Friday, July 10, 2009

Getting It Wrong,2,2395091.story
When pasta disappoints.

I figure I have around 13,000 meals left to eat before I depart this world, so it makes good sense to get most of them right.  I mean, 13,000 is not that much.  It's like 30 years of meals.  I've already eaten over 50.  So when I took a frying pan out of the cupboard, put a pot of water on to boil, added some dried red chiles to the pan and began to heat them with a few cloves of sliced garlic in some olive oil, I had no idea I was going to turn out anything other than a perfectly decent and quick pasta dish.  I chopped some anchovies, opened a can of "premium" tuna that I had seen for the first time on the shelf at Superama, and added them to the pan as well, along with some salt packed capers.  I threw some linquine into to the pot, turned down the heat on the sauce in the pan after the flavors had time to meld, and opened a bottle of wine.  Then I grated some Reggiano.

When it was acceptably al dente, I drained the pasta, added it to the sauce in the pan, turned up the heat and tossed it a bit, adding some reserved cooking liquid and some chopped parsley.  I removed the chiles, plated the pasta, topped it with the parm, and added some sea salt and ground some pepper.  It sucked.

Well, it didn't suck, but it wasn't that good.  It disappointed me.  I have made this dish over 100 times.  It always tastes good.  Tonight, it was just average.  What did I do wrong?  Was it me?  My mood?  The "premium" tuna?  It all seemed a bit dry and boring.  Maybe some more oil would have helped?  I usually don't cook pasta with oil, so maybe that's why it was a bit sticky?   Am I losing my touch?  My taste?  Did I cook without passion?  Did I learn anything?  What would I do different next time? 

I am so bothered by this, I want to go back and do it again, but of course that would be nonsensical.  Maybe I will try it again soon.  Pay a bit more attention.  Not take for granted that everything I cook is going to be good.  But now I'm scared.  What if I never get it right again?   I only have 12,999 meals left.  

Memories of San Sebastian-The Beginning gored by a bull was preferable to spending another minute in the car with Lady Brett.  Or in Pamplona.


I used to love Hemingway until he made me to go to the Festival of San Fermin (aka The Running of the Bulls) in Pamplona.  “Papa,” I would shout out, in the middle of the night, awake in a cheap Parisian pension, starving student that I was, the dirty sheets drenched in my sweat and me, still drunk from the evening’s bar crawl, my copy of “The Sun Also Rises" open to a meaningful passage  on the cheap wooden nightstand.  “I cannot rest until I too visit the Festival.”  “You are my soulmate.”  “I cannot write again, until I write like you.”  “I’m going to name my granddaughter Margaux too.”   Unfortunately, I could not convince my benefactor (aka, my own “papa”) to finance the trip and let me stay in Europe beyond the end of June (the festival was in July) and I was forced to return to Baltimore, where I spent the summer as working an usher in the train station, calling out trains to Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark, New York, and beyond, all the while knowing I belonged way beyond.  I belonged in Pamplona.  When I returned to college in the fall, I put my festival dreams on hold.  For twenty years.

And so it came to pass that I finally visited…no, that I finally PARTICIPATED IN, The Festival of San Fermin.  I arrived at the airport in Madrid to meet my cast of characters, with whom I would spend the next 10 days.  I, of course, was Jake Barnes, the impotent soldier who was hopelessly in love with Lady Brett Ashley.  The lady herself was actually my best friend’s wife, a southern belle from Kentucky.  And Robert Cohn, the Jewish outsider, was  a gentile dentist from Tennessee.  My best friend was Pedro Romero, the young bullfighter involved in a love affair with Brett.

Dysfunction reigned from the very beginning.  As the only Spanish speaker with a few previous trips to Spain under my belt., I was elected to navigate and communicate and fornicate (no, just kidding… I’m impotent, remember).  Pedro was driving the rental car and we stop to ask a truck driver parked on the side of the road for directions.  When I return to the car, I report that the truck driver had told me to "fuck the road" to Segovia, which I assume to mean don't take it (later, I figure out that the term we use in Mexico for the "f" word is used in Spain to mean "get on" or "grab").   For some reason, probably to make my life miserable, Lady Brett had gone off her meds before the trip, and was completely OCD, telling me what an idiot I was for not being able to figure out where we were or understand the language.  We did manage to make it as far as Segovia on the first day, although not via the highway, where Cohn and I passed out on the lawn of the parador, after finishing several bottles of pacharan.  Brett and Pedro went into town for sucking pig and woke us up when they returned.  Because the hotel restaurant was long closed, Cohn and I dined on a tin of tuna fish and saltines along with several bottles of cheap wine before passing out again.  It kind of felt like Papa was there, watching us.

We made it to Pamplona the next day, late, after a long day in the car, where Brett's OCD had kicked in to the max; me on the receiving end of it, which I guess was a welcome break for Pedro.  I lost count of the number of times she referred to me as an "f''ing nimrod" after I don't know how many wrong turns...and all I was trying to do was read a map and street signs.  We checked into what was supposed to be the best hotel in town and which I can only describe as pretty nasty, and where I had a single room with worn green carpet and a hard bed.   Unfortunately, I was still able to hear Brett in the next room through the too thin walls ragging on Pedro about it, after thinking I was finally free of her for a while.  I ponder the wisdom of going to a drugstore to bribe the pharmacist for some Atavan with which to spike her wine, but think better of it.  In Mexico I wouldn't have thought twice about it, but I didn't want to end up in jail and miss the festival...better to just put up with her.

We go to drink in a cafe and note that the crowd in town seems a bit, well...trashy. Pedro and Brett retire to the hotel and Cohn and I drink until we pass out.  The next morning we are up at dawn, dressed in white, ready for the most magnificent event ever.  And then my lifelong dream came crashing down and the Hemingway fantasy ended.  Brutally.

