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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

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

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

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

Gendering of Food

I get the impression that although men are generally seen as being more likely to be interested in technical skill and craft, and more obsessive about preparation, hence more likely to be "chefs", they are also perceived as being less likely to be fastidious when it comes to actually eating food, which strikes me as a surprising dichotomy, if true. The bias towards men as chefs seems to me to be particularly irrational. However, especially in the elite tier it seems vastly more men become well-regarded chefs for whatever reason.

One of the problems our current (Western, at least) culture has is that, having rightly determined that prejudices and sex-based (or for that matter race-based, age-based, etc.) bias is wrong, it has become ethically unacceptable even to explore the question of whether there are real differences between people in different identifiable statistical groups. Very few serious scientific studies which would openly purport to establish a statistical basis for differences in preference between the sexes would be fundable - except those that expected to explode the idea that such differences actually exist. As has been noted the question of what is cultural conditioning vs. "intrinsic" preference is impossible to disentangle, although I actually think this is irrelevant anyway because we are all products of our environment and the concept of "person" divorced from cultural context is a nonsense in the first place.

I think the real heart of the matter is this: we need to be a LOT better at understanding and clearly separating the difference between the behaviour of an individual person and the statistical trends of some group. Even a known statistical correlation cannot be used as the basis of a policy decision that applies categorically to each member of a group. You have to treat each person as an individual and ignore what you may know (or think you know) about the "typical" patterns of their sex or age or race or whatever. But by the same token, a known statistical correlation can be used if the action itself is statistical in nature and doesn't apply systematically to any identifiable person.

For example, let us say that it can be reasonably supposed that men, simply by virtue of greater typical physical size, probably need more calories on average - and hence as a statistical group probably eat more (although I emphasise that no facts are presented here to support this hypothesis). Even if this is the case, a waiter is acting unprofessionally if they assume a larger or heavier dish is for one of the men in the party.

However, an advertising agency is dealing with a different proposition. Their goal is to target a market - a market with identifiable statistical characteristics. No one person is being singled out. In that context, it may in fact be completely rational for them to emphasise men if they are advertising a high-calorie food - because their goal is to capture the greatest statistical group they can. Now, they may be able to find a different slant - one that doesn't play the issue of sex - that gets better results still, but the fact remains: there's nothing particularly unethical about them targetting men specifically, if their research indicates that as a group, that's likely to get the best overall response.

I would like to see better, more public information, about real differences between the sexes, while at the same time I would like to see far fewer instances where assumptions based on probability - prejudices - were used to determine how to treat people of a particular sex on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, neither of these seems likely any time soon.

Apr 12, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Ghirardelli vs cheaper cocoa powder

A very late addition, but worth it I hope for the info, now that this thread's been revived.

I have done comprehensive testing of a very wide range of different cocoa powders.

It should first be understood that there are Dutch-process and natural-process cocoas. Dutch-process is darker (or comes out darker, to be precise) but has less flavour; it's processed with alkali (potassium carbonate) to reduce bitterness. All Dutch-process cocoas have a distinctive, slightly metallic taste.

There is also the distinction between low-fat (~9%) and high-fat (~20%) cocoas. Low-fat dissolves much more easily in liquids but doesn't deliver as much flavour. It can be better in cakes that need to be very light (e.g. genoise) because the lower fat helps the cocoa to disperse and minimises deflation of the batter. But generally for best intensity and flavour depth high-fat is a better choice.

Ghirardelli itself is a natural-process, high-fat cocoa powder. Already that gives it some advantage. More comments below.

First, there is the "commodity" end of the market - Hershey's, Fry's, Green & Black's, Pernigotti, Droste (a few others) that is cheap and basic. The flavour isn't particularly good, as one might expect. (Hershey's is available both Dutched and natural-process. Droste is Dutched, of course. So is Pernigotti. Fry's and G&B are natural). But in order to do *much* better you do have to step up quite a bit.

Next there are the "premium consumer" cocoas, of which Ghirardelli is one, also Valrhona, Callebaut (it must be remembered they have several different types - they're a large industrial concern and produce a bewildering array of products for specific applications with specific technical characteristics), Guittard (various others). Valrhona is Dutched. Guittard has both available - although it must be said I've personally only seen Dutched. Callebaut does - you name it they do it. Most of these are high-fat and the increase in intensity over the commodity brands is noticeable, but the underlying quality of the beans isn't really anything special.

