No blog this week folks……. On vacation
The first time I posted about chicken was in my May 20th, 2016 blog on Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles in Pasadena. A later post covered another mecca for chicken lovers: Le Coq Roti, near Montmartre in Paris (there’s also a branch in NYC). Truth be told, I really love chicken – roasted, rotisserie, grilled, barbequed…even poached.
But nothing compares to FRIED CHICKEN. Maybe it’s because, growing up in central Illinois in the years following the Depression, chicken was a fixture on our dinner table – affordable, plentiful and, the way my mom prepared it, delicious. And the leftovers were just as good, eaten cold on Sunday afternoon picnics, accompanied by potato salad loaded with sweet, smooth Miracle Whip.
Back then, we didn’t think about chicken in “farm to table” terms. All I knew was fork-to-mouth, and the more the better.
Fast forward to my college courtship with Joanne. She invited me home for spring break, and I vividly remember her mother awakening me to her simple and delicious rendition of fried chicken. Lillie was a farm lady living in southern, Illinois. No grocery store-bought birds for her. She just picked and plucked the unlucky creature out in the barnyard; cut it up; dredged the pieces in flour, salt and pepper; amped-up her Sunbeam Electric Skillet to HIGH; loaded it with lard (no Canola); and away she went. I had never, ever tasted fried chicken like that.
(I remember thinking, My mom has to UP HER GAME.)
Since that epiphany, I’ve had the good fortune of sampling fried chicken from coast to coast. And all I can say is, “The worst I’ve had was delicious.”
I have some favorites in addition to Roscoe’s, among them YARDBIRD’S chicken and waffles, which rivals Roscoe’s and sports little chunks of watermelon alongside. Not to be missed are its little Fried Chicken Breast Drop Biscuit Sliders, and its MAC & CHEESE.
A great place that I’ve never been to, but have heard nothing but good things about is PANNIE-GEORGE’S in Auburn, Alabama, near the university. It’s sort of cafeteria-style and celebrates its Deep South roots with the side dishes like black-eyed peas, deep-fried okra, white rice & gravy…
A place that Joanne and I have been to on numerous occasions is ZEHNDER’S in Frankenmuth, Michigan. What the hell were we doing in Frankenmuth, Michigan, you might ask. Well, we had the “pleasure” of living for a few months in Flint, Michigan, the home of Michael Moore, Buick, and famous tap water while opening a FIGLIO restaurant there. (Don’t even ask!)
At any rate, we needed to escape that wretched city, so on weekends we’d motor up to Frankenmuth for Sunday Brunch at Zehnder’s, which is reported to be the largest family-owned restaurant in the United States – with 1,400 seats, as I recall. The most impressive thing about Zehnder’s, however, was the brunch itself – a massive, all-you-can-eat affair that included all the fixin’s, plus dessert, for $21.95 at last report. The star of the show here? You guessed it: Superbly fried chicken, crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, perfectly complemented by my favorite Zehender’s side dish: buttered noodles. So simple, and so good.
Rounding out the list is ROOT AND BONE, located in New York City’s once dangerous Alphabet blocks on the lower East Side. Two chefs from Yardbird in Miami provide the pedigree here. ROOT AND BONE isn’t a Deep South “dive-y” joint – far from it. Their fried chicken is sweet tea-brined, “lemon-dusted,” and comes with Honey Tabasco Sauce. Miniature Buckwheat Cheddar Waffles and Whiskey Maple Syrup are clever adds, and taste really good. A side dish with a nod to the South is the Grits with Pimento Cheese and Chives. There’s also a giant nod to France: Macarons that rival those of Ladurée in Paris.
To be sure, great fried chicken joints abound in America. Shucks, even KFC is great! But one place just might stand above them all: STROUD’S in Kansas City. I’m reminded of it because our son Steven and friend Tim dined there recently on a road trip from Minneapolis to Miami. Now, I haven’t been there in years, but from their reports, it appears that absolutely nothing has changed except its location. We remember it as a charming “tumble-down” joint at 85th and Troost. Now it has multiple locations, including one in Omaha.
Back in the day, Joanne and I spent several weeks in Kansas City, building yet another Figlio in the Plaza development (this one lasted quite a bit longer than the one in Flint). At least once a week we ate at Stroud’s.
What’s the big deal about this place? It’s REAL. It’s eccentric. It’s impervious to time. And its chicken rivals Joanne’s mother’s. Instead of using a Sunbeam electric skillet, however, they fry in giant Lodge cast iron skillets – 8 or 10 lined up in a row, each large enough to fry 16 pieces of chicken at once (Each piece, by the way, gets turned only once). I don’t know where they source their chickens, but I can tell you, they are big, fat, juicy birds.
Something else I can’t tell you: what precisely Stroud’s means when they say, “We Choke Our Own Chickens.” Emblazoned on servers’ t-shirts, the menus and the walls, it’s a great line – intriguing, but at the same time telling you more than you want to know.
As you sit down, you’re greeted with a plastic basket of cellophane-wrapped crackers of various stripes. Dinners come with a nice House Salad with grated cheese and crispy croutons. There’s a good house-made Chicken Noodle Soup, too.
