02138.com blog

News, Views, & the Muse from the world's most opinionated zip code

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Review of The Biscuit from Yelp…

March 24th, 2009 · No Comments

[Down below and to the right is a map of the immediate vicinity, the 02138 vicinity that is, showing locations of two places I’ve reviewed to date in Yelp… what remains an occupation open to question. There are convenient links with markers at the geographic locations on the map of the two places I’ve reviewed so far.

Yelp is for people with short attention spans and whose quotidian vocabulary, beyond “cool,” “dude,” and “excellent” seems to consist largely of the word “yum” to express ultimate gustatory satisfaction. On the other hand, I write in complete sentences, use many multisyllabic words, sprinkled among a framework of the basic Anglo-Saxon lexicon of mono- and two-syllable words that allow us to use Twitter, which is apparently the summum bonum of man’s evolution to date, if not for eternity… And I do go on at length, as I believe nothing worth commenting on is worth giving short shrift purely for the sake of brevity. “Cutting to the chase,” and “bottom-line” or “long-story short…” are not incentives to me to desist from my habit of pursuing a subject to its conclusion, however comprehensively I feel it needs analysis, consideration, or comment. You don’t like it, lump it. Don’t read it, and don’t bitch to me. There is a limit of 5000 characters on the Yelp site, and so far this is a constraint I have welcomed as a challenge, to see if it’s possible to contain my remarks to this quota and still be able to say something meaningful. In an admittedly and self-consciously redundant effort, what follows is the entirety of my Biscuit comments. It may induce you to visit Yelp. Seeing signs of such an effect will induce me to continue to contribute at that site. Otherwise, I’ll simply mainly ignore it and concentrate my efforts in the development of material for more propitious venues in terms of reaching my audience: whoever that turns out to be. After five years of writing blog essays and other verbal products, I’m still not sure who or what that is. The presumption is, it is self-defining, and for the time being, I still have the leisure to see how it defines itself, even as I step up my efforts to get greater exposure so that audience can at least identify itself, while deciding if reading what I have to write is worth their time. But that’s enough rationale. Here’s “The Biscuit” from Yelp: ]

The preponderance of the reviews appear to be by transients. Not surprising as the neighborhood immediately around The Biscuit is a haven for graduate students mainly from Harvard and Tufts. Though they’re smart enough, God knows, they make up for abundance of brains by a deficit of taste. Since the days it opened, as Panini — a reference to being primarily a bakery, and not to the more recent sandwich modality — the place quickly became popular, especially in the morning. It is patronized mainly by students, office workers, especially from the nearby Cambridge Hospital and a large branch of the Cambridge Health Alliance offices across the street.

Comments on Yelp, many of them ill-informed, are not generally helpful.

It’s a very homey place. The counter folk are exceptional, or always have been, and were, until recently, quite stable. Immensely friendly and, if you’re a regular, they’ll certainly learn your name within several visits, know your preferences within a few more. Even on your first visit will engage you in a warm conversation, however brief, whoever you are. Music, “programmed” by the bakers, is wildly, wonderfully eclectic; it rarely seems to disturb the many “keyboard” warriors.

The owners, Greta and her husband, are invariably on premise, unless tending to the school needs of their two young children. He is usually ensconced in the rear bakery, which runs from extremely early morning to mid-day–they are also a supplier of bread to other outlets, including restaurants–and the most visible part of their business is the retail trade which streams in throughout the day. It can get busy enough, especially on “non-school” days–weekends, academic breaks or holidays, that every table is full, or partially so, and people are encouraged to, and do, share tables.

There is a huge crowd of regulars, single people, couples, & groups of four or more who have regular dates to meet on weekend mornings. There is a strange air of quiet liveliness. The place is relaxed for the most part, well lived-in in feeling.

The association with Gus Rancatore of Toscanini ice cream was terminal. He had and has no interest financially in the bakery, and for the use of the name, and his supplying coffee and ice cream on some variant of a license basis, the new owners who bought the original Panini, had a recognized identity. This briefly caused great consternation among the Cambridge and Somerville regulars who made use of the limited offerings, mainly bread, coffee, and breakfast pastry items. Panini at one time only offered the now well-loved savory scones–a genuine signature item of this little place–as a single flavor, the original cheddar and onion, and ONLY if the baker on duty felt like making them; they even threatened once to discontinue making them, which elicited stern protests from regulars.

The Biscuit still uses many of the original bread and pastry recipes instituted by the original owners of Panini. They have also added items of their own devising, and instituted the sandwich, soup, and broadened the sheet goods (what they call frittata, baked on a croissant dough base, like pizza, plus actual yeast-based pizza) selections, added some very much sweeter items than the usual selection of muffins and scones, including bread pudding, brioche-based items, like a new chocolate brioche, a cinnamon coffee roll, which they call a pecan strudel… There are a number of other excellent choices, all mis-named slightly, but descriptively enough.

All in all, offerings seem to cater to more adult tastes, which may account for some Yelp complaints about items not being sweet enough. In fact, sugar as an ingredient is kept to a minimum, and there are more than the usual number of choices of savory items, including a broadening of the savory scone varieties now on offer every day of the week and among the most popular.

The sandwiches are made fresh and continually through the day and wrapped and kept on ice right on the counter. What people seem to miss is that this ensures that there is NO WAIT for almost any item on offer. Fast food indeed. And there is none of the arrogant, snotty, indifferent, or pea-pod-people behavior at Darwin’s, where you must wait for what are the sometimes inept ministrations of the sandwich makers.

The soups are fresh and there is usually a choice of at least two and sometimes four soups daily, changed daily, made from choice ingredients.

The coffee has returned to excellence after the present owners allowed the relationship with Toscanini to lapse. Gus’s coffee is horrendous. There is the noted expansion into the making of other beverages, including chais, and a broad various “steamed” selection.

The pastries, and the breads, for that matter, are well differentiated offerings from other shops. Other coffee purveyors do not make their own baked goods (1369, Bloc 11, etc.), and Hi-Rise and Carberry’s are too far to be real competition, though they are real alternatives.

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The Big O promised real change, he’s giving us Small Change

February 10th, 2009 · No Comments

Since the Big O was given the big I (investiture) I’ve been a regular user of the spiffy new White House website: http://www.whitehouse.gov

In what is allegedly the first opportunity for the public to have electronic access to the Presidential inner sanctum (Bush encouraged people to write to him via snail mail, and he promised to write back… some day; big whoop—of course, he ignored everyone, so instant feedback was of little merit, but I digress), you can send a message, up to 500 characters (another big whoop; but it’s good discipline for a prolix asshole like me). When you use the link above, it will take you to the White House home page. Click on the link in the upper-left hand corner that says “CONTACT Us” and it will take you to a page with a form for your identification, and a box to hold your 500 characters of pure wisdom (or bile, or whatever you care to send).

I’ve sent several messages since January 20-something (when the site first went up), mainly urging urgency to be impressed upon the Congress with the economic recovery legislation, and trying to hold the Big O’s big feet to the ethical reform fires he lit himself (I had the pleasure of giving him crap about giving Mr. Daschle and Mr. Geithner a ‘free pass’ as I called it, and an hour-and-a-half after I posted the White House, Daschle up and threw in the towel… That’s responsiveness to citizen outrage!)

Of course, Mr. Geithner, that slippery guy, did slip through, and he’s the subject of today’s rant by me to the Big O.

To stimulate your activism, and encourage you to write to O, write to your Congressional delegation (write early, write often), I here reproduce my message of the day to the White House:

“You disappoint in significant ways. Allowing Mr. Geithner to prevail on phase 2 of the banking bailout is same old same old. I’m surprised there’s no provision for fruit baskets and discount coupons for body man services for bank executives. You promised real change in government. The bankers who enabled this mess deserve censure, if not divestiture and removal, if not outright prosecution. This isn’t real change, it’s Small Change: the name of the homeless newspaper here in Cambridge.”

→ No CommentsTags: local · national · Politics · world

super Super88

January 25th, 2009 · No Comments

Thanks to my friends Tse Wei and Diana, I got a little bit of heaven in the gritty wilds of Allston-Brighton. For the mere price of a ride I got the unexpected treat of a dim sum breakfast with the added benefits of 1/4 of a roast duck and a boatload of wok-fried pea pod stems. Lest there be some impression of coercion, because it was their idea, I did offer the ride.

The ostensible reason was an errand on their part, to pick up their monthly allotment of a full farmshare of meat (steer, pork, and some other stuff—there were an awful lot of bits of tasty things in that big cardboard box). As Super88—the Asian food connection in that neck of the urban wilds, where Brighton Avenue splits off from Commonwealth, just beyond the megalopolis formerly known as the Boston University West Campus—is just down the street, it seemed a natural to chow down.

