Thursday, October 1, 2009

Chocolate Show

A chocolate show is a wonderful thing. Imagine your favorite thing to eat in the whole world and there's a convention about it, with every booth offering free samples of that thing. All people should go to a show featuring their favorite food once in their lives, yet unfortunately not all foods get their own show. Bacon probably wouldn't have its own show. Candy gets its own show sometimes. Chocolate has been getting its own show for years now. My first chocolate show was in November 1998 in New York, when I was a grad student in the Food Studies Master's degree program at NYU.

The Food Studies department posted a notice for volunteers to help out at the popular New York Chocolate Show at Soho's regal Puck Building. The time required to serve was a full Saturday, and we put on white coats and assisted a certain famous French pastry chef during his live chocolate demonstrations. His desserts and cakes are always impressive, however this chef treated us volunteers with disdain that day. I think that's when I learned it's definitely fun to volunteer at a chocolate show, but it's even more fun to be a patron.

Years later I received a complimentary ticket for the same show through the restaurant company I worked at, since one of our pastry chefs was a featured guest. Seeing the show as a human instead of a volunteer led to a higher level of satisfaction all around, as I was no longer chained to one corner of the room and could now explore freely. This was all good with the exception that I did not heed this warning:

**Warning: Taste samples sporadically, not constantly, at a chocolate show or you will have extreme headaches**

(Heck I still wouldn't take that advice. Never ask me to.)

There was another chocolate show I attended with my old friend Chris probably around 2002 after we returned from a trip to Paris. But before I talk about that, let me mention that good chocolate is easy to find in Paris! Chris took me to Angelina’s for their luxe hot chocolate poured from a porcelain pot, and we visited Michael Chaundon’s shop near the Eiffel Tower for cream-filled chocolates so fresh they must always be refrigerated.

Right, so it was after Paris that Chris and I visited a New York chocolate show in a more intimate setting than the Puck Building, in some big gallery in Chelsea. There were some marvelous products at this show, including white chocolate bark with cherries, apricots and pistachios from France, painted artisinal bon bons from Japan and new flavors of Van Gogh chocolate vodka from The Netherlands. And yes, samples were plentiful!

Now the weirdest chocolate show experience I ever had was in October 2005 in Sweden. I happened upon a crazy coincidence one day while researching an upcoming visit to Scandinavia. The purpose of the visit was two-fold: to taste real Danish pastries in Copenhagen, and to visit my Catherine-Deneuve-look-alike friend Kirsten in Oslo (we met at a New York barbecue when she offered me a piece of the lovely Swedish candy called Daim).

After the flights were booked, I did a random online search for chocolate in Sweden. No, Sweden wasn't on the itinerary per se, but I planned to visit the Swedish town of Malmo for a few hours since it was the most accessible Swedish city near Copenhagen and I couldn’t eat Danish ALL the time so a short train trip to the most accessible part of Sweden made sense! So, the online search for "Sweden chocolate" resulted in a wonderful coincidence. During the time of my visit, there was going to be a CHOCOLATE SHOW IN MALMO, SWEDEN!

The 30-minute train ride to Malmo went quickly and in the train station I bought a few Swedish chocolate bars for the wrappers (including the exquisitely wrapped Japonais bar), and promptly ignored the tons of licorice for sale (it’s a thing in Scandinavia, that licorice). Then with purpose and anticipation I walked, a good 30-minute walk, down the cold streets of Malmo to the old brick factory where the chocolate show would be. I found it! That felt awesome.

There was a short line at the door, and the ticket taker was a very attractive Swedish man. (Did I ever tell you about the inherent attractiveness of Scandinavian people? It’s amazing, and as I would soon find out in Oslo, the Norwegians are just as attractive as the Swedes!) The Swedish man was in jeans and a big burly gray sweater, the kind of sweater that belongs at a cozy lodge with you and your (plural) hot toddies by the fire. He was blond, J Crew model-like but without a drip of pretention, and he smiled at me when I asked him if he spoke English.

