AlexRast's Profile

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Rule #1...always...

Nuts go from slightly brown to completely burnt in a flash. Literally, seconds count. The smaller they are, the more the problem is exacerbated. Unfortunately, your rebellion is probably doomed unless you can develop a sixth sense for the timing.

Which foods do you wish were more popular?

High-quality, non-sourdough white bread. Hard to find almost everywhere. You usually have to make a determined search. Usually at modern quality bakers the choices are between sourdough whites and various forms of variety breads (non-white). Even guidebooks tend to be of little help thanks to a quirk in the English language that mean that almost all "bakeries" listed in such books turn out to be pastry bakeries much more than bread bakeries.

High-quality, plain chocolate layer cakes. NOT some fussy French-style gâteau, although don't be mistaken, these can be lovely, just not what I seek. Just chocolate sponge with chocolate icing. Dismal versions of these abound, as do excellent French-style pastries. But not good plain chocolate cakes.

Blueberries. For some reason, they've never been particularly popular. I can't understand why. They're one of my favourite fruits, less tart than the other summer berries and with a denser, "heavier" flavour. Incidentally, for those interested, I've found that consistently the "Star" varietal is markedly superior to all others (other than wild bilberries, of course). Get them if you can.

Barley. Obvious reason here: most of it is ingested in liquid form. But as a grain, it's easily my favourite.

Porridge. A stodgy reputation does no favours for it. But it's unrivalled in winter as a warming breakfast. And it's astonishingly versatile too: in addition to plain porridge, you can add all variety of things to it.

Beef fore rib roasting joints. Sadly, even here in England, most of the fore rib is disappearing into steaks. The classic roast is almost disappearing into the past.

Chuck joints. This is now disappearing into mince. Good braises, pot roasts, steak and kidney puddings, and all sorts of other wintry things are becoming harder and harder to make.

Chocolate hazelnut spreads that aren't Nutella. In Germany this is almost a national obsession. Why can't we have the same thing here? The world of chocolate spreads is so much more (and so much better) than Nutella.

Gianduja. Along similar lines to the above. Like the above, a national obsession - in Italy this time. Why not here?

Nov 25, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

What type of cuisine do you NOT like?

The "barrier" I see in this discussion is conceptual:

Making statements about cuisines you do and do not like in no sense necessarily means any sort of implied value judgement about the cuisine, much less the culture and people, of a region or country.

And for the same reasons, making suggestions to someone about cuisines or dishes they ought to try in no sense necessarily means any sort of implied value judgement about the person to whom suggestions are being made.

A conversation that must limit itself to flat statements of "I like X" or "I don't like Y" without explanation, further discussion, or debate is sterile and will degenerate into banality.

Taste is one of the most strongly hard-wired of the senses when it comes to our reaction, and it is unrealistic to imagine that most people don't have strong preferences, or that you can arbitrarily put aside or change your strong preferences.

But by the same token taste isn't entirely subjective; there is an element of basic quality (or lack thereof), and of shared preferences, that cuts across personal and even cultural divides. You can't avoid noticing good food when it's put in front of you.

That's why like/no-like conversations can be interesting: you learn something more about the person you are talking with, and maybe you learn something more about foods you're talking about. I make a plea to all not to reduce conversation either to a duel of ad hominem attacks or to empty banalities by becoming too concerned about value judgements where none may exist.

Nov 25, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Rule #1...always...

And also, before going out on a major shopping expedition (particularly for a festive occasion such as Christmas), check your stock to see what you have and don't have for what you plan on making. Could save an embarrassing gap in the table.

Nov 23, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

What are your 3 favorite cuisines to cook other than your own?

1) Turkish
2) Italian
3) Mexican

An interesting aspect of this question I think is that 3 favourite *to prepare* may not necessarily be the same as 3 favourite, because of things like ingredient and equipment availabilities, recipe repertoire, and specific cooking skills required. There are also some cuisines where at least the well-known dishes are elaborate and time-consuming, making them something you might do more rarely simply because of the practicalities.

Nov 23, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

What type of cuisine do you NOT like?

For me, Indian, Thai. Which is a far cry from saying either wouldn't be well-received if offered or have nothing I don't greatly like, but is to say that, asked to choose, they'd probably be my last choice. Generally, South Asian cuisines tend to be my least favourite. And it's definitely not from lack of exposure or low quality. The flavour combinations to me tend to have a quality that would be the gustatory equivalent of dissonance.

Nov 22, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

2015 Guides

Late reply, but to your question on my opinions, what I'm saying is close to your point:

"4) Also want to note that even places studiously presenting solely the products of traditional local hand labor — right down the handwritten daily chalkboard— is meant to appeal to the luxury/elite in 2014. To be poor is to have little option but to consume what is mass produced."

The first part of my post was saying that essentially this is the dynamic that prevails. Price and quality don't necessarily have a "reliably discernible relationship" in the sense of some sort of deterministic linear curve. Certainly I'm not saying there aren't cheap places where the food is good, nor expensive and elite places where the food is disappointing. There is a broad, noisy correlation between price and quality, so that *statistically* you're likely to find better quality at higher price, but this relation applies statistically rather than on a case-by-case basis.

But if you want the *ultimate possible* version of a given dish, where no compromise whatsoever is made on ingredients, preparation, or anything else, that's not going to come for free. So "elite" restaurants with higher budgets can in principle probably prepare a better version of most things. That's not to say that they actually will but they have the budget to try harder if they want to. When in comes to guides, meanwhile, they have to distinguish between the very good and the ultimate possible. That makes it virtually certain that the places selected at the very top - representing "ultimate possible" are going to be "elite" restaurants. You can disagree with their particular choice of restaurant but the pattern would be likely to hold.

