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Never got the big deal about falafel?  Isn’t one pretty much like another?

I thought so till I saw inducted into the finer distinctions between good and bad falafel by Israeli friends.  I know they agree with me that the Falafel Special at Semiramis falls into the good category.  It has a lovely harrisa sauce and pickles.  But the falafel is so good it can stand up to the condiments.  I’ve also been tutored on hummus and, to my palette, the version here is not the best I’ve had.  But the Ful is delicious and my wife and friends swear by the Chicken Kabob.  After your meal,  stop by Nazareth Sweets opposite and pick up a selection of baklava to go.  They look at you suspiciously, as if you might be FBI agents trying to track down Al Qaeda sympathizers.  They serve you anyway.

The New York Times has a great pub guide to the Cotswolds.  The pub!  Why has this concept not been imported wholescale into the States?  There is the odd gastropub now in Chicago but they do not capture this ambiance:

There are the spacious stripped wood tables, the milky light coming through the frosted windows and the fire smoldering across the room. And my big plate of fresh fish and chips (for the equivalent of $15) is sumptuous. Amid the low murmur of relaxed conversation you can feel the easy comfort, the happiness, of human beings at rest. And with the old plow tackle hanging from the ceiling, and the flagstone floor, and the bushy hops among the beams, there’s a sense of history’s being a friend, of this means of relaxation’s being sanctioned and endorsed through having been enjoyed for centuries. You sense it’s true that Europeans — even the English — still know how to live.

To reach this sense of peace, there has to be good beer (OK – I will now accept that cold lager might be necessary as well as the room temperature English bitter!), no TVs, a sense of welcome and a slow, slow pace.  Going into a  neighborhood pub where the regulars treat strangers with suspicion is annoying.  Remember the movie An American Werewolf in London?  That took things to an extreme, turning the strangers who enter the pub into werewolfs, but you get the picture.  Americans are more welcoming than the English so the friendly atmosphere should be easier to pull off here.  It’s the leisurely pace that is harder to replicate.  But I think someone should try.

I have visited and stayed (!) at one of the pubs, the Falkland Arms in Great Tew.  It was long ago (March 1999?) and it seems the management has changed.  The beer is different and the food seems better.  The rooms have also been renovated.  That last fact is very important.  I remember the shower had the lack of pressure that is typical of England.  In addition, it vacillated randomly between being boiling hot and icy cold.  My wife, who is hardy, got flu soon afterwards.  Hopefully, the showers have been updated from the nineteenth century to at least the twentieth.  Next time I visit Oxford, I’m looking forward to heading to the Falkland Arms and enjoying the slow pace of pub life.

Not a weird animal from a dream but a vegetarian restaurant in Chicago.  It’s actually a green tomato, a favorite of farmers’ markets.  As the name suggests, the food is meant to be seasonal just like the tomato.  Thankfully, the weather has finally improved over the last few weeks and some semi-decent produce is actually available in the Midwest.  When we’ve been before, there’s been the odd miss but not yesterday – all the eleven plates we shared were excellent.  I’m going to attempt to make the feta marinated in chili sauce – why didn’t I think of that before?  The American popover is somehow related to the Yorkshire pudding – hadn’t realized that either.  And I’m going to grill sliced fennel!  I won’t be able to reproduce the presentations but hopefully the taste will come through.

If you’re ever coming through Chicago, you should try this restaurant, even if you’re not a vegetarian.  They serve really original, tasty food.

I went to Boston a few weeks ago and had dinner with an old friend and his family.  This friend is an economist but, apart from that, we could not be more different.   But he and I share one thing in common: we love Top Chef!  His family just discovered the show and watched all the seasons over the last few months.  I’m clearly more TV-centered because I’ve watched it for years.  Anyway, we’re all in withdrawal as the show is over this season.