From Dim Sum Chef we ordered (in no particular order of importance or delectability), the tripe with ginger and scallions, the B.B.Q. pork buns, the rice noodle rolls with shrimp, the eggplant with black bean sauce, and, as a kind of dessert, the bean paste buns. Across the way, at Kantin, we ordered the roast duck and pea pod stems. And the cost, for the three of us gave us five bucks and change from two twenties. Not bad for a mini-banquet.

There was nothing to be faulted. Rather, it was as good as some feasible standard of what good dim sum should be. I’ll make special mention of the tripe (not for all tastes I realize, but if it were always prepared this well, and one can learn to overlook the esthetics of the dish… anything might be possible in opening new personal gustatory vistas), which was incredibly well done, light, toothsome, and tasty, with none of the shortcomings of the dish at the hands of anything less than the most deft cooks. The French and the Italians, who suck this stuff down, and when it’s good over there, it’s very very good, though that doesn’t always happen, could learn a thing or two in Allston-Brighton.

We then repaired to where the Stillman van sat, with a long line of customers waiting to pick up their monthly order, just outside the Clear Flour Bakery at the corner of Abbotsford and Hamilton Roads in Brookline. Tse Wei and Diana, who, it would appear, have a sweet tooth apiece (and the toothpick thin physiques to allow indulgence), wanted some pastry, and I wanted coffee, and saw a loaf of bread I thought might be interesting. So we stopped in at the bakery (with a somewhat shorter line, but a line nevertheless, on a sultry 18-degree noon).

The bread does not disappoint, though, as I find so often, the designation, that is, the mere naming of the bread was a tad pretentious. We were in Brookline after all, not Haut Provence (whence I have just returned). The loaf I bought was called a “pain meunier,” or in pseudo-colloquial French “miller’s bread.” Though I doubt it. I’ve never seen anything with such a name, here or in France. There’s that perennial classic fish dish, “sole à la meuniére,” or sole cooked in the manner of the miller’s wife (floured and quickly sautéed in butter, and finished with freshly squeezed lemon juice), but this bread has nothing to do with that and vice versa.

Other bakers, a little more honestly, or at least less pretentiously, would call it 5-grain or 7-grain, or however-many-grain it actually is. It’s a light loaf, with a lovely crisp crust, and good, even crumb, toothy but light, as is the loaf generally, with bits of coarser grain visible. The bread is described on their “Bread Availability” matrix (which lists 30 types of bread, not all of them available every day) in this way:

Each step of taking grain to flour is used: cracked wheat, whole wheat flour, wheat germ & white flour

I would have put it a little differently, that is, I think they meant, “the product of each step…,” although this can be said of any bread, in a way, as you cannot mill flour without doing something with the germ, without first cracking the wheat (if that’s the procedure you use), and white flour does entail some processing they’re leaving out. In short, it would appear it’s whole wheat bread with a much fuller pedigree, and some crunchy bits that milling usually pulverizes.

The bread is equally good of course, and pretense has no flavor, not perceptible to the palate, but gustatory pleasure is more than a physical experience.

As is evident at the Super88, where they put on no airs at all.

As for the coffee from Clear Flour, I will note only two things. They are, of course, a bakery, not a coffee house. And the coffee, in keeping with the general air of carriage trade pretention, was “Fair Exchange” or whatever it’s called, wherein the imbiber has some assurance that the original coffee grower wasn’t screwed in the process of getting you your 12 ounces of java in a paper cup for a buck-fifty, as you wait your turn in line to order your baguette or “Rustic Fougasse.”

What the imbiber can also be assured, and I don’t blame the grower, as there are, if I may paraphrase, a lot of “steps to take the beans to grounds,” before you can suck down that cup of nice hot joe on a very cold day, is that the coffee may not exactly taste like coffee. Indeed, as I pointed out to Tse Wei and Diana, who patiently waited while the car warmed up as I sipped my coffee (as I won’t drive drinking a beverage), the coffee, miraculously, had no aroma whatsoever. It seemed like a miracle. They had managed to manufacture opaque brown water, saleable for $1.50 a cup. The miracle ended with the first sip, for, as I again pointed out, I could attest that it also had no taste, except it was incredibly bitter.

We pay too high a price for assuaging our consciences, on the presumption that everyone involved is as vigilant about the quality of the product as those who produce real coffee, without also trying to make you feel good about it, separate and apart from the gustatory experience. And they don’t necessarily screw anybody in the process either. And certainly not the coffee drinker.

Political and social correctness, it would seem, comes at the expense of simple pleasure.

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Finnegan Begin Again

October 23rd, 2008 · No Comments

For reasons that are far too tedious to mention, this is an old blog with no old content. However, I’ve somehow found the energy to determine to begin again (Finnegan? well, it’s an old expression, and no doubt has to do with wakes and resurrections). The old blog was corrupted anyway, by some random hacker, with nothing better to do. This meant it was nearly impossible to add the blog to an RSS feed.

If I find out easily how to retrieve the old entries, which now date back at least a year, I will restore them here (it may take a while, or it may happen all at once if it can happen at all). In the meantime, you can blame an outfit called Web.com, which is the hosting service I have used for many years, quite reliably, until their management seems to have drunk water tainted with drugs that induce dementia. They have instituted steps, uncalled for and certainly unsolicited, which they deem improvements, and which have, among other things, wreaked havoc with the likes of this lowly blog of mine. This is as opposed to the high and mighty blog of mine, called “Per Diem,” which you can reach by clicking here, and which remains thus far unsullied and unbowed (though unreplenished for what will soon be five months, since the death of my beloved wife Linda; but this drought soon will end), and with luck (and my continued payment of fees for maintaining the blog out of the reach or the clutches of Web.com) will remain so.

So carry on… As is my very good intention to do, and best wished to you all, as I set about, among other things, rebuilding and re-developing this blog.

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Test Post

October 23rd, 2008 · No Comments

Test post 2008October23 11:32am

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Interesting Strategy for Local Resto to Drum Up Covers

April 21st, 2008 · No Comments

When I am not in France, which is seldom enough these days (through no fault but reality and bad luck) I live in Cambridge, which is next door to Somerville (quite next door for us, about four blocks–a difference measured in house market values, going down as we head east).

There’s a restaurant practically on the border, indeed there are three or four worth mentioning, and quite popular (not surprisingly, as they are all quite good and very well reviewed). It’s called EVOO, in a branding strategy probably more applicable in the West Village than in western Somerville on the Cambridge-Somerville cusp. But it’s a good place for this restaurant, which offers Chef Peter McCarthy’s version of  what the Zagat mentality would call fusion or American eclectic (whatever that means).

They have always been innovative, McCarthy and his wife, since the days they were the first tenants of a refurbished, renovated, enlarged, and modernized 19th century-style five story brick office building, which takes up about 1/4 of a city block. They have seen their neighbor to one side, a huge retail storefront repeatedly go into business and out, a fate that was predictable as each time the business was renting videos. So, pace Netflix and big chains, like Blockbuster, (and a much more savvy local competitor that caters to local tastes in art films, independent features, classics, and the usual bag of blockbusters), that huge storefront stands empty.

This is good news and bad news for EVOO. Who wants to run a business in a neighborhood with few commercial establishments (their neighbor on the other side is a walk-in ATM for Bank of America, which does brisk business), a few places to eat — a very popular moderately priced Indian resto called Kebab Factory (much more sophisticated, and much higher quality than the name suggests), a spectacularly popular tapas place called Dali, which has been there longest and is on the very short list of date places that are a must (good food, controllable expense because it’s almost all small plates, and a beer and wine license; and it’s ultra funky, being accoutered and decorated as only Hispanic immigrants who work hard, and cook extremely well, but could never afford an architect, would do it), plus The Biscuit, also popular — essentially a bakery that started only incidentally as a café, but now does a brisk business through lunch (they make their own sandwiches and soups, using their own breads) for locals and the huge student population? Well, as compensation, that huge office semi-block that EVOO and the Factory are in has an underground garage for tenants, and a small, but adequate parking lot, with about 25 spaces for customers only of the retail establishments. With the video rental places now defunct, the lot is never full. And further, in that neighborhood you’re never more than a block or so from a parking space, surrounded by lower-middle income houses of good solid working class Somerville residents and graduate students from Harvard, plus the odd condo development as Somerville slowly and not so painfully (except to see it happen) gentrifies, with dreams of rivaling its now rich and in many ways unaffordable sister city, Cambridge.