He nicely explained that the chocolate show ticket price was something like 25 euros. Ack! True I did come to Malmo for this chocolate show (as well as to visit Malmo's "famous International Market Square" down the street), but 25 euros compared to the $15 or even free admission I was used to for larger shows in New York felt like too much here. I mean, it’s not that I needed to go this show. I wanted to, if possible.

I explained my situation to the handsome Swede, that I worked for a restaurant company and loved chocolate and went to many food shows and didn’t really need to see this one after all, thanks anyway. "Where did you travel from?" he asked. I said "Besides Copenhagen? I'm from New York City." Well that’s all it took for him to melt like a big piece of white chocolate in the sun. He lived in New York City once too! And he really wanted to talk to me about that. But what can you do, people kept interrupting, you know, to buy tickets for the chocolate show.

This man graciously decided, under the circumstances, that I should be able to go to the show for free. Really? Wow thank you so much...I accepted the offer and went upstairs. The chocolate show was 1/30th the size of any show I’d been to. It was extremely intimate and lovely, and I deftly walked around the three little rooms in food-show-grazing style, popping through people and accepting the few samples offered. That said, I think I finished the show in 10 minutes. A little embarrassing, yes, but stalling was difficult due to the crowds so all I could really do was leave.

Back downstairs he was surprised to see me so soon! I sincerely thanked him and then he wanted to hear what I thought about the show and wished to continue talking. So did I, then the admission line suddenly grew and he had to take tickets, even though he was flustered that this meant we had to stop chatting. I said “Listen I’m going to walk to the International Market Square which should be a few blocks that way and then will come back.” Relieved, he said okay. I walked a few blocks to that famous square, and immediately noticed that whoever wrote the promotional benefits of visiting Malmo and included the International Market Square as one of those benefits was high on aquavit. There was absolutely nothing to see, no special shops or restaurants or takeout places. The square was desolate, depressing, and kinda closed. Maybe because it was a Sunday? Anyway my little side trip to the square lasted about 30 seconds and then I turned back.

On the walk back to the chocolate show I started to imagine what would happen if I lingered to chat up the chocolate show man. Well, we could have an adventure...he clearly wanted to talk more, so I could invite him to visit me in Copenhagen where I was staying for three more days and he would take the 30-minute train ride from Malmo and meet me for dinner and we would enjoy each other’s company and have drinks and then because I was a single female traveler alone in Scandinavia with a hotel room he might expect more and that might be too risky so..., so, hmm. Boy was he a lovely, intelligent and generous man, however my mind raced in über-precautionary mode. I had no idea what to do.

When I got back to the old brick factory I stopped on the sidewalk and waved hello to him while he was exchanging money frantically with customers. He was very happy to see that I returned. I stood and waited. I got nervous. I imagined a conversation about meeting up later but with no expectations. I decided it was too weird to explain my vulnerabilities to a total stranger. Resolved to eat my dinner alone that night, I got his attention, pointed towards the train station and mouthed the words “I have to go,” then walked away watching him watch me, his frustration clear as he tried to catch me but in the end was trapped taking chocolate show money.

I regret that I did not stay to get to know this person, who only knew me for a few minutes before sneaking me into his chocolate show. What had I been so worried about? He wanted to talk to someone from New York, to reminisce about his old home. Who knows what else, but that at least was real. It’s one of those things where in this day-and-age of Facebook I wish I knew his name because then I could “friend” him and explain why I up and left without a word that day in October 2005 when he worked at the Malmo chocolate show. Nah, I don't think people remember things like I do.

Soon after I was reminded of some lessons: 1) Don't make assumptions about or decisions for other people because you have no idea what they're thinking, and 2) Don't think so much all the time, just go with life when it happens. At least right after seeing the show I had a moment to thank the man for his generosity and tell him how much I enjoyed it.

I haven’t been to a chocolate show since, unless you call the visions of chocolate dancing around my mind each day a chocolate show.

