From Foie Gras To Franks
Back in the first Bush administration, a hot-dog stand in downtown Manhattan called Gray's Papaya did its part for the economy by posting bright orange signs hawking a Recession Special--two franks and a cup of papaya juice for $2.45. The recession went away, and I forgot all about the special until a few nights ago when, driving up Sixth Avenue, I noticed those signs again.
Few observers outside Gray's fluorescent-lit precincts are using the R word yet, but reports are piling up that the restaurant business across the country is down from last year's record high. Many places are fighting back with deals and gimmicks. New York City's Convention and Visitors Bureau reports that this year more places than usual continued the $20.01 summer Restaurant Week lunch special after Restaurant Week ended. Early this summer, even Alain Ducasse launched a discount at his New York branch: salad with a choice of lobster, crabmeat or roast chicken; one glass of wine; cheese or dessert; and assorted little frills--all for just $65. By ordinary standards that may not be a bargain, but at this, perhaps the most expensive restaurant in town, it's about half the regular tab.
Other establishments have chosen a lower-profile approach. Some chefs are quietly letting the air out of their menu prices without issuing press releases, lest they look desperate for customers. San Francisco's Fifth Floor has a new section on its list: "Backroads/Burgundy," featuring less known (and cheaper) appellations. At Zealous in Chicago, they're pouring free mineral water throughout the meal--a nice idea--with no fanfare.
If value for money seems like a foggy concept from some far-off past, perhaps it's because our sense of what food is worth was seriously distorted during the past half-decade, when we scarcely blinked at $35 bowls of soup and $27 hamburgers. The current return to reason should help ensure that dinner for two will remain within reach of people who don't have offshore savings accounts.
The danger in the situation--aside from the inevitable killing off of weak and infirm restaurants--is that as prices get less daring, so will the food. The last time the country needed a Recession Special, we turned to macaroni and cheese, roast chicken and other feel-good standbys. The boom that followed brought a period of unrestrained inventiveness, when chefs were game for almost anything: flavored foams, vegetable sorbets, salty ice cream. Even the structure of a meal was open to experiment, as diners were encouraged to jury-rig their own menus, eat dessert first, whatever. Now that money feels like money again, let's hope restaurants don't back away from innovation. The wait for the next boom will seem a lot longer if we have to get by on hot dogs alone.
Bookmark: Stealth Health
Sally Schneider admits that she eats carefully most of the time and indulgently only on occasion, but in either case, she always eats well. This longtime F&W contributor intensifies the flavor of her ingredients so ingeniously that her recipes scream delicious before they whisper healthy. Her superhefty A New Way to Cook ($40), 10 years in the making, is generous in explaining the details of basic processes that most cookbooks skip over. That's because, whether she's caramelizing vegetables, grating a powerhouse hard cheese over a dish at the last minute for maximum impact or imparting instant smokiness with Lapsang souchong ground to a talc-fine powder, technique is at the core of her strategies for building flavor and cutting fat. Many of her ideas are reworkings of dishes encountered on her travels around the Mediterranean; others are inspired by the French classics she adores. The book boasts some 600 recipes, but with all of Schneider's suggestions for variations, there are probably more than 4,000 dishes to try here. Just her chapters on flavor catalysts--rubs, marinades, dressings and so on--could keep me happy in the kitchen for the next five years.
Artists: Penne From Heaven
The Morisi family has made superb pasta since 1940, but hardly anyone outside their Brooklyn neighborhood knew it. One who did was Francis Ford Coppola, who appreciated the macaroni's rough, sauce-gripping surface (created by 1915 bronze dies and encouraged by slow air-drying). When he heard that the business might go under, he came to the rescue. Now Morisi-Coppola packages its butterfly-shaped farfallone and three additional varieties under the filmmaker and gourmand's Mammarella label, available at many stores and from niebaum-coppola.com. Countless others are sold on Fridays and Saturdays at the factory (186 8th St., Brooklyn; 718-788-2299).
In 1967, Scotch was perhaps the most uncool of all mood-altering substances. Fortunately, an enterprising Scotsman at The Glenlivet blithely ignored that opinion and went about business as usual, distilling barley and tempering it with Highland spring water. He squirreled the spirit away in casks, where it sat for 34 years before being unsealed. Each bottle of the limited-edition 1967 Cellar Collection ($200) is dated and signed by Jim Cryle, The Glenlivet's master distiller, and holds a whisky as smooth and clean as any that will glide across your palate. With the trademark Glenlivet flavors--gentle sweetness and just a whiff of smoke--this is one product of the '60s that only improved with age.
--Mary Ellen Ward
Address Book: Miami
Beds in restaurants, fusion that won't stay fused--even minimalism gets taken over the top in Miami. This is a town that prizes style over substance, which is why those of us who actually want to eat when we go out to eat are thankful for these brilliant new exceptions.
Aria This lavish oceanfront restaurant is home to Jordi Valles, a graduate of Spain's most daringly modern kitchens. His mastery of harmonious pairings is on display in a lobster salpicon "martini" and in braised veal cheeks with lentil ragout (455 Grand Bay Dr., Key Biscayne; 305-365-4500).
Breez Inside Michael Graves's new Billboard Live entertainment complex, Ephraim Kadish has put together an eclectic menu that's both up-to-the-minute and reasonably priced. Try his tasting plate of lightly marinated tuna, octopus, red snapper and yellowtail, or his seared cumin-spiced tuna with tomatoes and olives (1500 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach; 305-532-8999).
Nobu Nobu Matsuhisa's vibrant mix of Japan and Peru is a perfect fit for Miami. Signature dishes like sea urchin tiradito, new-style sashimi, anticucho salmon skewers and black cod with miso will help you overlook the homely bamboo-covered walls (1901 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-695-3232).
Pascal's on Ponce Pascal Oudin (a 1995 F&W Best New Chef) presents contemporary French food with no concessions to the tropics. There's nary a yuca or a plantain in sight, just the fresh flavors of salmon with a blanquette of shrimp and scallops with sorrel cream, plus a classic hazelnut soufflé (2611 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables; 305-444-2024).
Restaurant Report: Boston Brahmin
Of course Bostonians are dazzled by Mantra, the French-Indian restaurant that opened there this summer: The city has been fascinated by India since the eighteenth century, when its merchants began plying the trade routes between Massachusetts Bay and the Bay of Bengal and bringing back fabrics, teas and exotic spices.
At Mantra, Thomas John deftly melds the seasonings of the subcontinent with New England ingredients and French techniques. A number of chefs are working in the Indian-fusion vein, but John has an edge: He grew up in the south Indian state of Kerala, in a region so rich in peppercorns, ginger and cinnamon that it's known as the Spice Coast.
John comes to Boston from Le Méridien hotel in Pune, near Bombay, and his background shows in such dishes as saffron-scented coconut soup with a poached oyster, monkfish marinated in ginger and then roasted in a tandoori oven, and honey-glazed duck breast with a green coriander curry. Pastry chef Ernie Quinones, most recently of the Four Seasons Houston, reiterates the fusion theme with a trio of tropical crème brûlées and a lemon tart served with a raspberry-black pepper sauce.
Mantra makes a visual statement, too. Architect Nader Tehrani has juxtaposed the cool futurism of chain-link draperies with the mod orientalism of a 20-foot-tall woven-wood hookah den where guests puff on fruit-flavored tobaccos (52 Temple Pl.; 617-542-8111).
Taste Test: Spaghetti
We couldn't wait to evaluate all the cool new pastas we'd seen in supermarkets. So imagine our surprise when, in a blind taste test of 17 spaghetti brands, the winners turned out to be old favorites.
--Monica F. Forrestall
Wine Guided Pour
Looking for the best full-bodied red wine Lebanon has to offer? Or just a superb Oregon Pinot Noir? No matter which direction you're going, Food & Wine Magazine's Wine Guide 2002 ($12), by Jamal A. Rayyis, can help you plot your course. With a foreword by chef Mario Batali, the latest edition of our annual pocket-size paperback offers 320 pages of maps, recommendations, and food-and-wine pairing tips. The coverage of California bottlings was nearly doubled this year, and new features have been added, like some finds from the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The pairing index at the end of the book has been expanded, too, to help you figure out what to drink with anything from Alsatian Muenster to Thai fish soup.