And so, we are treated to part 2 of Sam's excellent adventures... Enjoy.
(by Sam Russell)
Ahh, America. Really, I love you like a fat kid loves cake, but I don’t understand you. You’re a journey into the sublime and the ridiculous, with not a lot in between.
New York - Esca
After the epic, hours long journey from Newark airport to my hotel (thanks to a combination of using one of those shared shuttle dealies where I was the last to be dropped off, and half of Manhattan being closed off due to the Veterans’ Day Parade) I had just enough time to freshen up and get myself to my (business) dinner date at Esca.
Esca is an Italian seafood restaurant, and chef/part owner David Pasternack has rightly been described by The New York Times as “a fish whisperer”. He has developed his own style of ‘seafood crudo’: raw seafood. It’s closer in approach to the Italian idea of carpaccio than to sushi or ceviche. My date informed me that Chef Pasternack himself attends the fish market every morning, personally cherry-picking from the offerings. In addition, many a fishmonger will set aside their choicest bits of catch especially for him, and if it’s good, Chef P will work out what he can do with it.
I chose sea urchin for my crudo experience. There’s a sea urchin offering regularly on the menu, but the one I chose was a special of the day – exceptional specimens had been caught in the waters off Santa Barbara and flown in. (I bet their trip from the airport was better than mine.)
Here in Australia, we’re used to seeing sea urchins that are, what – about the size of an overgrown golf ball, including the spines? This baby had a centre slightly larger than a tennis ball, and including the spines was roughly the size of my head. The urchin was simply cut in half, its insidey bits tossed with good olive oil, a touch of seasoning and a sprinkling of chopped fresh herbs (I know not what), slid back into one of the spiny halves and presented on the plate with a parfait spoon. I hate to use the cliché ‘it tasted of the sea’, but it did. Fresh fresh fresh. There was a slight but not unpleasant bitterness that played into the grassiness of the oil, which in turn led into the light green flavours of the herbs, and back to the urchin.
My main course was a blackfish with roasted root vegetables, chestnuts and caramelized crabapple. I wish I could tell you more about it. I do remember that it was as fresh and beautiful as the first course and all the autumnal, caramelized accompaniments were sweet and a lovely palate change after the little bitterness of the sea urchin. But that’s as much as I can manage. The sea urchin was so extraordinary to me that it wiped all other recollections. Now I think of it, I vaguely recall that there may have even been an amuse-bouche? I think it was a Nantucket Bay scallop, also served crudo style. And it was really good, but, you know… the sea urchin.
The table decided to pass on dessert but we were presented, compliments of the house, with a dish of house made gelati for sharing and palate cleansing. There was a chocolate, a hazelnut and something else. Really yummy, but, you know… yeah. The sea urchin.
Esca isn’t far from Times Square and the theater district, but if you’re going, don’t be too tempted to fit it in before a show. The service was brilliant and could accommodate you if you really wanted, I’m sure. But choose to take the time to linger and see what the sea can do. And make sure you book in advance.
The Street Vendors
I have the world’s worst sense of direction. Because of my affliction, the resulting tendency to get lost and the need to allow time for this, I had no time for breakfast the following morning before setting off via the subway to my appointment at the Lincoln Center and had to leave to chance what eats I could find at the other end.
I successfully navigated the subway to the correct location, but couldn’t quite figure out where to go from there. I decided I would kill two birds with one stone by buying a breakfast pastry from a cart and asking for directions. On the downside, I chose something that looked like a giant profiterole with chocolate on top. It was stale and felt like it coated the inside of my mouth with lard when I bit into it. Uggghhhh. Never again, not even with someone else’s mouth. On the plus side, it only cost 75 cents and I got the directions I needed (“Excuse me, where is the Lincoln Center from here?” “Uh, it’s right over there.” “Oh.”). Much cheaper than using the map on my iPhone.
There was a similar scenario later that day, when I was headed to my next appointment. This time I didn’t need directions when I got off the subway and was merely treating myself to something I had promised myself: a street cart pretzel. I’ve loved these since I was a kid. Soft, salty, chewy and could double as a throw pillow. And suddenly it was an utterly perfect day. I noticed from the corner of my eye that I was getting stared at here and there by folk. I can only think that it was because I was looking pretty damn pleased with myself. And why not? I was in New York, I was having a GREAT day at the office, I was strolling down the street in the Fall sunshine, and I had my big giant pretzel. Bliss.
First of the salty sweet
My friend Nat flew in from Chicago that night to join me in New York for the weekend. She brought a little pressie with her that she knows I love. Well, a few little presents, all from Vosges, but I especially love the Mo’s Dark Chocolate Bacon Bar. Yes, you read that right. It’s chocolate. It’s bacon. It’s chocolate with bacon in it. Shhhh. Don’t judge. Don’t be grossed out. Just order some and try it. It’s magic.
