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

What Makes a Restaurant Great?

Is it the food, the ambiance, the service, or a combination of all three—or is there something more? Food writer and blogger Catherine of Food Musings poses this question in a thought-provoking post.

Catherine makes some interesting points: Taste in “good food” is subjective; people are more willing to forgive bad food than bad service; there are different versions of what people want in their dinner service. But at the end of the day, there is something more that makes us love our favorite restaurants.

The usual review touches on three topics: food, service, ambiance. But, like umami—the “secret” fifth taste (after sweet, salty, bitter and sour) that is usually described as “savory”—there is another sense that I think is always considered, though rarely stated, and that is the feeling you get from a restaurant. That feeling is not just the sum of the food, service and ambiance; it is its own score. It is also, in my opinion, the most important yardstick by which a restaurant is judged.

Seeing as I continue to adore a restaurant I ate in over a decade ago—and I don’t even remember what I ate there—I think she may be on to something.

What makes you love your favorite restaurants?

Food & Wine & Decadence & Altruism

Aspen’s Food & Wine Classic turns 25 next year, and some of the event’s plush goodies are slated to slop over the edge of the velvet tablecloth into the worthy coffers of the Farm to Table program.

The Food & Wine Classic is aiming to raise $1 million through its Grow for Good campaign. The goal is to help Farm to Table expand its services into 25 U.S. cities, open a West Coast office, and save 1,000 to 1,500 farms during an unspecified but presumably around-the-corner three- to five-year period. Also on the docket: providing assistance to help small farmers implement more sustainable practices.

To that end, 4 percent of the cost of every Food & Wine Classic ticket will go to the Grow for Good campaign. That might not sound like much, but with tickets for the Classic hovering around the $1,000 mark, it may add up to some serious ducats.

The Machine Age

Barry Sonnenfeld directed Get Shorty. He directed both Men in Black films as well as the Addams Family movies. In short, he’s a player, Hollywoodwise. So why is he writing espresso-machine reviews in the pages of a men’s magazine? Does he need the cash that badly?! Does everyone want to be a food writer now?

No. Sonnenfeld is Esquire’s gadget columnist, sharing his thoughts each month on toys from laptops to vacuums. In this issue Sonnenfeld uses the excuse of having to motivate a crew to work faster, so he treats them (and himself) to delicious shots of espresso every two hours during the filming of his television show, Notes from the Underbelly.

In the process, he gets to try out four high-end espresso machines, along with the Aeroccino, a $90 device that foams milk without steam.

His favorite is the Jura-Capresso Impressa Z6, a machine so high-tech that it does everything short of actually drinking the shot itself:

The Jura-Capresso also has a truly unique separate thermos that stores the milk and sends it through a tube into the frother, allowing you to create one-step lattes and cappuccinos. The steamed, foamed milk is sent through one nozzle while the freshly brewed espresso is sent through another—all ending up in a perfectly foamed cappuccino.

Gadgetlicious! Sadly, you practically have to be a Hollywood filmmaker to afford one: The cost is $3,600.

Raw Sugar, Meet Fancy Butter

The holiday baking days are upon us, and, ever helpful, the dailies are getting down to the basics of baking. Forget Gourmet’s fiddly geometric Christmas cookies: The food sections of the San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times talk butter and sugar this week.

The Chron’s wish-we’d-been-a-judge taste-off features European-style butters, those high-priced, high-butterfat charmers whose ranks are ever swelling in the dairy case. The lucky tasters assessed each butter (some domestic, some imported) straight up and baked in shortbread. Surprisingly, Plugra, the butter whose high-fat plasticity started the whole Euro-butter craze, came in third in the combined scores and fourth in baking, beaten by the American Challenge and Danish Lurpak butters.

Over at the Times, life is sweet as writer Kim Severson continues her culinary romance with Louisiana, this time focusing on the state’s cane sugar industry, with recipes for cane-syrup popcorn balls, gingerbread slabs, and gâteau de sirop—along with a description of a local snack of white bread folded over a brown ripple of cane syrup and called, memorably, a “diaper sandwich.”

According to fans of unrefined products like raw sugar and cane syrup, the cane solids in the rough stuff add a smoothness that’s lacking in whiter-than-white processed sugar. As Charley Steen of longtime family business Steen’s Cane Syrup says, “For lack of a better word, the cane flavor just butters it out.”

“Top Chef” Curdled

“Top Chef” Curdled

Mia throws in the towel after throwing up her sushi. READ MORE

Theft, Love, and Menu Consultation

The awesomely named Ethel Hammer of The National Culinary Review—who really needs to begin starring in a detective series tout de suite—has penned a piece examining the role of menu consultants in the modern restaurant environment.

The piece does a solid job of elaborating on what consultants do at their finest: sorting through menus to identify clinkers, moneymakers, and sentimental anchors, or adapting a restaurant’s beloved standards to non–totally bastardized airplane-food equivalents. But it does little to explore the inevitable darker side of the profession. Good consultants in any field can bring powerful positive change to a business, but bad consultants can bury a struggling business or simply act as a cosmetic mask for an owner’s harebrained ideas.

The story also looks at a consultant technique that’s euphemistically called “the trickle-down effect.” This is also known as “eating at wd-50 and selling their ideas to restaurants in Cleveland.”

A Memo to My Employer

Boston, Massachusetts

To: Mike Tatum, CNET Networks
From: Jim Leff

Dear Mike,

It is with a heavy heart that I send you this.