But why waste your time with those when you could be sharing a platter of Deep Fried Chicken Livers – or, better yet, a platter of Deep Fried Gizzards? Can’t make up your mind? Stroud’s will do a combo.
All the meats are decent here, including the Chicken Fried Steak with Pepper Gravy. But that’s not why you’ve come to Stroud’s.
I’ve since learned – but was not surprised – that Stroud’s is a James Beard Award winner…in the “Homestyle” category. Also, Zagat gives them a 4.6 rating – that’s really high. And to quote Zagat, Stroud’s is “fit for a king…affordable for a family.” (A full chicken dinner runs you $17.95). On top of that, Jane and Michael Stern of Road Food Fame say “Stroud’s makes the most delicious fried chicken in America.”
One other thing I love about Stroud’s: There’s no dessert menu here – because all dinners conclude with a basket of homemade, sticky, gooey, unbelievably heavy CINNAMON ROLLS! What restaurant today would do this? What diner would even want a dessert like that after polishing off a family platter of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, a mess of gravy, salad, and a big bowl of bacon-laden green beans. It makes no sense whatsoever – from a cost standpoint, from a health standpoint, from a 21st century eating trends standpoint. But that’s part of the beauty of this time capsule of a restaurant.
If you ever have the chance, eat at STROUD’S. And bring the family. It’ll be a particular treat for your teenage boys, who know a thing or two about choking chickens.
We’ve been fortunate enough to visit numerous tropical regions around the world, but If Joanne had to name her absolute favorite, it would, hands down, be Hawaii. Unlike so many other places, it’s hardly ever too hot or humid here. Squalor is easily avoided. And most areas are perfectly safe.
As another winter approaches, a fair number of Minnesotans will seek refuge in Hawaii, so I thought that it might be helpful to share some of our Pacific island favorites in the coming weeks and months.
I’ve already posted about MAMA’S FISH HOUSE on MAUI; definitely check it out.
This time we’ll talk about WAIKIKI and one of our absolute favorites: ALAN WONG’S, opened in 1995. It’s not located on glitzy Waikiki Beach, but rather a few blocks inland on the 5th floor of a undistinguished building in a semi-marginal neighborhood on King Street. Don’t worry. It’s safe. Take a taxi.
ZAGAT rates Alan Wong’s a 4.8 (that’s really high) and trumpets it as “the dining highlight of the island.”
A James Beard Award winner, Alan Wong is widely credited (along with Roy Yamaguchi) as the founder of Hawaiian regional cuisine – notable for the way it incorporates the islands’ diverse ethnic cultures, freshly farmed ingredients, and the bounty of the Pacific Ocean.
You’ll definitely need a reservation here – which I strongly suggest you make through your hotel concierge, as they have more clout than an individual in nailing a tough reservation. If you can, secure a table on the Lanai, where Joanne and I have frequently seen rainbows through the large windows.
Do indulge in one of their playful and exotic cocktails. They’ll “raise an eyebrow” and bring a smile to your face.
On a single visit you’ll never be able to sample the full array of creative starters offered, so let me highlight a few that we’ve enjoyed.
First is the Whole Poached Tomato Salad, featuring a peeled, lightly poached tomato atop crunchy cucumbers (an ideal textural counterpoint). The “zinger” in this dish is the pool of Li Hing Mui Sauce. No doubt you’re asking, “What the HELL is Li Hing Mui sauce?”
My question as well. First of all, it’s really unusual. I loved it. Others may not. It’s at once sweet, sour, salty, and a tiny bit funky with the flavors of fermented dried plums. We liked it so much that we purchased a couple bags of the plums at a roadside market to bring home.
Not to be outdone, the Soup & Sandwich is a skyrocket among the appetizers. Nothing like school lunch or diner fare, it’s one part Yellow Tomato Soup, and the other part Red Tomato Soup, served up in a 10 oz. “bird bath” martini glass, on top of which is a miniature flat top-griddled sandwich. On a recent visit, it combined foie gras, Kalua pig, and fresh mozzarella between two slices of buttery Hawaiian bread.
My favorite appetizer is the Duck Nachos with Avocado Salsa. It’s good and so unusual, in fact, that I notified Restaurant Business magazine about it. My note got published and subsequently I received a warm letter from Alan Wong thanking me. That was nice.
God, there are so many stars on this menu. One more: “Poke Pines” made with ahi tuna, avocado, and wasabi wrapped in semi-shredded, deep-fried crispy wontons and garnished with a bright red leaf of amaranth.
The main courses are equally inventive and witty. If there are at least two of you, try Da Bag, which arrives at your table looking like a giant bag of Jiffy Pop Popcorn. Your server punctures the foil bag and, as the steam escapes, carefully opens it to reveal a mélange of buttery steamed clams, bacon bits and porky shards of Kalua Pig.
Okay, so now you ask, “What the hell is Kalua Pig?”
It’s a Hawaiian original that you’ll always see at a luau (that is, if you really want to put up with the luau. I sure as hell don’t).
What distinguishes this dish is its unique preparation. In the morning, the chefs dig a pit and line it with large rocks, on top of which wood is piled and set afire – followed by wet banana leaves. Then comes the pig: simply seasoned with Hawaiian red salt and garlic…spatchcocked…and placed over the banana leaves. More wet banana leaves follow and the whole thing gets covered by a soaking wet tarp – on top of which more rocks are piled. They become white-hot.
