The unintended consequence of the micro-green revolution that has landed a Mesculun salad mix in produce sections across America is that Iceberg lettuce has become reviled as tasteless; detractors call it edible packing material with nary a trace of nutritional benefit. HG thinks this is an unfair overstatement. Iceberg can be good in a variety of ways. HG likes it shredded over spicy chili stew or posole (with chopped onion, sliced avocado and Mexican oregano). It is the indispensable crunchy ingredient in a BLT sandwich. Iceberg leaves are very useful in scooping up many Chinese stir fries. And, a quartered head of Iceberg covered in a chunky blue cheese (Maytag, please) or roquefort dressing, can be a very pleasing companion to a rare, pan broiled steak.
When HG is declared, by universal acclaim, Food Dictator of the USA, every Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Arby’s, Taco Bell, etc. will be demolished.The only food chain left standing will be Chipotle: Fairly healthy, reasonably pleasant environment and their carnitas are pretty exceptional. All other fast fooderies are horror shows. Vicious food caricatures. What would replace them under the HG regime? Indian food (samosas, tandoori breads and curries). Souvlaki, Kebab, Shawirma and Felafel pita with tzatsiki, lettuce, onions and hot sauce is good and fast eating. Dim sum (Yes, making dim sum fresh is preferable but HG encountered lots of frozen dim sum in Vancouver, B.C. and it was very tasty). Hot dogs. (Yes, good quality, beef hot dogs with sauerkraut or Chicago style or covered in spicy chili or melted cheddar or Joisey style with fried onions, potatoes and peppers). Borscht. Schav — ice cold sorrel soup. Piroshkki, those flaky, meat filled Russian pastries, boiled potatoes and sour cream). Yes, that’s a bit of a stretch. But, while HG is fantasizing — how about a chain called Yiddishe Mama? It would serve only blintzes, knishes and guilt.
According to my favorite Paris food blogger, John Talbott. the City of Light has become crazy for hamburgers. HG is sure Pareeburgers are terrible but then so are American burgers as dispensed by Mickey Dee, Wendy’s, etc. Fast food vileness.
HG has written about the one and only proper way to make a burger. HG is no snob. There are few better things than a good burger topped with a slice of sweet onion and a slice of summer ripe tomato (preferably a Jersey tomato). Accompany it with buttered corn on the cob and ice cold beer. Delicious!
Sadly, Americans — and now Parisians apparently — have degraded the hamburger with their love of ketchup. Yes, the noble burger is often drowned in great gobs of ketchup, as if grilled-to-perfection ground beef were but a transport for the red paste. Ketchup does not enhance the juicy, slightly fatty taste of a proper burger. It disguises that taste. HG is not in favor of disguises. Only one HG ever liked was The Lone Ranger’s cunning little mask.
If you want to clog your arteries in delicious fashion, visit The Cardiology Hall of Shame, also known as New Jersey. Start with some “Italian” hot dogs. Three of the specialists in this greasy treat are busy dives: Dickie Dee’s, Jimmy Buff’s and Charlie’s Famous. Basically, an “Italian” hot dog is a deep fried hot dog (size large) stuffed into a circle of spongy “pizza” bread (the better to absorb lots of fragrant effluents) and then topped with oily fried peppers, onions and potatoes. A nice shake of hot pepper flakes. Make sure you have plenty of napkins.
HG will not single out any pizza parlor in the Garden State because the independent Jersey pizza spots are, on the whole, succulent. You can’t go wrong. Also, lots of old fashioned pizza joints serve greasy eggplant and mozzarella sandwiches plus fennel sausages with peppers and onions.
The most famous, dramatic Jersey export, The Sopranos, emphasized food, Italian food. Needless to say, the vast vast majority of New Jersey’s Italian-American population is law abiding — but just as hungry as an angry Tony Soprano looking forward to a slice of “gabagool”. Every town in heavily populated Jersey has outstanding Italian restaurants. HG has written about the incomparable Stretch’s Chicken at the eccentric Belmont Tavern in Belleville. State of the art linguini with white clam sauce is at The Riviera on Rt. 46 in Clifton. HG had some profoundly unhealthy, soaringly yummy Fetuccine Alfredo (prepared on a gas burner tableside with gobs of butter, pours of heavy sweet cream, loads of freshly grated parmigiano reggiano) at a North Arlington restaurant whose name, alas, HG has forgotten. Another nameless restaurant in Cliffside Park (favored by “Sorprano” types) served HG a huge bowl of hare long stewed in red wine and garlic. HG happily ate it with an equally huge bowl of butter drenched ziti (combination was a bit more French than Italian). There is also some, comparatively, healthy Italian food in Jersey. HG and BSK often enjoyed mammoth bowls of steamed mussels and fried zucchini at a Sicilian restaurant, Angelo’s, in gritty Harrison.
But, New Jersey’s major claim to fame is its diners that dot every highway. Yes, some have disappeared (The Short Stop in Bloomfield of “Eggs In The Skillet” fame is now, drat, a Dunkin’ Donuts) but much remains. The Tick Tock on Rt. 3 and its motto “Eat Heavy” flourishes.
However, the best of all diners, The Claremont, which reigned majestically for years on a site at the Montclair/Verona border, is no more. It had an encyclopedic menu (dishes ranged from very good to transcendental) and divine cheesecake and pastries. Great for breakfast, lunch, dinner or after-movie coffee and dessert. At one point, the owners, in a fit of misguided hubris, decided not to leave well enough alone but to “modernize.” That was the death knell. Zealous decorators installed skylights of green and blue colored glass. The light made plates of food look like ghastly abstract impressionist paintings. At lunch, right after the “modernization”, BSK looked at white-haired and blue-eyed HG and their blonde-haired, blue-eyed dining companion. That infernal light, colored by the skylights, had turned their hair blue and green respectively. Their eyes glowed yellow like the Devil himself. The Claremont had survived some tough economic times but it couldn’t survive their decorators.
