Friday, July 20, 2012

When Every Taste was Gorgeous

Maureen, Me, Zaki at Restaurant Daniel
 I am used to traveling to another country and being swept away by the newness of wonder of the local cuisine. However, it is not so often I get to return the favor.  It is even less often that I get the opportunity to showcase the very best of New York food.  And no, I’m not talking Murray’s Bagels and Bleecker Street Pizza (though both are great representatives).  I’m talking about Restaurant Daniel.

A couple of months ago we were lucky to have two employees of Room to Read visiting from their home countries of Bangladesh and Zambia.  For Maureen, the director of literacy programs in Zambia, it was her very first time to the city.  For Zaki, country director of Room to Read Bangladesh, this was his second time, but on his first visit he had never strayed much farther than his relative’s house in New Jersey.

When two loyal Room to Read supporters offered to take everyone out to dinner- Zaki, Maureen, John, and me- Daniel was their first suggestion.  I’m never one to turn down dinner at Daniel (among the best anywhere in the world), but what would our guests think?  Would the pomp and circumstance of such a formal dining experience be too much?  Would they understand and like Daniel Boulud’s signature style of fresh seasonal, ingredients grounded in classical French technique?

The night of the dinner I was seated next to Zaki at the large, round corner table.  Opening the menu I quickly set out to help him navigate his choices.  Most native English speakers would have difficulty understanding some of the ingredients, let alone a Bangladeshi.  Rather than translate the extensive menu word for word we narrowed down his choices based on more basic concepts. “For your starter, would you like soup, salad, pasta, or meat?”  “Are you feeling more like fish tonight, or meat?  There is wild game and beef.”

Sweet Finish: Passion Fruit Jelly with Meringue
Our hostess steered him toward one of the night’s specials: white asparagus flown in from France. But before that was served came the requisite amuse bouche: a trio that evening on the theme of broccoli.  I watched anxiously as Zaki and Maureen picked up their dainty silver utensils and dipped into the Lilliputian porcelain dishes.  The plates were almost universally licked clean.  Even my broccoli-averse beau John scraped out every last drop in his small cup of broccoli veloute. 

Two thirds of our table went with the white asparagus.  To be a contrarian, I ordered a duo of octopus.  It was sublime, meltingly tender.  I passed a piece onto Zaki’s plate for him to try.  “What do you think?”  He chewed slowly, concentrating on each morsel.  He turned his head. “Amy, the last five bites I’ve had”- amuse bouches and now appetizers- “have been completely new tastes for me.  And each one has been gorgeous.

Across the table Maureen and our hostess were caught up in their own private conversation, like old friends gossiping over a casual girls’ night dinner.  Maureen ate every bite of the white asparagus and appeared to clean her plate with the main course as well.  I saw Maureen the next day and finally had the chance to ask her what she thought of everything.  What did she think of the food? 

“Amy, as I was going home in the cab last night I had a moment where I realized I had been smiling for hours.  I was still grinning ear to ear from that dinner. 

“My father passed away six months ago.  Last night was the first night since he died that I allowed myself to be happy.  It was wonderful, just wonderful.  And I said to myself, Maureen, this is what he would want.  He wants you to be happy.”

I have had transcendent moments with food sitting on a street corner eating from a cart and I have had revelatory experiences in the plush cushions of four-star restaurants.  But I’ve never known until that night whether that translated across cultures and continents, not the words but the transformative, inspiring, healing power of a dining experience.  Zaki, an accomplished home cook back in Bangladesh, had that experience eating food after food he had never tasted before.  While Maureen found, in the company of friends, in a beautiful dining room, being served exquisitely prepared cuisine, the healing power of a great meal.  That is a beautiful, gorgeous, thought indeed.  

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Monday, July 9, 2012

Why the Men Can Have Their Grill

Smoked Sausage and Pork Shoulder
It is still at least somewhat true that the grill is a man’s domain.  Frankly, if the men were always grilling like my brother and his friends did a few weeks back on a camping trip, I’d be perfectly okay never coming near a pile of hot coals. 

Over a weekend in Virginian Appalachia not once did I pick up so much as a pair of tongs to help with the cooking.  It was not for lack of offering.  Under normal circumstances I might have been itching to throw on an apron, but once the boys fired up the grill and the food started coming out, I was more than happy to sit back with the ladies and enjoy the spoils of their culinary adventure. 

Cabin in Virginia

I was a fool if I ever doubted the high epicurean standards of my brother’s crew. One of his friends went so far as to buy a smoker just to take the grill-out from standard to extraordinary. Friday night the R2-D2 looking contraption was put to the test with a pile of liberally seasoned chicken legs and breasts.  Even veggies found their way into the top layer of smoke- eggplant, onions, and peppers were cooked until soft and fragrant but still structured.  Both the leftover chicken and veg would form the filling for my post-hike sandwich the next day along with a liberal spread of roasted eggplant dip (yes, the boys brought that too).

Smoked pork shoulder

Chicken seasoned, ready for the smoker
The grand finale was a Saturday night barbecue to put all car camping cookouts to shame.  While playing dominoes, a snack of smoked and peppered wild boar loin appeared to whet our appetite.  This was followed about a half hour later by a plate piled high with smoked sweet Italian and spicy Andouille sausage.  Corn on the cob arrived next, still in their jackets and pleasantly charred.  A cast iron pot of potatoes mixed with peppers and onions, and was given a gentle bath of beer then allowed to bubble until the potatoes were tender.  Finally, buried beneath the sausage and wild boar on the bottom of R2-D2 a luscious pork shoulder had spent hours in a smoke sauna.  The result was pork so meltingly tender it needed nothing more than a fork to eat.

It may be still be a man’s world in a few too many ways, but if the men are cooking like they were the other weekend while the women folk are relaxing, that’s a world I am more than happy to live in.  At least for a weekend.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell