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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

In the Soup

Vietnamese restaurants all around the country probably experienced an uptick in business last night as a comprehensive post on the life-giving Vietnamese breakfast soup pho appeared on the blog MetaFilter. With links to websites, blogs, interesting articles, and recipes, it’s a one-stop placeholder for all your pho needs.

The post garners a rather high 95 comments, turning MetaFilter briefly into Chowhound as commenters debate the merits of tripe and tendon versus flank and brisket; argue over whether to add sauces and sprouts, and discuss the best places to get a bowl of pho in their city.

The most prevalent comment? Variations on “I know what I’m eating tonight.”

Midcoast Maine in Pain (and Big Score in Damariscotta)

Lincoln County, Maine

Heading northward, I stopped at the legendary Red’s Eats (Main and Water streets, Wiscasset, Maine; 207-882-6128). They’re a landmark for lobster rolls, though opinion seems extraordinarily divided. A sizable number of Mainers seem to feel that Red’s makes an undistinguished lobster roll that’s been highly overrated by clueless tourists.

The photo below shows Red’s laughably tiny size, but also the supremacy of its location, location, location. This tiny shack occupies the central visual field of all drivers headed over the Sheepscot River bridge on Route 1 (you can just barely see the on-ramp in the photo)—which is to say: all coastal traffic headed northward.

I tried a lobster roll, and I don’t fathom the controversy. I can’t find a thing to complain about, and frankly can’t imagine any reason why anyone would ever want any other lobster roll. The Red’s lobster roll amounts to this: huge unbroken chunks of lobster meat expertly picked out of the shell, cooked to a T, sweet as can be, on carefully grilled bread. Nothing else. That’s it. If you don’t like this, you just don’t like lobster.

This is what it’s like to eat a perfect lobster (actually, it’s two lobsters’ worth of meat) whose shell has magically vanished. It is the epitome of everything crustacean:

The sole downside is that the unfamiliar ease of confronting two buck-naked lobsters tempts one into taking huge bites, which require mighty chewing. This can lead to the false impression that the lobster isn’t optimally tender. It is. You’re just wolfing down larger morsels than nature had intended.

Red’s “homemade” lemonade, however, is a sham. It tastes like lemon Tang. I don’t hear Mainers complaining about this.

Right after lunch, I had a slightly heated phone conversation with Maine native Pat Hammond over the propriety of Red’s lobster rolls. Listen in on this podcast: MP3.

A gaggle of restaurants and shops cluster around Red’s, hoping to glom tourism juju. Across the street, Sarah’s (US Route 1, Wiscasset, Maine; 207-882-7504) makes really good home-baked-tasting peanut butter cookies:

They pass the paper bag test:

+ + +

Later, I trekked way out of my way to Shaw’s Fish and Lobster Wharf (129 State Route 32, Pemaquid Peninsula, Maine; 207-677-2200), hearing there was great food and a fun bar with cool bartenders, but things were shutting down for winter, and only the dull upstairs cafeteria was open.

But I enjoyed walking around the pier and taking moody photos. While it was still quite warm, I could feel the season about to change.

I couldn’t possibly eat another lobster roll, though I’ve heard Shaw’s are good, so I opted instead for lobster stew, which was subtle and pristine.

The stew was chock full of tasty lobster chunks. But I feel spoiled by Red’s, which left me with the staunch conviction that there’s nothing one can do to lobster to make it better than just plain lobster. Hey, I sound like a New Englander!

+ + +

I was hoping to have dinner at the remote Anchor Inn (Anchor Inn Road, Round Pond, Maine; 207-529-5584)—or at least a dinnerish gesture, given that I’m extremely full, having scarfed the entire lobster roll at Red’s earlier today. I’m starting to worry about myself; I’ve been losing my food-writer discipline and consuming more than my usual mere bite or two. This has landed me near the pain point, and that’s not a good place to be.

I’d heard Anchor Inn is idyllic and serves great desserts, but they were closed for the season, so I headed to the Damariscotta River Grill (155 Main Street, Damariscotta, Maine; 207-563-2992), owned by the same people. This place is situated closer to civilization, in the charming town of Damariscotta, and it’s open year-round.

What a sweet, no-nonsense, romantic restaurant! I realize those adjectives don’t really go together, but I’ve never seen a place like this before. Well, that’s not true. Canyon Grill, from report #25, was similar. The vibe is upscale but not pretentious. You don’t feel your status buttons eagerly pushed to assure you that you’re getting value for the premium charged. Prices are justified by quality and care rather than smoke and mirrors.

And they’re not trying to offer a taste of big-city restaurant glamour to the provinces. Just as Canyon Grill is a world-class restaurant that firmly belongs on that mountain in Georgia, so does the Damariscotta River Grill fit the picture here in salty Damariscotta. But it’s really elegant and really good.

I was forced to conclude this from mere dribs and drabs. Determined to experience the restaurant without actually eating anything of substance, I ordered a half-dozen raw oysters, a glass of apple cider, and bread pudding. But I was able to coast a little, thanks to a revelational bread basket.

What on earth was that sophisticated, amazing bread basket doing out here in the boonies? It included apparently housemade breadsticks and great fluffy Italian peasant bread (some of the best I’ve ever had … soft but chewy, with beautifully crunchy crust), and came with top-drawer olive oil for dipping. I’ve rarely seen this level of quality in top Manhattan spots!

The cider wasn’t just great and fresh; it was interesting. Someone had shown artistry in blending the apple varieties.

The oysters—local Pemaquids—were sublime. Even the best oyster bars in big cities are only an echo of oysters such as these: I wanted to sing to my mollusks, pet them, thank them for what they did for me:

Bread pudding was stately and thoughtful without being presumptuous or precious. It wasn’t just slammingly delicious. It had class.

Perfect oysters, perfect dessert, perfect bread, perfect breadsticks, perfect olive oil, perfect ambiance, perfect service (friendly, genuine, professional). Oh, how I wish I could have eaten a full meal here. I’ll return first chance I get.

It was late by the time I got to Moody’s Diner (Route 1, Waldoboro, Maine; 207-832-7785), and I thought I’d down a bite or two of their famed walnut pie. I finished most of the (wondrous) slice …

... and then worked myself into a lather out in the parking lot. Brace yourself for a delirious meltdown of a podcast: MP3.

Free Foie with Purchase

It’s no longer legal to sell foie gras in your Chicago restaurant. Flout the ban and you risk getting slapped with a $250 fine. But chic New American bistro Bin 36 breezed through a legal loophole when restaurant inspectors came knocking: According to their menu, the $15 wild-mushroom appetizer is just that. Oh, the foie gras on the plate? That’s compliments of the house.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, by describing the dish on the menu as “Wild Mushroom Confit Salad, Hudson Valley foie gras, on us,” the restaurant could claim that it was just handing out a freebie alongside a regular item.

Although the restaurant had previously received a warning, the supposed liver lagniappe was enough to get the swank River North joint off the hook. Said Health Department spokesman Tim Hadac, “The ordinance prohibits the sale of foie gras. It does not address giving it away.”

The ban isn’t filling city coffers; in fact, according to a recent wire story in the International Herald Tribune, the city “has yet to levy its first fine,” which is hardly a surprise, given Hadac’s acknowledgment that the ban is the department’s “lowest priority.”

At Hot Doug’s, a gourmet hot dog joint whose menu has included a foie-gras-and-duck sausage with black truffle butter and goat cheese, as well as a smoked-pheasant sausage topped with chunks of foie gras, owner Doug Sohn has framed his warning letter and put it on prominent display.

Other restaurants are simply switching back to plain English. Said Copperblue chef/owner Michael Tsonton to a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, “Right now I’ve got to play nice. I don’t serve foie gras, it’s duck liver.”

“Top Chef” Check-in

The opening of Perilla, last year’s Top Chef winner’s new restaurant, seems to be stalled for the moment, but Harold Dieterle is trying to keep his name alive by blogging about the second season of Top Chef on Bravo.com. His recent post (“Why All the Hate?”), which threw all kinds of support Marcel’s way after the Seven Deadly Sins challenge, just proved what a gosh-darned nice guy he is. However, it also provoked this tongue-in-cheek response about his bathroom behavior in New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer.

Last year’s Top Chef runner-up, Tiffani Faison, spent her summer cooking at Straight Wharf on Nantucket, but has now moved down south to New Orleans, where she was named executive chef at Todd English’s Riche. (My Lord, how many restaurants does that guy have?!)

Tiffani also checked in with the blog Top Chef 2: They Cook. We Dish, where she talks about how Spain and Japan excite her and how she’s really into local New Orleans ingredients, like espelette pepper and artisanal sausages. The interview then turned to the topic of Bravo’s creative editing procedures.

BS: Bravo seems to have success with editing their programs to reflect the Hero/Villain/Clown trilogy, and Top Chef is no exception. What ended up on the editing room floor that you would have really liked for viewers to see?

TF: The amount of compliments I dished out to the other cast members in my interviews ended up on the floor. There were some people that I really liked and respected.

Those compliments must’ve ended up on the cutting room floor of those cast members’ brains as well.

And finally, posters on the Television Without Pity Top Chef discussion forums called my attention to this Top Chef–themed Kevin & Kell strip by cartoonist Bill Holbrook.

White Meat’s Dark Side

Bacon lovers may reconsider their morning strip after reading Jeff Tietz’s chilling Rolling Stone article about Smithfield Foods, the nation’s top pork producer. This exposé makes it hard to even think about eating a pork chop.

Smithfield Foods raised 27 million hogs last year—under horrifying conditions.

They trample each other to death. There is no sunlight, straw, fresh air or earth. The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs—anything small enough to fit through the foot-wide pipes that drain the pits.

But living conditions are the least of the problems. The real problem is the amount of waste these pigs produce—a single Smithfield subsidiary generates more fecal matter than all of Manhattan. To dispose of this in the same manner as human waste would cause the company to lose money, so instead it is pumped into open holding ponds where it seeps into the groundwater and nearby rivers or is sprayed on fields. People living nearby who breathe this spray develop bronchitis, asthma, heart palpitations, headaches, diarrhea, nosebleeds and brain damage; those who accidentally fall into the lagoons die.

A lot of pig shit is one thing; a lot of highly toxic pig shit is another. The excrement of Smithfield hogs is hardly even pig shit: On a continuum of pollutants, it is probably closer to radioactive waste than to organic manure.

Lagoon overflow is not uncommon. In four years, 2 million gallons of pig waste has spilled into the Cape Fear River alone, killing plant life and fish. Hurricanes are a problem, since they wash millions of gallons of untreated waste into rivers and out to sea, leaving a trail of dead fish and dead pigs behind. “Hurricane Floyd washed 120,000,000 gallons of unsheltered hog waste into the Tar, Neuse, Roanoke, Pamlico, New and Cape Fear rivers…. Very little freshwater marine life remained behind,” reports Tietz.

The man behind the rise of Smithfield Foods is one Joseph Luter III, who last year took home a salary of over $10 million. He’s currently been nominated as a contender for the Grinch of the Year Award, by the organization Jobs with Justice, as the national figure doing the most to harm working families. When Luter is asked about the thousands of Smithfield violations of the Clean Water Act, he points out the much larger number of violations possible. Apparently he thinks his company isn’t doing too badly.

Now Luter is planning to expand the Smithfield operation in Eastern Europe, bringing toxic pig shit to Romania. Smithfield operations in Poland, where lagoon failure resulted in skin rashes and eye infections for local residents, has recently been deemed damaging to the ecosystem by a Helsinki Commission report.

Food bloggers have gotten worked up by this article as well. Catherine at Food Musings says, “It’s foul beyond all imagining,” and asks what people can do if they live in an area that doen’t have non-factory-farmed pork easily available (The Local Harvest website is a good place to start). Chef Chris Consentino, on his blog Offal Good, points out that people can make a difference. “You the consumer can change this problem, don’t buy these meats, be sure you know where your pork comes from.”

So, do you know where your bacon comes from?

The Hormone Hustle

SF Gate culture columnist Mark Morford is all riled up. He has stumbled across a hateful piece by religious reformer Jim Rutz that proclaims “Soy Is Making Kids ‘Gay.’”

The culture wars, it would seem, have moved to the dinner table.

Rutz’s argument that the phytoestrogens in soy formula can overwhelm testosterone in baby boys seems to be rational, until you get to this paragraph:

Soy is feminizing, and commonly leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality. That’s why most of the medical (not socio-spiritual) blame for today’s rise in homosexuality must fall upon the rise in soy formula and other soy products.

Okaaayyy, we’re backing away slowly. Proclamations like this just seem to lather up Morford, who breaks out the big sarcasm gun to respond:

God hates vegans. Is it not obvious? After all, most vegans eat a lot of soy. Consequently, most vegans are, of course, violently gay, just like billions of Asians who’ve eaten soy products for millennia and are so gay and feminine and estrogen heavy they can barely stand up. Which explains Hello Kitty. And samurai movies.

As Morford himself notes, there is plant-based estrogen in soy. And there’s a world of difference between an Asian diet of tofu and soymilk and an American vegetarian diet that relies on heavily processed soy-based meats from potentially genetically modified soybeans. A mono diet is never a good thing; too much of even something as healthy as spinach can give you kidney stones. Still, I thought we put our soy fears to rest five years ago, when the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that a long-term study of adults fed soy-based formula as babies led to this conclusion:

Exposure to soy formula does not appear to lead to different general health or reproductive outcomes than exposure to cow milk formula. Although the few positive findings should be explored in future studies, our findings are reassuring about the safety of infant soy formula.

The Sight and Sound of Taste

The Sight and Sound of Taste

A conversation with Heston Blumenthal. READ MORE

How Do They Get the Omega-3 in the Eggs?

How Do They Get the Omega-3 in the Eggs?

It's all about diet. READ MORE

Ugly but Delicious

Here in the States, the recent foodie infighting over the relative benefits of organic and local agriculture has died down a bit, but now the UK is having its own row over organics. This one—much more political, and in many ways much uglier—is being eaten up by the media.

The argument was sparked by a government official’s comments: David Miliband, the country’s environment, food, and rural affairs secretary, said Sunday that buying organic food was a “lifestyle choice” and that crops grown using pesticides and chemical fertilizers should not be viewed as second-best. “I would not want to say that 96 percent of our farm produce is inferior because it’s not organic,” Miliband told The Sunday Times.

Sorta makes sense that he’d come down on the side of conventional farmers, given his position and his constituency. Also understandably, Britain’s organic farmers’ advocacy group, the Soil Association, was hurt by the comments—and the UK media have been very attentive to the group’s reaction. The organization’s director told The Guardian:

I actually think it is rather sad because it suggests that David Miliband is profoundly ignorant of the benefits that are motivating people to buy organic food. The industry has grown without the support of the government and we thought we finally had it on our side. I find it amazing the minister is being so dismissive.

Another Soil Association higher-up and Guardian contributor called Miliband’s move a “significant self-inflicted injury.” This article in The Scotsman even gave both sides of the debate a chance to express their opinions.

Perhaps because this discussion takes place among big players in food policy (rather than, say, writer Michael Pollan and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey), it’s not taken for granted on both sides that food should be produced sustainably—and this means that the arguments are much more basic. Also a bit more embarrassing, on both sides: The Guardian quotes the founder of the online grocery store Organic Delivery Company, defending the health benefits of organics with an off-the-cuff personal anecdote:

It is not a lifestyle choice, there are health issues involved. I discovered organic food about 15 years ago when I had a chronic illness and went to an alternative health practitioner. I told him I was a vegetarian and he said ‘but your diet’s wrong, you are not eating organic food.’ He said I should eat food that is grown in harmony with the planet and the seasons. I did and within a month, my problem had gone.

OK, well, maybe that’s true—but how many organic skeptics does this guy really think are going to be swayed by the phrases “alternative health practitioner” and “grown in harmony with the planet and the seasons”? Oy.

“Top Chef” Mikey’s Wisdom

“Top Chef” Mikey’s Wisdom

Wisdom tooth, that is. Plus: Colicchio shows no respect. READ MORE