Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Store Wars

We all have a favorite grocery store, that place we can go for everything from the simplest of items to the whole shopping list.  Some are luckier than others.  Living next to a Super G, for example, must be one of the happier things in life to happen to foodies.  Whole Foods is like Disney meets Trader Joe’s, truly a capitalist grocery if e’er there were one.  Then there are those unfortunate few who are landlocked, trapped from civilization and unable to get common items like coffee filters, chicken or milk.  The Trolley Square Acme in Wilmington, DE is one such store.  Maybe landlocked is not quite correct.  Black hole is more like it.  Its lack of usable products and cast of certifiably looney-bin customers earn it a place in our hearts.  The place where acid indigestion begins.

Locals have a hate-hate relationship with our ACME.  We bitterly refer to it as the SMACKme, the CRACKme or more appropriately, the SOVIET ACME, where long lines and no food are the norm.

I can honestly say that I'm desensitized by its user-unfriendliness.  After all, I lived in Cape May, NJ for awhile.  The ACME there makes Trolley look like Beverly Hills.  Because there are only about six aisles, it isn't uncommon to find barbecue sauce in the same row as Band-Aids.  Which is great if you're making a haunted house.  Very often you can spot birds flying around the store, a hazard most aren't used to navigating while shopping for food.  Year round you can buy a styrofoam cooler, but only three weeks of the year can you find avocados. 

Speaking of avocados, our beloved Trolley ACME has recently diversified their produce aisle, placing like-used products together, i.e. tomatoes, garlic and basil in the summer.  So, avocados can likely be found in two or three different locations now.  But, that doesn't increase the chance of ever finding a ripened one.  Ever.  My favorite is their 10 for $10 promo.  After all what's better than one unripened avocado but 10 unripened avocados?  But, I'm being insensitive and elitist.

It's like a big game of craps.  You never know if you're going to hit.  Many times I've gone in with a list of 8 or 9 items, half of which I couldn't find.  Usually then, I just abandon my basket and walk out.  I've got to head to another store anyway, so, might as well.  It also helps take the sting out waiting in the two lines that are open, knowing you only accomplished half of what you came in for.  More intriguing than not being able to find simple staples has to be the things I have found.  As a chef, I am often stiffed by my purveyors for odd items or items that come only in huge cases when I'm just in need of one.  Against all odds, I make the trek to Moscow and begin my search.  

"Ummm- do you have gooseberry jam?" I half-jokingly ask.

"Aisle 2".

What the what?  

Can't find sliced pumpernickel bread, but sun-dried cherries and matzo balls are always on the shelves.

There are some days I don't mind being called "babydoll", and others I could go ballistic.  Like, "Babydoll, c'mon over here, my line is empty."  Yay.  
But, "Can't you see my light is OUT?  This line is CLOSED, Babydoll!"  Picture Michael Douglas in the movie Falling Down.

I'm grateful for the local elderly patrons who walk to the store to shop, because at least I know they aren't on our roadways.  They seem to have absolutely no peripheral vision what-so-ever or awareness of personal space.  I begin to hum a particular Ludacris song at this point as I navigate these obstacles in my cart with only two working wheels.

The characters you see there are right out of a John Waters film.  My Duchess, as I like to call her, has straight-up Cindy Brady length gold braid extensions anchored by a fine velour Fat Albert and the Gang cap.  She wears a full-length winter coat no matter what time of year it is, and her makeup on any given day could hide her 75-plus years, or scare the hell out of little children.  Make that little children and adults.  My mind races as I stare into her cart at the 100 cans of cat food, Freihofer's cookies and epsom salts.  Must.  Get.  Out.  NOW.

Lastly, the self-checkout lines.  If you cannot check yourself out faster than one of the clerks here (and this is saying something), you have no business being in these lines.  They are built for speed, and I dare say, for people just like you and me who have no choice but to shop there, yet need to get out of the store before our mental health insurance plan is activated.  Deep breaths.  Deeeeep breaths.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Chef Quote of the Week: Sam Sifton

Not a chef, but one who thinks like one for a living: Sam Sifton is the New York Times food critic and restaurant reviewer.  He's in good company with a long line of other writers whose tenure typically lasts about 5 years.  They can make or break the reputations of the greatest restaurants in the greatest restaurant city in the world.  Today Sifton reviews Masa, the sushi and Japanese cuisine temple located in the Time Warner Center a few steps from another mecca of cuisine, Per Se.

The most surprising thing revealed to me in this review was the cost of a meal at Masa.  When it opened in 2004, a meal was $300 per person, not including tax, tip or anything to drink, and for awhile, it was on my list of restaurants I would like to visit.  Today, $450 is the price tag, making the cost for two who "do it right" (that is to say, drink well and tip on the whole thing) cost upwards of $1500.  For hardcore foodies, it's a price worth paying to surrender your control to the master of ceremonies, Masayoshi Takahama as he sends out course after course of whatever he feels like.  I've friends who forewent a honeymoon to eat here.  So, Sifton explains what happens when psychologically you expect the absolute best (as in four stars), and don't consistently get it.

"New York City now demands of its four-star restaurants an understanding that culture at its highest must never feel transactional, whatever its cost. We ascend to these heavens for total respite from the world below, for extraordinary service and luxuriant atmosphere as much as for the quality of the food prepared."  Sam Sifton

Photo courtesy of New York Restaurant Insider
Sifton has nailed a very important idiom here:  as we move into the economic unknown of tomorrow, we will constantly adjust our standards of fine dining based on what's happening today.  Perhaps that is why in 2004 Frank Bruni awarded Masa four stars, the highest rating attainable.  When you surrender $1500 of hard-earned cash for a meal, "perfect" is a word that should come up more than a few times when describing it to others.  

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

May Fools: An Indulgent Chef's Table Tasting

Plate design sketches for the May Chef's Table event at the Whist Club

Certainly one of the most enjoyable parts of crafting a seasonal menu is the exclusivity of it all.  Having bragging rights about the first-of-the-season anything makes a nine-course, seasonal menu tasting even more exclusive.  As we continue into the warmer weather, some of the region's best known (and beloved) ingredients show up on the plate.  With more exotic ingredients, we explore more uncommon grape varietals, like marsanne and gewurztraminer.  Classic blends with a twist were featured, like the Schramsberg Cellars Blanc de Noirs- an almost 80-20% blend of pinot noir and chardonnay, and Bonny Doon's Chateauneuf du Pape blend, Le Cigare Volant provided unimaginable depth to the flavors we aimed to coax from the ingredients.  And, so it went something like this...

The Chef’s Table
at the
University and Whist Club
Of Wilmington
May 19, 2011

Grilled Octopus Escab├Ęche
Chive Blossom Tempura
Schramsberg, Blanc de Noirs, California, 2007

Tempura Fried Chive Blossoms with Rice Wine Dipping Sauce
Braised Octopus Escabeche: in the style of Spain

Amuse Bouche
Mission fig, Foie Gras curls and Blackberry-Balsamic Caviar
First of the Season Mission Figs via California

Figs and Foie, yes; but blackberry balsamic caviar?  Oh yeah.

Friend and Florist Dominique Ho of Le Sentier provided the quintessential May bouquet of Peonies

First Course
Lobster Carpaccio
cape gooseberries, young herbs, nori and persimmon vinaigrette
Navarro Vineyards, Gewurztraminer, Anderson Valley, California, 2008
A lobster "carpaccio" with cape gooseberry, citrus herb mix, persimmon vinegar

One of my favorite pairings of the night, the Navarro Vineyards 2008 Gewurztraminer with the Lobster Carpaccio

Second Course
Softshell Crab
spicy almond flour, melon and sorrel
Qupe, Marsanne, Santa Ynez Valley, California, 2009

Another season first: Softshell Crabs awaiting their fate

Almond flour dredged softshell with melon, young sprout salad and sorrel puree

Peach-Ginger Granita
A clean, refreshing Peach and Ginger Granita- a taste of May!

Smoked Moulard Duck Breast
oxtail ravioli and porcini, dried cherry jus
Bonny Doon, Le Cigare Volant, Santa Cruz, 2006

Sous Chef Andrew Ramage makes the pasta for the oxtail ravioli just hours before the dinner.

The completed dish: house smoked moulard duck breast with oxtail ravioli, porcini and sour cherry jus

Delices de Bourgogne, pistachio, truffle honey
Chateau Cantenac-Brown, Margaux, 2003
The sensual Delices de Bourgogne with truffle infused honey, toasted pistachio and feuilles de brick

Berry-Almond Shortcake
Vanilla cream and thai Basil
Fresh berries in basil oil, almond biscuit and vanilla clotted cream

Nougat, Gianduja Chocolate, Strawberry and Coffee
Caposaldo, Prosecco
Chewy nougat, strawberry-coconut confection, espresso bon-bon and gianduja chocolate square with pine nut

Beautiful chive blossoms; lovely to look at, delicious to eat.

Chef Quote of the Week: Alain Ducasse

On wine:  "There are no rules...You have to taste the wine with an open mind. You can drink red wine with lobster and white wine with lamb."
Chef also adds, "The world of wine is more creative than the world of cooking...There are so many impassioned winemakers. I think there are more impassioned winemakers than chefs."  Click for the full interview with the WSJ

Chef Alain Ducasse 


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