Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Sad Day in the World of Chocolate

Hey Food Fans,

Sorry for the gap in postings.  However, today seemed as good a time to write as any.

So not so long ago, I waxed poetic about the wonders of desserts and, namely, chocolate.  Today, one of chocolate's most seminal figures passed away.

No, not any of the Hersheys.

No, not Lady Godiva (whoever the heck that is)

No, not Russell Stover (and for Pete's sake, stop buying those cheap-ass chocolates)

Today, Robert Steinberg passed away.

("Who's Robert Steinberg?)

If you wondered the above, that is the essence of my complaint.

Robert was the co-founder of Scharffenberger Chocolate, one of fine cuisine's most celebrated and used chocolates.  A regular staple among gourmet bakers, Scharffenberger is one of America's first artisan chocolate makers, and its factory in Berkeley is a popular destination as visitors marvel in the traditional techniques of making chocolate.  The result?  A chocolate that is not only ultimately satisfying, but one that contains a variety of different flavors that dance on the palate.  No wonder the tour guides there tell you NEVER to chew the chocolate.

Yet Robert is a classic example of how, in the toughest of times, following one's passions can take life into a new and exciting direction.  In the mid-1990s, after being diagnosed with lymphoma, he began learning about how artisan chocolate was made, using large stone grinders and high-end cacao.  Joining with John Scharffenberger,  the experiment began with in Steinberg's apartment, using, of all things, a coffee grinder, a mortar and pestle, an electric mixer, and a hair dryer to start making chocolate.  Soon after that, the factory in Berkeley opened.

Scharffenberger only uses accurately fermented cacao nibs and pays above market rate from their Latin American suppliers for them.  They were the first chocolate maker to indicate on their bars what percentage of the chocolate is Cacao.  So began American cuisine's fascination with high-end chocolate.

So with great gratitude to Scharffenberger's chocolate tradition, perhaps you can do one of the following to pay tribute to Dr. Steinberg and his chocolate revolution.

1. Buy a Scharffenberger bar.  Might I recommend the 73% bittersweet.  Only take the 99% unsweetened if you want a head rush.
2. Order a desert that indicates it uses Scharffenberger, Valhrona, or a comparable chocolate-maker's chocolate.
3. On Valentine's Day, take a pass on the Russell Stover.  It may be cheap, but you get what you pay for.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

We're in this together. Save NOLA.

Hey Food Fans,

Our good friend the Passionate Eater has taken us through some fun times in New Orleans, from her adventures through the NOLA food scene to her recent wedding and subsequent reception (which can be quite a food undertaking in its own right).

Today, however, her dear home city stands once again the path of a deadly hurricane. It has only been three years since Katrina rained horror on this magical city and its people, and the nightmare has come back.

So as you enjoy this final weekend of the summer, no doubt partaking in food, drink, and merriment with you beloved, please do think of the citizens of the Gulf Coast and do whatever you can to help our fellow citizens in their time of need.

Show your support by donating to the American Red Cross.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Burger Contender #1: Shake Shack, NYC

So remember that post about the great burger debate? Here's a place to fuel the fire.

So we've talked about how the burger comes in all shapes and sizes. Also how a place like California has a long and distinguished burger tradition thanks to the fascination with the drive-thru. Consequently, New York City doesn't have a great burger tradition, with things like deli sandwiches and street hot dogs occupying the ranks of city institutions.

Enter Shake Shack, a stand in Madison Square Park run by the Union Square Hospitality group, which is home to the legendary Gramercy Tavern, one of New York's top restaurants. With Shake Shack, Danny Meyer has come upon a great concept of a simple burger stand in a refreshing park setting in lower Manhattan. On temperate summer days, like the day I went, it's quite an ideal spot to be.

The burgers, however, are superior. Flavorful patties that are juicy and succulent. Creamy and tangy shack sauce. Fresh toppings. Certainly, this burger excels at the required elements. I ordered the Shack Stack, which is a double cheeseburger with a 'shroom burger in the middle. The 'Shroom burger is a breaded, deep-fried portabello with muenster and cheddar cheeses cooked inside. It squirted some of the cheese out on my first bite, which made for some nice dip for the crisp fries.

The shakes are rich and creamy, and come in different varieties, most notably the "Shack Attack" consisting of chocolate custard, hot fudge, chocolate truffle cookie dough, Valhrona chocolate chunks, and, for good measure, chocolate sprinkles. That even makes me, a baker and lover of all things dessert, gasp.

So NYC's burger tradition begins with this wonderful stand in Madison Square Park. It's crowded at all hours, but for good reason. I really can't think of a much better way to spend a non-muggy summer day in NYC than taking in a Shake Shack burger, a shake, and simply kicking back and watching the people go by.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

NYC: BBQ Central? You're joking, right?

So picture this. You're a clasically trained french chef. You work for one of the city's elite restauranteurs. Your food entertains a clientele of Manhattan power players. For most foodies, this is the life.

And then, oddly enough, your next career move takes you away from NYC and into the great American southwest. What now? High-class Manhattan dining is unlikely to find a hold on the frontier.

This is the path of Adam Perry Lang, formerly of Daniel Boulud's staff who returned to NYC a few years ago to open Daisy May's BBQ, arguably the finest BBQ establishment in the city. The southwestern influences mesh with Lang's classic training to create original renditions of BBQ classics.

I never eat at BBQ places in California, largely to save my palate (and my diet) until I get to savor the dry-rub ribs at Daisy Mays (washed down with a sweet tea). They also offer sticky ribs, chicken, and a slew of original side dishes. At night, however, private groups take over the joint as whole roasted pigs, pork shoulder, and rack of lamb are served to large parties at a premium price.

Can it contend with the traditional offerings from the South? Lang has won several competitions against BBQ royalty, as he has infused his knowledge of other cuisines to enhance his BBQ prowess.

So while it seems like a great change for someone from Lang's roots to go from French Haute to southwestern BBQ, the tangy, spicy, satisfying offerings that come out of the Daisy May's smoker are like no other you have tasted. Thus, I enthusiastically recommend hitting this joint on your next visit.
(Pictured: Dry rub ribs with mashed potatoes and cole slaw (before and after), Jumbo beef rib (before and after), Sweet tea.

NYC Delicatessens: Sandwiches like no other.

One of NYC's unique culinary contributions is the overstuffed deli sandwich. With famed spots like the Carnegie Deli, the Stage Deli, and several other ones to name, NYC has a rich tradition with this classic dish.

Slices of corned beef, pastrami, or other cured meats are heated (sometimes with a cheese topper) and placed on rye bread with only a few notable yet subtle extras, most notably sauerkraut or russian dressing. From reubens to pastrami and triple-decker sandwiches, there are so many interpretations to savor.

The above-pictured sandwich is a Pastrami sandwich from 2nd Ave Deli, a small yet enthralling deli on the Lower East side. This particular rendition is topped with cole slaw as well as a side of both russian dressing and deli mustard.

But if you can't get to NYC, I make a reuben using pretty much the same stuff. Here's my version:

Two slices long rye bread

1 Cup sliced Pastrami or corned beef

1/4 cup sauerkaut

2 slices swiss cheese

Thousand Island dressing (about the closest to Russian you can buy in a major supermarket)

After spreading the dressing on both slices of bread, place the sauerkraut and then the meat in equal portions on each slice of bread. Place the slices of cheese on top.

In a toaster oven, lay each open-face slice on the rack and toast for about 6-8 minutes. Remove, place together, slice, and serve.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Cabinet is coming to NYC!

Hey Food Fans,

Hope you all had a great 4th of July weekend and such. Just wanted to let you know that the Cabinet is paying a visit to what Colonel Slade called "Freak show central" in "Scent of a Woman."

That's right, New York City.

From street food to the swanky halls of Le Cirque, there's much to see, hear, do, and of course, eat, in NYC. So stay tuned to the Cabinet as, for the next week, we dish on just a sampling of what this amazing city has to offer your palates.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Father's Office: The burger that ends (and starts) all debates

Ask anyone, foodie or not, about what makes a good burger, and you'll hear different ideas and beliefs. Is it the bun? The cheese? The toppings? The fries? The patty?

Today, burgers come in all shapes, sizes, and styles. From the no frills, simple yet delicious burgers at Louis Lunch in New Haven, CT, to the California classic In-n-Out double-doubles and the $30 burger at New York's 21 Club, interpretations of this traditional American institution cover the entire flavor spectrum and are all noteworthy for their own reasons.

In Southern California, where the automobile is king, drive-thru's and takeout joints have only intensified the food world's obsession with the burger, and in the Southland, foodies all point to Father's Office, a simple and unpretentious establishment in Santa Monica, where Chef Sang Yoon offers what many consider the best burger in Los Angeles, in addition to other offerings that resemble that of a Spanish tapas bar. It is only fitting then that a wide selection of beers are available on tap. At any and all hours, the place is packed, and the fact that you can only place orders at the bar ensures a heavy crowd.

Knowing this, another location recently opened in Culver City on Helms Street. Although much larger, I hear the place gets equally heavy traffic at peak hours. Armed with this knowledge, I began last Saturday's southland trek with the aim of arriving at the Culver City Father's Office right after the noon opening time. You can imagine my surprise when I saw the sleek, shiny establishment nearly empty upon my arrival.

The Father's Office Burger is a simple yet stunning combination of flavors. The patty is solid, and accentuated by the presence of caramelized onions and gruyere cheese, which offer a notable clash of sweet and bitter. The arugula greens in the burger also provide a unique play on the usual presence of greens in a burger.

The fries themselves are also of note. Thinly sliced frites with a hint of garlic are provided with a creamy garlic aioli dressing for dipping. It is to be mentioned, though, that several customers opt to pay a little extra for a basket of sweet potato frites instead.

At $14, is surely isn't cheap, but it is one of the few unique superior culinary offerings in the southland that won't completely destroy your wallet. But don't take my word for it. If anything, this burger only starts new debates on what belongs and doesn't belong in a good burger. By all means, I'd really like to know what you think about what makes the perfect burger.

Happy Eating