"" What's She Eating Now?: December 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Best Sleeper Restaurant in NYC

It has been a while since I have been surprised in a good way by an off-the-grid restaurant. Even great neighborhood spots usually have hype about what great neighborhood spots they are. Especially in the internet age, if a place is good, news travels fast and becomes common knowledge.

Why is it then, that no one knows about Seasonal? Did you know they earned a Michelin star this year? Have you heard of chefs Wolfgang Ban and Eduard Frauneder? Did you know they have solid food that won't break the bank? I sure didn't, until last night.

I have been meaning to go since it opened about a year ago, but 58th between 6th and 7th avenues is a strange no man's land laden with scaffolding that I never seem to find myself in. But alas, good things come to those who wait, apparently whether its due to laziness or not. Seasonal presents a modern take on traditional Austrian cuisine and does so with fresh tasting ingredients and impressive flavor combinations. Texture is also strong suit of the kitchen.

The first starter we tried was a Ziegenkase (Goat Cheese, Pumpkin Seed, Beets,Shallot, Elderflower, $12). This dish was alright. Although beautifully plated, the ratio of goat cheese to the other delicious ingredients was too much. This was the only plate we didn't lick clean. The next starter, Porchiertes Ei (Soft Poached Egg, Lobster, Maitake, Porcini, $15), was outstanding. The egg mixed with the broth it was sitting in was perplexingly both rich and light, and created a natural urge to mix in the lobster and top it off with a perfectly cooked crispy mushroom, which gave this wonderfully complete bite a needed contrasting texture. This dish was worthy of bread sopping towards the end.

We then had the Kalbsbries (veal sweetbread with celery and brussel sprouts, $15). The batter was a little reminiscent of the colonel's secret spice recipe, but there is a reason why people have tried to hijack it over the years. It has a good pepperiness without overpowering the supple sweetbreads and the crust does not crack or separate. The pieces of sweetbread were delicous on their own and even better when mixed with the other elements on the plate including brussel sprout leaves and a mysterious creamy something smeared on the plate with some tiny mushrooms. If you haven't caught on yet, chefs Ban and Frauneder know their way around fungus.

The Schweinebauch, or pork belly ($14) was good, but not as good as some of the other dishes. The pork itself was pretty fatty, even for belly, and the consistency reflected that. The scallion based relish it came with was a lovely burst of acid and fresh onion flavor which helped cut through the pork, but I have had better pork belly elsewhere. We ended our tour through the starters on an up note with the Kartofeelsuppe (Potato Soup, Speck, Taleggio, Dill, $13). The bowl is brought to the table with a solid tubular airy cheese element and some other flourishes sitting in the bottom, and the potato soup is poured on top tableside. It is hearty yet refined and the flavor is rich with potato, not just starch, and also with cheese, which is present in the soup up to but not crossing the point that it would make it heavy. The small bits of speck are a nice surprise when you find them.

We sampled the duck ($29) and the spatzle ($23) from the entree menu. The duck appeared to be prepared sous-vide and both large pieces were perfectly pink, tender and flavorful throughout. The accompanying puree was a little sweet for my taste but had a nice distinct carrot flavor and the black trumpets filled a great supporting role on the plate, if a touch too salty. The spatzle is something else. Everyone has had spatzle, but not everyone has had spatzle like this. Rather than a side dish of dumplings possibly lightly sauteed to create a little crisp, chefs Ban and Frauneder are bold enough to make an entree out of this Austrian staple. The dumplings themselves were cooked to the ideal density where they had a little give but weren't chewey and finely diced zucchini hid amongst them and the generous splash of wild mushrooms. The unifying force in the dish is the buttery cheesey sauce that has a subtle funk, just the right hint to give it punch. You can, of course, get a side of just the plain spaezle ($7), but the entree is one of the best vegetarian mains I can recall having in some time. The restaurant is proud of their desserts, but in my opinion selections from the cheese menu are a better end to this meal.

My only strong knock on Seasonal (aside from the name not working as well in English as in German) is that the decor does not match the menu well. Perhaps the intent was to have equal parts restaurant and weinbar, but Seasonal is clearly all about the food. Although its false sleekness takes away from the atmosphere somewhat, the professional yet friendly service and music, including the likes of The Shins and Postal Service played at moderate volume, help compensate. But why Seasonal is the Sleeper of the Year to me is the chefs' focus on showcasing ingredients in their best light and in harmonious balance between light and heavy, thick and thin, rich and refreshing. Its worth the shuffle past the tourists outside of Jeckyl and Hyde to experience this midtown marvel.