EVOO, I would suspect, has never suffered from lack of parking for customers. And their innovation, to which I alluded, has been there from the start, in the form of interesting menus, and inventive ways with old favorites, like backdoor smoked salmon (so-called because they operated their own smoker, which was located, as you can guess, in the back doorway of the restaurant). Currently the menu features such delicacies as a paté of red deer, as well as a red deer sausage. An entree called “Duck, Duck, Goose” has never not appeared on the menu (with varieties of combinations of preparations of the two fowl named in this eponymous dish; currently, duck confit, duck foie gras, and sliced goose breast). Just as there has always been a “Chinese Box” — a sort of Asian oriented box-lunch for dinner (it’s served in a variant of a bento box) — with a slowly changing mix of constituents.

However good, and well-reviewed, the restaurant, now ten years old, has lived (certainly lived, I don’t know if survival was ever in question; I’m not reporting for a daily newspaper or the trade press… I happen to be a neighbor who’s observant, a patron of the place from time to time, and interested in food and the prosperity of my neighborhood) through good economic times and bad. This will be its second recession to try to weather.

Late last fall, or perhaps early winter, some strategies emerged — signage on the restaurant, and email newsletter to subscribers who must opt-in; they may advertise, but I wouldn’t know — that augur the need to further not only the mission of the restaurant, but to ensure its continued operation in the black.

They instituted the $35 prix fixe dinner, more or less “permanently.” This allows a patron to choose from among perhaps 2/3 to 3/4 of the appetizers and entrees, and several of the desserts, to concoct their own meal at a savings. Currently only the aforementioned Duck, Duck, Goose, the Chinese Box, and, understandably, the beef tenderloin are excluded from the entree choices, which leaves five other dishes of a wide range of tastes.

Just the other day, I got an email that said that they were now adding wine pairings, suggested by their wine steward, to accompany the prix fixe meal, for only $15 (I didn’t pay too much attention; this probably means the first two courses, but I wouldn’t swear by it).

I have also been receiving the odd email since last fall of “student guest chefs” from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts (of which I am assuming McCarthy is a faculty member; he is himself an alumnus of CIA). The Cambridge SCA is an ambitious program, with the usual courses for amateur chefs to hone skills, but with a professional career program whose total half-year tuition and fees hover at 25 thousand dollars.

The Student Guest Chef creates a three-course dinner, which costs a patron $35, exclusive of beverages, tax and gratuity.

I see all these as positive implementations of a praise-worthy strategy of upholding a well-regarded brand, of cultivating serious food appreciation, of providing good value, and of getting all important asses in the chairs as paying covers.

I very much hope they are succeeding. Peter and Colleen, his wife (who is in charge of the front of the house, though this is in plain view of Peter from the open kitchen, and they can be seen to confer frequently in the course of an evening), are hard-working, talented, and charming. I can’t say any more, as there is no relationship between them and me except of the eating and paying kind. I am recognizable, vaguely, and I get a requisite head nod on any encounter. But I wouldn’t ask them for my name, because that good they aren’t.

EVOO Website: http://www.evoorestaurant.com/index.html
Cambridge School of Culinary Arts Website: http://www.cambridgeculinary.com/

→ No CommentsTags: Food · Not News

Corporate Fingers in the Workers’ Tipping Jar

March 21st, 2008 · No Comments

With the level of ferocity that only a former waiter forced by management to pool tips can feel, I had mixed emotions reading the LA Times account of a class action suit brought and won by a single Starbucks barista. The story is here: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-starbucks21mar21,0,50639.story

Starbucks has indicated their determination to appeal “in the interests of shift supervisors,” now forced to strip themselves, figuratively, of their share of tips collected and redistributed by the company from tip jars at the point of sale. This comes on the heels of Howard Schultz’s express determination to return Starbucks “to its roots,” which was reported earlier this week in all the national dailies. I guess Starbucks roots include raping the help, figuratively (that is, to say, financially) speaking of course.

The tips collected in the past were put in a company safe in each store and distributed at the end of the week to all baristas on duty according to the number of hours they were clocked in on time cards, and including a cut (an equal cut) to the shift supervisors, i.e., “management.” Distribution was on the basis of simple mathematical division of the total by the number of cumulative hours of all employees so rewarded. The average, according to the LA Times was $1.71 in tips per hour—those California latte drinkers are clearly big spenders.