As you know, I’ve taken quite seriously my position as Chowhound-at-Large with CNET Networks, and have done my utmost to maintain my reputation by making frequent finds and generally reinforcing my reputation as a Food Expert™. Furthermore, I’m proud to state that my expenditure of company funds over the course of this CHOW Tour has been prudent.

Today, however, I let everyone down: you, the Chowhound and CHOW brands, and the entire CNET family. I have not just eaten badly, which would be forgivable, but I allowed myself to be sucked into a bad eating experience with eyes wide open. I failed to remove myself from an eatery unbecoming of a chowhound. I ordered against intuition. I frittered away a great big wad of company money. And I kept throwing good money after bad.

For your internal corporate use, I’ve provided the following disclosures on the meal (at B&G Oysters, 550 Tremont Street, Boston, Massachusetts; 617-423-0550). There were witnesses, both of whom refused to sign NDAs (believe me, I tried).

Disclosure 1: The Suffocatingly Self-Conscious Bohemian Vibe

Disclosure 2: The Bread

As soon as I confronted the small, pretentious brick of bread, which seemed to not only lack flavor, but to possess a sort of negative flavor that actually draws quality OUT of the eater, I should have run like the wind. Instead, I stubbornly continued the meal.

Disclosure 3: Oyster Overconsumption

My first misappropriation of company funds was in ordering a large plate of overpriced raw oysters that seemed to brim not with oyster liquor but with salted water—a cynical brine that scorched the tongue and diluted the flavor.

And I exercised poor judgment and weak discipline in allowing myself to be persuaded by my tasting colleagues to order yet another oyster sampler plate. Make no mistake about it, Mike. I blame only myself. I am, for purposes of ordering, “The Decider,” and I decided incompetently. I deemed the funky, spoiled Pepperell Cove oysters in the first platter an aberration (the Island Creeks, Salutations, Cuttyhunks, and, especially, Marin Bays were quite good). But the second platter (of different varieties) had some off ones, too. There should not have been a second platter.

Disclosure 4: The Spicy Clam Stew

Clam stew with a cloying, annoying sauce. I should have known better than to order this here.

Disclosure 5: The New England Clam Chowder Avec Lardons

A $10 cup of cream and black pepper. No worked-in essences. No discernable clams, no oceanic brine.

Disclosure 6: The $24 Maine Lobster Roll

The meat was a bit rubbery, and the whole was bland and sweet (cole slaw was sweet, and the roll itself was sweet). French fries were soggy and tasted as if they’d sat for ages in water before frying, all spudly goodness leached out.

I should also mention that most everything here is splashed with inappropriately showy aromatic olive oil that dominates the subtle seafood flavors.

Disclosure 7: Banana Split with Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream and Candied Walnuts

This slop didn’t know if it wanted to be “real” or impressive or yuppie or gourmet. Just a bunch of fancy ingredients that didn’t work together at all … a mess. For nine bucks.

A decent Trimbach Riesling was way overpriced at $64.

Disclosure 8: The Bill

The bill was $190.31 for the three of us before tip. That’s $75/person (with tip) for a not-very-good lunch that left none of us satisfied.

Mike, I can only fall on my sword and assure you that if you wish to cancel the CHOW Tour at this point, I’d be completely amenable to fulfilling my employment via some light typing or steno work, peeling vegetables, parking cars, or otherwise filling in wherever my feeble talents (which sure as hell don’t include savvy dining) might contribute.



The Future of Food (The Immediate Future, That Is)

What will we be eating in 2007? Personally, I hope to subsist primarily on incendiary moong dal and freshly made banh mi.

As luck would have it, the latter is one of the hot “buzzwords” for 2007, according to restaurant consultants Joseph Baum and Michael Whiteman. They’ve put out a white paper that forecasts the top ten food trends and buzzwords for the coming year. Here’s a sneak preview of your dining life in the coming 12 months: pork belly to finishing salt to pastel-hued cauliflower to chef-driven steakhouses to chocolate (sample wisdom: “America’s going nuts for

Although many items in their crystal ball seem right-on, their anointing of Peruvian cuisine as “the next big thing” while dissing Indian cuisine for being “too complicated for the home chef” rings false, despite the presence of cuy in Houston’s ethnic markets.

Predictably, bloggers are having a field day.

What Do Buffaloes Have to Do with Mozzarella?

What Do Buffaloes Have to Do with Mozzarella?

We're talking water buffaloes, not bison. READ MORE

The Art of Bitching About Everything

The Art of Eating 20th-anniversary double issue is out, and it’s fat-packed with exactly what you’d expect: creator Edward Behr fussing about the advent of big-box stores while contributors file 4,000-word dispatches on California olive oil and the continuing existence of mead.

Behr’s opening essay is a cantankerous self-authored Q & A that sounds off against ads in food magazines, all things digital, and the decline of proper English. It lacks only an announcement that the neighborhood children should immediately get the hell off his lawn.

That said, it’s far more compelling than the cut-and-paste banalities that make up the editors’ columns in the food-as-lifestyle-porn magazines, or the New England yuppie romps that are Christopher Kimball’s columns in Cook’s Illustrated.

He writes about old friends (now deceased) who raised and butchered their own chickens and made their own wine. He writes about why his magazine doesn’t have ads, and his dual ideas of “the perfect meal.” He writes about why stories in the magazine sometimes top out at around 13,000 words.

It’s a beautiful read. And at one point, he answers a question (posed by himself) about his ideal reader. He writes that his ideal reader is, in essence, himself. You can’t accuse the dude of being too modest. These days, that’s a refreshing thing. As is The Art of Eating.