Next you get to the "redistribution" cocoas - usually in bulk at various shops, no specific brand or at least not a cocoa specialist. There are, for instance, a lot of cocoas sourced from the Dominican Republic. Usually these have been processed by one of the big chocolate factories like Callebaut or ICAM or whoever and then sold in large quantities to a repacker/distributor. The quality on these can actually be quite good, but it's incredibly unreliable, particularly with reference to the "name brands" immediately beneath them in the strata. However, a good smell (which, unlike other cocoas is usually possible) will reveal all - which is why barring the top category these are often the ones to go for, because you can actually test them before buying, and find the ones that are genuinely good. A solid, dark terra-cotta style and a dense, tight powder (indicating high fat) are usually good signs.

Finally you get to the "elite" cocoas. These are made by the small, fine chocolate manufacturers, at least the ones that have their own processing facilities. Examples include Domori, Michel Cluizel, Grenada Chocolate Company, and Pacari. Needless to say here you are getting real quality, the flavour of the cocoa is miles away from all others, but you have to understand also that generally these are highly distinctive cocoas whose flavour may or may not work for what you're doing. They are also expensive. Worth getting, yes, but be sure you try them first before committing to using them. I personally like Cluizel - very balanced and impressive intensity of flavour. It is worth getting one of these to compare side-by-side against Ghirardelli - to see what the additional cost buys you.

Apr 05, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

favorite cut of beef to roast?

I'm going to invert that recommendation. I think strip (UK sirloin) is better as steak - in fact, I think it's easily the best of the steak cuts. The flavour is more acidic, sharper, better as a steak. Roast I think should have a mild, rich flavour. Sirloin/Strip has less fat than the rib so it doesn't roast as well.

However let's be clear that this is splitting hairs. Both make splendid steaks AND roasts. It's a matter of personal preference. The rib is the "traditional" roast but that doesn't mean there aren't other options. I also like the fillet roasted. Actually compared to the other 2 it might improve the most in relative terms by being roasted over being made into steaks; fillet's very mild flavour doesn't really shine as a steak.

Apr 03, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Godiva has never been great, but do people agree it's gotten worse?

I think there are 2 distinct factors going on here.

First, probably over the years Godiva has got marginally worse. This is an endemic issue in consumer products quite generally, what I call "quality creep". What happens is, it's almost impossible for a manufacturer to resist the temptation to adopt a new process or recipe that makes the result only very slightly marginally worse, almost at the borders of detectability, for a massive reduction in cost. Very few, if any, consumers will notice, and those that do, lacking explicit proof, may well dismiss the difference as their imagination. The company can either take the higher profits of selling at the old price, or increase sales volume by passing on the reduction to the consumer. Unfortunately, that starts an inexorable slippery slope: the first such compromise made makes it that much easier to justify the next, etc. etc. and because the changes are imperceptible, nobody notices until perhaps years later when the net effect of a lot of marginal reductions is something that's a shadow of its former self. By which point the change is probably irreversible. No doubt there has been a long history of that with Godiva which probably started out as truly spectacular (this would have been many, many years ago indeed, when they weren't even found outside of Belgium).

The second factor, though, is evolving tastes. The 10 to 15 years just past have been particularly significant in the chocolate industry (outside a few centres in Continental Europe, for the most part). Think back on the quality that would have been available in the year 2000. Most of it would have been utter rubbish. The few quality chocolate companies that did exist were minuscule and distributed only in a small area, not to mention known only to a tiny few. Since that time, however, there has been an explosion of interest in quality chocolate; there are now brands reasonably well-known even on a global scale that are truly high quality. The result is a much greater number of people know what quality should be like and even those who knew in 2000 have a much wider variety, thus more interest and flavour profiles to choose from. Standards have consequently leapt at the top end. It's quite possible that 10-15 years ago Godiva did actually seem quite good - because your exposure to what was better was limited so in context it seemed marvellous. Now, perhaps having tried more high-quality chocolates, you have a better idea of how mediocre it is, or to put it another way, your standards have increased.

