of a food critic’s guity gastronomic pleasures
am I invited to anyone’s house for dinner. The cry is, “I’m
not going to try to cook for you!” If I’m visiting a house
where food is being served and my occupation is revealed,
the invariable and annoying question is, “Are you gonna review
Back in the ’70s, a New York City-based electronics retailer
called Crazy Eddie ran a series of TV commercials featuring
a wide-eyed pitchman named Jerry Carroll who ended each frenetic
spot with the phrase, “His prices are insane!” Carroll
and his wife showed up one night at a restaurant where I was
cooking, and the chef insisted they be shown to the kitchen.
The Carrolls were fine-dining enthusiasts, and we invited
them to a special thank-the-customers party given each January.
There I watched one annoying diner after another recognize
Carroll and say, “Hey! It’s Crazy Eddie! Hey, hey—Eddie! Do
the Crazy Eddie thing!” Jerry would smile bashfully and say,
each time, “Oh, I only do that for money.” A charming, delightful
fellow. I’ve swiped that response for my own purposes, trying
to insist to party hosts that I don’t view every meal as a
It’s not that I’m trying to cadge dinner invitations here,
but it’s time to confess that I’m happy to bypass the complexities
of an excellent beurre blanc if the butter is otherwise
available—for example, alongside that salmon-colored island
of fish inevitably rising from one of the steam table trays
at a Chinese buffet, an island of fish purporting actually
to be salmon.
Yes, I like Chinese buffets. A gastronomically horrible guilty
pleasure, but a g.p. nevertheless. There are high roads to
be taken. A few pieces of the putative, typically fish-free
sushi dipped in watery wasabi fills you up. A cup of
wonton soup minus the crusty wontons. Or, if you choose the
right place, a hot just-cooked bowl from the Mongolian grill
station, assembled yourself from a selection of stiff, colorful
meat-like products enhanced with veggies and sprouts and the
sauces of your choice.
But a tasty bite of greasy shrimp toast throws all dietary
concern out the window, and soon I’m piling up the crab rangoon,
the doughy General Tso’s chicken, the chewy Hunan beef and
that over-the-top combo of peanut butter and chicken. No matter
how self-conscious I’m beginning to feel by my fourth trip
to the food, I can always count on seeing someone fatter than
I am, inspiring the perfect mix of schadenfreude and
self-pity—and spurring me to that final trip to the ice cream
In the realm of sweet stuff, I spent a few years working the
second-most notorious doughnut consumption job: morning radio.
Nothing improved the sound of my voice (and the windscreen
on an ElectroVoice RE20) better than a fine spray of coffee
and cruller, but the crullers, at least the Dunkin Donuts
variety, were axed in 2003 as the operation went fully machine-run.
The so-called French crullers still offered (sometimes) have
nowhere near the magic proportion of sugar and crunch and
So I’ve shifted my dessert guilty pleasure to something I
have to make at home: Nutella calzones. Wrap a slab of pizza
dough around a jar’s worth of that sticky chocolate-hazlenut
stuff and some sweetened ricotta or marscapone, then bake
at the hottest oven setting until the filling oozes onto the
tray and starts browning. Eat it hot. Lob some ice cream at
it as guilty a pleasure when you have to cook it yourself?
That’s the only way I can enjoy pancakes that have a batter
partially leavened by whipped egg whites, or yeast waffles,
or cheese toast studded with pickled jalapeńo slices.
there’s no argument when you’re dining out and you grab a
stool at the counter and ask for—why stint?—six dogs all the
way and watch as these wursts are popped into their rolls
and slathered with onions and meat sauce. I’m talking about
Famous Lunch, of course, downtown Troy’s best throwback diner,
although Gus’ in nearby Watervliet is my warm-weather alternative.
The dogs are small enough to demand that you eat more than
one, and cheap enough to lull you into downing several. The
pleasure begins with the satisfying snap of the casing as
you bite into each successive dog and only ends after you
finish the chunk of pie you weren’t going to order, but .
And then there are burgers. Back in the late ’60s, a friend
and I skipped high-school speech class once or twice a week
in order to make a run to a new fast-food restaurant in town.
(We both ended up as professional radio announcers.) Our orders
were always the same: a Big Mac, fries and soda. There’s no
question that McDonald’s now is an insanely evil corporation,
stripping rainforests for its chicken feed and meat-flavoring
its fries. But their worst crime was changing the plump, meaty
Big Mac into a pasty simulacrum of the original.
So I’ve defected for my guilty pleasure burgers to the Five
Guys chain. You get a twin-burger sandwich that you garnish
as you please, and the fries are the best in the industry.
And, of course, they dump that little extra in your bag, so
don’t fill up on the free peanuts there.
All of which means that, when you do invite me over, you need
only throw some pizza my way, or chips I can dredge through
store-bought dip, or maybe some Chinese take-out. I won’t
review. I won’t complain.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
of Bombers, owner Matt Baumgartner notes
that the Lark Street refurbishment is almost finished—the
place will reopen Jan. 29. . . . What makes Greek
night at Athos Restaurant (1814 Western
Ave., Albany) different from any other night at
this outpost of fine Hellenic dining? You get
live Greek music, a dance demonstration and then
the opportunity to get up and dance yourself when
you’re not enjoying dinner, and/or the special
meze plate. The next one takes place Saturday
(Jan 23). Call 608-6400 or visit athosrestaurant.com.
. . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.