IN THIS ISSUE
DINING AROUND DALLAS
By John Mariani
JAMES BEARD AWARDS 2015 KEEP
A DELICATE BALANCE
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
DINING AROUND DALLAS
James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich and Brian Donlevy in "Destry Rides Again" (1939)
By John Mariani
The often myopic East Coast-based food media who never set foot in Dallas continue to believe that Tex-Mex and barbecue pretty much sum up the city’s gastronomy, so they thereupon focus coverage on those eateries alone. But, if they’d actually visit, they would find Dallas to be one of the most diverse food cities in America, certainly ranking in culinary importance with Chicago, Boston and Washington, and surpassing Seattle, Portland and Charleston in breadth and depth of offerings.
To be sure, good Tex-Mex and barbecue are to be found in Dallas, but the upscale and the ethnic dining scenes thrive right beside them, from classic high-end restaurants like the French Room at the Adolphus and Fearing’s in the Ritz-Carlton to a modern Japanese restaurant like Tei-An (left) and the truly Mexican Ruth’s Tamale House; from indigenous steakhouses like Al Biernat’s to cozy bistros like Boulevadier and the beloved 1957 landmark Zodiac Room in Neiman-Marcus. Oddly, the city lacks anything like a first-rate Italian restaurant.
A return trip to Dallas last month reminded me of the rich panoply of engaging spots from breakfast through dinner. I was so happy to get back to LaDuni (with three locations), which serves the best pastries in town--the tres leches cake is devastatingly delicious--along with bountiful dishes like eggs Benedict and honey ham in a giant popover ($11.45), a tostada filled with eggs, bacon, black beans, salsa and potato called migas ($10.50), and enchiladas suizas with Gruyère cheese and basmati rice ($14.25). As appealing as the food is, owners Dunia Borga (Columbia-born) and her husband Espartaco (a Spaniard) lend their thousand-watt personalities to their restaurants. Dunia (right) was selected “Best Pastry Chef” by D Magazine, and, with Chef Julia Lopez assuring consistency every day, La Duni is easily one of the most popular restaurants in Dallas.
One of the best of the city’s new restaurants, CBD Provisions (below), is set within the city’s best modern hotel, The Joule, whose striking design, lighting and artwork would be unique in any city. CBD, though lacking the same high style, serves hearty breakfasts, lunch and dinner out of a long, open kitchen supervised by Chef Richard Blankenship, who has a canny way of spinning traditional Texas and American dishes with just enough panache to make them taste brand new. These include buttermilk rye pancakes with bourbon maple syrup ($11) at breakfast, and, at dinner, a dramatic table presentation of a whole Berkshire pig’s head with crisp skin and custard-like flesh, enhanced with roasted tomatillo salsa and hot tortillas. CBD also has a wide-ranging artisanal beer collection worth perusing.
At the high end of Dallas dining, the restaurant at the Mansion on Turtle Creek (below) has had four decades to establish itself as a place for the big splurge, although it’s now a far more casual place than it used to be and thereby lost much of its previous glamour. French Chef Bruno Davaillon continues the Mansion’s tradition of refined modern global cuisine, evident in dishes like his ahi tuna with gazpacho, peas and tuna sauce ($20) and his scallops in coconut broth with lemon verbena and mussels ($44). The Mansion’s famous tortilla soup remains on the menu always.
I can say without fear of contradiction that there is no more seriously committed steakhouse in America than Knife, an expansive, handsome, open-kitchen dining room where Chef John Tesar is pioneering aging techniques for his superlative dry-aged beef (below), with one cut spending 240 days in a temperature-controlled locker to achieve a remarkable, deep flavor in the meat, which is sold at $80 the inch! There are also slabs of crispy pork belly with collard greens ($18), spicy blood sausage ($29), and a tasting of five bacon varieties ($14). Knife is setting a standard that other steakhouses around the country will be taking a good look at to see how they might measure up. And since Tesar and his backers have expansion on their minds, the competition is going national.
