Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Evolution of Food Criticism: A Response to Marc Vetri

The Marc Vetri article on Food Journalism (and its "stale" state) http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/6551682 
comes off as a backhand at the 'casual-ization' of food criticism + social media. Yet, Marc (who I admire) is a respected icon in Philly whose own businesses parallel the trend: they, too, have been 'casual-ized' and utilize social media platforms to greatly advertise their own chefs and cuisine. In a way, the glory and beauty of "long-form" literary journalism have given way to "short-form" simplified journalism, not unlike the Vetri restaurant model that has gone from high-end (Vetri) to approachable-for-every-budget (Alla Spina/Pizzeria Vetri/Lo Spiedo). While Marc's argument on the generalization of writing and click-friendly, diminishing-value lists (like the recent Philly Mag Top 50) rings true, undoubtedly the public's awareness of "good food" and contributions to food-sharing democratize the "industry" and allow for every type of food business to be in the Open, for fair debate. Isn't there a benefit to that inclusion? Today, everyone has a Voice and all businesses (large and small) are weighted publicly, and therefore obtain exposure, good or bad. With that comes the need for owners to ensure quality, pay attention to detail, stay sharp and execute their concept and dishes properly. Whether that business provides a formal setting and $165pp chef tastings, or hummus on a red tray, or even a rotolo that's deemed the "morsel of the year," the playing field has been leveled and critics (professional or otherwise) judge them equally. 

It is quite surprising to read Marc's rails against Twitter and Instagram (accounts where he has 20K+ and 12K+ followers respectively), for example, which he personally uses to great extent to both argue social issues and exhibit his cooking, most recently his inventive and creative Panneto-nut and milled flour for his renowned pasta. While he tongue-in-cheek mocks online users who incorporate phrases like "seriously yum," he is employing hashtags and words like "Boom" to express the same excitement his followers feel. Social media is a powerful tool, and he utilizes it along with fellow chefs and partners Jeff Michaud and Brad Spence. One can't seriously berate a platform on one hand 
yet use it extensively in the other, right? Why bite the hand that literally feeds you? After all, Marc's own charity work with Alex's Lemonade Stand and children's school lunch programs undoubtedly gain greater recognition and support via the use of Social Media. 

Marc almost comes off like a man in his 80s looking back at his life and remembering "when things were more simple, and fair." Well, technology has evolved and so has the Food World. Remember when it was all about haute cuisine, when classic French food reigned and was only available to a wealthy certain class? All one has to do is look at Paris today and see how the food scene has drastically changed to more simple, ingredient-driven, affordable cuisine. What is wrong with this, exactly? Nothing remains static. Some people do, if they choose to stay behind in a changing time. It seems Marc and his excellent team have evolved masterfully in a very evolving industry, though, so why criticize so harshly the food media world that has also had to evolve, but from which Vetri has benefitted so greatly? While Vetri the restaurant deserves its accolades and praise, it's not the only place in Philadelphia that thrives, even if Vetri the owner wishes for a category all his own that distinguishes him entirely from his peers. Marc is one of the most talented chefs in the world who aims to create truly authentic, elevated and pure food that is more than good. That food has been justifiably recognized. The issue is that "good food" cannot simply be separated into distinct compartments by level of establishment or chef, or only deemed as such by only the most accredited writers. Unfortunately for Marc, his food gets tossed into the entire mix. 

There is a curmudgeonly feel to his piece, with serious, disguised (but clear) shouts against fellow chef Mike Solo and food scribe Craig Laban, both whom I respect immensely and Philly appreciates. Sure, I disagree for the most part with Yelpers who are seemingly attention seekers and are no 'experts' by any means...but saying they don't belong, or only literary food pieces should exist, is just wrong (and essentially irrelevant) in an age and country where free speech and ability to have open forums in a digital medium are Rights that can't be degraded, or enforced with one's own personalized exceptions. Marc's longing for a "traditional" review process by ego-absent, eloquent  critics is heartfelt, but it's also a nostalgic sentiment that ignores the reality and power of the people's voice.

Did the lessening of a bell (by Laban) for Osteria Jersey set off this time bomb? A restaurant that initially gets reviewed by a major critic in print certainly deserves to be revisited multiple times and re-rated, as restaurants either get stronger, stay consistent or get worse. The Consumer is the beneficiary, while the Restaurant and Chef either adapt and thrive, or suffer and fail. It's Survival of the Fittest in a very competitive industry that's under the microscope more than ever. Restaurants evolve just like Everything around them. People need to, too. Marc seems to be both so "in-touch" and yet so "out-of-touch." In the end, aren't restaurants all about the Consumer? Because for whom (and Why) else would a Chef be cooking?

In light of the rant regarding social media, will Marc delete all of his social media accounts? Will he only write long-form criticisms or literary food essays like the ones he misses and seeks? Because if he doesn't take these actions, isn't the Huffington Post piece just a hypocritical, backhanded Holler-Palooza? Will Marc "huff" and puff until food journalism sways in his direction? Possibly Yes, but he will run out of breath. Because there's no going back. Marc seems to be excitedly walking forward (see the new upstairs addition to the Vetri restaurant), but wistfully wanting to run backward...which is bizarre, and baffling, because he and his businesses have only climbed the ladder since his eponymous restaurant opened in the '90s. Much of that success is owed to the deserving high ratings bestowed upon him by food critics and diners alike. Hasn't he only benefitted from modern food journalism? Isn't it selfish, and somewhat ironically egotistical, to rant about the media in a city that, while admittedly is centered strongly around "food news," provides only glowing rankings, publicity and feedback for the Vetri Empire? Alienating one's lifeline is self-destruction, isn't it? In the End, it's Evolve, or Die.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Fundraising Feast at Taste of the Nation

Spring is here and Food Festival season is in full bloom. Taste of the Nation, one of the premier annual culinary benefits that aims to combat childhood hunger, was held Sunday, April 28th at the newly-built and stunningly designed Hotel Monaco in Old City, Philadelphia. Organized by Share Our Strength, this always-festive, sold-out gathering assembles the area's top toques, restaurants and mixologists who donate their time and passion in the name of charity. Ticket sales and silent auctions contributed to Share Our Strength's efforts while providing support to local organizations Philabundance, The Food Trust, The Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, and The Pennsylvania Hunger ActionMarc Summers of Double-Dare fame and Food Network success took on Emcee duties while local chef David Katz from Creekstone Farms acted as Chef Chair. Kevin Sbraga, Season 7 "Top Chef" winner and owner of modern American resto Sbraga, was the Honorary Chef Chair. Phoebe Esmon of slick and hip Emmanuelle chaired Mixology. Over 20 restaurants participated in the fundraising fête that regaled attendees with memorable bites, sips, and an after-party at Stratus Rooftop Lounge. 

Check out the photos of the beautiful dishes, regal setting, lively Chefs and Philly food fans.

Interior of Hotel Monaco reflects the attention to art, detail & design so
identifiable with the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group 
Hemingway Daiquiri by Bess Gulley of Stratus Rooftop Lounge 
Brugal Rum, grapefruit juice, maraschino liquer, simple syrup, lime
Vernick's (@VernickPhilly) Tuna Poke with ahi, sesame, sweet soy, chopped macadamia nuts,
cilantro & a brilliant candied tamarind. Paired perfectly with the daiquiri and kicked off the evening.
FOH Guru Tory Keomanivong from Fond (@FondPhilly) plating Chef Lee Styer's Wild Boar Pâté

Hanging out with funny guy Marc Summers (@lbatvmc), a celebrity with no pretension.
Famous Philly chef/entrepreneur and super-friendly Tony Luke and Jen Shine, who have started
Find them on Twitter at @tonylukejr @jcshine444 @married2foodphl
Old Fashioned by Phoebe Esmon of Emmanuelle & the US Bartenders' Guild.
Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Angostura & orange bitters, simple syrup
Lari Robling (@larirobling) of WHYY's Fit Project &
former City Paper food critic David Snyder (@PhilaFoodie)
Whole Roasted Pig with sherry rosemary gastrique from McCrossen's Tavern (@McCrossenstav). This has been a mainstay dish at Taste of the Nation for the last 3 years. I met chef Tod Wentz over this Pig in 2011 and have been a fan of him & his food ever since.

