August 30, 2012

Iconic Old Bay Seasoning Turns 70, Doesn't Taste a Day over 35

I'm still recovering from all the Old Bay seasoning I ingested on my trip a while back to the Old Bay HQ of the world, Baltimore. I mean both through mouth and eyes, since not only does the city's seafood rarely leave the kitchen without a dusting (ranging from light sprinkling to thick carpet) of this snappy seasoning, the city was also awash with Old Bay iconography.

My first encounter was with the above giant can on view at Harbor Center, the  food and entertainment-plex that hugs the city's Inner Harbor. Fringed with a toupee of touristic plush Maryland crabs, the display got me thinking of one of my favorite foods in the world; softshell crabs.

Then came this exciting drive-by siting of a five-story tall Old Bay can on the front of an otherwise undistinguished-looking parking garage at the corner of President and Pratt Streets. I love how they dubbed the place "Old Bay Garage" as well as the welter of parking signage and arrows, all of it topped by one of those ubiquitous mini-mall peaked roofs and what is either an Old Bay shield or perhaps the state seal of Maryland (maybe one and the same?).

Though my heart was set on a feast of softshell crabs seasoned with Old Bay, I didn't find it at the lovely Black Olive restaurant in Fells Point, where delicious fish and lamb dishes and the most politely Old World server ruled. However, I did discover that this was an especially important time for Old Bay, and that I had stumbled into a massive celebration of the seasoning's 70th anniversary (or somewhere near there, it's a little unclear exactly when the company was born).

The "Summer of Baytriotism" was an official deal, which accounted for the extra OB voltage around town, including the 82-ton can of Old Bay on the parking garage. There was an Old Bay recipe competition, and another for the title of "Voice of Old Bay Radio," which went to the person who could mangle their vowels in the best Baltimore manner and sound the most old-timey while at it.

Ground Zero for the celebration seemed to be Miss Shirley's, where the celebration kicked off, and where plastic Old Bay bottles elbowed out taller competition for top billing in tabletop condiment racks.  

After gobbling down this softshell "BLT" Benedict, featuring cornmeal-crusted softshell, red and yellow tomatoes, smoked bacon on sourdough rounds and Old Bay remoulade, my quest was over.

Though I could recreate this dish as home, I somehow can't get myself to use the can of Old Bay my Maryland cousin gave me, even though I know Baltimoreans around the globe have it shipped to them in order to recreate the taste of home. For an outsider, it's just not the same unless you get your Old Bay at the source.

August 23, 2012

Ivan Ramen Pops Up at Momofuku Noodle Bar

Yesterday was a red letter Japanese noodle day for me. First, I had a perfect summer bowl of cold sansai (mountain vegetable) soba at Cocoron  on the Lower East Side, preceded by a plate of petite, silky pork and okara* croquettes on a bed of watercress with a tonkatsu-type dipping sauce.

Corocon, located on a gritty stretch of Delancey Street, is authentically Japanese in that it is un-airconditioned, cramped, with bar seating and a few tables. Servers are quick and attentive, spiriting over a spouted-lacquer pot filled with soba-yu to mix with the leftover savory broth at the bottom of your bowl for a warming cup of soup.

As if that weren't noodle enough for one day, things got even better that evening, when I stopped by Momofuku Noodle Bar on First Avenue, where the American ramen master Ivan Orkin had taken over the kitchen for one evening to accommodate the overflow of guests shut out of an earlier pop-up appearance. Orkin is a rarity in Japan, a ramen maker who has succeeded amid the teeming competition of the Tokyo noodle universe. His attention to detail has made him a success, even spawning an instant version of his ramen that's been a hit in Japanese convenience stores.

On the menu at Momofuku were Orkin's classic shio ramen made with rye noodles, super-fatty pork belly, boiled egg and fermented bamboo shoots, and some new boundary-stretching varieties that Orkin is planning to serve at his yet-to-open lower-Manhattan restaurant (he's still looking for a venue). He's created dashi that use no meat broth, exploring the vast selection of Japanese dried fish and shellfish. His ago dashi, for example, is made with dried flying fish, shrimp and scallop.

We liked Orkin's Spicy Chili Mazemen, scant on broth and incorporating chipotle chili, eggplant soffrito and scallions, in which the chili adds a backdrop of peppery heat, acting as a supporting player without overpowering the dish. The bits of bacon in the Triple Garlic Mazemen were addictive, though it's important to mix this dish well (think of it as the ramen version of the French salade composée, where each ingredient is prettily mounded atop the noodles) to evenly incorporate the salty powdered dried bonito and shiitake.

Checking out the pop-up were Japanese cookbook author Harris Salat and chef Ryuji Irie, who are getting ready to open their own restaurant, Ganso, in downtown Brooklyn soon. Commiserating with Salat over the layers of city bureaucracy that slow the process down, Orkin said, "In Tokyo, all you need is a stove and a space and you're in business." Hey, New York City Department of Buildings, take a cue from Tokyo and let these guys cook!

*I wrote about okara, the soy bean mash by-product of the tofu-making process in this post on my cooking lesson with Brushstroke chef Mitsuhiro Narita.

August 2, 2012

Francois Payard Can Dish it up Cold, Too

Who says muggy, ugly weather can't have it's silver lining? Yesterday it was these cute little ice cream sandwiches in the French manner from irrepressible patissier Francois Payard. They are to the soggy chocolate wafer-wrapped specimens of old what the short rib and foie gras burger is to the Big Mac: artisanal sorbets and glaces sandwiched between springy, candy-colored macaron shells. My favorite:the passion fruit (far right), which has a refreshing astringency, though the pistachio-raspberry version gets the silver.

Guests lapped these frozen bonbons up in the bright new outpost of  FBP bakery at Columbus Circle (1775 Broadway at 58th St.), along with champagne and FP's newest brain-freeze wave: haute soft serve ice cream, the vanilla enlivened by three different types of vanilla beans, and the chocolate made with Valrhona. For now, this treat is only available on the Upper West Side (there are also FBP locations in Soho and Battery Park City, and an FP chocolate bar in the Plaza Hotel Food Hall).

The best news, at least to this wary new arrival on the Upper East Side, is the October opening of FP Patisserie, a resurrection of sorts for his former flagship patisserie in ladies-who-lunch territory, on Lexington Avenue between 74th and 75th Streets. It will include Payard's full array of cakes, desserts and chocolates, a dine-in bar for everything from coffee and tea to beer and wine, plus a lunch and brunch menu. "Everyone is going big, but I'm going small," says the master baker, of the 40-seat venue, which has been a hit concept for him in Las Vegas. For once, we can be happy that what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas.