Monday, March 22, 2004

Bearded Clams

Where can you get the best bearded clam in the city? Just head downtown. A ha ha ha hahahahaha!

Sadly, our topic today is not nether-region synonyms but the prestigious James Beard Awards, a.k.a. the culinary Oscars. Nominations were announced last Thursday, with various chefs, cookbook authors, restaurateurs, wine stewards, and even a few bloggers vying for top honors in everything from Best Pastry Chef to Best Food Writing to Best Menu Design. The awards only recognize high-end cuisine, and thus favor culinary capital New York (though California also makes a respectable showing). Indeed, this year's Lifetime Achievement Award is going to Berkeley legend Alice Waters, whose Chez Panisse restaurant basically jump-started the "New American" high cuisine craze in the US (i.e. French perparations, vertical food, random use of tapenade and zucchini blossoms, etc.) as well as the whole foods/sustainable agriculture craze. Fawkin hippie.

Speaking of hippies, the usually staid culinary establishment got a little crazy with the nominations this year, mixing up the fuddy-duddy old French standbys with some hardcore alterna-eateries. The trucker-hatted crowd's favored watering holes—Schiller's Liquor Bar and Wylie Dufresne's wd~50—are both nominated, though I dunno if you can really call $140 tasting menus indie-rock (they're both on the Lower East Side, OK, what more do you want?). There's also a nod for sell-out Rocco "Am I Hot or Not?" DiSpirito, not for his cooking but for his atrocious TV tie-in cookbook Flavor (why does he look so tanned on the cover?).

The food writing awards also show a flair for the revolutionary—or at least Al Gore's Internet revolution: in fact, there's a whole new category for "Best Internet Writing," with nominees including a random blog post called "Bagels" (a deconstruction of Canadian bagel culture) and the more standard online newsletter-formatted "The Nose Knows", a wine-sniffing primer. (Maybe next year, this post will get nominated!) Plus there's the unheard-of scenario where the fancy "MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award" list is dominated not by big names like Jeffrey Steingarten or Ruth Reichel (incidentally, one of the original backers of Alice Waters's Chez Panisse) but by a bunch of food blogs. Yes, more blogs. Rock on. My favorite of these is the delightful "Calling the Shots", which chronicles adventures in Starbucks barista training. (Did you know a new Starbucks opens every 3 days? Did you know there are over 1200 tasteable flavors in coffee—more than wine—and that good coffee should be spit and swilled just like a good cabernet? Did you know the human head weighs 8 pounds?) But perhaps the most revolutionary category is "Best Television Food Segment," which counts among its nominees none other than dirty convicted liar Martha Stewart, whose stellar work on CBS's Martha Stewart Living is truly a good thing. Wayda stick it to The Man, James Beard! (If I ever quote School of Rock again, you're allowed to shoot me.)

What else....As the home to countless textbook/reference publishing houses (ahem), Boston got heavy play in the Best Cookbook section, but only 2 nominations for cooking (in Best Chef: Northeast)—one for Frank McClelland from the ritzed-out L'Espalier and one for my secret crush Ana Sortun, from the phenom Mediterranean/Middle Eastern boîte Oleana, in Inman Sq. (One of the best meals I ever had was at Oleana, but that's a post for another time.) McClelland is a perennial nominee, and Ana was up for Best New Restaurant in America (yes, best in the whole fawking country) in 2002. Oh, and those who have enjoyed the amazing off-menu burgers at Harvard Sq.'s Casablanca should also thank Ana—it was she who created Casablanca's fab menu. (New Yorkers hoping to impress their dates/palates can read Gothamist's run-down of the NYC Nominees.)

On the topic of high-end food in New York, everyone's talking these days about the world's most expensive mall food court—the constellation of astronomically fancy eateries on the top 2 floors of the new Time Warner Center mall at Columbus Circle (has anyone else been there? I thought it was totally lame). Megawatt chefs like Charlie Trotter, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Thomas Keller (the pretty much uncontested Best Chef in America) all have eateries there, as does sushi master Masa Takayama, the guy behind old L.A. celeb fave Ginza Sushiko. Masa's restaurant charges $100 for canceling your reservation, but considering that sushi there costs $300-500, that's chump change. This of course brings to mind pompous-assed French bastard Alain Ducasse's legendarily overpriced Essex House restaurant in NYC, with its $300 tasting menu—that's of course sans wine, which runs (per bottle) an average of $300 more, skyrocketing right up to $10,500 for a bottle of the storied 1961 Sauterne from Château d'Yquem. Ducasse has been in the news recently for a whole other reason, sadly: just after the Madrid subway bombings, an undetonated ETA bomb was found at the construction site of one of his future hotel/restaurants, the 45-acre, 5-villa, €195 per night L'Ostapè, nestled in the heart of the French Basque Country.

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