Saturday, March 29, 2008

Young Turk Feminists

This is the office of a women's student association at a Place of Higher Learning somewhere in southern Canada.

Given the high assumed level of literacy in such a Place, may one assume that everything, including the "Come Inside", is intended?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Chez Panisse

Everyone knows, or knows about, Chez Panisse in Berkeley. I assumed that it was impossible to eat there unless one made a booking months in advance. James, my host in Berkeley, encouraged me to try to get in to the cafe, and I did. Sorry sir, they said, we can't get you in until 9:15. That was certainly no pain. It took me half an hour to walk from the University, and I was hungry when I got there.

The room is pleasant and warm, but plain. Oak, copper, arts-and-crafts glass skylight. Here's an example of the detail.

I was a few minutes early, so I stood at the bar and ordered some olives and a glass of Muscadet. Immediately, I knew that I could expect a treat -- the olives were extraordinary, like none I have tasted before. Little things here are selected with care and taste.

My meal started with puntarelle: a kind of chicory, the waiter told me. This was fortuitous. For as it unfolded, the evening was a kind of tribute to the bitter. Coming from the Indian Ocean, I adore bitter vegetables. (If you don't, don't order chicory.) It was dressed in a delicious olive oil, with lemon and anchovy. As for the presentation, well -- it came on a plate. This reminded me a bit of Rome: green leaves on a plate, with oil.

Chez Panisse is obsessed with flavour. Making things taste good is a now outmoded idea from the seventies. I say: if the eye is bored, let it dwell on the room. Or on a book: nobody was offended by the novel that I had propped up on the table while I masticated the chicory.

My muscadet was overpowered by this time -- but isn't that the point of muscadet? Its essence is that its essence speaks from behind the screen of other flavours. Don't drink it on its own: you'd miss the point.

Speaking of presentation, Chez Panisse Cafe doesn't try. Which is fine by me. Downstairs, the restaurant has a Michelin star. Presumably, they practice the art of plating. But here:

This photograph was taken a couple of nights later, but you can see that there is no plate-sculpture at the cafe in Chez Panisse. Just food on a plate.

When my main course came, it was roasted vegetables with saltimbocca. True to their plating style, the veal was nestled in the vegetables, some of them above and some below. Now, I have roasted vegetables myself. I fancy I know something about the hard work it takes. The thing at Chez Panisse is that each little vegetable -- each forkful was a separate vegetable -- had its own little (bitter) flavour. (And just to repeat myself: I adore bitter.)

As it happened, I ordered a glass of cabernet with the meal. I think I did this because I was in an expansive mood, and wanted something oldish. The cabernet was a 98 from Whitethorn. It had this Italian taste -- not sweet and fruity like many French wines, but . . . bitter. Lovely.

The extraordinary thing about Chez Panisse though is the individual flavour of everything. The veal saltimbocca was light, and airy-slightly-crisp. Two nights later, I had a simple roast sirloin, which was sweet and intense, and completely individual:

Here is the company I kept that night:

Cost of a meal with wine: roughly 75. There's a prix fixe for much less.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

How Far the Sun?

The Sun is far away. Unlike those of a spotlight in a theatre, its rays are parallel.

This is a truth not known, apparently, to Elioth Gruner, who painted this otherwise wonderful evocation of frost on grass (1919) -- Gruner was an Australian, and this painting hangs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney.

Gruner's Sun is just behind the trees; the shadows radiate from there. In fact, sunbeams fan out in different directions from behind the tree. From left to right over the farmhouse, and right to left over the fence behind the cowherd. Optically impossible. (And exactly how does the fence in front of cowherd, which is itself in shadow, cast a shadow?)

The beams recall those that emanate from God in Christian paintings. Here's an example:

Is this the real meaning of Gruner's painting? Holy Spirit behind the tree; Joseph tending his herd; immaculate conception under way within the house?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

An Evening at Czehoski

A philosophical dinner at Czehoski (678 Queen St. W, Toronto) is how to cope with a snowy night -- food fuels argument and argument turns to food.

The seating was comfortable -- aside from Jennifer's squished perch in front of the chimney (though she didn't seem to hurt, see below). But since it is upstairs, we were saved from blasts of wind and snow from the front door. The service was friendly. The food is traditional fare with flare; the wine list judiciously laid out without ostentation.

Six of us opted for the three course Winterlicious, and consumed between us: green salad, beet salad, risotto, peroghies, coq au vin, black cod and various desserts. One of us had a beet salad and soup.

The perogies are -- well -- perogies; not everybody likes the heaviness of the dough. But the brisket filling was pronounced excellent. One of us cut off all the borders, and consumed the filled centres with some apparent pleasure. The black cod is, as it usually is, soft and delicious. Stephen (above) is a vegan, and ate the risotto without Parmesan.

The coq au vin was an interesting combination of textures: the chicken cooked with a crisp skin, the vegetables stewed, and the sauce rich with a rich room-filling steamy bouquet. Presumably the chicken is not cooked in the wine, but roasted and served with it. Obviously a departure from home recipes -- and it is not easy to see how to adapt it given smaller quantities and no stock pot.

Here's one suggestion I am going to try. Perhaps one could start by under-roasting a chicken in a very hot oven; let it cool, take it off the carcase carefully in serving pieces, rub with finishing salt and coarse pepper and leave to stand. Then, stew the carcase with bacon and vegetables in the traditional way. Finish by grilling the chicken until the meat is done and skin crisp, and plate it last with the stew underneath.


Yes, it works. I herbed a chicken

and roasted it at 450:

Then I cut it up, made a sauce in the usual coq au vin style (chicken broth, red wine, mushrooms, juices from the roast . . . ).

The only problem was that I couldn't bear to put the sauce on top of the chicken, for fear of ruining the crispy skin. I should have put it under, but I ended up just putting it on the side.

Quite good -- almost up to Czehoski standards, I think, though they may have had a more interesting veg. (My broccoli was finished in garlic and olive oil, and was not quite as bland as it looks here.) Next time, pearl onions.