Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fresh & Easy - Trouble for Trader Joe's?

Sorry for my delay in posting. It's been a flurry of activity this October.

First, an interesting little review of the unassailable Father's Office burger. The most notable quote here is "When you have meat of this quality it should be served as a steak or at least a steak sandwich."

I can't agree more. A burger is a fucking burger. It's ground up and flavored and just, well, it's just not the best showcase for top quality product. That's where burgers came from, a chance to extend and improve mediocre or questionable meat. A spicy tuna roll is made from the mediocre scrapings of tuna mixed with a spicy sauce to mask its shitiness. You wouldn't make spicy tuna from o-toro. Basic chuck is all that you need for a good burger. Anything else is a waste of quality meat. Kobe burger? What the fuck! Hell, a sirloin burger is retarded. All that these products do is allow us to indulge in the exotic and/or conspicuously consumable under the protective layer of easily accessible food. It's like putting foie gras on a burger or caviar on a pizza. It's just silly. These things are best on their own. Great beef is best seared rare with a little salt and pepper. That's the point. That's what cows die for.

Moving on.

I'd heard of these markets called "Fresh & Easy" but had yet to visit one. Fresh & Easy is Tesco's attempt to enter the U.S. market. If you don't know Tesco, then you're one of the many Americans who doesn't realize that there are many many multinational corporations that aren't based in the United States. Tesco is the world's fourth largest retailer, being a major supermarket chain in Britain and having a significant presence throughout Europe.

Fresh & Easy launched last year in Southern California, Arizona, and Nevada. They took an interesting approach. Rather than launching flagship stores in major cities, Fresh & Easy slipped its way in to the country in the sprawling suburbs of Orange, San Diego, Riverside, Imperial, and southern Los Angeles counties. Even now, stores are barely present north of Manhattan Beach. Hell, its first store was in Hemet and if you didn't have to look up Hemet on the internet when you heard that you're a better man than me.

I found myself on a semi-spontaneous road trip east on I-10 with girlfriend Charlie to the desert town of Indio and in so doing found myself stumbling into what I've decided is my new favorite grocery store, Fresh & Easy.

It is unfortunate that I have to drive through the shitbox that is the Inland Empire to get to California's Desert Cities. The desert is a stunningly weird and beautiful place and the only thing keeping me from visiting it more is that ninety minutes of driving through continuous sprawl. We passed six Targets. Six! And that's just what was visible from the freeway.

Fresh & Easy sort of floats in a void of its own. It's way smaller and cheaper than Whole Foods but decently bigger and more comprehensive than Trader Joe's (and in some instances cheaper). Like both those places, Fresh & Easy offers a large selection of premade and semi-prepared foods, but is much less reliant on the freezer section. I dig this. I like fresh pre-made stuff, but not so much frozen/canned. I think this is a perfect match for what busy young families and professionals want. I love to cook. I like to cook from scratch if I can. That being said if I can compliment my meal with a pretty tasty fresh pre-made side of creamed spinach for $1.50, why not? Plus, Fresh & Easy sells food of this type in quantities that can reasonably be consumed by two adults in the course of a meal, as opposed to Trader Joe's which sells food in quantities that're way too much for one but not enough for two.

Fresh & Easy offers a large organic selection while not making it the focus of their operations. It also offers largely store-branded items coupled with some specifically selected name-brand products (much like Trader Joe's).

The most interesting thing that I found about Fresh & Easy is that they openly sell their late-dated products at a discount. What was once the bastion of grocery outlets can now be purchased in the store in which it was intended. And you can get a helluva a deal on food that's still quite fresh. Basically, Fresh & Easy has a section where food a day or two away from its sell-by date is sold for 50% or more less than its retail price. It's still perfectly fine, it just can't sit in a fridge for a week before you eat it.

I like this a lot as it presents some great money-saving options for people who are buying dinner for that evening. Basically, it encourages frequent shopping for fresh food.

The last very cool thing about Fresh & Easy is that they're opening stores in "food deserts." They're becoming the only retailer in neighborhoods devoid of quality grocery stores, including Compton and Glassell Park in Los Angeles and (soon) Bayview/Hunter's Point and East Oakland in the SF area. When you present fresh, wholesome, unpretentious food at very good prices in neighborhoods underserved by quality retailers, you're helping the world in readily appreciable ways.

So find the Fresh & Easy nearest you (it's probably Manhattan Beach) and shop. Shop I say!

P.S. The Salton Sea is fucking creepy as hell. It's like a giant meth lab full of pelicans. I highly recommend a visit.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Two Follow-Ups

#1. Here's an old article from the LA Times I stumbled across that deals with the finer points of BYOB laws in California: http://articles.latimes.com/2003/nov/12/food/fo-matters12.

Some of the points are a bit out of date, for instance the ABC changed its policy and license-holders can NOT be held responsible for damages caused by patrons leaving drunk from their establishment, provided that the patrons are of a legal drinking age. This rule was changed because it put a restaurant in the catch-22 of neither being able to have a drunk patron on their premises nor being able to send him on his way.

It does highlight the basic ridiculousness of our liquor licensing system and how it can spell the death of an otherwise prosperous business. It also puts too much in the hands of one little douche bag with a grudge or a hatred of alcohol.

#2. I don't know in what esteem the OC Register's food section is held, but in an indicator of the bizarreness of the LA Times review of Charlie Palmer, the Register gave it nothing but plaudits in its review. This goes to show nothing other than that you should ignore fucking restaurant reviews and decide for yourself. Critics are no better or worse evaluators of dining than the average intelligent consumer. Strike that, they're usually worse.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

I Miss Michael Bauer

I know that it's of record that I'm not a huge fan of Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle Food Editor and primary restaurant critic. I find his palate predictable, writing style predictable banal, and his lips too firmly planted on Pat Kuleto's ass. Still, he seems like a nice enough guy and the one time I actually waited on him he left me a generous tip and bumped our restaurant up half a star on his follow-up review. Can't really complain there.

And when compared to LA Times food critic S. Irene Virbila, Bauer looks like William-fucking-Faulkner.

"Miss Irene," as restaurant folks in LA like to call here (despite the fact that she's married) sounds like a royal bitch.

Read her recent review of Charlie Palmer's restaurant in the South Coast Plaza.

Somehow she turns what sounds like a mediocre experience at a neglected offshoot in a celebrity chef's empire into a personal attack on Mr. Palmer himself. Should the chef whose name is on a restaurant be more hands-on in the kitchen? Sure. In most cases are they? Fuck no. It's image and branding Miss Irene. You can't replicate something great. The closest anyone's gotten is Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York which managed to achieve three Michelin Stars but still isn't mentioned in the same breath as The French Laundry.

In fact, it's a credit to Keller that he didn't market himself recklessly. All his restaurants receive good to great reviews. His organization seems to be doing something right. But that's the exception, not the rule. And last I checked, Charlie Palmer's a celebrity chef in the same way Govind Armstong is. He's not. Hell, he doesn't even have a Wikipedia article.

So you had a middling experience at the new Charlie Palmer's. Who the fuck cares? You yourself seemed to enjoy at least a handful of dishes and nothing that you disliked sounded overly egregious. So there was too much mushroom soup? Darn. So the desserts were overconceived? Whooptido. Pate was middling? Fair enough. Those are legitimate, but small complaints. You loved the wine, you loved the service, and you enjoyed a third of the food. Those things added up equal an okay review, not a column of vitriol worthy of Horny for Food.

Though I don't think you can turn a phrase quite as well as I can and your restaurant reviews are sorely lacking in profanity, ethnic slurs, and titty references to be considered for enshrinement in these hallowed pages.

Most importantly Miss Irene, your prose is about as turgid as it gets. Your reviews read like something a middle-aged housewife would write in her "Restaurant Reviews" lesson in a night school journal writing class. It shows a pitiful level of engagement and critical thinking that is barely Yelp!-worthy, let alone appropriate for one of the most important newspapers in one of the most dynamic restaurant markets in the country. Its proper place is glued on a piece of construction paper with ribbons and glitter next to washed out flash photographs of turkey-necked fifty-somethings holding up glasses of Bandol rose in a "Girls' Night Out to Dinner" scrapbook.

For the love of monkeyballs what did Charlie Palmer do to you Miss Irene? Did he steal your wallet? Impregnate your daughter? Pull out, leave town, and refuse to cuddle? What?

His restaurant's in South Coast Plaza! What were you expecting? Seriously. What were you expecting? It's a goddamn shopping mall in Orange County! And it's a chef who, aside from one James Beard "Best Chef New York" award over ten years ago counts Wine Spectator honors as his most significant achievements. And we all know that you get a Wine Spectator Award that same way you get to host the Olympics:

Bribery and human rights abuses.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Ta Mère Est Belge!

Am I the only one who’s been drinking Belgian beers since high school?

That’s an exaggeration, as the only beer I had prior to college was one Coors Light at a shitty house party.

But still, I’ve been drinking (and loving) Chimay for about a half-dozen plus one years now. Also was drinking Orvel, Westmalle, Stella, Hoegaarden, Duvel, Delirium Tremens, and all the other readily available Belgian beers for a long time. Belgium makes rockstar beers. Fabulous fucking beers. And many many different kinds of beers. Every neighborhood seems to have its own style.

I’m not knocking Belgian beers. I have something else to knock.

Why the fuck does every single upscale bar in LA have a fucking hard-on for Belgian and Belgian-style beers?

To be fair, you also can’t swing a dead racehorse penis in the Bay Area without hitting a new Belgian-themed gastropub. It expanded more slowly and organically up there though. A Luka’s here. A Trappist there.

There are numerous bars and gastropubs that will only serve Belgian/Belgian-style beers. That’s like a restaurant only serving French wines. It shows a myopic view of the culinary world under the guise of pretentious class.

What bothers me the most is this attitude that somehow Belgian beer is superior to other premium beers. That somehow because it comes in a corked bottle and is served in a quaint glass that makes it an elegant experience—something superior to a quality pint of porter with a plate of chili cheese fries.

And why would you serve only Belgian beers? Despite their diversity, you’re still limiting yourself. With the exception of the mass market Belgians like the aforementioned Stella Artois and Hoegaarden, you’re dealing primarily with robust, high-alcohol ales that knock you out after a glass or two. Session beers they aren’t.

And that’s the beauty of beer: swilling pints with friends over the course of an evening. It’s not wine. It’s not something to be savored as slowly as wine. It’s meant to be drunk, gulped, chugged, and enjoyed in broad strokes, just like the food you drink it with. Pizza. Fish and chips. Burgers. Fries.

How do they drink beer in England? Proper pints. In most cases, 20 ounce pints. In Germany (outside of Berlin anyway)? Half-liters, and in Bavaria the one liter “Maß,” while not necessarily the default serving, is almost universally available and enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. The Czech Republic? Half-liters. Australia? Seven gallon gravity-tapped backpacks. And in America the 16 ounce pint used to be the universal. These are the proper beer-drinking countries of the world. Hell, Belgium serves most beers in a half-liter too, but try to get yourself a half-liter of Maredsous in California and some sideburned bartender in thick-rimmed glasses will look at you like you’re an uncultured, unhip lunatic.

With the Belgianization of our beer experience has come the shrinking of our beer servings (why can’t I get a goddamn proper pint in an upscale restaurant?) and after that comes the worst trend of them all… beer pairings.

I’m pretty laissez-faire when it comes to pairing wine with food, so the thought of nuanced course-for-course beer pairing is rather nauseating. Beer is great with food. In many instances better with certain foods than wine is. A pint of real pilsner with a dozen oysters hits the spot better than any sauvignon blanc for example. A schwarzbier with Black Forest ham on rye. A well balanced pale ale with pretty much anything.

I like a Belgian beer the same way I like a scotch: a glass or two every now and then. It’s not a go-to. It can’t be. You’ll go broke and get hammered.

And it sucks that the growing pretentious beer crowd has got me thinking about Belgian beer the same way I think of Courvoisier cognac, Rolex watches, and Grey Goose vodka: faux-upscale beverages for those whose conception of class begins and ends with the advertisements in GQ.