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An Ode to Lox

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Growing up Jewish in The Bronx in the 1950s meant certain foods that were to become iconic to me, and none more so than lox.

The word is from the Yiddish word for “salmon” and refers to brined, or salted, salmon, thinly sliced. There are many different kinds of the food we call “lox.” Belly lox is simply salmon that has been brined—cured in salt. But New York Jews grew up, not on belly lox, but on Nova.

When my father went food shopping early on Saturday morning to get ready for the weekend, he would buy smoked whitefish, giant black-and-white cookies, cream cheese, a dozen or so bagels—and a pound of Nova. Nova is brined salmon that has also been lightly smoked, or “cold-smoked,” which is at a temperature below 85 degrees. The classic smoking wood is alder, but apple, oak and maple will do. The traditional New York salmon fish hails from Nova Scotia, which is why it’s called Nova.

Lox is the quintessential comfort food to me. When I was working, people used to ask me what my favorite food and wine were, and I’d tell them that if I were stranded on a tropical island and could eat only one thing for the rest of my life, it would be salmon (raw, straight from the sea, i.e. sushi) and Champagne, preferably a toasty, yeasty Blanc de Blancs. But if I could brine and smoke that salmon and turn it into lox, it would be even better. (Since salmon is a cold water fish, it would be impossible to find any near a tropical island.)

I eat smoked salmon every day. It’s not Nova, of course, because it’s hard to get salmon from Nova Scotia on the West Coast. Most of our locally-sourced salmon (which is of the Chinook variety) comes from the cold Pacific, or the even colder waters of California rivers such as the Klamath. I buy most of my smoked salmon at Whole Foods, which claims that it gets its fish from sustainable farms in Norway and Scotland. Smoked salmon is always pricey; I’ve seen it at Williams Sonoma for $50 a pound. At Whole Foods it’s usually $30 a pound, although occasionally it’s on sale for $22.

When I say I eat smoked salmon every day, that doesn’t mean I gorge on it. I like to have one ounce on one side of a buttered, toasted English muffin for breakfast. (On the other side I put melted cheese and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.) The traditional Jewish preparation for lox is on a bagel with cream cheese, and while I certainly wouldn’t argue if you offered me that, I prefer English muffins to bagels and butter to cream cheese.

I would never eat lox in any form except the pure, cold stuff you buy in the store. I wouldn’t put it into scrambled eggs. Some people put horse radish in their lox–eeewww–and I’ve also seen, and rejected, sushi rolls with smoked salmon, avocado and wasabi. I don’t like the way a lot of hotels and restaurants serve “bagels and lox” with sliced onions, capers, tomatoes and so on. What’s the point of that? Lox is so wonderful that goofing it up with a bunch of other stuff is culinary sacrilege.

The smell, taste and texture of lox bring me back to my childhood, which is always a pleasant experience for old people. But it’s more than that. I don’t crave smoked white fish (too bony) or bagels or the rotisserie-grilled chicken wings with paprika, salt and pepper mom used to make. But I do crave lox. I won’t try to put the texture and flavors into words, except to say that it’s silky, creamy, salty-sweet, oily and salmon-y.

Oh, and one more thing. The late, great Jewish comedian, Alan King, used to say, “Smoked salmon is for dinner. Belly lox is for breakfast. Don’t get that mixed up.” I never do.


As consumers turn against Big Box stores, supermarkets feel the heat

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The death of the Big Box store (think Wal-Mart) has been widely predicted, as for instance here, here and here.

Just about every major trend we’re following right now bodes poorly for power center retail,” says the Business Insider article. Those trends include the facts that “Americans are driving less than they have in decades. Populations are flocking to smaller, urban communities over sprawling suburbs. And consumers in their 20s and 30s increasingly prefer small, local shops to big-box retail.”

It took a little longer for this rejection of the Big Box concept to spread to the big supermarket, but now, it has. The U.K. last year saw its first decline in supermarket sales in two decades, and America isn’t immune: “U.S. supermarkets are stuck in time-warp,” USA.com announced, adding, “The bland midmarket, hi-lo, be-all-things-to-all-men strategy is not working.”

Speaking of Mid-Market and supermarkets, today’s San Francisco Chronicle has a front page article, “Trying to mimic Ferry Building on Mid-Market” [link not yet available], that tells the story of how a big supermarket, Market on Market, faltered, precisely because it tried to “be-all-things-to-all-men.” A little background: The Mid-Market stretch of S.F.’s Market Street has for years been a sorry spectacle of homelessness, drug dealing, prostitution and low-end stores. That all began to change when San Francisco persuaded Twitter to headquarter there (in exchange for controversial tax benefits). Now, Mid-Market is becoming a yuppie haven: rents there are going up as fast as anywhere in the city. Mid-Market had never had a nice supermarket. So the owners of Market on Market thought the time was ripe to open one.

