Archive for the ‘Dining’ Category

Let ‘Em Eat Dirt–Those Not Invited to the Mugabe Party, That Is

February 11, 2009

In case you’re into having a good time with a relentless dictator, here’s Robert Mugabe’s gustatory wish list for his February 21 birthday feast: (Apparently people/corporations are being asked to supply either the raw materials or large outlays of cash.)

2,000 bottles of champagne — Moët & Chandon and ’61 Bollinger
500 bottles of whisky — Johnny Walker Blue Label, 22-year-old Chivas
8,000 lobsters
100kg king prawns
3,000 ducks
4,000 portions of caviar
8,000 boxes of Ferrero Rocher
16,000 eggs
3,000 cakes — chocolate and vanilla
4,000 packs of pork sausages
500kg cheese
4,000 packets of crackers

All this while his country Zimbabwe is ravaged by assorted horrors. As reported by the Times OnLine–“…seven million citizens survive on international food aid, 94 per cent are jobless and cholera rampages through a population debilitated by hunger.”

The Times notes a Mugabe caveat re local eats: “No mealie meal” — the ground corn staple on which the vast majority of Zimbabweans survived until the country’s collapse rendered even that a luxury.”

President Mugabe will be 85. We have no idea who he is expecting to join him for dinner.
Original Artcile

FDR’s Anti-Epicurean White House

Why Eleanor Roosevelt—one of the most memorable first ladies in American history and an unshakably gracious person—refused to offer dinner guests a decent meal.

Long before the Inauguration, it was clear that Obama and Franklin Roosevelt were destined to shadow each other across presidential history; and now that the first hundred days are underway, every hour that passes is being held up and scrutinized against FDR’s equivalent. I can’t help noticing, however, that nobody seems to expect Michelle Obama to step into position as the next Eleanor Roosevelt. Too bad! The sight of a First Lady unabashedly wading into the most controversial areas of American life and throwing all the prestige of her office behind populist struggles for justice would be splendid to behold. On the other hand, Mrs. Obama has a political temperament quite different from Eleanor’s (not to mention the fact that she would get pounded to dust by today’s hypercritical media if she were to charge headlong into activism the way her iconoclastic predecessor did). More to the point, at least for those of us whose view of the world is always skewed towards the culinary, there are reasons to be grateful that Eleanor won’t be the role model here. The Obama family seems to have smart, contemporary and appealing ideas about food. Eleanor, by contrast, had a palate made of the same steel as her moral constitution. True, she insisted that a victory garden be planted at the White House (the only one of her food ideas with any hope of being revived by the Obamas), but her motive was patriotism, not the dream of a fresh-picked tomato. By all accounts, the great ER was responsible for serving family, friends and official guests the worst meals in the history of the modern presidency.

It’s incongruous and quite mysterious. What could have made this unfailingly gracious woman so resistant to offering people decent meals? Surely she noticed the way dinner guests toyed miserably with their lukewarm slices of mutton and overcooked peas, pushed aside their marshmallow-studded salads, and recoiled after tasting the klutzy American wines. Her own husband—who, let’s remember, was a paraplegic polio survivor trying to end the Great Depression and fight World War II—constantly begged for better menus. His children, his friends, even the press knew how dreary he found the food at his own table. But he had given Eleanor full responsibility for running the domestic side of the White House; and appalled though he was at the results, he refused to pull rank.

At the center of what nobody at the time thought to call Dinnergate was Henrietta Nesbitt, the White House housekeeper, a friend of Eleanor’s from Hyde Park who had worked with ER in local Democratic politics and happened to be a talented baker. When FDR was Governor of New York, Eleanor hired Nesbitt to supply the Governor’s mansion with doughnuts, pies and fruitcakes. Then, after FDR was elected president, Eleanor asked Nesbitt to take on a job for which she had no qualifications whatsoever—housekeeper at the biggest and busiest home in the country. Nesbitt’s high-handed ways made the White House staff loathe her; and it was soon apparent that apart from dessert, the meals she oversaw were going to be dreadful.

But ER wouldn’t hear of firing her. Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of the brilliant, richly detailed biography Eleanor Roosevelt, offers the theory that Eleanor’s stubborn loyalty to Mrs. Nesbitt was a kind of weapon, wielded consciously or not against FDR as she jostled for power in the course of a complicated and often painful marriage. Effective though they were as a public team, the Roosevelts led separate personal lives; and FDR always had other women around him. These friends and relatives, especially his devoted secretary, Missy LeHand, were happy to serve and amuse him—unlike the strait-laced, politically demanding ER. The tension in her role as wife, according to Cook, brought out a passive-aggressive streak in Eleanor. Underscoring this analysis, Cook describes another peculiarity of Eleanor’s that seems antithetical to her usual warm thoughtfulness: her habit of taking along a beloved but vicious dog or two wherever she went. The dogs used to bite friends and strangers alike; nonetheless, ER insisted on keeping them with her, until finally she was forced to give them up.

The culinary historian Barbara Haber takes a very different approach to unraveling this mystery. In a fascinating essay called “Home Cooking in the FDR White House” (included in her beautifully researched collection From Hardtack to Home Fries), she zeroes in on the food—specifically, on the relationship between ER, Nesbitt, and the meals on the table. Eleanor, as people often observed, cared nothing about what she ate. Her goal for White House menus was to keep them strictly within the bounds of culinary propriety for a nation that was suffering first from economic hardship, and later from the restrictions of rationing. It was her social conscience, Haber believes, not her marital resentment, that ruled the table. As for Mrs. Nesbitt, Haber points out that she had an extremely tight budget as well as a mandate to run a plain, sober White House; and she took both demands seriously. She may have been inept, but she was trying to do her job. Moreover, she was deeply loyal to ER, and the First Lady knew it. Nothing was going to make ER dismiss such a trusted ally.

Both these historians’ theories make good sense to me, and I suspect the truth about ER combines them. But it’s so depressing to think of this wonderful woman forever shielding herself from the pleasures of food that I’m going to think instead about the one dish she did seem to enjoy. It was a Roosevelt family tradition to have scrambled eggs on Sunday night, and Eleanor used to make them herself in a chafing dish, right at the table. In a lifetime packed with servants, this was the only meal she regularly cooked. The rest of the menu—“cold meat and salad, a cold dessert and cocoa” as she described it once—was probably assembled by other hands. But Eleanor scrambled the eggs. It’s not so easy to make first-rate scrambled eggs, especially for the numbers that typically assembled for a Roosevelt meal, but nobody seems to have complained about Sunday supper the way they complained about everything else. The eggs were good, supper was always a success, and Eleanor must have experienced on Sundays the contentment of a home cook who knows she’s done something right.

Perhaps that explains what happened on the clamorous night in 1932 when FDR was chosen as the Democratic candidate for president. Everyone was gathered at the governor’s mansion in Albany—friends, family, supporters, press—when word finally came from the convention that FDR had won the nomination. According to his secretary, “bedlam” broke out in the house. The only person quiet was Eleanor, who had dreaded this moment. She hated the idea of giving up her teaching, writing, and activism to become some sort of White House ornament in charge of tea parties. Yet the country desperately needed the kind of leadership FDR would provide, and he himself had worked and hoped for such an opportunity for years. She was swamped in despair and guilt. So while everyone else was still cheering, she went into to the kitchen and began scrambling eggs. Food itself may have held no comfort for her, but cooking this particular dish did—the familiar smells, the well-rehearsed movements, the promise of restoration. On that dark night, even Eleanor knew where to look for help.

Ritz Bar rolls out ‘small bites’ menu

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Ron Siegel, chef of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, has downsized his menu for the Ritz Bar, one of the hotel’s most intimate settings, with a “small bites” menu and an extensive list of wines by the half bottle.

The team: Wine director and sommelier Stephane Lacroix pulled together a list of 111 half bottles from $18 to $340, to pair with Siegel’s French- and Japanese-inspired cuisine.

The cuisine: Siegel’s 64-degree quail egg with caviar and croutons comes to the table on a plastic-covered glass bowl filled with cedar smoke. The server taps the plastic with a spoon to release a burst of cedar aroma that scents the entire dish. Among the other offerings: seared foie gras, a crispy chicken wing, tuna tartare and lobster risotto. For dessert, there are assorted sorbets, pot de creme, chocolate manjari caramel cake, panna cotta and artisanal cheeses. The bar also serves cocktails and wines by the glass.

The vibe: Casual, despite its English country-estate feel. Wood-paneled walls, comfortable leather club chairs and low lighting make for a cozy setting.

Ritz Bar, 600 Stockton St. (in the Ritz-Carlton), San Francisco; (415) 773-6168 or ritzcarltondiningroom.com. 6- 9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30- 9:30 Friday- Saturday. Small bites, $7- $18. No reservations. Credit cards accepted.

Restaurant Review Site

Monday, February 2, 2009, by Paolo


2009_02_zoodango.jpgThe latest user review site to hit the interwebs is something called Zoodango. But how is it different from the Yelps of the world, you ask? From TC: “Instead of publishing reviews like some other Web sites, Zoodango relies on a scoring system that ranks restaurants on a scale of 1 to 10 based on their popularity and type of cuisine …The score is a combination of user clicks—if you like a restaurant, you click a button to recommend it—and the results of a search of reviews of the restaurant that have been published around the Web.” [Tech Chronicles]

Differences in bicoastal dining

Rubicon was restaurateur Drew Nieporent’s only West Coast business.
I’m fascinated by the subtle and not so subtle differences between the East and West coasts, and I’ve quoted Drew Nieporent several times in the blog about his observations as a bicoastal restaurateur.
I caught up with him in New York last week and found that some things he told me last year haven’t changed.
He said he’d like to open up in San Francisco again if the right opportunity comes along. While New York is home, he loves the vitality of the West Coast. He reiterated his beliefs about the differences between diners on either coast.
At Rubicon, few people complained about being seated upstairs; at Corton, the biggest complaint is seating. When I was at Corton, he took a customer to a table in the corner, next to the kitchen wall that has a long narrow glass insert so that diners are protected from, but still get a glimpse of cooking action. The customer refused to be by the kitchen, which in Nieporent’s mind was one of the best tables.
He says that in New York, there’s always a jockeying for position and that the food is often less important to diners than where they sit. In San Francisco, the food is by far the most important element.
Another aspect I found interesting is his experience with OpenTable. This online reservation service worked beautifully in San Francisco, but is a bust at Corton.
He said one night he had more than 20 no-shows, which is one-third of the restaurant. In San Francisco, most people honor the online reservations. In New York he finds that many people use fake names and numbers. There are even several online businesses that make reservations to sell them to last-minute diners and don’t bother to cancel if they can’t sell the reservation.
Because of these ongoing problems, he blocks out most of the tables on OpenTable, forcing diners to call the restaurant.
Posted By: Michael Bauer (Email) January 29 2009 at 05:18 AM
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