― vahid (vahid), Sunday, 10 December 2006 00:25 (fifteen years ago) link
― vahid (vahid), Wednesday, 13 December 2006 01:45 (fifteen years ago) link
― grbchv! (gbx), Wednesday, 13 December 2006 01:47 (fifteen years ago) link
― jhoshea (jhoshea), Wednesday, 13 December 2006 16:04 (fifteen years ago) link
― otto midnight, that 'tofu makes you gay' ding dong (otto midnight), Wednesday, 13 December 2006 16:10 (fifteen years ago) link
― this is cutty (mcutt), Wednesday, 13 December 2006 16:11 (fifteen years ago) link
Good food and good eating are about risk. Every once in a while an oyster, for instance, will make you sick to your stomach. Does this mean you should stop eating oysters? No way. The more exotic the food, the more adventurous the serious eater, the higher the likelihood of later discomfort. I'm not going to deny myself the pleasures of morcilla sausage, or sashimi, or even ropa vieja at the local Cuban joint just because sometimes I feel bad a few hours after I've eaten them.
But there are some general principles I adhere to, things I've seen over the years that remain in mind and have altered my eating habits. I may be perfectly willing to try the grilled lobster at an open-air barbecue shack in the Caribbean, where the refrigeration is dubious and I can see with my own eyes the flies buzzing around the grill (I mean, how often am I in the Caribbean? I want to make the most of it!), but on home turf, with the daily business of eating in restaurants, there are some definite dos and don'ts I've chosen to live by.
I never order fish on Monday, unless I'm eating at Le Bernardin -- a four-star restaurant where I know they are buying their fish directly from the source. I know how old most seafood is on Monday -- about four to five days old!
You walk into a nice two-star place in Tribeca on a sleepy Monday evening and you see they're running a delicious sounding special of Yellowfin Tuna, Braised Fennel, Confit Tomatoes and a Saffron Sauce. Why not go for it? Here are the two words that should leap out at you when you navigate the menu: 'Monday' and 'Special ' .
Here's how it works: the chef of this fine restaurant orders his fish on Thursday for delivery Friday morning. He's ordering a pretty good amount of it, too, as he's not getting another delivery until Monday morning. All right, some seafood purveyors make Saturday deliveries, but the market is closed Friday night. It's the same fish from Thursday! The chef is hoping to sell the bulk of that fish -- your tuna -- on Friday and Saturday nights, when he assumes it will be busy. He's assuming also that if he has a little left on Sunday, he can unload the rest of it then, as seafood salad for brunch, or as a special. Monday? It's merchandizing night, when whatever is left over from the weekend is used up, and hopefully sold for money. Terrible, you say? Why doesn't he throw the leftover tuna out? The guy can get deliveries on Monday, right? Sure, he can ... but what is preventing his seafood purveyor from thinking exactly the same way? The seafood vendor is emptying out his refrigerator, too! But the Fulton Street fish market is open on Monday morning, you say!! He can get fresh! I've been to the Fulton Street market at three o'clock on Monday morning, friends, and believe me, it does not inspire confidence. Chances are good that that tuna you're thinking of ordering on Monday night has been kicking around in the restaurant's reach-ins, already cut and held with the mise-en-place on line, commingling with the chicken and the salmon and the lamb chops for four days, the reach-in doors swinging open every few seconds as the line cooks plunge their fists in, blindly feeling around for what they need. These are not optimum refrigeration conditions.
This is why you don't see a lot of codfish or other perishable items as a Sunday or Monday night special -- they're not sturdy enough. The chef knows. He anticipates the likelihood that he might still have some fish lying around on Monday morning -- and he'd like to get money for it without poisoning his customers.
Seafood is a tricky business. Red snapper may only cost a chef $4.95 a pound, but that price includes the bones, the head, the scales and all the stuff that gets cut and thrown away. By the time it's cut, the actual cost of each piece of cleaned fillet costs the chef more than twice that amount, and he'd greatly prefer to sell it than toss it in the garbage. If it still smells okay on Monday night -- you're eating it.
I don't eat mussels in restaurants unless I know the chef personally, or have seen, with my own eyes, how they store and hold their mussels for service. I love mussels. But in my experience, most cooks are less than scrupulous in their handling of them. More often than not, mussels are allowed to wallow in their own foul-smelling piss in the bottom of a reach-in. Some restaurants, I'm sure, have special containers, with convenient slotted bins, which allow the mussels to drain while being held -- and maybe, just maybe, the cooks at these places pick carefully through every order, mussel by mussel, making sure that every one is healthy and alive before throwing them into a pot. I haven't worked in too many places like that. Mussels are too easy. Line cooks consider mussels a gift; they take two minutes to cook, a few seconds to dump in a bowl, and ba-da-bing, one more customer taken care of -- now they can concentrate on slicing the damn duck breast. I have had, at a very good Paris brasserie, the misfortune to eat a single bad mussel, one treacherous little guy hidden among an otherwise impeccable group. It slammed me shut like a book, sent me crawling to the bathroom shitting like a mink, clutching my stomach and projectile vomiting. I prayed that night. For many hours. And, as you might assume, I'm the worst kind of atheist. Fortunately, the French have liberal policies on doctor's house calls and affordable health care. But I do not care to repeat that experience. No thank you on the mussels. If I'm hungry for mussels, I'll pick the good-looking ones out of your order.
How about seafood on Sunday? Well ... sometimes, but never an obvious attempt to offload aging stuff, like seafood salad vinaigrette or seafood frittata, on a brunch menu. Brunch menus are an open invitation to the cost-conscious chef, a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights or for the scraps generated in the normal course of business. You see a fish that would be much better served by quick grilling with a slice of lemon, suddenly all dressed up with vinaigrette? For 'en vinaigrette' on the menu, read 'preserved' or 'disguised'.
While we're on brunch, how about hollandaise sauce? Not for me. Bacteria love hollandaise. And hollandaise, that delicate emulsion of egg yolks and clarified butter, must be held at a temperature not too hot nor too cold, lest it break when spooned over your poached eggs. Unfortunately, this lukewarm holding temperature is also the favorite environment for bacteria to copulate and reproduce in. Nobody I know has ever made hollandaise to order. Most likely, the stuff on your eggs was made hours ago and held on station. Equally disturbing is the likelihood that the butter used in the hollandaise is melted table butter, heated, clarified, and strained to get out all the breadcrumbs and cigarette butts. Butter is expensive, you know. Hollandaise is a veritable petri-dish of biohazards. And how long has that Canadian bacon been festering in the walk-in anyway? Remember, brunch is only served once a week -- on the weekends. Buzzword here, 'Brunch Menu'. Translation? 'Old, nasty odds and ends, and 12 dollars for two eggs with a free Bloody Mary'. One other point about brunch. Cooks hate brunch. A wise chef will deploy his best line cooks on Friday and Saturday nights; he'll be reluctant to schedule those same cooks early Sunday morning, especially since they probably went out after work Saturday and got hammered until the wee hours. Worse, brunch is demoralizing to the serious line cook. Nothing makes an aspiring Escoffier feel more like an army commissary cook, or Mel from Mel's Diner, than having to slop out eggs over bacon and eggs Benedict for the Sunday brunch crowd. Brunch is punishment block for the 'B'-Team cooks, or where the farm team of recent dishwashers learn their chops. Most chefs are off on Sundays, too, so supervision is at a minimum. Consider that before ordering the seafood frittata.
I will eat bread in restaurants. Even if I know it's probably been recycled off someone else's table. The reuse of bread is an industry-wide practice. I saw a recent news expose¨, hidden camera and all, where the anchor was shocked ... shocked to see unused bread returned to the kitchen and then sent right back onto the floor. Bullshit. I'm sure that some restaurants explicitly instruct their Bengali busboys to throw out all that unused bread -- which amounts to about 50 percent -- and maybe some places actually do it. But when it's busy, and the busboy is crumbing tables, emptying ashtrays, refilling water glasses, making espresso and cappuccino, hustling dirty dishes to the dishwasher -- and he sees a basket full of untouched bread -- most times he's going to use it. This is a fact of life. This doesn't bother me, and shouldn't surprise you. Okay, maybe once in a while some tubercular hillbilly has been coughing and spraying in the general direction of that bread basket, or some tourist who's just returned from a walking tour of the wetlands of West Africa sneezes -- you might find that prospect upsetting. But you might just as well avoid air travel, or subways, equally dodgy environments for airborne transmission of disease. Eat the bread.
I won't eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms. This isn't a hard call. They let you see the bathrooms. If the restaurant can't be bothered to replace the puck in the urinal or keep the toilets and floors clean, then just imagine what their refrigeration and work spaces look like. Bathrooms are relatively easy to clean. Kitchens are not. In fact, if you see the chef sitting unshaven at the bar, with a dirty apron on, one finger halfway up his nose, you can assume he's not handling your food any better behind closed doors. Your waiter looks like he just woke up under a bridge? If management allows him to wander out on the floor looking like that, God knows what they're doing to your shrimp!
'Beef Parmentier'? 'Shepherd's pie'? 'Chili special'? Sounds like leftovers to me. How about swordfish? I like it fine. But my seafood purveyor, when he goes out to dinner, won't eat it. He's seen too many of those 3-foot-long parasitic worms that riddle the fish's flesh. You see a few of these babies -- and we all do -- and you won't be tucking into swordfish anytime soon.
