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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sofitel in London and Chef Albert Roux

A major figure in the world of English cuisine, Chef Albert Roux created two signature restaurants for Sofitel at their London St. James and Heathrow hotels. A chef of incredible energy--witness his involvement in many restaurant ventures--he is also a man of exceedingly good humor.

We were enjoying lunch at his Brasserie Roux at the London St. James Sofitel and I had the opportunity to be introduced to him. He was sharing with a friend a samplings of his cheese and dessert service. I explained that I was writing about the Sofitel for Peter Greenberg and that I also had a food web site and enjoyed cooking. He patted my stomach and said that I still had some way to go. I didn't know if he meant that as a cook or as an eater-of-fine food. (I don't remember having a slight paunch when I left LA three days ago.)

Chef Roux's attention to detail has influenced many of the chefs who have worked with him, including his talented brother and son, Michael.

What I found so enjoyable about the meals we had at the Brasserie Roux and the night before at Heathrow, was his light touch. Freshness is all important in his cuisine. The preparation, presentation, and saucing of each dish is designed to pull the best from all the ingredients.

As a signature feature of the lunch service a 4 course meal is offered at all the Sofitel Hotels. Chef Roux's take on the meal is a French riff on the Japanese bento box. 4 plates share a tray offering an appetizer, 2 entrees, and a dessert. Our lunch had a perfect balance of rich (Ballottine of foie gras), spare (Scallops, pea puree), comforting (Guinea fowl with mushrooms and tarragon sauce), and sweet (Lemon tart). Just as the 4 dishes counterpointed each other, so the flavors within each dish were perfectly balanced.

The savory tarragon sauce with chanterelle mushrooms drifted down over the chicken breast and shared the bottom of the plate with a helping of mashed potatoes and sauteed savoy cabbage. After the fullness of the appetizer and entrees, the lemon tart finished the meal on the perfect note.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Grilled Corn Salads

Luckily there's still great corn available in the farmers' markets although some farmers have run out.

Summer for me is defined by vegetables: great tomatoes, corn, melons... Our favorite way of preparing corn is simply grilling the ears on the grill with a little olive oil, sea salt, and pepper. Eaten on the cob is so delicious but added to salads is also a great way to go.

I posted 2 recipes on Mark Bittman's site, Bitten. One combines the grilled corn with parsley, the other features tomatoes. They're easy to make and go with just about anything. Please take a look and let me know what you think.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Word of Mouth: San Gabriel’s Chung King

Finding a new and a great restaurant isn’t easy. I read hundreds of reviews and clip the best ones but they usually just languish in a file. I would never have gone to Chung King but for Jonas Goodman who leads expeditions to new restaurants. Foremost on his list of must-try-restaurants is Chung King, recommended to him by his friend, the wonderful novelist, Nicole Mones, an expert in all things-Chinese.


Not all Chung King’s are created equally. The only one to try, according to Nicole is the one run by Linda Huang’s at her address at 1000 S. San Gabriel Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776 (626/286-0298). The restaurant inhabits a cinderblock building on a non-descript block in San Gabriel. The exterior doesn’t invite you in, which is why the recommendation of a noted author and respected authority on Chinese cooking is needed.


We weren’t able to join Jonas when he led a recent outing to the restaurant. Our visit last weekend was completely serendipitous. We had driven out to Banning to pay our respects to my mom who is buried there. If you have ever gone to Palm Springs, you have passed through Banning, which sits at the foot of the Idyllwild road. My parents moved there when I was in High School and I don’t have fond memories of the town but that’s where my mother is buried, so we make the trip there to spend a quiet moment with her.


My mom used to joke that the most beautiful place in Banning was the cemetery and our last trip there proved her correct on that score. Blissfully quiet, the graves are placed on a broad plateau that sits high above the desert floor. No freeway or town noise reaches this far up into the mountains. Eventhough the dry heat bakes the landscape, the well-watered grass is green around the graves and the trees that surround the plateau stand straight and tall. We shared a peaceful moment with my mom, had a group hug, and then headed back to LA.


We were tired and hungry and debated whether or not we should take the time to stop and eat or just go straight home. We realized that we would drive through San Gabriel so we decided we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to finally try out Chung King.


The advantage of eating with a large group is being able to sample more of the menu. With four of us, we stayed close to familiar dishes: Kung Pao Chicken (#59), Green Beans (#105), Wonton Soup (#31), and Szechwan Shredded Pork (#53). I took a chance with a dish I hadn't seen before, something called Crispy Rice Crust with Shrimp (#77). Frank discovered the pickled Szechwan vegetables on the cold table; he picked the bean sprouts and sea weed. We ordered steamed rice for the table and now we waited to see if the restaurant deserved the rave given to it by Nicole and Jonas.


The first dish was the Szechwan Flavors Cold Dishes. Perfectly seasoned with just the right amount of heat, the sea weed and bean sprouts (with a few slices of carrots and shredded scallions thrown in for contrast) were delicious. I ate them as a topping to the steaming rice. We had barely gotten half way through the large serving when the Kung Pao Chicken arrived, Michael’s favorite. The outside of the chicken was crispy, the inside moist. The caramelized sauce was counter-balanced by the heat of the Szechwan peppers and the barely cooked scallions.


Then the Shredded Pork arrived. Again, the flavors were perfectly balanced, the meat succulent. After our time in the desert and almost four hours driving, the meal was starting to revive us. Then came two revelations: the Crispy Rice Crust with Shrimp and the Won Ton Soup.


Actually called Broth Wonton, the soup was a minimalist version of a won ton soup. No carrots, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, bok choy, or chicken, the soup was as advertised, broth + wontons with a sprinkling of chopped scallions. The soup was lightly spiced with black pepper but was otherwise fat free and clear. The pork inside the won tons was sweet and lightly seasoned. This was soup and won ton wrapper and pork, pure and simple. Each ingredient as fresh as possible, each complimening the other with simplicity. In her novels and food articles, Nicole Mones speaks eloquently about the sophistication of Chinese cooking. The soup was such a good example of what she describes.


And then there was the Crispy Rice. I thought this might be like a Korean rice dish I’d had before with the rice crisped on the bottom of a hot stone pot, but this was something else entirely. A clear sauce, stir fried vegetables—bok choy, carrots, onions, tree mushrooms, fresh bamboo shoots--and shrimp were ladled on top of half a dozen crispy rice cakes. Where the sauce had touched the rice cakes, they had begun to soften, but where they were still separate from the sauce, they retained their crunchy, smoky flavor.


We ate and talked and ate again, the food reviving us after a long, hot day. The meal was perfect for the occasion, because we were hungry and because my mother was famously a lover of Asian food: Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese (her favorite). It was appropriate that we had visited her just before and then eaten at Chung King. She would have enjoyed the meal.

The 20th Annual Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off

Labor Day Weekend I was one of 18 judges at the amazing Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook Off at John Ascuaga's Nugget in Sparks, Nevada, I was also covering the event for Peter Greenberg's travel site. The piece I wrote "Ribs, Ribs, and More Ribs," is up now with a profile of two of the cookers (don't call them "chefs"). I hope you'll take a look.

Part carnival and music festival, the Labor Day weekend Cook Off was front and center a celebration by and for people who love pork ribs.

Some days the temperature pushed above 100 and other days the wind picked up, but no matter, everyone was having fun and that means 500,000+ people standing in line to sample the ribs from 24 of the best barbecue cookers in the country.

The weekend was a blast and I'm going to write more about what I saw, how the judging worked, the people I met, the music I listened to, the barbecue sauces I tasted, and the enormously large amount of meat I ate in a four day period.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Where to Go, What to Do in London and Paris

A good friend in Paris saw my post asking for suggestions about travel to London and Paris. Randa warned me, "Your request was very brave. You will be swamped with millions of great ideas, and you only have TWO DAYS!!!"

The last time I was in either city was more than 30 years ago. I spent a week in London, a few days in Paris, and four days in Madrid. In Paris I visited Fran, my ex-wife, who had fled the "dullness" of America for the excitement of Paris. Her year in Paris was incredibly productive. She directed a documentary on Salvador Dali, wrote a screenplay, and had the best time of her life. For that trip, the plan was I would see London on my own and she would be my guide in Paris. I don't remember the time I spent in London but what I did in Paris is still vivid to me because I saw Paris through her eyes.

Which is why I am grateful that so many of you sent your recommendations about where to go and what to do in London and Paris. Instead of bringing a generic guide book, having those suggestions is like taking a personal scrapbook with me. I'm looking forward to the trip even more than before. There's so much to see and do, I want to go back and I haven't even been there yet.

I'm posting the ones I've gotten so far. I hope you'll continue to send more. I'll update these lists as more suggestions come in. We'll create our own Guide Book to London and Paris!

About London:

From Susan, "In London there are things I love but hardly unknown things. I love the Covent Garden Hotel. The only danger is that you run into every Hollywood agent you don't want to see. Just across the road, in a tiny and famous courtyard, is Neal's Yard Cheese which you of all people absolutely must go to if you never have. It's heaven. Cheese is a religion there, and it's still a tiny old-fashioned shop. Other obvious things: the Tate Modern, which really is amazing, and specifically the walk from St. Paul's to the Tate across the foot bridge. I just love walking in London basically. Also walking from the Tate to the new Globe. I've never seen a performance there, but just touirng the building is wonderful (for me, anyway).

A somewhat underrated place I think is the Museum of London in the dreadful Barbican. I find that kind of history fascinating. Oh, and the new British Library which has been so derided as bad architecture I think is not that bad at all, and the exhibition room takes your breath away: the actual real Beowulf, Jane Austen's writing desk, the only known recording of Virginia Woolf's voice, first folio Shakespeares etc. etc.

I don't think this is much help, cause I don't have any secrets to offer, but I sure as hell wish I were going. Have tremendous fun."

From Melissa who lived in London with her family for a year, "Some suggestions: I assume you know about the Borough Market. If not, it's open Th-Sat, but Fri (from noon) & Sat (open @ 9?) are the best days.

Vendors I liked:
Brindisa Spanish Foods (they also sell amazing Grilled Chorizo sandwiches with piquillo peppers).
Neal's Yark Dairy
Monmouth Coffee (the BEST cappuccino I have ever had outside of Italy)
Total Organics green grocer (Jamie Oliver is rumored to shop there)
The Ginger Pig (great butcher shop)
Konditor & Cook (bakery) Every bakery there has a thing about brownies - huge mountains of them...I thought K&C's were the best.
The Rake (extremely small pub known for its amazing beer selection)

Marylebone High Street Area:
Marylebone Food Fayre (Farmer's Market) - Largest one in London with about 40 vendors (they think that's a lot) - nice (depending on the season) but small. It's in the Cramer St. Car Park on Sunday from 10am-2pm
The Natural Kitchen (a small market and cafe) River Cottage (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall) is one of their suppliers
The Fromagerie - great cheese store & cafe
The Ginger Pig (also at The Borough)
Rococo - chocolate shop
The Providores - Tapas - Spanish by a New Zealand Chef. Downstairs - breakfast, lunch dinner...very casual/Upstairs - more upscale

Miscellaneous:
Ottolenghi - Amazing prepared food & pastries served at communal tables (although the Islington location actually has table service). I love this place (there are 4 locations) - they just published a terrific cookbook.
Baker & Spice - similar to Ottolenghi, but smaller.
Whole Foods (yes Whole Foods). JUST as we were moving back to LA, they opened up a gigantic Whole Foods on Kensington High Street. It is so different than any of the UK supermarkets, and I was very sad that I wasn't really able to shop there. If this market does well (I haven't kept up with how it's been received) it will really change the way London shops for food.
Waitrose - The Gelson's of London. Locations all over London. The one on Marylebone High Street is rather small (they revamped it to compete with the Natural Kitchen) and not indicative of what they stock.

I know this is a lot more than you have time for - but these were my haunts and thought I'd share them with you. I didn't list any restaurants but if you tell me where you're staying, I'll try to come up with some suggestions of places in the area.

Have a wonderful trip!"

From Tom a memory from his semester in London when he was a starving law student, "You have to go to a chain called Wagamama. They're everywhere. I ate at Wagamama almost every single day because it was affordable and delicious. Total comfort food. And the Food Court at Harrod's. It's out of control. You could eat every meal there. Relatively sensible meals at affordable prices."

From my Rhode Island friend Hank,
"London is it?...Hmm, I'd suggest an afternoon visit to the Tate Modern and an early dinner at the River Cafe...

The Tate resides in a converted power station and houses, as the name suggests, a rather extensive collection of "modern" art. It's a hoot and the crowd is youthful, lively and oh, so interested....a fun afternoon.

The River Cafe is all it's cracked up to be....That is a hip, timely, expensive and the place to see and of course eat. It's busy and buzzing with all those who count and is operated by a couple of woman proprietors who take food, cooking and consuming very seriously. I like these "serious cookin'" places and these gals do a bang-up job.

Oh, and if time allows, you might zip out to Kew Gardens, a very interesting horticultural gem not more than 20 minutes by tube from most parts of London. The green house dates from the mid 19th century and houses a world class collection of tropical flora (this place is something like 300 feet long and 3 stories tall-incredible). The grounds (many, many acres) are home to huge collections of....everything that you need to see that grows in the earth and can survive at Kew.....

And the only thing I can recommend for Paris (been too long to remember much) is a mass at Notre Dame...breath taking.

Rock on Mister Latt....lucky you!!!!"

Hank's recommendation of The River Cafe was seconded by Chris, "You have to go to River Cafe--it's a ride out to West London, but it is the epitome of local, seasonal, sustainable 'let the ingredients speak' cooking in the UK."

Sibyl remembered both London and Paris, "How fun that you’re taking a trip to London and Paris. Back when I was married my ex and I spent our first anniversary having dinner at the Savoy in London. It was one of the best meals I’ve had, and the atmosphere was incredibly romantic and classy. The Kirov ballet company was at the next table. So that’s the only thing I’d recommend in London.

I was in Paris last summer with my kids and we stayed in the Latin Quarter where there’s a bakery called Keyser (I think it’s spelled that way and named after Eric Keyser, the owner) that we went to every day. It was amazing. Always a line that moved very quickly. Try anything they make with pistachios.

Have fun!!!"

About Paris:

From Ned,
"About five years ago Helena and I were taken by a friend to an astounding dinner at L'Arpege, Paris. Still dreaming about it. Their strange website: http//www.alain-passard.com/fr/
An accurate review:
http://andichahyadihermawan.blogs.friendster.com/zhang_yuqi/2006/09/dner_larpge_par.html

Valerie remembers a seriously wonderful cook store called E. Dehillerin (18 rue Coquillière, 1st arr., 011-33/1-42-36-53-13). That made me curious about other cookware and cookbook stores in Paris. Online I found Clotilde Dusoulier's 2005 comprehensive survey, "My Paris is Better Than Yours," from MSNBC (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7634215/page/2/ and the full article with other foodie-recommendations: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7634215/page/2/print/1/displaymode/1098/) and Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel.

From Marii a recommendation for a restaurant she still thinks about,
"Fogon."

From Maria Elena who lived and cooked in Paris and so has a great intimacy with all things food in France, "Two of my favorites when I would house sit for my friends Brad and Em, were near their old apartment in the 15th arrondissement: Le Florimond, 19 ave de la Motte-Picquet (at rue Bougainville) 7th arr, metro: Ecole Militaire--great basic French food, wine (says my sister) and the most polite owner around--he greeted, served, and apparently did a lot of the cooking; phone: 01-45-55-40-28.

L'Os a Moelle, 3 rue Vasco da Gama, 15th arr (at rue de Lourmel), phone: 01-95-57-27-27. You need to make a reservation ASAP for this. One fixed price menu for the night, 3 courses, great wine. The 2 sittings are always packed. Last time I was there we had raie (skate fish) in a sauce, pork chop with potato puree, and a chocolate dessert with saffron."

David lived in Paris years ago and even though he hasn't been back recently, he's never forgotten what he loved, "Here are the tourist things worth doing including FLEA MARKETS, take a night cruise on a bateau mouche on the Seine… do not eat dinner… do drink something… Paris lit from the river is beautiful.

Two of my favorite restaurants in the day were Brasserie Le Balzar and the informal patio restaurant at La Closerie de Lilas; I used to get the choucroute at Le Balzar and the steak tartar was great at La Clos; Place des Vosges; Rodin museum; Louvre & Musee D’Orsay; Eiffel Tower; Musee Pompidou and surrounding Beaubourg neighborhood; Ile St Louis with a visit to Bertillon for ice cream; Old Jewish quarter, from there walk to the Picasso museum."