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

Cutting the Cheese, Gourmet Style

Never let it be said that Gourmet is overly in touch with the sensible world of the proletariat. This month’s issue features what may be the most outrageous cooking-related knickknack in the history of cooking-related knickknacks.

Let’s explore the words as they were written.

Coltellerie Berti’s professional cheese knives are no affectation.

Allow me to repeat: “No affectation.” Certainly not a “pose,” or “artificiality,” or “the act of taking on or displaying an attitude or mode of behavior not natural to oneself or not genuinely felt.”

Each individual blade in the boxed set of seven is designed to cut a specific type of Italian cheese.

Yes. Because, lord knows, if you use a paddle-shaped knife to cut paglietta, instead of a bow-shaped wire-style knife, the fabric of space-time will unravel and boiling uranium will pour from the skies.

($950 at

That’s … $135 a knife. You read that right. You could have a knife that looks like a putty spreader … or two weeks’ worth of groceries from Whole Foods. You could have three knives, or a Nintendo Wii and a very good bottle of single-malt Scotch. You could have the set of cheese knives, or a 14-piece All-Clad cooking set.

What is this, Gourmet or Sophie’s Choice?

Riddle Me This, Batman

Many are those aspiring souls who have “champagne taste on a beer budget.” But Oregon’s Golden Valley Brewery has come up with a quaff especially for the obverse kind of people: those with beer tastes on a champagne budget.

The brewery’s seasonal beer, IPA VS Brut, is a hoppy IPA that is treated like a sparkling wine. It’s barrel aged, bottled using Champagne yeast, and even riddled (stored neck down so that yeasts form a plug at the bottle’s top) while it undergoes a secondary fermentation.

But how does it taste? Brewmaster Mark Vickery notes in The Oregonian that

the beer pours like a deep golden Champagne with a rich head and smells of summer fruit with toasty malt. The hop aroma pretty much goes away during refermentation, but hop bitterness is still present and melds nicely with a wine-y tang.

Yum! But at around $20 for a 750 ml bottle, it ain’t PBR. Still, it’s a fine New Year’s Eve beverage for those who’d rather say “Beer me!” than “Salud.”

Good Feats

Heifer International is a 62-year-old organization that provides livestock and training to hungry families and communities. Alton Brown of Food Network’s Good Eats is just one of several other celebrities who support this “give a man a fish” in modern form. Earlier this week, Mary Louise Parker appeared on Martha Stewart’s talk show to discuss Heifer International as her charity of choice.

Heifer’s website explains:

As people share their animals’ offspring with others—along with their knowledge, resources, and skills—an expanding network of hope, dignity, and self-reliance is created that reaches around the globe.

Hungry families from Appalachia to Zambia have used Heifer livestock and training to alleviate hunger and poverty and become self-reliant. Heifer’s unique approach also promotes strong communities, sustainability, environmental protection and peace.

Said Brown in an AP article:

‘If I can get a couple of cows in Russia, bees to people in Kentucky, or a couple of flocks of geese to folks in China, that actually matters and I feel really good about it,’ Brown said from his Atlanta office at Be Square Productions, the company that produces his Good Eats show for the cable television network.

The article reports that Alton Brown’s Be Square Productions donates a “Gift Ark.” A Gift Ark is “a $5,000 donation that includes two each of Heifer’s animals, including cows, sheep, camels, oxen, water buffalo and rabbits, among many others.” Heifer ensures that Noah’s animals go “wherever they are needed most.”

Another place to spend your holiday dollars in a somewhat similar fashion is at Rent Mother Nature. Rent a branch on a peach tree in Georgia, some furry sheep in Massachusetts, or a lobster pot in Maine, and you are supporting small farms and farmers around the country. With your purchase, you receive a personalized lease (suitable for framing) and updates on the farm and the health of the animals, along with your part of the yield at the end of the season. It might be a wool blanket from the shorn sheep, fat and fuzzy peaches, or 7 1/2 pounds of live lobsters delivered to your doorstep.

Christmas Dinner at the Pole

The feast of the season will consist of a mere tablespoon of vodka and a small piece of fudge each for two New Zealanders on an unaided trekking expedition to the South Pole.

Kevin Biggar and Jamie Fitzgerald are three-quarters of the way into their attempt at setting a record for overland, unaided polar expedition. If all goes as planned, the pair will reach the South Pole on New Year’s Eve, after nearly 50 days of slogging through snow and ice. An average day has them traveling over 15 miles, dragging their supplies on sleds.