Chilean sea bass? Trendy. Expensive. More than likely frozen. This came as a surprise to me when I visited the market recently. Apparently the great majority of the stuff arrives frozen solid, still on the bone. In fact, as I said earlier, the whole Fulton Street market is not an inspiring sight. Fish is left to sit, un-iced, in leaking crates, in the middle of August, right out in the open. What isn't bought early is sold for cheap later. At 7 a.m. the Korean and Chinese buyers, who've been sitting in local bars waiting for the market to be near closing, swoop down on the over-extended fishmonger and buy up what's left at rock-bottom prices. The next folks to arrive will be the cat-food people. Think about that when you see the 'Discount Sushi' sign.
'Saving for well-done' is a time-honored tradition dating back to cuisine's earliest days: meat and fish cost money. Every piece of cut, fabricated food must, ideally, be sold for three or even four times its cost in order for the chef to make his 'food cost percent'. So what happens when the chef finds a tough, slightly skanky end-cut of sirloin, that's been pushed repeatedly to the back of the pile? He can throw it out, but that's a total loss, representing a three-fold loss of what it cost him per pound. He can feed it to the family, which is the same as throwing it out. Or he can 'save for well-done' -- serve it to some rube who prefers to eat his meat or fish incinerated into a flavorless, leathery hunk of carbon, who won't be able to tell if what he's eating is food or flotsam. Ordinarily, a proud chef would hate this customer, hold him in contempt for destroying his fine food. But not in this case. The dumb bastard is paying for the privilege of eating his garbage! What's not to like?
Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein. It's healthier, they insist, though every vegetarian waiter I've worked with is brought down by any rumor of a cold. Oh, I'll accommodate them, I'll rummage around for something to feed them, for a 'vegetarian plate', if called on to do so. Fourteen dollars for a few slices of grilled eggplant and zucchini suits my food cost fine. But let me tell you a story.
A few years back, at a swinging singles joint on Columbus Avenue, we had the misfortune to employ a sensitive young man as a waiter who, in addition to a wide and varied social life involving numerous unsafe sexual practices, was something of a jailhouse lawyer. After he was fired for incompetence, he took it on himself to sue the restaurant, claiming that his gastro-intestinal problem, caused apparently by amoebas, was a result of his work there. Management took this litigation seriously enough to engage the services of an epidemiologist, who obtained stool samples from every employee. The results -- which I was privy to -- were enlightening to say the least. The waiter's strain of amoebas, it was concluded, was common to persons of his lifestyle, and to many others. What was interesting were the results of our Mexican and South American prep cooks. These guys were teeming with numerous varieties of critters, none of which, in their cases, caused illness or discomfort. It was explained that the results in our restaurant were no different from results at any other restaurant and that, particularly amongst my recently arrived Latino brethren, this sort of thing is normal -- that their systems are used to it, and it causes them no difficulties at all. Amoebas, however, are transferred most easily through the handling of raw, uncooked vegetables, particularly during the washing of salad greens and leafy produce. So think about that next time you want to exchange deep tongue kisses with a vegetarian.
I'm not even going to talk about blood. Let's just say we cut ourselves a lot in the kitchen and leave it at that.
Pigs are filthy animals, say some, when explaining why they deny themselves the delights of pork. Maybe they should visit a chicken ranch. America's favorite menu item is also the most likely to make you ill. Commercially available chickens, for the most part (we're not talking about kosher and expensive free-range birds), are loaded with salmonella. Chickens are dirty. They eat their own feces, are kept packed close together like in a rush-hour subway, and when handled in a restaurant situation are most likely to infect other foods, or cross-contaminate them. And chicken is boring. Chefs see it as a menu item for people who don't know what they want to eat.
Shrimp? All right, if it looks fresh, smells fresh, and the restaurant is busy, guaranteeing turnover of product on a regular basis. But shrimp toast? I'll pass. I walk into a restaurant with a mostly empty dining room, and an unhappy-looking owner staring out the window? I'm not ordering shrimp.
This principle applies to anything on a menu actually, especially something esoteric and adventurous like, say, bouillabaisse. If a restaurant is known for steak, and doesn't seem to be doing much business, how long do you think those few orders of clams and mussels and lobster and fish have been sitting in the refrigerator, waiting for someone like you to order it? The key is rotation. If the restaurant is busy, and you see bouillabaisse flying out the kitchen doors every few minutes, then it's probably a good bet. But a big and varied menu in a slow, half-empty place? Those less popular items like broiled mackerel and calves' liver are kept festering in a dark corner of the reach-in because they look good on the menu. You might not actually want to eat them. Look at your waiter's face. He knows. It's another reason to be polite to your waiter: he could save your life with a raised eyebrow or a sigh. If he likes you, maybe he'll stop you from ordering a piece of fish he knows is going to hurt you. On the other hand, maybe the chef has ordered him, under pain of death, to move that codfish before it begins to really reek. Observe the body language, and take note.
Watchwords for fine dining? Tuesday through Saturday. Busy. Turnover. Rotation. Tuesdays and Thursdays are the best nights to order fish in New York. The food that comes in Tuesday is fresh, the station prep is new, and the chef is well rested after a Sunday or a Monday off. It's the real start of the new week, when you've got the goodwill of the kitchen on your side. Fridays and Saturdays, the food is fresh, but it's busy, so the chef and cooks can't pay as much attention to your food as they -- and you -- might like. And weekend diners are universally viewed with suspicion, even contempt, by both cooks and waiters alike; they're the slackjaws, the rubes, the out-of-towners, the well-done-eating, undertipping, bridge-and-tunnel pre-theater hordes, in to see Cats or Les Miz and never to return. Weekday diners, on the other hand, are the home team -- potential regulars, whom all concerned want to make happy. Rested and ready after a day off, the chef is going to put his best foot forward on Tuesday; he's got his best-quality product coming in and he's had a day or two to think of creative things to do with it. He wants you to be happy on Tuesday night. On Saturday, he's thinking more about turning over tables and getting through the rush.
If the restaurant is clean, the cooks and waiters well groomed, the dining room busy, everyone seems to actually care about what they're doing -- not just trying to pick up a few extra bucks between head-shots and auditions for Days of Our Lives -- chances are you're in for a decent meal. The owner, chef and a bored-looking waiter sitting at a front table chatting about soccer scores? Plumber walking through the dining room with a toilet snake? Bad signs. Watch the trucks pull up outside the restaurant delivery entrance in the morning if you're in the neighborhood. Reputable vendors of seafood, meat and produce? Good sign. If you see sinister, unmarked step-vans, offloading all three at once, or the big tractor trailers from one of the national outfits -- you know the ones, 'Servicing Restaurants and Institutions for Fifty Years' -- remember what institutions they're talking about: cafeterias, schools, prisons. Unless you like frozen, portion-controlled 'convenience food'.
Do all these horrifying assertions frighten you? Should you stop eating out? Wipe yourself down with antiseptic towelettes every time you pass a restaurant? No way. Like I said before, your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park. Enjoy the ride. Sure, it's a 'play you pay' sort of an adventure, but you knew that already, every time you ever ordered a taco or a dirty-water hot dog. If you're willing to risk some slight lower GI distress for one of those Italian sweet sausages at the street fair, or for a slice of pizza you just know has been sitting on the board for an hour or two, why not take a chance on the good stuff? All the great developments of classical cuisine, the first guys to eat sweetbreads, to try unpasteurized Stilton, to discover that snails actually taste good with enough garlic butter, these were daredevils, innovators and desperados. I don't know who figured out that if you crammed rich food into a goose long enough for its liver to balloon up to more than its normal body weight you'd get something as good as foie gras -- I believe it was those kooky Romans -- but I'm very grateful for their efforts. Popping raw fish into your face, especially in pre-refrigeration days, might have seemed like sheer madness to some, but it turned out to be a pretty good idea. They say that Rasputin used to eat a little arsenic with breakfast every day, building up resistance for the day that an enemy might poison him, and that sounds like good sense to me. Judging from accounts of his death, the Mad Monk wasn't fazed at all by the stuff; it took repeated beatings, a couple of bullets, and a long fall off a bridge into a frozen river to finish the job. Perhaps we, as serious diners, should emulate his example. We are, after all, citizens of the world -- a world filled with bacteria, some friendly, some not so friendly. Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafe¨s and McDonald's? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria's mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, Senor Tamale Stand Owner, Sushi-chef-san, Monsieur Bucket-head. What's that feathered game bird, hanging on the porch, getting riper by the day, the body nearly ready to drop off? I want some.
I have no wish to die, nor do I have some unhealthy fondness for dysentery. If I know you're storing your squid at room temperature next to a cat box, I'll get my squid down the street, thank you very much. I will continue to do my seafood eating on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, because I know better, because I can wait. But if I have one chance at a full-blown dinner of blowfish gizzard -- even if I have not been properly introduced to the chef -- and I'm in a strange, Far Eastern city and my plane leaves tomorrow? I'm going for it. You only go around once.
― Steve Shasta (Steve Shasta), Wednesday, 13 December 2006 18:38 (fifteen years ago) link
― obi strip (sanskrit), Wednesday, 13 December 2006 18:50 (fifteen years ago) link
― obi strip (sanskrit), Wednesday, 13 December 2006 18:51 (fifteen years ago) link
― jhoshea (jhoshea), Wednesday, 13 December 2006 19:02 (fifteen years ago) link