December 27, 2011

New Year's Feasting, Japanese Style

It was a full year ago when I reported this November-December 2011 Edible Manhattan article on osechi-ryori, the traditional Japanese New Year's foods that evoke memories of family, home and tradition for those who grew up in Japan or in an osechi-observant household.

Here's the gorgeous three-tiered box that chef Hideki Yasuoka of the Nippon Club in Manhattan prepared for the lucky members who pre-ordered boxes last year. The smaller ayu, or sweetfish, in the box at the fore are simmered for four hours in a soy and saké mixture until they will practically dissolve in your mouth, and each component contains symbolic meaning, usually pertaining to longevity, good fortune, fertility--all the things peoples' wish upon each other for the New Year.

Since I grew up eating these foods, I love them and wish I could eat them every New Year. Yet many Japanese have no real interest in these traditional foods. One year, I searched for the best osechi boxes in New York City to serve to two young relatives who were visiting from Japan. They turned up their noses at the boxes, and were much more interested in steaks and burgers.

My reporting took me to Katagiri, the Manhattan Japanese grocery store, where I talked to shoppers stocking up for their New Year's celebrations.


These New Year's decorations of plastic rice cakes and good luck Daruma dolls would be the equivalent of putting a fake Christmas tree up in your home. 

Thanks to the site Discover Nikkei, which re-posted my article here  and discussed it on Facebook, I've received some interesting feedback on the story. Nina Kahori Fallenbaum, food editor at Hyphen , introduced me to this amazing-looking place in San Francisco, Peko-Peko, which is offering this luxury osechi bento
I'm in Vancouver, B.C., now, where a quick search for osechi didn't turn up anything. If any of you know where I can find a good osechi box hereabouts, let me know!

December 19, 2011

Latke-palooza Returns to Brooklyn

Tonight, the humble latke became the crispy blank canvas upon which a over a dozen New York City chefs let their imaginations play. It was Great Performances and Edible Brooklyn's third annual latke festival, so massive and crushingly well-attended it took up two floors of the cavernous opera house at BAM.

The winner was chef Jason Weiner's (Almond) super-crispy latke with house-smoked bluefish and yogurt sauce. The traditional Hanukkah food was at home with the smoked fish, and the yogurt accompaniment provided the perfect light touch to offset the oil and saltiness of the pancake and fish.

Weiner's entry didn't play it safe like Veselka's very traditional (satisfyingly so) sour cream and applesauce entry, nor did it go to the opposite extreme like this contender from Mae Mae Cafe: rye latke with cabbage flan, corned beef, Swiss cheese fondue and a dill pickle. Judge Michael Arad, the architect and designer of the 9/11 Memorial, dismissed it as "a Reuben not a latke."  Another taster, though commented appreciatively, "It's so Jewish; it even comes with a dill pickle."

I took a shine to this picturesque gem from Julian Medina of Toloache, shredded potatoes fried very crispy and salty with a spicy jalapeno sauce. And also to this demure entry, People's Choice Award winner Bill Telepan's (Telepan) celery root and potato latke.

And finally, for dessert, Ron Ben-Israel (Ron Ben-Israel Cakes) served up a delicious potato and parsnip latke brulee with cranberry sauce. Eat your hearts out, latke lovers!

November 21, 2011

Feeding the Growing Numbers of NYC Hungry at Thanksgiving

Some West Villagers may know Earl, the gray-bearded African-American man who wears a baseball cap and can often be spotted sitting in his wheelchair on Eighth Avenue in front of Jane Street garden’s chain-link fence. He’s the guy who shakes his large Styrofoam cup filled with coins (and the occasional one- or five-dollar bill) as he hums softly.

Earl used to be a toll booth worker at the Lincoln Tunnel. He’s also diabetic. Although he lives in New Jersey, he’s adopted this particular spot on Eighth Avenue as his own. He’s been pulling double shifts lately, he told me, for two reasons. One, he wants to get out while it’s still warm enough to do so, and, two, he’s trying to collect enough money to buy a Thanksgiving turkey. His biggest donation of all time, he says, came when another black man, a neighborhood resident he’s friendly with, came by one day and dropped a fifty-dollar bill in his cup.