Scallop Crudo with parsley kimchi & beet pickled turnips, a refreshing and creative bite from
Fork Restaurant (@ForkRestaurant) and the brainchild of former NYC chef of Torrisi Eli Kulp (@EliKulp)
A stellar Springtime bowl of Green Gazpacho with a slow poached shrimp from Bar Ferdinand (@BarFerdinand)
Chef Mike Solomonov of Zahav Restaurant (@zahavrestaurant) and Philly chef Jennifer Carroll (@ChefJenCarroll)
Team Bibou (@biboubyob): Server Jeffrey with Chef/Owner Pierre Calmels,
who crafted a vibrant Watermelon & Beet soup
Crab and Shrimp with Salmon Roe baked in French Brick, from new chef Gina Rodriguez
of Serrano (@serranophilly) 
Amsterdam Street Sandwich from soon-to-be-opened byob NOORD on East Passyunk Avenue.
Herring with cucumber & pickled onion from Chef Joncarl Lachman.
Anticipated menu from NOORD, one of the most-talked about new restaurants set to open May 8th.
Brisket Taco from Chef Chair David Katz of Creekstone Farms (@CreekstoneFarms)
Quick pic with awesome dude and Season 7 Top Chef winner Kevin Sbraga (@KSbraga)
Signature Creekstone Farms Meatloaf with Aligot Potatoes & Garbanzo beans,
sided with crispy chips from Sbraga (@SBRAGA_Dining)
House-made Charcuterie from 10Arts (@10Arts) & Chef Nathan Volz (@Nathan_Volz):
Lamb Rillette, salume, pickled vegetables
Team Brauhaus Schmitz (@BrauhausSchmitz), Philly's only authentic German Bierhall & Restaurant:
Exec Sous Henrik Ringbom (@Hringbom), Chef/Owner Jeremy Nolan (@BrauhausChef), & PR/Marketing gal Marci Prester (@marciprester)

Chilled cucumber soup with smoked salmon & pumpernickel crumbs from Brauhaus Schmitz

Chef Peter Woolsey of French classic Bistrot La Minette (@BistroLaMinette) dished out Creekstone Farms braised beef cheeks marketed by his adorable son.
Chef Peter Woolsey with his French-born wife and son. 
Soy Spring rolls from chef Jon Cichon of venerable Lacroix at Rittenhouse (@lacroixbar210)
Hanging with Chef Tod Wentz and enjoying Leffe beer,
the premium brew served exclusively at Taste

Chef Mark Regan (@m_regan) of South Philly Tap Room (@SpTapRoom) tossing cured Fluke with salsa verde. The raw fish preparations during the night were very impressive.

Cured fluke with salsa verde topped with grated lomo
Holding the Hammer of Glory from Philly Beer Week, which is held annually in June
Emcee Marc Summers, Chef Lee Styer of Fond, Mike Jerrick (@MikeFOX29) from FOX

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Round-up of Thai New Year Dinners at Circles

Rather than throw water on passersby, which is customary during the Thai New Year celebration known as Songkran, chef Alex Boonphaya of Circles (BYOB) is throwing weekly collaboration dinners with local chefs. Held on Thursdays at the Northern Liberties location during late March and April, Boonphaya and his kitchen cohorts create 6-course tasting menus ($50pp) highlighting the fragrant and flavor-driven foods of Southeast Asia. Following the "Chef Collab Series," Boonphaya will orchestrate his own three-day affair reminiscent of (and coinciding with) Thailand's Water Festival heralding the beginning of the solar year. He will cook three consecutive 8-course New Year dinners ($60pp) from April 12th to the 14th, each of which will showcase dishes from the joint feasts. 

March 21st - Jeffrey Power of Dettera
March 28th - John Taus of the The Corner and George Sabatino
April 4th - Jennifer Choplin of SoWe
April 11th - Sean Magee of Time

With a few Belgian beers in tow, which are a wonderful complement to the spicy and Asian flavor profiles of Thai cuisine, I attended the March 28th celebration that brought heavy hitting talents John Taus and George Sabatino, the former top toque of Stateside. It was my first visit to Circles on North 2nd Street, whose unassuming exterior belies the charming and warm atmosphere inside. Earth tones and candlelight added to a cozy setting, one that matched the comforting nature of the very balanced dishes touting Thailand. The menu delivered an array of textures and color along with the requisite heat and aromatics. Service was refreshingly familial, well-paced and welcoming---never intrusive. 

The first course- Marinated Green Papaya with house beef jerky, peanuts and mint- was a palate pleaser that teased the eyes and taste buds with vibrancy from the nutrient-rich papaya and fresh mint. Peanuts added textural contrast and crunch, while the brilliant house-made jerky provided protein as well as a salty note. Lime brought the dish alive. This dish hit the four fundamental taste senses so prevalent in Thai cuisine: sweet, salty, sour, bitter.  

The second course- Beef Tartar with bone marrow vinaigrette, crispy shallots, scallion and taro chips- continued the refreshment with tender beef both enlivened by a marrow-rich vinegar dressing and enriched by herbs. Chips made with taro, a starchy root vegetable native to Southeast Asia, played the part of edible spoon, cradling the tartare in each bite and adding an instrumental crisp. An Ommegang Hennepin- a hearty, effervescent, full-bodied, hoppy and crisp farmhouse saison with ginger, orange and coriander notes- paired perfectly with this and the opening dish.

The third course- Crispy Duck Wings with lemongrass and honey glaze, cilantro, scallion and sesame- delivered a sensational sticky plate of finger food that took its basic cues from the American chicken wing but exploded with complexity. The citrusy lemongrass and sweet honey coated every bit of the dark-meat duck. While not as plump as the Buffalo variety, the atypical, ingenious preparation of these traditional barroom bites outsized any stateside dish. The Belgian Rodenbach, a mild red sour brewed in the Flemish tradition with subtle tartness and a cherry finish, drank nicely alongside these addictive Sabatino snacks.

The fourth course- Steamed Clam "hot pot" with house-fermented sausage, bean sprouts, coconut and chili broth - brought forth a broth boasting a Sweet Heat deserving of salute. While the concept itself is more East Asian and Chinese in nature (a hot pot filled with simmering stock is usually at the center of the table and ingredients are placed into it for cooking by diners), this version was a balanced bowl of bursting flavor bombs. The sweetness of the coconut was the most predominant profile, yet the heat from the chili combined with the saltiness of the cured pork and the briny nature of the clams elevated this clever take on a "stew." The optimum beverage pairing proved to be the crisp, slightly sweet 2010 Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett that showed great acidity and elegance.

The fifth course- Thai Scrapple atop congee, with ginger, scallion and egg yolk- was an Asian take on a Philly classic, exposing the versatility of pig as well as the "whole being greater than the sum of its parts." The congee, a type of rice porridge popular in Asia, wore a ginger perfume whose aroma was pleasantly hypnotic. Drizzled with the rich yolk, it gently accepted the tender, toothsome pork pancake like a pillow happily yielding to a weary traveler. Bright herbs and scallion provided a cool contrast to the warm yet surprisingly mild scrapple. Despite lacking the expectant spicy finish, the dish charmed with its comfort and visual beauty, and was perked up by the Duchesse de Bourgogne. An incredibly intoxicating Flemish red brew blending 8 and 18-month old oak barrel-aged beer, this exquisite ale was characteristically sour and fruity, with the effervescence and texture reminiscent of an Italian Lambrusco, pleasingly sweet and tart and mysterious with a slight (welcome) funk from its fermentation.

The final course- Banana Spring Rolls with nutella, marshmallow, and kaffir lime crème Anglaise- put a creative sweet spin on a savory classic. Crispy fried egg dough encased the decadent filling of hazelnut, cocoa and whipped sugar, displaying the textural interplay that prevailed in every preceding dish. The custardy sauce was bright and redolent of a citrus garden in Spring. 

NOTE: The next collaboration dinner with Jennifer Choplin of SoWe is Thursday, April 4th. The 6-course menu will be offered for only $35 per person instead of the originally-priced $50 due to Choplin’s deft sourcing of ingredients:

Spicy Minced Shrimp, cucumber, lotus chip, mint

Duck Confit Dumpling, plum sauce, micro herb salad, pickled baby carrot

Thai Pork "Pot au Feu," cilantro

White Curry Rabbit "Blanquette"

Thai Barbecued Quail, crispy noodle cake, chive oil, frisée

Pineapple Mango Upside Down Cake, coconut ice cream

**Circles is located at 812 N. 2nd Street in Northern Liberties. Call 276.687.1309 or visit www.circlesthai.com for reservations.