Until we eat again,

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bad Planet Marly, so here's a recipe too

Dear PM Readers,

As you may have noticed, my usual lapse in writing has gone on over 2 months this time. I am very sorry! There are excuses, but I won't make them. Instead, how about I say that sooner than you can whip a bowl of heavy cream, I'll get crackin' on a new post.

In the meantime, mark your calendar to see "Julie & Julia," what looks to be a great foodie flick opening on August 7th. It is based on the non-fiction best-seller of a listless administrative assistant in Queens, NY named Julie Powell, who decides to change her fate by cooking every recipe in Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in one year while simultaneously blogging about it! She was actually a food-blogging pioneer, and adorably called her blog readers "Bleaders." Fantastic.

This feat did change Ms. Powell's fate, and it's a great read. The movie too promises to include cameos of some food world biggie's, including a secret cameo near the end of the film by Frank Bruni, the chief restaurant critic of The New York Times. The irony here is that Mr. Bruni agreed to the film cameo knowing full well that he was stepping down from his post--which required him to keep a secret identity for many years--the same time the movie was being released! I love that.

And so, as penance for the lapse in posts (ok so maybe this has inadvertently been a mini-post), I offer you a mini-recipe. It struck my fancy while flipping through some women's magazine at the dentist office or something. Looks tasty! And if the thought of instant white rice turns you off, just substitute any other kind. Another thought is to take these flavors and incorporate them into a more formal risotto. Yep, now I'm hungry.

Creamy Lemon, Mushroom, Shrimp & Rice
courtesy of Success Rice

1 bag Success rice

1 tbsp. garlic-flavored oil
16 oz. white mushrooms (pre-sliced, 6 cups)
1 8 oz. tub onion & chive cream cheese
1 lb. cooked, peeled & deveined medium shrimp (40)
2 cups pre-rinsed baby spinach
¼ cup water
1 tbsp. lemon juice
½ cup shredded Parmesan

Prepare rice. Heat oil in nonstick pan. Add mushrooms and sauté for 6 minutes until golden. Stir in cream cheese until melted. Add shrimp, spinach and water. Cook until heated, 2 minutes. Fold in rice, lemon, more water if needed to keep creamy. Top with Parmesan. Serves 4 (or a super hungry 1).

Until we meet again,

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It Is Happening Again

Ok imagine you're a baseball fan, say a Yankees, Dodgers or D-Backs fan, and one day the rules change so that every other day a new stadium for your team opens in the team's (and your) town and official major league players are added in for each stadium so lots of games end up being added to the season schedule for each team. This would probably result in your being very excited that there are many more games to see each week, each night even, and this would spur you on to see all the games in your now bigger baseball club but then you'd start to think about it realistically and wonder, how will you ever have enough time or money to go see them all?

Welcome to my world. I'm a foodie. And this is the hell I'm again living in.

Things were under control in Los Angeles when I got here in 2006. Being a food lover/obsessive is actually one of the reasons I moved here from that other city you've probably heard me talk about, New York.

Huh, you say? Why would that be? Moving from one to the other because of food? Doesn't sound logical in this case really, especially since then you'd expect me to move from New York to Chicago or San Francisco, not Los Angeles! Okay let me put letters to visual paper so you can hear me...

Living in New York City is like living within the churning and expanding contents of an over-reactive petri dish. Things keep growing and moving and you're living inside of it, merged and in sync with the molecules in the dish every breathing moment. While it's exciting to be in such a volcanic environment, it's rather exhausting to be growing and moving all the time but you must stay with it, you have no choice!

For instance, art and culture were rather set in NY, with X amount of museums in X neighborhoods. Then came Chelsea, with its galleries and oh then came Williamsburg, with its many hipster galleries. Then outdoor art hit Central Park with The Gates, and those paper-maché cows and then baseball team Statues of Liberty on every major street corner. Art was everywhere, in more and more places, so if you liked art there was suddenly no rest for you.

