prelude to a kiss

IMG_2239Across the road from The French Laundry is what appears at first glance to be a public park. On closer inspection, however, it reveals itself as the restaurant’s extensive chef’s garden. Interestingly, it’s neither gated nor guarded, giving anyone and everyone free rein to roam the planted beds and see what a handful of lucky diners might be feasting on that evening. Tonight, one of those lucky diners is me – turning my early evening stumble into a serendipitous aperitif.

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james street south

Opened by Niall and Joanne McKenna in an old linen mill close to ten years ago, James Street South Restaurant was at the forefront of marrying the best of Irish ingredients with classical French cooking methods and seasonal menus. My return found smartly renovated interiors and a menu which reminded me of just how far ahead of the curve the McKennas really were. Local smoked eel? Pork cheeks? Razor clams? It’s good to discover the city has caught up – and that a restaurant like this can not only thrive, but set the agenda, too.

 

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mishdish at the mishnish

A contrast to the al fresco charms of the chippie is Mishdish, the local gastropub inside The Mishnish, a boutique Tobermory hotel. Situated as the far end of the harbor, Mishdish is fitted out in the contempo aesthetic of dark wood and crisp linens and is as inviting as it is mellifluous. It’s also as locavore a dining experience as one could hope for: locally caught, locally sourced, locally distilled, locally prepared, and locally served, the menu bursts with local pride. And rightfully so, I might add. (To save myself from excessive repetition, please assume the modifier “local” before all further nouns unless otherwise noted.) Fishcakes of salmon and haddock are lovely and light with mixed greens and a piquant splash of non-local chili. It’s about as far as you can get from the potato-laden belly bombers I remember as a child and I could easily takedown a second portion without blinking. A bowl of sweet langoustines brings out the skull-sucking carnivore in me. Split-grilled and drizzled in chive butter they come with a crusty hunk of baguette to soak up every last drop of buttery brine. My only regret is that I ordered an appetizer portion and not an entrée. There’s no getting away from Sticky Toffee Pudding, gluten be damned. Interestingly enough it’s square, not a dome, yet geometry does nothing to diminish the criminal pleasure of what is essentially a steamed piece of cake soaked through with buttery toffee and topped with vanilla ice cream. The coffee is good, too – if imported – and strong. It comes with a small chocolate bon-bon that’s as you’d expect, handmade just down the road.

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top 100: kin shop

My only gripe with Harold Dieterle’s fantastically unfussy contempo-Thai restaurant, Kin Shop, is the lighting. Though the dim interiors go a long way towards making everyone seem that much more attractive, it’s heinous for the amateur iPhone photographer. So, you’ll just have to trust me on this because my snapshots can’t begin to do the meal justice. Also, I’ve never been to Thailand (something I hope to remedy later this year) so neither can I vouch with any authority on esoteric matters of authenticity, yet I can safely say this is the best Thai food in New York – certainly following the all-too-brief lifespan of Lotus of Siam. Like a novice at a night market, I enter just a bit overwhelmed by the thick smells and smoky air. Immediately want a taste of everything. Instead me and my merry band do the next best thing, putting ourselves in the hands of the kitchen and opting for the five-course tasting. (At $65, it’s a smart bargain.) Things get off to a bang with miang, a traditional Thai street food of tasty bits ‘n’ pieces wrapped inside a leaf. Here it’s a mix of fluke, lychee, chili jam, and crispy fried garlic on a shiso leaf. A myriad of contrasting flavors and textures, it’s the canape equivalent of an aperitif; a wake-up call, which tingles the palate in preparation for what’s to come: grilled prawns spiked with fresh lime and Phuket-style black peppercorn sauce; a succulent king-size crispy oyster over fried pork, peanuts and mint; squid ink and hot sesame oil soup (as delicious as it sounds disgusting). I’m made even happier when the special of the night arrives amusingly enough as the equivalent of a pasta course: grilled ramp congee with Chang Mai sausage, crayfish & crispy garlic. It’s the Greenmarket version of Thai comfort food, creamy, thick, and satisfying, with the addition of ramps, no less – the locavore’s answer to crack cocaine. Two versions of duck arrive next: a perfectly pink and tender roasted breast under a fragrant mound of fresh herbs, topped with green mango and accompanied by tamarind water and a spicy duck laab salad riddled with birds-eye chilis that more than earns its four-alarm fire notation. (So potent are the effects of the chilis that more than one person in my party navigated a bout of gastrointestinal distress the following day. Me? I’ve never tasted such an exquisite mix of meat and heat in a single forkful. I could easily eat this dish over and over again.) And that’s a prime example of what’s so enjoyable about Dieterle’s menu. Even if it’s not necessarily always a traditionalist’s version of Thai food, there’s a mutual regard for both the cuisine and the diner that meets way above the middle. Except for desserts, there’s no dumbing down here for ignorant palates. In the piquant hands of this Top Chef everyone and everything rises.

 

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the edible revolution

When people think of Irish food they tend to focus on the mythology of the humble spud – or pints of creamy Guinness.  Yet what many don’t realize is that while the Slow Food movement may have been born in northern Italy, it first gained traction and was embraced in Ireland.  Almost a generation ago a new breed of Irish chefs who had trained abroad and saw the creeping spread of pesticide-grown, antibiotic-riddled foods realized that back home the burgeoning globalization of agribusiness had yet to invade their country.  The good stuff, as it were, was still being produced locally on small farms:  beef and lamb that tasted of the pastures where they were raised, fresh dairy that didn’t have to travel across a continent, produce within a stone’s throw, and fish and shellfish foraged from the surrounding ocean.  At the same time, the growth of the Celtic economy saw a wave of returning emigres, and suddenly there were artisanal cheese-makers sprouting up near the dairy farms in Cork and Kerry, smokehouses outside the fishing villages in Clare, and stone-ground mills in the rolling hills of Wicklow:  sustainable, affordable, and deepening the country’s connection to the land. The little island was a big Greenmarket.  To be a locavore wasn’t so much a political statement – notwithstanding the colonial legacy of enforced exportation of most homegrown foods in return for nutritionally poor imports  – it was a practicality.  England may do the gastropub with more spit and polish but walk into any humble village pub in Ireland and you’re likely to find a menu with unadulterated ingredients sourced within a five-mile radius; they just don’t crow about it so much.

Of course like anywhere, you can eat a bad meal in Ireland, too.  But I didn’t have that problem in Doonbeg:  crab claws with tomato concasse, samphire and chili butter; foie gras and cherry confit; loin of Clare lamb, roasted girolles and eggplant; pear sorbet; and a board of farmhouse cheese.

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wild for wildflowers

NYC’s 3rd Annual Wildflower Week has been underway since Sunday, promoting indigenous plants, wildflowers, and the critical role they play in developing local biodiversity and supplying food for wildlife.  With more than 53,000 acres of open space and 778 plant species – like this sunchoke here – it puts me in the mind to go foraging beyond the Greenmarket and go further afield into the five boroughs.

There are free botanical tours, garden walks, and lectures continuing throughout the weekend, but what really gets me excited is Edible Natives:  a series of free cooking classes highlighting native ingredients.  Additionally, a handful of NYC restaurants – Pure, Mas, and The Green Table, among others – have signed on to get wild with menus that just might make locavores giddy.

Get all the edible details – including recipes – HERE.

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live blog: the locavore’s dilemma

Blessed with sunshine and moderate daily rains, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Caribbean is a bounty of fresh local food.  With a few exceptions the reality is actually quite the opposite:  most everything needs to be imported.  You see, there is one significant piece missing from the puzzle across most of the islands and that is arable land.  The vast majority of them are essentially giant sandbars.  And what little earth exists underfoot is contaminated by salt and brackish water.  Ergo, no fresh fruit; no fresh vegetables.  What little is able to be produced locally is grown hydroponically in very small batches.  (tiny Anguilla – to its enormous credit – has a massive organic hydroponic farm that supplies a handful of resorts as well as the local community)

What’s a yuppie on holiday supposed to do?  In Turks & Caicos the answer is conch.  Endangered in over 95% of its natural habitat, conch strangely flourishes here.

Da Conch Shack in Blue Hills is a Turks institution and as you might guess, conch is the specialty:  cracked conch, conch fritters, creole conch, stir-fry conch, conch salad, curry conch, conch gumbo, conch chowder – the hardy creature is incredibly adaptable as a meat substitute.  Technically, it’s a giant sea snail, so I’m surprised to not see it served in the French-style, with lots of garlic and butter – but then again, perhaps that cooking method doesn’t really lend itself to the warmer climes.

The Shack goes through upwards of a few thousand conch a week.  Held offshore in giant pens, they are killed – or conched, if you will – to order.  If you’ve time, head to the beach after lunch and manager Peter or one of his staff will show you how it’s done.  Essentially they stab it in the head to sever the connective ligament that attaches the snail to its shell, before yanking it out and cutting off the attached claw foot, eyes, and digestive system.  The tough outer skin is then peeled away, leaving a filet of white meat.

One interesting side note to today’s conch excursion was the chance to try a local delicacy:  conch penis.  That’s right, today I ate my first ever animal penis.  (Prized as an aphrodisiac, it’s really a shame I’m down here solo.)  About three inches long, with the approximate thickness of angel hair pasta, it didn’t really taste of anything besides salt. As for texture I’d liken it to a gummy worm.  How’s that for thinking globally and eating locally?

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