At The Church of the Village
Photo by Martine Mallary
There are about 1.5 million New Yorkers who, like Earl, struggle to put food on the table, according to the food rescue agency City Harvest. That’s up by half a million since 2009, when I wrote this article about one New York City chef who is a regular donor to City Harvest. According to a post today on DNAinfo, the heavy increase in demand for emergency food assistance  (City Harvest puts the growth at 25 percent since 2008) coupled with budget cutbacks has led to the closing of some food pantries and rescue agencies. Others have been unable to feed all the hungry who come to them.

Daisy's Emergency Pantry goods
Photo by Martine Mallary

Here in the West Village, the Church of the Village on Seventh Avenue and West 13th Street just finished a $2 million renovation and the addition of a commercial-grade kitchen to better serve its clients. During the renovation, says Pastor Sara Giron-Ortiz, the church launched Daisy’s Food Pantry, which hands out bags of groceries to the needy every Tuesday from 1 to 3 p.m.  through its Hope for our Neighbors in Need program. Last week, says the pastor, the pantry served over 170 individuals and families.

The need is great, the resources shrinking.
Photo by Martine Mallery
The Church of the Village will sponsor a Thanksgiving community meal Saturday, November 27th in the Baruch House public housing development at 12 Avenue D. Those wishing to volunteer or donate a turkey or ham may contact Pastor Giron-Ortiz at The church’s Web site also accepts Paypal donations.

The church, led by Bishop Alfred Johnson, is the result of a 2005 merger of three United Methodist churches in the Village, Washington Square, Metropolitan-Duane, and Church of All Nations, and is housed in the former Metropolitan-Duane United Methodist Church.

If you’d like to volunteer in your neighborhood to help feed the hungry, take a look at The New York City Coalition Again Hunger’s Volunteer Matching Center. Another source of information is Time Out New York, which offers this guide to all kinds of Thanksgiving volunteering. Not enough time? Besides City Harvest, here are a few more organizations that provide dinners for the needy: Food Bank for New York City, Greenwich Village’s St. Joseph’s Soup Kitchen, and Chelsea’s Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen.

November 18, 2011

Scenes from Occupy Wall Street

Just a week ago, this was the scene at Occupy Wall Street in Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park.. A block away, the financial world went about its business as usual. The park itself was a sleepy collection of tents and people milling about or chatting with each other. The encampment had the feel of an alternative adult sleep-away camp, with posters for the day's meeting agenda ("This week's Occupy: Edmonton"), a makeshift kitchen, composting area, and various interest groups. There were ninety-nine percenters, student loan agitators and anti-war advocates, all peacefully co-existing in this United Nations of protest groups. There was an unmanned booth for empathy and meditation training at one end of the square. On the other, a Lego artist had created the scene in miniature in "Occupy Lego Land." 

Yesterday, on my way to the 9/11 Memorial entrance on Thames Street, I walked by after police and security forces cleared out the park. Television trucks with giant sattelite antennae lined Liberty Street but, there was nothing to film except for a folk singer and a few die-hard protestors.

Here are a few scenes of  Zuccotti Park shortly before the tent city was taken down.

October 21, 2011

Dolce Vizio Brings Customizable Tiramisu to the West Village

A few months ago, the former Christopher Street Deli site on the corner of Christopher and Hudson Streets took on a brand new identity when a sleek, red-trimmed storefront opened. Dolce Vizio Tiramisù specializes in one thing: tiramisu, the Italian dessert of mascarpone custard, espresso-soaked ladyfingers and cocoa powder.

The two entrepreneurs behind Dolce Vizio are Alessandro  Radici, 27, and Nadia Tade, 25, natives of Bergamo, Italy who met as business students and fellow competitive skiers at Bocconi University in Milan. The concept of an all-tiramisu shop came to the couple after a visit to the Roman café, Pompi, known for its classic tiramisu and variations on the dish.

