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AlexRast's Profile

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How do you buy corn?

I've found that consistently the best test, and one that doesn't involve peeling down at all (which I agree with others is poor form) is taking the base (i.e. above the stalk end) and grasping it firmly in the hand, as though holding a handle. The best is always the thickest, heaviest-feeling. The other things to look for are, no signs of deterioration on the top (no dryish silk or ragged-looking, splitting top husks) and a very white, milky stalk end (not dry or browning) If you smell the stalk and it has a fresh, vegetal smell that's a good sign.

Small kernels vs. large kernels in sweetcorn are, I suspect, a matter of preference on flavour vs texture. The big ones usually have more flavour and are generally sweeter if fresh (although much starchier if not particularly fresh) but at the expense of being somewhat tougher. The small ones have a "fresher", more vegetal flavour and are invariably tender but sweetness is usually less and they aren't as juicy. There are also arguments on yellow vs. white vs multi-coloured. What I've found is that the yellow seems to have the best flavour, white is more neutral which can give it the illusion of being sweeter but from my experience you can find varieties that are equally sweet in both colours, while the multicolour varieties, typically with some purple mixed in, have a flavour even when mature which is closer to very young, small, kernels, that is, more vegetal and fresher, not quite as sweet, although they are if anything tougher than mature yellow or white sweetcorn.

Aug 29, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Budapest - thoughts on the following?

I'm off to Budapest in mid-month; with somewhat limited time because of other engagements while there, so I won't have infinite flexibility about where I go when, but would appreciate some thoughts on the following.

1) A high priority is a really good place for traditional Hungarian. I've seen good reports on 21 Magyar Vendéglő, and it has the advantage of being close to my hotel. Is it a good choice for this goal? If so, how far in advance would I need to book? (Or is it already too late?). It would be very convenient for many reasons if they can fit me in late on Thursday, when I arrive (plane lands about 21:30, would like to see if a 22:30 or even 23:00 seating is even possible) but if not Sunday evening would be fine too.

2) There's a lot of discussion/praise of Borkonyha. What I want to know here is, how much of the glowing praise is related to the strength of the wine list? I'd be interested in going if it's worth the visit for the food, but on the other hand I'm *much less* interested if it's more the case of the food is quite good but what elevates it above its peers is really the wine list, for which eating is sort of a secondary associated activity. Onyx gets mentioned a lot in the same breath for seemingly obvious reasons, but how comparable are they in fact? I must admit also I am somewhat put off by a fairly strongly worded statement on Onyx' site indicating that kids are not welcome. Not that I have kids, mind you, but I take a dim view of people who take a dim view of kids. But maybe that's just a culture/language misunderstanding that I'm failing to appreciate. And are there any other names worth considering representing the best of modern Hungarian?

3) I will have limited time for lunch. What I need here are some decent places around Erzsébetváros that can provide good but not overly strongly-flavoured foods in a short time (including queueing, if it's only takeaway). Probably 1 hour or less total.

4) Finally, a place for the ultimate Rigó Jancsi. Quality of the chocolate they use is all-important here. If they use Rószavölgyi Csokoládé this is a major plus.

Aug 29, 2015
AlexRast in Europe

Does It Really Exist- Celery With Flavor?

Celery with flavour does exist - you just have to avoid the types that are a pale, washed-out green and have very thick stalks. The ones you want should have really quite thin stalks and be a bright, vibrant green. They will be firmer in texture when cutting and very much drier. Sometimes the centre of the stalk is hollow too. If they have all the leaves on that's a good sign.

If "WF" refers to Whole Foods Market then yes, their celery tends to be uniformly poor - at least to judge from what I've seen in (mostly) London, with a few visits in New York and Seattle.

There is one variety of celery, which has a much thicker, pithier core with a conical shape, that is a LOT more flavourful generally. It's invariably very green too and with very thin stalks indeed. I suspect this is a variety favoured by quality-conscious farmers.

Aug 23, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Which to choose for birthday dinner amongst these basically British choices?

Here's the (long) report on City Social.

Oh, btw PhilD, yes, I did realise where you were actually suggesting but it would seem rather silly to go all the way to London only to try a particular kind of beef just as readily available closer to home.

On to City Social.

Start with the atmosphere. Of course it would be difficult to argue with the view - perched halfway up Tower 42 (old NatWest Tower) and it must be said all the new City developments are exciting to look at, especially if you go as I did bridging the time between day and night so you see the change as the lights come on. On the other hand noise is a serious problem: this is obviously designed to be a "high-energy" place with all that entails. Conversation becomes a bit of a shouting match. So not recommended for a romantic evening or even for a fairly serious business lunch/dinner, although I get the feeling plenty of business lunches happen here anyway. The reconfiguration of the space from Rhodes 24 is successful and sleek, very much in keeping with the location.

Service has its highs and lows. On the one hand my waitress was unfailingly attentive and very much aware of where diners were in the meal at any given moment. On the other she seemed to have difficulty answering questions I had in regards to ingredients and presentation. I get the feeling she is a new hire but from a well-trained background. The rest of the staff flirted with the border of hovering a bit, nothing intrusive but I thought they could have been a bit more dignified. However in this age of "everybody serves everyone" it's nice to see somewhere holding on to the old pattern where you have a single waiter for the meal, by and large. The overall sensation was of people eager to help but not quite yet comfortable with the City Social system.

On to the food. Generally, I think they are doing a good deal better than the flagship Pollen Street Social, and this because it seems they have rightly put a priority on basic technique over playful concept. The latter is nice when it works, but when it comes at the expense of flavour, it just feels like somebody trying too hard. Whereas here my impression is of a kitchen staff at the top of their game, who know what they want to achieve.

I started with what was listed as "Pigs trotter and ham hock with crispy Lancashire black pudding, apple, and Madeira". This was a smashing success. The black pudding had been rolled into a thin crisp wrapping of ham, sort of a variant take on pigs in blankets. The trotter, meanwhile, had been transformed into tiny but intensely flavourful rissoles, with a crisp outer breading and a soft, succulent centre. Apple as expected came in julienned matchsticks but also less-expectedly as a jelly. I can't say the jelly was perfectly successful but the rest was a candidate for an iconic dish. I hope they keep it as a menu fixture.

Next I had a pasta: seafood linguini. Thoughtfully City Social offers 2 sizes, making it the sort of thing that's practical to order as a starter, as a main, or as a "primo" in the Italian style as I did. With this course I felt I was possibly unfairly biassed by a recent week spent in Sestri Levante (a resort town on the coast of Liguria). It's hard for somewhere like City Social to compete with pasta in its homeland with seafood straight off the boat in a culture that obsesses over this sort of stuff. In CS defence, however, the linguine was hand-made to perfection. I would quibble with the presentation; the linguine is placed neatly arranged in square in the centre, rather like a block of ramen, with the result that it was desperately hard to separate out strands; the fork tended to pick the whole mass up because it was so tangled. I'd also quibble with the choice of a cream-based sauce; it would probably have been better with a very basic oil and shellfish-stock sauce, which isn't to say the sauce wasn't excellent (it was), just that it could have been better - but memories of plates of pasta in Sestri Levante still linger too closely in my mind.

For a main, I flirted with an interesting-looking lamb option but ultimately settled upon that which, at the end of the day, I'd come here to test: a rib-eye steak. In harmony with the developing theme, the meat here was superb, a good deal better than many (good) steakhouses might have produced and with an evanescent smokey flavour too: they really do seem to be cooking over charcoal. I would say it was slightly overdone by my standards, bordering on medium-rare, but I also think with a relatively thin steak like this your timing has to be split-second and your judgement immaculate to really produce rare. Another factor may have been the age-old problem of describing doneness to the waitress. This is a problem I encounter not infrequently; it goes like this. Me: "I'd like the steak rare - about as rare as you can make it". Response: "We can make it blue if you want" Me: "If that means a centre that's actually COLD then no, not like that, but I don't want medium-rare either. Just so that the centre has been brought above room temperature". Usually that seems to generate confusion because it seems in some peoples' minds if the centre isn't stone COLD it's not rare, and the next level they can grasp above that is medium-rare. Minor quibbles aside though I did enjoy the steak and also the chips that came along, although in the one oversight from the kitchen it seems they'd forgotten my explicit request for a salad without vinegar. (Not in my view a fatal flaw; these things happen when things are moving fast).

And then finally to finish I got a chocolate tart with raspberry, rose and lychee. This was the other total success of the evening. Clearly their pastry chef has trained under William Curley - the style was almost signature Curley in every way. You got the eponymous tart on the bottom, raspberries alternating with lychees alternating with raspberry sorbet balls perched on the rim, the centre filled with raspberry-rose mousse, and on top a disc of dried raspberry and lychee. As a chocolate expert I will concede that there were better chocolates they could have used than Valrhona (almost certainly Manjari) for the tart: they ought to try it with a Pacari Tangara for example, but it was nonetheless one of the few times I've had a chocolate dessert at a restaurant that I thought truly satisfied on all counts. Meanwhile the raspberry sorbet I must particularly single out as being the best of its type I've ever had and I think in the tart they infused the ganache with rose which made for a lovely subtle flavour. Why can't all top-end restaurants produce pastries like this?

Overall then City Social is a restaurant that merits a place amongst the top tables of London - which it already does literally as it were. I will certainly return and even possibly make it another fixture. However, it feels like it's struggling a bit to find a position, in the sense that I can't come up with an occasion for which it seems particularly suitable. Certainly for example I won't be going there for my birthday, not because I wasn't delighted, but because the context was somehow wrong. It's a place you come to to focus on the food rather than on conversing with the people you're with. That in itself is commendable; I like to see a restaurant really putting food first, but it does mean that everyone in your party has to have a similar level of interest in the food itself. It almost feels mostly like the sort of place to take a friend coming into London who you know is "into" food, as an introduction to one part of the London "scene". And in that respect I think you can't find a better place.

Aug 21, 2015
AlexRast in U.K./Ireland

Which to choose for birthday dinner amongst these basically British choices?

Given that I'm within line-of-sight distance to Piccadilly Gardens schlepping into M'cr is instant - Hawksmoor is a short walk. One could write a short report about the steakhouse boom in the city centre; it's interesting how that's suddenly become a "big thing". Gaucho has been IMO always decent, sort of what you expect of a nice steakhouse in that price range without necessarily having aspirations to greatness. However the Argentine slant does give it a definable market position, something to distinguish it from the pack. I wonder how many of the new arrivals will still be here in 2 years?

Aug 16, 2015
AlexRast in U.K./Ireland

Having trouble getting right texture with homemade pasta

AA flour? What is that?

The ratio of eggs to flour will matter, as will the type of flour. Certainly you want a high-protein flour. For around 250 g flour I tend to start with around 200g of eggs and then add flour until the consistency is fairly firm before kneading. There is something to an "art" in getting the right amount; it's really when you can knead with your hands without them getting unduly sticky, but without the mix becoming crumbly.

Lumpy sounds probably underkneaded notwithstanding. You have to be fairly patient; it takes a while to work. I also wonder about the protein content of your flour; if it's a low-protein flour you may never get the desired characteristics.

Aug 16, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Which to choose for birthday dinner amongst these basically British choices?

So that's 2 people advising in essence not to go to London and instead stay at home in Manchester (Ramsbottom where Levanter is being within easy striking distance)

Add Levanter to my bucket list of places to visit sometime - just probably not this time. Hawksmoor are now in Manchester, have been meaning to try eventually.

But, in fact, I've always been sort of unimpressed with Hawksmoor, relative to the strength of their reputation. My impression over multiple visits is that it's merely a good steakhouse. By which I mean to say that, it's not that I'm expecting culinary creativity, but rather that for the reputation I'd expect a better steak. Theirs are very good; certainly above the level you'll find at most steakhouses, but not transcendent.

To put things into context, I've had a (much) better steak at Dinner, which isn't a steak specialist, than I've ever had at Hawksmoor. That's a far cry from saying I'm not delighted to go to Hawksmoor any time it's in the offing. It's to say that if I'm looking for ultimate beef, I know there is better to be had. (Finding it is another question of course).

For this occasion beef is, as noted, a priority, but not so absolute a priority that I wouldn't look at other attractive options.

In a twist of fate, by chance it turns out I'm in London a few days before for a meeting, and thought this is a good chance to do a recce on City Social. I'll post the report - and if it is likely to affect my subsequent choice - next week.

Aug 14, 2015
AlexRast in U.K./Ireland

Which to choose for birthday dinner amongst these basically British choices?

My birthday is coming up - I always like to celebrate with somewhere where beef is a primary attraction. If they also have good chocolate things on the puds menu so much the better. I take a small party - usually no more than about 4-5 (although one year it was 12) and I pay for everyone because after all, it's my party. Conveniently this means that others' budgetary considerations are not a factor.

A few things about my preferences, since for my birthday my prime consideration is choosing a place that *I* will like well enough to be convinced I couldn't have chosen a better spot.

1: The quality of the food is everything; neither service nor atmosphere nor location (nor price) are factors in any real sense.

2: I rate food quality much more according to ingredients and execution than I do concept or sophistication.

3: If there's one word frequently used in reviews that most closely correlates with restaurants I tend to like it's "institution".

4: As mentioned, I'm looking for beef - my favourite food of all, by far. A roast would be the ideal. Good steaks also well-received.

5: I'm looking mostly for cooking in the British tradition - this can include "Modern British".

6: None of these qualities are to be seen as fixed absolutes, or the only type of place I would like but it does help me to narrow the field.

This year I have an opportunity to be in London so wondering which of the following you would choose. (or somewhere else altogether? I'm very much open to alternative suggestions)

1) St. John. One of my fixtures and as you might guess from the list above the one that most consistently pleases. Ticks every box. But on the other hand I've been many times and it's not as if I'm not going to go again anyway, so it would be a somewhat conservative choice.

2) Dinner. Not everyone likes it but I have been very favourably impressed. But I'm haunted by a vague feeling I can possibly do better or at least more exciting; like St. John it feels a bit like a "safe" choice without being quite the total match-fit of the former.

3) Rules. See preference #3. Then again, when I've been I've never felt the commitment to quality was as high as the first 2 choices I've listed.

4) City Social. Have heard a lot of great things about it, and this may be the one place in London where location/atmosphere has enough impact even to be a factor. However I'm concerned given extremely disappointing experiences at Pollen Street Social. I felt the cooking at the latter was limp and entirely un-visceral in its experience. Couldn't see why people rave about it. But willing to give another Atherton venue a go; things can change with time and each restaurant is different. Social Eating club might be a consideration too but it loses to the City location on the atmosphere/location point.

5) Harwood Arms. Something of a random choice. I've never been and am counting essentially entirely on the strength of reviews. Don't know what I would find when I got there.

Aug 09, 2015
AlexRast in U.K./Ireland

Best airport restaurant/bar

Manchester? Where? T1, T2, or T3? I assume it's airside (most of the interesting things are). Not seen anything at MAN (and it's my home airport, so I go through it all the time) that really felt worth going to.

MUC has several reasonably interesting places in the European floor of B terminal. None of them can be called great by a long toss but at least the food they provide is edible. For example, the Dallmeyr isn't like the city centre one but it is worth stopping at.

HKG has several good restaurants. One really good Cantonese, can't remember the name unfortunately. Desperately expensive but it's worth it if you have a long transfer and aren't going to be able to get into the city.

Aug 08, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

La Pergola - Reservation Help

While I am no authority on the Roman scene, in fairness to the OP, although I agree with all respondents that there are many, many restaurants in Rome that are lovely in many ways, if they had their heart set on La Pergola, such comments probably seem like very cold comfort indeed. However, if the fact is that no places are available that's what the OP needs to accept - not all things are available all the time. So it's time to consider what other options may be worthy.

