Friday, 30 January 2009

It’s Easy Being Green (and Red, and Yellow and Orange)

“Please buy me some Brussel sprouts – you haven’t bought any for ages and I really like them”.

Heads absolutely spun round in the supermarket the day my son announced that in the vegetable section. He was eight at the time, but he had loved vegetables right from the very beginning – particularly “baby cabbages” or Brussel sprouts. From broccoli to parsnips, butternut squash to zucchini, even now he is a teenager, I cannot think of a single vegetable my son will not eat.

That sort of thing is definitely a rarity these days, and not just amongst children and young people. Government publications and medical professionals urge us to eat our vegetables, but it seems a lot of folks are just not listening.

Almost nobody, it seems, likes Brussel sprouts. Broccoli is an endurance test, and spinach, well, let’s not even go there. Parsnips taste funny, salad is rabbit food and mushrooms are yucky. A huge number of people struggle to get their kids to eat their veggies, and have to force themselves to eat their own. Now I am no vegetarian, but I love vegetables and just cannot understand why other people do not. Wherever I travel, from London to New York, Chicago to Los Angeles and everywhere in between, the story is the same. Loads of people, adults and children alike, hear the word vegetables and grimace. It staggers me.

When we were in New York recently I noticed a worrying pattern. It is the same one I noticed when we were in Florida late last summer, and in California not long before that. Vegetables seem to be disappearing off many American restaurant menus. If they are served as a side dish, the portions are very small, which is incredibly unusual for American restaurants, where portions are almost always generous. More and more often I noticed that if I ordered meat, the vegetable served alongside was a baked potato. Now I know potatoes are a vegetable, but they are not the kind of vegetable doctors and nutritionists are exhorting us to eat. What we need is more of the multi-colour stuff – like green, yellow and red vegetables. It seems restaurants assume that their customers do not really like vegetables, so why provide them? There were some restaurants where vegetables were offered as an addition to the meal, to order separately at an extra cost. This is a problem in itself. Seriously, if someone is not keen on vegetables to start with, do you really think they are going to pay extra for them?

Not only is this perceived dislike of vegetables a real shame, it is positively dangerous. Vegetables are packed full of substances called antioxidants that can prevent and even repair damage done by free radicals. This means they can fight against nasty things like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, macular degeneration and even the ageing process itself. Just eating your vegetables could make you look younger - yet many people refuse to even taste them. We are a generation who will do almost anything to look good and live longer – from undergoing stringent detox regimes to having syringes full of Botulinum toxin stuck in our wrinkles– and yet we can’t bring ourselves to eat our veggies? And if we won’t eat them, how on earth can we get our kids to?

In a quest to find out how vegetables became such a huge issue, I questioned family, friends, acquaintances and even total strangers - basically anyone who would talk to me. It raised some interesting issues. A recurrent theme in many of the conversations I had was the most obvious - over cooking. I heard tales of soggy grey cabbage, wrinkled peas and wilted broccoli. I had personal experience of this recently when helping out in the kitchen over the holidays when I watched the Brussel sprouts being put on to cook a good hour before the meal was due to be ready. The lady who was helping the hostess with the sprouts insisted “you need to boil them for at least forty minutes ”. It took us ages to persuade her otherwise. Incidentally, she professed to hate Brussel sprouts – and if she regularly cooked them for that long, I can’t say I am surprised.

There also seems to be a perception that eating your vegetables has to be endured. Aside from the ubiquitous green bean casserole and broccoli smothered in cheese sauce, most of the people I interviewed think vegetables are boring. They have become something to be dreaded -an overcooked, under-flavoured endurance test. I was met with blank looks when I suggested light sauces or garnishes. At my house, parsnips are roasted in butter with honey or maple syrup, crisp carrots are topped with a light coating of garlic butter, asparagus is drizzled with delicious extra virgin olive oil and crunchy stir fries are seasoned with sweet chilli and soy. Seriously, vegetables can be anything but boring if they are properly prepared.

When I researched children and vegetables by talking to lots of parents and kids alike, it became apparent things are often even worse. Even those little ones who start out eating their veggies often stop when they go to school. Other children or even older siblings persuade them that vegetables are not cool and they succumb to peer pressure. Some adults told me of endless struggles over vegetables – of driving themselves to distraction by finely chopping them and “hiding’ them in spaghetti sauce or shepherd’s pie or of making children sit at the table for ages “until they eat their vegetables” and eventually just giving up. Vegetables are a huge problem in so many households – often because one or more of the adults there won’t eat them either. One little girl said to me that “Daddy doesn’t like vegetables so neither do I”. No wonder her Mom had no chance when it came to getting her to eat them. Incidentally, a conversation with Mom revealed that the little girl had actually never tasted most of the vegetables she professed to hate – nor, it seemed, had her father.

As I mentioned earlier, I had none of those issues with my son. The thing is, I had no preconceived notion that vegetables were going to be an issue and as a result I was very relaxed about them. I approached vegetables with a sense of fun, telling him stories about broccoli trees that grew in magic forests and allowing him to experiment with sauces and seasonings on his vegetables. There were also no rules in our house when it came to vegetables. Although my son already liked broccoli, a spillage of ketchup on one of the rare occasions he had French fries with his dinner convinced him it was improved by the addition of that red sauce. I was not very happy but I figured it was better he eat broccoli with ketchup than not eat it at all so I did not make a big deal of it. Eventually he realised that broccoli was one of those rare things that was not really improved by the taste of ketchup. No harm was done and we did not end up in a power struggle that could have resulted in him refusing to eat broccoli altogether. Several of my friends were absolutely scandalised when they saw me allowing him to put ketchup on his broccoli though – but I have to say that most of their kids won’t touch the stuff (broccoli that is, not ketchup!).

I heard a fabulous story from another like-minded lady. Her son, who had loved cauliflower until he went to school, came home one day and announced he was never going to eat it again. Soon after, she introduced him to a wonderful new vegetable called white broccoli - which he loved. Clearly he did not even remember exactly what cauliflower was, he had decided to just go along with his friends. A measured response can avoid huge problems. Of course, white broccoli was never served when his friends visited in order to avoid this small deceit being revealed, and by the time he realised it did not actually exist, he liked it too much to stop eating it and even managed to laugh about the little white lie he had been told.

And that is the key, we have to laugh about our prejudices against vegetables and start to get over them as quickly as we can. None of us can afford not to eat the healthiest diet possible in these testing times. Stress levels are through the roof and incidence of many diseases is on the rise. It’s time to start eating healthily – and the best way to begin is by incorporating more vegetables into our diets.
The restaurants that are phasing vegetables out of their menus– or making them an optional and costly extra - help none of us. It reinforces the belief that vegetables are unpleasant, and that is just not true. Properly prepared, they are among the most delicious things you can eat – and that is coming from me – someone with a serious chocolate addiction! Whether we think we like them or not, we all need to take a fresh look at vegetables. Let’s face it, if you decided you disliked cabbage when you were ten and you are now middle aged, do you not think there might be even a possibility your tastes might have changed? And what would you rather do, choke down a little broccoli (which incidentally does taste very nice stirred into macaroni and cheese) or deal with the medical side effects of a poor diet?

The best way to look and feel better virtually overnight is not by popping down to Saks or Macys for the latest pot of wonder cream, by taking a family vacation or by visiting your plastic surgeon – it is by incorporating more vegetables in your diet. It might not have been easy for poor Kermit being green, but for us mere mortals eating green (and red, yellow and orange) is the easiest and quickest way to a youthful appearance and good health I know.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The Cake Breaker

My Mom wasn't much of a cake baker, mainly because she was always watching her weight - she was incredibly slim.  She did buy Angel Food Cakes, as apparently they were lower in calories because they were made with egg whites.  As a child, I always remember her using this cake breaker when she served them.  As I got a bit older I became the cake baker in the family, but I never made Angel Food Cake.  On the contrary, my Devils Food Cakes were the stuff of legend, richly iced with creamy chocolate frosting.  Mom used the cake breaker to serve those cakes as well, and it even cut the teeny tiny slices that were all she would allow herself to have.

Mom said that the cake breaker belonged to my Grandma first, and research suggests she must have purchased it in the 1930's or 40's.  Its handle is make of Bakelite, the first plastic made from synthetic compounds, which was developed in the early part of the twentieth century.  Mom passed the cake breaker on to me just over fifteen years ago, not long after my husband and I were married.  

My cake breaker is still in its original box with the original instruction sheet enclosed.  "Simple as 1-2-3 Cake Breakers by Schneider.  A remarkable table accessory that breaks cake in even, beautiful portions, free from crumbs, leaving the most delicate frosting or filling intact." Amazingly, it does exactly what it promises.  You just push the tongs gently into the cake where you would have sliced it, then lift it out and push them in again where you would have cut to take the slice out.  By gently wiggling the cake breaker you can then lift the slice out perfectly intact every time - even the first slice - without leaving even a single crumb.

I used it the other day and it got me to thinking about the kitchen gadgets we have now.  Some of them are amazing - like the heat proof spatulas and pastry brushes my Dad gave me a couple of years before he died.  I use them literally every day.  But other gadgets sit neglected in drawers, like the milk foamer I bought for making lattes that is so difficult to clean I just don't bother to use it and the salad spinner that makes a lot of noise but does not really dry the lettuce.  I have to admit, the gadgets I use the most are ones that have been passed down to me from years gone by.  Small metal spikes that my Dad made which, when pushed through the centre of baking potatoes, make them cook beautifully all the way through, my Grandma's scissors, that do everything from cutting paper to de-boning chicken, and her small silver hammer that is just the handiest thing are only the beginning.  (If you are wondering what I use a hammer for in the kitchen, well of course it is great for repairs, but a light tap - and I do mean light - along the edges of stubborn jar lids makes them open easily.)

Using these old gadgets reminds me of happy times when my parents were still alive, both in Canada and over here in England.  But also, these are things which actually work, and do what they are meant to do.  I mean, the cake breaker has been in our family for about seventy years - and believe me it has been well used - but it still looks like new.  So many of the gadgets we buy today seem to only last for a little while, and often they don't even really do what they say they will.  We have become such a disposable society that we expect little else.  That's why it gives me so much pleasure to continue using these wonderful things - like my cake breaker - today, knowing full well that I'll be able to pass them on to the next generation in full working order.  There are not many things you can say that about today!  

Sunday, 25 January 2009

I am the 21st Century Housewife

It has come to my attention that there are folks out there - even here on blogger - who are calling themselves the 21st Century Housewife. Of course, all of us who are housewives in this century are 21st Century Housewives. However, I do feel it important, for everyone's protection, to assert that since 2003 I, April Harris, have held the copyright for the title of 21st Century Housewife and anyone referring to themselves as The 21st Century Housewife is doing so in contravention of The Copyrights Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Monday, 19 January 2009

I'll have the free range organic faux foie gras - with a side of guilt please

Dining with people you don’t know well – even dining with friends – can be a nightmare these days. We live in such an era of political correctness that no one hesitates to share their version of what is ethical with you, particularly when it comes to food. Years ago, not only was no one concerned about these things, but actually saying anything would have been considered quite rude, particularly in a restaurant. But today it is considered almost irresponsible not to enlighten someone with your opinion.

Restaurants cater for their clients and most do not worry about being politically correct. I was in New York recently and dined at many popular restaurants including The Russian Tea Room, The Rainbow Room and two of the Waldorf Astoria’s restaurants, The Bull and The Bear and Peacock Alley. Every single one of these restaurants had at least one dish made with Foie Gras on the menu and they all offered veal. A similar situation exists in Chicago, London, Paris and Rome. There is demand for these foods, so they serve them.

I have been to dinner parties where the hostess has slaved for hours preparing a lovely meal only to be subject to the third degree by a guest. In one case, she was asked where something came from and whether it was organic. When she replied to the negative she was then subject to about fifteen minutes worth of chastisement by someone she had invited to dinner! On another occasion, I listened as someone who had chosen not to eat meat explained to us all, in graphic detail, why we should not either. The hostess had prepared a separate vegetarian meal for this guest as well!

To be fair, I find it hard to keep silent when someone at the table orders foie gras. I would never, ever say anything but I do feel a compulsion to ask them if they really know how it is prepared. Do they realise the ducks and geese are force fed until their livers nearly burst? That most of the birds are not even free to roam around a bit? However, living in a glass house - as I do when it comes to veal -I really do have to restrain myself.

You see, I have a politically incorrect weakness when it comes to veal. I love the taste and often order it in restaurants. Veal Marsala, Veal Milanese, Veal Scallopini – you name it, I love it. This often causes me a bit of embarrassment. Despite the fact that veal crates have been banned in Britain, the European Union and many US states, veal still carries a stigma. If I am cooking veal at home, I source the ethically raised version, but there is no guarantee you are ordering ethically raised veal in a restaurant. This has led to many disapproving looks when I have been dining with acquaintances or colleagues. To their irritation, I pay little attention. My husband and I served veal to nearly 200 people at our wedding in the early nineties - and that was long before the banning of veal crates. Veal is my favourite food and I wanted to eat it at the most special meal of my life so far. Two of our guests actually made a fuss, refused to eat it and asked for vegetarian meals. I was staggered. Couldn’t they have just quietly eaten the potatoes and vegetables instead of upsetting me on my wedding day?

And then there is the issue of eggs. I would never, ever, buy a battery-farmed egg. I cannot cope with the idea of those poor chickens squashed in cages never seeing the light of day. However I often order omelettes in restaurants and I have no idea whether or not these are made with free range eggs. And that is before we even consider the baked goods I purchase. I’d never push free range eggs on my friends either. Many of them are on tight budgets, and I’d rather see them eating battery eggs than none at all.

Recent food scares have also led people to question to safety of many foods. BSE, Foot and Mouth Disease and Bird Flu have converted many people to vegetarianism, and those of us who are still practicing carnivores often feel concerned that we might be damaging our health. It doesn’t seem to stop us eating meat though, even when we are told about the pressure raising meat can put on the environment. That is because humans have been carnivores for thousands of years and being a vegetarian, whilst a laudable choice, is not a lifestyle we all can embrace.

And therein lies the rub. We all have a politically incorrect weakness. Sometimes the weakness is for reasons of economy - let’s face it, battery eggs cost less than free range – or honest ignorance of the facts. Sometimes it is because we choose to ignore the facts and sometimes it is just sheer stubbornness. We are all quick to share our views with everyone else when they contravene our standards – hence my urge to chastise those who eat foie gras – but woefully unhappy to accept other’s views when they threaten to compromise our choices – as I am with veal.

Maybe it is time we all gave one another a break. How many geese will I save by making someone else uncomfortable when they choose to treat themselves to foie gras? Not many. The fact is (or so I am told – I don’t eat it myself) faux foie gras tastes nothing like the real thing. The ethically raised version takes so long to produce it is quite rare and expensive so seldom available in restaurants. And if I were a vegetarian, would I really have a chance of converting someone to that way of life over dinner? Probably not. And is anyone going to stop me eating veal? Absolutely not.

Eating is meant to be a pleasure, not something to create guilt and anxiety.  We all have the right to choose what we eat so perhaps it is time for us to realise that sometimes being politically correct means saying nothing at all. Absolutely stand up for your beliefs when it comes to politics or how you conduct your business. (I’m thinking of people like Stella McCartney here – she lives her vegetarian values and conducts her business in a way that reflects that - but she doesn’t condemn carnivores. After all, many of them buy her clothes! ) But when it comes to polite conversation, maybe food issues should be a bit like religion and politics – something that you don’t discuss at the dinner table – especially in restaurants!

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

An Organic Resolution

The recent economic events worldwide have caused us all to take a step back and wonder what went wrong. Whatever the cause or the solution, it has made a lot of us look at exactly how we live, what we consume and how much we waste.
For example, did you know that most families in the western world actually throw away a huge amount of food? A British government study last year revealed that the average British family throws away almost a third of the food they buy every week – and a similar US study revealed that the average family there discards almost twenty-seven percent. I was shocked by this, and sure that the figures were inaccurate, until I began to keep track of exactly how much food my own household threw away in an average week.

I decided to keep note over a period of two weeks of both what I disposed of and how much I had paid for it. By the end of that eye-opening fortnight, I was shocked, and more than a little bit ashamed. What I was discarding was just about the national average here in Britain, and frankly I could have fed at least one other person on it. In a world where so many are going without, this seems almost criminal. Not only that, but think of all the greenhouse gases being released from the food I was throwing away as it slowly decomposes on landfill sites. Multiply that by a few billion people and suddenly you have a problem that we really should not be ignoring. And that is before you get to the issue of the money I was wasting – nearly £20 or about $30 – each week. That works out roughly to the equivalent of $1,560 each year. That realisation was the last straw. I was throwing away over $1000 a year – and so are most other households. Something had to give, so I set about finding ways to ensure that the 21st Century Housewife wasted less food starting right that very minute.

This was a daunting prospect. I have to admit, I find it difficult to keep to a plan when it comes to family meals. Our schedule changes from one moment to the next, and I feel that I need to have at least a few possibilities available for most meals. For example, will we really have time for brunch on the weekend? But if we do, and I don’t have the necessary ingredients for it, won’t that be disappointing? What if someone drops in unexpectedly? Added to this is the fact that I am never sure from one day to the next what sort of time my husband will arrive home from his demanding job in the evening and my own schedule as a housewife and writer is pretty erratic as well. As the 21st Century Housewife, I have the opportunity, and the excuse, to ask people what their home lives are like – and I’ve found out that I am not alone in this situation. Most of us have very busy, unpredictable lives, and we shop accordingly. We buy lots of food “just in case”.

I know no one deliberately sets out to be wasteful. I have always kept a close eye on “use by” and “best before” dates, and used my freezer to ensure that things that could be frozen safely instead of being discarded were duly moved to the deep freeze. Of course this helps, but in some cases the freezer can simply become an icy graveyard, full of food you will never eat – mainly because if you are like me, you won’t actually remember everything you put in there and even frozen food doesn’t last forever.

Supermarkets do have to share some of the blame. For years they have tempted us with multi-buys, buy two get one free and buy one get one free offers. “Larger pack, bigger value” signs urge us to buy bigger, better, more. It’s very hard indeed not to be tempted.

So what to do? The obvious solution of buying less is not as simple as it sounds. After years of catering for every possible eventuality, I found it very hard to change my ways. Shopping became an anxiety provoking exercise, something I dreaded. A bit of introspection and some follow up research amongst readers, colleagues and friends revealed a shocking truth. In the western world, full cupboards equal prosperity, comfort and abundance. In short, we are comforted by the thought of having lots available to eat. In a world where nothing is sure, full cupboards equal security.

But this attitude has to change, both in my home and in yours. Research suggests that we are running out of the resources we require for production of the food that the world will need in years to come. In addition, all food production – animal or vegetable - has an effect on the environment. We are only just beginning to understand what that will mean in future years. Wasting food is counterproductive in so many ways. Please understand, I am about as far from being a green goddess as you can get. My carbon footprint is, in the words of my son, “more like a carbon body print” because I travel extensively. I do know however that even the smallest effort to help the environment can be extremely effective, and if it helps my pocketbook as well, it seems downright silly not to start straight away – whether I consider myself an eco-warrior or not.

So a few months ago, I began to change the way I shop and the way my family eats. It was not easy at first, but eventually I found that a shift in attitude made a huge difference not only to our diets, but also to our household economy. I came to understand that that instead of filling our cupboards and fridges, we have to start thinking about quality over quantity. We need to consider our food purchases carefully and think about where the food we eat comes from.

For example, I was shocked to find that many people still buy eggs that are battery farmed. In fact, the US Humane Society reports that most eggs in the US are from industrialised factory farms, where hens are confined in battery cages. Most of these cages are so restrictive the birds cannot even spread their wings. Over here in Europe, the EU is phasing out battery cages by 2012, but that is still a long time away – especially if you are a chicken. Eggs were also one of the things I often purchased too many of, thinking nothing of throwing them away if they were past their “use by” date. I have made it a habit to buy free-range eggs for a number of years out of pity for the chickens, but I now buy my eggs in smaller quantities.

This raises another important point. Most of us live fairly near to grocery stores, or even have a small shop within walking distance. It is not a tragedy to run out of something when help is so close at hand. So why overbuy?

From here, let’s consider fruit and vegetables. Many of us do not buy enough of these nutrient rich powerhouses, but the rest of us buy too much. Personally, most of what I was throwing away was produce. I felt compelled to throw away things that had passed their “best before date”. On consideration this is ridiculous. Fruit and vegetables do not “go off”. They get soft, or squishy, or perhaps a bit mouldy, but they do not deteriorate dangerously in the same way that meat, dairy products, eggs and fish do. If an apple is past its best, it will be soft – but unless the fruit is mouldy or actually perishing, you can usually cook with it. With regard to vegetables, I have found two ways of helping myself not to buy too many of these. Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious, if not more so, than their fresh counterparts. So I now have a stock frozen vegetables in the deep freeze. They are always to hand and I use exactly what I need. I still buy fresh vegetables, and when I do, I try to buy organic. Not only are organic vegetables grown without harmful pesticides, their production is less harmful to the environment on the whole. Also research has shown that food grown without pesticides may contain more beneficial nutrients. I find they even taste a bit better – more like vegetables used to taste when I was a kid. Organic vegetables do tend to be slightly more expensive than their traditionally farmed cousins, but when you have paid a bit more, you think twice about throwing something away. Most vegetables can be trimmed if they are getting a bit woody or wilted– and if worse comes to worse you can use some slightly less than ideal leftover vegetables in a “bottom of the fridge” stir fry. Quick cooking and a bit or soy sauce or sweet chilli sauce refresh the most fatigued of vegetables. (Obviously anything beyond a bit wilted or woody should not be used. If you can see mould, don’t use it.)

As for meat, I have always chosen free range, organic or humanely raised meats anyway. I have, however, started to use my local butcher. Not only does it stimulate the local economy, but a good local butcher is a great source of excellent quality, traceable meat. At a butcher’s shop you buy exactly what you need when you need it – so you don’t end up with three packages of multi-buy ground beef you won’t use up in time – or that will end up lost forever in the back of the freezer.

I appreciate not everyone can shop every day. I certainly don’t. But with a little planning you can make an organic resolution to shop smarter from this moment on. By buying the best, in reasonable quantities, you can make your household healthier, more economical and more environmentally friendly all in one go. The alternative, if you are like the average family as my family was, is to keep throwing away over $1000 a year. Bit of a no brainer really.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Glam or Not So Glam? New York Dining in the Post-Modern Era

One of my main reasons for choosing to go to New York City over the New Year is that I have always found it to be one of the most glamorous cities in the world. I planned a visit that would please the whole family, one that would include a carriage ride in Central Park, some serious shopping and sightseeing, and last but by no means least, eating at lots of lovely restaurants. As you would expect of someone who writes about food, I love the stuff. In fact, my whole family loves to cook and eat, and where better than the Big Apple to experience dining at some of the most famous restaurants in the world? The only thing was, would dining in New York still be as glamorous as I remembered it or would the years of economic slowdown since my last visit taint our experience? In short, was New York dining still glamorous – or had the economic downturn taken the glamour out of New York?

We based ourselves at the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue and our first foray into fine dining was at their restaurant, The Bull and The Bear, on New Year’s Eve. I had seriously high expectations of this evening, not least of all because dinner was priced at $275 a plate. Sadly, due to some serious organisational issues, the atmosphere was more frantic than glamorous. We were welcomed less than enthusiastically due to the sheer disorganisation of the staff. The restaurant was decorated beautifully but the service was more conveyor belt than bespoke. We honestly felt like the staff wished we were not there. Mind you, I wouldn’t like to work New Year’s Eve either, but you don’t have to let everyone know that! The food, with the exception of the second course which was cold when it arrived, was very good – but it sure was not worth what we were paying for it. Although I expect to pay top dollar for a New Year’s Eve dinner in New York, I expect to feel special while I am doing it. I felt a lot of things, but special was not one of them! In fact, the atmosphere was so abysmal (please do not even ask me about the entertainment), we left when we had finished our meal – a whole hour and a half before midnight. We retired upstairs to watch the events unfold at Times Square which was fun as I was in good company, but not what I had expected to be doing, and not even remotely glamorous. Not a great start in the glamour stakes I have to say.

The following day we headed to The Russian Tea Room for New Year’s Day brunch. From the moment we were welcomed by the uniformed doorman, I could tell this was definitely somewhere special. The rich décor, the discreet, attentive service and the gourmet menu were wonderful. Whether you wanted to drink champagne or tea, you were made to feel as welcome as any celebrity. Nothing was too much trouble and yes, I did feel special - so special that we booked to come back again later in the week. Glamour is definitely alive and well at The Russian Tea Room.

After our less than brilliant experience at The Bull and The Bear, I was hesitant to dine at another of the Waldorf Hotel’s restaurants, but when in Rome you just have to do as the Romans do. In short, you simply cannot stay at the Waldorf Astoria without trying their Waldorf salad. This famous dish is offered at Oscar’s, the Waldorf Astoria’s brasserie. The restaurant was buzzing when we arrived on a Saturday lunchtime and the chic palm-lined interior was very welcoming. The diners included a lot of New Yorkers, which I felt was as a very good sign. There were two versions of the Waldorf salad on offer – the traditional version (sadly served only served as an appetiser) and a main course Waldorf salad that included chicken and cheese. The latter did not sound very authentic to any of us, so we decided to have the appetiser version. While it was different than what I expected – including as it did only three walnuts (seriously, exactly three on each plate), it was delicious. The service was very good and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The atmosphere offered the glamour that the food did not, and on the whole, I am relieved to say that glamour is still alive and well at the Waldorf Astoria.

Suitably encouraged, we decided to dine the next evening at Peacock Alley, the Waldorf’s other signature restaurant, situated off to the side in the main lobby. Originally a cocktail lounge, Peacock Alley has evolved over the years into a good-sized restaurant. The lobby of the Waldorf Astoria is a busy place so I was a bit concerned we might feel a bit like we were dining in a goldfish bowl. On the contrary, Peacock Alley is cleverly designed so that while diners can people-watch to their heart’s content, those in the lobby really cannot see much of the diners. Our welcome was enthusiastic, the service impeccable and the food absolutely divine. Everything was the epitome of glamour and sophistication. That’s two brownie points in the glamour stakes for the Waldorf.

Not only that, but on hearing of our experience on New Year’s Eve, our wonderful waiter from Peacock Alley contacted the manager of The Bull and The Bear who not only offered us dinner next time we are in New York, but refunded part of the cost of our meal and paid for our bottle of wine. Okay, so New Year’s Eve wasn’t very glam, but the management of The Bull and The Bear are definitely a class act.

So at this point I have to say that although it is a much bigger and busier hotel than I expected it to be, the Waldorf Astoria has managed to retain a lot of the glamour it was famous for all those years ago. So would a journey to another bastion of old world New York glamour – The Rainbow Room – prove as satisfying?

The Rainbow Room opened in 1934 on the sixty-fifth floor of Thirty Rockefeller Plaza in Rockefeller Centre and was considered the jewel in the crown of this incredible development. Back then, it was described as an intimate supper club for New York’s elite and influential. I was expecting something very special indeed.

It all started off well, with a uniformed attendant escorting us to the express elevator to the Rainbow Grill. He pressed a button and we were off. This particular elevator stops only at the sixty-fifth floor or on the ground floor – nothing in between. When the elevator doors whooshed open I was expecting plush carpeting and quiet music, but instead I was greeted with a din. Noisy and crowded, we squeezed our way through the people at the bar on our way to our table. I was grateful that we had a table directly beside the window; the view was incredible. However, the tables were really squeezed in and all through the evening I felt a bit sardine-like. This did not help me to feel very comfortable – I love views but heights are really not my thing. The service was quite slow as well, and less than attentive. The food, on the other hand, was absolutely delicious – the only mistake being the fact that my son’s steak – which he had requested to be cooked to medium – was actually quite beyond well done. In fact, it was just short of completely overcooked. The waiters had disappeared at this point and it was not worth ruining the evening by complaining, but it was a major disappointment, particularly as it was my son’s birthday. I have to be honest, aside from the view, we could not wait to leave – there was no glamour left in the Rainbow Room.

It was therefore no surprise when we visited Rockefeller Centre the next morning to see a news headline on the ticker at NBC – “Rainbow Room to close on 12th January due to economic woes”. As we experienced it, it is the sort of place you would only visit once, and no restaurant can survive without repeat visitors. When I compare it to another sky-high restaurant, the 360 at the CN Tower in Toronto, it comes out very poorly indeed. We had a beautiful meal at the 360 not long ago – impeccable service and delicious food. It may not have the history of the Rainbow Grill, but it has tons more glamour.

With our visit to New York nearly over, I found myself in a reflective mood. Was New York dining still glamorous, or had the economic crisis taken the glamour out of New York dining? It’s easy to lose your shine in a tough economy, but if you want to survive as a business, the best thing you can do is to cultivate it. Thankfully, I can affirm that there is still lots of glamour to be found in many New York restaurants, although not always in the places you would expect it to be. All I can say is, long may it continue. We all need a little glamour in our lives – especially these days.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Stepping Back In Time

The evocative red awning at the entrance to the Russian Tea Room on West 57th Street is recognisable to almost everyone. Those who have not actually been there will have seen it in photographs or in the many films that have been shot there, including ‘Tootsie’ and ‘Manhattan’. Over the years the Russian Tea Room has hosted both the famous and infamous – politicians, actors and even royalty. It was a point of pride with the management that they always sat side by side with ordinary members of the public. This is echoed by the fact that there are no celebrity photographs lining the walls of this restaurant. Dignity, privacy and discretion were always its watchwords.

Originally founded in 1927 by dancers of the Russian Imperial Ballet Company seeking a new life in America, the current premises were purchased in 1930 by a Siberian expatriate. He did everything to make the dancers feel welcome, including using a very Russian shade of red for the decor, lining the walls with samovars and using Faberge eggs as inspiration for the decorations. Over the years, the Russian Tea Room changed hands a number of times – and even closed at one point – but thankfully it re-opened in 2002 and is once again the landmark that it used to be.

I first heard about the Russian Tea Room as a child, in a book I read one cold wintery afternoon. Sadly the title is lost in the mists of my memory, but I do recall the author’s vivid description of the brightly coloured red and green décor and the walls lined with samovars and works of art. I was utterly captivated by the idea of this little jewel of a restaurant and decided immediately I had to dine there one day.

Up until now circumstances have conspired against me, as most of my visits to New York have been rather hurried. So I found myself visiting the restaurant I had dreamed of for most of my life nearly thirty years after that wintery afternoon, for brunch with my husband and son on New Year’s Day this year.

The doorman welcomed us as we walked in under the famous red awning. After we checked our coats in the cloakroom (legend has it that Madonna was a coat check girl here in the days before she became famous), we were escorted to one of the glorious red booths on the left side of the restaurant. I was entranced by the décor, which was everything I had expected it to be. Vivid reds, greens and golds surrounded us. Numerous works of art lined the walls, most of them in vivid colours as well. These were interspersed with shiny samovars, polished within an inch of their lives. The waiters were dressed traditionally, in black uniforms with glossy gold buttons. The little girl inside me who had originally dreamed of visiting here was not disappointed; it was everything I expected it to be. Yet this gloriously famous old restaurant was not for one moment stuffy. We were made to feel incredibly welcome from the moment we arrived, and our waiter was totally attentive, despite the fact it was very busy indeed.

We chose to start our brunch with a basket of pastries and fruit smoothies. My son tasted the first pastry, a doughnut, and was so taken by the flavour that he immediately cut it into three pieces so my husband and I could have some too. It was the best doughnut I have ever tasted. The basket also included a beautifully flaky croissant, pain au chocolat and delicious baby muffins. The smoothies were wonderfully fruity and freshly made.

The next part of our brunch was lovely as well. My husband chose the Eggs Florentine, which he thoroughly enjoyed. I had a light and fluffy egg white omelette, stuffed with spinach and baby mushrooms. Toast was served alongside, cut in soldiers, the crusts removed. My son tried the Cinnamon French Toast, which was almost like a bread pudding. He had wanted to try the caviar but we put him off as neither my husband nor I like it. However should you have different tastes to us, there are not less than ten different sorts listed on the menu. I watched it being served under shiny silver domes, beautifully presented in glass bowls laid on piles of crushed ice.

We finished with tea, which was served in the Russian fashion in glass cups with gold handles. All the teas were served without milk, although we were offered a tray of sugar and a dish of sour cherries. We were advised to actually put these cherries in our tea. I could not quite bring myself to do that, but I did taste them and they were absolutely delicious. We lingered over our tea, enjoying our surroundings and each other’s company. When we finally wandered out into the cold New York air some time later, we had already booked a table for lunch on my son’s birthday a few days hence.

The wonderful thing about eating at the Russian Tea Room is that although it was not inexpensive, I felt it was very good value for money. The food was delicious and well prepared and the service was excellent. We were treated with exactly the same amount of respect and attention as the diners next to us who were dining on caviar and champagne. Unlike many New York restaurants, the Russian Tea Room does not include the tip in your bill, so we were free to leave exactly what we felt had been earned by our attentive server - in cash so that we knew it went directly to him.

For me, the Russian Tea Room has always symbolised the glamour of old New York. And on the first afternoon of this New Year, I felt like I had stepped back in time to a golden age far removed from our post-modern era. Of course I cannot know what it was really like back in the day, but I cannot imagine that our experience was that far removed from what the famous diners of yesteryear must have seen and experienced. The Russian Tea Room is truly a jewel of a restaurant and I simply cannot recommend it highly enough.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Taking the Bull By The Horns - Or Not, As the Case May Be

I had been looking forward to our New Year’s Eve Dinner at The Waldorf Astoria for months. The Waldorf is the stuff of legend and I felt that we would be just about assured of a memorable meal. I had booked The Bull and The Bear Restaurant, as it sounded like it was just up our street, specializing in beautifully cooked steaks and a comfortable atmosphere.

When we arrived at the hotel in the early afternoon, it was suggested that as the dinner started at 8pm, we ought to show up at restaurant reception at about ten to eight in order to collect our tickets. Hoping for a memorable evening, we duly arrived at what we thought was the entrance at the requested time. However, apparently this was not the correct entrance, as a member of staff made strange gestures thought the window to indicate that we had to go back upstairs and back down another staircase. We did so and arrived at another entrance with several other couples - only to be met with another locked door. The staff members who could clearly see us from inside the restaurant appeared to be ignoring us. The corridor we were standing in was rather breezy and after a while we were all very cold indeed. Then two guests appeared out of nowhere inside the restaurant and were seated. We all felt very cross indeed and the 21st Century Husband knocked on the doors. The staff member who had been ignoring us waved at us indicating we had to wait. By this time, freezing cold, we were angry enough to knock again and when someone finally came to us angrily to say they were not ready, I enquired as to whether we should go to the bar upstairs. “Oh no,” we were told. “We are nearly ready.” Well, by this time I was too cold to be polite and was more than a little cross so I said, “Well, it’s freezing out here and I’m not very happy.” The lady shut the doors angrily, but seconds later a chap came back and opened them and we were finally admitted. Not a very good welcome I have to say.

It was clear they truly were not ready at all as we were led from one section of the restaurant to another apparently hunting for our table, although we were the only people of our last name to have tickets for the evening. We were finally sat, just across from the kitchens, but mercifully not in the same room as the musician who was already playing extremely loudly and slightly off key.

We were served a glass of champagne, but it soon became clear this would be the only alcohol included in the dinner (despite the price) as we were presented with a wine list. We chose one of the cheapest wines on the list, shockingly priced at nearly $100 a bottle. It was one we had before at our favourite Harris Steakhouse in San Francisco, but which had cost us less than half of what the Bull and The Bear were charging. The wine tasted just as we expected, but when we requested different glasses (the only wine glasses on the table were for white wine), it took the waiter some time to find different ones and they still were not appropriate for the heavy red wine we had ordered as they were simply a larger glass for white wine. I don’t normally fuss over glasses, but when the wine costs $100 a bottle, it suddenly seems awfully important!

The first course, which offered us a choice of butternut squash soup with braised beef, smoked salmon or a seafood selection was actually the best of the whole evening. The 21st Century Teenager and I had the soup and I have to say it was just incredible. The flavours were balanced and it was amazingly delicious. And I say this as someone who really does not like squash at all. The 21st Century Husband had the smoked salmon and commented it was both a generous and delicious serving. Sadly things went downhill from here.

The next course offered a choice of scallops or polenta with truffles. The 21st Century Husband and I ordered scallops and the 21st Century Teenager ordered the polenta. Our scallops were cold on arrival and that ruined the dish for me. I appreciate scallops have to be cooked lightly but they should still be warm when you eat them. As for the polenta with truffles – well, the 21st Century Teenager has eaten all over the world (truffles are one of his favourite things) and is not a fussy eater. But this dish defeated him, as he quietly whispered to me that it was “the worst thing I have ever tasted”.

By this time we were feeling very worn out indeed. The atmosphere had not improved, the entertainment was mediocre and the service was quite poor. I was praying the main course would be good. We had all ordered steak and to the credit of the chef, each steak arrived done as we requested it, despite our wildly varying requirements for the cooking of steak. The 21st Century Teenager had a beautiful medium well done steak, mine was medium and the 21st Century Husband’s was medium rare. The vegetables were cooked beautifully – tender crisp and delicious. The potatoes looked a bit grey, but were actually a beautiful garlic mash. However by this time the evening was beginning to go a bit sour, in fact some of the guests had begun to leave before dessert, and I have to confess that however nice the main course was, the price for it had been so grossly inflated it was almost obscene. We had been charged, in advance, $275 a plate for this dinner, not including the $100 for a bottle wine.

I know it was New Year’s Eve in New York, and I expected an inflated price, but $275 for something was clearly not worth it is not something you expect to see in this market. Bear in mind please that this comment is from someone who is used to prices in London, and who does not mind paying a lot for something of value, but who hates to feel like she is being ripped off. And last night I really felt I was being ripped off. I regularly pay upwards of £150 ($200) a person for dinner but only in places where I am made to feel special and welcome when I do it, and where the food is worth the price. I felt neither special nor welcome at the Bull and the Bear.

The promise of a trio of desserts made us hang in there but while dessert was tasty enough, the service and atmosphere were still so dire that even more people were leaving, not bothering to wait to see in the New Year, despite the promise of another glass of champagne.

I have never heard so little laughter at a New Year celebration. Once we had finished dinner, we all decided to admit defeat and leave at 10.30pm. By now, the slightly off key singing was becoming annoying and there was no celebratory atmosphere. In the end, we had much more fun watching the ball drop in Times Square on the television in our hotel room.

Sadly I have been left with a rather bitter taste in my mouth, from $775 spent on something I expected to be the dinner of a lifetime, but which turned out to be a huge waste of time. I truly hope the rest of our experience at the Waldorf is not as disappointing as this very negative first impression. Perhaps the Waldorf don’t rely on repeat business for their New Year’s Eve entertainments, but in this market they may soon find they have to. Certainly, it will be a cold day somewhere other than New York before I ever attend a New Year’s Eve dinner here again.