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

What’s That White Stuff on Grapes?

What’s That White Stuff on Grapes?

Is it pesticide? Yeast? Unidentified gross substance? READ MORE

Something More Than Crappy Pilsner

Something More Than Crappy Pilsner

While there is no brand of American pilsner distributed nationally, several excellent examples have popped up on the micro and regional levels. READ MORE

Am I Being Petty?

Am I Being Petty?

I think it’s rude of people to assume they can keep my Tupperware. Or am I being petty? READ MORE

In Search of the Great American Beer Hall

Fodor’s has published a brief—and flawed—report on the five best places in America to drink American beer.

Wisconsinites like myself can be counted on to have opinions on three things: beer (we’re pro), cheese (ditto), and the Packers (“pro” is an understatement, even in a rough season like 2005). Not surprisingly, I think Fodor’s has fallen down on the job, and not in a good, beer-related way.

They’ve overlooked two very different beer-associated places with very similar names that indicate a common tie to the German rathskeller tradition.

The first is the Brickskeller of Washington, DC, which boasts the world’s largest beer list. With more than 500 kinds of beer on the menu, it’s a claim that carries serious weight. Skipping the Brickskeller, an American beer hall of Norse-god proportions, is a borderline-criminal oversight. Sure, they’re internationalist in the best possible way, but you can’t fight the fact that their list boasts an overwhelming pile of excellent domestic brews.

The second is the UW-Madison Rathskeller. You have to know Madison to know the Rathskeller, so this particular oversight is understandable. But if you’ve ever had one of its house brews (or something wonderful by the New Glarus Brewing Company) in its cavelike, dark-wood-appointed and stein-decorated interior, you truly know what great beer drinking is all about.

Vile, Terrible, Nasty, and Ugly

Vile, Terrible, Nasty, and Ugly

CHOW talks to A. A. Gill about the business of reviewing restaurants, organics as a style statement, and the dark evil of Starbucks. READ MORE

Lots to Learn

Food blog Chubby Hubby features a thought-provoking (if abbreviated) interview today with celeb chef Michael Mina, who discusses diver scallops, micro-veggies, and finding inspiration from farmers. Mina, a big local-and-seasonal guy, says that no Americans (not even chow-crazed Northern Californians) are as obsessive about their produce as folks in Tokyo, where he recently visited. But, he says, Californians are getting there: The attention that winemakers pay to the quality of their grapes is filtering into the consciousness of non-vintners, too.

I’d add that it’s not just California. There really is a United States of Arugula, full of farmers’ market-philic citizens (and winemakers may or may not have had a hand in that). But what about seafood, like those diver scallops Mina mentions? As it happens, I attended a panel discussion last night on the state of sustainable seafood production, and it made me realize just how little all of us—chefs and reg’lar old consumers alike—really know about fish as compared with our meats, dairy, grains, and greens.

Diver scallops, according to seafood distributor Bobby DeMasco of upscale online fish market Wild Edibles, are often actually caught in dragnets, not by divers at all. He explained that many of the most prolific scallop beds are 300 feet underwater, far too deep for a diver to venture. It would be impossible to supply enough diver scallops to all the restaurants that claim to have them on their menus because such a small percentage of the yearly scallop catch is diver caught. DeMasco also said the mislabeling could occur at any step in the supply chain (with fishermen, distributors, or chefs) because all of them have a stake in marketing their seafood as sustainable.

This is certainly not to say that Mina’s diver-caught beauties aren’t legit; the most surefire protection against fraud, panel members said, is to find and develop relationships with trustworthy seafood purveyors who know exactly where their supply is coming from, and Mina (like many top chefs today) is all about those relationships. But divers are only the beginning; there’s the issue of line-caught versus trawl-caught bass, the relative merits of trapping, trolling, and farming, and the question of whether your supposedly wild salmon is actually packed with harmful PCBs. As if that weren’t enough, those little seafood wallet cards often give differing and even conflicting advice. And of course chefs often have to bend to consumer demand, offering “sexier” types of fish than the downmarket but sustainable species like tilapia and catfish.

It’s enough to induce fish-counter paralysis. A handy primer released by the eco-food nonprofit group Chef’s Collaborative helps somewhat in making sense of the quagmire, and Paul Greenberg, my fave fish guy, wrote a thoughtful and instructive op-ed piece (requires registration) last week.

And at least I can rest assured that the favorite fish of my childhood is now 99 percent more sustainable!

