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

Salt This Away

If you’ve ever wondered whether throwing down four bucks for a bag of fancy fleur de sel is worth it, wonder no longer: David Lebovitz makes an excellent case for the pricey crystals (which, he shows, are actually a decent bargain, considering how few of them it takes to salt a dish). His post gives a lovely account of his visit to the salt marshes of France’s Guerande region and the intriguingly complex filtration and harvesting process that goes into producing Fleur de Sel de Guerande—now his all-time fave salt.

It’s inspirational to hear tales like this, since I’ve always been utilitarian when it comes to salt: I’ll use kosher when a recipe calls for it explicitly, sea salt when I have dinner guests, and good ol’ Morton Iodized sprinkled liberally on everything else (largely due to my weird paranoia about developing a goiter). But apparently I’m not really in danger of iodine deficiency, and I love the idea of using a “finishing” salt on my tomatoes and chocolate mousses, just like they do in the restaurants.

One little beef, though: A few of David’s observations are overly gushy. It always makes me skeptical when writers bust out sentences like this one (and he has several of ‘em):

Although the words ‘fleur de sel’ have been bantered around and used as marketing tools for many salts being promoted (nowadays you find salts labeled as such from Portugal, Italy, and elsewhere) nowhere else on earth does the salt have the same fine flavor and delicate crystals of Fleur de Sel de Guerande.

“Nowhere else on earth” sounds a bit like PR copy to me; the post doesn’t have me convinced that he’s tried all of the competition worldwide (though certainly he’s sampled more than I have). If I were editing this piece for a magazine, I’d tone down the grand statements —but then again, bloggers have a lot more license in this arena than magazine writers do, and by and large this freedom makes for refreshingly honest reading.

Pennsylvania Is for Potato Chips (and Indonesian)!

Reading Terminal Market

I’m actually losing weight. I just consume microbites when doing this sort of chowconnaissance. The unfortuitous food combinations still leave me feeling vaguely queasy, as if I’ve overeaten, but my total calorie count’s pretty low. The Chowhound Diet.

Reading Terminal Market is a wonderful place, especially Wednesdays through Saturdays, when the Pennsylvania Dutch section is open. I mostly stuck to that area, because 1. the food looked best there, and 2. I wanted to get myself calibrated for my trip to Lancaster County.

MP3 file Hear a podcast.

Podcast notes:

1. Yes, I know it’s pronounced “Redding,” not “Reeding.”
2. My interview subject is, in case it’s not obvious, just this woman who sat down at the next table. That’s how the best chow tips are elicited. Obnoxiousness pays.

The woman in the podcast was right: LeBus Bakery makes wonderful onion rolls. She was right about everything else too.

Hot news: The potato chips at Glick’s Salad look homemade, packaged in unmarked bags. I said in the podcast that they looked like they were fried in vegetable oil rather than lard, but no. I tasted (read: ravaged) them and found them properly lardy (a lard-fried chip emits the bouquet of fried pork chops). And, hot news, I dragged out of the stand’s proprietor the fact that these are repackaged red-bag Good’s chips. To explain: Blue-bag Good’s and red-bag Good’s look similar, and are made by different parts of the same family, but the rivalry is fierce. I’ve long ago taken sides, prefering Ralph Good’s red-bag chips to Lewis Good’s blue. So the glorious upshot is that red-bag Good’s can be found in downtown Philly (albeit repackaged in unmarked bags).

Amish bagels!

Here is the fantastic rotisserie chicken from Dienner’s Bar-B-Q that I was swooning over in the podcast. The wings were stunning—bones shattered easily, yet the meat was consummately moist. Perfection!



Hear a concluding podcast (MP3 file) about the unforgettable smoky ribs from the Rib Stand.


... and also mentioning the great soft handmade buttery pretzels (and very good ice cream) from Fisher’s:


Tracking Wonderful Ena

I’ve been tracking a brilliant Indonesian chef named Ena for many years. I first found her cooking in the basement of the Indonesian Consulate, and the story of her gig there is too good not to tell. Here’s the review I wrote for a guidebook about 10 years ago:

The Cafeteria in the Indonesian Consulate
Atmosphere/Setting: You walk down the stately steps of the Indonesian consulate, into the building’s basement. Open the massive iron door, buzz to be admitted through another set of doors, pass a receptionist (tell her you’re there for lunch), go through still another door and head straight toward what appears to be a large closet. In the center of this closet there’s a single long table (covered with a cheap plastic cloth), at which dignified Indonesian men in suits are eating from paper plates. To the right, in a small alcove, a good-humored Indonesian woman is juggling dozens of pots and pans on her huge antique stove. The smell is positively hypnotizing. Tell her you want to try everything, and go have a seat at the table (grab some plastic utensils from the big central bucket and water from the water cooler) and await bliss.

House Specialties: The menu changes every day; you’ll be served tastes of five or six different things, all piled high on your plate. Luscious possibilities include chicken or fish in spicy peanut sauce, spicy potatoes, tempeh concoctions, a vegetable hodgepodge or other, and lots of perfectly cooked rice. The sole complaint is that the sambal (fiery Indonesian chutney) is usually commercial … but at least it’s a good brand.

Other Recommendations: There’s optional soup, for an extra buck (raising your tab to a whopping $6). Go for it.

Summary and Comments: Not only is this by far the finest Indonesian food in town (perhaps in the entire country), but it’s also a regional style (Sundanese) hard to find cooked this well even in Indonesia. The cuisine will please even skittish eaters; its exoticness lies in the spicing and condiments, while staples are relatively familiar (the chef does cook pretty spicy, but rarely does she apply serious heat as you’d find in, say, Thai restaurants). While nobody minds well-behaved outsiders stopping by, this lunchroom is not particularly seeking our business, either. Be patient about waiting for your food, and expect little in the way of coddling. Remember, this is not a Real Restaurant.

After that, Ena operated a quasilegal catering operation from her home in Queens, and was also, I’d heard, commuting to Philadelphia to run a secret place out there (serving the ever-growing community of Indonesian immigrants). The secret place has blossomed into a full-fledged restaurant, though you’d never know it from its anonymous position on an otherwise purely residential block.

Hardena Restaurant (1754 South Hicks Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-271-9442) is full of potfuls, panfuls, trayfuls, and steam tables full of Ena’s great cooking. She couldn’t cook only one thing at a time if she tried. I was almost delirious with happiness tearing through her adobos and vegetable patties and whatever else she piled onto my plate.

This place has been sort of discovered by the Philly food press, but they’re underrating it. Ena is one of the most talented chefs I know, and her restaurant is worth a drive from just about anywhere.


Pennsylvania Dutch Country (Lancaster County)

Then it was down to Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where I completely lost it while shopping at Yoder’s Country Market (14 South Tower Road, New Holland, Pennsylvania; 717-354-4748).

I couldn’t stop snapping photos of the snack food aisle, completely loaded as it was with a huge range of superb local pretzels and lard-fried potato chips, including nearly monumental supplies of both red-bag Good’s and blue-bag Good’s.





Just look at the beautiful variation in brownness among bags of Martin’s pretzels!

It’s downright surreal to see so many holy grail brands presented proudly, and in larger quantity than mainstream brands. It’s as startling as if a Truffaut film were to get top billing at a suburban multiplex. My pulse raced, my brow grew moist, and once I’d exhausted my camera’s flash, I compulsively loaded up a shopping cart with $30.17 worth of snack products:

I’ll assemble a tasting panel next week in North Carolina to work through this mother lode, so watch for my notes.

I ate dinner at Yoeder’s restaurant, near the market in the sprawling Yoder’s compound. Buffet’s the way to go here, and having been all riled up by potato chip shopping, I ate myself into a stupor. This is one of the rare Pennsylvania Dutch restaurants that’s patronized more by locals than by tourists, yet a lot of the food had the same tired-out, commercialized feeling as in the tourist meccas. This is a cuisine one must eat at home—or at church events. The hip church, I’m told, is Belleman’s Church (3650 Belleman’s Church Road, Mohrsville, Pennsylvania; 610-926-4280 or 610-916-1044), but my timing was off. No churches for me.

But along with exhausted greasy noodles and drab salads, Yoder’s did make a few real good things: great bacon salad dressing (quadruple your Lipitor tonight), very good rotisserie chicken, and a revelation: baked oatmeal, made from steel-cut oats and a recipe I need to try to re-create one day (after many return trips to try it again and again). They also do broasted chicken, a licensed term for chicken cooked on a type of frying equipment that was popular in the 1970s but seems to have disappeared everywhere but in this part of Pennsylvania. The fried chicken I tried had been sitting too long, but it’s my fault for dining at the ungodly hour of 7:30 p.m., just before closing. Damned city people …

No Gawking Allowed

Amateur food photographers beware: Superchef Gordon Ramsay is coming to New York City, and your digital cameras are not welcome in his restaurant.