Potatoes and actually, I can believe it’s not cheese
Two things I really don’t understand about American food: the ubiquitous home fries and the alleged ‘cheese’ on everything. I say alleged because anything that colour, that does not melt even with a blow torch, cannot be cheese. It is the Devil’s Play Doh (though real Play Doh has more flavour and is probably less carcinogenic).
Home fries are chunks of potato, maybe tossed with herbs and fried (or, it would seem, often roasted), and presented with everything at breakfast. It’s the kind of thing I make to have with baby racks of roast lamb. I was thoroughly confused by their appearance with my Eggs Benedict at Pigalle. Fried chunks of potato with Eggs Benedict? What is that….? I don’t even…..?
(It reminded me of a director visiting Australia from the US some years ago, who when faced with pineapple on her pizza telephoned her colleague in the next hotel room in utter consternation. “There is pineapple on my pizza!! What do I do?!”)
It was the first time, but was not to be the last.
Nat and I attended a matinee at the Met. We had ample time for a stroll around town before dinner (why did I not buy those turkey brining bags from Williams-Sonoma? Why? Why?), where we came across a food thing that boggled my mind: Enormous, enormous shops; one devoted to Hershey’s products, the other solely to M&Ms. They were near Times Square and occupying some of the most expensive real estate on Earth. And they were jumpin’. What the…? Hershey’s stuff is pretty awful; I don’t understand the cult following. And could you imagine a shop the size of the Apple Store on George St entirely devoted to Violet Crumbles? Weird, huh?
And here’s that ridiculous-to-sublime thing – we were killing time marveling at the waste of space that is Hersey’s Kisses before dinner at Picholine.
Picholine is a two Michelin star establishment and a bit of an Upper West Side grande dame. By Australian standards, I suppose you might call the food fussy and maybe even a bit pretentious – I’ve not seen food presented quite like this, even at high-end places here - but we’re not at Circular Quay anymore Toto, this is what Picholine promises from the outset and lordy is it goooood.
First course – Warm Maine lobster with fried vanilla milk.
I’ve read a user review that guesses the fried milk to be some kind of custard. I don’t think it is. It’s not quite that unctuous (and if it were, why not just call it a custard?) I think it is more like a milk reduction, like you might do if you were making classic Confiture du Lait, but not nearly that far gone. It’s still recognizable as milk. The concentrated natural sugars in the milk reduction enhance the sweetness of the lobster meat, but add vanilla and (I think) a wee bit of stock made from the lobster shells and it’s just out of this world.
Second course – Chestnut tagliatelle with game bolognaise and walnut ‘snow’.
Is there a more Autumnal sounding dish anywhere? Tagliatelle made with chestnuts is dense and chewy, the game bolognaise is the darkest, glossy brown and must have been simmering away all afternoon. Or maybe it was made the day before – it strikes me as one of those dishes where the flavor is even better on the second day. The walnut snow I do not recall seeing, but I do believe it was there. It’s a rich dish, and a very small serving. Just as well.
Main course - Elysian Fields Farm lamb. Loin, Seven Hour Shoulder.
The loin was very soft and tender, but the flavour nothing like you get here. Apparently, the strong flavours we are used to with our grass fed lamb are not popular amongst high-end American chefs, which is why Keith Martin’s hay and grain fed lamb has quite the following. (This isn’t an assumption; I’ve read interviews where US chefs have said this about lamb from Australia and NZ). It’s very subtle (the unkind would say ‘bland’). I can’t quite pick what it does taste of. I’d like to eat it again and think on that. (I wonder what they’d make of our saltbush lamb, or Provencal lamb, which has foraged on wild thyme and other hard, robustly flavoured things?)
The seven hour shoulder is flaked, fallen-apart meat served as a sort of hash patty cube, lightly crumbed and fried. Somehow, this tastes a bit closer to home. The shoulder muscle does more work and the flavour and texture is the ideal contrast to the marshmallowy pieces of loin. The loin was delicious, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it flavourless, but I enjoyed the extra oomph from the slow cooked shoulder.
Dessert - Chocolate-hazelnut marquise, Coffee, Cinnamon Salt.
Ok, now this is a big call. I declare this The Best Chocolate Dessert I Have Ever Had In The History Of The World, Time And Space.
The marquise is an unblemished, silky-firm loaf of chocolate gorgeousness, crossed in two places by thinnish layers of chocolate hazelnut crunch. I’m not sure what the crunch is – it’s not a caramel-based praline sort of thing, it’s more sort of biscuity or... dare I suggest it... something akin to Rice Bubbles/Krispies. Imagine a Chocolate Crackle mix made with the best chocolate (NO COPHA!) and crushed hazelnuts, rolled out to about 5mm thick, layered in the marquise and I reckon that’s it. I am going to attempt to recreate this to see if I am right.
The coffee was provided by a few little dots of coffee sauce on the plate, but the thing that really made the whole thing sing was the cinnamon salt. How this was the thread that drew everything together is just extraordinary. I’m assuming it was a fleur de sel, but it may have simply been Maldon salt, tossed and dusted with ground cinnamon and sprinkled in a single, straight, diagonal line across the slice of marquise. So you’ve got silky smooth sweet chocolate, salty cinnamon and nutty crunch happening all at once in your mouth. How did my head not explode from the fabulousness? I do not know.