Their daily food intake is centered around fats for energy—butter, salami, chocolate, oil, and a lot of nuts—about 4,500 calories a day. Still, the pair burn more than they consume. “Some days I feel like the exercise is eating away at my muscle and fat and other days I feel pretty good…. But I’m sure we are losing weight,” said Jaime Fitzgerald when interviewed by the New Zealand Herald.

One can only wonder what they’ll pick as their first full meal once the expedition is over—and how they will handle a full glass of booze after drinks by the tablespoon. The only thing for certain is that it will be a very white, very cold Christmas.

The Bread and Butter of Food Sales

According to the new Packaged Facts report Sandwiches in the US (registration required), sammies make up 25 percent of total food-service sales in the States. What is it about the filling-between-two-carbs configuration that keeps us so hungry for more?

Both the PF report and a FoodNavigator article offer some theories, worded in always-fun TradeJournalSpeak. But PF puts it best:

From baguettes, buns, clubs, gyros and melts to open-face, paninis, po’boys, Reubens, subs/hoagies/heros, muffalettas, wraps and more, the sandwich is the blank canvas on which a great people paint the colors and contours of their lives. That’s because they offer everything we want so much of today: flavor, freshness, variety, nutrition, ethnic spice and perhaps most important of all, portability and convenience. Operators add traditional and/or exotic condiments, brand names or private labels, colorful packaging, inventive names, convenient outlets and low-ball pricing to make them even more irresistible.

The gradual blurring of dayparts is freeing more hours of the day than ever before for sandwich consumption.

Mmmm, lowball pricing and gradual blurring of dayparts.

Grocery Chains Create Celebri-tillers

Local farmers are getting star treatment by major food retailers these days, and we’re not just talking about those giant farmer photos at Whole Foods: Regional grocery chains and even Wal-Mart are jumping at the chance to court the growing buy-local movement. Kroger, Publix, and Food Lion stores now showcase produce from nearby farms, BusinessWeek reports, and in several states Wal-Mart is now running a Salute to America’s Farmers program (which involves giant signs pointing to locally grown fare, and sometimes in-store samples from the farmers themselves).

Why the sudden awareness of these formerly neglected farmers? In part, the article says, it’s due to the spotlight placed on local food economies by writer Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and his subsequent public conversation with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey.

Still, the stores’ primary motivation is not ethical but (duh) financial:

Whole Foods, in the last few years, has been on a torrid growth streak by satisfying shoppers’ desire for locally grown, wholesome, and organic food, even at premium prices. But this year, revenue growth at Whole Foods slowed to single digits, just as Wal-Mart jumped aggressively into the fray, vowing to bring down the prices of organics and make them accessible to a mass audience…. The result is that both of those companies and plenty of others are trying to build their credibility by touting their ties to the local farming community.

Have you come across any local-food displays at your grocery store or (gasp!) the neighborhood Wal-Mart? (Would you even be caught dead in a Wal-Mart?) How’s the selection?

Neto Caffe

NETO, says Ken Hoffman, is a Hebrew acronym that means something like the English acronym WYSIWYG. And Neto Caffe’s additive-free yummies, with no coconut oil or shortening or anything unpleasant, stand up to repeated tastings. The giant rugulach has a buttery, soft, flaky crust–not the usual piece of sweet concrete–and turns one’s mind to the bustling bodegas of Tel Aviv. Soft, chewy house-made pita and hummus that reeks of garlic cannot be put down.

Some hounds balk at the prices–$10-12 for a sandwich, $7.25 for yogurt and granola. Others, like sally r., are very enthusiastic and find the prices reasonable for the quality.

They also serve shnitzel.

Neto Caffe [Peninsula]

135 Castro Street (across from the Mountain View train station), Mountain View



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Neto Caffe in Mountain View


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Neto Caffe in Mountain View

Seafood Rice Baked in a Coconut – Late Night Cuisine

Denny’s Cafe is a Hong Kong-style coffee shop featuring sil yeh, late-night eats. It’s open until midnight during the week, and until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. The chow is tasty, says Melanie Wong, such as the exciting seafood rice baked (and served) in a whole coconut. Baking in the coconut means the long-grain rice is tender and infused with the fragrance of fresh coconut. Shrimp, scallops, and plump mussels are tucked inside, too, along with bits of omelette and green onion. The mild flavor of the dish makes it perfect to accompany a more strongly flavored item. It costs $6.95.