Writing in The New York Times on the imminent arrival of Ramsay’s first eatery in New York City, Michael Ruhlman reports that the chef will not allow patrons to take photos of his dishes:

Mr. Ramsay described the food only as “very natural” and “very proper,” adding that any patron trying to take pictures of it would be banned.

“We’re not going to stand there and gawk,” he said.

Snap-happy bloggers have tried the patience of chefs on more than one occasion. Take Adam Roberts of The Amateur Gourmet, who has brandished his digital camera under disapproving eyes at Room 4 Dessert and Shopsin’s. Or regard the now legendary tangle between Jason Storch, who runs food blog D.C. Foodies, and Buck’s Fishing and Camping (discussed at length on eGullet).

So how should bloggers and other culinary camera buffs react to Ramsay’s photo ban?

On the one hand, it seems a wee bit disingenuous for a chef who has his own reality show to be pleading against “gawking” in his restaurant. On the other hand, you know that this ex-footballer could seriously kick any food blogger’s ass.

Who in their right mind would even consider going head-to-head, or camera-to-tongs as it were, against this guy?

Pixar Plating Up a Foodie Film

Animation studio Pixar is following their blockbuster films The Incredibles and Cars with the story of a Parisian-born foodie who can’t get enough of the gourmet nibbles — only problem, this foodie is a rat.

Ratatouille is set to release next summer but the trailer is already online and people are talking about the studio’s first foray into the world of food. Food blogs have picked up the news, as have film sites. Josh Tyler, on the site Cinema Blend, writes “If Pixar can make a movie about a bunch of lame looking cars fantastic, they should have no problem getting something great out of a script about a bunch of rats living in a restaurant.”

The story revolves around a rat named Rémy, who lives in a five-star Parisian restaurant and harbors dreams of becoming a chef. John Lasseter, CCO of Pixar, has been quoted as saying “it is a wonderful story about following your passions when all the world is against you. A rat to a kitchen is death; a kitchen to a rat is death.”

Directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles), the film will features the voices of Patton Oswalt, Brad Garrett, David Schwimmer, Brian Dennehy, and Janeane Garofalo and is set to release June 29, 2007.

Epitaph for a Neighborhood Bar

Manhattan User’s Guide, an online magazine and email newsletter for NYC culture, ran an essay today by an employee of the imminently closing P&G Cafe.

The P&G, which sits on the city’s Upper West Side, isn’t a particularly notable establishment. It’s been around since 1942 (not unusual for a New York City joint), but it’s never become a universally recognized fixture or celebrity hangout. Nonetheless, it was tremendously important to its regulars. Weekend bartender Mike Taranto nails the significance of the P&G in a short, heartfelt, workmanlike essay that transcends its immediate topic and turns into a love poem for the kind of “real” bar or restaurant that holds a neighborhood together.

I worked in a place where people celebrated the births of their children and grieved over the loss of their loved ones. I worked in a place that overflowed with joy when the home teams won. I worked in a place that stayed open through blizzards and blackouts. On that horrible day in September when hundreds of thousands of people walked north, we were there.

In a world where more and more bars and restaurants have a plastic facelessness, it’s bittersweet to read a funeral oration for a place that had something a little more soulful going on.

Nuthin’ in the Oven

Ivonne of the always-fun blog Cream Puffs in Venice has a bit of a problem: The baker-blogger is going to be without a stove (and therefore sans any normal baking routine) for a month. In a speedy outpouring of goodwill, scores of readers sent condolences, often accompanied by suggestions ranging from the useful (some baking can be done on the grill) to the useful-when-desperate (you can actually make cakes in the microwave) to the just-plain-wacky (pretend you’re Ukranian!).

This last one got me thinking about the time I spent in Paris during college, when my French roommate taught me to cook quiche, quatre-quarts, and all kinds of roasts and gratins using only a little countertop convection oven. Almost none of my friends there had “real” ovens, and yet as I remember they were all pretty consummate bakers. Are we Americans once again the odd ones out with our bigger-than-everyone-else’s-stuff stuff? Are full-sized ovens still a luxury for a lot of the world?

