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Tuesday
Oct152013

Eat at the Counter, Idiots!

Eating at the Counter, either alone or with a more intimate friend, partner, lover, or family member is better than a table.

I traveled and dined alone for over 10 years, while now, grounded to a more regular schedule with the ability to dine with closer friends and relatives more frequently, I’ve come to the conclusion that if there is a counter/bar that regularly seats guests, eating at the counter is a more intimate experience with your meal (if dining alone) or your dining companion.

And let’s get something clear about dining at the counter. I’m not talking Applebee’s, Chili’s, or the neighborhood pub with bar seating, with 8 big screens and 22 different sporting venues from around the world and servers in their Game Day uniform. There’s nothing intimate or special about game day dining over a trough of nachos or 22oz Budweiser.

SPQR, Flour+Water, Diavola, Zin, Scopa, Locanda, Cotogna, now gone Cyrus, the old Petite Syrah, Enoteca Molinari, Bellanico, Trelio, Parma, Ruth’s Chris in Fresno during happy hour, any sushi restaurant, or Pizzeria Bussola in Florence all are or were more fun to eat at the counter. Let me reiterate and emphasize, eating at the counter is better ONLY if you’re alone or with someone you’re close to. Eating at the counter with four people defeats the purpose of intimacy.

Why the Counter over the Table?

Why separate your meal with a table when you could eat side-by-side with someone you may not see again for several weeks? Why sit at a table with 3 x3 feet of pine between you and your smokin’ hot wife when you could have your hand on her thigh during dessert or better yet, her hand on yours? Why share parallel space with other guests on the banquette overhearing their boorish conversation?

Reasons to sit at the counter if you’re a single diner: 

  • Chances are, there is a bartender you can talk to
  • If the counter is purpose built for the kitchen, there is plenty of action as food is prepared
  • You’ve increased your chances of meeting someone new on either side of you
  • You wanna get to know the owner or the chef? Eat at the counter.

 Reasons to sit at the counter if you’re a couple:

  • As “The Gentleman” you never have to face the back wall again. I was told many years ago that women should be able to face the main restaurant, while we should have all our attention on our girlfriend/wife/wall. Fabulous, but if it’s a date and it isn’t going so well, at least you can watch food prepared.
  • It’s creepy to sit side-by-side at a table. I recall being seated side-by-side, facing the main dining room at Lacroix in Philadelphia. We felt like we were posing for a formal picture or on display for other guests to discuss.
  • Sharing food with your friend/lover/relative is much easier. The counter will generally have more space than a table and a server that can be more attentive because they are generally expediting food from the counter or window. 

"We’re fully committed this evening"

For very busy restaurants and for restaurants that don’t take reservations, the only dining option may be the counter/bar. As a single and two-top diner, I may not have had the chance to eat at Flour+Water, Locanda, or Cotogna unless I ate at the bar. In fact, many restaurants declare first-come-first-serve at the counter, as if it’s a bad thing or as if there is a limited menu served there.

“Welcome to Hard to Get Into Restaurant…how many?”

“Two People”

“While we are fully committed for the next 90 minutes in the main dining room, there is seating at the counter”

It’s almost a pejorative declaration from the host “There is seating at the counter.” And then the unsettled moment comes to the inexperienced or parochial diner after they look at their guest; with the responses, “Thank you, we’ll come back another time” or “We’ll wait for a table”.

Idiots. This isn’t Denny’s. You could have sat down immediately at a one-star Michelin rated restaurant, with a one-month reservation queue and you passed up two seats. Now you’re going to wait 90 minutes for the same food at a “corner” table with full view or perhaps full “smell” of the lavatory; or your wife is going to complain that you got the cold, breezy table next to the door, or worse, you’re not going to eat at the Michelin one-star because of your preconceived notion that you only dine at a table.

Tables at restaurants should be for parties of four or more, business transactions, people you want to keep at a distance, in-laws, an uncompromising dullard of a wife or husband and escort services.

And restaurants, install hooks under the counter for purses and coats.

Sunday
Sep222013

Flour and Water...again

I returned to Flour + Water in San Francisco for a high expectation pasta tasting. There were two additional courses on the menu, pre and post pasta, but they weren't my focus. The review will be brief and will include some pictures, driving over the new Oakland-Bay Bridge for one. No food porn of the dishes because I sat at the bar again, it's dark, and I only take food pics in stealth mode.

Good warm-up course: Eggplant tortellini with tomato & basil
 
LOVED IT: Bigoli with cranberry beans, pancetta, tomato & olive. It reminded me of a less forward puttanesca recipe. Bold flavors and remarkably crispy pancetta. I've gotten more into using beans in my pasta and all of the elements harmonized well.
 
