[Image via: The Cotton Ball Conspiracy]
The Wife is a cheap date in some respects. For Valentine’s Day all she wants is a small box of Russell Stover chocolates. Last year I couldn’t find any so I bought her a box of chocolates from Jacques Torres. She appreciated the gesture, of course, but not the chocolate. Russell Stover it is–but not Whittman’s, she says. “I won’t eat that crap.”
This ran over at Foodspin yesterday. Thought I’d share it with you guys.
A few years ago The Wife and I were introduced to L’Artusi, an Italian place down on West 10th street in the Village. We rarely have the chance to dine out, but we’ve been back to L’Artusi a dozen times since that introduction. We feel welcome there–it’s a place that makes us happy. The environment is elegant but not stuffy, the staff well-informed and attentive, and, oh yeah, best of all: The food is wonderful.
Owned by Executive Chef Gabe Thompson, his wife Katherine, and partners Joe Campanale and August Cardona (all of Epicurean Management and nearby favorite dell’Anima), L’Artusi executes seemingly simple dishes with delicate nuance; both the food and the hospitality are remarkably consistent. Many of its best dishes are the ones that seem simple, even plain at first: We’d made several visits before I tried the spaghetti with garlic and chilies but it quickly became my favorite pasta on the menu. Not many restaurants can make my wife weak in the knees with a side of crispy potatoes. And the olive oil cake, which is easy to pass over at first, is a revelation.
In mid-2012, Thompson stepped back from the L’Artusi Kitchen to concentrate on the development and opening of the group’s new restaurant in the East Village, L’Apicio. Chef de Cuisine Erin Shambura, has run the kitchen ever since. L’Artusi features an open kitchen and Shambura is a pleasure to watch in action; her work is efficient, orderly, and punctuated with obvious joy. She exudes a sense of pleasure in her work, and that transmits to those who work under her direction.
I recently had the chance to sit down with her for a chat and a demonstration of her Braised Boneless Short Ribs over Polenta. Here’s the recipe, followed by our conversation.
Ideally, this will be prepared a day ahead, as it tastes best after sitting, but it will be wonderfully delicious if cooked and eaten on the same day.
Braised short rib ingredients:
1¼ lbs. of boneless short ribs*
3–4 tablespoons of olive oil
1 cup yellow onion, chopped
1 cup red onion, chopped
1 cup of carrots, diced
1 cup of celery, diced
1 cup red wine**
2 35-oz. cans of puréed San Marzanno tomatoes
Chopped flat-leaf parsley for garnish
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper***
And a few optional choices:
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Three sprigs of thyme and oregano can be added along with a couple of bay leaves. These should be added with the tomato. They can be tied into a sachet with cheese cloth for easier removal.
1 box instant polenta (follow directions on the box)
*I found it difficult to get a 1¼-lb. piece of short rib from my local butcher, so I used 3 boneless short ribs weighing about 1¼ lbs.; this worked just fine.
**Any medium-bodied red wine will do. It doesn’t need to be expensive, just something that the cook would enjoy drinking.
***1 tablespoon of salt and 2 teaspoons of ground black pepper for the meat; 2 teaspoons of salt and ½ teaspoon of ground black pepper for the vegetables
1. Preheat the oven to 350°.
2. Place a Dutch oven on the stove and turn the burner to medium-high for 1 minute. Add the olive oil and heat for another 2 minutes.
3. Sprinkle the meat with kosher salt and pepper. Add the meat to the Dutch oven and sear on all four sides. This should take about 5–8 minutes.
4. When caramelized on all 4 sides remove the meat to a plate.
5. Add the vegetables to the Dutch oven and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, on medium to high heat, until they begin to soften. If you are using garlic and/or hot pepper, add them during the final minute of this cooking time.
6. Return the meat to the pot and add the red wine. Reduce the heat to medium and allow the wine to reduce by half, about 3 or 4 minutes.
7. Add the tomatoes and, if using, the herbs, Bring to a simmer for 10 minutes, uncovered.
8. Cover and put in the oven for 2½ hours.
8. If the meat begins to tear when you lift it carefully from the braising liquid, it is done. This means the meat has been braised long enough. At this point, remove the entire pot from the oven and allow to cool. Remove the meat and hold separately until cool enough to remove any excess fat. This is when the meat can be portioned into individual pieces. The meat can then go back into the cooking liquid until ready to serve. You can cover the meat with foil, but just to tent it.
