Articles in Restaurant

Rick Gencarelli. Credit: David L. Reamer Photography

What does it take for a well-established farm-to-table chef to make a name for himself in a hotbed of gastronomy like Portland, Ore.? If you ask Rick Gencarelli, it’s all about street cred.

His recognition came by way of the food cart called Lardo that he opened in September 2010. Slinging a porchetta sandwich with a side of hand-cut Parmesan-herb fries and homemade ketchup, Gencarelli instantly won the attention of the food-loving cognoscenti. “Who is this guy?” Portlanders began to ask.

Until then, restaurant developers wouldn’t even return his phone calls.

Gencarelli arrived in Portland from the East Coast with his family in 2009, ready to hit the ground running. He sported a stellar fine dining résumé with the requisite high points: an early start as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant, a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and involvement in award-winning restaurants from San Francisco to Boston. Most notably, Gencarelli launched several restaurants for celebrity chef Todd English before leading the kitchen at the Inn at Shelburne Farms, a landmark farmstead restaurant in Vermont. He even had a New York Times notable cookbook to his name.

Nonetheless, no one in Portland took notice until Gencarelli created Lardo in a charming blue cottage-style cart. His name value skyrocketed, capped off when Smithsonian magazine declared Lardo one of the top 20 foods trucks in the nation in 2012.

The new fine dining

In switching from four-star fare to street food, Gencarelli trailed Portland’s top chefs, including Tommy Habetz, a Mario Batali protegé who created Bunk Sandwiches, and Andy Ricker of Pok Pok restaurant fame, a 2011 James Beard Best Chef Northwest winner. His food was fitting, too, in a town that excels in raising lowbrow cuisine — including PB&Js and barbecue (locally sourced) — to new heights.

Lardo generated so much buzz, the community of chefs and restaurateurs opened up their arms to Gencarelli. “I give Portland all the credit,” he said. Soon, he was on the receiving end of phone calls, including an invitation from restaurant developer Kurt Huffman of Chefstable to give Lardo a real home.

On the day in June 2012 when Gencarelli locked up his food cart for the last time, he felt both relieved and anxious about the transition. “This was never a way to earn a living,” he acknowledged. Now that he was taking his food cart concept into the big time, he worried, “Will I still be able to make my own porchetta? My own ketchup?”

Food cart followers

Gencarelli did not predict the big welcome his brick-and-mortar Lardo would receive in its new Hawthorne Boulevard neighborhood.

A Lardo sandwich. Credit: David L. Reamer Photography

A Lardo sandwich. Credit: David L. Reamer Photography

On opening day that summer, 1,000 fans crowded the shop. “It was absolutely crazy,” Gencarelli remembered, “and we didn’t stop for three days.”

He felt relieved when demand rescinded to manageable levels, but the ball was already rolling with food pod fans ready to follow wherever Gencarelli went with his meaty, signature sandwiches.

Within six months, with Huffman’s backing, Gencarelli opened a second Lardo in downtown Portland. It was quickly followed by Grassa, his paean to pasta, in an adjoining space.

Lest anyone think Gencarelli the chef was going back to white tablecloth dining, Grassa has no waiters, no stemware, no linens in sight. Just generous $8-$12 bowls of homemade pasta served to a surging niche of diners who seek well-crafted, affordable food without the frills. Created in Portland, this is the next wave of fine dining.

Building the Lardo brand

With three new restaurants in operation within eight months, Gencarelli reflected on his quick ascent. He was happy to report he was still rolling his own porchetta, producing the pastrami, and forming banh mi meatballs by the hundreds of pounds. “The flavors of the cart live on,” he said, noting that the only sacrifice was replacing his homemade ketchup with Heinz.

Strangely enough, a business built on Lardo was never part of Gencarelli’s plan. At the first chance, he believed he’d distance himself from the food cart. “I never thought I’d stick with sandwiches. I’d do the cart for a little while and then do plated food again.” And he’d thought about being on the short list for a James Beard Award. “You have to let your ego go a little bit,” he confessed. Now, with his reputation solidly built on the tagline “bringing the fat back,” this ambitious chef was embracing a different career strategy while making real food for the people.

Might Gencarelli follow Ricker to New York, opening a Lardo in that proving ground where his career began?

“I plan on dying in Portland,” he quickly replied. True enough, the last word was that Gencarelli is planning his third Lardo location for Portland’s thriving Alberta neighborhood. It will open by the end of the year.

Top photo: Rick Gencarelli. Credit: David L. Reamer Photography

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Assam laksa from Malaysia Kopitiam. Credit: Aida Ahmad

The interior of Malaysia Kopitiam, tucked downstairs on M Street in Washington, D.C., reminded me very much of the many local restaurants from back home in Malaysia.

I knew this place existed as I walked down 17th Street near Connecticut  Avenue, looking for some Asian cuisine to tuck into.

The bright red awning with the name “Malaysia Kopitiam” emblazoned in white is nestled near a Vietnamese restaurant and not far from the Daily Grill.

During my visit, I sat in one of the vinyl booths and perused the extensive menu filled with familiar Malaysian dishes like nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk) and beef rendang (tender curried beef simmered in coconut milk and roasted dessicated coconut).

Minutes go by and two young Americans walk in to inquire about the food. “What is Malaysian food?” one asked the waitress while her friend scrutinized the names of the foreign dishes. “It’s a mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay flavors. … We have noodles and rice, too,” explained the staff. Still not convinced, the woman asked, “So, is it like Thai?” to which the waitress replied, “It’s similar, but we use different spices. You should try it.” Both women seemed hesitant, so they politely declined and left.

Chefs help customers embrace Malaysian menu

Actually, this is not the usual scenario at Malaysia Kopitiam. “A lot of Americans who come in here already know what to expect of Malaysian food. You would be surprised how adventurous they are,” said Penny Phoon, 54, the chef who owns the business with her husband, Leslie, 58. The couple lives in Falls Church, Va., with their two sons.

The owners hail from Ipoh, a city in the northern state of Perak in Malaysia. In 2000, Malaysia Kopitiam was the first Malaysian restaurant to open in the Washington, D.C., according to Penny.

“There was a café called Penang, which unfortunately closed down after two years. We feel lucky to have survived the first 10 years with the support of regular customers and our staff.  It was tough because we went through a recession, too,” she said.

Because Thai food is the more popular Southeast Asian cuisine, Penny and Leslie make it a point to educate their customers. “We tell them Thai food consists of mostly cold salads, grilled fish and the use of roots and different peppers as well as lemon and sugar. In Malaysian cooking, we use a lot of coconut and gravitate towards tamarind and lime in our dishes.”

Malaysia Kopitiam owners Penny, left, and Leslie Phoon. Credit: Aida Ahmad

Malaysia Kopitiam owners Penny, left, and Leslie Phoon. Credit: Aida Ahmad

Those with spice intolerance will ask what on the menu is spicy and what is not. “There are more adventurous ones who can eat more spicy food than we do,” Penny said.

The menu comprises mostly signature Malay, Chinese and Indian dishes from Penang and Ipoh, including roti canai (Indian-influenced circular flat bread usually consumed with curry), assam laksa (sweet, sour and spicy broth with thick rice noodles, fish, onions and mint leaves) and char koay teow (flat rice noodles fried with dark soy and chili sauce, egg, chives and bean sprouts), to name a few.

Many people have a love-hate relationship with assam laksa because of the “fishy texture.” “You either like it or hate it. If you are adventurous then go ahead, which is what I tell my customers. If I can’t decide what to eat, I will choose laksa, especially in cold winter months as warm comfort food,” Penny said.

Leslie said that apart from surviving the volatile economy, naming the restaurant was another hurdle. “We wanted to simply call it Kopitiam, but it was too generic,” he said. (“Kopi” means coffee in Malay while “tiam” means shop/cafe in the Hakka/Hokkien dialect). “So we had to go with Malaysia Kopitiam, which means Malaysia Café.”

Hung on one wall in the restaurant are the accolades they have garnered over the years. They were bestowed the title of Restaurateur of the Year in 2002 by Washingtonian magazine; 100 Very Best Restaurants Award from 2001 to 2005, and 2007 and 2008; and 100 Best Bargain Restaurants Award from 2001 to 2010, also from Washingtonian. They were also rated “excellent” by Zagat.

When I accompany Penny to the kitchen, she starts to prepare a serving of hokkien mee (thick egg noodles braised with shrimp, fish cake and cabbage in thick soy sauce). She mutters some orders to her helpers in Spanish. “I don’t speak fluent Spanish, but good enough to communicate,” she acknowledges.

I was curious as to where she sourced her spices. “It’s easy to get them from Asian markets here … stuff like turmeric, lime leaves, galangal and torch ginger are available. The first five years we had a supplier make a delivery every two months,” she said.

Penny’s mother was her biggest influence when it came to cooking. “She told me, if you want to be a good chef, you must listen to the good and bad comments. Otherwise, you won’t progress. That is why I keep as close to the ingredients in my cooking but adjust it to suit the local taste here.”

The aroma of the spices permeating throughout the restaurant and warmth from the familiar food was blissful, as I was really missing all of it for the six months I was in the U.S. It was like a home away from home.

Top photo: Assam laksa from Malaysia Kopitiam. Credit: Aida Ahmad

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Even an unrepentant meat eater like myself takes pause before the gory spectacle of tauromachia, the so-called art of bullfighting. Not that I’ve attended an actual Spanish corrida de toros, but I’ve recently seen Francesco Rosi’s painfully graphic 1965 film, “The Moment of Truth.” The “truth” of Spain’s traditional blood sport doesn’t get any more in your face than in Rosi’s classic tale of an aspiring young matador filmed on location at a huge bullring in Barcelona with a 300mm zoom lens used for soccer matches.

Animal rights advocates must have thrilled to the news in 2010 that bullfighting was being outlawed in Catalonia. From their perspective, a slaughterhouse bullet to an unsuspecting bovine brain is far more palatable than a matador’s sword “artistically” delivered between the shoulder blades to the heart of a charging one-ton toro.

After seeing Rosi’s film, I wished I could ask a bull: Would he prefer a painless but oblivious exit to one with suffering and style, or as bullfighting aficionados might say, con arte (with art)? As for me, I’d want to go con arte.