Coffee is worth mentioning, because it came with an amazing array of macarons, chocolate truffles and I don’t remember what all. Not just perched on the side of your coffee saucer; there were three little trays of the things just for us. We couldn’t finish them. It prompted the guy at the next table to lean over and ask us what he had to order to get that. He was amazed when I said “coffee”.
(It’s also worth mentioning because it was the best coffee I had in America. It was a proper latte. A Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte is nice, but honey, it ain’t coffee. And it’s also worth mentioning that even Starbucks in the US is on the salty sweet bandwagon, offering Salted Hot Chocolate. Which I quite liked.)
Go to Picholine. Go, go. It’s the real deal, what with its two Michelin stars (it’s shooting for three in 2012). But first, you might want to take out that second mortgage or sell that spare child for medical experiments.
La La Land and other breakfasts
Later on in my travels, I was in Hollywood for a conference, so much of my food activity was restricted to my hotel out of necessity.
Breakfast on day one was an interesting take on Eggs Benedict. It came with a cilantro hollandaise that didn’t really taste of coriander, but having green eggs and ham made the dish an interesting, Dr Seuss-y experience. It somehow went well with the oversized elephants on pillars outside my window. (It is a silly place.) It was ok sustenance, which was all I cared about. It had some mushrooms and tomatoes AND THOSE DAMNABLE HOME FRIES. WHAT IS THAT....? I DON’T EVEN....? With Eggs Benedict again? Had anyone ever mentioned on the menu that they were part of the dish I’d have said to leave them off, but they never did.
Day two I attempted the buffet. I wish I hadn’t. Apart from THOSE DAMNABLE HOME FRIES sitting there...smugly, mocking me... the only egg offering was scrambled egg with Devil’s Play Doh ‘cheese’ through it. In non-melting, bright orange lumps. BUH? WHY? Awful.
Day three I ordered the lemon soufflé pancakes. Now they were nice. Fluffy pancakes, lightened with beaten egg whites. Mixed berries, raspberry coulis, pine nuts. No damnable home fries. Would have knifed my grandmother for a decent coffee, though.
Musso and Frank’s
This place is a real trip. It’s the second time I’ve been there and probably the last. I dunno. Maybe. It’s a guilty pleasure.
Musso and Frank’s is old school Hollywood. Real old. You don’t come here for the service, which is indifferent, bordering on rude. You don’t really come here for the food, though apparently the menu and cocktail list have not substantially changed since the 1920's, which is hugely fascinating (and I would guess neither has the decor). You come here... well, just to go to Musso and Franks, I guess.
In the Golden Years of Hollywood, the likes of Greta Garbo, Edward G. Robinson, and Bette Davis frequented the dining room. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a portion of The Last Tycoon in a back booth. Charlie Chaplin had lamb almost every day for lunch. Gary Cooper preferred the fillet with a baked potato.
The first time I stumbled across it, many years ago, the place was empty. This time it was full, loud and busy, frequented by young people wearing groovy hats. Being retro-tastic has given it another life, it would seem. I had a very plain char-grilled chicken dish, and I was grateful that it was simply prepared, not deep fried, and not accompanied by THOSE DAMNABLE HOME FRIES. It’s a good place to just sit and watch the world buzz around you, and imagine what (and who) has gone before.
Drop in for a martini and wait for the ghosts to tap you on the shoulder.
The evil pizza
Disclaimer: I live in Glebe. I have roughly twelvety jillion great pizza places at my disposal between here and Pyrmont. I am really not used to garbage food of the magnitude I am about to describe.
Another disclaimer: I only bought it so I could use the bathroom. “What’s available to have by the slice? Pepperoni? Great. NOW GIVE ME THE KEY!!”
The slice was large enough for a Qantas jet to use as an emergency landing strip. It was floppy, it was soggy, it was literally dripping with oil. Dripping, I tell you. It was one of the most revolting, disgusting, horrendous things masquerading as food that I have ever seen. I took one bite of the crust which was dry and free from cheese and oil, and threw the rest in the bin. What a waste. Do people really eat this? Americans – explain yourselves! How can you....? I don’t even....? Quality is better than quantity. Trust me.
The last word
I love travel, I love eating All The Things, and I love being reminded of how good we have it here. The produce is great, it’s fresh and plentiful, we eat well. We are lucky.
On the flight home, I think I found myself amongst many fellow Australians who were also craving fresh fruit and veg after eating out of a suitcase, so to speak. I noticed everyone hoeing into their fruit salads to stave off the scurvy after weeks of burgers and those damnable home fries.
Just one thing, Qantas – as much as we are hankering for fruit and veg by the time we see you at LAX and as much as we love you for understanding that, fresh asparagus for 500 people sharing tiny, tiny lavatories is not such a great idea. Just sayin’.