So now we must add to our sense of the roots of Starbucks (even in the week that one of the leading candidates for President of the U.S., took a backward look, with regard to racism in America, tracing his roots in the process, and reminding us that we are not perfect, but we can act as if perfectible) a notion of their fundamental paternalistic corporate rapaciousness. Hence the decision to spend corporate bucks to appeal.

Inferior beans. Overroasted to somewhere just south of burnt. And poorly ground, brewed, and served by underpaid drones, whose sole dignity is the bestowal of a job title, “barista,” more appropriately (and properly) applied to individuals in Italy who actually consider what they do a profession, hence a career, and perform it accordingly. And incidentally, as is the custom in “old Europe,” that woebegone and backward part of the world where a U.S. dollar currently will not get you the price of a cup of coffee, they do it, those pro baristas, without the prospect of a tip—unlike the baristas manqués of Starbucks, who see the tip, as do all Americans, as the slippery and uncertain means of supplementing what is laughingly called a living.

Great roots.

P.S. Morbius, thanks for the link to the LA Times piece.

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Great Dish

July 25th, 2007 · No Comments

I keep forgetting to mention this. There’s a not so new any more fine culinary addition to the choices in Davis Square. It’s called Sagra and it’s Italian.


Sagra in Somerville

I also want to say, thanks to Steve [Lipsey] for leading me there.

The only other thing I want to say is: Gnocchi al sugo d’anatra*: Amazing!

*Here’s the description from the menu: Soft [“homemade”] potato dumplings, succulent duck ragu, (tomato, red wine and orange peel) topped by lots of grated Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano.

Actually there’s just enough cheese grated on it, not “lots,” which would be overkill, if not disgusting.

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Quick Meal

July 18th, 2007 · No Comments

Today’s NYTimes has 101 very quick (ten-minutes or less) “summer” meals (registration required to read NYTimes online)—one or two-line recipes—from Mark Bittman, the self-styled “Minimalist.”

Basics are a necessity in the repertoire of anyone who makes any claim to being able to cook, but even the basics are elusive to a great many people. Bittman sells the virtues of simplicity, and his avuncular, self-referential, semi-bumbling manner probably goes a long way to help people overcome their sense that cooking is one of the black arts.

Whatever the philosophical underpinnings of such a perception, and its implications in everyday life, I will have to address in Per Diem as a more suitable venue for open-ended opining.

In this blog, I will devote as little space as possible to get at the heart of the matter.

The setting was typical: a suburban deck and kitchen, a thunderstorm threatening, a planned Sunday mid-summer dinner of whatever the market offered that day for five adults.

We ended up going to two farm stands in Concord, MA. One, known to me, was Verrill Farms—a very large operation, and more an open-air market than a mere stand, and the other, recommended as the better for just-picked corn, called Brigham Farm Stand, and which seemed to fit the stereotypical bill: an ill-lit wooden structure, somewhere in size between a shack and a small tractor shed, with rough tables and bins within and without.

We bought the corn at Brigham, ten ears—I don’t “check” corn, pulling back the husk and disturbing the tassle, tossing rejects back on the table, with the last narrow rows of kernels, like baby teeth, exposed to the air and the insects. I think it’s disgusting and unnecessary. Whole ears, of sufficient girth and length, with an abundant tassle, a feeling of solidity with no indentations or soft places, and a pristine husk, covering all of the ear is usually enough sign that it’s an intact edible specimen. In my cooking life of 40 years or so, I’ve had to dispose of less than 1 or 2% of corn bought this way.

Anyway, the rest is simple.

Mid-Summer Dinner for Five

1 Fillet of halibut, three pounds (or a little, tiny bit, bigger)

3 Medium-sized zucchini

3 Medium-sized Japanese Eggplants

3 Medium-sized sweet onions

1/4 cup each of white wine or a South of France rosé, chicken or fish stock. A splash of fish sauce (Vietnamese or Thai), if you have it.

Olive oil, salt (preferably Kosher or sea salt, not “fine” grain), pepper (fresh ground, if possible)

Shit-load of aluminum foil scraps or a roll, pieces should be clean, preferably unused scraps, large enough to cover half of each vegetable completely.

Optional Fresh Fruit Salsa (for the fish)

I should say, I almost forgot to include this item, a garnish, and it was the hit of the evening. This recipe, very straightforward in amounts of ingredients, is surprisingly sufficient to provide enough salsa to put gobs on every remaining bite of halibut in this meal.

1 Large Vidalia Onion (can also use a Bermuda onion, Spanish onion, or any similar mild to outright sweet onion)

1 Large Red Bell Pepper

1 Large cling fruit: Nectarine, Peach, White versions of same, Mango, just ripe, but no more

2 Limes, regular size

Juicer or reamer.

For the Salsa (to be prepared at least an hour before starting to cook)You will need an exceedingly sharp knife and a good eye and steady hand. I recommend a mandoline, or similar device set to the thinnest setting that will still allow each slice to maintain its integrity.

Clean and stem, and de-seed and de-pith the Red Bell Pepper, and divide it in quarters. Cut thin slices (very thin, in fact, we’re talking 1/32″ to maybe 1/16″), and halve them when done, as if making matchsticks.

Pit the Fruit and cut it in quarters. Same drill, exceedingly thin slices, which should be wide enough that you cut them into match sticks.

Skin the onion and cut off the rough parts of the stem end, leaving as little core as possible. and also cutting off the head, so the top of the onion is exposed as a flat surface. Cut the onion in half along its polar axis, and slice each half, again, exceedingly thin.

Place all the slices a bowl three times the volume of all the ingredients. Make sure your hands are clean with soap and hot water wash. And mix all the slices by hand, separating the slices of onion into arcs of onion layer, like curved matchsticks.

Squeeze the juice of both limes, and add it to the salsa. Sprinkle with no more than 1 – 1-1/2 Tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Mix by hand or whatever puts you on the good side of squeamish about touching food. Cover the bowl opening with a piece of clingable plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator for at least an hour. When ready to serve as a garnish. Mix the salsa with a fork. The ingredients will have macerated significantly even in a relatively short amount of time, and is extremely limpid, with a melding or blending of flavors nicely beginning. The salsa should be eaten when very fresh I think, as this allows separating the flavors even in your mouth more readily.

For the Main MealPut a 12-14 inch cast iron skillet on the burner of a stove-top set to medium-high heat. While it’s heating up (sprinkle some grains of salt in at the start; as they start to brown, the pan is hot enough), cut the fillet cross-wise into more or less equal portions by weight (not linear dimension—you most likely won’t find a single fillet this big that is of equal thickness throughout).Set the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Non-convection.

Start the charcoal (I prefer hardwood chunks, but we were using briquets; I also prefer one of those chimney starters, which leaves no chemical residue to burn off—the hardwood chunks burn MUCH hotter than briquets, so this will make the cooking of the vegetables even quicker). When it’s ready to be spread out and the grill put in place, do so, and cover with the lid (very important if a storm is brewing).

Halve each zucchini and eggplant lengthwise, and the onions through the polar axis (stem to top).

Depending on your level of fastidiousness, choose the best method for you to coat each vegetable half in oil (I use my hands). Salt each half lightly and sprinkle with a bit of the pepper—probably best to do this as each piece sits on its own piece of aluminum foil. To one of my friends, who knows who he is, this is an enormous waste of aluminum foil, and he doesn’t understand that my sole reason for this methodology is to be able to expose a large flat surface of each veg to the heat, as well as the other side, and that each piece will cook at its own rate, and therefore this is the best way to manage removal from the heat while cooking to a “turn.”

As indicated, cut the fillet into portions. Coat each portion with oil, and lightly salt and pepper each side. Place on a dish or platter on the counter next to the stovetop.

With briquets, the vegetables and corn should take about 10-15 minutes of vaguely watchful cooking on the grill—you do have to turn each piece halfway through the cooking of it. If you have no built-in sense of when this is to be done, you’ll have to wing it by watching and squeezing. The husks of the corn will be slightly toasted when that side is done—don’t have to squeeze; they won’t tell you anything, simply turn 180 degrees to “toast” the other side. Remove the ears as they are done, and leave unhusked on a platter. They will stay hot.

The pieces of vegetable should be squeezed (with tongs) and as they get slightly soft and give readily to a light light squeeze, turn 180 degrees to expose the other side to the direct heat. When each piece is clearly readily yielding to pressure, it’s done. Pile up, still covered with the foil, on another platter.

As the vegetables cook, and once the pan is ready, add the portions of fish to the pan, non-skin side first, thoughtfully positioning them (what you think about as you do this is up to you) so as to leave room for all pieces. It will be all right if they touch, just make sure all of the surface of the side that is cooking is touching the pan surface. There will be a fair amount of smoke, and immediate searing and spattering as soon as each portion is added. Let it be and keep going until all portions are in the pan. Pace yourself according to the thickness of each portion, if the fat end is really thick, take your time before getting to the thinner portions from near the tail of the fish.

The fish should sear for at least three or four minutes, and likely longer, unless you’re on a commercial cooktop, before you turn it. Use a spatula with a very thin flexible blade, preferably of metal. Work it under the portion of fish, which shouldn’t stick too badly as long as you’ve left it alone while searing. The mark of an amateur is impatience. Let it be, and let it cook.

Flip each portion and sear the reverse side. Cook each portion for an equal amount of time, using the thickest pieces as an index. The time it takes to execute the placement and then flipping will be sufficient to allow the thinner pieces to cook for less time.

Once the reverse side (which should be the skin side) is seared, flip the portions again. They should fit in the pan a little more easily as they will have slightly shrunk while being seared.

Remove the pan from the heat, and pour in the wine and stock, in those areas where the fish isn’t. That is, don’t pour it on the fish (though that won’t hurt necessarily) and put no more than a bare 1/2 – 1 teaspoon of fish sauce in the pan as well, being careful to get none of this ingredient on the fish.

With pot holders or other heat-proof protection for your hands, place the pan in the hot oven.

The fish will be done in 20 minutes.

Serve fish from its own platter, spoon the sauce in the pan over the fish portions before serving.

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Welcome Name Change—One Less Toscanini

July 11th, 2007 · No Comments

The local bakery, located just over the line in Somerville (zip code 02143), has changed its name.

Originally “Toscanini & Son” (the first name change after the founding owners, who called their place Panini—yet didn’t sell sandwiches, even from their yeasty breads, until the very end of their tenure—sold to the present owners), the name was always confusing. No one, including the owners, offered an explanation that explained the relationship with Toscanini, the 25+ year-old ice cream emporium in Central Square (zip:02139), owned by Gus Rancatore, gelatophile, entrepreneur (and unknown to most, a really fine writer, witty and engaging). Toscanini and Son continued the Panino franchise, added to the inventory of baked goods (including the zesty “savory scones,” originally a week-end special in only one flavor combination, but now offered every day seemingly with ingredients according to the baker’s whim; not to mention the orange-poppy, pecan-cinnamon, and lemon-poppy ‘strudel,’ or so-called, but really a yeasty, light, just sweet enough breakfast roll), added to the sandwich menu, and added soups, both of which are popular lunch-time items and notable for their freshness, unfussy recipes that let the flavors shine through, and their high-value, food-wise and cost-wise.

The new name is “The Biscuit.” Which seems to come, or seems to want to come with a sort of instant caché. I think that quality could have been assured had they left off the definite article… but maybe there’s a bit too much of that kind of “instant caché” (what’s in a name?) still going on, after years of restaurants with names like Mistral, Radius, Pignoli, Evoo (just across the street from “The Biscuit”).

There’s still an ice cream freezer on the floor, but at this point all packaging and POS materials, formerly emblazoned with the Futura Bold logo of Toscanini, the cups of all sizes, signage, other impedimenta of branding, are gone.

I didn’t ask what kind of ice cream they’ll sell from now on, but when the owner, Greta Platt, saw the look of dismay on my face as I perused the windows emblazoned with new signage, she assured me, “Nothing’s changed. Don’t worry. Everything’s OK.” I simply asked, “How does Gus feel about it?” With maybe a half a beat of hesitation, she said, “It was a mutual thing.”

I’m sure there’s a story there, but a boring one.

Gus never seems to find the formula to satisfy his obviously active entrepreneurial drive. He did open another outlet in Harvard Square—essentially a hole-in-the-wall stuck between a Gnomon Copy and Leavitt & Pierce (both venerable merchants for decades and decades and remnants of the “old” Harvard Square). But it was closed for the duration, along with Gnomon, clothing shops, and the equally venerable Ferranti & Dege camera shop, when Harvard decided to restore this historic building (must have found some extra forgotten millions in some building fund).

I always resented the phantom presence of Toscanini in my favorite corner café, where everybody knows my name, and I am greeted by smiles and warmth—instead of the goth insouciance that seems to be the norm at Gus’s establishments—whichever happens to be open.

So Toscanini & Son is dead. Long live The Biscuit.

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