FORK PLAY November 24, 2009

Women's Power. Starbucks. Le Caprice. Spago Rising. Park Avenue Potluck.

Dear Friends and Family,

     When Laurie Tisch announced that her mother Joan and the Tisch family were making a new $100,000 challenge grant to Citymeals-on-Wheels (in honor of Joan's honoring)
raos merlotand fellow honoree Joan Weill said she would give an extra $30,000 to raise our take to $1 million, last week's annual Women's Power Lunch was suddenly a success beyond imagining in this year of frugality. By the time a dozen other guests had raised their hands and doubled or tripled their donations, our total was over $1.1 million. And checks are still coming in today.

     This outpouring of compassion and generosity reflects exactly what first led James Beard and I to solicit our friends for donations 28 years ago: I did not consider it acceptable that invisible elderly neighbors on my block - no longer able to shop or cook for themselves - were going without meals on weekends and holidays. Our supporters know and appreciate that their donations go only to deliver meals (not a quarter taken out for a stamp or a phone call).  This year our friends will help Citymeals deliver two million meals. I am constantly moved by the response of so many New Yorkers as are the isolated seniors we help feed as they discover that strangers care.

     By the way, supporter Georges DuBoeuf's Beaujolais Nouveau '09 that we poured at the lunch is one of the best tasting Nouveaux I can remember.  


Life at the Homesick Hotel

     Away from home (in LA) and my usual West End Avenue routine - NYTimes outside the door in time for a boringly healthy breakfast before workout - I found I'd become a Starbucks idler. Starbucks and I have not gotten along, although I did say hello to Howard Schultz in an airport once and considered him almost a friend till he didn't respond to my personal letter about Citymeals.

     Some months ago I got a call from a woman at a very well known public relations firm asking if I would consider joining a board of Starbucks advisors. I imagined Starbucks
raos merlotif I had my way.  Yes, Yes, I said. Yes. What fun. And money too. She called several times to be sure I was still interested and once with a colleague from Starbucks asking questions.  Months later she rang back sounding a bit embarrassed to say I hadn't made the cut. I wondered if somehow Starbucks knew I had picked up the free cup of coffee they offered to anyone who voted last November and tossed it into a garbage can because I couldn't get it down.

     Of course a fussy coffee drinker like me will never travel without filters and a bag of my preferred brew, but I had to trek up Wilshire Boulevard to Starbucks each morning for my paper. I studied the goodies on display as I waited in the queue. A giant cinnamon bun called out to me. The plump blueberry muffin looked appealing. Should I buy a small bag of almonds? When you're all alone in a foreign land you need treats. One day I broke down and asked for a wedge of the reduced calorie coffee cake.  It didn't say how many calories. Or what it was reduced from. It could have been 400. It could have been 800. Los Angeles has no calorie disclosure law like New York's.

     Then on my last day in LA I decided I deserved the real thing and bought the full-fat-high-calorie coffee cake. The unfailingly polite young woman usually at the cash register had a tray with paper cups. "Try our instant coffee," she said. 

     I took a sip. And I gagged. And grimaced. I handed back my cup. "That's not my idea of coffee," I said.  

     That unpleasant flavor lingered in my mouth as I walked back to my studio kitchen. I obliterated the memory with a sip of my own coffee and tasted my high calorie treat, expecting ambrosia. What a shock. It wasn't nearly as good as the reduced calorie version. It was simply too sweet. What a wonderful world. It's not often that anything low calorie turns out in my favor.  


Capricious at Le Caprice

     Back home again. A wonderfully gossipy and acerbic British friend from London by way of Aspen was the perfect host of my first dinner at Le Caprice, the long, gleaming, sexy and good-looking new restaurant at the Pierre Hotel. He annotated the menu in its British-speak, reported his
celebrity spottings at earlier visits and explained that I was
raos merloteating more of what I didn't really mean to eat because I was feeling "moreish."  

     I've always thought in another life I should be Elizabeth III. Now I'm properly prepped. For more about Le Caprice, click here.

     I found Tanuki Tavern at the opposite end of town in an opposite latitude more fun than I'd expected. Although it's noisy and packed with fickle young lemmings, I didn't feel intimidated as I sometimes do when the stylish tall women take over a place.  And I liked a lot of what we ate, especially the crunchy chicken balls, the soba and the tempura.  Read more about Tanuki and decide if it's your kind of spot by clicking here.


The Spago Effect

     I thought it would be impossible to get a table at Spago in Beverly Hills so I used my name. That set off a dance of seduction at a prime garden table (heat lamp judiciously stationed) that may have affected my critical faculties a wee bit. Still, I think it's safe to say I found the level of contemporary sophistication and just sheer deliciousness quite remarkable. There is no actual Wolfgang Puck sighting but the maitre d' informs me in no uncertain terms that Wolfgang has left instructions with the kitchen. And out
raos merlotcomes one exquisite morsel after another, starting with a little sesame cone of tuna - not unlike the salmon billet doux Thomas Keller leads with at Per Se, though possibly a little fancier. Salmon roe ("pearls," as the waiter put it) on a lemon blini, flageolet "hummus" in a fragile tart, and duck pastrami with apple pur�e in a geometric sandwich crisp follow. Then an exquisite poached quail egg with a white truffle hat on house-made brioche comes by to beguile me, preceding Asian pear with fennel sorbet and shiso in Oolong tea broth. One huge and tremulous scallop with cilantro mint raita on braised greens with garam masala arrives - a knockout.

     After a suitable pause, waiters return with covered dishes. Removing the china cloches they unveil generous
portions of pumpkin and marscapone agnolotti with sage and parmesan. A captain flourishes a monster white truffle for inspection, then proceeds to shave a few ounces of pungent earthiness on top ($20 a gram the menu advises).

     Since of course I have to sample everything from the many splendored bread basket, I can barely manage one dish from the menu: a triumph of sweetbreads saut�ed with chanterelles, confit bacon, a sherry vinegar gastrique (the classic acid/sweet balance trick, my friends) and a little salad of m�che on parsnip pear pur�e.  I can't say I'm as thrilled by my companion's weiner schnitzel as I am by the Austrian captain whose accent is so much like Wolfgang's. I'm not a schnitzel fan, but I do admire its trio of sides: perfect fingerling potato salad, marinated cucumbers, and red and pink beet salad.

     You don't really expect to see a company's corporate pastry chef skating around the house at 11 p.m. but there was the Puck empire pastry master, Sherry Yard. She chose our desserts. The bill reminded me of my mother who used to pick up lamb chops when my sister was too busy with her new baby to shop and tell her they were on sale for $1.98 a lb. The perks. The perks. When you can't turn them off, you might just as well wallow in them. 176 North Canon Dr. 310-385-0880


 Celebrating Pot Roast

     As editor of Saveur, James Oseland, my judging partner on Bravo's Top Chef Masters, is celebrating a big jump in advertising and newsstand sales, a stunning accomplishment in this moment of magazine despair. To mark the triumph, Saveur threw a dinner at Suzanne Tracht's laid back chophouse, Jar, in the heart of Los Angeles. "You must have the pot roast," restaurant guru Jay Weston advised me. Weston has been eating around town for his newsletter 28 years or so and we have similar passions, except that I would never choose pot roast. Too many dried out pot roasts in my childhood. Looking at the options I almost succumbed to a pork chop before I said, "Pot roast, please." What a marvelous slab of juicy fattiness, like the cheek of a dinosaur. Tracht's splendid spiny lobster salad with fennel ribbons, avocado and jalapeno heat got dinner started with a gentle kick. Her iceberg wedge was the most elegant I've ever eaten. And the secret of the spectacular fries (I asked) is a very light dusting in flour before frying. 8825 Beverly blvd. 323-655-6566.


Posh Pot Luck

     Even if I weren't the pot luck diva in my crowd, I'd be drawn to Park Avenue Potluck Celebrations by Florence Fabricant for the Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (Rizzoli $35). Click here to buy it now. A
raos merlotworthy cause, of course, but also I find my friend - FloFab, as I call her on Twitter - properly fussy and reliable. And "New York's Savviest Hostesses," as they are credited on the cover, have ideas I can borrow. I usually celebrate my birthday for a week but I never thought about starting it at breakfast the Swedish way, as one contributor suggests. Forence especially recommends warm pepper-dressed mango, Great Grandmother Cushman's Bran Muffins and Whirl-Away Chocolate Cake. I'm reprinting the recipe here for another favorite, Beef Stroganoff in a New York Minute by Laura Harris.
Beef Stroganoff in a New York Minute

     This is a favorite of my brother David, who was a pilot in the Marines. My mother made it for him when he returned from Iraq in the middle of summer, even though it is not a light summer dish. It's a delicious supper dish that's easy to make and can serve a crowd around holiday time.

 Makes 6 servings

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
6 ounces white mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 pound ground sirloin
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups hot beef stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 pound noodles or fettuccine
6 tablespoons sour cream
1 tablespoon minced fresh dill

      Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and mushrooms and saut� until they barely start to brown. Add the meat and cook, breaking it up with a fork, until it has lost its pink color and is evenly crumbly.

     Remove from the heat. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour, cook a minute or so, then gradually whisk in the stock to make a creamy sauce.

     Season with salt and pepper and whisk in the mustard. Pour the sauce over the meat and mushroom mixture. Reheat briefly and check the seasoning again. Set aside.

Park Avenue Potluck Celebrations, Rizzoli New York, 2009


Running with the Tall Toques

     I was kept up late Sunday night by Andrew Friedman's
raos merlotKnives at Dawn (Free Press $26), a running account of "America's Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d'Or Competition." It's not for everyone. Maybe you have to be a certified foodie, a chef, chef groupie or perhaps just someone curious about what drives Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud. Friedman, who writes about food and tennis, delivers every sliced thumb, spilled coulis, cavalier arrogance and innocent confession. For me of course, it's more compelling than the U.S. Open and less fattening than dinner at Per Se or Daniel.  

 The photo of Joan Weill, and her daughter, Jessica Bibliowicz, at Citymeals Power Lunch by Star Black. Lamb at Caprice may not be used without permission from Steven Richter

Fork Play copyright Gael Greene 2009.