Bottom line, in either scenario the bull will be killed, butchered, cooked and eaten. Frankly, I’ve never considered bullfighting from a gastronomic perspective. I can now see, however, that the matador’s art form represents, in some sense at least, the first stage of an ancient life cycle ritual that ends, one way or another, at the dinner table.

A Spanish butcher in Berkeley

For all I knew, before Anzonini del Puerto arrived on the Berkeley scene in the late 1970s, the bloodied hulks dragged from bullrings were buried with cultural, if not military, honors. Anzonini, a legendary flamenco performer, butcher and cook from Andalusia (one of his nicknames was “butcher of bulls”) disabused me of my naïve disconnect.

As a young man, Anzonini, born Manuel Bermúdez Junquera in 1917, worked at his family’s carnicería (butcher shop) in Puerto de Santa María, near Jerez in southern Spain. Among his tasks was to help cart bulls from the ring and prepare the meat for sale. The family shop was located near the town’s majestic Plaza de Toros. Legend has it that Anzonini could break down an entire bull and be back at the bullring in time to see the next fight.

When Anzonini arrived in Berkeley to visit a group of young flamenco students who had seen him sing and dance in southern Spain, they were ecstatic. These would-be performers worshipped Anzonini not only for his magnetic arte on stage, but also for his gifts in the kitchen. All of which were on full display the night I met Anzonini at a small fiesta held in his honor.

The evening was special for everyone involved: Anzonini’s fans and those, like myself, who were witnessing and tasting his special talents for the first time. As for Anzonini that night, well, he fell in love. The object of his coup de coeur (I know no Spanish language equivalent) was my fellow Cheese Board co-worker and founder of the now legendary Swallow Café at the University of California Berkeley Art Museum, the late Patricia Darrow.

Anzonini’s favorite matador

Moving into Darrow’s small Gourmet Ghetto bungalow, Anzonini was soon presiding over local fiestas; performing, cooking and sharing stories about Spain with his adoring minions. I became one of Anzonini’s minions, and he bestowed upon me my flamenco name: Juan Ajo.

One story, recorded in Darrow’s unfinished manuscript about Anzonini and his food,  expressed his deep connection to the Spanish corrida, not merely its beefy spoils. His favorite matador was Curro Romero who was, according to Anzonini, usually terrible, unintentionally comedic and often cowardly. But on some occasions Curro surpassed himself and his fellow toreros with technical and stylistic genius.

Darrow quotes one of Anzonini’s quips about Curro’s unique presence in the ring:

Running away [from the bull] Curro has more arte than all the rest … That’s how I dance; twenty times badly and one time with arte.

Anzonini obviously saw himself in Curro, at least in terms of performance. But in the kitchen there was never any doubt about Anzonini’s brilliance, and the dishes we tasted over the years were invariably delicioso.

Cocina con arte

Anzonini’s tasty contributions to Berkeley’s gastronomic gestalt in the late 1970s and early ’80s are seldom referenced today. That his sausages, especially his chorizo, inspired important California chefs such as sausage king Bruce Aidells (see the scene in Les Blank’s 1980 film “Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers” where they make chorizo together), and were a popular item for sale at Chef Victoria Wise’s legendary Gourmet Ghetto charcuterie, Pig-by-the-Tail, is passed over in most published accounts of Berkeley’s revolutionary food scene.

Nevertheless, Anzonini and his cooking live on in the memories and stomachs of those who shared those exciting years with him in Berkeley. The aroma coming off his beefy Puchero, a classic Spanish soup simmering on my stove as I write this, is a ticket back to those delicious days when Anzonini del Puerto, butcher of bulls, served his inimitable cocina con arte.

Anzonini’s Puchero

Serves 10 to 12

One of Anzonini’s most celebrated dishes is a delicately seasoned soup/stew prepared with a variety of fatty meats; in this version, oxtails, short ribs and shank. He kept containers of the broth frozen in the refrigerator and would bring it to friends when they were sick. The dish can be served separately as a Sopa de Picadillo with chopped egg, ham and mint followed by a meat course accompanied by small potatoes cooked in the broth.

Ingredients

Anzonini's Puchero served as two courses: a soup, then meat and potatoes. Credit: L. John Harris

Anzonini’s Puchero served as two courses: a soup, then meat and potatoes. Credit: L. John Harris

For the broth:

6 to 8 quarts cold water

6 to 8 pounds beef (oxtails, short ribs, shank)

¾ pound salt pork

2 large tomatoes, quartered

2 large onions, quartered

1 large green bell pepper, sliced

2 to 4 bay leaves

8 to 10 black peppercorns

Salt to taste

Also:

2 dozen small boiling potatoes

3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

1 cup diced ham, preferably Spanish

Fresh mint leaves

Bread brushed with olive oil and toasted

lemon slices (optional)

Directions

1. The day before serving, bring all ingredients for the broth to a boil and skim off impurities. Continue cooking at a slow boil for 2 to 3 hours, until meat falls off the bones. Refrigerate overnight.

2. The next day, remove the fat layer that has solidified on top of the broth. Then heat the meat and broth and correct for salt. Remove the meats from the broth and discard the loose bones. Keep meat warm.

3. Boil potatoes in the broth until soft. Keep warm.

4. To serve, place a few teaspoons of chopped egg and diced ham in shallow soup bowls. Pour in the hot broth. Garnish with a mint leaf and serve with toasted bread. (Anzonini would fry the bread in olive oil.)

5. For the meat course, place meat back in remaining broth to heat through — a few minutes in simmering broth should do. Then serve the meat on plates with the potatoes. Hot broth can be placed on the table in gravy boats.

Note: Anzonini also served this broth in glasses with a slice of lemon and a mint leaf.

Top graphic: Gastro-graphical ISO street sign #4. Credit: L. John Harris

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Anchovy-stuffed olives wreathed in caramel hang from a bonsai tree. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry

It was my 75th birthday, and I had no idea what to expect. My family insisted it be a surprise. We edged our way through a busy commercial street in Girona, Catalonia, and an open doorway beckoned us into the peaceful, sunlit courtyard of El Celler de Can Roca. “A glass of Cava perhaps?” smiles our server, and so begins five hours of unparalleled feasting. El Celler de Can Roca opened 27 years ago and is run by three brothers: Joan at the kitchen range, Jordì the pastry chef and Josep the sommelier. The three have created a gourmet destination that combines past and future with extraordinary brilliance. This March it was named best restaurant in the world on a website sponsored by San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna.

Within the restaurant, the surroundings are strongly linked to the earth, with trees, pebbles and wood-paneled walls enclosing views on a miniature forest of birch trees, giving a feeling of the outdoors. In any restaurant, what’s on the plate should tell you where you are, and with our drinks arrives a tiny bonsai olive tree, instantly setting the scene. We crunch the hanging olives and our mouths burst with salty sweetness — the anchovy-stuffed fruits have been veiled in a whisp of caramel. What could be more symbolic of the ancient city of Girona in the mountains of northern Catalonia, flanked by olive groves running down to the Mediterranean Sea.

The olives lead into a tour of the world in tiny bites: a tomato and coriander guacamole from Mexico, an explosive ball of ceviche broth representing Peru, and pickled vegetables with plum cream as an echo of China. Visit on a different day and the world tour will be different we are told.

Elegant essences

Eager to explore, we opt for the menu of the day, which leads to some 25 eye-catching, palate-teasing tastings, several of them among the most intriguing I’ve encountered anywhere. Just a small spoonful of zarzuela, pungent and concentrated, sums up the essence of the rustic Catalonian fish soup. A single prawn from the nearby port of Palamos provides astonishingly intensive tastes of raw tail, dried feelers, toasted liver meat, and jus from the shell — I would never have thought such a barrage of varied flavors could be extracted from one small beast.

A classic brunoise of baby peas, mango and pear awaits its bath of hot vegetable broth. Credit: Simon Cherniavsky

A classic brunoise of baby peas, mango and pear awaits its bath of hot vegetable broth. Credit: Simon Cherniavsky

Old and new cuisine combine in the two or three mouthfuls of crisp baby pig belly moistened with a Riesling jus, and the pigeon in a classic salmis blood, and liver sauce spiked with nuggets of candied walnut, a mastery of richness and intensity. Though the tastings are tiny, the ingredients are not treated as playthings (one of the great drawbacks of today’s Modernist cuisine). As the meal progresses, it’s clear that Chef Joan is focusing on regional ingredients — fish such as red mullet and bream, are typical of the Mediterranean, the green and black olives are local, pork comes from Iberian pigs, and game from the foothills of the mountains. Some seasonings hark back to the Arabs — rose water, honey, ras el hanout, saffron and orange.

Contemporary tradition

The cooking at Can Roca has roots, but no way could it have been achieved without an ultra-modern kitchen. On arrival, we had been welcomed backstage to see the banks of buttons, stainless steel and gadgetry. The restaurant has lots of staff, too: 35 cooks in the kitchen and a couple dozen servers for perhaps 50 guests. The staff is as international as the diners, John from Philadelphia had just completed seven months at the stove, and Rocio, our server and guide, was from Valencia in southern Spain.

The brothers Roca, from left to right, Jordì, Joan, and Josep. Credit: El Celler de Can

The brothers Roca, from left to right, Jordì, Joan, and Josep. Credit: El Celler de Can

Among the abundance of dishes, the astonishing truffle soufflé stands out, a 2-inch round of feather-light hot truffle mousse enclosed in discs of fresh black truffle, set on a round of warm bone marrow and served under a glass bell which, when lifted, pervades the air with a hint of BBQ smoke. I like to think of myself as a soufflé expert, but I cannot imagine how this tour de force could be carried from the kitchen to diner after diner with never a hint of collapse.

Are the Roca brothers a successor to their former neighbor, Ferran Adrià at el Bullì? The two restaurants share the same Catalonian spice-perfumed air, the freshest of fish, the olive oil and garlic and warm registers of cardamom, cinnamon and cumin that date back to medieval times, backed up the rust red of paprika brought from the New World.