Of course, there really is every reason to search out good barbecue in Dallas, especially since the once heralded Sonny Bryan’s Bar-B-Que stand has sadly lost all its luster after a corporate takeover. My new favorite is Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que (below), not just for its exceptional ribs ($11.95) and smoked brisket ($15.95), but for a wide variety of soul food dishes like hearty baked chicken ($8.95), fried catfish, sweet potatoes, cornbread, and the terrific hot garlic sausage ($13.95) no one else is doing. What’s more, every Tuesday there is joyously thrilling gospel singing and a prayer meeting, so you’ll not only leave well fed but probably singing "halleluiah!"
get a sense of the way Dallas’s dining
scene has developed, it would make sense to eat at
each of Chef Stephan Pyles’
restaurants. Pyles was one of the pioneers of “New
Texas Cuisine” back in the
‘80s, and his restaurants are always evolving. The
newest, San Salvaje (“wild saint”), is a
casual, colorful, sexy restaurant
and bar with an outdoor patio where you can sip a
well-made margarita and nosh
on items like Ecuadorian potato cake with bacon and
egg ($10) and fried squid
tacos with preserved lemon ($8), or larger plates of
fried whole branzino with
pickled green beans and a mango-habanero mojo ($24).
At Stampede 66 (left), you’ll find a vast dining room of fascinating western art incorporating steer horns and barbed wire as well as a TV showing western movies. Here Pyles is re-interpreting Texas cooking with dishes like Pedernales chili ($12), sweet potato and wild boar tamales ($12), and a rich warm brownie with Snickers-laced ice cream and a Dr Pepper float ($10). It’s a place people never seem to be in a rush to leave.
Pyles is now in the process of relocating his fine dining room named Stephan Pyles, so I hope to return in the fall when it’s up and running strong.
I could not end any report on Dallas without noting the opening of a remarkable place called Cafe Momentum, where director Chad Houser, chef de cuisine Eric Shelton and sous-chef Justin Box are offering young people in pre-release detention programs a chance to learn culinary skills and every aspect of the restaurant business, working side by side with established chefs in town. In contract with the Dallas County Juvenile Justice Department, they opt to take on youth deemed at highest risk for incarceration, and their recidivism rate for program graduates is dramatically below others in the juvenile justice system.
Café Momentum gives these young men a cultural context within a world they know little about, and, from meeting several of these interns, I sensed that for many this was the best thing ever to happen to them and the first shot at a redemptive livelihood.
And we get to feast on their efforts in multi-course meals that range from shrimp and grits beignets with tasso aïoli ($11) and smoked fried chicken with biscuits, braised cabbage and mashed potatoes ($21) to pork loin with cider beans, mustard seeds and apples ($20), ending off with fried apple pie with smoked cheddar ice cream and cinnamon walnuts ($8).
On Momentum’s wall are written the wonderful words “EAT. DRINK. CHANGE LIVES” and “Welcome to Our Home.” Both are sentiments of Dallas hospitality at its most endearing and effective.
JAMES BEARD AWARDS 2015
KEPT A DELICATE BALANCE
By John Mariani
The James Beard Awards handed out this past Monday in Chicago were a good deal more balanced than I had expected. On the basis of so many of the nominees, it appeared the judges--a wide array of food authorities across the USA--might be inclined toward the most media-hyped chefs who have made so many other lists for little more than attempts to seem cutting edge. But, appearing right along with them--and winning most of the categories--far more established fine dining restaurants were to be found, and that is all to the good at a time when culinary novelty too often trumps enduring excellence.
The regional awards are the toughest to predict because, quite frankly, so few in so many regions are known at all outside their respective cities. In the national categories, like Restaurant of the Year and Outstanding Pastry Chef, the nominees are supposed to be "national standard-bearers," which, of course, favors chefs in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, especially since the guidelines insist that judges must swear to have actually eaten at the restaurants in the recent past. As most of the judges are food critics who rarely get out of the cities they write about, this makes the prospect of a chef from Boulder, Colorado, or Cave Creek, Arizona, obtaining sufficient votes slim.
Having once been on the Restaurant Awards Committee for several years (two as its chairmen), I continue to commend the members for their hard, honest work. I am often asked how a chef or restaurant can influence the voting, and the answer is, they can't--shy of a publicity barrage that brings a little-known chef to the attention of the committee.
