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An Empty Place at the Table

Reminiscing about the beloved—and soon to be gone—Gourmet magazine

 

By Laura Leon

I was shocked last week when I saw the headline flash across the news on the Internet, that Gourmet, the self-described magazine of good living, was shutting down after the upcoming November issue. While I took token comfort in the fact that loyal readers would get one more Thanksgiving issue (Note to family: Guess what I’ll be cooking this year?), I was still grieved and spiritually exhausted. A faithful companion was being taken from me. Never again would I experience the thrill of seeing next month’s issue in my mailbox, and wondering what delights the cover foretold.

My mother did not subscribe to Gourmet, preferring more plebian guides like Good Housekeeping, but I was a foodie fanatic from the get-go, so when I discovered the magazine in the early ’70s, nestled beneath some other publications at Mel’s Pharmacy in Great Barrington, I was hooked. This was better than Vogue. This had people who presumably got paid to write about food. And travel, although that never appealed to me as much, and the Gourmet covers that centered on a scrumptious dish, such as blood orange sorbet, or an ingredient, like white asparagus at Padua’s Piazza dell Erbe, were far more tantalizing to me than those depicting the Matthias Church in Budapest or a beach in Honolulu. That said, once I had pored over recipes and menus and techniques, making menus for more than enough meals to last a month, I would turn to those travel and lifestyle pieces, and be lured into the possibilities that existed outside my own kitchen.

For years, Gourmet included regular restaurant reviews from New York and California (Specialities de la Maison), as well as a Paris Journal, penned by CP Reynolds, and Gourmet at Large, in which Fred Ferretti opined about a dizzying number of current topics. Take the October 1986 issue, in which Ferretti delved into the unique atmosphere of the London department store Fortnum & Mason, discussed the recipes for curing and smoking buffalo, moose and bear to be found in the Wilderness Kingdom New Cookbook, and confessed his distaste for new trends as follows: “There I was again, allowing myself to become perturbed about some more of the current absurdities circulating among foodies: things such as a recent presentation that paired ‘favorite wines with frozen gourmet dinners,’ or reports of a growing ‘debate’ over whether foods should be colorful or nourishing; or those promises from New England of exquisite foods (approaching two-star Michelin quality at the very least) cooked, encased in plastic sacks, frozen and made table-ready simply by dropping bags into boiling water . . .”

At other times, thought-provoking insights were provided by Gerald Asher, long the writer of the Wine Journal; and Barbara Kafka, who complained about poorly composed salads or championed the “sense of ownership of a serious historical discipline” that was possessed by French, as opposed to American, chefs, in An Opinionated Palate. A frequent contributor, before her untimely death, was Laurie Colwin, who wrote dashy little pieces about roasting a chicken, how to make potato salad, and how to survive a disastrous dinner party (given by somebody else). I recognized that many people lapped up Colwin’s stuff like I’d inhale anything cheese, but I always felt her articles were too simplistic for Gourmet, which in the past had published meaningful pieces by M.F.K. Fischer, Ruth Harkness, Claudia Roden, Robert P. Coffin, and of course James Beard, and in 1964 published one of the earliest stories by future Pulitzer winner E. Annie Proulx.

More recently, Gourmet has delivered excellent food journalism about the plight of tomato workers (which elicited equal amounts of kudos as horror that one would have to read about such matters in a magazine of good living—I kid you not), cooking and eating lobster and the slow-food movement. Ironically, Gourmet recently won four James Beard Awards for journalism, including one in the category of “multimedia writing on food.” While Gourmet the physical magazine has been losing money and circulation, its Web site is a huge draw to millions who want information on cooking techniques or just some idea of what to do with the celery root lugged home from the farmer’s market.

About a year ago, I was fortunate enough to come across a neighbor’s neatly bound stash of several years’ worth of Gourmets, with a few Bon Appetits thrown in. There was a neatly penned sign advertising that these were free to anybody who cared to remove them from her front step. I dashed home to get the van and enlist the kids’ help in moving and delivery. What a treasure trove this is, reflecting not just my own love of the magazine and of cooking, but of styles and tastes and trends in dining, eating, feeding (and travel, shopping, drinking, etc.), over two decades. Rereading the issues, so many of which I remember purchasing, or receiving in the mail, I notice an ongoing evolution in style, some of it, but not all, good. The overall quality of writing went noticeably downhill by the mid 1990s. Increasingly, and understandably, articles focused on streamlining dinner preparation, but I didn’t really consider Gourmet my go-to for 10-minute mains like turkey club salad with avocado mayo or chick peas and olives vinaigrette. But at least, by the turn of this century, they stopped placing articles in such a way as there were jumps after every first page—maddening. This past year’s issues, while noticeably light, featured covers that looked like works of art, as if editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl were trying mightily to attract back countless readers by tantalizing them with a glistening red wine caramel apple or an impossibly fulsome, pale green quince. Who wouldn’t want this voluptuous goodness?