I must note on a personal level that I've not been to La Pergola, nor had any particular desire to do so. So as to style and quality I can't speak with the certainty borne of first-hand comparison. Still, my go-to restaurant, at that end of the market, in Rome, has become Il Pagliaccio, which I've found over repeat visits consistently to produce things evoking an incredible, visceral sense of pleasure that I can't forget. Other places at similar price points in Rome I've been a bit disappointed by. So that'd be my recommendation as a Plan B.

Jul 28, 2015
AlexRast in Italy

Bakers, help me deconstruct this double ganache cake

That's a whipped ganache - it's clear from the texture in the picture. Dead simple to make, merely melt the chocolate, beat cream, and slowly beat in the melted chocolate until the whole is smooth. It will be noted that if you actually wanted a non-whipped ganache this would be easy too using a springform pan; you'd just pour it into the pan (lined with greaseproof paper) and lay your cake layers onto it. Ganache has easily enough density to support the cake. Chill until solid then make your glaze. For whipped ganache, by the way, use a 1:1 ratio chocolate:cream.

The chocolate glaze probably also has a liquid sugar (glucose, generally) added to a straightforward ganache in order to enhance surface sheen and elasticity. You only need a small amount of glucose; don't overdo this! Start with another standard 1:1 ganache. 1:2 is almost sauce-like; it will not hold its shape well enough. By experimenting with ratios you can get a glaze that is almost gelatinous; there are some who in fact make the glaze like a sheet and then wrap it over the top. But a pour-over technique leads to a better finish. The one issue is you get only one chance to get it right, and thickness can be a problem unless you pour very evenly from the centre (make sure the top of your cake is absolutely level)! Straight edges, by the way, are the result of a pour-over in the cake pan, rather than with the cake unmoulded, or alternatively by smoothing with a palette knife around the sides.

I wouldn't call this a fudge cake. For that, the inter-cake layers ought to use a fudge technique, i.e. boiled milk, cream, and sugar. But terminology is rarely exact.

Jul 27, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

$500 on the line with a friend in a steak cook off

Some late comments, but here are my thoughts.

1) One key point here is whether the objective is to win in the absolute, or whether the objective is to discover whose style is better, in the eyes of a wider public. Of course it's easy to produce something that you prefer yourself - nothing like direct feedback. But cooking for others is equally about understanding what others prefer, and putting aside your own personal preferences. If the objective is the former, then adopting a tactical approach is possibly critical. If the objective is the latter, you need to be as true to your own vision as possible without using tactics that try to get inside the head of everyone else.

2) Presuming the objective is to win, and you have "independent" judges, take the time to find out what *they* prefer as a group, and discard any preconceived notions about what you think is good. People do have strong preferences which can't easily be overcome, nor is it useful to try if the objective is to win - do whatever your judges would prefer - even if it sounds ghastly to you. Of course some will want a very basic preparation, others will want something more elaborate. Doneness, meanwhile, is very much a personal preference and I would always cook a steak to the doneness my guests wanted, regardless of what *I* would like. There is no absolute standard of better or worse there.

3) Trying to second-guess what will enchant or delight guests, without asking them, is asking for trouble. Usually you only end up replicating what *you* would like rather than what other people prefer. You can easily end up outmanoeuvreing yourself. An especially dangerous tactic is trying to "fool" people into thinking they won't like something and hope that they'll actually love it. In the first case the effect of expectation has a strong influence on taste priming, i.e. if they expect a bad result that's probably what they'll taste. In the second many people may realise what's been attempted and resent what they see as an attempt at emotional manipulation, thus you might lose even if you "won" if you were to get the actual truth out of people - they might not be prepared to admit it. As a result I wouldn't make any assumptions about how any of the ideas you've come up with would be received. I'd either ask, or treat the whole as an exercise in understanding how my style is perceived by others, and not worry about winning per se.

4) On not saying they didn't like a rare steak, this would be a very difficult assertion to test because virtually everyone will be sufficiently polite to say they liked what you made even if they didn't actually. You'd have to find someone unusually willing to be totally frank and unafraid of causing offence to find out the real truth.

5) Finally, if I were truly in this myself, I would personally prefer the very simplest preparation possible that maximised the quality of the meat itself. It wouldn't be good enough for me to get any steak - I'd research exhaustively until I found the finest farm and butcher that was practicably available. Then I'd hand-select the meat itself, based on personal visual inspection - each piece would be so treated (i.e. not "I'd like 8 steaks please", but "I'd like that steak. And that one. And that one..." etc). I would also make sure if I'd not had meat from that particular source before, to try it for myself and make sure it really was up to snuff. From my own point of view I much prefer the sirloin (US New York Strip) - centre cut, halfway between the rib end and the rump end. However I'd make sure that others who like a different cut were suitably accommodated. It would be intensively marbled, with a truly "scrambled-grain" look to it although my experience of true Kobe beef is it's a bit over-the-top. I personally prefer the UK style grass-fed flavour. Definitely dry-aged. Usually I find steaks are best done in large pieces rather than individually, but equally that could depend upon availability. A whole sirloin would be splendid. I would use a proper charcoal barbeque at very high heat and with a solid cast-iron grille so that the meat gets a good sear. Started without any petrol-based firestarter so no flavour contamination. Nothing added whatsoever. Each steak would be done exactly to each person's preference; I would impose no style choices upon anyone. Also sized per preference for the same reason. This obviously leans more towards your "#2" option overall - the critical point being the absolute ruthlessness in selecting the very best meat quality possible, regardless of price. It will be noted that steaks are (in my opinion) better NOT flame grilled, but cooked over charcoal that is fully red but not flaming - the flames will burn the outside.

Jul 27, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Ground Beef: Are my taste buds getting too old, or does Ground Beef have little taste compared to apprx 20 years ago?

I think one needs to be very careful not to assume any single factor can account entirely for a phenomenon.

As mentioned, sense of taste/smell does tend to decline with age, but it must be remembered that this decline is dependent itself on the person, their environmental factors, genetics, profession, etc. It also depends upon their base starting point. So a person who was, from young age, a very sensitive taster, then grew up to become a professional food taster, would likely in later life have very different sensitivities to someone who started out relatively insensitive, and grew up to become a smoking tarmac-paver.

A second contributing factor to perceived decline in flavour is the effect of memory, which tends to exaggerate experiences of the past - it has to increase the contrast in order for the memory to be retained well. The sentimental memories we have of foods as a child are actually probably quite distorted from how good they really were - hence why revisiting old favourites years later can often be profoundly disappointing.

But at the same time one can't discount the trend in modern food processing towards enhanced shelf life, disease resistance, visual perfection, etc. etc. etc. sometimes at the expense of flavour. It's best to say modern food processing opts for a compromise between these factors rather than strictly maximising taste. Not that this was different, necessarily, in the past but the demand for longer shelf life and transport ruggedness is greater than it has been in the past. There are also more and more accelerated methods of bringing food to market, as mentioned, each of which can adversely affect the overall flavour.

In addition, one must keep in mind that the available scientific studies are often heavily imbalanced towards those qualities valued by producers - such as e.g. shelf life or disease resistance - because they are the ones funding the studies. In such studies flavour is often optimised within pre-specified constraints involving the other factors - which puts upper limits on what can be achieved. Note here that there's nothing wrong with the *science* - the studies themselves aren't flawed in the sense of method introducing bias towards a particular outcome; the problem is in the choice of what subjects even to study, which means that the volume of research in some areas is much greater than in others. For instance, in a subject I know considerable about, chocolate, the research studies are heavily concentrated on bulk cacao from e.g. the Ivory Coast or Ghana - source material that intrinsically is only capable of so much flavour. Very few studies examine systematically flavour in truly fine flavour cacao, and even those that do are often targetted towards the low-end, high-volume part of the "fine flavour" market. So as a result in chocolate, as in other food products, you'll get very little scientific backing for any suggestion that flavour is declining, simply because the research doesn't exist. This is a powerful reminder that lack of data does not necessarily indicate lack of effect, and also that one must understand the economic and political arena in which science operates.

It would be, I think, hard to argue convincingly that modern industrial practices haven't resulted in at least some erosion of flavour, and in any case the comparison can't be made because we can't travel into the past and make an A-B comparison. But equally I think it would be hard to argue that one's sentimental recollections of how good things "used to be" are probably not exaggerated to some degree by the effects of memory. Notwithstanding I don't think the presence of the latter should be used as a reason to justify not taking any action against the possibility of the former; I do think people need to start demanding higher-quality flavour, but just as importantly, start being willing to pay the much higher prices that that will inevitably entail.

Jul 09, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

What are some ingredients you don't like to use?

Remember though that traditional soda bread doesn't have fruit in it anyway. There's fruity soda bread, to be sure, but the basic thing is just a plain bread, no raisins, no currants, nothing.

On currants generally, if they taste like pebbles, maybe they're not very fresh. Currants have a MUCH sweeter and more intense flavour than ordinary raisins. But if they're old, then they much more quickly become flavourless, and they also tend to absorb odours from the cupboard (don't put them, e.g., next to the cinnamon)

Jul 08, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

What are some ingredients you don't like to use?

Speaking of which, one I do particularly detest, and they seem to be strangely ubiquitous, is sultanas. It's the problem of texture vs. insipidity. Very little flavour for a mushy texture.

Jul 08, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

What are some ingredients you don't like to use?

Broccoli very definitely tastes sulphuric, as does Bok Choy. I probably have some sort of genetic sensitivity to it; it definitely seems to affect me much more than most.

There are known genetic sensitivities to e.g. coriander leaf (cilantro) and green peppers, so it's not surprising some people react very badly to them. I suspect the number of foods with specific sensitivities is probably a lot higher than people have long imagined. It's not just unadventurous or fussy kids turning up their noses at unfamiliar things on the plate; they may genuinely NOT like it, in a way you genuinely cannot sense.

Jul 08, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

What are some ingredients you don't like to use?

Strangely, onions. I've found that for my own tastes, somehow in most cases the same dish made without onions tastes somehow better than one with. Cleaner, more well-defined flavours generally. I've nothing against onions, and there are some dishes for which the onion flavour is central - those I'll use them. But for a lot of stews, soups, etc. etc. where onions are being used as an aromatic they seem to me to add nothing and take away quite a bit.

Coriander seed. I love coriander leaf and use it quite a bit. But coriander seed I dislike and avoid to the extent of edging away from recipes/dishes where it features prominently.

Cruciferous vegetables. For me the sulphur taste is just overpowering, and it doesn't seem to matter how delicately they're cooked.

Jul 07, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Things you can't get in the UK

Unsweetened chocolate is trivially easy to find - just walk into any Hotel Chocolat (almost ubiquitous now) and you will find not one but several options - some of them considerably better than Ghirardelli.