That said, and with the acknowledgement that I have not eaten at every restaurant on the list, here are some notes on the winners of the 2015 awards.
Best New Restaurant: Bâtard, NYC (left)—Excellent choice, not least because 20 years ago, restaurateur Drew Nieporent pioneered modern French cuisine in once-derelict TriBeCa and encouraged his chefs--currently Marcus Glocker--to let that cuisine evolve. This is a win for refinement, urban gentility and all-around concern for every aspect of dining out.
Outstanding Chef: Michael Anthony, Gramercy Tavern, NYC—Very well deserved for a chef able to turn out exuberantly personalized cuisine for such a huge number of demanding diners each night. This is still one of restaurateur Danny Meyer’s finest efforts, and more than a decade in business has not dulled the sharpness of the enterprise.
Outstanding Restaurant: Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, NY (below)—Despite the price of a meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the small portions of mostly vegetable-based courses, and the exorbitant wine list, this is a unique restaurant in terms of its beauty, its setting (on a Rockefeller farm estate on the Hudson River) and for its seminal commitment to the principles of sustainable agriculture and local ingredients—most grown right on the property.
Outstanding Restaurateur: Donnie Madia, One Off Hospitality Group (Blackbird, Avec, The Publican, etc), Chicago—A solid choice for a restaurateur who shook up the once-staid Chicago dining scene by showing that a casual setting can be the backdrop for wonderful cooking and was an early entry in the gastro-pub trend of the early part of the last decade.
Outstanding Service: The Barn at Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN (left)--The rarity, still, of the unstinting commitment to service at this stunning farmland restaurant in the middle of nowhere is testament to American hospitality at its highest, and the award is a recognition that congenial service is still respected and expected by the more discerning dining public.
Best Chefs in America
Great Lakes: Jonathon Sawyer, Greenhouse Tavern, Cleveland—A much more reasonable choice than the chef many expected to win—Curtis Duffy of the molecular/modernist Chicago school—especially since Greenhouse Tavern is in always-ignored Cleveland.
Mid-Atlantic: Spike Gjerde, Woodberry Kitchen, Baltimore—This was a fine choice, for Gjerde is not just a restaurateur and chef but someone who has butcher shop credibility and an admirable focus on curing and aging the products he uses. Also good to see Baltimore get the attention to the exclusion of some mediocre Philadelphia restaurants among the nominees.
South: Alon Shaya, Domenica, New Orleans (left)--Shaya brought authentic Italian food to New Orleans without kowtowing to dated ideas of Creole-Italian cookery still found around town. He mastered pizza-making, his pastas are sumptuous and respect tradition, and his sincerity about what he does shows in every dish.
New York City: Mark Ladner, Del Posto—Everyone knows that Ladner has been the true eminence of the kitchen at Del Posto, not co-owner Mario Batali, and Ladner richly deserves recognition for his knowledge of Italian cuisine and how to push it just so far without corrupting its essential simplicity. The other nominees were fairly weak by comparison, though there are plenty of unlisted others who might have given Ladner a run for his money.
Southeast: Jason Stanhope, FIG, Charleston, SC—Like Mark Ladner, Stanhope works in the shadow of FIG owner/chef Mike Lata, though Lata is fully supportive of his executive chef. The only other well-known contender on the list was the first-rate chef/owner Steven Satterfield of Miller Union in Atlanta, so Stanhope earned his stripe.
Southwest: Aaron Franklin, Franklin Barbecue, Austin—This was a very unfortunate choice, not because Franklin is not one of America’s finest barbecue cooks, but because that is all he really does out of his cramped, no-reservations ‘cue stand in Austin. All the other nominees--Kevin Binkley, Binkley’s, Cave Creek, AZ; Bryce Gilmore, Barley Swine, Austin; Hugo Ortega, Hugo’s, Houston; Martín Rios, Restaurant Martín, Santa Fe; and Justin Yu, Oxheart, Houston--show both depth and breadth in their kitchens and service. Franklin is out of his depth among them.
West: Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, State Bird Provisions, San Francisco (right)—I might have thought Michael Cimarusti of Providence in L.A. or Corey Lee of Benu in San Francisco would have taken this category, but Brioza and Krasinski are outstanding in what they do, which is a free-form version of California dim sum.
