Articles in Restaurant

A peek from the bar area into the kitchen at Xiao Bao Biscuit. Credit: Sara Franklin

Culinarily inclined as I am, when I began planning a New Year’s holiday to Charleston, S.C., I started drawing up my “to-eat” list months in advance. There were the old-time comfort-food fixtures, of course, like Martha Lou’s and Bertha’s Kitchens. And I couldn’t resist making reservations at Husk, given how the name Sean Brock has become practically synonymous with unabashed Lowcountry pride. But in doing my homework, I also sensed a buzz brewing in the Holy City, a desire among the food set to move beyond regional classics and bring the historic city into the culinary here and now. I thought I’d have to sign up for some underground supper club. How wrong I was. Turns out all one needs to do to explore the innovative edge of the Charleston dining scene is walk north from downtown, away from the water and the romantic side alleys and stately homes, to the Upper King district.

In Charleston, charm has long been the name of the game. The city advertises itself as so steeped in tradition it verges on kitsch. Deep history, old money and a proud sense of place are inescapable in the Lowcountry’s best known, and much beloved, city. But recently, a group of inventive chefs, restaurateurs and cocktail pros have been busy reimagining what constitutes Charleston “charm.” These movers and shakers have been snapping up vacant spaces on Upper King — the stretch of one of Charleston’s main arteries farther away from the waterfront — and transforming the neighborhood into the heartbeat of Charleston’s youthful revival.

We’ve seen this game before — hip risk-takers transform struggling neighborhoods, storefront by storefront, into the next “it” district. (Brooklyn? Oakland? Chicago, anyone?) In Charleston, gritty-cool “dives” like The Recovery Room Tavern now rub shoulders with class acts such as  The Belmont; and Charleston’s formal sit-down dinner tradition has been turned on its head by wildly popular eateries such as Butcher & Bee sandwich shop (which also features regular — and regularly sold-out — pop-up dinners) and Two Boroughs Larder.

New Charleston restaurants open to big crowds

I happened to arrive at a fortuitous time. The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2012 offered the opening of three new dining venues on Upper King, each with a unique menu and concept, and all three already in high demand.

The Ordinary

First stop: The Ordinary. Just before Christmas, chef/owner Mike Lata (of FIG fame) and partner Adam Nemirow opened the doors to their eagerly awaited seafood establishment. I stopped by my first afternoon in town and found myself swooning over The Ordinary’s dramatic and elegant setting. Housed in a historic bank building designed in 1927 by celebrated local architect Albert Simons, it’s difficult not to be taken with The Ordinary’s 22-foot ceilings, large windows and class-act renovation. (Read: tiled walls, towering flower arrangements and a long, marble bar.) Over apéritifs and an unusual array of local oysters, manager Brooks Reitz stopped by to talk. “Surprisingly, because we’re a waterfront town, there’s no definitive great seafood place in Charleston,” he told me. “The Ordinary is an answer to that.” Diverging from FIG’s reputation as a quiet spot for “casual” fine dining, The Ordinary is “louder, funkier and more ‘detailed’ casual,” Reitz explained. “Our menu layout is very different. Here, you order a bunch, and it comes out as it’s ready, which is shocking for some Charleston folks who are used to regimen.” While the focus is on offerings from nearby waters, Lata’s New England heritage peeks through on the menu — a lobster roll is featured alongside Southern classics like “peel-and-eat” shrimp and gumbo.

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Oyster shells at The Ordinary. Credit: Sara Franklin

Xiao Bao Biscuit

Just a few blocks away, on a sleepy residential block, a young couple has opened a very different kind of a local gem. Hidden behind the unassuming plate-glass windows of an old gas station shop is Xiao Bao Biscuit, the quirky little restaurant that (so far, it seems) could. Like so many restaurateurs these days, native South Carolinian Joshua Walker and his wife and partner, Duolan Li, who’s Mongolian by ethnicity, tested the waters with pop-up dinners before venturing into the world of full-fledged restaurant ownership. The couple met in New York, where they both worked in the business. They married and began to think about where to settle down. But not before dropping all their things with Walker’s family in Charleston and hitting the road for a seven-month honeymoon tromping around Asia. After deciding to make Charleston home, the couple saw their recent Asian experiences as a boon in a city bereft of the ilk of Asian food the couple had grown accustomed to in New York.

Open just a month now, Xiao Bao seems to be settling nicely into its new digs. When I visited, a warm and convivial neighborhood vibe filled the sunny space. I quickly befriended my server, who was happy to keep refilling my glass with the addictively spicy ginger-and-lemongrass house iced tea. After downing an Okonomiyaki (“what you like” cabbage pancake with kale, scallion, pork belly and a fried egg) and a refreshingly clean bowl of cold rice noodles, I spent some time chatting with Duolan, or “Dee,” who shows up at the restaurant to “play hostess” after her day job at a design and marketing firm. While her husband kept his head down in the kitchen, preparing for evening service, Dee told me the couple was pleased with their success so far. Neighbors, she explained, often stop in for a bite and a cocktail in the evening, and the popularity of the couple’s pop-up series has translated into a bustling dinner scene.

