Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Little Owl

For years I've been a haunted woman. Not by ghosts in white sheets or boogiemen in closets, but by the very things that are supposed to bring you praise and gratitude - restaurant recommendations.

Somehow, after recommending a seemingly tried and true place to friends, they would report back with stories of either rude service or bad food or - (horror) - both. The last time it happened was in Minneapolis. A friend had asked me for a place to take family visiting from the UK - nothing too fancy - just good food and nice atmosphere.

I had just the right place (or so I thought.) A little bistro in an old firehouse that Kris and I had eaten at a half a dozen times. We'd tried the whole menu, eaten there with friends, and never been let down.

So imagine my reaction when the friend reported back to me the following Monday. "How was it?" I asked, preening myself for glory and praise, maybe even a bottle of wine as repayment for my genius.

"It was horrible," he said bluntly. "The mixed our order all up and my brother in law's pasta was inedible."

Inedible pasta? I'd never even heard of such a thing. I profusely apologized and slinked back to my desk, deciding my friend was secretly a food snob and that it had been a bad idea to give a recommendation at all. He didn't want 'low key' - he wanted freaking Babbo! Besides, surely the dinner couldn't have been that bad...

About a week or so later, a couple of girlfriends and I had our weekly 'girlie' dinner at the same restaurant. I sat down, looking forward to easing my mind with a nice meal. Then the appetizer came (my favorite - a lovely earthy but sweet Mushroom pate.) I dipped an apple into the bowl, piled some of the glorious mixture on top, and popped it into my mouth. It tasted like a spoonful of table salt. I tried again, thinking I'd dipped into a spot that had randomly been over salted before being carried out the kithen. Nope - more salt. In fact, I couldn't make out a single flavor but salt. It was - Lord help me - inedible.

Then came dinner - a turkey pizza I'd had at least three times there that was always a sure bet. The waiter set it down and immediately I could tell something was wrong. The dough was pale and flacid, not at all crisp and golden, and was strewn with little turkey carcasses, as though someone had taken the dark meat from last year's Thanksgiving turkey and unleashed holy hell on it with a spiked heel.

Just looking at it, I had no doubt that if it only could've mustered the energy, that poor pizza would've crawled to the nearest trash can to do away with itself. Suddenly a wave of paranoia struck me and I took a quick glance back at the kitchen, sure that the waitstaff was spying on us, taking bets on who was drunk enough to actually eat their entree.

Indeed, the one bite I took was only memorable to me because it managed miraculously to be both dry and greasy at the same time. At that moment, I had no doubt that my friend was telling the truth about his nightmare dinner. Then and there I vowed to never reccommend another restaurant to anyone again.

I am now, nervously, breaking that vow (throwing salt over my shoulder as I write this.) But because this restaurant has had more than favorable reviews by The New York Times, NY Magazine, Bon Appetit, and Food and Wine, I know I'm not crazy this time - this place is truly wonderful.

It's called The Little Owl, and while it's located dead smack in the middle of the trendy West Village in NY, it's a world away from trendy or a 'scene'. For one thing, there isn't room for one - there's only about 8 tables in the whole place.

The Little Owl isn't about dazzling you with the latest, craziest way to serve something familiar, such as olive oil sherbert. It's about making you feel at home. It's about the food. And occasionally, it's about turning up Snoop on the stereo, as we experienced one night eating there (they played the entire Doggie Style album to the delight of our table.)

The menu is filled with the kind of food that's good from the inside out - such as bowls of fat Heirloom tomatoes bursting with so much flavor and goodness they don't need much more than a splash of balsamic vinegar and a dusting of glittery sea salt. My favorite entree is the pork chop over dandelion greens, vinegary fennel, and butter beans. It's a cut of meat so buttery - one bite and you'll forget all about those brick-like pork chops you ate as a kid (I should know - I've ordered it about five times!)

The Little Owl serves the kind of food you crave when you want something healing, something not to fussy - something like your mom would make you (if your mom had access to freshly plucked vegetables and a backyard farm fraught with tasty residents.) And just when you start thinking it's all warm and fuzzy and laid back and aw-shucks, the Olsen twins walk past the window outside or Martha Stewart pops in for her monthly fix to remind you that you are, indeed, sitting in the most exciting spot in the most exciting city in the world.

The Little Owl is the kind of place that thinks of itself as a small town cafe rather than a fancy NY bistro - the kind of place that you want to go to because once you've eaten there - you realize you can't think of another place like it.

They've kept it small so they can get everything right everytime, from the food to the service to the feeling you have when you walk out the door.

In short, it's the kind of place that reminds us why we go out to eat in the first place.

FYI - Since the Bon Appetit spread came out, this place is getting a fairly New York-sized waiting list, so call ahead and be flexible. (Brunch is a perfect opportunity to pop in if you don't want to do the list thing.) Also, they keep a table or two for walk ins, so if you're in the area early enough in the evening, you can try to snag one of these or even sit at the bar, which may even be the most charming spot in the joint.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Kobe Beef: The Jig's Up

For years, we've heard the enchanting stories of how Kobe beef is lovingly raised - prancing around lush green fields in Japan, being fed chilled Kirin beer in between grazing, even getting hourly massages - all to create the lush, salty flavor that people pay $175 a pop for.

It really seemed to be the case that, unlike veal, both animal and animal eater (rich ones at least) got the good end of the stick -a culinary and humanitary win-win. Well, it turns out, all the lore about green fields and troughs of ice cold Kirin were horse shit - no more true than the story your parents told you about your wayward cat, Tinkerbell, who 'went to live on a lovely farm in the country' when the reality was Tinkerbell probably got hit by a garbage truck a street over.

But at least Tinkerbell met with death swiftly. Kobe beef, according to the article about the breed in the December article of Gourmet, live in crates so small they end up swimming in their own feces for up to 3 and 1/2 years. The only reason they even get beer is because they become so depressed in the crates (and their insides so worn from over eating) that they eventually stop eating. Feeding them beer is simply the only way to re-kickstart their appetite (kind of like being given an appertif, say, in hell.) Their loss of appetite in these conditions seems proof that no matter how low an animal's IQ, even a cow knows when life's not worth living anymore.

Years ago, on a shoot for some Haagen-Dazs commercials in northern Spain, we ran across a veal barn while location scouting. The townspeople proudly opened the doors to show the prized little baby cows inside, lurking within the pitch black interior. I'll never forget the little eyes, milky and staring at the foreign, bright light no doubt piercing their little virgin retinas.

I made a personal vow to boycott veal that day and haven't touched it since. And if you consider yourself an animal lover, I hope you do the same with Kobe beef and any other meat with an ethically questionable journey from barn to table.

What Wine to Bring to Someone's House

We recently had a party, the name, date and time which will remain anonymous to protect those involved, from which I had the sheer joy of actually having unopened wine leftover that my generous guests brought with them. For me, this is a rare but delightful occasion - my adult version of a visit from the tooth fairy. Just as losing a tooth can be traumatizing to a child, post-party cleanup can be traumatizing to an adult, so finding bottles of unopened wine is the grown up equivalent of finding cash under your pillow - it just helps you get through it.

Another reason I love finding leftover wine is because it's like a mystery potluck for oenophiles. People never bring what I would bring and I love that. I tend to stick to your California classics like Cabernet and Chardonnay so it forces me to try something new, even if it's just a different brand. Some of these little strays have even become my favorites.

But occasionally, the mystery tastings backfire. And that's where my rant begins. I recently opened a 'mystery' bottle for a nice dinner I'd cooked. Again, to protect those involved, I'll leave the name and variety out, I'll only say that it was red. I opened it and poured dipping my nose in for a hint of what was to come. It smelled like boy's gym socks, after they've been marinating for a few weeks in a damp locker.

My husband, who doesn't drink that much wine, is fairly convinced I've become one of those annoying wine snobs that likes to pretend to pull smells out while swirling that don't even exist (he once stopped talking to me, momentarily, after I asked a waiter for an 'earthy' red) so he naturally thought I was up to old tricks again. Let me assure you, however, that I am not a wine snob. For one, I can't afford to be and for two, really expensive bottles are wasted on me. I get nuances in wine up to a point, but then it's all Greek, or Japanese, or even Slavakian to my tastebuds. The most expensive bottle I buy is Rutherford Hill's merlot, which on our current budget, is never.

Anyway, I went ahead and tasted said 'stinky' wine, just in case it was one of those bottles that just smelled strange but actually tasted good. To this moment, I still wish I'd just poured the cursed liquid down the drain.

I stewed about it all through dinner, insisting someone would actually have to go out of there way to pick a bottle that bad. After all, there are plenty of wines, especially Washington based, in the $10-14 range that are quite good. Even Two Buck Chuck has its place now and then, when times are tight. And if you don't know a thing about wine - you can always ask the sales clerk for a suggestion in any price range. I wasn't budging - there was NO excuse to bring a bottle that bad. Bring flowers, bring a six pack, bring ANYTHING besides liquid rubber.

After dinner, I snuck onto the internet (and I'm still a bit embarrased by this) and looked said bottle up. It was $5.99 at an online retailer, cheaper in bulk. I shut my computer, satisfied that my assumption had been correct. It was an awful, awful wine.

But it was more than the quality of the bottle that bothered me. It was the message it sent - like someone saying 'please don't invite me EVER again. I didn't really want to come anyway so here - CHEERS!'

Before you think I'm an evil person, hear me out. When you have people over - wether for appetizers or a full on dinner - it's a lot of work. (If you entertain a lot, I'm preaching to the choir.) But even if it's just appetizers and drinks, I've never pulled a cocktail party off for less than a few hundred bucks.

Of couse I'm not suggesting that you put out a tip jar by the door. It's just that when you spend the money to have people over, not to mention the time cleaning your home (and cleaning up the next day), the least your guests can do is bring a decent bottle of wine. Chateau St. Michelle makes a lovely cabernet for about $16 bucks. $16 bucks versus the money your guests would spend going out to eat. So please, when you attend a dinner or party at someone's house, bring a decent bottle of wine. It doesn't have to be expensive, and if you're unsure of youself, ask the clerk for their advice. Or skip the wine and bring a nice beer instead. Or some flowers, or some cheese. Show them, with whatever it is you bring, that you're glad to be there.

There - I'm done and I feel much better. Now to end on a positive note. Someone recently left a bottle of Cabernet from burch hall winery in Paso Robles (2005.) This tasty wine went so, so well with a pot of chili I recently made, I thought Kris was going to walk out the door if I didn't shut up about it. It's big, fruity, and juicy - in my opinion a good holiday wine. (Speaking of the holidays, I'm already planning my Christmas menus - coming soon!)

So as the holidays, and holiday parties, kick into gear - remember to put some thought into what wine you bring to someone's house - even if it isn't wine at all.

Thanksgiving, from the world's tiniest oven

If Kris, my husband, and I don't go home to Texas for the holidays, we enjoy being at home with our two cats, a break from the advertising world we work in, and lots of food.

This year we were supposed to go to my brother's in Memphis but plans fell through last minute. And, because I usually make enough food to feed a fairly frisky Mormon tabernacle, we had some friends from work over to celebrate with us.

For those who singlehandedly do the cooking during holidays - you know the kind of pressure cooker Thanksgiving Day can be. But I had planned ahead, making the bulk of the meal the night before - the stuffing, cranberry sauce, Pumpkin Pie, a chocolate rum cake, and brining the turkey, and I thought the actual day would be more like a pleasant speed walk versus a wind sprint.

Nope. I'm not sure where it went wrong, but I somehow managed to be cooking up until our guests arrived and even a half hour past that. Luckily, a little voice in my head ingeniously suggested four little life saving words that helped put everything in perspective just in the nick of time: MAKE A HOUSE DRINK.

Having people over for food and drinks is probably my favorite thing to do on earth. And if I've learned anything from these gatherings, it's the difference that starting off with a 'house drink' makes. Of course you'll want wine with the meal and you'll never pry some men (or in my case, women) away from their beer, but nothing secures a jovial mood like a tasty alcoholic concoction. People loosen up, tell funnier jokes, and even stay longer (for better or worse - and I think for the better. After all, why invite people over who you don't enjoy being with?)

By the way, I'm watching Barefoot Contessa as I write this. And as much as I love this show and think Ina and Jeffrey are adorable, I'd love, just once, to turn the TV on and see them trying to strangle one another (just to know that they're actually real people and not 'V' people, perpetually charmed and wowed by one another.) Okay, now Nigella's on, thank God. Viva Nigella!

Anyway, back to my house drink. I'd been tinkering with an idea I'd seen in Bon Appetit earlier in the week for 'Cranberry Amaretto Kiss' martinis. But, just as I do with dinner menus, when the day came, I'd already changed my mind. Cranberry now seemed a little too cranberry for my Thanksgiving meal. And I wanted something more intensely celebratory of the massive drop in temperature - something to mimick the crimson, gold, and yellow colors the leaves were finally turning all around us.

And so it came to me - a little drink by the name of Autumn Leaves. I promise not to dork out too much when it comes to prissy names for food or drinks, but stick with me, just a moment longer. By the way, you'll need a large, huge even, pitcher for this drink.

Autumn Leaves:

3-4 limes, sliced
tablespoon fine sugar
3/4 cup Calvados (apple brandy)
splash Amaretto
1 cup vodka, or to taste
1/2 gallon good quality apple cider

lemon sparkling water or ginger ale, if desired
Mint sprigs for garnish

Add the lime slices and sugar to the pitcher, and muddle until you've left behind a pulpy, juicy massacre. Then pour in the rest of the ingredients (all of which ideally would already be chilled), stir then taste for strength, adding more vodka if you feel the need. (The thing about this drink is, as 'muddy' or thick as you think it would be with the calvados and amaretto and cider, it's actually surprisingly refreshing.)

Serve over ice and garnish with fresh mint. If it's too sweet for some, dilute with a splash of sparkling water or for those who just like fizz, some ginger ale. My group thought it was excellent without, but to each their own.

All I can say is if the Grinch ended up saving Christmas, this drink saved Thanksgiving. Our guests - who are perhaps the most over generous guests we've ever had - brought along fresh bread and enough cheese from Dean and Deluca to make a cheese plate Pastis would be proud of, as well as a nice bottle of Pinot and a dozen roses (I told you - they're incredibly good guests!)

We toasted with our celebratory concoctions, and I got on with the green beans (blanched, then sauteed in olive oil and butter with almond slivers and topped with fried shallots and lemon zest) and the salad (fresh basil with roasted sliced sweet potatoes, goat cheese, pumpkin seeds and a light dash of Balsamic vinegar, olive oil, red pepper flakes and sea salt.)

Finally it was time to cut into my turkey, which was, even to me the critical one, beautiful (a cider basted turkey with apple shallot gravy.) I cut the breast off the bird, nearly tearing up at the tender flesh, when to my horror, an ever so slightly pink trickle of juice ran down my knife. The bastard wasn't done. I have to tell you - though my NY oven is tiny - it's a tiny powerhouse. I've roasted chickens in it in half the time of my old (and much higher quality) oven, brussels sprouts in a third the time, etc. So when I roasted my brined bird for the correctly alotted 3 hour cooking time, I didn't panic when I could find my instant read thermometer. I moved the leg - which moved easily - thinking to myself 'there's NO WAY it's not done.

Of course I could have cut into it then, but I am obsessive about letting meat rest, and in a weird intersection of overconfidance and naivety, I moved on with the rest of my dishes, not worrying about it. After all, I have over cooked many a bird, but never, ever, undercooked one.

So what did we do? We did what any resourceful Americans would do - we microwaved it. Not the whole bird of course, just the breast slices I'd already cut, which were actually cooked to perfection (it was only the dark meat that wasn't done and the innermost part of the breast.) However, just in case, I insisted on nuking them for extra measure, and to erase the terrifying image of my guests, the next day, lying in a hospital room, as white as the bleached laminate floor from puking their guts out.

Unbelievably, the bird, having been brined, was still juicy after getting nuked and we put the actual turkey back in the oven as we sat down to dinner.

It was a great dinner, dispite the minor (as I prefer to call it) hiccup. And although I feel proud to have improvised during a crisis (and relieved for not sending anyone to the ER), I will never, ever stick a turkey in the oven again without having an instant read thermometer at the ready.

Just in case.