Thursday, June 30, 2005

Book 13: Sent For You Yesterday, by John Edgar Wideman (Infinite Feast XX)

Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (April 15, 1998)

Sent for you yesterday, and here you come today.

It only makes sense that one of the main themes of John Edgar Wideman’s Pen/Faulkner Award winning novel, Sent For You Yesterday, should find expression in a song. Any novel written with the musical lyricism and jive, stream of consciousness language Wideman employs is attempting to bridge the gap between music and literature. Wideman takes the blues out of the jazz clubs and places it squarely on the page for the readers’ benefit. Sent For You Yesterday is a marvel to read, not only for its eloquent exposition of urban African American culture, but also simply for the beauty of Wideman’s words.

If James Joyce had been born in inner city Pittsburgh instead of Dublin, his writing would most likely have sounded much like Wideman’s. Wideman shifts flawlessly from one characters' thoughts to the next, detailing the exclusion felt by the albino Brother in an all black community, to the lunacy of Samantha, a mother of over 10 children who loses her mind when one of her children burns to death. World War II clouds over this novel in the same way World War I is the ever-present unmentioned in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Wideman draws on the modernists, but in a completely original manner. The lives he shows us are real and hard, their importance obviously apparent but unbearably tragic. Through it all, Wideman’s characters persevere, suffering through life, even as they acknowledge it will only get worse. In their brave embrace of life, there is a profound sublimity. One consolation is music – it is also their heritage for people otherwise without possessions.

Any discussion of the characters in Sent For You Yesterday must begin by first acknowledging that the Pittsburgh area of Homewood is the main character. Though he is wanted by the police for sleeping with a white woman, Albert Wilkes’ has to return to Homewood. The place draws him back. He has traveled for seven years but only in Homewood does he feel at home. His re-arrival in Homewood frames the novel’s first section, while the rest of the book focuses on Lucy Tate, the narrator’s Uncle Carl, and Lucy’s surrogate brother called only Brother, and their relative inability to leave Homewood at all. The gravity of the town seems to possess the work’s human characters. Homewood exerts a force originating out of its inescapable history; even as its houses crumble, its people drink and drug themselves to death, and poverty comes to dominate like a despot, Lucy, Carl, and Brother stay fixed, attached to each other, but more so to the place. The only of the self-termed “Three Musketeers” who figures out a way to leave Homewood is Brother and he does so through suicide, symbolically mauled by the town’s lone link to the outside world, a freight train.

Wideman presents his characters not as emblems pleading for our sympathy, but in a matter of fact manner that seems to say: take them as they are or don’t take them at all, either way, your opinion isn’t going to mean much to them. Even as he chronicles the socioeconomic decline from one generation to the next, his characters never turn to external factors to lay blame for their misfortunes. As Carl eloquently recalls about his temporary drug addiction, he enjoyed crack and shot up because of the pleasure. It was his choice, no one else’s. There was no coercion, just as it was his decision to stop. While the oppressive presence of white people hangs over all, penetrating the character’s psyches as if by osmosis, Wideman doesn’t succumb to angry finger pointing. Wideman suggests that the horrendous level of disrespect with which white people treat African Americans has bored into the black mind to such a degree, that the residents of Homewood have internalized and eventually accepted the idea that they are somehow lesser than. It has become so second-hand, the idea isn’t even perceptible anymore. It’s just a part of life, like Carl’s pot belly or the shared affinity for Iron City beer. And it is the subtlety of this presentation of the ramifications of segregation and racism that makes it so effective. How can characters ask for empathy when they can’t even realize they would ever deserve it? The bluesy expression “been down so long don’t even know what’s up,” floats between the lines of Sent For You Yesterday like the lingering echo of a melancholy piano chord.

Wideman justly won the Pen/Faulkner Award for Sent For You Yesterday. His innovative utilization of “authentically black” language provides the dialect and characters with a respect they never afforded themselves. Wideman takes the tuneful acoustics of street slang and transforms the speech into high art. Not since Faulkner has a specific time and place been depicted so accurately and with such heartfelt compassion. Wideman has saved a culture and past from oblivion by rendering it as adeptly as he manages in this novel. In a present when Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent are the most ubiquitous signs of black culture, Wideman reminds all Americans that African Americans have existed and will continue to do so as an incredibly cohesive community and one that we should honor with more than Senate apologies. Wideman illustrates an unshakeable integrity pulsating in a dereliction few of us have or will ever be forced to witness. Whether Homewood’s characters comprehend it or not, they are resilient, and far from pity, should receive only our admiration for not bowing to life’s burdens. As for Wideman, he should continue to receive praise, as an achievement such as Sent For You Yesterday, like the world it defines, must never be forgotten.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Restaurant 45: The Cotton Club (Infinite Feast XX)

RESTAURANT: The Cotton Club
LOCATION: 656 W 125th St, Harlem
DATE: June 26, 2005
FOOD: Open Buffet including Fried Chicken, Potato Salad, Cornbread, Grits, Scrambled Eggs, Red Snapper, Beet Salad, Buttered Rolls, Black Beans and Rice, Collared Greens, Sweet Potatoes, Stewed Tomatoes, Fried Chicken Livers and a slice of Carrot Cake.
PRICE: (for show and food) $36.73

Combine uplifting gospel music, stomach-pounding southern soul food, a history of white oppression and busloads of tourists and what do you get? Harlem’s historic Cotton Club, situated in West Harlem, just a block from the river (and from Dinosaur BBQ). While most of my Sunday mornings don’t involve praising the Lord as much as sleeping until the arrival of afternoon, the weekly Sunday brunch and Gospel show at the Cotton Club was an eye-opening experience both figuratively and literally.

The Cotton Club originally opened in 1923, after boxer Jack Johnson sold the failed Club De Lux to a syndicate of mobsters. The Cotton Club became a spot not only for flaunting the restrictions of prohibition but also as a stage for the world’s best black entertainers, including everyone from Duke Ellington to Lena Horne. What makes the Cotton Club’s history all the more complex is that due to a “white only” policy, the clientele of the Club were generally ritzy, wealthy, and white. Reopened on West 125th St. in 1978, the Club now thankfully allows all races to enter. The Club’s mission is to keep alive an element of the city’s legacy.

Brunch at the Cotton Club includes a live gospel performance, with a host of vocalists accompanied by a jazz band. Clouded by a hangover from an apartment party the night before, as the lead vocalist praised God for being able to answer any of our prayers, all I really wanted was for Him to reduce the relentless pounding in my head. It being Sunday, He was probably busy attending more pious requests, as my brain throbbing continued unabated throughout the meal.

However, though my mind was a mess, the Cotton Club had my gut provided for. A lavish buffet including just about every single soul food dish imaginable (save fried Okra, which sadly, I still have never tried) called to me with its promise of greasy redemption. Reviewing a buffet is difficult because how a food tastes depends extensively on the factors of temperature and the time between preparation and eating. Even Thomas Keller’s “Coffee and Doughnuts” would become unappealing sitting under a heat lamp for four hours.

With that said, the Cotton Club puts on a very nice spread. Fresh food is constantly being brought from the kitchen and what is already out, though not hot, is at least adequately warm. The best salads were the traditional potato salad, using Yukon spuds and a mayonnaise-mustard base and the orange-flavored beet salad. The salad sparked memories of childhood barbeques with its simple peppery creaminess, while the beet salad was a bit more special, the bitterness of the oranges melding nicely with the pungent uniqueness of widely sliced beets.

Fried foods are especially problematic for buffets and the overly greasy nature of the Cotton Club’s fried chicken was only exacerbated by its tepid heat. The rest of the buffet was a litany of up and downs mimicking the tribulations of the characters in John Edgar Wideman’s Sent For You Yesterday, the reason for this, the 20th meeting of Infinite Feast. The scrambled eggs possessed a pleasant cheesiness, while the grits were excessively dry and lackluster. Chunks of sweet potatoes had been flavored splendidly with brown sugar and molasses while the macaroni and cheese was as unremarkably predictable as Trent Lott refusing to support the Senate’s apology for lynching Black Americans. The red snapper was refreshingly buoyant and seasoned with a New Orleans flair, but the collard greens tasted as brackish as raked leaves left to ferment in a diseased cesspool of puddle water.

My favorite two items were actually both of the breads. The cornbread was dense and smoky, the type of rich, un-crumbly cornbread perfect for soaking up leftover sauce and drippings. Additionally, the buttered rolls were exceptionally light and, well, buttery, tasting almost like a croissant gone Cajun. During the performance, the Cotton Club’s servers came around with a selection of cakes, from which I selected the carrot. While Wideman’s language focused on using only words that were essential, the Cotton Club took the exact opposite approach to their application of frosting on the cake, lathering enough of the tongue-turning sweetness to make Serendipity’s application of whipped cream seem delicate.

One doesn’t visit the Cotton Club mainly for the food. It’s a chance to partake in part of New York City’s past that though objectionable, is inescapable and enlightening. While the subdued white tourists failed to swing with the same graceful rhythm as the band, it was nice to see that some traditions never die – even if they do become more spectacle than reverence. Viewing the passionate faith on the singers’ faces and those of some audience members, was the most spiritual and moving part of the Cotton Club experience, making the price of admission worthwhile. An opportunity to glimpse a shade of New York’s history, specifically that dealing with a policy of segregation too often forgotten, is reason enough to venture up to Harlem. Throw in foot-thumping music and a touch of finger-licking soul cuisine, and you got yourselves the making of a memorable Sunday morning, even if you’re unaccostumed to getting out of bed at that ungodly hour of 11 am.

RATING: 6.0/10

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Restaurant 44: Mamlouk

Row 1: Yogurt Dip; Avocado Dip; Salad. Row 2: Falafel and fried cheese; Chickpeas in tomato sauce; Sea-Bass. Row 3: Lamb meatballs; Fried onions over rice and pasta; Baklava.

