Monday, June 30, 2014


Should you go to a restaurant just because you find the chef (sexually) hot?

THE ANSWER: Well, you know in your heart that you probably shouldn’t, that it’s likely to end in tears, nevertheless the heart has its reasons and so I went to the Empire Diner at 210 12th Avenue, largely because the executive chef there is Amanda Freitag.

I first saw her on the TV show Chopped where she’s suitably stern and austere, but something told me she might have a soft, melty boozy center, like a liqueur chocolate, a notion not discouraged by seeing pictures of her looking disheveled in leather and/or with a beer in her hand.

Of course I’m not a fool.  I didn’t for a moment expect a celebrity chef, much less an executive chef, to be manning the grill on the brunch shift, and so it proved.  Opportunities to bask in the erotic culinary Freitag glow were as limited as expected.

The place was stylish, the service was friendly and the food was pretty darn dismal.  My grilled cheese sandwich looked like this.

I reckoned it wasn't quite dark enough to actually send back.  The Loved One even said that was how she liked her grilled cheese sandwich, but I sort of wish I had.  But surely nobody in their right mind would want to find this lump of dodgy-looking tomato in their grilled cheese sandwich, or anywhere else.


Thursday, June 26, 2014


Actually, it appears I may have picked the wrong week to be in New York.  Had I been there this week I could have schlepped along to Vanderbilt Hall, in Grand Central Station to see a “mini gallery” set up by Costello cheese displaying “famous still-life paintings alongside replicas made entirely out of cheese. Works by Flemish artist Clara Peeters, as well as American still-life artists Raphaelle Peale and John F. Francis will be recreated, among other noted masters of the genre.” Or so I read - I'm quoting from Gothamist.  Clara Peeter’s Still Life With Cheeses, Artichokes and Cherries, c 1625, looks like this:

Are they really going to make artichokes and cherries out of cheese, I wonder?  Certainly they might have more trouble recreating Picasso’s ­Still Life With Cheese, 1944.  

In any case, at some point in the proceedings, late in the day presumably, punters will be able to eat these works of art.  Cool.

I also read that “food artists Jim Victor and Marie Pelton will be hand-carving some new works out of Selection Hirten cheese, a hard cheese akin to Parmesan. “Previously they created Manhattan for a Castello pop-up store, which looked like this: 

As a man who has constructed, and then deconstructed, Stonehenge out of butter, I feel suddenly, improbably, part of an artistic community.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Back home, I can’t say I was absolutely yearning to have further adventures in Russian cuisine, but it just so happened that the local supermarket had some Moscowskaya Salami, or “Russian Brand Beef and Pork Fat Kielbasa” as it said on the label. 

If there’s any better way of enhancing a beef dish than slipping in a little pork fat, I’d like to know what it is.

And the supermarket also sells various kinds of Baltika beer – I went for the porter, and as I ate and drank I could, for a moment, almost believe I was back in the former USSR, or at least in an erratic Russian restaurant in New York. 

Monday, June 23, 2014


(Pasolini's Salo, no relation)


NUMBER ONE: If you find yourself walking along West 19th Street in Manhattan and you see a Russian restaurant that you know nothing about, should you go in and order something you’ve never had before, and in fact have never actually heard of?

THE ANSWER.  Obviously yes.

And so it was that the Loved One and I walked into Rasha Nasha, a Russian, and perhaps chiefly Ukrainian, restaurant, decorated in Soviet kitsch, and with enough varieties of vodka behind the bar, to destroy several livers.

We thought we’d play it safe, have drinks and an appetizer, see how that went, and if it was good then we’d order main courses.  So we ordered some drinks and looked at the menu.  We were at one of just three occupied tables: one drink came immediately, the other took fifteen minutes to arrive.  But by then we’d already ordered the “Salo Plate”.

Call me untutored, I had never heard of salo before, but the menu described it as “cured thick slices of Pork Belly” - one plain, one coated in paprika, one in garlic and pepper.  Well, I know what pork belly is, but the thing that came struck me as quite a long way from being pork belly.  Salo it appears is slices of meat-free pork fat, which is to say it’s essentially the same as Italian lardo.

It was good, and the pickled vegetables it came with were great, but really it was just slices of fat, and there’s a limit to how good slices of cured pork fat can be. We decided to move on elsewhere for our main courses.

The Rasha Nasha staff were wonderfully friendly if not wonderfully speedy, and a waitress did ask whether we’d ever eaten salo before.  When we said no, she was delighted that we’d been adventurous enough to try it.  It is she told us, a Ukrainian specialty, and she indeed came from the Ukraine.  One of the waiters was also Ukrainian she said, but she didn’t know where the chef came from.

Afterwards, reading around online, reviews of Rasha Nasha are mixed.  Complaints about slow service are common, there are also complaints that on certain nights the place seems to be full of Russian mobsters and hookers, who get served long before others do.  Well yes, I don’t suppose you make your mobster customers wait 15 minutes for a drink, but you can see why that’d be doubly annoying to the just plain folks.  Reviews also mention a now-abandoned “happy hour” scheme, actually two hours, in which time you got all the vodka you could drink, for a mere 30 bucks.  Did I mention destroyed livers?

Back home I consulted Jennifer McLagan’s magisterial Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient.  She tells us that salo is so well-loved in Ukraine, that there are songs and poems written about it, and annual festivals, including one in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, which has as its centerpiece a 30 foot square open face salo sandwich.  (I wonder if recent events have disrupted things, but surely a love of salo is unlikely to be affected by civil disturbance).

You’d think there’d be plenty of pictures of that giant salo sandwich online, but this is the best I’ve come across (photo by Bruce G. Stumpf) 

And yes, I think you’d be justified in complaining that it certainly doesn’t look as though it's thirty feet square.

Sunday, June 8, 2014


So, last night on Turner Classic Movies I watched The Mob, a very noir movie with some cracking dialogue, starring Broderick Crawford as Joe Damico, a cop who needs to redeem himself by going undercover as a longshoreman on the New York docks, and cracking the case, the details of which (as usually is the case in thee things) were slightly lost on me.  It was based on a novel by Ferguson Findley titled The Waterfront and was actually made three years before Brando’s On The Waterfront.

Broderick Crawford is no Brando but I’ve always liked him a lot as an actor, ever since Highway Patrol.  Crawford had his struggles with the bottle, and parts of that show had to be shot on private roads, because he’d lost his license through drunk diving.  Still, he lived to 74.

In The Mob, for reasons which again escape me, he has to pretend to come from New Orleans, and goes in the bar of the fleabag hotel where the bartender is named (I kid you not) Smoothie.  

The conversation goes like this:

Smoothie: What’ll it be?

Johnny Damico: White wine and beer.

Smoothie: Come again.

Johnny Damico: White wine and beer.

Smoothie: Mixed together?

Johnny Damico: No.  A glass of each.

Smoothie: That beats me.  I had a nut ask me once for a glass of gin and a candy bar.  This is a new one.

Stranger drinking at the bar: I knew guys used to drink white wine and beer.  Down in New Orleans.

Johnny Damico: I spent some time there.  Have a drink?

And Johnny Damico is trusted, at least for a while.

I’ve looked online, and in various books in the Psychgourmet Archive, and I can’t find any evidence that people in New Orleans, or anywhere else, drink a glass of white wine with their beer.  It doesn’t sound terrible, but it doesn’t sound that great either.   It certainly doesn’t sound very likely.  And when, in the interests of research, I tried it myself, it wasn't totally bad, but it wasn't good.  So ... can any reader enlighten me?