Monday, December 26, 2011

Happy New Year 2012!

In Paris, year-end thoughts turn to food, and windows abound with beautiful still-lifes. Here are some highlights of our stay in the City of Lights.

Dalloyau Window and Christmas Cakes

Macaron Tower at Fauchon; Hediard's Window

 Birds on Rue Montorgueil

My own Tarte aux Pruneaux

For the non-food reader, amazing shoes at Christian Louboutin


Bobby Jay

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Paris - Restaurant Jean Again

We "discovered" Restaurant Jean, a charming restaurant located in Paris' 9ème arrondissement, a year ago, and decided to return for a meal with American friends. We had a really excellent meal and greatly enjoyed talking to the owner, ex-Taillevent, about the Paris restaurant scene.

Two of us started with one of the best egg dishes ever: a perfectly prepared runny boiled egg in a brick pastry nest over a cauliflower sauce and topped with some smoked eel and a bit of caviar. A really memorable bite.

Incredible egg at Restaurant Jean

The others began with tartare and carpaccio of scallops and smoked salmon with chèvre, japanese pickled plum and seaweed.

For our main, J and I had pigeon, roasted to a beautiful rare, the breast stuffed with foie gras, and all accompanied by truffled macaroni, pomegranate jelly and confited pink garlic; this was as good as it sounds. One of our friends had black cod marinated in miso, then caramelized, and accompanied by seasonal vegetables and a wasabi sabayon, while the other had perfectly sauteed scallps. Both were very pleased.

Jean has lost its wonderful American pastry chef, but the standard of desserts has been maintained. Two of us ended with a medley of coffee tastes: jelly, mascarpone and biscuit. The others had an equally wonderful mango with pistachio dacquoise, white chocolate Bavarian and an amazingly intense basil sorbet, another very successful dessert.

Jean's scallop tartare/carpaccio and coffee dessert

This sublime meal did not come cheap, about 75 euros per person before wine, but for food of this level, Jean is a real find.

Jean Restaurant, 8 rue St-Lazare, Paris 9ème (Métro Notre-Dame-de-Lorette).

Bobby Jay

Paris - Mets Gusto

We are back in Paris for year-end, and thoughts run, of course, to food.

Unfortunately, we started with one mediocre and one bad meal (trying a new place in our neighborhood), so we wanted a sure thing, but something new. Accordingly, we took the recommendation of our friends P and S, who know a good restaurant when they find one, and headed for Mets Gusto, in a residential part of the 16ème arrondissement.

While not a 35-euro or under place (think 60-65 euros), this gastro-bistro serves excellent food in a friendly environment. I started with cannelonis stuffed with shrimp in a (slightly too) rich parmesan seafood broth. J started with stuffed onion and tomato "comme en Provence." Both were excellent.

We then had our first game of the season, wild col vert ducks perfectly roasted until crispy and served with potatoes in a slightly aigre-doux sauce. The buckshot pellets that we discovered made the dish seem all the more authentic.

For dessert, we shared a chocolate cream with crunch hazelnuts and caramel ice cream. Serial wonderful tastes and textures made this a memorable dessert.

Mets Gusto, 79 rue de la Tour, Paris 16ème (Métro Rue de la Pompe).

Bobby Jay

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Art of Eating Celebrates 25 Years

Edward Behr is the publisher and one of the main writers of The Art of Eating, a really fine cooking and food magazine that comes out four times a year. A of E, which is ad-free, has in-depth articles about food and wine from around the world, sometimes common, sometimes very esoteric. For example, the Spring 2011 number included articles on Bordeaux cannelés (one of my favorite pastries), crème Anglaise, brioche, biscotti di prato, Normandy farm-made cider and making baklava in Gaziantep, Turkey, among others.

In commemoration of A of E's 25th anniversary, Behr has published a cookbook entitled The Art of Eating Cookbook: Essential Recipes from the First 25 Years. The book contains many traditional recipes that you will never make (marinated mackerel and sweet-and-sour sardines, for example, in my case) and many that you might. But the real strength of the book, as of the magazine, is in the scholarly approach it takes with respect to all the recipes, carefully explaining the choices made, describing the different traditions and options available, and giving other interesting facts. This is a book to be read as much as it is a cooking manual.

I am probably never going to make far aux choux (cabbage pudding), but what a pleasure to read his introduction!
The batter for this rustic pudding, from the Quercy in southwest France, is essentially the same as that for crepes, clafoutis, popovers, and Yorkshire pudding. Similar dishes are made in other French regions from other vegetables as well as fruits. When made without goose or duck fat, far au choux loses its regional reference and tastes much less interesting. Best of all is fat from a garlicky goose or duck confit. The far should be crisp-edged and tender -- not at all stodgy. A lighter consistency comes from Savoy cabbage, whose heads are, as the cook and gardener Barbara Damrosch describes them, "ruffled and crinkly," with an "elegant" texture and a flavor "so much more delicate that that of the firm-headed types." The leaves are thinner and the heads looser than with regular cabbage, and the Savoy varieties don't keep as well, but their taste is sweeter and milder, less sulfurous when overcooked, faster cooking and more tender. It is Damrosch's favorite kind, and the favorite of many cooks.
Get this book. If it's not for you, give it to a foodie friend.

Bobby Jay

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving Turkey

Whew! I finally got Japan out of my system and can focus on things Western.

Thanksgiving passed uneventfully at our place, with a meal quite similar to last year's. But with one difference that I must comment on: the turkey.

At the recommendation of my friend John, I ordered this year's turkey from Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, proprietor Frank Reece. Reece is believed by many to produce the best heritage turkeys available on the market.

Here is Reece's mission statement:
Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch strives to produce historically authentic Heritage Poultry, grown free range, vegetarian fed without antibiotics for your quality dining. Our objective is to protect APA approved Standard-Bred Poultry. We believe that the best way to do this is by returning them to your dining table.
The turkey we had was a great reflection of this mission. It was shaped like a bird that could fly (and indeed it could), long and lean without the huge breasts for which most American turkeys are bred. The white meat was flavorful and moist, the dark dense and deliciously pungent.

Here is how I cooked it:
The 15-lb turkey arrived on Wednesday at 3:00 PM (late enough to scare me), cold but not quite frozen. I generously salted it under the skin and in the cavity. On Thanksgiving day, I rinsed it a bit, then put it breast side down over ice packs. Just before cooking, I dried it and rubbed it with olive oil and Michael Chiarello's fennel spice rub. Cooked on a V-rack 45 minutes breast side down at 450, then turned and cooked at 325-350 for 1 hour 45 minutes. The breast was perfectly cooked and the bird a magnificent even mahogany color. The joints were tight and it was hard to separate the thigh/leg quarters, which usually fall away of their own weight; I had to really push hard to snap the joints. But the meat was done, and ready for a 45-minute rest.
The cost of this turkey, including shipping, was $160. Really expensive compared to a local supermarket or even a good butcher, but it was definitely worth the price.

Bobby Jay

Tokyo - Mitsukoshi's Food Department

Most department stores in Japan have extensive food departments in their basements. Based on my experience, the best of these is at Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi in Tokyo, although Takashimaya Nihonbashi and Matsuya Ginza give Mitsukoshi a run for its money.

Tempura and yakitori counters

At these food emporia, one finds the best of Japanese alimentation, beautifully presented, along with outposts of luxury food purveyors from around the world selling their signature breads, pastries, chocolates, cured meats, cheeses and other prepared foods. Prices are generally high and with the weak US Dollar, astronomical. The beef pictured below, admittedly the most expensive I found in my trip, costs 5,000 yen per 100 grams, which works out to $295 per pound!

Yakitori (detail) and unagi (eel)

Despite the economic downturn in Japan, which has left most of the floors of the department stores pretty empty, the food floors are bustling. Great quality, variety and presentation work even in tough times.

Sushi-ready tuna (toro and chutoro) and umeboshi (pickled plums)

The world's most expensive beef
You learn a lot about a culture by studying its food. A trip to a Japanese department store basement is an entertaining way to do this.

Bobby Jay

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Tokyo -- Daigo's Elegant Temple Food

Joan and I were recently taken to Daigo, one of our favorite restaurants in Tokyo. This elegant restaurant serves amazingly refined shojin (i.e. vegetarian) kaiseki meals in an exquisite setting. One eats in a tatami room with a view of a private garden, served by kimono-clad women who silently glide in and out of the room through shoji doors.

Daigo was formerly on the premises of the nearby Daigo-ji temple, but was relocated into a modern multi-use complex as part of a deal by which the developer obtained some temple property on which to build the complex. The new version is just lovely, and the arriving visitor immediately feels that he or she has entered into a world far removed from the surrounding bustling neighborhood in central Tokyo.

As mentioned above, the food is vegetarian kaiseki, and has is roots in Buddhist temple food. This is not the spare cuisine that one associates with abstemious monks but rather an exuberant celebration of the seasonal variety of Japan's food bounty.

A feast for all the senses, Daigo is a must for the first-time visitor to Tokyo.

Bobby Jay

Kyoto Takeout Lunch

Kyoto bento lunch
We went to visit an art dealer friend in Kyoto who has trouble getting around, so we had takeout at his shop. Although there is plenty of fast food in the ancient capital, a takeout lunch in Kyoto can include a beautiful bento like this one. Refined.

Bobby Jay

Kyoto - Autumn Tea Sweets

Fancy sweets are often served in Japan as part of the tea ceremony, to precede informal matcha or even before or with regular green tea. This is especially true in Kyoto, where the tea ceremony tradition is more alive than elsewhere.

Tea sweets often don't taste as good as they look to Westerners, because the sweet part is generally made of red bean paste, which is not part of our dessert repertoire, although chestnuts, frequently used in autumn, are more consistent with Western sweet tooth. But whether you like them or not, you have to admit they are beautiful, nearly works of art at times. And in the autumn, with seasonal tastes (chestnut) and visual references, they are at their most gorgeous.

 Bobby Jay

Friday, November 25, 2011

Kyoto - Home Cooked Takoyaki

Our Kyoto friend Hitomi, an excellent chef, knows that I have a weak spot for takoyaki, grilled octobus balls. Often found cooked on the street or near temples, these little balls resemble grilled fritters (if that's not an oxymoron) stuffed with a little piece of octopus. They require a special implement but Hitomi says that takoyaki makers are very common in the Kyoto area, where the little balls are very popular. Here's Hitomi making takoyaki in her non-stick propane model.

Step 1 (adding octopus bits to the wet batter)

Steps 2 (adding scallions and bonito flakes) and 3 (adding more batter)

Steps 3 (waiting for batter to start solidifying) and 4 (turning soft batter for even cooking)

The finished takoyaki

I should note that Hitomi let me turn a few in the last couple of steps. Perhaps it's the experience of helping make them or of having them at a friend's home, but this takoyaki seemed a definite cut above what one finds cooked on the streets.

Bobby Jay

Kyoto - Nishiki Market Spice Shop

While exploring Kyoto's Nishiki food market street, I came upon Ochanoko Saisai, an artisanal spice shop where everything is ground and packaged on the premises. The shops offers passersby potato chips dusted with some of their spices as as a clever way of sampling their offerings. I bought very spicy shichimi (spicy powder made up of seven ingredients, including chili peppers of some degree of heat) and sansho pepper (not really a pepper at all, but pods of the prickly ash tree, whatever that is). These are common Japanese ingredients, but tasted uncommonly good to me; perhaps they were better because they were so fresh, perhaps it was the romance of the place.

Ochanoko Saisai (note the cool can)

The grinding apparatus at Ochanoko Saisai

Some of the finished products

Experiences like my short visit to Ochanoko Saisai are what make the Nishiki food market so much fun to visit.

Bobby Jay

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Kyoto - Back to Nishiki Market

After our ceramics tour of Western Japan, my wife Joan and I spent a few days in Kyoto, my favorite place in the world to be as a tourist. It is full of temples and shrines, the greatest gardens to be found anywhere, charming old commercial buildings and residences and, certainly not last, sophisticated great food.

For me, the food starts at the fantastic Nishiki market, right in the middle of town, off the covered shopping street Teramachi. Friends have told me that the really best food is in the ground floor of the department stores, but I must say that what I saw at the Nishiki market looked fresh and appetizing. It is also much more fun to visit, although department store food markets can be quite amazing in Japan.

The market is picturesque, and I got good shots of many of the local specialties.

Yuba (tofu skin), many types of pickles, for which Kyoto is particularly famous, rice, mushrooms, konbu from different parts of Hokkaido (see packages), tea, shirako (tuna sperm), yakitori, hand-made bonito flakes and the machine that one uses to make them, and tiny fish used atop rice.

A truly amazing market!

Bobby Jay