Monday, June 26, 2006


DESTIN, Fla— Greetings from the remnants of the world’s luckiest fishing village.

As a kid, when driving over the bridge into Destin, I was greeted by a large plywood sign that stated “Welcome to Destin… the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.” A few days ago I crested the peak of that same bridge and was welcomed by a behemoth condominium structure being constructed where the pass meets the harbor, some call it progress.

A good portion of my youth was spent in the bars and on the beaches of this town, but it wasn’t until the mid 1980s that I became a fan of the food.

At that time, regional cooking was just coming into favor. Paul Prudhomme had put redfish on the culinary map a few years earlier. Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower had started the California food movement, and Norman Van Aiken was just getting cranked up in South Florida.

In 1986 Destin had its own cuisine. A classically trained French chef from Baton Rouge was hired to man the kitchens of the Beachside Café. Located at, what was then the center of town, Beachside was one of the first restaurants to deviate from the old-line, stuffed flounder and fried shrimp, tried-and-true dishes from the 1950s Coastal cafes. At the time, Beachside was the hottest restaurant in town.

When the Beachside Café Executive Chef moved to Destin, he brought with him a group of high school boys who had worked in the kitchen of Joey’s restaurant in Baton Rouge. Some came as dishwashers and busboys, others were line cooks. At the time, most of the boys were more interested in playing on the beach and chasing bikinis than working in the kitchen. Before long, the restaurant bug bit the young chefs and their passion for cooking grew and the Destin restaurant industry blossomed overnight.

It was an exciting time. I was working as a waiter and watched, one by one, as each of the Beachside sous chefs ventured out into other restaurants, some built exclusively for them, others long established. Before long, the Flamingo Café, Louisiana Lagniappe, The Marina Café, Paradise Café, Prescott’s, and others began to flourish.

There was one common factor that held all of 1980s new-line Destin restaurants and cooking styles together— The Beachside Café. The dishes that the new chefs were developing came out of the Classical French School of cooking. They used hollandaise and its many variations and paired it with soft shell crab. They used the recipe for Joey’s beurre blanc, one of the classic French butter sauces, to finish filets of fresh red snapper. And veal-stock based meuniere sauces, which were more derivative of New Orleans and Baton Rouge than France, were used to accompany beef and veal.

Overall, the Destin cuisine of that era focused on fresh seafood of the Panhandle treated simply and finished with rich butter sauces. It is the first fine dining food— outside of New Orleans— that I fell in love with. It is the cooking style that I first learned, and one that I revert to, often.

The opening chef at the Purple Parrot Café was one of the Baton Rouge boys that traveled to Beachside Café in the mid 80s. Although he only worked here a few weeks, his touches still show up in some of our dishes.

By the 1990s the chefs had mostly moved on or burnt out. A few remain, others have gone into other fields of work and forgotten the restaurant business altogether. In the early 1990s, Harbor Docks restaurant introduced sushi, and Destin cuisine began to move in a lighter direction blending Asian influences with natural reductions.

Most of the restaurants that popped up in that era are gone. A Mexican restaurant opened in the Beachside Café’s location, and The Marina Café has followed the Asian trend and left its French roots behind. The young chefs have scattered and settled down to become family men and responsible business owners. The next food trend is waiting to be born. I’ll be there ready to embrace it, but I doubt it will replace the excitement I experienced the first time I ate a piece of grilled grouper topped with jumbo lump crabmeat, beurre blanc, and lemon meuniere at the Beachside Café.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Per Se

New York, N.Y.— I have just eaten the best meal of my life. Hands down. No question.

That is a powerful statement for someone who eats for a living. Yet, there is no other way to describe my dining experience at Per Se as anything less than “perfect.” From the service to the food to the atmosphere, it just doesn’t get any better.

These days the Holy Grail of restaurants is The French Laundry in Yountville, California. Reservations are taken two months in advance and seatings fill instantly. I rarely travel to the Napa Valley, so Per Se, The French Laundry’s New York cousin, is my East Coast Grail. Reservations at Per Se are hard to come by, too. I applied the “squeaky wheel theory” and received a table on the last night of my visit.

Per Se is located on the third floor of the newly constructed Time Warner building. The elegantly sparse but spacious dining room has only 16 tables. The view overlooks Columbus Circle to the tree line of Central Park South with the Upper East Side skyline in the distance.

Never have I eaten such a worldly meal in one place. Eleven courses featuring jet-fresh foods flown in from all over the world. The first course was salmon crème fraiche in a tuille cone. The next course featured oysters from Greece, poached in butter and served over a savory sabayon of pearl tapioca with Russian Sevruga caviar.

The third course was a salad of Hawaiian hearts of peach palm. It was at this point that I realized that no component of the meal would be overlooked and all details would be covered down to the two butters that were served with the bread. One came from a small creamery in France and another from an organic farm in California. The bottled water was shipped in from a small company in Wales.

The fourth course was a seared lobe of foie gras dusted with finely crumbled walnuts and served with a small compote of poached apples. I have resigned myself to the fact that I will never eat foie gras prepared as expertly as that one.

The fifth course was a sesame-crusted filet of Hirimasa, a Pacific fish that might have been the mildest, whitest fish I have eaten. That was followed by a fricassee of Nova Scotia lobster with a confit of artichokes, Pincholine olives, oven-roasted Roma tomatoes, Piquillo peppers, and a spicy lobster broth.

After a rabbit course, the server brought a pan-roasted sirloin of Australian Wagyu beef that was served alongside a Wagyu brisket that had been braised for 48 hours, a roasted potato gratin that was 16 layers thick but less than one-inch tall, a forest mushroom duxelles, crisp haricots verts and sauce bordelaise.

The next course featured pickled Tristar strawberries from a farm in Upstate New York paired with Tellicherry Pepper shortbread, cheese from France, and Blue Moon Acres Mezza arugula. A pineapple sorbet course followed, and was served with a compressed pineapple and Macadamia nut “nougatine” which, when I look at my notes from the meal, I described as, “unbelievable” and, since I am not allotted enough space in this column to do the dish justice, I will let that description stand.

Two more courses followed the sorbet course, but I was numb.

I was given a guided tour of the kitchen, unusually large by New York standards, actually, large by any standards. During the day, 40 chefs do the advance work to prepare that evening’s meal. At night it takes 14 chefs to carry out the dinner service. That’s a total of 54 chefs working to service a 16-table restaurant. Again, unbelievable.

On the kitchen wall was a 60-inch plasma monitor with a live, closed-circuit camera focused on The French Laundry’s kitchen, Per Se’s Napa Valley cousin. The French Laundry, on the other hand, has a monitor in their kitchen showing the Per Se kitchen. Wherever Chef Thomas Keller is, he can observe his chefs at work.

The meal was perfect, down to the silverware, serving pieces, china, and crystal, each unique and of the finest quality. As I write this column and think back to my meal at Per Se, I am trying hard to be critical and think of something— just one thing— that was even slightly disappointing. I can’t think of one thing. I guess when a restaurant goes to the trouble to import their water and butter from thousands of miles away, every other detail, whether large or small, is covered.

Will I eat a better meal sometime in the future? Maybe. I certainly hope so. I am currently trying to get a table at The French Laundry for my July visit to that area. Stay tuned.

Monday, June 12, 2006

New York

NEW YORK, NY— I’ve just finished five days on the island of Manhattan with one goal: Eat well.

Being one who is passionate about food, and also one who travels to the nation’s top restaurant city only once or twice a year, I usually have a lot of gastronomic ground to cover during my stay.

Ten years ago I developed a system for eating at my favorite New York restaurants. On a business trip I checked into my Midtown hotel and handed the concierge a list of eight restaurants that I hoped to visit during the course of my stay. He looked at the list, chuckled, and said, “Sir, there’s no way you’ll get in any of these restaurants. Some take months to secure a table.”

I told him, “I don’t care what time of day I eat. I’ll be the first customer of the evening or the last customer to be seated at dinner. I’ll sit at the lousy two-top by the kitchen door, the noisy booth by the kitchen, or at the bar. I just want to eat there. Give it a shot.”

He gave me a smirk and said, “I’ll try.”

Thirty minutes later, the phone in my room rang and, with a note of surprise in his voice, the concierge informed me that he had secured seven out of eight reservations.

It’s all about the food.

Before I left for this trip I made my usual restaurant wish list. At the top of the list sat Per Se. Reservations at Per Se are typically booked two months in advance. Bypassing the hotel’s concierge, I called Per Se as soon as we touched down and gave the reservationist my standard I’ll-eat-early-or-late-it-doesn’t-matter routine. It didn’t work. I was placed on a waiting list.

I began making the other reservations on my list with the knowledge that one of them might have to be cancelled at the spur of the moment to make room for Per Se. I had five days— ten meal periods— and one goal: Eat at Per Se.

Per Se was opened by The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller two years ago. For lovers of art, there are local flea market painters, then there are noted practitioners who are recognized in national publications and galleries, and then there are the masters. In golf, there are local hackers, pros on the tour, and guys like Nicklaus and Palmer. In basketball… well, you get the picture. In the world of fine dining, there are guys like me, then there are guys like Emeril, and then there is Thomas Keller, and he stands alone behind the pulpit of the nation’s foremost culinary cathedral. Ask the nations top 25 chefs to name the best chef in the country and 23 of them will say— without missing a beat— Thomas Keller.

Keller, a modern-day Michelangelo of food, is the chef/owner of The French Laundry in Yountville, California, widely acknowledged as the best restaurant in the country. On my only opportunity to eat there, I had my, then two-year old, daughter in tow and, though she would have been a model customer, children were out.

For me, Per Se— The French Laundry’s New York cousin— is the pinnacle, the grail, the culinary summit of Everest, the restaurant where no other has gone before.

Over the course of the visit, I dined at all of the other restaurants on my list, yet Per Se remained a tough nut to crack. After yellowtail and jalapeño at Nobu, I called the Per Se reservationist, no dice. After lamb’s tongue and beef cheek ravioli at Babbo, I called again, no luck. Hoping that the squeaky wheel would get the grease, I made calls during frisee salads at Gotham Bar and Grill and crispy rice with spicy tuna at Koi, to no avail.

I was down to my last full day in town and holding out for a cancellation at Per Se’s 10:00 p.m. and final seating. Holding theatre tickets for an 8p.m. show, I made late lunch reservations at Union Square Café. We ordered multiple courses, assuming it was going to be very late before we ate at Per Se, if we were able to eat there at all. During our third course at Union Square Café, sometime around 2:30 p.m., I received the call I had been waiting for all week. We were in, but not at 10 p.m. Per Se’s only opening was at 5:30 p.m.

I immediately hung up the phone and told my wife to drop her fork, we were about to eat a nine-course meal at Per Se in three hours.

Next week: New York Part II, Dinner at Per Se

In the early 1970s, pop singer Carly Simon hit the top 40 charts with a song called “Anticipation.”

A few months after the song’s release, a company that manufactures ketchup purchased the exclusive rights to use it in a series of television commercials. It forever changed my connection with the song. Instead of thinking about a slinky, sexy Carly Simon singing, “Anticipation is making me wait. It’s keeping me wa-a-a-a-a-aiting.” I began to associate a thick glob of ketchup slowly oozing out of a ketchup bottle. Big difference.

Music has such strong connections to our memories.My association with that particular song has changed once again. Yesterday, while driving my daughter though Arkansas on her way to summer camp, “Anticipation” came on the radio. As Carly Simon sang, I watched my daughter’s face in the rear view mirror. She was wide-eyed, eager, and excited about going to summer camp. It was the same look her brother had on his face an hour earlier when we dropped him off at his grandmother’s— the excited anticipation of good times to come.It struck me that there is nothing quite like the anticipation of summer camp and summer activities during one’s youth. It is an eagerness that we never seem to recapture with the same intensity once we grow older. The anticipation experienced during one’s youth is unlike that in any other period in our life.

As I write this, I am sitting in a room in the Peabody Hotel in Little Rock waiting to fly to New York to meet with publishers, agents, and publicists. Certainly nothing I am looking forward to with excited anticipation, though the prospects for eating a few good meals have me contemplating the parental summer formula: Son with grandmother + daughter at camp = parents alone. Parents alone + one free week = New York City. New York City + restaurateur/food writer = great dining, squared. I am certainly anticipating a week’s worth of excellent meals.

Suddenly it strikes me that Carly might have had it wrong. She sang, “Anticipation is making me wait. It’s keeping me waiting.” Actually, anticipation is the result of waiting. It is not making one wait, or keeping one waiting, but the by-product of the act.

As we offered our goodbyes to our daughter and prepared to leave her in the able hands of the Camp Ozark staff, she gave us the I-don’t-want-to show-too-much-affection-to-my-parents-while-the-other-kids-are-watching brush-off. Her friends were urging her to follow them as they hurried off to their first activity of the camp session. She gave us a half-hearted hug, said, “bye,” and ran off with the others. We were a little disappointed but couldn’t point the finger too strongly as her mother and I had probably done the same thing to our parents when we were younger.

Slightly dejected, my wife and I began the slow walk up the hill that led to the camp exit— in an instant, my anticipation changed from a culinary field trip to New York, to the joyful reunion with my daughter seven days away. Halfway up the hill— about five minutes after we had said our goodbyes— we heard a sweet, but excited, voice, “Momma, daddy.” It was she. Our daughter had left her friends to come and give us a huge bear hug, a kiss, and a final thank-you for sending her to camp. Somewhere in the middle of the Ouachita National Forrest, on the side of a dirt hill that led to a parking lot, I experienced the greatest hug of my life. It was a moment that I will never forget.

The song was still swimming around in the back of my mind as her mother and I finished our walk to the car. Carly was singing, “…and stay right here, cause these are the good ol’ days.” Yes ma’am, they certainly are.