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Robert Brown

Member Since 29 Aug 2007
Offline Last Active Mar 19 2017 02:23 PM

Topics I've Started

Alba White Truffle Dining in Piedmont

14 February 2017 - 10:31 PM

Nearly every fall right after Thanksgiving, Vedat Milor and I make our respective trips to Piedmont to dine on white truffles and drink good wine. On our websites (mine is www.engagingfood.com and his is Gastromondiale) we created a question and answer on the topic. I think it is quite sophisticated and informative. While it has specific recommendations, it is mostly about the general execution of such excursions. 

What menus Can Tell Us (but can't always do)

20 June 2016 - 05:07 PM

When I was studying communications research, the Dean of the school was a distinguished scholar in the field named George Gerbner. In his classes, he liked to say that to study television programs, movies, comic strips and just about anything else in the mass media, you needed whatever it was to be “grasped and retained”.  This meant that all the things we like here such as restaurants, produce, wine, beer, etc. have to be discussed and analyzed indirectly, although there is certainly plenty available to study these areas for, to cite an example, historians of the Annales school who instead of studying civilizations from the usual perspective of wars, treaties, politics, governments, and historic figures, studied societies, peoples, and countries through the houses they lived in, personal letters, the clothes they wore, what they ate and drink, and so forth. Then, of course, there are the food historians who are essentially Annales people studying food through various disciplines such as sociology, biology, zoology, economics, and cooking itself by looking at old recipes and reading about famous chefs and gastronomes, Nonetheless, because only the senses of seeing and hearing allow us to grasp and retain art, music, literature, and so forth in mediated ways, the senses of taste and smell can only be described once-removed in words. So for example, when I call up my subscription to Vinous to look up the drinking window for a bottle of wine, I also read the accompanying tasting note usually written by Stephen Tanzer. I have to say that the guy really knows how to taste and pick his way through a glass of wine, but no matter how detailed his analyses are, there is no way you can experience the wine without drinking it yourself.


There is little doubt that if we could capture for posterity the fresh taste of a society’s or great chefs’ dishes, gastronomy would be a lot different than it is. While age-old classic dishes are still with us (and it’s nice to see the nascent renaissance of them), almost no dishes created today will be passed along to other chefs and restaurants and handed down in the future. All of this, then, gets me to my favorite tool for observing on at least a rudimentary level gastronomic change and some idea about a restaurant I haven’t yet visited, which is the menu. Despite their bare-bones-ness and dearth of text, menus communicate, and act as a road map to, all sorts of information about the food and the honesty and integrity of the chef or the restaurant. If you look at many restaurants menus over a short period of time, you can get a solid notion of the internationalization of a restaurant; how closely hewn the products and creations are to a restaurant’s location; the “luxe factor” of the ingredients; whether the chef takes chances or is conservative, or how well-conceived his dishes are ; often a sense if the chef has to achieve the dish by relying on the overuse of ingredients; and how generous or manipulative the chef is to the clientele. Admittedly, though, menus can also lead you to a wrong impression since more times than not the way we imagine a dish to be is not at all the way it actually is. In this particular exercise, I think the dictum “A picture is worth a thousand words” doesn’t hold true here, although I can’t discount how food publications, restaurant websites and client picture-taking for social media accounts have changes the almost-universal way food is prepared and arranged on the plate. Even though photos of a restaurant’s dishes are something important to try to gain an idea, to me menus reveal even more about the place in question and allow us to speculate in what we hope turns out to be correct.


To deal with the aspect of the menu as a depiction of the obvious and changing ways we dine since then (“then” in this case means about 30 years ago), I went to my small group of menus from the period and chose one (unpriced) from the restaurant we loved and visited the most, which was about 10 miles north-east of Lyon.


Passing through Paris

17 May 2016 - 07:37 PM

Champo. I will be passing through Paris on the way to CDG. Which of these restaurants would you recommend for one, and only one,  lunch?