Guten Appetit!

132 West 58th Street (Between 6th and 7th Avenues)
Phone: 212 957 5550
Monday - Saturday: Lunch 12pm-3pm, Dinner 5pm-11pm
Sunday: Dinner 5pm-10pm

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Quotation of the Day

Sent in by a reader, I liked this passage from Haruki Murakami's Kafka on The Shore:
Eel is quite a treat. There's something different about it, compared to other food. Certain foods can take the place of others, but as far as I know, nothing can take the place of eel.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Italian Wine: The Grape Unknown

Guest post by friend of the blog and walking wine encyclopedia, Keith Levenberg. This piece is the third in a series of introductions to different wine regions. You can find his knowledge dropping on Germany here and France here.

The most important thing I learned about Italian wine was probably the first thing I ever read about it, in one of those wine-for-dummies kind of books. This book showed a map with all the winegrowing regions of the world shaded in red, which barely amounted to a few freckles on the map even in places synonymous with wine like France. But the whole boot of Italy was red from top to bottom. The text proceeded to note that most wine-producing countries, including France, had a few dozen major grape varieties; in Italy, there are hundreds.

The second most important thing I learned about Italian wine was at a bar in Asti, one of the most inexplicably dreary and depressing towns I’ve ever encountered in a wine region. (The weekly market in the town square of Beaune is a gastronome’s paradise; the weekly market in the town square of Asti featured t-shirts and socks.) Stuck there alone with nothing to do in the twilight zone between lunch and dinner, I sat down at an outdoor table and ordered a glass of Roero Arneis, a refreshing picnic-style white. Before serving the glass, which cost the equivalent of maybe three dollars, the waiter delivered a plate of prosciutto, sausage slices, and cheese, which he proceeded to replenish for as long as I sat there. Even with a cheap glass of arneis in the afternoon, it was simply incomprehensible that I should be drinking wine and have nothing to eat.

The third most important thing I learned about Italian wine was from the chapter titled “Bella Figura—The Italian Love of the Beautiful Gesture” in Matt Kramer’s book about the wines of the boot. Bella figura is the term that describes all those subtle ways Italians show a little style and panache. Kramer writes about how some winemakers will use a fancy label or a heavy bottle to project their bella figura; others will make a bella figura out of their slick modern winemaking (or, contrariwise, out of their intransigent refusal to engage in any slick modern winemaking). The whole idea of the bella figura sounds like another one of those romantic myths hack writers have concocted to make Italy seem so nauseatingly idyllic... and sometimes the idyllic Italy of myth is exactly the image the bella figura is designed to project, like those cheap Chiantis in straw bottles, or the pastoral imagery on a label like Monsanto’s.

Those three things—the head-spinning diversity, the obligatory marriage with food at the table, and the various quirks and flourishes in service of style—tell a big part of the story about Italian wine today. Let’s take a little tour.

The first stop is usually Tuscany or Piedmont, the regions that feature Italy’s most recognizable names (Chianti Classico and the three B’s—Brunello, Barolo, and Barbaresco). But I’m going to take a detour, because while Barolo and Barbaresco account for many of Italy’s greatest wines, they require bottle age; any Barolo worth drinking tastes like sandpaper until it’s at least fifteen years old. Instead, look north to Gattinara or the Valtellina. The reds there are made from the same grape as Barolo and Barbaresco and are often wrongly assumed to be inferior just because they’re cheaper. But Gattinara was once regarded just as highly, and should be again. The best examples—i.e., Antoniolo’s Osso San Grato and Travaglini’s Riserva—have a suppleness to their texture even when young that Barolos need many years to acquire, and feature the typical flavors of nebbiolo cast in an intense minerality vividly evocative of the volcanic mountain soil in which they’re grown. The Travaglini bottle makes for a striking bella figura, too.

