• Monday, February 26, 2007

    O-Ya - Set to Impress

    The will soon enjoy fine food in a new dining venue. Poised to open within weeks (days?), is going to be a fine addition to the neighborhood, and to Boston as a whole.

    I had the opportunity to sit down with Tim and Nancy Cushman recently and learn more about what’s in store for us.

    You may have guessed from the shoji screen window treatments that the restaurant opening on East Street is Japanese. Correct. If you assumed it will be like other upscale sushi venues in Boston, you’d be mistaken. We are in for a real treat.

    I was immediately impressed by several things during my introduction. First is the husband and wife team behind O-Ya. Unlike some restauranteurs riding the wave of interest in gourmet food, these people are the real deal . They also have a love for, and dedication to, the neighborhood. Boston’s had its share of posers in the business. We’ve seen them come and go, even here in the LD. Anyone remember Epiphany?

    Devotion to authenticity
    Tim and Nancy have been preparing for this opening for years. Steadily gaining expertise, honing recipes, making plans. Their attention to detail and their commitment to offering a great dining experience with authentic Japanese ingredients are evident. In a field where people apprentice for years, Tim has earned the respect of masters whom sushi aficionados may recognize from their first-name fame, “Nobu”, “Hiro” – O-Ya, we’re talking real cred here.

    Traditionally, sushi chefs must earn the privilege of training by first mastering things like sweeping and cleaning. Then perhaps they are graduated to learning rice making. This might take a year in itself. A deep, comprehensive and disciplined commitment to any endeavor is a given in the Japanese culture. There are no short-cuts. That Tim worked so closely with such masters all over the world speaks volumes of his dedication and his skill.

    Improvisation on a theme
    Like the jazz musician he is (Cushman trained at Berklee) Tim has a respect for tradition and a love for innovation, too. But make no mistake, O-Ya is no fusion-type of restaurant. The food here will be authentic at its core, in its spirit, with some variations on the theme.

    Even the renovation of the firehouse is an example of the balance the Cushmans aim to strike between tradition and innovation. For example, the sushi bar will be a true dining bar, not a drinking bar at which one may order food. A diner at a traditional sushi bar is seated lower than the chef. The Cushmans have chosen to level the interaction, quite literally. By creating a slightly less formal positioning of diner to chef, they intentionally encourage a more relaxed interaction.

    Their love of their adopted neighborhood is evident and they’ve taken care to incorporate the unique nature of the old firehouse into their renovation of this space. Recovered wood from old New England barns is used. The fire hose drying rack still hangs on the wall. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to use a pole to get to the restrooms.) Their mantra to the G.C. was “nothing shiny”. It looks like they got it right.

    Ingredients they choose also convey their dedication to offering a superlative dining experience. Poulet rouge (a French heritage breed chicken), Kurobuta pork and Wagyu beef (American Kobe) will be on the menu. Locally sourced vegetables, house-made tofu -- this is a master at work.

    Nancy has attained sake sommelier training from the only gaijin (non – Japanese) man to be invited as an official taster to a prefectural sake tasting. He was also the only non-Japanese to receive the award of “Accomplished Sake Taster” by the Pure Sake Association. As O-Ya’s Sake Sommelier, Nancy is prepared to share her love of sake and her considerable knowledge of it with guests. She brings corporate marketing background and sensitivity to a more Japanese way of doing things to this endeavor. Word of mouth, building relationships, disciplined bottom-up work is apparent here.

    We are poised to enjoy a truly unique venue right in our own neighborhood and we’re lucky to have this addition. With the opening of O-Ya, the Leather District will enjoy masterful food: forward looking, but authentic at its core. We will also enjoy the rare opening of a window into the Japanese culture itself.

    Tim and Nancy – Gokurosama!

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    Tuesday, February 20, 2007

    Those People and Their Tea

    The English love of tea is legendary. This week I focus on the delightful afternoon ritual of “high tea” on Suite 101.

    A proper cup of tea
    My introduction to the English love of tea came on a day at the beach in Greece. At 25, it was my first trip to Europe. Remember my olive grove adventure? Same trip. When I wasn’t paying a lot of attention, two rather large, rather pale women decided that of the whole empty beach, sitting next to me was the prime real estate. Before they arrived, I had been completely blissed-out. I had two weeks to make it from Greece to Frankfurt, no one but myself to answer to, a camera and lots of tips and phone numbers from well-traveled friends. A sunny day, a gorgeous beach, water that was a color of blue I’d never seen. Heaven.