Eleven hours later, the pig is ready to eat. It’s smoky, fatty and utterly delicious. Check out the images.
I’d be careless not to mention the Lamb Chops at Alan Wong’s. They’re crusted with pistachios, macadamia nuts and coconut. Likewise, the twice-cooked, soy-braised shortribs, served with gingered shrimp on the side, always impress. You’ll also find two Pacific seafood treasures here. First is Ginger-Crusted Onaga with Sweet Corn Kernels resting in a Miso Sauce with Black Sesame Seeds, garnished with sweet, sweet corn shoots. The other house specialty is a nori-wrapped tempura Ahi Tuna with pickled ginger on a pool of creamy wasabi sesame sauce.
And from time to time…not always…you’ll find the “Loco Moco” – Hawaii’s gift to heart disease.
The classic version of Loco Moco is a gut bomb. It begins with a one-pound patty of fried ground beef, dressed with a gravy made from pan drippings, along with chopped Maui onions and mushrooms (some recipes add bourbon to the gravy). This concoction is set on top of a cup of white rice and layered with a heaping scoop of pulled Kalua Pig. The whole grotesque stack is topped with a fried egg. In a nod to healthy eating, the dish usually comes with a pile of Macaroni Salad.
By the way, slabs of SPAM are frequently substituted for the burger patty in this dish, though more often the Spam is simply added to the party.
I’ve been tempted to order the Loco Moco at various joints around the island, but that might mean passing up Alan Wong’s incredible and unique interpretation of his Loco Moco, consisting of Fresh Water Eel, Panko Crusted Onaga, Shitake Mushrooms, and a Half Lobster Tail basted in soy sauce and mirin and finally garnished with a poached quail egg.
Desserts vary, but the showstopper for me is the life-sized Chocolate “Coconut Shell” crusted with shredded toasted coconut, filled with Hupia Coconut Sorbet, and surrounded by fresh tropical fruits.
So here’s my advice: Avoid the unwashed throngs of tourists lining the buffets at the major hotels’ luaus. Head to ALAN WONG’s instead. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about!
No blog tomorrow.
Last week I posted about Iceland……and we WILL get back to that, but probably not until the late spring. I just can’t imagine anybody going to Iceland in the winter.
So for the next few postings we’ll turn our attention to warm places where Minnesotans go to escape the cold winter.
No, not Naples, Florida. You should know by now: The action’s all in MIAMI BEACH.
Let’s head first to a little Korean spot called THE DRUNKEN DRAGON.
Victoria Pesce Elliott of Miami.com writes, “I’ve long wondered when the Korean Barbecue trend would make its way from Los Angeles and New York to Miami.”
Well, it’s arrived. And this place is packed.
The Drunken Dragon opens at 6:00 PM, and it fills up quickly. Even if you have a reservation, expect a wait stretching 30 minutes. The arrogant hostess will see to that.
Joanne and I have been there on several occasions, most recently with our three grandkids (who love this place; they get to play with fire. More on that later).
Korean fare boasts an array of flavors – sweet, spicy, acidic, salty and bitter. But Drunken Dragon is not a “by the book” Korean joint. It’s more pan-Asian, with culinary influences from Japan, Thailand and China. Cuba works its way in there, too. But that’s okay. I like ‘em all.
You can make a meal out of just the starters….and we have done that. Our favorites include Fresh Oysters with Mango Salsa, Hamachi with Filipino Lime Sauce and Crunchy Cashews, Grilled Octopus, Puffy Peking Bao Buns with Duck Confit, and Crispy Chicken Skin with sticky-smoky hoisin barbeque sauce. I love the Miniature Lobster rolls on Brioche Buns (but they’re expensive — $21 for four).
Large-format appetizers are great for sharing. Recently our table ordered a Drunken Dragon Meat Board: a hunk of falling-off-the-bone braised pork shoulder accompanied by lettuce leaves and bao buns to make wraps. Another good choice is a meat board presentation of Duck Confit, with juicy ribbons of duck, ready to be stuffed into warm, spongy steamed buns.
Sambal is a sexy hot sauce, evoking the promise of faraway sultry places. It’s a magical combination of chili pepper, rice wine vinegar and citrus. Drunken Dragon offers several iterations of deeply flavored Sambal, some with a “touch of funk,” including Shrimp Paste, Fish Sauce and Umami. I recommend the Smoky Cracked Spare Ribs to share at the table. They’re finished with “bright hot” Sambal sauce, scallions and cilantro. Yeah, they’re messy.
I’ve never come here for Happy Hour, but I’ve certainly sampled my share of Happy Hour offerings. Check out the images of Drunken Dragon’s Banh Mi Cuban Pressed Sandwiches with chicken liver paté, roasted pork, pickles, jalapenos and cilantro. The tiny Japanese Korobuta Hot Dog is served up on a deep fried bao bun (clever) and dressed with pickles, spicy ketchup and herbed aioli. Get two – one isn’t enough. Tiki drink glasses are loads of fun. And the non-alcoholic Coconut Popsicle in mint lemonade delights kids.
