Eating At The Bar; Why Is It So Much Fun?

My wife and I love to eat at the bar…any bar. Some of our most interesting meals have been at restaurants that have excellent bars, where the bartenders are more than happy to serve a meal, as well as a drink. And from a service perspective? I’ll take a good bartender as my waiter any day. I have received enough indifferent table service at supposedly good restaurants to realize that good service is a rare thing indeed. And most bartenders like to talk to people; why else would they be bartenders? Service is mostly about talking to your customers to find out what they want anyway. And the food will be the same as at a table in the restaurant, unless they have a special bar menu, which, in and of itself, is a good thing.

There is a certain intimacy when sitting side by side that lends itself to bar dining. Oh, if the bar is packed and you have to fight for elbow room, it isn’t as much fun, and definitely not as intimate, but the people-watching in a crowded bar is certainly great. And sitting side by side, sharing some interesting dish while drinking ice-cold martinis and watching (and listening to) the guy next to you try to pick up the bartender is always amusing. Knowing in advance that his chances are about as good as winning the lottery adds a certain sangue-froid to one’s appreciation of the carnage. But the food-sharing may be the best part of the experience. I love perusing the menu with my wife, discussing the interesting appetizers and negotiating which main course we will split. And speaking of the bartenders; my guess is that since food adds to the total bill, they are going to be interested in making the typical bar-diner happy. We’ve gotten interesting drink recommendations and countless tastes of wines when we weren’t sure what to order.

We have had great times at the bar at upscale restaurants such as Bar Americain (order the fries and the onion soup) and Otto in Manhattan and Aqua (the salmon steak is incredible) in San Francisco. But we also have enjoyed ourselves at neighborhood places such as Porter House (get the burger) in Montvale and Sabor (avocado mash and a mojito–perfect!) in Hawthorne, both in New Jersey!

So what’s the downside? Well, if you are part of a party of more than 2 or 3 people, it is impossible to have a pleasant communal conversation, so limit your party to 3, or ideally 2, and you will be very happy.

Grilled Swordfish with Mustard

I love grilled swordfish, but I have limited my consumption because of the popular, and as I have discovered, probably incorrect assumption that it is endangered. Also, swordfish tend to concentrate methylmercury, and I like my mercury in thermometers, not in my food, so that was certainly a concern. But, damn, swordfish is really, really good!

Well, I am weak, so you know where this is going. Whole Foods had some really nice-looking swordfish steaks on sale for less than our mortgage payment, so I took the chance of dying a horrible death and picked up a 1-inch thick steak. One of the things that I noticed about these steaks is that they didn’t have very much of the dark red meat from near the spine (I think) that tastes rather strong and, quite frankly, unpleasant.

One of the problems with swordfish is that it isn’t particularly fatty, so it is easy to dry it out on the grill. I decided to marinate it for a bit in mustard and garlic, but I was also inspired to ask for help. Mom said to add a bit of mayonnaise to the mustard and garlic. Huh? That sounded faintly disgusting, but she is a far, far better cook than I, so I wasn’t going to argue until it turned out to be, in fact, disgusting. Needless to say, it was great. Why? I have no idea, but it worked perfectly. The mustard and garlic added a bit of tang, and the mayonnaise added a smooth, subtly creamy texture. Give it a try, and if you don’t like it, you can blame my mother.

1-inch swordfish steak (enough for two people)
3 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1 Tbs. mayonnaise

garlic clove, minced fine

Whisk everything together and smear the mixture all over the swordfish. Cover and refrigerate until 15 minutes before you cook it.

Preheat the grill on surface-of-the-sun setting, making sure that the grill is immaculately clean. If necessary, after it is hot, wipe it with a paper towel soaked in vegetable oil. Use tongs!

When the grill is very hot and very clean, slide the swordfish off the plate directly onto the grill surface. Do not move it! Do not prod it! Do not touch it! Close the cover and cook for 3 1/2 minutes. Using the biggest spatula you have, flip the steak carefully. Try to slide the spatula under the fish in one motion. Cover and grill for another 3 1/2 minutes. Remove from the grill and let it rest for a few minutes before you serve it. This cooking time is for a rare steak, which is the only way to eat swordfish. But if you insist, add 1 minute on each side for medium (or well done — it cooks quickly).

P.S. I liked this dish so much that I made it again last night. I added
½ tsp. of pesto sauce to the mustard mixture. Not enough to flavor it much, but it added an interesting taste. Next time, I will add more.

The Child Who Ate Cauliflower (And Other Fairytales)

I found some great looking swordfish last week and decided to grill it in a mustard marinade, and I sneakily decided to introduce cauliflower, hidden by the great grilled fish, to my wife. Oh, she makes all the appropriate noises about loving vegetables, and her desire to eat a healthy diet, but her most fervent food desire is a big steak with crispy fried potatoes.