The second part of my post acknowledges the existence of "an entire class of restaurants and restaurant clientele that is really only aiming to please a very small group of diners whose passion is experimental food" and like you doesn't see anything wrong with that as a category, but on the other hand I *do* lament the relative paucity of "elite" restaurants with no particular aspirations to experimental cuisine and a strong grounding in local tradition - because of market forces.

I have to agree with you on

"5) In Italy today, the percentage of restaurant-goers dearly hoping to be the only non-local in a restaurant is getting pretty huge."

As you imply this is unrealistic, and I have to wonder, why should that really be a criterion anyway? It doesn't correlate particularly well to quality.

Nov 19, 2014
AlexRast in Italy

Fish & Chips - What kind of fish do you like?

Cod and haddock are, of course, (as Harters says) the common options - the ones every chippy will have.

Personal preference, when they have it, though, for me is plaice. White side if they can (the top side has grey skin, the bottom side white) Along with sole, it's in the "next tier" of common but not universal. However it's (plaice) ubiquitous in Conwy and Llandudno. Neither fish, incidentally, is more than trivially more expensive than either cod or haddock. Not many have "expensive" options. Every now and then you see John Dory.

Nov 13, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Christmas Dinner: Adults-Individual Beef Wellingtons; Kids-???

Echoing other posters, why do you think the kids wouldn't enjoy it? I think most kids would love it - Beef Wellington is packed with flavours that are well-received by almost everyone; nothing intimidating (or even particularly strongly-flavoured) in it. Make them a little smaller than you would for the adults but otherwise identically and they should be very happy.

Nov 13, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Kuching; Singapore: Worth visiting

Just came back from a conference in Kuching, Malaysia. Not necessarily a city where, I suspect, the crowds are going (not the foodie crowds, at least) but some places very much worth visiting.

First, on the way there, taking advantage of an almost full-day layover in Singapore, I stopped there for lunch. Considerations of logistical practicality made me consider central options that didn't involve impossible bookings or "event" restaurants which led to an obvious choice of the Blue Ginger. This well-known Peranakan place ticked all the right boxes for me. Smaller than I expected, I'll say (it can't have been more than about 10 tables (or maybe I didn't see an entire additional section) but clearly popular, and with the locals. Location makes it a spot where a lot of people seem to "drop in". Relaxed, informal cafe-like atmosphere, the kind of place that's unintimidating for anyone. Service was effective but unremarkable.

So I had:

Ngo Heong (fried pork/prawn rolls)
Udang Nonya (sautéed whole prawns)
Ayam Buah Keluak (rich chicken stew with black Buah Keluak nuts)

The Ngo Heong are awe-inspiring. Perfectly crisp outside, succulent and flavourful filling. I could gobble these all day. Desperately addictive. Udang Nonya was OK but then again, I've had prawn dishes like this all over Southeast Asia (and elsewhere) and so it felt a little generic. But the execution was perfect, as good as you'll get for what's on offer. The Ayam Buah Keluak, though, is a life-changer. I've not had those nuts before. It cannot be imagined how rich these are, almost chocolatey. I can see why they offer additional ones for extra charge (and how difficult it would be to resist piling them on) The chicken, meanwhile, was among the most flavourful I've had, and braised properly, not overdone. I'm not going to say the Blue Ginger, on the whole, is a restaurant that will transform your life, but it proved ideal for a good lunch for me. I'd unhesitatingly stop again if going to Singapore. Excellent value all things considered.

On the value front, Kuching will be hard to beat. VERY reasonable prices everywhere for everything, almost a steal. They like their cake there. Those who have been will know Kek Lapis; you can't miss it really. 2 shops on Jalan Bishopsgate compete for the best, I think; in another league from the numerous sellers along Main Bazaar. These 2 are Maria Kek Lapis and Liza Kek Lapis. It must be understood that these cakes are impossibly rich, so much so that they literally ooze with butter (and yes, literally means *literally*!) Of the 2 Maria Kek Lapis is marginally the more butter-overloaded, Liza the one with the more interesting and perhaps more balanced flavours. However, the fluorescent-green pandan Kek Lapis from Maria is a thing of beauty. No need to stop with one: try both shops; they are literally across the street from each other.

On the whole the hawker centres are fairly ordinary; most of them won't really give you anything beyond basic eating (albeit at preposterously cheap prices); it's definitely a case of you-get-what-you-pay-for. There is one exception, which is so well known by all in the city that at night there is a constant stream of people into it, almost like crowds gathering for a concert: Top Spot. Fish is what's on offer here, all gloriously fresh, and vegetables too, same thing: it's the freshness that stands out. You can basically assemble your own meal and tell them what you want done. I opted for steamed pomfret with a simple dish of carrots, mushrooms and mange-touts. Again freshness was the key; they didn't overdo the preparation and let the ingredients speak for themselves. Particularly brilliant fish. It's not the cheapest option in Kuching, but undoubtedly it's one of the best

But the star visit, and really the reason for this report, is the one place in Kuching that is a destination unto itself, reason to visit the city in its own right: The Dyak. Clearly this is a restaurant with ambitions on an entirely higher order from the rest of Kuching. Much more formal, fine-dining ambience, but beautiful and relaxed, elegant, not stiff and snobbish. Lovely service; the waitresses there exemplify what good service should be about. Attentive and efficient, friendly, yet they don't get in the way either. Most of the dishes here have names and ingredient combinations you probably won't be familiar with (or remember in their entirety, if you're me) if you're not a local. I was so impressed overall I went there twice. Trying to decode the hand-written items what I got was (Day 1) Pusu Guring; Manuk Lulun; Palus. (Day 2) Daun Ubi, Changkuk Labu. Spellings may be wrong or entirely off.

