Be remarkable!

Here’s my food-related quotation of the day, taken from the excellent book Purple Cow by Seth Godin:

“Compromise is about sanding down the rough edges to gain buy-in from other constituencies.  Vanilla is a compromise ice cream flavor, while habanero pecan is not.  While there may be just a few people who are unwilling to eat vanilla ice cream, there are legions of people who are allergic to nuts, sensitive to spicy food, or just plain uninterested in eating a challenging scoop of ice cream.  The safe compromise choice for a kid’s birthday party is the vanilla.  But vanilla is boring…[the more interesting choice are] products that annoy, offend, don’t appeal, are too expensive, too cheap, too heavy, too complicated, too simple — too something. (Of course, they’re too too for some people, but just perfect for others.)”

If you’ve managed to keep up with my admittedly boring rants and raves recently, you’ll know that I’m a big proponent of what Seth Godin calls “being remarkable”, especially when it comes to food.  Of course there will always be a time and a place for your standard steakhouse, your run-of-the-mill seafood place, and your fallback grocer.  But are you going to tell your friends about them?  Are you going to rave about their unique decors, their fantastical foams, or their unbelievable fonts on the menus?  Probably not.  And I’m certainly not going to write about them.

Dining out should be a pleasurable experience, one that you remember.  How many meals do you remember?  And I mean truly, viscerally, and sensorally remember?  Not many, I’m sure.  Here are just a few of the remarkable things I remember from meals since past (and tell people about):

  • At Le Cirque in Las Vegas, the interior of the restaurant was marvelously decorated like a luxurious circus tent, with bright colors, stripes, and patterns everywhere.

  • At Pegu Club in New York, when a friend ordered a martini, 2/3 of it was served in a standard martini glass, and the remaining 1/3 was presented in a mini-carafe, ensconced in its own mini-ice bucket

  • At Chateau Cordeillan Bages in Bordeaux, I was presented with 6 different types of bread, 4 types of butter, and 3 types of salt

  • At In ‘n Out in California, the menu consists of only three items: burgers, fries, and shakes

I could go on, but probably not much further.  I sincerely hope restauranteurs realize that we all want to be captivated by our dining experience.  No, not all the time, but definitely not none of the time.  I want to see more ice cream with cayenne pepper and avocado in it, I want to inhale and taste flavored gas, and I want to see food in a rainbow of colors.  I want to be wowed.  I want my meal to be remarkable.

Please leave a comment if you’ve experienced a memorable and truly extraodinary food or restaurant experience.  I’d love to hear it and, even better, love to experience it!

Mark posted this on July 15, 2008 in Musings and it has no comments |

20 healthiest foods for under $1

We all like cheap food, but sometimes it’s all too easy to think that it’s hard to find good cheap food, or at least cheap food that is good for you.  Well, you’re in luck!  I discovered this great list of inexpensive ways to stay healthy.  Here are some highlights:

8. Garbanzo Beans
With beans, you’re getting your money’s worth and then some. Not only are they a great source of protein and fiber, but ’bonzos are also high in fiber, iron, folate, and manganese, and may help reduce cholesterol levels. And if you don’t like one type, try another—black, lima, lentils … the varieties are endless. Though they require soaking and cooking, the most inexpensive way to purchase these beans is in dried form; a precooked can will still only run you around a buck.

Everyone know the other name for garbanzo beans?  That’s right–chickpeas!  The Arabs definitely know what they’re doing.

6. Nuts
Though nuts have a high fat content, they’re packed with the good-for-you fats—unsaturated and monounsaturated. They’re also good sources of essential fatty acids, Vitamin E, and protein. And because they’re so nutrient-dense, you only need to eat a little to get the nutritional benefits. Although some nuts, like pecans and macadamias, can be costly, peanuts, walnuts, and almonds, especially when bought in the shell, are low in cost.

Too bad it’s so easy to eat way too many nuts…at least they aren’t that bad for you when you gorge.  And what’s the all-important number one healthiest food under $1?

1. Oats
High in fiber and complex carbohydrates, oats have also been shown to lower cholesterol. And they sure are cheap—a dollar will buy you more than a week’s worth of hearty breakfasts.

I wouldn’t have guessed that either.  Check out the whole list here.

[Via Divine Caroline]

Mark posted this on July 14, 2008 in Quips n' Tips and it has no comments |

Books I’ve enjoyed

In place of amazing pictures of rapturous culinary delights, I bring you now three books related to food and wine that I’ve read recently and thoroughly enjoyed.  Though reading about food isn’t quite as satisfying as eating the food itself, I did get a distinct and unique pleasure from each of these books that actually heightened my dining experiences

The Man Who Ate the World by Jay Rayner

This book is all about a guy named Jay Rayner who was a food critic for the British newspaper The Guardian.  After becoming disillusioned with the standard food critic scene, he sets off on a trip around the world in search of the “perfect” meal.  I found the book fascinating because he describes in quite a bit of detail his epicurious adventures through the diverse food cultures of Moscow, Dubai, London, New York, Tokyo, and Paris.  It was an appetite-inducing race through six incredibly different approaches to food, dining, and restaurants, and one that I won’t soon forget.

Service Included by Phoebe Damrosch

If you’re reading this blog and you haven’t heard of The French Laundry, then you’re probably in the wrong place.  It is arguably the restaurant in America and chef Thomas Keller has an equally awe-inspiring and ridiculously exclusive (read: impossible to get a reservation) restaurant in New York named Per Se.  Service Included is the story of a young woman who started as a waitress in a diner and somehow found herself as a part of the pioneering wait staff at Per Se when it first opened.  The book is an excellent way for those of us who may never get a chance to peer behind Per Se’s ominous blue doors to live the high dining life vicariously.  She describes the detail, craftsmanship, and sheer manpower that goes into running a restaurant of Per Se’s caliber in exacting detail, and she provides an absorbing account of the culture of haut cuisine.

Wine and War by Donald and Petie Kladstrup

Ever wonder what the Germans did with all the precious and valuable French wine during World War II?  This book tells the tale of the vignerons of France and how they managed to hide and protect their cultural treasure from the Nazis during the period of occupation.  We’ve all know the basic history of WWII, but I really enjoyed reading about the war from an entirely different perspective, and specifically how critical the vineyards were to the success of the Resistance movement.  Along with collections of rare bottles, the heads of the chateaux from Burgandy to Bordeaux to the Loire Valley also smuggled munitions, Jews, refugees, and information into and through their subterranean caves.  Wine and War definitely gave me a new appreciation of the venerable institution that is French wine.

Mark posted this on July 13, 2008 in Quips n' Tips and it has no comments |

Kimera – The Review

19530 Jamboree
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 261-1222

My first restaurant review in months, you must be so excited!  I know I’m excited to be writing about real food that I actually ate in a restaurant again.  Better still, I get to illustrate my enchanting literature with rapturous photographs from my new camera taken under the watchful (and suspicious) eyes of my waiter.  Some of these pictures are embedded in the post below, but definitely check out the photo gallery to see the whole Kimera album.  And now, without further ado, I give you: Kimera.

Before describing my dining experience at Kimera, I think it’s important to understand where it’s located.  It’s in the Newport Beach business area of Orange County inside the Google building.  So, in a word, corporate.  It turns out that this word describes the restaurant’s interior fairly well actually.  You can see in the photos that it is a very bizarre mix of Asian (bamboo ceilings, huh?), Latin American (lots of warm yellows and reds on the walls), and just plain corporate.

Because I think that atmosphere is such an important part of a dining experience, I want to talk about the interior just a little bit more because it’s indicative of how Kimera approaches food.  I don’t think they know who they are, and it shows.  The genres of decoration aren’t necessarily bad (though the corporate art is terrible and, though bright, a bit depressing), but they’re mixed in ways that made little to no sense.  I found that the menu was largely the same: the food was good, but the selection was all over the place.  This is something that I’ve complained about before, at Café Nuovo in Providence.

If you’ve never had a cocktail with lychee in it, you should do yourself a favor and order one as soon as you possibly can.  When I saw that they had lychee martinis, I was all over it, and it was delicious.  It’s hard to describe what lychee tastes like, but I’ll try: imagine a tart pineapple mixed with kiwi juice.  It’s sort of like that.  Anyway, you can imagine that it would be easy for a lychee drink to be too sweet, but this one was perfect.  It wasn’t too sweet, also not too strong, the vodka was smooth, and the lemon gave it just the right level of acidic bite.

On with the meal!

Like it so far? Click to continue!

Mark posted this on July 11, 2008 in Restaurants and it has 1 comment |

Hummus – The Rap Video

First off, if you’re reading this through an email update and you haven’t read my post from yesterday yet, please read that first.  It’s all about my super exciting new photo gallery feature that you can see on the site here.  Also, for those of you who miss my literary adventures into the dark world of restaurants, I apologize for the lack of new updates on that front and I promise they’re coming soon.  In the meantime, I will try to entertain you as best I can.

Now, onto the important stuff.  If you know me at all, you know that I love hummus probably more than is reasonably (or normal).  It’s just so creamy, tasty, and versatile, how can you not love it?  Similarly, how can you not love a rap video about hummus?  You can’t.  So with great pleasure I share with you this hummus rap video, and with equal enjoyment I can tell you that I found this video on a blog that’s devoted entirely to hummus coverage!  Don’t ask me how I found it, I just did.   Enjoy.

[Via The Hummus Blog]

Mark posted this on July 10, 2008 in Pics and Videos and it has no comments |

New camera, photo gallery, and style

Can you feel that, devoted readers?  It’s the sweet, sweet gravy train of progress!  That’s right, this site is on the fast track to blogging success, and you’re coming along on this wild and crazy ride.  I have two exciting tidbits to share: the first is that I got a new camera!  After much careful research, I decided to go with the Canon Rebel XSi DSLR.  But why should you care?  Well, it means that you should be expecting some much higher quality dining and food shots in the near future, that’s why.

Also, possibly even more exciting (for you, anyway), I’ve added a photo gallery feature to the blog.  As you can see across the top of the page, there is now a new link to “Photos”, which brings you to a page where you can browse all my dining adventures in style.  Also new is that little area in the sidebar to the right that displays four random new photos whenever I update my Flickr.  Stylish is my middle name.

[Note: this means that if you’re reading this in an RSS reader or in an email, you’ll simply have to come to the site to check out the new features!]

To celebrate the arrival of my new camera, I took pictures of my favorite food- and drink-related items around my house.  You can view the whole gallery in the brand-spanking new Photos page, but I’ll leave you with a few nuggets to whet your visual appetite.

Lastly, I’ve been debating about what size to display my photos in the gallery.  Currently, they’re somewhat small on my screen at about 500 pixels wide.  I would really appreciate it if you all could leave some comments about whether you would like to see the photos in the gallery pop up bigger and at a higher resolution, or whether they’re fine as they are.

And now, please enjoy the culinary wonders of the Ramadan household:

Mark posted this on in Manningham's Jabs and it has no comments |

Chocolate chip delight

What’s better than a warm, fresh chocolate chip cookie straight from the oven?  Pretty much nothing.  Even that picture above is making me salivate.  The cover story of today’s New York Times Dining section is all about chocolate chip cookies, and I wanted to share it with you loyal readers because it’s incredibly detailed and mouth-wateringly appetizing.  Here are some excerpts:

Too bad sainthood is not generally conferred on bakers, for there is one who is a possible candidate for canonization. She fulfills most of the requirements: (1) She’s dead. (2) She demonstrated heroic virtue. (3) Cults have been formed around her work. (4) Her invention is considered by many to be a miracle. The woman: Ruth Graves Wakefield. Her contribution to the world: the chocolate chip cookie.

Ain’t that the truth.  Here’s another one:

At 36 hours [of letting the dough sit before baking], the dough was significantly drier than the 12-hour batch; it crumbled a bit when poked but held together well when shaped. These cookies baked up the most evenly and were a deeper shade of brown than their predecessors. Surprisingly, they had an even richer, more sophisticated taste, with stronger toffee hints and a definite brown sugar presence. At an informal tasting, made up of a panel of self-described chipper fanatics, these mature cookies won, hands down.

As you can see, this article delves into everything from the historical to the practical.  It sounds like they’re tasting wine!  If only I could be invited to a chocolate chip cookie tasting…someday.  Anyway, check out the article if you’re interested (linked to below), it really is a worthwhile read.

Also, if you have any particularly or uniquely delightful chocolate chip cookie recipes, or if you think that fresh chocolate chip cookies are NOT the best dessert in existence and have a better idea, then please leave a comment.

[Via the New York Times]

Mark posted this on July 9, 2008 in Quips n' Tips and it has 2 comments |

Of black napkins and plates

Since I’m on a most unfortunate hiatus from regular restaurant outings at home here in California, I thought I would use this opportunity to explain the title of this wonderful blog: Black Napkin.

A black napkin is an indication of extra thought.  Not necessarily luxury, not necessarily expense, but always thought.  A black napkin is typically proffered to gentlemen or ladies wearing dark colors, navy pants or a black dress for example.  The idea is that the lint from a standard white napkin may leave traces on your clothing, and a black napkin can alleviate such trifling inconveniences.

I’ve only ever been offered a black napkin twice, and once was not in what I would call a luxury restaurant at all.  To me, it’s a strong sign that the restaurant takes service very seriously, and that no expense (though small) or thought (perhaps large) is spared in ensuring the customer’s comfort.  I certainly don’t expect black napkin service in all restaurants: for some it may be infeasible, for others unimportant.  Restaurants that do take that extra step, though, regardless of the quality of food or level of prices, elevate themselves to gourmet in my mind, at least in the service department.

