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Recipe inspiration, tips, and kitchen hacks from the Chowhound editors.

The Eternal Quest(ion)

It’s the enduring dilemma for a modern urban world—how to get a reservation at the hot restaurant of your choice for 8 p.m. Saturday night?

Apparently it’s a dilemma that can be solved for $35.

A mini-furor has erupted over the New York company that offers reservations at hot restaurants for a fee of $35 per table, or an annual membership of $450. PrimeTime Tables is run by Pascal Riffaud, a former concierge who leverages connections to top restaurants for a fee, and has been in operation for over a year. A post on Urban Daddy threw light on the somewhat shady situation, while a series of posts on the food blog Eater brought greater attention and concern over the ethics of Riffaud’s enterprise. Reader response is mixed—some are bothered, others have no problem with the system (and are keen to sign up).

The guys at Eater do a great job of summing up the situation:

What we can tell you is that this site is not more legitimate than the ticket scalpers who cruise outside Yankee Stadium during the playoffs. In fact, browsing through PrimeTime’s listings is unsettlingly similar to the experience of getting a little too close to cheating on a spouse. It is as if you are about to do something you’ll likely regret—and the one thing you are absolutely certain of is that you can never, ever, be seen doing it in public. On the other hand, they’ve got an impressive stable of reservations to offer.

The New York Times jumped into the fray last week, with an article (registration required) that includes negative feedback from the industry. Restaurateur Danny Meyer is quoted as saying the service “undermines the beauty of the dialogue that takes place when a restaurant and its patrons have a healthy, dynamic relationship” (one can only assume Mr. Meyer hasn’t tried to make an 8 p.m. Saturday reservation at any of his own restaurants lately—nothing very beautiful about that dialogue, if you ask me). Even Waiter Rant cries foul on that one. “Gimme a break. I think Danny’s been spending too much time reading his own book.”

While New York debates the ethics of scalping restaurant tables online, out on the West Coast it’s low-tech, traditional, and slightly more affordable. Restaurant critic Michael Bauer, on his San Francisco Chronicle blog, Between Meals, asks whether the practice of slipping the host a twenty to get a table is back in play.

Which answers another eternal question—the difference between New York and San Francisco? Fifteen dollars, apparently.

My Dinner with Mr. Gullible

The BBC asks: Got a million Thai baht handy? (That’s about 29 grand, for those of you not plugged into the current exchange rate.) Care for some fancy eats? Book your table for an 11-course dinner in Bangkok, served by six three-star Michelin chefs.

The event, modestly titled “Epicurean Masters of the World,” is purportedly designed to showcase Thailand as an upmarket tourism destination and investment target. But the menu is rightfully catching some flak for its almost entirely European flavor:

Creme brulée of foie gras with Tonga beans

1990 Louis Roederer Cristal

Tartare of Kobe beef with Imperial Beluga caviar and Belons oyster

1995 Krug Clos du Mesnil

Mousseline of pattes rouges crayfish with morel mushroom infusion

2000 Corton-Charlemagne, Jean François Coche-Dury

Tarte Fine with scallops and black truffle

1996 Le Montrachet, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti

And so on, and so on. Now, there’s no doubt that the meal will be delicious, and that the expense will be relatively minor for the kind of brain-damaged plutocrat who might actually consider signing up for this kind of thing. But before you buy your tickets for Bangkok, take a moment to ponder the following proposition: what else could you do with $29,000?

1. Take 70 close friends and relatives out for sushi at Masa in New York.

2. Grant 14 business-starting micro-loans to farmers and entrepreneurs in India’s Virdarbha region.

3. Rent out a grocery store, bring over 100 of your friends, and just throw produce at one another until the cows come home.

4. Hire your own three-star chef to prepare exactly the same meal for you for five days in a row.

“Epicurean Masters of the World”? More like “Marketing Masters of the World.”

Buh-zing!

Quirky Quercus

The debate between those who prefer natural corks and those who believe that corks made from synthetic materials can help prevent the off flavors and general undrinkablility of wines affected by cork taint is wrapping up.

The winner? Neither. The lowly screw top, once reserved for the likes of Night Train, has increasingly been adopted by innovative wineries like Bonny Doon.

But in the January/February issue of Audubon magazine, Susan McGrath argues that the popularity of screw tops and synthetic corks is threatening an ecosystem that shelters an amazing amount of biodiversity.

In Portugal, the low-impact harvesting of cork has been going on for centuries in a pastoral area that also houses wildlife (like eagles and lynx) and domestic animals. But the beauty of the area is also drawing developers, who might find it easier to push out farmers if cork becomes unprofitable.

The article quotes Domingos Leitão, a Portuguese ornithologist:

The irony is great, Leitão muses. The world is becoming more aware of the shortcomings of intensive agriculture. Sustainable products are gaining space in the pantry. People have a more sophisticated understanding of biological diversity’s importance. The wineries themselves are reducing their water and herbicide use. ‘And yet wine drinkers are switching to synthetic stoppers—petroleum products—with barely a fuss.’

Chocolicious

Just when you were hoping to stem December’s eggnog-built muffintop spillage, newspaper food sections are going all chocolate, all the time in a pre-V-Day blitz. And frankly, the editors are sick of the stuff.

Writes Tara Duggen in the San Francisco Chronicle, “In the weeks before Valentine’s Day we receive so many chocolate pitches that it verges on the disgusting.”

Yeah, sucks to be you, babe. But Duggan slogs on bravely through the chocolate river like Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen, sharing the not-wildly-surprising news that fair-trade chocolates are big in the Bay Area, as are wacky flavor combos like coconut curry and salted breadcrumbs.

The Oregonian puts the kibosh on the usual champagne-and-chocolate combo. Dry acidic wine doesn’t work with lush, fat chocolate: forgo the fizz and try an Armagnac or cognac instead.

In fact, why not put the chocolate into the liquor, rather than the other way around? Sounds better than a chocolate thong any day.

A Meal in Pitch Blackness

Montreal

In less than 24 hours, we’d made a complete sty of our room at Springhill Suites:


I got stuck with this sofa bed.

I thought I’d read somewhere that this hotel had an 80-foot water slide. This was a huge draw for all of us, particularly Joel, who had his heart set on splashy fun. With great eagerness and extraordinarily unattractive swimsuits, we descended to the hell that is the Springhill Suites swimming area—the smallest, meanest pool you’ve ever seen, situated in a moldering basement. We strode back to the front desk, hoping to learn where the REAL pool was, and the clerk informed us that there was only one slideless pool, adding (I swear I’m not making this up), “We are actually well known for having zee smallest swimming pool in Montreal.”

Joel took the news especially hard. But as we dejectedly trudged back downstairs to try to make the best of the situation, he had an epiphany: He’d make his own water slide:

See the exciting video footage, wherein Joel demonstrates the resourcefulness and creativity that make him a busy Hollywood film editor: Movie file.

OK, let’s do the food.

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First we hit Jean-Talon Market, which has a very European flavor, with vendors set up in a central area ringed by food shops and little restaurants.

The produce is amazing …

... but we were conned by an unscrupulous citrus dealer, who proffered superb tangerine samples and sold us what turned out to be tough, awful fruit. We took it in stride, figuring three rubes from New York oughtn’t expect to casually waltz into a serious market like this.

We scored some fantastic, richly luscious goat’s-milk yogurt (L’ Avalanche) at La Fromagerie Hamel (220 Jean-Talon Street East, Montreal; 514-272-1161), a stupendously stocked, insanely bustling cheese shop adjoining the market:

An Italian deli around the market makes an impressive variety of tasty rice balls:

Also adjoining Jean-Talon is a branch of my favorite local bakery,
Boulangerie Première Moisson (Marché Jean-Talon, 7075 rue Casgrain, Montreal, Quebec; 514-270-3701). This is the place I raved about in my last report. They must drug their stuff; there’s no other explanation for the scarily irresistible attraction.

While Première Moisson’s bread is consistently jaw-dropping, pastries can be hit or miss. Last time, I fell deeply in love with their maple croissants, but this is the wrong season for maple. Taking the only reasonable tack, I compulsively bought one of everything in sight.

That buche bio is my favorite Première Moisson loaf, followed closely by their walnut levain.

“100% beurre” is right. These apple pastries are way over the top—and stunningly delicious.

Barry worked himself into a state over the Wall o’ Jam.

Just a few of those amazing jars.

One shouldn’t by any means overlook the humble plain rolls. Here are two views:

Extremely serious croissants (again, two views):

Obverse and reverse of the devastating long cheesy roll things:

Orange chocolate bread, a special loaf. Gawd.

Almond croissant—so fluffy, so tender.

Some other errant almondy butter bomb.

One could gaze at this expressionistically crunchy muffin top for hours.

Croque Monsieur—Croque Madame? Croque Mon Ami? I don’t know. Regardless of who’s being croqued here, the result is nothing less
than creamy, crunchy, yeasty, cheesy wonderment.

Lots of fine frothy coffee products aided us through our grueling chowconnaissance.

Note that owners Josée Fiset and Éric Blais have a (French-only) recipe book, called Pain.

+ + +

I stabbed another mortal wound into my streak by getting all excited about Champ de l’Olivier (162 Jean-Talon, Montreal; 514-495-4114), a great-looking Tunisian restaurant that’s yet another venue near Jean-Talon Market.

Take a look at the photos. Can you blame me for expecting greatness?

But no. Every single item flatlined my deliciometer. Nothin’ there. Alas.

+ + +

Several hours later, we set out with much excitement for O.Noir Restaurant (1631 Ste-Catherine West, Montreal; 514-937-9727), where you dine in pitch darkness, served by blind waiters. This set-up is actually a burgeoning international trend, the idea being that you focus more intently on your food. Like any chowhound actually needs that.

Appetizers.

Entrées.

Desserts.

Juggling a recorder with one hand (trying to cover the bright display with my palm) while eating with the other hand in pitch darkness was a challenge, so the sound quality’s bumpy.

MP3: We peruse the menu in the lighted foyer, we’re led into the restaurant clutching each other’s shoulders, and my recorder nearly gets confiscated.

MP3: Fervidly negotiating the logistical issues involved in sharing three dishes in pitch blackness.

MP3: Kibbitzing in the darkness.

MP3: “I just found like a whole new area of mashed potatoes I didn’t know existed.”

MP3: For some inexplicable reason, complete strangers around the dining room found themselves spontaneously performing “Dock of the Bay.”

MP3: We are (literally) shown the exit.

Conclusion: We weren’t sure we’d experienced our food any more vividly, but, shtick or no, the cooking’s delicious. And, heck, since dining is about experiencing other points of view, I’d be up for eating blind once in a while. Darkness is the new Chinese!

+ + +

Dinner at O.Noir had been early, so we were ready to hit Globe Restaurant (3455 Boulevard St. Laurent, Montreal; 514-284-3823) late for drinks and some raw shellfish. Do me a favor and click on their website for just a second to check out the music and Flash animation, which will totally give you the vibe.

The ultimate challenge: Can even a megatrendy restaurant with valet parking, gorgeous waitresses, and sceney dancing after midnight serve delicious food in (and only in) the magical city of Montreal?

Par for the course in such places, their expensive ($85) raw plate is mightily pushed. My cynical friends and I assumed it was a sucker order, but, just for science, we sprang for it.

The sucker shellfish plate, in what seemed a patent hell pit of noxiously poor eating (“The food’s, like, so beside the point …”) was rockingly good! And the raw-bar chef, who’d chatted amiably with us about oysters while we awaited a table, sent along, gratis, his proud, and very delicious, concoction of rock shrimp, lemon, and spicy mayo. And the hyper-comely waitress—who could act sullenly stuck up and still pull down 40 percent tips—was extraordinarily friendly and sincere. Man, how I love Montreal …

Playing with Fire

Playing with Fire

CHOW tests the best kitchen torches on crème brûlée and beyond. READ MORE

Bewitching Yogurt at Likitsakos on the Upper East Side

The stuff of dreams–that’s what ballulah calls the rich, creamy Greek-style yogurt at Likitsakos Market. Sweetened with honey, flavored with fresh fruit (pear, berries, apple, nectarine, and passion fruit, among others), it’s premium priced at $3 for 8 ounces, but well worth the splurge, ballulah swears.


Likitsakos Market [Upper East Side]
1174 Lexington Ave., between E. 80th and 81st Sts., Manhattan
212-535-4300
Locater

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Symposium–UWS Greek

Wing Lee is Awesome

Wing Lee Bakery might have some of the best har gow in town, says niki rothman. They’re really big, with thick, tender, lovely rice dough–and they let you taste before ordering. Siu mai is also excellent, bigger than you usually see, with a clean, subtle sweetness. Chunks of rehydrated straw mushrooms add a nice smokiness. Custard tarts are top-notch, and pot stickers are large and delectable. Prices are extremely reasonable–siu mai are 3 for $1.40 and $28 will buy you more than you can carry.


Wing Lee Bakery [Richmond]
503 Clement St., San Francisco
415-668-9481
Locater

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Superior Take-Out on Inner Clement

Top Class Sicilian Chow at Mezzo Mezzo

rworange is so impressed with Mezzo Mezzo that after only one visit, it’s firmly among her top five restaurants in the Bay Area. This place is a gem, and the food is extraordinary, displaying not only attention to quality but soul.

The name of the restaurant translates as something like “half and half,” and the half-cream of spinach, half-cream of tomato soup is a work of art. Neither soup is assertively flavored, but there is a richness to them that is very soulful and satisfying, especially accompanied by the wonderful bread. Dense yet light, soft, flour-dusted slices of bread are so good rworange wishes they’d open a bakery.

Panini with speck, roasted eggplant, and cheese is outstanding. “I haven’t had a better sandwich even on my trips to Italy,” says rworange. Surprisingly, the vegetarian panini is even better, with pesto, greens, and softly smoky provolone. House-made cannoli are also a standout, thick shells filled with ricotta and the suggestion of candied fruit.

ItaloChick rates the food as truly spectacular, and praises the warm, inviting atmosphere. rworange gives extra points in that area, too, noting that she got great service while inadvertently doing her worst impression of a bag lady.


Mezzo Mezzo Ristorante
1025 C St., San Rafael
415-459-0330
Map

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MAJOR Marin gem–Nothing half & half about San Rafael’s Mezzo Mezzo … Top-class Sicilian ciao
Mezzo Mezzo in San Rafael?

Liuzzi’s – Cheese Lovers’ Destination in North Haven

For the best cheese at Liuzzi’s, Louis is your guy. “Ask him about anything in the case,” urges gardencub. “He loves folks who love good cheese and are willing to try.” Ricotta, mozzarella, caciocavallo and basket cheese, among others, are produced in house. Ravioli made with Liuzzi’s smoked ricotta flat out kills, gardencub adds. Alongside the house cheeses is a wide selection of imports. And beyond the cheese department, hounds recommend olives and house-cured meats.


Liuzzi Cheese [New Haven County]
322 State St., between School Ln. and Sackett Point Rd., North Haven, CT
203-248-4356
Locater

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Good cheese east-of-the-river?