I would never (ever!) want to give up my gigantic gas oven now, but it would definitely be fun to experiment with raw desserts, campfire pastry , and slow-cooked baked goods—I once made a not-bad bread pudding and a tasty apple crisp for a Crock Pot dinner party. Anyone else had luck with oven-free baking? Hood-of-the-car cupcakes or sidewalk scones, anyone?

Stalking the Wily Richmond Hot Churro Guy

Freshly-fried, hot churros are worth waiting in line for–and the line for this little churro cart is often around the corner. The churros are made to order; some patience is required, but it’s completely worth the wait. The churros are long coils of dough, fried in oil, chopped up into pieces, dipped into cinnamon sugar, and double-bagged so you don’t burn your tender little fingers. As the sign says, they’re crispy outside, light inside. Five bucks gets you a huge order. rworange selflessly promises to go back for further research.

Hot Churro Guy [East Bay]
Intersection of MacDonald and Broadway, Richmond
Map

Board Links
Richmond–major find–The “hot churro” guy

Sweet Sashimi

It doesn’t look promising. The place is empty, the selection is limited, and the display cooler is so old that the glass is opaque–but don’t let that scare you off: you can get truly superior fish here. Bleuss mostly sells to restaurants, and selection varies. Stop in early and ask the guy in charge what he just got in. Sashimi-grade fish and organic meat are high quality and cheap, to the tune of $20 for four lobster claws and a pound of sashimi-grade halibut, says evangross. Daniel Duane became believer after being handed an absolutely gorgeous slab of sashimi-grade ahi, cut to order, for $8 a pound. “I’m rooting for this guy,” he says.

Bleuss Meat & Sashimi Market [Mission]
formerly Cicero Meats
235 Cortland Ave., San Francisco
415-647-4471
Locater

Board Links
Bleuss Meats update
Bleuss- New Fresh Fish Market in Bernal Heights

Greek Seafood Classics at Bayside’s Pelagos

Pelagos in Bayside shows a deft hand with seafood, which is fresh and simply prepared. “This is a good Greek fish house alternative to Astoria,” says ptkchow, who insists you try whole grilled black sea bass if it’s available; it’s flaky, sweet, and sparely seasoned with olive oil and lemon. Any whole fish is a good bet, but fried appetizers like smelt or light, tender squid are also unusually well made.

Beyond seafood, there’s a short list of meat courses–steak, lamb chops, etc.–and a wonderfully fresh Greek salad (the small one is plenty for two). “The food was amazing, service was warm and friendly,” reports exipny. “Pelagos gave me the feeling of a Greek taverna by the sea. It is a great addition to the Bayside area.”

Pelagos [Bayside]
38-11 Bell Blvd., at 38th Ave., Bayside, Queens
718-717-7202
Map

Board Links
Pelagos Seafood in bayside

Florence’s: Flavors of Home, West African Style, in Harlem

Florence’s is a cozy joint that serves spicy, satisfying chow from Ghana and Ivory Coast. An Ivorian braised fish dish, attieke poisson braisse, is a knockout, according to our first report, from Peter Cherches. It’s a whole tilapia topped with onions, tomatoes and peppers, and served with starchy attieke (fermented cassava) and wonderful, incendiary chile sauce.

As with other West African cuisines, expect plenty of soups and stews, and dishes featuring peanut sauces, fermented grains, and fufu (starchy mashes of cassava, plantain, and the like). A thick, long-cooked Ivorian okra stew, gombo, is smoky, slightly spicy, and a tad funky from dried shrimp. Peanut soup with goat can be bland, though the meat is tasty and not at all gamy. Among the appetizers, a Ghanaian street snack called kelewele–cubes of ripe plantain fried with chile, ginger, and other spices–is addictively delicious.

Service is friendly and helpful, and the Ghanaian family that owns the place sets a warm, inviting mood. “It was like being a guest in their home,” Peter marvels. “I want to hang out there again. I want to try everything on the menu. I want to take all my friends.”

Florence’s Restaurant [Harlem]
2099 Frederick Douglass Boulevard (between W. 113th and 114th streets), Manhattan
212-531-0387
Map

Board Links
Florence’s: Fabulous West African in Harlem