Side Bar

Meat Substitutes: Beyond Burger, Impossible Burger, Meatless Chicken, Fake Shrimp, etc. etc.

When the so-called ‘plant-based’ meat substitutes starting hitting the market, I was keen to try them. I had not yet found my go-to veggie burger –most were too bean-y and cumin-y.  After the Impossible Burger IPO giving them unicorn status, I started to read story after story of their popularity and more meat substitutes.

I am a supporter of plant-based cooking and keenly aware that our planet cannot sustain the way we have been eating.  I’ve taken classes from Matthew Kenney Culinary on plant-based cooking. To that end, I decided that I was going to have the next Supper Club menu be a battle of the new burgers. It would be fun!

But as I started crafting a plant-based burger battle menu, I started thinking about my own cooking and eating philosophy of trying to avoid packaged and processed foods. While I support decreasing the consumption of animal meats, I wasn’t sure if I was that enthusiastic with replacing them with processed substitutes.

I decided to look at the ingredients of some of these ‘plant-based’ meats.

Here is what is in an Impossible Burger according to their website: Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.

And here is what is in a Beyond Burger: Water, Pea Protein Isolate*, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Pomegranate Fruit Powder, Beet Juice Extract (for color),  This list read a little better but what are ‘natural flavors’?

I wonder if we are just in a liminal stage where we cannot let go of meat that we are now going to such lengths so recreate it vs. eating more plants and finding new ways to prepare them as they are. 

In the end, I ditched the Impossible Burger vs. Beyond Burger Cook Off concept. The thought of burgers and all that goes with it, from ‘meat’ that was full of other ‘stuff’ and ‘flavorings’ was unappealing. Also, it was early summer and I was starting to see some awesome produce hit the green markets.

Separately,  M was advised to introduce a meat protein to her diet given mercury concerns — she was good with pork.  I also recently learned that bok choy repairs DNA (!) so decided to go Asian. We started with fresh farm veggies with edamame ginger and garlic scape dips; local lettuce salad with ginger dressing; pork-kimchi, and bok choy-tofu-ginger dumplings; bok choy with shiitake; and pickled yuzu beets. Dessert was dark chocolate and fruit. 

I will have an Impossible burger soon enough.  In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy cooking up dishes using summer produce from our local farms. 

Side Bar: The Best of the Worst

I just read Ryan Sutton’s review of Wild Ink at The Hudson Yards.  The full headline for the Eater piece is “Wild Ink Is an Overwrought Yet Underachieving Fusion Disaster at Hudson Yards:  London-based group Rhubarb’s New York City debut goes wrong at every turn with Frankenstein fusion.”  Ah, this was going to be a good read.

While amazing restaurant experiences are wonderful to read, the horrible ones allow critics to really showcase editorial color and prowess. They are really, really fun to read.  The Sutton piece got me reminiscing so I am now sharing some of my own favorite worst restaurant reviews.  Here are a few of the standouts with a few priceless lines pulled from each review. The one by Jay Rayner of Le Cinq is literary genius.   

Frank Bruni, New York Times review of Ninja (2005, restaurant closed)

  • Ninja New York deposits you in a kooky, dreary subterranean labyrinth that seems better suited to coal mining than to supping.
  • Each party of diners receives its own nook, which quickly takes on the aspect of a jail cell.
  • You are greeted there by servers in black costumes who ceaselessly bow, regularly yelp and ever so occasionally tumble, and you are asked to choose between two routes to your table.The first is described by a ninja escort as simple and direct. The second is “dark, dangerous and narrow,” involving a long tunnel and a drawbridge that descends only when your escort intones a special command, which he later implores you to keep secret. I recommend a third path: right back out the door.

Pete Wells, New York Times review of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square (2012, restaurant closed)

  • Did you discern any buttermilk or brine in the white meat, or did you think it tasted like chewy air?
  • Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?
  • Why did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?

Jay Rayner, The Guardian review of Le Cinq in Paris (2017, still has three Michelin stars)

  • The canapé we are instructed to eat first is a transparent ball on a spoon. It looks like a Barbie-sized silicone breast implant, and is a “spherification”, a gel globe using a technique perfected by Ferran Adrià at El Bulli about 20 years ago. This one pops in our mouth to release stale air with a tinge of ginger. My companion winces. “It’s like eating a condom that’s been left lying about in a dusty greengrocer’s,” she says. (ed: bold is is mine.I will never forget this line)
  • My lips purse, like a cat’s arse that’s brushed against nettles.
  • We’re told it has the flavour of French onion soup. It makes us yearn for a bowl of French onion soup. It is mostly black, like nightmares, and sticky, like the floor at a teenager’s party.
  • Pictures of plates are snapped. Mind you I also take pictures, but mine are shot in the manner of a scene of crime officer working methodically.

And finally, the review that got me waxing nostalgic about bad restaurant reviews, Ryan Suttons review of Wild Ink.  

  • I winced as I took a bite. Chefs infuse the meat with inhumane levels of sugar and salt  . . the pies are glazed in a creamy white-cheese sauce. It turns mealy and sticky quickly, causing the puffs to adhere to the plate like a gum on a shoe. . . In place of classic bulgogi, diners are treated to a veritable Frankenstein of a dish, an unholy triad recalling microwaveable Hot Pockets, airline Korean food, and hospital-quality Welsh rarebit.
  • General Tso’s sweetbreads, which are more akin to Heinz 57-flavored chewing gum than the Cantonese-American staple.

And the review starts and end with quotes from staff which is pretty incredible.  

  • My server suggested a few dishes on the Asian fusion menu, and then added, without prompting, that she could “not recommend the bulgogi puffs.” It was a curious statement. I hadn’t asked about the bulgogi puffs, nor was anyone nearby tempting me with their puffiness or bulgogi-ness. The waiter simply felt the need to warn me, preemptively, that a signature preparation was garbage.”
  • . . . let me end by paraphrasing the words of my honest bartender: I can’t recommend that you eat here.

And there you have it.  I never dined nor will dine at any of these restaurants but oh, the reviews were a complete joy to read.

Side Bar

An article in the New York Times Style Magazine by Kurt Soller entitled, “At Restaurants, Thank You for Not Sharing:After a decade of treating every plate like a pie, individual dishes are making a welcome comeback,” caught my eye. For over ten years, I have been attributing a quote I thought I read from Julia Child that she did not share any dishes she ordered at restaurants. If someone wanted to taste something, they would have to order it for themselves; and not having any poor sap with merely one bite after passing it around to everyone.  For the life of me, I cannot for the life of me remember where I read it and I cannot find it online after multiple clever search queries. It seems like something she would say, doesn’t it?

The main point is that I have always agreed that one shouldn’t feel obligated to share; or if you really did just want a bite of a particular dish, then to ask if anyone also wants a bite.  And I do feel that this has started to be more common over the last half decade.

The article goes on with “Living in the “sharing economy,” we are accustomed to apportioning cars, offices and, yes, plates of food. Lately, though, chefs and diners seem to have grown weary of the communal experience.” Seems like quite an enormous leap to lump sharing plates with the sharing economy, as even the author acknowledges that tapas and most Chinese dishes are inherently meant to be shared.  Also, an enormous leap to pronounce that chefs and diners alike are done with the communal experience, let alone sharing a plate. Yes, there is the cubicle dining experience aka Solo Dining Booth at Ichiran. But I still see many a community table at new restaurants, ones short on space like Niche to massive spaces like Tetsu. I also found that ending the piece with fluffy political discourse (socialism vs. democracy) and stringng together random dining annoyances to be neither cute nor clever. It truly bummed me out that what started out as an interesting read, turned into and ended in such a shallow way.

Like I said, I loved trotting out that Julia Child quote over the years and I thought this article would provide more cultural insights or at least a few more quotes for my arsenal.  I do think that sharing plates did seem more prevalent at one time but perhaps that was timed with an influx of casual dining overall. The point now is that sharing is just one way of eating; just a preference by some diners. Speak up if you don’t want to share and use that Julia Child quote as a shield against looking selfish!  

Side Bar

I enjoy keeping abreast of restaurant and cooking news and on occasion, I parrot off the topline to my husband, and follow that with my two cents on the matter.  Here are a few recent articles that I had something to say about:

Three Courses, 20 Euros: The Affordable Dining Renaissance in Paris

This appeared in The New York Times’ Travel section on April 10 (for some reason, it’s not cross-indexed under Food even though the article is as detailed as many restaurant reviews).

Affordable dining is not unique and I am not sure if the claim  that “…the comeback of the city’s bouillons — those working-class restaurants that thrived in Paris during the 19th century” is necessarily true but the notion of a delicious 3-course meal at a price point under $25 resonated with me.  Certainly, the news of a global economic slowdown alongside the ostentatious opening of Hudson Years in New York where restauranteurs cater to the nano-1% (Shake Shack does not count) made this story on affordable dining both timely and appealing.

I know that there are many restaurants in New York that serve amazing fare that are not as expensive as the Tak Room or The Grill, and not a takeout slice either. The problem is that most of these places still have a rushed vibe and I loved the comment from one reader of this article who recounted a story where she profusely apologized for being late to a restaurant in Normandy and was told not to worry because their table was booked for the evening, not for 90-120 minutes.

I know many don’t want to linger or event want to eat dessert anymore but I like how a 3-course meal feels like a special meal these days. I also like how that special feel can be had for $25. I mean, that is the cost of a Seamless order.

I thought about how New York has Restaurant Week where select restaurants offer lunches and dinners at a pre-fixe rate of about $30 for lunch and $40 for dinner.  Of course, this does not include tip or tax, and a glass of wine is not $5 as noted in the article.

That said, unless the restaurants are operating at a loss (which I doubt), it makes me wonder why this cannot be more prevalent all year long?

How Lucky Lee’s Could Have Gotten an ‘American Chinese’ Restaurant Right

I have been following the Lucky Lee debacle over the last few days. Esther Teng outlines the mini-horror show in this Eater article.

What I like best about Teng’s piece is that she is not shrill and saliently lays out the offense and where today’s “clean” eating movement can often be a bit too ‘holier than thou.”  Some choice snippets:

-Haspel has applied a goop-like element to her marketing strategy, further compounding her insult of American Chinese food.

-Their recipes were adapted for the American palate — for instance, adding sugar and frying more items — creating a new culinary genre in the process. And because Chinatowns were considered “slums,” Chinese food acquired its still-present reputation as dirty. That needs to be acknowledged and respected in its historical context: American Chinese food evolved into what it is today because white people were its primary audience.

– . . .the way [Haspel] voluntarily described her food was only in relation to how it’s a better version compared to everything that came before it.

I will note that all of this bluster back-and-forth has nothing to do with the actual dishes being served.

My take in reading Arielle Haspel’s comments and responses is that she really doesn’t get it, still.  She cannot get out of her back-handed insult cycle because she cannot understand how her language is infused with “Goop-minded” arrogance, e.g. “There are very few American-Chinese places as mindful about the quality of ingredients as we are.”

I think back to a conversation a friend and I had when she was recounting a dinner party where an Asian guest asked why “some Asians get offended or are overly sensitive when [insert offense here]?”  We talked about how it difficult it is for anyone who has not been made to feel conscious of their identify, or the heat of shame to have empathy for others in certain situations.  Usually economics (and hence social standing) has shielded them from racism and belittlement. They just don’t get it, and it will be hard for them to ever get it because they are protected from seeing and feeling it.  I feel like Haspel falls into this category.

I sometimes say, it’s best to just keep one’s mouth shut and let your work do the talking.

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?

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.