A little forshpeis before the main course. JC on the chopsticks
27 October 2009. Eating Sushi can be little intimidating, especially for the first timer. Even sushi-regulars can discover something new about the traditions. While no one will throw you out of the sushi bar for drinking sake with your nigiri, we hope that reading the following guidelines will calm your nerves and help you get the most out of your next visit to a sushi restaurant.
(For illustrated tips, click on the link above).
We agree with each of these tips, although we have been adding wasabi to soy sauce for the past thirty years (in all but the most formal of sushi joints).
This probably means that sushi chefs and servers across the nation have been calling us a maroon. So be it.
Thank you, helpful reader Jerry Felp.
We are reading Mr. Friend's memoir, Cheerful Money, which concerns itself with the author's old-family "WASP" connections and how they all came together to create the interesting man, and the very good writer, he is today.
We're enjoying it very much; it's a good book, well-written, and deserving of your attention. But we've also reached the point in the story where we feel we have to get this off our chest:
Yes, Tad, we believe you.
Yes, you needn't go on about it anymore.
YES, TAD, IT IS ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY INCREDIBLE TO US, AS IT SEEMS TO BE TO YOU, THAT YOU EVER, EVEN ONCE IN YOUR LIFE, GOT LAID!!!!!!!
Because it seems to be so immensely necessary for him to know that we know this.
(WIth apologies to Ms. Amanda Hesser.)
“The seventh and eighth grades were for me, and for every single good and interesting person I’ve ever known, what the writers of the Bible meant when they used the words hell and the pit,” Anne Lamott wrote, in “Operating Instructions.”
We just read this and feel like turning a cartwheel, like we could ever have done that, even in the 7th or 8th grades.
This is it; this is our proof of being good and interesting!
And it almost takes the sting off of having enjoyed 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grades!
September 11-18. As usual, we have scheduled the car service from the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco to come and haul us out of San Francisco Airport. We do this for two reasons: one, because we don't think any cab driver in a free country will deal with our suitcase, known to us as The Blue Behemoth, and two, because it's so much more comfortable than a cab, although we do and will travel in plenty of cabs during our stay in San Francisco.
Why we hire the car is kind of like why we stay in the Ritz. It's not so much that we love luxury--which is highly subjective; to you it's unlimited caviar, to us it's a matched set of European soccer players in tiny, tiny Speedos--as that we have a need for reliable comfort.
And no, those soccer blokes wouldn't exactly be comforting (and may not be reliable).
To us, "comfort" doesn't mean that everything is perfect, but that you don't have to argue with anyone to get it fixed. If the TV doesn't work or they forgot to put a mini-fridge in your room or the housekeeper doesn't come to make up the room that day, it only means that this will be rectified...without you having to debate or threaten or apologize in order to get it done.
The Ritz, apart from this: Clean and pretty, decorated in the best of taste, with a thick wool rug that is wonderful on your aching tourist feet. A quiet and peaceful atmosphere, especially on the Club Lounge floor. And in the Club Lounge itself, the bar drinks, wine and fizzy drinks flow untrammeled, and the food is loaded onto the table for breakfast, lunch, cocktail hour and even the late night cocktail tasting. Ruggerio and his staff are as quick, quiet and understanding as ever. And if the lunch seems to feature the same egg salad popovers and tuna salad croissants every day, with the same crudites and the same cheeses on the side, what of it? They are all good to eat and, as on a cruise ship, they seem to be free--although you did pay extra to stay
on the Club floor.
September 18-23. At some point in our life, that plan to rent a car in San Francisco and drive up to Napa will come true. Not this year, unfortunately. And so, with a dented self-respect and more than a hint of queasiness, we pack La Skolnique and The Behemoth into the Carey Town Car piloted by Mr. Tony Wong, and we headed outta town...this time to Calistoga, a tiny resort town in the North, to stay at Doc Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort.
Doc and his missus came to this town in 1952 and either discovered the hot springs or made the most out of them, we never did figure out which. We are pleased to tell you that there are no cockroaches in the rooms, mostly because cockroaches don't eat cinder block and also because they get bored just as easily as you and I.