So, I can’t help but notice references to it.  One Top Chef contestant was cooking at the Obama family Easter egg roll.  Others seems to be doing well with their own restaurants in NYC.  The host Tom Colicchio lives in a cool apartment witha small kitchen.  Our own Chicagoan Dale Levitski is cooking up a special dinner every Thursday at the Relax Lounge.  And Stephanie Izzard is so famous that she was on the Interview Show before Jeff and me.

Like my friend, I think my wife and I are going to reproduce Top Chef at home with two parent-kid teams facing off.  All we have to find are some judges.

We made the mistake of buying  Goose Island’s attempt to make high-end, Belgian style beer. It was terrible.  I gave up even trying to drink it after a few sips.  Wine can be over-oaked.  I don’t know what the beer equivalent is called.  Whatever it is, Matilda has that quality.  Too sweet, overwhelming flavor.  Yuk.  Don’t buy it.

This is a family favorite.  There’s blackberry but enough tannin to make it dry and not sweet.  Smoky barbecue. Acidic aftertaste.  Great value for $22.  It’s widely produced and distributed.  Get any vintage you can find.

The chef Bobby Flay is ubiquitous on the Food Network.  I usually see him in two shows, Iron Chef America and Throwdown with Bobby Flay.  Both are competitive shows.  Flay usually loses on Throwdown and wins on Iron Chef.

On Throwdown, Bobby Flay makes one dish and competes with an expert .  For example, recently there was a show where he made a deep dish pizza against Chicago native Lou Malnati.  The two dishes are judged by two experts side by side with a partisan local audience watching.  Flay lost.

On Iron Chef America, the format is different.  There is a secret ingredient (though I bet both contestants have a fair idea of  what it will be!).  In this format, Flay and his fellow Iron Chefs are matched against a gourmet chef.  Last week the secret ingredient was butter.  The entrant was Koren Grieveson of avec in Chicago.  Koren picked Cat Cora to compete against.  And the competition was tied.   As I said, this is a rare event in Iron Chef because the incumbent usually wins.  Why?

I think it’s all in the judging.  On Iron Chef, the chefs get to present their dishes to the judges so there is no anonymity.  On Throwdown, they do not identify who cooked which dish.

I wish they would adopt the same format for Iron Chef.  The judges are biased towards the incumbent.  For example, while Cat Cora’s food looked good, she won more points in the category of “originality”.  One of her dishes was bread and butter, another was gnocchi in a butter sage sauce.  These are original only if one adopts an ironic definition of the word “original”.  But then everything is original and the category makes no sense!  Frankly, I went to avec last night and I just find it hard to believe Cat Cora’s food is better.  Maybe I am expressing the bias manifested on Throwdown: the bias of the local audience towards the local contestant.  This can also be fixed by making the judges judge in a different room.  Similarly, on Iron Chef, a  third party, say Alton Brown, could present the dishes.  If the judges have questions, the show can set up speakers in a separate room where the chef is standing nervously.  S/he can answer the questions into an earpiece worn by Alton Brown.  He can relay the answers to the judges.   This can be done in a theatrical way to add more drama and tension.

A basketball game where one team is vastly superior to the other is boring to watch.  By leveling the playing field, Food Network can add more uncertainty to the competition and get more viewers.

After my Cafe Milano post yesterday, I got some great comments that took me north of the Berkeley campus.  (First, I stopped at Peet’s on Telegraph so I had the requisite amount of caffeine to be able to walk from the south of campus to the north.)

One comment suggested Nefeli Caffe.  Comment 7/33 on yelp offered up the blandishment of seeing sexy Europeans sipping coffee after a hard night of posing.  I was not sure I would fit in but thought I would enjoy it anyway.  In typical European fashion, Nefeli was closed. Europeans don’t like getting up too early on a Saturday, or speaking for myself as a pseudo-European, any other day.  Brewed Awakenings, on the other hand, seems to be run by hard-working Middle Eastern immigrants and is open.  It has free wifi.  Quiet classical music in the background.  Very few people.  Good coffee and good almond croissant.  And a great place to hang out and BS.  Ideal for research I would say.  This is my first stop on future visits to Berkeley.  Ariel Rubinstein and Shachar Kariv have great taste.

I’m always hoping that Rogers Park yields some benefits so I don’t have to shlep downtown from Evanston for a good meal and a drink.  Somehow managed to hear about Morseland. They can’t quite decide what they are – a bar, a restaurant or a club.  It still seems to work.   Couple of guys were playing pool, a few were watching a NBA playoff game at the bar.  Eclectic mix of people eating.  The types who spend hours making sure the goatee is just right but not much time at work.  (What I aspire to be?)

Food was good and the beer list was great.  Definitely going here again.  Maybe, I’ll check out the music.  Wish it was open for lunch.

Mario Batali’s Simple Italian Cooking is not that simple.  It’s usually way more time-consuming than he suggests.  This turned out to be true of the Crespelles al Formaggio.  They were delicious nonetheless and we will make them again.  They went very well with this salad (we skipped the pomegranate!) and remnants of yesterday’s Pinot Noir.

The fundamental tension between technical skills and creativity in economic theory?

Actually, no.   This is my half-remembered quote from a judge in the new “reality show” on the Food Network.  Four chefs have to cook an appetizer, a main course and a dessert using ingredients that are presented to them.   For example, these might be anchovies, jam and a lemon.  They open up the hamper with the ingredients and then have half an hour to cook something with them and anything else they find in the pantry. In each round, one contestant is “chopped” by the three judges.

On last night’s show, there was a chef from a Gordon Ramsey restaurant at the London hotel in NYC.  His food looked great, displayed great  knife skills but was safe and unadventurous.  Hence, the quote above from the judge.  The other guy who was left standing by the end was tattooed from head to toe.  He dropped meat on the floor in one round and then cooked it without washing it. And then he made a chestnut cream saboyon quesadilla for dessert.  It was too mushy looking and there was too much quesadilla.  The other guy made something generic that I can’t remember right now.

Of course, the technical guy won.  But no-one slept with him, I guess, and the tattooed guy probably got laid.  Who really won?

I found this place because it won an award on a Chicago food chat site.  And the first time I went there I met a colleague from the Econ Dept who  must have seen the same blog.  Small world.

Anyway, when you go to most Indian restaurants, the stuff they serve – the radioactively orange chicken tikka etc – is North Indian.  And for some reason it’s usually cooked by Nepalese chefs. ( There’s got to a story there about some Maoist chef exodus but I don’t know it.)  It can be good but you miss the other regional cuisine your mother makes…at least, my mother.

Uru-Swati serves South Indian food (as well as some other generic things).  So you get good dosas and idlis, things Indians normally have for breakfast but could easily be a nice light lunch. (Well, maybe it’s not light because the dosa will be cooked in ghee!  Idlis, a kind of steamed dumpling,  are good for you.)

But better than all of this – they serve Indian street snacks.  Bhel Puri, Sev Puri, Chole Bhatura…  If you’re tempted by these on an Indian street, you’ll soon regret it as your system gets cleaned out if you know what I mean!  You can eat them safely at this restaurant and imagine Goa outside the window rather than the  ten degree Chicago weather.  The parathas are also excellent.  Try the muli paratha which come stuffed with a kind of shredded radish, served with dal and pickle.

UPDATE:  Check out this NYT story about just this kind of food

Bought it on sale.  Totally regret it.  It tastes unstructured, flavors are not integrated and there’s huge coconut aftertaste – OAK!

“At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives

Homeward, and brings the sailor home from the sea,

The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights

Her stove, and lays out food in tins.” T S Eliot, The Wasteland

The American T S Eliot poignantly captures an English sadness that can only be dealt with by a long visit to the pub.  The typist was living at a time when nice women didn’t go to pubs and probably had a some sherry at home instead.  Luckily for us, there are now many drinking establishments much more sophisticated than pubs.  The Violet Hour in Bucktown in Chicago is one of them.  It seems not be named after the Eliot poem which is a little too depressing for upbeat America, even the pre-depression America we appear to be living in.  It is unmarked and you enter through a velvet curtain that hides the bustling bar where we can drink at the violet hour (or earlier!). I had a Juliet and Romeo – Gin, Mint and rose water – and was very happy with it.  And the tempura green beans were great with it.  Some of the drinks were very slow in coming so they gave them to us for free. The Violet Hour has a happy buzz.  Despite the speakeasy motif, it has a comfortable lack of pretension that I associate with the Midwest.  Good company with a good drink.  I was very happy that night, quite unlike the main protagonists in the Wasteland.

My first use of Ariel Rubinstein’s International Cafe Guide was a big success.  Think Coffee on Mercer and 4th, just half a block south of the Economics and Politics Departments, is a great place to think which is what Rubinstein wants.    There is free wifi (this may distract from thinking!), it’s not too loud and I always found a table easily even though it’s busy. But it’s also a great place to drink which is more of what I’m after.  The coffee is delicious and they are great at latte art.

The Premier  Cru Volnay came from a trip 4-5 years ago.  Volnay is a village in Burgundy.  I remember old men playing pétanque on a communal, gravel court.  We were on the lookout for a nice cafe but we saw nothing.  That is a big difference between Italy and France.  Every small village in Italy has a cafe with some wizened old men who seem to spend all day there.  Even the most prestigious vineyards/towns in Burgundy had nowhere to socialize or snack.

To the wines:   I decanted them an hour or so before drinking.  The Volnay was closed, bitter and disappointing.  We shipped it from Burgundy and got slapped with huge customs duties.  (We had been told that there was chance we might escape taxes as their application was random.  It was  not to be. )  So, with that memory of additional expense, I was doubly disappointed.  The Goldeneye was smooth and delicious.  Slutty and available. Lots of fruit but not overwhelming like a California Cab. We enjoyed a glass before dinner and it lasted into the first course.  I returned to the Burgundy for my next glass.  What a revelation!  It opened up completely.  Vegetal rather than fruity.  Three dimensional.  Celery and definitely barnyard on the palette.  Great with food.  We had a white bean, bacon and arugula salad from the Patrica Wells Paris cookbook.  The Volnay stood up to it really well.  The Goldeneye had faded a little bit.  Apparently, it went well with the chicken. I am baconatarian (“vegetarian except for bacon”) so I skipped the chicken.

In the end, both were great and I would have them again, though they are on the expensive end.  The US vs France wine clichés were reinforced.

Highland Park is very chi-chi and let’s face it, white.  Then, you go a little further north and you enter an ethnic enclave which is less Cartier and Prada.  It’s nice.  There’s a fair there in the summer, lots of nice little restaurants with near-Highland Park prices.  My favorite so far is Casa de Isaac. (I still have to try the Curry Hut.)  It’s the only Jewish Mexican restaurant I have ever heard of.  They open sundown on Saturday and are closed Friday night.  Apart from that, there is so discernible Jewish influence.  In fact, one of my Israeli friends thinks the whole thing is a big marketing ploy to differentiate it from other closeby establishments!  We had chilaquiles – one red and spicy, the other green and tangy.  Both were delicious.  And we got to watch Aston Villa vs Tottenham Hotspur on the T.V.  It was great.

I was really impressed by the trick pulled by the Top Chef producers this week.

Leah is a lame cook and made it much further than she deserved to given her talents.  And on the way several better cooks got knocked out partly because they were in “team Leah” in some round.

I think the producers realized this and brought back two of the people recently eliminated, and Leah, back to give the dice another role.  I was scared Leah would squeeze by on luck again but this time the Gods did not play games and she lost.  Jeff won but then got knocked out again anyway as he had to “win” the elimination challenge to survive.  But then Stefan squeezed by even though his food was worse than Jeff’s!  I guess there has to be little unfairness to keep us watching.  And I think they keep Stefan partly because he’s the guy everyone loves to hate (though I like him!).

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