Saturday, 29 January 2011

New York: art, salt, wine and the web, long necked clams, spices and biscuits

Gillian Carnegie painting of Holly Lodge Estate
 Bike completely covered with snow
 Ice skating at the Rockefeller Center
Buy a plough and attach it to your bumper
This guy is going off to ski in Harlem

I've been running around meeting everybody, eating loads, getting wet feet, attempting to spring balletically over the kerb-fulls of slush, navigating the 20 inches of snow that has fallen in the last week. I take it all back: New York does have weather and New Yorkers certainly deal alot better with it than we do. Remember the couple of inches that fell in the UK in December? Over here, entire cars are buried in the streets but New Yorkers just buy a shovel or affix a plough to their bumpers and carry on regardless.
The guesthouse where I am staying, East Village bed and coffee, is populated with artists, writers, music industry people. I'm sharing a floor with Turner prize shortlisted Gillian Carnegie, whose opening I attended last night at the Andrea Rosen gallery, and Brussels based artist Simon Thompson, who coincidentally knows my friend, fellow supper club host, Horton Jupiter. This morning I saw Simon, wearing a coat and no socks, padding around the kitchen, clutching his head from the post-show dinner and drinks. Gillian's work is low key, solitary, intense, textural and skillful; some of the paintings reflect directly where she lives: the Holly Lodge Estate in Highgate, London; an interesting 19th century housing project set up specifically for women offering "an acceptable way for single women to live near to London on their own." I particularly loved her painting of a cat on a Victorian staircase; the palette is pure London, cloud, charcoal and soot; you could almost smell the fumes of the floor lino and the gloss painted banister; redolent of rented bedsits; Anita Brookner with a paintbrush. Simon on the other hand is a larger than life loose-limbed carrot-topped wit, with a million sparky ideas shooting all over the place. I commented on the quietness of the opening last night and frankly, the lack of chairs, sorely needed after a day tramping around in snow. "Oh my last opening" he said " was chaos. Paintings were stolen, things were smashed, books taken, I was in tears". He was smiling as he relayed all of this. 
So this has been my week...
 Beautifully wrapped chocolate from Brooklyn.
 Emu eggs $30 a piece
 Giant Brussel sprouts
 Green chilli sugar, good for exotic fruits I reckon
Freshly ground peanut butter
I visited Wholefoods, I love that shop. It's a shame it hasn't really worked in the UK. They put it in the wrong place, Kensington, which isn't exactly known for food shopping and cooks. I have a vision of supermarkets. They needn't be dreary souless places populated by low paid, low status workers who know nothing about food. They should be community hubs. The workers should be given tastings of all the latest products so they know what they are talking about. There should be sofas and cooking demonstrations. Employees should wear badges talking about the kind of food they like to cook. Local products would be treasured and encouraged. 
 Mahi Mahi ceviche
 Guacamole with cheese and pomegranate
Tacos with tofu.
In the evening I visited El Mercadito which specialises in tacos, ceviche and guacamole. Lovely food. 

 The Starlight Room
A forest of wine glasses.
I spent a day at the Waldorf Astoria hotel for the Italian wine week with Serge le Concierge first of all attending a conference entitled 'Wine and the Web'. For a conference about the internet I found it stunning that it took half an hour to give out the wifi connection and password and another half hour to give out the hashtag for the event. Yes, when you have an event, decide upon a hashtag (# on Twitter) which means that everybody can virtually meet online. (I got the impression that many of the delegates didn't even know what a hashtag was). The question of the day was: how to encourage wine knowledge, sales, consumption via social networking. The key word, according to the panel of experts, a bunch of young tecchie types, was, and I agree, authenticity. Here are some points made during the conference:
  •  have a natural colloquial conversation, don't just broadcast or sell over Twitter, talk to people. Never tell people to go online. Just mention that you had a good wine with your dinner last night for instance. Don't ask for the sale.
  • It's important to be natural and honest because with social media you can't present "different bests". People will catch you out if your public persona isn't consistent. What you think and what you say must be in harmony.
  • Don't just talk to people in the same business as you. Make your tweets varied and cultivate people who are geographically local to you.
  • The problem is when your product isn't very authentic or when the Twitter/facebook/blog isn't a person but a big company. In this situation, it's important to employ somebody who is passionate about your product, bring them into the family and name them. People are savvy enough to read between the lines of a commercial campaign.
  • Admit mistakes. 
  • Have patience, it takes time to build your community, your narrative. 
  • The conference said while "baby boomers put wine on the map", how do we communicate with 'millenials', that is the generation born between 1977 and 1990? Some statistics: there are 7 million millenials. One million people are on facebook citing wine as an interest. Over half a million of these are millenials. Millenials tweet or fb on average 200 times a day (yikes). They touch type . Post millenials (my daughter's age) are using Tumblr which is micro blogging like Twitter but visual and image based.
  • Panel: "Post millenials were born wired. Their diapers had wires." Audience: "I'm a restaurateur. I need people to visit my bricks and mortar place. How do I get them to spend money?" A good question for in the age of the internet, how do you get these geeks outta their bedroom?
  • Blogging and Facebook allow you to talk more in detail about your product. You can feed that into your micro blogging. One panel member said "I see them all as different parts of the house". Facebook analytics are valuable. Twitter drives traffic to your blog. The best blog posts are often written at 2 am in your pyjamas. Readers can empathise if you've had a bad day. 
  • Other 'sequential marketing' tools are video links such as Youtube and 12 secs (which seems to have shut down but maybe they will relaunch?) and geotagging tools such as 4square.
  • One uber geek on the panel (amazed he wasn't skyping this in) said: "Learn about google analytics, the url tool, tag links, know the source. With Twitter there are countless amounts of Url shortening services: you need one that supports a 301 redirect. This way the visitors count in Google analytics". 
  • There is alot of fantasy around wine. City dwellers look at wine growers and, like in the movie 'City Slickers', think that it looks like an ideal existence. One of the panel says "That's a social media story! A wine farmer should take a photograph of their hands every day for a year saying 'Today I've been pruning' or whatever. You don't even need words."
I have a bunch of ideas about this myself. The main problem with wine is that it's boring. Of course it isn't really boring, everybody likes wine but the people who have the money to buy wine, sell wine, import wine, write and talk about wine...seem... dull, being for the most part, old, rich, white and male. And that's just from looking around the room. Nothing wrong with all of the former but when it's exclusively that demographic it ceases to be a sexy topic. Wine ain't very rock n roll. 
In the evening Serge got us into a dinner in the Waldorf Astoria's grand Starlight room, famous in the 30s and 40s for it's retractable roof, host to celebrity studded state dinners. A jazz band played with a Frank Sinatra style singer. Freeze dried Americans were stuffed into their best suits and dresses and foxtrotted around the dance floor. The table was covered with glasses, 8 in front of each place setting. The uniformed and elderly waiters doddered through service, one of them spilling wine on the trouser leg of a wine buyer who complained loudly and repeatedly about the waiter's incompetence. Eventually I said "he needs the job". One thing that always shocks me in the States is the age that people work until. In Florida you often get ancient shop assistants, in their 80s, tremblingly taking your money. You feel guilty. In the UK, they would be retired. I guess we are going to see more of this over here, with the retirement age going up.
Mark Bitterman, Salt shop , New York

 Himalayan salt blocks
 Umeboshi salt

I visited Mark Bitterman of The Meadow Salt shop. I bought 11 kilos of salt; in pink Himalayan brick form and in different varieties: truffle, lemon, pyramid, Icelandic pebble (natural!), Turkish grey, green bamboo, pink umeboshi flavoured, bright orange Hawaian Alaia, chocolate fleur de sel, to add to my collection. Bitterman is GQ handsome and spent years travelling around Europe on a motorcycle "In France I learnt that every single ingredient mattered and that every chef had their own salt". He reiterated Jeffrey Steingarten's point that there is no connection between high blood pressure and salt. "I simply don't know any doctors that say salt is bad for you. If you cut out salt your blood pressure will maybe drop 3 mmHg, which is a tiny amount if you have high blood pressure. Babies eat salt! They have an innate appetite for it" He talked of working with the Japanese Chef Okuda who had such a developed palate for salt he could determine the phase of the moon when it was reaped "this was harvested under a full moon". You can buy Mark's book: Salted, a manifesto on the World's most essential mineral here.
I then went to meet Shuna Lydon (@shunafish) who was my pastry chef for a couple of dinners in 2009. She has a well respected blog and has returned to the states to open up first Ten Downing and now 'Peels' restaurant. Peels has long wooden counters, mirrored overmantles and a classic New York soundtrack; Lou Reed. The menu is decidedly American; collard greens, grits, clam chowder apart  from Shuna's mince pie which they call 'winter spice tart', a title without meat associations, to avoid confusion. 
A New Yorker foodie friend of my father's, Steve, took me to dinner at the Pearl Oyster Bar in Greenwich village. "You've gotta try the steamers" he said "the fried oysters and the lobster roll".