We’re So Hungry at the Fair

Is all food writing gonzo journalism? After all, for the most part, the writer always ends up eating what he writes about, whether it’s insects or 85 burritos. Seattle Times staff reporter Karen Gaudette is the latest scribe to pack on the poundage in the line of duty, as she clips on a pedometer and heads out to the Puyallup Fair to load up on elephant ears, cotton candy, and other foodstuffs on a stick. Will corn dog – related calories coming in outweigh calories burned by walking around the fair for a few hours? You bet your sweet bippy.

The Sommelier as Shaman

Is there a real art to matching food and wine, or is the whole practice of finding the perfect “pairing” so much hokum?

After making the ultimate damaging confession about his own taste in food and wine combinations (“I once loved pizza with Asti Spumante”), Matt Kramer writes in The New York Sun, “As best as I know, I am alone among my winewriting colleagues in my belief that this business about ‘marrying’—which is the preferred term—the just-so wine with the just-right dish is just so much eyewash.”

Kramer, the author of six books on wine, compares the idea of divining the perfect pairing to something akin to mentalism:

In the magic business, especially in the field of mentalism or mind-reading, this is known as “working strong.” The air of authority is everything.

For instance, if you said to me, “I’m serving Vietnamese spring rolls tonight. What’s the best wine for this dish?” you’d be disappointed—dismayed even—if I told you to serve a chardonnay. After all, you already know about chardonnay. Anybody could choose that.

So instead, I rummage around for something that you’ve probably never heard of or tasted. So I suggest—nay, insist—that grüner veltliner is the ideal dry white wine for Vietnamese spring rolls. Does the pairing work? Sure it does. So too does dry riesling, arneis, pinot grigio, and about two dozen other dry white wines.

But you’re impressed. Who knew from grüner veltliner? You look at me with respect. I’m a mentalist of the menu, a priest of the palate, a shaman of the senses. You feel the need to return for my services. In short, I’m golden.

The critique is a devastating one, especially considering the proliferation of wine and food pairing dinners, tastings, and classes in the gastrosphere.

What do you think of this debunking of pairings? Does Kramer’s argument have legs, or do you smell merde? Sorry for the punaliciousness.

Ici Enfin

Chowhounds like the subtle, delicate flavors of just-opened Ici ice cream–especially the wildflower honey ice cream, so fresh it tastes like it was made minutes ago, and the coconut sorbet, which is like eating coconut-flavored fresh snow. The ice creams are rich-textured and high in butterfat–something you can really bite into and chew on, says Morton the Mousse. Ice cream sandwiches are unusual and good–the “bread” of the chocolate and vanilla sandwich is a delicate bittersweet chocolate biscuit, which complements the ice cream perfectly. They also make a sandwich of raspberry ice cream on gingersnaps. The ginger flavor is extremely subtle and overwhelmed by the raspberry, but the sandwich itself is a miracle of ice cream sandwich engineering–the cookie is lightly crisp, but giving enough so that you can bite into it without all of the ice cream inside squishing out. They charge $2.50 for a small ice cream, $4.50 for a large, and $4 for a “wee” ice cream sandwich.

Be aware: the staff is dressed in spotless white chefs’ jackets, the ice cream is packed in stylish boxes, and samples are served on silver teaspoons. “If you have a tendency to use words like ‘precious’ about restaurants, maybe stick to Baskin Robbins,” says rworange.

Ici Ice Cream [East Bay]
2948 College Ave., Berkeley
510-665-6054
Map

Board Links
ICI, at last … ICI, at last … Sunday, ICI, at last
Berkeley–ICI … ICI … ICI … Finally here–too cute for words

Great New Issan Thai

New restaurant Zapp Zapp Noodle House serves Issan-style Thai food–instead of the “stoplight curries” (i.e., red, yellow, and green) typical of southern Thai cooking, they specialize in stuff like noodles, salads, and deep-fried beef jerky. Beef jerky is juicy inside, with intense sweet and spicy flavors. Chicken wings, pleasantly sweet and moist and smothered with fried basil, come highly recommended by chewonthis. Pad kee mao is full of crisp, sweet, perfectly done vegetables, including an abundance of tomatoes, bell peppers, cabbage, carrots, basil, and zucchini. Salads are intensely flavored, yet refreshing. And for dessert, have a perfectly fried banana served over ice cream, topped with a bit of honey.

Zapp Zapp Noodle House [East Bay]
843 San Pablo Ave., Albany
510-525-2791
Map

Board Links
Albany heads-up–Zapp Zapp Noodle House … Thai sausage, beef jerky … Issan influence?
Thai Restaurant Next Door–Zapp Zapp Noodle House (Albany)