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Plat du Jour: Tuesday April 24, 2012: Questions for Dining Out

After a small weekend snafu where some members of my dining party had under-estimated the time and formality of a meal at a certain restaurant I had arranged for us to visit, let’s take a look at some of the most commonly asked (some serious, some…less so) questions when you’re the “foodie” and everyone puts their faith in you whether at a hole in the wall ethnic cuisine dive or a blow out special occasion, for a tremendous dining experience every time out.

How fancy is this place?

This is no doubt the most frequently heard question. Everyone for some reason associates people who are passionate for dining, as people you are going to spend a lot of money with. They imagine meals at Les Ambassadeurs or Charlie Trotter’s every time they join me, whether it’s really for a ramen lunch or casual bistro dinner. I despise the word “fancy.” Fancy is if you joined Louis XIV for a state dinner at Versailles. “Upscale,” “elegant,” “sophisticated,” “chic,” “cutting-edge,” are all much better adjectives. Then of course there are the darlings of food writers, such as “neighborhood bistro,” “hole in the wall,” “quick casual,” “casual chic,” “dive”…the list goes on. Essentially the “fancy” question has to do more with “What should I wear?” and “What is the price?”

What’s the cuisine?

This is always a challenge. More often than not a place is “Regional American” or “New American” or “Californian”…what about if it’s a pizza place that also has excellent sides? How about Mission Chinese Food? Yes it’s Chinese…but very different too.

Who’s the chef?

Excellent question. However, the answer always seems like a let down these days if he or she is not on t.v. That’s too bad since probably 0.00001% of terrific chefs have any t.v. exposure.

How do you pronounce prix fixe? (Or anything French…)

Having graduated as a French major, I expected to hear this a lot, and usually have the answer. No problem. Except with prix fixe. Is it really like how the French say (Pree- fix) or should we English-ize the pronunciation like I hear so often (Price- fix)? Tough call.

Beer, wine, or cocktails?

Usually research has been done in this subject long before going to the restaurant. If you’ve heard of a great cocktail program, start out with a drink. If there is a very special draft beer list, get one at lunch. Otherwise, wine.

How did you hear about this restaurant?

A complicated algorithm involving quantum physics, organic chemistry, levers and pullies, glucose, and a dash of worcestershire…also known as lots of reading of magazines and newspapers (NOT Zagat), research on the internet for reviews (trusted sources, NOT Yelp), Chowhound, and word of mouth from friends and family.

What are some of your favorite (or non-favorite…) questions asked? The list goes on and on like a meal where the service is clearly in the weeds.

One great restaurant I heartily recommend, Aldea in the Flatiron District of New York. Everything created by chef George Mendes is genius and a unique Portuguese-American hybrid, such as this arroz de pato with duck confit. Food always tastes better after seeing the chef prepare it! It’s way, way more than just “duck with rice,” as the recipe shows.

Speaking of New York, we’ll make David Chang’s Momofuku Short Ribs later today for the Tuesday project. Have a terrific rest of this Tuesday!

Plat du Jour: Monday April 23, 2012: Spring Dishes and Sandwich Origin Debates

The final full week of April is here and in much of the country that was enjoying an early summer last week, winter has returned. Time for more hot chocolate and beef stew now…

We’ll get to “spring” in a moment, but the big excitement of the day is the announcement that René Redzepi, chef of Noma in Copenhagen and last week named one of Time‘s 100 most influential people in the world, will be taking the Noma show on the road for the first ever time outside Copenhagen, with “A Taste of Noma” at the Claridge’s Hotel in London’s, one of London’s most upscale hotels in Mayfair, one of London’s most upscale districts. Eater National has more information on the pop-up, along with the official press release.

Prices are estimated to be $313.66 for the pop-up from July 28- August 6. Noma is re-modeling for a month mid July-mid August, allowing Redzepi to take Noma off the Copenhagen island (some of us had to plan a certain trip around this month long hiatus at the restaurant…). Remember of course that Thomas Keller, one time mentor of Redzepi at the French Laundry, started the pop-up excitement in London last October at Harrod’s.