The Rarebit

And then there’s The Rarebit, a 1960s inspired diner-cum-Hollywood cocktail bar. Sorry to say, I didn’t make it in — this is what happens when one waits too long over a busy holiday weekend. (I kept hoping the packed house would die down. Alas, the joint closed down for New Year’s Day, and I took off for home the next morning.) But a good peek in the window and a scan of The Rarebit’s website gave me a bit of insight into what I was missing. John Adamson, a restaurant vet whose past endeavors include Boylan Heights in Charlottesville, Va., has built out a sassy, inviting space accented by its long elegant bar, leather-backed stools, plaid-printed booths and bold artwork. Hungry visitors can get breakfast all day as well as simple plates Adamson calls “cheffed-up diner fare“: grilled cheese, chicken noodle soup, chicken and waffles and a daily blue-plate special. But the real draw seems to be the cocktails. Brian Sweatman, who was a fixture at Granville’s before it closed, makes all his own bitters and sodas at The Rarebit. And while the components of the cocktails may be obsessively fresh, the menu aspires to perfect the classics rather than erring toward mixologist hipster-fication.

So is the Old Charleston out? Not a chance. The city’s got too much history — and too many people interested in buying into that nostalgic image, be it real or imagined — to let its past fall by the wayside. But with the Upper King renaissance in full swing,  Charleston has become the site of an unlikely, intoxicatingly exciting mashup of old South and edgy urban revival. With reverence for tradition tucked snuggly into their consciences but a gutsy hunger for experimentation guiding their menus, Charleston is proving, again, that chefs are at the helm of the (re)invention of the American city.

Photo: A peek from the bar area into the kitchen at Xiao Bao Biscuit. Credit: Sara Franklin

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L. John Harris' illustrated vision for

The Greeks seem well on their way to a fate akin to the Dodo. Or so one gathers from media reports on the southern Eurozone countries known as PIGS — Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain — and the economic free fall that has threatened the survival of the Eurozone.

Of the Eurozone’s southern-tier PIGS, the Greeks are the real tragedians, an Homeric tale of hubris, greed and corruption that has pushed the feta capital of the world to the brink of self-destruction that would make America’s Great Recession look like a picnic.

So how can we help, we who believe in Greece more, perhaps, than the Greeks? We, that is, who grew up loving tzatziki, moussaka, spanakopita and “Zorba the Greek.”  I’m thinking gastro-tourism and its twin, agro-tourism. And I’m proposing a new airline, CULINAIR, and we are going to save Greece and the Eurozone one cuisine at a time. Yes, a UFO invasion, waves of 737s filled with Urban Food Obsessives, aka foodies, descending on Greece to plant dollars in the fertile fields of the Peloponnese.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth

One recent headline in the Wall Street Journal puts Greece’s tragedy this way: “For Greeks, Crisis Reverses A Generation of Progress” (Nov. 19, 2012). The article focuses on the stories of several nouveau bourgeois Greeks forced to leave Athens and return to their ancestral villages and family farms and to lives of hard labor and poverty.

Or, as journalists Gordon Fairclough and Nektaria Stamouli put it in their Journal article, “Families that had clawed their way into the middle class in the decades after World War II are slipping painfully backward.”

Painful, of course, but backward? Sad that Greeks raising goats to make cheese and harvesting olives for oil,  two things they do as well as any country in Europe, consider themselves losers. “For many people my age growing up in Athens,” says a former plumber featured in the article, “they wouldn’t ever imagine doing something like this.”

“This” refers to milking a goat.

Ironic that these same food-production tasks, laborious and low-paying as they may be, are considered career choices today by young middle-class urbans around the world hungry for a more authentic life connected to the land and the production of first-class culinary products.

Gastro-tourism to the rescue in France

To be sure, the forced return to difficult rural lifestyles by tens of thousands of Greeks is not a particularly happy choice. But what they don’t seem to see is the silver lining that their farming neighbors to the north are discovering: that there is gastro-tourist gold in them thar Eurozone hills. Have these Greeks lost touch with their inner Zorba? He was, after all, a chef, not just a chronic dancer and philandering lush.

Witness, for example, regions like France’s Dordogne where the agriculture sector is being supported by creative refugees from France’s urban middle class. Case in point: The Brusquand farm in this southwest region of France (also known as Perigord) and its four generations of farming women — Isabelle, Ginette, Marie and, now, Charlotte, the 20-something daughter of Isabelle and husband Christophe — who have opened a restaurant that features the special products from their duck and goose farm such as foie gras, patés and confit.

I first heard about the Ferme du Brusquand and its new auberge last fall at the Bay Area’s Mill Valley Film Festival. Premiering was the documentary After Winter, Spring by Judith Lit, an American living part time on a small farm in the region. Over the course of three years, she focused her camera on her neighbors, farmers who have come up against forces that threaten a way of life that has evolved since Neolithic times: encroaching suburbia, industrial farm competition and decreasing subsidies.

The farm’s new restaurant — Auberge de la Ferme du Brusquand — is managed by young Charlotte who has returned home from Paris to join her family. Her father, Christophe, is the chef. Good reviews of the auberge and two new rental cottages on the property have sparked an invasion of UFOs that make it possible now for the older Brusquand women to enjoy the fruits of their labor without the fear of losing the farm.

Gastro-tourists at the Brusquand farm.  Credit: “From the film “After Winter, Spring” by Judith Lit

Gastro-tourists at the Brusquand farm.
Credit: From the film “After Winter, Spring” by Judith Lit

Crooked labels and crooked books

It may seem naïve to think that a surge of Greek pride in its gastronomic patrimony will help turn around the Greek economy, let alone the Eurozone. Corrupt business practices, fuzzy regulations and even crooked labels on Greece’s upscale gourmet products don’t help matters. And the truth is that Greece’s most popular products, like feta cheese and olive oil, have never caught on outside Greece on the scale of equivalent products produced by European competitors to the north.

