Friday, December 15, 2006

12-13-16 : Burgers

I had previously thought the proposition preposterous, but maybe the removal of trans-fats from New York IS necessary. People are eating too many burgers! I opened the New York Times Dining Out/In section today, and on the second page, the “Off the Menu” column is headed “Burgers, Burgers, Burgers.” It mentioned two new restaurants, one is basely called BRGR, and the other, Burgers & Cupcakes (sickly, I’ll bet this second one will be hugely successful).

Even world-class chefs at the height of the culinary avant-garde are putting burgers on their menus. Wasn’t it Daniel Boulud who recently made infamous the $60 burger? Only in Manhattan (or, maybe Tokyo).
The other night, I walked back into the kitchen at work in one of the finer French restaurants in Portland (our chef is a James Beard award winner), and the place smelled-no-reeked like a burger joint! Our bar menu has a hamburger on it, and I would say that it’s by far the most popular item. And not only are the customers consuming them—everyone, from the skinny cocktail waitresses to the unctuous managers—eats them on their break.

I guess that all of this surprises me because of the FACT (based on nutritional analysis, doctors warnings, etc. etc.) that fatty ground beef is detrimental to your health when consumed on a regular basis. And that vegetarianism, and veganism, and the increase in eating fresh food has grown. Maybe it’s a gustatory rebuttal to the cultural movement towards healthy eating, and widely released films like “Super-Size Me” and “Fast Food Nation.”

Yes, there might be something heartily (and heavily) satisfying about biting into a warm cheeseburger (though I can hardly speak to this, as I cannot remember the last time that I had one, but I think it may have been some time this summer). The burger is so basic—beef and bread, and maybe that’s comforting. In the chilly east, and here up north, there isn’t the widespread consumption (or availability) of sandwiches like there is on the west coast for grab-and-go eating. So, for that, they have the burger.

I find this all slightly disappointing, especially from restaurants which turn out so many other delicious, innovative dishes. It’s a bit of a sellout to make a burger, in my opinion, in order to feed Americans with an appetite for little else. And that’s just it maybe—it’s SO American.

When I moved to Portland, I made a friend with whom I’d try out different restaurants around the city. He was my foodie buddy. At one point, he was heading out on an East Coast trip to photograph cities he’d never been to (I think it was “6 cities in 7 days” or something). Anyway, he asked me “what do you think is the signature food of New Yorker?” I thought, “easy--the pizza slice.” And when he asked me about Oregon, suggesting salmon, I argued that no, it’s the burger.

I hadn’t seen so many burgers on so many menus, or heard so much burger talk in my life as when I arrived here. Two days ago, the Oregonian ran a story about the Midwestern fast-food drive-in chain Sonic, and it’s arrival and subsequent popularity here. The concept and the food (burgers and tater-tots) are a 1950s throwback, but somehow the chain is gaining momentum nationally. I find this disturbing, in the face of rising childhood obesity, and in spite of all of the knowledge that we possess of the nutritional values and health effects of food.

Burgers are even creeping into the arena of masterful ethnic cuisine. The aforementioned “Off the Menu” column mentioned a new burger place called “Stand,” opened by the same man who co-owns Republic (Asian soups & noodles), and Bond Street (sushi). And the restaurateur who ran Nirvana, a now closed high-end Indian restaurant, high above Central Park, is opening something called Nirvana54, serving Indian food AND burgers.

I guess, with their mass appeal, and relentless popularity, burgers will always remain in style, despite innovation and the availability of fresh, healthy food. Let’s face it—when models and actresses are asked what their favorite food is, the coolest ones answer “a burger and fries.” Whether that answer is truthful or not, we usually like them better for it.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Well, weeks have past since my houseguests have gone, and still, I have not written about all of the delicious bites that were had! A couple stand at the forefront, so these I will describe in brief:

Dinner at Nuestra Cocina: On Halloween night, my family and I sat down at this little nuevo-mexican restaurant up division street from my apartment, owned by the husband of the daughter of a friend of my stepdad. whew! So we sat at this little place, with few expectations, except for it to be reasonably good (the chef/owner, Ben Gonzales has received much acclaim for his cooking, and recently collaborated with famous Mexican chef Patricia Quintana and Philipe Boulot on a special fall dinner at the Heathman Restaurant).

As we looked over the short paper menus, we were presented with our drinks—fresh margaritas, in small cups filled with chunky lime pieces and ice. I’m not sure what kind of tequila they used (I think it was sauza though), but that was the BEST margarita I’ve ever had—on a cold fall night, in Portland, of all places. D-licious. Freshly fried chips, tangy salsa...mmm. Then, it is very much a blur, but there were shared bites and sips of everything: pumpkin soup--spicy and warm, crab tacos, steak tacos. We were not talking, but we were smiling—that food was SO incredibly good. It was savory, and flavorful, and rich, but not too rich. Perfectly seasoned, nothing too salty. My entree was their special, cochinito pibil—a thick piece of pork, braised until it just falls apart, in a pool of black beans—oh my god, it was SO GOOD. So filling, but so good. Everything was exceptional. The best mexican food I’ve ever had, probably.

Pizza: My mom and I had two incredible pizza eating experiences while she was here, and appropriately so—she loves pizza, and I’ve been waiting for someone to come along who’d enjoy these places with me. The first was Ken’s (of Ken’s Artisan Bakery) recently opened artisan pizza restaurant on East 28th street (a.k.a. restaurant row). We got there after 7, and there was a full bar, AND a line, with a wait of an hour. We put our name in, walked around the block and returned to enjoy a glass of wine on a couple of high stools, providing the perfect view to oversee everything that came out of the wood-fired oven. In addition, there were piles of greens as salads, and atop pizza crusts (they’ve got a pizza that is basically covered in a baby arugula salad after it comes from the oven). The food was gorgeous, and the place was warm in atmosphere and attitude, which I love. I also love short but great wine lists, one of which they had. So we ordered a yummmy antipasti plate, with roasted curried acorn squash, red pepper bruschetta and other roasted vegetables, and shared a chewy, delicious cheese pizza.

A finer pizza devouring experience can be had at the beautiful Nostrana. Walking through the glass doors in to it’s rustic/industrial expanse is transcendent—it doesn’t feel like Portland. It feels somehow glamorous, with a hint of Italy and maybe San Fransisco. Despite the restaurant’s size, you can see their wood-fired oven from the front door, and this mammoth is the center piece for the whole place (the bar is great looking too—with sky high shelves of wine as a backdrop). It’s rustic and modern at the same time, and the food is fabulous. As their business card states, Nostrana means “local” in italian, and their menu evokes this in every way. The pizza that we had was decorated with wild mushrooms—chanterelles and others, almost with a little bit of a truffle taste, and perfectly chewy crust. I had to order a side of their polenta, which they have ground especially for their restaurant. Served with gorgonzola and a bit of oh, what was it, marscapone? Anyway, it was amazing. They have a bistecca a la fiorentina, florentine steak served with arugula, one of my favorite dishes, which I will order next time. Our salad was slightly dissapointing, albeit accurately described on the menu (“simple, undressed”), it was just lettuce and carrots in a bowl with oil & vinegar on the side—a humble statement, but boring. If it had onions in it, it’d basically be the salad that you get in every standard restaurant in Argentina.

The wine that I had there, also good, a Barbera, was served a bit too warm. I’ve never felt that complaint before, but it noticeably affected the drinking experience. I’ve had a red too cold before—as it is sometimes at Bar Acuda in Hanalei. Apparently, wine temperature is a subtle art, and while ideal temperature is not necessarily expected, it is certainly appreciated. I mean, no one wants to sit at dinner watching thier glass of pinot noir sweat on a rainy winter night.

Pancakes: During the third week of November, I think I ate pancakes four times. Gluttonously and happily. We had a banana-pancake cook-off, I won in the taste category, and my friend won for presentation (his smiled). We had huckleberry (tiny, blueberry like things, sweet & tart) pancakes at Genies down the road, and those were awesome. Soft and thick, but with crispy outsides. Mmmm. And I made turkey bacon, in the oven, so easy, and actually, super tasty! But not as tasty as the strips of pork belly that the cooks sneak up to me at work...