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AlexRast's Profile

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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
1

$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
1

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
1

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
1

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

Rome report: May 2015

As usual on my way back from a workshop in my field, held in Sardinia, I spent a few days in Rome to collapse and recharge. A mix of old and new places visited.

The old:

For breakfasts, I went every day to Cristalli di Zucchero. The more I try it, the more I convince myself that you absolutely cannot do better for a cornetto. I personally have a soft spot for the crema ones, but they're all good; the technical execution is flawless; these are impossibly light, not the sock-like consistency industrial ones you find in so many caffes. While at it, I tried 2 chocolate cakes. One (Catalana) was a mousse cake with hazelnut and pastry cream. Awe-inspiring. The mousse had good strong flavour and the cream (as usual) was simply perfect. Cakes in this style aren't always my favourite but here I can appreciate why people love them. The other was a gianduja cake with raspberry. Can't say this one was as good - the flavour seemed a bit bland and unremarkable. Looks like the Catalana is now my fixture for chocolate cake in Rome.

Then there was Armando al Pantheon for a lunch. What need really be said about a Roman institution which continues to delight with each passing year? A mild remodel of the decor spiffs up the interior just a bit, but it's the same relaxing style, and with service that really is the epitome of graciousness. I must give a special hat-tip to the telephone staff taking my booking; in marked contrast to the often somewhat surly people in other Roman restaurants, the reply over the phone here is genuinely cheerful and welcoming. Why can't more places be like this. As for the food - as usual, lovely. I started with porchetta, decadently fatty (without being excessive) and full of flavour. Next a simple spagetti aglio e olio showed how even a simple dish can be elevated; as per the menu they put a little peperoncino in there and the result excites the tongue. Trattoria dining at its most classic. For a secondo, they had a sausage special, and I, for one, have never met a sausage I didn't like. So it went. Simply served on a generous bed of chicory, the sausages were cooked to moist plumpness, again, with full flavour, like you would idealise sausage in a restaurant to be like - yet so often are disappointed by. In fact, my only disappointment is not having room for a pudding - they had some lovely looking ones on offer - but after the sausage I'd reached the breaking point. One really has to sympathise with the staff who have to turn away inevitably many tourists who show up without a booking and hoping to be seated; I don't know how one could win in this situation; clearly they don't want to have to turn people away but here is a place that could book its capacity many times over each day.

For another lunch I went violently upscale - to celebrate major success at the workshop, and visited another "old friend": Il Pagliaccio. Like Armando, they've done a minor refit of the decor; a little less playful, a little more dignified. Service has improved that notch; if last time there was still a whiff of stiff formality this time I think they got the balance right between professionalism and personability. As usual they present a menu with difficult choices between good-sounding options, but in the end I went for seppia, sausage, broad beans and pear as a starter, ravioli filled with ossobucco as a primo, and pork, carrots, and radish salad as a secondo, with "strawberries and cream" as a dessert. This proved to be a parade of hits that emphasised relentless freshness and ingredients.

The seppia was the all-round highlight. Some dishes you'll remember for the rest of your life; this was one of them. Particularly the broad beans were impossibly fresh but so for that matter was the pear, and as for the seppia itself, artfully slitted and rolled into a cylinder that looked like a gear, they'd mastered the art of making the most of the texture while delivering the flavour. A dish that sung of spring. Il Pagliaccio has always impressed with the paste and yet again those ravioli didn't disappoint, with an ossobucco flavour that stood out in its richness; truly decadent. The ravioli themselves were of a beautiful supple consistency, another dish that will live in my memory for a long time. On to the pork which was very nice - I can still visualise it now - but it will be said not quite the equal to Marco Stabile's iconic "maiale morbido croccante" which still sets my Italian reference. However this was in part made up for again by the relentless freshness of the salad which wasn't over-fussed. Carrots could have been a bit better but it is getting a bit late for the best ones. Then finally we reach the pudding. OK, on the one hand the strawberries - proper fragolini - were decisively the best I've had in Rome at a time of year when this is THE thing to have. On the other I have to be honest and say, I've never quite got why people gush over Marion Lichtle. The cream - a straightforward panna cotta - was well executed but at the end of the day panna cotta is what it is. An accompanying rice biscuit and tonic-water granita just seemed incidental; they added nothing, really. Being truthful, I would say just give me a bowl of those fragolini with lots of panna on top and I would have been just as happy. Also being truthful in terms of concept and execution, Cristalli di Zucchero does a better job in pastries, at least as far as I've seen. Not that these at Il Pagliaccio are bad; on the contrary they're first-rate, but somehow they always seem mildly disappointing in the context of the savoury dishes which (as above) are consistently sublime. Theoretically, people say La Pergola is better still. From my experience I find that hard to believe - indeed, I find it hard to believe that ANY restaurant anywhere could consistently do any better than this. About the only thing La Pergola could do to be better is have better puddings - and as I understand it they're not the basis of *their* reputation. I still give Il Pagliaccio my emphatic vote as the best restaurant in Rome - and a perfect place for a celebration.