9. Skim the fat off the sauce. There is no need to strain the sauce, though you can put it through a fine mesh strainer if you want a touch more elegance. It’s likely more work than it’s worth but up to you. Be sure to remove the sachet of herbs.
10. Serve on top of polenta—any instant polenta will do—and garnish with some extra sauce and freshly chopped parsley.
Q: I’ve been thinking a lot about Italian cooking since Marcella Hazan passed away last year. Did her books have any kind of influence on you?
ES: Marcella’s books have been on my bookshelves for years, right beside Julia Child’s. The simplicity and clarity in her cooking has always appealed to me. She showed us sophisticated food doesn’t have to come from complicated cooking.
Q: She believed in simplicity but never let you forget that simplicity doesn’t mean easy.
ES: Executing simplicity takes discipline.
Q: In so many things, especially the arts and cooking, I’m fascinated by restraint.
ES: Sometimes less is a better. Focusing on a few flavors and making them come alive. I like the directness of Italian cooking. People understand it. They don’t know the process, but they get the flavors. As I said it takes skill to execute simplicity.
Q: When did you get into cooking?
ES: Midway through college. I cooked for my friends and it made them happy. Making them happy with something I cooked was really appealing and made me feel good, too.
Q: And did you know already that you wanted to go to culinary school?
ES: No. I intended to get a graduate degree and follow my parents into education. After a couple personal tragedies during my senior year, I did a major reevaluation of what was important and what I wanted to do with myself. Culinary school went from an idea I had toyed with to a serious option supported by friends and family. Everyone told me to go, so I went.
Q: And when did you get into Italian cooking?
ES: I entered the New York Restaurant School without a specific cuisine in mind. The curriculum was based on developing a foundation in French technique and when I graduated I naturally found myself in a French kitchen: Jean George’s The Mercer Kitchen. I stayed at Mercer for more than three years, and was promoted to Sous Chef before I left to take an entremetier position at Del Posto.
Q: And suddenly you’re at a four-star restaurant.
ES: Yes! It is an amazing kitchen to be a part of. My eyes were opened to proper Italian cooking. Up until that point my understanding of Italian food was limited. I learned so much about fine dining, and how to polish the rustic nature of Italian cuisine to its highest level.
Q: And after Del Posto?
ES: Lupa, where I fell in love with traditional Roman cooking. Lupa taught me the vital importance of quality ingredients in great Italian cooking—exceptional product is more fundamentally important than elaborate preparation. Del Posto and Lupa helped define my style and vision as a chef.
Q: Here at L’Artusi, you have success with a series of staple dishes on the menu. Where do you find your own voice in being able to introduce things that allow you to experiment?
ES: Every restaurant has staple menu items that provide a backbone, and L’Artusi is no exception. That being said, I rely heavily on seasonally available ingredients to craft the menu, and we innovate on a day-to-day basis. Specials or new menu items are never improvised, but tested and crafted in conjunction with my team of sous chefs and line cooks. A dish may start as a random thought while I’m out running, but pulling it together in the kitchen is a much bigger process and I value my team’s input.
Q: So you ask for their input?
ES: Absolutely. Sometimes you need a different perspective. Someone can taste a dish and say, “Oh, it needs a little acidity” and then we talk about what that should be—lemon or vinegar. I think it’s crucial to have a team dynamic. I want to create an atmosphere where the staff’s input is valued.
Q: That’s one thing I enjoy about your place, especially sitting near the kitchen and watching you work. But I’m always impressed by how efficient it all looks, and mostly, how there is no screaming or anyone bugging out.
ES: There isn’t screaming or yelling because that doesn’t get the end goal accomplished. Maintaining a balanced atmosphere is essential to a productive kitchen. We’re able to accomplish this because many of our cooks have been trained in multiple stations. This is a huge help during the busiest times because there is a second pair of hands to step in when needed. We have a really tight team right now and it makes my job easier.
Q: Do you ever run into attitude problems with younger cooks who are fresh out of culinary school who have a hard time with going through the ranks?
ES: I’ve seen some of that in the past, but not here. A lot of people go to culinary school and just expect to advance quickly from entry-level positions. Advancement isn’t just handed over, it has to be earned. In our industry you don’t have to go to culinary school to be a success story. I’m fortunate to work with several talented line cooks that started as dishwashers. Success in the restaurant business is based on the effort and time that you put into it. I believe that stems from promoting within. I like running a kitchen where the cooks know they can advance.
Q: Without knowing that, a positive energy does come across when we’re eating there. You know, I love the flexibility of Italian dishes. Especially because everyone is convinced that their version is the correct one. Take Bucatini all’Amatriciana. Marcella makes use of a neutral oil and butter; most recipes call for olive oil. If you use garlic, that’s fighting words in some quarters. Other people use it. Some recipes call for a little white wine for acidity.
ES: I don’t think that there are any real limitations to what can be done with Italian food. There are so many traditional dishes, but most chefs take liberties. We certainly do at L’Artusi. I never feel restricted by focusing on clarity and simplicity, it’s just how I prefer to cook. My focus is creating the best dining experience for our guests. Being adventurous with our selections hasn’t always worked in the past, but I continue to try new dishes. I want our food to be approachable and getting to know the tastes of our diners has led me to create dishes they want to eat. That’s why our patrons keep coming back. Their loyalty inspires me.
Here is a gift for you.
After separating from his wife in 1960, Brooks had spent a bleak and insolvent period in an unfurnished fourth-floor walkup on Perry Street, for which he paid seventy-eight dollars a month. He then moved in with a friend called Speed Vogel, who had an apartment on Central Park West and a studio on West Twenty-eighth Street, where he made what Brooks describes as “direct metal sculpture.” Vogel had left his wife shortly before Brooks arrived. The two men cooked for themselves, carried their clothes to the laundromat, rose at conflicting hours (Brooks late, Vogel early), and bickered over practically every aspect of housekeeping—a setup uncannily prophetic of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.
One Tuesday in the summer of 1962, Vogel gave a party at West Twenty-eighth Street. Among his guests were Zero Mostel, who had a studio in the same building; Joseph Heller, whose first novel, Catch 22, had appeared the previous year; and Ngoot Lee, a painter and calligrapher of Chinese parentage. These three, together with Vogel and Brooks, enjoyed one another’s company so much that they decided to commemorate the occasion by reassembling every Tuesday for food and talk. Meetings were held at cheap Chinese restaurants selected by Ngoot Lee, who knew where the best chefs worked, and kept track of their movements from job to job. The nucleus, itself a fairly motley crew, grew steadily motleyer as it swelled in numbers. Brooks introduced a diamond dealer named Julie Green, who could do eccentric impersonations of movie stars. Heller contributed a fellow-novelist, George Mandel, who had a steel plate in his head as a result of injuries suffered in the Battle of the Bulge.
“One night,” Heller recalls, “Mandel told us in detail how he had been wounded. There was a long pause, and then Mel did something typical. He said, very slowly, ‘I’m sure glad that happened to you, and not to me.’ He wasn’t being cruel, he was being honest. He just blurted out what we were all thinking but didn’t dare to say.” Mandel, in turn, brought in Mario Puzo, later to become famous as the author of The Godfather. These were the charter members of the fraternity. They called themselves the Group of the Oblong Table or, in more pretentious moments, the Chinese Gourmet Club. What bound them together, apart from revelry in conversation, is best epitomised in a statement volunteered to me by Heller. “I’d rather have a bad meal out than a good meal at home,” he said. “When you’re out, it’s a party. Also, I like a big mediocre meal more than a small good one.”
The membership list has been closed for many years. Approved outsiders, like Carl Reiner and Joseph Stein, are invited to the Oblong Table from time to time, but merely as ‘honoured guests.’ The club has strict rules, some of which I learned from Reiner: “You are not allowed to eat two mouthfuls of fish, meat, or chicken without an intermediate mouthful of rice. Otherwise, you would be consuming only the expensive food. The cheque and tip, and the parking fees, if any, are equally divided among the members. It is compulsory, if you are in New York, are not working nights, and are in reasonable health, to be present at every meeting.” He continued, “The members are very polite. Once, I had a seat facing the kitchen door and I looked through and saw a rat strolling across the floor. They immediately offered me a chair facing the other way.” Anxious to retain his status of ‘honoured guest,’ Reiner begged me to quote Heller and Brooks on the subject at greater length than I quoted him.
Brooks recently told an interviewer that the talk at the Oblong Table mainly deals with such weighty subjects as “whether there is a God, what is a Jew, and do homosexuals really do it.” Reiner has other recollections. “From the sessions I’ve attended,” he said to me, “I would put that group up against the Algonquin Round Table and bet that, line for line, they were funnier. The speed of the wit is breathtaking. It just flies back and forth.” Brooks’s comment on this: “I’m sure we’re funnier than the Algonquin crowd, but we’re not as bright.”
Hershy Kay, the composer and Broadway arranger, had a bitter experience that confirmed what Reiner said about the club’s rigorous eating procedure. According to Brooks: “Hershy Kay came once as a guest and took the nicest bits of the lobster and the choicest parts of the chicken, including the wings, which I like. He did not touch his rice. He had to go, and he went.” There may, however, have been another reason for Kay’s rejection. My source here is Heller, who said, ‘Bear in mind that I am the only tall member of the group. At the next meeting after the Hershy Kay incident, Mel made a little speech. “Let’s face it,” he said, “except for Joe, all of us are quite short. Some of us are very short. Hershy is too short.”
Brooks, incidentally, has grave reservations about Heller’s own table manners. “From the very start,” he declares, “we accepted Joe on Speed Vogel’s word that he would behave, and Speed lied to us, because he did not behave. He took the best pieces of everything and laughed in our faces. One Tuesday, we ordered a tureen of special soup full of delicious things, and Joe grabbed it, scooped all the good stuff into his own bowl, and then said, “Here, let me serve this.” We each got a spoonful of nothing.”
Far from denying this story, Heller openly confesses, “I am a greedy man. I’ll eat anything. I even use a fork instead of chopsticks, so I can eat faster. I’m known in the club as the plague of locusts.” Presumably, his physical bulk protects him against reprisals.
Puzo, the only non-Jewish member other than Ngoot Lee, is tolerated because of his limited appetite. “Being Italian, Puzo is no threat to us,” Brooks says. “He doesn’t really like exotic dishes. He prefers noodles and rice—things that remind him of home. He is provincial, and that saves us from the rape of our best food.” A stickler for party discipline as well as a dedicated glutton, Brooks never misses a club meeting when he is in Manhattan. If business suddenly compels him to fly in from the Coast on a Tuesday evening, his first act on arrival at JFK is to ring every eligible restaurant in Chinatown until he finds the chosen venue. Thither he dashes, straight from the airport; and before saying a word, he heaps a plate with whatever is left.
Despite their differences over matters of etiquette, Heller has a high respect for Brooks. He freely admitted to me that he used a lot of Brooks’s lines in his second novel, Something Happened, and that in his next book, Good as Gold, ‘the hero is a small Jewish guy, and there’s a great deal of Mel in that.’ In the early seventies, Heller was teaching writing at City College of New York. He had long been aware that Brooks was vulnerable to practical jokes. One evening, Heller casually lied about his salary, saying that it was sixty-eight thousand dollars a year—more than double the truth. A couple of days later, Heller’s accountant, who also worked for Brooks, called him up and said, “For God’s sake, Joe, what the hell have you done? First thing this morning, Mel was up here screaming, “Why am I in the entertainment business? Why aren’t I teaching and earning seventy thousand a year like Joe Heller?” He was out of his mind!” Having told me this story, Heller went on, “Mel has always had plenty of resentment and aggression that he can sublimate into creativity. He’s usually at his best when he’s envying people more successful than he is. Now that there’s hardly anyone more successful, what will he do?”
I cited a mot attributed to Gore Vidal: ‘It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’
“I thought that was La Rochefoucauld,” Heller said. “But anyway it doesn’t apply to Mel. He likes to see his rivals fail, but not his friends. Provided, of course, that he’s succeeding.”
I asked whether, in Heller’s opinion, fame had changed Brooks.
“Not a bit. He’s just as nasty, hostile, acquisitive, and envious today as he ever was. Please be sure to quote me on that,” Heller said warmly. He went on, “You have to distinguish between Mel the entertainer and Mel the private person. He puts on this manic public performance, but it’s an act, it’s something sought for and worked on. When he’s being himself, he’ll talk quietly for hours and then make a remark that’s unforgettably funny because it comes out of a real situation. You might say that he’s at his funniest when he’s being most serious. He has a tremendous reverence for novelists and for literature in general, because it involves something more than gag writing. In his serious moments, I don’t think he regards movies as an art. For Mel, the real art is literature.”
Brooks staunchly challenges this view: “When Joe says things like that, he’s just electioneering for the novel, because that’s what he writes. I think La Grande Illusion is as good as Anna Karenina, and Les Enfants du Paradis is in the same class as La Chartreuse de Parme. If we’re talking about art at the most exquisite level, Joe may conceivably have a point. But I’m a populist. I want color, I want visual images, I want the sound of the human voice.”