Is London so popular with pop-ups because chefs see the city as a major city under-served by the caliber of its restaurants with only two Michelin three stars? Uh, no. It’s the opposite. For any art, be it visual, performing, or culinary, London right now is at the peak for excitement, creativity, and glamour. Plus, with the Queen’s Jubilee and the Olympics this summer, there is no doubt that London is THE destination period for 2012. The second biggest destination…probably to eat at Noma, in its regular home, Copenhagen.

Three quick thoughts from today’s announcements. Of course the dates reflect when Noma is renovating, but it also is during the Olympics. Is this a good or bad choice knowing how swamped the city will be? Will the athletes break their strict diet to eat at Noma London? Like with athletes, there is no bigger stage than the Olympics. This is an excellent decision by Redzepi to visit London during the end of July.

Also, have to wonder for such an intensely regional cuisine like Redzepi’s New Nordic at Noma, how will that be reflected and interpreted in London? How will famed chef Gordon Ramsey, he of Gordon Ramsey’s at Claridge’s Restaurant, welcome another famed chef into the same hotel in the city he is a superstar in, during the city’s moment in the global spotlight?

Last week we showed you the New York Times‘ Jeff Gordinier writing about the recent love being sent towards the lowly anchovy. Anchovies continue to gain lots of love beyond their cramped cans now from San Antonio’s leading chef and food writer: Andrew Weissman and Edmund Tijerina. I absolutely love the concept of “King Anchovy.”

It’s always fascinating to read the backgrounds of famous sandwiches, from the Earl of Sandwich’s sandwich to the heated debate over the “hamburger sandwich” at Louis Lunch in New Haven, CT., and several other competitors. Today, where is the Cuban sandwich from: Miami or Tampa? Did the Cuban sandwich even originate in Cuba? It certainly seems agreed on that the sandwich was “perfected” in the U.S. (or really, by Bunk Sandwiches in Portland, OR if you’ve ever tried that exceptional pork belly cubano…)

How about the po boy? Obviously, New Orleans, right? Possibly at Mother’s? Or could the oyster po boy be from…San Francisco?!

It’s lots of fun and very enriching to learn the origins of what we eat. It’s healthy to know where our food comes from, both the actual food and the ideas behind the food. It’s a lot more fun to debate too the history of food than say, political history.

So often we food writers dwell on reviews that slam restaurants. Enough of that. Yesterday Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle re-confirmed that Quince, Michael Tusk’s formal Northern California-rustic Italian restaurant in the city, deserves its exalted four star status. Here is the review and some beautiful pictures to make us all dream of dining there. Having been to Quince’s little sister Cotogna, located next door, Tusk is truly a wizard with pasta and so much more. He proves that Italian cuisine can mean so much more than we ever knew. He doesn’t force himself to be Italian all the time, as it’s creativity and seasons that dictate what will be an optimal dish. Now don’t be surprised if the next major wave of destination, four star restaurants come in the form of the Italian-meets global-meets local/seasonal emphasis of Quince.

Finally on this Monday, some spring food for thought. Peas, fava beans, strawberries, ramps, artichokes…spring produce certainly are in full bloom on menus this week. This past weekend at Michael Chiarello’s Bottega and excellent rustic California-Italian Oenotri, both in the Napa Valley, enjoyed some exquisite dishes featuring the season’s famed produce. Everything was superb at Bottega in Yountville, especially the potato roasted gnocchi with an English peas puree and various spring vegetables including brussels sprouts leaves. Oenotri pairs wood oven roasted young fava beans with beets, citrus, pistachios, and sunflower sprouts for a pristine, perfect starter. We’ll hear lots more about these restaurants later in the week, along with lots more from a weekend family birthday celebration in the Napa Valley.

Serious Eats shows that spring is in the air in New York too.

And doing some research for an upcoming trip, nobody can beat Portland, Oregon when it comes to listening to local, seasonal produce. Naomi Pomeroy at Beast uses green garlic in a vinaigrette and fresh mint too for cured salmon, first of the season morel mushrooms in a butter for Modoc Mountain leg of lamb, and rhubarb for dessert in a rhubarb brown butter tart. Natural Selection, a fascinating young vegetarian restaurant in Northeast Portland, is a go to list for anything seasonal: roasted beets & stinging nettles with watercress and kumquat relish or roasted abalone mushroom atop a…you guessed it…ramp risotto. We had to have ramps mentioned somewhere on this list!

