December 31, 2007 | BITE: My Journal

My Predictions for 2008

 Foie-gras fed pigs will arrive from Southwest France. Photo: Steven Richter
 Foie-gras fed pigs will arrive from Southwest France. Photo: Steven Richter



        Bobby Flay and Mario Batali will go toe to toe with new burger chains.  Bobby’s will feature chili fries, guava shakes, jalapeno ketchup and life-size cutouts of Bobby at the grill.  Mario’s will offer spleen burgers, gorgonzola-salumi melts and deep-fried polenta cubes in a paper cone made from a map of Friuli. Daniel Boulud’s solo Bowery Burger will include a slab of foie gras and shards of dark chocolate on toasted brioche with apricot chutney and optional béarnaise sauce for his American fries.


        Alain Ducasse will ink a deal to put his name on upscale non-perishable “Survivor” foods to be sold only at Saks Fifth Avenue, with Vuitton totes containing wind-up flashlights, portable radios, dehydrated Fiji water and a wallet with a combination lock for holding a stash of Euros.


        Jeffrey Chodorow and Frank Bruni will have a food fight in Madison Square Park televised by the Food Network.  If Bruni loses he will be required to review restaurants in Des Moines for six months. If Chodorow is the loser he will be forbidden to open a new restaurant for three weeks. 


        Anthony Bourdain will be challenged by a handful of amateur x-treme eaters, with the loser sentenced to actually cook at Les Halles for a month.


        From the thousands of children addicted to the Food Network will emerge a prepubescent prodigy whose cooking skills are so amazing, Jeffrey Chodorow will back his or her restaurant in the space where Wild Salmon failed. There will be no special menus for adults. 



        Restaurants with dead-of-night-in-the-woods lighting and menus with miniscule lime green type must supply headlamps to all senior citizens.


        To prepare for an evening of dining out, coaches will escort you to a Times Square subway station at rush hour where you will attempt to have a conversation. You will be quizzed on the content. 


        Restaurants that feature pounding music must, by law, text message menu specials. Aging Luddites who do not have cell phones will get loaners.


        Waiters will present a written resume and a list of their favorite dishes to preclude annoying and unprofessional chitchat which they might otherwise indulge in.  These documents may be ignored. Waiters may sit down at the table in an empty chair only if invited.


        All smugglers of illegal immigrants will be required to teach at least one word of English for survival, “Enjoy.”  Those who arrive legally must learn this at the airport before going through customs.


        Each restaurant will be allowed one “enjoy” per table per evening.  Violators will be pelted with stale bread and inferior focaccia.


        Restaurants will staff roving dining “tutors” to stop by each table with a five minute “Tabletalk” on the provenance of each ingredient on the menu. Before ordering, you will be quizzed on the content.


 Beijing Olympics will foster new food fads. Photo: Steven Richter

        Conceptual Dining will become the rage.  The pleasure derived from the dish is found in its description alone.  The dish, in fact, does not exist.  A small fee will be charged.


        Small Plates will give way to no plates, a trend for even healthier portion control.  All food will be served on oak leaves, in clam shells or onto your outstretched palm.


        The Beijing Olympics will inspire new food fads: Like candied love apples on a stick, haw berry shakes, and egg fu yung on a burger roll. 



        Maca elixir, distilled from the high Andes Peruvian fungus (already sold at Walmart) will be the new unisex wonder herb. How can it miss? Described as an energizer, sex drive stimulant and stamina builder, as well as the answer to female hot flashes and night sweats, mixologists are already shaking up Maca Wacka cocktails and Macatinis. Starbucks will feature maca toffee latte by March. 


        Wine makers will dose their generic table wine with immunity boosters, smart herbs and attach a siphon for sipping while biking. The trend will henceforth be known as “imbiking.”


        A breed of black-footed pigs from the southwest of France, fed strictly on foie gras, custom made charcuterie and pork belly from lesser pigs will be marketed each with its own identification number and tag with a picture of the pig farmer’s daughter.


        A major rival to the black-footed pigs of southwest France will be the healthier blue-footed pigs of Kansas raised on a diet rich in blueberries, blue potatoes, blue corn chips, bluebell nectar, and other anti-oxidants.


        Boutique chocolate will be labeled with the production date and the chocolatier’s license and cell phone numbers. Chocolate tastings will be widely promoted, as well as the usual What to Drink with Chocolate selected by chocoholics.


        As restaurant consultant Michel Whitemann notes in his annual roundup of trends, wacky ice creams seem to be unstoppable. I have railed against lawn clippings in ice cream for years and as Wiley Dufresne said when I asked if anyone actually liked his foie gras with anchovy and cocoa nibs:  “Gael, no one is listening to you.” I am forced to predict that mustard sorbet will come in many flavors just like mustard. And bravo to you, if you can eat prune Armagnac ice cream with dried thyme.


        Cocktails can’t possibly get sweeter but they will.  How about a carrot cake daiquiri?  And pomegranate flavored vodka on the rocks made of smart water? I’ll take a yuzu martini, hold the kumquats please.


Lebanese with Attitude

 Favorites sit in the spiffy front room at Ilili. Photo: Steven Richter

        From the moment it opened there was no getting into the exuberantly-hyped Lebanese Ilili – no tables ever free between 8 and 9:30 the seven or eight times I phoned. I considered meeting friends in the lounge and nibbling appetizers till a table came up. But it was bitterly cold and I feared being turned away.  With new restaurants birthing all over town, I got distracted. 

        Then I read Steve Cuozzo’s scathing indictment in the Post.  Did I need to be abused too? I recalled my youth when a week in New York without masochistic fulfillment was like a month in Toledo. Then a friend who knew someone scored a reservation.

        Emerging from a scrimmage at the coat closet, we get the usual bum’s welcome. “Are you all here? Well, your table is not ready.”

        I am guessing that may be owner Philippe Massoud in chef whites beside the Stepford greeter at the podium. He chatters away, ignoring the clot as if in his chef persona it is not his role to welcome or soothe. Romantic duos, lounge lizards and huddles of raucous he-men lined the great length of the bar in the tall but narrow sweep of room.  We retreat to a sofa where no one seems to notice us. “This is a very comfortable sofa,” I observe. The Road Food Warrior grunts. 

        Suddenly a man in a suit runs by us toward the podium as if there were a fire or need for a Heimlich. “Was that you who promised you would seat us?”  I confront him. Indeed, he actually focuses on us, then has a minion lead us to an adjacent cavern, a corner table in a crabby low-ceilinged chamber.

        “Are you sure this is where you want to seat us?” I ask our hapless escort (in that pointed, unattractive way I must learn to control.)  “Are you sure this is really the table you saved for Ms. L?”

        “These are our only tables for four,” the flunkey replies.

 Fried calamari with "candy-cane slaw" alongside. Photo: Steven Richter

        At that moment our connected pal arrives.  I don’t want to embarrass her by mentioning that her clout has only gone so far. “We’ve actually been here awhile...trapped at the coat check,” she apologizes.  “It’s taking forever.  I had to leave my fiancé there.”

        This is the kind of beginning that can wrap an evening in a dark caul.  But dark cauls are not my style of dress.  If the food is good, I emerge from my dudgeon.  It was and I did.

        Ms. L sends back her too-sweet Phoenician lemonade, comforted by the tangy Beirut passion fruit cocktail and the liberation of her guy from the coat ordeal. A second bowl of crisped pita chips arrives to replace the one we so quickly decimate, dipping into Lebanese yogurt. 

        I had imagined classic Lebanese food – a cuisine I don’t really know except in the way it overlaps with the food of Greece, Egypt and Turkey. But given Massoud’s ambitious dream of drawing nocturnal nomads to this Fifth Avenue dead zone to fill his 300 seats, I understand why he has opted for a little fusion.

        Except for a small bowl of inconsequential manti, tight little dumplings, we are soon congratulating ourselves over mostly wonderful choices. All three nightly specials please our foursome: A falafel crab cake with tahini, eggplant slices slicked with a tangy tamarind glaze, and crisp-fried calamari served alongside a mound of bright pink slaw. The menu is long and full of appeal.

        Being just four we barely make a dent in the long roster of small plates with meat and fish offerings, all $18 or less (unless you must have a $56 kobe kebab or the beef kefta with foie gras at $24). We’ve polished off the fattoush bread salad with suman vinaigrette and a portion of chakleech (yogurt cheese with scallion, tomato and zatar) when a black cast iron pan of shrimp in the shell and a plate of luscious raw amber jack slices with spiced baba ghannouj arrives as a gift “from the chef.” I suspect I’ve been made. Indeed, I’m sure of it when four times during the meal, a bus boy whisks away the excellent hot bread that has cooled under its cozy and replaces it with fresh.

        But I am already enamored of the fried kibbeh dumplings filled with spiced shredded beef and pine nuts, the rare tuna kabob (skewered and charcoal-grilled with sauce painted on bread) and a beef kefta with foie gras. 

        With dessert, the sweet cheese Achta with simple syrup and bananas, and the chocolate tasting, plus two cocktails and four glasses of wine, but no charge for the chef’s two gifts, the bill is just under $200 before tip.

         I don’t want to eat in that dreary backroom again but even at the risk of peripheral indifference, I might go back to taste more if the place ever mellows enough to accept my reservation.

236 Fifth Avenue near 27th Street. 212 693 2929


Visions Of Christmas Dim Sum

 Chicken feet lack Christmas spirit at our table. Photo: Steven Richter

        Eddie Schoenfeld, our guide and shaman to all things edible and Chinese suggests we try Golden Bridge (in the old Silver Palace space) for our annual Christmas day lunch in Chinatown. Hopeless neophiliac that I am, I thought a place we’d never been before might be fun. Nine of us converge at noon, climbing to the mezzanine, innocently unprepared to join aggressive multitudes of Chinese families waiting for tables. Half an hour later, with six big groups still on the list ahead of us, I surrender. “Let’s get out of this madness and go to Chinatown Brasserie,” I cry.  Alas, it seems the Brasserie won’t open till 3 p.m.

        “How naïve. Are they New Yorkers or what?” I rant, explaining to my Chinese-American guest from Los Angeles that Chinese food on Christmas day is a New York custom. “Obviously, it began as a Jewish thing.  But as they say, in New York everyone is a little Jewish.”

 There on the crest of new fallen snow, visions of dim sum. Photo: Steven Richter

        Finally snagging our table even before it gets set with small plastic-wrapped wet towels and a pot of tea, we have shanghaied the first rolling cart passing our way for barbequed pork in flaky pastry, not bad at all, possibly a harbinger of pleasure to come.  But no, except for the turnip cake, it was one lumpen dumpling after another:  ungainly dim sum in primitive wraps.

        I wonder if the hundreds of mostly Chinese families pouring in and out of the room are all that delighted with their dim sum (literally “heart’s delight”). I’m afraid the delicate frying, the exquisite pastry, the masterly skins and the vast repertoire of dim sum wizard Joe Ng -- first in Brooklyn and now at Chinatown Brasserie --  has spoiled me forever for proletarian dim sum.

Golden Bridge 50 Bowery just south of Canal Street. (212) 227 8831


Peking Turkey in a Holiday Crunch

         It’s not as if John McDonald and his partners at Chinatown Brasserie weren’t aware that many New Yorkers eat Chinese on Christmas Day. “We were jammed last year. But there were strategic problems,” he confesses when I find him by phone the next day. “We were senstitive to staff wanting half a day off to spend Christmas with their families.” Joe Ng did Peking turkey all week and invented a barbecued turkey bun like his elegant little pork buns. “Such a big hit and it might have to go on the menu,” McDonald says. Indeed the place was full at three.  A computer broke down and checks had to be written by hand.

        There was no Chinese food in Phoenix when MacDonald was growing up although it was the spot where the P.F. Chang restaurant chain was born.

        ”The first time I stayed in New York for Christmas, we went down to the original Peking Duck House.  I was shocked. I thought we would be eating all by ourselves on Christmas Day,” McDonald recalls. “We’ll have to find staff and make plans to open earlier next year.” 

Chinatown Brasserie. 380  Lafayette Street at Great Jones. 212 533 7000

Patina Restaurant Group