And then finally for dinner on the night of the Il Pagliaccio day I went to Da Baffetto. Really this is more about the Reliable Standby than the Dining Excellence visit. Pizze as usual creditable (I got 2: Marinara and Prosciutto e Funghi) although nothing to write home about. My only regret though is that the gorgeous single Italian woman I was seated with (to make a table of 2) I got little time to converse with as an adjacent American (it will be said, pleasant company) rather monopolised the talk.

The new:

I'd planned on a few more visits than actually happened, because halfway through the trip I got violently sick, but did manage to visit 2:

Osteria La Gensola. In actual fact, I'd been planning on going to Piperno but they were solidly booked and La Gensola are suitably nearby. Picturesque location. As many will know there is a Sicilian slant to the menu - all the more reason in my eyes to lean towards fish. I started with an amberjack carpaccio (they had a tuna one as well but as I understand it tuna is not in prime season) which was a nice, and unusual, way to begin. You couldn't fault the freshness of the fish, very nicely done, although to be honest I might have wished for something a bit more exciting on the flavour. No such troubles with the primo - a spaghetti with pine nuts and raisins, not what you usually think of but densely buttery and decadent. Slightly overcooked pasta, though, in comparison to Armando. For a second I continued the chicory blitz with anchovies over chicory. The anchovies were super-crispy and flavourful, though the chicory I felt was a bit over-oiled compared to the Armando version of the same thing with sausages. Still, this felt like the highlight of the evening. I finished with a chocolate torte, which sounded as though it could be good but turned out to be a rather disappointingly sweet version of a chocolate moelleux; would that it had been more chocolatey. Still, the meal was perfectly fine and would have been a satisfying evening had it not been for the service which was simply shambolic. The staff mean well and are very friendly, but couldn't seem to decide who was to take my order or what I ordered, forgot bread for a while, and generally seemed as though they were dealing with several unexpected panics. Maybe it was just a bad day - these things happen. But for a restaurant about which I've heard good things I think the overall impression I left with is "it was good to try but I don't think I'll be returning any time soon".

Pizzarium. Distance from the centre is a factor, although of course it's easy enough on the Metropolitana. Finally got out there after years of meaning to. Not surprisingly, this is of entirely another calibre from Da Baffetto, and with friendlier service as well. As soon as I walked in I saw what I wanted: a pizza with chicory and culatello, tomato sauce, no cheese. And what I can say is - superb. Soft, satisfying pizza with the flavours (and prime ingredients) really showing through, a great spot when you want something basic and fast, but rising above mass-market quality. Actually the queues aren't nearly as bad as I feared, so it doesn't take a huge chunk out of your day, of course particularly well-placed if you're visiting the Vatican.

In spite of sickness, then, I thought it on the whole a successful expedition - now I need to think about what new places to go next time

May 17, 2015
AlexRast in Italy
2

Trip to Italy in London- where is great espresso

Places I rate:

Tapped & Packed (seem to be the current best although not really improving, and they could be better)
Monmouth (you have to fight silly queues but the coffee is good)
Flat White/Milkbar (they went through a rough patch but seem to have righted the ship again)
Department of Coffee (maybe a bit below the places above but still worth visiting

Places I don't rate:

Prufrock (strangely obsessive for strangely no improvement in result)
Workshop (never as good as they should be; shots don't have enough body generally)
Kaffeine (not clear why they're popular; it seems the staff isn't particularly fanatical. Somewhat generic espresso)

A place I'd kill for:

A shop like La Caféothèque in Paris or Chiaroscuro in Florence that offers multiple different origin espressos. This I think is the mark of a shop that is truly fanatical rather than simply interested up to a point.

