Monday, May 28, 2018


I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog that if you’re an Englishman of a certain generation (i.e. mine), chances are that the first “foreign food” you ever ate was Indian.   And very possibly it was a biryani, because that was “safe,” essentially a risotto (though I surely didn’t know that word at the time), with a curry sauce on the side that you could pour over it in whatever quantity you wanted.

Were these biryanis authentic? Probably not, although Wikipedia has a remarkably detailed entry on the subject, which suggests that authenticity comes in a vast number of forms.  You want inauthenticity? This is what Martha Stewart’s version looks like:

I started thinking about biryani because I found myself back on Venice Boulevard last week and spotted this restaurant sign:

However you look at it, 30,000+ is an impressive number – I was seduced, I wanted one  – but it was early, only 11 am and the restaurant wasn’t open.

And so I wandered further along Venice Boulevard, and I came to India Sweets and Spices: a place I’ve been known to go to buy their giant jars of Marmite and slightly less giant jars of lime pickle. And yes this is the only “All Asian, Fiji and British Grocery” I know of in LA or in fact anywhere else, though I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that there are others in this town. India Sweets and Spices is a small, independently owned chain - but I don't think any of the others claim a connection with Fiji.

And they have a small buffet – you point at things – (no biryani alas) - and have exchanges in polite, cheerful but fractured English, and end up with a plate that looks like this: 

I wouldn’t absolutely swear what’s there.  I do know that’s a yoghurt curry, front left, with spinach and a chick pea flour fritter lurking in it. I think that’s a potato curry (perhaps aloo poori) in the back, and that’s definitely lemon rice – I had to pay extra for that – and there’s some yogurt on the side, not curried.  It was all pretty decent.

I also ordered a paneer pakora (above) – a deep fried cheese pancake – you’re not going to go far wrong with that – but I had to wait for it to come, and by the time it arrived I knew I was going to be so stuffed I didn’t need it.  I took it home. reheated it, and it was good, damn good, the best thing they sold.  You know, sometimes I think maybe the British Empire wasn’t all bad.

Saturday, May 26, 2018


Salt and vinegar: one of the simplest flavor combinations, and it’s certainly not a subtle one, but it has a lot more poke than, say, salt and pepper, or sage and onion.  For the British, salt and vinegar reaches an apotheosis with fish and chips – if you don’t put salt and vinegar on them they’re hardly worth bothering with.  

This topic was only vaguely on my mind when I bought, from an all-American supermarket, a pack of Tim’s Cascade Style Potato Chips, “extra thick and crunchy, sea salt and vinegar,” and gluten free (you don’t say.)  
Yes, there’s a lot of writing on the pack.  I think “cascade style” simply means they come from Washington state – but the company’s address is 1150 Industry Drive North, Algon, which doesn’t in itself summon up images of mountains and volcanoes.  Also it turns out that Tim’s is actually a subsidiary of Birds Eye.  And wait a minute, what’s that printed on the pack, black on blue so it’s barely legible “artificially flavored”?   

Turn to the list of ingredients on the back and you’ll find they include vinegar powder and malic acid.  Vinegar powder, I now know, from the pack and elsewhere, is “maltodextrin and vinegar.”  You could argue about how artificial maltodextrin is.  Yes, it’s a food additive, a polysaccharide that is a thickener and improves mouth feel, but then again it is derived from starch.  As for malic acid, that’s a naturally occurring organic compound found in certain fruits and it gives them a sour flavor - quince is pretty much the magic-acid queen.   So you might think that was vaguely natural, though it does have an E number, E296.

Anyway, Tim’s potato chips tasted fine. It’s true enough that they were thick and crunchy, and the tartness didn’t strip the inside of the mouth the way some salt and vinegar flavor does.
          OK, now I had the bit (and the salt and vinegar) between my teeth. I bought some Kettle Brand Sea Salt and Vinegar Chips “great taste … naturally” – the packaging seems to suggested they’ve managed to trademark both “kettle” and “naturally.”

These were noticeably harsher tasting than Tim’s.  Flavoring here included, of course, vinegar powder “(Maltodextrin, White Distilled Vinegar),” Maltodextrin on its own, and citric acid. 

It’s hard to see that this version of “natural” is so very different from the “artificial” flavor of Tim’s, though the pack says, “non-GMO project verified” – which would obviously please some people a lot more than it does me. 
          And then I bought another pack, the last for a while.  I mean frankly, 3 largish packets of salt and vinegar chips go quite a long way.  This time I tried some Boulder Canyon Malt Vinegar and Sea Salt, Kettle Cooked Chips: 

and do you see that proud boast on the pack, “authentic foods”?  We’ll save our book- length discussion of “authenticity” for another day.

These chips tasted the best to me, the subtlest and most complex flavor, with a hint of something lemony. And how did they arrive at that flavor? Malt vinegar power (maltodextrin, food starch modified, malt vinegar), then white vinegar powder (maltodextrin, distilled white vinegar), fructose, some more maltodextrin, and then malt extract.  Is that artificial?  Is that authentic?  Beats me.

This incidentally is (part of) the Vinegar Joe referred to in the title:

Thursday, May 24, 2018


I don’t know if Edward Gorey was much of a drinker, least of all a gin drinker, I tend to think not, but he was certainly well aware of the artistic possibilities of mother’s ruin.

He also came up with this limerick:

From the bathing machine came a din, 
As of jollification within;
It was heard far and wide,
And the incoming tide
Had a definite flavor of gin

He was, according to most sources, a “man of eccentric habits,” but this eccentricity always seems pretty low key.  He liked cats, he watched soap operas, and Alexander Theroux in The Strange Case of Edward Gorey writes, "I still see myself just sitting in his kitchen. There was always a melancholy tone to his voice, and he would give you white toast with a cinnamon shaker,”  not the wildest form of eccentricity I can imagine.  

He also collected things, including cheese graters, though I don’t know how much cheese he grated.

And here, amazingly enough, from the flickr stream of Christopher Seufert is a picture captioned “Edward Gorey's Liquor Cabinet” from Seufert’s upcoming book, The Last Days of Edward Gorey.  That clear bottle towards the back on the right could be gin, but if so it seems rather neglected.

Friday, May 18, 2018


It was Somerset Maugham who apparently said, “To eat well in England you should have breakfast three times a day.”  The interwebs are pretty well agreed about that, but I haven’t been able to find exactly where he said (or wrote) it.

I’m not sure if Maugham’s line was ever really true, but I think the all-day breakfast is more of an American invention than a British one.  And in fact I don’t think English and American breakfasts are fundamentally all that different; they’re just variations within the form, not of the form.  The British sometimes favour baked beans, the Americans sometimes favor pancakes – both of which I can do without at breakfast.

Surely bacon and eggs are the defining elements of Anglo-American breakfasts. So I was probably going off message at the Farmers (no apostrophe) Market in Los Angeles last week when I had pastrami and eggs for breakfast at Phil’s Deli and Grill.  

And yes, I suppose you might have to go a fair distance to kind pastrami served for breakfast in England, and hash browns and that bagel are certainly all-American, but there’s nothing hard-to-understand about it.

Incidentally, Somerset Maugham, when he was in his 60s, spent part of the Second World War in Los Angeles.  I don’t know if he ever went to the Farmers Market, and back then it probably didn't look exactly like this, but the picture is hard to resist:

And a final word from Mr. Maugham from his novel The Explorer.  One of his characters says,  “… a love for good food is the only thing that remains with man when he grows old. Love? What is love when you are five and fifty and can no longer hide the disgraceful baldness of your pate. Ambition? What is ambition when you have discovered that honours are to the pushing and glory to the vulgar. Finally we must all reach an age when every passion seems vain, every desire not worth the trouble of achieving it; but then there still remain to the man with a good appetite three pleasures each day, his breakfast, his luncheon, and his dinner.”
         The Explorer was published in 1907 when Maugham was in his mid 20s.  That passage seems like a very young man’s idea of being old.

Mr Maugham, probably not thinking about breakfast.

Friday, May 11, 2018


My pal Anthony suggested we go for lunch to Versailles, a Cuban restaurant on Venice Boulevard.  I’d never heard of it and he was surprised, and I’m sure I should have.  Everybody else seems to know it and most people seem to love it.  It gets 4 stars on Yelp (which of course means nothing much) but some reviewers say they’ve been going there happily since the 90s, and it was, apparently, founded in 1981.  

According to an article in the Daily Telegraph Helen Mirren has been known to eat there, and considers it part of her “perfect weekend,” though perhaps she doesn't go there dressed like this:  But hot damn, in any case.

As for why a Cuban restaurant would be named Versailles, I have no idea.  The waiter we asked certainly had no idea either, but then I didn’t really expect him to. I had a Cuban sandwich, which was as good as any.

And the oxtail stew was probably better, without being absolutely spectacular - those mushy things you see there are plantains.

But the place had a good vibe – cavernous rather than cozy, rough at the edges, waiters who are a long way from being obsequious.  I had no complaints.

But afterwards I thought, as I often do, what does Jonathan Gold have to say about this place?  And I found an LA Weekly review.  He wasn’t keen but it was one of those generous bad reviews that he’s rather good at. He writes “everybody but me, it appears, adores the crisp-skinned roast chicken.” “As usual my friend Margaret tells me I don’t know what I’m talking about." A bad review that would leave most restaurant owners feeling not too hurt. 

But then I noticed the date of that Gold review - December 9, 1998.  Blimey. I suppose it’s just conceivable that he might have changed his mind in the last 20 years.  

But that left me thinking, whatever happened to ephemerality?  Thanks to the Internet a 20 year old restaurant review remains “current.”  In 1998 I’m not sure I even really understood what the Internet was.  But I do remember a time when I used to think that a piece of writing wasn’t “real” unless it was printed on paper.  Now I tend to think the opposite.  Eternal verities – they’re a bad mistress.

Monday, May 7, 2018


He’s been called the Fast Food President and that obviously endears him to his demographic.  But hey look at the accessories on that table. I suppose he’s not the first person in history to eat KFC with a knife and fork, but he must be in a tiny minority.  And look at those dinky little salt and pepper shakers, though I suppose they come with the plane.

As is so often the case, we come back to a Seinfeld episode:

Thursday, May 3, 2018


A couple of years ago I was vaguely and briefly in the frame to write the text for a book about cocktails.  It never happened, obviously, because if it had, I’d have told you. 
       The problem I had was that the project would have involved a fair amount of “research” - i.e. cocktail drinking - and I realized that when it comes right down to it, I only really like two cocktails: the martini and the gimlet.  I can slug down a Manhattan or a Marguerita without complaint, but when cocktail makers start messing with hibiscus syrup and orgeat, then my taste buds rebel pretty fast.
Of course the book would have had a considerable visual component and the great thing about a lot of cocktails is that they look so much better than they taste.

I mean what exactly is Dephine Seyrig drinking in that image above, from Daughters of Darkness? Is the drink that color just because it contrasts nicely with her dress?  I’m going to say it is. 

And is Tilda Swinton drinking a martini up there or not?   The color doesn’t look quite right to me and there are no olives or a twist of lemon, but she still looks good, of course.  But then she’d look good drinking an Irn-Bru.

And what’s going on in the picture above?  It’s Salvador Dali with Joan Crawford; the guy in the middle is Philip Terry, Crawford’s third husband.  OK, that may be a cocktail  in front of Dali or it may be a glass of wine, but what on earth is in Joan’s glass? We may never know.  
The photograph does however depict one of those rare moments when Dali looks less affected and phony that anybody else in the scene.

Still, whatever Joan's drinking with Dali, it’s probably better than what’s in the glass above. Ostensibly it’s just Pepsi Cola, served in a really not all that stylish vessel, but I like to think that Joan may have “cocktailed” it up with something a bit more zesty.  Hope so anyway.  I would of.