Some shops also sell the better-still Pacari 100%, which if you're willing to search for will reconfigure your thinking regarding chocolate quite generally.

Maple syrup, meanwhile, is easy to find in "heath-food"-orientated shops; several brands available (mostly Canadian).

As mentioned, there is a dwindling list of things available elsewhere in the world that are not available easily in the UK. Perhaps one of the few North American ones that I can think of readily is corn syrup. We have golden syrup here, but that's somewhat different. (Then again, I'm at something of a loss to think what one would *really* do with corn syrup)

Mexican is still somewhat "exotic", for example tamales aren't something I regularly encounter, at least not for take-home use, but they are to be found occasionally. Not easy though to send anywhere.

Jul 04, 2015
AlexRast in U.K./Ireland

8hr Layover in Amsterdam

For breakfast there are 2 obvious options:

Gartine, Taksteeg 7. Lovely people, lovely atmosphere, lovely food. If you can book or get there early because they fill fast and the place is tiny.

De Bakkerswinkel, Warmoesstraat 69. It's good for breakfast; the bread is easily the best in the city, nice cakes too, relaxed atmosphere. Some people may complain it's got too many tourists but this is a general theme in the city centre anyway. You can also go there for lunch.

For lunch my fixture is T'Kuyltje, Gasthuismolensteeg 9. Absolutely world-class sandwiches. The selection of fillings is awe-inspiring. Very little seating to speak of, but walking out and eating by the canal is equally pleasant, at least if the weather is reasonably clement.

Jul 04, 2015
AlexRast in Europe

My review on Michelin 3 Star and other restaurants after taking a "tour" for a month

Not been to Per Se, on the strength of a fair volume of negative criticism. While I'm not one to take negative criticism naively at face value, it did seem in this case as though perhaps there was a risk of spending a lot of money on a possibly disappointing meal. I like your idea of trying first with the Salon. A good de-risking exercise.

Will definitely try one of the scallop dishes (assuming one is on offer when I go - menus rotate all the time) because scallops are one of my very favourite things at all. And a superb test of the kitchen's skills - they're easy to get wrong in many ways.

Yes, Peter Luger isn't the kind of place I'd expect you'd go, based on your indifference towards meat. It really is all about the meat there. And really, it's a very different type of experience altogether.

Jul 03, 2015
AlexRast in Manhattan

Won't be returning to Per Se

Sorry, it would seem this last post by me was confusing (at least to judge by the responses received) Let me try to explain a little better.

First I should note that I am emphatically NOT saying that in the USA the amount of tip is *entirely* discretionary starting at $0. It is most certainly not the European model. The unofficial "rule of thumb" - as I understand it - has been that it is customary to tip *at least* a certain minimum percent of the total bill, which in the past had been about 15% but now is drifting up to 20% - or more. You can always tip more if you think the service was exceptional but tipping significantly less is generally only justifiable if there were severe service faults too egregious to let pass - and even then, having a word with the manager first is courteous policy.

However, my point isn't actually about the amount you choose to tip (and certainly not about trying to cut costs by meagre tipping). My point is about the reason you use to justify your tip. And the point here is that you, as the customer, don't have a positive moral duty to take it upon yourself to be personally responsible by yourself for the livelihood of your waiter. You don't have the obligation to make some sort of calculation of hypothetical income lost by virtue of being a smaller party than the maximum (or even than the typical) number that could have sat at the table you occupy. That computation has already been made at some level by the restaurant and the waiter, and if they have chosen to accept you, and serve you, it's fair to tip them according to customary tipping percentages, with the option to tip more generously at your discretion. They have already decided for whatever reason that your custom is worth whatever they can expect (it will be noted that this is one reason, if you're a regular, to tip generously). If a restaurant decides that seating one customer simply isn't a good value proposition (as Per Se appears to have done) they can choose to turn away single diners - possibly at some loss of goodwill which will have to be factored in as well. Whatever the case though, that's not a computation it's your moral obligation to make.

(By the way, yes, I've been a waiter, albeit a long time ago and in possibly different circumstances, and I certainly would have thought the same then as now).

Now some may argue that waiters are in a position where they have little choice but to accept what restaurant managers give them in terms of tables, but these are issues of fair labour practice and social justice that are much deeper than anything tipping policy could influence or change.

So again, my point is NOT about the actual amount you tip. My point is, the reason to tip generously, i.e. considerably above the amount considered "customary", should not be because of some feeling of moral obligation but rather as a matter of personal choice, unfettered by (meaningless) speculative calculations about how much money a given waiter "could" have made.

Jul 01, 2015
AlexRast in Manhattan

My review on Michelin 3 Star and other restaurants after taking a "tour" for a month

An awe-inspiringly comprehensive set of reviews. I'm inspired to go to Per Se next time in spite of some negative comments I've seen on the site.

Based on my own experience, I have to say your comment on EMP:

"Actually, this one reviewer had advised me against going to Eleven Madison Park, unless I like "fun stuff". He said most likely, I will be disappointed, if I am looking for a very delicious meal. Guess what? I couldn't agree with him more."

is absolutely spot-on. A perfect encapsulation of the whole experience. I posted a rather mixed review on my return and ended up rather mystified why some people thought of EMP so highly until someone pointed out that a lot of people go to ultra-high-end restaurants for "food entertainment" rather than necessarily for the quality of the food taken as an absolute. That's probably a factor going on here.