According to Bay Area entrepreneur Peter Damm, whose former import-export company, Peloponnese, had moderate success in the U.S. back in the 1980s: “Even superb Greek products from small family farms, such as delicate olive oils and handpicked herbs, couldn’t compete with French and Italian offerings. There was a perception that Greece was just not a refined culture, so these products just couldn’t be good.”

Oink like a pig, WWOOF like a farmer

Despite the perceptual and actual obstacles, it’s possible now to at least consider a turnaround for Greece driven by its menu of classic delights. Worldwide trends in gastro- and agro-tourism may in fact be the key — like farms in France, Great Britain and elsewhere that are making room for authenticity junkies to participate in, or at least watch, the daily routines. Dude farms, it turns out, are cash cows.

Then there’s the international organization known as WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, that puts volunteers to work — really work — all over the world. Imagine young nouveau-poor but land-rich Greeks repurposing their family farms and producing products with the free labor of UFOs dying to get their hands dirty in the name of righteous agriculture and gastronomy.

The more I think about it, saving Greece and the Eurozone through gastro-tourism is no fantasy. All that Greece and its fellow PIGS need, and all CULINAIR needs, is the capital — culinary, political and financial — to make it happen. Are you listening Angela Merkel and Sir Richard Branson?

Top illustration credit: L. John Harris and PR Graphic Arts

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scungilli

There are foods we remember from our younger days that, if they are not quite comfort food, they certainly evoke pleasant memories. For many people who grew up in the New York City area there was a kind of Italian-American restaurant that we loved. Instead of what we’ve grown to recognize as authentic Italian cuisine, it served up the Italian-American classic recipes, such as scungilli, that keep a special place in our hearts.

Its name was the name of the family that owned it: Christiano’s or Brancato’s and so forth. The tablecloths were red-checked, the waitresses were quick, sassy and not struggling actors. They were packed and you would wait for a table, the candles were set in old Chianti bottles wrapped in straw and the walls were decorated with Italian kitsch. Dean Martin and “Volare” played in the background and on the tables were dispensers of dried oregano, dried garlic powder, red chile flakes, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. The Parmesan was not imported, I’m sure. Service was nearly instantaneous as hot bread was brought as soon as you sat down.

We remember the food as being terrific. We ordered antipasto. There was no plural. An antipasto was a platter of iceberg lettuce, canned olives, out-of-season tomato slices, wedges of provolone cheese and rolled-up slices of salami.

The Italian-American glory days of spaghetti

There was lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs, of course. There was veal piccata and shrimp scampi. There was no risotto. These were the days before anybody in America knew there was a cuisine from northern Italy. In fact, when northern Italian food first made its entry into the American restaurant scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, some of those restaurants advertised themselves with the tag line “no red sauce.” My, how things have changed. Today restaurant-goers know about “a little Tuscan place” and they order carpaccio and tiramisu, two dishes utterly unknown in the Italian-American restaurants of old. Frankly, I miss the spumoni.

Our meals came with garlicky garlic bread that was piping hot and we loved it. Sometimes we ordered pizza, but never as a first course. One dish my mom and I were quite fond of was spaghetti with scungilli. She remembered it from her childhood growing up in Manhattan because her Italian father would make it in the 1920s and ’30s. She remembers liking it but not as much as calamari. She rarely made it at home; it was a dish for the restaurants. The restaurants made it just like her father. Nearly all of these Italian-American restaurants were run by families who traced their origins to southern Italy, especially Sicily, Calabria or the Naples area. But not all these families came from a restaurant tradition or even a tradition of cooking, and so many of them weren’t really very good.

All-American Italian scungilli

Scungilli is usually described as conch, and it can be made with conch, but it is actually whelk or murex, which are mollusks found in the waters around Long Island. I believe it is an Italian-American dish. Although scungilli is an Italian-American corruption of the Neapolitan dialect word, sconciglio, spaghetti with scungilli is not known in Italy. At least scungilli is a word that does not appear in any of my Italian dictionaries nor in any Italian cookbook I own except one.

Spaghetti with Scungilli

You will find scungilli in one of three forms: live in their shell, frozen out of their shell, and canned. Fresh whelk needs to be purged of its impurities. Place in a bowl of cold water and keep changing the water until the last change results in perfectly clear water after 2 hours. This process could take 2 days. Frozen conch meat is frozen fresh and purged, so it, and/or the fresh whelk, needs to be boiled for about 3 hours. Canned scungilli only needs to be heated for 1 minute.

Serves 4

Ingredients

12 whelks (2 to 3 inches long, about 3 pounds) or 1 pound frozen conch meat or two 6-ounce cans scungilli

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil leaves

4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

Salt to taste

4 cups water

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

¾ pound spaghetti

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt, and add the whelks in their shells (or the frozen conch) and cook for 3 hours, replenishing the water when necessary. Remove from the water, drain and detach the small shell-hard “foot” from the opening. Chop or slice and set aside.

2. In a large flameproof casserole, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then cook, stirring constantly, the parsley, basil and garlic for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and salt and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the scungilli, reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 to 6 hours, replenishing the water if necessary. The final sauce should be a dense sauce. Season with pepper. (If using canned scungilli, cook the tomato sauce for 15 minutes, add the canned scungilli, and cook 2 minutes and serve with the pasta).