Apr 28, 2015
AlexRast in U.K./Ireland

Sora Lella: particularly perfect pasta

Latest trip to Rome for me - there will be a return, longer visit in 2 weeks but this experience was so exceptional I thought I should post right away.

In the previous 2 visits I'd been defeated in attempts to go to Sora Lella by not booking. Being very, very honest, I'd have to say that I'd seen enough uneven comment about it that at the time I wasn't that fundamentally bothered either way.

But this time, with a long time between connecting flights in Rome going from Manchester to Alghero, I thought it would be an ideal spot to have a good lunch while waiting. So it proved. Mindful of previous experience, this time I booked.

Atmosphere is cosy, on the formal side overall but not elite-level or luxury. It will be said that it doesn't make the most of an impossibly romantic location on the Isola Tiberina but then again the building layout isn't really their choice. The atmosphere is certainly romantic enough, if that's what you're here for. However in my case having not eaten breakfast, I was really here to eat heavily and be revived.

The staff are expertly professional and very welcoming. Upon arrival I was instantly shown to my table - unlike several Roman restaurants where it can be quite typical to arrive on time only to be asked to wait (in fairness of course any busy restaurant can't precisely know when their customers will leave - so a given table may or may not be free). I must admit also that I respect their willingness to have patience with my Italian which is improving but obviously still needs some work. It can be frustrating when you try to speak Italian in restaurants only to be met with English that isn't any better than your Italian. I suppose it goes both ways - waiters eager to improve their English will want to speak it to English customers, but customers eager to improve their Italian will want the reverse. Still, it's my view that the customer preference should prevail, unless one side or the other clearly has better command of the other's tongue. Staff at Sora Lella didn't have any hesitation about staying with Italian even when my own speech was becoming hesitant. That point aside though the service is exactly as it should be, balancing attentiveness with not hovering and making sure things arrive promptly and as ordered, without any feeling of rush.

I started with a pair of salame: Susianella di Viterbo and Lardo di San Nicola. Both were exellent, although of the two it is the Susianella that really stands out: a really terrific dry salami, the rather thin kind that comes out rather like £2 coins in size. Just the kind of antipasto that you hope for.

It is in the primi, though, that Sora Lella seems to excel. I got (admittedly in not-quite-canonical style - wrong pasta shape) a rigatone all'Amatriciana. Finally I can say that here is a restaurant in Rome that does this definitively. With the lone criticism that yes, they should be using bucatini, it was nonetheless awe-inspiring. MUCH better quality guanciale than what I've had elsewhere, and the pasta was cooked to the ideal point as well. As noted, pasta seems to be their strong suit, for on an adjacent table, an Italian couple had ordered a pair of paste (different ones) and there was an audible, exclamatory "MMM!" from there on the first bite. I felt like leaning over and indicating that yes, I share the sentiment.

For a secondo I was delighted to see something I love yet had not had or seen for a while: Pollo alla Romana. Here perhaps it wasn't quite as accomplished as the pasta, but this must in large part be due to the fact that peppers aren't really in season. Also perhaps due to very fond memories of childhood: my father made this to a definitive level and it was always one of my great favourites. Nonetheless very satisfying here.

Portion size is generous and as a result I contemplated a dessert but didn't get one in the end, settling for coffee. It will be said too that the price for puddings is steep - disproportionately so relative to the other courses. That probably indicates very high quality, so I did regret passing, but really enough was enough. The coffee, meanwhile, was of a good standard - up to the level of a solid Roman bar caffè, although perhaps not at the Sant' Eustachio/Tazza d'Oro level.

As a complete package, Sora Lella is one of those few restaurants that seems generally suitable for all occasions. On the one hand, it provides a dignified place for a formal dinner or business lunch. On the other, it's sufficiently relaxed and reasonable in price to be quite in scope for an informal meal or Sunday family lunch. Location is almost unbeatable and the food really stands up to the stellar location. This is going to go on my list of "usual suspects" - the restaurants in Rome I'll regularly patronise, year after year.

Apr 28, 2015
AlexRast in Italy
1

The ubiquitous burger

That sounds to me more like a difference in cultural expectation. In your case, it appears you have a particular cultural expectation of when (if ever) a burger is contextually appropriate, and it sounds like for you, a fine-dining restaurant is not one of those times.

I think of things a bit differently personally. To me, the point of a fine dining restaurant is not about the *type* of food served as the quality and presentation. And particularly in a city/region etc. where the burger is a traditional part of the food culture I see no reason it shouldn't be included.

But culture can be a surprisingly arbitrary thing.

However, on "defaulting the the least expensive thing" that's no doubt behaviour that any restaurant that's trying to run a business is aware of and has factored into their cost structure. If they're offering a burger at surprisingly reduced price relative to anything else, presumably that's because it's a profitable choice for them.

Apr 19, 2015
AlexRast in Food Media & News

Burger question

I actually think that's not quite the point.

It's not that chefs (or cooks) for that matter are quite literally machines for producing what was ordered, it's that food interacts with a person's senses in a much more uniquely personal way than other "art forms" - and plus a given item of food can only be consumed by a single diner. So the person who's actually going to eat whatever it is *has* to have more input, because it's for their own unique personal consumption. Even a tasting menu should be tailored to the desires of the eater.

Actually, in the past visual art was this way too, there was a relationship between artist and patron that understood that the artist didn't have unlimited scope for exercising his own whim, that the patron had some definite input - and indeed could veto certain choices. A lot of great art has been created that way. Arguably, more great art as a proportion of total output than what's come out of the truly working-to-his-own-design artist.

Apr 19, 2015
AlexRast in Manhattan

The ubiquitous burger

Looks to me more like an example of something simpler: that the familiar items are the ones most chosen because they've become familiar by virtue of being the best overall ideas. The burger is a classic example of a culinary "good idea". It's stood the test of time very well. People like it. Small wonder it will do well against other options that may or may not be good ideas - and have only a small chance of being genuinely a better idea.

Price may make a difference for a few but I doubt in any restaurant where the difference between the burger and other options might really cause a problem in terms of their calculated price/cost structure it does. (i.e. people don't generally go to expensive restaurants to be cheap).

Apr 16, 2015
AlexRast in Food Media & News

Gendering of Food

Jests aside, "in the day" (and perhaps even in some places today) "sex-crazed" meant something entirely different. As in, unable to resist *ANY* man they fancied (and some, perhaps, they didn't even really fancy all that much!) under any situation even if they (the women that is) were happily married (or in a fulfilling long-term relationship).

A bizarre echo of that idea still persists today in the way most of the food ads that emphasise giving in to temptation (or temptation at all!) seem to be aimed at women.

Gendering of Food

The idea of abstention from animal flesh reducing animal passions also occurred in the West from a fairly early date - there are references to this idea for example throughout the writings of early (1st-4th c and beyond) Christian writers. Vegetarianism took off amongst monastics as an ascetical discipline of course but also as a purported calmer of these passions.

Drifting a bit off-topic, one curious note though that I've never understood is why at least in the West, if not in fact 'round the world, a perception crept in that women were "sex-crazed"? This again seems to be a very old idea, yet surely the evidence of everyday observation should have convinced people that the facts are otherwise? How did people come to believe this?

For my own part I have to remark that abstention from animal flesh seems to *increase* "animal passions" rather than decrease them, at least for me. But maybe that's just me seeing patterns where none exist.

Apr 13, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

The Decline and Fall of... Heavy Cream?

Precisely the problem being raised by meerastvargo - UHT not only affects whippability but also flavour.

I note interestingly though that this seems to be a question of market dynamics in the North American market. Here in the UK, virtually no cream is UHT processed (and in fact much of it - "double cream" - is a lot heavier than that available in North America). Thickeners are never used.

It's just conjecture, but this suggests that in North America stockists have much more difficulty moving stock fast enough that their cream doesn't go bad. Maybe consumers there don't buy cream so often. Or possibly the logistics there are arranged so as to require much larger orders at possibly more infrequent delivery intervals. There is a question of distances which of course in North America are much larger than in the UK.

Apr 13, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics