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

Booze Brothers

Following hard on the high heels of Lorraine Bracco’s wine involvement, yet another celebrity has dipped a toe into a vat of crushed grapes. Early in 2007, the fruits of Dan Akyroyd’s wine labor will be hitting the sold-out markets.

It’s not made by him exactly—he’ll be splashing his name across a line of Canadian wines put out by Diamond Estate Wines & Spirits. According to a press release from Diamond, the wines will be available in two pocketbook stages: “the Dan Aykroyd Signature Reserve Series of super-premium offerings and the Dan Aykroyd Discovery Series of mid-priced wines.” Super-premium sounds like a gasoline choice to me.

As the year draws to a close, the moneyed public is waiting breathlessly to get their hands on the first of these super-premium wines, the Signature Reserve VQA Niagara Peninsula Vidal Icewine 2005. (Say that three times fast after shotgunning an entire bottle.) However, if you’re hoping to get your hands on a bottle of the Signature Reserve VQA, etc., due to be released in 2007, tough luck. Aykroyd, who might have more in common with Louis Winthorp III than he thought, announced, “I am excited to report that every bottle of Dan Aykroyd Signature Reserve VQA Vidal Icewine 2005 has been allocated for sale to our key clientele and has been fully subscribed before even being released.”

Aykroyd told Wine Spectator that Otis Redding band member Steve Cropper introduced him to wine during the filming of Blues Brothers:

One night he poured me a Napa Valley Cabernet, and it changed my whole perception of what I wanted to taste for the rest of my life. From there he said, ‘How would you like to try something French?’ And after French wines, it was super Tuscans.

Aykroyd also told WS that he’s been holding on to a bottle of Château Trotanoy Pomerol that River Phoenix gave him. I’d be real careful about drinking what looks like sediment in that bottle, Dan.

... and I hesitate to open that, because it’s special, but you can’t let these reds sit around for too long. At 15, even eight to 10 years, I find these Bordeaux are fine, and then after that you take a chance. You open it up, and it could be salad dressing. You just don’t know. But I’ve had very good luck.

Cheap Fun Wines commented, “We kid you not when we first read the name of his new wine we thought it said ‘Viagra,’ which would be an interesting way to put a little punch in your vino.”

Entertainment Weekly’s snarky column “Hit List” sniggers sarcastically that “Wine Spectator calls his Blues Brothers 2000 ‘extraneous with notes of desperation.’”

Hey, Elwood, I gotta ask, what wine goes well with dry white toast?

Time Out Dishes It Out

The latest issue of Time Out New York rates each of the city’s prominent reviewers (subscription required for all links here) on a scale of 1 to 6, turning the tables on the arbiters of taste. The judges—a pretty impressive group—use criteria like taste, writing style, and knowledge of the given discipline (art, music, film, etc.). For nearly every discipline, the top three critics have average scores in the 4.5–5.0 range. And then there’s food, where only one reviewer even breaks the 4.0 mark (Peter Meehan of The New York Times’s ”$25 and Under” column, who comes in at 4.08, outscoring the paper’s chief critic, Frank Bruni, by an embarrassingly wide margin).

Do New York’s restaurant reviewers really suck that much more than its other arts-and-culture watchers? Maybe, but that just seems so counterintuitive at a time like this, when food is being treated with ever-increasing seriousness in major newspapers all over the country. Are critics better in other cities? Is the ranking just a bunch of unscientific bunk in the first place?

Or perhaps part of the issue is that food criticism is inherently more difficult than other forms of criticism in certain ways. For one thing, I know that if I hate a film or piece of music and then read a super-smart review explaining the merits of the piece—putting it into a context I hadn’t understood before—I may well be inclined to soften my view; it would be a lot harder for a critic to persuade me to reconsider a dish or meal after the fact. There’s just no talking someone out of a gag reflex.

Fresh Out of the Oven

Fresh Out of the Oven

Outfit yourself with these nouveau baking supplies. READ MORE

Day After Wine Tasting: Movin’ Slow

New London, New Hampshire

I was a little late checking out of Chateau Jack-and-Thelma this morning, as was George Sape. George is one of my heroes. He has far too many interests and hobbies spilling out of his overextended life as a top corporate lawyer, but he’s always ready to plunge intrepidly into yet another. The largest of his recent infatuations has been cheese. George travels around everywhere hunting for great artisanal little cheeses; has built a vast network of informants, porters, and facilitators who funnel the stuff into various caves he keeps around New York City; and prints up an annual thick, glossy compendium of cheese-tasting notes that’s the hip read for cheese lovers (I’ve been begging him to let me put the notes on Chowhound; negotiations continue).

George, who was knighted by the French government for his cheese activities, is so knowledgeable about the stuff that his entrance with a wheel under his arm is a magical happening akin to Santa Claus showing up with a big sack of presents. Best of all, George is fueled by wide-eyed enthusiasm rather than pomposity. I decided I’d make it a priority on the rest of my trip to find some amazing cheese George doesn’t know about. “That’s easy!” he booms. “Great undiscovered cheese is everywhere!”

Yep, I aim to be George when I grow up (hopefully without the lawyer part!).

Here’s George puttering around in the kitchen, communing with a wheel of something or other:

Here’s some audio of George at yesterday’s tasting, listing some of the exquisite cheeses he’d brought along, explaining terms like artisanal and farmstead, and revealing the barnyardy je ne sais quoi of French raw-milk cheeses. Check out the podcast: MP3.

Last night, George whipped up, la-di-da, the best Caesar salad I’ve ever had. It was pretty stark looking, and the anchovies were powerful, but in the mouth it was all about the romaine—considerable man-against-nature work was transparently devoted to elevating its natural goodness. I swear I could taste the chlorophyll. And the croutons, obviously from the photo, below, were just freaking unbelievable.

I believe George made this fantastic pasta too, whipped up from leftovers excavated from Jack and Thelma’s fridge.

Two chefs had been brought in this weekend: Ted Fondulas (of Hemingway’s) prepared the formal Saturday night dinner, and Andrew Gruel, of Jack’s of New London, did the less ambitious Sunday lunch. I got a kick out of Gruel’s touch and figured I’d try a bite at his restaurant on my way out of town.

I was surprised to discover that Jack’s of New London is no more than a coffee bar with soups and sandwiches. But what soups and sandwiches! Have you ever seen more bacony chowder?

And even if you’re not a wrap person (I’m not, much), you have to admit this one looks real good (fillings were consummately fresh and well balanced):

Gummi Bears for Dinner Again?

This week, Sam of Becks & Posh posted a roundup of entries from bloggers who took her up on her food-diary dare. Participants were supposed to photograph and chronicle everything they ate and drank for seven straight days, and at least 24 people were up to the challenge. Well, sorta—a lot of them fudged the drinking portion (“That’s probably for the best,” writes S’kat) and didn’t bother with repeat meals (“like leftover turkey soup or turkey sandwiches,” says Cookiecrumb). Many also found it hard to remember to snap a shot before digging in, and for some of the diarists, just knowing their food choices would be documented made them change their diets for more aesthetic appeal or to avoid embarrassment.

The strikingly different images and descriptions are fascinating—I’ve just spent nearly an hour drooling over them when I should be working, and I’m not one to get my head turned by just any old pretty food pic. It’s not even that all the diarists are amazing photographers, either; what makes this project so compelling to me is that it’s a window into an aspect of people’s lives that’s really, really private, even for bloggers who are used to writing about food every day (which is why I think that theme of embarrassment is so pervasive in people’s posts). Anyway, check it out, and be sucked into a highly enjoyable vortex.

Japanese Spaghetti

Chika specializes in Japanese Western-style food, like meat sauce pasta. And they do it well. Mushroom (kinoko) pasta is better than any Wendy_san tasted in Japan, with noodles cooked perfectly al dente. More traditional Japanese fare, like tanuki udon, is also excellent.

This place has a more elegant and quiet feel than an izakaya. There’s jazz playing in the background and everything. Dinner for four, plus two pitchers of Sapporo, runs about $130 before tip.

Chika [Sunset]
841 Irving St., San Francisco 94122
415-681-5539
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Chika–San Mateo

El Delphin

El Delphin serves tasty, fresh ceviche and beautifully prepared southern Mexican dishes, says China. Quality is high: caldo de pollo features incredibly rich broth, and it’s chock full of vegetables and stewed chicken, and garnished with cilantro and mint. Order camarones con chile de arbol for a good portion of large prawns, partially butterflied and cooked in a creamy sauce with parsley, garlic, and dried chiles. It comes with fluffy Spanish rice and delicious, partially mashed refried beans, just like the ones you get in Michoacan. Service is really nice, and prices are very reasonable–a plentiful dinner for five plus six beers will run you about $75.

Restaurente El Delphin [Mission]
3066 24th St, at Folsom, San Francisco 94110
415-643-7955
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Delfine Report–24th and Folsom

Le Fandy: Stellar French in Fair Haven, NJ

Le Fandy is flying high. Two years after chef Luke Peter Ong took over from the founding chef, the place has settled into a satisfying groove, turning out elegant, assured French-influenced food. Seafood is especially good. Lobster crepes, garlic-sauteed rock shrimp, and the signature pan-roasted halibut with rosemary glaze (served with portobello confit and caramelized onions) are smart orders. Also recommended: butternut squash soup, seared strip loin, and apple or molten chocolate tarts for dessert. It’s the best and most consistent upper-end restaurant in the area, sums up seal.

Yet some think the place is underappreciated. “The food is wonderful, but I cannot figure out why there is not a line out the door,” muses Angelina. Another fan, foodreview, sees it this way: “As a fellow chef, I’ve come to understand that the chefs who simply turn out exceptional food, without fanfare, without PR people, without calling publications to beg for interviews, often are overlooked. But I suspect chef Ong would have it no other way.”

Le Fandy Restaurant [Monmouth County]
609 River Rd., near Cedar Ave., Fair Haven, NJ
732-530-3338
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Le Fandy, Fair Haven

Le Fandy in Fair Haven…suggestions?

I finally went to Le Fandy in Fair Haven, NJ

At Raoul’s, Belly Up to the Bar Steak

The durable Soho bistro Raoul’s has a dependable crowd-pleaser in its bar steak. Flavorful and faultlessly cooked, it comes with a heap of good fries, a mesclun salad, and a basket of crusty baguette with sweet butter. Great steak, inviting neighborhood vibe, and a decent deal at $22, reports chow_gal. “It is one of my simple pleasures in life,” declares Sweatshirt Guy.

Raoul’s Restaurant [Soho]
180 Prince St., between Sullivan and Thompson, Manhattan
212-966-3518
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Bar Steak at Raoul’s–SOHO

Dim Sum Diary

In the run-up to the holidays, it seems like a while since we’ve talked about dim sum. Clare K hit Triumphal Palace recently and left about as stuffed as a Thanksgiving turkey.

Spare ribs in black bean sauce look more like nubs of bone with a little meat on them than the kind of spareribs you can pick up with your fingers, but they’re wonderfully chewy, fatty, and flavorful–everything there is to love about pork.

  • Shrimp egg roll is just juicy shrimp and crispy fried egg roll skin, without a speck of grease.
  • Steamed BBQ pork bun is light as a cloud, filled with the sweet and savory pork mixture.
  • Pork shiu mai are moist and plump with shrimp and ground pork–delicious.
  • Pan fried turnip cake has nice tangy turnip flavor to contrast with the thin, fried crust.
  • Barbecued duck here ranks among the best, says cfylong, with crispy skin and moist, flavorful meat.

henrychan888 highly recommends the Szechuan eggplant hot pot.

Two can eat very well for less than $30. There are no carts–instead you look at the menu and fill out a form. No more worrying about flagging down your favorite items.

New Capital has wonderful dim sum, says cfylong. It’s really fresh and comes on carts. Banquet dinners are gloriously excessive, and seafood generally stars. Lobster in green onion sauce is fab, and so is steamed rock cod.

Triumphal Palace [San Gabriel Valley]
500 W Main St., at Fifth, Alhambra
626-308-3222
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New Capital Seafood [San Gabriel Valley]
7540 Garvey Ave., Rosemead
626-288-1899
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Triumphal Palace dim sum in Alhambra–thank you ‘hounds!

New Capital Seafood Restaurant on Garvey: Any recent experiences/recommended dishes? Going 2nite.