Wednesday, February 20, 2013

OK, So Alan Richman and I Don't Exactly See Eye to Eye

I had to chuckle when I read Alan Richman's introductory comments to his 12 Best Restaurants of 2013 piece in Esquire GQ, for they almost completely and directly contradict the entire theme and thesis of the essay I wrote for the Charleston City Paper's Winter Dish issue, which I composed weeks before Richman's piece ran but just came out in the City Paper today.

It's almost like we were debating each other with back and forth salvos without even realizing it. In fact, here's a spliced together version of that debate:

Richman: "We yearn for restaurants that are like us: casual, kindhearted, original, and a little too loud."

Me: "'Hearty comfort food to warm the soul' is leaving mine rather cold."

Richman: "The setting doesn't have to be stylish, and the waiters can put on whatever they want, even the T-shirt they wore the night before [and it's fine with me]"

Me: "We're witnessing an ever-deepening slide into the casual corner with servers' attire and restaurant decor [and that's not a good thing] . . . . Khakis led to blue jeans, oxford shirts are giving way to T-shirts emblazoned with restaurant logos."

Richman: "Deviled eggs with domestic draft beer is the food-and-beverage pairing of 2013."

Me: "When did deviled eggs become fancy restaurant food? You can top them with all the house-smoked bacon and microgreens you want, but it doesn't make them any better than the stuff our moms used to make for picnics, funerals, and other auspicious occasions."

Richman: "Food is plated differently these days. Less often will you come upon meat, potato, and vegetable all together, neatly arranged, occupying the same plate."

Me: "I relish the carefully-composed plate, one that wows you with its visual beauty, then backs up the promise with stunning layers of intense, complex flavors in combinations that you never would have imagined possible."

At least we have this in common: we both think the Ordinary is great. Richman named it one of the 12 best in the country, and I was fulsome in my praise as well, for the same reason: the food's so damn good.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Evolving the Ordinary: The First 6 Weeks

When I interviewed Mike Lata for my recent profile of The Ordinary in the Charleston City Paper, he gave me far more material than I could fit into the piece, including some inside scoop on how the format had evolved during the first few weeks of the restaurant’s being open.

“The menu was the very last thing to come together,” he told me. “There was so much work to do with the rest of the project . . . I told myself I’ll get to the menu when I get to, it, but I’ve been working on the dishes for the past two years at FIG.

“Three weeks before opening we had three menus worth of ideas, and we highlighted what we knew we could execute on. We got open with a pretty small, pretty simple menu. Each day we’ve been open, we’ve added one new thing, or tweaked one thing.”

One of the big things they tweaked is the format of the menu itself. Lata originally planned to offer a single plat du jour that changed daily and came with a salad and dessert, which would fulfill the fixed-priced “ordinary” meal concept (from which the restaurant borrowed its name) and let him keep everything else as a mix-and-match small plate grazing format.

But, a lot of diners struggled to assemble those small-bites that into their familiar pattern of dinner being an appetizer plus a soup or salad plus an entree. Not long after opening day, four larger plates were incorporated into the “Hot” section. A month later, they had been split out into a separate “Mains” section.

Lata is pragmatic about such adjustments. “An idea isn’t worth a damn if you can’t execute it,” he told me. “The most important thing is that each plate we put out is delicious.”

The prices on the menu have also received a mixed reception, and I think it’s the flip side of putting oneself into such a well-defined category. Each diner has their own set of expectations when they hear the term “oyster bar,” especially when it comes to price range.

There are plenty of worthy spots around town where you can knock back a dozen Gulf oysters and couple of beers and get out for under thirty bucks. The Ordinary isn’t one of those places. Its rates are more in line with other fine-dining establishments, which means that unless you just duck in for a bowl of fish chowder and a beer, you’re going to to shell out about the same amount of money as you would at any of the other new high-end places lining King Street.

“It’s a boutique oyster hall,” Lata admits. “We’re curating a list of very noteworthy oysters.” That means working with small regional producers who don’t have the economies of scale that the high-volume boys do. Once the oysters arrive in the kitchen, there’s a lot of work that goes into preparing them, too. “We have to cull through them and make sure there’s nothing in them that isn’t ready for the half-shell,” Lata says. The ones that don’t pass muster get fried or baked or incorporated into stews.

That choosiness pays off on the ice-filled tray. Each oyster is flawless, consistent in size, and exceptionally flavorful. Each diner will have to decide for him or herself whether that’s worth paying between $2.50 and $3 per oyster.

I, for one, think the fine dining prices are worth it. As I say in the profile, my dinner at the Ordinary was the best restaurant meal I’ve had in quite some time, and it’s going to be interesting to watch how that format continues to evolve in the upcoming months as Lata, Adam Nemirow, and Brooks Reitz continue to define what it means to be a high-end Lowcountry oyster hall.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Rye Returns to Baltimore

Pikesville Rye Ad from 1937
An Aristocrat in Decline
Last week, I wrote a bit for Garden & Gun in which Doug Atwell, the bar manager at the great Baltimore cocktail bar Rye, concocted a recipe for a local-themed cocktail in honor of the Ravens' trip to the Super Bowl.

As I was chatting to Atwell about the cocktail, I asked him whether he saw rye whiskey making a comeback in Baltimore. I had already written about the rye revival taking place these days in Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina, and was curious to hear how the old spirit was faring in Charm City. Rye has an even deeper history in Baltimore, which made its fall into near oblivion there all the more dramatic.

Whiskeymaking in Kentucky and Pennsylvania dates back to the colonial era, arriving with the first Scotch-Irish settlers, who brought a deep-rooted culture of grain distilling with them. Distilling arrived much later in Maryland, an outgrowth of the city’s commercial boom after the Civil War.

Gilded Age Baltimore sat at the center of a wide network of trade, and among its many merchant houses were dozens of liquor wholesalers, who bought spirits from inland distilleries (most of them in Pennsylvania) and packaged them for sale to retailers throughout the surrounding region, especially in Virginia and North Carolina. A few of these wholesalers, like Charles H. Ross & Co. and the Gottschalk Company, decided to try their hand at making their own whiskey, and by the 1880s a flourishing local distilling industry was underway.

In Pennsylvania and Kentucky, hundreds of small-scale distilleries existed side-by-side with major industrial producers. In Maryland whiskey production was dominated by a handful of large firms. These distillers may have come late to the game, but their brands--Mount Vernon, Melvale, Monument, Pikesville--became some of the most well-known in the country.

“The best rye,” the journalist, humorist, and cocktail authority Irvin S. Cobb wrote in 1936, “has always come from Maryland, just as the best Bourbon has always come from Kentucky.” Cobb attributed the quality to the state’s “radiantly pure spring water” and the softening presence of limestone conjoined with the skill of the traditional distillers.

Cobb wrote those words as the American whiskey industry was trying to stage a comeback after fourteen years of national Prohibition. Unfortunately for Maryland rye, its best years were already behind it. Most of the old Maryland brands had changed hands during the blackout years, and though they were brought back on the market after Repeal, they never regained their former stature.

Why Maryland’s distilleries failed to recover remains a mystery. Some historians have speculated that in Kentucky, bourbon-making families didn’t know any other trade, so they held onto their buildings and equipment during the dark years and returned to the business once it was legal again. In Maryland, whiskey distilling had always been more of a large-scale commercial venture than a family tradition, no different than selling any other manufactured goods. When Prohibition shut their businesses down, the proprietors moved on to more profitable lines of work and never looked back.

It’s as good of a theory as any. The actual causes may be murky, but the unfortunate results were clear: one by one the old Maryland brands disappeared from the market. By the 1970s Baltimore, once one of the country’s most prominent whiskey towns, had moved on to vodka and gin. In 1972, the final barrel of Pikesville Rye whiskey was filled at the old Majestic Distillery and rolled into a warehouse to age. It was the last barrel of rye whiskey produced in Maryland. The Pikesville brand was sold to a Kentucky distillery, though, in a fitting irony, it’s still sold and consumed almost exclusively in Baltimore.

When Doug Atwell and his partners opened Rye in 2011, the whiskey they named their bar after still languished in obscurity. "There were still people drinking Pikesville,” he told me, “but it was a kind of dive bar thing. Old Baltimoreans would drink it, especially in Fells Point, as shots."

Slowly and steadily, though, more and more of patrons have started returning to rye whiskey, and it’s the classic pre-Prohibition cocktails that are driving them toward it.

When Rye first opened, Atwell told me, they focused on what he called ’nouveau classics’--their own inventions inspired by but riffing upon older recipes. Not too long ago, though, “we put a sidebar on menu for classics like Mahattans and Sazeracs, and we started moving a ton of them. People during the holidays were drinking like their uncles and grandfathers.” Within weeks, their top three top sellers were Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, and Sazeracs, all of which are made with rye whiskey.

For Atwell, it’s a satisfying turn of events. “When we opened here in this neighborhood, there were plenty of people who thought we were crazy for doing what we are doing. 'Fells Point, that’s a beer and shot neighborhood',” he says. “Now we’re seeing groups of 25-year-old guys coming in and ordering four Old Fashioneds.”

That’s introducing a whole new generation to the glories of what was once Baltimore’s signature spirit. And it suggest that in the long, proud history of American rye whiskey, there are still plenty of more chapters left to be written.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Dining for the 0.1%?

I wrote the regular essay again for the City Paper's upcoming Dish issue, and this time around I tackled the topic of the increasing tone of informality that's overtaking the fine-dining world,  which led me to wonder why it is that we go out to eat big-ticket meals in the first place. That piece won't hit the streets for another week or two, but the topic of class in dining--high vs. low vs. middle--is still very much in the front of my mind.

And so, I couldn't help notice this line from a not-so-recent (May 2012) piece in the New York Times about superchefs Thomas Keller and Andoni Luis Aduriz:

While their restaurants may be accessible only to the world’s 0.1 percent, chefs at top restaurants influence the entire global food community with the way they think, write, tweet and talk about food — not just the way they cook it.
We, of course, have heard a lot about the 1% in the various political debates over the past few years,  and when you move that decimal one more place to the left, it suggests that the folks dining at Keller's and Aduriz's establishments must be among the very rarified elites indeed. You know, the kind that actually own their Gulfstream jets instead of just timesharing them.

But I don't think that's necessarily the case. Yes, only a very slim majority of the population will ever eat at one of these restaurants, but it's not because they're somehow "inaccessible" to ordinary people.

Ordinary middle-to-upper-middle-class Americans, that is. The current prix fixe menu at the French Laundry, Keller's flagship restaurant, is  $270 per person. This is an awful lot of money for a single meal, I concede--more than the annual per capita income in some Third World countries. But, any number of not-super-wealthy Americans regularly shell out that same amount for a deep sea fishing charter or a night at the blackjack tables or a shopping spree to a high-end mall--all of which are one-day treat-yourself-to-a-good-time type of experiences. They are quite accessible experiences for a large number of people . . . assuming, of course, that they highly value that sort of thing.

Several years ago, I was on the road for business with two colleagues, and we got to talking and it turned out that all three of us liked good food and sought out nice restaurants wherever we traveled for work. These were not wealthy one-percenters--middle-management corporate types, yes, but not craven plutocrats sitting atop the financial heap. And yet, as it turned out, both of them had been not only to the French Laundry but to Per Se, too--places I've not yet made it to myself (and, yes, I was duly jealous.)

Only a very narrow sliver of the elite could afford to eat at such high end restaurants on a week-in and week-out basis, but isn't that missing the point? Aren't these supposed to be rare, once-in-a-blue-moon, talk-about-if-for-years experiences, not a regular mode of eating? What ever happened to the concept of the big night out when you throw caution to the wind and just let it rip?

I've belabored the point enough, but what it comes down to is this: in our ongoing conversations about food and ethics, I'm increasingly worried that we don't even even have the terms of the debate right. When it comes to farm-to-table issues, shouldn't we be slugging it out at the daily meal level--at the grocery store and the mid-priced eateries, places with enough volume and scale that it might make a noticeable difference on the market? That's certainly where my attention is increasingly being drawn.

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