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Plat du Jour: November 2, 2012: The Perfect Sandwich, The Not-So Perfect Restaurant Location, and Menu Terminology

It’s the first weekend of November and APO is very much in the air. This time of year always brings such wonderful produce and comforting treats from autumnal ingredients. The past few weeks I’ve been delighted by the exceptional brussels sprouts dishes on menus (usually with bacon, guanciale, or pancetta involved), the pumpkin beers on draught, the pumpkin caramel whoopie pies I baked a week ago, almost anything with cranberries or apples involved, and some stellar dishes involving chestnuts, chanterelle mushrooms, end of season figs, and Bartlett pears.

Pumpkin Caramel Whoopie Pies

But, the streak had to end. Let’s just say I won’t be asking for another round of the pumpkin frozen yogurt I sampled today. The chalky consistency and harsh, almost bitter squash notes were not exactly pleasant, especially with a topping of dried fruit compote and (very acceptable soft) chocolate chip cookie crumbles. I’ve never been a vocal advocate for frozen yogurt like I frequently am with sorbet, gelato, and ice cream. Frozen yogurt certainly has its merits. At times, it can be spectacular, even at this certain purveyor.

Pumpkin frozen yogurt…we’ll stick to chocolate next Autumn.

Before heading into the final notes before the weekend, we again want to send our thoughts and best wishes to those affected by Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast. The good folks at Eater National have put together a map of restaurants nationwide, from Bainbridge Island to D.C., who are sending proceeds from meals to the relief efforts for those affected by Sandy. Thank you to Eater for putting together the list and to all the restaurants taking part in the recovery, as we all hope to do whatever we can to help the hurricane hit areas re-build as quickly as possible.The New York Times‘ Adam Nagourney this week authored an excellent article on the legendary Wolfgang Puck. Puck is such a fascinating figure, and I won’t lie, I actually hope for at least two hour stopovers in Denver and Chicago O’Hare so I can dine at his airport express cafes.

They’re not exactly Spago caliber…but hey, those various mushroom pizzas seem like Spago before or after a flight.

I will deeply miss the old Spago Beverly Hills, a place I celebrated a birthday once and declared that I wish for the magnificent Sherry Yard’s kaiserschmarrn to be my yearly birthday cake/dessert/pancakes. I will also miss the smoked salmon pizza, the Cantonese duck, but as other restaurants modernize with small plates full of buzz word, comfort ingredients, so too must Spago. The article doesn’t say, but I sure hope the patio at Spago didn’t change.

Rigatoni, Sea Urchin, Pea Shoots…Is This “Decadent and Indulgent” or “Primi,” or “Pasta?”

Looking at the new menu for Spago Beverly Hills, I noticed more the peculiar categories of the menu than the items themselves at first. Starters (I think they’re starters?) are “Raw, Wild, and organic,” meats are “From the Pasture,” and dessert is either “Chocolate” or “From the Market.”

Best are the pastas and soups: “Decadent and Indulgent.” Aren’t those two terms usually reserved for chocolate dishes, butter-poached lobster, or foie gras-pork belly poutine, not chicken “noodle” soup or soba with crab and matsutake mushrooms?

I’ve always studied menu terminology with fervent interest. It’s a study in not just cuisine, but also economics and psychology. First, there was enormous demand for the sourcing of ingredients to be listed (example: Niman Ranch, Cowgirl Creamery, Mom’s Backyard…). Hence, menu descriptions took multiple lines for one dish. Then, there was a backlash, with many restaurants simply listing a couple ingredients (example: steak, broccoli rabe, fleur de sel, cardoons), or even just a single ingredient à la Eleven Madison Park’s Daniel Humm (example: milk chocolate).

Is This Pear-Chicory Salad a “First Course” or “Raw and Organic?”

A few years ago amidst the upscale comfort food craze, menus always had “Mom’s” or “Jack’s” or “Backyard” or “Home style” attached to items. Mom’s meatloaf is always superior to, just, meatloaf. It’s a psychological connotation to our youth.

Now, it’s the names of the courses themselves on menus that are evolving.

Long, long gone are the days of “appetizers,” “main courses” or “entrées,” and “desserts.” Now, we have no really differentiation of courses. We just know if dishes are “bites” or even “bar bites” or “tapas.” This week I even went to a restaurant where a salad of chicories, pear butter, and goat cheddar counted in the first category “piccolo,” but a cauliflower salad with lemon caper vinaigrette and mullet bottarga is an “antipasti.”

