July 19, 2006
Anthony Bourdain in Beirut
My favourite TV chef, Anthony Bourdain, was in Beirut filming an episode of his new Travel channel series No Reservations when the shelling started.
He’s OK, but this a missive on eGullet’s forums lets people know what’s going on:
I was standing with a group: a Sunni, a Christian, and a Shiite—by the Hariri memorial when the gunfire started and the Hezbollah people appeared driving through city center and honking their horns in “celebration” for the capture/kidnappings. The look of dismay and embarrasment on all three faces…and the grim look of resignation as they all— instantly— recognized what would inevitably come next…it’s something I will never forget. Of the three, our Shiite security guy, a tall, taciturn man, was the last to leave us, insisiting on staying by our side though he and his family lived in the much more perilous Southern part of Beirut. After witnessing many quick telephone exchanges between him and his family, and as more bombs and shells began to fall, seeing him nervously fingering his prayer beads, we finally convinced him to leave. His house was later flattened.
Posted by aj_kandy at 2:54 PM
May 30, 2004
The Ecologist put 50 jewel-like varieties of heirloom tomatoes on their cover the other month to trumpet the rise and rise of the Slow Food movement. They have a great little essay from Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser and a longer print-only profile of Carlo Petrini, the "activist for pleasure" at the heart of the Slow Food foundation based in Bam, Italy.
Happily, this is no dull and worthy activist organization -- the SlowFoodists are out to have a good time. Instead of holding protests, they start restaurants. Member groups are called "convivia" for their celebratory atmosphere. (There's a Quebec chapter, naturally.)
The Slow Foodists are against GM monoculture crops and corporate food, not only because it's bad ecosystem management, but because regional fruits, vegetables, animals, cheeses, and even traditional food knowledge and recipes risk extinction.
That's why they've created the Ark of Taste, a repository of food knowledge and biodiversity, and they encourage traditional food producers with the Slow Food Prize. Recipients include people from Guinea who preserved a plant that yields a traditional seed-based sweet drink; a former policeman in the Republic of Tuva who revived a native breed of sheep to create a range of dairy products including a sheep's-milk vodka (!), and a Mexican indigenous coffee-growing community who preserve the habitat of the vanilla plant, a delicate epiphyte orchid.
Their project makes sense when you realize that in a very short time, mass migration off the land and into cities meant a basic disconnect with the land, natural cycles, and agriculture: if you'll pardon the pun, our oral history of food has vanished. Hundreds of local specialty foods, food products and recipes have simply been lost. Petrini cites the example of a variety of cheese which is down to a single producer – and if no-one carries on that person's work, it's gone forever.
In that respect, Petrini's group are rather like Alan Lomax making field recordings of folk songs: seeking out, documenting, encouraging and preserving local flavours for future generations, lest we be reduced to McFood Pellets for eternity.
They have an associated movement called Slow Cities, which enshrines the Slow Food movement in a regional planning context; This year, they're founding the University of Gastronomic Science, not a cooking school but a combination of agro-environmental science and food business management, with a healthy dose of 'taste education.'
In a broader context, the culture of Slow is taking root, not only among disaffected aging yuppies who decided to go 'back to the land' after burning out at the brokerage or whatever, but across all levels of a society realizing that faster isn't always better.
Canadian/British writer Jean-Carl Honoré chronicles our attempts to wrest control of our lives from the clock in his bestseller In Praise Of Slow. Beyond slow food and cities, there's chapters on slow sex and slow traditional medicines.
Honoré offers some practical counsel in his FAQ, something to keep in mind now that F1 fever is upon us:
1.Leave holes in the diary rather than striving to fill every moment with activity. Easing the pressure on your time will help you to slow down.
2. Set aside a time of day to turn off all the technology that keeps us buzzing - phones, computers, pagers, email, television, radio. Use the break to sit quietly somewhere, alone with your thoughts. Or try meditating.
3. Make time for at least one hobby that slows you down, such as reading, painting, gardening or yoga.
4. Eat supper at the table instead of balancing it on your lap it in front of the TV.
5. Always monitor your speed. If you’re doing something more quickly than you need to simply out of habit, then take a deep breath and slow down.
It seems to me that making our lives Slow-focused (in addition to the emotional release of de-cluttering, as seen on countless HGTV programs) is a positive step that not only brings peace of mind, but also forces us to question the values which put us into such a rushed state to begin with. Rushing everywhere - why? To succeed? If so, what is 'success?' Is it being able to look down your nose at the other guy? Why jet travel instead of trains? Why take vacations in dribs and drabs when you really need a solid month off once a year?
I think it starts early on in life, when kids get pressured to succeed by parents, instead of being encouraged to grow at their own pace (compare standard schools with classless, gradeless Montessori schools, for instance.) They may end up neurotic overachievers, or more probably neurotic underachievers, paralyzed by a fear of success, doomed to mediocrity because success implies constantly having to top your latest and greatest.
So in a sense, a true Slow philosophy is a culture of excellence....and realizing that things take their own sweet (in all senses of the word) time.
May 25, 2004
When in Paris, visit the Tomb of the Unknown Chef
My brother said recently that "Rome fell when they started erecting statues to their cooks." Emperor Vitellus used to spend over $2000 a day on food, and was the patron of the chef Apicius, who was like the Thomas Keller of his day or something.
Martine posts about Ed putting himself under pressure to deliver resto-quality food when friends come over... and conversely, how his gourmet reputation makes others quake at their own lack of mad kitchen skillz.
On the other hand, with well-publicized books and movies raising the issue further, I think about our cultural obesity/anorexia/bulimia epidemic and have to wonder, have we elevated food above its rightful place?
I don't think I'm saying anything new if I point out that North American culture has pretty much turned as far away as it can go from the Old World model -- where food is a staff of life, simple, basic, flavourful and rich, to be enjoyed but not the be-all and end-all.
No, we Namericans have a well-documented unhealthy relationship with food, seemingly due to deep cultural psychological trauma and of course, a matrix of body images and norms that don't have to do with reality, enabled by economic subsidies that make bad food cheaper than good food.
We all know at least one exercise-bulimic - the people who eat well but then starve or beat their bodies into submission to avoid the appearance of any sort of flab (or even, ahem, curves.) Food isn't a normal part of life, it's a carrot dangled in front of a donkey -- a donkey climbing the Andes, at that.
On the other side, people are literally using food (especially fast food) as an opiate; as a dopamine-rich escape from emotional stress, caused by (I say) a generally unhealthy way of living. It becomes a self-reinforcing cycle, because being fat in itself is a source of stress. All bad, bad, bad. We know this.
There is an element of class snobbery to our recent 'rediscovery' of Good Food, though. There's walls of new foodie magazines and books everywhere you turn, and of course FoodTV - the culmination of decades of Galloping Gourmets, Julia Childs, (shudder) Emerils and Wok With Yans right down to Martha Stewart - has more than a twist of fear-based marketing to account for its success. If you don't appreciate Tuscan cuisine, wines and cheeses you're a slob; if you can't Cook Like A(n Iron) Chef you're a failure. (I like the travel-food shows, though, but maybe that's even snobbier -- travel is for the rich, innit?) But you'll never see a hard-hitting exposé on how many bits of insect are allowed in your canned mushrooms...(hint hint, buy fresh.)
Well, I think the only way off this treadmill is to Just Say No to Fast Culture. You've probably heard of the slow-food movement -- well to take that to its extreme we're going to (eventually, whether we want to or not) have to create, or re-create, Slow Culture as well. I'm going to write more about that later.
But in the meantime, Ed, we officially give you permission not to have to turn out restaurant quality every time. (Even KD a la Blork, we suspect, would be excellent fare.)
January 27, 2004
The People's Republic of StarbucKEA
Patrick notes a very interesting post of Adam Greenfield's on the disproportionate amount of energy spent by our young Adbusting types on "uncooling" consumer brands such as IKEA and Starbucks. Greenfield says:
The dynamic at work in both cases is one many of us might recognize from bad relationships: when a deeply wounded person suffering from low self-esteem finally fights back against the various agents of their distress, very often it's the closest, most sympathetic soft target they lash out at first, in defiance of all logic (or justice).
