I can no longer blog like an over-educated suburbanite. I cannot afford to have my focus scattered among all the possibilities. My priority must be to fight the forces that would deny me a good meal.
I am besieged by vegetarians, animal-rights activists and other assorted health nuts would force upon me their vision of what is acceptable to eat.
There are 5th columnists within my walls who seek to undermine my resolve through accusations of presumptuousness, insinuations that cheap and easy are the only appropriate positive adjectives, or a willingness to compromise my health in the pursuit of maximum profit..
The dust on the horizon, is it Anthony Bourdain coming to my relief with a mercenary band of drink-addled chefs who take pride in their ability to make a great meal? Or, perhaps, it's an irregular force of farmers' market denizens with fresh supplies?
I just hope it's not Alice Waters' Army of Locavores who would seek to impose upon me a peace not much different than that sought by my enemies.
Think about what you eat.
Give me the info I need to make a decision, don't make it for me.
Different is not bad, give it a try.
Once in a while, make it yourself with fresh ingredients.
And chill, a meal is more than just the food.
In short, Don't yuck my yum!
Plan of Action
I will focus on rebuttals to the arguments of my enemies and expositories on my unusual yums. While I may still review restaurants and the media, it will only be as a means to the above.
We must speak up!
As part of this effort, I will move old posts that no longer comply with the new editorial policy. You may find some of them on another of my blogs: This is Centreville.
Back in the day, Fine Dining and French Food were synonyms. There's a reason why they called it haute cuisine. I'm agnostic when it comes to food trends and am willing to try – and usually enjoy – anything, but I do like the classics. Dressing up to go out to an ornately furnished, ever so slightly stuffy restaurant with the frightening maître d', 500 piece place setting and a tab equal to your paycheck.
Alas, there's not many places like that left. I have to satisfy my jones by reading about such experiences. And when I do, I will tell you about them. My experience, though, is not that deep, so I have to rely on experts to help me fill in the details and provide the backstory. This is what I mean when I make references to Old School Big 3.
Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier
M. Escoffier is the founding deity of what we now think of as the fancy restaurant. At the time of his death, in 1935 at the age of 88, he was called the King of Cooks and the Cook of Kings. The GC (pronounce it "Zhay Say" if you like putting on airs) was his effort to systematize restaurant cooking. This was not written for the home chef. In fact, it assumes that the reader has a fair amount of knowledge and skills. It has to, there's over 5000 recipes and 68 menus packed into only 600 or so pages!
It's a fascinating read, though. You'll run across tid-bits like this one, early in the book, for Sauce Currie à l'Indienne:
In India, there are innumerable variations of this sauce but the basis of its preparation always remains the same. It may be of interest to note that the authentic type of Indian curry is not suitable for European tastes, but the flavour of of the above sauce is generally acceptable.
I also like the suggested wines in the menus, like the Perrier Jouet, extra dry, 1898. I bet, even if I could find and afford one, it ain't tasting too great any more.
If you're looking for your own copy, be aware that there is a recently published abridged version with only 2300 recipes in it. You can still find the original, if you look on eBay, Amazon or a good used book dealer, but it's not cheap. I consider myself lucky that mine was just under $50, shipped, but it is a former library book that's been well loved.
Larousse Gastronimique by Prosper Montagné
This encyclopedia of French cuisine was originally published in 1938. Each succeeding edition expanded the coverage to include some elements other cuisines, but it still remained primarily French. As with the GC, Larousse is not a cook book. It's a source of information that the classically trained French chef of old could consult when preparing a menu. True, there are entries for specific dishes, but also included are descriptions of equipment, ingredients and methods. A typical entry reads:
Dieppoise (A LA) — A method of preparation special to sea water fish. Fish à la Dieppoise is cooked in white wine, garnished with mussels and shelled fresh-water crayfish tails, and masked with a wite wine sauce made with the cooking stock of the fish and mussels. See Brill à la Dieppoise.
The Brill entry he refers to (there are 54 of them for this Flounder-like fish) pretty much repeats the above with the suggestion to serve as is or after glazing it in a very hot oven. As for the white wine sauce, there are three versions listed in a more recipe-like manner that a modern reader may recognize. So, you can track down what you need, but you'll be flipping back and forth to gather all of your data. Painful, yes, but then you'll run into the odd entry such as the one for Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. I know him as one of the architects of post-Napoleon Europe, but his contemporaries thought of him as the greatest of French gastronomes. This makes it the effort worthwhile.
This book is easier to track down than the GC, but it's big, so you will still pay about $60 for a copy. I inherited mine, 1965 printing, from my mother, who seems to have bought hers new. Can't recall her ever consulting it, though, but then, the copy is as old as me.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child
Yes, I realize that three people contributed to this book. There's a fascinating story in The United States of Arugula that recounts why Julia is the only one remembered today by most. So forgive me if I refer only to her. You must love a woman who, in supposedly prudish mid-20th century America, blurts out, "Wow! These damn things are as hot as a stiff cock." I'll tip my hat to Simone and Luisette, but I'll invite Julia to my party.
Unlike the other two, this book (or two, depending on which version you have) is written for the home chef. It is organized roughly by main ingredient / course and presents the information in the now standard recipe format of ingredients and steps (I do like how these are displayed in parallel columns, at least in my edition). The authors assume nothing on the part of the reader, so this is not just a straight list of recipes. Terms, equipment and techniques are described so that anyone can prepare the dishes in the book. The recently released movie, Julie & Julia appears completely plausible once you've leafed through this.
You should have no problems tracking this book down. In fact, they are selling more now, after the release of the movie, than ever. I also inherited this from my mother and it looks well used, though I cannot tell the source of the food stains. Was it a Bourguignon or just a little bit of the cooking Sherry?
I've been encountering stories lately that make the claim that Paris is over-rated when it comes to food. I don't know if it's laziness or the inherent Francophobia present in many Americans, but it disturbs me greatly. First is from a column in the National Review by Lisa Schiffren. Here are some points she makes about Paris:
Food is too expensive
Few places are truly child friendly
You cannot have a meal whenever you want, you have to abide by their hours
Meals take forever
There is a lot of bad food, especially around tourist joints
So, basically, she wants the American experience in a place and time of her choosing. No wonder American tourists overseas have such a bad reputation. This quote, though, is the kicker for me:
There is much excellent food, of course. But who wants really excellent food every day? Sometimes you just want to get everyone fed and get on with your activities.
What are you doing in Paris, then? Stick to Disney World.
Where, in fact, were any dishes affirming the country's rep as the great culinary stronghold of the Continent? Because it wasn't just one bad meal, you see. In a week, we had maybe one good, never mind great, meal.
She provides the reason for this a few paragraphs later:
But if you're a casual tourist, you need to know: You're not going to find a fabulous meal around every corner.
Ah, so I see. She doesn't want to do the work find good places. Paris was never that way. You've always had to get off the beaten path to find the best food at reasonable prices. Despite her claims that it takes an expert to find good food in Paris (she names Joe Yonan who's the food section editor), anyone can do so if you're willing to do some research. Use the internet, ask locals and get off the main streets! Only the lazy, idiots or your those with your typical American palate could return from Paris without eating well. I have no sympathy.
If you like to cook, you must subscribe to this magazine. It is always packed with useful tips and helpful step-by-step instructions. While it will never stir my emotions to a fever pitch, I still find that I learn something new every time I read it. But it's like a well written text book: no matter its quality, it's still just a text book.
I like the fact that there is so much content here, yet it doesn't feel crammed in. Although articles are never more than 2 pages and usually include a side bar or two, they remain tightly focused on the topic and convey the right amount of information.
My favorites in this issue are the articles on Steak Tips with Mushroom Gravy, Rethinking Sunday Gravy and the Foolproof Vinaigrette. I skipped over the Secrets to a Perfect Cup of Coffee, Mexican Grilled Corn and discussion on "Green" Skillets, but only because they didn't interest me. My favorite tip this issue was to not use extra virgin olive oil when cooking, rather stick with the regular stuff since what you pay for in the good stuff – the unique flavors and aromas – dissipate with the heat.
It used to irk me that, within the covers, this is a black and white magazine. It's not so much an issue, any more, but still rankles me a bit. Would be nice to see what the food is supposed to look like. My other beef is that the writing style is uniformly written in the first person, this grates on my inner blue pencil. This might work if there was only one author throughout the whole magazine, but that's not the case here.
Food Porn: 8/20
If it wasn't for the wonderful illustration that they always have on the back cover, this would be a zero. This gets back to the lack of color in the magazine. But even the cover shots, in this case of Swiss Chard, rarely get a rise out of me.
Yes, yes, yes, I have claimed that recipes are not so important to me. Tell me the how and I'll figure out the what. But these guys really pull this off well. For example, after a detailed discussion of what it takes to make a good Apple Upside-Down Cake, they offer variants with almonds or lemon and thyme, along with what needs to be adapted in the original recipe. Excellent.
I drive by this place frequently, every time thinking I should give it a shot. I finally got around to it and am kicking myself for not doing so sooner.
This place is small, no more than 4 or 5 tables. Folks looked at me like I was lost. No, truly, I want to eat here! At first I was disheartened by the menu, which is populated with typical Mexican/Salvadoran fare that you'll see in any number of places through out DC, none of which is particularly adventurous. Then I noticed the white board. That's where the real food is listed.
I ordered a pork pupusa, beef tongue taco and a chicken tamale. This is, by far, the best pupusa I have ever had: lightly crispy on the outside while the contents had a creamy consistency. The flavors worked well with the slaw and salsa to make the sum of the whole greater than the parts. This alone was worth the trip.
When I mention tongue tacos to most people, they recoil in horror. They should not. There's nothing funky in the taste like, say, liver. It's just a lean piece of beef. And this taco is an excellent example of what can be done. With the pico de gallo and a squeeze of lime, I was in heaven. Yet again, this alone was worth the trip.
As for the tamale, I admit to some trepidation. It is really hard to find a well made tamale. Cerrito's does theirs well. The filing was more than just the single note of chicken, it included chunks of potato and green beans. One was just enough, any more and I would have been filled to bursting.
I will definitely make a return visit, and so should you. They are on Rt. 50, about 4 miles west of the intersection with Rt. 28.
Cerrito's Pupuseria 43137 John Mosby Hwy Chantilly, VA 20152 (703) 327-0052
Let's just get this out of the way right now: I love Meatpaper! I've been a subscriber since the beginning and read every issue cover to cover. The latest edition is another example of high quality writing and excellent photography.
There are a few articles here that really made me think. In particular, I enjoyed Heather Smith's discussion in A Modest Proposal: A Selective History of Telling People What to Eat. This delves into the essence of Don't Yuck My Yum: How meat eaters and vegetarians feel threatened by each other. Her article on hot dogs is also worth a read.
Meatpaper is not just about the consumption of meat, but rather fleischgeist:
Fleisch•geist (flish'gist') n. From the German, Fleisch “meat” + Geist “spirit.” Spirit of the meat. From Zeitgeist, “spirit of the times.”
This spirit includes articles on how bulls are enticed into participating in artificial insemination, hunting with eskimos and taxidermy. This issue misses the perfect mark for the article on the shock value of certain food TV shows. I feel the author really stretches to make the facts fit the theory. Oh, and my usual complaint about Meatpaper: It's too short!
As usual, this is a well crafted publication that is artfully assembled. Given the wide range of styles, this could easily have been garish and jarring. But they pull it off well. My only complaint is the lack of captions on nearly all photos. Sure, I can infer meaning from the accompanying copy, but I'd like some specifics.
Food Porn: 18/20
There is always some seriously good photos in this magazine, but this issue does not have as many good money shots. About the only one is on the end papers. Mmmm, pancetta. The carving up of the whale blubber kind of killed my appetite, though.
No recipes, but that's OK. Meatpaper isn't a cooking magazine.
There is a wide variety of sources on food: books, magazines, websites and television. Likewise, what is presented ranges from traditional cookbooks to history and travelogues. Despite this diversity, I will use the following general evaluation to rate food media.
Content (60 points)
What did I learn? While this varies depending upon the subject, I need to feel like I learned something useful or that this would be a good introduction for a newbie. Does this provide you with new techniques or knowledge that will aid you in the kitchen or make eating more enjoyable?
Quality (20 points)
How well was the content presented? Was it well organized, well written? Was there something in the content that makes me question the author's credibility? While this measurement is closely tied to my evaluation of the content – a low content score will likely also mean a low quality score – I keep these separate to account for the case where good stuff is obscured by a crappy presentation.
Food Porn (20 points)
Show me the money shot! Yes, I want to learn, but I want to salivate, too.
Recipes (10 points extra credit)
I do not want a simple recitation of recipes. Divorced from context, this is solely rote memorization. Recipes, if present, serve to support the content.
I will divide the points awarded by the maximum possible (rounded to nearest whole number) and assign a letter grade according to this scale:
How about lunch at Guapo's? That used to be an easy yes for me. I could eat their rotisserie chicken and fried yucca on a regular basis. The perfectly roasted chicken is juicy with a nicely seasoned, salty skin. The yucca, right out of the fryer, almost too hot to handle, is what a french fry yearns to be. This alone makes the trip worthwhile, but the menu is packed with excellent dishes. Their steak and pork ribs are tasty. They have a half way decent huevos rancheros, which is hard to find around here, especially as a non-breakfast item. Heck, even their steak and cheese sandwich is excellent.
I have been to their two locations in Manassass, both serve equally good food, but I find the ambiance at their Sudley road place to be calmer, not as elbow-to-elbow. It's a tad pricey for a place where you order and pick up your food from the counter, but, truly, this is worth it.
While up in the Rockville area, looking for a place to eat lunch during my work day, I stumble upon another Guapo's location. Goaded on by the ravenous growling of my stomach, my head filled with visions of poultry-flavored paradise, I open the door. I don't see a counter to place my order. A hostess offers to seat me. Confusedly, I follow her, slightly worried that I'm not smelling any chicken roasting. I flip through the menu, confirming my fears. They don't have chicken, steak or even yucca fries!! My only options are generic Tex-Mex with the requisite beans and cheese. Nothing you can't get at any number of chain restaurants in the region.
WTF? I look on their website, guaposrestaurant.com and learn that, indeed, there are two types of Guapos. Some marketing genius decided that, though they are different, they should be branded the same. Doesn't help that the naming of the types is confusing, too. The Tex-Mex Grills restaurants are the rotisserie locations, while the Fine Mexican Cuisine Restaurants serve Tex-Mex food. It also doesn't help that each location's signage uses a different vocabulary.
Long story short:
Rotisserie (Herndon, Manassass and Woordbridge): Definitely worth a visit. Every item on the menu is good.
Fine Mexican Cuisine (Maryland, DC and Arlington): I suppose, if you're a big fan of Tex-Mex and you have no other place to try.
A variety of factors interact to influence my opinion on an eating establishment, be it a taco wagon or an upscale restaurant.
Obviously! But it is much more than just how it tastes, although crappy food can never be balanced by other factors. While all of the elements that go into taste such as quality ingredients and skillful preparation matter greatly, I'm looking for more. How unique is it? I am more likely to drive 50 miles out of my way for some good carnitas than I would be for a great hamburger. How different is it? If you serve me something that I would have never thought of doing, and it's good, I will bow down in homage.
I want prompt service that does not intrude on my dining experience. I don't want to be your best friend and I don't care what your name is. I do want a drink in my hand ASAP, though, and you better make sure my glass is never empty. If you provide good recommendations, you will make me a happy man. The food better be damn good to make up for bad service.
How I rate this one depends upon the restaurant's and the meal's context. It encompasses noise level, background music, the decor and clientele. I will make an effort to point out circumstances in which it might be better to visit a place. Sometimes what works for lunch just doesn't ring my bell at dinner. It is hard to overcome bad ambiance since I cannot enjoy a meal if I'm in a bad mood.
The more expensive a place, the harder I'll grade it on the above factors. All else being equal, a $5 burger is always better than a $10 one.
I will try to visit a place multiple times before I write a review. Sometimes, though, a place is so bad, it only takes once. On the other hand, I would like to bring attention to place that has potential, so I'll flag it with Quick Bite and will follow up later after additional visits.
5 Stars: This is among the most amazing food you will ever eat. I will visit this place as often as I can so I can work my way, continuously, through the menu. You cannot get this rating unless the food is top notch and the ambiance perfectly matches the context. I will over look the occasional service slip, but not if it appears to be systemic.
4 Stars: This is a good place. You will get a very good meal here. This will always be a good fall back option when you're stuck for where to eat out. They offer enough good dishes to allow you to see past the items on the menu aren't that great, how loud the place is, or the fact that their prices are a tad too high.
3 Stars: Eh. I don't feel like I wasted my money, but I probably won't come back here. If you have no other options, I suppose. Likely, the low price allows you to stomach the less than stellar food or consistently bad service.
2 Stars: This place sucks. I finished my meal, but I was not enthused. This place must be avoided!
1 Stars: Why is this place in business? I didn't finish my meal either because the food was inedible or the service was catastrophically bad. I don't need to tell you to avoid this place, since it will probably be shut down soon.