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Slice of Life

Key West today is not my kind of place. For starters, while I love the ocean, I'm not a beach-community kinda guy -- not a guy tuned to that Endless Summer, quasi-Caribbean, Jimmy Buffett-and-a-strawberry-daiquiri vibe. Trust me, the last thing any of you nice people want to see is my pasty white ass slouching around the dockside bars in a pair of Chuck Taylors and a banana hammock, fruity umbrella drink in one hand, cigarette in the other, bad-mouthing the tourists and trying to find the nearest 24-hour diner.

Sure, I read my Hemingway, my McGuane and Hiaasen, and I reveled in their colorful world of near-expats, burnouts, rum-runners, refugees, crusty old charter-boat captains, legendary drunks and fugitive dope pilots -- my kind of people. In 1982, the Keys (all of 'em, from Skeeter's Last Chance Saloon in Florida City south) seceded from the United States, fer chrissakes, declaring, from the steps of a Miami courthouse, their intent to form the Conch Republic; they formalized their separation by having Dennis Wardlow, the mayor (or prime minister, at least for that moment), break a loaf of stale Cuban bread over the head of some guy dressed in a U.S. Navy uniform and then immediately turn around and surrender his forces to the admiral at Key West Naval Base, demanding one billion dollars in federal aid for "war relief." That's insanity on a grand scale, folks, and you gotta respect it.

Today the place is different. Duval Street has a Hard Rock Cafe. Key West is overrun by the cruise-ship crowd, and there's such an unholy concentration of money in such a small space that the billionaires sneer at the millionaires for bringing down the property values.

But Key West still has one fantastic thing going for it: real Key lime pie, the official dessert of Key West. It's everywhere -- you can't chuck a coconut without bonking someone who's eating it, making it or selling it on a stick out of a cart -- and you can devour it at any hour of the day or night without anyone looking at you funny. Kick back on a deck chair at Mango's and enjoy Key lime pie and a tall glass of Bacardi Anejo on ice for breakfast, and people just might assume you're a local. If you're stopped for speeding at midnight, making a Key-lime-pie run before closing time is a workable excuse.

Key lime pie was invented out of necessity. Because the Keys were so isolated, fresh milk -- and fresh everything else, besides the native Key limes -- was hard to come by. But Gail Borden's invention of sweetened condensed milk in 1859 created the perfect substitute, and it also meant you could have a fast custard without cooking it. The lime juice alone was enough to curdle the condensed milk and egg yolks in nothing flat, and with the addition of a little sugar, powerful enough to make a passable dessert. No one knows who made the first lime custard. No one knows who first put it into a pie shell. And the meringue-whipped-cream-topping debate may never be settled. But meanwhile, one thing's certain: Outside of the Keys, Key lime pie has been fiddled and fucked with more than any other dessert around. Which is ridiculous, because with only four ingredients, you really have to work to make it go wrong. Most of the adulterated versions I've had over the years are too sweet; substitute sugary farmed limes for the scrappy, tart little Keys variety; use heavy cream and cornstarch instead of condensed milk; inject the filling with green food dye that makes it glow like uranium gelée; and generally muck up every step along the way.

Worse, Key lime pie's rich history has been lost along with its flavor. This is essentially siege cuisine, a dish on par with Irish coddle, bread pudding or cioppino, the stuff you make when the real food is gone and all you've got left are the ugly little limes on the tree out in the yard, some canned milk, cracker crumbs, a little sugar and a couple of eggs. It's comfort food -- American comfort food -- of the purest variety, and it deserves better treatment than it gets outside of its home turf.

The kind of treatment, for instance, that it receives at the Cream Puffery (see page 67). While Key lime pie may not be a recipe native to the Big Havana canon of Cuban cookery, when the result is as good as the pie at the Puff, no one's going to quibble over ninety miles.

Where food comes from, part II: The mole-people I employ in the research wing of Bite Me World HQ have been combing history books and interrogating chefs in a noble attempt to determine the origin of the term "New American Cuisine." And finally, I think they've found it, in a July 6, 1983, Boston Globe piece by Nina Simmonds, which reported on what, by all rights, should have been a totally forgettable press event in Newport, Rhode Island, touting the usefulness of the cranberry. The ad agency for Ocean Spray had flown in a lunch cook and a crew from California to provide "snacks" for the press and play second fiddle to Parisian front-man Guy Savoy -- one of the so-called "Young Turks" of French nouvelle cuisine, along with the Troisgros (both of 'em), Bocuse, the not- so-young but brilliant Senderens, etc. -- who would be providing a cranberry-centric dinner later that night.