My critical test of greatness in food is that it's got to evoke that visceral, purely sensory "Oh God..." reaction when you taste it. It's got to be good enough to have you groaning (or at least wanting to). A good example of that for me in NYC is Peter Luger - the steaks absolutely deliver on the promise, every time. Can you indicate whether that sort of description applies to Per Se?

Jun 30, 2015
AlexRast in Manhattan

Won't be returning to Per Se

No, I quite understand the tipping model in the USA. From the point of view of the computation, that doesn't really change anything fundamental about the nature of "large average" or "small average" tip - nor in fact about how the variability of tips is factored into profit considerations for the restaurant or take-home-pay considerations for the waiters - it just adds a fixed offset onto what is essentially noise. As to why the model has become the way it has - I'd guess almost certainly it has to do with how taxes are structured in the USA, and to do it any other way might heavily penalise both restaurant and staff, or might involve onerous reporting requirements.

The point is, both the restaurant and the waiter have computed (even if only on the back of an envelope) whether the average amount they're getting is enough to survive or do well on - and the impact of a single table on that is insignificant, or at least *should be*, because if it isn't the restaurant will go out of business soon since they're not getting enough business for the tips to average out statistically. In other words, if a waiter really could be made or broken based on the composition or order of a single person then they have much bigger problems to worry about anyway - and probably should be looking for another job!

But in any case, that's not the *customer's* responsibility to be managing. You don't have to make any specific allowance in your head for an imagined shortfall on the waiter's part because of your one small order; if they've got a good distribution of tables that will be entirely evened out by other tables' orders. And in fact an intelligent front-of-house will be managing tables between their staff so that each gets a uniform distribution. If you *want* to tip heavily because you think the service was excellent then that's perfectly fine but you don't need to feel like you have some sort of charitable duty to do it. Or put another way, if you really are charitably inclined (which is a perfectly noble sentiment) that money might just as productively be put to use giving to actual "charities". The restaurant and the staff are in this as a business proposition, they know the business and their livelihood stands or falls on the satisfaction of the customer and while their heart may be warmed by the thought that you are thinking of them, they don't need that in order to make ends meet. The single diner doesn't have to make any sort of extraordinary compensation; they're not accepting you grudgingly or as some sort of personal favour.

Jun 30, 2015
AlexRast in Manhattan

Saas Fee, Zermatt: Good, no-booking-required, informal places?

I'm wondering if anybody has good ideas in Saas Fee and Zermatt for a specific type of situation.

A group of us are going there to do alpine climbing. We'll be spending a week in the Alps. Most of this will be in high-level Alpine huts (half-board standard, i.e. breakfast/dinner) but we will have at least one dinner in Saas Fee and one lunch in either Saas Fee or Zermatt, plus possibly one other lunch in Saas Fee.

Since we're moving through the mountains (and climbing them), we'll be maybe rather scruffy-looking and certainly rucsac-equipped, although that will, I know, bat no eyelids in many places in both of the 2 villages. However because we'll be climbing, there are no hard-and-fast certainties about what time we'd be able to arrive anywhere, so booking isn't practical. Nor are restaurants situated at any considerable distance from the village centre.

For similar reasons we'll want to eat fairly heartily: substantive meals are a definite must! If they do local cuisine that is a plus, particularly if it's also an atmospheric place. It shouldn't be especially expensive although none of us will be averse to paying somewhat over the odds relative to what's on offer. While we won't be under any particular time pressure, and probably indeed in a mood to relax, our time isn't going to be so unconstrained that we won't appreciate efficient, prompt service. We'll definitely want somewhere we can sit down - and not on public benches or steps. They need to be open in the summertime, not winter-only restaurants since we go near the end of July. At least one of the days involved is a Sunday.

One of the party can't have cheese (although interestingly can have other dairy) so cheese-centric restaurants (e.g. fondue) are probably not going to go down well. What we do want is somewhere that actually has *good* food, somewhere that puts an effort into quality, not just somewhere expedient. Part of the potential trouble I see with the restaurant profile I've just outlined is that it's precisely in the "sweet spot" for the typical tourist trap which serves utterly mediocre and unmemorable meals without any particular regard for the enjoyment of their customers.

If anyone has some good suggestions please reply.

Jun 26, 2015
AlexRast in Europe

Won't be returning to Per Se

I think a tip should always be optional and at the customer's discretion. What the customer feels is an appropriate amount should largely be their own choice.

I say "largely" because the theory of tipping, at least, is it provides the restaurant with some sort of direct feedback as to how well they're doing in terms of service. Large average tip => good service. Small average tip => bad service. That's useful for the restaurant and also provides a dignified way for a customer to express appreciation or dissatisfaction without too much fuss.

But as for servers being "penalized", that's the restaurant's job to manage. I think it's very creditable for you to be thinking kindly towards the people who serve you, but at the same time remember that the considerations of how many diners they are and what they're tipping have already been factored into the restaurant's calculations - and the server's, too. They know how much they can expect and also know that there are good days and bad - it evens out by the laws of statistics. So you needn't feel that the servers are being specifically penalised.

However, there are other rewards besides financial ones! If the servers know you as a regular, they probably think of you at some level as a friend. Those are benefits to them that can't be measured in terms of take-home pay. And if you tell them what dishes they're doing well and which could be improved, they'll also appreciate that. So yes, tip, but don't think of it as a sort of "moral obligation". You're not imposing any penalty on the restaurant with your presence.