I don't know exactly what Papa saw but what I saw was, as Brett described it, a "cluster f*&$ing nightmare."  I discover in short order that I am not really a bull person.  They are big, scary and nasty, especially when they are loose on the street.  They SNORT.  I never particularly liked them in bullrings but I thought when I saw them running free it would be different.  I was right.  They were totally terrifying.  But nowhere near as much as the crowd was.  

For the festival, the town had turned into what I can only describe as an Eastern European refuge camp, with the bulk of participants in the festival young and dirty kids, who slept in tents or on the streets, drank until they threw up on their white clothes, and wore the stains with pride.  The casual sex and bohemian vibe of papa's time had turned into a Euro-trailer trash saddam and gomorrah recently risen from the depths of hell.  There was screwing in the streets.  There was vomiting in the streets.  There was pissing in the streets.  It was so appalling, so deeply depressing and disturbing, there was only one thing for me, Cohn, Brett and Pedro to do.  Drink.  It was the only way were gonna get through it.

And so it came to pass that the next few days dissolved into a drunken haze of early mornings spent watching the bulls running through the streets while even drunker idiots tried to run with them, eating and drinking until we passed out, waking up for the bullfights at night where the bulls who ran through the streets in the morning were brutally slaughtered in the bullring, then eating and drinking until we passed out again.  It was insane.

It was also exhausting and we were only on Day 3, with 3 more to go, when Brett, as she was want to do in Papa's book, made the casual comment that perhaps we should adjourn to San Sebastian for some R&R.  Cohn, Pedro and I refused to admit defeat.  We were there for the festival and we were staying for the festival.  All of it.  Weren't we?

We weren't.  There was no hiding it.  The Hemingway dream was turning into full on disaster and to make it even worse, we weren't enjoying ourselves at all.  Not the food, not the festival, not the people and not even the wine, which we drank to get through the misery.  On Day 4, I woke up early as usual for the running of the bulls and noticed something nasty on the tacky green carpet.  What was it?  Was it....baccalao?  I try to think back to the night before.  Didn't I have baccalao for dinner?  The phone rang.  It was Pedro.  "We're out of here," is all he said.  I breathed a sigh of relief, put my pounding head back on the pillow, and slept until noon.   

We were quiet on the drive to San Sebastian and even Brett didn't speak.  Shell-shocked, I guess.  We had no idea what to expect, but whatever was in store, it couldn't have been as bad as Pamplona.  We arrived into San Sebastian and I instantly felt at east.  It was lovely, there were no drunken crowds, and the hotel was great.  My room overlooked the river, the tide coming was coming in from the Bay of Biscay, and I filled my lungs with fresh air and breathed a long sigh of relief.  I felt like I was home. 

I used to love Hemingway until he made me go to the Festival of San Fermin.  

Friday, June 26, 2009

Memories of San Sebastian-Part 1

The port area in San Sebastian, where a stop for grilled anchovies and sardines is obligatory.

It is Friday afternoon and I have been home for 3 days.  The jet lag isn't anywhere near as bad as it could be, thanks to these amazing homeopathic pills my friends gave me.  But I am still tired and I miss being there.  Tonight I will make paella with some bomba rice I brought back and hope it will be better than the totally lousy one we had in Madrid.  I will drink a bottle of 6 Euro tempranillo from Jumilla that I picked up from a wine store on Calle del Prado on the way home.  And I will remember another fantastic, amazing, mind-blowing trip to the food capital of the world.

I arrive in Madrid on a Friday evening after drinking 4 splits of something white on the flight from Paris.  I check into the hotel, where my best friend is waiting for me.  He joined the trip at the last minute, unable to bear the thought of me eating at Akelarre without him.  We had discovered San Sebastian together.  I phone his room and we meet in the lobby after I shower off the trip over.  First stop, En Estado Puro, one of the hottest tapas bars in town, run by yet another protege of Ferran Adria.  It is indeed quite cool and the tapas menu interesting.  English is being spoken by most of the patrons, but considering it's location (right by the Prado) and the fact it is early for Madrid, we don't immediately label it tourist trap.  We order 4 mini hamburgers with mustard and berberechos (which I think translates as cockles) al natural.  Plus a nicely chilled bottle of Albarino.  The burgers are good but nothing special.  The berberechos are spectacular.  They come in a trendy looking tin can with the lid half open. We devour them, soaking up the brine with some good bread.  We finish the wine and head over to some friends' place on Calle Castillo, where our other two traveling companions are staying and where we begin the evening.  There are introductions, a lot more wine on their lovely terazza, and we head out to dinner somewhere around 11pm.  I am told that dinner was great, although I don't remember much of it, and we end the evening on the top floor open air bar of a hotel who's name escapes me, drinking champagne (not cava, which my Spanish friends don't like) until 5 in the morning.  It's my first night, so I can blame the fact that they were spiking my champagne with Red Bull in an effort to keep me awake on jet lag instead of acute alcoholism.

I roll out of bed around 2 on Saturday and we have lunch at 4 in the Thyssen-Bournemiza cafe, while waiting to see the Matisse exhibit.  Neither was anything special, and it was mostly Matisse's "middle period", where he moved to Nice and painted lots of ships and seascapes.  A big party that night on my friends' terraza starts at 10 and ends when the sun comes up, not that I remember.  Another 2pm wake up on Sunday and truly lousy paella at a famous place near the Royal Palace. Many bottles of champagne back on the terraza and a late night tapas crawl with canas and white wine on Cava Baja and the surrounding streets, and I am done with Madrid.

We miss our flight to Bilbao in the morning, although our two other traveling companions make it.  We arrive two hours later, and they are there waiting for us, and fortunately, not at all pissed off.  After a 2 hour ride to Elciego, we see the Frank Gehry-designed Marquis de Riscal hotel for the first time.  We don't know what to think.  Kind of like a mini-but unstructured Guggenheim, the titanium with a pinkish hue.

We check in and have all been upgraded to amazing suites, mine with a view over the vineyards, and my friends' overlooking part of the hotel itself.  We meet in the wine bar, where the only wines served are from Marquis de Riscal, which I guess makes sense.  We decide to skip the scheduled wine tour and just drink the wine.  I wished I liked it as much as the hotel, which was growing on me.  

After an evening walk into the village of Elciego for a pre-dinner beer, the hotel always in site and the sun reflecting off the titanium from every vista point along the way, we return to the hotel restaurant.  When we are deciding what to order to drink, one of us suggests cava, and the maitre'd says, "I don't like cava."  What is it with these Spaniards?  An expensive bottle of rose champagne is suggested instead, which we agree to.  Dinner is fine, especially considering the hotel's big splash restaurant was closed that evening.  I have beef, nicely grilled rare and finished with sea salt.   Everything else is pretty forgettable.  Including the wine the hotel is named for.  

We spend the rest of the evening, moving about the grounds of the hotel and taking in the architecture from various vantage points, with several bottles of wine in tow.  My friend wanders off and eventually calls out to us from a top of the structure lounge he discovered, where we end the evening with armagnacs.  The only other people in the chic attic are some vacation Venezuelans, with whom we exchange several drunken toasts.

The next morning, we check out and begin what is supposed to be a 2 hour drive to San Sebastian.  We get lost and end up taking a small, winding road through the very green Pyrenees, passing through tiny Basque villages, meadows full of grazing sheep, finally making our way down to the sea and the reason we came to Spain in the first place.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Wishing I was In Japan

The Shoto Club would have been the perfect place for me to drown my sorrows after a lousy day at work.  Unfortunately, it is in Tokyo...and I am here.  

I was in a surprisingly foul mood today for no real reason that I know of and it got worse after a meeting with my company accountants.  Dudes, we're in the middle of a worldwide financial crisis and our largest client is (was?) an auto manufacturer.  Give me a break.  Get over yourselves.  We'll figure it out.  We always do.

So I came home and all I wanted to do was open a bottle of wine and forget about it, but I had to eat, so I started off pan frying some fresh corn in a bit of butter and olive oil, thinking I would have it with a fried egg and a tortilla.  But I found some leftover cold rice, threw that in the frying pan too, then chopped up some chiles, tomatoes and cilantro, threw in a little bit of salt and realized I was actually making some sort of fried rice.  When it was almost done, I added a tablespoon of fish sauce, and if not great, it was certainly good and fast.  And only about 500 calories.  I know that as the hot, dry season in the D.F. comes to an end and the rainy season begins, I will move away from so much Asian cooking, now that I can have the stove on for longer periods without being driven outside because of the heat in my kitchen, and this may be my last taste of it for a while.  Sort of a transitional dinner.

After the wine started to have some effect, I settled down a bit and checked my email.  A friend was asking for some Japan recommendations, and glad to have something to do, I wrote the following, which had a totally relaxing effect on me and my mood and gave me the opportunity to re-live a recent trip to Asia.

In Tokyon, Ryugin is an amazing, one-of-a-kind experience and IMHO, the chef is on the same level as Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal.  Just spectacular...and if you want to go anywhere great, I would say this should be the one place.  I can't say enough about it.  I don't even want to recommend anything else because everything pales in comparison.

In Kyoto, a simple and amazing place for tempura is is owned and run by the same people who own the Tawaraya ryokan...the famous Japanese inn (which I would not personally recommend for reasons I won't go into)...and the tempura is reputed to be among the best in Japan.  I find it pure and delicious.  Relatively cheap at about $US80 for the basic menu, a maximum of 12 guests sit around a U-shaped bar and focus on the father and son chef team as they demonstrate the zen of tempura perfected.

Another Kyoto experience that I would recommend is a visit to the Daitoku-ji Temple...actually a bunch of beautiful temples in a complex.  It's not on the same "top attraction" list as the Golden Pavillion, but well worth a stop, not only for the varied and beautiful temples, but the vegetarian restaurant in the complex is an experience in itself.  It is called only for lunch, and the set menu offers an amazing variety of delicious and healthy food for about $US40.  You sit on tatami mats...and fortunately, they serve sake and beer to help with the back pain.  The complex is a great place to wander around and then enjoy truly beautifully prepared food in a zen garden-like atmosphere.       
Also, check out these two links below to the Bon Apetit article about Tokyo becoming the mixology capital of the world.  We went to The Shoto Club and it was the most amazing bar experience of our lives.  Very hard to find, in the basement of an obscure apartment building, the amount of passion and creativity that goes into the cocktails is mind blowing.  Not a lot of English spoken, but if you just say "omakase"...I am in your hands....they will astound you with their cocktails.  If you go (and I would recommend doing this for any of the non-hotel bars), have the concierge call first to make sure they are open, not having a private event and to let them know that you are coming.

Speaking of hotel bars, the one that everyone who's seen Lost in Translation remembers is on the top of the Park Hyatt.  I would recommend avoiding that, and the one of the top of the Peninsula as well, and reserve a table at the Cerulean Tower bar.  The minimalist Zen-wood design accents the spectacular view over the city, and if you go at sunset, you may see the sun reflecting off Mt. Fuji just before the night takes over, the lights of the Shibuya district come up, and you watch the crowds below as they hurry home from work via the largest pedestrian crossing in the world.  

Friday, May 15, 2009

Where To Eat In The D.F.

Having lived and worked here for almost 20 years, I still consider myself to be a stranger in a strange land.  There are things I will never “get”, cultural barriers that I will never cross, and Mexican restaurants I think are quite good that no “chilango” would even consider frequenting, unless it is with me, who they would be humoring, because I am, after all a foreigner, who doesn’t understand “real” Mexican food.  There are people I have known for years, and eaten with on many occasions, who still begin every meal we have together with the question, “Do you like chile?”   