So what about plates?  Well, like I said, I don’t think black napkin service can or should be expected from all restaurants-it’s just a bit too much extra.  One point of service, though, should absolutely be expected from all restaurants and to my utter disappointment I see it only rarely.  It’s this business of clearing plates before the entire table has finished their course.  It only takes a moment for a server to glance at the table, see that one or more of the diners are still eating, and realize that the finished plates should be cleared with the others at a later point.

I hate having my course interrupted by an inappropriately early plate clearing.  It makes me feel rushed, unacknowledged, and generally dissatisfied with the service.  The key here is that any establishment with a wait staff can and should be able to implement this simple “luxury”, and when they don’t, it just leaves me disappointed.

I definitely don’t advocate rudeness or anger towards the wait staff in any way (they have it tough enough as it is), but next time you face an early plate-clearing, speak up for yourself!  Politely say, “Yes I’m done, but I don’t think he/she is done yet.”  Maybe this simple courtesy will soon become more mainstream, because for now its unfortunately wanting.  I leave you with this professionally altered comic:

Mark posted this on July 8, 2008 in Musings and it has no comments |

Hilarious British cooking

If you like shows like The Office, Extras, or just general dry British humor, then you’ll appreciate this ridiculous cooking show called Posh Nosh.  I laughed harder at this clip than at anything this summer…who knew cooking could be so funny?!

[Via The Amateur Gourmet]

Mark posted this on July 7, 2008 in Pics and Videos and it has 1 comment |

Exotic chocolate…with bacon?!

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m a die-hard dark chocolate fan all the way.  Give me a bar of the 85% good stuff and I’ll be happy for a good long while.  However, I’m also experimental, especially when it comes to desserts, so I wanted to share with you all today my favorite experimental (read: weird) chocolate: Vosges.

Vosges seems like your standard upmarket gourmet chocolate brand at first glance: they call themselves “haut chocolate”, their bars are expensive and pretty, and they name their concoctions all sorts of bizarre-sounding things. Sure, they make great plain and dark chocolate, but where they really shine is in the exotic bar and truffle department.  The prime example is Mo’s Bacon Bar, pictured below, which contains applewood smoked bacon, Alder wood smoked salt, deep milk chocolate, ranking in at 41% cacao.  The other bars below are the Red Fire bar (Mexican ancho and chipotle chillies, Ceylon cinnamon, and dark chocolate at 55% cacao) and the Black Pearl bar (ginger, wasabi, black sesame seeds, and dark chocolate at 55% cacao).


I’ve tasted all three of these and I have to say, I’m impressed.  Let’s be honest, we’re all going to be nervous tasting bacon and chocolate, but you really should give it a try.  As I mentioned in one of my last posts, mixing savory and sweet is definitely the new “it” thing, so here’s a delicious way to start.  What I love about all three of these is that they are truly unique; when I go to the chocolate aisle in a store, or even a standalone gourmet confectionery, I’m almost instantly bored and unsurprised by the selection.  At most, they have a bar with some sort of exotic nut in it, but usually that’s a stretch.

I think what Vosges does is bold, and fortunately for them they also get it right.  All of these bars remember that the chocolate is what’s important here, with the other flavors serving only to support and enhance the cocoa.  I was especially impressed with the Black Pearl Bar, as it managed to retain the silky smoothness of milk chocolate while also including the lightly crunchy texture of sesame seeds and the slight savory tang of the wasabi.  Definitely not your standard Hershey’s bar.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a picture of my favorite bar, but it’s called the Naga Bar and it’s made of sweet Indian curry, coconut, and milk chocolate at 41% cacao.  41% is typically below my threshold of cocoa, so the fact that I love this bar so much says something.  Each bite is a beautifully perfumed indulgence in coconut and in cream, in curry and in spice.  It would have been easy for Vosges to get the balance wrong on the Naga Bar, for it to be curry-esque or too Bounty Bar-y, but it’s perfect.  I would prefer a bite of the Naga Bar to 90% of desserts I’ve had in my life–it’s that good.

If you can find one of their stores, they also sell some sweet truffles.  They come in all the unique flavors the bars do, plus a lot more that I’m forgetting at the moment.  Their presentation is unusually unique, so here’s a picture of what they look like:

Finally, I’ll leave you with a picture of the last interesting thing they do: chocolate bunnies.  But these aren’t your standard, run-of-the-mill cutie pie Easter bunnies.  Oh no, they’re much, much weirder than that…

Scary, I know.

Vosges website.

Mark posted this on July 5, 2008 in Quips n' Tips and it has no comments |