PLAYFUL and well executed: Carrot farfalle with braised rabbit, summer squash & tarragon. Light, the play of both spring and summer without an ounce of heaviness, this dish sang Sunday afternoon in Tuscany. I can see it now...Nonna waking up early to grab her espresso, walk over to the barn and freshly slaughter a rabbit for a midday meal. So I decided to squeeze in a photo from when I was cutting up some rabbit for dinner.
 
FAVORITE: Pork trotter raviolini with fennel & stone fruit mostarda. Even after a pronounced bigoli, the raviolini packed a big punch. The mostarda was the key to the dish. Bright acids and when matched with the fennel texture and flavor, the right amount of everything (for lack of a descriptor) to bring out the flavors of the pork. Everything just hit the right note here.
 
Almost tapped out on pasta, so maybe I didn't appreciate it the way I should of, but I really did like the raviolini more: Duck casonsei with prune, chard, pistachio & basil

 

 

Saturday
Aug242013

The Injustice League at Warner Brothers

Daredevil…aka Ben Affleck…aka Batman is pure nonsense.

I love the Batman character more than Superman.

I am a Christian Bale fan. I too liked Michael Keaton, despite early critics calling him a “clown”. And even though Val Kilmer and George Clooney got a crack at the Dark Knight during a horrible time of the franchise, Val and George are actually good actors. Val’s performance as Doc Holiday is one of my favorites of all time (and of course Ice Man in Top Gun). Clooney’s in the first 45 minutes of From Dusk till Dawn, total bad-ass.

Let’s look at Affleck as an action star and superhero.

The aforementioned, Daredevil. Flop

I did watch Argo this year and while I generally enjoyed the story, John Goodman gave just as good of a performance as Affleck. Affleck is not some gritty, edgy, action hero. Far from it. Argo was a story oriented movie, not an action film. Affleck didn’t really have to act that much to begin with, which is a good thing.

Unlike Ben’s friend Matt Damon, Ben’s no Jason Bourne. Ben tried to be a super-spy action hero once as Jack Ryan in the Sum of All Fears…another flop.

Jack Ryan was played by both Alec Baldwin wonderfully (Red October was the best in the series) and Harrison Ford, who did justice to the franchise in what were not the best Jack Ryan movies. Again, Affleck is not Baldwin or Ford in terms of acting caliber. Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones for Pete’s Sake and Affleck is a punk kid in Dazed and Confused, nothing more.

Ben Affleck is and always will be the character he played in Dazed and Confused; a second-year senior who carries around a paddle looking for respect. His paddle is now his Oscar. And a well-made paddle it is. I trust he’s beating people with it now after the Batman coup.

Ben Affleck’s breakout rolls define him, Good Will Hunting, Dazed and Confused, Chasing Amy, Clerks. He’s funny, annoying, a punk, sometimes likeable and occasionally charming and witty. Affleck is not an action hero, he’s a Northeaster, frat-boy with some reasonable intelligence level and some obvious writing and producing skills.

And then there was Gigli, possibly one of the worst movies of ALL-TIME.

Action stars are defined, in a single movie forever. And Affleck has NEVER been defined as an action hero and frankly, never will be. Here’s why: 

  • Bruce Willis will always be John McClain in Die Hard with no shoes on.
  • Arnold will always be the Terminator.
  • Stallone will always be Rambo and Rocky, take your pick.
  • Vin Diesel is Riddick and Dominic Toretto. The Rock will always be The Rock. Hugh Jackman is now Wolverine
  • Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, Tom Welling, and Henry Cavill will always be Superman. Brandon Routh will be forgotten in time. All of them “felt” right as Superman.
  • Robert Downey Jr. is now Iron Man (and a good Sherlock Holmes I might add), AND if you’re my age we still remember him in Less than Zero and Weird Science. Robert Downey has evolved, but he is Iron Man.
  • Keanu Reeves is Neo with a solid dose of Johnny Utah/Ted Logan in every hero he plays. But he’s still more of an action star than Affleck! Keanu rides the razor’s edge of action hero’s in this world. Keanu Reeves has evolved!
  • Leonardo DiCaprio is a good example of an angelic boy actor who has grown into a versatile actor, both dramatic and action oriented. Again, Leo is a better actor than Affleck. Leo is still evolving and will have better movies to come. Sort of like a Nicholson, Pacino, or DeNiro, getting better with age.
  • Hayden Christiansen will NEVER be Darth Vader because James Earl Jones is Darth Vader Damn it! And Hayden will never get a second chance…No one wants to even talk about Hayden as Vader, we just want to forget it.

I’m disappointed, shocked, and a little upset about the announcement of Ben Affleck as the new Batman. I think Affleck could have written a good script, maybe even produced something worthwhile, but as an actor, he’s just not that good. Nothing feels right about Affleck as Batman. Affleck desperately needs to be a tough guy; the guy he played in Dazed and Confused. It’s as simple as that.

I’m nearly as upset as I was about J.J.’s horrible introduction of Khan in Star Trek, but not quite that upset.

Tuesday
Aug132013

Popeye’s Chicken

In light of my recent review, utter SHAME, ignorance, and heresy for not trying pork skin linguini with cuttlefish, the Food God’s have decided to punish me with the usual dose of Greek irony. A long-time friend of mine (it’s always the close friends…like Lancelot or Judas) and reader of The Cured Ham, acted as the Divine Interlocutor of the Food Gods. He didn’t ask me what I wanted for lunch today, it simply came to the office.

Popeye’s Chicken

I have never had Popeye’s Chicken. I don’t want Popeye’s Chicken. Eating Popeye’s is obviously punishment for my weakness, my ignorance for Friday’s transgression at Trelio.

Sides…in order of desirability:

Red Beans and Rice: Easily the best side of the day. A pleasant back palate of smoke and spice, nearing a refried bean consistency overall; I quite enjoyed them.

Coleslaw: They hit this one right down the middle of the fairway for average palates. Wet, sweet, crunchy and slightly acidic. Not light on the mayo or Miracle Whip or whatever they use. It’s a mouthful of goo with crunchy stuff in it and will probably lube my lower intestinal track to adolescent efficiency.

Zatarans Popcorn Shrimp: Hopefully, the one I tried, was deep fried enough for me not to die tomorrow. Breading was tasty.

Biscuit: KFC Biscuits are better and so are Grands biscuits out of the doomsday container. The biscuits tasted of raw flour and grease…not “buttered” flavoring. Someone needs to go back to Dow Chemical or whatever company to get Butter Flavoring Number 789-B. Or the simple solution; use real F'ing butter.

Mashed Potatoes and Gravy: I took one quarter teaspoon of this “stuff” and immediately declared it an ABOMONATION! I’m not sure what these whipped white things with gravy were, but they weren’t potatoes. The same thing McDonald’s milk shakes are made of? Soylent White?  Bleached Sawdust? Never again. The gravy was probably a derivative of the white goo they used in the coleslaw...aka bowel lubricant.

Grape Jelly: Why? In a ketchup packet? Really?

Pride Buttery Spread: from the Ventura Foods Website “Pride Light Buttery Spread is also the only spread that is completely allergen-free (no soy, dairy or gluten) and is Kosher Parve and Vegan.” Vegans Worldwide Rejoice!

Chicken Leg: Crispy outside…moist inside. Actually, pretty damn good.

Chicken Thigh: Crispy outside…moist inside. This can’t be true…can it?

Chicken Breast: Crispy outside…moist inside. A dose of irony? This chicken is actually good. This isn’t a McDonald’s hamburger or Starbuck’s Coffee or a Taco from Taco Bell…this chicken is actually good. Frying chicken at home stinks up the house, requires several steps, a cast iron pan or deep fat fryer.

What have we learned?

 

  1. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
  2. The Food Gods love irony and will have their vengeance.
  3. Don’t pass up the pork skin linguini.
  4. Popeye’s fried chicken isn’t half bad.

 

Sunday
Aug112013

Kudos for a Fresno Restaurant Week Risk

I was in Trelio for Fresno Restaurant Week eating Spanish artichokes and fried frog legs, when someone asked me if I was going to try the pork skin linguini with baby cuttlefish.

“Um…no” was my simple answer.

Has The Cured Ham gone soft? No. Was The Cured Ham caught off guard? Yes.

I’m a hard-core pasta traditionalist. I didn’t try the pork skin linguini because of a knee-jerk ignorance to the concept, taking the easy path of rejection rather than understanding. Frog legs perhaps sound exotic, but frog legs are really just the other other other white meat. Frog legs were the easy, benign choice on the menu versus the pork skin.

Chef Chris took a risk, during what is arguably one of the busiest weeks in the Fresno restaurant trade. Most menus around town either served the normal menu or some truncated version of Fresno dining favorites. Why disrupt the apple cart, right? Be safe. Serve the predictable linguini and clams or spaghetti and meatballs. Hell, don't even change your menu.

Chef Chris Shackelford at Trelio challenged Fresno palates and ideas about pasta during Restaurant Week with one dish, on one night that he even tweeted about potentially “going over like a lump of coal”.

Yelp reviews and sold out pork skin linguini prove it didn’t go over like a lump of coal, but rather a swimming success. 

Pork Skin Linguini with Baby Cuttlefish - Photo by Chris Shackelford

Shame on The Cured Ham for not trying this dish!