But now comes the part of Drunken Dragon that I really love: The Korean Barbeque, with DIY grilling at the table. Here’s the drill:
1. There are only seven barbeque tables in the restaurant.
2. They’re allocated on a first come/first served basis. (Want one? Get there 30 minutes before they open.)
3. Good news: If you can’t snag a barbeque table, any of the “at the table” grilled items can be ordered at the regular tables. They’ll just be prepared in the kitchen.
4. Do some of them yourself. Let the kitchen handle the rest.
5. If you come with kids, DEFINITELY snag a barbeque table. They may not eat what they cook, but they’ll love being junior arsonists.
The problem with some Korean Barbecue joints, particularly in New York, is that the exhaust systems can be woefully inadequate…..leaving you with the clothes on your back reeking of smoke….even after a aggressive dry cleanings.
Not so at DRUNKEN DRAGON.
Their Korean barbecue tables are said to be modeled after a centuries old Korean house heating system called ONDAL……which loosely means heating from underneath the floor. I sorta get it and sorta don’t. The barbecue tables at DRUNKEN DRAGON certainly radiate from down under …..and the smoke from the grilling is exhausted through vents surrounding the grill and cleverly pulled downward in vents through the floor and on to being exhausted outside the premises.
Portions of the raw meats for grilling (thinnish cuts of steak, shrimp, etc.) are modest in scale, but more than enough when accompanied by an array of side dishes. Prior to the grilling your server appears to prime the grill in order to prevent sticking. Once she did it with oil and a brush. Another time it was primed with a hunk of beef fat clamped in a pair of tongs. I like the beef fat best.
Among the side dishes, get the Kimchi Fried Rice, which is mixed tableside with a poached egg. It’s delicious and enough for four people. Then have the Crispy Bok Choy and Kale. By the way, as a side dish, you can grill your own fresh vegetables at the table as well.
Desserts are tropical, attractive, unusual – and uniformly good. Matcha Tres Leches and the Mango & Strawberry Korean Ice Creams were right out of Central Casting (although why the ice cream came in a steamer basket was a little puzzling).
A note about the location: You are going to need to calibrate your GPS to find this place, which masquerades as a convenience store in a class C strip mall. The restaurant’s blacked-out windows make it even harder to find. The good news is that Drunken Dragon has a huge red neon sign. The bad news is that the sign simply says “MARKET.”
One giveaway: Unlike most strip malls, this one offers $15 valet parking for your Bentley. Look for it on the west side of Alton Road between 14th & 15th Streets, right between a Subway sandwich shop and a Domino’s Pizza.
Joanne and I have just returned from three days in ICELAND. I’ll write about the food and restaurants in the upcoming weeks and months. But before that, I thought it might be wise to give a general overview of the place to provide context to my upcoming posts.
First of all, I discovered ICELANDAIR when we went to London. We were checking prices with Delta and found that if we flew on Iceland’s national carrier via Reykjavik, the fare would drop by about two-thirds.
Now, Icelandair is somewhat of a budget carrier ¬– but just somewhat. For example, whereas on international flights the big carriers give business class travelers warm toasted mixed nuts (no peanuts) before the dinner service, Icelandair offers its fanciest passengers a choice of cabin-temperature caramel corn or pretzels.
And the FLIGHT ATTENDANTS? Well, check ‘em out.
The dinners were evocative of what we were expecting in REYKJAVIK – Salmon 3 ways…herring…blini…and trout roe – served all at once on a tray (not in courses), but nonetheless very good indeed. The intro didn’t end there, as we were greeted with a miniature of Icelandic Vodka.
Landing in Reykjavik the next morning, Joanne and I had time to walk the town before our hotel room was ready. We loved the scale of the city, which was quaint, historic, a cross between a city and a village. It’s a great place to meander, with no high-rises to block the sun, and a harmony of buildings in a bright palette, with many primary colors balancing softer and more restrained – but still quite varied – paint schemes.
Also interesting: the vast preponderance of structures are clad in vertical corrugated metal siding – and, aesthetically speaking, none the worse for it. I later found out that the reason metal was used was because the Vikings wiped out all of the trees a thousand years ago, and it turns out to be exceptionally difficult to grow new trees in this climate. Today Reykjavik has some, but the rest of the country is virtually barren.
The city is not without a sense of humor. The Walk signals sport smiley faces; the Don’t Walk signals keep you stationary with red frowney faces.
The language is famously impossible – not merely incomprehensible but essentially unpronounceable. Thank God the people have the sense to speak perfect English!
The church that dominates the skyline is called Hallgrimsirkja (go ahead, give that a shot). Vast in scale – construction began in 1945 and didn’t end until 1986 – it stands proudly over the city.
The National Museum, called Tjhodminjasafnid (what the hell, you might as well try to pronounce that, too) occupied us for half a day. It’s a fascinating place – very informative and well-curated. I learned a lot.
Most folks go to this island nation not for its restaurants, but for its spectacular scenery – Europe’s wildest and most rugged. As the publication, Eyewitness Travel, puts it, “Outside Reykjavik is a mix of lunar deserts, thundering waterfalls, whale watching, northern lights and majestic fjords.”
Reykjavik is a small city with a population of only a little over 300,000 people. So you can only imagine the crunch in summer months when almost 2 million tourists invade (from where, I don’t know. But the bathroom signage in the National Parks gave me a clue that they are probably not all Americans and Northern Europeans.)
Here’s another observation: COLD PLACE, WARM HEART. The people are all really nice.
Would it be politically incorrect to note, however, that the people aren’t uniformly attractive? Because Icelandic men – many, many of them – are just a mess: overweight and almost slovenly, poorly groomed, not well-dressed. (there’s probably no shortage of “plumber’s butts” here.) That struck me as so strange in that the vast majority of women were drop-dead gorgeous (go back and check out the flight attendants).
I’ve read on the Internet that due to an alleged shortage of Icelandic men, the government is offering up to $5,000 per month to men from outside the country to come and marry Icelandic women. Obviously, that’s nonsense…
…though a gender imbalance COULD partially explain why Icelandic men feel so comfortable “letting themselves go” while the women stay glamorous, trim and beautiful. I don’t know…I was just wondering.
The other thing that I was wondering about is the ICELANDIC HOT DOG. No kidding: It’s a WEENIE made of organic, grass-fed, hormone-free lamb, pork and beef, and served up on a warm steamed bun, topped with raw and crispy fried onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard, remoulade and mayo. You get them at a tiny stand near the waterfront called Baejarins Beztu Pylsur.
So is it accidental? Serendipitous? Or on purpose that the last few slides of this posting go from beautiful women….to weenies…..to Bill Clinton at the hot dog stand…..and finally on to the famous ICELANDIC PHALLOLOGICAL MUSEUM?
I report. You decide.
Jokes about GERMAN FOOD are the WURST.
Indeed, as Karen Krizanovich writes in The Civilian publication, “What do you think of when you think of German/Austrian food? Terrific strudels…heaps of whipped cream (schlag)…heart attacks…and a FAT ASS.”
It also doesn’t help the region’s image that, as Amol Rajan of The Independent put it, “Austria produced Hitler, a son that no civilized people would ever want to claim.”
So, starting out in the hole with two strikes against this part of the world, you can imagine what a delight it was for me and Joanne to discover great German/Austrian food at FISCHER’S, a wonderful little neighborhood restaurant and cafe tucked away at the top of Marylebone High Street in the heart of London.
The folks behind this place are not amateurs. Owners Jeremy King and Chris Corbin also created the wildly successful London restaurant, The Wolseley.
Fischer’s represents the recreation of a chic yet casual pre-war grand Viennese café with marble tile flooring…shiny dark wood-paneled walls…antique light fixtures…brass fittings…and large oil paintings of burghers (some in silly hats). I found it very convincing and unashamedly untrendy. The staff is alert and charming. Do not expect waiters in lederhosen slap dancing.
I had read about Fischer’s somewhere, and Joanne and I decided to check it out during the day. I was impressed with the understated class and coherence of the place and we selected our table for the evening (#36, a leather banquette corner table; tables 11 and 17 also have nice vistas of the action in the dining room).
The offerings are extensive: cured fish…fat smoky sausages….schnitzels….herring and strudels. The affordable wine list is “Mittel European” – Austrian, German, Hungarian and Alsatian.
The evening crowd from the Marylebone neighborhood appeared to be mainly professionals. A fair number of them were smartly dressed family folks, but kids were few in number (maybe because buggies and strollers are banned). It also appears to be a safe haven for celebs, as they’re routinely spotted here (see below). Nigella Lawson, the famed London food writer (who got choked by her husband at SCOTTS, as I wrote about in a previous WTF blog post) is well known at Fischer’s. Salman Rushdie dines here, too. So does supermodel Kate Moss.
As Grace Dent of The Evening Standard says, “Fischer’s evokes less of a planned destination….and more of an impromptu amble.” That probably fits well with the $50 average price per person…unless, of course, one gets deeply into the wine.
I love the bread service here. The offerings are chewy, heavy, and molasses-y beyond expectations, and come with a ramekin of incredibly rich paprika butter.
For starters, I opted for Chopped Chicken Liver with pickled cucumbers. Joanne said “Yuck” and ordered the Trio of Smoked Salmon – maple-cured, oak-smoked and beetroot-cured ($15).
Now we were on a roll and decided to order a third starter (Was that the wine talking?). It was terrific: three little open-face sandwiches on rye bread called “brotchen”…one with smoked salmon and goat curd, another topped with beetroot and pickled herring, and lastly an artichoke and caper rendition.
After a tiny (but crispy, spicy and tasty) Arugula Salad, Joanne selected Butter Poached Haddock with Asian-Indian spices ($26) for her main, and was very pleased with her choice.
I was on the horns of a dilemma. What really gets Germans going is their Teutonic dedication to cabbage, potatoes, pork, beer and schnapps. And in this regard, Fischer’s does not disappoint. And boy, was I up for it! They feature “Trenchermen’s Sausage Platters” where one can pick any two varieties – including knockwurst, frankfurters, veal bratwurst, wild boar and Kasekrainer (pork and garlic sausage stuffed with Emmenthal cheese) – along with German Potato Salad and “melted onions” (i.e. caramelized), plus sauerkraut and grainy mustard. All for about $20.
At the same time, the Schnitzel section was calling my name with Brunhildan passion. There was Chicken Schnitzel with “jus Parisienne.” There was the classic veal Weiner Schnitzel with lemon…and finally their house specialty: Schnitzel ala Holstein – veal pounded thin, breaded and fried, and crowned with anchovies, capers and a fried egg (with a half-lemon “bra” for squeezing).
I’m a sucker for wretched excess, so of course I caved and ordered the specialty – defying Mies van der Rohe, who famously stated that “less is more” – except when it comes to food, where “less is just less.”
I’m here to tell you: Fischer’s does PROPER SCHNITZELS.
Somehow I had room for dessert. All along, I had assumed that Fischer’s would offer a Sacher Torte (made famous by the Sacher Hotel in Vienna) – a dense, deeply rich chocolate cake laced with apricot jam and served with a massive dollop of schlag on the side. But it wasn’t to be.
Any disappointment we felt quickly vanished, however, when the server brought our strudels – Joanne’s with sour cherry, mine with apple, and both MIT SCHLAG.
They were the BEST we’ve ever had. As Andy Warhol once said, “A Coke is a Coke, and no amount of money can get you a better coke.” I cannot imagine a better strudel at any price.
And so, the Fat Assed Lady joyfully sings!
RULES claims to be London’s oldest surviving restaurant – open for business near Covent Garden since 1798.
As Marina O’Laughlin states in the Guardian, “We all know Rules, don’t we?”
Yes, we do. They have fed Charles Dickens…”Bertie”, King Edward VII of England…two James Bonds, Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore…as well as Paul Newman and Harrison Ford. They’ve soldiered through two world wars and countless domestic conflicts, all the while serving up classic English fare with a huge emphasis on wild-caught game.
On a previous visit, I asked how old the restaurant was. Our server instantly said, “About 20 years younger than your country.”
Rules actually has a kind of fixation on America, as they routinely claim that the reason they’re routinely dismissed by London’s “elite foodie intelligentsia” owes to the fact that they’re always jam-packed with American tourists.
So it’s with this understanding that Joanne and I periodically return to Rules – most recently just a few weeks ago.
Here’s my dilemma: I really love the food, but they piss me off!
Upon arrival, we were greeted at the podium by a pompous, condescending manager who treated us like we were trying to sneak past his velvet rope – even though we had a reservation.
First, he told us that they had no booth for us, as we had requested, and wouldn’t have one for an hour-and-a-half. He said this as I looked over his shoulder at a half-empty dining room.
Ultimately they did find us a corner table (#15) that was just fine, and as we were led there, the host told us that we had to be out in two hours as our table was booked again at 8:00 o’clock.
Our server was pleasant enough as she explained that they were out of prawns….out of hare….and out of pheasant. Again, this was at 6:00 PM. Somebody screwed up on the daily ordering.
I wasn’t particularly annoyed, as we had our eye on other offerings. (By the way: Parasole restaurants occasionally run out of evening specials. We’ll prep 15 of something, and typically they’re gone by 8:30, not 6 PM! Rarely, however, do we run out of a menu item). Clearly, Rules was not at the top of its game.
Having been warned that we’d better vacate by 8 PM, and denied the option of ordering a good chunk of the menu, I began to think that they weren’t going to be happy until we weren’t happy.
My suspicions proved correct. When our server took our appetizer order, she reminded us – for the third time – that we had to be out of the restaurant by 8 o’clock!
Now I was “RED-ASSED.” And I said to Joanne, “They don’t give a shit about us and our evening. They just want to churn tables.”
I summoned the manager and said, “You know, I could have chosen from any number of good London restaurants tonight – The Guinea Grill, the Ivy, St. John, Hawksmoor…but you know what? I CHOSE YOU! And here’s what your attitude is communicating to us: Get ‘em in, seat ‘em anyplace, and get ‘em out. We need this table, NOW!” And yet I CHOSE YOU? … WHY?”
Sometimes it’s hard to be a foodie: I wanted to protect my dignity. I wanted to give them the finger and storm off, but…
THE FOOD IS REALLY GOOD!
So what was I to do? Was the eating experience worth putting up with the abuse? Well, I keep going back, so I guess I have my answer. Apparently I’m not just a slave to food, but a glutton for punishment (“It tastes so good AND hurts so good!”).
Okay, let’s go ……
Jay Rayner of The Guardian writes, “Rules is a theme park iteration of old London.” Here you sink into a “plushy” crimson velvet booth amid swirly red-patterned carpets. The tablecloths are starched white linen. You marvel at the wood-paneled walls, cluttered with hundreds of oil paintings, old portraits, humorous prints and antlers, antlers, antlers everywhere, reinforcing their game story. The interior is utterly overwrought, but I have to say it….”Rules is COZY.”
Joanne and I always go in the fall – me for the WILD GAME; for Joanne, anything but.
Rabbit and hare are served up in different ways – the rabbit is braised and accompanied by butter-loaded gratin dauphinois. The hare is a little more adventuresome – accompanied by earthy pheasant sausage stuffed with the innards of the bird (watch out Fergus Henderson; they’re meddling on your turf).
Rules is well known for their Pot Pies, particularly Steak & Kidney Pie, which I’ve tried and loved, with its thick, rich gravy and suet crust. I’ve yet to try the Wild Boar Pot Pie, but how could it not be excellent?
Shepherd’s Pie is a signature dish, and in a nice twist it comes with lamb, not beef, and a topping of butter-loaded mashed potatoes toasted under the broiler.
Seared Scallops and Pork Cheeks are an unusual pairing, but good (I always say, the best way to prepare seafood is by adding meat to it).
In addition to Guinness Beef Stew, which sounds great, they feature a Rib of Beef for Two, again with dauphinois potatoes, savoy cabbage, winter vegetables, greens and Yorkshire pudding. It’s a big, impressive statement and will run you about $42 per person. Check out the photo.
On our recent visit, we had appetizers of Rabbit Rilettes with pickled onions (I loved it; Joanne hated it). Since it was hunting season, I tried the Venison Carpaccio with pickled red cabbage, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and watercress. The red cabbage was a perfect counterpoint to the gaminess of the venison. Although I was tempted (Joanne, less so), the Beef, Kidney and Oyster Pudding sounded like an adventure. Next time.
For mains, Joanne had the Seared Scottish Salmon with Mussels (but, alas, no prawns).
During our previous visits, I’ve had several versions of partridge. This time I had Red Leg Partridge with creamed savoy cabbage and bacon. The meat was flavorful and tender – and tiny flecks of buckshot provided additional texture.
Amongst the other feathered and furred offerings was Young Grouse with red currant jelly, crispy bacon, gaufrette potatoes and bread sauce. I didn’t go for it. Grouse can be very strong, and the last time I had it in London was at St. John (where our waiter described it as having a “rather metallic taste”). Nicely plated and presented, but too gamey even for me.
We ended our meal with an order of syrupy Sticky Toffee Pudding with walnuts and crème fraiche, as well as a Flintstonian wedge of English Stilton Cheese from the trolley, cut and served with ceremony. Neither offering is to be missed.
So here’s my bottom line: If it’s fall and you’re up for a generous taste of game or comfort food, Rules occupies a rare position among restaurants: It doubles as a tourist magnet as well as a superb restaurant. But DO NOT GO in a bad or combative mood, because if you’re on the cusp of getting pissed, I guarantee they will MAKE you pissed.
Even KATE MIDDLETON, who has a “pinky vodka” drink named after her, goes to RULES. I’m certain that she is awarded one of the coveted velvet booths.
And she owns a gun!
I never knew there was such a thing as a “New York Steakhouse” until the late seventies, when one of my New York clients took me to THE PALM. Subsequent visits to Peter Luger, Smith & Wollensky and Spark’s (notwithstanding the shooting of mobster Paul Castellano at their front door) and KEEN’S CHOPHOUSE caused me to realize that Minneapolis NEEDED a New York-style steakhouse…..thus MANNY’S.
All were good. All had similar menus, with great dry-aged steaks. All had a decidedly masculine vibe.
But one had an edge that was unique. That was KEEN’S CHOP HOUSE on 36th Street near 6th Avenue.
Founded by Albert Keen in 1885, Keen’s features all of the steakhouse clichés, starting with the nude painting over the bar…continuing with the clubby, masculine atmosphere of the dining rooms…reinforced by their PIPE CLUB…and – adorning the ceilings throughout the restaurant – a collection of 50,000 clay pipes belonging to celebrities like Babe Ruth, Teddy Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur and Buffalo Bill. The menu also touches the necessary bases of a New York steakhouse. To top it off, Keen’s has a ZAGAT rating of 4.5.
As New York magazine put it, “Keen’s is a bastion of urban carnivores fueled by single malts and expense account blowouts.” Expect steakhouse prices.
Meals begin with a retro touch: a supper club relish tray. We’ve followed with steakhouse favorites, including crab cakes, shrimp cocktails, clams & oysters, as well as a really good twice-baked Vermont blue cheese pastry puff ($15).
Salads are out of central casting with all of the usual suspects…all good.
Mains include a porterhouse steak for two, t-bones and filets, all with a puzzling red pepper garnish (why?). Keen’s also offers a great prime-rib hash crowned with a fried egg, a delicious buttermilk-brined chicken, lobster, and Dover sole.
Hot fudge sundaes, Bananas Foster and Key Lime pie form the core of the dessert menu.
But now things get interesting.
Keen’s is known worldwide for its MUTTON CHOPS………NOT lamb chops.
But first a little primer on mutton.
Definitions vary – even among experts – but it’s generally defined as the meat of a full-grown sheep that’s over one-year old. In this country, we prefer lamb. Mutton fell completely out of favor after World War II when our troops were fed canned mutton – and nowadays most people don’t even know what it is. Among those who do have an opinion, they think of mutton as tough old meat from old fat sheep: horrible smell, strong gamy flavor, and that lingering, wretched tallow-y aftertaste in your mouth. And they’re not entirely wrong about the gaminess. In fact, as early as 1918, Fanny Farmer wrote in her iconic cookbook, “Many object to the strong flavor of mutton.”
In other countries, mutton is used in spicy stews and curries or anything else that serves to mask the flavor. As the French say, “With the right sauce, you can eat your father.”
Yet against such a negative backdrop, Keen’s not only offers mutton, it sells the hell out of it. In fact, Keen’s Mutton Chops – tender, delicious, utterly unlike the mutton of yore – are its signature dish.
WTF? Well, first of all, modern lamb, like chicken and beef, grows much faster and larger today than at any time in history. In the United States, sheep between 12 and 16 months are known as “yearling mutton.” I understand that Keen’s buys right on the cusp, sourcing 1-year-old sheep whose chops retain the wonderful flavor of lamb but are about two inches thick and weigh in at about 2 pounds. I’m also told that the meat is dry-aged to improve the flavor and enhance tenderness. Apparently, it’s also seared in a 1000-degree broiler before it is finished in a 500-degree oven. This is a perfect cooking technique.
Next time you’re in New York, you need to go to Keen’s and order the mutton. You might just fall in love with it. You certainly WON’T BE THE FIRST to do so.
Years ago Joanne and I took our kids to France and Germany. We flew Icelandic Air out of New York and landed in Luxembourg, which I believe at that time was the only place that the airline had the rights to land.
After two days, we left Luxembourg by car heading south for the ROUTE DU VIN (the wine road in ALSACE-LORRAINE), ending up in Strasbourg for a couple of nights before setting out on our wine tour. This, we learned, is where France and Germany collide. Situated not far from the Black Forest, Strasbourg is currently in France but sits right on the border of France and Germany. I say “currently” because for hundreds of years the city of Strasbourg has ping-ponged back and forth between the two countries. Since the end of World War II, it’s been part of France.
Road signs are in both German and French. Beer and wine are equally popular.
But the architecture in Strasbourg definitely leans German – almost Hansel & Gretel-like.
In the heart of the city lies the premier landmark of Strasbourg: The Notre Dame Cathedral, built with pink sandstone from nearby mountain quarries. A beautiful example of Gothic architecture visible for miles around, it was completed in 1439. Actually, “completed” may not be quite accurate because the south steeple was never built. Consequently, the asymmetrical form makes it unique among European Gothic churches. There are various theories as to why the south tower was never finished, but from what I can smoke out, the prevailing opinion was that the earth under the south tower couldn’t support the additional weight.
The culinary side of Alsace is just as fascinating, and a little weird…and a real treat.
The Alsatian dishes had a boldness and earthiness that was no doubt influenced by their German roots, while the French-influenced offerings demonstrated attention to detail, beauty, quality, and nuance. And then there were the “tweeners” – part French and part German…..WOW !!!!
Flash forward to this summer. Joanne and I had just landed in New York. It was around noon, and since we had no breakfast on our morning flight, we were thinking about where we might have a late lunch. I wanted to select a spot near our hotel at 41st and 5th Avenue.
Consulting my trusty Zagat Guide, I came upon a highly rated restaurant on 42nd street called GABRIEL KREUTHER. I had never heard of the place but it was rated 4.8 by ZAGAT. That’s really high.
Arriving about 1:30 PM, we were seated in the corner table (table #73), which was just fine and not busy. Not quite knowing the restaurant’s DNA, we began by puzzling over the bar menu. It was at once refreshing in its “Frenchie” offerings, while at the same time I felt it was looking for its voice – that is, until I saw the Alsatian section on the menu. Then it all made sense. Of course you could have two vastly different cultures and cuisines living together side by side as they have for centuries in ALSACE-LORRAINE. Frogs legs on the menu right next to liverwurst? “Mais oui!” and “yah, yah, der liverwurst, too.”
We started with the “Frenchie” stuff, including Lobster Croquettes ($15), Langoustine Tart, and of course a Foie Gras Terrine with duck prosciutto and porcini mushrooms (any one of those ingredients would get my vote, but all in one dish? Yes, please – and I’m not sharing).
Next, the German counterpoint: Sturgeon Tart over Sauerkraut, Liverwurst with pickled Kirbie cucumbers and grainy mustard ($19), and Kougelhoph (scallion bread) with creamy chive cheese ($7).
Mains? The delightful counterpoints continued. Joanne opted for something French: Roasted Halibut with Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, Celery Root and Cockles. I took the Teutonic trail and ordered a large, turgid Country Sausage with Homemade Sauerkraut and Spicy Violet Mustard ($26).
We’re not done yet, folks. We needed to try the “tweeners” – half-German, half-French – and what better expression of the love-hate relationship between the two countries than a special featuring LOADS of white truffles atop cheesy German spaetzel. I don’t remember what it cost – I blocked out the memory – but I couldn’t resist.
Finally, a sampling of Artisanal French and German cheeses ($8 per piece; we had two), shared along with a Bleu Cheese Tarte with Fresh Figs and Balsamic Vinegar.
I don’t know why I hadn’t heard of Gabriel Kreuther until then, but I’ve since found out that he was born and raised in a little town just to the north of Strasbourg. After graduating from cooking school– the Ecole Hoteriere in Strasbourg, he worked at Le Caprice in D.C. for a year-and-a-half before returning to Europe. There he trained at Michelin-starred restaurants in France and Switzerland before returning to the States to work for Jean George Vongerichten and at the helm at The Modern at MOMA in New York, before opening his own place.
What a pedigree, what an apprenticeship – and what a restaurant! No wonder we loved our meal there.