But Adrià, who creates imaginary images and flavors, the Roca brothers focus on real food on the plate. What distinguishes them from other Modernist chefs is their use of modern techniques against a background of tradition. If this is where the gastronomic future lies, let’s pursue it with gusto!

Salty-Sweet Olives

Guests exclaim in surprise when tasting these salty olives dipped in caramel. They will hold up an hour or two, perfect with a glass of cava sparkling white wine, or a very dry martini.

Makes about 30 to 40  olives

Salty-sweet olives on foil. Credit: Courtesy of Anne Willan

Salty-sweet olives on foil. Credit: Courtesy of Anne Willan

Ingredients

1 cup (about 5 ounces) anchovy-stuffed olives in brine

2 cups sugar

2 cups water

Long toothpicks

Directions

1. Drain the olives and dry them very thoroughly on paper towels, squeezing slightly to extract as much brine as possible. This helps the caramel remain crisp. Spear each olive on a toothpick. Set them on a tray lined with paper towels and chill them, uncovered. Prepare a large bowl of hot water, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil.

2. Mix the sugar and water in a small, deep saucepan. (You will have leftover syrup, but this amount is needed for dipping.) Heat gently until the sugar is dissolved, stirring once or twice. Bring the syrup to a boil and boil without stirring to the hard crack, 294 F/146 C on a sugar thermometer. The syrup should be just starting to color. Take at once from the heat and plunge base of the pan into the bowl of hot water to stop cooking.

3. Holding an olive with the toothpick, dip it into the syrup (the syrup sets quicker on cold olives). Lift out, twirl so the olive is lightly coated, let cool a few seconds so the syrup solidifies, and set the olive on the parchment paper. Repeat with the remaining olives. The syrup may start to set, and if so reheat it until liquid and keep going.

4. Transfer the olives to a platter for serving. Serve them at room temperature.

Top photo: Anchovy-stuffed olives wreathed in caramel hang from a bonsai tree. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry

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Stuffed platanos from Nao. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cuban food in Cuba? A cinch, I thought. But common wisdom was that restaurants there were poor and served only passable versions of familiar Cuban dishes done better in Miami or New York. And it was, for the most part, true.

CUBAN DINING


Paladar Doña Eutimia: Callejón del Chorro 60-C, Habana Vieja. Phone: 861-1332.

Nao: Calle Obispo 1, Habana Vieja. Phone: 867-3463.

Mamá Inéz: Calle de la Obrapia 60, Habana Vieja. Phone: 862-2669.


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On my first visit to the island more than 15 years ago, I envisioned gorging on the spicy picadillo, succulent lechón and fruity batidos that I enjoyed as a kid in New York. But meal after dreary meal I dined on fried mystery meat and dry rice and beans. Looking around me, I felt lucky to be able to eat at all and didn’t complain. But Cuban gastronomy? Not to be found. It was the “special period,” after the Soviet Union pulled out, and there were shortages of everything from airplane parts to salt. Imports were limited, and many local people didn’t have enough on their plates — even those with resources had little choice of what to buy. As with most Communist governments, conserving culinary tradition was at the bottom of the agenda.

As we barrel ahead into the 21st century, the exuberant citizens of Cuba struggle to come to terms with a regime that has barely budged in over 50 years of ironclad rule. Small freedoms have been won recently, cracks in the walls have appeared. People are freer to leave. Dissidents are left in relative peace. Gays are no longer jailed and even have their own beach. And the restaurant scene, from a visitor’s perspective anyway, is blossoming.

The Cuban government has allowed the private ownership of paladares (the word paladar means palate or taste), privately owned small restaurants, since the 1990s. At first, home cooks opened their dining rooms to the public, offering simple criollo — traditional Cuban — food. But restrictions were placed on the number of tables as well as the menu. Seafood was strictly under the counter, for example, keeping restaurants at a basic level.

gilman-paladardonaeutimia-outside

gilman-paladardonaeutimia-outside
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Paladar Doña Eutimia. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Rules have been relaxed somewhat in the last couple of years as a concession to the call for free enterprise, or perhaps better said, reality. There is more tourism now: new, sophisticated visitors who come for music, food and culture — not just cigars and the beach. So some paladares have blossomed into full-fledged professional operations: maître d’s, wine lists, reservations accepted.

Some aim for the international hipster. Le Chansonnier, for example is set in an old mansion where black-clad staff serve contemporary cuisine to the likes of visiting Spanish royalty.

More interesting are several new venues that celebrate traditional Cuban cuisine. These places see fit to rescue and restore classic cooking. Recipes that languished in books or in the memories of grandmothers who lived before the revolution are being revived. Nowadays a wider variety of raw ingredients is available, and chefs, as well as the home cooks who can, are taking advantage of this wealth while exploring the rich lexicon of criollo cooking. Lobster, fish, lamb, even venison can be procured with some effort — indeed, most materia prima is produced on the island.

The view from Havana

A case in point is Restaurante Mama Inéz, named after a famous folk song (“Ay mamá Inéz, ay mamá Inéz, todos los negros tomamos café“). It’s one of the best of this new breed.