Humanitarian of the Year: Michel Nischan, Co-founder, CEO and President of Wholesome Wave, Westport, CT—Very, very well deserved.
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
1285 Avenue of the Americas (near 53rd Street)
Toss a T-bone in any direction around Rockefeller Center and you’ll likely hit a steakhouse: Quality Meats, Strip House, Hunt & Fish Club, Ruth’s Chris, Empire Steakhouse, Morton’s, Palm, Capital Grille, STK, Shula’s, Bobby Van’s, NYY Steak, Bull & Bear, Michael Jordan, Del Frisco’s, Del Frisco’s Grill, all smack in midtown, all with more or less the same menu, the same prices for steaks and chops, and, increasingly, cordial service designed to make regulars of consumers who have an embarrassment of choices in the matter.
Most are either local or national chains, which depend on the loyalty of patrons faithful to the original Ruth’s Chris in New Orleans or the Shula’s in Coral Gables who will search out their branches in other cities. The newest entry, replacing a McCormick & Schmicks, is Mastro’s, part of a 12-link chain that began in Scottsdale, Arizona, and now has branches in California, Illinois, and Nevada; this is the first one to open on the East Coast (last November), with DC to debut this month. All have the same menu and all offer live and canned music played at an extremely high decibel level; décors differ from city to city.
The décor in NYC is swanky, low-lighted, set on two levels, which its website insists was chosen to represent “the authenticity of New York City,” with bars made of bronze satin quartzite, dark mahogany woodwork, stained wood flooring, marble columns, and trompe l’oeil patterns set within the floors and walls. I’m not sure what’s so authentic about such design elements, but it makes for a good-looking space with lots of polish, and for a restaurant open for short a time, its management and wait staff are pros, many of them veterans of other steakhouses in town.
The spacious tables are set with two tablecloths, which soak up some of the noise, but it is extremely difficult to have a conversation owing to the loudness of the thumping music upstairs; those who complain are offered the option to dine in the dreary downstairs section, usually used for private parties. I did ask for the music to be turned down and the manager graciously did so. Black napkins are offered for those in dark clothes. Plates come out nice and hot. Oversized wine glasses, by comparison with many competitors’, could be of better quality.
The two-foot-tall tower of seafood is impressive, not least for the dramatic billowing mist of dry ice pouring out of it. The menu invites you to “create your own selection” of seafood on the tower, but our table left it to the waiter to decide. What arrived was an abundant display of jumbo shrimp, crab, lobster, crab legs and oysters. But be aware you will be charged by the selection, so that the price can soar, with crab cocktail $28, crab legs $34, and lobster cocktail $35. Ours, for four people, came to an eyebrow-raising $207.
All of the steak cuts we tried were first-rate. All, except an 8-ounce Japanese wagyu strip ($145), were USDA Prime: bone-in 18-ounce Kansas City strip ($58) and bone-in 22-ounce ribeye ($59) were all sliced and deftly portioned out at the table. Prices are comparable to other steakhouses in the neighborhood.
Mastro’s also serves whole lobsters from two to four pounds. We ordered the latter, and I asked, if they were going to crack the shells and remove the meat, that it be done when all the other entrees arrived so that the lobster would not get cold. Our waiter said he would do the job at our table but instead a plate of lobster meat only was placed before us, and, from the size of the claw and tail meat, it didn’t seem that this began as a four-pounder. Neither were the carcass, walking legs or uropods of the tail on the plate--many people do enjoy the tomalley and all the rest--and, at a whopping $140, this was a disappointment.
Creamed spinach ($14) and an impeccably cooked, split and buttered one-pound Idaho potato ($13) were delicious.
The signature warm butter cake ($16) was a triumph of decadent goodness (right), the chocolate sin cake ($10) was thick and fudgy, but in the city that invented the Italian and Jewish-style cheesecakes, Mastro’s ($11) needs a lot of work: it was gummy and dry.
The wine list is impressive, if top-heavy in bottlings well above $100, and mark-ups are high, as they are for cocktails like the $20 martini; a single glass of Sambuca cost $14, when a whole bottle of the best runs about $23, and much lower than that for a restaurant.
There is a lot to applaud about the food and service at Mastro’s--VIP host Victoria Hunt is only too happy to add you to her list--and, if you don’t mind spending a lot of money and the cacophony (here it’s called “excitement”) of the music, they may win you over to their style, which is more Scottsdale or Vegas than it is New York, where the rubrics of the steakhouse were set decades ago.
Mastro’s is open for lunch Mon.-Fri.; dinner nightly. .
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
By Brian Freedman
Champagne is one of the great wines to pair with food at the dinner table. (Or, let’s be honest here: The breakfast and lunchtime tables, too.) Its combination of acidity, minerality, fruit and bubbles allows it to handle dishes that range from the delicate to the hearty. What’s less widely discussed, however, is the ageability of great Champagne. And that is a shame.
Not long ago, I had the good luck to be invited to an amazing tasting and dinner, co-hosted by Régis Camus (left) of Champagne Piper-Heidsieck, in honor of his 20th anniversary at the house Since 2002 he has been Chef de Caves, instituting changes and ramping up quality that has resulted in an already legendary house rising to the level of the greats in the world. To celebrate the occasion, the assembled guests were treated to a once-in-a-lifetime experience: a stunning dinner paired with every single vintage bottling of Piper-Heidsieck Rare Millésime—eight of them in total, going back to 1976.
My expectations going into the evening were, of course, high: I’ve always loved the Champagnes of Piper-Heidsieck, and the Chardonnay-based Rare Millésime, produced, well, rarely—the house specifies in its press materials that it is crafted in “those rare years in which nature shows an unpredictable side,” whether it’s drought (1976), cold winters with black frost (1985), hail storms (1999), and more. These Champagnes are among the grandest of the region’s têtes de cuvée. Over the course of the epic dinner, however, my expectations were surpassed in every way possible: The dinner was both a de facto master class on Champagne (Camus possesses an encyclopedic range of knowledge, and a passion that is thoroughly contagious), and a deeply rewarding and delicious tour through the many stages of this great wine’s potential to evolve over the decades.
The 2002 boasted aromas of mandarin orange and passion fruit and flavors of gingerbread, multigrain toast, and candied ginger. It was a beguilingly exotic wine, and while it’s excellent right now, it should easily continue to evolve for another two decades or more. The 1999, on the other hand, showed lime and flowers on the nose, as well as a pleasantly yeasty note. This was more mature than the 2002, with its palate of mushrooms, dried fruit, lemon-blossom honey and mineral. If I were fortunate enough to have a bottle in my own cellar, I’d drink it by 2028. But I probably couldn’t wait that long.
Going back one year, the magnum of 1998 sang with lemon pastry cream and gun flint, as well as candied lemons, sandalwood, Chinese five-spice and, as Camus pointed out, cacao nibs and orange trees. He also said that the magnum is the best-sized bottle for two people, “especially when one person doesn’t drink.” I could not agree more, and would be thrilled to enjoy this particular magnum on my own, between now and 2035.
The 1990, on the other hand, showed a beautiful, burnished gold color in the glass. The mature nose of persimmons, flowers, dried porcini, golden raisins and, as Camus pointed out, bees’ wax, coupled with the palate of dried pineapple, baked apple, and a finish that lingered on with a faint memory of incense, has, since the evening I tasted it, become a benchmark for me when it comes to judging mature Champagne. And, when paired with the brilliant Swiss chard raviolo with winter truffle, parmesan, and heirloom squash at the dinner, it embodied the eternal truth that great Champagne is one of the best wines to pair with a huge range of foods.
Heading back to the ‘80s, the 1988 reminded me of persimmon dipped in dulce de leche, dried golden chanterelles, lemon, incense, and ginger. Camus said that it spoke to him of a London or Dublin library with its aromas of old spirits, Armagnac, Cognac, leather, and fireplace. He referred to it as une millésime d’ambience, a vintage of ambiance or atmosphere, which is a perfectly apt description. It’s a wine that could age for another 10 years or so, but I wouldn’t recommend it: If you have a bottle, drink now—the level of pleasure it provides is game-changing.
