I had heard for sometime that Can Can was a (poor?) cousin/imitation of Balthazar’s in NYC. Since I am not versed in the history of the place, this “provenance” is perhaps not apocryphal (?) So when I got the chance recently, I had to test it out.
The décor is …I let these (terrible) pictures speak for themselves. The food on the other hand - quite different (similar font and style on menu (albeit a standard one) but that’s about where the similarity ends) - the food at B showing more depth in French cuisine than the largely surface skimming CC menu. Other than the more extensive menu and wine list and higher prices, the homology is quite striking. [To quote wiki :) - A homology is a "structural correspondence", whereas an analogy is a "non-correspondent similarity".]
I admit that I actually like CC. They do dumbfound on occasion and they’re not really on the moderate side pricewise - but these traits seem to apply to quite a few places around. I could (cheekily perhaps) extend my homology analogy to the demographic :).. but.. They have a rather nice looking bar and the frites (pommes and moules) are pretty good. Their feeble attempts at franco-sophistication are often quite amusing (when not to the detriment of the food) and I like the fact that they have a decent dessert menu. The little boulangerie corner with its stacks of loaves is a pleasant sight as is the generally open and airy interior. Noisy and often raucous – wish they had more of their nicer wines by the glass!
It is possible (if you shut your ears and let your eyes defocus) to imagine that you’re in a Parisian bistro at both places!
80 spring street 10012 / 80 x 39 w cary street 23221
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
I had heard for sometime that Can Can was a (poor?) cousin/imitation of Balthazar’s in NYC. Since I am not versed in the history of the place, this “provenance” is perhaps not apocryphal (?) So when I got the chance recently, I had to test it out.
Friday, August 20, 2010
I have to say that one of my favorite places in RVA is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for a plethora of reasons. One of them is the fabulous space of the restaurant Amuse next to the South Asian collection. With the latest additions to the sculpture garden below and having the entire room fill with the light of the setting sun, this has to be one of the nicest views around. While the BEST café on the ground level has the perpetual aroma of a grilled cheese sandwich, the comfortable lounging chairs and hushed ambiance of Amuse makes it a great place to enjoy the selections of regionally sourced food (theres that word again!).
A dish that intrigued me on a recent visit was the pork belly with kimchee.(*) This was the third current instance I’ve seen at a non-Korean place (the Boka truck and Balliceaux being the others)….A welcome departure from the norm…But of course, being a fan of Korean food, I’ll play! While it ended up not being strictly kimchee (more like pickled cabbage sans the heat), the pork belly was excellent – nicely caramelized and a pleasant texture. From my limited sampling of the menu, I have to be back for more full fledged dinners that look quite well put together (served on square plates which must mean they're good :)). And they’re on Open Table which to me is a big plus ! It is a pity they have such limited hours.
A couple of quick notes around campus before all the craziness starts anew: My summer favorite Sprout has continued to rule my roost. It will be interesting to see how they survive the onslaught of all the traffic (goodbye to leisurely lunches). At last visit, I liked how they placed their dinner menu in LP album covers.
Another restaurant closure around was in the form of Ruchee Express, a place that did its best to add to the shoddy reputation of Indian food in RVA. No big loss here obviously, but given student demographics, I remain quite perplexed at the lack of a decent restaurant anywhere from the Asian continent in the vicinity of VCU. A Taste of Far East on Grace is possibly an exception.
Speaking of Indian food, one could do very nicely by visiting Laxmi Palace which has to be one of the best Indian grocery stores for quite a radius around. They not only have a whole host of little desi things (spices, savory snacks, Indian pickles, rice, bread (naans/parathas etc), and a lot of frozen foods that are better than the fare at most Indian restaurants in RVA) but also a very good selection of vegetables including ones not found in regular grocery stores (or even Tan A). When in doubt about something, look for the ever friendly owner!
Laxmi Palace - 3423 Old Parham Road Richmond, VA 23294, map
Epilogue: “Words like “sustainability” and “food-miles” are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of energy and land use.” Bravo! This excellent (combining two of my passions :)… ) op-ed piece in today’s NYT is worth a read: Math Lessons for Locavores
I particularly like this sentiment – “Eating locally grown produce is a fine thing in many ways. But it is not an end in itself, nor is it a virtue in itself.”
On the topic of “food miles”, I noticed Whole Foods has begun (not sure how long they’ve been at it) to put the mileage on (some of) their produce. A nice gesture, but one must remember not just to look at the ׀number׀.
* - Edit update - did my eyes deceive me? on a recent visit I noticed that it was labeled as the korean pork belly w/ slaw, the adjective having moved around !!
Monday, August 16, 2010
Again, not much to do with food but to another of my favorite topics:
Something I discovered quite by serendipity (I’m surprised I didn’t think of it earlier but have figured out why) this summer was the potential to harvest pretty large quantities of water from air conditioning condensate. a) this summer has been quite a scorcher and b) VA is under a bit of a drought . Can one fact be used to help the other?
While rain water barrels and harvesting rain and gray water recycling have received a lot of attention, water harvesting from air conditioning systems is another possibility. The principle is fairly straightforward - When an a/c removes heat from a room, it do so by contacting warmer air with a compressed refrigerant. The latent heat of evaporation cools the air and thereby condenses the water vapor in the air. This water needs to be removed before the cooler air is returned to the building. What then, can we do with all that water? Presently, most systems either discharge this water as waste or send it to the sewer. The solution is simply, to collect the water. Needless to say, this is not a novel idea (although I’ve seen it rarely discussed) so I just wanted to add my thoughts on the subject. There are several websites dedicated to this concept:
Alliance for water efficiency, Building Green and a little ehow
The AWE (!) has some excellent information on this. In particular - A central AC for an entire home can collect 5 to 20 gallons (18.9 L to 75.7 L) of condensate water per day, equating to more than 300 gallons (1135.3 L) per month in the summer (my calculations for an average house in RVA put that number much higher >1 gallon/hr). I am not sure this will work well for a window unit btw. The climate in RVA with a general humid subtropical pattern is ideally suited for large condensate collection. My system (operating very sparingly at 30% efficiency), for example, has been right at the lower end of the spectrum @ ~5-10 gallons a day !
There are two important considerations here: Since HVAC water typically runs over and through copper coils, there may be some metal content so obviously NO drinking this water! Theoretically however, there shouldn’t be much metal and this water is essentially quite pure (it is actually distilled water). However, since we are generally careful about such things, it may not be a good idea to use the water to irrigate plants used for food consumption (herb gardens, fruits and vegetables etc), but this water is easily put to good use for general irrigation. Since this is right up my alley, I checked the copper content in RVA water. The level is low < 0.01 mg/l. (I checked the copper content in the HVAC water and it is considerably higher, almost by a factor of 100, but still below EPA level. So one must be careful). As a reference, the EPA safety level is 1.2 mg/l
The system I have right now is a batch system, so I manually transfer the collected water to its intended application. Next up - some fairly straightforward tinkering to connect it to a rainwater barrel or some other continuous flow device especially to develop a pressure head and voila!!
Second: For the pragmatist, the city of Richmond for example, charges approx $1.50 for a ccf of water. One ccf ~ 750 gallons. So yes, in all probability, saving this water is not going to save you a lot of money! Perhaps, this is an example of easy, practical sustainability with no “lifestyle sacrifice” involved, especially if you are one that cringes at water wastage. Plus the output in this case is directly proportional to the need - the hotter the day, the more the water !
Epilogue - An example of engineering at its classical and simplistic best – this recent mobile phone trigger for irrigation pumps.
How little things can make a big difference. It is one thing to “talk in bumper stickers” (EG from Ea Pr Lo acknowledged :)) and another thing to actually figure out and implement the mechanics, thermodynamics and design required to make a difference ! And for one who works with “expensive toys”, it is good to get my students to think more along some low cost paradigm nudging lines.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Just a random econ/behavioral psych detour in the area of food shopping. After my little DoHa experiment (below), I began to ponder the supply chain and the behavioral economics of buying groceries online. Online groceries (that glorious meteor – Webvan comes to mind) are a complex business different from regular online shopping. While the DoHa business model is (obviously), different from ordering fruits and vegetables and having them shipped from, say, a warehouse in Kentucky, it does share some of the similar consumer behavioral challenges. The research firm Nielsen, found that the two most common reasons Americans give for not buying groceries online are delivery costs and the desire not to have to wait for a delivery. I suppose that this former inherent cost in the enterprise is what makes it somewhat cost-ineffective (as opposed to a centralized pick up system i.e. a grocery store) for the casual customer. Approximated via packaging, labor, fuel, depreciation and overhead, this is apparently not a trivial outlay for the business. The decision making for the consumer (as I found) in this case is therefore predicated on the value of time (for example, a busy person/family) or if the product being consumed is a “scarce” commodity (for example, truffles).
Back to behavior. I stumbled on some working papers from the Harvard Business School that were particularly fun: The first was the so-called “want” vs. “should” decision making process. How do decisions made for tomorrow or two days in the future differ from decisions made for several days in the future? This 2007 paper by Milkman et al. (talk about an appropriate author name) is titled – I'll Have the Ice Cream Soon and the Vegetables Later: Decreasing Impatience over Time in Online Grocery Orders. They find that consumers purchase more "should" (healthy) groceries such as vegetables and less "want" (unhealthy) groceries such as ice cream the greater the delay between order completion and order delivery. We, as consumers have a tendency to choose "want" items in the short run but weigh toward "should" items when the impact will be felt in the future. So interestingly, when ordering for things in advance (like 5 days ahead), we will always pick “healthier” options – A salad for a lunch 5 days from now but pizza for lunch today. However, ordering for delivery tomorrow does not show this pattern! So it would appear that feeling "good" while ordering produce for later delivery is almost "predictable" :)
Another paper, Mental Accounting and Small Windfalls: Evidence from an Online Grocer focused on windfall mental accounting where a person suddenly receives a small amount of money like a $5 gift or a $10 certificate. One would assume that these small amounts have no effect on spending decisions. BUT - For online groceries, the redemption of a $10-off coupon increases an individual's spending AND the increase in spending stimulated by this redemption is focused on groceries that customers would not purchase in the absence of such a coupon. This conclusion, in hindsight, seems rather obvious but it is fascinating how such “subtle manipulations” are increasingly appropriated into business practices. The double edged sword of how predictable we all actually are.
Friday, August 6, 2010
Back to reality. A few reasons prompted me to try Dominion Harvest this summer – a) curiosity b) I liked (the idea of) supporting the concept of a local company delivering VA produce and c) I wanted to see how I’d respond to the challenge of using vegetables picked out essentially at random. Since I've never seen any actual descriptions of DoHa in the blogosphere, here is my limited data on the "cardinal box" (spoiler alert !).
Week #1: Yukon gold potatoes, Carrots, Melon (Roundabout), Okra, Yellow squash (Sunny Side), Basil (Holly Hill), Green Peppers (Adlyn), Hanover tomatoes (Dodd’s), Goat cheese (Lover’s Retreat), Eggs (Fern Stream)
Week #2: Carrots, Beets (Roundabout), Red and White potatoes (Wayne’s), Local honey (Bob Stapleton’s Honey), Green Beans (Dodd’s), Zucchini, Swiss Chard, Garlic (Adlyn), Feta cheese (Lover’s Retreat), Eggs (Fern Stream)
I must say, it was rather fun seeing a nice red box on my porch every other week and opening it with some anticipation. I didn’t have any issues with the quality of the packaging (even with picking them up late on a particularly scorching day) or the produce. It wasn’t even a challenge to consume the items since they weren’t too far off my existing repertoire. Sadly, I decided to end the experiment after only 2 iterations. Primarily because of a certain degree of travel and also because it wasn’t too cost-effective (my back of the envelope calculations didn’t seem to think so). (I add, for me (as with everything else!)). I found myself visiting the farmer’s markets anyways, so it really didn’t make much sense to spend xx amount on stuff that I would deplete rather quickly.