3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer the pasta to the sauté pan and toss until well coated with sauce then serve without cheese.

Top photo: Scungilli. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Zester 2012 Reader Favorites

Zester Daily readers have shown an appreciation for a stunning variety of stories over the past year. A quick scan of the 2012 reader favorites reveals a yen for Ruth Bourdain’s dishes, cuisine from every corner of the world, food preservation, photography, films, wine insider news and a treasured recipe for flavored marshmallows — as well as a critique of American taste.

Snippets of the 12 most popular Zester Daily contributors’ stories, plus the five most popular Soapboxes, are below. Follow the story links to read the complete text. Follow the contributor links to read more by each author.

The stories are listed in reverse order.

Top contributors’ stories of 2012

12. THE ORIGINS OF CURRY by Raghavan Iyer: Before I try to define the word “curry,” let me create an image for you from my college laboratory days in India where I pursued a degree in chemistry over 20 years ago. As I busied myself measuring crystals of …

11. OLD-SCHOOL SOY SAUCE by Manuela Zoninsein: There’s no one right ritual or rule to guide your eating extravaganza on Jan. 23. The Chinese New Year involves a number of great food traditions. Dumplings are reminiscent of coins in ancient China and will thus bring …

10. TEN BEST FOODIE FLICKS by David Latt: If cold weather traps you indoors for months each winter, you might run through your queue of streaming movies pretty quick. Why not entertain yourself with a library of the best …

9. HOW KERMIT LYNCH TAUGHT AMERICANS HOW TO DRINK WINE by Patrick Comiskey: Forty years ago, Kermit Lynch abandoned the handmade purse industry and opened a wine shop in Berkeley, Calif., and in doing so, became one of the great innovators of …

8. WINE’S ACCUSED GRIFTER, RUDY KURNIAWAN by Corie Brown: By the summer of 2006, when I first noticed Rudy Kurniawan at Christie’s in Beverly Hills, he had transformed the market for old wine from a sleepy backwater into a high-stakes free-for-all. Only the richest wine collectors knew him. Or thought they did …

7. THANKSGIVING CONUNDRUM: TO BRINE OR NOT TO BRINE by Louisa Kasdon: Turkey conversation season is upon us again, with our annual quest for a crisp, moist, perfect bird. Some swear by …

6. EATING TO BEAT CANCER: DIET MAY PROVE TO BE A CURE by Harriet Sugar Miller: Last night, it was cauliflower curry on a bed of leeks while my husband grilled his own slab of meat. The night before I ate solo — and downed an enormous bag of kale chips (please don’t tell him) flavored with cashew dust and too much …

5. FOOD SHOOTING TIPS on March 23 by David Hagerman: We all know what a beautiful food photograph looks like. Unfortunately, our cameras are clueless. Here are tips for making the most of …

4. IN DEFENSE OF TRUFFLE OIL by Lynne Curry: Midwinter is high season for fresh truffles in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. With the help of an experienced truffle hunter (or a trained dog), I could spend …

3. SICILY’S EGGPLANT CEVICHE FOR SUMMER by Clifford A. Wright: The end of summer offers the cook a wealth of sparkling fruits and vegetables for culinary transformation. One of my favorite …

2. CANNING JARS FROM FAUX TO BEST PRESERVING CHOICES by Susan Lutz: About six months ago, I salvaged a beautiful marinara sauce jar that I intended to refill with home-canned sweet pickles made using my mother’s recipe.  And if I hadn’t taken a 12-week course to become a certified Master Food Preserver, I might have …

1. FLAVORED MARSHMALLOWS MADE FROM SCRATCH by Charles Perry: When you hand people homemade marshmallows, they’re always dazzled. These are actual marshmallows, but with a lush, moist texture you never find in store-bought versions. If you want your friends to keep thinking you’re a wizard, don’t tell them how simple it is …

Top Soapboxes of 2012

5. DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS IS FOR AMERICANOS, TOO by Veronica Gonzalez-Smith:  In the small town of El Paso, Texas, my siblings and I grew up at a unique intersection of Mexican and American culture. As kids, we traveled in and out of …

4. THE INFANTALIZATION OF AMERICAN TASTE by Michael Krondl: Though the plague of cupcake shops has not spared any city in this great union, it would be hard to find one that illustrates my point better than …

3. CALIFORNIA’S EXCITING NEW WINES BUCK THE MAINSTREAM by Eric Asimov: We live in the most wonderful era in history to love wine. Right now, Americans have access to a greater diversity of wines than ever before, wines made in more styles from more …

2. THE FORGOTTEN QUINCE by Jane McMorland Hunter: Nowadays most people hardly know what a quince looks like. Until the 19th century, it was a commonplace orchard fruit throughout North America and Europe; now it has become …

1. RUTH BOURDAIN DISSES AND DISHES WITH ZESTER by Ruth Bourdain: It’s been more than two years since the debut of Ruth Bourdain, the sensational and often raunchy Twitter persona whose name and sensibilities are a mashup/spoof of former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl and outspoken celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. The true identity of Ms. Bourdain is still under wraps, but her tweets show her to be ….

* * *

And that’s our list for 2012 … Here’s to discovering Ms. Bourdain’s identity in 2013!