At least some restaurants avoid the distinctions and just don’t have categories. You can tell what is “larger” by the price…unless the dish is truffle or foie gras based.

Spago’s new menu really struck me as interesting. Some of it is unique in a good way.

Continuing on this November Friday staying in Los Angeles, some sad news last weekend with the announcement that the restaurant Mezze would have to close immediately because of…its unfortunate location next to ongoing and never-ending construction.

Not Exactly a Construction Obscured View…

Yours truly was actually scheduled to dine at Mezze  in a few weeks to sample the wonderful cooking of chef Micah Wexler. You hear all the time about restaurants opening in challenging locations because of lower rents, whether the location is particularly gritty or just far removed from the hip core of a city. Sometimes, these restaurants thrive and create new “it” neighborhoods. Other times, things never pan out. Sometimes you get Williamsburg, Brooklyn or The Mission, San Francisco. Other times, restaurateurs must acknowledge the area really just wants another pizza place instead.

This one really hurts. Beautiful, exciting cooking in a beautiful room…just next to a major eyesore. Los Angeles isn’t a walking city to begin with and knowing this particular stretch of La Cienega, everybody is flying by in their cars, so there is no chance they could see the restaurant.

What’s even more sad is that the location affected its prior tenant, the Michelin starred Sona, from David Myers (Chef/Owner now of Comme ça in West Hollywood and Las Vegas). Here’s hoping Wexler and the Mezze team can quickly find a new home far, far away from construction.

Mezze’s nearly forced closing reminded me of a discussion this summer with a waitress at the restaurant Hanne pa Høyden, one of two ambitious, seasonal cooking minded restaurants in Bergen, Norway. Consider Ms. Høyden the Emeril Lagasse and Alice Waters of Norway in terms of her television exposure and importance in advocating for seasonal, local ingredients.

Hanne pa Høyden

The restaurant is slightly outside the city center and for the past year has been across from nonstop construction on a new apartment complex. When I was there, the restaurant was half full–on a Saturday night in the prime of summer tourist season. She explained to me much of the same problem that enveloped Mezze. The construction is a huge distraction and an eyesore. In turn, there are no walk in customers. Those with reservations might show up. Then they sit down with the sound of bulldozers in the background and scaffolding everywhere in view. That’s not exactly an idyllic meal setting.

We need construction obviously. It’s just very unfortunate how it affects other businesses.

Spectacular Sandwiches at Salumeria. Coppa-Mortadella on the Left

To send you off on your weekend, here’s what you should be having for lunch tomorrow, courtesy of Thomas McNaughton, the chef/owner of Flour + Water in San Francisco (speaking of defeating the odds of a challenging location).

At his new lunch spot/charcuterie shop/larder, Salumeria, the sandwiches change daily. Right now, you should be enjoying the superb barley, delicate squash, radicchio, and sage-hazelnut pesto antipasti that sings of Autumn and Liguria, along with the chicories with pear, pumpkin seeds, and flank steak to begin. Follow with the also very autumnal sandwich of squash and brussels sprout slaw that gets a fascinating jolt from pistachio and ricotta.

Ladies and gentlemen, the anatomy of the perfect sandwich. First, focaccia from San Francisco’s beloved Acme Bakery. It’s not quite Liguria Bakery in North Beach’s focaccia, but just the right fluffy, herbaceous, oily combination. A layer of giardiniera, a more intense olive heavy Provençal tapenade that is known more as the pickled vegetable-peppers addition to Chicago’s Italian beef sandwich or the olive salad on the New Orleans Muffuletta sandwich, is applied first.

The Anatomy of the Perfect Sandwich

The oil of the giardiniera moistens the addition baby greens, wilting them on impact, along with the vaguely gruyere tasting, but softer in texture tarentaise cheese.

Finally, this being the Salumeria, the stars of the show. Thinly sliced coppa, more like prosciutto, but with more strength in texture and complexity, mingles with mortadella (the black pepper and pistachio studded pork sausage-cold cut mixture that deeply resembles an intellectual bologna).

Salt, bitter, spice, crunch, robust meat, earth…it’s all here.

The perfect sandwich. The perfect lunch.

Have a most wonderful weekend everyone!

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