Traci Des Jardins and the Closing of Jardinière

This morning, I read the New York Times article “Jardinière, a Pioneer of High-End Dining and Design in San Francisco, Will Close” with the subhead “The chef Traci Des Jardins says she’s ‘tired of fine dining’ and wants to focus on Mexican food.” I felt a little blue and a sort of melancholy stuck with me throughout the day.

I first experienced Chef Des Jardins culinary prowess at Rubicon in San Francisco in the mid-90s. Rubicon was Drew Nieporent’s first foray into the bay area and Des Jardins won the James Beard award for Best Rising Chef. I was new to the area and was taken by her dishes grounded in French tradition and incorporating fresh California flavors.

In fact, she was the reason I bought this cookbook called “Great Women Chefs” published in 1996.  I still have it. Check out the old-timey cover.

Book cover to Great Women Chefs: Marvelous Meals & Innovative Recipes from the Stars of American Cuisine with an introduction by Alice Waters

I tried my hand at her recipes and made the apple tarts for practically every dinner party I had for several years.

Traci Des Jardins is the first chef profiled in the book

I knew she was pivoting towards Mexican cuisine with the opening of her other restaurants. I spend a lot of time perusing recipes when I make a new dish and was pleasantly surprised when I came across her recipe for carnitas tacos. Search over. I found my recipe.

Des Jardins, for me, was unique in her standing amongst the male chefs of her time. She helmed a fine dining restaurant that was successful, though to be frank, I had a sense that her male peers received more backing and started to build their empires.  

And while I respect the move away from a white linen dining experience as I know that I myself seek out those kind of restaurants less and less, I feel remorseful.  Why can restaurateurs like Danny Meyers or chefs like David Chang and Tom Colicchio have high/low places but not someone as talented as Traci Des Jardins?

Weekend Cooking

Weekends are my favorite times to cook and bake. I had a burst of productivity and cranked out all sorts of dishes.  

A friend came over for dinner on Friday night, and relied on making a menu that relied on ingredients on hand (pantry items, ground beef in the freezer and veggies in the crisper): North African-inspired meatballs, cinnamon-scented tomato sauce, roast broccoli/okra/radish and toasted basmati rice.  We started off with some fresh tortilla chips and tomatillo-chipotle salsa and ended with rasberry and apricot rugelach. My husband made it official with a menu.

Friday Dinner Menu

Of course I forgot to take pictures of most of this but I did made so much rugelach that I got a snap.

Rasberry and Apricot Rugelach

I have become a fan of cold-rise pizza dough so I made a ball early Friday morning  to get ahead for either Saturday dinner or Sunday lunch.

I was able to make a run to 8 Hands, a local farm and market, and picked up some freshly baked sourdough boule, eggs and I picked up a few links of chipotle sausage which I thought would be tasty on one of the pizzas.  The market was pretty active for a Saturday morning which gave me time to browse through all the prepared soups. I ended up grabbing a quart of lentil and root vegetable soup as well.

We awoke on Saturday to a light dusting of snow on the ground so I thought a warming soup would be ideal for lunch. I had various root vegetables on hand and ended up making a carrot-daikon soup sprinkled with chipotle chilis (for a bit of kick).

Carrot-Daikon Soup with Chipotle Chili Flakes
Pizza sauce using crushed tomatoes, garlic, as well as garlic and onion powders and a spoon of sugar
Crumbled Chipotle Sausage, Red Onion and Olive Pizza
White Pizza with Caramelized Onions, Garlic and Herbs

Sunday was a day of rest and leftovers!

Supper Club: March and Mean Girls

Two of my oldest and dearest friends (M and T) and I started calendaring regular dinners to make sure that too many months would not go by without us reconnecting.  At first, we would pick restaurants based more on location on the day that worked for us all, so sometimes we would meet for acceptable pasta at Serafina, or try a new plant-based pizzeria because we were all curious, or splurging at Gabriel Kreuther to celebrate our birthdays.

When I left my corporate run in digital entertainment, I had more time on my hand and since I have always enjoyed cooking, I thought maybe we could eat-in versus go out. Somewhere along the way, we started to meet at M’s apartment which was sort of equidistant from myself and T, and M had the place to herself which meant we could talk freely and linger as long as we all wanted.  M is the sommelier amongst us so she would usually provide the wine; T plays sous-chef and brings a course like dessert or makes a side dish though she would usually also bring a bottle of something recommended from her favorite local wine seller. And I would set the menu and prepare the meal.

