I wish I could say that I went to an event where handlebar moustaches, chops, and fu man chus were awarded medals based on original flourishes and relevance to the bearers’ facial features.. But alas, I didn’t get to see an impressive showing of facial hair (you can check out options here though! http://www.americanmustacheinstitute.org/MustacheStyles.aspx). Instead, I just got home from the James Beard Awards and have to say that I truly was not impressed with the food this year. The Awards are held for the foodie community, with honors and recognition going out to the best new chef, best new restaurant, best wine director, etc. It’s a group of food industry people gathered together to celebrate other food industry people, and after the medals are donned and the thanks are droned into the microphone, all these food centric people swarm into the lobby of Lincoln center and devour the tasting plates other chefs have put out for the crowd. Wouldn’t you think that this is the time to really pull out the sparkle? Wow the masses with a stellar plate? Tingle some taste buds? The answer is yes, you would think.
But tonight, I felt that many restaurants who put out tasters in the Avery Fisher foyer sent out underwhelming dishes. I worked with chef Anita Lo, from Annisa, who created one of the more interesting dishes there: beef tartar, garnished with daikon, an anchovy chip, and finished with a drizzling of a chilled anchovy broth. The flavors were rich yet light, salty but balanced with sweet, and overall very tasty. But our neighbors down the way were putting out extremely over salted oysters, which had been embellished with bacon, and unimaginative bites, like asparagus wrapped in beef carpaccio. Where was the creativity?
Only two other restaurants, aside from Annisa, had crave-worthy options. Michelle Bernstein had perfectly toasted bread, crunchy on the outside and pillow-soft on the inside, which encased bounteous amounts of uni that were on the verge of dripping out the sides of the warmed carbohydrate casing. I’m pretty certain that anything with sea urchin in the mix is delicious, but I expressly appreciate the use of an expensive seafood item wrapped up in ordinary sandwich form; which thusly elevates the sandwich form into something exquisite and divine. Good on you, chef Bernstein.
The other morsel of deliciousness came from the pastry chef at Lidia Bastianich’s restaurant in Kansas City, Lidia. To be honest, I will confess that I didn’t even know there were restaurants in Kansas City… Seriously. No, not seriously. But I’ve become accustomed to New York ways and expect New York to have some of the better food in the country. But Danica Pollard, the pastry chef, made an impression last night. She put out the only other dish that made me wish I weren’t in public so I could wipe my plate clean with my tongue. Her dessert was an almond flan with an amaretti cookie base, candied rose petals and a rhubarb compote. The acidity from the stewed stalks evoked falsetto-like quivers in the mouth, while the ultra sweet custardy flan sang notes of a smooth baritone on the tongue. The result was a symphony of flavors that left my mouth in search of more high and low, tangy and creamy sensations. I was so happy, after tasting all the other dishes, to sample something that was so perfectly nuanced, that my faith was restored in the event and a song popped into my head. The Rocky song, “Eye of the Tiger” was the tune of choice, and I couldn’t stop humming the part:
“Face to face, out in the heat
Hangin’ tough, stayin’ hungry
They stack the odds, still we take to the street
For the kill with the skill to survive”
So maybe the lyrics don’t make that much sense now that I’m writing them down, but in the moment, the taste justified the lyrics, and I was pumped at having found a worthy adversary to my judgemental mouth! I could have run up the stairs in a boxing jog manner, but I managed to keep that much under control..
I completed my rounds and samples and made a move towards the exit. Usually I have to talk myself away from a few tables, my head telling my mouth that I don’t really need that third helping of a tempting tidbit. But tonight wasn’t one of those events. I ended up at Nobu 57, after a short interlude and a few dessert cups later at Bar Boulud, and was eager to try the cuisine I’ve only ever read about. I’ve always wanted to eat at one of the Nobu’s (I’m not particular), and was excited to nosh…even if it was only passed hors d’oeuvres. Instead, we ended up getting handed a massive plate of soft shell crab, fried, atop a watermelon salad. I was thrilled, and eventually smitten. Maybe it was because the expertly muddled cocktails from the reception were finally making their desired impact, or the glass of celebratory Veuve Cliquot put me in a more accepting mood…but the combination of flavors was exactly what had been missing from all the other chefs’ plates at the Beard event. The crab was buttery and crunchy, while the watermelon salad was cool, sweet and tangy. An addictive dish, to say the least.
Curious as to what was in the watermelon dressing, I walked up to the expediting window and asked one of the amigos if I could talk to the chef. I was informed he had just changed and stepped out. Damn! I then turned around and snagged a waitress to find out what the ingredients were in the vinaigrette. She told me it was a secret (either the truth or she didn’t want to admit she didn’t know), but she did scribble down on a piece of paper the main ingredient: amazu. This is a Japanese sweet vinegar usually used when pickling sushi ginger. So that was the familiar flavor that we couldn’t put our finger on! I’ll keep that piece of paper tucked away in my recipe scribble book. I love stumbling across new ingredients I can add to my ever growing collection of condiments!
I go to these events in hopes to see something new, taste something revelatory, be impressed with flavor and ingredient combinations, and pretty much to just eat food that can make my knees knock. You get to see the directions that chefs are taking their food and how they go about getting there–through their choice of products and cooking techniques. It can be really inspirational, knowing what chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, food writers, and all others within the industry, have done to achieve the recognition that is given at events, such as the James Beard Awards. I tasted some good food at the reception tonight, but I thank Nobu for restoring some quiver into my legs. Thank you Mr. Nieporent. Your medal that you won for outstanding restaurateur is justified. My knees told me so.
To see a list of the award winners, check out:http://sev.prnewswire.com/food-beverages/20090504/NY1006304052009-1.html