The New York Times Treatment of Bistro at Villard Michel Richard

Food critic Pete Wells at The New York Times has just come out with a scathing review of the Bistro at Villard Michel Richard, the fancy new restaurant at the newly renovated New York Palace in Midtown Manhattan. It’s worth reading in entirety but these two paragraphs are the best:

Think of everything that’s great about fried chicken. Now take it all away. In its place, right between dried-out strands of gray meat and a shell of fried bread crumbs, imagine a gummy white paste about a quarter-inch deep. This unidentifiable paste coats your mouth until you can’t perceive textures or flavors. It is like edible Novocain.

What Villard Michel Richard’s $28 fried chicken does to Southern cooking, its $40 veal cheek blanquette does to French. A classic blanquette is a gentle, reassuring white stew of sublimely tender veal. In this version, the veal cheeks had the dense, rubbery consistency of overcooked liver. Slithering around the meat was a terrifying sauce the color of jarred turkey gravy mixed with cigar ashes. If soldiers had killed Escoffier’s family in front of him and then forced him to make dinner, this is what he would have cooked.

Mmm, delicious.

The Six Day Water Fast

Ben Marcus, in his mid-forties, felt pain throughout his body. He decided to try something unconvential: a six-day fast consisting of nothing but drinking water. He chronicles his (mis)-adventures in this piece for GQ.

TrueNorth lacks the whorehouse comforts of a spa. There isn’t even a pool, which seems to violate some central tenet of California apartment complexes. It feels more like a scientific-research center. There are daily lectures and cooking demos, and the guest rooms are stocked with DVDs of slightly NSFW health documentaries. Today at the clinic they showed a grim video called The Pleasure Trap, an unflinching lecture on why we eat, and eat, and fucking eat, what isn’t good for us. Salt, sugar, and fat, combined with chemicals in processed foods, trick the brain in the same way as cocaine, and the brain flushes our bodies with dopamine, perhaps the most blissful, and addictive, homemade chemical we have. Once we find a way to trigger it, we kill ourselves to get more. Literally.

That evening, with no dinner to cook, eat, and clean up, I prepare my water smoothie, made of nothing but distilled water, and turn on the Food Network. If I can’t eat food, I’ll watch some. On TV, pre-scandal Paula Deen and her son are making corn dogs, fried okra, croissant-dough muffins with caramelized pecans. These things look gorgeous and obscene, like the invented genitalia of a new species. But after watchingThe Pleasure Trap, it seems wrong to refer to this stuff as food. More like recreational drugs for the mouth, with nasty side effects like diabetes. Still, I’m drooling. I love these recreational drugs. I go to foreign countries just to try exotic versions. I’m a user. I do food.

Just not today, and, if I survive, not for the next five days.

It appears the fast has worked wonders, though I appreciate the cautious outlook that this might have been a short-term victory:

Throughout my stay, a six-day fast has been regarded with amused smiles. Pathetic amateur, they don’t say. One doctor says everyone should do a long fast at least once in their lives. What’s long, I ask. Twenty-one days. Maybe thirty. Now I see the appeal. Once you get over the misery of the first few days, things start to look up and you get this feeling that something profoundly necessary is happening inside you. I’ve lost sixteen pounds, and a deep bend at the knees is surprisingly pain-free. My hands no longer ache. My skin is clear. The whites of my eyes look Photoshopped.

Don’t try this at home, folks. Seriously: from personal experience, even fasting for twelve hours is bound to make you dizzy, and you don’t want to be falling down stairs when you attempt something this bold…

A Feminist’s Daughter Finds Love in the Kitchen

This personal essay in The New York Times struck a chord with me because I had two separate conversations over the last two days on these two themes: work-life balance and the definition of feminism.

Yet children do not stop needing what they need, even when their parents are fighting for justice. And if you do not attend to them or find a loving substitute, they will suffer and may hold it against you. Even if you have never felt stronger and more truly yourself. Even if you love them.

Because of my history, I know how much the mundane care of children matters. That is why I stop work when the school day ends and greet my daughter with a hug. I may be tired, stressed out or grumpy; I may bemoan the confinement, the repetition, the career limits. But I do it anyway. I pull away from paid pursuits and open myself to the opportunity to delight in my daughter.

My delight comes freely, inspired by a leggy girl with rich brown eyes who has just come home. But our time together is about more than delight. When I hand her a snack and look into her face, seeking the stories of her day, I intend for her to feel how much she matters. She matters more to me right then than anything I could be doing without her. And we will not have these afternoons forever.

When she told me on Mother’s Day that she loves what I do in the kitchen, I realized why I love it, too. For as I stir and chop and bake while she studies, sings, draws, chatters, rides a scooter and does an exceptional job of being young, I am drinking in some of the pleasures I missed.

Worth reading.

What Makes Doritos Chips So Irresistible?