I really like the concept and the execution and wish them luck. I am sure there is a customer base for who this sort of system is appropriate and of course - I could cry myself hoarse on the subject of local and fresh produce. Non-homogenous looking fruits and vegetables, with imperfections and taste! What a concept!!
Speaking of (the joys of) farmer's markets, one addition to the South of the James market has been the Market on the corner of Robinson and Monument. The former has been getting busier and busier (a great thing I'm sure). The latter has been going in a slightly different diirection with a fair number of antique and art sellers. Choice is nice.
Admittedly there is a bit of self-righteous smugness among the sustainability crowd (of which I am proudly one) but I still find some things amusing. Overheard at SOTJ one saturday (a scene right out of Food Inc) - A couple arguing the strawberries at a certain stall were "too expensive". The wife insisted that "but that is what they actually cost". The husband, nursing a venti mixed starbucks drink (retail > $4.00) countering "I dont care ! thats too much". As a point of comparison, that day, an identical box of strawberries @ Kroger (those of the white-on-the-inside kind) were a $1.30 more ! I dont question how people spend their money but at some level, pricing coupled with extensive externalizing of costs has muddled our conceptions of value, in the economic sense.
(Edit: found and uploaded a picture of Box #1)
Thursday, August 5, 2010
How does one return to terra firma from gastronomy domine? I guess the "easiest" way would be to move from 3 Michelin stars to 2 stars to soften the blow? :) And so it was...to the studied opulence of the 4 Seasons on Rue George V to Le Cinq. Rushing past all the high fashion in this trés-chic part of town, it took long swigs of Châteldon before I could settle down and admire the cool beauty of the Le Cinq dining room. The interior is a grand salon with high ceilings and an overall classical décor (Louis XIV and XVI). Again, I was quite amused to be presented with a small stool to put my not-chic-at-all messenger bag.
Le Cinq had to suffer the loss of its 3rd star in 2007 (the former chef left in 2008), but the new chef Eric Briffard has been steadily but surely inching towards regaining that elusive pinnacle again. The pre-amuse bouche this time was fried calamari delightfully wrapped in a little napkin. Picking at this somewhat weighty starter, I should have had some idea of the much heavier lunch I was to experience. For the bread, in addition to virgin olive oil from Tuscany, I was presented with two delightful "towers" of butter. Each pat came in a little bell Le Cinq V jar, the regular kind accompanied by "seaweed butter", an unusual (for me) spread that was just perfect on baguettes.
The amuse bouche was spectacular – petite vegetables with squid and a melon emulsion. This fine melding of sweet and sour primed my palate just right.
For my entrée, I selected the carpaccio of bream with spicy squids and crunchy vegetables (Denti de Méditerannée en carpaccio à la tomate verte, chipirons épicés aux légumes croquants). This was accompanied by a puree of green tomatoes that came in a little vessel that was chilled by dry ice cubes that had been dropped into water. This resulted in a really cool effect with smoke billowing over the table. A bit of molecular gastronomy I thought – my favorite kind – the melding of science and food!! The sommelier helped with some wine selections and for my entrée, I was paired with a Mersault chardonnay. This with the fish, the sourness of little greens and vegetables created a wonderful effect, while I grudgingly admit that I felt that the tomato was a bit bland and didn’t add to the overall taste (yikes!).
My main course was lamb chops (Côtelettes d'agneau allaiton). Topped with cream and lemon preserves (caille de brebis au citron confit) and with some perfectly roasted provençal baby potatoes this was classic comfort food like no other. Complementing this was a terrific 2nd wine from the Château Haut-Brion. Having long heard of this wine (well at least the 1st wine), I was extremely excited to find that it was truly brilliant with the chops. Side note – The Haut-Brion was the first recorded first growth wine to be imported to the US by none other than VA’s favorite son – Thomas Jefferson in the 18th century. I was fully filled and happy by now but I knew dessert was on its way. But first, a little strawberry and watermelon jelly.
Hoping to score two 10s in a row, I decided to get the dessert of strawberry/lime emulsion with a white cheese sorbet (fraises de bois d'ile de France à l'émulsion fraise/citron vert, sorbet fromage blanc). Pretty with foam and little gold encrusted spear, this was yet another spectacular dessert, with the marshmallows and lime adding complexity and tart to the fresh strawberries.
Finally, the icing on the cake was the confectionary cart. I wanted to run away with this cart, with its assortment of macarons, nougats, marzipan, caramels, pistachios and chocolates. A little Willie Wonka dream. The macarons here put the ones at Laduree to shame. Perhaps they read my mind (not really) but a petit box (“pour l'urgence”) with some goodies was there for later. Washing it all down was a glass of wattwiller water, apparently noted for its digestive abilities!
Next to me at LC were a perfectly coutured couple who looked right out of a society page. They too were not immune to exclamations of ooh la la's as each dish outdid its predecessor. (Their à la carte meal was a bit more packed with oomph than mine :)... I guess they were important, because the chef Eric Briffard showed up at the end to talk to them. Worked well, because I was able to briefly exchange pleasantries with him as well. For a superstar, he was awfully nice.)
This time, I was truly exhausted after another 3 hour meal. My stomach and mind quite filled, I slowly trudged to the beautiful courtyard of the George V and had to collect my thoughts on yet another fabulous meal.
No tears but this was another almost perfect meal (Le cinq was a le neuf for me). It is really hard to compare the two places really. Perhaps, Le Cinq lacked some of the "surprise element" of Ledoyen, but the food was obviously great at both. One thing that really stands out is the individualized attention in the rarified atmosphere of the Michelin star universe (France has only 26 such places, NYC 6). This is a truly exceptional (albeit heavily biased to a certain cuisine) set of ridiculously expensive restaurants. While several criticisms have been leveled at these places, the experience I have to say was truly remarkable. I guess one of my favorite things is the ability of the chefs to meld diverse ingredients and create unusual combinations instead of taking an easy, predictable path. This kind of adventurous innovation is simply delightful to behold.
The food was impeccable. And it wasn’t that the dishes were needlessly complicated. Several dishes were just simple with delicate twists of genius. I almost felt like they took individualized attention to each little ingredient that went into a dish. Nothing out of place. Every little strawberry perfectly ripe, every little vegetable or piece of meat just perfectly cooked and each little frond of green in just the right place. And the net effect is truly sublime!! The service outstanding without being obsequious (or condescending, my poor French was apparently excusable, or maybe its just the recession !) The service at LC was much more friendlier and personal. In comparison, I felt that Ledoyen was a bit stiff. The other thing which really stood out was how knowledgeable the staff was and the joy with which they explained and presented the food. Voilà! was really a voilà moment with considerable pride in the art of food. I am not deluded to believe that this can be a regular thing, but sadly, for all my “support local” rants, saving up by avoiding the pretentious places around with mediocre and worse food around to spring for an über-pretentious place 4000 miles away with sublime food was well worth it.
Labels: michelin ecstacy
Monday, August 2, 2010
I preface this post and a next one with a minor disclaimer to anyone who may stumble on this - this (like most of my ramblings) is merely a counterweight to premature amnesia and not for any other purpose. It has little to do with the Richmond part of Richmond Gastronomy and I've thrown out many of my rules under the weak excuse of haute cuisine :)!
I recently had the good fortune to experience the cooking of Christian le Squer of Ledoyen. Off the bustle of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, but hardly a hidden gem, Ledoyen has been serving the (not) masses (those of the "eat cake" variety) from ~the storming of the Bastille, 1792 to be precise. Wow !! and it has held its 3 Michelin stars with some force for sometime now. I couldnt wait to see what wonders of French cooking he would conjure up this time !
Bonjours by the staff and I was led to my corner table where I had a nice vantage point of being able to look at the beautiful and intimate dining room as well as glance outside where, beyond the lush greenery, the ever-busy Champs-Élysées was a world far far away.
Kicking things off were what I felt were "pre-amuses" single-bite excitements to get one set for the excellence to follow - The highlight was a gelee ball that burst in my mouth into a flavorful liquid with the slightest taste of ginger. The petit macaron literally melted in my mouth.(I would buy bags of those cheese "crackers" instead of crisps if I only could). I settled for the brioche and the olive bread out of the delectable bread cart. (bad pun alert) For another day, the pain of pain selection at a boulangerie...
Next up an amuse bouche of watermelon jelly with cherry tomatoes and sliced almonds. My palate was primed and amused now...
I peeped at one of the most comprehensive wine books I have ever seen, easily weighing around 20 pounds (with quite a few chateau xx's running for a healthy 4 digits). The sommelier had suggested a few options and I settled on a 2008 Rhone Condrieu (especially since it owed parentage to the viognier grape - VA winery specialty represent !). For my entree, the foie gras with passion fruit gelly and just the hint of espresso. (Passion/Cafe au foie gras des landes).
For the main course, I decided to be a bit adventurous and got the sweetbreads (Noix de ris de veau aux girolles truffees). The fish option was pretty exciting as well (vapeur de merlan, pamplemousse et avocat), but I'd only eaten sweetbreads a couple of times prior to this, with mixed results and Ledoyen was the perfect place for this French specialty. Nicely caramelized, the dish had a firm consistency suitably complemented by mini chanterelles and a truffle sauce. I was literally in gastronomy heaven by now :)
The blanc viognier was just perfect with the foie gras - the creaminess of the dish subtly balanced by the complexity of the wine (complex and complex do mix). And since it also supplemented the sweet breads quite perfectly, I had to have another. Despite the many blah (VA) viogniers I've had, I must take a fresh look at this grape again.
A fully laden cheese cart presented itself next (fromages frais et affinés) - faced with a plethora of choices, I boringly chose a roquefort and a brie with more of the wonderfully flaky brioche, hoping to save room for dessert.
But that wasnt to come. Not just yet. Instead, there was a pre-dessert plate of pretty little melt-in-mouth one-bites including strawberry gelee and an espresso balls, all of which melted in my mouth and set the stage of what was to come.
For dessert (fraises à la créme acidulée, sorbet à la coriandre), I was presented with probably the best strawberry "icecream" I've ever had. The consistency of the icecream was astounding (smooth and aerated to a fantastic, foamy consistency) but a bit of genius was to serve this over a coriander sorbet !! This combination, with strawberry dust, fresh petit strawberries was as close to a 10 as I could possibly imagine in a dish. Fully satisfied, I thought - L'addition s'il vous plaît. just a leetel something more ! more? bien sur !! Capping it all were some petit fours of eclairs and nougats along with some even more spectacular brioche. This caramelized brioche was a bretagne variant of a gateaux beurre and was slightly sweet and a perfect coda. As I greedily stuffed myself beyond capacity with a nutty nougat, I couldnt help but notice that this meal had clocked around 2.5 hrs !! A luxury in every sense of the word.
I could barely haul my decadent rear from the chair. All I really wanted to do was to go and take a nice nap somewhere. While I may not have been moved to tears (my palate was tickled pink on quite a few occasions), this was easily one of the most exciting meals I have ever eaten. Santé !!
Labels: michelin ecstacy