A very-much-missed BSK arrived home yesterday after a five day trip to Florida to visit her 93-year-old Mom. HG prepared the welcome home dinner: Kir Royale cocktails. Then some more sparkling whites with Norwegian gravlax which is lightly cured in salt, sugar and dill and expertly sliced in paper-thin servings. HG made a simple dressing of Dijon mustard, olive oil, sugar and dill to highlight its perfection. Main dish was Petrale sole, dusted in Zatarain’s fry mix and lightly sauteed in hot grapeseed oil. Accompanied by boiled fingerling potaotes sprinkled with olive oil and dill. Drank House wine from Washington State (HG does not comply with the outdated white wine with fish rule — except in the case of smoked fish). Butter lettuce salad. A bit of triple creme Brie. Port and a nut cookie. For HG, best part of the meal was seeing BSK’s face across the dining table.
Recently HG used the cover of Les Krims‘ wonderful book, Making Chicken Soup to illustrate HG’s post on his Mom’s soups. This illustration drew much comment. To clarify, the elderly model making chicken soup in the semi- nude (topless) is not HG’s sainted mother. It is in fact Les Krims’ mother and Making Chicken Soup is both hilarious and ripe with Oedipal pathos…Or maybe it is that Oedipal pathos which makes it hilarious, which is precisely the point. A critic has noted that Krims’ photos create “outrage or laughter — or both.” In any case, he is a true, mind bending original. A long time teacher at Buffalo State College, he has not received the recognition he deserves. Cindy Sherman was one of his students and was obviously influenced by his staged photographs. She has gained renown (and financial rewards) while Krims has not. Search out Krims’ photos. They are unforgettable. An HG favorite is: “The Static Electric Effect of Minnie Mouse on Mickey Mouse Balloons.” (1968). While his photographs are radical, Krims’ political beliefs are very conservative (He admires George Bush, for example). Go figure.
As HG luxuriates in front of a crackling fire at his New Mexico home watching news reports of three foot snow drifts battering the East Coast, HG notices a funny sensation. A nostalgic hunger for the soups HG’s Mom fed the family. They warmed HG and family in the winter and cooled them in the summer. Winter-time soups were either kapustah or potato soup. Kapustah, as HG recollects it, was a cabbage, onion, tomato, garlic melange in a beef broth enlivened with chunks of boiled beef. This was topped with a big ladle full of sour cream plus some fiery, freshly grated horseradish. With a few slices of Stuhmer’s (or Pechter’s) pumpernickel (with the savory spread of chicken fat and coarse salt) this was a solid, filling, cold weather dinner. The potato soup was simple. Just boiled potatoes and onions in a rich beef stock. A lunch dish. Warm weather soups were beet borscht and schav, both served cold. Mom’s borscht was incomparable. She used something she called “sour salt” to balance the sugary earthiness of the beets, giving the soup a distinctive sweet-tart taste. It received the usual topping of sour cream plus a healthy shower of chopped scallions and radishes. It was accompanied by a hot, buttered boiled potato. Schav was a sorrel soup, mouth puckeringly sour. Unlike the English Sorrel soup, the sorrel in Schav is not pureed but left in its leafy state. This soup was served icy cold (sometimes ice cubes were added to the bowl). Sour cream, naturally, and the obligatory boiled potato. During those non-air conditioned years of yesteryear, schav was a lifesaver on a blazing New York summer day.
The year was 1966, HG and BSK were off on their first European trip. Five days in Paris. Five days in London. They were accompanied by two-year-old Lesley, their remarkably precocious, articulate (and, needless to say) beautiful daughter. The dollar was strong. Stayed at the Hotel Pont-Royal on Rue du Bac in Saint Germain des Pres. The hotel was arty, picturesque, nicely shabby (and cheap). Now it is super posh following numerous expensive makeovers (there’s a Jöel Robuchon restaurant on the premises). Steeped in intellectual nostalgia for the Existentialists HG and BSK’s first stop was at Cafe Flore. During the German occupation, intellectuals gathered at the well heated Flore rather than their pre-war cafe-of-choice Deux Magots, the other great St. Germain cafe, because Deux Magots was favored by German officers. (Little did HG and BSK know at the time that they needn’t have traveled far for their nod to intellectual greatness as the basement bar of the Pont-Royal was the hangout of the most advanced intellectuals, political engages, writers and philosophers. It was where Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir held forth when they were not pontificating at the Cafe Flore.) Little Lesley had her first Croque Monsieur. Loved it and subsisted on those sandwiches for the entire Paris visit. HG and BSK were enthralled by the style and elegance of the Parisians. It was April in Paris. The costume for young women was a vivid, clingy sheath and a short leather jacket. (These items — plus a tweedy topcoat — were immediately purchased by BSK and, of course, BSK was the height of casual chic.) In order to fit into the Paris scene, HG visited a Boulevard Saint Germain shop for some stylish suits and a blazer. The welcome to HG was cool. Then HG had an insight. HG spoke to the store manager in Yiddish. Everything changed. HG was treated like a long lost son. Received a discount. Clothes were instantly altered and delivered within a few hours. Stylishly clad in their new duds, the duo dined at the famed Laperouse, a restaurant renowned for high cuisine and discreet private rooms for amorous gourmands. HG and BSK ordered badly. Heavy, heavy cream and butter sauces. BSK became ill and was laid up for a day. HG and little Lesley explored the lovely streets and squares of the district, pausing before many enticing shop windows. Naturally, there were many stops for Vin Rouge for HG and un chocolat chaud for Lesley. Once BSK’s health and appetite returned, the trio was off to museums; Luxembourg Gardens (Lesley was delighted by the puppet show); a stroll through the Tuileries to the Louvre; a visit to a toy store an the Champs Elysee, etc. On the last night in Paris a baby sitter took Lesley to a carousel (and a dinner of a Croque Monsieur and hot chocolate, naturally). HG and BSK dined at a Left Bank bistro. A bottle of very good, young Beaujolais. The waiter brought a platter of thick, white steamed asparagus (first of the Spring) wrapped in a linen napkin. A big bowl of Sauce Mousseline (better than Hollandaise). Heaven. This was followed by gigot, rosy slices of young, roasted lamb. An abundance of perfect pomme frites. Next course was a small green salad with a wedge of ripe camembert. Dessert was bowls of wild strawberries with creme fraiche. Then, strong demi tasse and (for HG) a snifter of cognac. It was the perfect meal.
London was not an anti-climax. HG and BSK had smoked salmon and Dover sole at Wheeler’s. Traditional roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding at Simpson’s in the Strand. Afternoon tea at Brown’s. A visit to the National Museum. Strolls in the beautiful parks. An amplitude of fish and chips. For Anglophiles like HG and BSK it was the culmination of many childhood dreams. This was the time of Mod London and so a visit to Carnaby Street, the center of Mod fashion, was obligatory. Here, the proud parents kitted Lesley out in striped bell bottom trousers and a vivid safari jacket. There was universal agreement that she was the hippest, cutest little girl in Britain.
HG has often penned sentimental, tearful reminiscences about the days when black, lush Iranian and Russian Beluga, Sevruga and Grosrybest caviar was affordable and could be consumed in large quantities. Caviarteria and Zabar’s provided this good stuff and it became a staple at HG family celebrations. Gone are those days. Now,only Russian oligarchs and hedge fund billionaires can afford it. ( Plutocrats also lack a conscience. This enables them to eat this over-fished and unsustainable foodstuff). However, there is a silver (or red) lining. Red salmon caviar is still available, in plentiful supply and priced appropriately. Russ & Daughters sells Alaskan Wild Salmon Caviar for $40 for an 8.8 oz.crock. Zabar’s red salmon caviar is a bit cheaper but the Russ & D. product is just a mite better. There are three good ways to eat the product. HG’s top choice is with blini and creme fraiche. (Excellent blini can be made from Roger Sherman’s recipe in the Canal House cookbook). Number two is with very, very softly scrambled eggs and creme fraiche (or sour cream) and some fried onions. Number three is stuffed into a baked potato with plenty of butter and sour cream. HG and BSK’s grandson, Handsome Haru, likes to top a bowl of Japanese rice with the caviar.
Permit HG a nostalgic Beluga detour. In the early 60’s, HG lifted weights and played racquetball at a W. 45th Street gym. A companion was a large man who had a delectable job. He was a sales manager of the Romanoff Caviar Company, a leading importer of Russian caviar. Every Saturday morning, HG would bring to the gym a bottle of icy vodka, sweet butter and a loaf of Russian pumpernickel. HG’s comrade brought a one pound (yes, one pound) jar of Beluga. After their exercises were complete, the healthy duo consumed this wonderful snack. Sadly, HG’s comrade died prematurely and the Beluga orgy ended. But, Russ & D.’s product remains to bring solace to HG’s golden years.
It may seem an obvious point, but good tableware enhances dining and it is often overlooked. HG and BSK are not pretentious table setters. But, there are some utensils treasured by the duo. Laguiole steak knives not only do an efficient job on steaks, chops and roast chicken, they introduce history to the table. These slim elegant blades stem from the Moorish-Spanish navaja blade which at some point merged with the French everyday knife, the capauchadou. The Laguiole knife, designed by Jean-Pierre Calmels in 1829, was born in the French city of Thiers in the Aveyron region and the authentic Laguiole knives are still manufactured there. Calmels gave the knife a distinctive “bee” symbol. This “bee” has imperial origins. Supposedly, Napoleon awarded “bee” symbols to brave soldiers. Other than knives BSK has collected the couple’s deliciously over-sized, silver plated forks and soup spoons from various London antique market stalls. The stall merchants always assured BSK: “They’ll shine up luvly, Miss.” And, so they did. Over the years, BSK managed to find some nice, old fashioned fish implements and forks with bakelite handles. Not used often, but they’re fun. HG likes to decant a good wine. Fancy decanters are hard to wash. HG found the perfect solution at the shop in the Paris Musee d’Arts Decoratifs: An oversized, thin glass carafe with an indented top for pouring. HG has added a glass funnel for further aeration. Gives wine added verve.
HG grew up in the Depression era-Bronx. A Jewish-Italian-Irish population. Noisy. Rambunctious. Sporadically violent. HG’s family was immigrant Jewish. The language of HG’s parents was heavily accented English plus Yiddish, patches of Russian and Polish. The family atmosphere was emotionally intense and very noisy. Voices were always raised in order to give communication the proper emphasis. Suffice it to say that it was (despite its many wonderful and much missed qualities) a claustrophobic and insular world. HG’s knowledge of the greater American world was gained from the Andy Hardy movies (Mickey Rooney, Lewis Stone, Kay Holden, Ann Rutherford); the Jack Armstrong-All American Boy serial on radio (sponsored by Wheaties-Breakfast of Champions) and the mystery solving books starring the Hardy Boys. Of the three fictions, HG found greatest comfort in the alternative universe presented by Andy Hardy. Andy lived in a one-family home on a tree lined street in a small town. Not in a stuffy, big city apartment. Andy’s Mother and Father spoke to each other courteously. Andy called his Father: “Sir.” The home atmosphere was quiet, serene. Yes, Andy was sometimes guilty of naughtiness (very minor league, in HG’s opinion). When that happened there was no screaming or hitting. Instead, Andy’s father, Judge Hardy, said, in a low, stern voice: “See me in my study, young man.” Study. What a magic, resonant word. It carried connotations of great civilization that was sorely lacking in HG’s Bronx world. HG vowed that there would be a study in HG’s future. And, so it would come to pass. HG is writing these very words in HG’s study in HG’s quiet and serene New Mexico home. Damn. HG is living in a movie.
The late, great journalist and press critic, A.J. Liebling, wrote the best book about dining (and Paris): Between Meals. He enjoyed many things besides food and drink (though he literally ate and drank himself to death). The Sweet Science reflects his love of boxing. The Jollity Building, The Honest Rainmaker and Earl of Louisiana are testimony to his fascination with raffish and outsize characters. He also had a nice habit of linking amorous pleasure with gustatory delight. He said the hearty eater thinking about the next fine meal is like the lover contemplating a future assignation. There is a threefold pleasure: Anticipation. Consummation. Reflection. HG thought about this as he opened a Fed Ex box from the wonderful Lower East Side smoked fish emporium, Russ & Daughters. It was packed meticulously and everything arrived in perfect condition. Smoked salmon. Sable. Salmon Caviar. Herring. Various fish salads. Cream cheese. Creme Fraiche. The bialys were a pleasant surprise. Oniony. Lightly browned. The real deal. When the last bialys from Russ were not gold standard, SJ admonished HG: “You don’t order herring from a bakery. You don’t order bialys from an appetizing store.” This batch of super-bialys proves SJ may be in error. As the chef/writer/television personality Anthony Bourdain has written: “Forget the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty…New York’s greatest living institution is very likely Russ & Daughters: A temple of uniquely New York deliciousness, Zen-like perfection and a repository of generations of wisdom and experience.”
Anyway. The Polish vodka is in the freezer. Anchor ale and Muscadet are in the refrigerator. All is in readiness for a David F. birthday party. Known as “The Dude,” (because of his resemblance to the protagonist of The Big Lebowski,) David F. is a bon vivant, novelist and former innovative educator. Should be a swell party. Meanwhile there is Anticipation. Consummation and Reflection will come later.
So, Ed Koch is gone. HG will miss him. Koch was everyone’s annoying, funny, smart, overbearing, (slightly racist) Jewish uncle. A true New York City guy. In his eyes, “Upstate” and “out of town” resembled Uzbekistan or Mongolia — strange people and bad food. Ed was very much part of HG and BSK’s New York life. BSK remembers often shaking hands with him (and Bella Abzug, that wonderful feminist in a big hat) when they were campaigning at the W.79th and Broadway subway entrance. During HG’s years as a public relations counselor to New York’s big time real estate developers, HG introduced Ed at numerous groundbreakings, building openings and other pseudo-events. Ed’s remarks were always funny, apt and (thankfully) brief. HG recalled that when Ed spoke at the opening of the revamped Commodore Hotel (HG handled the publicity for this early Donald Trump venture) Koch managed to damn The Egocentric Hairdo with some very faint praise. Most of all, HG thinks about “Hizzoner, the Mayor,” in connection with Chinese food. HG and BSK often would see Koch at their favorite Chinatown restaurant, Phoenix Garden (then located in the arcade between Bowery and Elizabeth). Salt and pepper shrimp, roast squab and many other dishes were outstanding. The Mayor’s favorite was the oddly named (but delicious) “Crab in White Milk Sauce.” (SJ, an agile handler of chopsticks, was tutored in this skill by older Chinese customers at this restaurant). HG handled public relations for the developers and managers of Confucius Plaza, the huge middle-income co-op that dominates Chinatown’s Chatham Square. Because of this, HG was always a guest at the lavish, multi course banquets hosted by the Chinatown business community. HG recalls Koch’s remarks at one banquet: “Sorry I have to leave for another engagement. Usually, when I say that I don’t mean it. I’m glad to leave. Now, I’m leaving with tears in my eyes. I’m leaving when I’m only half way through this magnificent feast. I’m going to Queens to eat some lousy fruit cup.” As he left, he looked sadly and longingly at the platters of sauteed prawns and steamed filets of flounder arriving at the tables. Goodbye, Ed. Olav Hasholem and Rest in Peace.
HG has never enjoyed pricey, upscale, high cuisine restaurants. In many decades of dining, only four have given HG pleasure commensurate with the expenditure. One, Le Pavillon, in New York is long gone, but memories of their fillets of smoked eel topped with a horseradish-infused whipped cream will linger on the HG palate forever. Another, the Connaught Hotel Restaurant in London offered the quintessential civilized English dining experience — perfect Dover Sole (de-boned at the table), Stilton and Port to finish (with a cigar service for those who indulged – and HG did just that). Alas, the Connaught has changed so much that it is unrecognizable. Two, both in New York, are alive and well. One is Le Bernardin and the other is the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building. Le Bernardin is flawless, simply the best seafood in the world prepared with flair and imagination. Fabulous wine list supervised by a renowned sommelier. Very, very expensive but not insane. Lunch Prix Fixe is $72 (three courses) and Dinner Prix Fixe is $127 (four courses). Tasting menu is more extravagant — $237 with paired wines. HG was a frequent diner at the Four Seasons during HG’s New York career. The Pool Room is the most beautiful restaurant space in the world. Curiously, New York big shots never ate there. They chose the more austere Grill Room. Menu is the same in both rooms. The Four Seasons used to be expensive but affordable for tax deductible meals. Now, the prices have gone through the roof. An appetizer of Spaghetti with Poached Egg and Black Truffles is $75. Grilled shrimp appetizer is $38. Venison, lamb chops, bison and steak are about $75. If you want to sample Four Seasons cuisine without going broke, take a seat at the bar. The Bar Menu is delicious and affordable (comparatively).