However, the flavours are ones I will never forget. Day 1 included by far the best chicken soup I've ever had, terrific, tiny crispy anchovies, and ferns stir-fried with anchovies, crisp and spicy. Everything just explodes with flavour and has a brightness, a freshness, a lack of heaviness, that will redefine your concept of the possible. Everything is served with interesting brown rice.

Day 2 included addictive, basil-like sweet potato leaves in garlic, and surprisingly satisfying pumpkin stew with another exotic leaf. Vegetarians should note that the Dyak will be your delight; they have a LOT of vegetarian options, NONE of them anything like the "typical" offerings elsewhere. And vegetables are a particular specialty here.

There aren't many restaurants in the world that I would consider true "destination restaurants"; this is one. Not only are the flavours very different and delightful from what you'll get elsewhere, but they are prepared with consummate technical skill into something that is surely a global reference for the cuisine. I can't possibly evaluate in any sense how "authentic" it is, but with food this good, does it really matter? It's felicitous that someone is being the exponent of an unusual, unfamiliar local cuisine rather than producing yet another "internationalised" style. Let us hope the chef here doesn't succumb to temptation and decamp for the brighter lights and higher revenues of Kuala Lumpur or Singapore! We have here one of the world's great talents in what is a local treasure, something to savour hopefully for a very long time.

Can you help me replace walnut with hazelnut in this recipe?

Never. Might be a trans-Atlantic or regional expression.

...However if I specifically heard anyone say "Starbucks is life" I'd question their sanity - or at least wonder if they weren't a marketing agent for them :-D

Nov 09, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

What makes Oreos so dark?

Oreos don't actually have carbon black in them. At least not in all countries, though I can't speak for some; if it did it would have to include it in the ingredient label (possibly using an obscure e-number)

It will be said that pure carbon black is perfectly safe because it's just - carbon. (As it turns out pure carbon in amorphous form is among the blackest substances available)

But Oreos use a very particular type of cocoa specifically formulated for dark colour - "black cocoa". It's not just Dutched, although that does improve the darkness of any cocoa, it's very specifically strongly alkalised and uses particular cocoa varieties to get that very black colour.

Nov 09, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Amsterdam: Trip report

So about a year ago I posted a set of questions on restaurants in Amsterdam (which because of the way it was worded generated something of a running-debate response)

In the event a raging cold when I went that time more or less nullified any report I could have given. We come around to the same time, a year later, and this time I went without any awful diseases.

First of all, it must be said that I mentioned last year that atmosphere wasn't particularly important, but it was obvious from seeing the restaurant scene "on the ground", as it were, that atmosphere is in fact a central element, if not *the* central element, of what is thought of as mattering in Amsterdam. That goes a long way towards explaining the direction of the subsequent replies.

With a highly constrained schedule this time I focussed on central locations. This generates some no doubt predictable choices; notwithstanding some of them are worth mentioning.

3 breakfasts. The first was a simple baguette at De Bakkerswinkel. Words cannot convey the utter superiority of this loaf, one of the greatest baguettes I've had anywhere. It puts even most of the bakeries in France to shame. World-class. Based on that experience I visited again, this time going for a more comprehensive French toast, (chocolate) cake, and croissant. I can't say they were as accomplished as the bread. Serviceable, definitely. Exceptional, well, not really. It's the bread that is what I'll go for again. And again. Now a must-stop every time I'm in the city.

The other was at Gartine. Fantastic service. I can only hope they will forgive me for a rather small tip as at the end of the meal I found myself curiously short of small change. I had the raspberry/pistachio pancakes. Pancakes are a Dutch specialty of course but here they really were worth it; not a basic disc of something vaguely starchy but light yet substantial items, with plenty of flavour, and an interesting topping as well that diverged from the norm. Worth going to again although not with the same urgency as De Bakkerswinkel.

2 lunches. Interestingly I made no particular plans with respect to either; just stumbled across both. It's nice that Amsterdam has a configuration that encourages random wandering and where it's genuinely easy to simply stumble across somewhere without having to know where it is already. The first was t'Kuyltje. Finally, somewhere that can do a sandwich properly, with proper meat AND proper bread. Usually either one or the other is sort of an afterthought. Not here. I had a smoked rib-eye and a ham sandwich, both on the square white rolls. Splendid rolls, crisp outside, chewy inside, lots of flavour. The meat is even better. It's very impressive to see someone serving a "premium" cut like rib-eye as a sliced cold meat. I would say both sandwiches defined what I'd expect. One of the most obvious and best places to stop.

Second was Pannenkoekenhuis Upstairs. One that definitely falls into the "it's all about the atmosphere" places. I shared a table with a fellow "stumbler-upon". Pancakes there - I had 2, one with bacon and one with strawberries and chocolate - are satisfying but I wouldn't say exceptional. It will be said though that the bacon one has an addictive quality to it. I wouldn't make any particular effort to return but then again if I were in the area at about lunchtime I wouldn't mind at all going back: in terms of time taken for reasonable food received they offer an attractive ratio of value-for-minutes. Which was a relief to me at the time because I didn't really want to take time on a long lingering lunch.

