Elk Me

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Today I ate elk.

Yes I know, I should build up to it, write tales about majestic deer and redskin hunters, but basically that's what it was. I ate elk.

It wasn't my intention to go elk-hunting. I was quite content at aiming for tasty slices of the domesticated bull and San Diego magazine gave me recommendations about steakhouses in downtown. At the top of the list was Greystone the Steakhouse so I landed up and sat at the bar in front of a fairly bustling dining room filled with suits and little black dresses. Rod the bartender gave me a choice between ribeye and elk, and of course my adventurous instincts took over. Elk sounded like a definite beenthere donethat - evoking eskimo hunts and igloo campfires and extreme survival in bitter conditions - so I jumped. It promised a crust of s and all kinds of other nice stuff.

The elk steak turned out to be a mildly flavored meat; tender and juicy but more exotic that gourmet. Seems I was wrong about the eskimos too - this deer is supposedly wandering all over the continental US, and, like many of us, avoids Alaska when it can. There's also a good reason why Texans are so much nicer to cows than elk - beef is definitely tastier.

As for Greystone, it was competent enough as a steakhouse but not quite befitting the top dollar it charges. Many steakhouses have been better at that price (a 3-course came to all of $82), and though I didn't taste the beef itself I wasn't too ecstatic about either the elk (which they advertise prominently) or the trimmings. Not that it was bad, but definitely not anything to drool over. A more competent steak came out of Rainwaters on Kettner where the ribeye was wonderfully fatty, nicely charred on the outside, dripping with juices and definitely droolworthy. The only drawback was that on a Thursday evening, I was the only one in the whole restaurant. Steakhouses serve an atmosphere as much as they serve slabs of meat, so that was a little disappointing.

Paneer Pioneer

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One of the favorite foods of my childhood was chhanar dalna - a uniquely Bengali way of making paneer (a kind of Indian ricotta, if you must know) with nt tastes of ginger and cinnamon. Making paneer at home (yes, there was a time in the far past when you had no choice) was fairly laborious and longwinded, so this wasn't made all that often - which, of course, made it all the more desireable. When I grew up, gained control of my own kitchen and discovered that paneer now came vacuum sealed at the local grocery - requiring only a credit card and some basic unwrapping technique - I decided to indulge.

It was easier said than done, though. I cooked paneer often and made some nice (even great) stuff, but for some strange reason the real chhanar dalna thing continued to elude me. Paneer korma, no problem. Saag paneer, no problem. Paneer bhurji, no problem. Chhanar dalna...somehow it never tasted correct. Edible wasn't the issue here- once you learn the basics almost everything comes out edible - the problem was making it taste like my mother's. It was too cumin, too gingery, not enough cinnamon, or sometimes simply, frustratingly boring. She would come and use the very same kitchen to perfect result, but I at the helm somehow failed to yield the classical chhanar dalna (even with her peering over my shoulder). The thing could not be complicated - it's a ginger-cumin with cinnamon and clove - but there was obviously some delicate al balance involved that eluded me.

That is, till yesterday. It's still a ginger-cumin gravy, but I am now the zen master of the chhana cosmos. The paneer was seven days old, potatoes were canned and the peas underdone but the gravy - ah, for once, it tasted exactly the way it should. That mediumyellow colour, that perfect balance of sweet-sharp-hot, the clinging-grainy-soupy sauce, the wafting aromas of ginger-cinnamon-clove ...

Yes, I overate it all.

Teatotalling

about New York, NY, USA No comments:

There's plenty of tea in New York too, and you dont even have to climb over hills to get at it.

Lets start with the cutest - Alice Tea Cup; the name smells of baby showers and women sitting around knitting. That, in fact, is exactly what happens. This is the female equivalent of a steakhouse, the food equivalent of a chickflick, the last hideout for women in the age of sexual equality.

Well, nearly. It's true that the place is full of cutesy stuff and upper westside women who knit, but it's also a serious tea place with plenty of excellent tea choices. And by tea, I mean the whole tea service thing - perfectly brewed tea in teapots, double filtered water, food, tea scones and some serious clotted cream. Sit down, let out a slow breath and relax while menus of tea choices and sandwiches appear on the rough, solid-looking bench before you. Real tea pots and cups too. Its subterranean location at 73rd Street is nearly impossible to find the place so peace and quiet are assured while you spend your time trying to decide on how to pronounce "New Vithakananda". I strongly recommend the deal they have of unlimited sandwiches and tea for $30 - especially if you just happen to have a bunch of books to read.

My next destination is straight across town from upper west to lower east. To Teany at 90 Rivington. It is very LES; impossibly small and appropriately hip-cool down to torn jeans, tattooed clients and bald popstar owner. The place doesn't look much like tea room, but dig deeper and out wafts the aromas of New York's largest selection of teas. It's enough to fill the nice fat book the waitress will bring you, with names and descriptions of (they say) the ninety three kinds of tea on offer, from white to black, hot to cold, real to herbal, korean to sri lankan, completely plebian to simply outrageously obscure. And all this backed by appropriately healthy vegetarian tea sandwiches and small bites. The problem in Teany, if anything, is choice; I've tried about thirty of the ninety three teas and I still feel inadequate.

Moving back to midtown; at 34th and Park Avenue is the sleek zen Franchia teahouse. This one's quite firmly Asian; focused on Korean tea though there is a sprinkling of other regions. The place itself is a temple of calm, with beautiful tea service and ceramic strainers that I'm told are traditional Korean. The food is entirely vegetarian and average but the teas, though limited in range, are occassionally spectacular - specially the Korean Wild Green First Pick.

Still in Midtown, a little further north on 56th Street is the Swissotel Drake. I generally avoid hotel tea services because they represent a very different experience, but Fauchon is an exception. Its actually the New York branch of the famous Parisian gourmet store and confectioner. While the left of the store overflows with chocolates and pastries, the other side is dedicated to a complete English (or more to the mood - French) tea service. More traditional than most of the other places I've talked about, Fauchon focuses more on individual orchards, individual growings and a very stiff-upper-lip tea service with by far the best nibbles tray of the lot. The menu itself provides a handful of choices with detailed descriptions, but if you want to be snooty go ahead and ask for teas from their extensive retail collection and see where that gets you. To accompany it all, there's the full tea service with a large select of Fauchon's outstanding confectionaries. The mini macaroons alone are to die for, but please do not give your life up before sipping some second flush clonal tips. And for company, you will have multicultural Frenchwomen and Saville Row bankers along with very upscale prices.

Fishing in Bengali

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Everyone always thinks of mustard fish when Bengal comes to mind. Of course, Bengal has many kinds of fish and many uses for mustard oil (it controls dandruff too, did you know) but somehow the two are forever united in everyone's mind. When my friend landed up yesterday, that was on his mind too, so I complied.

New York doesn't really have great mustard fish. Most restaurants dont want to risk the distinctive taste of the real thing, so they offer a lowest-common-denominator watered-down version; the generic fish curry with a token mustard seed floating on top. Madhur Jaffrey's Dawat in New York claims it among its signature dishes but dont tell that to a Bengali.

Most other Indian restaurants are too busy cooking tikka masala to try anything different. The tragedy is, many are owned or run by Bangladeshis who really can make the real thing. The problem; mustard fish at it's best is threateningly mustardy (some should steam through your sinuses like accidentally eaten wasabi) and not for anyone who does not claim Bengali genes. On top of that, the gravy has to be greenchilly hot. How this mixture manages not to overpower the delicate smell of fish is one of the mysteries of wonderful food but, when done well, it's one of those things to die for. The fish melts in your mouth, the chillies dance on your tongue and the mustard steams up your nose - trust me, it's one of the better ways to heaven.

You would expect a region that cooks eveyrthing with mustard and eats fish by the zillion to have found more than one way to combine the two, and you wont be wrong. I was, however, not going to make a zillion kinds, so I shopped for some salmon and decided on one kind - "shorshe bata mach" (fish in mustard paste). Of course, temptation overtook me at the Grand Central market and I ended up with some sea bass as well, so I decided on two kinds of SBM (thats "shorshe bata mach" again) - seabass with nigella seeds (kalonji) and salmon with coconut milk. And, of course, small green Indian chillies (Habaneros won't work) and mustard paste. You can use other kinds of fish, but salmon works the best along with sea-bass and cod. The taste somehow fits the mustard.

The crucial part, of course, is the mustard paste. It's got to be strong, flavorful, and still look good. Modern technology comes to my aid here; ignoring the disapproval of my grandmother's ghost I head for Coleman's English Mustard which is the best - a good, strong, unadulterated mustard powder (most American brands have additives so watch out). Mix it with ice water, make it into a thin paste and let it soak for 10 min with some slit green chillies to give it a kick. This produces very nice mustard paste but one that's a uniform, boring yellow. What really livens things up is adding some freshground black mustard seeds - these have black skins that give it the flecked look of real Indian mustard paste. At this stage even my grandmother can't make the difference out.

Here's the rule; you cant cook mustard paste for more than a minute or so on boil because it starts to turn bitter after that. So you fry or pan-fry the fish (cut into medium cubes) till it's nearly done, and just boil it for sixty anytime seconds in the mustard paste. For the seabass, its nigella seeds in hot oil till they crackle, a small amount of poppyseed paste as thickener, the mustard paste and the fish, boiled for a minute before it's ready to serve. For the salmon, its coconut milk and mustard paste and fish all put into a pan and brought to boil for a minute - till the coconut milk just starts to thicken. Both versions can be prettied up with a touch of cilantro and served on white rice. A sprinkle of raw mustard oil on top is a good touch, and there you have it - SBM Coco and SBM Nigella.

Yes, really, thats it. If you've fried the fish to right done-ness, you now have melt-in-the mouth mustard fish in two varieties, ready to be hailed as that great Bengali chef you nearly are. Of course, you forgot the salt but that's another matter.

Afternoon and tea

about San Francisco, CA, USA 1 comment:
White tea, that's what is filling my insides as I type this blog. Yes I'm again at the Golden Gate Perk, partaking of free wireless along with one of ten odd types of tea they sell. And watching Leonard Nimoy being Spock on a silent television.

First, about Golden Gate Perk. Ok I'm partial to this place because I helped paint the toilet here (as in, I gave useless advise to the people who were actually doing the painting), but I've been coming here long before that. Basically, it has great tea, and great value in tea. This is no teabag destination - here you get real leaf, teapot, hot water, the whole deal. Each pot makes two cups, but if you're shameless enough you can ask for hot water to make another round for free. And, there's table service if you're nice to the people behind the counter. You get herb and special teas too, including a rather nice ginger tea topped (Korean style, I'm told) with pine nuts. They even have coffee, but I've never really gotten that far.

In addition to Golden Gate Perk, San Francisco has its share of character tea houses. I found another favorite hidden away a gruelling bicycle-ride away from downtown - in Noe Valley. The gruelling part was my fault - I chose the steepest way to get there - but Lovejoy's Antiques and Tea Room turned out to be a very British tea room filled with antique sofas, antique china and of course, tea service. Sure, its all pink-cuddly and very babyshower, but it's got an attitude all its own (I mean, where else do they have doilies any more). It's also full of adorable women who mother you whilw you select one of the great tea choices (but only the regular English kinds - no jasmine or white tea there). The tea service comes with in a three-tiered tray with tiny tea sandwiches, incredible scones, clotted cream and jam, plus all the calm lethargy that should surround a true afternoon tea service. I believe they've shifted locations of late, become larger and now host more baby showers than ever before, but I hope they're still as - ok lets say it - cute.

And then, there's Samovar - russian teapot meets california hippie - quite different from the decidedly retro Lovejoy's. The whacky furniture promises fun, while the walls promise a long list of exotic teas from all over combined with interesting food choices - definitely the place to bring that interesting date when I do finally manage one. It's also somewhere that people just lounge around for hours on some very quirky seating, not all of which is as comfortable as it looks. It's full of people reading, so grabbing one of those places isn't always the easiest thing in the world but there's snough exotic tea and teafood choices to keep one entertained for some time. It even makes a respectable masala chai (though Dolores Park Cafe a few blocks down does a better job of that).

Michelin is a star

about London, UK No comments:
On this trip to London I decided that to be a true foodie I needed a few Michelin stars under my belt (quite literally I guess). After a bit of research, I found Pied-a-terre on Charlotte St in London - a respectable 2 michelin stars and not too many dollar signs on the rating. French food, of course, but in an obscure twist prepared by an Australian chef with a seafood allergy.

And so I went after work one day, bright and early in the evening since I had no reservations. I need not have worried; I was the first person in and had the pick of tables, waiters and newspaper. I'd resolved to stick to the simple and within budget but when the menu card came filled with drooling descriptions, temptation took over. I ordered the whole deal, a seven-course degustation thingy. Then I sat down with the day's news and waited.

A progression of very interestingly plated dishes followed. Pied-a-Terre is very modern; chocolate walls, thick square glass slabs as serving plates and small rectangular china topped with exotic dishes. But of course, the real test - the food (Michelin stars incidentally, are given only for food, not the ambience). Some interesting amuse-bouche landed up in the beginning, followed soon by the food. The first three courses - a pumpkin soup, a scallop ceviche and a foie gras in a sweet wine reduction - were absolutely stunning; some of the best food I've had anywhere. Yes, pumpkin soup was quite memorable - somehow a world of flavors had been persuaded into the orange mash. The ceviche was a startlingly lively green and seafood concoction, while the regulation foie gras came in floating in an out-of-the-world sauternes reduction. The remaining four courses (this was a degustation menu, remember) were just as beautifully presented and very good, but none reached quite the heights of ecstasy of the first three. The next thing worth swooning over were the petit-fours with the coffee. Still, 60% of a meal being heavenly is not to be sneezed at. The final bill was a bit of a lump even for someone steeled to degustation menus - GBP90 without wine; we're talking $150 for dinner here (without a drop of wine to soften the blow) so I strongly recommend an expense account.

Bottom line - I'll be back once I've filled the hole where my pocket used to be.

I also tried some poorer cousins - two restaurants with just one tiny Michelin star each. The first was a middle-eastern restaurant called Noura in Belgravia that had the most amazing shawarma (and I do really mean amazing). The stuff is miles better than your average streetside thing, tender, melting, complex spices and all that kind of thing. Shawarma, in my experience, is usually closer to backyard barbecue than gourmet - often satisfying but usually not transporting. This one was at least a leave-the-ground if not actual transport. There were a lot of mezzes there that looked like it had the potential to amaze. Desserts (many kinds of baklava, what else) were competent, but unexciting. I'm in some confusion, though, about which Noura got the Michelin star (there are four in Paris and one in Lebanon).

Another single starrer was Greenhouse - all cool modern elegance with touches of wood and green. The degustation-with-wine lunch, presented with great style and a GBP60 bill was very nice (maybe even very very nice), defnitely the sort you remember with a great deal of satisfaction but, well, no ecstasy.

So here's my take on Michelin stars (or at least the four under my belly button). One star - it's going to be very good food but you may not remember it a month later. Two stars -you'll remember both the food and the bill that came with it. Three stars - haven't got that far yet.

Incidentally nothing in the USA has a Michelin star; not because food is bad here but because Michelin does not review American cities yet (they're planning their first New York office, I hear). They did give Nobu's London version a mere single star, but I haven't been there.

Salsa time

about San Francisco, CA, USA No comments:
I did, finally, go mexican - Taqueria Andale near the hotel.

It is, like so many things American, a chain - leading to the usual touches of 'traditional' decor, slicked up homecooking look (down to handwritten menus), and all the staples on offer. The working fireplaces (there are two) and the outdoor seating was nice, though. The food (I had a fish burrito) was not bad. Character is too much expect in a fast food chain, but this was definitely tasty stuff; a nice tomato and chipotle sauce that had all kinds of smells and tastes leaping out of a slightly leathery burrito. Not quite the standard (or genuine local attitude) of La Taqueria in the Mission District, but satisfying enough if you want to avoid a bad meal.

Of course, not to say the every chain is boring. Chipotle Grill, for instance, is as fastfoodchain as they come - it's even owned by McDonalds. However, there's something distinctly infectious about their burritos, enough even to brave the lines and occasional fast food jibe - but how excited can you be about food that's pretty much at every doorstep. La Taqueria is quite a different animal, though; it sells very specific food to a fussy local population, and whoever hates their food can shove it elsewhere. That makes for character, but it also means there will never be a branch in Hong Kong. Taco Bell is Mexican only in the sense that Smirnoff is Russian; La Taqueria on the other hand, is a single malt scotch.

So what makes La Taqueria good? Don't bother too much with either location (bang in the middle of Mission's discount shopping) or decor (nice white stucco on the outside, but school cafeteria and long lines on the inside). Unpretentious is something that definitely comes to mind. They don't even hang reviews telling everyone how great people think they are. The tacos and burritos are cheap ($3+), don't come with much by way of frills. No rice, beans, cheese, guacamole or fifty seven other toppings - just meat meets tortilla in a very satisfying fashion. And we're talking serious meat here; once you chuck the rice out there's space there enough to make a pastrami sandwich jealous. Also, for a change, tortillas that don't stretch.The most popular choices are carnita or carne asada, but the tongue was great too.

Stand in a long line, eat at a crowded communal table, and burp loudly with satisfaction at the end of it all.

Searching Frommers

about San Francisco, CA, USA 1 comment:

The magic hour of dinner looms. I sit in all nicely tead up (early grey, if you must know) at my favorite cybercafe searching for where to eat. This cybercafe has some claim to a food blog too; Golden Gate Perk sits hidden in a corner of Bush and Kearny, serving free wireless and some great great tea.

I think I'll go mexican. This is california, after all...

First past the post

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This is the opening of the blog, the slicing apart of red tape, the tearing asunder of curtains ... tan ta ra...

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