I think much of what ailed Gourmet was the abiding assumption that it was oh-so upper-crusty. The very word “gourmet” still sends shudders down some people who would rather marinate their fresh tuna in Ken’s Steak House dressing than admit to having read up on techniques for making ceviche. A quick look back at 20 years of Bon Appetits, viewed by many as the poorer sister of Gourmet, demonstrates more mainstream covers, featuring homey breads and chocolate cakes or berry pies. Unlike Gourmet, Bon Appetit generally gives you an idea of what to expect within its pages, with brief descriptions like “easy Italian dinners” and “Top 10 chicken recipes.” To be fair to Bon Appetit, is has shown great sensitivity and pragmatism over the past two years, revamping the staid look of the book, upping the ante on high-quality Gourmet-like photography and seeking a comfortable blend between quick- dinner-tonight ideas, more thoughtful pieces on the act and process of cooking and dining, and up-to-the-minute news on sustainable agriculture, etc. Like Bon Appetit, Cooking Light, which for years was just way too crunchy and well- meaning for my taste, has come up with a very attractive, highly readable new format. Other smaller titles like Saveur, with very focused editions, plug on, and then there’s Food & Wine, which, in Gourmet’s absence, may be the closest substitute in terms of food and wine coverage. Still, Food & Wine flourishes with articles like “best California wines $15 and under,” and those that tell the home cook how to make a chef’s master recipe, only without the pricey (and oh-so irreplaceable!) ingredients like truffle oil.

Gourmet’s death sentence came with the enormous popularity of countless Web sites devoted to its own very, er, bread and butter. Increasingly, younger generations turn to their computers, not a magazine they’ve stashed away under the counter, for ideas, information, lessons. My husband and I are newspaper and magazine whores; our children will look unknowingly at this week’s Sports Illustrated or such, but may very well read the same online. So, I may be kicking and screaming about the loss of my favorite magazine, but does anybody really care that I won’t be able to actually hold the book in my hands while I wait out a cold soccer game, when I could just as well access something similar with my BlackBerry?

A funny story: Years ago I had the chance to meet Ruth Reichl, who was my ideal. A working wife and mother, working at Gourmet, surrounded by the freshest ingredients, talents, news, in the industry. The event was a charity barbecue, and Reichl had volunteered to cook the food. I was recruited to help serve. The day was blisteringly hot, and the guests were to be served outside on rolling green hills and farmland in Columbia County. When I entered the kitchen and encountered my heroine, I was shocked. She was barking orders, messily schlepping toppings onto bruschettas and crackers, her wild black mane all over the place. Most of the hors d’oeuvres she prepared had no place outside of a more formal, sit down event, preferably in cooler weather. The guests gamely tried to make do with paper plates and plastic forks, but more than a little food hit the ground. All I could think was, didn’t this woman read her own magazine? Here I had grown up daydreaming over its glossy pages and knowing prose, and I felt I knew way better than she how and what to serve such a crowd, not to mention how to do so without biting the heads off the staff. It was a crushing defeat for me, killing something inside me. I haven’t felt the same since, well, last week, when I heard what I now realize was the inevitable news: that Gourmet would be no more.

Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Comfort and Then Some

By B.A. Nilsson

Chez Mike

596 Columbia Turnpike, East Greenbush, 479-4730. chezmikerestaurant.com. Serving lunch 11:30-3 Tue-Sat, dinner 5-9:30 Tue-Thu, 5-10 Fri-Sat, 5-9 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: American toothsome

Entrée price range: $9 (burger) to $27 (roasted sea bass)

Ambiance: warm and comfortable

‘It’s the strangest thing,” says Mike Cohen. “Somebody showed me a blog entry that said how nice my restaurant is and how good the food is, but the writer promised to return only if I move out of the strip mall I’m in.”

The Long Island-born chef and owner of Chez Mike notes that there seem to be few objections to big-city restaurants occupying strip mall-like spaces, so why this peculiar prejudice? I’m inclined to blame it on the many mediocre eateries that strip malls attract, often joints where the bar dominates the room and the grilled chicken was burner-striped by Sysco. But, as Cohen’s restaurant name suggests, this is far from the case at his eatery.

A former chef at Lippera’s Chatham House, Cohen decided to open his own place “while I’m still young and have the energy to do this. My wife and I live in East Greenbush, and when we looked at what else is here, we realized that there’d be a place here for the kind of restaurant I wanted to run.” Chez Mike opened in June 2008, in the Hannaford Plaza on Columbia Turnpike. The restaurant was named “to combine a sense of the French heritage of the cooking I do with something more tongue-in-cheek and accessible.” He and Michele both are Culinary Institute graduates, and his resume also includes a stint at Manhattan’s renowned Four Seasons.

His mission: Provide the area with “rustic contemporary American comfort food, familiar but with a few surprises.” This is certainly embodied in the most whimsical appetizer I’ve seen in a while, a crabmeat BLT ($12). Offered as a special, it placed a generous amount of fresh, real crabmeat, lightly seasoned and in a sensibly restrained dressing, atop a nest of shredded phyllo, topped with a picture-book stack of lettuce, tomato slices, and bacon strips.

It was gorgeously presented, too, which is another hallmark of the place. The plates themselves are handsome; the food arrangements are eye-catching without being fussy. The food’s in harmony with the eye-appeal of the dining room itself, which stops being anything restricted to a strip mall the moment you enter and are seated. How nice to be greeted by a staff that doesn’t radiate I’m-just- collecting-a-paycheck ennui. Katie, our server, confessed that she’d been working at the place for a mere month, yet she proved articulate and enthusiastic about the food and helped us arrive at a pleasing balance of courses.

It’s a seasonal menu, newly revised for autumn. Seafood appetizers include littleneck clams in a white wine-tomato broth ($11), tempura scallops ($12), and fried calamari ($9); mushroom bruschetta is $8, sweet potato soup is $7, and a garden salad in balsamic vinaigrette is $5.

I’m a recent convert to roasting beets instead of boiling them, so the roasted beet salad ($8) looked inviting. It proved to be a modest but filling portion that adds a swirl of goat cheese mousse (looking like a soft-ice-cream serving) and red-dyed, pickled egg quarters atop our old friend shredded phyllo.

While we awaited the entrées, we noticed the easygoing room layout. Booths line the walls with tables between, and it’s the booths that fill first, giving a comfortable sense of intimacy. A well-chosen earth-toned color scheme is livened by food-related artwork on the walls. The bar area, separated by a low wall, is blighted by a television set, but the volume, at least, was muted. And kudos to the background music, which was unobtrusive and given to classic songs by classic singers. (“You like anything that includes Cole Porter songs,” my offspring wryly observed.)

Back to Mike: “I try to put no more than three, maybe four things on the plate,” he says, making a virtue of restraint. The chicken dish we sampled featured a plump breast, dusted with cornmeal, and moistened with cooking juices flavored with maple and vinegar ($18). A side of braised cabbage is, therefore, a reasonable and wholly appropriate accompaniment, but then comes the kicker: sweet potato waffles. They’re wholly unnecessary to the entrée’s success, but the kind of imaginative statement that pushes its way out of the realm of the typical. Having tasted it this way, I can’t imagine any other combination.

You can get a traditional pot roast ($19), a bacon-topped fish chowder ($23), spaghetti with meatballs ($17, but they’re lamb meatballs—so much the better) or even a half-pound burger ($9) with bacon, cheddar and fries. But once you try the braised beef short ribs ($23), there’s no going back. It was a signature dish for Cohen at Lippera’s, and his one try at taking it off the Chez Mike menu met with such outrage that he intends it to be a permanent fixture. Of course, they’re tender, leaping from the bone, but consider that they’re cooked in honey-sweetened stout and you get an idea of the richness of flavor, the reduction sauce running into the mashed potatoes to prolong the pleasure. The onion rings on top are the decorative exclamation points.

Then there are salmon au poivre ($19), sautéed calves liver ($17), grilled bistro steak ($19), butternut squash cannelloni ($15). If you don’t find something to enjoy, you hate good food.

A well-chosen wine list offers a good by-the-glass selection, and desserts are a mix of in-house items (the crème brûlée and the pumpkin cake, $6 each, were excellent examples) and confections from J. & S. Watkins, where Michele works.

Cohen has made an impressively successful synthesis of fine dining and neighborhood diner, upscale enough to satisfy the demanding palate but accessible enough for anyone. Is the location a liability? Only in the sense that it’s not closer to my house.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Take a Taste of Madison from 11 to 3 on Saturday (Oct. 3), as a number of businesses and restaurants share their bounty. Among the eateries: the Muddy Cup, Dunkin’ Donuts, Xing Long, Variety Pizza, Curry House, Junior’s and Mahar’s. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the event. There also will be music, games, a bookmobile, and what promises to be a challenging Waiters’ Race awarding $250 in prize money to the fleetest. It’s not just speed: The contestants will have to navigate a 500-foot course carrying—with one hand!—a tray with a water bottle and serving glasses. They can’t break a walk (not to mention any of the stuff being carried), can’t behave badly to the other contestants, and will have to serve water to the judges at the end. Among the obstacles: enough tables and chairs to ensure the track isn’t straight, and a couple of dozen volunteers from a nearby sorority who’ll wander the course talking on cell phones. In other words, just like a real restaurant. For advance tickets and more info, call Steamer No.10 Theatre at 438-5503. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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