LOCATION: 211 E. 4th St.
DATE: June 25, 2005
FOOD: Six course shared tasting, including: Plate of carrot sticks, olives, and pickled turnips; Pita Bread and Herbed Flatbread with Mid-Eastern Guacamole, Baba Ganoush, Hummus, Yogurt Dip, Red Pepper Dip, and Stuffed Grape Leaves; Salad with Vinaigrette; Falafel and Fried Cheese; Chickpeas in Tomato Sauce, Chilean Sea Bass with Tomatoes, Saffron Rice; Lamb Sausage, Pasta and Rice with Fried Onions, Stewed Eggplant and Tomatoes; Baklava.
BEVERAGE: Shared bottle of House Merlot; Almaza (Lebanese Beer); Mint Tea (complimentary with dessert)
PRICE: $65.00

A great meal usually involves more than just eating. Food is transformed from a mere consumable to a facilitator for conversation, a reason to gather amongst friends, and a pleasure lasting long after the final plate has been cleared and the bill paid. Mamlouk, situated in the East Village, induces such an experience twice nightly, at 7 and 9 pm. Mamlouk is an experience, a feasting for mind and stomach, but also an occasion that it’s essential to share with friends, especially those ready to exchange ideas in an environment that seemingly seduces the thoughts right out of you.

Mamlouk’s serves a six course smorgasbord, with dishes that change nightly. At most restaurants, having absolutely no say over what one dines on would be a scenario as frightening as witnessing your parents at a nudist colony. But at Mamlouk, you’re in good hands and contrary to FDR’s maxim, the only thing you have to fear is not having enough space to devour all of chef/owner’s Salam al-Rawi (also the owner of Moustache) out-of-this-world creations. Mamlouk isn’t just an introductory handshake to Mid-Eastern flavors, it’s a great big, bone crunching, Meatloaf from Fight Club, bear hug of an initiation. If frat hazings were this enjoyable, everyone would have pledged.

The $35 prix-fixe (with such a low price, how Mamlouk stays in business is a mystery) begins with a delicious crudite platter. While Thomas and I waited for his girlfriend Berthsy to arrive, we exhausted the raw carrots, olives and particularly intriguing pickled turnip slices almost unconsciously. But the festivities were only beginning. The meze course which followed was not only marvelously tasty, but an all-encompassing display of Mid-Eastern dips and spreads. The hummus was light and fluffy while the red pepper dip sang with a piquant sweetness. The less well-known dips were even more astounding, most notably an avocado and tomato spread reminiscent of guacamole, but seasoned with a spicing Turkish and Iraqi in origin, a mixture of Ataturk and Poncho Villa in one. The yogurt dip hinted at traditional Greek tzatiki, but expanded in another direction, reducing the cucumber sweetness of the Greek version in favor of a robust tomato. What made the dips all the more combustive were the pillow soft warmed mini-pitas and pizza like herbed Mid-Eastern flatbread. The flatbread came covered in an olive oil and parsley mixture that worked perfectly on the crusty base.

Such an opening could have been a meal in and of itself, but there was more, much more in fact, to come. A crisp, summer salad, doused in a fragrant and simple vinaigrette, readied us for a subsequent pairing of fried favorites. Mamlouk’s falafel packed an unforgettable crunch and beautifully blended chickpea and parsley filling, sparked by a trace of mint. However, the fried cheese and phyllo-dough triangles dominated my attention. The gooey cheese, which Berthsy, a chef herself, said reminded her of the Greek cheese Haloumi, melted without becoming stringy, brilliantly offset by the oiled exterior of the phyllo encasing. Again, like so much that night at Mamlouk, each taste built off another, complimenting and enhancing, in the same way a great writer like Philip Roth, adds layer after layer of meaning to the narrative in his American Pastoral.

Chilean sea bass is to today’s restaurants, what scallops were a few years back. It’s an “it” food, seemingly appearing on every menu from Kittichai to BLT Fish. Hopefully this saturation won’t lead to overexposure, because as Mamlouk’s tomato, shallot, and garlic topped version exemplified, this fish is popular for good reason. The sea bass was firm but moist, and the acidity of the saucing drew out the fish’s natural oils succulently. The boldness of the saucing worked because the fish had been altered so minimally, basically pan fried and then served. This course also included a beautiful yellow saffron rice and chickpeas in a tangy tomato puree. The chickpeas harkened to Afghani cuisine and highlighted the way Mamlouk, though its owners are Iraqi, summon the flavors of the entire Mid-Eastern world and all its diverse flavorings, in their cooking.

Our final main course centered around sensational lamb meatballs, spicy and brash. Continuing the tomato based theme of the meal, the meatballs came drizzled with marinara like sauce and the entire dish could have been an example of Italian-Iraqi fusion. Though I’m not sure this exists officially as of yet, give Jean-Georges a few years and I’m sure he’ll coin the phrase. An excellent medley of stewed eggplant and tomatoes joined with a tart and acerbic mixture of fried onions, macaroni pasta and rice. That the pasta and rice functioned as superbly as it did was due to the similarity of the grains and the sinfully delicious greasiness of the same fried onions Americans usually reserve for Thanksgiving French bean casseroles. The prix-fixe concluded on a flaky and slightly dry baklava that was the least exciting item of the evening, but after so many successes, Mamlouk could have forced us to watch Tariq Aziz debate George Bush and we’d still have left happy.

Perhaps it was the cushiony benches or the candlelit glow of Mamlouk, but our dialogue flowed like the Euphrates throughout the meal’s duration. From Karl Rove’s exploitative politics to how Pynchon took a class with Nabakov but the two only remembered each other with mild bitterness, our conversation roamed everywhere. Mamlouk felt and appeared as I imagine an Iraqi hookah and tea bar actually is, with stimulating conversation brought about by intelligent companions and an inviting atmosphere. Our only interruption came when a belly dancer performed her art in-between the tables. It was yet another considerate touch of authenticity, another way to make dinner something more than the sum of food and wine. Despite being nestled inauspiciously on 4th St., I felt dreamily far away. All I can hope for is that this is only my first of one thousand and one nights (Scheherazade I am not) at Mamlouk.

RATING: 9.0/10

Monday, June 27, 2005

Restaurant 43: Devi

Clockwise from top left: The interior of Devi on 18th St.; Mung Bean Chaat; Mango Cheesecake; Tandoor Lamb Chops.

LOCATION: 8 East 18th St.
DATE: June 24, 2005
FOOD: Restaurant week 3-courses: Mung Bean Chaat (sprouted mung bean salad, roasted papadam); Tandoor Grilled Lamb Chops (pear chutney, curry leaf potatoes); Mango Cheesecake (Rosewater almond cookie, rose sauce and candied mango peel and fresh mango slaw, mango crisp); Naan; Basmati Rice.
BEVERAGE: French 18 (Bourbon and Pineapple Cocktail); Bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon
PRICE: Courtesy of my Dad

Devi is about home-cooking – if your home were in India. Usually, gourmet food is about flaunting convention. Chefs use their food as an edible display of not only their art, but their ambition as well. Up-scale ethnic restaurants are seldom able to succeed without incorporating outside influences, pushing food that is more about fusion than tradition. But at Devi, co-executive chefs Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur engage in what their website terms the “reconstruction” of authentic Indian flavors. At a time when Wylie Dufresne and Thomas Keller attempt to deconstruct every culinary commonplace out there, from snickers to foie gras, Saran and Mathur’s motivations are swimming against the current. However, Devi is an unquestionable success and an indication that sticking to tradition doesn’t always have to mean succumbing to the mundane.

Saran and Mathur evidently understand the link between the food one eats and the atmosphere in which one eats it. Devi is decorated in bold, bright colors which are mellowed by toned down lighting. The décor evokes both a contemporary India and the comfortable plush seating of an intimate home. Upon first entering the restaurant, an aromatic whirlwind uplifts the senses in an air as evocative as one of Arundhati Roy’s metaphors in The God of Small Things.

The cocktail list offers selections varying from the capricious to the chic. The French 18 combined the sweetness of pineapple, an Indian staple, with brash bourbon and its western imperial foundations. Devi incorporates all of India and the country’s history into its menu.

The intricate network of spice in our appetizers crept upon us with the slow heat of a Bombay summer. In my mung bean chat, the salad’s traditional fried spinach leaves were provocatively replaced with the wafer-like crunch of papadum. The beans themselves tasted like sweetened barley and were seasoned with chaat masala, a mixture that Saran told Mark Bittman of the New York Times, is commonly found in most Indian grocery stores. Even better was Danny’s Manchurian cauliflower, in which the vegetable was pan-fried and then covered by a richly garlic and exotic tomato sauce illustrating the bond between Chinese and Indian cuisine in the same way as Tangra Masala.

The Tandoor grilled lamb chops are Devi’s specialty and for obvious reason. The lamb is tender like a French style roast, but hidden in the grill lines are a blissful hint of curry. However, the lamb explodes once the accompanying pear chutney is added onto the meat, all the spicy-sweetness of more traditional Indian chutneys exemplified in the medley.

What is especially amazing about Devi is how “clean” the food is. At lower tier Indian restaurants, dishes are often submerged in a dense miasma of partially congealed oils. But Devi serves Indian that is as light as Japanese, as crisp as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is imaginative. This was perhaps nowhere more finely illustrated than in the chicken pista, my father’s entrée. Chunks of chicken are immersed in an emerald sauce bursting with the sultry flavors of cilantro, pistachio and green chilis. The color is playful, highlighting the green of its composite ingredients. But what is tremendous is the taste. Waves of spiciness and cool bombard the tongue with the directed wildness of Fantasia. The dish achieves a level of sophisticated contrast that amazes.

Dessert was another showcase of riches. As Cheesecake Factory’s continue there spread to every mall in American, one would think the death of the cheesecake is right around the corner. Not if Devi’s pastry chef, Surbhi Sahni (also Mathur’s wife) has anything to do with it. Her mango cheesecake was as weightless as refined panna cotta with an appearance reminiscent of flan. The mango was present, but not overused as the cake was more creamy the fruity. More outstanding was the mango slaw paired with the cheesecake, which drew out the semi-latent intensity of the cheesecake like a psychoanalyst calls forth neurosis. Jaw-dropping occurred from all those at the table.

In an essay in his collection “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” novelist David Foster Wallace analyzes the world of contemporary literature, especially the architects of postmodernism. He concludes that while the works of DeLillo and Gaddis, Pynchon and Gass, provide penetrating insights into a culture of consumerism that can only lead to a dead end, removing our connection to ourselves and one another, literature will also reach a state of oblivion if it loses all touch with the humanistic and more realistic driven style of the past. Taken to an extreme, the esoteric and obscure devolves into chaos. Wallace’s argument finds an echo at Devi. At this restaurant, tradition is not something to be ridiculed and overturned, but rather a core to revel in and learn from. The food might not be simple, but the concept is. Devi is that rare experience where a forwarding looking rendition on the past is used to create a present which is purely sublime.

RATING: 8.8/10

Friday, June 24, 2005

Restaurant 42: Alfanoose

The World Trade Center Memorial near Alfanoose; Chicken Pie; Baklava; Falafel Sandwich.

LOCATION: 8 Maiden Lane
DATE: June 20, 2005
FOOD: Falafel Sandwich; Chicken Pie; Vegetarian Kibbeh (Shared); Baklava (Shared)

BEVERAGE: Bottled Water
PRICE: Courtesy of Danny, courtesy of being a para-legal

If you’re going to make the claim you have the best falafel in New York City, you better have the chick peas to back it up. And if you’re then going to choose to locate your restaurant in the culinary wasteland that is the Financial District, your food had better be damn near revelatory. Alfanoose, despite initially handicapping itself with these (possible) limitations, manages to surpass expectations, serving falafel that would leave any skeptic speechless.

Falafel must be fresh. Fried food that sits in a basket hours before being consumed becomes as disappointingly lifeless and unappetizingly sodden as Paul Bowles’ spoiled, drifting characters, desperately searching for answers in the North African desert landscape in The Sheltering Sky. Each order of falafel at Alfanoose is made as the customer orders. The chick pea mounds are scooped like ice cream, shaped, and then placed in a fryer. Before being placed on pita bread, the falafel drops are slightly squished, so that the intense spices can mingle with the sharp tahini sauce and crisp vegetables. The innovative addition of pickles, added an intriguingly sour and wonderfully successful contrast to the sandwiches already complex taste.

Alfanoose’s website advertises their falafel as New York’s finest and has the word of New York Magazine to back this up. I certainly haven’t tried nearly enough of this city’s falafel to know whether such a proposition is valid and unlike Bill O’Reilly, I try not to speak on things I know very little about. But I will assert that Alfanoose’s falafel is by far the best I’ve had, in this city or any other. It is the incredible mix of spices that make this an exceptional item. Coriander, garlic, cumin were all present, but so too were many more subtle ingredients I couldn’t quite place. The shell is crunchy, the inside soft, but with enough stiffness to prevent the falafel from subversive mushiness. If the pita had been heated instead of rolled at room temperature, this sandwich would have been perfect. Unless you’re dealing with a prostitute donning a Ph.D, seldom does something with this intricate web of complexity come with such a cheap price-tag – five dollars to be exact.

But Alfanoose is about more than falafel. The menu is surprisingly extensive for a restaurant primarily dedicated to the take-out orders of Thomas Pink shirt wearing investment bankers. The chicken pie, filled with tender pulled chicken in an aromatic yet mild red sauce, was to chicken pot pie what Manhattan clam chowder is to the creamed New England soup. The flaky crust was more bread than pie, but delightful regardless. Less well known dishes also make an appearance, proving that no restaurant is too small or inexpensive to successfully challenge established palates. The vegetarian kibbeh reminded me of Havana Chelsea’s stuffed corn tamale, though only in texture, as the seasoning of the kibbeh was entirely Mid-Eastern in origin. The blending of bitter swiss-chard, slightly sweet pomegranate juice, and tart lemon and mint, awakened dormant taste-buds. Hesitant at first, I became more and more enamored by this novel, grain based minced “pie”. The nonchalant baklava was bland and run of the mill, but the only negative of the entire meal.

I’ve lived in the financial district for nearly a year now. Suffering through the desolated weekend sidewalks, wind-tunnel Wall Street hurricanes, and eerily quiet evenings, I’ve had more than my share of complaints with the area. But now, just as I’m moving out, I’ve discovered a reason to stay. While Alfanoose’s sublime falafel couldn’t quite induce me to change my plans, it did cause me to reconsider them, if even only for an instant. In a wilderness of steeled metallic skyscrapers and their towering, isolating glassed facades, Alfanoose is a soulful reminder of authenticity in an area generally lacking in such visible integrity. I’ll still be moving, but at least I now have a reason to come back.

RATING: 8.0/10

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Book 12: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas S. Kuhn

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas S. Kuhn

Paperback: 226 pages
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 3rd edition (December 15, 1996)

Paradigm shift.

The expression is part of our common vernacular now, used in IBM commercials, spouted by the title character of D.B. Pierre’s Booker Prize winning novel, Vernon God Little. But like many other oft-repeated catch phrases (Coach Pat Reilly’s copyrighted “3peat” is one example) achieving cultural ubiquity, the phrase has a definitive origin, even if that source is obscure – Thomas S. Kuhn, professor of science and philosophy at such noteworthy academic institutions as Berkeley, Princeton, and MIT. His ideas have permeated throughout society even if his name has not.

Kuhn’s main argument in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that science advances not in the slowly modified baby steps of Darwinian evolution, but rather in grand leaps, divided and set-off from previous interpretations. When science changes, it occurs dramatically, sparked by a crisis that begs for resolution. These pivoted marks, these rewriting of scientific certainties, show how science is far from a fixed entity, but rather as malleable and capable of change as an organism. Changes of this nature Kuhn labels paradigms and they are what impel science forward.

These replacements do not always occur cleanly. Many professionals in the scientific field undergoing such a transformation resist the change, clinging to the universal “truth” they have worked their entire careers to solidify and prove. Kuhn leaves it to younger generations, those who have missed the blinding indoctrination caused by an education founded in the older paradigm. The colloquialism “think outside of the box”, might provoke Kuhn to shiver if he were still alive as it has been used and abused in an awful fashion. But it is the popularized tagline of one of his most fundamental ideas. It is only those innovators, those renegades possessed with a foresight they might not even recognize, that can see around the problems of one paradigm in order to create another. Just as self-help gurus dumb-down
Heidegger’s philosophy, so too does Kuhn’s complexity suffer from popular oversimplification.

It is Kuhn’s view of interpretation that offers his most groundbreaking intellectual extensions. Kuhn attempts to destroy the concept of the objective man of science, the scientist led by facts, who is not biased by any personal convictions, but merely exposing the facts of nature that his laboratory experiments reveal. Kuhn rejects this notion with the acumen of his scientific background, moving beyond theory and into practice. In his mind, hypothesis so often are supported by experiments, because the scientists’ personal opinions lead to findings which correlate with what they already knew. They are looking to support their accepted paradigm. Information or data that falls out or cannot be explained by the paradigm is ignored, or put aside. But it is when these very problems come to impede progress too significantly that paradigm shifts occur. Think of Copernicus dealing with the errors of the Ptomelic universe or Einstein showing that Newton’s laws only operated in very specific cases.

Scientists are interesting in solving the puzzles that their particular paradigm presents. In this stance, there are two key points. The first is that all scientists (while Kuhn doesn’t want us to, can we extend this to all academics or even all people? As Ignatius Reilly reminds us in Confederacy of Dunces, we all have our particular worldview) subscribe to a distinct paradigm. If they didn’t, they couldn’t engage in research. The paradigm sets the parameters for both the how and the what the research will attempt to resolve. The second point is that scientists focus mainly on the puzzles that their paradigm need solved. The same paradigm can be viewed by scientists in different fields for completely opposing ends and thus the puzzles they set out to solve will be far from analogous. Interpretation, again, is the key. How the scientist “sees” his paradigm is based on personality, other members of the paradigm, and a host of other highly subjective factors. Kuhn isn’t so much saying that scientific research has become a subjective enterprise as he is proclaiming there it was and always has been riddled with personal prejudice. We can’t escape our preconceptions, even when we try to cloak them in the veil of scientific authority.

Kuhn holds that all paradigm shifts are signs of progress. But like his relativistic position on scientific observation, Kuhn also attacks the notion of progress with a distinctly modern sensibility. Showing greatly the Darwinian influence in his work, paradigm shifts are “advances” but like natural selection and evolution, there is no set direction or intention behind these movements. Progress reverts to subjective interpretation. There is no “grand design” behind the throwing off of one paradigm for another. Paradigm shifts occur in times of scientific crises but they are not fixed in time, place, or meaning. They occupy a space more heavily guided by chance than an overarching purpose. In other words, God isn’t planning these up shifts as a way to glorify human reason. We are progressing, but towards what, Kuhn asks. He writes, “we may have to relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth.” A single fixed truth might not exist.

This element of crisis pervades The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Without crisis, there would be no impending need for paradigm shifts to result. But when a scientific worldview reaches a point where it is highly incompatible with the existing body of evidence, change occurs. When these transformations take place is open-ended temporarily, but science cannot live perpetually in a state of crisis. The change will occur at some point. Science is focused on progress and progress can only happen if unresolved questions are answered.

Kuhn’s language is crisp and clear. He doesn’t hide his ideas in overly construed and complicated verbage, but rather expresses himself with the precision only true geniuses can manage. Reading Kuhn is like reading Einstein’s essays – accessible but provoking, lucid but challenging. He died in 1996 at the 73, but his work deserves to live on, being read and discussed in the centuries to come. Science, but also human consciousness in general, owes a great debt to his strivings. He leaves us in a state of relativism, but one in which anything is possible. Instead of their being a set reality to discover, science becomes yet another way for humanity to discover itself.

Paradigm shift, indeed.

More on Kuhn here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Just Desserts 11: The Pie Gourmet (Vienna, VA)

Peach-Raspberry Pie

RESTAURANT: The Pie Gourmet
LOCATION: 507 Maple Avenue West Vienna, VA 22180
DATE: June 19, 2005
DESSERT: Raspberry-Peach Pie; Strawberry Pie
PRICE: Family dessert

At my wedding, I don’t want a cake. I want pie. Blueberry, pumpkin, peach, definitely pecan, maybe apple, and the ultimate black raspberry – I want them all and a host of tiny ovens to keep the pies warm. Throw in some high quality ice cream and I won’t even require a pre-nup. If the bride doesn’t like pie or at least acquiesce to this, my one demand, then she’s going to have to find another groom. Or at least accept that the only way I’ll be able to go through with the proceedings is if I’m very, and I mean very, drunk. I think pie is the more appealing option.

Every time I go home, my mom buys two pies from Vienna’s
Pie Gourmet to appease my cravings. Call me a momma’s boy, fine, I’ll take the moniker without argument as I savor each bite of delicious pie. The Pie Gourmet’s creations show up on our Thanksgiving table, Christmas dessert, and any other occasion that merits dessert. Thus, with my grandma and aunt in town, and my sister just returning from China and Vietnam, there was cause for celebratory pie. I was lucky to be home.

Pie Gourmet’s best pies are the Sweet Potato and Plum-Walnut, but considering the humidity of summer in Virginia, the heaviness of these pies seemed far from inviting. Instead, my mom opted for the peach-raspberry and the quintessential warm weather pie, strawberry. The peach-raspberry has a French, butter crumb crust that warrants a favorable comparison to cobbler. The mixture of brown sugar and flour gives the pie a mild crunch which subsides to the taste of creamy smoothness once placed in the mouth. While surely laden with butter, the crust is sublimely dry, without the faintest sign of unwanted greasiness.

When Pie Gourmet bakes a fruit pie, they actually load it up with fruit. We’ve all had the disastrous experience of a fruit pie that is 90% crust, 5% fruit and 5% jelly, corn syrup and sugar mixture (Sara Lee I’m looking in your direction). But Pie Gourmet, whether dishing up pecan or key lime, emphasizes the filling and not the base. The crusts are as good as they are because they come in such moderated portions. The peach-raspberry was excellent, though the raspberries were a bit too dominant and the peach needed to play a more central role in the pie. Like all Pie Gourmet’s pies, the filling is only moderately sweet, relying not on voluminous amounts of added sugar, but on the fruit’s natural pectin to carry the pie. It’s a successful, though often under utilized, way to make pie in this era of Emeril lard and sugar overindulgence.

Though the peach-raspberry was wonderful, the strawberry was better. From looks alone, the congealment surrounding the strawberries suggested the pie would possess an offsetting sweetness. But this was far from the case. The filling exhibited a delicate liquidity hidden by its appearance. The huge, halved strawberries commanded this pie, leaving room for little else. The lack of a top cover of crust was a clear example of addition by subtraction. This was a true strawberry pie, with the crust used as a background compliment to the star attraction.

Well I recognize going home should involve the comfort of home cooked meals, maybe it’s alright to have dessert from the outside. Thomas Wolfe (the one that didn’t wear white suits, write “shocking” novels about how crazy college kids do these strange things called hook-ups and tout Republicanism with every swipe of his pen) was right to say you can’t go home again. Life moves forward and the Vienna of my childhood has long since ceased to exist. But Pie Gourmet is still around and for that I’m thankful. Now if I can just get pie at my wedding, life will be close to perfect.

RATING: 7.8/10

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Restaurant 41: Carlyle (Shirlington, VA)

Clockwise from top left: Goat Cheese and Spiced Pecan Salad; Crab cakes; Chocolate Flourless Waffle; Close-up of a Crab-Cake.

RESTAURANT: Carlyle (Arlington, Virginia)
LOCATION: 4000 S. 28th St. Shirlington (officially part of Arlington), VA 22206
DATE: June 18, 2005
FOOD: Warm Goat Cheese and Spiced Pecans Salad (field lettuces, dates, tomatoes & balsamic vinaigrette); Sauteed jumbo lump crab cakes (remoulade sauce, fries and traditional cole slaw); Shared for Dessert: Warm flourless chocolate macadamia nut waffle; Warm sticky almond toffee cake
BEVERAGE: Two Carlyle Pale Ales; Decaf Coffee
PRICE: Courtesy of my Mom

Shirlington, Virginia is a 21st century transplant of a Wild West town. The buildings are designed with a glittery contemporary architecture that is somehow soulless, sparking images of the fake facades of Tombstone or the setting of Gary Cooper’s “High Noon”. A planned community in the fullest sense, Shirlington has a movie theatre, a street of “hip” restaurants and bars, and boutique style shops. It’s like walking through a model of small town America at Universal Studios – the strip of trees even have Christmas lights that stay up year round. With the completion of a brand new apartment complex and downtown Washington just a five minute drive away, what more could a Yuppie possibly desire?

Perhaps the best known restaurant in Shirlington is the Carlyle, a nouveaux-American bastion serving foods that were trendy in New York a few years before. The molten chocolate cake Jean-Georges made famous appears on the menu as a chocolate flourless waffle. The wave of fruit, nut, and goat cheese salads can be found at the Carlyle in abundance (they even have these at McDonalds now). Seemingly, as soon as a once-innovative food becomes passé in New York, it somehow permeates to the rest of the country. For diners unknowledgeable, the Carlyle might seem imaginative and cutting-edge, but in reality, restaurants such as this are standing on the shoulders of New York’s giant chefs. This is understandable and entirely acceptable – on the condition that the food resembles its New York original in more than just appearance and description.

A glance at Carlyle’s appetizer menu presents a list of all the usual American bistro eclectic suspects – fried calamari, Tex Mex eggrolls, bruschetta, pot stickers. It’s gastro-globalization, less about maintaining the integrity of the cultures referenced, and more about combining as many toned down sure-fire favorites as possible. You can see the influence of Bobby Flay all over this menu.

This is not to suggest that the Carlyle fails in creating pleasurable food. It would be very hard to go wrong with anything on the menu – but it would also be difficult to go too terribly right. Dinners begin with the warm and delicious bread of the Best Buns Bread Co. (part of the Great American chain to which Carlyle belongs), located literally next door to the Carlyle. The raisin pecan is especially tasty, a tough, chewy crust complementing the soft, doughy inside of cinnamon swirls and sweet raisins. Following the bread, I started with the warm goat cheese and spiced pecan salad. I readily admit my favorable predisposition for salads enhanced with fruit and cheese, but Carlyle’s only resulted in disappointment. The mixed field greens were limp and sodden, the mix of dates, tomatoes, and vinaigrette generating a humid film amongst the lettuce that tasted like salad which had sat in the refrigerator for one day too many. While the spiced pecans blended sweet and hot nicely, the seared goat cheese was bland and uninteresting, the distinctness of the cheese obliterated by faulty preparation. Noticeably absent from the salad were pepper and salt, the overwhelming taste being that of undiluted vegetable oil.

The market-priced crab cakes I selected for my entrée were a dramatic step-up from the salad. Credit the Carlyle for not scrimping on the crab, as these pan-fried cakes were bursting with meat. Golden brown and lacking the oily residue that crushed the goat cheese, the crab cakes were well-seasoned and impeccably fresh. The only downside of the cakes was that they came on top of the Thousand Island dressing like remoulade sauce, which basically tasted as artery-clogging heavy as putting ketchup and mayonnaise together would suggest. In fact, the crab cakes would have been better off if they had been completely unaccompanied as the runny and oppressive coleslaw and flat, listless French fries offered another example of Carlyle’s inability to season their food satisfactorily.

Dessert was yet another round of mediocre but ultimately uninspired offerings. The flourless chocolate waffle is synonymous with the Carlyle’s prestige in the Washington area, but it was chunky and overcooked. The liquid chocolate center designed to spill out from the inside had solidified like the yolk of an overdone poached egg. A bit better was the almond-toffee, which while denser than a Bush cabinet member, was at least enjoyable and not absurdly sweet. When coupled with the saucer of caramel sauce served with the dessert, it was like a poor man’s version of Moto’s warm date cake. The massive size of the desserts was also a bit disgusting and further proof that bigger isn’t necessarily better, size doesn’t matter, quality trumps quantity, and any other applicable cliché.

Though the Carlyle has been around for years, our meal was also beleaguered by service problems. Our waiter, though obviously new and still learning, had issues with time management. He forgot to bring the bread until reminded numerous times and our entrees arrived before anyone had had time to eat even a third of their salads. Having the dishes tumble one on top of another invoked a rushed feeling that is the last thing you want when dining at a semi-upscale establishment. On top of that, my family was celebrating my Grandmother’s birthday, but the music in the restaurant was so loud, it strained even my young ears to make-out the conversation at our table. Unless chomping down at TGI Friday’s, music should be background and when it hinders dialogue, the entire meal is dampened by the excessive volume. Carlyle is part of the Washington based Great American chain of restaurants headed by Executive Chef Bill Jackson that includes Artie’s, Sweet Water Tavern, Mike’s American, and Silverado. Growing up, I’ve visited these restaurants numerous times and they were and are always packed, often with waiting times stretching into the hours. But as our meal at the Carlyle showed, these are “it” spots not because of the food, but despite it. There’s enough slightly above average dishes on the menu to make Carlyle better than okay. But just like the “town” of Shirlington that it calls home, Carlyle was high on artifice, but definitely lacking in substance.

RATING: 5.0/10

Monday, June 20, 2005

Restaurant 40: Modesto (St. Louis, MO)

Clockwise from top left: Pollo a la Graciela; Croquetas de Pollo y Jamon; Churros; Canelones de Frutas.

RESTAURANT: Modesto (St. Louis, MO)
LOCATION: 5257 Shaw Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri
DATE: June 16, 2005
FOOD: Tapas - Pure de Garbanzos – chickpea puree with Spanish olive oil, garlic, lemon and croutons; Pimientos Rellenos – piquillo peppers stuffed with herbed goat cheese and avocado aioli; Croquetas de Pollo y Jamon– chicken and Serrano ham croquettes with garlic mayonesa; Pollo a la Graciela – roasted chicken thighs, Cabrales cheese, dates and amontillado-garlic sauce; Patatas Dos Salsas – fried potatoes in a piquant tomato and pepper sauce with aioli; Empanadillas de Pollo – savory pastries filled with curried chicken, spinach and pine nuts; Queso de Cabra y Champiñones al Horno – baked goat cheese and mushrooms with spicy tomato sauce and croutons; Dessert - Churros – Spanish fried doughnuts with cinnamon hot chocolate sauce; Canelones de Frutas – crepes filled with strawberry, blueberry, goat cheese and honey.
BEVERAGE: Caipirinha—Pitu, passion fruit vodka, fresh lime juice, and raw sugar; Modesto Margarita—Cuervo Gold, Licor 43, sweet and sour, and lime; Decaf coffee with Spanish Brandy.
PRICE: $46.00

We all love to share – well, sometimes that is. Maybe Tapas functions most smoothly when it resembles communism, namely that it’s much easier to share when everything is alright, but not so great as to induce people to hoard or engage in acts of rampant selfish behavior, and ultimately ruin an otherwise good thing. If instead of state controlled vokda, the USSR had been pushing Grey Goose and Belevedere, the Berlin Wall might have fallen long before 1989. Likewise, if Tapas contains dishes which are too succulent, the friendly atmosphere of peaceful distribution turns ugly, and greedy hands that once reached for lamb skewers, quickly ball into covetous fists. Of course, since Tia Pol was one of the top ten best meals I’ve had in New York, my theory of Tapas adequacy is most likely bunk. Just like communism, better in theory than in practice, as in all honesty, who would want to settle for okay when they could have ohmygod?

Since I last had Tapas at Tia Pol, it would have been hard for Modesto to compete, let alone improve upon the near perfect creations of that kitchen. And while Modesto certainly failed in some respects, there were enough successes to warrant praise. Most distinct were the tremendous and imaginative mixed drinks. There was universal assent at the table that the Brazilian inspired Caipirinha was the best drink we tried. As sweet as a Mojito, but as light as fresh fruit juice, this was a cocktail only in theory, as the taste of alcohol was completely masked by sugar and lime. While sorority girls won’t be drinking this with the same frequency they guzzle Mike’s Hard Lemonade, this drink was about as manly as one of Suleiman The Great’s harem eunuchs. This drink won’t make an appearance at any bachelor parties in the near future, but for one night, in the presence of two females more concerned with public school poverty than liquor signifiers, I was happy to taste Brazil via St. Louis. The Modesto margarita I tried later was bold, if not as effervescent as the Caipirinha, the Licor 43 (an authentic Spanish liquor) adding a no holds bar punch that even out did the tequila. But the drinks only whet my palate – after a long flight and no lunch, I was ready to eat.

Modesto’s menu divides cold and hot tapas and also includes a section of entrees. In the spirit of all that togetherness and sharing that enabled Cathy and Libby to make it through a year of Teach for America, we decided to go all tapas, all evening, foregoing the more expensive entrees (plus, we all know how little teachers are paid, and if you don’t just ask one, they’re more than willing to complain, I mean enlighten, on the subject). We selected two from the cold section and five from the warm, and our waitress served the dishes as they came out from the kitchen, providing a staggering of flavors throughout the courses. This meant we started with the chickpea puree, a Spanish-style hummus with enough garlic to push Portugal off of Iberia and into the Atlantic. The dip relied too heavily on the garlic and the taste of the beans was mired by this pungeant sting. Much more successful were the peppers stuffed with goat cheese, the peppers at once tender and firm, marinated by an herbed olive oil and further charged by the creamy blend of cheese and avocado. The sweet green peppers were the best sample of the meal and left me craving another (or perhaps many more) bite(s).

The dinner was split into acts, and like the momentum escalation of a Lorca drama, after the cold tapas, I was ready for a sparks to fly during the second act or hot tapas. However, for the most part, the hot tapas disappointed, as they were plagued by inconsistency. While the roasted chicken thighs were delicious, blending a subdued garlic gravy with the sweetness of dates and tang of Cabrales (like blue cheese) cheese, the ham and chicken croquettes were bland, dry and mealy, tasting more like uncooked pancakes than poultry and pork. Especially after the mind-blowing ham and cheese Tia Pol croquettes, Modesto’s lackluster version was severely frustrating. The empandillas bored, the vibrant flavors of spinach, curry and pine nuts completely indistinguishable and as muddled as the lime in my margarita. And one final contrast of sine curve peaks and valleys occurred with the final two hot tapas. The Italian-like tomato, mushroom, and goat cheese dip which spread as beautifully as Raphael canvas over Modesto’s crusty baguette, was nullified by the mushy, tomato-sogged potatoes, which tasted like French fries in ketchup that had been sitting out through an afternoon of siestas. Every time Modesto showed signs of triumph, the achievement was followed by an appetizer of equally botched proportions.

But as is so often the case, dessert presents a chance for a restaurant to redeem itself and Modesto took full advantage of the opportunity. For some inexplicable abnormality of the culinary heavens, my elementary school, typically inclined to serve a vegetable soup with nothing that grew in the earth and an inedible piece of cardboard called pizza but more like re-hydrated paper, also offered (and excelled at) the sweet cinnamon sugar stick doughnuts known as churros. Modesto’s wonderful and traditional pairing of these chewy twists with luscious melted chocolate, was a return to childhood that basked in the pleasant and avoided all the reasons for my subsequent neurosis. Such a harkening back is hard to find. But even better were the featherlike goat cheese crepes, sweetened with honey and berries, but altogether mild enough to act as a main course. The paper-thin crepes served as a dessert tortilla for the goat cheese mix that mimicked a sugar-restrained cannoli filling in richness. The whole blueberries and pureed strawberries made this an ideal end for a warm Summer evening.

Overall then, the unpredictability of Modesto’s food was a probably an appropriate way for Cathy and Libby to end a first year of teaching that had seen its share of successes and setbacks as well. Even though they both labeled as “modest” gains, the strides of high school students who at the beginning of the year couldn’t read a word and can now understand entire pages, modest is much more applicable to Modesto’s Tapas. For every yes there was a no – if Modesto could reach the same heights in all its food as it does for dessert and drinks, it would truly be something special. But in the meantime, honoring a year of tenacious education obstacles and obnoxious teenagers with some Spanish style intoxication was at least a more than deserved reward and we all left satisfied. Now if they could only get Tia Pol’s recipe for potatoes, my happiness would turn into euphoria.

RATING: 6.5/10

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Serendipity 3 Photo

Much, much worse than it looks.

Just Desserts 10: Serendipity 3

RESTAURANT: Serendipity 3
LOCATION: 225 E. 60th St.
DATE: June 12, 2005
DESSERT: Frozen Hot Chocolate
PRICE: $9.00

Serendipity 3’s frozen hot chocolate is the barn.

The flocks of cavorting 13 year old girls, the tourist parents and their screaming children, the teenage couples – they don’t see the frozen hot chocolate. And they certainly don’t taste it. In Don DeLillo’s monumental novel White Noise, Murray and the main character J.A.K. Gladney visit “The Most Photographed Barn” in America. Why is it the most photographed? It’s the most photographed barn because the billboards surrounding the site say that it is. Hordes of individuals travel to the barn just to take a picture. But the barn has no intrinsic value of its own. The photographers don’t really see the barn. As Murray tells Jack, they are only seeing the barn’s “aura”.

Take this example of postmodern dementia and transpose it to the realm of food and you would have Serendipity 3’s frozen hot chocolate. The wait for a table can often reach upwards of two to three hours. And everyone wants the same thing. The famous “frozen hot chocolate”. Is this fame predicated on some merit of the drink? Absolutely not. Everyone goes to Serendipity to have the frozen hot chocolate because they’ve heard frozen hot chocolate is what everyone has at Serendipity. But the drink itself is horrendous. The putrid concoction is a case in point for the effect of cognitive dissonance. No one wants to be the lone person who states that this celebrated drink is something less than ordinary – or even worse. Well, I must speak up. After the pain inflicted on my tongue by this drink, I can hold my peace no longer.

Chalky is the first word that comes to mind. If you’ve ever attempted to make chocolate milk with Nestle’s Quik and not completely blended the powder, then you’re aware of what the frozen hot chocolate tastes like. The drink is nauseatingly sweet. The ice chunks are like grains of sand or regurgitated birdseed. In the way bad chefs overly salt their dishes to mask mistakes, Serendipity overly sugars this runny mud of a drink to compensate for a severe shortage of flavor. That disgustingly large portion of whipped cream floating on the chocolate’s surface? It’s the one aspect of the drink that’s unsweetened and one wonders how something that tastes of such a heavy thickness can float at all.

Perhaps the crowds are impressed by the massive portions. I was reminded of the joke Woody Allen prefaces Annie Hall with, “It was such bad food, and so little of it”. But in this case, Serependity gives such a humongous portion of the drink, perhaps they are counting on the sheer volume of sugar to dull and eventually destroy the consumer’s taste buds. Some must find satisfaction in thinking, “Look I’m eating a vat of chocolate”. But the chocolate flavor is indistinct and unrefined. Candy bars have better quality chocolate. On top of this, the drink is $7.50 before tax and tip, but a dollar would have been too much. I’ve been known to eat four or five desserts in an evening. After trying Serendipity’s “renowned” frozen hot chocolate, I had no desire to have a dessert of any kind for the near future.

It is the barn. It will continue to be photographed. But after this, I’m ready to throw my camera out. Let the masses wait. That was the worst dessert I’ve had in New York. As Danny so eloquently put – Paris Hilton is to pop culture, what Serendipity’s frozen hot chocolate is to desserts. Ugh. Never, never again.

RATING: 1.8/10
(the lowest rating The Taste Land has assigned)

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Tangra Masala Photos

Clockwise from top left: Chicken hot and sour soup; chicken and shrimp pakoras; Chili-Goat; Tangra Masala Fish.

Restaurant 39: Tangra Masala

RESTAURANT: Tangra Masala
LOCATION: 8709 Grand Ave, Flushing, Queens
DATE: June 12, 2005
FOOD: Chicken Hot and Sour Soup; Split the following - Chicken and Shrimp Pakoras; Chili-Goat (Dry); Tangra Masala Fish in Gravy
PRICE: $25.00

Every night as I leave work I hear it calling. In the days since my Sunday night visit to Tangra Masala in Flushing, I have found it nearly impossible not to suffer through the tortuously long subway ride to reach the warm embrace of this restaurant. Tangra Masala serves what is best described as “Chinese food as it’s made in India”. It’s an organic fusion, one brought about not by audacious chefs, but by naturally occurring geographical and cultural integrations, a de-facto culinary evolution that stays true to The Origin of Species. It’s Chinese food running an Indian temperature – mundane dishes created anew by levels of spice unknown outside of Delhi. It’s gastro globalization shimmering brightly. It’s, to put it simply, extraordinary.

Thomas Friedman might have been right to declare the world flat – at least culinary-wise, all boundaries have vanished. Tangra Masala’s staff is almost exclusively of Chinese descent. The clientele, in contrast, is nearly one hundred percent Indian (one obvious exception being this here blogger). But demographics aside, Tangra Masala’s cooking is the main aspect to notice. A menu that is expansive, but not daunting, shows dishes both familiar and unknown. Chinese restaurant standards like hot and sour soup, chicken and corn soup, and all sorts of fried rice, pop-up on the menu with the same commonplace recognition as elements on the Periodic Table. But there’s an entire section devoted to goat. And the dim sum is far from anything found near Canal Street. What becomes rapidly apparent, is that even the assumedly blasé dishes are not what they seem at Tangra Masala. A meal at Tangra Masala is like learning to eat Chinese food all over again.

The chicken hot and sour soup is as brash and untamed as postmodern poetry. Unlike the disastrous soup at Yeah Shanghai Deluxe, Tangra Masala infuses this traditional soup with a heavy and completely unexpected bout of pure heat. Tangra Masala is not for the meek and the hot and sour soup is the best example of this all-out fire. The soup’s mushrooms and chicken were perfectly cooked and added to the dish’s many layers. Such layering became a common theme throughout the meal.

But even as sensational as the hot and sour soup was, nothing else compared to the jaw-dropping chicken and shrimp pakoras. The pakoras are like an Indian hushpuppy – except larger and much more flavorful. The shrimp might have been the better of the two varieties, but the difference was negligible. The pakoras exemplified Tangra Masala’s layering of complex flavors. The balls are fried and use a mixture of spicy minced vegetables as their base. The chicken or shrimp, also seasoned, is then joined to this foundation. Biting into these is like diving into the ocean in mid-December – both send chills through the body. A sharp cilantro and hot pepper oil comes with the pakoras and a liberal sprinkling enhances the pakoras to even new levels. Astonishing, the flavors in one’s mouth constantly are in flux with this dish. From the initial touch of the oily exterior, to the bread-like smoothness inside, to the lasting zest left behind, this dish is unbelievable. If samosas, dumplings, and hushpuppies decided to mate, pakoras would be that love child.

The entrees nearly matched the supremacy of the pakoras. The goat, a meat which according to a recent New York Times article, is gaining in popularity, was by appearance and taste beef transcended. My only other experience with goat was Scott Conant’s delicious stewed capretto (kid) at L’Impero, but Tangra Masala served goat and not kid. The dish looked like beef and broccoli stripped of the greenery. Thin strips of pleasantly chewy goat had been elevated by robust red chiles. The heat of the dish seemingly escalated with each successive bite so that by the end, our waitress was refilling my water glass every few minutes.

The white fish in tangra masala sauce was equally outstanding. The red sauce has the consistency of honey and thus immediately brought to mind sweet and sour sauce. But tangra masala gravy is as much sweet and sour sauce as the Backstreet Boys are a “band”. In taste, the tangra masala was entirely unique. Fluent and glossy, this sauce challenged the palate while still harmonizing with the steamed fish. The fish was so plump and substantial, I initially believed a mistake had been made and we had been served chicken or pork. But there were no mistakes at Tangra Masala.

Starbucks recently expanded to France and there are now more McDonald’s abroad than in the U.S. Globalization permeates the world and every new chef wants to cut his or her teeth on fusion techniques. National borders may now have as much relevance to the modern world as Ptolemy’s model of the universe, but Tangra Masala is an indication that not all cultural mixes have negative results. Tangra Masala is a beacon, a reason to venture to Queens for something other than a flight. Just be forewarned – a beacon this excellent is impossible to forget. And the urge to jump on the E or F train may dominate your thoughts for days afterwards.

I might just have to go back tonight…

RATING: 9.0/10

Book 11: The Death of Artemio Cruz, by Carlos Fuentes (Infinite Feast XIX)

Translated by Alfred MacAdam
: 307 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Revised edition (May 1, 1991)

Bill Clinton’s memoir was just the latest reminder of American politicians’ apparent love of the autobiographical form. While self-promotion seemingly comes hand in hand with political leadership, it is rare when a politician displays any signs of erudite self-reflection – anecdotal confessions do not necessarily indicate thoughtful consideration. Rarer still, is an elected official who has the ability to write about something other than his or her own personal accomplishments. Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist, was such a unique figure, addressing his country’s fate through both pen and action. He served as Mexico’s ambassador to France, while also creating some of the most renowned pieces of literature in all of Mexican history. The Death of Artemio Cruz is considered by most critics to be his best work.

The novel opens with Artemio Cruz, a man of immense wealth and prestige, on his death bed. He is surrounded by his faithful associates and the venomous hatred of his daughter and wife. Everyone is waiting for him to die – and waiting for the disclosure of the whereabouts of his will. The novel plots a trajectory through the refractions of Cruz’s memory of his and Mexico’s history. The story is told in the first, second, and third person, making the style reminiscent of the stream of consciousness works of Woolf and Joyce.

Artemio Cruz, though written in 1962, around the birth of postmodernism, thus reeks of modernism and all its conventions. Fuentes assumes his audience has a high level of education and literary knowledge and his heavy-handed form seems anachronistic at points. While Fuentes has often been coupled with Borges, the comparison, based strictly on Artemio Cruz, is unfounded. Borges dwells in fantasy, creating worlds within worlds to mimic the mechanisms of the mind. His style, though at times strenuous for the reader, never sounds like Faulkner. Fuentes, oppositely, stays completely in reality – the reality of 20th century Mexico. Cruz lives in a country ruled by corruption and though he rose from humble beginnings and fought in the revolution, as he came to have greater prestige, money, and most importantly power, Cruz became just as corrupt as the leaders he once fought against. The story is one of betrayed obligations – Cruz’s and Mexico’s. The great promise of Mexico’s revolutionary leaders has all but been destroyed by the time Cruz is dying in a plush apartment in the 1960s.

Cruz’s desire but ultimate inability to find anyone to share love with is the core of this story. While the pursuit of money dominates the plot’s surface (and Artemio’s), this only occurs because after his initial love of a woman named Regina during his revolutionary days, no women in his life care about him the same way. They use him as he uses them – in the same breadth they curse his maniacal drive for wealth and all the people he has to exploit to garner it, they spend his money on elaborate vacations, perfumes, and other frivolities. This wonderful juxtaposition highlights how trapped Cruz is by all those around him who supposedly have his best interests in mind. He acts villainously, but through his recounting, we learn he is not a villain. He is the embodiment of Mexico’s tumultuous history and confused identity. Fuentes makes a powerful comment on all the aspirations Mexico has ever had – and all that it has not achieved.

But what makes The Death of Artemio Cruz fail to a certain extent is Fuentes in ability to express himself concisely. His prose is often beautiful and deeply suggestive, but at key junctures it has the unintended propensity to leave the reader unaffected because each section debates a point too laboriously. Put more simply – Fuentes should have made this book shorter. The emotional core of his characters are lost in a mess of words – no matter the aesthetic merit his language has on its own, taken together, one wants to ask, “is this guy ever going to die?”. Each of the episodic memories Cruz reveals starts powerfully, but ends only after the point has been beaten to death (bad pun, sorry). Fuentes obviously drew on Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” for this novel. And Fuentes masterfully inverts the religious fervor Ivan undergoes in Artemio’s turning away from any God that is not himself or that can be put to useful ends. But perhaps he should have looked to Tolstoy’s work for a more base inspiration. Tolstoy limited "Ivan" to a novella. That length would have been adequate for The Death of Artemio Cruz as well.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Bonita Photos

Clockwise from top left: Bonita on Bedford Ave.; Mexican Corn; Tilapia Burrito; Lime Soup.

Restaurant 38: Bonita (Infinite Feast XIX)

LOCATION: 338 Bedford Ave., Williamsburg, Brooklyn
DATE: June 11, 2005
FOOD: Mexican Corn; Lime Soup; Chips and Pico de Gallo; Fried Tilapia Burrito
BEVERAGE: Half a pitcher of White Wine Margarita
PRICE: $30.00

For some reason, paying $25 for a Mexican entrée seems egregious to me. I mean how expensive can a tortilla really be? But many of the better known Manhattan Mexican restaurants like Rosa Mexicano and Mama Mexico, charge such rates. And while restaurants like Mercadito and Itzocan offer innovative re-imaginings on Mexican classics, to find authentic, affordable cuisine from our southern neighbor, it’s the outer boroughs that present the best possibilities. Thus, Danny and I arrived at Bonita in Williamsburg, just blocks from the L, for the latest installment of Infinite Feast, this time discussing Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz.

While neither of us felt the need to rave about Fuentes’ novel, Bonita’s food brought mutual exaltations. With a layout reminiscent of the retro bistro style of Schiller’s Liquor Bar, Bonita was hip without being faddy, full without being crowded. The open-air kitchen allows diners to see their meals through all stages of preparation and adds to the neighborhood feel of Bonita. Our waiter doted on us, frequently asking (and re-asking) us if we liked our food in a manner showing he genuinely cared. His attention was one of Bonita’s many charms and spoke of sincerity rather than the type of uncertainty common to 14-year old girls inspecting their reflections, left to wonder if their mother’s assessment of “pretty” is accurate or if it’s a lie to help the teenager forget the colossal sized zits playing havoc on her cheeks.

However, the joys of puberty need no further elaboration – Bonita’s outstanding Mexican dishes do. We began with the ultimate of Mexican ubiquity – chips and salsa. The pico de gallo was milder than typical jalapeno salsas, but still had enough bite to satisfy the calling for caliente. But it was my first appetizer, the Mexican corn, which really convinced me Bonita wasn’t messing around. Bringing a street vendor staple indoors, this grilled corn was lathered in red chili spices. But what made it exceptional was the crumbled blend of soft white cheeses (I believe mozzarella and jack) added as a final coat once the corn had cooked. The cheese melted over the kernels to form a veneer ripe with flavor – it will be hard to go back to American buttered corn cobs in the future. The cheese provided a gooey contrast to the blackened corn and a milky sheen that mingled wonderfully with the corn’s sweetness.

The lime soup, if not equally as tantalizing as the corn, was very nearly so. In my experience, this soup has been called tortilla soup, but as Bonita’s version of Mexican chicken soup was superior to my previous tastes, the Wiliamsburg restaurant can call it whatever they like. Crisp tortilla strips floated in a chicken broth seasoned with delicious and relatively neutral Mexican spices and the accent of lime juice. Stewed tomatoes added an acidic-sugar, but the succulent chunks of roast chicken really made the soup. Bonita roasts whole chicken and I can only imagine how sensational these birds must be after tasting the guacamole like pliancy of the chicken in the soup.

To wash down all these savory supernovas, Danny and I split a pitcher of Bonita’s white wine margarita. While the title of margarita was just a fancy name for what tasted like white lime sangria, this near juice like drink worked well to alleviate the oppressiveness of June humidity and made up for Bonita’s lack of a liquor license. The drink, while enjoyable, needed to be a tad stronger, though at $18 for two and half glasses a piece, I won’t complain too vociferously.

As we debated over whether Artemio’s death really needed to go on for 300 densely constructed pages of stream of consciousness (couldn’t he have died on say page 170?), our entrees arrived. Though my fried tilapia, rice and vegetable filled burrito was humungous, upon finishing it, I literally wanted to beg for more. The fish itself was incredible – taking an overly flaky and dry white fish like tilapia and turning it into the meaty, juicy and entirely non-greasy golden brown tendrils of seafood perfection as Bonita did, requires the type of magician "Arrested Development"’s Gob continuously tries and but can quite manage, to be. Bonita also packed the burrito with fish, instead of using rice as filler. Thus, the rice and creamy sour cream sauce filling the burrito provided satisfying enhancements to the fish, but still remained as background flavors. Reflecting at the end of the meal, it was impossible for me to decide whether the burrito or the corn had been the better dish. I only knew I couldn’t have done without either.

Bonita may refer to an anonymous beautiful woman, but perhaps it is more deserving as an adjective for the restaurant’s food. Every part of Bonita functioned flawlessly and the touch of giving Chiclet-like Canel’s Gum with the bill only proved this point. For what I might have paid for a single entrée at a Manhattan Mexican tourist trap, I got an entire authentic Mexican meal at Bonita. The L train may operate as sporadically as a soap-opera surgeon, but since it takes me to Bedford Avenue and Bonita, I’ll be willing to wait as long as it takes the next time a Mexican craving hits me as hard as one of Fuentes’ sentences.

RATING: 8.5/10

Monday, June 13, 2005

Fleur de Sel Photos

Clockwise from top left: Fleur del Sel at 5 E. 20th St.; Goat Cheese and Artichoke Ravioli; Panna Cotta; Roasted Cod.

Restaurant 37: Fleur de Sel

RESTAURANT: Fleur de Sel
LOCATION: 5 East 20th St.
DATE: June 10, 2005
FOOD: $25 Prix Fixe Lunch: Appetizer - Goat Cheese & Artichoke Ravioli, Paddlefish Caviar, Beet-Dijon Reduction; Entrée - Roasted Cod, Tomato Confit & Spring Garlic Coulis; Dessert - Crème Fraiche & Vanilla Panna Cotta, Confit of Rhubarb, Strawberry Sorbet.
BEVERAGE: Tap Water.
PRICE: $32.00

Everybody loves a deal. Rich or poor, the lure of a specially priced quality item is enough to catch just about anybody’s attention. Perhaps, this is especially true when it comes to gourmet food. Paying $3.50 for a bargain basement selection of reheated frozen “delicacies” at Old Country Buffet lures no one but the incredibly cheap or incredibly obese. But, a $25 prix fixe lunch menu at a two star Manhattan restaurant, whose dinner tasting menu runs to $75? – Now that’s something unique. While Manhattan’s restaurant week offers the best chance at such value, that’s only twice a year. Fleur de Sel, the lovely Flatiron French restaurant, dishes up their $25 lunch year round, seven days a week. If Fleur del Sel hired Morrie from Goodfellas for some 15 second TV spots to plug the deal, word would get out, and this lunch “secret” might explode.

Fleur de Sel’s design would appease Fredric Jamison with its postmodern blends. The exterior façade is that of a country, Province bistro, while the interior is slick and contemporary. It’s a peaceful, quiet space, if a bit too small for the number of tables. The lunch menu includes three courses: an appetizer, entrée and dessert, each with two selections to choose from. The menu changes daily and includes dishes from the regular menu. There is even a three course $17 wine pairing for those who want to revive the ‘80s, American Psycho/Wall Street get smashed on your lunch hour of power.

I began with the goat cheese and artichoke ravioli. With two of my favorite ingredients as the filling for my preferred pasta, this dish had the same pre-assured stink of success as a Vanderbilt heir. But the addition of the robust beet saucing and subtle daubs of caviar made this dish something even Babbo diehards would love. In a dish with this many loud flavors, it would be easy for internal competition to ruin any shot of cohesion (see last year’s Lakers). Luckily, that wasn’t the case. The fresh and velvety goat cheese received bolstering from the artichoke, while the caviar and beets worked as stark contrasts to the ravioli’s smoothness. A larger portion of this pasta would have been an outstanding lunch (or dinner) entirely on its own.

The roasted cod which followed was good if somewhat nondescript. Reminiscent of the cod at L’Ecole, the fish and saucing were simple and straightforward. The cod could have been tenderer, but was far from dry. The tomato and garlic coulis provided the dish with a beautiful green color, but little else. It had a pleasant buttery taste, but failed to really augment the cod in a meaningful way. The cod was like a Horatio Alger novel – given as a seafood introduction to a fish novice, it would have been entirely successful – given to an English professor, and it would have imparted significantly less of a reward.

Fortunately, the meal didn’t end on the mediocre cod – though with the lag time between entrée and dessert, it very well seemed to have. While expecting a Chili’s-esque 15 minutes or less guarantee would have been fallacious (and such needless rushing, completely unwanted in that type of environment), the service was too lackadaisical for a lunch hour in this city. After all this is New York, not some sleepy, Yoknapatawpha County (I had a high school English teacher offer extra credit to anyone who could spell Faulkner’s fictional region correctly) backwater town. Twenty minutes between entrée and dessert is just too long.

However, when it finally did arrive, the panna cotta was well worth the wait. With the luxurious, feathery creaminess of an Italian cheesecake, this panna cotta made me seriously reconsider my avowed dislike of this dessert. The vanilla hues were restrained but noticeable, allowing the crème fraiche to dominate and not result in a taste too much like vanilla ice cream. The rhubarb, sliced into four, thin leaf-like strips, segmented the panna cotta into quadrants, but added a delightful bitter contrast to the sugary sweetness of the strawberry sorbet and caramelized brittle. It was an inversion of strawberry-rhubarb pie a la mode that acted as if it were the original and not the update.

$25 can go a long way. It can buy hundreds of ballpoint pens, enough candy for Halloweens now and into the future, and at least one cocktail (two might be a stretch) at a Manhattan lounge. But if you have some time to kill at lunch, it might be best spent at Fleur de Sel, where a taste of excellent contemporary French cuisine can be had on the cheap. Now where’s Morrie and his awful wigs for the classy commercial?

RATING: 7.3/10

Friday, June 10, 2005

Per Se Photos

Clockwise from top left: Pork Shoulder; Veal; "Snickers"; Sorbet.

Per Se Photos

Clockwise from top left: "Pearl and Oysters"; "Foie Gras"; Lobster; Mo'i.

Restaurant 36: Per Se (Danny's Birthday)

LOCATION: 10 Columbus Circle
DATE: June 5, 2005
FOOD: Chef’s Tasting Menu: “Oyster and Pearls” – “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Russian Sevruga Caviar; Terrine of Hudson Valley Moulard Duck “Foie Gras” – Poached Burlat Cherries, Pickled Ramps, Blue Moon Acres Mezza Arugula and Pistachio “Crumble”; Crispy Skin Fillet of Mo’I – Sauteed Yellow Squash, Zucchini, Sweet Peppers and Italian Eggplant with “Moulin des Penitents” Extra Virgin Olive Oil Emulsion; Nova Scotia Lobster “Cuit Sous Vide” – “Ragout” of Spring Pole Beans” and “Sauce au Pistou”; All-Day Braised Four Story Hill Farm’s Pork Shoulder – Wilted Dandelion Greens, Poached Granny Smith Apples and Whole Grain Mustard Sauce; Rib-Eye of Nature Fed Veal “Roti A La Broche” – California Green Asparagus, Mousseron Mushrooms, Parsley Root “Puree” and “Bearnaise” Reduction; “Tomme Du Berger” – Roasted Heirloom Beets, Bulls Blood Greens, Red Beet Essence and Horseradish “Aigre-Doux”; Pineapple Sorbet – Tamarind “Sponge”, Rosewater “Gelee”, Whole Milk Yogurt and “Freeze-Dried” Raspberries; “Snickers Bar” – Milk Chocolate “Cremeux”, Chocolate “Sacher” and Salted Caramel “Glacage” with Spanish Peanut “Nougatine” and “Nougat” Ice Cream; “Mignardises”; Petit-Fours.
BEVERAGE: Per Se Cocktail; Split a bottle of Riesling amongst Libby, Danny and I; Non-alcoholic pairings, including: Virgin Margarita, Virgin Bloody Mary, Gossamer Grape Juice, Pinot Noir Grape Juice, Almond Flavored Steamed Milk; Decaf Coffee
PRICE: Worth It (it being Danny’s birthday, it’d be inappropriate to discuss specific numbers)

Per Se is a “restaurant” in as much as Harvard is a “school”. During a night at Thomas Keller’s Time Warner Center landmark of culinary brilliance, the ritual act of “eating” is replaced by an experience both novel and transporting. Keller left New York admist failure, but reestablished himself with America’s best restaurant, California’s “French Laundry”. But thankfully, he’s returned and brought with him the same “magic” that made French Laundry as highly reputed as it is. The “food” at Per Se is designed to be pleasurable for the palate – but also to challenge the diner’s conventional assumptions. This is “thinking” cuisine, though it never becomes as esoteric as the adventures of WD-50. At Per Se, “taste” still reigns supreme. To visit Per Se, is to witness “perfection” – cooking turned ecstasy.

From the moment you pass through the automatic frosted glass “door”, it’s apparent you’ve entered a different, and perhaps better, world. The luxurious “lounge” is a huge open space, but manages to still feel comfortable and airy. Central Park’s foliage rustles, viewable from every table in the restaurant. The “staff” operates with the polished decorum of an Edith Wharton socialite – but without the arrogance and stuffy pretension of many lesser restaurants. Even the “bathrooms” are models of perceptive ingenuity – refuges of tranquility in the midst of New York’s hectic avenues.

Per Se’s “menu” changes nightly, with three separate tasting menus to choose from – the chef’s tasting, the five-course tasting, and the vegetable tasting. The menu is beautifully explained and each of the “tastings” entice as if daubed in a French perfumed aphrodisiac. Many of the dishes are imaginative take-offs of more common entrees – the vegetarian menu including a “Red Rice and Beans” with haricot verts and cranberry beans; the five course offered a “Grilled Cheese Sandwich” with tomato marmalade. Per Se’s adaptations evoke a clever play on gourmet food – it reminds us how much we enjoy less labor intensive fair (Keller has stated his love of Burger King) and makes us see our “favorites” in a completely new light. All in all, it is this aspect of Per Se that most delighted us, as it engaged both mind and tongue.

After extensive “deliberation”, “Danny” and “I” both selected the nine course chef’s tasting, while “Libby” went with the nine courses of vegetables. As we watched the immaculate service bring revelation after revelation to the tables around us, our excitement only compounded. It felt like my first night in New York all over again.

In an article in The New York Times on Chicago’s Moto restaurant (unfortunately, I was unable to locate the link), Per Se was mentioned for the novelty of its non-alcoholic wine pairings. Practically every restaurant that serves a tasting menu offers wine pairings to match, but Per Se’s “pairings” came in a different and more unique variety. With each course, we were given a beverage – ranging from grape juice to steamed milk – which complimented the tastes in the dish. Libby’s “Red Rice and Beans” was completed by a lime margarita. My foie gras with a gossamer grape juice that was finer than most wines. We all marveled over the creativity and the way our food was enhanced, yet another sign of why Per Se is perhaps New York’s “premier” restaurant.

Before our first courses even arrived, I could have been satisfied. The one dish I wanted to have at Per Se more than any other was Keller’s signature “Ice Cream Cone”. An unsweetened “cone” filled with crème fresh and salmon tartare was every bit as wonderful as I had imagined. Akin to a Philadelphia Maki, the flavors in this “dessert” hybrid convinced me that I will never look at a lox and cream cheese bagel the same way again – even if it comes from Russ and Daughters.

A team of waiters then presented our preliminary dishes. The single dish Danny had been speaking about constantly in the weeks leading up to Per Se, was the “Pearl and Oysters”. Fortunately for all of us (as he probably would have cried otherwise) it was on the menu the night of our visit. The heavenly tastes in this course are more difficult to describe than its appearance – reminiscent of a shucked oyster shell, fresh oysters rest atop a sabayon of pearl tapioca, all of which is crowned by some of the world’s finest caviar. What made this appetizer so special was the way the ingredients coalesced, without competing. The caviar was shockingly unsalty and for the first time, I understood why this gourmet staple is so highly regarded. The freshness of the oysters and caviar can only be compared to top-tier sushi. And when combined with the buttery tapioca sabayon produced an enjoyment similar to bringing the best aspects of clam chowder and a summer on the Eastern coast together.

Next came the terrine of duck. Per Se easily could have told me the dish was chocolate and I would have believed them. The richness of the duck “foie gras”, coupled with the bitter pickled flavors of ramps and dry, texturally complex pistachio crumbles could not have been better. Charlie Trotter might have stopped serving foie gras, but luckily Per Se has no such qualms – even if this was only a “take” on the standard serving.

Our waiter informed us that the crispy Mo’i is a Hawaiian fish, renowned in Hawaiian mythology as being “fit” only for the gods. I could see why. If turkey jerky could swim, it would be this fish. As salty and crisp as a scene from Kushner’s Angels in America, the Mo’i left me wanting more and more. The medley of vegetables provided the needed neutral base so that the fish could come to the fore.

The Modern’s lobster in herb folly had been the greatest use of a claw since Michelle Pfifer played catwoman. Per Se went one better. This was Maine without the bib. The way the meat literally softened liked warmed snow upon first bite was astonishing. The firm white beans reminded me of the Modern again, this time the Chatham Cod, and considering that is my favorite dish of the year, the comparison is very favorable. But just as the conversation at our table soared with each new flavor and Danny’s birthday “merriment” became more and more apparent, so too did the food. The “pork loin” which followed was basically Arthur Bryant’s on acid. Joining the flavors of Texas and Kansas City red-sauce barbeque with a revamped version of collard greens consisting of wilted dandelion greens, this was Per Se’s mischievous intelligence in gaudy neon lights.

Promises are made to be broken, and I decided to forget my non-beef vow for one night to engage in Per Se’s veal tenderloin. This dish doffed its hat to chateaubriand, with mushrooms and a jazzed up “béarnaise sauce” to round out the allusion. But the real star was the veal – as pink as pork but as tender as a soft cheese. The veal segue-wayed into the cheese platter, which came with beets instead of the more traditional figs or dried fruit. The combination was masterful, as the beets acerbity translated nicely with the sharp rigidity of the cheese and tangy bite supplied by the horseradish.

Even the sorbet was extraordinary. The plating was artful if not suggestive. An orbital circle of raspberry syrup enabled the planets of delicate pineapple sorbet, subtle rosewater gelee, and luscious tamarind sponge a clear path on which to rotate. The lofty presentation would have been pompous if the tastes were any less successful. It being Danny’s birthday, the staff was even kind enough to serve us a complimentary “Coffee and Doughnuts”, which turned out to be my most beloved tasting of the evening. Instead of coffee, there was a froth covered chocolate mousse. The “donut” – well let’s just say Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts would declare bankruptcy if America’s “cops” ever got a taste of Keller’s “fried sweetness”.

Finally, there was the sweet oblivion that was “dessert”. In a “deconstruction” to make Derrida jump like the Lucky Charms mascot, Per Se undid a Snickers bar into its more utopian components. Peanut and chocolate smears underlined the plate, upon which a chocolate “log” and nougat ice cream teamed with a caramel foundation, the “diving board” from which the whole dessert “sprung”. I was wowed, I was amazed. In stoner movies, weed fiends revel in the way they can taste individual flavors in complex foods. That was how I felt eating this “Snickers”, each flavor was maximized to its fullest. There is no way the actual candy could ever attain the heights this dish hit.

I have written in numerous reviews about my jealousy of Libby’s vegetarian based orders. At Per Se, this green blindness came to a head. I only tried three of her dishes, but it was enough to confirm my suspicions that her tasting “might” (I fear the truth) have been better than mine. Her “Garganelli Oreganata” mimicked the pepper and salt boldness of Cacio e Pepe’s signature dish. Her artichoke “Croquetas” made me dream of days in Spain – or Tia Pol. But even more astounding was the “Moelleux Aux Amandes”, her dessert, and a plate of white chocolate and yogurt flavors so pure as to make even the palest of Vermeer’s models blush. Once again, Libby had demonstrated the intriguing possibilities of non-meat based food; and she had shown women might not have a sixth sense, but they certainly have an elevated sense of taste.

Per Se was the culmination of multiple streams in my life. It was the highlight of my New York dining experiences and I doubt anything will be able to equal it. It was the peak of a weekend spent with the only person who could ever make St. Louis seem like a “city” worth living in. But mostly, it was the apex of a friendship that began three years ago, but it took New York to bring to fruition – and no quotes are needed when I say happy birthday to my best friend. Per Se is the “best”. And on my best friend’s birthday, where else could we possibly have “gone”?

RATING: 11/10 (possible only in the case of Per Se)