Wednesday, February 29, 2012

One Coin, Two Sides

The culinary world is aflutter--as it has been every three months for nearly a year--with the release of a new issue of Lucky Peach, a magazine/journal/whatever put out by David Chang of the Momofuku {insert tasty food morsel here} Bar empire and Peter Meehan, formerly of the New York Times (where he wrote this excellent, much needed, and "man I wish I had the platform to go on this sort of rant" article) and co-author of Chang's great Momofuku cookbook. It's super hot, and if you're the sort of person who is on Twitter or Facebook and following others interested in food, surely you've seen them proudly flash photos of their copy like so many line cooks' tattoos. It seems to throw all journalistic sensibility to the hungry pigs: its highly decorated cover reminds me of the design ethic of the Garbage Pail Kids cards of my youth and the writing can border on the "how many times can we say f*** and s*** and get away with it" standard.

Oh, and it's absolutely wonderful.

Much of it is a direct line to the inside of a chef's/cook's/someone who just plain loves food's head. There's all kinds of crazy s*** going on inside there--the importance of toilet cleanliness, an interview with a cook on the south pole, Anthony Bourdain's thoughts on food movies and how they relate to life, death and sex (not always in that order). The inside is as busy as the cover. And it is red-hot popular right now. I missed the first issue, and went to see if I could get it from the publisher. Nope--it's out of print. Hmm. Maybe someone's selling it on eBay or something. They are! ...for upwards of $100. Ok. I can do without issue one. But the point here is that it's hot, and not only for the usual faddish reasons, though surely that has something to do with it. At the end of the day, this is a really fresh and solid food magazine--written for people who cook, who eat, and whose feet touch the ground once in awhile. I hate to say it, but I gave up my subscription to my beloved Saveur, because it so often lacked this quality. Something about it started to feel so unreal to me. Maybe it was around the time they started the "Real-Life Kitchen" section, showcasing the sort of high-end, Wolf and Viking drenched home kitchens that someone like me will never be in unless I've been hired to cook there (people actually get to plan the design of their kitchens?). Lucky Peach is down and dirty, and at the end of the day, it's accessible. Well done, guys.

On the flip side of the same coin is the extremely refined Gastronomica. Now in its 12th year, it looks at the world in every direction through a food lover's eyes. It can certainly seem a bit esoteric, and where Lucky Peach's design is a big vat of bubbling beef bones, Gastronomica's is a highly polished demi-glace. Essentially the same thing, but so incredibly not the same thing: the current issue features an article on an artist and a baker combining forces to document the place somebody (Natalie Wood, Dennis Wilson) disappeared from the earth using photography and desserts developed with sea salt made from the exact spot in question; a gallery of black and white mug shots of former food-service workers; a first-class essay by chef Edward Lee (yes, that Edward Lee) on a day spent killing pigs.

These two magazines arrived in my mailbox within days of each other, and until then, I didn't realize the yin and yang relationship they unwittingly have. I suppose they are both not for everyone. But I'd encourage you to forgo a couple of six-dollar coffees and drop the 12 bucks on either, or both, and check them out if you haven't.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Grace, a/k/a Goosefoot

Anymore, I'm not the type of guy who wants to go to a restaurant where much of the menu doesn't fall in the single digit range. It's not necessarily that I'm feeling the pinch of a soured economy (though aren't we all?). Instead, I suppose I just don't want to be impressed anymore. This is not to say I'm a curmudgeon who wants a bowl of gruel and a cup of tea in solitude before I gather my cane and cap and be on my way--on the contrary, each meal should matter in its own sense, whether it's prepared by a 3-star chef, or by some guy down the street. Lost in the current sea of chef-as-deity and food-as-gospel hype is the fact that if the love and generosity that should be in food is replaced with a love of celebrity and stripped of its story, we are in danger of losing what brought us to love food in the first place. At the end of the day, I want something that has some meaning, whatever that may be; something that says more about the skill, caring and heart behind the plate than it says about the chef's résumé, accolades or tattoo count.

The most gracefully executed food and service I have had in a very long time came at Goosefoot last week. While I was there, I never wanted for anything--a big deal for someone who is always noticing gaps in service, disgruntled about how that takes away from great food, and likewise how poorly executed food comes out on the plate as a neglected child/CTA train.

The BYOB policy at Goosefoot (no corkage fee!) makes what would require a really special occasion necessitate merely a special occasion. As the $90 prixe fixe menu begins, you are gently surrounded by that oh-so-comfortable yet uncommon feeling that the people behind the scenes really know what they are doing. You let go, and put your full trust in the chef and staff, and to wonderful results. I could rehash the menu item by item and post terribly lit photos, but the thing is, the specifics of the menu just don't matter, and even if I was the sort to take photos in restaurants, they would never do justice to the other senses invited to the party while eating here (or anywhere). I will say this: you reach a point as a chef, where you think "okay, gee, I think I can season things pretty well, and I think I can cook things pretty well, and I think I can join harmonious flavors together pretty well." Then you go eat at a place like this, and you realize just what an underachieved chump you are. How many worlds apart this chef is from you. It's like being really good at basketball in high school, then Michael Jordan shows up.

The Chef, Chris Nugent, has the pedigree. I've eaten his food once before, at one of these huge events where several chefs from around town come and set up a table and plate a thousand small samples of whatever they want; his was the only thing I've tasted at one of these that made me feel as though I was in a restaurant--not standing around on grass surrounded by pulsing hordes. As I remember telling him then, the simple custard he'd made and served in egg shells made me feel as though I'd been "hugged simultaneously by the world's top 100 grandmothers." And this is a result of a righteously high level of skill--flavors and textures are put together with an incredible combination of finesse and nuance that is unparalleled by all but a rare few in the game.

A Goosefoot dish that stays with me was the Loup de Mer fish course; a dish that seemed to be seasoned by the acidity of delicate shavings of sunchokes, and enhanced by a instructionally proportionate swirl of fennel puree (by which I mean to say the amount of the puree, as with the ingredients in all dishes, appeared on the plate in appropriate proportion to its counterparts, letting you know how much to eat with each individual bite in a way that you would think happens more often, but just doesn't). The Chestnut Soup was an eye roller--not in the teenage girl sense, but the kind where your eyes end up in the back of your head. Texture almost becomes a flavor. Flavor becomes a feeling. A single sea bean brought brilliant salinity to a chocolate course. And nothing, nothing is wasted on the plate. Everything makes sense; every shaving, every tiny green, every aroma, texture and flavor appears on the plate to play its role and enhance the role of its counterparts. No superfluous, unnecessary ingredients thrown on just because.

A criticism I have heard about Goosefoot is that it lacks a certain level of "excitement", and perhaps creativity. Which is a predictable critique in an age where dining has morphed into spectacle and the form of celebrity trumps the function of substance. It is true that here one doesn't get the feeling that staff is snorting blow off silverware (or each other) in the back, nor suspect a chemist's lab of bubbling beakers transforming what was once food into a new element. But food of this caliber makes the experience memorable--and if not, it's time to find a new dinner date.

Most importantly, what sets Chris Nugent apart from any other chef of any skill level is his sincere genuineness. I've met him a few times before, and never has anything but a pretension-free kindness come from the man. This night, at Goosefoot, he was at each table, talking with every guest. Not the generic "hey how is everything"; not making us wonder "if this guy's out here drinking all night, who's watching the cooking?", but talking with everyone in a humble, thank you for spending the evening with us kind of way. He makes you feel at home. Which brings us full circle. As much as it is the food, it isn't the food. This experience was much more than an assemblage of (perfectly cooked, seasoned, plated and presented) carrots and beef on a plate. Behind it lay an authentic, sincere display of passion from a person to whom these adjectives apply as well. Yes, this was an expensive meal, the type of meal I don't indulge in too much anymore, but we can come across this passion in so many genres: fine dining, huarache joints, small & empty Vietnamese restaurants, and hopefully most often at home. And when we find it, we have to recognize, savor and share it.