Turns out their assumptions were wrong. Those young tech workers don’t want a big supermarket. They want what Whole Foods offers: ready-to-eat food, often impulse-driven, and small, specialty cubicles run by independent purveyors: a pizzeria, ramen shop, créperie, sushi bar, fish monger, tea shop, microbrewery and so on. They want, in other words, to feel as though they’re in the marketplace of some old European village. So that’s what Market on Market will now offer them: similar to what famous Ferry Plaza has been offering shoppers for many years.

San Francisco being the trend-setter it is, this movement likely will spread around the country, first to other urban areas and then to hipper suburbs. It’s reflective of the same yearning for authenticity and quality we see in the wine industry and the consumer’s preference for wines of terroir, connected to the land and owned by a family—wines with stories that make people feel more human. I know that, speaking for myself, it’s almost unbearable to shop at Safeway anymore. The place just seems like, well, it’s stuck in a time-warp from 1965. Whole Foods is much more in my comfort zone (although it’s more uncomfortable from a dollar point of view); and Rockridge Market Hall is even more of a trip for me: I can’t exactly explain the exaltation I feel when shopping there, but where Safeway feels pedestrian, Market Hall feels like a trip to the Marché International de Rungis without leaving Oakland.

It always surprises me to see so many young people thronging my local Whole Foods: I wonder where they get the money. But they do, and whatever their financial situation maybe, it’s clear that they’re voting with the wallets for higher quality food, the feeling of being philosophically and organically connected to what they put into their bodies, and a more welcoming shopping experience. The wine industry could learn from this example.


To eat is (literally and figuratively) to live

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My seminar (with Pedro Rusk) at Saturday’s K-J Heirloom Tomato Festival reminded me once again of what a powerful interest people have in learning about wine-and-food pairing and how to make fabulous foods. It’s interesting when you consider that people in this country are absolutely inundated with information about food. It’s a never-ending avalanche: columns in the papers, POS materials in supermarkets, online sites, T.V. cooking shows and cookbooks, cookbooks, cookbooks up the yin yang. Most of us have access to more recipes and how-to’s than we’d be able to use in several lifetimes, and yet we still show up at seminars like Pedro’s and mine for more.

It’s an almost religious quest. People go to Mecca or Lourdes, or just to their favorite house of worship on Sunday, in order to connect with something bigger than themselves, and hopefully become more than they feel they are. They buy self-improvement books, they meditate and pray, they’re constantly on the alert for something that will make their lives more complete and happy. And they go to large public events, like the Tomato Festival.

Of course, there’s an element of just wanting to be in a large, happy crowd on a glorious September day, listen to live music, drink some good wine and eat fabulous food—and man oh man, was that food great! I still feel like I inhaled a bowling ball on this, the morning after. To think that chefs can do so many things with a single ingredient—the tomato—is mind-boggling.

I’m talking about the seminars, though. It’s odd that some of us are so driven to always “up” our food game. In order to investigate the phenomenon, I turn to myself, and my own head, which is at least as curious about new approaches to food as is yours, in all likelihood. My first impression, in examining myself, is puzzlement. Why do I still subscribe to Bon Appetit? Why am I drawn, like a moth to a flame, to the Food Section of the S.F. Chronicle? I don’t subscribe to the other local papers, but when I’m at the gym and someone has tossed aside the Contra Costa Times or Oakland Tribune, I’ll pick it up and see if there’s a recipe somewhere inside. I have at least 40 cookbooks, have given away at least that many to friends, and I go to online sites like The Food Network several times a month; and yet, with all that data at my fingertips, I’m still hungry (forgive the metaphor) for more. I sometimes wonder if this almost obsessive search for perfect recipes and wine pairings isn’t a form of psychological compensation for a spiritual emptiness I feel inside; but such self-introspection can be morbid, and leads nowhere, so I try to avoid it. Still, do I really expect to find another pasta pesto recipe that will bring me to glory? Is there a way to roast a chicken that’s more orgasmic than the ones I’ve practiced for decades? Can there be a risotto more perfect than the ones I’ve cooked most of my adult life?

I suppose, if I were really, really into it, I’d master some new form of cooking, like baking. But who’s got the time, and besides, within a half-mile of my home are stores where I can buy every kind of bread there is, almost fresh from the oven (the San Francisco Bay Area has got to be one of the world’s greatest sources of bread). If anything, I’m shortening the amount of time I spend in the kitchen. Twenty years ago, especially if someone special was coming for dinner, I’d start prepping the day before, and the afternoon before the meal would be consumed with chopping, dicing, slicing and reducing sauces. Nowadays I look for the most delicious food I can make in the least amount of time. That’s not likely to change, even when I retire and don’t feel the pressures and time constraints of work. So why this relentless drive for more recipes?

Maybe it’s as simple as this: To eat is to be alive, and moreover, to indulge in one of the most pleasant aspects of being alive. (I’m reminded of those old commercials for Carl’s Junior: “Don’t bother me, I’m eating.”) It is imaginatively possible that we could have a powerful drive to eat and not necessarily possess an accompanying capacity for the intense satisfaction of eating. Therefore, to be interested in food—to anticipate eating, to think of the next opportunity for great, delicious food—is to authenticate our lives, to celebrate the fact that we are still alive and not dead, to exult in our physical health. When my mother was dying, in the hospital, yet still conscious until nearly the very end, she did not relish the meager foods that were brought to her, and I doubt (although I don’t know for sure) that in her private thoughts she thought about food at all. But then, she already had one foot in another world, a world in which eating (so far as we know) is non-existent or at least non-essential. So she had let go of food-thinking, which was replaced by a form of thinking most of us have yet to experience.

But for those of us who remain alive and kicking, eating is (along with one or two or three other activities) the most glorious thing we can do. As full as my belly feels at this moment, I know that, in a few hours, I will once again have that craving that starts as a vague desire at the fringes of consciousness, then gradually invades the thinking process until, finally, I arise from my seat and head toward the shrine of the refrigerator. The religious symbolism is apt: my search for another great recipe is no less than a quest for purification and redemption. The Most Perfect thing in the world, which is the subject of every religious and moral philosophy, may not be obtainable in this life, and certainly isn’t through eating. But the Almost Most Perfect food is always out there, beckoning, promising, tantalizing with salient possibility. When we stop heeding its call we, too, will have one foot in the other world. Until then, we live, thrive, love, drink, and eat.


California cuisine and California wine: partners through life

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It had been years since I dined at the Stanford Court Hotel, on top of Nob Hill, so I was looking forward to meeting some folks there last night—not for dinner, just for a few drinks. Still, I wanted to check out the restaurant menu. Reading—no, make that devouringJoyce Goldstein’s new book, Inside the California Food Revolution, I was curious to see how the menu had evolved from 20 years ago, when Fournou’s Ovens, the hotel’s grand restaurant, served what I recall as rather rich food, French-influenced, and heavy on the meat.

Alas, the menu has evolved, but not as I’d anticipated; as it turns out, there is no restaurant at the Stanford Court, just a rather plain bar menu (sandwiches, steak and such). I asked the concierge about that, and he replied, “New ownership—changing times.” Indeed.

Which brings me back to Inside the California Food Revolution. The mark of a great book is that it gets you thinking. I loved the juxtaposition Joyce, and many of the chefs she interviewed, set up between the Los Angeles and San Francisco culinary scenes of twenty years ago. L.A. was “food as fashion,” in Joyce’s words, as well as “overdone, very over-manipulated…places to see and be seen,” according to another restaurateur. By contrast, S.F. chefs were obsessed with purity, quality ingredients, seasonality and eclecticism.

The problem with appealing to fashion is that, quoting the former owner of a famous L.A. restaurant, Citrus, “the life of a restaurant is very short [in L.A.]..very trendy. You’re good, you’re busy, and then, when a new restaurant opens, say good-bye to your business.”

Well, you can say that about any restaurant, to some extent (Daniel Patterson’s Plum just closed in Oakland, after a run of several years), but San Francisco and the Bay Area seem more willing to bless a great place, like Boulevard, with longevity than L.A. is. There is, of course, a wine tie-in to all this: I have often wondered about the lifespan of some of these super-expensive California lifestyle wineries, which pop into existence (often in Napa Valley) with the alacrity of mushrooms after an autumn rain, only to disappear just as quickly. With a hired “name” winemaker, the brand enters the “you’re busy” phase, which is quickly succeeded by the “good-bye” phase, unless the owner is so wealthy that he can afford to ride an ocean of red ink.

Still, there was one thing both the Southern and Northern California founders of the California cuisine revolution shared in common: a passionate ingenuity bordering on the naïve. As one of them told Joyce, “Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of chefs weren’t [classically] trained. That was freeing. You weren’t tied down to a set of rules and told, ‘You have to go this way.’ No, I don’t, because I don’t even know what the rules are.”

It was that disregard for “the rules” that enabled chefs, including Joyce Goldstein, to do their own thing. They figured that, if they liked something, others would, too. There’s a connection, I suspect, between that approach and the loss of Fournou’s Ovens: the grand hotel restaurant, with its banquettes, snooty somms, heavily-sauced food and pontifical atmosphere, is no longer suited to today’s dining needs, which are more casual. Joyce anticipated that at Square One, her own restaurant, when she opened it (after leaving Chez Panisse) in the mid-1980s. Today, I look at a place like Boulevard, which I think and hope will never close. It’s as California-cuisine-y as you can get: the California Lamb Prime T-bone, “wood oven roasted, served off the bone, with zuckerman banana fingerling potatoes with fresh turmeric, aleppo & coriander sauteed bloomsdale spinach, thumbelina carrots, our cardamom orange blossom yogurt, huckleberry molasses, sicilian pistachio aillade, and roasted lamb jus” is a triumph of World ingredients, a happy concoction of elements no one would have conceived of before the California food revolution tore down the walls. Yet Boulevard is noisy, happy, relaxed and fun—all the elements I associate with California (and Northern California, especially). And when you think of it, that’s what we want in wine, too, isn’t it?


Review: Joyce Goldstein’s new book on California cuisine

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In the 1980s and early 1990s, I was a fairly frequent visitor to Square One, the restaurant Joyce Goldstein had opened, in 1984, in the Jackson Square neighborhood of downtown San Francisco.

There, I was treated like a regular, mainly through my acquaintance with the sommelier, Peter Granoff, whom I had met earlier when he’d served in the same capacity at the old Mark Hopkins Hotel. Well do I remember strolling into Square One on any given night, usually by myself after an evening of doing something else that had brought me to the area from my home in Noe Valley. I’d take a seat at the bar and order something off the chalkboard menu—a little pizza or focaccia, some fettucine, wood-fired grilled shrimp—while Peter surreptitiously brought me tasting sips of the most interesting wines of the evening. Peter also held regular wine tasting classes in a small room of the restaurant. It was there that I learned, more than anyplace else, about Condrieu, Cote Rotie, Spanish sherry and other wines to which I would otherwise have had little access.

These were not mere wine tastings. Peter’s boss, Chef Joyce, provided delicious little plates to wash down the wine. One night, a blind tasting of Monterey County Chardonnays (Estancia, Morgan, Pinnacles, Talbott, Chalone, Wente and so on) was paired with a signature crab cake with mango salsa, and ginger-marinated pork loin on a bed of corn pudding.

That food was, of course, California cuisine, or what came eventually to be called California cuisine, although Joyce herself, after extensive research for her new book, Inside the California Food Revolution, writes that exactly who coined that phrase remains a mystery. Not mysterious at all, though, is what California cuisine means. Joyce Goldstein: “…restaurants broadened from formal and ceremonial to more democratic and casual. Kitchens that had been hidden were opened up to become part of the dining room. Chefs who had toiled behind closed doors in anonymity became stars. Ingredients such as arugula, baby greens, and goat cheese, virtually unknown previously, became household items…”. California’s fabulously diverse ethnic constitution, including Mediterranean, Asian and Latin American cultures, also became part of the mix that contributed to the new, complex combinations that constituted California cuisine, whose “one common element,” Joyce writes, was “fresh, seasonal ingredients, preferably raised nearby.”

I hadn’t known Joyce had written this book until I ran into her son Evan, an old friend, at a wine tasting event. I’d told him how much I’d always longed for a formal history of California cuisine, which was restaurant-based long before it became a staple of home kitchens. Evan smiled and told me there was one: He arranged to have the publisher, University of California Press, send me Inside the California Food Revolution. If you’ve ever hankered for an insider’s account of everything and everyone from Alice Waters and Chez Panisse to Wolfgang Puck, Jeremiah Tower, the French Laundry, Laura Chenel, Zuni Café and, yes, Joyce Goldstein (as insider as they get), this is the book. It recounts, in loving terms, what Mark Miller (Fourth Street Grill and Santa Fe Bar and Grill, both in Berkeley) describes as “California cuisine[‘s] revolutionary [nature], in terms of not only its fashion, its style, but also its culinary ethos.”

The California food revolution cited in Joyce’s title spilled over, of course, to the California wine revolution—or perhaps it’s fairer to say that both were the result of the revolutionary attitude that always has characterized California. In the book, too, you will find references to Paul Draper and Ridge (whose wines Alice Waters celebrated early at Chez Panisse), Randall Grahm and Bonny Doon, Josh Jensen (Calera), Dick Graff (Chalone), Bob Long (Long Vineyards) and others. Interestingly, Joyce, in retrospective hindsight, goes back to this period to foreshadow wines “with overly hard tannins, too much oak, and in time, higher alcohol levels”—shades of today’s ongoing debate. But that is another story.

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