3 dinners. First was van Kerkwijk. Here is a place in an obviously Dutch idiom without making any self-conscious effort to be so or to be some sort of museum piece. Impressive job by a tiny staff (it appears: 1 waiter, one barmaid, one chef, one dishwasher) to keep pace with a heaving restaurant. Long wait (1 hour) but it was a Friday night and the place is convivial. I had steamed mussels followed by a salmon in soy sauce with bok choy and then apple pie. The mussels were the star of the evening, lovely and fresh, with just the right amount of garlic and salt; I'd had my eye on them for the entire hour while I waited. The salmon was an unexpectedly good match for the soy sauce, and in fact I tried dipping the (rather ordinary) bread in the sauce but that didn't really work. Bok choy was OK if uneventful. Apple pie was interesting, something of a cake-cum-pie take on the crust which actually worked rather well; they give you a huge slice, almost disproportionate when you consider the size of the other dishes. Excellent balance of apples and cinnamon; I think they had a few raisins in there as well. All in all a place worth waiting the hour for though don't expect eye-opening revelations.

Second was d'Vijff Vlieghen. Here is a restaurant clearly of an entirely different order in terms of ambition and refinement compared to everywhere else I went. And - if atmosphere matters in Amsterdam, this is carried over into the atmosphere which really is unforgettable and charming. Service is extraordinary, almost psychic. I admit I booked here so they could have looked me up on-line, but if they did so that shows another level of attention to customers. This is what I'd think of as being a true high-end Dutch: the menu features items that are clearly recognisable as drawing from local traditions but at the same time making an effort to rise above the usual standard. I started with a mushroom and veal stew in puff pastry shells, proceeded to cod with mashed potatoes, and finished with a warm chocolate torte with cinnamon ice cream. Relative to expectations, I would be hiding the truth if I didn't mention a slight disappointment with the starter; the stew was nice enough, but the puff pastry didn't have a really dense butteriness and the whole was served tepid; probably this is what was intended but I was expecting something hotter. All, though, was forgiven when the cod arrived. This was the precise definition of what I expect of a great restaurant: something that does conclusively better than what I can manage myself at home on a simple dish where substance matters over concept. The fish was *perfectly* cooked, with crisp skin, supple flesh, and a suffusive flavour of the freshest possible cod. And if anything the mash was better, bursting with potato flavour and properly mashed, not whipped or pureed. A dish I'll remember forever, marvellous in simplicity, impeccable in execution. After that spectacular main the dessert somehow managed to seem pedestrian in relative terms, although the ice cream was very good indeed; in any other context though it would itself be a winner. Another place I'll return to again and again.

Third was Haesje Claes. This was a simple choice that (obviously) I found on the way to d'Vijff Vlieghen. High tourist quotient here. But it seems like a place for very typical Dutch cooking. (So, indeed, do I understand, looking subsequently at reviews). Not with any a priori intent to do so, it will be said, I ordered an almost clichéd series of choices, pea soup, followed by stamppot with carrots, sausage, meatball, and bacon, then followed by semolina pudding. Glorious stodginess all round. Some people would find this leaden but I liked it: the pea soup was a textbook rendition. The stamppot was VERY satisfying (something for the depths of winter) although very much basic cooking without any aspirations to greatness. Same, really for the semolina pudding. Service is a bright spot, very attentive, friendly, no trace of a cynical mind-set which in this sort of establishment I imagine would be very easy. Not necessarily a place I'll run to return to, but on a cold winter's night it would make for a very agreeable option.

Overall, I found nothing to suggest that the reputation of Amsterdam as something of a food desert when it comes to quality is deserved. I don't feel I had a genuinely substandard meal there, although yes, you do have to get used to rather stodgy presentations (exception for van Kerkwijk). On the other hand, I do get the feeling I stayed with, for the moment, obvious choices: with more time and opportunity to venture further afield I wonder what I might discover? Time, perhaps, for a wander...

Oct 27, 2014
AlexRast in Europe

Does This Chocolate Candy Need Refrigerating?

You may not need to refrigerate but with the oil in the tahini it will take a while to set (possibly several days) if you don't fridge it, and if you've not taken care with blending to create a smooth emulsion, the mixture will separate. Fridging it gets the mass through the transition point quickly and stabilises it before it would fall out of emulsion.

Also depends on the temperature of your room. In reasonably cool conditions you will probably have better luck than at higher (>20 °C) conditions)

And it will also depend on the composition of your milk chocolate. Very fatty milk chocolates (e.g. Bonnat) will be more difficult to work with than lower-fat versions (e.g. Domori) although the final result should be equally good if perfectly done. The fattier the milk chocolate the faster it will set once tempered and mixed, because there's more solid cocoa butter to speed the setting process.

Tempering the milk chocolate might make a difference but it's likely to be slight. However if your milk chocolate is high-fat the difference will be more pronounced and I would recommend tempering first. Think of making a cream ganache - or for that matter chocolate hazelnut paste. Usually you can just melt the things together and as long as your stirring isn't too vigorous (notice how they caution against this in the recipe!) then it just comes together as an emulsion. As they recommend, make sure the tahini is *thoroughly* mixed first, and also make sure it's a fine-ground type (coarser types will give poor, strangely fudgy results)

Oct 19, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Genoa - 2 1/2 days during the floods

It seems I was in Genoa at the same time as another unfortunate CH'er. Those who were there cannot possibly forget the rain, coming down at the intensity of the most freakish cloudburst for hour upon hour. Utterly horrific. My sympathies to the people of Genoa at this time.

However you still have to eat, and some brave restaurants and businesses stayed open during the deluge. During what was surely a period of short staffing, I admire the courage of those who stayed open, as much as I sympathise with those who were forced to shut. I ended up visiting:

Trattoria Rosmarino
Gaia Vini e Cucina
Douce Patisserie
Panificio Patrone

I went to Trattoria Rosmarino at the height of the downpour on Thursday evening. We actually arrived just before the rain really started coming down, but once inside, it just started sheeting. At the time nobody paid it much heed; we all assumed it would pass. Trattoria Rosmarino could hardly be more central, in a small lane immediately off Piazza de Ferrari. The restaurant, on 2 levels, is atmospheric and cosy, vaguely formal with its linen tablecloths and fine cutlery; I'd say it was closer to a ristorante in feel in that regard. However menus are on blackboards. I give them a lot of credit for staying aggressively seasonal with a constantly changing menu.

I started out with a Ligurian classic: Brandacujun. Near-perfectly executed, the puck-shaped mass was light and balanced in flavour, not overly fishy yet with enough flavour to identify what was involved. Easily on a level of technical execution worthy of more ambitious restaurants, it set a good tone for the rest of the meal

My primo was a seafood paccheri with some bits of ham and tomatoes. I wouldn't say it was as delightful as the antipasto; merely satisfying and straightforward. The pasta was perhaps the barest shade overdone, but not to excess by any means. Gratifyingly they had removed all the shells so one was not stuck with a plateful of shells; although some may quibble that one has no certainty of freshness here it was clearly not a problem in this case.

As a secondo I took tuna done 2 ways. One was crusted and fried, the other grilled (I think; memory a bit poor here). Either way they were done to perfection. The waitress made sure I didn't have any problem with rare tuna - a thoughtful touch - so that when it arrived it really was properly rare. The crisp outside of the crusted version was particularly splendid; a very different way of presenting tuna and one that I'll remember for a while.

Only the dessert - a coffee creme brulee, was a bit of a disappointment. They have an enviable selection of dolci; I think I just happened to select the wrong one in this case. It seemed overcooked and slightly broken, and the coffee flavour wasn't as pronounced as I would have expected. I emphasise however that this is an aberration; I think generally speaking you shouldn't hesitate to order pudding here.

What I've not said, saving for last, is that what really stood out here was the service, some of the best, most welcoming, most generous I've ever seen in any restaurant. This is a standard that all restaurants in Italy ought to aspire to - capturing the essence of both personable welcome and professional care in a way that seemed so effortless, so natural as to be almost instinctive. As a result I can't recommend the Trattoria Rosmarino highly enough; a delightful place to go while in Genoa.

Second night we had a recommendation from a local to visit Eataly (normally somewhere I'd avoid), but in the event it was shut anyway; thus we ended up at Gaia. This is probably the sort of place that everyone imagines in their head when they think of Italian restaurants: in a narrow lane, with vaulted ceilings, straightforward regional menus, essentially no English spoken.

Here we started to come up against the short-staffing issue. I think there were really only 3 people to do everything: a chef, a waitress, and a waiter-cum-front-of-house man. They really showed spirit in trying to keep up things, in spite of the trying circumstances. As a result service was predictably slow, but in fairness, no slower really than a busy trattoria in Rome on a Saturday night. My Italian is improving so I can reasonably negotiate a meal without any problem but if you really aren't up to it you may find communication difficult.

After some negotiations involving dietary restrictions about what would be possible off the (gratifyingly large) menu I took a green pasta with clams and cod with mushrooms and potatoes. The pasta was serviceable; nothing really to get excited about but competently executed. A bit oily but that does seem to be the way in Genoa. However the cod was marvellous. There are times when something simply prepared, using seasonal ingredients, just comes together and so it was here. A simply steamed cod lay atop a pile of potatoes and (porcini) mushrooms stewed in the mushroom stock. Hearty and very satisfying, it had a spectacular earthiness which was exactly what I was looking for after having been soaked several times over the last 2 days (although I was dry at the time).

I opted to finish with a chocolate hazelnut cake. No pretense here; this was something like you'd get in a traditional home, not a poshed-up torta in fine pasticceria style, simple ingredients tasting of themselves. Again I wouldn't say it was spectacular or world-changing but as an end to a meal it was quite pleasant; which seems to sum up Gaia. You're not going to come here for culinary innovation or displays of technical prowess; you're coming for simple food done basically but competently. It's the ideal place for an evening where you just need to eat, don't need to be swept away, but also don't want to go somewhere dismal.

Speaking of the poshed-up torte - for that you go to Douce. Unabashedly French in style, but with a Milanese slant to the decor, in one sense it captures Genoa's position near both. It's located in the ideal tourist-trap location, next to the Palazzo Ducale, and no doubt functions in that capacity, but in this case in a way that you wouldn't mind being trapped. (It was also about the only open place to go for breakfast on the Saturday as well as for coffee on Friday evening). Coffee is excellent, well above Italian norm, so if all you're there for is to sip a coffee and take in the atmosphere it's a great choice. However as a breakfast venue it also makes the grade. I took a brioche con crema (croissant with pastry cream), a pane al cioccolato (pain au chocolat, naturally), and a chocolate mousse torta. The puff pastry in the 2 pastries was supremely flaky, almost rivalling Cristalli di Zucchero, although admittedly with less of the densely buttery flavour. (It may also have suffered by comparison to Pierre Herme in Paris, who I'd been to the day before). The pastry cream in the brioche was decent although not at Cristalli's standard, far less that of the unbelievable version on offer at Luca Mannori in Prato. Still, the breakfast pastries were, I felt, about as good as one has any reason to expect of anywhere. The chocolate mousse cake was a technical tour de force, with a delightfully crisp bottom, a light mousse, and a well-executed chocolate glaze. The quality of the chocolate could use some improvement though; it felt like bulk Callebaut or some other commodity chocolate. Be that as it may, the combination of position, excellent coffee, and obvious willingness to make an effort in a tourist-trap location where it would be so easy to fall into cynical exploitation makes Douce another destination worth visiting.

Finally I ended up eating a lot of focaccia from Patrone, again by virtue of the fact that they were open in a central location. Quality seems a bit uneven; on one visit I got the most tremendous puffy top and crisp bottom with beautiful flavour; on another a bland, soft mass that didn't have the same texture or flavour contrast. People rave about Patrone; I feel like they're just another typical Italian bakery in a usefully central location (and handily close to a metro stop) - which is to say, not bad, but certainly not setting any sort of reference point for bread in Genoa, much less Italy. However the service is friendly, in contrast to many other Italian bakeries which can have a perfunctory character, so maybe they're winning people over on that.

One point I'll also relate, for the previous poster's reference, if too late for their actual visit, and maybe it'll help others. I was fortunate and was booked into a hotel by our local Genoese hosts. They booked us into the Best Western Porto Antico. I can't really think of a better possible hotel. Absolutely central, in small street of the Old Town just east of the Darsena metro stop, next to the port and within instant walking distance to everywhere, the rooms are comfortable and immaculate, the service exceptionally personal and helpful, the atmosphere tranquil in spite of the central positioning. Definitely book if you're planning to visit.

Oct 19, 2014
AlexRast in Italy

2015 Guides

Bad experiences at supposedly good restaurants definitely happen. Sometimes either through repeat visits or through the testimony of others or simply through observation at the time it's clear this was not a freak one-off either. Indisputably there are restaurants that will leave you wondering what other people see in them. The experience can be particularly disheartening when the place is very expensive - problems at a €20 a meal restaurant can be overlooked but at €100 or more they really are inexcusable. I've had those experiences several times and it really does cause me to doubt the whole restaurant-ratings industry.

When the same "usual suspects" claim all the top spots in guides it's very easy to conclude that there is internal collusion going on, particularly in the formation of cliques whose main aim is to magnify their own importance. And yes, there is always going to be *some* bias - in the first place because guides usually have a target audience that they need to appeal to, but also because reviewers are human beings and in a subjective area like this it's impossible not to inject your own opinions to some degree. Sometimes this does have the effect of overrating certain restaurants or putting them in a higher category. But on the whole I am fairly certain that the guidebooks do make an effort to provide a reasonably balanced presentation - if for no other reason that if they didn't they would quickly lose relevance and become something of a laughing stock; most people aren't fooled forever. In short I have enough faith (and to be fair, enough good experiences) in the high end to believe that it's not all about magnifying their own ego.

And in the main the guides' recommendations give at least a better chance of a good meal than competing methods - unless you happen to know for every major region in Italy a food obsessive with comprehensive knowledge of the region. (Even then to a degree it presupposes that the expert you know has similar tastes). That's not a position most people are going to be in and the person dropped randomly (or effectively randomly) into a city or village they know nothing about and where they have no contacts will have precious little chance of finding anywhere good.

The very top ratings in the guide will always excite dispute, simply because by virtue of the small number of such top ratings available (here I mean not in the sense that there are only a few restaurants of the "creative" type but rather in the sense that high ratings are always going to be limited to a small number of entries in the guides), there's likely to be more contention as others will have different opinions.

There does exist a culture amongst some diners of deifying certain chefs, of treating restaurants with a sort of "tick-list" mentality, of giving little space or credit to restaurants that provide a traditional format rather than something "innovative" or "creative". This is mindless behaviour and I think merits sharp criticism as a result. Particularly I think there ought to be a movement for the promotion of ultimate quality in a traditional idiom. But I do think the criticism should be directed at the right target - against the *mentality*, not against guidebooks who are in the main only doing the best they can with the restaurants they have before them.

Oct 15, 2014
AlexRast in Italy

2015 Guides

As mentioned, this is a common pattern not just in Italy but most everywhere in the world. Even for great cosmopolitan cities. Few people anywhere go to the "elite restaurants" - typically because as you say they can't afford the high prices, or don't really care for the type of food on offer. Or sometimes, in a combination of the 2, they don't think the prices being charged are justified by the type of food on offer.

However, by the same token, at some level there are real differences in food quality possible as the price level and degree of obsession about making absolutely no compromise whatsoever go up. That's not something that's really feasible at the level of the cheap and basic trattoria or even the relatively upscale ristorante. At the level of ordinary prices there are limits to what you can achieve because you have to make some compromises in the name of managing the costs. So we ought to expect that the "elite" restaurants, can, in the limit, do "better" food and there can be no denying the technical skill and ingredient quality that goes into those sorts of "cutting edge" places.

But unfortunately, there seems to be a question of market expectation, whereby as the price increases to the level where genuinely uncompromising quality - worthy of the highest ratings in guides - becomes possible, people also expect "cutting edge" innovation rather than traditional or simpler dishes, to the point where on the one hand traditional/simple dishes are held to be intrinsically of lower maximum potential, and on the other it's very difficult for a chef, no matter how passionate his intentions, to be able to make a top-end restaurant based around tradition and simple dishes succeed. To me that seems to be attaching too much weight to novelty value.

In another sense though, it would be condescending to expect all restaurants to hew closely to tradition and keep to very simple dishes - that would stifle the creativity of the chef and keep a given region (e.g. Piedmont or Tuscany such as in the examples above) in a sort of anachronistic time warp. There is value in having at least a few restaurants, anywhere, exploring the boundaries of cookery.

However, the practical upshot of this mix of market pressures, customer expectation, and budgetary limitations means that inevitably the types of places producing food at the highest possible standard will be the "cutting edge" places - because they command the market segment where a no-compromises approach can be successful as a business proposition. So in that sense the guides are not to be faulted; they're only reporting quality as they find it on the ground.