The same can't really be said for baseball, but it can be said for theater, and it certainly can be said for bars and restaurants. As a resident living in the supernova also known as Brooklyn, I wasn't a foodie for no good reason. My job then was to know what was going on in the city's food world due to my employment at a large restaurant firm. A foodie job for a foodie is a great fit, however when the world around you is exploding into a new bar and/or restaurant every single day, all of which sound amazing and worthy of my hard-earned cash, it simply becomes an exhaustive effort to keep up with all the new places to check out.

So I left. Not just for that reason but it was suddenly no longer fun to explore every new place, read and jot down notes every week from NY Magazine (on Monday) and Time Out Magazine (on Thursday) and the New York Times (on Wednesday), plus walk past very exciting fresh cubbyhole spots with unique menus yet with no time to go in so you merely look at the menus and want it all but can't have it all.

Los Angeles is home to wonderful low-key ethnic food, and some high-end Beverly Hills mover-shaker places that I couldn't really care about. So upon landing on these shores my foodie needs subsided naturally, and my brain reveled in the change since it was so tired. With that in mind, LA and I got along just fine.

There were a handful of places I frequented when I got here, and slowly other ones sauntered my way. Actually, while living here I've experienced the lost joy of being a repeat customer! Back east, that was close to impossible. Perish the thought that I was ever able to visit a favorite haunt more than once or twice a year. It simply didn't work. In LA from day one, my foodie driver's seat was on cruise-control for the first time in years and I flourished. One time I even went to a place-of-the-moment three times in a week, and 14 times within several months! New Yorkers, can you imagine? Okay also, I mean sure, having restaurant variety is why I don't live in Tulsa, but must we all go crazy learning about the next great new place every single day?

So here I was enjoying LA, gingerly discovering new places, and eventually, admittedly, a little frustrated by the lack of great food if you want a reasonably priced sit-down meal. Then, recently, I noticed a change. It started slow, and has picked up a sudden momentum. Perhaps due to a backlash from Angeleno restaurateurs resulting from LA's first Michelin Guide a few years ago having a very low number of star-rated restaurants, or perhaps just because it was my dumb luck, I recently realized it is happening again.

What is happening? I'll tell you what... that this month one of Gourmet magazine's cover stories is "Explore America's most exciting Chinese Food" and it's an article about the San Gabriel Valley, a sprawling Asian neighborhood in LA County. What about this month's Bon Appétit magazine, a theme issue called "Best of the USA" with the article "Food's Golden State," about California's bounty including where to find LA's best taco truck (see pg 3). Note: In the same issue is this article, "A Scene Grows in Brooklyn," about Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and seeing it brought up a momentary combo of hypersensitivity and guilt about all the Burg places I hadn't visited yet, a knee-jerk reaction from my not-so-defunct-after-all New Yorker peripatetic foodie brain.

See it's one thing to read "Best LA Restaurants" articles in LA Magazine, the LA Times blog or from the local Tasting Table emails. It's quite another to start seeing articles appear about the food of LA, my proudly safe haven of the relaxed quasi-foodie lifestyle, in national food magazines.

The energy is building here in a way it hasn't yet, and I suppose it's inevitable. Now, I fear, my list of Los Angeles bars and restaurants to visit has grown exponentially on this blog and that old familiar mind exhaustion is setting in. It's a pressure, like the summer movie season, where you know you want to see all those movies or the list will pile up and if you don't see as many as possible now you never will. Or it's like baseball, if each major league team kept adding more teams and players like I said.

How does a person keep up you say? Is there a way to Tivo a restaurant? No. There isn't. You have to get off your ass and go. I hear you, it's definitely a good thing too, to watch the bar finally rise on interesting restaurant choices, food quality and expectations in this sunny city. And of course I love going out, but back east isn't that how I gained weight and got into debt in the first place? Then subsequently lost that weight and paid off that debt while living out here? Sigh.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Cake Story

With the exception of pudding, I have not eaten a decadent chocolate dessert in a while, and that’s too long for someone like me. That's why recently I’ve been thinking more often than usual about chocolate cake. And that’s what brought me back to a tale from the Broadway days, about really great chocolate cake, and the meanest boss ever.


