Brandon’s Night at Menton
We love our food. We get giddy at the thought of tasting an old favorite or something brand new. We talk incessantly about it, even when we’re eating. When we’re not talking about the meal we just had, we’re discussing memorable dishes that we had in the past, or planning meals we will have in the future.
So, yes, we like to eat. But meals are more than sustenance or nutrition. They are companionship and culture and shared experiences. Food, or taste itself, strangely enough, is not the memory. After all, unless we have the one in a thousand musician’s equivalent of perfect pitch, we are not going to be able to conjure up the exact taste of the dish we are remembering. Taste is evanescent, a shimmering mirage of something that thrilled our taste buds that one time. What we are recalling is an entire experience. A time when we shared something we loved with people we love. The aromas and textures and smells are embedded in our brains; not in their original forms, but as avatars of past sensations.
So all this talk of the best meal we ever had is largely academic, but highly enjoyable. Having said that, our meal at Menton deserves to be part of that conversation.
Brandon landed a job at Menton some months ago. It is one of the crown jewels in the Barbara Lynch empire, which also includes No.9 Park, B&G Oysters and Sportello. Menton is named for a town on the border between France and Italy and its cuisine reflects its dual influences. It is also one of the top restaurants in Boston.
When Brandon told us he wanted to get into the food business, we advised him to start at the bottom with basically any job, so that he could see if it was something he really wanted to do. We expected him to get a busboy job at a chain restaurant, an IHOP maybe, or at best, a good mid-range steakhouse. So when he instead landed a position at Menton, we were as giddy with excitement as he was when he told us in a late night phone call. It was like getting an internship at Google or Apple, except for culinary arts.
When we finally got to see what his excitement was all about, we were blown away.
The menu has been posted on Facebook, but I am reproducing it here, for academic reference, of course.
We had the chef’s tasting menu, which is a way for Chef Kristen Kish (winner of Top Chef Seattle) to show off her considerable chops. It was a parade of 19 dishes ranging from several amuse bouche and little off-menu treats, to carefully crafted and plated delights that became progressively more substantial. As difficult as it is to select favorites, we all agreed upon at least three of the dishes. Firstly, the Butter Soup. Yes you heard right – Butter. Soup. Oh spare me your disdain, you know you want it. Littleneck clams, Lobster and White Sturgeon Caviar served in a buttery broth that was lighter than you would expect and not cloying at all. Next, White Alba Truffles over Farro, Vidalia onion and radish. We had murmured appreciatively all night as dishes were presented and tasted, but these dishes made us openly groan with pleasure. The truffle option normally adds $105 per person to the bill. Furthermore, this dish, like the butter soup, does not normally make an appearance on the tasting menu, but the staff wanted to make this a memorable night for Brandon. And lastly, the Seared Foie Gras de canard with Escargot, tarragon and matsusake. You would think that the escargot would send the richness quotient of the foie gras over the top, but surprisingly, the unexpected pairing worked like a dynamic duo of intravenous umami.
What sets Menton above many others, besides its food, is its impeccable service. Empty plates are whisked away and places set for every single new dish. And all of this is done quickly and unobtrusively so as to allow conversation to continue uninterrupted. Of course since this was Brandon’s night, just about every server, captain and manager came around to deliver a dish or to introduce themselves to us, and to tell us what a fine addition he was to the staff. I swear he was blushing by the end of the night.
But the final surprise was that Brandon had prearranged to take care of the check. It was a grand gesture, and in hindsight, one that was completely in character with his generous nature and pride in his achievements. The tips are good at a place like Menton, but even so, the bill put a hefty dent in his savings. It made Diane and I quite emotional to think of the sacrifices he made to make this possible, and proud that he thought to make this his demonstration of appreciation. Almost by some mysterious osmosis, he has absorbed the significance of our family’s love for food and the meaning that is imbued in a perfect meal.
Thursday, July 25, 2013
Monday, July 22, 2013
Sunday, June 2, 2013
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
A Tale of Two Restaurants
I am visiting family in Fremont, CA, which has developed into a mecca for Asian and South Asian food in the South Bay area, due to its proximity to Silicon Valley and the attendant influx of engineers and other professionals from India and China.
I have had two quite different dining experiences here in two days.
First, I tried the fare at House of Dumplings in Union City. Set in a small suburban strip mall, as many of the restaurants are in this area, its interior is a replica of many such Chinese eateries both here and in Chinatowns across the world - that is, spartan, utilitarian and less about the decor and more about the food. Some of the menu items pictured on the wall have English translations, but many do not.
We sampled the beans with fried tofu, Mongolian Beef, Soup dumplings Lamb Dumplings and Chicken and Corn Dumplings, and the Green onion pancake with egg.
The meal was not particularly outstanding, but it was cheap, honest fare in an unpretentious setting. A nice (unintended) touch was the owner and another worker, presumably a family member, preparing greens on an adjacent table. You could have been in any Chinese family restaurant in the world.
The second restaurant was Papillon, which bills itself as a French Fine Dining Establishment.
The restaurant is situated on a lonely stretch of Mission Boulevard and looks like it was lifted from the set of Casa De Mi Padre. The staff is friendly and accommodating, but the decor looks like it was left over from the 70’s, when the rustic adobe motif was still fashionable. It seems to have either been re-purposed from a Mexican Cantina, or is stuck in a Hotel California time warp.
The food similarly stubbornly clings to an aesthetic that was popular 50 years ago, heavily reliant on creams and sauces, and defiantly rooted in a French tradition that was already considered unfashionable in the 1990’s. I had the French onion soup, which was prettily presented with a puff pastry shell and the chef’s special - braised Kobe beef cheeks. The soup was quite good, if a tad salty, and the pastry was crisp and light as a souffle.
The Kobe beef cheeks were disappointing, however. Slow braising does nothing to show off the Kobe aspect of the beef, and it may as well have been chuck, although the wine sauce was rich and tasty, although, once again, over salted. In terms of presentation, the beef arrived in its own miniature dutch oven, surrounded by vegetables in a desultory arrangement.
Others in the party had the duck liver pate, Caesar salad and Angel hair pasta with artichokes to start, followed by the Beef Wellington, Salmon with herbed potato puree, Eggplant Parmigiana and Veal Scallopini with gnocci in brown butter. All were adequate, but drowning in the sauces.
We were asked if it was a celebratory dinner upon being seated, which it was, and I was duly presented with a special dessert at the end of the evening. I noticed a number of tables getting these, so I imagine that this is a something of a “special occasion” restaurant in the neighborhood.
If you are nostalgic for cuisine that is pre-nouvelle, or are looking to replicate the experience of dining in a fine French restaurant in the Nixon era, then this is the place for you.
So, two restaurants, two experiences, as a result of different expectations. House of Dumplings - honest and unpretentious - what you see is what you get. Papillon, though not exactly pretentious, is mired in the past and clinging to the glory days of Leave it to Beaver era concepts of what constitutes French Cuisine. The latter is disappointing because it takes itself more seriously and asks to be judged on a higher standard.
Another takeaway from this experience - Take Yelp ratings with a grain of salt - Papillon has a rating of 4 stars out of 5. Just to reinforce this, the Fremont MacDonalds also has a 4 star rating.
Monday, April 15, 2013
A Night to Remember at Anissa
For my birthday dinner (minus Brandon who was stuck in Boston eating grilled cheese - sorry son, we’ll make it up to you) we continued our special occasion tradition (which, to be honest, only began this year) of dining at restaurants owned by chefs who had competed, defeated or were actually part of the rotation of Iron Chefs of America.
For Brandon’s birthday we went to Morimoto for some unique sushi. For mine, we went to Anissa, owned by Chef Anita Lo, who co-owns Rickshaw Dumpling Bar. Ms. Lo defeated Mario Batali on a recent Iron Chef, so we had high expectations. I am happy to report that not only were they exceeded, but we agreed that we experienced probably the best meal we have had since we set foot on these United States. Possibly the best meal in our lifetime. Hyperbole? I guess so, since gustatory memories are by their nature transitory, but it really was that good. At the very least, good enough to be part of the debate of “Best Ever”.
Anissa is a small restaurant in the West Village and the understated decor reflects the serene minimalist fusion that characterizes Chef Lo’s culinary arts, a blend of her Asian heritage, French training and eclectic sampling of world cuisines.
The waitstaff was attentive yet unobtrusive, and happily provided detailed explanations of the many dishes that came our way. To sample the widest variety of dishes from the imaginative menu, we opted for the 7 course tasting menu, which is different for every table. There is also a 5 course menu, but believe me, you’ll wish you went with the 7.
They started us off with an amuse bouche of thimble sized tartlets of hake and potato mousse in a crispy shell.
Then we had
#1 - a Striped sea bass sushi (sorry no picture)
#2 - Their famous seared foie gras with soup dumplings and jicama ; every table, even if they didn’t have the tasting menu, ordered this dish.
#3 - Miso marinated sable with crispy silken tofu in a bonito broth - so good
#4 - Broiled Spanish mackerel with garlic fried milk, satsuma-imo and Korean chili
#5 - Grilled wagyu beef with escargot in herb butter, garlic chives and alba mushrooms
#6 - A cheese platter with a selection of sheep, goat and cows milk cheeses from Wisconsin, Vermont, Oregon, Italy, Switzerland and France, which we had with a glass of Smith Woodhouse tawny port
#7 - Since there were three of us, they gave us three different desserts which proved to be the highlight of the evening for the notoriously sweet- toothed Chang family.
- Pear posset with elderflower and shiso
- Poppyseed bread pudding with Meyer lemon curd
- Pecan and salted butterscotch beignet with bourbon milk ice
And for a blissful end to a wonderful meal: a selection of petit fours - mint chocolate truffles, candied ginger and coconut popsicles
We were sated, but not stuffed. A memorable evening, and we recommend Anissa highly as an addition to your foodie bucket list!
13 Barrow Street
New York, NY 10014
Sunday, April 14, 2013
We found a hole in the wall with even fewer seats (2), than Hua Ji.
Kababish is a Pakistani-Indian-Bangladeshi take out joint in Jackson Heights. Their specialty is the Gola Kabab, a soft, spicy kabab only made when you order it, so it is always fresh. It is best consumed with their garlic naan or paratha, both of which are also made fresh in their tandoor oven, and which we found to be very good. The Gola is a meat paste packed onto a long skewer and tied on with string, then grilled in a pizza style oven, a delicate operation which requires expert execution to
1. Keep it all together and
2. Cook it to perfection
It has the consistency of pate, if the pate was made in a spice furnace at the earth’s core. Yes it is hot, not off the Scoville scale hot, but hot enough that you know that your morning ablutions are going to be very interesting. Something less spicy to try next time - the Haryali kabab, made without garam marsala.
We also ordered the Chicken tikka masala, which was moist and delicious.
The vegetable and chicken samoosas were on the greasy side, but still very good.
Jackson Heights, NY 11372
Friday, April 12, 2013
Once - A New Musical
The party may have already started by the time you walk into the theater. There is a replica of a Dublin bar that is the centerpiece of the stage and early arrivals can knock back the tipple as the cast/orchestra performs an energetic hootenanny, with guitars, fiddles, box drums and foot stomping dance numbers, as the late comers straggle in. Then the lighting changes and the partygoers are ushered back to their seats and the music transitions seamlessly into the show proper.
The movie Once (2006) was an indie hit in the true sense of the word. Made for $160,000, it went on to make $20 million and earned a best song Oscar for “Falling Slowly”.
The original 85 minutes has been expanded to fill a 2 1/2 hour show, and some characters have expanded roles (most notably the banker and the music shop owner who are not only musicians, but also provide comic relief) but the story remains the same. It is a boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy finds girl tale, with a bittersweet twist that refuses to conform to romantic convention, but still wins you over with its rueful truth.
The cast doubles as the orchestra and backing band and provides both rousing instrumental accompaniment and beautifully harmonic vocal support, particularly in a ravishing, ethereal a capella performance of “Gold” towards the conclusion.
The central couple has no names – they are “the guy” and “the girl”. He is a busker on the streets of Dublin whose girlfriend has abandoned him for a brighter future in New York, and who is himself about to abandon his music and his art as a lost cause. She is a Czech flower seller, a piano playing single mother who hears him perform what was to be his last song, and sensing his pain and his talent, convinces him to carry on and to follow his heart and his dream to New York.
Their friendship recovers from his clumsy early attempt to seduce her, when she makes it clear that she is interested in him as an artist and musician, and not as a potential suitor. But is she? Later, she realizes that she has fallen in love with him and tells him as much, but in her native Czech, which she deliberately mistranslates when he asks what she means.
She tells him not to leave things unfinished, referring to his lover in New York.
“Isn’t this unfinished?” he asks, about their own budding relationship.
“But we haven’t started anything,” she replies.
“No? Well it feels like we’ve started,” he says.
And he is right. But I think this is what resonates so deeply with the audience – that she knows that the very thing that makes her fall in love with him – the power of his music and his passionate expression of love and loss, spring from, and would not exist without, his love for another. And so she tells him that her husband wants to reconcile, that she is ready to go on with her former life, all so that he is not tempted to stay. Because she knows that they could easily be together – they’re halfway there. But what she cannot permit herself to say out loud is - I love you. I love you for the person you are, for the music that you write, for the anguish in your voice, because somewhere out there is the person who inspired that anguish and that music, and it would not be fair to you or to her to give up on a love that could create such beauty and such passion.
And all this is achieved with minimal staging and brilliant lighting design and above all, the songs; songs that you will remember, songs that are buoyant and wistful and are a paean to love and heartbreak.
So there is no ordinary happy ending. For that you should see Mamma Mia. But more people will identify with the poignancy of Once, because who among us has not loved and lost, and nobly sacrificed our own chance at happiness for the person that we loved; or at least hoped that we would.
Once - A New Musical
Bernard Jacobs Theater
242 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
Note: Once- a new musical won 8 Tony awards, including best musical.
Wednesday, April 10, 2013