I do.  I arrived in Mexico without a centavo in my pocket and survived on street food and “splurging” on cheap restaurants for longer than I care to remember.  Chile helps dull hunger pains.   Padre Kino (probably the cheapest  Mexican wine there is) became my best friend.  With age and a bit more income, my eating habits have become more upscale, but on occasion, I can still be found in questionable condition, eating tacos al pastor at Selene at 3 in the morning. 

 I am constantly asked by friends, or friends of friends, or by people who got my name from someone who knows me, where to eat when they visit Mexico City, and I am only too happy to provide some recommendations.  But before I go on, I need to say again that the best Mexican food I have ever had is prepared by my housekeeper, who has kept me well fed and versed in Mexican cuisine for many years now, and once you have tasted her huachinango a la veracruzana, mole verde, sopes, chiliquiles, and my favorite, grilled pork ribs marinated in tequila and diced poblano chiles, a recipe we developed together, food in most local restaurants pales in comparison.  That is why I go to them infrequently, or when I have guests in town who want to eat “authentic” Mexican.  But when I do go out locally, I tend to go to the places that are listed in guidebooks and discussed on boards like Chowhound; Izote, Fonda del Recuerdo, Villa Maria, La Valentina and Contramar continue to wow me on occasion and almost always leave me feeling satisfied.  For tacos, I like El Tizoncito in Condesa and Lago de los Cisnes in Lomas (especially on Sunday afternoon, the official maid’s day off,, where upscale housewives who have no idea how to boil water can be seen devouring tacos along with their families).  My corner taqueria, Las Costillas on Juan Escutia and Pachuca, makes great quesadillas and their pork chop tacos are always a hit with me as well, as is the friendly staff.  

Eating in traditional “international” restaurants that include some Mexican dishes on the menu  (Bellinghausen in the Zona Rosa and Danubio in the Centro) is like slipping into a pair of sweats and beat up sneakers…comfortable, easy and familiar.  For more modern Mexican, I also like Los Canarios in Sta. Fe, especially the duck tacos, as well as La Guadiana.   

For non-Mexican dining, Jaso in Polanco is about is good as it gets, and the understated Basque restaurant Bakea in Lomas de Barrilaco always leaves me wishing I was back in San Sebastian and wondering whether it is in fact, the best restaurant in the D.F.

L’atelier de Quim Jardi in Colonia Roma is the perfect bohemian pizza joint run by a quirky, unique and talented chef; I go about once a week and usually order “The Lynch”, named after the famous director, which is not yet on the menu but will be whenever they print a new one.  The jazz is always hot, the pizza at times, not.  Still my favorite pizza place though.  50 Friends in both Condesa and Polanco has good pizza as well, always with a large crowd that is reflective of each neighborhood.  

I try not to eat much beef these days, but when I do, El Zorzal on the corner of Alfonso Reyes and Tamaulipas is a fine place to do it.  I prefer their casual, neighborhood vibe to the big ticket Argentine places like Rincon de Argentina, which always feels to me like a huge Rustler.

All that said, here are three simple places that don’t make all the discussion boards or guidebooks (although occasionally they do turn up) that I find myself returning to for Mexican food and always enjoying.  I can recommend them to just about anyone and everyone.


Selene (behind the Camino Real in Anzures).  Go very late and very drunk.  You will fit right in….and you probably won’t notice (or at least remember) the cleanliness factor.  It's all about the tacos al pastor here, although I have ordered a "milanesa" taco from time to time and loved every greasy bite.


El Turix (Emilio Castelar 210 in Polanco).  Stuff yourself on cochinita pibil tacos and panuchos, down a few Montejo beers, and bliss out.



La Gurufa (Michoacan 91, Condesa).  I don’t know why I like this place so much, but I do.  Sit outside, watch the happening locals, order the blue corn quesadillas with goat cheese or another contemporary Mexican option and chill.  Saturday and Sunday late mornings are best, because you are sure to spot someone more hungover than you are.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


"Don't blame it on me, blame it on your hog farms".   

This is my first week back in Mexico since I left on the 28th of April.  We decided to not take any chances, close the company and work remotely for a week, so I headed to San Francisco to spend a few days with friends and then had a work-related trip to Atlanta scheduled for last week.  I finally made it back to the D.F. on Sunday and have spent the last few days getting caught up at work and moving my blog from a previous location to this one, so please bear with me while I figure out the new format/software and get comfortable with it. 

So, do I think the whole swine thing was overblown?  Yeah, I do.  Way overblown in fact.  But I have to say I think the government did a great job of shutting down the city and responding to the threat.  It was amazing to see the city totally shuttered, no traffic and almost nobody on the streets.  It is something I won't forget for a long time.

In San Francisco, I re-visited a place on Potrero Hill (Aperto) I had been to before on several occasions and found it to be better than ever and left amazed at the price tag of $US135 for 4, including a bottle of wine.  There is no way you could find the same innovation and thinking here for the same price.  There have been several articles in major magazines and newspapers over the past few years about Mexico City becoming a world food capital/destination, including this WSJ article , but I think it pales in comparison to places like San Francisco, Bangkok, Paris, New York and my all time favorite, San Sebastian, where I am headed next month, especially when it comes to walking into just about anywhere and getting great food.  It is EASY to get a bad meal here. Peas were in season in SF, and Aperto took full advantage of the fact.  In two of our entrees (Osso Bucco and Braised Lamb Shank), both the peas and their shoots played prominent roles, infusing the dishes with an unexpected first-taste-of-summer freshness.  While the seasonality of fruits and vegetables here is quite different and less pronounced than in the U.S., chefs don't really seem to pay much attention to it on their menus.  For example, Manila mangos are in season right now and they are never featured in any of the places I frequent.  And they are good. As good as Thailand's mangos.  Which is really saying something.

Also in San Francisco, I went with a 12 year old vegetarian to a simple Chinese place on Church Street in Noe Valley (Hunan), where I had some fiery smoked ham that literally and figuratively took my breath away.  The vegetarian dishes were outstanding as well, and again, the price was so reasonable for the quality...even with the peso devaluation against the dollar I still found it reasonable.  And San Francisco kids seem so sophisticated when it comes to food in comparison to kids here...or just about anywhere else I guess.  When I asked my friend's daughter where we should eat, she came up with a range of interesting places, and when I left the decision up to her, she chose Hunan because of their hot and sour soup, warning me in advance it was very spicy. 

My friends' kitchen is being remodeled and we were cooking out of a makeshift one in the basement.  Asparagus is also in season in the U.S., so inspired by the lunch at Hunan, one evening I made an asparagus stir-fry (recipe below) that I make frequently here.  We steamed carry-out dumplings from King of Dumplings on Noriega (the best carry-out dumplings in the U.S. IMHO...and you can watch the Chinese ladies in the back room of the store making them...always a treat) and poured some hot oil on a piece of sea bass, lightly steamed and topped with chopped scallions and ginger.  Not bad for a basement cooked meal.

I had never been outside of the Atlanta airport before this trip, and only had one meal outside of the hotel, which was in an adequate Middle Eastern place.  Lots of sweetened iced tea and sandwiches.  As I was in a hotel in a suburb, I saw very little of the town, but what I did see left me with no burning desire to go back.  But everyone was so damn friendly, it made up for the lackluster food.

"Hunan" Stir-Fried Asparagus
-1 tablespoon neutral oil
-1 bunch asparagus (about 1.5 lbs.), tough stems chopped off and then chopped in 2" lengths
-3 large cloves garlic, sliced thinly lengthwise
-4 dried red chile peppers, broken into 1/4" lengths
-1/2 cup Shaoxing wine (or sake, or chicken broth, or white wine)
-3 tblsp. oyster sauce
-2 tsp. sesame oil

-Stir oyster sauce into wine, set aside
-Heat a wok or large frying pan over high heat until smoking, and add oil.  Swirl to coat.  Add garlic and stir fry for about 30 seconds, then add chile and stir fry for another 30 seconds.
-Add asparagus and stir fry for about 2 minutes, or until just beginning to lose its crispness
-Add wine/oyster sauce mixture, lower heat slightly, and let it bubble away, stirring occasionally, until reduced to a light glaze, about 8-10 minutes
-Stir in sesame oil just before serving.

Serves 4 as part of a larger meal


What to Do With Leftover Ikura and Tobiko Ikura (salmon roe) makes a great topping for a fast and light green fried rice.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I had some friends and colleagues over this weekend to drink some sake that I brought back from Japan a couple of months ago and compare it to what is available locally (consensus: no comparison whatsoever.  Further consensus among most the next morning: better just to stick to Sapporo and Albarino.)   To go with the sake, I had a sushi chef from one of the better local sushi places come in and prepare what turned out to be a huge sushi and sashimi feast.  There was so much leftover, everybody took home a large package and I still had more than there was room in the refrigerator to store, so my housekeeper, building manager and several neighbors were gifted large foil packages as well.  In the end, I was left with a few pieces of hamachi and big styrofoam cups of ikura and tobiko (flying fish roe).  I spent all of yesterday wondering what I could do with the salmon roe and came up with the following recipe last night.  It was so good, I had it again tonight, polishing the recipe and polishing off the ikura at the same time.  I am still working on what to do with the tobiko.  I’m thinking pizza with wasabi creme fraiche and chives.

Green Fried Rice with Ikura (salmon roe)

Serves 1 as a main course, 2 as a side dish

-2 tblsp. canola oil or other oil with high smoke point

-2 cloves garlic, minced

-2-4 serrano chiles, minced

-1 egg

-1 cup steamed white rice (preferably leftover Jasmine and cold)

-1/3 cup each minced cilantro, cucumber and scallions

-1 tblsp. fish sauce or soy sauce

-2 tblsp. salmon roe

-Tomato wedges and scallions for garnish, lime wedge for squeezing

Heat a wok over high heat until smoking, then add oil, swirling to coat.  Add garlic and chile, stir fry for about 30 seconds.  Push garlic and chile to one side, add egg and fry until barely set.  Add rice and breaking up egg, stir fry for another 30 seconds.  Add cilantro, cucumber and parsley, and stir fry 30 seconds, add fish sauce or soy sauce, and stir fry for about 90 seconds more, adding a little more sauce if it seems too dry.

Serve rice topped with salmon roe and garnished with tomato and scallions.  Squeeze a bit of lime juice over the top. 

Some Food Moments Remembered

Entrance to Ryugin in of my last food moment.  For me,  food moments are those rare, few and far between times when you know that you are tasting perfection.  Everything else drops away and it is just about  you and the food. 

The most powerful food moment I remember having was in a restaurant in Napa called Terra.  It was in the 80’s.  I don’t know what it was I was having, but I still remember the exact sensation.  I was sitting with some friends and suddenly, they faded into the background .  I entered a state of heightened reality where it was nothing but me and the food I was tasting.  I knew there was true genius at work in the kitchen and his or her cooking was not only having an effect on my taste, but on my entire body.  It generated a physical and mental buzz that lasted for maybe a minute.  The sensation was so strong and my withdrawal from the moment so apparent, my friends asked me, ‘What’s wrong?”  And no, I was not stoned.  I have been back to Terra since, and the experience was not repeated.

Another powerful food moment was in Rio, at a restaurant called Siri Mole, when I first tasted moqueca.  I was with the same friends, so they knew what was happening.