It would be wonderful indeed if some restaurants offering traditional, regional cuisine of Tuscany or Piedmont or Emilia Romagna or whereever and with a no-compromise-whatsoever ethos existed, but until there are enough people prepared to spend €100 or more per person, not including wine, on that type of meal, that's not likely to happen. I'd be willing to spend that much, without difficulty, although like most it's not something I could afford more than every once in a great while, and so what's needed is to get to the mind-set of the wealthy business and travel clientele, to suggest to them that such would be worthwhile.

But for the moment, I think the guides are probably reasonably fairly reporting the quality - at least at the ultimate level - it's just a reflection of what's actually possible from a market perspective.

Oct 14, 2014
AlexRast in Italy

Wild atlantic salmon?

It definitely does exist, on a commercial level. Here in the UK, we get wild Scottish (Atlantic) salmon for a relatively short season in late July/early August. At this time of year, it's likely that the restaurant's salmon was frozen, but there's no reason to suspect it could not have been wild.

Oct 13, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Food mythbusters . What's your belief or not ?

It's possible that potatoes have some particularly unique cellular structure, but if so, you didn't mention it - you just said "dense cellular structure" - which is why I brought up other examples of foods; I'd expect to see something more specific identified if there really were a unique property. It should be noted that, notwithstanding that carrots are sometimes found as heavy and bulky as potatoes, and sometimes baked, parsnips are certainly found as heavy and bulky as potatoes, and frequently baked.

Meanwhile, any "short venting path" provided by piercing would seem to be defeated by dense cellular structures, assuming the structure involved has nonpermeable walls, and if the walls were permeable there would be a venting path anyway - so it would be difficult to see how this structure by itself could be a cause of explosion, again unless there is something particularly unique about potatoes in this regard.

Sausages can burst (I've not seen one literally explode, although bursting can be violent), but the skin of a sausage (pigs intestine) *really is* nonpermeable. That's precisely why sausages are encased in them, in fact: the nonpermeable skin keeps moisture in. In this respect a sausage is quite different from a potato. Other meats, not so encased, do not seem to burst in this way.

Oct 13, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Last minute cake planning! A SPHERE!

I've made "concentric" cakes (chocolate, in fact) for many, many years now using exactly the method you suggest - sinking bowls into the centre of the batter. You do need a fairly substantial amount of weight (because the batter rises while baking, pushing the bowls around) but as long as the batter is dense enough the bowls won't sink through. Be advised that the centre bottom - immediately underneath the bowl, cooks a LOT more slowly than the top rim, so careful adjustment of oven temperatures (not too hot) and constant monitoring are important.

Filling the entire centre with a ganache will seem too rich for almost everybody, although a dead-centre part (Jupiter's rocky core, perhaps?) that's ganache is OK. You'll want something lighter but that holds its shape otherwise to fill mousse is ideal. If you're not using double cream, whipped cream is a bit too soft and insufficiently dense; it tends to flow around while cutting. It's also quite difficult to pack whipped cream uniformly and with no gaps into a shell; not so with mousse which is nice and conformal. A bavarois-type filling (gelatinised custard) is another lovely idea - in fact you could make 3 internal layers if you wanted to get ambitious: mousse (Jupiter's liquid hydrogen layer), bavarois (the metallic hydrogen layer) and ganache (the core). But that's a Herculean amount of preparation, the sort of thing you do if you're trying to win a professional baking contest.

Oct 12, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Muffins stick inside the paper liners!

An old question, but one that has an easy solution that I'll post

The most straightforward solution is to get coated paper liners. I use the silicone coated "If You Care" brand paper liners and always get clean release, even with very sticky things in them. The difference between them and uncoated liners is really quite dramatic.

Oct 12, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Vanilla extract vs vanilla powder, white vs dark

Vanilla powder is some powdered substance, usually either cornflour or sugar, flavoured with vanilla. Generally speaking I'd expect it to be less potent than extract, which in turn is less potent than vanilla bean. What I'd watch for in recipes is if there was some critical effect related to liquid - e.g. adding extract to pure melted chocolate or unmixed flour could cause problems. You could probably resequence most recipes, though, to get around any potential problems.

I've never heard of dark vanilla powder. There is pure vanilla paste - the scraped-out insides of a vanilla bean; this is MUCH stronger than ordinary vanilla powder and is dark, but certainly not powdery in consistency (and if it was, it would be so old as to be probably equivalent to dust in flavour).

Oct 12, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Food mythbusters . What's your belief or not ?

? That still doesn't seem to me to provide an explanation. Following that line of reasoning, carrots, parsnips and all sorts of other vegetables also ought to explode, and meats could do so too.

Furthermore if this were the case then poking ought to have no effect precisely because the dense cellular structure would be uniform and poking one area wouldn't affect another, just as poking a closed cell foam mat won't cause the mat to collapse.

Again I emphasise that I'm not disputing the concept that there are conditions under which a potato might explode, I'm debating the idea that poking is of much use in mitigating these conditions.

One thing that *is* possible is that there are potatoes that have internal cavities. If one of them were large enough and central enough, it could receive enough steam eventually to explode a potato from the inside. This would be VERY difficult to determine; you'd probably need an MRI machine or something similar to find out if it had a cavity. Poking *might* make a difference there, if you pierced the cavity, but that would be random chance.

Oct 12, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Food mythbusters . What's your belief or not ?