In addition, the spring water appears only in bottles, as sold at the local Cal-Mart (it is quite tasty), as a component of the old-fashioned mud baths (which we, as a diabetic, could not take part in, and which La Skolnique disliked, as being too heavy on the breathing apparatus), and as filler in the three enormous swimming pools--one, indoors, actually a hot tub; two more outside, one cool and refreshing, one warm and heavenly.
We ourself spent most of the time in the warm pool, and a little of it walking through the bungalow-dotted little town which, we discovered, had been named by a fellow who wanted to call
it the Saratoga of California but was too drunk to say it properly.
It was also quite near the place where the Donner Party...couldn't find a Holiday Inn, and also near Santa Rosa,
in which the Hitchcock film "Shadow of a Doubt" was filmed.
If you do not have a rental car, this is roughly all you can do, except for eating heavy meals at the four or five too-fancy-for-the-town restaurants and listening to the comforting noises of your travel companion despising you.
September 24-31. It's a long way down to Santa Cruz, but getting there (in another town car) is fun, and even better when we come to check in at the splendid Hinds House. A new idea (to us at least), the Hinds House is a big old Victorian house, a landmark in fact, which had been made over to accommodate ten to fifteen traveler in a series of plain, bright rooms, two with private baths and the others with shared baths.
It isn't a bed and breakfast...just a comfortable (there's that word again) house with a fully-equipped kitchen, a laundry room, three large "public rooms", perfect for working on your computer or just on a good novel.
You do your own housekeeping, and you can't stay for less than a week, but we (you know how we are) stayed in the best room in the house for seven days AND IT ONLY COST $660 WITH TAX which, if you were wondering, is as much as one night at the Ritz can cost. It is a fine new experience and we would recommend it to anyone, except not next February, because that is when we plan to return.
In the old days, Gourmet was filled with ads from Rolex and Chanel. Those companies can no longer afford to be in a magazine like that. The makers of packaged goods do spend a lot of money--that's why women's service magazines have done well this year. Look at Family Circle or Better Homes and Gardens . But those kinds of buys are better for Bon Appetit , which is a recipe-driven magazine. Bon Appetit is more about putting Hellmann's mayonnaise on Wonder bread, not living the good life. We're in the middle of a recession, and it costs $90,000 a page to be in Gourmet . That's an awkward position to be in, especially if you can be in Saveur for $37,000 a page.
Thus, Merri Lee Kingsly, publisher of Saveur, quoted in Forbes.com. Not the most ladylike comment we've ever heard from a victorious combatant. Former Editor-in-Chief Colman Andrews wouldn't have allowed a crack like this--if only out of deference to his onetime love, Gourmet's Ruth Reichl.
By this time you will have heard that Gourmet, which has been published continually since 1941 and which has published almost every important food writer of that time, from MFK Fisher to Francis Lam, is no longer to be published; November '09 will be the last issue.
We started reading Gourmet when we were a young teenager, say 1973 or thereabouts. A lot of histories will tell you that Gourmet's editorial style was Thurston-Howell-The-Third foolish ("Lovey, come see if the hummingbirds are done!") until Ruth Reichl was hired as Editor-in-Chief in 1999. This may be funny but it isn't true; although there were always strains of the Howell breed in the magazine, from the middle 60's onward Gourmet tried to cope with the change in society around it. No more tawny beverages like scotch and bourbon; gourmets of the Johnson era were beginning to drink clear liquors, most notably vodka, and wine was coming from California and even New York State. Asian foods, as actually made in Asia, were getting to be important as well, and (in New York at least, and California too) a beautiful bit of untrifled-with beef or produce could be every bit as important as Noisette D'Agneau Arlesienne or Tripes a la mode du Caenne.
Our very first exposure to gourmet eating had come with Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels. The great detective, himself the creation of another era, employed a personal chef to produce a cuisine which, while centered in French traditions, also included American, Middle Eastern, German, British, and even African delicacies; in this as in all things, Nero Wolfe was a man of the world, without prejudice or snobbery.
From these novels and from Gourmet we learned that an enjoyment of food, and a knowledge thereof, wasn't silly or trivial; rather, it taught patience (in waiting for dough to rise, or for asparagus to come into season); introspection (which is more precious, a handful of truffle shavings to titillate the palate for one meal, or ten pounds of good rice to make dozens of meals delicious and nutritious?), the value of a well-thought-out opinion (sturgeon caviar was more expensive than salmon roe because it was more difficult to get, not because it necessarily tasted better), and the importance of an open mind (because maybe someone's Mom in Omaha--or Canton--did have a better way with kidneys than Escoffier ever thought of).
Rex Stout departed this mortal coil back in the '70's, but Gourmet went on and kept on teaching us about more than food. Today, we know the difference between good food and great food, pretty much because of Gourmet. We know where to shop for food, not because we've memorized lists from Gourmet, but because we've read thoughtfully and taste for ourself and formed our own conclusions.
Best of all, we know what to order and how to order it, mainly because Gourmet was there to educate us about "good living". We're going to miss it like hell and we're going to hope all of its talented creators find new jobs soon.
In a world where mediocrity rules--and it still does, maybe now more than ever--Gourmet was never afraid to be great.
One thing we needed to do on our California trip (which is ongoing, as we are writing to you from our lovely room at the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton, unofficial sponsor of this blog, don't we wish) was to visit Farmers' Markets.
We had heard so much about them, and, although we do not wish to minimize the love we have for our own Union Square Green market or the wonderful Rhinebeck Farmers' Market, or even for the roadside stands at home in the Hudson Valley, we knew that California was going to offer us something special: produce, especially tomatoes, from a non-blighted region of the world.
See? The 'maters are bright, like stars at night, deep in the heart of Cali. No, no, stop singing; this is serious business.
The fact is that back East we've been having a frightful time with the Blight, and it isn't a laughing matter; home gardeners such as ourself had to pull up and then bury blighted tomato plants, but the commercial farmers have been losing their year's profits, and something like that could put a farm under for good.
Anyway, the tomatoes here, heirloom for choice, are gorgeous. We and La Skolnique had an heirloom tomato salad at almost every meal as we trekked from San Fran to Calistoga and then back down to Santa Cruz; they were available everywhere and, especially when drenched with good cold-pressed California olive oil (Stonehouse for choice) and topped with Burrata cheese (a very good brand is available at Trader Joe's) and then further topped with fleur de sel, they are fancy eating indeed and pose very little health trouble, even for ourself and psychotronic Paul.
The Ferry Building Farmers' Market, Saturday--For San Fran foodies, this tends to be The Big Event, and why not? The setting is wonderful--The Ferry Building, a construction which survived the great earthquake of 1906 and decades of urban blight following, has been brought back to a shining ideal, set about, disconcertingly, with palm trees and trams. It is an actual transportation center, but the Staten Island Ferry never looked this good. Also, it is filled with really good food shops; not just good, considering it's a tourist site, or good, considering it's a scenic point, but as good as any in New York City and, beyond doubt, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Boston, or Miami. (Those are the cities to which we have traveled in adult life, and we stand by our statement.)
On Saturdays the parking lot and surrounding sidewalk become the largest Farmers' Market we have ever seen, and we have seen a bunch of them. In fact, it is a bit crowded, and if you want to get some serious shopping done, you'd better bring a capacious backpack or even a rolling cart. Here are some of our favorites:
Shop under the beneficent gaze of the Mahatma, who, on non-market days, overlooks the parking lot with equal serenity
The stand-out was Dirty Girl Produce, which is grown near Santa Cruz. They use a technique called "dry farming" which somehow induces the roots of the tomato plant to spread themselves deep in the soil and to thirstily trap every drop of moisture. This leads to a tomato of deep flavor and rich juices, the very opposite of watery, and splendid for every type of use, from canning to eating out-of-hand. It is, of course, an economical and planet-friendly way to garden, and we admire the brains of the gardeners every bit as much as we admire the taste of the fruit itself.
Those persons interested in good-looking young women will also tip the fedora to whatever genius hires the beautiful girls who offer a taste (of the tomatoes) to passers-by. It's an old marketing trick, but a good one.
The Santa Cruz Farmers Market, Wednesday--This one was just as crowded, but set in a nondescript parking lot which seemed to typify what Santa Cruz is all about. I's a town of scrubby cheap coffee shops and world-class home decorating boutiques; a town too poor for a branch of Sur la Table, which amply supports the better and independent Chefworks. Santa Cruz is the kind of place where generations-wealthy people keep up the income by renting out rooms in their homes, and gentle people with flowers in their hair can tell you about the last time they went back East, in that old van, man, to see that righteous music festival on Yasgur's farm. (You might be forgiven for thinking they indulged in the brown acid.)
But Santa Cruz's agricultural backbone lies in one of the most fertile parts of the Central Coast, and the farmers who inhabit the Wednesday market have great new ideas and sound old ones for bringing in the sheaves. The aforementioned Dirty Girl Farm sells here, as does the Happy Girl company (oddly, unrelated) which serves preserved goods such as beautiful peaches, "smashed" heirloom tomatoes and the spiciest heirloom tomato juice available. We are going to weigh down our luggage with some of these, but you can order on line at the website.)
The Farmers' Market is like the town, a little rough and tumble but with a clear knowledge of what's good and how much the people need it. Produce abounds; there are few stalls for prepared food or cheeses, but, taken in combination with the good cheeses, condiments and dressings available at Trader Joe's or the local Whole Leaf, the Cruzans can keep their bodies nourished and their wallets full.
We purchased "tree" oyster mushrooms, about fifteen thumb-sized baby artichokes (for Santa Cruz is only about five miles from Castroville, Artichoke Capital of the World), yet more heirloom tomatoes, and a passel of herbs, all of which went into a memorable midnight supper which we fed to Psychotronic Paul from the kitchen on Hinds House, about which we will tell you in another post.
Ferry Building Farmers Market, Thursday: Back in San Fran, we discovered that the Thursday market was a little different: smaller, and more focused on prepared foods, which were far more appropriate to our status as guest-without-kitchen.
Cap'n Mike's Sandwich Board. Iconic sandwiches made with some of the best smoked fish in America.
These sandwiches, made as they were fresh by Cap'n Mike's comely helpers, were more than delicious; as with the best-made sandwiches, we found them to be even yummier the next day, after being kept under mild refrigeration. (It allows the flavors to mix). Cap'n Mike sells a variety of smoked fish and we would recommend every last one of them. He also supplies Russ and Daughters in New York, so you know his product is pretty damn great.
Yes, we drank sauerkraut juice--it was a tradition with our late Dad, although we never understood why, because the sauerkraut juice from our Waldbaum's at home was merely pickling brine, and not in the least tasty. Then we had a long talk with the proprietress of Farmhouse Culture sauerkraut, who let us in on all the secrets of fermentation, probiotics and other great stuff which comes served up in every spicy little jigger of juice. How much happier to eat a pint or so of the crunchy, salty/sweet/hot, delicious kraut itself! We have munched our way through two pints in the past week, and our stomach has never been happier.
We would first like to make the point that we are still in California.
Yes, that makes it around four weeks and no, obviously we don't have any work to get back to.
And yes, we are having the time of our life.
One of the high spots is Psychotronic Paul, a friend of La Skolnique's with whom we happily picked up an acquaintance last year. Now Paul is a Pal and we have been "hanging" with him through the hot tubs, coffee houses, sushi joints and rented cars of our long NorCal vaykay.
A musician and cinema scholar, Mr. Paul is also an indefatigable eater although slightly slowed by a recent diabetes diagnosis (like ourself). He knows more about pre-code animation than any other three people living, and he is one of these soigne men-of-the-world with whom one enters an automobile at 5:30 not knowing whether the evening will bring food, pleasure, music, Greek dancing, hat-wearing, or a movie about the early years of the actor George Hamilton. Whatever happens, one is sure that it will be fun.
Of course La Skolnique has been along for much of this ride, usually telling us to walk rather than take a car. For the last week in Santa Cruz she has been on her own turf and loving it. If we have bought less than 95% of the contents of her local Trader Joe, it is not from her lack of selling us on the merch. (The TJ in Danbury simply doesn't have all this great stuff).
As for leading us to water, La Skol generally does that in order to make us float around and sometimes kick our legs, after which we feel better and can walk even further than before.
But you readers are interested in food, and why should we deprive you? Therefore, the rundown of our favorite places so far.
1) We have now eaten at Gary Danko twice, lifetime, and, although the food is wonderful and the service and ambiance pretty much the best we've ever experienced, we still call Ton Kiang the best restaurant of our stay thus far. It's a bright, modern dim sum house, built on the lines of a Hong Kong-style banquet hall; little did we know that it is usually jammed, with a line out the door to wait for table. When we discovered the place, all we knew was that it was clean and bright, and that's about all we needed right then, also, unlike most of the other places on this restaurant-heavy stretch of Geary Blvd., it was open. It wasn't until we were handed a dim sum menu and a regular menu, heavy on the seafood, that we realized we had discovered a gem--and one of the most popular restaurants in San Francisco.
There were dumplings, of course; pork and chive, shrimp and pea tendril, duck and the lightest possible veil of dough. There were pork buns with an interesting sweet dough. There were fried dumplings and steamed dumplings and other thing which weren't at all dumplings but were quite wonderful.
Best of all for us, there was a dish of Mu Shu Pork which, for the first time in years, brought back our memories of our mother's cooking. A Polish/Jewish cook by tradition, she hated cooking the heavy, fat-laden food of our people and re-created herself as a serious Szechuan cook.
If you don't believe that a City University professor living in the suburbs can produce fine Asian cuisine, you didn't know Mom--or the flocks of Chinese businessmen, business connections of our Dad's, who vied for invitations to our house, and a taste of home. Mom's Mu Shu (and it never was anything but Pork, as the traditional recipe had it) was light and greaseless. The "tree ear" mushrooms were chewy and the tender bamboo strips had a delicate flavor as well as texture, The scallions were never slimy, just fresh and pungent. And there was no slick brown sauce left on the plate, either; a simple, quickly-prepared stir fry like this isn't meant to have a sauce. You just roll it up in pancakes--not thick scallion pancakes like something from the deep-fryer at a country fair, but delicate, almost-transparent rounds of rice flour and water, lightly daubed with plum sauce. The finished bite should leave your mouth fresh and hungry for more.
So, to put the thing in simple terms, we REALLY liked the mu shu pork. And everything else. So far we've eaten here twice.
2) I Love Sushi, Santa Cruz. Please understand first that we are a veteran of sushi. Ever since that night in the winter of 1981 that La Skolnique erroneously pointed out that sushi had like no calories, we have been bolting the stuff like a cannibal piranha. It is, in fact, our default meal. So, on a night without La Skol or Paul, we wandered into this bustling joint which everyone knows about near the water at Santa Cruz.
We ordered three rolls, which made everyone giggle. Why? We soon found out.
Yes--it was, for the first time in our experience, that legendary monster of th West: CALIFORNIZATION OF FOODSTUFFS. This is what happens when something thhat might be, say, a lamb chop back in New York, becomes Meat Extravaganza on Hardwood in the West, after being accessorized with three vegetables, three sauces, a couple of starches and possibly something on the side called a "tian" or "compote". The heyday for such dishes has been over for a while now...so we thought...but this sushi bar (a great favorite amongst the starving students of Santa Cruz, as you can imagine) never forgot it. If something can be rolled in rice and tempura-fried, you'll find it here; if you were hungry when you came in, you can order two rolls and take home a doggy bag. Was it good? Yes, very. But it was a fish-chunk-mayo-and tempura-fried-rice joint, not a sushi bar. We are always willing to be educated, but this was ridiculous.
Next: The Farmers' Markets. Heigh-Ho!