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Could You Just…? (Coffee Edition)

ritualDear Blue Bottle Coffee / Stumptown / Ritual / Intelligentisa / name your artisanal-Williamsburg-wanna-be coffee of choice,

You’ve made it: you are super popular. All the kids who hated you in high school because you wore beige corduroys and couldn’t throw a football worth a damn are queuing up in front of your kiosks to get their caffeine. They wait ten-deep on  weekends to get ONE CUP OF COFFEE.

I get that you are above it all though. That you don’t care what they think of if you, even though you obviously do, in your slouchy knit hat, heavy glasses frames and vintage cardigan. You are painfully hip. Point taken.

But could you, just, please, for the love of God, swing by the grocery and pick up some #$(*&#$! Splenda already? I get that your body is a temple. A very skinny, fixie-riding temple. Mine is not. At least as far as artificial sweeteners are concerned. (FYI, Raw Sugar tastes like crushed up maple syrup, so don’t even start with me on that.)

And – oh – before you go back to practicing your I-hate-you half-smile: could you heat up. the. goddamn. milk? In the name of all that is holy, I do not want a room temperature latte. For $4.25, I should be able to get my coffee at the temperature of the sun.

OK. I’m done. Yes, I know I can go elsewhere and that high temperatures caramelize the delicate sugars in the milk and Splenda is probably made out of chlorine, but I live right over there and could you just…? This once? We’re all in this together. Me, you and your beard kicking off the day with your excellent coffee.

Thanks guys. Really. Thanks. See you tomorrow.

Death By Cupcake

Photo by mmatins, Flickr

I think Ina Garten may be trying to kill me. She looks really cheerful, but I think she’s out for blood.

I’ve been working my way through her cookbooks because everything I make from them turns out so well that I can’t stop myself. Here’s the thing though: everything calls for about a pound of butter. She’s very careful to specify that it be unsalted butter, but that’s not really the issue when there’s a POUND OF IT.

She makes up for the no-salted-butter policy in her desserts by calling for tablespoons of salt in all her main dishes. Again: trying to kill me. She’s not even subtle about it: it’s right there on the page. Every page.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge fan of salt. My family has ridiculously low blood pressure too, so there’s no danger for me in it – except of course if I breeze through my genetic good fortune directly into heart stop junction by adding spoon after spoon of salt to my dinners.

Then there’s the sugar. All her frostings call for one pound of sugar (not kidding, not even a little bit) and half a pound of cream cheese and the same amount of butter. Which tastes FANTASTIC but will definitely kill me in about a month.

Fortunately, the frosting recipes make so much frosting that even a fiend like myself couldn’t possibly use the entire recipe on my coconut cupcakes without being embarrassed. Or still being able to see the actual cupcake. So I cut it back to, like, half a pound of sugar, which, compared to a whole pound of sugar, isn’t much. It’s all relative.

As I see it, I have two options. I can either Paula Deen it up and just own the tastiness until I pass out from diabetes or high blood pressure or coronary failure, or I can dial it back to an Ina Once a Month plan.

*sigh* I love you, Ina. I really do, but I have a child to think about now, and the mobility scooter that is not that far in my future just won’t make it up the hill we live on, so I’m going to have to break up with you a little bit. Sort of. You should definitely drunk dial me though. A lot.

Ina Garten’s Fantastic Supreme Coconut Cupcakes (Even For People Who Don’t Like Coconut, Which I Don’t, But I Love These Cupcakes)

Tipsy Parson

Here’s what: maple bacon. Here’s what else: fresh biscuits with lemon curd and scrambled eggs with chives. Here’s where: Tipsy Parson.

I had my second meal at Tipsy Parson a few weeks ago when I was back in New York and it solidified its place on my list of places to get happy, comfy food for brunch or dinner. It’s a southern place, so comfort food is exactly what it should provide, in addition to generous hospitality. None of our servers had southern accents but they were quirkily cheerful and solicitous, so good enough!

The avocado toast – greens and tomatoes and avocado piled on toast – and migas – a scrambled huevos rancheros – are my friends who live around the corners’ favorites for brunch, but I’m partial to the traditional bacon, eggs and carbs. Those biscuits are to die for – little, fluffy, warm – and that’s coming from someone who has tried and tried to make exactly those biscuits (and failed, let’s be honest).

For dinner, I don’t know where to start. Maybe the top of the menu? Just work your way down. Deviled eggs?? I love you, Tipsy Parson! I thought I was the only person who still made those and I love them only a little less than pigs in a blanket. You can also get homemade peanut butter with crackers and apples. I wouldn’t order it, but it’s adorable that they have it. You should try one of their ribs – appetizer or entree – and, naturally, order the buttermilk chive biscuit with honey butter to accompany whatever you settle on. If you’re not a big meateater, try the catfish. And if you’re ready for the full southern, get the chicken and dumplings and plan on having a lie down when you get home. Grits are available in four different combinations, but I can’t get past the consistency of even the best grits, so I can’t speak to Tipsy Parson’s execution. I just keep rolling on back to those biscuits.

The front bar and dining area are library cozy, but I prefer the back room where you get a little more space, some minor topiary action and a glimpse of a tiny, charming back garden.

Go. Enjoy. And bless your heart.

Tipsy Parson, 156 9th Ave. btwn 19th and 20th
Brunch: Sat + Sun 10 – 5:30
Lunch: Mon-Friday 11:30- 3:30
Midday: Sun – Sat 3:30p to 5:30p
Dinner: Mon – Thurs 5:30-11, Fri – Sat 5:30-12AM, Sun 5:30 – 10

Weekend Happiness Tip

202.jpgYou know French Toast? You know how easy it is? But you know how it’s so much better in restaurants? Well, real restaurants for yuppies, not the diner where they make it with Wonderbread. I was trying for a while to make better last-minute French Toast that didn’t involve tracking down brioche on a Saturday morning. Thinking ahead is not my bag re: cooking. I like to spring it on myself so it seems like it doesn’t last that long and I can say breezily, like a real cook, “Oh, I just threw this together.”

While we’re on the subject, after chopping endless numbers of ingredients into different-shaped tiny bits (how is that relaxing? don’t even start with me), the thing I hate the most about cooking is that sinking feeling you get when you read through a recipe and realize their prep time estimate of 15 minutes didn’t include the 4 hours to 4 months you were supposed to marinate/refrigerate/home-cure it before you could actually make anything out of it.

So there you are, all set with your breezy recipe that you didn’t bother to read all the way through, remembering your high school home ec teacher who told you to always, always read through the whole recipe first so could catch tricky, undermining steps like that one you just tripped over.

That’s just mean. If they’re going to ask you to do that, it should be in bold, red, 20-pt. font right under the title. Or better: in the title. “9-Day Pasta Fazool.” “Chicken Divan Your Whole Day Crepes.” Like that.

Speaking of my home ec teacher, she once gave us an unnamed recipe about a page long to make in our little cooking groups. The rule was you had to eat whatever you made, which was a great incentive not to goof off. My group dutifully read through the whole page first and noted that the very last sentence said to skip ingredients 2, 5, and 9, which were, like baking powder, lemon juice, and salt. The recipe was for hot chocolate. Some poor suckers in the other group had to drink down their lemony, foaming cocoa after disobeying her cardinal rule. I thought this was funny at the time but in retrospect, I think she was reading my future, which was weird and impressive.

Back to my French Toast. I have two recipes for you to make your Saturday brunch better.

The first one is easy. Quick tip: always have some decent thick white bread in your freezer. Put a few slices in the microwave for 10 seconds and you’re French Toast-ready. (On the west coast, in the shocking absence of Pepperidge Farm, try Oroweat Country Potato.) If you’re making it for two, mix up three or four eggs with a tablespoon of milk and add a teaspoon of vanilla (which gives is excellent flavor), and a teaspoon of white sugar (which makes is crispy and brown). I didn’t know about the vanilla or the sugar until about six months ago, which was a sad, sad thing. Now my French Toast rules.

The second recipe is a make-ahead French Toast for guests (guests without heart conditions or memberships at Weight Watchers that is). Since you make the whole thing ahead, it’s not like you’re getting hijacked on the day-of. And it’s fab that you can make a brunch dish the night before rather than running around like a crazy person trying to put together an impressive cilantro souffle between cleaning the toilet and trying to find a tablecloth.

It’s Paula Deen’s recipe but with some modifications because you might kill someone if you make the topping she describes.

Baked French Toast Casserole with Maple Syrup

Prep Time: 20 minutes + Inactive Prep Time of 8 hrs/overnight
Plan for 40 minutes of cook time in the morning
Serves: 6-8

Ingredients
• 1 loaf French bread (13 to 16 ounces)
• 8 large eggs
• 2 cups half-and-half
• 1 cup milk
• 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• Dash salt

• Praline Topping (you’ll need 1/2 stick butter, 1/2 cup of brown sugar, and 1 cup of nuts)
• Maple syrup

Slice French bread into 20 slices, 1-inch each. Arrange slices in a generously buttered 9 by 13-inch flat baking dish in 2 rows, overlapping the slices. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, half-and-half, milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt and beat with a rotary beater or whisk until blended but not too bubbly. Pour mixture over the bread slices, making sure all are covered evenly with the milk-egg mixture. Spoon some of the mixture in between the slices. Cover with foil and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, preheat oven to 350 degrees F and make the praline topping:

Modified praline topping:
Half a stick of butter + 1/2 cup of brown sugar + slivered almonds or halved pecans to taste (up to a cup, but I use less). Blend it all together in a bowl. Done.

Spread Praline Topping evenly over the bread and bake for 40 minutes, until puffed and lightly golden. Serve with maple syrup – although you may not need this, honestly. Put it out but try it without the syrup. It’s plenty sweet!

Have a sugar-saturated, tasty, tasty weekend!

Cheap Date

couroc_frog.jpgMy grandmother bought five-pound cans of Maxwell House and perked it on the stove. A drink in the evening was a rare glass of sherry. Suburban aunts made coffee in machines and their husbands drank gin and tonics out of wide glasses with urbane dancing frogs on them.

This is not my liquid life. I live in San Francisco where the drinks are complicated and expensive and there is nary a dancing frog in sight, let alone an ice cube from a freezer tray or, God forbid, coffee in a tin.

I’m not complaining. I drink well here. On our trip to the mountains of Colorado a few weeks ago though, it was back to basics and a welcome break.

First, let’s talk coffee. In Colorado, all the coffees were hot. Super hot. Mountain hot. Boiling hot. And they cost $3.75 for half a gallon of espresso and steamed milk. Well, almost half a gallon. This is fine with me. Hot, caffeinated and not bitter are my morning baselines. Above that line, I can really take it or leave it, even if I can tell the difference.

Back in San Francisco, I had it out with the barista at Ritual Coffee for delivering my coffee at room temperature for the umpteenth time. (This is apparently kind of a thing for me.) The guy said they had a POLICY that they did not steam their milk above a certain temperature because it carmelized the sugars. Apparently I like carmelized sugars based on my liking of apples covered in same and hot *(&#$#! milk in my cafe au lait.

That’s not to say that I don’t like what’s on offer here in general. Ritual Roasters, Four Barrel and Blue Bottle all spring from the Bay Area. Like Folgers crystals before them, they’re served in the finest restaurants around the country. (Another survey of their backgrounds here.) I’m not going to deny they’re good. Well, Blue Bottle and Ritual are good. Four Barrel I don’t get but a lot of people disagree with me so I’m outvoted there. Can I tell that these $4 cups of coffee are better than other coffees? Um, well, sort of. I can tell that they’re better than instant or coffeemaker coffee. And Starbucks. But that much better than much faster, cheaper, no-name coffee that I should pay twice as much? Probably not. Case in point: Dunkin’ Donuts makes my favorite coffee and I think they’re still on the Maxwell House train. So I’m not 100% sure I appreciate the level of precision that coneisseurship has brought to my morning cuppa.

Perhaps I’m being willfully dense here and resisting developing an expensive taste because then I’d have to spend $4 every morning rather than drinking what I can most conveniently get. I do this with wine. If I got hooked on $40 bottles of wine, I wouldn’t be able to drink the $10 bottle. So while I appreciate the expensive wines when they’re presented to me, I try not to take too much notice. I already spend enough money as it is.

Enough about me: if you’re looking around to taste the best of the best and have a nice sit-down while you’re in the city, here are my picks, with a heavy bias toward the south side of the city because that’s where we live.

Ritual Roastersoriginal location on the gritty end of Valencia (21st/22nd Streets) will brew your regular coffee cup by cup, as well as serve you any espresso drink (with warm, not hot, milk). Rich flavor gleaned from their blends and their use of whole milk. My favorite of the top three but often crowded (they have free wifi) and they play non-background music – like, edgy, slightly metal indie stuff that’s hard to write to and chat to.

In which case, on a sunny day, you might prefer their new permanent cart in Hayes Valley (on Octavia just off Hayes) where you can sit outside and look in shops with commensurately priced goods of all kinds.

Similar music issues and an even grittier ‘hood, but less crowded and with a Scandinavian vibe, Haus on 24th Street brews Ritual as well and does a good job of it. Bonus: back patio with lots of sun, albeit also the neighbor’s laundry in view. Free wifi and excellent baked goods make up most of the way for the crabby hipster baristas.

Blue Bottle‘s original San Francisco location in a garage on a side street in Hayes Valley has become enough of a landmark that now you don’t have to compete with cars: they’ve paved a little plaza in front. You can also pick up a cup at the super trendy, way-overcrowded-at-the-weekend-Farmers-Market yup-fest Ferry Building and downtown on Mint Plaza. Or – brilliant brilliant location choice – at Spin City, a high end laundromat in chic Noe Valley, Blue Bottle is served at the coffee window.

If you want to try Four Barrel, they have a giant, airy space on the other end of Valencia from Ritual, at 15th Street. You decide if you like it or not.

Let’s get back to Colorado and discuss cocktails. I sidled up to our lodge’s bar the first night to order a couple of straightforward cocktails: vodka cranberry and vodka tonic. No big deal. Nothing fancy. Didn’t want to go out on a pisco limb or anything in a building made of logs. The bartender delivers them in about thirty seconds and says, “That’ll be $7.” This prompts a tiny ethical dilemma. Should I tell him he’s only charged me for one, and at happy hour, well-drink prices even though it’s 9PM?

I ask. Turns out it’s not a mistake. Cocktails are $3.50. Cocktails with premium vodka no less. Living where I do and traveling mainly to other places like where I live, cocktails cost $9. Or $12. Or $14 if it’s that trendy and I’m paying for the slab of polished oak they use as a bar that they imported from a speakeasy in the basement of Versailles. Or something like that.

I will admit that I prefer the high-end cocktails at Beretta to the low-end ones at our old neighborhood’s dive bar Il Pirata. But do I notice if the bar makes their own ice using pure water and a special, I don’t know, vaporizing hyperbaric icebox or whatever? No, I do not. Can I tell if they’re using bottled bitters or homemade ones? Um, no. In the new world order or artisinal bars, I am a cretin and, for that, I’d like apologize to my bartender at Beretta who goes to so much trouble to make me happy.

I might be more of a high and mighty in this category if I drank more whiskey, bourbon or gin which seem to be the base of many, if not most, of the new breed of cocktails. I was a gin girl for a long time but have moved on to vodka and tequila for the most part, with a recent strong liking for pisco. This limits my range but it keeps the choosing simple.

I do wish that all bars offered the option of a straightforward drink at Colorado prices the way restaurants offer tap water or bottled. I can tolerate the tiny sneer that follows my, “Tap, please,” and would happily tolerate another if I could get Ketel One and Ocean Spray cranberry juice with tap-water ice cubes in an Ikea cup for half the price of my extra-special Pisco Punch.

Until that happens, here’s where I go.

For artisinal cocktails, it’s hard to beat Beretta. They have excellent food as well and, if you can get a seat (no reservations, go early), a buratta margherita pizza or chicken liver crostini will tide you over to a third drink if you want to hang out.

Bourbon & Branch is also well-reputed but you will need to plan ahead and make a reservation if you want food. I’ve written before about Range and their excellent food, but beware their hipster-looking cocktail menu: they’ve gone off the reservation in my estimation. Tomatoes have no place in evening drinks, unless by “evening” you mean “morning” and it’s a bloody mary you’re after.

We recently rediscovered Smugglers Cove in Hayes Valley (it used to be a trendy, purple-lit place we didn’t enjoy) where you can get a ridiculous number of pirate drinks made one-by-one by their single bartender. It’s not exactly the high-end science of mixology you’ll get at the places listed above, but tiki has been on an upswing the last couple of years and, let’s face it, sometimes you miss Club Med and their sweet, sweet drinks. (I’d advise only going in the week when the locals stop in for libations. We cruised in once on a Saturday and it was a bizarre mix of drunk, overweight, gay tourist developers and tacky bridge and tunnel girlies on a bender.)

Recently (like, yesterday) voted Best of the Bay for their unique happy hour – whoever orders first after 5PM, that’s the discount drink – we’ve latched onto Asiento of late for a not-dive but not-too-trendy evening drink accompanied by crazy good little plates. We haven’t made it there on a Sunday yet, but I hear they serve tater tots. Eighties lunchroom trashy trendy. I like it.

Although I enjoy all the developments in drinking my generation has ushered in, I (and my wallet) miss those dancing frogs and wish there a Dunkin Donuts at the end of my block. Until I find that block – or open a frog/donut outlet of my own – I’ll enjoy what San Francisco has to offer.

Oh, and if you’re in New York, don’t miss the Pisco Punch at Pegu Club. Best. Ever.

RIP Ti Couz

ticouz-thumb.jpgSan Francisco’s crepe institution, Ti Couz, closed several weeks ago to little fanfare and, on my part, not much regret. Their decline to the point of my not regretting their passing is almost sadder than their demise. Or perhaps it just softened the blow. If they had gone out on top, we would have really missed them.

They used to be our go-to place for cocktails and crepes on a Friday evening after a long week. To avoid the delay of finding parking, we’d take the dodgy crosstown bus from the corner by our tiny, bright apartment and, eight minutes of watching the drug-addled homeless and a mother ignoring her too many children, we’d land half a block from Ti Couz’s comforts. But things have been sliding gradually for at least a year and our final visit in May would have been our last even if they hadn’t closed their doors.

They opened in 1992 and in their hey day they served excellent, reasonably priced Breton savory crepes. These were nicely preceded by their variations on the Cosmopolitan, the Lemon Drop and their signature champagne cocktail, the Ti Couz 10. When I visited San Francisco just after graduating college, on the fateful trip that convinced me that maybe someday I might like to live here (beware tourists of the siren song of a sunny day in the city by the bay!), a friend and I went to Ti Couz.

Oddly, since I had been to France and was a huge crepe fan, I’d never had Breton crepes. They’re made with buckwheat and look like the wheatberry and the HealthyForYou/TastesLikeCardboard bread loaves I bypass in the bakery aisle. Also, they’re huge, like a foot diameter tucked to a flat, square 8″. I was a rolled crepe, white-flour girl, raised at Boston’s long-gone and much-missed Magic Pan. Viva la crepe revolucion of the 1970s!!

Let’s digress here for a shout-out to that best of crepe-y institutions, The Magic Pan. Founded by Hungarians (??!$^%!) here in San Francisco and eventually and briefly a successful chain, they made crepes on the bottoms of pans, which is a tricky method only for professionals, like poaching an egg in a pot of water using only a spoon. (I don’t even want to hear about it if you can do this. Really. Just be quiet. You’re hurting my feelings even opening your mouth.)

Right behind the maitre’d’s desk was a guy standing in the middle of a ring of fire. Really it was a circular stove burner, but to a five year old it was Vegas. Above the flame rotated a frame built for ten or twelve pans. The chef had a bowl of crepe batter. When a pan came by, he’d dip the base in the batter and put it back on the frame. When it got back to him, he’d flip it and send it around again. F’ing brilliant.

They made ham and cheese crepes, lightly fried to seal them, and served with a sweet mustard cream sauce. Dude. So. Good. They put the “Mmmmm,” in Mmmmagic Pan. (Ham crepe and mustard sauce recipe here, cheese here, and don’t skip the apple dessert crepe. Don’t. Just don’t.)

The point is, I’d never had buckwheat crepes until Ti Couz. Theirs were excellent, especially their specials. I’m a terrible decisionmaker, so asking me to construct my own crepe from 25 options just spoils my dinner. Ti Couz put together some odd but always tasty combos of things like shrimp and mushroom with chipotle cream sauce. The reliability of those specials, along with their wildly satisfying Euro salad (excellent greens with magic vinaigrette or crudite salad with every possible vegetable in it nicely chopped) made it a comfort location supreme.

Then, last year, they discontinued their specials for what our waiter described as “financial reasons.” That didn’t sound right – if you’re picking it, why not choose a combo made up of this week’s cheapest ingredients? – but we sighed and kept going, doing our best with the arduous task of selecting our own combinations unaided by the increasingly lethargic staff.

Then they put up a banner reading, “Thank you San Francisco for 19 great years,” which panicked everyone that they were closing. But, when asked, they said they weren’t. It was just an anniversary thing. Which was weird. ‘Cause 19 isn’t a special anniversary is it? Should I have gotten them something? What is 19? Flour? Dirt?

In the fall, they bizarrely surrendered their liquor license. I don’t know much about the liquor license process, but I do know it’s damn hard to get one and I assume it pays for itself. They billed their regression as, “getting back to their Breton roots,” which apparently are soaked with slightly-alcoholic cider. I billed it as, “taking away the second of the two reasons I went there.” We toughed it out without our specials or our cocktails a couple of times, but the deed was done. We were out.

Apparently, so were they.

Despite their slow, disappointing decline, I will remember Ti Couz for their former days of tasty cocktail and savory crepe glory. And they will always hold a tiny special space in my heart: two days before A.’s premature arrival, we finally settled on her name (and the second choice which no, I won’t tell you in case I need it later) at a corner table in the back.

So farewell, Ti Couz. I’ll try some Magic Pan recipes at home and hope that someplace else steps up with a wide open, non-trendy space serving sweet Friday cocktails. Bon voyage to the great crepe pan in the sky. Say ‘hello’ to the Magic Pan for me.

Winter Carbs in Manhattan

pancakemonth.pngThere was supposed to be snow in Manhattan while we were there. Washington got snow. Philadelphia got snow. New York? Horizontal snow at 4AM that added up to an inch, melted by morning. Sigh. Then it snowed wildly the day after we left. Double sigh. No snow dose for me. It was bejesus cold though and that means comfort food.

In the interests of full disclosure, I collect comfort food all over Manhattan even when it’s 85 degrees outside and the thought of carbohydrates repels your average resident. Freezing winds and grey skies just make me look less crazy while I’m going about my usual business. And it convinces R to join me, which is always nicer.

First stop, Clinton Street Baking Company for pancakes. Their pancakes are already reviewed as the best in New York but every February they take it up another notch by declaring Pancake Month and offering different over-the-top pancake confections every few days. Like pancakes with fresh blackberries, pecan streusel and warm apple butter or chocolate and blood orange pancakes with candied orange glaze. Sadly, all these tasty offerings + cold weather make getting a table well nigh impossible. One hour and 45 minutes wait in 12-degree weather? Forget it. (I have less and less patience with popular places that take no reservations. The least you could do is offer some of the tables up for people who think ahead. Stupid pancake people.)

So we cabbed over to Momofuku Noodle Bar for some ramen goodness instead. Not that waits there are often much better, but we got lucky, hitting the sweet spot between the early eaters and the late lunchers. Momofuku gets a lot of press already, so I don’t need to tell you what a hot ticket their pork buns are or their ramen or just a seat in any of the locations in general. David Chang’s East Village empire consists of the Noodle Bar (er, noodle specialties), Sämm Bar (oddly ham-focused + oysters), the Milk Bar (take-out bakery and small savories), and Ko (newest posh destination, impossible to get in, voted Best New Restaurant last year by Time Out). He’s opening Má Pêche downtown later this year.

pork-belly-buns.jpgThe menu can be off-putting for a non-foodie, featuring a lot of words like “belly” and “tendon” and “skate” and other things that don’t sound either edible or yummy, but push on: nothing looks like what it is and everything is ultra-flavorful, so it’s worth a little courage. The house ramen is indeed delicious, a big bowl of slightly chewy noodles nestled in a rich broth with a perfectly poached egg, pork, seaweed sheets, scallions. The ginger scallion noodles, albeit broth-less, are equally comforting and have a little more kick. You can’t go and not get one of the buns and if you’ve never been, you should start with the pork ones, two to a serving. They’re not the doughy blobs you get on the street in Chinatown. The soft steamed bun is a partial wrap around super-tender slices of pork, scallions, crunchy pickled cucumber and a ridiculously tasty hoisin sauce. They’re legendary and deservedly so.

If you don’t like crowds, are toting bags, a baby or your bushels from the farmer’s market, you shouldn’t hit Momofuku until you’re over it or unburdened. Seating is at bar tables or shared tables, period. We sat sandwiched between two mid-40s ladies trying to lunch and two guys who turned out to be chefs themselves. We talked to the chefs. One is a side man at Morimoto (you know: Iron Chef Morimoto) and the other is the executive chef at Seasonal, a one-Michelin-star midtown restaurant specializing in modern Austrian cuisine. I know, right? What the hell is modern Austrian? Here’s the thing: Austria is a huge hospitality industry machine. They have hotelier schools, excellent restaurants and lots of great hotels. Think of Wolfgang Puck. And this guy, Eduard Frauneder, is all up on the entrepreneurial food thing too. The food looks amazing and we’re definitely going. Anyplace that serves spätzle State-side has my vote.

crackpie_kirk_mckoy_latimes.jpgAfterwards, we braved the wind for a couple blocks to collect crack pie, strawberry milk and a cornflake chocolate chip marshmallow cookie at Momofuku’s take-out Milk Bar. Breakfast cereals provide the base and inspiration for a lot of the offerings, like the cereal milk soft serve, which is fine by me. Predictably, I can’t get enough of the crack pie which is essentially just pie base without the interfering fruit or nuts: sugar, butter, eggs in a chewy layer over crumbly cookie crust. It’s a good thing Momofuku’s so far into the East Village or I’d be stopping by there all the time like the addict I am. I thought about buying a whole pie, but at $40 it’s a commitment. (You can tell I’d make a really bad crack addict.) I might have to serve it at my wedding though.

I love New York in winter even if I can’t have my snow.

The Friars Club

Friars_Club_NY.jpgOK, so if someone asked you, “Do you want to go to the Friars Club for dinner? It’s fish night, so there’ll be 90-year-olds on oxygen wearing lobster bibs in the corner,” what would you say? You’d say, “Hell yes, I want to go to the Friars Club! Let me grab my chest-high pants and I’ll meet you at the front door!”

The Friars Club, for those of you not in the know, is a members-only club in midtown Manhattan that is most famously host to the Friars Club roasts where old-school insult comedians say terrible, sometimes funny things to and about some poor celebrity sap who has to just sit there and take it. (Between you and me, roasts make me cringe more than they make me laugh, but I seem to be in the minority.) Membership is invitation only and is all show biz types. Carol Channing, Milton Berle, George Burns, Billy Crystal type place. Heavy on the comedians but including Frank Sinatra and his ilk too.

The place is so much more than we could have every hoped. It’s like a Poconos resort threw up 1950-1955 all over the place. It’s a five-story mansion with curved carved staircases, tiny elevators, ornate dark wood paneled walls, a billiards room, a sauna, and headshots everywhere of all the famous members, from Jerry Lewis to Tom Hanks.

No cell phone usage is allowed: if you need to take a call – I’m not kidding – they bring you a cream-colored rotary phone and plug it into the jack in the banquette. Every table has one. Think Rock Hudson/Doris Day. Each bathroom has an old-school glass pump with blue mouthwash in it. The men sport big rings. The ladies have all had face lifts. It is, in a word, awesome.

So we went for dinner.

The waitstaff wears ill-fitting polyester suits and when you ask about their red wine selection, they say, “We have a burgundy, a pinot noir, and a merlot.” None of this modern bullshit about grape blends organically grown in Australian or Argentinian or Sonoma going for $12 a glass. You’ll order by type and you’ll like it.

The dinner menu’s the same. Appetizers? Shrimp cocktail, crab cocktail or salad with blue cheese. The shrimp cocktail comes with red cocktail sauce. Same for the crab. None of this frou-frou garbage with anise-seed consomme and sea nettle foam. You’re having the shrimp, you get the shrimp. That’s it. Fuck you.

Dinner? Steak, lobster, roast chicken or sole. And that’s exactly what you’ll get: nothing else, just a giant 20-oz. steak, a freakishly large 2.5-lb. lobster or the largest sole I’ve ever seen. It’s like they were bred at Costco in the steroids aisle. If you want sides, you order them but no one’s bringing you your fish on a pressed disc of maple-glazed pork molars. Spinach? Steamed. In a white dish. Done. Potatoes, brocolli or french fries. Enjoy. No white asparagus, no bamboo stems, no essence of baby swamp grass.

Dessert? This is the best part. Peach melba. That’s right, there’s a place in 2010 that still serves peach melba. Vanilla ice cream, peaches (listed as fresh but clearly Del Monte cling from a can), and raspberry sauce served in a cocktail glass. Brownie. Or ice cream. I was really hoping that a bowl of Jell-O might be an option, but no such luck.

I gotta tell you: everything was really good. Straightforward, uncomplicated and tasty. It was kind of refreshing. Don’t knock 1952, people.

San Francisco: The Ice Cream Section at Bi-Rite

bi-rite-creamery.jpg

Yeah, that’s specific I know, but check this out: they have cookie and ice cream sandwiches. Don’t, “Ho hum,” me like I’m suggesting you score one of those Oreo-looking, admittedly delicious but taste like plastic ones from the freezer case at Safeway. Pull yourself together. I wouldn’t send you out to a supermarket during Thanksgiving week for that.

In Bi-Rite’s model, the cookies are soft and chewy and the ice cream is their housemade creamy stuff, so you can score the best of the bakery aisle and some of their excellent ice cream in one cellophane baggie.

Why do I bring this up now? Because what kid actually likes pumpkin pie after Thanksgiving dinner? I do but I couldn’t sell it to anyone under ten: the texture is pretty repellent. Bi-Rite is your solution. Buy half a dozen of their gingersnap cookie + pumpkin ice cream sandwiches and you’re set.

(Just to be clear on that math, the “buy six” plan is for someone entertaining no more than four kids at table. The other two are for you.)

They also stock chocolate chip cookies with vanilla ice cream, dark chocolate cookies with mint chip ice cream and snickerdoodle cookies with cinnamon ice cream but I don’t know why you’d ever leave my first love ginger+pumpkin. I ate it so fast I didn’t even take a picture for you to see what it looked like. I’ll remedy that later when I go get my next batch.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Available at Bi-Rite Market or Bi-Rite Creamery, both on 18th Street between Guerrero and Dolores. Creamery is almost at Dolores; grocery is in the middle of the block.

Switzerland: The Food. My God, the Food.

French food? Mais oui. Italian? Buongiorno! Spanish tapas? Si! Swiss cooking? Um…what? It just doesn’t sound right, does it? If you’ve only focused on chocolate and fondue though, you’ve been missing out. Swiss food is the ultimate comfort food and man is it ever comforting: comforting to the tune of fifteen additional pounds in my first year on Swiss soil.

There are the cream sauces, used on cutlets and, my favorite artery-clogging example, whole hardboiled eggs. There are the breads: soft, braided white-bread zopf on Sundays and nussgipfeli (croissants wrapped around tasty, tasty ground up nuts and sugariness). There are the endless cookies and the herbs-and-croutons cup o’ soup, the rosti, the rosti with cheese, the rosti with bacon. The raclette. And, oh my Lord, the cheese. Bring me all the cheeses. ALL of them.

The first thing on my list when I land in Zurich is Migros, the grocery store chain. Say, “Grüzi,” to the family and then off to Migros. Unfortunately for our vacation plans, R had to come back to San Francisco for business three days into our time in Switzerland. Fortunately for our autumn, that meant he could schlep back a duffle of culinary goodies that we then didn’t have to take along on the Italian leg of the trip. (It also meant that we could reload that same duffle when we passed through Zurich on our way home a week and a half later. How sweet is that? Pretty sweet, that’s how sweet.)

So here’s what you should try while you’re there, plus some tips to getting Swiss goodness on this side of the Atlantic (or the Pacific, if you’re really disoriented and into flying the wrong way round).

  1. Kuche

    The VICTORY of the trip: kuche (if you’re in Bern) or wähe (if you’re in Zurich). Kuche is a fruit tart with a firm custard-like filling that’s made in a flat bottomed, wide quiche pan. The fruit is usually fresh, the custard filling not very sweet, and the crust approximately like a quiche’s but covered with a thin layer of ground hazelnuts. (If you want it sweeter, you can serve it with a little whipped cream. A very little.) I love it and have loved it since I first had it as a teenager.

    However, I’ve never been able to find a recipe in the States and even if I had, I doubt I would’ve tried it because it involves dough. Let’s be clear: dough and I have a long and unhappy history punctuated by embarrassment and disaster. (For me, that is. The dough just sits there all smug.) It sticks. I add flour. It stops sticking. I stop adding flour. It ends up tough as nails. It took me three years to produce a decent biscuit, I won’t even try bread, and pie crusts make me cry.

    Times they are a’changing though, people. With the aid of a Xerox machine (for the recipe, not the dough), Migros’ pre-packaged pastry (smuggled), and a Cuisinart (for pulverizing hazelnuts), I am the proud owner of a kuche of my very own, served in the photo on my grandmother’s china with a cup of afternoon tea.

    It turns out that the recipe is so absurdly simple that no one even bothers to publish it in real cookbooks. R’s cousin Tanja found it for me in her Home Ec textbook from high school and it has all of five ingredients (besides the dough). Cut-up fruit (apricots are my favorite), the hazelnuts, milk, an egg, and a little sugar. Yeah, I’m an idiot, but now I’m a self-satisfied, fruit-filled idiot.

  2. Amaretti

    Another wild success from this trip. I got hooked on the Swiss, chewy version of these almond cookies while visiting Tessin, the Italian canton in the south. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would spend the next ten years purchasing and swearing at the super-hard, not-at-all-like-what-I-wanted version offered by Italian restaurants and stores in New York and San Francisco before giving up on ever finding what I was looking for again.

    Lo and behold, as I was waiting for my train to Milan at the Zurich station, I happened to dawdle by a farmer’s market vendor selling breads and pastries. Next to the linzertorte lay a few craggy cookies powdered lightly with sugar and labeled as amaretti. I braced for disappointment and handed over a few francs. I needn’t have (braced, that is, not paid. It’s Switzerland: you always have to pay.) Ah, the chewy taste of sweet success! I’m back, baby!

    It turns out, after further research and discussion, that these amaretti are, after all, a different animal than the hard as rocks Italian cookie. Nice of them to name them differently, don’t you think? Jerks.

    Another trip to Migros and I scored three different versions of my (re)new(ed) best friend which I’ve worked my way through at an alarming pace since we got back. I got some small square ones, 20 to a bag, that are OK, still soft but without the slightly crunchy exterior layer. The layered ones in the photo are ridiculously good but might put you in sugar shock: the middle layer is an inch of soft milk chocolate laced with liqueur. The closest to the homemade are the same cookie (same photo) without the chocolate and I would eat them until I threw up except I only bought one pack so I had to ration them. They’re gone now, so I might have to start experimenting with recipes off the internet. Good thing I just joined that gym down the hill.

  3. Meringues

    Aside from chocolate, I always bring back meringue cookies, usually the ones with their little bottoms dipped in chocolate, but this trip, Tanja converted me to a straight-up meringue lover. Put them (or just one, if you’ve gotten or made the large ones) in the bottom of a bowl, cover them with whipped cream and throw on a bunch of berries. You’re welcome.

    I know I could’ve been eating this all along if I bothered to make meringues, which I know how to do, but meringues take so long to bake I just can’t take it.

    (Reading all of the above, I do seem to have issues with patience and preparation in the kitchen, don’t I? I’ll have to have a long think about that as soon as the sugar-induced hyperactivity wears off.)

  4. Spätzle

    Spätzle, translated charmingly as “little sparrows” is a kind of tiny dumplingy tastiness. Again, something I could make myself, but I prefer to rely on Migros’ vacuum-packed goodness that is at the ready in my cupboard whenever I need my fix. I’ve bought the dried spätzle available in supermarkets here, but it’s not quite right, dry instead of moist and a general disappointment.

    If you live in San Francisco, hit Suppenkuche in Hayes Valley for the original and order the Jägerschnitzel in Champignonsoße mit Spätzle und grünem Salat. It’s what spätzle should be: soft, yummy and covered with a creamy mushroom sauce.

  5. Rösti

    Rösti is R’s preferred side dish: grated potatoes fried as a pancake and flipped so both top and bottom are brown and crispy. (I make a mess of the flipping bit, so R handles that. Can you tell I’m not much of a cook?) Yet again, not so hard to make at home, but that would require forethought, patience and a lot of grating, none of which sound good to me, so packs of plain rösti, cheese rösti and rösti with bacon bits come back with us.

  6. Pastetli

    I can’t begin to explain to you how rich pastetli are and how much you need to make some.

    Here’s what they are: puff pastry shells filled with mushroom cream sauce with little kügeli, or balls, of what they claim to be veal. (I know I shouldn’t eat veal, but I console myself that little Swiss cows have much happier lives than American calves who are treated abominably and whose farmers must, I fear, have black hearts.) I say “claim” because the little meat balls are the consistency of bratwurst, not regular meat. Those meat balls are the missing link. I’ve found the pastry shells in the freezer section of the grocery store courtesy of Pepperidge Farm, so I’m set there, and I can make a mushroom sauce by adding milk to roux, but the meat escapes me.

    In Switzerland, you can buy packages of the fleisch kügeli to add to your sauce and come at it that way or, of course, you can rely on Migros 100% and buy their packets of pastetenfullung as I have and horde them for comforting dinners at the end of your very worst days. I’ll keep you posted if I sort out the meat component and figure out how to make my own.

So we’re sorted for now on the Swiss food front, but I might need to start an import/export ring to keep the supply lines properly open. Or learn to cook, I guess , which somehow seems harder.