Toronto’s Dining Scene

Gearing up for a trip to Toronto, these are the restaurants I’d like to visit the most. From David Chang’s four-story complex to hipster Mexican fare, Toronto is emerging as a culinary capital. What better time to delve in?

momofuku-daishoMomofuku Daisho Large format feasts as well as other creative, seasonal fare makes up one fourth of the Momofuku complex.

Queen Mother Thai food in cozy setting, known for their Ping Gai (marinated chicken grilled to a succulent crisp).

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Valdez Latin street food in a hipsetting.

-3Fat Pasha Middle Eastern fare with a modern twist.

Cafe Isabel
Bar Isabel Snacks inflected with Spanish tapa influences.

20141114-dandylion590-09Dandylion Nine seasonal menu items with a “vegetable centric” focus.

dailo-toronto-restaurant-20-introDaiLo New Asian cuisine, along with Dim Sum.

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Grand Electric Wildly popular spot for tacos.

Eating New York: Flame Torched Marshmallows, Japanese Bagels, and Wood-Fired Pizza

unnamed-16The music throbbed incessantly. Hip New Yorkers chatted loudly, their tables chock-full of half eaten plates. It was quite hard to hear my dining companions (my family), despite the fact they sat a few feet away from me. Waitresses walked to and fro carrying large platters of ingeniously inventive food.  The room is full, and then some.

The scene described is at Mission Chinese Food, Danny Bowien’s much-hyped redux of his now-shuttered Orchard street restaurant that was named the best restaurant of the year by the NY Times. While it was lauded for its incredible food, it was also criticized for its cramped, underground atmosphere and absurd wait times. At the new outpost, the small space has been replaced by a spacious, boisterous dining room that holds 130 people. The wait, meanwhile, is nowhere near gone. On a recent Friday night, we waited over 2 1/2 hours for a table (fortunately, not in the restaurant the whole time). When we finally sat down at 10:30 or so, incredibly tired as well as more than a little hungry, the 50 item menu got us excited. The breadth of the dishes, from a Whole Smoked Pork Jowl to Hot Cheese Pizza, is quite incredible. Almost all of the dishes we sampled—notably the Steamed Oat Noodles with charred eggplant and a savory granola as well as the Koji Fried Chicken with an intensely lemony dipping sauce—were phenomenal. The chicken’s exterior tasted more roasted than fried, with an added level of depth from the lemony sauce that cut through the richness with its fermented aftertaste. The noodles had a tangy acidity that similarly cut through the richness of the oats and sweetness of the eggplant.unnamed-14

When our meal was almost over, chef Danny Bowien came over to our table with the aforementioned Hot Cheese Pizza, explaining the process behind it. It was quite surprising, as well as amazing to get to chat with him. He was incredibly kind to take such a generous amount of time out of his busy schedule just to speak with us. He even came back to our table with recommendations for where to dine in New York. Thanks, chef!
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The next day began with breakfast at Egg Shop, a new eatery serving, that’s right, eggs. They specialize in serving this breakfast ingredient in all sorts of ways: it’s combined with miso quinoa for the Spandex, a very healthy but also not so tasty dish, though my mom would beg to disagree; it’s cooked sunny side up and layered onto a French hero with chipotle bourbon ketchup and pulled pork carnitas for the massively indulgent, The Beast. Most of the combinations end up working as tasty breakfast bowls and sandwiches that could easily start off any Lower East Sider’s morning. I opted for the French Toast which was sinfully topped with chocolate cream and maple syrup. Some fresh apples and blueberries perked up the overt sweetness of it all.IMG_8397

For a mid-day snack, we found it hard to resist Dominique Ansel Bakery, the deliriously trendy SoHo hotspot from the self-titled wunderkind. There was seemingly no line, but it wasn’t until we got inside that we realized it had simply been moved indoors away from the rain (it stretched through the entire bakery and lasted roughly 45 minutes). The day we visited the bakery was the one year anniversary of the Cookie Shot: a genius turning-on-its-head of a chocolate chip cookie meets shot glass. Molding the cookie dough into the shape of mini shot glasses, Ansel then bakes them off before filling them with lightly sweetened milk to order. When I sampled them a few months ago, the  result was a wonder of a pastry: soft, sweet, and thoroughly delicious. This time, though, I was going for something different. I chose the flame-torched marshmallow which is essentially the following: marshmallow batter concealing a sinful scoop of Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream with chocolate wafers, all frozen together and then flame-torched to order. It is truly marvelous, though it would have been even more so if it hadn’t sat on the counter for a minute or two.

With no time for lunch, we more than made up for it with dinner. We started off at Alder, Wylie Dufresne’s fairly new restaurant that has survived the late WD-50. The atmosphere of the place seemed fun at first, but the dinner ended up being more than a little disappointing. Alder is really geared for business-people and other New Yorkers willing to spend a whole lot of cash on ridiculously small plates. I mean so small you could eat one of them, which you’ve payed somewhere near $13 to $15 for, and not even be vaguely full. Needless to say, we ordered three plates. The first, the French Onion Soup Rings, were a riff on the fast food dish of onion rings meets the French bistro dish of very rich beef stock mixed with deeply caramelized onions (French Onion Soup). The dish presented here tasted more like fried onions topped with a relatively mild gravy. Next, the Shrimp on Chips was also fairly mild with its chopped Ruby Red Shrimp, dry peanuts, and tasteless green papaya salad. A little spice came in the way of thin hot pepper slices, but the shrimp cracker it was all served atop was very bland and not nearly crisp enough to have any substance or pac any substantial punch. The Pigs in a Blanket were Chinese sausage wrapped in rolled out Martin’s potato rolls and garnished with Japanese mustard and a surprisingly kicking hot sweet chili sauce. The sausage and bread was very dry and, this being the last dish we sampled, I was left on a sourly off-putting note.unnamed-15

Still hungry, we rushed over to the tried and true Momofuku Noodle Bar for some late-night noodles. We waited an hour or more and sat down very, very, vey late (really, it was about midnight). The classic Momofuku Ramen, was good though not quite as good as I recalled. The porky broth still clings to the noodles and it all has a meaty, silky mouthfeel to it. The pork was a little rare in some parts, tough in others, and at Momofuku I do expect the single slice of pork belly to be perfect, its fat rendered beyond perfection. We retired to our hotel, exhausted and full.IMG_8430

Sunday morning called for bagels, which a trip to the city is  incomplete without. Black Seed Bagels, the hip and happening bagel shop, only a few blocks away from Russ and Daughters and their sister cafe, Russ and Daughters Cafe. Black Seed is doing a collaboration with local chefs through early April. While we were there, chef Ivan Orkin (the Jewish noodle-king) was doing his decidedly Japanese interpretation of the everything bagel. His creation was schmeared with aonori cream cheese and an ikura-spread. It was incredibly fishy as well as very egg salad-y (a.k.a not really my thing). I was jealous of my brother’s classic “#1” sandwich with lox, red onion, tomato, and capers. But I was even more jealous of my mom’s delicious medium-cooked egg with thick bacon and luscious avocado which all melted together on an everything bagel.

A mid-day snack came from Momofuku Milk Bar’s outpost in the Chambers Hotel, conveniently located next to the MOMA. I enjoyed the Ceral Milk soft serve topped with cornflake crunch, but would look forward to visiting Má Peche, located in the same building, during a future city visit.

We ended the day at another of Mr. Bowien’s restaurants, the cuisine-breaking, mostly Mexican Mission Cantina. Having eaten there last September and being somewhat impressed, I was expecting it to be good, but not crazy good. And yet it was, crazy good. The meal started, like many meals at this great restaurant will, with freshly made guacamole topped with nutty sunflower seeds and served with crunchy chips made from Anson Mills’ grains. My brother and mom shared the plate of Spring Vegetable Mole. For anyone looking for a lighter, fresher option, I would recommend this very delicious mix of vegetables tossed in mole. The mole lacked some spice and assertive depth which can be found at Providence’s own Viva Mexico, but it was still fantastic. My Whole Fried Fish, however, was revelatory. I split it with my father, but it easily could have fed four. The tortillas served with it, which I attempted to make tacos out of, were completely unnecessary. The fish itself is fried, but it’s not breaded at all which makes for the most tender, fall-apart creature of the sea you’ve ever put in your mouth. So good, so good. (The following poorly-lit photo of the half-eaten carcass doesn’t do it justice.)IMG_8479

While my family might not have enough money to support as illustrious a trip as this for a second time, I can’t wait to go back to New York. The city is literally bursting with great food; it’s the kind of place where you eat one meal thinking of the next. Every restaurant I tried was thriving for something creative and original, even if they didn’t all achieve it. And that’s not always the point: the point is that they’re trying to be different than the next place and that’s what makes them special. New York, I love you.

NYC Restaurant Guide 2015

In preparation for a trip to the big city this weekend, I’ve compiled a comprehensive list of some of the restaurants I’d like to visit. Obviously I won’t have time for them all in a single weekend, but nonetheless, here are the eateries I’m most excited about visiting. Below: Restaurants name, address, and what they’re known for.
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il Buco Alimentari & Vineria – 53 Great Jones St

While the sit down restaurant may be wildly expensive, the market is perfect for a morning pastry or even a quick visit-it’s a 10 minute walk from the Sohotel.
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Mission Chinese Food – 171 East Broadway

By far the most anticipated opening of last year, Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese Food 2.0 has earned rave press since it’s opening on Christmas. From duck baked in clay pot (shattered with a mallet table side) to Steamed Oat Noodles to Koji Fried Chicken to Wood Oven Fish, Drunken Style to wood-fired pizza on a dough from Tartine baker Chad Robertson…Run, don’t walk.

Mission Cantina – 172 Orchard St

The dinner menu has changed drastically and the lunchtime-only burritos are considered the best in the city, but breakfast is the time to go. The Vietnamese breakfast includes everything from Vietnamese style coffee to chicken pho.

Tertulia – 359 6th Ave

Spanish-style tapas are cooked on a wood-fired grill at Seamus Mullen’s acclaimed restaurant.
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Ivan Ramen – 25 Clinton St

The sit-down restaurant located on the LES expands the Gotham West Market with seven ramens plus appetizers including “1000 Year Old Deviled Egg” and the much hyped okonomiyaki.

Gotham West Market – 600 11th Ave

With additional vendors and breakfast, the market has grown larger than ever before.

Clinton St. Baking Company – 4 Clinton St

A tried-and-true breakfast spot with trendy pancakes.
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Russ & Daughters Cafe – 127 Orchard St

According to the New York Times restaurant critic, Pete Wells, the city’s authoritative voice on food, Russ & Daughters Cafe was the second best restaurant of last year. There’s more than lox here: blintz, latkes, eggs, and smoked fish are all on display.

City Bakery – 3 W 18th St

The most indulgent, richest hot chocolate in the city (and the pretzel croissant).

Levain Bakery – 167 W 74th St

The biggest, best chocolate chip cookies in the city.

The Breslin – 16 W 29th St

April Bloomfield’s The Breslin, one of her two restaurants located in the hip Ace Hotel is darker and heftier than The Spotted Pig. No hamburger with blue cheese, but a lamb burger with feta. Dishes include Crispy Berkshire Pork Belly, Seafood Sausage, and an incredibly popular caesar salad.
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Alder – 157 2nd Ave

WD-50 is now gone, but Wylie Dufresne’s more reasonable and more casual restaurant, Alder remains. With modernist dishes such as Seared Scallops with hummus grits and French Onion Soup Rings, the restaurant has been much lauded for keeping Dufresne’s spirit alive.
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Empellion –

Taqueria – 230 West 4th Street

Cocina – 105 1st Avenue

Al Pastor – 132 St Marks Pl

Alex Stupak, former WD-50 pastry chef, ventured off to open Empellion Taqueria in 2011 serving inventive tacos and other Mexican dishes. Since then, he’s created an empire with the more formal Cocina (think expensive entrees) and the much less formal Al Pastor (think tacos filled with pork cut off a spit, to order). 20130823-264047-estela-beef-tartar

Estela –  47 E Houston St

Obama may have dined there, but he’s not the only one. Ever since opening, Estela has grown thanks to its chef’s vegetable-driven approach to cooking. With an in-demand brunch and dinner, Estela is one of the most buzzed about restaurants in the city.

Mile End – 53 Bond Street

Smoked meat sandwiches and other Jewish classics from the people who brought you Black Seed Bagels.

Pok Pok – 117 Columbia St

Andy Ricker has done to chicken wings what David Chang has done to ramen: he’s taken them and reimagined them in an entirely new way. But his spicy, sweet wings are not the only things at the hip Brooklyn eatery.2014_MaPecheHabaneroChicken.0

Ma Peche – 15 W 56th St

Located a few blocks from MOMA, the latest Momofuku restaurant’s service style has got people talking. Modeled after dim sum, dishes are brought around in baskets and on carts, making for a lively dinner experience.
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Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream – 2 Rivington St

Nick Morgenstern opened this hip ice cream parlor just last year. But it’s already jumped into fanatical popularity with it’s modern approach to ice cream. You can choose from flavors such as madagascar vanilla, raw milk, szechuan peppercorn, bitter chocolate, and vietnamese coffee just to name a few. If you’re in the mood for something more, you can order sundaes the size of a supper. Last year, chefs such as Ivan Orkin and Ignacios Mattos collaborated an completely original flavors. But even without chef collaborations, this ice cream parlor is the place to go for cutting-edge ice cream. (They also serve breakfast.

Roberta’s Cookbook: Delicious, Even If You Don’t Live in Brooklyn

IMG_1139The day after Thanksgiving, a few years before 2008, some friends sat, eating at a pizzeria in New Haven. What struck them about the restaurant was the tone and feel of the place, something they didn’t encounter at other restaurants. They decided to open there own pizza place, even though they had little cooking experience. So began Roberta’s, one of the restaurants credited with the rise of the Brooklyn food scene. Ever since 2008, the restaurant has grown larger and larger. They’ve expanded their menu from pizzas and small dishes (cooked at the chef’s home, reheated in the restaurant’s toaster oven), to Coffee Roasted Beets, Wagyu Steak, and Orechettie with pig tail ragu. The restaurant was awarded two stars by the New York Times and chef Carlo Mirarachi opened another restaurant, Blanca, in his spare time. That restaurant, located a few blocks away, just so happens to have a couple of Michelin stars under its belt with its 27-or-so course tasting menu.IMG_1137

Chronicling it all is Roberta’s Cookbook which features recipes for some of the pizza, vegetables, pasta, meat, and seafood that have been served at the restaurant. After much anticipation over the book, I decided to plan a “big night” of sorts. The idea? Three pizzas and one side dish. To begin the preparation, I started the dough late Friday night which is later than book suggests. According to the cookbook, the dough should sit in the fridge for 24-48 hours. (I was close enough!)

The pizzas I chose from the book were a simple Margherita, the veggie-heavy Baby Sinclair, and the meaty Speckenwolf. My favorites would have to be the latter two, though I think I might have enjoyed the former more if I had followed the recipe exactly. I mistakingly bought crushed San Marzanos, instead of purchasing whole and then pureeing with an immersion blender. Nonetheless, it was still delicious. The Baby Sinclair, however, with it’s earthy maitake mushrooms from the R.I. Mushroom Company, is a joy to eat. While I couldn’t find the Lacinato, or Dinosaur Kale at the Farmer’s market, I did find it at Whole Foods and am certainly glad I did. Some of its leaves crisped up in the oven, while others remained delicately tender. Chiles added nice spice, though I couldn’t find the preferred Calabrian variety. Parmigiano and sharp cheddar added richness, to the otherwise deviously healthy pie.

The Speckenwolf, one of the restaurants most acclaimed pizzas, was a study in the wonder of Italian cured meats. Speck, which I had never had before, was paired perfectly with creminis, oregano, mozzarella, and red onion. The speck, like the kale, grew crisp while it’s fat oozed onto the dough. Amazing, to put it mildly.unnamed-11

For a side dish, I chose the intriguing Cabbage dish. With a Japanese flavor profile, the dish was by far the most adventurous of anything I cooked from the book. Using three kinds of cabbage, bok choy, turnips, apple, a compound bonito butter, and a torahs dressing; the recipe was by-far the most involved. The butter used way too much water, while the dressing was overly spicy and acidic. In the end the dish was good and stunningly beautiful, but I would be interested to cook a smaller batch to experiment (I increased the proportions by four).IMG_1142

The only real problem I encountered were the ingredients. In the introduction to the food section, you are told that the better ingredients you have the easier and more fun it will be to cook. To enforce this ideal,  little to no substitutes are given. Finding a smoked ricotta from a specific Brooklyn purveyor is pretty hard if you don’t live in, well, Brooklyn. But I’ll tell you what the book doesn’t: With a few shortcuts, you can still  have a great time cooking from this splendid book.

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Momofuku Milk Bar Cookbook: Challenging, While Pure Fun

unnamed-7I love David Chang and Peter Meehan’s Momofuku cookbook. Although I haven’t cooked many of the dishes, it’s inspired me in countless ways. Obsessively reading the recipes for how to make ramen broth that will simmer for days to fresh steamed bun dough, has taught me many techniques essential to Asian cuisine. Eating at the Momofuku restaurants only made me more exhilarated about the book. So, when I realized their sister bakery, Momofuku Milk Bar, had a cookbook…Well, I had to get my hands on it. Ever since a year ago I’ve been furiously checking it in and out of the library, mentally drooling over the pages and fantasizing long days of mixing cookie dough and straining cereal milk. A few months ago, I cooked the highly sought-after Compost Cookies along with the infamous Ceral Milk. For my contribution to the Thanksgiving table, I spent an afternoon tackling the incredible cultish Crack Pie. But it wasn’t till a few days ago that I went all out, tackling three recipes in one day. Hence my first cookbook review…

Christina Tosi, the mastermind behind Milk Bar, has brought us an incredible book. In it you’ll find ten master recipes (from liquid cheesecake to cereal milk) which you will, in a perfect world, make and then be able to cook the sub recipes. Essentially, with these master recipes on hand, you can make everything from Kimchi and Blue Cheese Croissants to Chocolate Chip Layer Cake. The wide range of fantastically original recipes are gloriously wacky and fueled on pure fun.unnamed-5

The amusing delight in the recipes isn’t enough to carry the entire book, however. The book’s major pitfall is that in adapting these recipes for home cooks, Tosi and her team haven’t quite succeeded. The Compost Cookies, while ultimately incredibly delicious, didn’t end up exactly like the real thing. The recipes calls for 18 minutes in a 375 degree oven, which led to an impossibly thin and slightly overly browned cookie. That being said, who doesn’t love a thin, crispy cookie? Still, the Bagel Bombs were slightly under-baked when I pulled them out of the oven 25 minutes into the 20-30 minute suggested bake time. (Some of the blame for this could certainly go to my own oven whose temperature fluctuates inaccurately. After all, every oven and home bakers equipment are not the same.)unnamed-6

Despite a few faulty details, what really prevails is the execution and spirit of the book. Asides from it’s freewheeling spirit, the book features incredibly in-depth writing from Tosi. Her account of everything from the very beginnings of Milk Bar to its current status as NYC tourist attraction are equally fascinating. Gabriele Stabile was brought in for the Momofuku cookbook and returns here. Stabile uses his experience as a documentary photographer to turn out some stunning photographs. He shoots the food in a different light than one might expect; it’s by no means over-lit, flashy  shots of cookies on plates, but instead the dough being lined up on baking sheets.

Plus, the Ceral Milk tasted like the milk at the bottom of your cereal bowl…Except the balance of sweet and salty has been amped up a few notches. The Bagel Bombs are an ingenious invention. You make a mother dough which is somehow versatile enough to be a croissant, focaccia, or a bagel. Cut the dough into eight pieces and fold it around a whipped cream cheese with scallions and bacon (or whatever you have on hand). Wash it with an egg wash, sprinkle with an everything bagel spice mix, and you have a bagel in the form of a dinner roll that oozes with blisteringly hot cream cheese.unnamed-8

If you’re looking for a challenging, yet engrossing cookbook, one that will both stimulate your curiosity and dare you to try a little harder in the kitchen than you might be used to, Momofuku Milk Bar is the book for you. If you’re a slice-and-bake kind of person, you’ll want to stay away from the book. But for who this book is aiming at, it really works. While planning ahead to make dough which must cold ferment, cream cheese which must be frozen, and egg yolks which must be separated from their whites is certainly difficult, the book has become my favorite resource for an adventurous, challenging baked good.

Delectable Pizza, Right at Home

Making pizza at home isn’t as common as it should be. While the wood-fired ovens at Coal Fired Pizza, Figidini, and Flatbread are impossible to perfectly replicate in your oven, that doesn’t mean your pizzas can’t be delicious. To make truly great pizza at home there’s a lot of room to improvise, but there are a few ways to make your pizza a cut above.FullSizeRender-2

1. Start with Good Ingredients

Starting off with great ingredients is the key to improving any simple dish. You don’t need anything fancy, but using fresh ingredients will only make your pizza that much more delectable. I used R.I. Mushroom Co. maitakes  as my hefty topping of choice.

2. Swap Your Sauce

While some may say pizza isn’t pizza without tomato sauce, I replaced it with another vegetable spread. Intended as a topping for bruschetta, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s squash recipe is downright addictive. While the squash roasts, make an onion-jam by deeply caramelizing onions before showering them with equal parts apple cider vinegar and maple syrup. Lastly, mash the squash with the onions and prepare to never cook squash any other way.

3. Conquer the Crust

I’ve yet to make dough from scratch, which would be ideal, but I have become a fan of using fresh dough. By choosing fresh over pre-baked, your crust won’t dry out, but will instead be moist and chewy. I recommend Seven Stars Bakery’s Pizza Dough.

4. Crank the Heat

Raising your oven’s temperature as high as it can go mimics the effect that wood-fired ovens have. It will undoubtedly speed up the cooking time, but more importantly it will crisp up all of your toppings and cook your crust through at the same time. Is that a golden-brown pizza you’re staring at? Because you cooked it in a 500 degrees oven, yes.

5. Keep it Simple…Sort of

You don’t need to pour your entire fridge onto one pizza, no matter how tempting. Throwing ingredient after ingredient onto your pie will end badly; unevenly cooked dough, too many flavors, difficult to eat, etc. I used mushrooms, squash-onion mash, a handful of bacon,  and some fresh mozzarella that I ripped in chunks you would expect to see atop a margherita pizza.FullSizeRender-3

If you have fresh dough, quality ingredients, and a blazing hot oven, not much can go wrong, other than the possibilty of mind-bendingly  good pizza fatigue. So start your shopping list, get your oven heating, and start twirling that dough.

A Conversation with James Mark

IMG_7363I am a big fan of north. By far one of my favorite restaurants in Providence, the food is always deliciously unexpected. So when I got
the chance to talk with the restaurant’s owner and chef, I was more than a little excited. James Mark is impeccably talented at bringing together flavors from around the world and crafting ideas that are familiar yet new. But he wasn’t always the radical new chef he is today.

“I was very picky when I was younger, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t eat a lot of the things I liked,” he told me. “One of the rules in my house was that I could eat whatever I wanted, but I had to make it myself. If I wanted French Fries, but I had to make the French fries myself. We didn’t buy anything in a bag. I could have pizza as an after school snack, but I had to make the pizza. We never had delivery or prepared foods, no canned soup or canned vegetables.”

This was the beginning of James’ interest in food that would later grow into a life of hard-work in what he says “a very tough industry.” Growing up in New Jersey, James recalls being fascinated with food, although the food he ate as a kid was mostly hamburgers. Eating Chinese food in Chinatown every week was never a fun experience. His parents tried to get him to taste everything, but he just didn’t want to. Eventually, they sat him down, gave him a fork, ordered him the one or two dishes he liked, and talked around him.

IMG_7352As a young kid not even yet a teenager, he read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. “To my generation especially, it was a very important book. It very much opened, for a lot of us, what a life in a kitchen could be like. The idea of this pirate-crew kitchen mentality of tough-guy-whatever is incredibly appealing.” James remembers a particular story in the book involving Bourdain’s parents taking him and his brother to France. His parents would go to fancy restaurants, attempting to bring their kids, only to hear that the kids really wanted hamburgers. Eventually Bourdain’s parents got fed up and left the kids in the car with some comic books, while the parents ate inside. This upset Bourdain; he wondered what was going on in the restaurant that he couldn’t be part of. To protest against his parents, Bourdain started to eat everything.

The next time James went to Chinatown after reading the book, he realized his parents were essentially plopping him down and ignoring him. They even talked Chinese around him (a language he doesn’t speak) and told him what he would eat. Inspired by Bourdain, James outdid his parents by eating everything they wouldn’t eat. It was, as James put it, “A social power struggle.”

After reading Kitchen Confidential, being excited and scared by the flavors of Chinese food, and always having cooking as a prominent part of his life, James started cooking professionally. On the cusp of his fourteenth birthday, he began working at McCormick & Schmick’s, the first of many restaurant jobs. He worked at a New Jersey branch first, before coming to Providence to attend Johnson and Wales University. He then moved to Charlotte for a year, opening another branch of McCormick & Schmick’s. In total, he worked with the business for 3 1/2 years. “It was longer than I should have worked there, but it was a good job for me at first. It was a very busy restaurant, not a great level of cooking, but it was busy and that taught me certain skills.”

IMG_0343Next, he headed to North Wales in Great Britain for an internship abroad at Maes-y-Neuadd. It was a hotel/restaurant with 15 rooms and 30 seats in the restaurant. “It was very…different than anything I’d done before,” James said. “Only three guys worked there, plus a dishwasher, and I was one of them. It was very high-pressure and I was responsible for a lot. You had to write a brand new menu everyday and there was a lot of classic stuff, like terrines, which I had never done before. It was the first time I baked bread, the first time I’d worked with chocolate, the first time I planted and picked a vegetable. It was also the first time I’d understood all about the food before it comes through the backdoor of the restaurant. The kitchen also had a garden which was an acre and a half, two acres. I worked five days a week in the kitchen and one day at the garden. Everyone lived in a staff house at the bottom of the mountain and it was a very good, very intense experience.”

Once the internship was over, he came back to Providence to start school again. After getting the baking bug at Maes-y-Neuadd, he began work as a night baker at Maxie’s in North Smithfield, RI. According to James, wholesale bakeries are “all about the numbers” and Maxie’s didn’t make enough to support its staff. While he was working there, the bakery closed and James headed off to work at L’Epicurio, located where Aspire is currently. He worked there for the rest of college. In an exclusive Providence Monthly article in 2012, he wrote that the job could “Easily be considered my wilderness years.” Strangely enough, this would be where the north team started to come together. Jenn Wittlin, north’s current front of house manager, worked at L’Epicurio as a cook. During this time he met  Mike Lawyer and Tim Shulga who came to cook at L’Epicurio. James now describes them as his “college buddies”. They became very close friends and Mike and Tim are now north’s head chefs.

IMG_7377Once L’Epicurio closed and James had finished college, it was time to leave Providence. Seven years ago, the Providence restaurant scene was very different and he was tired of everyplace he worked at closing. In short, it wasn’t working out. After reading a New Yorker article about David Chang, he fell in love with everything Chang talked about. Mark describes him as “really prolific, a really smart guy.” He wanted to work for this man. Chang was preparing to open Ko, his third Momofuku restaurant, and the concept immensely appealed to James. The idea behind it? 12 seats and a focus on the cooks, an open kitchen with diners seated on stools close enough to the chefs that every element of preparation would be visible. James said, “There were only sushi counters before this. Now there’s restaurants like Atera, Blanca; it’s become a thing. It’s almost passed being a thing and less are now being opened.”

James applied for a job through Craigslist, but because Ko wasn’t open yet, he got a stage [unpaid internship] at Noodle Bar. He felt completely comfortable with the fast moving nature of the restaurant and was promoted to work at Ko. He worked there for two days before realizing he wasn’t very good. He was demoted to morning dishwasher which was, in some ways, discouraging. “I knew I was f—king up, I knew I was not ready for what they needed, so it was a relief in a lot of ways.” He then started from the ground up, “Learning to cook again in their style: it was harder than anything I had done prior with very long hours, but it was also a very beautiful moment in my life. Intense periods of your life are really when you learn things, it’s really when you come to terms with things. To see yourself improve skill-wise because you’re doing something 15-16 hours a day, six days a week, that’s awesome.”

IMG_0336Nine months later, talks of a Momofuku bakery surfaced. At the time, the party department was in the basement of Ko. James’ had baking experience from Maes-y-Naued and Maxie’s and had even baked bread for Ko staff meals, so he began as Momofuku’s bread baker. James said “I can’t say what I should or should not have done, but it was a very important lesson for me because I did not do well in that capacity.” With so many expectations and only just getting a handle on doing well at Ko, the job didn’t work out. James had only shaped and kneaded bread, never actually mixed it. After one year of going into work at 10:30 at night till 4 or 5 in the afternoon and working by himself in a dark restaurant, he was intimidated and depressed. It wasn’t working out financially for them and he wasn’t happy creatively. The time had come to leave New York. With not much money left, he headed back to Providence to meet up with Mike who similarly wanted a break from his job in Cleveland. They stayed at Tim’s house and planned to go hiking for a while. They only lasted a week.

Mike headed back to Cleveland and James started working with Tim at The Red Fez. With complete creative freedom, he became the restaurant’s late night cook, doing whatever he wanted from 9 pm to 2:30 am. Aside from potential talks of buying the restaurant with Tim, the biggest thing he got out of it was that it led to another job. He and Tim were big fans of Nicks on Broadway’s brunch. He noticed that they didn’t make their own sausages. James had recently gotten into making hot dogs and sausages as part of the late night menu at The Fez and so he brought Derek Wagner, executive chef of Nicks, some sausages to sample. James asked Derek if he wanted him to make some sausages and maybe some english muffins and biscuits too. He started working part-time at Nicks, just a couple days a week. Once Derek offered him full-time hours, James said yes and left The Fez. He worked at Nicks for 2 1/2 years.

“Working at Nicks was a really cool part of my life. That restaurant changed a lot while I was there. I’m very proud to say that I was a very important part of it. It went from a place that brought in filets of salmon and sirloins to a place that was suddenly butchering 200 pounds of whole fish a week and half a cow every couple weeks. We really pushed the butcher program and what ‘local’ meant. I’m immensely indebted to Derek for allowing me that time.” It marked a lot of accomplishment for James: not only did he grow as a better cook, it was also the first time he successfully built a bread program in a restaurant.

He had heard rumors that Ama’s (a West Side restaurant located in Luongo Square) was for sale. After tracking down the owner, he awkwardly asked if he could buy the restaurant. Six months later, a deal was struck. “We really got by on the skin of our teeth.” With under $50,000 spent mostly on equipment and ingredients, north was opened.

Opened in late summer 2012, north’s original menu was very small and quite different from today. “I personally cook here a lot less than I used to. Mike and Tim are the chefs of the restaurant now.” The format however, is the same. The food is all meant to be shared, just how James likes to eat. There are no large pieces of meat or minuscule garnishes meant for one.

IMG_7362Another important detail is that everything is under $15 (except the Almost Boneless Fried Chicken; a mammoth, deep-fried, sausage stuffed, $38 plate meant for 2-4). “I didn’t want to be an expensive restaurant, I wanted to be a neighborhood restaurant.” Unlike many other nearby restaurants, north is open seven days a week from 5:30 till midnight. And you won’t find any standard late-night sandwich-fare here. A must for the restaurant is the quality of product, explains James. He says the food is very, very seasonally driven; aside from pork legs from upstate New York and herbs in the winter, everything comes from Rhode Island. The menu is filled with local scallops, cabbage, squid, beats, chicken, and more.

In addition to focusing on prices, long hours, and quality, they also pay careful attention to music and service, which I can attest to. On a recent night, the server answered every question with precise detail, but not to the point of redundancy. The soundtrack was made up mostly of Beck, totally fine by me, and was just loud enough to be perfectly coherent, not so loud as to drown out conversation.

With these values in mind, James (with help from his friends) has grown north into a neighborhood standby just trying to dish out a “restaurant experience” as he puts it. “In the past, it’s always been a technical thing: ‘We have the most proficient cooks in the world and they can do things no one else has thought of, but we’re flying in ingredients from around the world.’ Now the level of cooking globally has improved and the advent of the Internet has made it so that ideas are being shared constantly. So the technical side of cooking, while still very important, isn’t enough of a differentiator between restaurants anymore.”

What differentiates north? Dishes unlike anything else you can find in Providence. From wintry cabbage to seared beef heart, fresh scallops to lightly charred beets, and roasted chicken ramen to fried chicken, the food here is truly unique.

IMG_7376 copySumming up his experience cooking, James said something that really stuck with me. “I’ve got a lot of good memories, a lot of terrible memories about cooking. I’ve spent a lifetime, over a decade, of really working hard in this industry. There are some really beautiful aspects to it and some really awful aspects. But at the end of the day, I love it and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Good thing too, Providence is all the better for it.

My Conversation with Derek Wagner

IMG_0278Derek Wagner doesn’t speak about local food as if it’s something that only a few elite chefs can accomplish. He talks about it as if it’s something he truly cares about, something he truly believes is the key to creating a healthy, sustainable future for Providence.

As I chatted with Derek for nearly an hour, it became evident that the Nick’s on Broadway chef knows his stuff. He opened Nick’s when he was 24, an age that would have been scoffed at by veteran chefs  just a few years ago, but is now becoming more and more common. Fast forward 13 years and Nick’s has grown from 18 seats to 55, now located at 500 Broadway still on the now hip and happening West Side of town. But, to find out how his culinary journey began, you’ll have to rewind farther back than Broadway.

“What inspired me to get into cooking is my family,” said Derek. “I come from a big family, so from a very young age dinner and everything that went into it was always such an experience.” He recalls his mom making everything from scratch, including fresh baked bread. The youngest of five kids, he often found himself hiding from his siblings in the kitchen or simply being intrigued by its sounds and smells. Platters of holiday cookies and and banana bread fresh from the oven made up the aroma and excitement that filled his family’s kitchen.

A pivotal memory is his grandfather’s ritual cooking Sunday dinner for the entire family, including his seven kids. Derek lived a few blocks away from his grandparents, so his family was usually the first there. He remembers being with his grandfather as he cooked a spread for twenty people every Sunday. The buzz and energy his grandfather had while roasting a chicken or turkey radiated through the kitchen. Even with all this enthusiasm around food he says, “I never thought, all the way up through high school, of doing it professionally. But, it was always something that had a very positive influence on my life.”

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In high school, he kept himself more than a little busy.  “I was trying to do as much as I could.” Not only was he working to get good grades and scholarships, he was also in a band, playing sports, and an Eagle Scout.

When it came time for Derek to decide what he wanted to do with his life, he was not planning on being a chef.  His plans were either scientific (“Science, engineering, something in that vein,”) or military (“I was going to go into the military. My dad was in the military, my brother went into the military, my grandfathers were in the military.”) In the end, Derek was ready to join the military and had actually been appointed to go to a specific school. But, he decided to become a chef. “It was something I really loved and enjoyed, it was something I found very meaningful, and I just decided to change gears at the last minute.”

Eventually, Derek came to Providence and opened Nick’s on Broadway. In February, Nick’s will be 13 years old. What was once a tiny neighborhood restaurant has grown into one of the most acclaimed spots in Rhode Island. They serve three meals a day, Wednesday through Friday.  From home fries to tasting menus, they cover a wide range of food for a wide range of budgets. It is important to Derek that the restaurant accommodates those who want a quick drink and some snacks while also catering to those who want to indulge in pre-reserved $125, nine course tasting menus.

For their a-la-carte dinner menu, they serve a simple but eclectic menu. A soup, a salad, cheese and/or charcuterie, and shellfish on the half shell make up the list of starters. For entrees, there’s typically a red meat, a poultry, two fish/seafood, and a vegetarian option. The Chef’s Choice (tasting menu) dinners revolve around altogether new dishes which allow Derek to get even more creative. These tasting menus started as off-the-cuff meals designed for people looking for something more challenging but as regulars came back for more, Derek got serious about the new concept. While he likes the impromptu approach, he also enjoys seeing the dishes reincarnate into something more complete.

Derek was quick to go into great detail on what exactly these dinners involve. The current tastings being served feature a bit of both, starting with a one or two bite snacky plate. Rotating soups will show up; turnip-apple-onion-parsley one week, celery root-pumpkin the next. Shellfish may follow in roasted and chilled form with different condiments. Textures will be played with; no meat, starch, veg here. A small bite of something crunch-salty-sweet-tangy might lead into a rich broth followed by a “salady” course that could either be a tartine, or charcuterie with crusty bread and jam. Next up is seafood with risotto or lentils, then fish with crispy skin, onto red meat (or even fish with a meat sauce) and so on, until the meal climaxes and maximum bliss is achieved. The four courses usually end up being seven and the nine courses twelve or thirteen with the unexpected taking center stage.

Some nights these tasting menus are being consumed by 30% of the diners, other nights 70%, and sometimes every table has ordered it. Derek would love to nix a-la-carte and switch to only tasting menus because of the flexibility and the gratitude people allow him by letting him cook them anything he wants. A perceived level of pretension comes with it thanks to some people making it feel vey stuffy and preachy, which is not what he wants. To find a line between the two extremes, the regular menu has shrunk although there are still many choices. All three menus (a-la-carte, four course tasting, and nine course tasting) continue to evolve all the time. Gone are the days of first course, main course, and dessert that lined their original menu. The major factors in creating the menus is not bringing the price point to a level where it’s inaccessible and always keeping it fresh.

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Derek doesn’t want his food to be pigeonholed into a single cuisine, either. He wasn’t jumping to tell me about New American food or the way he serves salmon. He was more interested in describing how he focuses on simple, seasonal food or how sourcing local scup is more important than giving diners fish that isn’t native and that they already know.

When I asked Derek how he would describe the type of cuisine he cooks, he told me that it’s hard to pin down. “We’re not doing a specific ethnicity. It’s not just Italian or French or Vietnamese. But if I had to narrow it down to a particular style or genre I would say freshness, simplicity, and seasonally focused. We do very vibrant food that has a lot of influence from other cultures, mostly rustic French and Italian but with other South American and Asian influences as well. We use New England ingredients and filters because of the way the seasons change. The temperature as well as what’s available is also a really huge filter that I work through.”

A favorite ingredient? “A lot of people ask me what my signature dish or my favorite thing to cook is and that’s really tough, to have one thing that would define you. Cooking is such an inspirational and evolving thing for me. I’m still so enamored by all the different things that are constantly changing.” However, he did tell me that he’s been interested in butchering of late. “For the last few years I’ve been really immersing myself. Because of the adherence of sourcing as much stuff from local farms and fisherman, I’ve been forced to take in unprocessed products that I’ve had to learn how to process.”

He feels very serious about working with these once-living animals. “I have a very no waste policy especially when it comes to a living animal. I think beyond not wanting to be wasteful there’s a reverence that goes into consuming something that was once living.  I feel that I have a duty to do something as wonderful as possible with every little bit.” This fascination has led to lots of new dishes. He’s expanded the charcuterie from not just meat but to seafood as well and he’s created dishes with the animal’s heads, collars, bones, and organs rather than just using a popular cut.

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Inspiration can come in all shapes and sizes. “It could come from anywhere. Because the seasons are so harsh here in New England, the food landscape changes drastically which is really fun and challenging. From an artistic standpoint, the scripts are constantly changing so you’re forced to change your menus which keeps it evolving.” If it’s the beginning of October and a farm sends him a bushel of pumpkins, he’ll immediately start looking for a way to utilize them. He looks back at what they may have done last year, what worked and what didn’t, what they started working on, and what they plan to pick up on.

Ideas don’t always come from success, though, in fact they often come from failures. Maybe he’s not happy with the texture. Perhaps the flavor isn’t working. A dish may function once, but making it many times over many days in a restaurant kitchen might not work with 35 people ordering it all at the same time. “You can’t just write menus in a vacuum, you have to right them in context with other dishes on the menu, in context with an entire kitchen and the flow of service, in the flow of an entire week.”

Local restaurants never fail to keep Derek passionate, either. I asked him to name a few. New Rivers (“The past owner was an early inspiration and I’ve become great friends with Bo,”) and Chez Pascal (“I think they do a great job of making it a very warm experience and I love what Matt is doing with the sausages,”) are two that he loves. “I love James at north. He worked at Nick’s for three years and I was really excited when he opened his restaurant. What he and his team are doing is very different from what’s being offered anywhere else.”

At the end of our conversation I asked Derek if he could sum up Nick’s in one sentence, not a particularly easy task. “Wow, you hit me with the ringer at the end!” he said, jokingly. He paused for a moment. “What we try to do here…” He stopped for a second more before doing just what I hoped: outlining what he strives for in the restaurant. “We try to create beautiful, delicious, very authentic food, beverage, and service that’s balanced, that’s interesting, that’s thoughtful, but above all else authentic and wholesome. At the end of the day, I want to create the best product that I can create. We’re not trying to be better than anyone else, we just want to do the best we can do. My ultimate goal is to continue to get better every day.” When people leave here and I ask them what they like the most and they can’t answer me…Then I know we’ve hit home.”

Note: Since interviewing Derek, I recently had the chance to have my first dinner at Nick’s and it was incredible. From the attention-to-detail on the part of the waitstaff to the excellent food being put out by Derek and his team, the neighborhood vibe to the relaxed pace, a meal at Nick’s is an insight into local, fresh, and tasty. With the generous portions and amuse-bouches, you’ll definitely go away full and satisfied. You’ll be left with a memory of an exquisite meal and a chef with raw talent.

Muffins, Anyone?

unnamed-2Food and Wine’s recipe for blueberry muffins is the kind of baking recipe that you can whip up in the morning. No active yeast, rising, or tricky techniques are needed. Yes, the “crumb topping” may sound difficult, but all that’s involved is mixing melted butter in with flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. The crumbs look very fancy and are tasty too, but were a little on the sweet side for me. Don’t cover the entire top of the muffin with crumbs unless you want something very sweet. After making the recipe once, I think that throwing in some add-ins would be interesting. Swap out the crumb topping for some oats or granola. True some AP flour for bran flour. Throw in some other berries or even apples with the blueberries. Or just follow the recipe, throw ’em in the oven, and let the scent of fresh baked muffins waft over your house.

Wintertime Calls for Chili

The holidays may have passed, but the cold weather is here to stay. You’ll want some nice bowls of soup, large plates of pasta, and steamy cups of hot chocolate to keep you warm. Another great winter-y dish? Vegetarian chili. This recipe comes from Real Simple, a source that I might not usually be jumping to use. But throwing everything into a slow cooker/big pot and letting it simmer away all day is just about as good as it gets. For accompaniments, radishes, scallions, sour cream, salsa, and/or guacamole pair well. If you want to lean more Southern, add a chunk of cornbread on the side. If you want to continue with the Mexican vibe, tortilla chips (pictured) are great. Either way, jacked up with toppings or simply spooned into a bowl, this chili is sure to warm you up.unnamed-1

One boy talking about food