I absolutely love thinking up menus for dinner parties.   The parameters for these friends includes M being a pescatarian, and while T is an omnivore, she is allergic to scallops, crabs and shrimp, though clams are ok! I usually have to ask her of this list every month though now after several years, I finally remember.

I wanted to share our Supper Club ritual because it’s a wonderful way for friends to connect on a regular basis. We cover the gamut on topics as we cook, eat and drink.

Menu: I have been lamenting no longer having a favorite place to go for chirashizushi and so decided to put in on the menu.  Also, it was timely in that Hinamatsuri (Girls’ or Doll) Festival is on March 3 and it is common to serve this dish. My mom had given me some Japanese boxed containers and so I mixed and matched a few to make one big box of sashimi, and then we each had our own box. I also made a side dish of kimpira gobo.

Drink: sake, of course.

Dessert: wagashi or Japanese sweets. My husband got me a box of specialty confections (mochi, kumquat, sweet bean paste) from Minamoto Kitchoan and I had no business eating the entire thing. Supper Club is also a great way to share (and save myself) from candy.

Conversation: Mean Girls

This last supper club, we talked about ‘mean girls’ and being at a place where we are okay with icing them out of our lives.  The motives are not sometimes clear and the tormenting or aggressive bully-like behavior happen over a period of time.

We each shared stories about surprising betrayals, intent, and workplace bullying.

Relationships are fragile enough things and we know how emotional pain can be the hardest to overcome. Unless they are family, cutting off bad relationships are a natural part of life.  Like a plant, you need make sure to give relationships enough water and light for growth. And you need to prune the dead leaves and branches. Good riddance to ‘mean girls’ and cheers to making time to spend with quality friends.

Method Japanese Kitchen & Sake Bar

With the name ‘Method’ in cursive script and its darkened doors, it is sort of easy to mistake this establishment as another trendy bar specializing in cocktails, but over the last few months, Method Japanese Kitchen & Sake Bar has been getting attention from discerning foodies. Resy’s description of the restaurant says that Yasuhiro Honma is the chef-owner, and if he is that Yasuhiro Honma, he hailed from Sakagura and EN Japanese Brasserie.

Atmosphere and design: Subdued lighting and minimalist in design, the restaurant has counter and table seating.  The restaurant quickly filled up on the Friday evening I visited but the noise level did not result in a raspy voice by night’s end. The service was warm and courteous.

Menu: On its website, the restaurant describes itself as “a contemporary style of Izakaya restaurant influenced by [a] multi-cultural New York modernism approach to authentic Japanese cuisine.” One will find surprising pairings across the specials and standard menus like chicken liver pate with mochi waffles; daikon salad with bonito flakes and bacon-onion dressing; prosciutto-pressed sushi; and tempura options like brussels sprouts and shishamo (smelt).  I focused on the food but the wine and sake menus were extensive.

Dishes: I started off with a glass of sake and oil-pickled oysters. This dish was completely unique (or at least to me). I could not tell what the chef had done to the oysters beyond the title of the dish but umami was maximized through flavor and texture. What I believe was dashi and the incredibly silkiness of the oysters from the pickling creates a richness savored with each bite.  

Agedashi eggplant with namafu in dashi broth was topped with bonito flakes and was exactly the comforting dish I needed on a brisk cold evening.  The eggplant and namafu (wheat gluten) were soft but had body. The chef is a real dashi master as the broth was bursting with umami and did not enter that ‘danger danger Will Robinson’ overly salty territory.

Tempura: You always see shrimp on a tempura list; I had never seen shishamo. Served with flaky salt, and a dipping sauce with lots of grated daikon, the shishamo were flavorful with a light crunch from the batter.

Steamed black cod with scallions and ginger was ‘eclectic-ized’ with enoki mushrooms. The dish was tasty and any black cod lover would be supremely satisfied.

I had been craving noodles all week so ordered chicken ramen with scallions and sliced lemon. The noodles had the right ‘koshi’ or al dente-ness and the broth was bright. It was a nice ending to the meal.

Overall I am looking forward to returning and trying more of the menu. Every dish using dashi was so flavorful so I would probably focus on those items. Usually, descriptions like ‘eclectic’ and ‘multicultural’ scare me off, but the chef’s mixing and matching of non-traditional flavors and textures showed off his sophisticated palette.  I’m game to try more.

Method Japanese Kitchen & Sake Bar, 746 10th Ave, New York, NY 10019

Pete Wells and His 2-Star Reviews

It feels so random. . .

Like many New Yorkers, I look to the The New York Times restaurant reviews for recommendations on where to eat (or not as the case may be). While there are several reviewers on staff, only one critic that gets the Restaurant Review headline and appoints the star ratings– Pete Wells. And it’s been over seven years that he has been cranking out reviews.  

I’m going to guess that it was probably after the first year or so that I realized that I had no insight into Pete Wells’ tastes and preferences.  Even today, over seven years later, I still don’t get him. It seems to me that most restaurants he reviews start and end with two stars. It is an ongoing joke in our household that whenever anyone announces a new NYT restaurant review, I would bet it got two stars.

This morning, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and actually break down the ratings since November 2011 when he took over the reigns from Sam Sifton.  It was a rather long and grueling process given some product glitches but I believe I have a reasonable guestimate for about 280 reviews*:

4 stars = 4
3 stars = 37
2 stars = 130
1 star = 96
Satisfactory = 9
Fair = 5
Poor = 1

Aha!  Two-star ratings are indeed the most popular of the seven categories, and almost half of the reviews Mr.  Wells has given fall into this bucket! My gut was rooted in reality!

Two stars for The New York Times is ‘very good’ and given the decline in popularity of formal dining and the rise of non-Western fare and fast-casual meals, it’s no surprise that the range in this category would be wide.  

How wide you ask?  Examples of two-star establishments include Superiority Burger (fast food),  Aviary (high-end bar with small plates), L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (fine dining), Marta (rustic pizzeria) and I Sodi (Tuscan fare).

And what type of restaurants do not get two stars? Three-star or ‘excellent’ ratings have gone to a casual pizza place in Brooklyn (Razza) and a one-star or ‘good’ rating was given to Manhatta, a puzzler given that there were enough tasty dishes to offset the mediocre, and if you read the comments, I am not the only one that didn’t understand the review and how it lead to the one-star rating.

Henry gets one star but gets into the Top 10 New Restaurants of 2018 list.  Why wouldn’t this restaurant pushing African cuisine in such an interesting manner get a better rating if it’s one of the city’s best? And why didn’t other new restaurants that received higher star ratings make the list?

It’s a rhetorical question for I know I am looking for a throughline or standard around these measurements where there are none.  At the end of the day, reviews are subjective and so it goes with the territory that the weighting of variables can seem random. . . and that the overall rating can seem random.

And so this brings me to the point that while the restaurant scene has changed, the rating system for many publications have not.

I have been mulling over how to perhaps improve the rating system without having something like  Yelp reviews which for the most part, I tend to disregard.

But I will save those thoughts for another day. . .

*Restaurants that have closed are not included in the restaurant search results; and some of these reviews have had their ratings stripped making an accurate breakdown of the roughly 330 reviews by Pete Wells difficult. I did get through enough of the 50-odd closed restaurant reviews to see that two-star ratings were still popular, and one-star ratings were not going to outnumber the overall two-star total.

Empellón Al Pastor (Pod 39)

A very quick visit to the bar

I read somewhere that Alex Stupak’s Empellón Al Pastor at the Pod 39 hotel was all about bar food so I knew it would be a quick meal. I think we were in and out in under 45 minutes.

Stupak’s Empellón restaurant group has been growing at a brisk pace since he left pastry behind and opened  Empellón Taqueria in the West Village in 2001. I enjoyed eating there but was never truly bowled over and so I missed Cocina, but really loved some of the dishes and presentations at Empellón Midtown, so wanted to check out this opening. And of course, there is the curiosity about the restaurant replacing Salvation Taco which was shuttered by April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman after the sexual harassment scandal borne at the Spotted Pig.

Atmosphere: Pretty much what you would expect from a bar in the Murray Hill area, it was lively and boisterous with pretty much a 30-something crowd. Service was friendly; definitely nothing to complain about.

Menu: Covers all the bases with snacks, tacos, sides, salads and dessert. It also has somewhat dangerous ‘eclectic’ and global themes like chicken wings with brown butter matcha, and chicken nuggets with sichuan salsa. https://www.empellon.com/location/al-pastor-murray-hill/

Dishes: We only ordered a few dishes and wanted to steer clear of nachos and guac. And to be honest, the all-over-the-globe items are turn offs for me. Given we were at a high table top, it wasn’t a place to linger either.

I was rather looking forward to the lobster rangoon. I grew up in the midwest where crab rangoon were standard on every Chinese restaurant menu. Wontons are stuffed with cream cheese, some chives and (most likely) artificial crab, and fried up. My friend from Japan loves coming to the US and eating these.  Anyhoo, the lobster rangoon was a bit of a letdown. In Stupak’s version, the wontons are folded over versus made into a pouch so there is less cream cheese. There is also some spice like paprika or chili powder which would probably been seasoning enough, but really gets lost when you dip them into the accompanying chamoy sauce.

The chicken nuggets were made of a meat blend it seemed as there was no texture of chicken but more like a dense sausage as there was a lot of seasoning in them. The sichuan salsa is not memorable.

The cheeseburger tacos were good.

The pork fried rice was the best thing we ordered. The rice was fluffy and flavorful. The strips of pork were a nice change from being diced. It was also the dish that tasted best reheated.

In truth, we ended up taking home the rangoon and nuggets as we weren’t keen on finishing them. I wondered if they would taste better on another day but they really did not.  I ended up tossing them out even though I really hate wasting food.

Having just returned from Mexico City, maybe my palette was sharpened to the wonders of Mexican street cuisine, but in the few dishes I sampled, I felt the flavors were lacking in the texture and refinement from Stupak’s other restaurants and just a bit too course for my taste.  I do not think I’ll be heading back anytime soon.

Empellón Al Pastor (Murray Hill), 145 E. 39th St., New York, NY 10016

Rocco at The Standard Grill

Observations from my first meal 

I went with great anticipation to The Standard Grill restaurant, where I could experience the genius of Rocco Dispirito. For those who were not in New York in the ‘90s and dined at his restaurant Union Pacific, it was a head-shaking decade-and-a-half where the celebrated chef sought fame and stardom through failed reality shows, calorie-focused cookbooks, and pop-py appearances at entertainment events.  I would even ask industry insiders about their thoughts on why someone so talented seemed to value an TV green room over leaning into this obvious talent (which would also then bring more fame and recognition).

After I saw the story of his return to serious cooking, I made a reservation.  I dislike overly belaboring every detail but my thoughts were these:

Atmosphere and design: I think the dining room has gone mostly unchanged but it’s been years. That said, it is arranged to not feel too crowded.  The menus were a nice touch being folded into quarters and stickered to create a feeling of surprise and delight in unsealing the menu of the day.  That said, if you looked at the menu on the website as I had done (many times to see if there were changes), it seemed exactly the same. To that end, it seemed a bit overdone to be printing out a new set of menus daily (and tossing them out daily).  But maybe they print as needed so I should not sweat the wastefulness…

Menu: Lots of sections and hype with names like “game changing toast.” What struck me the most was the emphasis on binchotan, a Japanese charcoal known for removing impurities (so great in water) and making whatever you are grilling crispier and accentuating it’s natural flavor.  The waiter would speak to it; it appears all over the menu.

Dishes: There was no delicacy to all of the dishes we ordered, save the shishito peppers, which were the most simple as they were grilled and salted.  The caviar was served with the ‘game changing toast’ which is a fairly common plant-based nut/seed bread that is sliced into thin crackers and toasted.  This stuff is great with avocado and cheese made from nutritional yeast, but the texture and flavor was much too strong to be serving with caviar! The star ingredient should not be demoted because one is proud of one’s toast! We had to ask for regular bread.

The fregola had way too many flavors in it, Todd English style as I like to say. The acid was too strong; the creaminess was too strong; the textures of the clams and creams seemed to fight each other; and there was enough parsley to make me worry that I would have some stuck between my teeth.

The sea bass with sweet pepper puree seemed almost equal in portions. If I evenly divided each mouthful of bass with the puree, I would have had over a tablespoon which was simply too overpowering.  And again, I felt that the flavor of the puree did not bring out the flavor and texture of the bass.

The braised shiitake mushrooms were soaked in something as they were nice and plump. They were very juicy but it seemed like the essence of shiitake was diminished as a result. Because shiitake is a pretty delicate flavor to being with, it can easily take on other flavors.  Such a preparation would maybe have been better served to be paired with rice, or other grain.

Anyway, at the top level, the meal was completely satisfactory but a true disappointment for this former Union Pacific fan.  The menu reflects the type of cooking Mr. Dispirito journeyed through with the necessary elevation a place like The Standard Grill and the prices would require; but they don’t seem to be in harmony quite yet.

The Standard Grill, 848 Washington St, New York, NY 10014