For their venture, Radici and Tade teamed up with Michelin-starred chef Fabrizio Ferrari, who cooks at a Bergamo restaurant owned by Radici’s family.  Ferrari develops different-flavored tiramisu recipes for the shop based on suggestions from Tade and Radici, and between occasional onsite visits and frequent Skype sessions, says Tade, “he is mentoring us” from afar. The shop’s name combines the words for “vice,” and “sweet,” explains Tade, because Dolce Vizio trades in “something you don’t really need in your life but is a nice indulgence that makes your life happier and sweeter.” She notes that the neighborhood has extended a warm welcome to her and Radici, overjoyed that it is neither another Marc Jacobs boutique nor a chain store.

When Radici was accepted at Columbia University’s business school, Tade quit her job as a financial risk consultant for Deloitte Milan so the duo could move to New York together and settle in Columbia graduate student housing. They worked with the city’s New Business Acceleration Team, which helped expedite their way through Gotham's bureaucratic thicket. Radici loves the fact that New York is a “global city” filled with so many foreigners that he doesn’t feel like one himself, and that the U.S. “is a much more business friendly place” than his homeland.  At Columbia's business school, which is less theoretical and more practical than comparable schools in Italy, Radici adds that he can study entrepreneurship while he practices it in the West Village.

The store offers $7 ready-to-eat single portions of tiramisu in six flavors, including the most popular varieties of classic, orange-espresso, and nutella. $5 or $8 single-serving-size cups feature lady fingers soaked in either chocolate, citrus or coffee sauces, with a choice of two toppings. Think of it as the more sophisticated, Italian, take on the ubiquitous frozen yogurt shop.  There is also a cake-size option that will feed 9 to 12 people for $39. A variety of coffees and teas and a simple dining area round out the take-out or eat-in experience.

“We still don’t have any expansion plans yet,” says Radici.“We are fine turning this store; we want to make it perfect.”

Dolce Vizio Tiramisù,
131 Christopher Street (Hudson Street)
Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Saturday, 10 a.m. to 12 a.m.
Sunday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
(646) 669-7432    

September 9, 2011

Tasting Table Expands Its Reach

Last night afforded me a glimpse into one configuration of the new food media landscape. The event was the cocktail party launch of Tasting Table's new test kitchen and dining room, a sleek brick-walled, fabulously outfitted loft space on the second floor of a non-descript Broome Street building

Guaranteed to evoke kitchen envy in all New Yorkers, the Eric Cheong and Loren Daye-designed space signals the eating and drinking e-mail list's entry into the big time. Plans include major content generation, master classes, recipe development, partnerships with large-name business (Williams-Sonoma, MasterCard and Jenn-Air, which supplied the appliances for the new space), and the beefing up of big city bureaus. They're moves that make MTV founder Bob Pittman's investment in the site look as canny as his Daily Candy buy and sell.

The site is no Yelp or (the recently purchased) Zagat, explains Kai Mathey TT's director of communications, because it relies on the judgement of seasoned critics. It's no Urban Daddy, because its not about being first to broadcast the latest arrivals on the scene. In fact, in content and scope, it sounds a lot like the old fashioned magazine. The difference, of course, it that the old three to six months' lead times are gone, and as with online news, the cycle is 24-hour and non-stop.

TT has brought on as its executive chef Brendan McHale, formerly of Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar and Barbara Lynch's The Butcher Shop in Boston, who is excited about a series of "artisan access" dinner he's designing that include cheesemonger Anne Saxelby and the purveyors of heirloom grains Anson Mills.

The pace of TT's growth and the scope of its plans are dizzying, although the source of my vertigo could have been the influence of  mixologist Franky Marshall's (The Clover Club) dreamy Royal Sparkler (a pretty concoction of St. Germain vodka, champagne, simple syrup, lime, English cucumber and raspberry), and McHale's addictive pork belly croquettes.

These are big plans backed by big money, but I hope there is still room for the quality independents in the field, such as the meticulously curated Cravings, where yours truly is a contributor.

August 28, 2011

Chef Kevin Adey's Carrot-Top Pesto

Chef Kevin Adey's carrot salad dressed with carrot-top pesto

Not too long ago, I wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal on resourceful New York-area chefs who practice “top-to-tail” vegetable cooking. They love their farmer’s market produce, in other words, and don’t want to waste a scrap of it.

My inspiration for the article was chef Kevin Adey of the Bushwick restaurant Northeast Kingdom. Farmer Ben Flanner of Brooklyn Grange, the rooftop organic farm in Long Island City, Queens, tipped me off to Adey’s carrot top pesto, an ingenious way to use every part of Brooklyn Grange’s lovely specimens. So I hopped on the L train and took the trip to Bushwick, where Adey gave me a demo of his dish.

The chef had just received a sack full of carrots from Brooklyn Grange in the wee hours of that morning, so they were super fresh. Because the rooftop placement of Brooklyn Grange means a fairly shallow soil bed, its carrots, while packed with flavor, are petite, each no more than five inches or so in length. 

Pesto building blocks
 The first thing I noticed was how much salt Adey tossed into the stockpot full of boil water for blanching the carrots. Aggressive salting is one of the traits that separates the home from the restaurant cook, Adey acknowledged as he tossed in carrots that ranged in color from golden to orange to persimmon colored into the pot. “You don’t want to cook them, just to set the flavor,” he explained.

Adey and his raw ingredients
 Next, he blanched the carrot tops in the same pot, then shocked them in cold water to set their bright green color and squeezed the water out. (Freshness is key in using carrot tops; other chefs told me they don’t use them because they tend to turn bitter fairly quickly.) Adey loves using cashews instead of pine nuts or walnuts in his pesto, he said, for their great flavor and mouth feel.

 Adey then piled all the ingredients in his Robot Coupe and whizzed them. He uses basil as a foil to the slightly more bitter carrot tops, and notes that a pesto “has to have chunk.” That means don’t overdo the olive oil, so that instead of coating pasta or vegetables like gluey paste, your pesto will coat them, jewel like. 

Note chunkiness of pesto!

Finally, it was just a matter of quickly plating the gorgeous carrots and some greens, also from Brooklyn Grange, and drizzling them with the thinned-out pesto. The result was an explosion of flavor and crispiness, with the fieriness of the garlic and the unctuousness of the olive oil offset by the sweet and bitter accents of the basil and carrot tops and the umami of the grated Parmesan.

Carrot Top Pesto

2 ounces roasted cashews
1-1/2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
1 ounce garlic cloves
2-1/2 ounces extra-virgin olive oil
3 ounces clean carrot tops (blanched and shocked)
3 ounces basil leaves
fresh black pepper

In bowl of a food processor, place the cashews, garlic, carrot tops, and basil. Start to process, and drizzle in oil, continuing to process until desired texture is reached. Stir in Parmesan, and season generously with pepper and salt to taste.

To use as a dressing for a blanched green market carrot salad, thin pesto with olive oil and drizzle over salad. Or use to dress cooked pasta.

Yield: 1 pint, enough for 8 people 

August 17, 2011

Hudson Street's Sanpanino: Superior Sandwiches, Friend to Local Students

Part of the charm of walking into Hudson’s Street’s Sanpanino, besides the stand-out grilled panino sandwiches, is its neighborhood vibe. Seating is minimal, and on “meatball Wednesdays,” the line-up for San Marzano tomato sauce-covered meatball sandwiches can stretch out onto the street.  It is in early September, though, when the real local action begins. That’s when school opens at P.S. 3 directly next door to the shop,at St. Luke’s School across the street, and at Village Community School around the corner on West 10th Street.


Sanpanino owner Leonardo Scarpone 
Starting around 7:45 a.m. hungry students and their parents begin filing in to buy a bagel, croissant, or a sandwich for lunch. (Invariably, the greatest rush comes during the few minutes before the bell rings to signal the start of class.) When school lets out for the day, another crowd of kids converges on Sanpanino. “Yeah, you get to know them,” says owner Leonardo Scarpone. The kids can be funny. “They’ll come in and ask for forty-five cents back. I’ll say, ‘I know that’s your change, but what did you order?’” They’ll ask to use the shop’s phone to call their mom, or they'll use Sanpanino as a rendezvous point with parents. On occasion, adds Scarpone, “a parent will call me up because they forgot to pack a lunch.” Scarpone doesn’t mind making a sandwich for the lunch-less child and delivering it to the school security guard. “We’re almost like the annex to P.S. 3,” he says.

One of the shop's strengths is its kid-friendly menu. Half-sandwiches at student prices are available, or soup and sandwich combinations and small bottles of juice.  Another attraction, though, is Scarpone, 38, himself, who welcomes kids and knows a thing or two about them; he taught middle school social studies in West Brighton, Staten Island for three years before succumbing to the entrepreneurial itch. That part of his genetic make-up came from his Puglia-born parents. Scarpone’s father owned a salumeria on 20th Avenue in Brooklyn and his mother launched a bridal shop on Staten Island.  Mom was also a great home cook. Scarpone grew up on her food, and on the products of two other Brooklyn salumerias where his father worked, A&S Pork Store and Bari Pork Store. “They made the best sandwiches,” he recalls. The concept for Sanpanino is rooted in those childhood memories.

When he founded Sanpanino, in 2000, says Scarpone, “there weren’t so many upscale sandwich shops in the city—there was a big void.” He developed a plan for a type of hybrid sandwich that combined Italian and Italian American traditions, but “leaned more toward the Italian.” That meant not “the packed sandwich of six mixed meats,” but one or two meats, fresh mozzarella, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. He stuck the prefix “san” onto the Italian word for “sandwich,” “panino,” reasoning that it “sort of sounded like the patron saint of sandwiches.” Then he brought his dad, Antonio, in to teach him how to make mozzarella, which is still made on the premises.

The most popular of the 14 specialty focaccia sandwiches on the menu at Sanpanino are the prosciutto di Parma with fresh mozzarella, plum tomatoes, and basil; the grilled eggplant, mozzarella, basil and olive tapenade; and the Sanclassico, which involves sopressata, mortadella, mozzarella, roasted peppers and basil, says Scarpone. He tries to stay high-quality and local when sourcing his ingredients. His prosciutto is imported from Italy, and his beef and poultry come from Ottomanelli & Sons meat market on Bleecker Street. The focaccia and almond cake come from Royal Crown bakery in Bensonhurst.

All of this fare is several giant cuts above a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, and Scarpone admits that his kid customers are living large compared to previous generations, or even present generations not lucky enough to live in New York City. “I don’t think I knew what olive tapenade was when I was eight,” he says.

494 Hudson St. (between Christopher and Grove Sts.)
New York, NY
(212) 645-7228

August 9, 2011

A new musical set in Heart Mountain, an indy film featuring Manzanar

Last week, I attended a workshop production of a musical called Allegiance, which tells the tale of the unconstitutional imprisonment of 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese descent during World War II. The show is being developed by the Old Globe in San Diego, with music and lyrics by composer/producer Jay Kuo and book by Kuo and Lorenzo Thione.

 Having looked at popular depictions of this sad chapter of American history in the decades since World War II, I was interested to see how the musical, directed by Stafford Arima, would tell this story through the medium of musical theater.

The play follows the Omura family as they are abruptly uprooted from their lives as shopkeepers and students in Salinas, Ca. and sent to Heart Mountain, Wyo. Father Tatsuo (Paul Nakauchi) is a defiant Issei (like all Japanese immigrants at the time, barred from becoming a U.S. citizen) who refuses to sign the infamous “loyalty oath” swearing allegiance to and willingness to fight for the U.S. and forswearing allegiance to the Emperor and Japan. As American-born citizens, his sons James (Jose Llana) and Sam (Telly Leung) express the sentiments of the majority of Nisei at the time—the wish to prove their loyalty to America at any cost. James volunteers to fight in the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat team, and Sam throws himself into the camp newspaper, The Heart Mountain Sentinel to write pro-America articles.