Fried oysters
Steamers are 'long necked clams' presented steamed accompanied by two bowls: one of hot water and herbs, in which you dip them to clean off any sand, and another of hot liquid butter. Steve picked up a large clam, opened it, removed a membrane from the body of the clam, revealed a long black pendulous 'neck', and, holding the creature by this tag, dipped it in the two bowls then handed it to me. I managed to politely force down two, biting off the body sack from the penis-like black appendage. Then Steve proudly prepared a big one for me "here you go" he said, handing it over. 
Choking back a gag reflex, I whimpered "Do I have to?" Steve suddenly became conscious that I was perhaps not enjoying this foodie treat quite as much as he intended. "They are sometimes referred to as piss clams" he added helpfully "as that's how they move in the water, by pissing it out through the tube". I could barely touch the rest of the meal; the thickly bread fried oysters, the large chunks of lobster covered in mayonnaise, wedged into a hot dog roll. I'm basically a vegetarian who will sometimes eat a little fish. This was protein overload. The fact that this food consisted of  broken up bodies, complete with genitalia, from formerly living creatures was all too damn real and apparent. 
I moved onto meet my former sous chef Angie Ma who now has her own supper club Once upon a table in Hong Kong, who happened to be in New York. She was eating at Sorella, an excellent restaurant owned by two female restaurateurs. I tried the dessert; gelato and fried lemon curd doughnuts. Fantastic! She was with her friend, Chef Elliot, and we gossiped about the food industry. Elliot said that kitchens in the UK and France were far tougher than American ones. He said that staff were leaving Gordon Ramsay's New York attempt in droves as they weren't used to be spoken to in the way that the British staff talked to them. " In America, we have rights" he said. He repeated the famous incident when Tom Aikens branded one of his cooks with a palette knife. After a couple of hours of chatting, we left the building to be faced with a blizzard; 19 inches of snow fell overnight. Fortunately taxis were still working; driving gingerly across the thick snow. 

Me in the snow

In the back seat of New York's yellow taxis they have a dedicated TV station 'taxi TV' with chat show morsels, a real time moving map of where you are and infomercials. One of these commercials, repeated so often during the journey I know it by heart,  told me "Before you leave the cab, abide by the ten lip commandments! Exfoliate, brush, moisturise, shrink cold sores with aspirin, use cinnamon to plump your lips, use eyeshadow as lipstick, use hydro cortisone as a lip moisturiser and dig out your lipsticks from the tubes and store the colours in a pillbox".

Interior of Caracas Arepas


Corn soup
Cheesy things
I met with Jason Anello, animated supper club host and one fraternal half of Brooklyn supper club Forkin' Tasty. They do cinema nights and with a group of other underground restaurateurs, such as Whisk and Ladle, Studio Feast and A Razor, a Shiny knife hosted a group supper club night for the launch of the Michelin Guide who'd invited star awarded chefs. "Everybody else was doin' these intricate plates" said Jason in his lively Brooklyn accent " while I just did a bunch of chicken sandwiches and took 'em round myself on a platter". I would have loved to have been there! We ate at a Venezuelan restaurant Caracas Arepas, which specialise in arepas, a patty made of cornmeal with different fillings. The entire area has many 'single item' restaurants; hot dogs, peanut butter sandwiches, lobster rolls, mac and cheese. We ordered the lunch special, a corn soup, passion fruit juice in Mason jars with handles (I love! I want!), avocado arepas with hot sauce. 
Mike Lee
Think Coffee
Next stop I met Mike Lee of Studio Feast  supper club at Think Coffee, a cool hangout for computer geeks and musicians. The tables were very small, just enough to fit a laptop on, which everybody had. Strangely, no free wifi though. Mike does between 12 and 16 events a year, with 20 to 35 guests, normally at other people's houses. The dinners are seemingly expensive, $65 to $150 with matched wines, however, as Mike explains they "strive to break even". He's not a trained chef but his parents owned a restaurant. He had appeared in the A.M free paper that morning but "I don't court the press. I can never satiate my mailing list, the demand for places is too strong". 
Workers at Magnolia bakery
My next stop was Magnolia Bakery, which is famous for cupcakes and Sex in the city. I had a whoopie cookie which was so jaw achingly sweet I could only manage a couple of bites. 
Lior Lev Sercarz
Later that day I went uptown to meet Lior Lev Sercarz, the chef behind La boite à epices. Lior produces 'biscuits' and spice blends in a minalistic lab-like art gallery space. "You will know what biscuits are" he said "the Americans don't".  Biscuits, for Americans, are similar to scones. A good looking Julian Assange lookylikey, Lior is Israeli, but trained in France under Paul Bocuse and therefore has the hauteur and accent of both countries. Lior explained that he does two collections 'summer' and 'winter' of biscuits a year, each tin box containing five different sorts which can be eaten with dessert or cheese. Every box has an artist's engraving on top with a set of small prints and is accompanied by an exhibition at the gallery space/lab. Sercarz takes no commission for sales of art works and for many of the artists, often hailing from South America, it's an opportunity to get a Manhattan gallery. There is a long tradition of art and biscuit tins; today the art nouveau work of decorative biscuit tins by Privat Livement can still be bought in Belgium.
The tin biscuit box is then encased in a hand built wooden box. It retails at $65. "Quite expensive" I suggest "for a box of biccies" although the tin did look pretty and would make a great gift. He didn't offer me a taste although I was gagging for a cuppa. I wanted to ask him the ultimate biscuit question "Do you dunk?" but I got the impression he wouldn't have found that funny.
Sercarz then shows me his spice range of around 40 different blends, often commissioned by chefs to go with certain dishes. He uses exotic ingredients such as orchid roots, sourcing the best of each type of spice from around the world. Prices start at $15 a box. "Can I try some?" I asked. "No." he said firmly. "They are all sealed." I must admit, I found this ridiculous. I wanted to buy some  but I would want to taste before I bought. Conversation petered to a halt after that. He's only been open to the public for three weeks, so maybe he'll open a few boxes eventually and allow tastings. 
I'll continue my New York food odyssey in my next post. 

Food Truck

Monday, 24 January 2011

New York Supper clubs: Four Course Vegan

snow in New York

I haven't been to New York, ooh, since my daughter was 18 months old, when I ran away to America, baby in tow, to escape, although I didn't know it consciously at the time, a rapidly disintegrating relationship with her father. I rode up and down the east coast for a month in a borrowed pick up, staying on sofas and camping by rivers, seeing whales up in Vermont, visiting beautiful clapperboard houses around Boston, pinching corn from Amish fields and meeting up with old friends in the stifling mid summer heat of Manhattan. I've never been here before in the winter.
Almost every email from locals told me to be careful about the weather. Well, my fellow Brits, those yankees must be pussies cos it's not that cold. In fact it's beautiful; piles of snow on the pavements contrasting with the yellow bricks of sun glanced buildings and a clear sky in stars and stripes blue. You want weather? Try living for six months under the low slate grey eaves of London.
A snowy creche on the streets of New York
A snowy creche on the streets of New York

My maiden trip to New York was with my parents in the 70s. I had my first salad bar experience, complete with mind blowingly good blue cheese dressing (still rarely seen in the UK) at a restaurant called Maxwell's Plum. When it closed in 1988, the New York Times said "it symbolised two social revolutions of the 60s -sex and food-". I remember the decor as red brick with art nouveau stained glass lamps, terribly trendy at the time, and the salad bar, something common today, where you could get as much as you can eat, an extravagant concept for a British child, even one as used as I was to eating out. (My parents took us everywhere; on every holiday, to risqué theatre shows like the Rocky Horror Show, everywhere, it was a good education).
My first visit on my own I got sucked into one of those shop fronts lit up with chandeliers and red velvet curtains and a neon sign saying 'psychic'. The dark eyed 'gypsy' woman inside said 'you are going to have a veery bad time, but if you give me eight dollars more I will light a candle for you which will improve your luck'. (How come these joints are legal?) Devastated, I turned down the good luck candle and stumbled out onto the sidewalk. Little did I know that my best friend back in London had mysteriously fallen out of a window and died that weekend. (Hey Donna! Long time no's it going up there?)

I got to New York this time courtesy of British Airways, a delightful and useful perk from being named one of the Evening Standard's '1000 most influential Londoners'. I took a 32 seater plane from London City Airport in Club Class. Rich socialite Tara Palmer-Tompkinson once said something like 'my idea of hell is turning right when I board a plane'. I now fully understand her. How can I ever go back to hours of embolism-inducing cramped economy class on long haul flights? On this flight I had a bed! And we did customs in Shannon, avoiding the weary queues and humiliating grilling by customs in the States! I swigged back kir royales and movies for nine hours. Champagne socialism, here I come!
Drew and my cousin Jimmy
Robert De Niro also owns the Tribeca grill. His dad did the paintings on the wall.
Arriving on Friday night I hung out with my cousin Jim Stewart, who now teaches catering at Colombia University. He took me to the Tribeca Grill where we had good Margaritas and met owner Drew Nieporent who also owns Nobu. Drew and my cousin both worked at ground zero in the aftermath of 9/11, providing food and drink for the rescue parties, a mammoth logistical exercise. 
Jim and I took a walk to ground zero. His best friend who also worked on the rescue effort has just been diagnosed with cancer as have many who continued to live and work within the 'chalk line' area, meaning the blocks where the white powdery rubble, asbestos, from the collapse of the buildings started to dissipate. Even working as the caterer was traumatic; weeks of finding small body parts amongst the disintegration.  The tenth anniversary of 9/11 will be later this year. I think the 7/7 inquest in London which has taken place over the last few weeks has been a useful therapeutic tool for both those involved and the rest of us to fully understand what happened. These events leave scars which take years to heal.
We then dipped into one of New York's 'dive bars'; the Raccoon Lodge, which had The Clash and Blur on the playlist, grimy urban tracks for a grainy rough space, host to a dark brown pressed tin ceiling, beer mat patchworked walls, a punch bag machine, pool tables and beer taps along the long wooden bar manned by a friendly pony-tailed barman. On one high up shelf, fireman's helmets were stacked, for the Raccoon Lodge, a mere two weeks after 9/11, was where, at the end of a shift, the crew relieved the dark reality of clearing up ground zero with a few beers.
Fireman's helmets poignantly lined up at the Raccoon Lodge

 Salsa piquante macaroni cheese at S'mac: the only item on the menu is a variety of mac and cheese; part of a trend for 'single item' restaurants.
On Saturday I ate at S'mac: a restaurant that only serves mac and cheese (macaroni cheese). A great concept but poorly executed I'm afraid. You could choose to have your mac and cheese with corn on top. The pasta elbows were of poor quality and so was the cheese. I liked the individual cast iron pans, something I often do at The Underground Restaurant; just shove a hot cheesy dish in it's pan onto the table for sharing. 
I learnt to master public transport. I bought a weekly pass for $29 with the help of a black man with bloodied lips who couldn't understand my accent: "What is the transport pass called?" I asked him, not knowing what button to press on the machine. He asked me to repeat several times, mistaking the word 'called' for 'cost'. I changed vocabulary, substituting 'named' for 'called'. On the 'L', a young black man faced each passenger, moving slowly down the carriage, his voice growing ever hoarser, and produced an impromptu rap based on their appearance. It was an impressive performance and if you liked the verse you gave a tip. With me he managed to rhyme 'red beret' with 'cherie' and threw in a back handed compliment about how he, despite my venerable age, found me pretty enough to "get with" as in "I could get wit choo". 
A touching notice on the subway.

In the evening I took a yellow cab, manned by a well educated Indian man who used to be food and drinks manager at the Hilton but was"let go"when the recession hit and retrained as a cab driver ("You know what, I now earn as much as I ever did in catering, and my life is much easier"), to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Williamsburg is hip how Greenwich village and the East Village used to be: full of artists, musicians and...underground restaurateurs.
Chef Matteo has been running 'Four course Vegan' from his home for eight years now. It does exactly what it says on the tin; high end vegan food, four courses. The space is large, seating around 30. For many years Matteo (actually he's called Mathew, but years working in kitchens around Hispanics led to him being rechristened Matteo, which stuck) ran this supper club on his own; cooking and serving up to 40 covers by himself. A year and a half ago he met Carly, a fellow vegan. Carly who now does front of house told me "I'm so glad he's let me in, it took a long time. It's great, now he says 'we' and 'us' about Four Course Vegan". 
On my table I sat next to a self proclaimed 'transport enthusiast', or what we would call a train spotter. He's visited London several times, generally sailing over on the Queen Mary ship. He's in the unusual position (for Americans, who mostly only get two weeks) of getting six weeks vacation a year because he works as a bus inspector. Every time any of my fellow guests on the table mentioned a place, he would talk about all the possible bus routes and their reliability to that location. Although he was the only vegan there, vegan and vegetarian food is taken alot more seriously in New York. Omnivores will eat at vegetarian places; there is none of this snobbery so prevalent amongst sneering British foodies.
I bought Francis Ford Coppola's wine; expensive but not bad. Better than Gerard Depardieu's anyway.
Pot in the doorway, gives a clue to the address.

Carly and Matteo had just got back from Mexico and Oaxaca, which influenced this menu.

Matteo's avocado arm.
Winston, his little dawg.
Matteo has a little shop going in the living room, selling his products.
Tortilla Soup
Purple potato
Dehydrated mushrooms (very tasty) and black beans on Oaxacan tortilla.
When your home is a restaurant, your shelving becomes a pantry/storeroom.
Chocolate tart with nut brittle

After the dinner, I hung out for a few hours with Matteo, Carly and an Australian friend of theirs, a stripper who regaled us with stories of her customers. It was a cool night, and I'd recommend it to any visitor. Dinner cost $40, Four Course Vegan is generally open once a week.