Chef Erasmo from Mama Inéz. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Chef Erasmo from Mama Inéz. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Located in the heart of restored Habana Vieja, the décor is homey, like an old-fashioned Italian trattoria, and the menu is classic, with dishes that would make any Cuban mama proud. Chef Erasmo meticulously prepares an artisanal version of arroz con pollo, the iconic Cuban dish. It’s made to order and served in a ceramic cazuela. Like a good risotto, the rice is al dente, little chunks of boned chicken are tender and the sauce fragrant, well balanced and made more complex by the addition of tomatoes, white wine, beer, green pepper, garlic and achiote (annatto). This is home-style cooking at its best; no corners are cut.

One of the chefs at Doña Eutimia. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

One of the chefs at Doña Eutimia. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Another popular spot near the cathedral, Doña Eutimia, serves Cuban food, traditional albeit gussied up. The menu includes many well-known classics, such as ropa vieja and picadillo. The mariscada del chef, sautéed seafood served in a lobster shell, is somewhat reminiscent of a New Orleans-style étouffée. This is Caribbean cooking at its best.

Nao, which recently opened in Habana Vieja, is yet another venue for highfalutin Cuban cuisine. Its food is unpretentious and doesn’t turn its back on tradition. According to the chef, dishes are similar to those that would have been prepared during the colonial era in which a profound mix of African, Spanish and French influence can be detected. Case in point is deep-fried whole pargo, a meaty fish, whose crust is fragrant with cumin and garlic. Or the stuffed tostones, fried mashed plantain “boats” with four different fillings, both surf and turf, which are imaginative and modern but steeped in tradition: after all, tostones accompany almost every meal in every table in Cuba.

This is not to say that everything is smooth sailing. Like everyone else on the island, a restaurateur’s life is not easy. Shortages of taken-for-granted goods as tomatoes and onions are commonplace, sudden blackouts frequent. But, in keeping with the positive spirit of the people, these handicaps are overcome. And it mustn’t be forgotten that in Cuba the majority will never enter this kind of restaurant and will barely scrape by on beans and rice. So it’s a small miracle that this gastronomic revival, supported by visitors and the privileged few nationals who can afford the price of admission, is taking place.

I will now return on one of my frequent sojourns with light-headed gustatory expectation. I know I won’t be let down.

Top photo: Stuffed plátanos (plantains) at Nao. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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Tartare of yellowfin tuna and diver scallops seasoned with American caviar. Credit: Diana DeLucia

Looking ahead to hot days when meals must be light and flavorful, home cooks and restaurant chefs alike want light and flavorful dishes to put on the table. One dish perfect for the summer is tuna tartare, delicately seasoned and plated to satisfy any gourmand’s need for luxurious food, beautifully presented.

Gabriel Kreuther, executive chef at The Modern, the fine dining restaurant at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art is a master at preparing beautifully delicious comfort food. With a dining room view of MoMA’s sculpture garden, Chef Kreuther lets his food take its cue from the art. His plates are mini-sculptures, animated with color, contrasts and meticulous detailing.

Tartare, like sashimi, is only as good as its ingredients and those must be as fresh as possible. Quality seafood purveyors are a good source of the high quality yellowfin tuna and diver scallops required for the recipe.

Adding to the quality of the seafood is the visual design. For Kreuther, the extra effort it takes to make a visually striking plate gives added pleasure to a dish.

Tartare of Yellowfin Tuna and Diver Scallops Seasoned with American Caviar

Serves 6

For the tartare:

12 ounces yellow fin tuna, sushi grade, medium dice (½-inch cubes)

12 ounces diver scallops (8 to 10 of the freshest, highest quality, firm), medium dice (½-inch cubes)

2 tablespoons hazelnut oil

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 ounces American Caviar

3 tablespoons chives, finely chopped

1 lemon, juiced

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 cucumber, not too thick, preferably seedless, unpeeled

2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar (or reduction of regular balsamic vinegar made by reducing 8 tablespoons over a low flame), as needed

Baby greens or arugula for garnish

For the chive oil:

Chives, leftover parts from above chopped portion

4 tablespoons grapeseed oil

Directions

To prepare the chive oil:

1. Blend the chives and oil in a blender.  Strain the mixture and reserve in a squeeze bottle.

To prepare the seafood:

1. Dice the tuna into ½-inch cubes. Place into a bowl, cover and reserve in the refrigerator.

2. Dice the scallops into similarly sized ½-inch cubes. Place into a separate bowl, cover and also refrigerate.

To prepare the bed of cucumber:

1. Wash the cucumber and pat it dry. Slice it very thinly using a Japanese mandoline slicer for better precision or if unavailable, use a very sharp knife.

2. Season the slices with salt, pepper and a bit of olive oil and arrange the slices on a chilled plate in 2 overlapping columns (6 slices each, arranged like shingles on a roof) down the center of the plate. Refrigerate until ready to plate the dish.

To prepare the tartare mixture:

1. Combine the tuna and scallops in one bowl and add the chopped chives, hazelnut oil, olive oil and caviar.

2. Season with salt and pepper and mix all the ingredients together gently. On the final stir, add some lemon juice to taste.

Note: Do not use too much lemon juice, as it will overpower the dish.