The New York Times on the allure of the Doritos chips:

The inventor of Doritos envisioned this snack in 1964 as a marketing powerhouse that could deliver endless varieties of new flavors. But none of the formulations would surpass Nacho Cheese, whose irresistible taste sent Doritos into the processed food hall of fame, and more recently into a partnership with Taco Bell. I visited Steven A. Witherly, a food scientist who wrote an insider’s guide, “Why Humans Like Junk Food,” and we raided his lab to taste and experiment our way through the psychobiology of what makes Nacho Cheese Doritos so alluring.

On one of the most popular flavors, Nacho Cheese:

The blend of ingredients in Nacho Cheese is given one of the finest grinds in food processing: flour grinding, which creates a powder that fills every nook and cranny on the chip. This maximizes the amount that will contact saliva. Intentional or not, one byproduct is the powder left on your fingers. 

Licking the dust from the fingers in its pure form, without the chip to dilute the impact, sends an even larger flavor burst to the brain.

The notion of “forgettable flavor” is vital:

Despite the powerful tastes in Nacho Cheese, the Doritos formula balances them so well that no single flavor lingers in the mind after you’ve eaten a chip. This avoids what food scientists call “sensory specific satiety,” or the feeling of fullness caused by a dominant flavor. Would you eat a whole bag of rosemary chips? With Doritos, you go back for more.

Read the rest here.

A Nightly Dinner Out as Therapy

Harry Rosen is 103 years old and lives in New York City. He made a fortune in his life in America as a supply company owner, after fleeing the pograms of Russia, having arrived to Ellis Island with his family. These days, he goes out to fancy restaurants in the city, which he considers his therapy:

“I haven’t eaten dinner home in many years,” said Mr. Rosen, who tried singles groups and other activities after his wife of 70 years, Lillian, died five years ago, when she was 95.

But nothing brought him the comfort of a fine restaurant.

“It’s my therapy, it lifts my spirits,” he said Wednesday evening while examining the menu with a magnifying glass at David Burke Townhouse on East 61st Street.

Twice a week, a server there greets him, walks him to his usual corner table and brings his regular glass of chardonnay, his appetizer of raw salmon and tuna, and then the swordfish, skin removed, with vegetables specially puréed for his dentures to handle.

“The food and the ambience, it’s my therapy — it gives me energy,” he said.

His favorite restaurants are Café Boulud on East 76th Street, Boulud Sud near Lincoln Center, and Avra Estiatorio on East 48th Street.

On The Joys of Becoming a Restaurant Regular

This is a wonderful piece by Frank Bruni (former restaurant critic for The New York Times) on the joys and pleasures of becoming a regular at your local restaurant:

I’m no monogamist, that’s clear. More of a polygamist, but I dote on my sister wives. I’ve come to see that the broccolini isn’t always greener on the other side of Houston Street, and I’m here to sing what’s too seldom sung: the joys of familiarity. The pleasures of intimacy. The virtues of staying put.

What you have with a restaurant that you visit once or twice is a transaction. What you have with a restaurant that you visit over and over is a relationship.

Great point here about the smiles:

[T]he smiles you get from hosts, hostesses and bartenders who know you are entirely unlike the smiles from ones who are just meeting you. They’re less theatrical, less stilted, warmer by countless degrees.

I love this addendum from Jason Kottke:

This is a totally minor thing but I love it: more than once, I’ve come in early in the evening, had a drink, left without paying to go run an errand or meet someone somewhere else, and then come back later for another drink or dinner and then settle my bill. It’s like having a house account without the house account.

I haven’t yet made any nearby restaurants a regular for me, but now I am really tempted to pick one or two.

On Technology Advancements in the Grocery Store

The Los Angeles Times reports how Ralphs, a grocery store chain, is using technology to speed up checkout times for customers:

Known as QueVision, the system uses hidden infrared cameras with body heat trackers to figure out how many customers are shopping at any given time. Managers use that information to redeploy workers to the cash registers when things get busy.

It’s already paying off. QueVision has trimmed the average time it takes to get to the front of the line to roughly 30 seconds from the national average of four minutes, a Ralphs spokeswoman said.

The checkout system is part of a long-overdue effort by traditional grocery chains to evolve and stay competitive through the use of technology.

I remember reading about this on Tesco’s virtual store:

In 2011, Tesco launched its futuristic Homeplus market at a Seoul subway stop. There’s no food in this virtual grocery store, only interactive walls around the station that display photos of fruit, vegetables, milk and other grocery staples. Using their smartphones, commuters can buy these products by photographing QR codes printed on the images and paying through their phones. Tesco delivers the purchases to customers’ homes the same day.

The article cites something else worth pondering: the grocery store industry is a $518 billion business in the United States.

 

On the Origin of the Picnic

I am having one myself this weekend, so it seems apropos to read this short piece in The New York Times on the origin of the picnic:

The word “picnic,” however, is of more recent vintage. An early mention can be traced to a 1649 satirical French poem, which features the Frères Pique-nicques, known for visiting friends “armed with bottles and dishes.” In 1802, the term made a hop to Britain after a group of Francophiles in London formed a Pic-Nic Society to gorge, guzzle and perform amateur theatricals. Participants drew lots to determine who would supply which dish — from calf’s-foot jelly to blancmange.


Read the rest here.
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Why Lobster Isn’t Priced Like Chicken

In 2005, Maine lobster was selling for almost six dollars a pound wholesale. By 2009, it cost just half that, and, in the past couple of summers, huge lobster harvests, believed by some to be a result of global warming, have glutted the market, sending prices tumbling further. This month, lobster off the boat is selling for as low as $2.20 a pound. So why hasn’t the price of lobster come down when you’re buying it at your favorite restaurant?

James Surowiecki explains in The New Yorker that lobster isn’t like a commodity, but rather is more like a luxury good. If it were priced like chicken, people would presumably enjoy it less:

Keeping prices high obviously lets restaurants earn more on each dish. But it may also mean that they get less business. So why aren’t we seeing markdowns? Some of the reasons are straightforward, like the inherent uncertainty of prices from year to year: if a bad harvest next summer sent prices soaring, restaurants might find it hard to sell expensive lobster to customers who’d got used to cheap lobster. But the deeper reason is that, economically speaking, lobster is less like a commodity than like a luxury good, which means that its price involves a host of odd psychological factors.

Lobster hasn’t always been a high-end product. In Colonial New England, it was a low-class food, in part because it was so abundant: servants, as a condition of their employment, insisted on not being fed lobster more than three times a week. In the nineteenth century, it became generally popular, but then, as overharvesting depleted supplies, it got to be associated with the wealthy (who could afford it). In the process, high prices became an important part of lobster’s image. And, as with many luxury goods, expense is closely linked to enjoyment. Studies have shown that people prefer inexpensive wines in blind taste tests, but that they actually get more pleasure from drinking wine they are told is expensive. If lobster were priced like chicken, we might enjoy it less.

Another additional point worth highlighting:

Restaurants also worry about the message that discounting sends. Studies dating back to the nineteen-forties show that when people can’t objectively evaluate a product before they buy it (as is the case with a meal) they often assume a correlation between price and quality. Since most customers don’t know what’s been happening to the wholesale price of lobster, cutting the price could send the wrong signal: people might think your lobster is inferior to that of your competitors. A 1996 study found that restaurants wouldn’t place more orders with wholesalers even if lobster prices fell twenty-five per cent.

Finally, having lobster on the menu is a boon for restaurants because its artificially high price makes other dishes on the menu comparatively more affordable. Cited in Surowiecki’s piece is a fascinating paper by Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky concerning these context-dependent preferences:

The standard theory of choice-based on value maximization-associates with each option a real value such that, given an offered set, the decision maker chooses the option with the highest value. Despite its simplicity and intuitive appeal, there is a growing body of data that is inconsistent with this theory. In particular, the relative attractiveness of x compared to y often depends on the presence or absence of a third option z, and the “market share” of an option can actually be increased by enlarging the offered set. We review recent empirical findings that are inconsistent with value maximization, and present a context-dependent model that expresses the value of each option as an additive combination of two components: a contingent weighting process that captures the effect of the background context, and a binary comparison process that describes the effect of the local context. The model accounts for observed violations of the standard theory and provides a framework for analyzing context-dependent preferences.

MacDo: On The McDonald’s Franchise in France

Very interesting post at Roads & Kingdoms how the McDonald’s in France caters to local taste:

It’s not quite a bistro, but it’s close. This is McDonald’s as a decidedly more grown-up experience, where hard plastic is traded for leather banquettes, pull-out chairs for angular cushioned stools, and golden arches for burnt sienna and low-lit nooks where couples can steal a quiet moment. You can still find a Big Mac and a box of nuggets here, but they are overshadowed on the menu boards by the bigger stars of the French universe: the McDoo, a warm ham and cheese take on the croque-monsieur, leafy salads that bounce like a Kardashian’s backside, and a line of burgers featuring artisanal French cheeses like Comté and Camembert that McDonald’s rolled out earlier this year.

I had no idea about this trivia:

It may surprise some, but McDonald’s France—called MacDo by the locals—is the highest-grossing McDonald’s market outside of the United States (despite the fact that worker pay, a recent source of controversy in the US, starts around $12—France’s minimum wage). It’s a fun story to tell: the lowbrow American chain that won over the fastidious French. Something about it makes Americans feel like a warm apple pie inside. That’ll show those French snobs! But this didn’t happen by accident. If McDonald’s has found success in France, it’s because in many ways it has become the anti-McDonald’s: The service is warm, the interiors thoughtfully designed, and, above all, the food—from the baguette vessels to the pain au chocolat to the camembert-swaddled patties—is made for French palates.

Next time you find yourself in a McDonald’s in France, make sure to order something else besides the Royale with Cheese.