Sunday, August 26, 2007

California Cuisine and Gangsta Rap: A Comparative Dichotomy

Ice Cube. Dr Dre. Eazy E. Snoop Dogg. KRS-One.

Thomas Keller. Alice Waters. Jeremiah Tower. Narsai David. Paul Bertolli.

Each profoundly influential. Each a genius in his or her own right.

Each blazing new trails by reinventing how they used the tools that were already in front of them.

Each using their fame and reputation to support dozens of far less talented artists on their coattails.

Each responsible for spawning a generation of mediocrity behind them.

Gangsta rap and California Cuisine share far more than just being popular with rich white people. Their basic shared tenets blur the boundaries between food and music, dancing and eating, beats and beets.


What are those tenets?

1. Simplicity is Key

What makes an excellent gangsta rap tune? A g-funk era landmark? A simple heavy beat. Catchy, repetitive synth hooks. Maybe a few simple vocal samples. And dope, dope rhymes. No flourishes. No guitar heroics. No multi-octave diva arias. No double bass pedal thirtysecond-note sextuplets. There's nothing to it that makes you think you should like it. It's not Dvorak or Mahler for chrissakes. Yet somehow some way gangsta rap still comes up with funky ass shit like every single day.

The same holds true with California Cuisine. Chefs aren't flambe-ing tableside, stuffing turkeys inside sardines, or serving domes of flavored air over tapioca pearls. I mean, some chefs are, but not California Cuisine chefs. That would be inappropriate. Transcendent California Cuisine is perfect organic seasonal ingredients cooked flawlessly. There's no reason for the food to be s0 damn good, other than from the culinary gestalt of perfect ingredients assembled perfectly.

Just as there's no reason that an old Parliament baseline, some high sine wave synth sounds, and flows about gats, weed, and bitches should be good, other than that same gestalt.

2. Careful Selection

Just as our California Cuisine chefs pick their produce for its peak of seasonality and freshness, so too do the top producers of gangsta rap select their basslines, beats, and synth hooks. There's nothing in theory difficult about deciding to cook with kale. But what kale? From where? When is kale at its absolute best? The producer makes the same decision--this sample of a breathy oversexed woman is great, but where should it be used? When can it be inserted into a song for its peak effect? Probably right after the rapper says "bi-otch."

3. Passion and Purity of Motive

One of the reasons California Cuisine works is because the chef is committed to the ideals of the movement. Seasonality. Locality. Simplicity. When one of these tenets is compromised, the whole effect slips away. Gangsta rap came out of the frustration and rage felt by a generation of black men living in the ghetto. California Cuisine came out of a desire to eat more simply and deliciously. Gangsta rap had the crack epidemic of the 1980's, California Cuisine had the fuel crisis of the late 1970's.

But as gangsta rappers become wealthier it's hard to take them seriously. Instead, hip hop now is about going dumb, bringing sexy back, and getting between you and dat booty. Hearing Ice Cube in 1990 when he was a pissed off 20 year-old is a helluva lot more compelling than hearing Ice Cube trying to be pissed off now that he's a multi-multi-multi millionaire who makes family road trip comedies. Most prominent artists from the gangsta rap era who are still recording have moved on into slightly different genres.

And as California Cuisine becomes accepted fact for most restaurants--that the idea of using fresh local seasonal ingredients is de rigeur--I'm no longer impressed. Now you're just doing it because you're supposed to, not because you really believe in the tenets of sustainability. It's time to forge new ground. Build on that very sturdy foundation and move forward. Stop being a multi-millionaire still rapping about the 'hood.

California Cuisine needs to stop being gangsta and find its hyphy.

DISCLAIMER: The author understands that he is conflating several related genres of hip-hop. The author also acknowledges that logical gaps that exist in his argument. The author understands that he is exaggerating for comic effect and/or entertainment factor. The author makes no claims at being an expert in either hip-hop or California Cuisine. Horny for Food is for entertainment purposes only. The author assumes no responsibility for actions taken either directly or indirectly as a result of reading his words. The author encourages all diners to think critically and come to their own conclusions about dining. The author thanks you for your readership.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Rest of the Country, Volume 2: The Highlights

In my stumbles through the mid-Atlantic there were many many lowlights. Terrible wraps. Overcooked shrimp. Shitty beer. Shittier coffee. An awfully god-awful meal at King's Arms Tavern in Williamsburg.

But there were some high points. Here they are.

Vino Volo: Both girlfriend Charlie and I agree that this was the most interesting culinary stop on our travels. Located in Dulles Airport (and five other airports around the country), Vino Volo is a wine shop and wine bar that also features a short small plates menu. With liquid restrictions for carry-ons making transporting wine even more annoying, having a wine shop within the security checkpoint area fills an important void.

The wine selection is remarkably broad in scope for its limited size. Prices are also reasonable (especially by airport standards), with generous glasses as cheap as $6 (for the 2005 Casa Castillo Monastrell, a wine I've seen on lists around here for $8-$9 a glass). Wines are grouped into global flights and even provide for the opportunity to try a 1999 Caymus Cabernet and a 2000 Bordeaux Grand Cru Classe in one flight for $25 (the Caymus retails for $215 and the Bordeaux $125).

The food, while unremarkable, is tasty. Pretty simple heat and assemble food that was lacking in seasoning, but it hit the spot. And in the world of airport dining where you're so often limited to shitty Mexican food, spin-offs of local fast food chains, and bad pizza, having fresh and simple cuisine with a gourmet sensibility was nice. Options include smoked salmon rolls, pork soft tacos, and garbanzo bean "chili." Dishes are available in "taste" or "entree" sizes and many are paired with suggested wine flights. Food was also inexpensive, especially given the quality and the location. Vino Volo is set to expand into a dozen or so airports in the coming months, so keep watch. Right now you can find them in Dulles, Seattle, Sacramento, Boston, and JFK.

Crab Cakes: I'm about to say something that will get me strung up from my toenails and sodomized with a broken bottle by Alice Waters.:

California just doesn't get crab.

I like dungeness crab. It's fine. It's good size is nice, providing for some big chunks and nice meaty claws. But it's a little bit too sweet. And it makes a mediocre crab cake. Yet every restaurant in San Francisco is expected to offer this "signature" California treat. It's weird.

Give me blue crab any day of the week. The much smaller blue crabs, while much more work to crack and pick, have a more robust flavor and nice plump chunks of lump crab meat. The Maryland/Virginia crab cake is simply done with Old Bay seasoning, mayo, and saltines instead of being overly adulterated with bread crumbs, peppers, and excessive herbs. You'll usually get just one crab cake, but it'll be a big one. Makes for an excellent sandwich as well.

We get so excited by our dungeness crabs here but it's really an inferior crustacean for eating. Pretty though.

As an odd side note, I could not find fresh softshell crab in Virginia, despite the fact that restaurants in California are still getting fresh live softshells shipped from Chesapeake Bay.

Dunkin' Donuts: As ubiquitous on the east coast as tranny hookers are on the west, Dunkin' Donuts is one of the few remaining fast food chains that I would welcome gladly to my hometown. Krispy Kreme blows goats. Hardee's is Carl's Jr. with biscuits. Shoney's sounds like a dirty strip club. But Dunkin' Donuts offers something for everyone. If you like donuts. Which I do. Hence, Dunkin' Donuts is great. All the donuts that girlfriend Charlie and I tried were excellent, especially the cruller and the blueberry cake donut. The coffee lived up to the hype too. 'Twas tasty jet fuel, 'twas.

Penguin Isle: An Outer Banks restaurant with some class, Penguin Isle in Nags' Head offered little in the way of innovation, but the food was prepared very well. My tilefish oscar was delicious and moist, as was my crab cake appetizer. Impressive wine list as well.

Argyle's: Another Outer Banks restaurant where I encountered my first truly innovative dish in my travels. They called it oysters rockefeller, but other than being baked oysters with bacon their version shared nothing with the blue-hair favorite. Big James River oysters are baked with seaweed, bacon, and parmesan. Much lighter than most preparations and much appreciated.

Fresh Market: Sort of a Whole Foods type grocery store, seek this place out if you're in need for an array of organic produce, soy products, natural cereals, and (huzzah!) Peet's Coffee.

Harris Teeter: Food Lion got you down? Tired of grocery stores that smell like fish and cigarettes? Then go to Harris Teeter! Not as classy as Fresh Market, it's still pretty classy. Think $500 call girl to Food Lion's $25 back alley blowjob. Something in that range.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Rest of the Country, Volume 1

So I spent the last eight days on the east coast. Not just on the east coast, but in the south. Not the Deep South of violent racism fame, just Virginia and coastal North Carolina of pervasive institutional racism fame. North Carolina has something like the fifth largest black population in the country but strangely in the affluent recreation-oriented Outer Banks I saw like five.


I do bag on California Cuisine. And I'm not saying it's not deserved. But I also came back from my trip with a newfound appreciation for what we do have here in California dining. It's apparent that a big chunk of this country has a lot of catching up to do.

And it's not just an issue of ingredients--there's no other region of the country, with the possible exception of Hawai'i, that has such an immediate access to such an impressive array of produce, I understand that--it's an issue of concept all the way down.

Most of the problems I encountered are not endogenous to the region I was in. They're my standard complaints. Very little articulation of an entire dish is the biggest--instead you get your protein with a rotating cast of sides--mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables. Sometimes that side gets a little more adventurous--risotto spring roll in one case--but you'll still find it making appearances on multiple entrees. At the best and even not-so-best restaurants in the Bay Area every ingredient in each dish was cooked and arranged with every other ingredient in mind.

I also ate more asparagus last week then I had in the past year. And we're well past asparagus season.

While these are the problems of middling and casual dining restaurants in the Bay Area, I ate at some of the priciest and well-regarded restaurants in the Outer Banks.

Am I saying the food was bad? Hardly. A lot of it was quite good. I love east coast seafood, so I ate a lot of it. They just do crab better in that region. Shrimp too. Super-fresh ahi. Ahi was also super-cheap ($10-$12 a pound) and the reddest I've seen outside of Hawai'i. I found that the quality of the protein was excellent and the preparation of it superb in most cases. There was an overcooked pork chop here and dry chicken there, but overall the main ingredient was prepared quite well and with a degree of style and grace. Wasabi and coriander crusted ahi, for instance. It was in how the dish was presented and how the accompaniments were cooked that was problematic. Gummy, overprocessed mashed potatoes. Undercooked steamed vegetables. Stale flourishes and garnishes. Dry rice.

Basically, food like mama used to make. Big communal pots of veggies and potatoes ladled onto the plate with your steak.

Now I come from a weird background where family dining at home consisted as often of pan-seared pork tenderloin with cherry-reduction and risotto as it did a big pot of spaghetti. That's how we rolled. But I understand that eating at home often consists of mom steaming some vegetables, cooking some rice or potatoes, and preparing a roast, or meat loaf, or fried chicken, or pork chops, or whatever. And that's great. It's probably fucking delicious and better than at most restaurants.

But if I'm going out to eat and spending $25-$35 on entrees I'm looking for something more than steak and potatoes.

And as I encountered on a fishing trip out in the Gulf Stream, catching fresh mahi-mahi, taking it home, and broiling it with olive oil, salt, and pepper is easy and delicious. So why go out to eat?

Stay tuned shortly for a more detailed elaboration on my eastern adventure.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Alembic - San Francisco, Ca

Something weird's going on out there. Why am I getting better food and service at a place that is packed with drinkers, where we have to pass food across the aisle, and where the food is simple small plates of pub food with little flourish of technique or preparation than at places that cost twice as much and with actual tables?

The Alembic, a hot busy spot in the Haight, was fucking great.

We arrived late on a Friday night and the place was packed. It's a narrow storefront bar with a counter on the right and banquette tables in the back. We grabbed a spot at the bar when we could and ordered food and drinks. Already this was shaping up to be a bad night. Busy bar, no comfortable place to sit--we're bound to get ignored.

But strangely we weren't. We had prompt service from the bartender, he answered a couple wine questions and took our food order.

Drinks were nice. Big selection of whiskeys. Decent small wine list. Selection of Magnolia beers and a few others. Some house cocktails. Bartender made an excellent amaretto sour.

First up were two orders of the gnocchi with serrano ham and heirloom tomato. I really liked this dish--fluffy pillows on super-thin slices of ham. Admittedly it was weird. My dining companions weren't sold on it at all and I could see why. The flavors were disparate and far from complimentary, but it was fun. I appreciated the risk.

Next, Moroccan lamb sliders. As much as sliders are ridiculously overdone (both Gourmet and Bon Appetit had meatball sliders on their respective covers one month apart) these were good. Well spiced and served medium rare. A little too rare for one of our diners.

Truffle mac and cheese, another overdone item, was cheesy and aromatic. This was my least favorite, only because the cheese sauce was too thin and bechamel-y.

Spiced frites were thin and crisp and remarkably hot. My consistent complaint with thin-cut fries is that they get cold and soggy far too quickly. Not the case here. The accompanying thousand island-ish dressing was weird but once again showed a willingness to take risks on flavor combinations and thought it worked perfectly.

But the highlights. Oh yes, the highlights.

Duck confit club. Tomato, Niman Ranch bacon, and meaty tender chunks of duck. Everything was so perfectly combined that the fact that the dish is assembled of room temperature ingredients didn't matter.

And then the spaetzle. The spaetzle with braised rabbit and, yeah, more bacon. Hot and hearty. Odd dish for a summer menu, but it was foggy and cold as fuck in the Haight, so it worked. There was enough of everything without being too much of anything. I could eat a bowl of this for breakfast twice a week. And that's saying something.

So first reports on The Alembic are fucking great. Great food, great service, hip and pretty spot in a nice location. Even on a slammed Friday we got service that was better than at Cesar on a Tuesday.

I'll be back earlier on a weekday to really have a chance to do the menu right, but color me impressed. I think that color is purple.

The Alembic
1725 Haight St.
San Francisco, Ca 94117
Reservations: No.