To plate the dish:

1. Place several spoonfuls of the tartare mixture along the length of the 2 columns of cucumber, down the center, leaving some of the outer edge of cucumbers to be visible.

2. Season the baby greens with some of the remaining lemon juice and olive oil.

3. Spike one end of the tartare with a few leaves of the seasoned greens.

4. Finally, using the aged balsamic vinegar (or reduced balsamic vinegar) and the chive oil in 2 separate squeeze bottles, make 2 straight lines, on either side of the columns of cucumber (parallel to and approximately ½ inch away from the cucumbers.)

Top photo: Tartare of yellowfin tuna and diver scallops seasoned with American caviar. Credit: Diana DeLucia

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Todd Wojcik (left) and John Berka star in

Upon receiving an e-mail out of the blue last week from a filmmaker asking me whether I’d like to screen his latest production, I half wondered whether he’d meant to send it to my significant other, who just so happens to be the artistic director of a film festival here in Denver. Yes, “Trubadeaux: A Restaurant Movie” is about the hospitality industry, and yes, I’ve written an article or two about food on the silver screen. As a grad student in English many years ago, I even taught a couple of classes on the relationship between film and literature. But none of that makes me a professional reviewer.

Still, living with a programmer does mean I wind up watching dozens upon dozens of movies by unknown hopefuls every year — enough to get a sense of what’s worth my time and what isn’t in all of 15 minutes. So despite a bit of skepticism, I figured I had no more than a quarter-hour to lose.

Long story short: I not only watched and enjoyed the whole thing — as you can do on the filmmakers’ website for $5 — but even laughed out loud now and then. As it turns out, this slightly blue, slightly black shoestring comedy about a few days in the lives of a fictional Chicago eatery’s staff of misfits was written, directed, produced and performed by a team with both improv and service backgrounds. And it shows in every last silly, sad-sack detail — from the deadpan exchanges with snobby customers who insist that, say, Sicily isn’t in Italy to the screaming matches in pre-service meetings to the awkward kiss-and-tells of fellow employees. (Shooting took place on location at Edgewater Beach Café.)

“Trubadeaux” stars have restaurant chops

In fact, Group Mind Films managing partner John Berka — who co-created “Trubadeaux” and stars as pitifully piggish general manager Lyle — is in the business even today: “I started at age 15 at Applebee’s, and I’m currently a private-dining manager at the James Beard Award-winning Blackbird. I have done just about everything in the industry — except work as a GM! The one I play in the film is based on a few I’ve known here in Chicago.” Co-star Todd Wojcik — who plays Lyle’s brother, the head chef — likewise based his character on real-life ex-colleagues: “Todd has a ton of restaurant experience,” explains Berka. “We actually wrote a lot of the film while working together in a Rush Street restaurant.”

That scripting process, he adds, unfolded “very organically.” “Todd and I would meet for our weekly writing sessions and wind up talking about what had happened the night before on the job,” Berka recalls. “My business partner, Jay Sukow, stopped us one day and said, ‘Guys, this is the film.’ From there, we started making a list of all of the weird things that have happened to us working in the industry. Everything was a collaboration inspired by real events, brought to life with the ‘yes, and’ mentality that’s the pillar of improvisation. For instance, the scene about the water main breaking over the sugar supply is one that every restaurant person loves. That was entirely improvised.”

Meanwhile, the supporting cast brought their own experiences to bear on the script: “Duane Toyloy (who plays Jackson) is a very strong server. We wrote his part around his serving ability, while Jyo Minekowa (Blair) is not the best waiter, but has a great personality. Jyo sued one of our former employers; we incorporated that into the scene at the bar where he talks about how Lyle and the chef are stealing tips. And the letter Lyle reads to the staff” — a tirade on lackluster service — “was based largely off a real letter received at a restaurant that both Jyo and I worked at. Rafa the dishwasher (Juan Palomino) is also a local industry veteran; he’s from Puebla, Mexico, and he came up with the idea for his character himself.”

Ultimately, says Berka, the goal “for me, as a longtime waiter, was to show people what waiters go through. The dynamics of a high-stress environment populated by out-of-control egos fuels the natural humor in restaurants” — and also the misery, he admits. “One of the themes of ‘Trubadeaux’ is addiction. Addiction is one of the constants in this life. I don’t think people have a real sense of everything that goes into working in a restaurant. We wanted to show people what happens when no guests are around. That’s the most compelling aspect.”

For other worthy food-and-drink-fueled movies — both narrative and documentary,  many lesser known — click this film list. I also heartily recommend the charming “I Like Killing Flies,” a slice-of-life look at New York City’s notorious Shopsin’s; “Blood Into Wine,” featuring Tool frontman-turned-winemaker Maynard James Keenan; and “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress,” a gorgeously detailed account of menu creation under the legendary Ferran Adrià.

Top photo: Todd Wojcik (left) and John Berka star in “Trubadeaux.” Credit: Jason Beaumont

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Proposed ISO Gastronomical menu signs. Credit: John Harris

We are told there are four, five, six, even seven basic nutritional food groups, but there are really only two basic food-consuming groups, at least at the top of today’s fine dining food pyramid: the tasters and the eaters.