In the early 1990's I worked in Times Square at a Broadway theatrical advertising agency. Lucky for me my account group had the best client in the office. His name will not be posted here due to the efficacy of Google search engines. I will, however, tell you that he is from the United Kingdom and there is a tribute DVD about him on (click here for link) that I wish I owned. This post will refer to him as (code name) Seth. He is, in my opinion and many others, one of the world’s great theatrical producers and visionaries. And in spite of his success and the global popularly of his productions which include "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Misérables," he is a highly respected, brilliant, and good man.

My first few months at the agency happened to coincide with the opening of Seth’s next great show, "Miss Saigon." For some reason this show is usually the show people see less of than the more-famous others, but to me "Miss Saigon" has always been my favorite of the popular trinity. This could be due to several reasons. Was it because it was the first Broadway show I worked on as an account person? Or because I felt more of an emotional impact watching this show than the others? Or was it because of the show's controversial nature, in one part due to its then-highest ticket price in town for front-row mezzanine seats, which I got to sit in for no charge, allowing me to be at neck-level with the swirling blades of the working helicopter? Or, was it because of cake?

Whatever the case, I loved that show! Working on the advertising and promotion for it before opening night was a thrill. So one day my group was meeting about "Miss Saigon" promotional strategies. My boss -- who we will call for the purposes of this post Barbara, and who in the privacy of my mind I usually referred to as Hitler (for very good reasons that won’t be mentioned in this post) -- asked the group for opening night present ideas. It’s the tradition to send gifts to the people putting on the big show, and the norm is Champagne, an engraved trinket or the like. Seth had received so many opening night gifts in his long career that Barbara thought we should think out of the box on this one. That's when I came up with a pretty good idea.

"How about a cake?" I told the group that on the upper east side there’s a fantastic cake shop called Creative Cakes. I lived nearby and saw it on some TV show some time in the 1980's. It’s famous because they make cakes that look like anything! You know, like a 3-dimensional Empire State Building or a Monopoly board. At the top of their game, they'll pretty much recreate whatever item you ask as a cake, with precision of design and color to boot. The only rule is that the cake itself must be chocolate with butter cream icing. No exceptions! This place had been on my mind for years, even though my microscopic salary wouldn’t permit me access to such a cake. But an opening night present paid for by the company, that I could do.

My suggestion was to have the cake shop create a delicious replica of the "Miss Saigon" poster and give it to Seth. As I spoke I took short breaths for fear that the wrath of Barbara would cut me if this was the stupidest idea ever. She loved it! She said it could be my project and I was thrilled. The poster (see photo above) was simple in some regards yet very complex with reference to the logo, which was a sort of triple-entendre using calligraphy. First your eye sees a generic Asian letter character. Then you see a girl’s face as part of the character, and then the character reveals itself to look like a helicopter, superimposed over a rising sun. Talk about a challenging thing to recreate in icing! But I had faith that Creative Cakes could do it.

As the meeting was about to adjourn and all felt well, my boss Barbara belatedly resumed her normal, more psycho personality, and she halted the meeting adjournment with a loud “Wait!” Then she looked me in the eye. Her voice had all the dank seriousness of Vincent Price introducing a horror film when she said, “There’s only one way this will work. You must make the bakery match the poster color… EXACTLY!…or Seth will HATE it.” (Cue to bats flying out of brain and into the Manhattan sky. Scene.) Barbara continued, “Go to the art department and get the PMS chip for the poster and bring it with you to the bakery. Tell them you need ICING samples sent over so we can pick an EXACT MATCH. IF they can’t match that color exactly from the poster IT’S NOT WORTH IT and we’ll do something ELSE! Don't forget to GET SAMPLES!”

Ok so to bring you up to speed on the term PMS if you don’t already know, PMS stands for Pantone Matching System. The system enables printers anywhere in the world to have the ability to print an exact color match on anything being printed, for an extra fee. Things like posters, flyers, food packages, etc., and usually branded items where color cohesiveness is important. It's why the Coke logo is always the same color when you see it. (Coke used to have a PMS color for its trademark red, at one point dubbed “Coke red,” so when printers all over the world made Coke cans and ads and logos, there would be no misunderstanding of what that red should be. Now they have a different system but click here for an interesting note about the PMS status of “Coke red” from Coke.)

And so, the Pantone company prints books of every PMS color, that you can tear into little chips for sending to a printer. People pay good money for PMS colors to be used, because it’s like an insurance policy. When my agency inherited the London-designed "Miss Saigon" poster, it came with a PMS color attached for that maroon background. What Barbara was saying was I had to force a baker to adhere to this PMS color or else. Hmm. Really? I wanted to say to my boss, “Ya see to me, Seth is very important but also very nice. Don’t you think he’ll be pleasantly pleased to receive such a unique gift, that'll look just like the poster? Do you really think he’ll be MAD and REJECT THE CAKE on the opening night of his latest mega-million dollar baby if the ICING IS NOT A PERFECT PMS COLOR MATCH!!?!?!?!?!?” You know I couldn’t say this, for fear of Barbara’s death eye (which I actually mastered and used against her in later years). Powerless to say anything to the contrary, I simply said meek as a mouse, “Ok.”

Quaking through the doorway of this most famous cake shop, I feared they would very well throw me out upon hearing this crazy request. But I did it, sheepishly approaching the counter with my "Miss Saigon" poster and "Miss Saigon" PMS maroon-ish color chip in hand. And guess what I learned? Since the shop was a place for the elite of NY, and located on the snooty upper east side, it was used to rich people making demands. That was their business. (Like the person who spent $2000 for a cake that had to look exactly like her poodle for the, ahem, poodle’s birthday party.) And thus the baker did not laugh at me, but he also didn't smile. He simply told me that in order to match the PMS chip he’d have to charge extra, due to his need to create several color samples, which he would send over to my office in a few days, and if we didn’t like the samples he’d try again, and again, until we picked one. Oh good, I knew then that I would get to live another day. Since money was no object in this case, it was a deal.

A few days later I expected our messenger service to send over a few small cups of icing for us to review. To my joyful surprise, the baker sent over (insert Oprah’s voice here) THREE MINI CAKE SAM-PLES!! I'm talking a good 5"x5" square cake, done up with icing three times! And damn if the baker didn’t do a spot-on job of matching that color. When Barbara walked over I held my breath, so afraid she’d reject them all due to her evil madness but lo and behold, she liked one. Big collective amen in our minds. Then the heavens sent more blessings after Barbara approved the color on one of the cakes, because that's when she allowed me and my fellow plebes to eat them. (It was a moment straight out of "Oliver!") Yes, after all those years of unrequited Creative Cake dreams, after fantasizing of what that chocolate cake with butter cream icing would taste like, the cake was mine and I didn't have to take out a personal loan to get it! That was probably one of the happiest food moments in my life, and the cake did not let me down. It was such a fine piece of cake too, a very moist and delicious buttery sugary icing-y chocolate cake.

When I called the baker and told him that one of the colors was approved, he finally let slip a little attitude, sighed a huge diva exhale and thanked God above. Sure there are the elite rich in New York who order his cakes, but he confessed no one had ever brought in a PMS color chip for the icing. I mean, seriously, it’s a fucking cake. After people eat it, it’s gone.

We had the cake delivered to our office so we could see it and take some photos. Then a few of us painstakingly carried it through the crowds of Times Square over to the stage door of the Broadway Theater, right before curtain on opening night. Seth, I heard, loved the cake, which indeed turned out to be an exact replica of the poster, and color. I would still bet money that on Seth’s brilliant Broadway opening night for "Miss Saigon," the last thing on his mind was going to be whether or not the icing on a cake was a poster's perfect color match.

Oh well, whether you’re an office slave in a big agency in NY dealing with silly demands, or just on a diet years later in LA, sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do. At other times, it's ok not to, so tonight I think I will be eating cake.

Until we eat again,

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I heart Carmine's, and now you know

Carmine’s is and always has been one of my favorite New York restaurants, and that’s surprising, since I’m not a person who particularly cares for “red sauce” Italian cuisine. As one of the city's busiest and most profitable dining establishments, this convivial family-style Southern Italian simply does it right. And as happy as I am out west, it’s a place I think about and miss quite a bit.

Owned by small restaurant group Alicart, Carmine’s has two Manhattan locations, my favorite being the newer, grander Times Square/Theater District one. Carmine’s had its following on the upper west side all along, but opening the second location in the early 90's in heavily trafficked real estate truly stoked their reputation. My office happened to be across the street at 1515 Broadway, so those were the years I fell in love with the place, and learned a few things about Carmine’s too:

1. Never attempt to dine there after a Wednesday or Saturday matinee, nor any time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
I say this because it’s just too dang crowded, though it should be noted: when you walk in the door and it's crowdedbecause it always isthat’s part of the charm. If you walk in feeling blah, you will soon feel un-blah. Walk in feeling dead, you will soon feel undead (hmm, metaphor doesn't really work here) will soon feel alive!

2. You can make new friends while waiting for a table at the bar if you order the calamari.
This is where “family-style” makes its first appearance. The famous calamari appetizer arrives on a white platter measuring roughly a foot and a half long. The calamari on the platter is piled about 6 inches high, and this is why you shouldn’t be shocked that the ever-climbing price for the best calamari in the city is now topping out at $25.50 a plate. No one can finish this on their own, so the thing to do is order it, eat what you will, then pick a neighbor to your left and/or right to pass it down to when you’re through. That is what’s done, almost expected, and is all part of the homey feeling inherent in the place. The best is watching the shocked and pleased faces of newbie tourists crammed at the bar anxiously waiting for a table, when you start to pass down the calamari, look 'em in the eye and say “Please, I’ve had enough. Enjoy.” Even when you've had your fill, the platter looks untouched! So it is a little confusing for sure. But by the time the tourists nervously utter “oh, um, that’s ok” the bartender has already moved the platter in front of them and insisted on your behalf, to which the tourists take a sigh of relief that New Yorkers are ok afterall while they start chowing down on their free calamari.

3. The bigger the group the better: try for more than two, and never go alone.
It’s more fun and more economical to go with a party of at least 3 or 4, or more. See, you may think $25.50 is crazy for an appetizer. But this feeds 8 people! In most city restaurants these days, entrees run $20-$40 and up per person. At Carmine’s most dishes cost somewhere in the mid-$20’s, the cost of a cheap NY entrée if you’re lucky, but these entrées serve 5. In fact, I once took some visiting friends from Norway with terrible jet lag who therefore only ate one piece each of my favorite chicken scarpiello. The leftovers fortuitously became all mine (no refrigerator in their hotel room) and I had lunch for 5 straight days. If you want leftovers, sure, go with one other person, but otherwise it really is fun to go with a group and get so much for so little.

4. Garlic is king.
Every dish has tons of it with no apologies, yet the kitchen never makes it overpowering. So even if you think you don’t have garlic breath, take advantage of the free mouthwash in the bathrooms and do your dining companions and yourself a favor.

5. The service is bawdy, which is part of the schtick.
The servers aren’t rude, just a little gruff and commanding. Go with it. They’ll take charge and you can relax. Hallelujah!

6. The atmosphere is alive.
Your psuedo-Italian family just invited you to dinner, and Sinatra is playing. Wine is poured into traditional tumblers instead of frou-frou glasses. The room is huge and dimly lit, old-world style. The décor warm, the energy electric. It's fabulous. If you'd rather have a quiet romantic dinner, take a short walk to restaurant row on 46th Street (between 8th & 9th Avenues).

7. The food is great, no matter what the food snobs say.
Between 2000-2006 I worked at a restaurant company, also near Carmine's, and my colleagues respected my taste as a foodie, but not after they heard that as a Zagat voter I consistently chose Carmine’s as one of my top 5 restaurants in the city. Yes, there are almost too many bastions of fine Italian dining in NYLattanzi, Il Mulino, Del Posto, even Da Silvanobut whatever, you can also have a casual Italian restaurant be just as good in its own way.

8. The menu never changes – what a relief!
Also when at the restaurant company, we had weekly meetings that included talks on how to increase food sales. It was here that I'd remind my colleagueswho liked to change our restaurants’ menus frequently – that Carmine’s is great because their menu is always the same, year after year, with the same dishes posted on the wall so you always know what to expect and can order your favorites again and again. Now to be fair, while Carmine's menu never changes, the prices have to every now and then, though I don't judge. Rent is high in Times Square.

9. You always leave with fond memories.
This is a big one. I have so many wonderful memories of dining at Carmine’s through the years. I could list them all for you, but that's ok. Instead, I'll tell you that whenever I’ve been there, for whatever the occasion and no matter whom I was with, I have always felt happy. My first time set this expectation up, perhaps, as I was a last-minute guest in a big group with a generous host and the big food platters kept coming. I grinned ear-to-ear for hours and thought in awe, "how did I get here?" The times after that, there was laughter and kinship and a feeling of total satisfaction I can't really explain. Maybe just seeing the shocked, joyful faces of guests in the restaurant when they see their first Carmine’s platter of food come to the table sums it up. It’s a big party that you’re a part of, and it won’t break the bank. And you can come back whenever you want! So whether at a table for two (which is not recommended) or a group of 8 or more, when you walk in the door at Carmine's you usually feel right at home...and if home also means getting drunk at the bar for an hour while you wait for a table, even better.

10. The food is consistently consistent, delicious and flavorful.
Why is this important item #10? Because as you can see, there are many reasons to love Carmine's besides the food, so it’s an added bonus that everything tastes great too. My favorite dishes have not changed much through the years, and here they are:
* Hot antipasto platter – many morsels sitting in a platter the size of a garbage can lid
* Carmine’s salad or special salad – when Caesar is not your mood
* Stuffed artichoke – huge, bread-crumby, lemony
* Spiedini a la romana – a loaf of bread with slices of melted mozzarella in between covered in a lemon butter caper sauce
* Chicken scarpiello – heavenly, different from any other, with a sweet & sour brown lemon rosemary garlic sauce and caramelized garlic cloves
* Chicken saltimbocca – my first saltimbocca experience, perfectly executed
* Sunday pasta special – 4 different homemade pastas in 4 scrumptious sauces
*Strawberry shortcake – the size of a small planet, or perhaps I exaggerate :)

11. As of this past December, people not in NY can try Carmine’s food too!
So after all that, the reason for this post today is that when I was in NY last month for Christmas, no I did not get to dine at Carmine’s. However when I walked by the Theater District location past their giant holiday crowd, in the window was this amazingly good news: “On Sale: Carmine’s Family Style Cookbook.” This means I can now make…You can now make...Carmine’s food at HOME! In LA or anywhere! Ahhhhh! :D

Can you tell this makes me happy? I am de-lir-i-ous. The one thing I fear in recommending the cookbook, though, is that regular home stovetops don’t give off the high heat level of a restaurant stovetop, so my chicken scarpiello chicken pieces may not achieve the same golden level of luscious caramelization needed to thrill. However now that I have the recipe for that ultimate favorite brown lemon rosemary garlic sauce, and all of their other recipes, 2009 promises to be the best year yet.

Until we eat again,