Hopefully the Red Sox can be revived in the chilly spring air of Minnesota this week…maybe some rhubarb or green garlic or ramps could help? Have a great Monday!

Le Plat du Jour: Thursday March 29, 2012

This last Thursday of March brings sunshine to the west coast before another forecasted winter storm, all of this rainfall absolutely necessary after the summer-like winter we’ve been having.

Showing a visitor around San Francisco yesterday, we spent some quality time waiting in line and then enjoy excellent Dungeness crab louie and smoked salmon on rye at the famed seafood bar Swan Oyster Depot. As usual, the seafood could not be fresher and the sharp, witty Sancimino Brothers always there to re-fill your Anchor Steam or bring capers to top the smoked salmon. It is a truly unique and fascinating institution, truly one of a kind.

Swan Oyster Depot got me thinking though about the whole debate over restaurants being cash only or accepting credit cards, even at a certain minimum. Credit cards do cost the restaurants a fee and of course, cold hard cash is instant money, while the credit card payment brings cash to the restaurant over time. Most of the U.S. restaurant industry accepts credit card and certainly a high er percentage than in any other country. Yet, let’s use Swan Oyster Depot as maybe an example that should adopt the use of credit cards. I love their vintage old cash register, part of the charm of this now 100 year old business, along with one of the Sanciminos grabbing a pencil and paper to calculate your total.

That ending total though tends to be a lot higher than most other cash only places. With lunch, a drink, tax, and tip, a meal here can easily be over $30 per person. You hear the Sanciminos yelling out the likes of $60 and $70 per bill, followed by $20 bill after $20 emerging from wallets to the granite counter. That’s a lot of cash being thrown around. I have many friends and even family who do not carry cash period, whether it is just for ease of payment by credit or for safety reasons. I warned by dining partner beforehand yesterday that the catch on Swan Oyster is cash only…a reason that I have had friends not able to join me at other places because they simply don’t carry cash.

There are cash only places and then there are cash only places where diners will pay over $20. I am not anti- cash only establishments, knowing the pros for the business of not relying on credit card payments. However, are the pros for the business worth the cons for diners? What are your thoughts? Or at least should a cash only business accept credit cards at a minimum total payment like $20? Let the debate commence…(answers don’t cost anything by cash or credit card!)

In other news, I am torn about the cash only question, but as The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Jon Bonné wrote last Sunday about the wine list price and size question, I am all for shrinking the wine list to unique, creative, quality wines, just like I’m all for smaller food menus. Nobody wants to research through a phone book wine list, though it is a symbol of pride for fine dining institutions. Let’s keep this trend going sommeliers. Let’s keep wine lists focused, sharp, creative, and exciting to lower the stress and prices. Wine should be approachable and most of all, a complimenting part to the meal, not a huge hurdle in the way of the meal.

Celebrity chefs has an interesting day yesterday. Ever wondered what a day in the life of Mario Batali is like? Now you can follow him around, from business meetings to taping for The Chew.

Global superstar chef Gaston Acurio has dozens of restaurants now across North and South America, most recently branching out to New York where Pete Wells of The New York Times is not a fan of Acurio’s newest La Mar Cevicherià outpost.

I thoroughly enjoyed the one Acurio restaurant I have dined at, Astrid y Gaston in Santiago, Chile. Bold flavors, beautiful platings, and epic ceviche platters came one after another for our premier meal in a trip to Chile and Argentina. Acurio in his home country Peru, is an absolute icon, beloved for giving his country a real identity to set foot with on the global stage. When people think of Peru now, they imagine Machu Picchu and now cooking thanks to Acurio. I was at the Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York last summer when chef Dan Barber had just returned from a global food summit in Lima, Peru. Barber could not stop raving about the produce, especially the potatoes in Peru, and how Peruvians go crazy for Acurio as if he were the President or how Americans go crazy for TebowMania.

Finally on this Thursday, we’ll be heading out to Kauai for the week. It is the special destination for our family, where we have been visiting since long before Hurricane Iniki. For an island of its size, the dining options are shockingly impressive. We have our longtime favorites (Beach House, Roy’s, Lappert’s), newly discovered favorites (Hamura Saimin Stand, Kauai Kookie), and a list of new places to try (Josselin’s, Merriman’s, Kauai Grill by Jean-Georges…), please let me know if you any advice on places we must try! Mahalo nui loa!