London Calling

Sunshine and 60 degrees – not what you associate with London in March, right? It’s not what Londoners expect either, judging from the difficulty in finding sunglasses to replace those I’d deliberately left in my car before I left. But 60 and sunny it was, with a few exceptions, when I co-chaperoned a study abroad trip to the Old Blighty over spring break. My English professor friend (and fellow food-obsessive) Lee was teaching a class on 18th Century London and needed someone to come along with him to make sure none of the fifteen students he was taking tried to go native. Since I dabble in the philosophy of the period and was presumed to be sane and reasonably good company, I got to go along. The students we took were a delight, the weather, as noted, unusually cooperative, and the sights sightworthy (apart from the standard stuff, I particularly recommend the National Observatory in Greenwich and Sir John Soane’s house for anyone making the trip). Students had evenings and a couple of days off from class-related Londoning, and since our travel and lodging was covered, Lee and I decided that we could splurge a little, or, as it turned out, a lot. England used to have a reputation for bland and overcooked food (prepared, if you were rich enough, by your own French chef: vide the wrangling over Anatole in Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels). Now it is known as a hotbed of culinary innovation that seeks also to revive the forgotten meaty riches of British food traditions.

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Next!

Rarely do I dine fine, but star Chicago chef Grant Achatz’s restaurant Next is currently doing a meal based entirely on the ancient Roman cookbook attributed to Apicius, and my classicist uxor would not miss it. So off we went for a night in the big city to meet two Next-veteran friends for a nice Italian dinner. But this was pre-Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus Italian, so nary a tomato or pasta noodle was anywhere to be found. In fact, after a modernist beverage that mimicked an ancient recipe for turning white wine red and red wine white, one of the first flavors to hit our tongues made us think that Next had gotten the wrong empire: garum, a fermented fish sauce, infused fresh bits of greenery and seafood and tasted of modern Southeast Asia, a land far from the reach of any Ceasar. There must be a story as to why this sauce, the ketchup of the ancient world, as my wife put it, faded from use, but in a land of abundant sun and seafood, it makes perfect culinary sense. In the context of the meal, it reminded us that whatever our expectations, the past is a foreign country. What followed was a meal of subtlety and extravagance, the cuisine of an empire. Some dishes were done so as to be as authentic as possible, some (like the red-white drink mentioned) in the inspired-by vein, but all aimed to provide a full sensory experience of the sort Achatz is famous for, and which the Romans themselves – well, the rich ones anyway – were accustomed to.

A sheaf of wheat was a serving vessel next to rose petals on the table that hid another offering; a small round of bread was cooked in a blazing hot, covered brazier right on the table, then portioned into four by drawing tight the strings that tied it as it cooked (see picture); prawn shells were covered in gold and served alongside meat that had been extracted from them and armored with rings of olives; the dishware hinted at the mosaic tiles the Romans loved; music from a plucked single-string instrument hovered in the background.

The menu was in Latin, with some ingredients listed in English, and with numbers for each recipe provided so we could consult the facing-page translation of the cookbook that each table came equipped with. We did this less and less as the meal progressed, in part, no doubt, because that meant movement other than towards the food in front of us. All in all it was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime meal, sophisticated and delicious, executed by skilled cooks and delivered by completely unpretentious and friendly servers. Sadly, as with the Roman empire itself, the meal came to an end. Dessert symbolized this with meringue broken like slabs of ruined marble, resting on a collection of ingredients that dissolved on the tongue, leaving behind only traces of flavor to be unearthed and admired in memory.

Ketchup in the Buttery

Manet at the Carnegie was one day in PA, Heinz at the Heinz the next. The history museum in Pittsburgh is officially named for the former senator and is not funded by the corporation, but it features a display of the company’s history and products that is both engaging and advertisementy. Note the name of the restaurant in the picture. There must be a hatch somewhere back there.

And check out the products one used to be able to buy:

Have we really progressed as a society when oyster ketchup is no longer at our grocery?