Not the absent father, but the present lover. It feels like the same neurosis at work with young activists of the No Logo stripe: never ADM, General Dynamics, Monsanto, but Nike and Ikea and Starbucks. And never mind that each of these latter firms is, to a greater or lesser degree, founded on what used to be known as progressive principles, or is to a greater or lesser degree responsive to the demands of a politically and socially conscious audience.
There are a lot of arguments that Starbucks edge out "local" coffee shops. I don't buy them. There are places (like Open Da Night or Navarino's bakery, for instance) that go out of their way to be friendly and serve good food, and they are very popular neighborhood institutions. Starbucks can't even be said to compete with places like this, because (aside from coffee) they're selling two completely different experiences.
Greenfield makes the astute point that before Starbucks "swept down from its Pacific Northwest redoubt to cluster-bomb us with franchises," the coffee experience in America was, by and large, pretty insipid. In fact, today's elevated consumer knowledge about coffee in general - fair-trade, shade-grown, organic, Blue Mountain, etc. etc. can be traced back to the arrival of Starbucks on the franchise landscape. Partly also due to the controversy surrounding them. But it can't be argued - we're all drinking better coffee today.
If any "local" places died off because a Starbucks opened down the street, they probably would have gone out of business if any stronger competitor with better coffee and a better experience opened up next door. I've walked into "local" arts-sceney-indie coffee shops in Montreal and been completely ignored; I've gotten alternatingly great and terrible service in locally-owned Starbucks-a-like chains -- and when it's been bad, it's exactly as described in Greenfield's entertaining little rant.
Being local's got nothing to do with the core mission of good coffee and excellent service. The one deplorable thing about chains like Starbucks is that, despite local jobs for local people etc, a large chunk of change heads Seattle-ward.
But we're getting our quiet revenge: we're giving America Couche-Tards on every corner.
"You got your Slöche in my grande latte!"
"You got your grande latte in my Slöche!"
May 29, 2003
Pasta a la Paella
- Enough long noodles to fit tightly within your encircled forefinger and thumb - the traditional 2-person serving.
- 1 tin smoked oysters, drained and rinsed to remove any oil.
- 1/2 head of garlic
- 1 cup white wine
- 4-6 merguez sausages depending on size, sliced into 1/2" pieces
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 tsp saffron
- 1 rounded tbsp turmeric
- 1/4 cup medium-sized Spanish red onion, minced
- Roast the Garlic. Heat your oven to 400-450 degrees. Take a whole head of garlic, halve it, put the other half away for later! Slice the tops off the cloves, keeping the bunch together. Put this half-head of garlic in a small oven-ready dish (a creme brul?e cup is perfect.) Cover with tinfoil to help steam the garlic into submission. I estimate about 15-20 min roasting time depending on your oven. You'll know if it's done if the garlic inside the peel looks golden and caramelized, and scoops out like butter (in fact, a butter spreading knife is perfect for this).
- Prepare the Pasta. Bring 4-5 liters of water to a rolling boil (but you can't make them drink! ha! ha!), add 1 tbsp sea salt when boiling. Break noodles in half and submerge. Depending on level of al dente-ness desired, leave in for 4-8 minutes. Do not overboil. Do not rinse pasta afterwards - otherwise the sauce will slide off the noodles. Drain pasta and keep handy in a colander.
- Prepare The Sauce. In a wide, 2-inch deep saucepan over medium heat, drizzle about 1-2 tbsp olive oil. Sauté the roasted garlic but be careful not to burn it. (Go ahead and smoosh it up if you want.) Add the merguez pieces and smoked oysters. Sauté for about 3 minutes, adding onions if desired. Add white wine. Add turmeric, stirring to ensure it dissolves. Lower heat and simmer for about 4 minutes. Add saffron.
- Toss pasta in with sauce, simmer it in until noodles are properly coated. You're done!
Recommended wine: Spanish Tempranillo or Rioja.
Posted by aj_kandy at 4:17 PM
April 18, 2003
Genevieve Grandbois Chocolats
B. and I discovered this upstart chocolatière's kiosk at the Atwater Market. We were drawn in by neat ranks of jewel-like chocolates presented on Asian-style square plates, each with a unique edible design to indicate the flavours (Masala! Olive oil! Pink peppercorn! Tobacco?). Out of this world and extremely high quality. Must be eaten fresh. Available in perfect little tins at moderate prices, or for the grandiose gift-giver, in Alessi designer gift packaging.
Posted by aj_kandy at 12:50 PM
March 24, 2003
Higuma, Rue St-Denis / Avenue Roy
Higuma is right next to one of our old favourites, the ultra-popular pasta joint La Popessa. (They've since opened a second branch on Stanley just above Rene-Levesque.) In a city crowded with Gap-like Sushi Shops, price competition is fiercer and even old favourites like Mikado aren't the luxe experiences they used to be. (If I had a nickel for every time I've encountered pickled ginger so fibrous it's like chewing on pencil shavings...)
A typical St-Denis "garden apartment" space, long and narrow, it is minimal and spacious. Upon entering, you notice the open-concept kitchen, and you're greeted by the chef himself. Walled on one side with beautiful dark-blue slate tiles, with a muted gold-tone smoke hood above a central island, decorated with a row of tealights, the kitchen faces a row of banquettes in neo-Japanese / Frank Lloyd Wright style, roofed with decorative, acid-etched metal panels. The tables have clever slotted edges to add extensions, to accommodate groups of 6 to 8 people). A mix of contemporary-classical and light symphonic music makes an unobtrusive background.
We started with a very hearty miso soup and a tempura appetizer platter which had some odd choices in it, such as red bell peppers - not an optimal flavour choice in my opinion. The main courses were artfully presented with a well-shaped dab of wasabi. Higuma's menu has several intriguing maki rolls not seen elsewhere - the 'Satsuma' roll with sweet potato, avocado and ginger, the 'Alaska' roll with red clam, the 'Calgary' roll with fried chicken, and an amazingly rich Chinese mushroom roll. The fish was exceptionally fresh and tender, and the rice suprisingly flavourful and well-textured; we both agreed that the clam in the Alaska roll, at least this time, had a slightly oceanic taste, but this could just be due to our taste buds or to seasonal availability - we'll have to try it again in a month or so.
If you're a light eater, 2 or 3 rolls will easily satisfy 2 people - choose carefully because portions, at least when we visited, were large; we almost regretted having the soup and appetizer beforehand. Service was friendly, solicitous and attentive. A regular meal with soup, appetizer and 2-3 rolls should cost between $35-40 for 2 people before drinks, tax and tip.
Posted by aj_kandy at 2:50 PM
March 13, 2003
Gandhi, Rue St-Paul, Old Montreal
Gandhi is a rare bird among Montreal's flock of well-known Indian restos. Besides being the only one in Old Montreal, it has upscale ambitions, stylishly Indo-modern decor, unusual regional dishes, and (shockingly) a lengthy, varied and affordable wine list. The menu has most of the staples of Western Indian restaurants, but the dishes we sampled had a definite twist to them, more Peshawari than the usual Gujarati or Punjabi.
The interior is minimal and clean, with hardwood floors and a mix of exposed red brick and regular walls in cream up front, and maroon towards the bar and back hallway. The designers sensibly resisted the usual urge to 'out-India India' with paintings, mosaics, and associated bric-a-brac - they don't try to pretend the building isn't 19th century French. One of the only nods to Far Eastern design are pair of tasteful Persian-arch sculpture niches, with internally lit shelves displaying graceful bronzes.
We visited the restaurant on a Wednesday night and thus, the restaurant was caught understaffed, with only two waiters to serve what seemed like 25 people at one point. It looks like Montrealers are at that breaking point of winter where they just want to go out, no matter what - we saw dozens of would-be diners roaming St-Paul street that night. In any case, service, despite being slow, was highly competent and polite.
After the obligatory starter poppadums (presented with a silver cruet set of quality Branston pickle, raita and tamarind sauces) we ordered a pair of soups- a dal and a mulligatawny. I've had dal in pretty much every Indian place in town, and (sorry Grandma) this was the best - subtly herbed with an undertone of earthiness and smokiness, perfectly seasoned. B.'s Mulligatawny was spicy and equally complex.
A pair of meat samosas arrived - filled with lean, minted ground beef and wrapped in a lightly fried, thick and chewy dough (as opposed to the thinner, oil-saturated kind) that seemed to have a kind of perfume to it, much like naan (of which we also had one, which was excellent, as well as a roti flatbread - and I have to come back to try the puris, the small, flat, fried 'puffball' breads that I haven't seen outside the kitchens of friends and relatives.) Sadly, the iceberg lettuce salad that accompanied it was bitter and not an ideal complement to the dish.
Our main dishes were an unusual Malay curry, to which we added beef from the mix-and-match menu, and a chicken dish we'd never seen before, with a spicy mint-based tomato sauce . The Malay curry was thick and mild, rich with coconut milk, with slices of pineapple and whole lychees. Portions were accordingly small, but filling. The one disappointing note was an accompanying spinach dish which had been overcooked, with a pronounced grassy taste.
The wine we selected was our old favourite, the full-bodied Maitre D'Estournel Bordeaux 1999, which was priced reasonably at $26, only a 66% markup over retail. We chose to skip dessert this time, but we're definitely going back.
Posted by aj_kandy at 3:18 PM
February 3, 2003
Phò Bang New York, Olive and Gourmando
This weekend we checked out the Chinese New Years' events at Sun Yat-Sen Park on de la Gauchetiére. There was an all-too-brief Lion Dance costumed parade - but we made up for it by checking out some tiny shops filled with New Asian Kool - Sanrio licenced theme merchandise, groceries, and gadgets.
After, we went for some phò at Phò Bang New York, the Debeur-rated Vietnamese joint at the corner of Viger at the Main. We both got the standard size (which is almost enough for two people), I got beef, she got chicken. With just a touch of spice, it's welcome heat to clear away a stuffy head. I think - but I'm not sure - that the New York part of it comes from the fact that the beef seemed like brisket. Served with a side plate of refreshing basil, bean sprouts and two bright-red, deadly-looking little chilis (which we decided not to take a risk on), Phò Bang definitely offers value for money - especially judging by the line of eagerly waiting customers stretching out the door and onto the street.
We then walked over to Olive and Gourmando. The place was packed, and the decor an interesting mix of decoupage lamps, custom woodwork and neo-vintage chairs. It avoids the Montreal café-interior-design clichés of polychrome broken-tile tilework, velvet drapes on spirally wrought-iron rods, blue-velvet-covered scrollback chaises, bizarrely shaped wall protrusions, overdone wall sconces and gold leaf everywhere - a collective style I call "Kebec Baroque." Prime examples include the Cafe Republique on St-Laurent, and Toi, Moi et Café on Laurier - you know it when you see it.
O + G's design is all about wood - every other table is made of stripes of bonded 2 x 4s of what looks like teak, oak, birch and maple. Their custom shelving, cabinets and window tables are gently carved, Vienna Secessionist-by-way-of-Tokyo. All done by Ross Munro, whose work also includes the custom wood serving trays, plates and other items at Cube, in the St-Paul Hotel around the corner. (No web link, but his company is Treebone Design, located at 10 Ontario W. #308, 993-8733).
As a bakery-café, Olive and Gourmando's style seems in opposition to the traditionalist, 'we import our own flour direct-from-France' Banette bakery near our old place in NDG. Owner-chefs Eric Girard and Dyan Solomon have created an earthier style of brioches, loaves and brownies that are dense, but portion-controlled to avoid heaviness. Often pairing their creations with Valrhona chocolate, the richness of the baked goods contrasts with lighter Continental fare such as soups, paninis and salads. (Viewers of the Food Network's Opening Soon will recognize Girard and Solomon as key figures in helping launch Cube - their kitchen served as the testing ground for Claude Pelletier's dishes while the hotel was under construction.)
Posted by aj_kandy at 3:26 PM