Some 35 years ago, HG/BSK were ambling about the right bank of Paris near the Place de Victoires when they were seized with midday hunger. They entered a likely bistro, Chez Georges. Very plain spoken. Motherly waitresses. Lots of mirrors. An old fashioned, down home place filled with delicious aromas and absolutely jam packed with happy Parisians. HG/BSK had no reservation but the boss made us welcome: He installed us near a corner of the serving bar and poured some glasses of excellent Brouilly. Five minutes later, HG/BSK were seated and happily devouring a Salad Frisee. First time ever. A lush salad of crisp frisee with plenty of lardons (crisp bits of fried salt pork) and topped with a runny poached egg. An oil/vinegar/mustard dressing. Oh, my. Chez Georges is still in business serving bistro classics. Unchanged (though under new ownership). Prices, of course, have quadrupled. BSK reproduced this salad for dinner last night. Substituted good bacon for the salt pork. The salad was better than Chez Georges. Maybe it was the freshness of the greens. Maybe it was the perfection of the poached egg. BSK followed this with another classic, not from Paris but from Rhode Island: Squid with spicy vinegar peppers and garlic. HG first ate it at Hemenway’s in Providence. Hemeway’s version features breaded, deep-fried squid. BSK just gives the squid a quick saute in a super hot pan. BSK’s version is better and lighter. HG is a very fortunate fellow.
HG/BSK are mushroom lovers and a favorite is the oyster mushroom sold at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. BSK uses a plentiful amount of these in BSK’s creative variation of David Tanis’ fresh and wild mushroom stew recipe (Tanis writes for the New York Times Wednesday Food & Wine section. HG/BSK are Tanis fans). In creating the mushroom stew, BSK adds dried porcini mushrooms, the broth in which they have been softened and some good chicken stock. BSK’s choice of a cultivated mushroom is the brown cremini. BSK is generous with her use of herbs–namely fresh sage, rosemary and tarragon. BSK makes life simple by purchasing a polenta loaf at Trader Joe’s. BSK browns slices of the polenta. Tops them with a ladle of mushroom stew. A dash of red pepper flakes. Accompanied by a fruity red wine and followed by a green salad and cheese, you’ve got a festive autumn dinner.
What have we lost? Style. A sense of occasion. HG refers to the fact that few persons dress formally for a restaurant dinner these days. HG is not talking about black tie. We don’t live in Downton Abbey. But, appropriate dining-out clothes for HG does mean a jacket for men. Women, given their natural virtues and virtuoso abilities in scarf administration, can get away with much more informality. When HG was younger, everyone dressed up to go to a restaurant or the theater. Women even had “cocktail dresses” and “restaurant suits” (They also had girdles but that’s another story). Looking stylish added a festive quality to many activities. With baby boomers in the 60s rejecting the formalities of their elders, the road was paved for today’s young hipster style of plaid shirts, jeans and beards. Overall the wholesale embracing of casual style seems to HG, depressing and conformist. HG agrees with Woody Allen’s statement: “Eating at home is just eating. Eating in a restaurant is a party”. So. Listen to HG: Make the world a better place and dress to dine out.
Yes, you’ve got to get to Mr. G’s stand in the Santa Fe Farmers Market early. Dawdle, and it’s too late. Eager buyers line up as soon as it’s open and greedily snap up all of Gary Gunderson’s incomparable organic produce. Multiple varieties of lettuce. The best frisee. Arugula. Scallions. Escarole. Radishes. Carrots. And, more. Much more. Gary and his lovely wife, Natasha, are HG/BSK’s neighbors and as HG enjoys a leisurely breakfast HG often spies Gary and Natasha (plus some farmhands) busily tending their meticulously organized farm. Always nice to lounge as others work hard. Recently, HG had some health tests and the geezer seems to be in reasonable shape (knock wood). Daughter Lesley R. claims that BSK’s insistence that HG eat plenty of fresh vegetables is making a difference. So, thanks Gary and Natasha. Your good stuff (plus plenty of extra virgin Sicilian oil) is a deposit in the bank of good health.
Some like it hot. Some like it very hot. Some like it blazing. If you fall into one of these three categories get over to the Pojoaque Super Market on Highway 285 (about 15 minutes north of Santa Fe, New Mexico). This is a Native American-owned, plain folks grocery that happens to have one of the great collections of tongue-sizzling foods — Inside there is a veritable wall of hot sauces, salsas and fiery condiments. Plenty of smoky chipotles, stinging jalapenos and dried peppers of every variety. It was here that HG discovered Mrs. Renfro’s Jalapeno Green Salsa. The label says “Hot” but it is a civilized “Hot’, zesty and full of fresh flavor. There’s a picture of motherly Mrs. Renfro on the jar lid. A Texas lady, Mrs. Renfro and husband George began bottling sauces in 1940. No preservatives. Just natural goodness. HG likes a dolllop of it on soft scrambled eggs and on fried pork chops. For a special treat, HG pan broils a hamburger (using a fatty chuck). Tops it with melted muenster cheese and Mrs. Renfro’s magic substance. That’s how `we do it in the Land of Enchantment.
HG/BSK drove into Albuquerque for dinner with old friends. Went to Scalo, a modestly upscale Italian restaurant in the lively, colorful Nob Hill section of town. Nice welcome. Pleasant decor. Acceptable noise level. While waiting for pals, HG looked over the wine by the glass carte and it was outstanding. A good pinot grigio from the Veneto for BSK and a tasty friulano from Friuli for HG. Both modestly priced. That is where the modesty ended however — Scalo serves well prepared, thoughtful food with the biggest problem being portion size. HG’s frito misto starter could have been the main dish for two persons. Slow roasted short ribs served with mushrooms, polenta and frizzled onions was a veritable mountain of meat. HG, a true clean plate ranger, had met his match. The frito misto had made a dent. The short ribs spelled defeat. Unconditional surrender for HG. (HG took solace with some glasses of hearty Montepulciano d’Abruzze). What is it with American restaurants? Who do they think they are feeding? Lumberjacks? Cowhands weary and famished from months on the range? In any case, it made HG long for a Paris bistro meal where portions are civilized, downsized for cultivated, semi-sedentary, and ultimately svelte urbanites.
HG/BSK will have the happy experience of family Christmas this year at the Providence home of Gifted Daughter Lesley R. and husband, Profesore/Dottore/ Ufficiale Massimo R. HG will whine and wheedle as HG tries to persuade the family to dine at Lucky Garden, a Chinese restaurant in North Providence. It’s a shlep but well worth it because Lucky Garden, located in a rather bleak neighborhood, is one of the best Chinese restaurants in the United States. The menu is quite daring offering some tripe dishes, chicken feet, sea cucumber and other esoterica. However, the restaurant pleases our large family group with mainstream delicacies like whole steamed flounder, Chinese greens with garlic, dumplings, congee, etc. Looking forward to dining there has caused HG to muse on memorable food HG has consumed in unlikely locales. There was a shack on the Rhode Island bike bath between Providence and Bristol that lives in HG’s memory (the shack, alas, disappeared a few years ago). HG would set off on a bike jaunt to work off some of Lesley R’s generous cuisine. But, at a midway point, appetite would conquer and HG would pause at the shack for an enormous bowl of linguini con vongole. Clams, garlic, good olive oil, clam broth, red pepper, al dente pasta—all perfectly balanced and beyond abundant. Returned from the bike ride pounds heavier. Another unlikely place for superb dining is Big Timber, Montana. The restaurant in the old Grand Hotel serves a rack of lamb that is incomparable. Natural, hormone free meat cooked perfectly and served with grace. And, you can drink great wine with the rack. Very imaginative and well priced wine list. It was here that HG/BSK were introduced to the robust wines of Walla Walla, Washington. An HG/BSK family legend concerns a meal the duo and young SJ and Lesley R. consumed many years ago in Phoenix. A Friday night and every restaurant in town was jammed with waiting times up to two hours. Famished from hours of swimming and tennis under the Arizona sun, the family stopped at a very unpromising Chinese restaurant, the Golden Pagoda. A sad menu of chow mein and other horrors. HG summoned the manager and said: “We are from New York. We love real Chinese food. Forget the menu. Just cook us a meal you would enjoy eating with your family.” Magic words. The meal that followed was extraordinary. Lives in our collective memories.
HG did some chopping and BSK got the woks sizzling. Yes, Chinese food for dinner tonight. Chinese restaurants in Santa Fe are miserable so Chinese dining is strictly DIY. On HG/BSK’s menu was Gong Bao Chicken With Peanuts; String Beans With Ginger and Garlic; and stir fried Spicy Eggplant that used the little Japanese eggplants that are in season right now. Instead of steamed rice, there was a big bowl of room temperature soba with sesame oil and a bit of hot chili. A great meal. Easy to prepare. And cheaper than flying to New York to partake in a Chinese feast in Flushing.
The big food news in Santa Fe has centered around a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown which explored the culture and food of New Mexico. HG/BSK saw the show and thought it unfocused, dull and ultimately failed to convey anything useful about New Mexico or its cuisine. Nevertheless, the show unleashed passions in Santa Fe. Bourdain ate a Frito Pie at the Five and Dime General Store located at Santa Fe’s historic Plaza. At the Five and Dime, a bag of Fritos is opened and gets a scoop of red meat-and-bean chili with a topping of cheese. You can top it with onions and jalapenos from a condiments counter. The F and D has been serving it for decades and folks like it a lot (HG is not a fan). Well, Bourdain tasted it. First, he said holding the warm bag in his hands was like clutching a “colostomy bag.” Then, he said the chili tasted like it came straight out of a can. Fury. Frenzy. Headlines in the Santa Fe New Mexican. The F and D cook swore she made the chile daily from scratch using excellent ingredients. Bourdain backed down, apologized and acknowledged his error. The town is mollified. As for HG, when he wants a Frito pie (which is rarely), HG gets it at El Parasol where it’s made with fiery green chili and served in a proper bowl. The other big news is that Bobcat Bite, the famous hamburger joint, has opened in a new and quite accessible Santa Fe location. Bobcat Bite has been lauded in many national publications as serving possibly the best burger in the USA. Bobcat Bite was, for many years, located in an out-of-the way spot on the edge of town. Hard to find. Then, there was a real estate dispute and BB closed. Sadness. And, then joy. BB has reopened in its better location and the early reviews have been raves. Will try it and post a report.
HG is a fan of The New York Times obituaries. Reads them (online) every day. Yes, there’s a bit of gloating involved. “Yes,” says HG in an internal monologue, “you (subject of the obit) may have accumulated honors, wealth, fame, etc., but you are very, very dead. And, HG, is very, very alive.”
HG is also a romantic (witness HG’s half-century of marriage to much loved BSK). HG’s belief in romance and HG’s ghoulish interest in obituaries were combined in one obit (paid notice) that appeared in a recent Sunday print copy of the Times. The subject of the obituary, a woman, met her husband (they were married 65 years) when she was 18. While courting he wrote to her with an invitation to the theater. She replied: “Pleasure was my first sensation (upon receipt of the letter). Let us hope the evening does not lead us into any serious indiscretion. Your more than willing, Victoria.” HG adores that reply. Charming, graceful–and sexy.