The net result of these factors: quality creep and improving quality standards, means that the Godiva of today tastes much worse than your memory of 10-15 years ago, even though it's probably not significantly worse. I suspect if you tried the 2 side-by-side (assuming you had some magical stasis chamber that could have kept a 15-year-old sample in perfect condition), you'd find that they were actually quite similar, and certainly the 15-year-old one would taste much worse than you remember. There would probably be a small difference, but it probably wouldn't seem as black and white as you think.

Mar 29, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Fudgy Brownies: Unsweetened or semi-sweet/bittersweet chocolate?

Sure. I will note that this isn't tuned to produce the fudgiest possible result; it is designed to trade off some fudginess for cakiness, with a chewy background, but most people will find these well fudgey, and without doubt they'll be amongst the densest you've had. If you want an even fudgier result, increase the butter until satisfied. You could also drop an egg; the result then will be less cake-like, even denser, fudgier, almost candy-like.

400 g Dark Muscovado sugar (I use Billington's Molasses Sugar)
340 g High-quality Unsweetened Chocolate (I use Red Star 100%)
140 g Strong white bread flour
140 g Unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
3 large eggs (UK large)
1 vanilla bean
1/2 tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 175 C/350 F. Thoroughly grease a 23cm/9" square cake tin (using butter) and place in the fridge. Break the chocolate, put in a bowl over a pot of simmering water, and melt carefully. Set aside.

Cut the butter into smallish chunks, put it, the sugar, and the salt into a bowl, and slit the vanilla bean lengthwise with a sharp knife, scraping the seeds into the bowl. Mix all with a wooden spoon, minimising aeration (making sure not to cream) but incorporating everything uniformly. Add the melted chocolate and mix. Next, add the eggs, one at a time, mixing each until fully incorporated. Finally, blend in the flour vigorously (you want to encourage gluten to the extent possible). Blending the flour will take some effort - the mixture should come out like a firm cookie dough.

Spread the mixture into the pan and smooth with a knife. Bake carefully until the smell of chocolate reaches a high intensity (usually this is about 20-25 minutes or so). Cool and cut into squares.

It's important not to overbake - if you do the result can easily be dry and worse - the edges can scorch easily (hence fridging the pan; this gives the outside just that little bit more time to come to temperature. It will be said that I use a very heavy metal pan. If you used a thin aluminium pan the gains from fridging would be much less, possibly trivial). Err on the low side of baking rather than on the high side.

By the way, I would not use Baker's (the US brand). It is such terribly bad chocolate that it even ranks below most mass-market eating chocolate. Think of it this way: try eating an unsweetened square of it and see if you like it. Probably not. That's because it's bad chocolate. Good 100% is an intense, but generally pleasant experience. Though it comes as a shock to most people, they'll generally like it. That should be your test: if it tastes bad, it *is* bad.

Mar 28, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Pipable chocolate ganache?

I think you've got a mistake in your measurements there. First there's the question of volume vs. weight measurements, which is particularly tricky in this case, when you're using chocolate chips, because chips have large irregular sizes which make for unpredictable packing density. So I wouldn't rely on any fixed weight-volume conversions.

Secondly, if we assume the density of cream is approximately that of water (it's usually somewhat less dense, but not by enormous amounts, the 2 cups would translate to 16 oz. It may be a little less than that, but cream is certainly not half the density of water.

Really hard to know what 2 cups of chocolate chips would weigh, and I wouldn't guess, I'd actually weigh. That said, chocolate chips aren't usually the best choice for ganache; they're specifically formulated with lower cocoa butter for baking applications, and hence don't emulsify as well. There are couverture "chips" with high cocoa butter, but these "chips" are more like discs or pastilles.

My guess is that if your brand of chips and your brand of cream is the same, then you probably get consistent results, because the packing fractions and densities are probably consistent, but other users would probably get different results from what you do, because they'll probably be using different brands. In truth, the results will probably be OK regardless, but how pipable they are probably depends a lot on circumstance. My guess is that you're probably making a ganache that ends up somewhat below 1:1 chocolate:cream (because the packing fraction of chocolate chips likely offsets the higher density of chocolate, resulting in somewhat less net density that water, but that's conjecture)

By the way, it's risky to leave ganache in the fridge, because condensation can cause excess moisture to accumulate on it, and slightly break the ganache. Better to leave it out at room temperature. You can fridge it, and it may be fine, but there is always the occasional surprise.