Monday, February 11, 2013

No Surrender at Monsù

The island of Sicily has a tangled, checkered history that speaks to its Mediterranean location between the European mainland and Northern Africa. A literal crossroads of trade and travel that led to invasion and takeover, Sicily boasts Greek, Spanish and Arabic cultural influences that have left their mark on its cuisine. This mélange of culinary traditions is captured by Monsù, the kitschy BYOB owned by Peter McAndrews, a Scotch-Irishman whose heritage mirrors the Sicilian blend of nationalities unified as Italian.

The Franco-Hispanic Bourbons controlled the island for a short time in the 18th and 19th centuries, establishing aristocratic households from which emerged the monzù or monsieur, the title for a French-trained chef that inspired the name of McAndrews’ restaurant on the corner of 9th and Christian. The offerings at Monsù reflect McAndrews himself: rich in personality, vibrant, unrestrained, bold, yet original and undeniable in what they are saying. They are not unlike the audacious dishes served at Modo Mio, his Italian restaurant in Northern Liberties, and Paesano’s, his popular sandwich shop that showcases a special artistry in combining flavors.

Monsù aims to deliver the sweet, spicy, and savory aspects of Sicilian cuisine whose moniker could easily be “melting pot.” With dynamic zeal, McAndrews has recently introduced a Tuesday tasting menu exhibiting the wide-ranging ingredients that are Sicily's trademark. Marketed as Peter's Basta Così, the chef delivers an impromptu 7 course (+ dessert) adventure through the island's sea and mountains, mingling fish and meat with nuts and fruit and everything in-between on plates driven by whatever inspired McAndrews on that day's Italian Market shopping excursion. The seemingly endless flow of dishes may be enough to proclaim "That's Enough," but I refused to surrender last Tuesday on the menu's introductory night. 

In a quiet dining room where only another table sat (by happenstance local legend Jerry Blavat dined with friends), Peter enthusiastically discussed the concept like a friend and explained each course as it was delivered. As if at a dinner party, though with an air of informality that permeates the space as well as the way Sicilians eat, there was boisterous banter, raised glasses and a playful exchange of stories that were as colorful as Peter's approach to life. Each dish--both indulgent and elegantly prepared---screamed sapori and displayed an interplay of texture, spice, and sweetness along with a dash of daring. McAndrews wants to take risk here, act a bit off-the-cuff and infuse his cooking with offal or components that are certainly not mainstream. It's an excuse to cook courageously for spirited food enthusiasts who appreciate a chef's kitchen whimsy. By the end of the night, like The Geator with the Heator, I snapped my fingers, called Peter "my man," and yelled Bravo in appreciation for opening a window into Sicily's soul.

Peter's Basta Così takes place every Tuesday, from 5-9 PM. Cost is $50pp, but $40pp for friends and those who work in the industry. BYOB, cash-only. Reservations required.

The Menu:
7 Courses, changing each week and focusing on McAndrews' finds in the Italian Market that day. Bring a wine that matches the earthiness and boldness of Sicilian cuisine. Aim for the native Sicilian varietal Nero d'Avola or a decadent, full-bodied Amarone della Valpolicella from the Veneto region.

Course 1: Maccu
Seared scallop atop a pork belly meatball, with green onion mostarda

Course 2: Beccafico
Roasted sardine stuffed with golden raisin, pecorino, and orange

Course 3: Melanzana Rolatini
Crispy eggplant stuffed with walnuts, tripe, shrimp, caciocavallo cheese, and plum tomato

Savory "Intermezzo"
Lamb testicles with brown butter and green onion mostarda

Course 4: Ravioli
House-made ravioli stuffed with primosale (Italian sheep milk) cheese, adorned with walnuts, sage, 20-year aged balsamic

Course 5: Chitarra
Squid ink spaghetti alla chitarra with broccoli crema and bottarga, topped with fried basil leaf

Course 6: Dentice
Seared snapper with mint salsa verde atop creamy rosemary and pecorino chickpea polenta

Course 7: Agnello Siciliana
Breaded grilled lamp chop with sopressata, caciocavallo,and lemon anchovy butter, topped with a fried egg

Dessert: Duo of cakes
Ricotta Cheesecake infused with almond and orange zest topped with crème fraîche, and Torta di Chocolata, a chocolate Italian rum cake finished with grappa and coffee-infused crème anglaise