Artisanal in New York City

Two things on our “to-do list” before any trip include sketching out a vague itinerary of what we want to see and do and researching restaurants we might enjoy.  Since the food angle is always high on our list of priorities, the problem then becomes: “How do we find places we’d like in big cities?”  By and large in Manhattan, we’ve had good luck exploring the online editions of New York Magazine.  Such was the case this past summer when we found an article about Artisanal, which adds the delectable subtitle to its name: Fromagerie, Bistro, Wine Bar.  Even though the magazine’s critics were stingy in their two-star (out of five) rating, the idea of the restaurant’s “boutique cheese cave” was all the hook we needed to give it a try.  Besides, its location at 2 Park Avenue was just a short walk from our hotel in Murray Hill.

Usually the word bistro conjures up the idea of a small, cozy French café.  The sight of this 160-seat restaurant was a bit off-putting at first, as was the size of the huge menu.  Other details, however, like the white tablecloths, the black-suited waiters, and the checked floor really felt right, so we decided to go in.  I had the Friday night special, bouillabaisse; for about $30 I got a lovely saffron-infused soup filled with shrimp, cod, mussels, scallops, and lobster.  My husband decided on the $38.50 prix fixe which allowed a choice from four appetizers, four main dishes, and four desserts.  His slice of country pâté was large enough for two and delicious.  The strange-sounding but quite good chicken under a brick was crispy and served with a nice sauce and vegetables.  He chose  the cheese platter instead of dessert which required an extra five dollars; for the quality of the cheese he got, it was really worth it!  Some reviewers have said that the fare at Artisanal is inconsistent, but that night we were not at all disappointed in the food, the wine, or the service.  The two young women seated near us also appreciated their meals, one of which was the cheese plate.  Worth remembering!  There were many other items on the menu, like the gougères, escargots, French onion soup, and hanger steak that I’d like to try on a future visit.

Chef and proprietor Terrance Brennan was trained at some of the most famous restaurants in the U.S. and Europe, such as Taillevent and Le Tour d’Argent in Paris.  He had the unique idea to incorporate cheese into his menu as you would find just about everywhere in France.  His “cheese cave” has a prominent spot at the rear of the dining room at Artisanal.  Diners are encouraged to have a sample--a difficult choice since there are over two hundred cheeses in the case.  

Brennan’s first foray into the restaurant business came in 1993 on the city’s Upper West Side with Picholine, which quickly won stars from the New York Times, Zagat, and Michelin.  The upscale venue (whose name refers to the small green Mediterranean olives) is conveniently situated across from Lincoln Center.  But the current $92 price tag for a three-course dinner will undoubtedly keep us Cheapos away!  A third location at 268 Broadway, Bar Artisanal, has apparently closed its doors, though it might just be temporarily.  Its two- and three-course meals at $21 and $28 sounded way more promising.  Anyway, if you like French cuisine and especially cheese, we'd suggest trying Artisanal.

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“Twenty-six Miles Across the Sea…”

In the late 1950s, The Four Preps, a popular quartet of the era, made a hit record called 26 Miles.  This catchy tune heralded the beauty of the island then commonly referred to as Santa Catalina.  While in actuality only 22 miles off the mainland, Catalina, as it is now called, attracts nearly a million tourists each year.  Most of them take a short boat ride from several spots in and around Long Beach in southern California, but flights are also available.  Having observed the rocky island for years from the shores of Los Angeles, we decided to spend a few days there in August. 

Our hopes were high when we sailed to the island out of San Pedro on a beautiful summer day.  Because of cleaner waters, the sea life in the area has been revived.  On the one-hour crossing we were treated to the sight of two blue whales spouting near the front of the catamaran.  Dozens of small dolphins, too, were frolicking all around.  And we even saw a seal as we were pulling into the harbor at Avalon.  Other animals, too, populate the bay and the island itself.  At night visitors can take an excursion to see flying fish; there are also glass-bottom boat tours, day and night, to see the kelp forests and the fish, spiny lobsters, moray eels, and horn sharks that inhabit them.  We came upon several deer which have been partially tamed by all of the tourists.  Because of a film made in 1924, bison were introduced on the island and trips exist to visit their herd, which now numbers several hundred.  It did seem that The Four Preps had it right: Catalina was a “tropical heaven.”

But a lot has changed in the past half-
century; in many ways Catalina no longer lives up to the reputation of the song.  First of all, the costs of visiting the island are exorbitant: everything—from the boat ride to hotel accommodations—is very expensive.  Tickets for the two of us and our five-year-old granddaughter round-trip on the Catalina Express came to $189.00; our hotel room, which was not air-conditioned, cost us $200 a night.   While limiting the number of cars on the island was a good plan, the introduction of noisy, smelly golf carts which circulate day and night was not the best idea.  Water in the bay off downtown is heavily polluted; in fact, it is the worst in Los Angeles County.  Prominent signs warn visitors who want to swim there.  Food, while not really that costly, is lacking in quality.  It is fine, I suppose, if all you want to have is hot dogs and pizza.  We tried hard to find something the least bit refined to eat, but were sorely disappointed in the culinary wasteland.

I do wonder if other visitors to Catalina are as dissatisfied as we were.  Does the current reality (of Avalon, anyway) clash with the “island dream” they were expecting?

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Artisanal Cheese

I’ve written before on this blog about the relatively new trend in cheese making in the United States.  Finally as a nation, we’ve discovered that we’re fully capable of producing a variety of cheeses which compare favorably with those from Europe.   An interesting article points out that, although specialty cheeses have been sporadically produced earlier in the twentieth century, a movement began in earnest in the late 1970s.  As a result, Americans began traveling to France to study cheese making and improve their skills and offerings.  Currently The American Cheese Society has over 1200 members and at its annual competition this year 254 companies presented over seventeen hundred products!  States as varied as Tennessee, Texas, Missouri, New Jersey, and Florida as well as provinces from Ontario to Quebec to Prince Edward Island had winning cheeses in wide-ranging categories.  While we didn’t make it to North Carolina for the convention, we were lucky enough to attend nearby Washington County’s Cheese Tour last weekend to see actual farms and taste some of their artisanal cheeses.

First on our agenda was Longview Farm located near the town of Argyle in Fort Edward, New York.  Armed with the Cheese Tour map, we nonetheless had a hard time finding our way there.  The large number of cars parked along the country road was the first tip-off that we had found the right place.  Tents had been erected over tables with samples of this farm’s artisanal cheeses and other products.  Lucky for us, we didn’t taste any of the soaps in the form of goats and pigs on display!  In operation since the year 2000, Longview Farm offers a small selection of cow’s and goat’s milk cheeses.  Our favorite that day was their most recent addition, a goat’s milk product simply called “Our New Cheese” (until they come up with a better name).  Besides buying cheese, it was also fun for us city-dwellers to walk around, seeing a hay barn, lots of chickens and goats, and some very lazy hogs lying together in the shade of their pen.

Up next was Argyle Cheese Farmer, just a short drive away.  Although there was no guided tour available, visitors were able to go into a room lined with the machinery that generates its milk products.  All of the machines were labeled but having someone to explain the processes to us would have made the trip there more memorable.  Once again tents and tables were set up to display samples.  The unique thing about this farm was that they make a lot more than just cheese.  The gelato—in vanilla, chocolate, and coffee—was quite delicious; I’d like to try their mango sorbet sometime, too.  Their yogurt, which recently won a taste test at New York Magazine, was creamy and tasty.  They have another product which we had bought before at the Troy Farmers’ Market called Schmear, which is very good; I would describe it as a type of herb-garlic spread in the style of Boursin or Rondelé.  There was a good Havarti at this farm, but overall we were not terribly impressed by their cheeses.

The last place we saw that day, with the curious name Consider Bardwell Farm, is located not in Washington County but across the border in western Vermont.  It turns out that Consider was the first name of the son of the farmer who first worked the land here in the early nineteenth century.  During the 1860s, Consider Bardwell made cheese on this very spot.  When the latest owners decided to try their hand at cheese making eight years ago, they decided to name the farm after him.  I think Consider would be proud because we loved every one of the four cheeses we tried there that day.  We ended up buying a full-bodied goat cheese called Dorset.

All of the dairy products mentioned in this post are somewhat difficult to find.  The best place to look would be farmers’ markets and specialty shops, like Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-op.  The entrepreneurial spirit of these farmers is to be applauded and supported.

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Cooking Mussels

I love cooking with mussels.  They are plentiful, inexpensive, tasty, and can be used in a variety of simple recipes.  A two pound bag goes for around five dollars, depending on where you live and where you purchase them.  We recently bought about two dozen very fresh ones at a supermarket in Maine and paid only about two bucks, which cost about the same as the toothpaste we were getting that day!  Anyway, if you are a fan of clams and the like, I hope this post will get you to give these sweet, succulent mollusks a try. 

To get started you’ll want to clean the mussels well by scrubbing the shells under running water.  Using a knife, remove the so-called “beard” which allows the mussels to adhere to ocean rocks.  They’re usually not very dirty, though, so this step shouldn’t take too long.  Then, you are ready to begin cooking.  The classic way of preparing mussels in France or Belgium is moules marinières which couldn’t be easier.  Just sweat some chopped onion and garlic in olive oil in a heavy saucepan.  When the vegetables are soft but not brown, pour in about a cup of dry white wine and bring to a boil.  Add in two to three pounds of mussels cover and steam over high heat for five to ten minutes, shaking the pot from time to time, till all have opened.  Discard any mussels which remain closed.  Top with finely chopped fresh parsley.  Et voilà!  There you have it.  So quick, so simple, so good.  The Belgians serve them with crispy French fries (moules frites), but you could have crusty bread or even pasta with this dish.  A variation of this same recipe which we tried once in Normandy is moules à la Normande.  It starts out the same, but at the end of cooking you pour in a cup of heavy cream.  How bad could that be?

One of the best spicy creations with mussels we ever tried was years ago in a seaside restaurant on Nantucket Island.  We liked the Portuguese-style dish so well, in fact, that we went back a second time a few days later to have the same thing!  Of course, I don’t know the exact ingredients used at that particular place, but I found one from Martha Stewart which sounds kind of similar.  You start out cooking a shallot and several cloves of garlic in a little oil.  Add in red pepper flakes to taste, 2 cups of dry white wine, about a half-cup of diced spicy chorizo sausage, and 3 cups of crushed canned tomatoes with juice.  Simmer for 15 minutes or so, then add the mussels and proceed as above.  Sprinkle with fresh parsley, if desired, before serving. 

Mussels are very well suited to any kind of Thai recipe as well.  To celebrate our wedding anniversary in August we went to Solo Bistro, a small, but very nice restaurant in Bath, Maine.  My mussels appetizer was truly delicious and, from the look of it, quite easy to make.  The menu noted that they were cooked in coconut milk, red Thai curry paste, and fresh basil.  I suppose before adding those items you could start out with the shallot and garlic as in the previous recipe.  Yum!  I think I slurped up every drop of the sauce!  Finally, I have done mussels as in the above recipes only beginning with fennel, garlic, and onion.  This makes a delightful broth.  

I hope this post gets your creative juices flowing and, especially if you haven't tried mussels before, that you'll give it a go.

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