Jun 26, 2015
AlexRast in Manhattan

Tempering the Beast of Homemade Dark Chocolate

The maple syrup is definitely preventing hardening. Coconut sugar, by the way, doesn't improve things as much as you might like - it will still produce a softish, slightly plastic bar. Basically, there's no real substitute for pure crystalline sugar, when making chocolate. You'll find in fact, if you try blending it in at home, that this doesn't work, because it makes the chocolate very grainy. Even using cocoa powder, you're probably finding your finished confection somewhat grainy and not perfectly smooth.

That's because actually making chocolate from scratch is a thoroughly industrial process that requires specialist machinery - or the patience to rig up your own machinery at home and use it. Everything needs to be milled to a very find particle size (20 micron or less) and almost all home equipment just won't do that. After that it would need to be conched; that requires its own machine. The Cocoa Town machine is the most practical one you can get for a home setting; it produces a decent chocolate, used carefully, but still is a specialist piece of kit. I can't emphasise enough though that the style of chocolate we have and are used to, even at the highest quality level, is the product of a refined industrial process and so if the aim is something "minimally processed" you may get something you're satisfied with but it will NOT have the snap of a classic chocolate bar.

It should be noted that "making chocolate" using cacao powder and butter isn't *really* making chocolate in the true sense - it's closer to "reconstituting chocolate". Most cocoa powders also use rather low-grade cacao beans so you're not usually getting the best result you could.

USA heavy cream vs UK double cream

Not clear what you mean by Polish, German, or Albanian not being an ethnicity. Can you clarify what you meant here?

Meanwhile I suspect perhaps by Eastern Europe what is probably meant is "Slav" - which could be said in some respects an ethnicity, derived from a common root, albeit with diverging traditions that make Slav now a group of ethnicities. My experience though is that a lot of modern ethnic groups in the Slav line do use dairy including milk and cream very extensively, as do the Germans for that matter.

May 21, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

A good way to evaluate restaurants?

Unfortunately in this day and age even queueing and crowds are susceptible to cynical manipulation. The tactics:

1) Accept no bookings.
2) Have a limited number of tables.
3) Use service techniques that specifically slow things down.
4) Aggressively promote yourself on social media.

None of these methods are necessarily bad in and of themselves, but carefully exploited, they can lead to places being perceived as something far better than what they are. Lots of these, by the way, are used by "hole-in-the-wall" establishments, and you have to be careful even there because some places will deliberately cultivate a "hole-in-the-wall" atmosphere to make it seem more genuine.

I can think of several such places in London, and the trend has even reached Manchester.

However I personally disagree with genoO: tell EVERYONE when you do find a gold mine. Good places are often marginal enterprises and if you don't let people know, they may abruptly shut because they weren't getting the business they needed to survive.

May 18, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

USA heavy cream vs UK double cream

If you've had "clotted cream" which is "a little runny" or of the consistency of "crème brulée then that sounds like you've not had clotted cream. That sounds more like "thick double cream" - in the UK you can get "ordinary" double cream which is pourable, and "thick" double cream which is more spoonable - and has the consistency you describe.

Actual clotted cream is really quite solid; if you spoon it it will NOT subside or reflow or jiggle in any way. It's spreadable.

May 18, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Scientific Methods Misapplied to the Evaluation of Cuisine

It seem to me that the crux of the matter - not yet directly indicated by anyone that I can see - is this:

When it comes to the appreciation of food *quality*, there is at least a broad consensus that emerges about particular dishes, restaurants, preparation methods etc. It may not be universal but the trend is clear. This suggests there is something "objective" about taste (even though taste itself is a subjective sense) that could potentially be separated from the purely subjective experience - that part which is uniquely personal to the individual and would be expected to vary as much as they. This to many suggests science be applied to tease out what these "objective" characteristics are.

Maybe you could do that - there are now powerful statistical methods that you could use to get some patterns in the data, although at this point the theory is still far from being able to make specific claims as to exact *causal* relationships, and as such can only give an empirical explanation; this is different from a complete theory of taste, food preparation, or anything else. Which means to say such systems might be able to give you an ex post facto judgement on the (predicted) quality of something but could not give you a forward model for how to produce a quality version of X - whether X is a steak, a chocolate cake, or a complex nouvelle cuisine creation. Thus all the analysis about ingredient ratios, equipment, etc. will only tell you what you have, not what you want. Like a lot of science it isn't particularly informative with respect to emotional reaction.

As a result I'm not convinced applying "science" to evaluate cuisine adds much - certainly very little beyond what a panel of reasonably-trained judges could do for you anyway. Meanwhile you can certainly apply formal techniques in the kitchen such as measurement, recipe design etc. that use methods common in science but do not mistake this FOR science: this is discipline. That science also uses a disciplined approach is merely a consequence of discipline being a generally useful methodology.

At the same time I don't think that taste is so personally subjective we can't make definite decisions about such-and-such being better than so-and-so - you can, potentially, and with clear variation amongst individual reactions, make a form of "objective" judgement on quality and even perhaps on how that is to be achieved but you can't treat it as an absolute statement, merely as a series of general principles - which, are, in the main, those that have been understood for centuries and taught in culinary schools everywhere.

May 17, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics