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Tipping or service charges are so much a part of eating out in America that it is strange to be in an environment where tipping is not the norm. Five years ago, on a trip to Tokyo, we were taken aback to find that tips were not expected, where they were politely returned to us. We learned quickly and did not repeat our mistake. It was a practice that I wish existed elsewhere.

Though I always add tips when paying restaurant tabs, it is something that leaves me feeling either foolish or parsimonious. Did I tip too little or too much? Sometimes, I am not sure. Years ago, 15% was the standard tip, then it became 18%. Now , we are told it should be 20%, even 25% for exceptional service. Why? Why do these standards keep changing, always going up? Also, initially, the percentage was supposed to be calculated on the food and beverage cost; then it switched to a percentage of the entire bill, including tax. Finally, with the hefty markup on wines and drinks, the expected tip increases out of all proportion to the service being provided.

Tips were supposed to be optional, not mandatory. Now, they are expected as a right. They are even suggested and encouraged where they should not be. At the coffee shop where I pick up a bagel and coffee, there is a tip jar on the counter. What exactly is the tip for in this instance? For ringing up my order and handing it to me? I don’t buy it.

Service charges are not the answer. They merely mean a mandatory tip, whether the service is good or not and just take the guesswork out of figuring out what is appropriate. Besides, one has way of knowing how much of the service charge actually goes to the wait-staff and how much is skimmed off by the management, something I suspect happens a lot.

By not including the service in the basic cost of the meal, restaurants are doing what the airlines do. Keeping the stated price low and then socking customers with extras. Airlines do it to hide the true cost of a flight; restaurant owners do it to pass on the cost to diners and to avoid paying employees a living wage.

I’m glad therefore glad to read that some restaurants ( many of them owned by Danny Meyer) in New York City have abolished the practice of tipping. The prices listed on the menu ( plus tax) are the total cost of the meal. No hidden charges. This way, I can look at the prices on the online menu and decide whether a particular restaurant is worthwhile or whether it is too rich for my blood.

P.S The above might make me seem a curmudgeon but I don’t think I am. I am careful to tip ( and quite generously too) at ordinary restaurants. At low end restaurants, I tip more because I know the servers don’t make much. What gets my goat is the outsize charge for service at the upper end restaurants that I occasionally eat at.

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In my previous post, I had written about tasting menus and their shortcomings: expensive, marathons with too many dishes, too many flavors and not enough food. There is, however, a simple alternative that diners can use to taste many dishes at a lower cost.

No, it is not the buffet. Generally, buffets are available only in low- end ethnic restaurants and there is often the suspicion that the food is left-over from the previous day. It doesn’t compare with the a la carte dishes at the same restaurant. This is not a blanket statement about ALL buffets but it is true of most of them.

Instead, why not try ordering family style? At most restaurants, that’s what we do. We each select a dish and share it with the others. This way, each diner gets to try everything and no one is stuck with a bad choice. If we find that a particular dish is a winner then ,on a return trip to the same restaurant, we order a double serving of that dish along with singles of the ” new” entrees. By ordering family style, we are able to try all the dishes we want on the menu within two or three visits to the restaurant.

Two other advantages of ordering family style 1) No meal is the same because we are always trying out new dishes while sticking to old favorites. It’s a combination that can’t be beat. 2) It enables us to be adventurous when trying out new unfamiliar cuisines. I remember how, when I used to lunch in Chinatown, there would sometimes be out of town lunchers at a neighboring table. I could tell they were from out of town , because each person would order only for himself.  They would order the old familiar standbys : fried rice, egg fooyung, chow mein  etc. One would have only the chow mein. Another, only the fooyung. A third, only the chow mein. Meanwhile , my colleagues and I would be sharing dishes like Sauteed Lamb with Basil, Chengdu Chicken, Tea Leaves Smoked Duck, Pork with Special Pickled Radish, Seafood with Pan Fried Noodles and Sizzling Hong Kong Steak.

Family style… It’s the only way to go.

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The Tasting Menu

The tasting menu has been all the rage at upscale restaurants for the past decade. Instead of  selecting from an a la carte menu,  diners enjoy smaller quantities of an assortment of dishes from a set prix fixe menu. It is an expensive option, often running to $250 or over, per person ( without wine). Now, even as more and more restaurants offer these tasting menus, there seems to be a backlash against them.

Not only are the meals very expensive, they are marathons lasting three or four hours, and they leave diners feeling bloated  and bored by the experience. As the succession of dishes arrives at the table, one feels like throwing in the towel and crying ” Enough!”

I haven’t much experience of such menus. I’ve only eaten from them three times at Morimoto, the last occasion  eight years ago. The dinners were hosted by my brother-in-law and namesake, and each was a memorable experience

I will never forget the first time at Morimoto. Each dish was a revelation, an explosion of flavor and what made each course special was the presentation. The dishes they were served in were beautiful and different from each other, unique, works of art. The artfully designed food was almost jewel- like in appearance, a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds. Each dish elicited ” oohs” and “aahs’. I wish I could describe how beautiful it looked but words fail me as does memory. ( This was, after all, several years ago.) There was also a “layering” of flavor such as I had never experienced before. Just as I thought, I knew what a morsel tasted like on the tongue, the taste buds detected another underlying flavor. ( Was  that a hint of yuzu? And that hint of sweetness…where did it come from?)The wait-staff was solicitous and efficient and we diners felt pampered. The first time is always the best but the second and third time were almost as good though the sense of expectation and wonder was somewhat dulled.

There were only two shortcomings to this luxe meal. One:  So many different flavors that, by the end of the meal, I was overwhelmed. Scant hours later, I did not have a clear idea of any of the dishes. I liked all of them but I could not tell you what they were. There were many different ingredients in each dish that I couldn’t tell you what they were without referring to the menu. Second: though there were many dishes in the multicourse meal, the quantities were small and at the end of the meal, even though I do not have a big appetite, I was not quite full…. which, when I consider how much it must have cost, was troubling. (Anticipating this problem, the host also ordered two dishes from the a la carte menu so that we did not feel peckish at the end of the meal).

My last words on tasting menus: They are an experience to be savored once or twice, if cost is no object, but they are not something I would enjoy regularly.

 

 

 

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Many TV shows allow you to travel the world, see different places and eat different foods while sitting in the comfort of your home.  There is one I discovered recently which I think you will quickly become your favorite as it has mine. It is Migrationology.com, a vlog or video log by Mark Weins and you can watch it on You Tube.

Mark Weins is a 31 year old American, born in Arizona, brought up in France and Africa by missionary parents, who now lives in Bangkok with his Thai wife, Ying, and their one year old son, Mika. He has been producing these videos for the past six years, first in Asia but lately in Europe and the rest of the world. His videos make you feel that  you are at the table with him ; you can see that roadside stall or restaurant, smell the food, almost taste it.

What makes these videos so appealing, so much more enjoyable than the rest? It’s three things. Firstly, the camera work. The visuals are crisp and the editing masterly. The narrative focuses on the food and the ambience, mostly the former and just enough of the latter to give viewers a feel for the country Mark is visiting. BTW, Mark Weins is a one man show. He is the star, the cameraman ( he uses a video camera on a stick, like the one you shoot selfies with), the writer, the planner and the editor.  Secondly, the restaurants and the roadside stalls he eats at are just the sort that any foodie traveler would love to experience. They are recommended to him by his legion of fans worldwide who often guide him and accompany him to the best local haunts Next to home cooking, this is the most authentic food there is. Lastly, and most importantly, Mark’s personality is  a big reason for the popularity of his videos. He is knowledgeable about food without being pedantic, always pleasant and smiling, personable, good natured and respectful of the places he finds himself in and the people he encounters. I’ve never seen him say anything bad about anyone or any place that he has been to. Never.

Recently, I watched videos of Mark’s five day trip to Mumbai, India , the city where I grew up. I saw him visit familiar places, go to  restaurants that I’ve been to, eat dishes I’ve enjoyed. For instance, on Day 4 of his trip, Mark tried nalli nihari and tandoori roti at the Noor Mohammed Hotel on Mohammedali Road, demolished a vegetable sandwich  street side, and ate a malai cream ( a sweet dessert made from the first milk, or colostrum, of a cow that has just given birth). Then onto the Elco Arcade for bhel, pani puri and sev puri before a final stop at the Jai Jawan Punjabi restaurant on Linking Road in Khar for a dinner featuring Fried prawns, Tandoori Chicken and Daal Makhani. Imagine… all this in a single day. Truly, the man is a fearless eater with a cast iron stomach and the amount of food he can put away is amazing.

Mark is an adventurous eater though he does not go out of his way to find bizarre foods. He eats the local specialties, stuff that you and I would love to eat and he eats street food without a care in the world. He is not too fond of sweet things but  loves spicy foods and crunchy things. I watched in horror as he popped a fresh green chilly into his mouth and chewed on it.  Mentally, I was screaming” Don’t do it, Mark! Don’t do it!” but all he did was go ” Umm, a little spicy.”

I love to watch Mark eat. As the first morsel pops into his mouth, his eyes open wide in delight and a blissful smile spreads over his face. Then his eyes close in ecstasy and he goes ” Wow!” as he slowly tilts sideways to the right. Words can’t adequately describe this spectacle; you have to watch the video. Most dishes provoke this reaction in Mark but I have become an expert in gauging how much Mark really loves a dish. The reaction I’ve described means that the dish is top classs, A-1, not to be missed. If , however, he omits the sideways lean, it means just ” Good”, not ” Very Good or excellent”. If, on the other hand, Mark goes ” Ummm!’ while widening his eyes and pointing to the dish, it means the dish is just OK. He never finds a dish less than OK. Once, in Korea, when he was tasting sea pineapples- a shell fish that looks like a miniature pineapple – he said the fish flavor was very intense. That should have been enough to warn viewers away from it. ” Intense” is also the adjective he used to describe traffic in Mumbai, an epic understatement. Mumbai traffic is terrible, exhausting, intolerable. Comparatively, being caught in rush hour traffic in New York is relaxing.

Mark’s enjoyment of food may seem theatrical but it is genuine. When he was eating nalli nihari, a sinfully rich dish of mutton and bone marrow,  on his first stop that day, he expertly scooped it up with his tandoori roti but ran out of roti before he finished the dish. No problem. Remarking that the nalli nihari could be eaten like a soup, he grabbed a spoon and polished off the rest of the dish.

Many of us dream of traveling and eating  all over the world. Mark did too. The difference is that he went out on a limb in the pursuit of what he wanted to do and is now living his dream. Strangely , I am not jealous of him. I’m just happy that I get to watch his videos and share his experiences, even if it is only vicariously. You can too. remember ” Mark Weins” on You tube. Or if you want to read his blog, it’s migrationology.com.

 

 

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In the seventies, my wife was doing a medical technology course in Trenton, NJ and it was a hard slog. Her day began early ( and ended late) but one thing she looked forward to was a breakfast bagel at the hospital canteen. Not just any bagel but an egg bagel, halved and toasted on a griddle and dripping, dripping, with melted butter. Golden yellow with brown streaks, salty, buttery, crisp on the outside but dense and slightly chewy on the inside…  I never did get to taste this delectable treat but she described it so well, and so often, that I thought I had! I did however make these bagels at home, often, though I cut down on the butter.

Those are the first bagels I remember though I must have eaten bagels earlier. Those bagels are my gold standard  and I measure all others against them. I cannot imagine eating an untoasted bagel ; I would rather do without. Nowadays,  my wife and I occasionally go to Kettleman’s, a nearby deli in Somerset. We go there early and pick up our bagels at the counter … Hers is a multigrain bagel with jalapeno cream cheese, mine an egg bagel with garden vegetable cream cheese. Both toasted, of course. Washed down with a container of Kettleman’s coffee, it is a breakfast for the gods. Sitting there surrounded by other retirees, dawdling over our breakfasts, watching office-goers pick up their orders and rush out… nothing could be finer!

It is the common wisdom that the bagels in New York City are the best in the world. There is something about the texture that seems just impossible to replicate elsewhere. New York bagels have just the right amount of chewiness which contrasts nicely with the lightly glazed exterior. Those who have lived in the New York area can never forget them. I have heard of a group of New Yorkers who retired to Florida decades ago but still satisfy their hunger for the bagels of their New York days.Whenever any one of them travels to New York, it is understood that he will take along an extra carry-on bag and bring it back crammed with bagels to be shared. Luckily for me, enough New Yorkers have moved to the suburbs that the bagels in New Jersey are almost as good.

Exactly what makes New York bagels so distinctive and so good is a matter of much debate. The general opinion is that it is the New York water supply which is piped in from pristine upstate reservoirs. Admittedly, the water is very good ( at one time , it was being bottled and sold in other parts of the country for $ 2.50 for a 16 oz. bottle) but could water make so much difference in the taste of a bagel? I don’t think so but am hard pressed to think what the reason might be. My guess is that the best bagel makers, the old timers who learnt the craft from their fathers and grandfathers, never moved away from the New York area because, elsewhere, the product is not as much appreciated and the demand is much less. At least that is what I think.

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I found how inferior bagels are outside of the New York area. We spent two weeks in Frisco and, purely by chance, discovered a Katz’s deli within walking distance. Naturally, I went there ASAP and picked up a half dozen bagels. What a disappointment ! They were nothing like the real thing. They were misshapen, smaller than their New York cousins and had a texture that was all wrong. They were also more expensive. I later found another bagel place , also within walking distance, where the bagels were larger but no better and where they cost $2 apiece. Two dollars for a plain untoasted bagel without at toppings! Highway robbery! At Kettlemans they are 95 cents each and at another nearby bagelry, on Wednesdays, I can get a dozen bagels, good bagels for only $ 5.49 which works out to 46 cents apiece.

Lately, I have been reading about Montreal Bagels and how they are the best in the world, better than those in New York.  That they are markedly different, I understand because there are significant differences in the way they are made. Montreal bagels are thinner and flatter, have a bigger hole and are less dense. They are also sweetish, being boiled in honeyed water before being baked in wood fired ovens. New York bagels, on the other hand are boiled in water with malt and baked in traditional ovens. This gives them a shiny crust with a hint of crispness.

Which is better? The New York or the Montreal ? Opinions abound and are divided roughly down the middle. I guess it all depends on what you are accustomed to. If you have a New York background, you will plump for the New York bagel; if you are from Montreal, you’ll vote for the Montreal variety. The only true test would be to ask those who have never eaten a bagel and are not from either New York or Montreal.  I haven’t heard of such a survey yet.

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Too Hot for Me

We used to enjoy the biryanis ( particularly the goat biryani) at the Paradise Pointe Biryani restaurant in Edison, NJ. The meat was tender, the basmati rice tender and fluffy, the meat falling off the bone, the entire dish delicately spiced and not at all hot. The restaurant is part of a chain founded by an ex-pat Indian IT engineer who was homesick for the succulent biryanis he used to enjoy in Hyderabad. There are over 40 such franchise restaurants all over the US. After we moved to Somerset NJ, about 20 miles away from Edison, we started patronizing the Paradise Pointe in North Brunswick, the original where it all started. It was even better than the one in Edison… for a while. Then the management seemed to change, there were some new faces and the food became spicier, much spicier. We switched to ordering the biryani mild, rather than medium, but it was still too hot. Last Saturday, we tried the Paradise Pointe at a different location but there too the food was too spicy.

Why do restaurants make food so spicy-hot? Indian restaurants are among the worst offenders but there are other cuisines who do the same. I remember a Thai restaurant on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village where the owner/ waitperson warned me the food was spicy as he took my order. I’d ordered it medium spicy but when it arrived it was liberally sprinkled with birds-eye chillies and was so hot  that I couldn’t eat after the first mouthful. Needless to say, I never went back there.

Though most Americans prefer non-spicy, if not bland, food there is a growing contingent of chilli pepper  fans for whom eating the hottest foods is a challenge to their machismo. Thus we have a proliferation of chilli pepper eating contests all over the country, but especially in the South and Southwest. On Saint Patrick’s Day, there are jalapeno eating contests in which contestants compete to see who can down the most jalapenos in a certain time, usually 10 minutes. More dangerous are those competitions where people vie to see who can eat the hottest peppers. And, believe me, those peppers can be plenty hot!

According to the Scoville system for measuring hotness, here are the ratings for some of the common peppers:

Banana Pepper, Cubanelle                              100 to 1,000 Scoville units

Jalapeno                                                           3,500 to 10,000   ”

Serrano                                                              10,000- 30,000     ”

Habanero, Scotch Bonnet                          100,000 – 350,000    ”

Komodo Dragon, Ghost Pepper            855,000 – 2,200,000    ”

For me, the jalapeno is hot enough. Even eating a serrano in a dish produces a burning sensation that turns me off. Considering that the upper limit of the range for a serrano is only 30,000 Scoville units , I cannot even imagine trying to eat a Komodo Dragon or a Carolina Reaper. Why would anyone want to if the end result is having a mouth on fire and a burn in your gut that can persist for many hours , if not days? In some cases, it has even resulted in a hurried trip to the hospital. Is it worth it? Not for me.

I asked one backyard gardener why he grows these superhot peppers. He admitted he wouldn’t dream of eating them raw. His wife grinds them to a paste, small quantities of which are used to flavor the dishes she cooks. But couldn’t she get the same effect with larger quantities of jalapenos or serranos. Yes, but…

For me, peppers are a way of enhancing the flavor of a dish. Too much heat can obscure the true taste of the ingredients, just as heavy, spicy gravies will. Also, not all dishes have to be hot. In fact, a mixture of hot and not-so-hot dishes provides variety to the palate in the course of a multicourse meal. For me, hot peppers are fine, but only in moderation and certainly not in every dish.

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About twenty five years ago, I started seeing an appetizer called Chicken 65 listed on the menus of Indian restaurants. It consisted of  reddish hued deep fried chicken pieces and it was quite spicy.The name was a mystery and no one seemed to know its origin. There were some fanciful explanations, each more absurd than the last. One held that the dish contained sixty-five spices. This didn’t hold much water because I doubt that the pantry of Indian spices is that extensive. Besides, would restaurants go to the trouble of mixing up so many spices in making a single appetizer? Another theory was that the dish was a favorite of Indian soldiers at the frontlines during the 1965 India- Pakistan war and was named in their honor. This was scarcely more credible. Yet other theory was that 65 chillies were used for every kilogram of chicken. It too was easily debunked because so many chillies would make the dish too hot to eat.

This afternoon I finally happened upon what looks like a plausible explanation.

We were lunching at the Paradise Biryani Pointe in Bridgewater, NJ when I noticed a wooden plaque on the wall. ” The Origin of Chicken 65″, it proclaimed. According to it, the menu at a military canteen in Chennai ( formerly Madras) listed dishes only in Tamil. Many of the jawans ( soldiers) frequenting the canteen were from the northern states and did not know Tamil. They took to ordering dishes from the menu by number and number 65 , a fiery chicken dish, was a big favorite. Thus “Chicken, 65” became a frequent request and eventually became a menu entry. This version makes more sense than everything I’ve heard.

So, now you know.

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