But I like cauliflower; I don’t have any experience with fooling myself into eating it. Many people are put off by the faint sulfur odor of some cauliflower dishes, so I had to minimize the rotten egg stench (as she describes it) while still making it palatable. I also didn’t want to spend hours in the kitchen. After all, grilling a piece of fish takes about 5 minutes, and I wanted the cauliflower to be as easy. I decided to roast it in the oven, with a bit of garlic and wine. Easy, easy, easy! I cut the cauliflower into large florets, put them in a baking dish, sprinkled some minced garlic over them, and added a cup or so of white wine to the bottom of the dish. I then covered it in aluminum foil and roasted it for about 30 minutes at 400°F. Then I removed the foil (hoping that would allow some of the sulfur odor to dissipate), drizzled some olive oil and tossed a tablespoon of grated parmesan cheese over the florets and cooked it for another 15 minutes to brown the cauliflower.

The cauliflower went very nicely with the swordfish, and you can’t beat the meal for simplicity. But the stunning part of this overlong story is that our 13 year old saw me making the cauliflower and asked to help. Then, when we sat down to eat, she decided that cauliflower was the best food in the universe and insisted that she have it for a snack when she came home from school the next day.

A Different (But Still Great) Margarita

During my exhaustive research into the perfect margarita, I found a recipe that called for no Triple Sec or Cointreau, but used agave nectar for the sweet component. Intrigued, I gave it a try. I also wanted to know something about margaritas that  Tommy:eats didn’t know.

Agave nectar can be found in many specialty food stores and places such as Whole Foods. It looks a bit like maple syrup, and it is just as sweet, but it has a fruitiness that makes it less cloying. It is made from the juice of the agave plant, although my guess is that the blue agave is reserved for tequila and they use the other varieties for agave nectar.

The margarita recipe that I found called for a tequila:fresh lime juice:agave nectar ratio of 6:4:1. That worked pretty well; the drinks were a hit with everyone who tried them, even my sister’s yappy little dog. He calmed down nicely after a few laps of my sister’s drink (she didn’t know).  I found that the agave nectar became very thick and didn’t mix well with the other ingredients if I tossed everything into the shaker with ice. So, I mixed the nectar with the lime juice first, and then shook everything with ice.

I liked this variation; the lime flavor really comes out, probably because there is no orange from the Cointreau to mask it. However, the Cointreau version is a more complex, interesting drink. I would use agave nectar to correct the sweetness of the classic margarita. That may be the best of both worlds — and will be an experiment for another time. Given the choice, I would have to go with the classic. But on a balmy summer night, with no Cointreau in the house? You can’t go wrong with this drink.

Linguine With Eggplant

This is a simple dish to make, and the leftovers are fantastic. We even put the last of the sauce on some ciabatta toast for an impromptu snack with our martinis last night! The eggplant retains enough shape that the texture is wonderful.

Tomato Sauce
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 sweet onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
½-1 cup dry white wine
1 can (28 ounce) chopped tomatoes (try to use good quality — it does make a difference)
½ teaspoon dried thyme*
½ teaspoon dried basil*
½ teaspoon dried oregano*
Salt and freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
½ cup freshly grated Parmegiano Reggiano

2 ½ lb. eggplant, half peeled and cut into ¾ inch cubes (the skin adds flavor)
2 to 3 garlic
cloves, minced
½-1 cup
extra-virgin olive oil

1 pound dried linguini

Heat on medium a pot large enough to hold the sauce, spaghetti and eggplant. Add enough olive oil to coat the bottom and then add the onions. Sauté for a few minutes, stirring occasionally until the onions soften. Add the garlic and turn the heat down to medium-low (burned garlic is bitter and not very pleasant). Stir every few minutes until the garlic has softened. Add the wine and turn up the heat to medium-high, stirring to deglaze whatever may be stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add the thyme, basil and oregano to taste. Not too much, because the predominant flavor of this dish is
eggplant. Stir a bit to hydrate the herbs and then add the tomatoes. Stir again to mix everything together, then reduce the heat to medium-low, just enough for a simmer. Cook for about 15 minutes, add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, then cover and turn off the heat.

Start heating the pasta water! 

Meanwhile, heat your biggest non-stick pan as hot as you can get it. Add a bit of olive oil and then the diced eggplant and a teaspoon or so of salt. Toss it occasionally while adding more olive oil until the eggplant is lightly coated. Be careful; eggplant is a sponge! The goal is to evaporate some of the water from the eggplant while browning it in the oil. Yes, it is messy, and it will take some time, but the results are worthwhile. After a few minutes, add the minced garlic. Now is also a good time to start cooking the linguine. Keep tossing the eggplant as it browns. You will probably have to reduce the heat to medium as the eggplant gives up moisture and begins to brown in the oil. It will get softer and break up as it cooks. Don’t worry, it’s going to get thrown into the tomato sauce anyway. When it is nicely browned, dump everything into the tomato sauce (If you didn’t use a non-stick pan, just dump the sauce into the eggplant and deglaze the pan with the sauce). Add the grated cheese, stir to combine, and allow it to rest until the pasta is done.

Drain the linguine, reserving a bit of the pasta water in case the sauce is too thick. Add the pasta to the sauce pot and toss to combine. Serve with a bit of extra grated cheese for garnish. It doesn’t need it for flavor, but it does look good. And there is never anything wrong with extra cheese.


* Fresh herbs are great (especially basil) if you have them, but dried works well.


Chateau Montelena 2005 Napa Chardonnay

My wife is a Chardonnay addict. If I open an amazing Zinfandel that knocks my socks off, or an incredibly perfumed and complex Pinot Noir, she will say “that’s nice dear. Give me a glass of Chardonnay.” After opening two mediocre (okay, one was mediocre, and one was horrible) Chardonnays for her, I had to make amends. And last night, I did a very good job of it. The 2005 Chardonnay vintage in California is shaping up to be excellent, and maybe even great, and the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay fits right in. It’s not particularly oaky; in fact, I was surprised at how little oak there was, but there was so much of everything else that it didn’t need it. This is not a typical California Chardonnay with oak and vanilla and butter flavors that predominate. It is wonderfully balanced, with incredible layers of fruit and very interesting mineral hints that are a perfect counterpoint to the acid. But what is amazing is the richness that comes from the intensity of the flavors, rather than a hefty dose of new oak.

Unfortunately, this is not an inexpensive wine ($30 at deep discount), but if you are interested in an atypical California Chardonnay from an excellent vintage, you can’t go wrong with this beautiful example of some of Napa’s best Chardonnay.

How To Cook A Lobster

Overcooked lobster is still pretty good, but my guess is that most people have never had perfectly cooked lobster. The usual suspects call for about 15 minutes in boiling water for a 1- or 2-pound lobster. Ridiculous! I just cooked an 8-pound lobster for 18 minutes, and it was perfect. The meat was moist and tender, without any of the graininess or toughness that is all too common in typically cooked lobster. The nice thing about not overcooking it is that the lobster tastes great on its own. You really don’t need melted butter or mayonnaise.

The problem is figuring out how long to cook the small ones. For big lobsters, it’s easy. Ten minutes for the first pound and 1 minute for each additional pound. I added 1 minute to the 8 pounder’s cooking time because it was a hard-shell beast, with very thick claw shell, and I thought that it might need a bit extra. For small lobsters, I would decrease the initial time to 8 minutes. So, those typical 1- to 1¼-pound lobsters would get a startlingly brief 8 or 9 minutes. Seems like they would be raw, but they come out perfectly! Try it — you’ll be convinced.

Plagiarism or Paean: Stealing Recipes.

So whose recipe is it? At what point may I claim a recipe as my own? I have read thousands of recipes, made many, and modified some beyond recognition. When does Marcella Hazan’s OssoBucco become mine? Or Tyler Florence’s onion toast? When I change ¼ cup chopped parsley to ½ cup? Obviously not. But all cooks base their cooking on something they have seen, or read or eaten. When does modification merge into creation? I have created dishes that I think are original, but I am sure that I can find something similar in pretty famous cookbooks! Am I a plagiarist?

No, I am not. But with age-old techniques and classic preparations there is always going to be some similarity. The trick is knowing when your changes have made a new dish rather than a rehash of an old one. That’s one of the reasons why so many cookbooks read the same. But no one is accusing Jacques Pepin of copying Raymond Oliver’s stuff! And I will happily read both of them to see whose recipe for beef stew I like better. And if neither appeals to me, maybe I’ll blend the two, and throw in a dash of Craig Claiborne! And then it will be mine…I think.

Feeding Your Guests Before Midnight

My wife and I were shooting the breeze recently and she had a great idea for the blog. “Why don’t you write about how to plan a meal so that you can actually spend some time with your guests?” I thought it was a fantastic idea for about three seconds, and then I realized that I don’t know how to do that!

The obvious answer, and one that has been amplified by dozens of good food writers and chefs, is that you shouldn’t plan more than one dish that requires your attention in the kitchen during the meal. Sure, lots of foods can be made in advance, but what about the great dessert that you want to serve along with your amazing grilled lamb? Does that mean that your guests have to eat cheese and crackers as a main course, or a scoop of ice cream for dessert? No, it means that they should adjourn to the kitchen and shoot the breeze with you while you cook them a great meal. What’s wrong with entertaining in the kitchen for a few minutes? Or even better, your wife (or husband?) can do a strip tease while you finish baking your award-winning dessert!

The reality is that you have to improve your efficiency, simplify your menu to exclude labor-intensive dishes, or accept the crowd in the kitchen while you frantically juggle pots and pans as your wife glares at you for making her college roommate wait for her dinner. But what is the point of killing yourself with the pressure of pumping out perfect meals. We invite people to our home for dinner because we enjoy their company. We think that dinner should be considered a bonus. And a good dinner should be considered a rare and unexpected treat! That doesn’t mean that I won’t try hard. I will work my tail off because I enjoy cooking good meals for my friends and relatives. But I will not agonize over an overcooked lamb chop or an unemulsified dressing. And if I want to spend a few more minutes in the kitchen, contrary to Emily Post’s directives, well, that is my privilege. And everyone migrates to the kitchen eventually anyway, so I won’t be alone.