The production stars George Takei as old Sam (the story is structured as one long flashback, with a young and an old Sam). Lea Salonga is young Sam’s Japanese teacher and the fiancée of James.  In Heart Mountain, father and sons are on opposite sides of the tense political divide that separated loyalist Nisei, led by the accommodationist Japanese American Citizen’s League, and the vocal and defiant “No-No Boys,” who refused to sign the loyalty oath and protested their unjust imprisonment.

Opinion about this play will likely be divided among the Japanese American community that watches it, too. First, there is the squeamish uncertainty: is this going to be a Springtime for Hitler-like attempt at concentration camp musical theater? Turning deeply resonant Issei sayings (shikata-ga-nai/”it can’t be helped,” gaman/“persevere, do your best”) into the lyrics for a Broadway-style song-and-dance musical at first struck me as bizarre, and slightly cringe inducing. The songs, though, turned out to be moving tributes to the stoicism and unquenchable spirit of the prisoners.

Then there is the matter of historical accuracy. One friend, well-versed in Heart Mountain history, objected to the way the “No-No Boys” are treated as a mere plot device to gin up some drama, and their views not fully explained and honored. On the opposite end of the spectrum, viewers at earlier workshops apparently complained that toadying JACL head Mike Masaoka, as played by Paolo Montalban, was too much of a buffoon.

Yet there is a long history of musicals using the raw material of history as fodder for popular entertainment; think Evita, Porgy and Bess (which started as an opera), Les Miserables, and 1776, for example. The first two, especially, were criticized for factual inaccuracies, yet their mass appeal brought small pieces of history—however fudged, cheesed up, glamorized and overwrought the final product—to a mass viewership that most documentary filmmakers and historians can only dream of.

The musical’s outlook on the legality and morality of the mass roundup is in line with today’s views of the evacuation and concentration camps as a gross breach of civil rights and a stain on America’s reputation: JACL leader Mike Masaoka is portrayed as a spineless puppet, the “lapdog of the WRA” (War Relocation Authority, the government body created to oversee the mass incarceration), who suggests that suicide squads of Japanese American soldiers be sent into battle to prove how loyal the Japanese are to America. The camp director installs young Sam as a government mouthpiece at the Sentinel, using him as “bait” to get to the dissident inmates. (In fact, as my friend points out, there was no hiding of the No-No boys; they expressed their views and suffered the consequences of being sent to the even harsher Tule Lake concentration camp.)

This approach is a far cry from Ansel Adams’s 1943 collection of writings and photographs of Manzanar, Born Free and Equal. In it, Adams took pains to both praise the industry and neatness of the prisoners but called the concentration camps “only a rocky wartime detour on the road of American citizenship…a symbol of the whole pattern of relocation—a vast expression of a government working to find suitable haven for its war-dislocated minorities.”

I overheard two people sitting behind me talking about the evacuation and incarceration as a “sad chapter” in American history and “one we don’t hear about.” I hope that Allegiance will get more people talking about it, and send them to the history books to find out the full story of what happened. 


The indy film Littlerock, directed by CalArts graduate Mike Ott, has been pulling in favorable reviews on the festival circuit. I went to see a local screening because it stars two young Japanese actors, Atsuko Okatsuka and Rintaro Sawamoto as a brother and sister (also named Atsuko and Rintaro in the film) stranded in a dusty dead-end California town. Even more interesting to me, it features a trip to Manzanar.

Ott slaps two very Japanese characters down in the middle of Littlerock, a podunk Antelope Valley town where the young people pass the time drinking, partying, fantasizing about getting out, and trying to scrape by. They are befriended by a hapless dreamer, Cory, who pulls them into his circle. While Rintaro soon tires of the scene, Atsuko, getting in touch with her inner slacker and relishing the sheer otherness of this aimless existence, opts to stay behind and explore a budding romance.