Photo illustration, clockwise from top left: 

Ruth Bourdain. Credit: Ruth Bourdain

Indian spices (originally published in 660 Curries). Credit: Ben Fink

 Homemade marshmallows dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Credit: StockFood

Photo illustration credit: Karen Chaderjian

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Gabriela and Chef Eduardo Garcia. Credit: Peter Norman

Máximo Bistrot Local opened its doors at the beginning of 2012, and quickly became the hottest place in Mexico City. It’s an unpretentious European-style bistro in the once opulent Colonia Roma neighborhood, which is in the midst of a redevelopment boom. Cool and chic Máximo replaces a dowdy medical supply store; once a trash-strewn corner with little foot traffic is now a well-known gastronomic destination. You can find the best brandade de morue this side of the Seine here. Or a classic ceviche. While Mexico-born chef and owner Eduardo García likes rustic French cooking, his feet are firmly planted on native ground, and he often includes typical Mexican ingredients such as chilies, hot and mild; cuitlacoche, the rich corn fungus known as “Mexican truffle”; or country herbs like epazote in his dishes.

The chef formerly worked under Enrique Olvera of Pujol, the esteemed local palace of experimental gastronomy, and also toiled in Manhattan’s star-strewn Le Bernardín where seafood reigns.

Gariela and Chef Eduardo Garcia on Bench at Maximo Bistrot Local. Credit: Peter Norman

Máximo Bistrot Local Chef Eduardo García and his wife Gabriela. Credit: Peter Norman

García represents the new generation of Mexican cooks who, while well aware of what’s going on in Spain, California and New York, have come back home, incorporating these ideas into their native cuisine.

Eduardo García puts ‘local’ in Máximo Bistrot Local

The chef has brought expert gastronomic skills to his own place, opened on a shoestring and run with his wife, the affable Gabriela, who acts as host. Máximo Bistrot Local’s publicity claims that materia prima is local and organic, if possible. The chef visits the city’s spectacular markets daily, choosing what looks best, then adroitly improvising a new menu each day. The food coming out of his kitchen is worthy of hyperbole.

How is what you cook related to classic Mexican cuisine?

Our menu is based not only on Mexican cuisine, but also on local ingredients — hence the name “bistro local.” But I like to include a few “authentic” dishes. The relationship between my cuisine and Mexican cooking is all about ingredients, methods and philosophy. I think my growing up in Mexico and having trained here infuses everything I do. For example, I often take advantage of the huge variety of chilies used in our cooking, and the specifically Mexican ways of preparing them, such as toasting and grinding.

And to classic European cooking?

I wouldn’t say “classic European” but French and rustic Italian. Again, the methods are a big part of the relationship. I take what I consider to be the best techniques from the aforementioned European traditions.

What are the advantages of running a restaurant in Mexico City?

In the city, purveyors are more focused than in other parts of Mexico. We’re in the middle of the country and everything is available here; I can get seafood from either coast hours after it is caught.

Also guests here are more open to experimenting with food than they might be in the provinces — Mexicans tend to be conventional when it comes to food.

What’s coming up on your menu? 

I’m planning a trip to visit small restaurants in Europe to get more inspiration for my menu. I’m more interested in experiencing local, time-honored cooking than the avant-garde stuff.

What is you latest ingredient obsession? 

Fresh seafood from Ensenada. There are extraordinary ingredients there. Percebes, for example, are barnacles not well-known outside of Spain, where they cost a fortune. Here they are accessible and I’ve been experimenting with them: I included them in a ceviche recently.

What is your favorite restaurant/chef in town?

I don’t hang out much with the “top” chefs or at fancy restaurants. My favorite place is Fonda Las Margaritas in Colonia Del Valle [a quiet residential neighborhood south of the center]. It’s where I like to eat on my day off. It’s a simple old-fashioned neighborhood fonda that does really authentic no-frills Mexican food.

And out of town?

Casa Oaxaca, in Oaxaca City. My friend, Chef Alejandro Ruíz, is doing incredible things with local market foods there. I always look forward to seeing what he’s up to.

Where do you see the restaurant scene headed here in Mexico City?

The culinary scene here is expanding, as are people’s palates. I think that Mexico City is becoming one of the top destinations for food. New restaurants as well as old established ones are using more fresh and local products. And that’s a real good thing.

And what are your life plans?

I’ve been offered jobs here and abroad, book deals, even a TV show! I’ve turned them all down. Because I just don’t have time to do anything but cook, and make sure everything in my place is the best it can be.

I’ve seen some of my contemporaries fall prey to the “star chef” phenomena — and their restaurants suffer for this. You can’t be a star and maintain a great kitchen unless it is established and you are able to train younger chefs to be as good as you. I know I’m not there yet. We’re doing amazingly well, are always full and now have sidewalk rights so a few more tables. But it’s very hard work, six days a week, exhausting. I hope I can keep it up.

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Free Ranger Rover Poulet Cartoon by L. John Harris

If it’s true that we are what we eat, then did my feasting on poulet rôti in Paris last summer render me more French or more chicken? Based on the sheer volume of roast chicken consumed, I would have to say “more chicken.”

FRENCH CHICKEN


Part 1: Do labels equal liberty for France's best birds?

Part 2: A chicken-tasting tour of Paris.

Back home in Berkeley, Calif., there is so much really good traditional roast chicken available in restaurants and takeout shops — with French names like Poulet, Café Rouge, Bistro Liaison and Nizza la Bella (“Beautiful Nice”) — that I’m not sure whether my Paris binge was an homage to the gallocentric traditions in France that helped shape my passion for the humble roast, or merely a transatlantic extension of a preexisting culinary condition.

Granted, our farm-raised (poulet fermier) chicken production in the Bay Area (and the U.S. generally) does not yet measure up to France’s Label Rouge poultry program (See French Chicken, Part 1). And we are about 15 years behind European standards for animal welfare, according to advocates I’ve talked to.

But if Paris beats Berkeley in the overall quality of its poultry, not so in the roasting. Parisians seem to be taking their well-bred birds for granted these days, at least in their bistro kitchens if not in their homes and outdoor markets.

A tale of two birdies

At celebrity chef Guy Savoy’s L’Atelier Maître Albert in Paris’ 5th Arrondissement, the handsome wall-sized rotisserie had two enticing birds (from the les Landes region) twirling away on their spit, just waiting for me, right? Wrong.

About 25 minutes after ordering the 22-euro (about $28) Volaille fermière rôtie, my two small so-so-tasting chicken pieces, a small leg and quarter breast, arrived nestled against a typical mound of buttery bistro purée.

Chicken on a spit.

Love-y dove-y French chickens at L’Atelier Maître Albert. Credit: L. John Harris

Those love birds, still spinning as I left, were apparently all show and no go.

So where had my chicken pieces come from, the stork?

French chicken loves garlic

Equally disappointing was the Provençal-style roast chicken with thyme and whole cloves of garlic touted at La Bastide Odéon in the 6th Arrondisement. The traditional Provençal combination of chicken and garlic was popularized in the U.S. by folks like James Beard with their variations on the classic poulet aux quarante gousse d’ail (chicken with 40 cloves of garlic).

Either Beard was dreaming, or there was a garlic harvest blight in France last summer because my skinless chunks of white meat and a small leg were served with just one clove of garlic! It hadn’t even caramelized into that soft, sweetly nutty puddle of garlic heaven one expects. And what was with the skinless breast meat? Poulet rôti sacrilege!

The best chicken in the world?

Of the many poulet rôtis I gobbled down in Paris bistros, the only real standout was the 85-euro (about $108) whole chicken for two at Chez L’Ami Louis in the 3rd Arrondissement. This is the notoriously high-end, old-school bistro that food critics love to hate — including A.A. Gill who labeled it “the worst restaurant in the world” in his rather hilarious 2010 Vanity Fair thrashing of the place.

Inducement enough for me to go! I’m a bit of a rubbernecking ambulance chaser when it comes to hatchet-job restaurant reviews — I like to see (and taste) the damage for myself. On occasion, like this one, I even write rebuttals.

Not only was L’Ami Louis’ bird (a black-legged Label Rouge “noir” bird from the Challans region) moist and flavorful and its delicate skin crisp, but the bird was graciously served (Gill found the servers at L’Ami Louis “sullen”) in two brilliant courses — white meat first, then dark — both accompanied by ladles of perfect jus. If anything at L’Ami Louis was sullen, it was the limp mound of pommes frites served with the chicken.

Adding to the pleasingly retro pomp at L’Ami Louis, our server had first brought the whole roasted bird to the table for our inspection before carving, like a proud father showing off his newborn.

Chicken served at Chez L'Ami Louis.

Honoring the humble poulet rôti at L’Ami Louis. Credit: L. John Harris

I have experienced this kind of poultry love ritual — usually reserved for home-roasted turkeys at Thanksgiving — only once before. Counterintuitively, it was at Wolfgang Puck’s upscale steak house, Cut, in Los Angeles, where the server shows off a small, locally-grown and brined poussin before carving and plating. Was I envious of the person at the next table with their $150 Japanese Wagyu rib eye? Well, just a little, though my $38 chicken was plenty good.

All you need is love, love, love

One of the tastiest, and surely the most love-infused roast chickens I had all summer was at the home of my American friend David Jester and his French wife Evy. Our Label Rouge plein air “jaune” bird (yellow skin and feet) purchased from Boucherie Dumont near Place Monge in the Latin Quarter, was raised in the Ain region in eastern France, where celebrity Bresse chickens come from. After 90 minutes in the oven, the coarse salt-rubbed five-pound bird had deliciously crisp skin and juicy, rosemary-scented meat. Evy served the bird with the pan juices and the caramelized carrots, garlic cloves and lemon rind that had roasted alongside the bird for the last hour in the oven. Heaven.

Evy's roasted chicken. Credit: L. John Harris

Evy’s home-roasted paradigm. Credit: L. John Harris

Evy says that the secret of her chicken’s succulent flesh and crisp skin, learned from her mother, is to start the bird out in a cold oven set at 400 degrees F. An interesting technique to be sure, but I can’t agree. Evy’s real secret, I believe, which I think too many Parisian chefs and restaurateurs have sadly forgotten, is that you must — and I say this at the risk of sounding pathetically Berkeley — love poulet rôti, love making it well and love those you are serving to do gastronomic justice to an honored bird, whether in Paris or Berkeley, or anywhere else.

Top illustration credit: L. John Harris

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Austin Kirzner with BBQ shrimp

Chef Austin Kirzner added a cup of butter to the sauté pan and used his tongs to stir the quickly melting butter together with chopped shallots, garlic, rosemary and Worcestershire sauce. He lifted the pan off the burner letting gas flames jump an inch into the air. He looked deeply into the sauce and decided, “Just a touch more butter.”

After suffering the punishment of Katrina, New Orleans is back. Tourists have returned to the city for good times, good food and good music. Walking around the city, you hear music everywhere — on the street, in parks, bars and nightclubs. In the French Quarter, restaurants and bars line every block.

Restaurants are crowded with diners enjoying café au lait and beignets heavily dusted with powdered sugar at Café du Monde, fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House Restaurant, hog jowls, charcuterie and ham at pork-centric Cochon, Oceana‘s Cajun gumbo and Jambalaya and fresh seafood at Red Fish Grill.

I’ve always wanted to visit New Orleans. Recently I was able to stay for a long weekend. To help me understand the food scene, Kirzner, executive chef at Red Fish Grill, agreed to give me an overview and a cooking demonstration.

Musicians and cooks

“The first thing to understand about the city,” Kirzner explained — and he should know, he’s a fifth-generation New Orleanian — is “in New Orleans, you’re either a cookor a musician. They’re both held in high esteem like doctors.”

BBQ Shrimp with cheesy grits

BBQ Shrimp with cheesy grits at Red Fish Grill in New Orleans. Credit: David Latt

Kirzner tells me that New Orleans cooking takes its influences from around the world and from different parts of the state. In the city you’ll find dishes typical of Louisiana where Cajun cooking predominates. “One pot cooking– red beans, étouffée, gumbos and jambalaya — family-style stuff you’d see in a fish camp or at home.” Every part of the state has its way of making these standards.

What sets New Orleans cuisine apart from the rest of the state is the embrace of its French influence, which he sums up as: “It must have butter. It must have cream. We take it to the extreme.”

There will be heads-on shrimp

The dish he demonstrates is a classic: New Orleans BBQ Shrimp. “You have to understand,” he tells me, “it’s not barbecued. Nobody knows how it came to be called that. Lots of restaurants make a version of the dish. Every one is different.”

Some restaurants serve the dish with the shell on as well as the head and tail. That makes for very messy dining.

For Kirzner, even though some of his customers are put off by the shrimp heads, he insists that’s what gives the sauce its distinctive, sweet richness.

In his version, to make the shrimp more diner-friendly, he leaves on the head and tail but strips the shell off the body.

Surprisingly easy to cook in 5 to 10 minutes, the dish should be prepared just before serving. Letting it sit around won’t do anybody any good.

In the restaurant, he flavors the shrimp with Creole seasoning. To illustrate how New Orleans cooking borrows freely from other cuisines, for the cooking demonstration, he used freshly chopped rosemary.

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Shrimp ready to go into a BBQ shrimp dish at Red Fish Grill in New Orleans. Credit: David Latt

New Orleans Heads-On BBQ Shrimp

With fish and shellfish coming from the Gulf, New Orleans takes pride in the quality of the seafood served at its restaurants.

If you live in an area with fresh shrimp, definitely use them. Frozen shrimp will be OK, but you owe it to yourself to use heads-on shrimp at least once and that may require a trip to an Asian market where they are readily available.

A very large sauté pan is needed so the shrimp don’t sit on top of one another. That creates the best char and caramelization.

Serves 2

Kirzner’s note: This dish is prepared only two servings at a time because increasing the number of shrimp beyond 12 would require increasing the dish’s amount of sauce. Reducing the larger amount of sauce would require more cooking time, resulting in over-cooked shrimp.

Ingredients

12 to 14 raw colossal shrimp, bodies peeled, with heads and tails left on

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons finely chopped, fresh rosemary (or use the same amount of Creole seasoning)

1 teaspoon fresh garlic, minced

1 tablespoon fresh shallots, minced

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1½ tablespoons freshly ground coarse black pepper

1 to 3 tablespoons light lager beer, like New Orleans Abita beer (water can be substituted)

½ lemon, seeded

¼ pound butter, cold and unsalted (preferably Plugrá or other European-style butter), cut into ½-inch cubes

Directions

1. Season the shrimp with kosher salt. Set aside.

2. In a heavy 10-inch stainless-steel sauté pan on high heat, char the rosemary, garlic and shallots.

3. Add the half-peeled, salted shrimp, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper and 1 tablespoon beer (or water)

4. Squeeze the juice from the lemon over the shrimp.

5. Over high heat, cook the shrimp while gently stirring and occasionally turning the shrimp.

6. After about 2 minutes of cooking, the shrimp should start turning pink on both sides, indicating they are nearly half cooked. If the shrimp are the colossal size, add additional 2 tablespoons beer (or water) to the pan; otherwise, don’t add additional liquid. Remove the shrimp.

7. Reduce the heat to medium-high and continue cooking as you gradually add the cold pieces of butter to the pan.

8. Swirl the butter pieces until they are incorporated into the pan juices, the sauce turns light brown and creamy as it simmers. Add back the shrimp and coat with the sauce, turning frequently until the shrimp are just cooked through. This will take about 2 minutes total if the shrimp are extra-large, and about 3 minutes total if they’re colossal. Do not overcook the shrimp.

9. Remove the shrimp to a serving platter. Pour the sauce over the shrimp and carry to the table.

Serving suggestion: Pour the shrimp and sauce into a heated pasta bowl. Serve the shrimp and sauce immediately either with grits, rice or alongside slices of warm, crusty French bread for sopping up the sauce. Chef Kirzner prefers Leidenheimer French Bread.

Red Fish Grill executive chef Austin Kirzner with a dish of his BBQ Shrimp with cheesy grits. Credit: David Latt

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Walkway near Rosetta restaurant in Mexico City's Roma district. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Colonia Roma was Mexico City’s first “modern” neighborhood, designed on the Haussmann ideal of mixed-class housing. Now the center of the Mexican capital’s restaurant renaissance, La Roma emerged at the turn of the 20th century with tree-lined boulevards of single-family homes and elegant mansions, reflecting the popular French Belle Époque style. The fashionable residences were equipped with running water, city sewer, electric and even telephone lines.

Until the 1940s, La Roma was the place to live for famous artists, politicians and even bullfighters. Noir movie star Andrea Palma occupied a large mansion. William S. Burroughs famously shot his wife there in a game of William Tell gone awry; the muralist David Siqueiros and legendary reclusive painter Leonora Carrington worked there.

The cooking going on in these homes would have been a fine-tuned blend of traditional Mexican and French-Spanish, a typical repast might have started with a vichyssoise followed by a filet of sole in caper sauce topped by Mexican manchamanteles served with homemade tortillas.

The fall and rise of Roma

After World War II, the wealthy moved west to Polanco and Lomas, and La Roma began its slow decline. The 1985 earthquake hit this area hard.

Nouveau Façade in Colonia Roma

Nouveau façade in Colonia Roma. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

As residents fled, many old homes became auto repair shops, offices or schools, or were simply left to decay. Other buildings were demolished to make way for mirrored glass behemoths and parking lots.

But Roma has been rising from its ashes in recent years, coming to life with a speed not often seen in Mexico. A renewed appreciation for the architecture and the area’s proximity to the center of the city and to its pricier neighbor Condesa has made Roma appealing to artists and yuppies alike. Their presence has created a market for upscale dining and nightlife options. New restaurants and bars open every week. And some of the most creative cooking, from high to low, can be found in the area.

Always a hotbed for the culturally eclectic, Roma has recently been a crucible for a new generation of Mexican chefs who are well aware of what’s going on in Spain, California and New York, but whose feet stay firmly planted on native turf.

Upstairs/downstairs

Rosetta is set in a turn-of-the-century French-style mansion that has been lovingly renovated. It is hands down the best Italian restaurant this side of the Rio Grande. Cunning chef Elena Reygadas works with surprising and exotic seasonal material prima from the Mexican countryside such as duraznillo mushrooms (aka chanterelles) or the rarely seen pavón, a homely freshwater fish encased in Acapulco sea salt and herbs. While her menu is classic regional Italian, everything from the period decoration of the space to the adroit combination of familiar and uncommon market ingredients points to a new, global — but very local — sensibility.

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Chef Elena Reygadas' Rosetta restaurant in the Roma district. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Mexico City dining: A Roma venture without capital

Since Máximo Bistrot Local opened its doors on a shoestring at the beginning of 2012, it has become one of the most talked about restaurants in Mexico City.

Máximo Bistrot Local Chef Eduardo García at work. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Máximo Bistrot chef Eduardo García at work. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

This low-key, unpretentious corner place replaced a dowdy medical supply store, where wheelchairs and artificial limbs were once sold. It is emblematic of the new, sophisticated-but-casual small restaurants appearing in the area: There’s no place else in the city where rents are low enough, and the clientele savvy enough, to carry off such a venture.

While Mexican-born chef and owner Eduardo García, who worked at New York’s star-strewn Le Bernardin, likes classic French bourgeois cooking, Mexican ingredients typically appear in his dishes with regularity.

A light sole meunière that would make Julia Child happy is pepped up with a drizzle of guajillo chile emulsion. Or a tender slab of octopus only hours away from its Pacific home, is shrewdly paired with sautéed huitlacoche, the subtlety flavored corn fungus sometimes called “Mexican truffle.” The food coming out of García’s kitchen is worthy of hyperbole.

A hip deli

Delirio owner Monica Patiño. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Delirio owner Monica Patiño. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Chef/TV diva and neighborhood resident Monica Patiño owns the New York/Paris-style deli, Delirio. She celebrates the recent surge of artisanal foods with her own brand of products, all hecho en México (made in Mexico). Olives and olive oil from Baja California are green and fruity. A small, but well-chosen stock of national wines is worth sampling — many are unavailable elsewhere. There are European-style raw milk cheeses and preserved meats, all made in central Mexico.

An advocate of “slow” and local foods, Patiño explains that she decided to put her money where her mouth is. “Almost all of what we offer is Mexican-made and organic as well,” she proudly proclaims. Her refreshingly modern sensibility is something new in a culture that until recently looked to the U.S. and Europe for inspiration and denigrated local products as inferior.

A new kind of market

In Mexico, land of vendors, one could misquote Shakespeare: “all the world’s a market.” Happily, old-time markets continue to thrive despite the proliferation of chain supermarkets. Roma’s excellent Mercado Medellín is a fine example of a traditional neighborhood covered market. And in 2011 a new type of mercado was inaugurated: the Mercado el 100. This weekly tianguis (open-air market) recalls Paris’ wildly successful marchés biologiques or New York’s see-and-be-seen Union Square market — all products sold are produced within 100 kilometers, hence the name. The market provides a venue for small local producers of organic and artisanal products to strut their stuff. It all takes place in Roma’s picturesque Plaza Río de Janeiro, in the shadow of a 20th-century copy of Michelangelo’s “David” (sans fig leaf) and attracts people from all walks of life for its fresh-from-the-farm produce.

Old Colonia Roma continues to bubble with creative energy, and new venues seem to open every day. Chef García (of Máximo) predicts that Mexico City will soon be one of the top dining capitals in the world. Perhaps it already is.

Photo: Walkway next to Rosetta restaurant in the reborn La Roma neighborhood in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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