Pre Cattleman

Alain Passardoble


Le Kitchen Cinq

Plaza-Athenee (Alain Ducassecroute)

Opaque menus: Yet another way restaurants screw you over

21 April 2016 - 06:53 PM

Just to point out another way of how chefs and restaurateurs indulge in seemingly-endless ways to screw us over, I have recently been both noticing and looking at  menus that are more opaque and less-forthcoming about ingredients and how chefs cook them for the dishes they offer us. As Founder and President of the recently-formed League of Anti-Sousvideians, I think that reluctance or failure to state that a dish is grilled, roasted, broiled, etc. can sometimes, but not always, be a result of wanting to camouflage the use of this shortcut. To cite one example of this lack of disclosure, there currently are a couple of on-line menus of a factory-outlet big-name-chef group of restaurants with a section called “Simply Cooked” that comprises no more than “cod”, “halibut”, “salmon”, “organic chicken”, sometimes meat with a “Nieman Ranch” thrown in, without any indication of what “simply cooked” entails. (In all fairness, this is an extreme example, and the menus of these two restaurants also list dishes that state how they cook most, but not all, of the other relevant dishes.) Nonetheless, I can’t help noticing that this lack of general disclosure is an unfair-to-the-diner practice that appears to be growing. It’s not always an all-or-nothing phenomenon since many restaurant menus state how the restaurant cooks some dishes, but not others. But regardless, the opaqueness is an added stumbling block to trying to get the most out of a restaurant. This puts a premium on having enough dining experience to have the presence of mind to try to leave no stone unturned. Grilling is the operative word here since this is what you have to do to your order-taker to navigate the unfriendly mine fields restaurants have laid for their clients. Just hope that your waiter is telling you the truth.


Grunauer Bistro

15 April 2016 - 04:25 PM

I figure that a really good and interesting restaurant opens on the Supper East Side about as often as the Mets get to play in the World Series. Since the team was in the one recently concluded, it stands to reason that a restaurant that is noteworthy and worth regular visits comes into being. Grunauer Bistro, which opened last month, on First Ave. and 82nd turns out to be this place. That the owner once had a well-regarded restaurant more than 35 years ago, Vienna 79, where I believe David Bouley started out, was a good sign.


Of course Grunauer invites comparison to the other outpost for Viennese/Austrian food Cafe Sabarsky in the Neue Galerie. Based on our first meal, my wife and I see almost no comparison. A look at Grunauer's menu on-line will show you the "Internationale" Austrian specialties, many of which are on the much-shorter menu of Cafe Sabarsky. While the dining room at Grunauer is more Austrian "lokale" ( I told the owner-perhaps the manager- that it was like being in the bar-restaurant area in Vienna known as Grinsing, whereas Cafe Sabarsky is a good recreation of a Viennese cafe. Regardless, great care and not an insignificant amount of money have gone into the decor of Grunauer with its wood paneled ceiling and large mirrors along one side of the room.


We kicked Grunauer's tires with a shared appetizer of boiled veal tongue with pumpkin seed vinagrette; veal Wiener schnitzel; and tafelspitz, a Viennese classic of a big chunk of boiled beef shoulder in a broth and boiled root vegetables served with three sauces placed in small a compartmentalized ceramic serving dish. The weak link was the appetizer, which lacked assertive flavor, with the star of the meal the tafelspitz, but with the schnitzel not far behind. We ended the meal sharing a very-agreeable Salzburger Nockerl, a souffle with tiny blueberries made from scratch.


While we were arrived on the early side, by the time we left. the restaurant had one empty table. The clientele were not millennials or arrivists, but mostly middle-age people who no doubt appreciated the opening of a no-gimmicks, made-from-scratch, a la carte-only restaurant. As I'm a denizen of the Upper-East Side, Grunauer looks like the restaurant equivalent of a savior in an otherwise culinarily-deprived neighborhood.