Saturday, February 28, 2009

New York Snobs Meet Michel Richard

Henry Ford called New York a different country. “Maybe it ought to have a separate government,” he said. “Everybody thinks differently, acts differently – they just don’t know what the hell the rest of the United States is.”

I don’t disagree. I just didn’t think that the observation applied to my parents. They only moved to the City from Nashville two months ago.

But the silence said it all. My parents were visiting me in D.C. I’d taken them to Central, and soon after sitting down, I had asked them to name the two best chefs in D.C. My dad went into a vegetative state. “I’ll give you a hint,” I said. “One of them owns this restaurant.” My mom looked down at the bread basket, maybe hoping that the grains would miraculously form a D.C. chef’s face like the Jesus Pan that puts the face of the Anointed One on your pancake.

Yes, my parents can rattle off the names of all the important chefs of New York, but I could have told them that Michel Richard, owner of Central, was the doorman of the French Embassy. As for the second great D.C. chef, I spotted them the “Jose,” and they still couldn’t come up with Andres.

I thought that an evening at Central, winner of the 2008 James Beard Award for best new restaurant, might show them that good food does exist south of the Battery – strong medicine for anyone suffering from a touch of New York chauvinism.

They were impressed by the variety of the menu at Central, but they ordered their appetizers conservatively, starting with the house salad. Could a restaurant outside of the City really be trusted with anything else? Expressing a little more confidence in Michel, I got the foie gras and duck rillettes. The former was a “faux” foie gras – the real thing is made with duck, but executive chef Cedric Maupillier purees chicken liver with butter to make it smoother and richer. There was so much of it that I wondered if I was the one being gavaged.

I found that the rillettes had a rustic texture – larger pieces of duck than the soft, smooth version that the French lovingly refer to as brown jam. In the Anjou region of France, rillettes are proudly displayed to the guest of honor, but when the waiter explained to my guests that the wax-like mystery topping was actually lard, they quickly passed.

But my dad did approve of the foie gras, which led him to be a little more adventurous with his entrée: braised rabbit with herbed spaetzle. The Washington Post called this dish – which features rabbit loin, leg, and sliced coins of kidney – a “stellar combination,” and my parents both agreed. My mom’s only experience with rabbit was as a kid when her summer camp used to serve something called Welsh rabbit. All the campers called it “shit on bricks.” Since then, she had avoided rabbit, but now she was learning to love our furry little friend – in a restaurant outside of New York, of all places.

My entrée was the pied de cochon. Leave it to the French to figure out a fancy way to say pig’s feet. But unlike the trotters you get with Southern soul food, the meat was pulled off the bone and braised, then mixed with mushrooms and deep-fried in a puff pastry that resembled an egg roll. The braising process had softened the muscular hoofs just enough. And the meat had a pleasing mineral taste at the finish that suggested grassfed pork.

My parents were revolted by the idea of trying feet, but I took that more as a criticism of my habit of ordering strange entrees than the restaurant.

My mom thought her shrimp burger lacked flavor, but really, what do you expect when you order a shrimp burger? And overall, Central had clearly impressed this duo of New York foodies. I’m not a doctor, but I took their fever and examined them with tongue depressors - they seemed perfectly healthy, no symptoms of New York snobbery.

But my hopes that I had cured them were dashed on the subway ride back. They complained that the metro map didn’t make sense; the people in the cars were working too hard and overly serious; and, when my dad’s card didn’t work, he tried to hurdle the turnstile. He had suavely achieved this maneuver on the way to the restaurant, but this time, with the braised rabbit weighing him down, he tripped on the wheel. The transit worker looked up from her US Weekly and glared. She was too lazy to actually say anything, but I know what she was thinking: Must be a New Yorker.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Keeping up with the Steins: How to Throw a Jewish Food Party

Have you heard the one about the Nigerian, the WASP, the Indian girls, the southerner, and the Chinese guy who walked into the Jewish deli?

To figure out the punch line, I decided to host a diverse set of friends for a Jewish food party. But this wasn't just a bad joke. And it wasn't just a great excuse for me to devour salty gefilte fish, the fresh vegetables and lemon juice dressing of an Israeli salad, and other Jewish treats. The party was also a chance to reaffirm my Jewish heritage and atone for over four years of avoiding temple. What better way of keeping up with the Steins and getting back in the good graces of Yahweh than to introduce a bunch of non-believers to matzah ball soup?

In planning the party, I started with the basics: I asked for help from another Jew who hasn't been to temple for an even longer time than me. In the Jewish hierarchy of needs, being able to share your guilt with someone else comes right after securing food and shelter. Enter my girlfriend, Marcy.

The menu came together easily enough – we picked the tastiest dishes from our favorite Jewish holidays. Among other recipes, an apple noodle kugel sprinkled with raisins and cinnamon; fried, oily pancakes, or latkes, made of sweet potato and egg, and topped with apple sauce; and poached fish patties called gefilte fish, made from a mixture of ground deboned white fish and carp.

And, of course, we also chose a few of the delicacies that no Jew can survive more than a few days without, holy day or not: lox and bagels, challah, and sour pickles – mainly thought of as New York icons, but Jewish in origin, as well.

Setting the ambiance was more challenging. It being the month after Hanukkah, the World Market and Party City were sold out of Jewish-themed decorations. I even gave Elli Chai's One-Stop Judaica Shop a try, but I forgot they would be closed on Friday evenings (did I mention I'm a bad Jew?). I felt like I needed a private investigator just to track down some Jewish paraphernalia, but Marcy reminded me that Peter Falk of Detective Columbo was probably busy observing the sabbath. We regrouped and located dreidels and gelt in Pikesville.

As we finished cooking the food, the guests started to arrive and their inquisitive nature took over almost immediately. First came the easy questions, like, "Why do you guys celebrate Hanukkah again?" but then they graduated to some real stumpers. For example, my Chinese friend, Dan, said he knew someone who celebrated Rosh Hashana by eating the head of a fish, and wanted to know why. We had prepared for just this moment. I smoothly reached for Marcy's copy of The Jewish Book of Why and quoted the Code of Jewish Law, which says: "May the coming year help us to achieve leadership; may we be the head and not the tail." Safe to say, we had thought of everything.

Secure that our friends didn't think we were completely ignorant about Judaism, we focused on the food. As it turned out, our diners hadn't been exposed before to many of our Jewciest dishes, and it was pretty entertaining to watch them take their first tastes:

1. Our bubbes would have been proud of us for our sweet potato latkes. Oily and just crispy enough, and studded with salty scallions, their excellence was unanimous. My friend Keith said he'd choose potato casserole over potato latkas any day, but he's from South Carolina, so I discounted his grits-centric view of the world. And for anyone who agrees with Keith that country cooking beats Jewish soul food, last time I checked we don't eat fried pig intestines.

2. Regardless of the continent they or their families originally came from, our guests loved Manischewitz. Historically, the Jews had to sweeten this Kosher wine just to make it palatable because of the limited grape selection in the areas where they settled. The nectar struck a chord with our group; over the course of the night, we guzzled two 48-ounce bottles. The biggest fan was my friend from Nigeria, who was so drunk that he openly admitted that he couldn't think of any alcoholic drink from his home country that was as good.

3. When we said we were making gefilte fish, my friend Rupa's eyes grew wide with fear, as if we had proposed to beat her about the head with the Torah. She grew up in an Indian household, so her only exposure to gefilte was working in a law firm where one of her many Jewish co-workers used the office refrigerator to store a jar of pale gefilte balls, suspended in a slimy broth for months on-end. Traumatized, she thought we were about to serve her something out of an anatomy display at the Natural Museum of History, or maybe Christian Bale's freezer in American Psycho. But, like the stereotype of the Jewish mother relentlessly shoving food in front of her child's face, we insisted she try it - "Have you lost weight? Eat something, bubelleh!" And when she saw other people enjoying the fish, sitting so appetizingly in a bed of lettuce, horseradish sauce and a slice of tomato, she threw off the shackles of her post-traumatic gefilte fish disorder. Soon she was raving about how good it was. That success was short-lived, though. Maybe the Manischewitz had impaired our friends' short-term memories, but we had to explain what gefilte was at least three times. When we thought that we had thoroughly explained the concept of mixing together two or three different types of fish, Dan asked, "So it's like spam?" Not the kind of reaction that earns you an honorary membership in the Tribe.

4. They were also a little confused by kugel. A sweet dessert made with noodles and topped with cornflakes? How much Manischewitz did the Jews have to drink before they came up with this crazy idea? It was so unique that they couldn't think of any analogy to kugel from their own ethnic cuisines – which was a point of pride for the two Ashkenazis in the room. Overall, the kugel got good marks, but not before my caucasian friend Lolly said that Jewish food has way too many carbs.

But when the dust cleared and the dreidels stopped spinning, we'd won a lot of converts. Our sauced guests snatched up the last mini-bagels with lox, and, despite the comment about spam, I celebrated our interfaith friendship by officially welcoming them to the Tribe. Maybe next weekend I'll take them all to temple.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Prediction for the Top Chef Finale

Nostradamus predicted the Kennedy assassinations. Daniel predicted the birth of Jesus. Ali predicted victory in Manila.

And now, I will predict the winner of next week’s Top Chef. In honor of Ali, I will do so in rhyme: When all the other chefs are gone/You’ll be left with a cocky European named Stefan.

The wind whispered this piece of information in my ear, I looked out the window at work yesterday and the clouds spelled Stefan’s name, and last night I had a dream where Stefan was a powerful cyborg sent from the future to protect John Connor.

Still not convinced? I also have a theory that there is a pattern that can be used to predict which chefs will carry the fillet. Every other week, the outcome of the show is a big surprise. The producers don’t want one of the best chefs to fall every single week because then the show would become too predictable. They only shock us with an underdog every other week. That’s how they try to keep us guessing.

The evidence:

- January 21 – After weeks of making the same Indian dishes, Radhika was finally told to pack her khandas.
- February 4 – Surprise! Everyone thought that Leah or Carla would be axed, but the judges gave Jamie a shot heard round the foodie world when they kicked her off for a braised celery that was “toxic.” Carla celebrated by saying “Hootie-hoo!” even more than usual.
- February 11 – I resented Leah because she was annoying; Wylie Dufresne resented her for eggs benedict that were undercooked. No surprise here. Even with a broken finger, Fabio still beat her.
- February 18 – Surprise! Everything suggested that the judges would be crazy to kick off Fabio: he had an Italian accent that made his comments about monkey asses sound charming, and his poor mama was sick in the hospital and sure to die without Top Chef prize money. Plus, he was the one who most needed to win the elimination challenge prize of a new car to replace his current “piece of … poo.” And yet, it was surprise week. Arrivederci, Fabio, I’ll remember you most for calling Leah a Top Pussy.

Which means that the final episode will occur during an “Of course!” week. Stefan is clearly the favorite; he’s already won eight challenges, including an unprecedented five quickfires in a row. Fans of the show are expecting another surprise after last week, but as much as I’d like for Carla’s tortoise to sneak up on Stefan, the judges are going to try to surprise us by not surprising us. Stefan wins.

Skeptical about my ability to experience odd flashes of prophetic insight? Not buying my theories? I guess we’ll just have to see what happens next week. As Ali said, they all fall/in the round I call.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Free Buffet at the Korean Embassy = Heaven

The crowd anxiously shifted around in their seats. My friend Dan was on the verge of causing an international dispute.

We were at the Korus House, a venue for cultural outreach at the Korean Embassy, to hear a lecture on a seemingly uncontroversial subject: archaeological excavations of pre-modern Korea. But Dan, who is Chinese, had disagreed with the view of the lecturer, Dr. Sung-rak, that the excavations proved that pre-historic Korean culture had influenced China. “Isn’t a lot of this politically motivated?” Dan asked. As the color drained from the moderator’s face, Dan suggested that Dr. Sung-rak was biased due to his Korean roots and that the opposite conclusion was more likely: it was actually Chinese culture that had influenced Korea.

Dr. Sung-rak rummaged through his notes, buying time while trying to think of a tactful answer that wouldn’t invite Hu Jintao to invade Seoul. I leaned over to Dan and whispered, “No more questions.”

Before this night, Dan had caused many controversies, but only by telling jokes about racial stereotypes at dinner parties. I could take the punch-lines about Jews having small penises, but now his habit of starting fires was about to get us physically escorted from the room. And a boot from the Embassy would ruin my two goals for the night: (1) make it through the lecture without snoring or drooling on anyone, and (2) stuff myself on the free feast of Korean food that Korus House had promised afterwards.

Luckily, we weren't approached by any Korean bouncers. Dr. Sung-rak avoided Dan’s question by temporarily seeming to forget how to speak English.

Mercifully, the lecture ended. The crowd, a strange mix of archaeology professors and lovers of Korean cuisine, flooded into the next room, lured by the nutty scent of sesame oil. We discovered a generously big buffet.

Korus House had recruited the renowned Korean chef Jae-ok Chang, author of three Korean cookbooks, to prepare the food. This was not the first time that I had enjoyed Korean culture with Ms. Chang. For the holiday of Chuseok, during which Koreans give thanks for the abundance of the fall season, she and I collaborated for a celebration at the Korus House. She participated by cooking traditional food in the style of the ancient royal palace: bulgogi (marinated beef), jeon (savory pancake), kimchi (pickled spicy vegetables), and bibimbap (seasoned rice and vegetables). I helped out by shamelessly ravaging it, free of charge.

I expected that she would again go the traditional route, if for no other reason than to cater to the archaeologists in the crowd by serving up some culinary artifacts. Surprisingly, though, a few of the dishes were more modern, particularly a thick garlic dip to go with braised chicken and a terrine of calamari in a starchy plum sauce. I noticed that Dan looked a little smug. Given the lecturer’s theories about how Paleozoic Koreans had so much influence over their Chinese neighbors, it was pretty ironic that the Korean food was bathed in Chinese sauces.

That said, I think Ms. Chang might have made the right choice in going with a couple of Asian fusion recipes. The archaeologists, who were mostly Caucasian, didn’t really know what to make of some of the other dishes that were more genuinely Korean. When I went back to the buffet for a second round, I noticed an older couple hovering over the serving bowl of kimchi. They were so fascinated you would have thought they had just discovered the fossils of a previously unknown species of dinosaur. I think they were about to break out their trowels when they saw me. “Is this onions?” they asked. “No, bok choy,” I said. They thought that it was too spicy, but check out the spring issue of the Journal of Archaeological Research for their groundbreaking study on Tyrannosaurus Kimchi.

Dan and I eventually found a group of Koreans to have a better conversation about the food. An archaeology professor from Catholic and a recent graduate of American University agreed with me that the kimchi tasted really fresh – homemade, not the stuff shipped from California to D.C. supermarkets. We also enjoyed a variety of panchan and Korean spring rolls – which were good enough that my new friends had the occasion to teach me the Korean word mashitha. It means delicious.

We left Embassy row with world peace secure and our appetites more than satisfied. But I’ll be back to Korus House next week when they offer introductory Korean language classes. And, of course, light Korean snacks.