The problem is, a potato's skin isn't non-porous. I agree that it's possible to build up pressure if the skin were completely non-porous (or very nearly so) and effectively trapped the steam, but I'd like to see the evidence that this is the case. And reasoning by analogy isn't strong enough evidence unless the examples can be shown to have the same properties and context.

I'm sorry to get pedantic like this, but I think this is a myth that needs to be tested. Note that I'm not disputing the basic idea that potatoes can explode. What I don't have enough evidence to say, though, is whether poking actually achieves anything - that is to say, that a poked potato has any significantly lower chance of exploding. (or better yet, hinting at posters below, if there is a relationship between number of pokes and probability of exploding with a strong nonlinearity at some point)

Oct 09, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Looking for fine dinning with large portions

To an extent though that sounds like you're assuming you're ordering off a fixed menu - where at least the number of courses is pre-set. If you're choosing yourself a la carte, from a menu which may break things down into courses but gives no idea of size, it's easy to end up on the small side if what you do order turns out to be very small. Some idea of what portion size is for each menu division is always useful going in, so you can plan appropriately and order enough to leave satisfied.

Oct 09, 2014
AlexRast in Manhattan

Looking for fine dinning with large portions

A question: does it *have* to be an oxymoron? Is there anything particular about large portion size that is antithetical to the possibility of fine dining? I'd say no.

The reasons why few fine-dining restaurants have large portions probably have to do with economics. If you increased the portion size in a fine-dining establishment, the prices would have to rise proportionately, to cover the increased raw materials costs. So that $50 main course suddenly jumps to $85. Not many people are going to go for that. Also, smaller portion size lets you spread out a small amount of high-quality ingredients amongst a larger number of people. So there's a sort of fair-distribution thing going on: if portion sizes were large, that would mean fewer people could have the experience at all.

On the other hand great steak I would be willing to call fine dining, in the sense of quality on the plate, though if it's not what people are expecting they're likely to be disappointed. There is a dependence on the atmosphere - for a steakhouse to be "fine dining" as such it needs to offer a suitably luxurious atmosphere. Agreed that Peter Luger is not a fine dining restaurant. It *is* a place to go to get food of a calibre comparable or even better than "fine dining" restaurants but it should be called a top-end steakhouse rather than a fine dining restaurant.

Oct 07, 2014
AlexRast in Manhattan

The trip report: New York (long, mostly Manhattan) 19-25 September 2014

Sorry, yes I see, my last statement sort of got lost by the neutrality of interpretation in a post. By "only having been to so many places" I meant having been to a necessarily finite number, small by comparison to, say, what a native New Yorker might have been to.

In terms of examples of Northeastern American some I can think of are:

Fresh link sausage
Hot dogs
Clam chowder
Fruit pies
Blueberry pancakes

Many, many more. It also seems to me that there are some preferences not shared by the rest of the country: an openness to lamb among meats, heavier use of root vegetables like carrots and parsnips, less pronounced use of sweetcorn and for that matter corn-based items, eggier breakfasts. These are very general tendencies. I'd also list the obvious use of North Atlantic fish and shellfish, but that just goes with the territory, just as in any coastal region. Some vegetables and fruits have the same property of being highly regional.

Oct 07, 2014
AlexRast in Manhattan

Why does St John still have a Michelin star?

I've been to the St. John many, many times, and to me it definitely still deserves a star. The food is always really yummy in that visceral way so often lacking in other establishments (which in my view would be a reason to *lose* stars, if the establishment had them)

Another reason why I think it deserves a star that it is still the prime exponent of traditional British cookery in London, a point of reference for everywhere else. *Not* to give it a star would be equivalent to an opinion that British cookery is inherently inferior in some way that makes it impossible for even the best versions of it to gain stars - a relative judgement on cuisines that I think can't be justified.

That said, I still think that Michelin isn't really the best or most useful source for the UK - they really aren't in contact with British cookery or restaurants to the degree that they ought to be, to be a good reference.

Oct 06, 2014
AlexRast in U.K./Ireland

Rubber gloves that last, worth buying?

I usually go to my local DIY (hardware) shop and get a pair of nitrile gloves. Overkill, possibly. But they last and last and last. The heavy duty ones are almost indestructible.

Oct 06, 2014
AlexRast in Cookware

The trip report: New York (long, mostly Manhattan) 19-25 September 2014

Brilliant! Very comprehensive.

You might think London is stronger in Turkish food, but really a lot of it is cheap kebab shops. Not that I'm averse to that - e.g. in Manchester the kebabs at the Venus Grocery are cracking, but that's perhaps not exactly what I had in mind - I'm for something a little more interesting than the typical kebab shop you'll get in Dalston.

There are a few Persian restaurants in Manchester (don't know too much about what there is in London), one of which is rather good, but it's always a style that I'm interested in wherever I go.

I get the idea on Queens. Something I must do, but the logistics/time of getting out there is a bit daunting when one is staying in Manhattan. Usually I can manage about one trip far into the Outer Boroughs per visit; anything more usually proves to be beyond what's practicable.

By the way, for the rest of the people asking, your (Pan's) description of Northeastern American is fairly close to the image I have. I realise that for a native the cuisines probably break down into much finer regional distinctions, but looking from the outside that fineness of distinction is lost. Rather like, for instance, I suspect a lot of non-English would have a hard time noticing regional differences between the North and the South, or between Yorkshire and Lancashire, to take it one step further. In the USA, I can identify 6 broad styles: Northeastern, Southern, Central, Southwestern, Californian, and Northwestern. Many will have no doubt apoplectic fits over such broad categorisations but please rest assured, it isn't out of indifference but rather out of only having been to so many places.

Oct 06, 2014
AlexRast in Manhattan