Also great: ox tongue with mushrooms and spaghetti, and oxtail soup noodles.

Denny’s Cafe [Richmond]

5530 Geary Blvd., San Francisco



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Sil Yeh at Denny’s Cafe on Geary

Stollen: The Taste of Christmas

Christmastime means stollen to a lot of people, and Emil’s Swiss Pastry makes far and away the best, says Paliman. “It is the difference between any commercial bakery, and one run by a baker who actually has serious training. Emil has been doing this in his bakery for almost 50 years, and before that at the old Blum’s, of happy memory.”

He has stollen with and without marzipan. Basic stolen is $8 for small, $15 for large. Marzipan is a dollar extra. Pfeffernussen and cookies are amazing also.

Rockenwagner Bakery is making stollen daily through Christmas. The rest of their baked goods are delish, says mikester, so it seems like a promising prospect. A loaf is $16.

SwissMiss recommends Shoop’s, a German deli, for Dresdener stollen.

European Deluxe Sausage Kitchen (see also ChowNews #204) has stollen, but it’s a little heavy on the marzipan and light on the orange peel for RicRios.

Emil’s Swiss Pastry [West LA-ish]

1567 Barry Ave., at Barrington, Los Angeles



Rockenwagner Bakery [Culver City-ish]

12835 W. Washington Blvd., at Beethoven, Los Angeles



Shoop’s Delicatessen [Beaches]

2400 Main St. Ste. A1, at Hollister, Santa Monica



European Deluxe Sausage Kitchen [Midtown]

9109 W. Olympic Blvd., at Doheney, Beverly Hills



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Butai: Underappreciated Japanese Grill in Gramercy

Butai is not what it appears. Belying its modern, bilevel space, it specializes in traditional robata-style grilled dishes. “We loved it. They are cranking out really good Japanese bar food with very few missteps,” marvels kenito799.

In addition to grilled stuff, the menu offers hot and cold appetizers, sushi and sashimi, and a couple of noodle dishes. Except for a few fusiony sushi rolls, they play it fairly straight. kenito wonders if that’s one reason business appears to be light at this sister restaurant to Hapon and Maxie in Midtown: “It doesn’t seem to be getting the appreciation it deserves. Maybe it’s not westernized enough for that neighborhood.”

Upstairs is the serene main dining room; downstairs is the bar and a small counter that looks into the kitchen, affording a view of cooks working the grill. Service is friendly and attentive, and ambience is cozy, comfortable, and chic without being pretentious, says cinnamon lover.

Some recommended dishes (many from the specials menu):

- Kushiyaki (grilled skewers): In the same league as city front-runner Totto, says kenito. All excellent: chicken thigh, wing, skin, gizzard and hip, skirt steak, squid tentacles, kabocha, duck with scallion, pork belly with ponzu, bacon-wrapped shishito peppers. Skewers are $2 to $5–and half price on Monday nights.

- Grilled whole saury from Japan ($15): A good-sized (11-inch) fish, cooked so the skin is crispy and the flesh succulent. You can eat all the bones except for the spine, and the delicious liver is left in place.

- Grilled short rib: Meaty bones are served alongside juicy rare slices. Grilled meats can be ordered in entree or “tapas” portions; even the $13 tapas portion is pretty big.

- Tempura of shiso-wrapped chicken with green tea salt ($7): Four large, tasty pieces with lots of crispy shiso leaf.

- Chawan mushi ($6): The traditional steamed savory custard, packed with good stuff, including two big gingko nuts and a shrimp with real flavor.

- Agedashi tofu ($6): Commendable texture, well-balanced flavors, and sufficient seasoning.

- Sashimi: kenito reports perfect yellowtail “toro” ($4) and mackerel ($2.50), and deeply flavorful uni ($4), but says toro was a bit off. Wasabi is fresh.

- Desserts: Lily bulb soup is flavorful but heavy on the red bean paste. Black sesame pudding is drizzled with caramel; the pudding is not too sweet, so the caramel complements it nicely.

Butai Restaurant [Gramercy]
115 E. 18th St., between Park Ave. S. and Irving Pl., Manhattan

Yakitori Totto [Clinton]
251 W. 55th St., 2nd floor, between 8th Ave. and Broadway, Manhattan

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Butai-A Great Find!