 

But surprisingly, it was the lunch -- cooked on outdoor grills, with a simplicity almost unheard of back then -- that captured the media's attention. When Simmonds asked the lunch cook to characterize his style, he called it "a marriage between the aesthetic chasteness of nouvelle cuisine and the hearty, robust hominess of bistro food: New American Cuisine."

The man who spoke those fateful words? Jeremiah Tower, a guy who refuses to play second fiddle to anyone, regardless of their pedigree or how many Michelin stars they possess.

If the early '80s were a francophile's dream of strutting, youngish French rock stars in chef's whites butchering the English language on live TV and deconstructing the classical methodology of their forebears in the kitchen, then Tower was a different sort of rebel. He'd been brought up all over the world, spending his formative years aboard luxury cruise ships and in four-star hotels, finding native pleasures in simple, fresh foods wherever he landed. He worked at (and later became co-owner of) Chez Panisse under Alice Waters, and saw the place through its subsequent transformations from cafe to restaurant to temple; he opened Stars in San Francisco -- ground zero of the California-cuisine movement -- and then the Santa Fe Bar & Grill in Berkeley. Anywhere the food revolution was happening, Tower was there (usually drenched in Cristal and with a nose full of blow), so I guess it was only appropriate that when the revolution was given a name, that name would come from him.

For the story of whipping Savoy on the cranberry people's dime alone, Tower's new book, California Dish, is worth the cover price. Its subtitle -- "What I saw (and cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution" -- aptly describes what's inside: Two hundred-odd pages of whining, bragging, self-aggrandizing memories from forty years in the company of the most famous names in the American culinary lexicon, mixed up with some great one-liners, beautiful moments, uncomfortable truths and recipes. Tower the celebrity is a prick in a world of pricks, the self-professed inventor of everything culinary from about 1972 on, and he uses this book to offer proof that he single-handedly shaped the American palate with the force of his personality and passions. But Tower the man is just a cook -- ridiculously talented, horribly damaged and funny in his way without ever really trying to be.

The book is heavy on name-dropping and long on descriptions of Tower's own fabulousness, but it runs a neat line between the street-punk testosterone of Bourdain and the haughty sensationalism of a celebrity memoir, all the while taking readers step by step through the moves (both intentional and accidental) that brought American cuisine to where it is today. Tower loves who he loves and hates who he hates, and by the end of the book, you definitely know who's wearing the white hats and who's wearing the black. In Jerry's opinion, anyhow.

The tome even has a local hook. Somewhere near the middle of the California-cuisine explosion -- while Stars was in full swing and Chez Panisse was rewriting the rules for eating well -- three partners bundled up all that California freshness and took it east on a road trip to New York. And there, Jonathan Waxman and Melvyn and Jane Master would open Jams, one of the most talked-about restaurants of the all-talk '80s. This was the place that introduced New York (and, consequently, the world) to the joys and terrors of California cuisine, and Tower sums up its influence in three tidy paragraphs:

"Waxman's Jams was a shock to New York, if a delightful one. The prices were electric, and the decor an eye-opener for New Yorkers. How could a 'serious restaurant' with a 'famous chef' be so plain? None of the 'frog-pond' great French restaurants had white walls. And the elegance of The Four Seasons was indeed very formal. The co-owner of Jams, Melvyn Masters [sic], explained: 'I hate the theatrics of pseudo haute cuisine -- the kind where you need a torch to see the menu.' He opted instead for bright walls with works by modern artists and a kitchen open to public view -- where diners could watch Jonathan again prepare his trademark dish of 'free ranging' chicken cooked over mesquite charcoal and served with french fries.

 

"Time claimed that the new cooking was in 'an intellectualized, even esoteric style, characterized by the use of fresh, native ingredients.' Now I would add that since one cook's esotericism is another's poison, the term 'California Cuisine' was brought to its knees by overenthusiastic combinations of ingredients known only for their newness. Kiwis were piled on top of blueberry vinegar-infused reductions that were loaded into squirt bottles lined up in front of restaurant cooks just waiting for some poor squab to come along, probably paired with foie gras, scallops and balsamic vinegar-drowned baby lettuces.

"But that was later. For now California was the media darling. It had the freshest ingredients in the land."

Where food comes from, part III: Out of Berkeley comes another book, this one by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, called The Pig Who Sang to the Moon. Subtitled "The Emotional World of Farm Animals," it's a long, weepy, totally one-sided look at the emotional abuses suffered by animals. Masson devotes page after page to the horrible cruelties to which animals are subjected on factory farms, tells stories about ranchers who put two in the chest of any sheep clever enough to unlatch its pen, goes on at length about swine genetics, quotes Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy, and generally milks the subject for every drop of pathos it's worth.

True, the guy knows his stuff. A few years back, Masson -- then a Freudian psychoanalyst and director of the Freud archives at the Library of Congress -- made a big splash by essentially kicking ol' Siggy in the nuts with the publication of his first book, The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory. After apparently becoming fed up with the emotional world of humans, he went on to write several very popular books about the emotional world of animals.

It's hard to argue with Masson, because all he's saying is that we should be nicer to animals and not eat them, wear them, or take away their eggs and milk. But it takes him 200-plus pages to say that, when the job really could have been done in something closer to brochure length. If you already know where your food comes from and have made peace with the fact that every time you eat, something dies, then save your money. And if you haven't, I highly doubt the whole world is gonna suddenly up and go vegetarian over the shocking discovery that pigs can sing.

No, I think we'll listen to the song, then make bacon. As Masson will be doing November 13 at the Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek, where he'll speak and sign books. In the meantime, if you want a copy, you're welcome to mine.

Leftovers: I told you this was going to happen. After enjoying some fabulous meals in the otherwise empty Maruti Narayan's in August 2002, I expressed my absolute disbelief at the "legion of timid, pasty suburbanites lining up in front of the Subway counter [while] not far away, Carrabba's and the Outback Steakhouse were jumping [and] people were stacked up on benches in the 90-degree heat waiting for the dubious privilege of being seated at a fucking Olive Garden." I told you in no uncertain terms that if you didn't put down the riblets, step away from the bloomin' onion and give at least a portion of your business to the independent restaurants in this struggling area of Aurora, they were going to close.

And now Maruti Narayan's has. It went dark last month, taking with it the best saag paneer this side of the Himalayas. Anyone reading this while sitting in a T.G.I. Friday's or having lunch at Bennigan's or shoving your face full of Fazoli's breadsticks -- I blame you.

The opening of Table 6 -- the new spot in the old Beehive space at 609 Corona Street -- has hit a snag. The new proprietors are Bryan Moscatello, Mike Huff and Chris Farnum, all from Adega, and this past Monday, their request for an upgraded hotel-and-restaurant liquor license -- the kind that lets you serve the hard stuff -- was denied after the ownership group failed to show due cause for an upgraded license to be granted in that neighborhood. (The Beehive had served only wine and beer.) The guys were just getting ready to christen Table 6, with the staff set to come in and test out the kitchen, when the denial was handed down by the city.

 

Thing is, the Adega group isn't really interested in serving anything other than wine and beer at Table 6. But a hotel-and-restaurant liquor license is necessary at that address in order to keep all three of the trio's restaurants -- Adega, Table 6 and a restaurant scheduled to go into the new Cherry Creek Marriott hotel -- under the umbrella of a single ownership group rather than splitting them into individual companies. (While one company can hold a hundred tavern licenses, for example, it cannot hold 99 tavern licenses and one hotel-and-restaurant license.) "We've already filed appeals," says Farnum. And if necessary, he adds, the owners are willing to sign a letter to the Table 6 neighborhood, promising never to serve a drop of hard liquor on the premises.

License snafu aside, "things are going ahead as planned," Farnum says. And while that plan probably didn't include sending the full Table 6 staff home Monday night after the partners were notified of the license denial, they're still scheduling VIP and staff dinners starting next Monday, with a public opening on (or at least close to) the following Thursday. The theme will be American bistro (thanks, Mr. Tower!) chic, featuring lots of hardwood, copper, exposed brick and an open kitchen (invented by Tower, perfected by Jams), with straight-up bistro grub to match. As at Adega, Moscatello will be overseeing the Table 6 kitchen, the partners will be on the floor, and veteran staff will be rounding out the kitchen. Unlike at Adega, the menu at Table 6 will top out at $22.

That's with drinks not included, of course.

And James Mazzio's ChefJam Supper Club has transmogrified into The Restaurant at ChefJam. While high-end catering is still available, the place will be transformed into a fine-dining destination with reservation-only dinners every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. Mazzio also promises guest-chef appearances, special tastings, theme nights and, as always, top-shelf à la carte offerings from an ever-changing menu.


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