    My beach-y bliss gets disturbed.
    The girls' large hats alone made them hard to ignore. Then suddenly, much loud squawking and complaining made their presence and displeasure absolutely obvious to anyone in earshot. That would be me.

    I heard fierce complaints about “the impossibility of getting a proper cup of tea.” “What is wrong with these people – no PG Tips?!” The phrase "these people" generally signals that one is in the company of someone fairly ignorant and possibly offensive. 2 for 2 in this case.

    No PG Tips. You’d have thought someone had just informed them that indoor plumbing had not yet been discovered in this land of savages... Greece. As if PG Tips is the high water mark of civilization. And, keep in mind – we were at the BEACH.

    Now, at that point in my life, I had no idea what PG Tips was (Americans – think Lipton’s). What was clear to me was that these women were the types of tourists who went on holiday and expected their pre-holiday life to be exactly replicated, preferably with a nicer climate.

    Why leave home? The thrill of travel for me is waking up somewhere new, unable to predict what I will hear, see, taste, smell…and discover. The ability to experience new and different things is precisely the lure of travel for me. And of food. I think this is the power of Ferran Adria's food and philosophy.

    Going Native
    Later in Frankfurt, I kept meeting Americans who spoke with disdain about their colleagues who “went native.” Those people (remember what I said about that phrase?)- those people had moved their families from the US to West Germany and then refused to live with other Americans. Those people who went native ate at local places instead of the Pizza Hut they’d found. Of course, the most horrifying thing those people did was to actually send their kids to local schools.

    I would often respond to these twits by detailing how I offered to run the weekend errands for my American host family in the all-German Sachsenhausen neighborhood. I wanted to practice a new German phrase or two. “I'm sorry my German is so poor, but we’d like new half-soles and shine on these shoes, please.” “I’ll have a kilo of broccoli please.” “I’ll have the breakfast number one, please.” Blink. Blink. Utter incomprehension. Yeah, that usually killed the conversation. Thankfully.

    Okay, so you know which end of the travel spectrum I’m on. The thing is, I was on such a tiny budget during my three months in Europe, I never once enjoyed a proper high tea. Nor all the great food in Venice - too rich for my budget, unlike the street food in Rome or the tavernas in Greece.

    Making up for lost time
    Now that I’ve been initiated, I am hooked. I often find my thoughts wandering to Devon cream, scones and savory sandwiches. Tea in bone china teacups. Gracious service. Real silver. Even if the experience sometimes feels like it’s veering dangerously close to Disney-esque, for me, the old world ritual of afternoon tea might be forgiven for that. It can be nearly transporting. In a good way; the way that a new food, or a new experience in an unfamiliar country is.

    After all, no one’s going to mistake me for British royalty or for a complaining tourist looking for PG Tips. On a beach. In Greece.

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    Saturday, February 10, 2007

    Bashing the food network, and taking a swipe at the bashers, too

    Full Disclosure
    Watching the Las Vegas episode of the marathon, I was reminded of my brush with (blogging) fame when Michael Ruhlman mentioned something I'd written. (See Defense of the Dog.) It may be that he was just showing that his writing is better than mine, but geez, it's Ruhlman. He noticed something I'd written on Ferrán Adrià.

    But why had no one contacted me about my recent witty post mentioning both Ruhlman and Bourdain. How prescient do I have to be?

    Then I realized this post was still sitting, unposted, on my dashboard. Ooops.

    Well here it is and for what it's worth, I actually did write this last week and...oh never mind.

    Better late than never
    Fun post and commentary on Food Network Drivel in Michael Ruhlman's überchef insider blog (or should it be überinsider chef blog?) All the more entertaining because it's written by guest blogger, Anthony Bourdain.

    In the food blogging world, I sometimes feel like I did in my CP* past, when I first began reading the Wall Street Journal. I couldn't follow anything. It was like reading a different language. An executive who graduated from the same state school I attended (for which I nearly apologized in my self-effacing interview with her) advised me to stick with the WSJ.

    She said it is an insiders' source, one worth getting familiar with, and promised that with some perserverance - it would begin to make sense. I did, and it did. Fast forward several lifetimes, careers, and pink slips, to today. See Jackie write and cook and eat. And blog about cooking and eating.

    The Macho World of Chefs
    Some of the food blogs are the same way. Inside jokes, references to parties where only 50 or so of the achingly hip and celebrated chefs were in attendance, macho who-ate-what or drank-how-much references- you guys know who you are.

    Well, in the universe of snarky-chef-cum food writers, Bourdain reigns supreme as the Chairman's nephew would say. By the way, just how does a brocade-jacket-wearing-Les Mis-singing star get into the world of iron cheffing anyway? And what did his nephew do to inhereit the US franchise? But I digress.

    Do click on Ruhlman's blog for some entertaining food network bashing.

    Macho, Macha
    I like to think I could hold my own in the macho world. Maybe even someday earn the respect of someone like AB and get cool a nickname like "The Grill Bitch." Doubt my chops?

    Just remember:

    For the record
    I highly recommend Bourdain's shows and his books. Even while he continues to ignore me, I remain convinced his writing is good. Straightforward, easy to read while still holding your attention with insightful observations about food and human nature.

    Both the books and his shows reveal the human side of the made for TV persona. He's not afraid to call it likes he see's it and is also quite willing to laugh at himself. He offers us a window into the power of food and travel to change our lives. He does it with smart, snarky wit but also sensitive humor.

    For these gifts I'll remain grateful, even while remaining seated at the kiddie table of the food blogging meal.

    *CP = Corporate Pussy

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    Thursday, February 08, 2007

    The Dairy Queen Rocks

    Not just the one with dip cones...
    The Dairy Queen I'm talking about today writes at the Ethicurean. If you are interested in S/O/L/E food issues at all this is a hard-hitting, fun, snarky, well-written and informative blog. The Dairy Queen is one of their terrific team of writers.

    I told you - these little piggies seem to be following me! I cannot keep them at bay...Today I learned about the Pork Board harassing a breastfeeding Mom for, get this, using her slogan "The other white milk". Saying it infringes on their campaign. Maybe they could just spend a minute thinking before they fire up the legal team. While they're at it, why not sue the makers of the movie "Blue Lagoon" for infringing on their pink lagoons of toxic pig processing waste...okay, I'll stop now. (click here for a photo)

    I promise, I do read news elsewhere, too! Thanks once again to Team Ethicurean...

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    Wednesday, February 07, 2007

    Franken-food? Eggs from Euthanized Chickens

    Reading the NY Times today reveals an interesting juxtaposition: the harvesting of "immature eggs" and another piece on the breeding of dogs entitled the Kennel Conundrum.

    Eggs harvested from euthanized hens "tough old birds too old for laying" were labeled as "embryonic" on an upscale (you've all heard of them!) menu. They had to be re-labeled as "immature" in order to make it more palatable to customers. Now chefs have begun injecting them with an additional yolk to invent a dish more suitable to their pushing-the-envelope reputation.

    When these mad-scientist machinations resemble so closely the bizarre world of designer dog breeding techniques it just strikes me as - well - wrong.

    If you read these two pieces, or even skim them...you may understand why my insides are churning just about now.

    I'm still having trouble with the notion of Ortolon. Described recently in a thought-provoking piece, the banned ritual of eating a whole, endangered songbird, drowned in cognac, is something like earning top merit badge among chefs and gourmets. When you start invoking accoutrements such as hooded garments to capture all the scent of the fleeting moment...of eating an endangered bird, it's just such an outlier on the spectrum of "would you ever?..." that it makes even a jaded glutton like me stop and think.

    Here's where I end up, I think:
    1. No eggs from dying chickens, no manipulated double yolks in these embryonic eggs from downer hens, no thanks.
    2. No breeding dogs so that they can't even breed without a human's help, anymore. Thanks to the humans who already helped the breed achieve its velvet-paint-by-number heartwarming look, scores of other problems arise in the name of our bizarre aesthetics. But dogs ought to be able to do what dogs like to do without our intervention. Period.
    3. Probably no eating of endangered species, just for the thrill of it, even if it is thrilling and delicious.

    Can we adopt a sort of Hippocratic food oath? "First, do no harm." If we start there, I'm sure Michael Pollan et al. will fill in the rest.

    While we're at this intersection of commercial operations and food, don't forget to check out the Rolling Stone expose on Smithfield Foods' industrial pork operations and environmental abuses. It will drive you to be a vegetarian or at least to swear off commercial, industrial pork.

    I recommend Lobel's, Benton's Hams (the bacon is superlative!) and locally in Boston, The Butcher Shop, of course. Happy pigs make happier diners and neighbors.

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    Tuesday, February 06, 2007

    Pigs in Space - Year of the Pig - Part Two

    Pigs on earth
    I've been trying to track down the publicist or someone representing to answer a simple question: How can our best friend, girl next door, home-cook-turned-celebrity, Paula, I'm talkin' to you girl...How could you possibly have decided to "approve" the horrific environmental defilers, Smithfield Foods? Did you not know about the horrendous expose in Rolling Stone Boss Hog? Thanks to the Ethicurean for the tip.

    Here's just one choice morsel:
    lagoons emit hundreds of different volatile gases into the atmosphere, including ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide...many millions of bacteria into the air per day, some resistant to human antibiotics.... some 300 tons of nitrogen into the air every day as ammonia gas, much of which falls back to earth and deprives lakes and streams of oxygen, stimulating algal blooms and killing fish.

    "Lagoon" is the Smithfield spin on pool of pig shit and processing waste. Apparently, these have been overflowing, polluting the environs for quite some time. As our government begins to hold Smithfield the teensiest bit accountable, Smithfield is making donations to environmental causes and opening operations overseas. Poland and Romania appear to be tops on their lists.

    I tried to "Ask Paula" about her partnership with horrendous environmental polluters, Smithfield Foods using her homey website feature. It's designed to make y'all feel like we're just sitting at the kitchen table gabbin'. Well I keep gettin' non-responsive missives from her pal Cassie, but no one seems to want to offer an explanation. Though her "Ask Paula" page does tell us where to get clothes for big gals (Dillards).

    I'll keep y'all posted....

    The porcine news keeps rolling in
    I wrote in December about Quails in Space when I learned that Alain Ducasse was creating meals for French astronauts. Not to be outdone, NASA gives our crew Rachel Ray, Emeril and Todd English. Talk about over-extending your brand. It's not enough to see these celebrity chefs everywhere on earth, but now in space too?

    I'd feel a little miffed if I knew my French counterparts were dining on quail while I was getting "BAM!" and "De - lish!"

    Pigs in Space
    And remember the Muppets' skit: Pigs in Space? We now have a non-muppet version of space swine. Oh yes, I am talking space-love-triangle here.

    Wigs, trenchcoats, rubber hose? Maybe it was all that gourmet food that made them swoon. Maybe someone has a diaper fetish, but man-oh-man what a giant step backward for womankind. And what a great way to represent our country, to model good behaviour for our kids and to spend our bazillions of tax dollars in space. Bringing our once-honorable NASA program down to the level of a bad reality show.

    If they need something to keep them busy up there, they could get working on my Microgravity bioreactor. I asked for one for Christmas and it hasn't yet appeared. With news like this rolling in every day, I'm going to need one.

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    Sunday, February 04, 2007

    Boston's Toast Scandal

    Once again we distinguish ourselves as an embarassingly provincial town. Way to go Boston.

    You know what I'm talking about, right? The ri-DONK-ulous over-reaction to Turner Broadcasting's viral marketing campaign. Turner hired a couple of brilliant viral marketing guys to create and execute a campaign to promote their upcoming Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. These guys posted lite-brite toys of a cartoon character in the shape of a piece of toast, flipping the bird, all around ten major metropolitan cities. About two weeks ago.

    Remember Lite-Bright toys? I can still sing the silly commercial jingle: "Lite-Brite, makin' things with light. Outtasite, makin' things with Lite-Brite."

    See my new heros on You Tube explain this crazy mess. If you're at work or the kids are nearby you might want to lower the volume.

    The original cast of Aqua Teen Hunger Force are food items. I think they may have been created by someone who was really, really hungry and maybe high. Anyway, they're not in water, nor are they teens, nor are they a force of any discernable type. But they are food items. Stephen Colbert apparently pointed out that the Toast (Mooninite character) might have been less effective than the french fry guy.

    Toast. Hmm. There's got to be some irony I'm missing here. After months of my ranting over the ridiculous city of Chicago ban on foie gras, we're now blowing up toast cartoons all over Boston. Anyway, watch the guys on the You Tube clip and you'll see what's what.

    And remember, hairstyles are what they really wanted to talk about.

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