BSK came back to New Mexico last night after a five day visit to BSK’s mom in Florida. HG mused that life without BSK was like a dinner without salt and wine. So, celebration is in order tonight. BSK will roast a rack of lamb. BSK follows the counsel of the late Leon Lianides, the Greek gentleman who ran and owned the wonderful Coach House Restaurant in Greenwich Village (Mario Batali’s Babbo Restaurant now occupies the space). Lianides said that every scrap of fat must be removed from the rack. He felt that lamb fat injured the flavor of the chops. He was right. BSK rubs the rack with garlic, dusts it with chopped rosemary and brushes it with olive oil before popping it into the oven. BSK will cook the rack to a rosy pink and serve it with grilled Kumatoes (flavorful brown tomatoes from Mexico) and fingerling potatoes pan roasted with garlic, olive oil and lots of herbs. Appetizer will be a bit of baba ganoush. The wine will be The Velvet Devil, a robust red from Washington’s Walla Walla neighborhood. Drk chocolate ice cream for dessert. Ah, life takes on a glow when BSK is present.
Fast food franchise junk, escalating real estate prices, changing customs. These all knocked out the great New York cafeterias that fed old schmoozers, loquacious intellectuals, cab drivers, garment center workers, students, artists — everybody, in fact. In terms of cuisine, the best was Dubrow’s. There were three: one in the garment center (this was where HG dined before Knicks games at Madison Square Garden); one on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn (where HG dined after watching Joe Klein, Floyd Paterson, Joey Giardello and other fighters at the Eastern Parkway Arena); another branch on Brooklyn’s Kings Highway (too quiet and staid for HG). All were decorated in high, post-Depression, “modernist” style with plenty of mirrored walls and pale, glistening wood. The garment center Dubrow’s (on Seventh Avenue in the 30’s) was a madhouse during weekday lunch hours. The wonder was how the cloak-and-suiters and skilled workers could eat so much and talk so much at the same time. The Eastern Parkway Dubrow’s was favored by Jewish bookmakers, horse players, gamblers, loan sharks and the last remnants of Brownsville’s Murder Inc. and associated Lepke mob. These were guys who favored expensive hats, sharp suits (by Brooklyn’s Abe Stark) and big cigars. A guy not wearing a suit, tie and hat was a “bum,” despised by all. By 1985 all the Dubrow’s were gone.
The Belmore Cafeteria on 28th Street and Park Avenue South (Fourth Avenue before the fancy name change) was a 24-hour-a-day place favored by cab drivers. Martin Scorcese’s movie “Taxi Driver” burnished its fame. The scenes between Robert DeNiro and Peter Boyle take place in front of The Belmore. Phil Siegel ran The Belmore for decades and never changed its motto: “New York’s Most Fabulous Restaurant.” Like Dubrow’s, it had plenty of Jewish and Eastern European specialties but there were many eclectic culinary surprises as well. It was always busy. At its peak, The Belmore fed some 5.000 New Yorkers every weekday. Siegel sold the cafeteria and its corner site in 1981 to developers of a “sliver” condo development.
A sad and quiet cafeteria was The Senate on Broadway and 96th. There were lots of tattoos there. No, not the multi-colored skin-scapes favored by today’s hipsters. These were the grim number tattoos of Holocaust survivors, men and women who conversed quietly over endless cups of tea. I.B. Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning Yiddish writer, was often there eating tuna salad (he also favored The Eclair,a middle European pastry shop and restaurant on W.72nd). Singer based many of his stories on the aged folks he met there — people whose stories bordered on the supernatural. There were two other groups at The Senate: junkies and hookers. The strung out junkies ate trays of the sweetest cakes they could find The hard working hookers favored more robust fare. They ate fast. Their demanding business agents didn’t like them taking too much time off.
The cafeterias of New York have vanished. Mickey Dee and the landlords have won.
Denver’s 240 Union Restaurant (no, it isn’t actually in Denver but a few miles west in suburban Lakewood) is one of HG’s all time favorite dining spots. It has been run for many years by the warm and charming
Michael Coughlin, a man with a gift for hospitality and a talent for selecting the world’s best, modestly priced wines (at 240 Union, Michael has a list of 23 at 23 — 23 splendid wines for 23 bucks a botttle). Service at 240 is knowing and efficient. The bar turns out perfect martinis — dry as the Sahara and cold as a New York landlord’s heart. For a time during HG and BSKs Colorado business days, the restaurant functioned as their networking center where the business, political and cultural elite of western Colorado met for lunch every day. (HG’s downtown Denver spot for power dining was Palm Restaurant — HG’s
caricature adorned the wall over his favorite booth).
HG and BSK were in Denver this weekend for a memorial service for their dear friend, Betty Miller (please read the post: Betty Miller R.I.P. for more about this remarkable and valuable woman) and had two dinners at 240. As always, this landlocked restaurant in the middle of America manages to get fresh seafood and prepares it imaginatively. HG and BSK supped handsomely on perfect Pacific and Atlantic oysters on the half shell; Artic Char on a bed of corn and pea risotto; a whole, roasted striped bass with spinach and roast fingerling potatoes. A martini for HG. Prosecco for BSK. Fine wine from Chile for both. House made sorbets. A beautiful experience. Yes, you can go home again.