The 1985 caused Camus to break into a joyful smile; he declared it “extraordinaire.” Which, indeed, it was and then some. Aromas of preserved lemons, old paper, star anise, Chinese five-spice, dried passionfruit and apricots, presaged intensely concentrated flavors of praline and roasting coffee. Camus called it a “rigorous, serious wine with beaucoup de vinosité.” And, indeed, that deeply wine-like quality was a testament to the impeccable craftsmanship of these wines, to the genius behind the work of Camus himself and the amazing fruit that goes into it.
The evening finished with two Champagnes from the 1970s, including the 1979; it was, as he described it, a “mythical” year for him that resulted in wines that can still age well in the cellar. It’s amazingly youthful despite it age, with laser-point bubbles carrying powerful, vivacious flavors of mineral, passionfruit, dried mango, Asian spice, and sandalwood that are transporting right now, and embody exactly how Camus summed up the wine: “C’est la joie de vivre, le 1979.” Indeed it is.
Rounding out the evening was the 1976, of which Camus said that there was a “very limited amount left in the cellar, only a few dozen bottles.” But what bottles they are, with stunningly crisp acidity, aromas of truffle, golden chanterelle, apple fritters, and dried stone and tropical fruit leading to a honeyed palate vibrating with candied lemon peel, almond tuille, and honeysuckle. Like all of the vintages of Piper-Heidsieck Rare Millésime, it was both intellectually rewarding and deeply soulful, possessed of both remarkable vintage expressiveness and capable of providing some of the most intense emotional and gustatory pleasures that Champagne offers.
And having the chance to do so with the man
charge was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that
not only provided context for
the wines but also an added sense of joy. If even
Régis Camus, a man who has
tasted more Champagne in his career than most us
us could in three lifetimes,
responded so viscerally to the evening—he said,
after we’d tasted the 1976, “Je
suis trés, trés touché”—well, that joy is
inevitably contagious. As well it
should be, with Champagnes as spectacular as
MAYBE IT'S TIME TO CHECK WHAT'S
REALLY IN THOSE "CHICKEN FINGERS"
Several schools in Hawkins, TN, served its students pork (right) from a package dated 2009. "These high-schoolers -- they understand if they see something they are not going to like, they don't eat it," said Hawkins County Commissioner Michael Herrell. "But when you get to these kindergartners, first- and second-graders, do they really know if the meat is bad or not?" One school's cafeteria workers made gravy to cover up the foul taste, Herrell said. USDA guidelines recommend that frozen roasts be thrown out after four to 12 months.
Sponsored by Banfi Vintners
Perfect conditions are certainly a rarity in the unpredictable, nature-driven world of wine. However, 2010 was a year of near perfection in Montalcino. This vintage was unique in that all phases – from the vegetative stage to the ripening and harvesting of grapes – took place under ideal circumstances.
The year 2010 began with copious rainfall in April that continued through mid-June with unseasonably cool temperatures. From then on the climate was warm and dry with rain returning in just the right quantity, and without affecting the harvest, which began later than in previous years in early September. September also was blessed with good diurnal swings (hot days and cool nights) that helped grapes to fully ripen. In short, vines and fruit grew and developed slowly and continuously throughout the season, creating grapes with perfectly balanced levels of sugar, acidity, and mature polyphenols.
With perfect fruit, Castello Banfi winemaker Rudy Buratti had an easy task in making what many experts are calling the greatest vintage in the history of Brunello di Montalcino. “Nature did its work,” says Buratti, “and my goal was to carry nature’s perfection to the bottle.” Indeed he did, as 2010 Banfi Brunello di Montalcino normale and Poggio alle Mura – a more complex cru Brunello coming from Sangiovese grown in the vineyards surrounding the estate’s 12th-century castle – are full of vibrant, rich fruit, excellent acidity, ripe tannins, and ample complexity. Critics worldwide have given high marks to both of Castello Banfi’s 2010 bottlings, assessing it a historic vintage with long aging potential. Based in part on its high-scoring Brunelli, Castello Banfi was named the Winery of the Year, Europe for 2015.
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