coca cola braised pork got lost in a cloud of savoy cabbage and kewpie mayonnaise. On the other hand, the spicy chicken did provide punch and was perfectly tender, bathing in a soothing sesame seed puree topped pickled carrots and cucumbers. It was the hands down winning “taco” of the day.

Lastly for this Monday, here’s a hilarious trip around New York with new New Yorker, Andy Ricker, the revolutionary chef and visionary behind the Thai street food staple restaurant in Portland, Oregon, Pok Pok. The fish sauce chicken wings, the boar collar, and the durian custard still haunt my dreams from dinner at Pok Pok a year ago. I almost booked a ticket to Phuket right after that meal. Ricker just opened a Pok Pok and Pok Pok Wings in New York.

This week we’ll have reviews of Aziza and Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco, cocktails from Los Angeles, a neighborhood trip to Cleveland, and much more at the Bistro!

 

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