Wednesday, January 29, 2003
How desperate are restaurants to bring in customers during the current economic malaise? I've noticed a lot of two-for-one coupons lately, and this week I discovered a neat feature at Restaurant.com: half-price gift certificates. More intriguing are the eBay auctions, all of which start at $1. There's an Italian place I've been wanting to try, and on eBay I was able to buy a $25 gift certificate for $7.29, which almost brings the place into the realm of the affordable.
Naturally there are a few catches. The certificates don't cover tax, tip or tippling, and it's good only for parties of two or more. In fact, Restaurant.com figures a $25 certificate ends up costing an owner merely $6 in food costs, a pretty amazing figure. The promotion banks on customers buying extra appetizers and highly marked-up booze, but for the the diner who can stick to the entrees, it can be a pretty sweet deal. (Full disclosure: We've signed up for the affiliate program, so we get a cut of every purchase made through our links.)
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Tuesday, January 28, 2003
Whenever we've mentioned making food like Mom used to make, this is not what we had in mind.
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Thursday, January 23, 2003
Calvin Trillin proposes that Milwaukee honor the beer that made it famous by installing an image of a giant beer -- or does he mean an actual giant beer? -- atop its skyline. As a weekly imbiber of Schlitz, and a friend to all things Wisconsin, I'm in full support of the idea.
What would Chicago put atop its skyline? I think a giant Vienna Beef, skewered by the two antennae on the Hancock, would fit in perfectly. In fact, see for yourself.
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Saturday, January 18, 2003
Jon alerted us to the newest reality TV experiment, as revealed on E! online:
TABLE FOR TWO: Mark Burnett will dish up the drama from a specially constructed New York eatery for his next reality series on NBC, The Restaurant. Cameras will focus on knife-wielding chef Rocco DiSpirito and his staff and the mini-dramas occuring between diners at each table.
The show's clearly going to be a hit, tapping into the interests of the millions of wannabe restauranteurs who've got nothing else to do on Wednesday night. As I am one of them, I'm sure to turn in as well. I've never heard of this Rocco charcter, but there's no doubt he and his crew will be a gaggle of Type A snits, threatening each other with hot oil splatters if they but lay a finger on one another's mise en place. And it will all make great television. The hard part, I imagine, will be finding enough interesting, combative, consent-signing diners to fill up that part of the show. Or will it? Will discounts be offered for customers who can make their server break out into tears? Extra points if food gets flung? All in the name of television...
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Monday, January 13, 2003
Calvin Trillin writes in the New Yorker about the differences between New York and San Francisco take-out, specifically the dearth found in the latter. It comes down to hills and bicycles: Delivery personnel can pedal around New York easily. (It cheered me to read Trillin talk about his own choice of transportation: "I've been riding a bicycle around the city for at least thirty years, and I have yet to shift gears.")
You don't see a lot of delivery people on bicycles in Chicago, except downtown. I don't see why not. Is it a problem of density? Maybe Critical Mass' next outreach campaign can be to convince restaurateurs that bikes are cheaper, faster and, most important, more fun than cars.
In my comments to a post of Sandy's, I moaned about menu litter. Trillin accepts the problem thusly:
Yes, I occasionally get irritated when the steps in front of my house are littered with paper menus from two or three Chinese restaurants of the sort that seem to acquire their food from one gigantic kitchen, presided over in a dictatorial but not terribly inventive way by General Tso. But my attitude toward takeout menus is reflected in that brilliant slogan the New York State Lottery uses in its advertising: "Hey, you never know."
Finally Trillin celebrates the density of New York, where myriad dining options are within a few hundred yards of his apartment. I mention this to point out that my apartment also is within a few hundred yards of excellent Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican and Italian, and not much farther away are Ethiopian, Lebanese, Turkish, Korean, Swedish, Iranian, Japanese and just about anything else one could hope for. And I mention this to point out that my apartment is still available: cheap!
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Thursday, January 09, 2003
After a six-week hiatus owing to various obligations and vacations, I'm finally back doing Thursday breakfasts with Luke at the Cafe. I had forgotten how much I love doing it, for both the personal satistaction and culinary experience. The two joys collided this morning when, while preparing a double batch of our home fries, I was reminded of an incident from brunch last week at the popular Purity Diner in Brooklyn (see point #43). To my astonishment, the home fries at Purity are prepared excatly like ours. And taste almost as good.
I have no idea what most Brooklynites think of Purity's potatoes, but from what I understand, Purity makes its bones in the brunch market. And home fries are the linchpin of the going-out brunch. So, it makes me feel like we're doing something right. It also makes me anxious for the next time when I notice this kind of comparison. Most of me doesn't want to be that guy who spits out his restaurant food then claims he can do better, but... there's a teeny, tiny part that does.
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Friday, January 03, 2003
Maura volunteered to make the seven of us our first breakfast of 2003 and, oh, what a breakfast it was: a french toast concoction that involved Corn Flake-encrusted challah, apricot preserves and an apricot-flavored Stilton cheese. And here's the most amazing thing: she swiped the recipe from one of her favorite Philly restaurants. Not swiped, exactly, but deconstructed, from only tasting the dish once. I can just imagine Maura in the restaurant, isolating a new flavor and ingredient with each bite, writing down her discovories in a clandestine notebook while the chef's back was turned.
It made me wonder, though, about where chefs get their ideas for recipes. Surely not all dishes in all restaurants are concotions of the chef's own creativity. Especially in mid- and low-priced places, most dishes seem to be drawn from a public domain of recipes, the original authors of which having been long forgotten. But what's the rule on taking apart a unique dish and repackaging and selling it as your own? Legally, it seems to be legit, as this site has been publishing and selling recreations of famous chain store recipes for years now. But at least they give credit. What to make of the chef who discovers a delightful meal he's never seen before -- say Apricot Stilton French Toast -- and co-opts it for his own? Seems morally specious to me. If one's going to simply swipe the result of someone else's sweat and elbow grease, once should at least give credit where it's due. Otherwise it's no more than culinary plagiarism.
(No, I'm not talking about you, Maura. Not only did you give ample credit, you weren't trying to make money off of it. I'm all for recipe de- and reconstructions for the private purposes of impressing one's friends. Which you did admirably.)
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Thursday, January 02, 2003
Anyone who's looked at new housing lately knows that stainless-steel appliances are all the rage. In the dozen or so homes I looked at this fall, none was missing the brushed-metal treatment. Demand is so great that a stainless-steel refrigerator costs $150 more than an identical white model. Even though fingerprints are a menace, no yuppie kitchen is complete without matching stainless-steel stove, dishwasher and towel holder.
I have a theory for why this is so. As we've said before, running a restaurant is not a fantasy unique to us. Every day we get dozens of hits from people who have Googled "running a small restaurant" or "owning a restaurant." Failure rate notwithstanding, opening a restaurant is to us as twentysomethings what being an astronaut was to us as nothingsomethings. As age is accompanied by disposable income and yearnings for sophistication, we're disposing our income in places like Fox & Obel and Taste, and we're watching more Food Network than ESPN. We've learned to pronounce -- and even appreciate -- brie. Prick us, we bleed pesto. We are sick people.
This stainless-steel phenomenon, then, is an extension of this fantasy: If we can't have our own restaurants, then at least our kitchens can look like a restaurant's kitchen, whether we actually use them or not. It's the equivalent of the sports nut who carpets her living room in Astoturf. Stainless steel may feel flimsy -- it did to me -- but it looks industrial and mighty.
The kitchen in the place I ultimately bought was rehabbed about ten years ago, prior to this craze, so it has the old-fashioned white appliances and plain counters. It's exactly what I wanted. I'd rather use my kitchen than merely look at it.
Of course, I bring this up merely to point out that I'm still trying to sublet my apartment. Know anybody moving to Chicago? Sick of your current digs? Even in this market, I can't imagine finding a better location for $725 -- cheap!
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Wednesday, January 01, 2003
Without a major windfall, we've always presumed, it's unlikely this dream will ever see reality. But the New York Times today says that several chefs, unable to raise money for restaurants, are launching tiny places as solo chefs.
"After 9/11, I was looking at a lot of projects with a lot of investors, but it wasn't the right time to do a big space with a lot of debt," [said Sean Kelley, chef at Claire de Lune]. "This was a safe rest stop. I own it by myself. To start a restaurant with no debt is unique. This place is all about freedom. It's not about money. I get to cook what I want to cook and do what I want to do."
In Chicago, Norman Six occupies the kitchen at Lovitt.
"It's a lot more personal," he said. "The restaurant is so small that I can overhear conversations, so if someone says something nice about the food, it's really gratifying.
"So far what I have heard has been really gratifying. I don't know what I'll do if I don't like what I hear."
I'm not sure whether either of us could handle a kitchen by ourselves, but it's a pleasant thought. One other benefit of a single chef with a small dining room is that it helps manufacture scarcity. Lovitt, for example, is open only for dinner only three nights a week. Such scarcity of tables can only help a restaurant making the difficult turn from novelty into phenomenon. Me, I'm eager to try Lovitt -- if I can get a table.
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