Manzanar as their destination, along with San Francisco, is alluded to, but we don’t really know why these otherwise typical Japanese siblings want to visit the site of the former World War II Japanese concentration camp. Although Rintaro’s Japanese is serviceable, Atsuko, from the beginning to the end of the film, doesn’t utter a word of English. Her face is a blank slate; one of the few clues to her inner life comes from her voiced-over letters to her father. We learn that he and her brother are estranged, and that she lies to her father and tells him she is in San Francisco when she’s actually learning to make burritos at Cory’s father’s Mexicatessen.
Themes of racism, cultural difference and language barriers gain new resonance and the tone of the film abruptly shifts when Rintaro and Atsuko arrive at Manzanar, now a National Parks Service site, and tour the interpretive center. There are clips of FDR’s speech after Pearl Harbor, images of racist signs, and the “soul-consoling tower” ireito, or obelisk that marks the prison camp cemetery. It’s an abrupt and jarring shift to documentary mode, and we at last find out that there is a personal connection between the siblings and the camp. Atsuko muses to her father in a letter what her life might have been like had the war and the concentration camps not happened, and had she been born in America. But the final scene, a frustrating farewell phone call between Atsuko and Corey, who still can’t understand a word each other says, hints that the racial and communication divides that caused such trauma continue today.

August 1, 2011

Kenny Scharf's Drive-thru Art Installation, Pasadena

Every time I return to Los Angeles, it seems like traffic has gotten worse. But I like the way this parking garage-as-art-installation at the Pasadena Museum of California Art  takes a big Southern California demerit and turns it into something fun. Painted by L.A.-born artist Kenny Scharf, the Kosmic Krylon Garage was part of a big 2004 Scharf exhibition at the museum and remains as a permanent installation. Almost makes owning and parking a car, at least in this garage, fun.

July 16, 2011

Reno, Nevada: Casinos, Meet Farm-toTable

Despite dire predictions of bad eating in Reno, a recent trip there turned up some interesting watering holes. Turns out there’s a burgeoning food culture centered on local ranches, farms and some small, family-run dairies that are struggling to gain a foothold. One of those, Laca’s Vacas Dairy, is owned in part by a descendant of a Basque shepherding family. Many Basques still live in the area, and their culture and customs have left a mark on the region’s culinary landscape.

Beautiful fava bean crostini at 4th St. Bistro
The area even has its own member of the edible Community of magazines, edible Reno-Tahoe! When I discovered the magazine online, its “Eat Local Guide” (nine pages covering the region between Carson City and Fallon) became my dining search engine. After a great dinner at a place called The 4th Street Bistro, I saw a wooden crate in the foyer that I was sure was supposed to hold edible Reno-Tahoe. It was empty. Just then, a woman entered the restaurant carrying a thick stack of magazines. As if I had wished her into existence was Jaci Goodman, publisher and advertising director of edible Reno-Tahoe, carrying the new summer issue of the magazine.

Jaci took us out to the back terrace of the restaurant, where she had been having dinner with the magazine's publisher, Amanda Burden. Since I’m a contributor to edible editions in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley, I was excited to meet the minds behind Reno’s version. Jaci and Amanda introduced us to 4th Street Bistro Chef Natalie Sellers, who’s put in time at some top San Francisco kitchens. All had gravitated to Reno for its smaller size, friendliness, and the chance to make a mark on a community that’s opening up to the idea of local and sustainable agriculture.

The next night we had been planning on eating at Louis’ Basque Corner, one of the few restaurants I could find that was open in Reno on the Sunday of Fourth of July weekend. Jaci set us up with a table, and  owner  Brian Elcano was on hand to greet us. After he and co-owner Chris Shanks took over in March, they replaced the old vinyl floor with hardwood, and added all new kitchen equipment. The new equipment alone, Jaci had told us, resulted in a leap in quality at the 44-year-old restaurant. Like many Basque restaurants, Louis’ occupies the bottom floor of what used to be a boarding house for shepherds. Meals are still served family style, and are hearty, multi-course affairs.

Loved the braised oxtails at Louis'
Also the crispy sweetbreads
So if anyone tells you Reno is just a faded pioneer town full of casinos, washed up gamblers and anomie, you can raise a skeptical eyebrow. “Scratch the surface here, and there’s a lot going on,” Jaci told me. “People here are friendly; we look out for each other.”  

July 7, 2011

Chef Bill Telepan and Friends Cook for Tohoku

Telepan, center, and event volunteers.
Photos courtesy of  Bill Telepan

I happened to speak with Chef Bill Telepan yesterday, who was full of news about his recent trip to Japan. He was one of eight New York chefs who traveled to Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, one of the areas most devastated by the March 11 Greater Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The team's mission was to cook a heartwarming Fourth of July weekend lunch for an estimated 1,000 people in this city.

“It was an amazing event, and it went perfectly,” said the chef, whose eponymous Upper West Side restaurant is known for its artful presentation of seasonal and local ingredients. “The day before, we were told that only 400 people might show up, and we felt really bad for the people who had organized the event,” he said. In fact, the visiting chef delegation, which cooked their version of Japanese and Western comfort foods, ended up serving between 2,000 and 2,500 guests.

The plan for the dinner was first hatched in May, when two businessmen, one from XCoal Energy & Resources and one from Nippon Steel, were dining at restaurant Daniel. XCoal, explains Telepan, provides coal to Nippon Steel, which has longstanding ties in Kamaishi. When chef Daniel Boulud stopped by to chat, the men discussed the trials residents of the quake- and tsunami-wasted area were still facing and decided that this goodwill gesture would not only lift the spirits of a community that has suffered much, but also show off the safety and quality of Japanese ingredients.

The all-star chef team
Boulud rounded up his all-star team of chefs, which, besides himself and Telepan, included David Bouley, Floyd Cardoz, Craig Koketsu, Tadashi Ono, François Payard, and Michael Romano. Telepan recalled one woman at the event who came up to him and told him that she had not been able to afford a cake for her daughter’s birthday; this lunch was their celebratory meal. Another guest told Telepan that the event provided the first reason for her to put on make-up since the disaster. About 20 percent of community residents are still homeless, the group, which also toured the area to witness the damage first-hand, learned.

The chefs sourced their ingredients with the help of chef Patrice Martineau, a Boulud alumnus who now cooks at the Peter restaurant at Tokyo’s Peninsula Hotel. “I made miso stir-fried vegetables and a miso- and kasu (lees that result from the production of sake)-marinated hamachi and tuna that we seared,” reported Telepan. “It was fun, because I haven’t cooked Japanese food since I was at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America).” Telepan, who graduated from the CIA in 1987, figured out the recipe beforehand, tested it in New York, and also consulted with another chef on the trip, restaurant Matsuri’s Ono.

Patiently waiting in line.
“The truth was, we weren't going to serve a high-end dish, we wanted comfort food with a twist,” Telepan explained. Pastry chef Payard brought 3,000 macarons with him (a favorite of Japanese diners), sourced some “incredible peaches,” for a peach tart, and baked an equally awe-inducing chocolate roulade made with tofu. Another dish that Telepan liked was one made by Chef Craig Koketsu of The Hurricane Club, a fresh summer salad of tomatoes cucumbers and corn. Except for the macarons, the food was all from Japan, Telepan added; “Part of the deal is that we were there to let people know that Japanese ingredients are still good.” For local residents, still reeling from the loss of family, friends and property, the meal must have been a soothing balm to their psychic wounds.

The t-shirt to prove it really happened.
Telepan was amazed by the Japanese guests’ famously rule-abiding natures. The community facility where the event was held was the size of a football field, he says, “where I was about midfield, and the line went around the track. It stayed that way for about half an hour, and at one point people thought there was not going to be enough food. So they told everyone they were only allowed one dish. It was insane,” (here he let out a bemused laugh) “because they listened, and nobody complained. I had a lot [of food] so I kept telling them, it’s okay, you can have whatever you want from me. But they were reluctant.”