(By the way, for the record I’m with those who believe that Heinz ketchup cannot be surpassed. Artisanal and homemade ketchups, however much the rage, and however much I applaud the artisanal and homemade in most aspects of life, are, at best, hot sauce with no heat, unmarried marinara, condiments to be condemned.)

Sushi what?

Work recently required a trip to the Bay Area. There’s hardly anything that hasn’t already been said in praise of eating out there, but to those of you landlocked here in the upper Midwest, I present to you two words together that until now you have almost certainly kept apart: sushi burrito. While it sounds like some foul concoction that might spew from the kitchens of the corporate food-fusionists at Taco Bell, it is, in fact, perhaps the world’s most perfect lunch food. Most, upon hearing the name, think: sushi in a tortilla. Rest assured no tortillas are harmed or otherwise utilized in the making of the sushi burrito. (Though why people tend to recoil when they think of sushi in a tortilla, I do not know. Rarely does a tortilla make anything worse. Think about it: anything non-liquid that is good on its own could, in principle, make a good filling for a tortilla.) No, the sushi burrito is essentially just a sushi roll the diameter and length of a standard issue burrito — so seaweed where the tortilla would go — eaten in the same fashion: by stuffing the whole thing a bit at a time into one’s face while doing one’s best to make sure any dropped bits land where fingers can fetch them. I had two such works of magnificence in my days in the Bay, both in downtown SF near where I was conferring, the first at Sushi Taka, and the second at the small local chain Sushiritto, whose name mericifully saves you a syllable’s work when saying, thus giving you more time to eat their eponymous product. At the latter I had the Geisha’s Kiss, a raw tuna wonder that was good enough to make up for its name.

geisha

Better, though, was the shrimp tempura burrito at Sushi Taka. The tempura was like a culinary San Andreas fault line running through each bite: its crunch shook all the flavors together into soul-satisfying perfection.

tempura

An added bonus: with each burrito came a small cup of miso soup, produced like magic from a machine that looked like one of those devices from which “espresso” drinks now spew in every convenience store and gas station. The West Coast truly does deserve its reputation as being on the leading edge of technological culture. And the sushi burrito, well, I doubt we’ll see anything like that here in Michigan for at least a decade.

Rocky Mountain Oysters?

Another highlight of the Thanksgiving trip west: gorging on raw oysters with my dad. Whole Foods had six different varieties on sale at coastal prices, and, since he was buying, we split five dozen over two nights, narrowing the six down to our favorite three  for the second round.

oysters (3)It seemed a little crazy eating shellfish at the foot of the Rockies, but I comforted myself with the thought that oysters have been shipped live inland for well over a century (packed in ice, they stay alive for long periods of time). So unlike the fish flown in overnight from the west coast or Hawaii that local chefs here in Kalamazoo proudly avail themselves of (in our farm-to-table restaurants no less), oysters can, at least in principle, be sustainably consumed pretty far inland.

Thankfully I didn’t have to eat real rocky mountain oysters.

Out of Our Mines

“Grandma, it’s Mines, not Mimes,” read the placard outside a building at the Colorado School of Mines. We were there to visit their geology museum the day after Thanksgiving, not being the types to brave the Black Friday crowds at the malls and big box stores. The campus, located just west of Denver in Golden, CO, was deserted, but the museum was actually doing a relatively brisk business, with something like 70 visitors before us that day. Gems and rocks draw a crowd, apparently, at least when the collection is as robust as the one you’d expect a leading mining school to be, and it’s what drew us. Two floors of displays of interesting bits of the earth, lit up and labeled, plus a little bit of mining history, made for a pleasant hour and a half. There was just enough snow to make the museum’s outdoor geology walk mostly undoable, but we did get to see the triceratops footprints and palm frond fossils in a nearby cliff up the hill from the museum. From our vantage point there we could look out over Golden and see the town with the massive Coors plant next to it. It was a striking sight: the sky hung low over the valley and the clouds merged with the clouds of steam escaping from the plant, a kind of beauty that only industrialization can provide (the fact that it can is one of the real if more subtle impediments to the economic changes planetary ecology requires we make).

coors

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