Mar 28, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

How can I slice crusty bread without making such a mess?

It looks as if the problem, such as there is one, is that all your bread knifes have serrations that are too coarse. You want the ones whose serrations are truly fine, like a hacksaw. They will go cleanly and almost effortlessly through the crustiest bread (my ultimate test is always the real Pane Toscano: in Tuscany these always have a thick, armour-like crust which is terrifically crisp and a dense, uniform crumb). You also need the pointy serrations rather than the "invecked" (round protruberances, pointed incuts) style that are sometimes seen.

Most bread knifes sold as such aren't designed for very crusty bread. You'll have to search quite hard to find the type I describe, although they do exist. They seem to have been much more common in the past. I wonder why they went out of fashion?

Mar 27, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Fudgy Brownies: Unsweetened or semi-sweet/bittersweet chocolate?

Either variety can work. The impact of the type of chocolate on a brownie is subtle.

The critical property here is how the presence of sugar in the chocolate affects the ratio of cocoa butter to defatted cocoa solids in what remains. Ultimately, you can compensate for the sugar difference by proportionately reducing in the case of sweetened chocolate, although because the sugar is now in very finely milled particles indeed, it won't melt in the same way granules do. That makes for a less fudgy flavour and mouthfeel, but only slighly.

But the defatted cocoa solids/cocoa butter ratio is entirely another matter. If you're using unsweetened chocolate, that will have somewhere in the range of 50-55% cocoa butter, thus 45-50% defatted cocoa solids. Its the latter that provide the chocolatey flavour. So a simple rule of thumb is that the degree of chocolate flavour added is about half the amount of unsweetened chocolate added. Sweetened chocolate is different, because the percentage of sugar lowers the amount of cocoa solids (both butter and defatted) that can be in the chocolate. Generally, however, manufacturers have to keep the amount of cocoa butter fairly fixed in order to get a good product, in the neighbourhood of 35-40%. So the amount of defatted cocoa solids usually goes down as a proportion of the total cocoa solids, in all but the very darkest (~85%) formulations. Which means that as the chocolate decreases in percentage, the flavour will diminish drastically, mixed into a brownie, for exactly the same total amount used. For instance, using 250g of a 70%, containing 40% cocoa butter (hence 30% defatted cocoa solids) won't give you 7/10ths of the flavour of 250g unsweetened with 50% cocoa butter. It will give you 3/5ths. And 250g of a 60%, containing 40% cocoa butter, will give you instead of 3/5ths, 2/5ths.

That takes care of the flavour. Now, a fudgy texture meanwhile is mostly about the amount of butter and sugar; after all what is pure fudge? Butter, sugar, cream. Cocoa butter has an impact on the texture of a brownie; it's a harder, less plastic fat, and this means that as the cocoa butter percentage goes up the texture becomes drier, crumblier, more like pie crust. So you want to keep the amount of cocoa butter fairly low as a relative proportion of the chocolate. But not enough and there's not much chocolate flavour delivery.

The key point, then, is this: if you use sweetened chocolate, the sweeter it is (lower cocoa solids percentage), the more butter you should add and the less sugar proportionately, if you want to arrive at a fudgy result. Most brownies do well with an almost over-the-top amount of butter, so it's hard to use too much.

Summing together all the factors, there may be a marginal gain for unsweetened chocolate, because the net ratio of cocoa butter for given degree of chocolatiness will always be lower, and thus the impact of the butter more pronounced, the result fudgier overall. But it's so trivial that it almost doesn't matter. I personally would worry more about what was available where I live: quality of the chocolate matters and it's almost always much easier to find a high-quality dark (sweetened) chocolate bar made for eating than high-quality unsweetened chocolate. If you have access to Pacari unsweetened, however (and a few others e.g. Pralus, Domori) then by all means use it.

Whatever chocolate you use, you just need to make sure the overall recipe has been adjusted to produce a fudgy result with whatever chocolate has been specified. Note in particular though that you can't arbitrarily substitute different percentages of sweetened chocolate for each other, or even chocolates with identical percentages but different brands. It pays to read the nutrition labels to determine the proportions.

Mar 27, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking