Archive: February, 2009
As promised: After the jump, I rank the remaining four Season 5 contestants in descending order in terms of how likely I think they are to win the title of Top Chef. Don't worry, I kept it as simple as possible. No rubrics or flow charts, just short/sweet reasoning. Please share your thoughts, and/or your own rankings, in the comments.
The new episode comes on in a few minutes. Let's talk more tomorrow.
Quickfire Wins: 3
Elimination Wins: 4
Strengths: Stefan, a California-based caterer who was born in Finland and raised in Germany, is definitely the most refined member of the Final Four when you're talking pure skills. He displayed as much in Episode 11, when he wowed chef Eric Ripert with a near-perfect rendition of a Le Bernardin seafood dish. Plus, think about it in terms of diversity. Seasons 1 and 2 had white male winners (Harold and Ilan). Season 3 saw Vietnam native Hung take it home. Season 4 featured Stephanie, the very first female winner. Wouldn't it be cute and convenient for Season 5 to feature a Euro-bred Top Chef?
Weaknesses: The guy is a hothead, definitely does not work well with others (remember Episode 5, when Radhika said she'd rather cook with Satan than him?) and seems to get the hiccups when required to properly execute dishes driven by simplicity (see Episode 12, when he grossly overcooked Marcus Samuelsson's salmon). Then again, with the final challenge upon us, will any of these shortcomings even matter?
Quickfire Wins: 1
Elimination Wins: 3
Strengths: Carla owns a D.C.-based company called Alchemy Caterers, which carries the connotation of her turning crap into pure gold. She's been able to do as much with her late-season surge, which began with Episode 8's Blue Hill at Stone Barns group challenge and culminated last week in a Wylie Dufresne-approved egg Quickfire and a near-win for the "Last Supper" elimination. Also, remember how she took the win in Episode 10 with a gumbo she somehow pulled off in 20 minutes? The final challenge is taking place in New Orleans. A familiarity with EmerilLand cuisine cannot hurt her. She is a definite fan favorite, too, for her vivacious, odd-bird antics, which almost always translate well to the judges. (Except for Philly's Stephen Starr, who quite memorably expressed his desire to shake her.) Also, barring a few snafus (e.g. the non-frozen frozen yogurt from Restaurant Wars), Carla is the most talented baker and pastry chef remaining in the competition.
Weaknesses: Inconsistency. Carla wasn't able to turn on the afterburners until the final third of this season. Does she have enough left to keep a step ahead of Stefan in these crucial final episodes? As much as I would like to watch Carla win, I don't see it happening.
Quickfire Wins: 0
Elimination Wins: 3
Strengths: Florentine Fabio, he of the unavoidably charming panty-disintegrating Italian accent, is definitely the ballsiest member of the Final Four. He's taken the most risks with his food, an approach that's brought him both success and spectacular failure. His unabashed boldness on the stove (he's basically the only contestant to toy with "molecular" techniques) separates him from his peers and solidifies him as a threat. If Fabio just wanted to phone it in, he could've dressed every one of his dishes up in Italian clothes, a la Rad's omnipresent Indian influence. But he hasn't done that, and has reached the finals on the strength of his originality in the kitchen.
Weaknesses: Somewhat obviously, his greatest strength doubles as his greatness weakness. I can definitely see Fabio sticking his neck out a little too far in the final challenge, miscalculating the balance between branding a dish his own and presenting something that is a triumph in a technical sense.
Quickfire Wins: 1
Elimination Wins: 2
Strengths: Hosea, who's the head chef of a seafood restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, has won more challenges than it seems, mostly due to the fact that he's been a member of a winning group on several occasions. This means he's extremely good at teaming up. While this might not come into play in the final challenge, you never know what the Top Chef producers are gonna pull out of their crisp white sleeves. His outpalating of Stefan in Episode 5 showed that he knows ingredients, meaning he understands what the hell he's doing.
Weaknesses: Hosea's the classic example of a cheftestant who's dodged enough bullets, either through holding down the not-winning/not-losing middle of the pack or by coasting in a group situation, to sneak his way into the Final Four. Does he have enough imagination and individual chutzpah to stake his own culinary claim? I don't think so. Also: Stupid novelty T-shirts, stupid beard and he grossly made out with Leah that one time.
"Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, such shaping fantasies, that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends. The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are imagination all compact. One sees more devils than vast hell can hold, that is the madman. The lover, always frantic, sees Helen's beauty in the brow of Egypt." — A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V, Scene 1
That's the chunk o' Shakespeare that inspired the name of Lovers and Madmen, a neighborhood café that looks to open sometime in March at 40th and Ludlow streets (28 s. 40th St.). Let manager Megan Powers, who settled on the name with the wishes-to-stay-anonymous owner, explain: "[It's] talking about how the way you feel in love is very similar to the way you feel when you're crazy, basically," she says. "It's a passage about passion and intensity, and that's sort of the idea we wanted to communicate. We're passionate about the area."
Coffee geeks will soon be passionate about it, too, as the 25-seat L&MM will be getting its beans from North Carolina-based Counter Culture Coffee, which also supplies Spruce Street Espresso. Michael "Challahman" Dolich of Four Worlds Bakery will provide the shop's bagels, croissants, etc. They'll have sandwich options, as well, with a focus on local/organic products. Movie nights and art shows are also in the plans.
SNACK TIME: Sneaking around with a spicy young Thai, writer tells Guv to get off his beer-drinking back, the life sorta-meatless, vegetarian innuendo, more hot harissa dreams
|Penang Curry at Cafe de Laos|
Every Wednesday, Meal Ticket pokes around the food blog world to see what's simmering.
- E from Foodaphilia cheats on her longtime love, Erawan Thai Cuisine, with Cafe de Laos on Washington Ave. Though the corn cakes are found wanting, massaman curry, tom yum soup and a nubile young coconut ice cream make this a fling to revisit. Midnight booty call, perhaps?
- Lew Bryson of Seen Through a Glass pushes back at Gov. Rendell's latest revenue-producing idea: raise beer excise taxes in PA. His letter to the editor was published in the Inquirer on Feb. 17. Legislators around the country seek to raise "sin taxes" with boring predictability in times of budget crisis: Check out Oregon's proposed 1,900 percent beer tax increase.
- Local writers Tara Mataraza Desmond and Joy Manning's book Almost Meatless: Recipes That Are Better for Your Health and the Planet is doneski, and Serious Eats is giving them away! Enter to win a copy here, by telling Serious Eats all about your favorite meatless dish in the comments
- Livin' on the Vedge-er Kelly White wins for Most Cringe-Inducing Valentine's Day Post. Her exhaustively thorough recap of two vegetarians eating Mi Lah prior to getting it on turns normal words into phrases like this: "Just because it's Valentine's Day and he's mostly concentrated on what's underneath my napkin doesn't mean you can send out your mediocre specials." Kelly, come on, we don't want to think of you like that.
- Foodie at Fifteen has found 1,000 uses for harissa. Since it goes so well with eggs, peanuts and turkey sandwiches, the quest to "raise my smoke point" should be a lifelong journey.
|The upstairs lanes at Paul's Bar & Bowling, Paterson, NJ|
|All Photos l Michael Perscio|
Paterson, the third largest city in New Jersey, is the original melting pot. Irish, Germans, Dutch and Jews were the earliest immigrants to the region, followed by influxes of Italians and Eastern Europeans. Syrian and Lebanese populations arrived as early at 1890. Paterson is home to communities of Dominican, Peruvian, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Columbian and Central American immigrants, many of whom are second- and third-generation Americans.
This collision of diverse cultures is in evidence at one of Paterson's oldest continuously operated public houses, Paul's Bar & Bowling. Current owner Paul Awramko's grandfather opened the business in 1929 as a bowling alley, while he simultaneously worked as a horse-and-wagon iceman. Success selling beer from his cooler inspired him to add a tavern to the alley at the end of Prohibition, in 1933.
P.A., as he is known, started running the family business at the age of 21. He and his brothers took over day-to-day operations when their father passed away in 1969, though he does earnestly say, "The bar belonged to Mom. She was the boss."
Like the plurality of cultures living in Paterson, Paul's Bar has a diversity of entertainments. Bowlers roll in the original bi-level lanes, complete with the automatic Brunswick Crown pinsetters installed in 1968. When bands play in the corner, bowling is free from 8 p.m. to midnight. The talented and the intoxicated take over the mic for karaoke to raucous cheers and applause. A New Jersey lottery machine squats next to a Jaegermeister dispenser, the pair offering either multi-million dollar chances or ice-cold shots of liquor as blackly green as the mildew in Satan's shower stall. For those seeking a sure thing, the food that emerges from the closet-sized kitchen is the biggest winner.
Pierogies stuffed with cheese and potato are seared and covered in sweet caramelized onions, accompanied by sour cream. Wings are deep-fried and served with sauce on the side — but the crisp, snapping exterior conceals bright white meat so flavorful it needs no dressing. Sliced spicy sausages and sautéed peppers recall dinner at an Italian grandmother's house. A plate of mozzarella and gravy-doused "Tina Fries" gives a dirty Jerz raspberry to lame disco fry imitators.
P.A. said he couldn't say where the seemingly random menu items originated. "Mom cooked, but we got the good pierogie connections from our Eastern European customers," he said. "We hired a couple of cute Polish girls to work, and they said, yeah, those are the right ones, put them on the menu!"
We never argue with cute Polish girls, and neither does P.A. From the superlative pub grub to the pencils and basic math skills required to score your bowling game by hand, Paul's Bar & Bowling is just like its 1968 pinsetter. In the words of P.A., it's "everything original — not retro."
Paul's Bar & Bowling, 377 Crooks Ave., Paterson, N.J.; 973-278-1982; Open daily, 11 a.m.-3 a.m
Earlier this evening, Team Meal Ticket got an opportunity to sample a few dishes from chef Dionicio Jimenez's Pre-Hispanic Menu, a limited-time four-course prix-fixe designed to honor Benito Juarez, who served as the nation of Mexico's first president from 1858 to 1872. The menu (pictures coming in the morning see below) will be offered from March 17 to March 21 (Juarez's birthday) at Jimenez's Xochitl (408 S. Second St., 215-238-7280, xochitlphilly.com).
Juarez placed political power in the hands of his 19th-century kinsmen by founding a liberal political party that dissolved the stranglehold the military and the Roman Catholic Church had on pre-democratic Mexico. With the assistance of Monroe Doctrine-rocking U.S. President Andrew Johnson, he led a extended fight against conservative-sponsored European monarchical rule. Cinco de Mayo, which most of us here in the States celebrate by slamming Cuervo, eating nachos and yelling, is truly intended to honor Juarez-led Mexico's victory over the French forces that grossly outnumbered them in 1862's Battle of Puebla.
What better way to celebrate the man's legacy than by eating the stuff his people ate?
Chef Jimenez, who got the CP thumbs up last March for his Frida Kahlo-inspired prix-fixe menu, looked to many indigeneous ingredients to come up the Pre-Hispanic menu. This means that he's tossing around a lot of stuff that Americans are simply not used to seeing at their typical Mexican eatery — think grasshoppers, veal brains, frog legs and crayfish. "Back in the day, nobody wanted to eat this," said Jimenez of the atypical foodstuffs, which bore the stigma of being peasant food. Today, however, the sheer scarcity of these ingredients means they're rare deliciacies, especially if you're a Mexican food fan in Philly. "Now, everybody wants to eat them."
Tacos de Chapulines y Guacamole, or grasshopper tacos, boasted a pile of the leggy little dudes on a tortilla accompanied with either a chipotle or salsa verde drizzle. The unexpected sweetness of the insects, which were sourced from Oaxaca, is thanks to the hoppers living in avocado trees, Jimenez said. Sesos de Ternera Empanizado, breaded and fried veal brains, were another silky, crunchy Meal Ticket fave. (Does eating brains make you smarter? Hope so.) We also dug into some supple frog legs, cooked up simply in butter and garlic; a sneakily spicy monkfish-laden tostada; and a moist, nearly latke-like Mexican broccoli cake paired with a rich black mole sauce.
Check out Jimenez's full Pre-Hispanic menu after the jump.
|Click to enlarge|
Dad/daughter team Tom and Sara Block opened their third Naked Chocolate location in Philly less than a week back. (Their second location, at 3421 Walnut, opened in November.)
Situated in the United Plaza Building at 18th and Chestnut (31 S. 18th St., 215-564-3860), NC3 is not that much bigger than the Walnut-and-Juniper original, says Block, but it's "very dramatic" — there's a mezzanine which will be available for private parties and events, and there'll be outdoor patio seating when the weather breaks. Layered high tea service is offering Monday through Saturday from 2 to 10 p.m.
All your Naked obsessions are stocked at this spot, but there are some novel additions, namely classic desserts prepared tableside — Crepe Suzette, Floating Island, Baked Alaska and flambéed treats like Bananas Foster among them. The selection gets a little more whimsical with the addition of originals like the Love in the Afternoon, chocolate pate served atop white chocolate creme anglaise with raspberry and passion fruit coulis. The savory puff pastries that debuted with the recent rollout of the West Philly café are available here, too.
Block adds that they're still doing a bit of work on a six-person hot chocolate piano bar for the new space.
Hours: Mon.-Thu., 8 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri., 8 a.m.-11:30 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-11:30 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Just received word of a cool Newbold Neighbors Association fundraiser scheduled for Thursday Feb. 19 at Hardena (1754 Hicks St., 215-271-9442). The teeny deep-South-Philly Indonesian eatery which Meal Ticket recommended to Albany-based food crit B.A. Nilsson when he visited our city in October, has long been a Philly food nerd fave thanks to its cafeteria-style momma's-house service and tucked-out-the-way locale.
For the fundraiser, an insane $10 a head gets you an assortment of Indonesian treats — beef rendang, tempeh, and jackfruit dishes are in the plans. No reservations necessary — just pop in anytime from 6 to 8 p.m.
Oregon brewers are furious over five state legislators' proposal to increase the excise tax on beer, which has not been raised in 32 years. The proposal would increase state tax on each barrel of beer produced 1,900 percent; the current rate of approximately $2 per barrel would go up to almost $50.
KGW, a Portland local news station, reports that brewers are claiming the tax hike will cripple their businesses and cause job losses at breweries. Legislators are seeking to bridge budget deficits, with the proceeds from the tax specifically funding treatment for alcohol abuse. KGW writer Eric Adams:
The bill's language defends the tax by arguing alcoholism and “untreated substance abuse” costs the state $4.15 billion in lost earnings as well as more than $8 million for health care and nearly $1 billion in law enforcement-related expenditures.
Oregon ranks 49th among states for its malt beverage taxation rate, which brewers claim helped forge the hospitable climate for the small brewing businesses that Oregon has become famous for. Adams spoke with a local Portland microbrewery owner.
Laurelwood Public House & Brewing Co. owner Mike De Kalb said the tax may sound like a good idea in this economic climate, but he believes it would cost jobs and not raise enough new tax revenue to justify the increase... De Kalb said Oregon would potentially lose its prominence as a craft-brew destination and that some small breweries could potentially go out of business. He said Laurelwood could possibly face job cuts as well. Prior versions of the beer tax bill have exempted small breweries but this one does not, he added.
DeKalb goes on to state that the tax would increase the average price of a pint from $4.50 to $6. Rep. Bill Cannon, one of the bill's sponsors, counters that his office had calculated the increase to the consumer at just 15 cents. Another brewery owner squashed that notion.
But Kurt Widmer of Widmer brewing told KGW that in order to keep profit margins constant, he'd increase his price to distributors, who in turn would likely increase prices to retailers, making the 15 cent per class estimate unrealistic.
Oregon is home to hundreds of breweries, both large and prominent, like Rogue, and tiny micro-breweries and brewpubs. The tax seems not only unfair, but absolutely nonsensical. Are alcoholics buying micro-brews exclusively? Does every gutter drunk clutch a bottle produced at home in Oregon? Of course not. State legislators are looking to fix their hopelessly red budget by grabbing at one of Oregon's most successful local industries, and cripple them in the bargain.
"Sin taxes" have long been a favorite of legislators, who can stand on the moral high ground that they are protecting the citizenry from their own vices and earning the state revenue at the same time. Increasing a tax that has been untouched for 32 years in reasonable -- but not by 1,900 percent. One wonders who lobbied for this stratospheric hike. If Oregon's legislature passes this dramatically increased excise tax on each barrel of beer brewed in their state, the fallout should quickly vault Philadelphia to uncontested status at America's best beer city. Too bad such a victory would taste so bitter.
|Photos | Drew Lazor|
|Whole kumquats, and one in cross-section|
|Photo l Michael Persico|
Once called "the little gems of the citrus family," kumquats were reclassified in 1915 into the genus Fortunella, which includes six small Asiatic species. They differ from other citrus in that the skin is sweet and edible, concealing tart flesh. The best way to eat this little jewel is to pop the entire fruit in your mouth. A bite will reveal the layers of flavor: clean sourness after the slightly oily, spicy sweet skin. The most commonly sold kumquats in the U.S. go by the name Nagami, and are an excellent source of Vitamin C and fiber.
Florence Fabricant recently cataloged the development of a new seedless kumquat variant, which has been available in Japan for some time. Seedless kumquats for the U.S. market are now being grown in Panama, and can be purchased from baldorfood.com for $15 per 2 pounds.
Fabricant suggests simmering whole or halved kumquats in sugar syrup for cocktails, or blanching and slicing into salads.
Organic kumquats are available for $3.99 a box at Whole Foods, 929 South St., 215-733-9788, and 2001 Pennsylvania Ave., 215-557-0015
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