I have had two food moments in Bangkok, the first at Supatra River House.  When asked, locals and ex-pat foodies will tell you the food is for tourists and there is much, much better food to be had in Bangkok.  But the thing about food moments is they don’t discriminate.  They can happen anywhere and anytime.  I think it was the sauteed morning glory, a pedestrian dish I had eaten many times before and have eaten many times since, that caused it, but it has never had that effect on me again.  And I’ve had it several times since at Supatra.

The second experience in Bangkok was when I was walking along the stretch of Chareon Krung Road between Silom and the Saphan Taksin skytrain.  I saw some fried chicken at a street vendor stall that just called out to me.  As much as I like Thai food, fried chicken isn’t my favorite, and there is a famous place in Bangkok called Soi Polo Fried Chicken where I had eaten before and had what was reputed to the best fried chicken in town.  I found it good but not exciting.  So when I saw this chicken and stopped, I was surprised that  I even considered it.  But I did.  I bought a breast, who knows why, since they tend to dry out when fried.  And it happened again.  The entire street scene, which is extraordinarily hectic and hot, dropped away and it was just me and the most perfect piece of chicken I have ever eaten.  

Speaking of chicken, one of my favorite restaurants in Paris is L’ami Louis, and yes, I know what other foodies and experts have to say about it, and I don’t care, and I continue to go back and pay astronomical prices for roast chicken that most people say is better elsewhere.  I was there one time with a friend who is a chef and who never been a fan of roast chicken...until he tried it there and found it to be a revelation.   I was glad to have helped to bring about a food moment for him and only hope it was as powerful and intense as mine are. 

I think food moments may run in the family, at least my family.  My 19 year old niece is the only other person in the family with a passion for food, and I am sure she was born with it just as I was.  I have had the blessing (and curse, she is after all, a teenager) of being able to travel with her and try some fantastic restaurants around the world, where I have witnessed her having food moments of her own.  I can tell when the same state of being that overtakes me overtakes her as well; her eyes widen, and she says to me, when I look at her knowingly, “you don’t know, you just don’t know.”  But yes, I do.  Raw oysters tend to provoke food moments for her, as does Porcao in Rio and my spaghetti carbonara.  Unlike me, she has repeat moments at the same places and with the same foods.  I was expecting her to have one at Pre Catalan in Paris, but as much as she liked it, she didn't.  You just never know.

My most recent food moment was in December at Ryugin in Tokyo.  It was one of the best meals of my life, the tasting menu thrilling, and the chef, Seiji Yamamoto, is a genius in the same league as Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria.  But the dish that caused the food moment came towards the end and was perhaps the simplest on the menu: "Steamed Rice with Cherry Blossom Tea Topped with Aromatic Sakura Shrimp from Shizuoka".

The best thing about food moments is you never know where or when they are going to hit.  But when they do, they are always worth the wait.  And I can’t wait for the next one.  

Review: Primos

Primos in the Condesa is a bustling Mediterranean-style bistro with above average food and a pleasant buzz.  The jamon serrano with their outstanding crusty bread is always a pleasant ‘tapa’.  They also have a retail bakery on Alfonso Reyes in the Condesa, a block or two away from Quilmes, where you can buy the bread to take home. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

You won’t find many tourists at Primos, or much of the stereotypical Condesa crowd either, although its location would suggest otherwise.  Right on the corner of Mazatlan and Michoacan, not far from the Turibus stop, Primos is a small (maybe 30 table) Mediterranean-style bistro with a white and black tile floor and white cloth covered tables that attracts well dressed professionals at both lunch and dinner with a varied, Spanish-influenced menu that goes from tapas and “revueltitos” to hot dogs and hamburgers.  I have been going regularly since it opened, over two years ago, and find it one of the most pleasant and consistently good places to eat in the neighborhood.  Last night was a typical experience.

Calling to reserve for 4 at 9pm, I was offered 8:45 with 15 minutes of “tolerance”, a testament to Primos’ ongoing popularity.  My friends arrived before I did, and were seated at a table just inside the restaurant, overlooking diners seated on the outdoor terrace, which is extremely pleasant when the weather is good, with a view towards the tree-shaded pathway that divides Mazatlan.  The restaurant was busy with almost all tables occupied by an older (35+) group of well heeled chilangos.  We ordered drinks and a bottle of wine, a Spanish tempranillo/cabernet blend at a reasonable $MXP250.  It was nothing special, but we weren’t there to drink anything special.  For $MXP390, an Altos Las Hormigas 2006 Malbec would have been the better choice, despite the almost 300% markup from U.S. prices.

To begin, we decided on some appetizers for the “centro”.  Patatas bravas, jamon Serrano and some Manchego cheese were quickly served, as was another bottle of the same wine, which we found improved with a bit of air.  The four large, thick spears of crusty, fried potatoes were topped with a chipotle mayonnaise that one of my companions thought a bit too much in the heat department, although I found relatively tame.  About fifteen wafer thin slices of aged Manchego went well (and quickly) with the wine, and the ham arrived glistening and moist.  I didn’t try the ham, but the general agreement was that the appetizers were quite good.

My “tacos de dorado”, three flour tortillas, each with a piece of battered and deep fried mahi-mahi topped with chipotle mayonnaise, shredded lettuce and cilantro, were not what I was expecting or hoping for, although I must not have paid attention to the menu description.  To my way of thinking, there is absolutely nothing like simply grilled fish in a corn tortilla, topped with salsa Mexicana, lime and perhaps a bit of guacamole, so I wasn’t prepared for anything other than that, but that’s just me.  Fried fish is the norm in many places serving fish tacos, and once I got over the idea of eating “fish fingers”, I found them to be fine, if a bit heavy, and two were more than enough; the third went uneaten.  I noticed my friend, who had also ordered the tacos, scraping off the chipotle mayonnaise, but she was the same one who had found the potatoes to be too spicy.   

Another friend’s steak frites made her very happy, the meat also topped by chipotle mayonnaise, and we all had a taste of the frites, which were thin, crisp and delicious.  The gnocchi with meat ragu was pronounced as “good”, although not with an excess of enthusiasm.  We finished the meal with a third bottle of wine and no dessert.

On another occasion, I ordered the “frankfurter”, which was a large hot dog, grilled and served in a toasted bun with frites.  Not only was it excellent, it was the envy of the table; everyone else having ordered something more “high end”, but lusting after my simple sausage.  During my last visit, it was everyone at my table, including me, staring at someone else’s frankfurter, wishing we had ordered it for ourselves.  It is quite seductive.  

Mention also has to be made of the “revueltitos” and “montaditos”, two typical Basque appetizers, the first being scrambled eggs with a chosen ingredient (mushrooms, chorizo, cheese, to name a few available) served atop roasted potato.  “Montaditos” are the same  toppings, served on baguette slices.  When last ordered, two slices of thick, doughy bread, topped with crushed fresh tomato sauce and lots of anchovy filets made an enjoyable “tapa” to begin the meal.  

Nightly specials and monthly wine specials are listed on blackboards around the room.  One of my favorites, the Dorado With 3 Chiles, almost always arrives perfectly fresh and just barely cooked through.  It is prepared in a very spicy olive oil based sauce laced with both dry and fresh chiles and served with grilled asparagus and tomato on the side.  For the  most part, desserts are forgettable, so on those nights when I am not yet satisfied, I order a plate of cheese to finish the wine.

Primos has a lot going for it in addition to the above average (and frequently, way above average) food.  Most people are there to have a good time and enjoy the pleasant buzz the restaurant always seems to generate, especially when the weather is good, the terrace is active and the guests are well into their second or third drink of the evening.  

I find the service at Primos to be professional and very pleasant, although the waiters may get slightly harried at peak times and you will need to flag them down.  When you do, their response is courteous and prompt.  Prices are very reasonable…last night’s dinner for four, with a couple of drinks and 3 bottles of wine was in the $MXP2000 range, including tip.  You can of course spend more…or less.  A hot dog and a beer would set you back about $MXP100, and that is exactly what I will be ordering on my next visit.

Primos, Mazatlan 168, Colonia Condesa


M-T: 1:00pm-11pm

W-Sa: 1:00pm-12am

Su: 1pm-6pm

R.I.P Michael Mina
Lobster pot pie was one of the signature dishes at Michael Mina's recently shuttered restaurant in Polanco-Nemi.
Sunday, April 4, 2009

Another celebrity chef exits Mexico after less than a year.  I wrote an initial review of Nemi, the Michael Mina restaurant in Polanco in May of last year.  I was back in June and not much had changed, although the food was marginally better and the service still superb.  But it did not come as  a surprise when I heard that Nemi had closed.  I don’t know why it is that Mexico City can’t seem to support American celebrity chefs, but it probably has something to do with the chilango palate as well as their feeling about “American” food...I don’t have one Mexican foodie friend who really enjoys eating anywhere in the U.S.  (Ok, a few like Le Bernardin).  And to be fair, high-end chains like The Palm and now Morton’s, as well as all the lower end usual suspects (TGI Friday’s, Tony Roma’s, Outback Steakhouse, California Pizza Kitchen, etc.) seem to do fine.  Maybe it is just that people object to paying astronomical prices for average food and wine when the name of the chef doesn’t mean anything to them.  Can’t say I blame them.  There is one place that serves “Contemporary American” that seems to be doing very well  and which I love, but won’t mention by name because I don’t want to curse it.  Fortunately, the chef isn’t a celebrity...yet.  But if he keeps on putting out food like he currently does, he’s well on his way to being one.

Nemi was supposed to be the cornerstone restaurant of the new boutique hotel, Las Alcobas, due to open in February, but to the best of my knowledge, has not yet started operating.  Also designed by Nemi’s firm (Yabu Pushelberg), rooms were published to start at $US450.  Perhaps the closing of Nemi and the delay in the opening are coincidental, or perhaps not.  These are tough times in Mexico for $US100 dinners and $US450 hotels.  

NEMI (May 2008)

I recently returned to the DF after a 6 month leave of absence.  The first thing I did was go back to the places I missed the most; Danubio and Contramar for seafood and Izote for Mexican (given the temporary closure of Aguila y Sol). All were excellent, and Izote, with which I have had an on-again, off-again relationship based on their inconsistency over the years, blew me away. The next thing on my list was to try the new Michael Mina restaurant, Nemi, which recently opened in Polanco. I went on a quiet Tuesday night with a Welsh-Canadian companion. At 8pm, we were the only ones in the restaurant, which isn’t surprising, considering this is Mexico. When we left at 10:30, two other couples were there, again, not surprising, since the restaurant had only been open two weeks.

The address of the restaurant is on Masaryk, however, the dark entrance is around the corner and a bit hard to find. Once found, I was greeted warmly and shown to my table, where my companion was waiting. The Yabu Pushelberg design seems as though they put their junior team on it, however, in all fairness, the coldness and lack of intimacy it projected may have been due to the emptiness of the restaurant and not the design itself. The restaurant itself it small…perhaps 30 tables, with no bar. We were offered a glass of complimentary sparkling wine while we reviewed the menu and wine list. I have been a fan of Michael Mina since he was the chef at Aqua in San Francisco, where many years ago I had one of the most memorable fish dishes of my life. I was looking forward to a similar experience at Nemi. Unfortunately, it was not to be had.

The menu, which is heavily seafood based, was nothing spectacular in terms of innovation or uniqueness, but the genius of Mina is in the execution. I plan to go back several more times and will report in detail on the menu offerings, but for the moment, will concentrate on what we had and our experience on this one particular night. The very pricey wine list, which is also nothing special, was heavy on the usual suspects, all of them good wines, but not in line with the offerings at Mina’s U.S. restaurants. It is understandable considering the difficulty in sourcing wines in Mexico and the Mexican preference for French and Spanish wines vs. U.S. and New World wines. We chose a 2005 Descendientes de J. Palacios Petalos at $US65. It retails for about $US25 in the U.S. and tasted like a good $25 bottle of wine.

There were two options on the menu…a 7 course prix fixe menu at approx. $US100 or a 3 course menu at approx. $US75. We choose the 3 course option given that I am trying to eat less meat and the otherwise very accommodating and professional staff was not too keen on substitutions for the beef and chicken on the prix fixe. For appetizers, we chose the tuna tartare with habanero chiles and the foie gras 3 ways ($US20 supplement); for the main course, lobster pot pie ($US 40 supplement) and beef 3 ways.

The first amuse we were offered was a perfectly grilled scallop on a bed of perfectly bland vegetable/herb puree. Not a hit, but quite acceptable. The second was a selection of 3 small bites…lobster poached in butter (served cold, which seems to negate the butter poaching, and not a lot of flavor), a bit of fried lobster atop grain mustard sauce (very interesting, especially the sauce) and a third preparation that escapes me.

My tuna tartare was prepared tableside and served with Pan Bimbo (Wonder Bread) toast. While I appreciated the extra bite that the habanero brought to the dish, it was nothing above average, although there was quite a bit of it. I did not eat the toast. My friend’s appetizer was the hit of the evening…three bits of sautéed foie gras paired with three very sweet and different fruit compotes..  His beef was grilled as requested, three generous slices paired with mashed potatoes, a very small baked potato with sour cream, bacon and chives…the third preparation once again escapes me. The two bites I tasted, hoping for something along the lines of what Mina serves at Stripsteak in Vegas, were just ok and quite unimaginative. The beef quality was nothing special and not as good as what you can get in the better Argentine restaurants around town.

The biggest disappointment of the evening was the lobster pot pie, which I have loved at Michael Mina in both San Francisco and Las Vegas. The pie was presented tableside, the crust broken, then the whole lobster reconstructed and plated on top of the crust, surrounded by vegetables in a truffled cream sauce. The lobster itself was a large one, justifying the supplement, but stringy and overcooked. The vegetables were nicely done, but bland, and I did not detect any scent or taste of truffle whatsoever. The crust was boring and I left mine almost untouched.

Dessert was also disappointing. My passion fruit panna cotta was a waste of effort, bland and uninspired. The same molten chocolate cake with ice cream my companion ordered can be found in many restaurants around town.

The service was excellent; the friendly, English fluent staff aims to please and answer questions, obviously quite proud of their new restaurant. The maitre’d has worked with Mina in the U.S. and is upbeat and easygoing. We did not have the heart to tell the staff how disappointed we were, only that we would be back soon, which we will. While I did not pay the bill, I know that it approached $US200 per person, with one bottle of wine, thanks in large part to the supplemental charges, making Nemi one of the most expensive restaurants in town. I am hoping that in a short time, they get their act together and begin putting out dishes that are worthy of the Michael Mina name and the prices they are charging. They are clearly having a “soft” opening and getting their feet wet, and we were told that they have done no P.R. yet, save for a few efforts with hotel concierges. It would be a smart move to have someone very senior from the Mina organization come down here and supervise the kitchen until they get it right.

I have every desire to see Nemi succeed. The Mexico City dining scene needs more innovation and it would be great if more chefs like Mina would come to town. The city seems to be inflexible in what it will and will not accept, and unfortunately, the precedent for U.S. celebrity chefs is not good. Both Wolfgang Puck and Jean George Vongerichten have tried and not made it work; Spago closed after 3 years, and Vong after about 2. In its last few months, Vong lowered prices and “Mexicanized” its menu…it still didn’t survive. And both of them put out food that was excellent and true to their chefs from the beginning. Nemi needs some immediate improvement if it plans to stay around for long.

Keeping It Simple 
Canned alubias...white beans...from Spain make a quick, easy and satisfying  dinner when I don’t have the energy or desire to actually cook something.
Monday, March 30

I was tired today from a long weekend.  On Friday, I had some colleagues over for Chinese food and a lot of wine.  It went late into the night.  On Saturday, I recovered and watched movies at home, eating leftovers.  Yesterday, I was invited for a traditional Sunday meal at my Welsh friend’s house, which meant lamb with mint sauce and roasted potatoes, among other things.  And a lot of wine.  The weather is perfect right now for some rose and white options in the sunny afternoon, before moving on to reds with dinner and sunset.  And of course, there was the after dinner bottle to go with the Amazing Race.  They were in Phuket this week, and I wanted to email all the contestants and tell them not to leave without trying the incredible local oysters at Kan Eang, but they probably have other things on their minds, like the $1 million.

This morning I hauled myself out of bed and went to work.  At lunchtime, I picked up a baguette, thinking a banh mi with the leftover sesame pork from Friday would be perfect.  But Mari hadn’t gone shopping, and we didn’t have carrots or any cilantro, so I just told her to throw together whatever we had.  Turned out to be an excellent banh mi variation....with butter lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and scallions on the crunchy baguette spread with 1 tablespoon of mayo and a squirt of Sri Racha.  And of course the pork.

In addition to the bread, I picked up a bottle of Fuzion, an Argentine tempranillo/malbec blend at La Naval on Insurgentes Sur, where I also bought a can of alubias, white beans from Spain.  When I got home from work, I opened and drained the beans, sliced some onions, chopped some fresh rosemary and parsley, and threw them all together with 2 tablespoons of olive oil with lots of salt and pepper.  It took all of 5 minutes.  I let the flavors meld for about 30 minutes.  With what was left of the lunch baguette, dinner couldn’t have been better...or cheaper.