The tasters are driven by consumerism and connoisseurship — they collect culinary experience; and the eaters by hunger and old-world gourmandise — they crave culinary experience. Both lay claim to the gastronomic high ground. And they have gone to war, at least in the media.

Pete Wells of the New York Times, a partisan in the battle, cleverly placed these two feuding foodie factions into a class perspective last fall in his Times article, “Nibbled to Death”:

… the elite who now fill these [tasting menu-only] dining rooms are a particular kind of diner, the big-game hunters out to bag as many trophy restaurants as they can. Another kind of eater, the lusty, hungry ones who keep a mental map of the most delicious things to eat around town, may be left outside.

Are tasting menus taking us to the cleaners?

Wells appears to have at least made peace with the best of the tasting menu-only restaurants, the ones that have captured most of the Michelin stars across America — like Alinea in Chicago, Atera in New York, Saison in San Francisco and, of course, the mother of all tasting-menu meccas, The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif.

But Corby Kummer in Vanity Fair (“Tyranny — It’s What’s For Dinner”) is taking no prisoners:

The entire experience they will consent to offer is meant to display the virtuosity not of cooks but of culinary artists. A diner’s pleasure is secondary; subjugation to the will of the creative genius comes first, followed, eventually, by stultified stupefaction.

Thomas Keller’s French Laundry takes much of the brunt of Kummer’s explosive salvos. Kummer’s snarky gibes about the Stalinist tyranny and torture of contemporary tasting menu meals must have gotten Keller’s free-range goat.

In a recent interview in HuffPost San Francisco, Keller responded with careful disdain:

It’s fine. I can’t control what people write and Corby has to make a living …  His argument was that diners don’t have a choice when they come to French Laundry, but as Michael Bauer pointed out [Inside Scoop SF], you make the choice when you make the reservation.

I’m not sure that Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s veteran restaurant critic cum blogger, has the requisite firepower to go up with Keller mano a mano against Kummer and Wells, but I think on this point the Keller/Bauer team wins the skirmish if not the war.

A French Laundry I could love

Keller also scores big when he comments in the interview that Kummer had not been to The French Laundry since 1997. A more recent visit would have revealed that the 40-course menu Kummer remembers so clearly has shrunk at the Laundry to just 12 courses. Not particularly overwhelming as tasting menus go.

Which is precisely why I made a pilgrimage to Yountville in March for a birthday lunch at The French Laundry. I had had a disappointing meal there in 2010 — you know, the usual complaints: too many dishes, food too fussy, nothing served hot, etc. — but didn’t want to rely on impressions from the past.

Simulated French Laundry eating menu. Credit: L. John Harris and PNR GraphicsFrench Laundry eating menu. Credit: L. John Harris

Simulated French Laundry eating menu. Credit: L. John Harris and PNR Graphics

Of the dishes served this time, half were still either not to my liking (the raw-ish room temperature morsel of Hawaiian big-eye tuna was rather flavorless even with its quirky  “everything bagel” crust) or unnecessary (a pretty standard potato salad), and the other half surprisingly good, like exotic culinary jewels glittering with serious flavor.

If those delicious little dishes were repurposed on a prix fixe eating menu (see illustration), and portioned accordingly, it would have been one of the best meals of my life. Imagine an optional menu at The French Laundry that flips the traditional French dégustation menu on its head — more food per plate, fewer plates, same price ($270).

Looking back in hunger

When I decided to enlist in this battle of the tasters and the eaters, I assumed I’d take a few pot shots of my own at tasting-menu tyranny. But truth is I’ve found the media brouhaha overwrought and critically myopic. Would I have held with the Fauves when Cubism ascended to the throne of 20th-century painting? I might have found Cubism too drab and analytical compared to the wild color symphonies of the passing Fauvism; but the glory of art, real art in any medium (even food), is that it’s ultimately, and endlessly, expansive, never reductive.

Foreshadowing our current foodie feuding in his 1976 essay, “The Eaters and the Eaten,” John Berger, the English art critic and novelist, got it spot on, I think, when he identified the two basic kinds of eating in our post-modern, post-consumerist world — peasant vs. bourgeois:

… the peasant way of eating is centred on the act of eating itself and on the food eaten … Whereas the bourgeois way of eating is centred on fantasy, ritual and spectacle. The first can complete itself in satisfaction; the second is never complete and gives rise to an appetite which, in essence, is insatiable.

Fifty years from now, I don’t want to sound like one of those 19th-century critics who wrote about Impressionist painting as amateurish and unfinished, if not outright evil. Contemporary tasting menus, for all the technical nonsense and extravagant excess, are far from evil, Stalinist or merely culinary. At their best, these meals are like going to the opera or those large multimedia art installations museums love to exhibit these days — a once-a-year adventure.

On the other hand, eater’s menus that present a simple food aesthetic paying homage to a traditional cooking and eating style (local, seasonal foods prepared well and served without fuss in standard courses to hungry eaters) can in fact bring greater satisfaction, as Berger suggests, than the most brilliantly avant-garde tasting menu spectacles. Cassoulet anyone?

Top graphic credit:  L. John Harris with PNR Graphics

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