From there, one can go west to the Valle d’Aosta, where producers like Grosjean make beautifully elegant reds from obscure grapes like fumin and familiar ones like pinot noir, or east to Alto Adige and Trentino. Alto Adige might be guilty of a mortal sin in unleashing Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio on the world, but the region and bordering Trentino also produce two of Italy’s most distinctive reds in lagrein and teroldego. The most serious examples have an intensity of fruit that’s almost overwhelming and capable of K.O.’ing many New World heavyweights, but the fruit is augmented by equally intense tarry and smoky flavors that feel so literal it is almost impossible to believe they came from grapes. Try Foradori’s Granato and Abbazia di Novacella’s Lagrein Riserva Praepositus the next time you’re feasting on a brontosaurus.

Other brontosaurus-worthy reds are grown down south in the volcanic mountain soils of Basilicata and Campania, where aglianico makes the kind of wine you could imagine the Marlboro Man drinking. But my favorite wines from that zone are probably the falanghina and piedirosso from La Sibilla, the former a white that tastes like vinified oyster shells and the latter one of my desert-island reds. The flavor is usually so intensely gamey it tastes positively succulent, and its ungrafted vines give it a seamless, graceful mouthfeel that most wines at ten times the price could never even hope to achieve.

Returning to the north and continuing east brings us to Friuli and Brda, which actually straddles the border with Slovenia. If quirky winemaking practices can be made into a bella figura, this might be Ground Zero. Here, you will find producers like Gravner and Radikon, who make “orange” wines—whites fermented on their skins (which, for mysterious reasons, happen to be the perfect wines to drink with sea urchin). Instead of aging his wines in steel vats or oak barrels, Gravner uses open-topped amphorae buried to their necks in the ground. Just as quirky but perhaps more charming is the sparkling wine from Movia that requires you to disgorge it yourself (see below video).

But maybe it’s in Sicily where the guru of oddball winemaking resides. Here is how the J. Peterman-esque retailer Garagiste describes one of Frank Cornelissen’s bottlings: “What started as the fluid from a refermenting compost heap has turned into Frank’s most famous and widely consumed ‘wine,’ the Contadino. A mix of every indigenous old-vine grape he has (red and white), the original Contadino 1 was never intended to be consumed, sampled by journalists by accident as the run-off from his plastic tank of cuttings, branches, soil, leaves and grapes that had fallen off the vine. The tank was supposed to be used for compost, but a group of writers mistakenly opened the spigot on the bottom of the tank and poured the cloudy liquid into stems. This was the ‘ah ha’ moment for Cornelissen—the juice from his compost heap was unlike anything any of them had ever tasted—it was revolutionary in its relation to wine and the rest is history. Fast forward a number of years and the original compost heap formula has been modified but only in terms of cleanliness – the original concept is the same: grapes, twigs, leaves, pieces of bark and volcanic earth all co-mingling in an incredible cauldron of orange/pink liquid that teems with tobacco, cumin, cinnamon, citrus peel and tangerine.”

I think I’ll have to take his word on that one. But if any of the above wines seem confounding and strange, they are practically mainstream compared to some of the eclectica on offer at Santa Monica’s Wine Expo, where maestro Roberto Rogness likes to point out he carries several thousand wines, and only one merlot.

Keith Levenberg blogs about wine and food whenever the mood strikes at http://pickyeaters.blogspot.com/.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Stocking Stuffing

What to get the kitchen geek who has every gadget and unusual condiment under the sun? Always a tough question this time of year. A subscription to What's She Eating Now? is a real bargain at the price of $0, but if you're feeling a little more flush and want to give something in addition, here are three stocking stuffers that may make your food lover forget all about that amazing Wusthof knife someone showed you up with last year. Damn you singing bass.

Cookeys: For the person who truly has everything food, except perhaps cute covers for their keys, this gift is thoughtful and inexpensive. Milk sold separately.

Foodie Fight: Is your sweetie a competitive gourmand? Then perhaps this food trivia board game will fit the bill. Endorsed by Jacques Pepin, Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich, this game is sure to provide some spirited fun and perhaps provoke a little food trash talking. "Your answer is really sous vide? Remind me to never let you near my immersion circulator."

Salt & Pepper 'Bots: Watch the video. These little guys practically sell themselves. A perfect gift for the couple who likes to sit on opposite ends of a really long dining table.

Happy Shopping!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Persimmon Bread

Dan's mom had been calling every day. "Did you get the package I sent?" But in Romanian. Finally it arrived. A rather large box. As Dan carried it into the apartment, I prayed it was not more sweaters for him with sleeves that are way too short. Somehow my power of positive attraction worked. It was instead a box full of persimmons, which had made their way from a tree in her backyard to us via the slowest shipping option available from the US Postal Service. They needed to be eaten fast.

So fast that I neglected to take photos of this unusual parcel. I did not pass Go, did not collect $200, and went straight for this recipe from David Lebovitz, which had been adapted from James Beard's Beard on Bread, which I then adapted some more (see below). I made alterations less because I doubt David Lebovitz's kitchen prowess, and more because my pantry supply required some substitutions, which I think actually turned out well.

But before we get down to cooking, I think its worth describing what a persimmon is. A persimmon is a fall/winter fruit that primarily grows in two varieties: the Hachiya and the Fuyu. The Hachiya are heart shaped and can only be eaten when they are very ripe and almost squishy. They Fuyu look like a tomato but orange, and with a density closer to a barely ripe nectarine. When ripe one can eat them like an apple, but expect a taste closer to papaya. It is a very complex fruit. Now that we have met the star of this dish, let's bake!

Persimmon Bread, via James Beard via David Lebovitz
Makes two 9-inch loaves

Ingredients (my notes in italics):
  • 3½ cups sifted flour
  • 1½ teaspoons salt (I would measure on the generous side here)
  • 2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg (My nutmeg didn't have the smell I was hoping for so used half nutmeg and half all spice and measured generously)
  • 2 to 2½ cups sugar (I ran out of sugar, gasp!, so used just under 2 cups of white and just under a half cup of brown, maybe 2 1/4 cups total. More sugar makes for greater moisture in addition to more sweetness)
  • 1 cup melted unsalted butter and cooled to room temperature (nothing says holidays like two sticks of butter!)
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten
  • 2/3 cup Cognac, bourbon or whiskey (I used the remainer of a bottle of Maker's Mark and topped up with a random bottle of Crown Royal I found stashed away. Should I be concerned that Dan is stashing away whino-sized bottles of Canadian whiskey?)
  • 2 cups persimmon puree (Lebovitz recommends the Hachiya variety, I used FuyuThe flavor is slightly less sweet which is why I used a heavy hand with the sugar and they are also smaller so you'll need many more of them to make 2 cups of purreeIf you use Hachiya, they must be very ripe as this type is not edible otherwise. I peeled the Fuyus with a peeler, cut off the tops, quartered, cut out any core-like bits, and pureed with a hand blender)
  • 2 cups walnuts or pecans, toasted and chopped (I used walnuts which I broke into bits, did not toast)
  • 2 cups raisins, or diced dried fruits (such as apricots, cranberries, or dates) (I used apricots which I cut into small pieces)


  •  Butter 2 loaf pans. Line the bottoms with a piece of parchment paper or dust with flour and tap out any excess. 
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 
  • Sift the first 5 dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. (I don't own a sifter so just mixed them together and tapped the bowl a bit
  • Make a well in the center then stir in the butter, eggs, liquor, persimmon puree then the nuts and raisins. (My well was sort of pitiful, I don't think this bit is critical though as long as you stir thoroughly)
  • Bake 1 hour or until toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Storage: Will keep for about a week, if well-wrapped, at room temperature. The Persimmon Breads take well to being frozen, too.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Food Humor Wednesday Chef Ramsay Style

When I was a kid, I went through a phase where the magazines Cracked, Mad, and the now defunct National Lampoon appealed to me. Truth be told, much of the humor may have been over my head at 11, but I got the lowest common denominator jokes and liked the cartoons and as for my mother, she was just glad I was reading something. These magazines, in due course, got replaced with the Seventeens of the world and ultimately got permanently swapped for the pages of Food & Wine and Saveur. But alas, with this stroke of genius on Cracked's website, my childhood and grown-up worlds collide. Check out the main graphics here but its worth a click through to read the rest. Funny stuff.

Gordon Ramsay's proprietary Kitchen Nightmares formula revealed here:

And how does he come up with the episodes for Hell's Kitchen?

This stuff is right up there with the Little Gordon Ramsay bits. My two favorites below. Enjoy!