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February, 2008 | Manolo's Food Blog
Archive - February, 2008

Peter Hoffman


Once in a great while circumstances oblige Mr. Henry freely and without jealousy to admit that certain people simply have cool, that is to say they exude social intelligence without seeming to have studied for the test. Barack Obama has cool. Clint Eastwood has cool. Peter Hoffman of Savoy and Back Forty has it, too.
Almost 17 years ago, Mr. Henry and his faithful consort held their wedding rehearsal dinner at Savoy, filling the downstairs of the old one-story place (and lingering too long over the heavenly desserts, leaving a line of people with later reservations waiting outside in the rain). The salt-crust duck was served, as it will always be served at Savoy, because it is the celestial food of the gods.

From the cramped kitchen, a sweaty, smoky. apron-stained Peter emerged to greet his adoring diners. His tiny, beatific wife, Susan Rosenfeld, made the desserts, something with quince, if memory serves, and an inspired ice cream.

Now Peter and Susan have opened Back Forty, where you can eat a hamburger to rival Mr. Henry’s home-cooked favorite made from Australian organic grass-fed beef. Peter’s rosemary and coarse-salt french fries with homemade ketchup, however, are beyond fabulous, well beyond the capabilities of the Henry household. All this Mr. Henry admits freely and without a hint of jealousy.savoy.JPG

What sets Peter apart from the pack are two principal virtues: 1) unlike the Mario Battalis and the Bobby Flays, he does not seek limelight but instead lets the food come first, and 2) he was an early adaptor of the local food movement, a pioneer of eating seasonally.

Permitting menu selections to change depending on what is freshest in the morning market, a new style when Peter and Susan founded Savoy, is now a style considered basic to any serious restaurant. It’s not enough to be ready on day one, you’ve got to be right, as well.

Meat and chocolate

Twice in one week Mr. Henry has eaten chocolate on meat. Is this a new national trend, a millennial generation mania? If so, why hasn’t anyone informed Mr. Henry about this before? He is supposed to be in the forefront of food fashion, not outside waiting behind the ropes.


At Columbus Circle, the AOL Time Warner Center is a bizarre amalgam of the authentic and the ersatz. The towers are handsome enough, if twin towers are what captivate your urban fantasies. Personally, Mr. Henry finds them deeply, doubly uninspiring. The interior is an essay in wasted space. Vast hollow chambers wind slowly round a half circle. Upstairs the celebrated Allen Room with its view down Central Park South is flanked by an awkward trapezoidal foyer larger than the performance hall itself.

Per Se (menu pris fixe, $275) and Masa, arguably the two best restaurants in the country, share a common hallway entrance from what looks like an upscale shopping mall, a decor suggesting Dallas or Short Hills. However, on a rainy Wednesday evening last week a veteran New York bum borrowed this entrance as a staging area to clean his soaked and blackened feet. Ah! New York City! Where wretchedness and superabundance reside side by side.


Down one flight at Cafe Gray, Mr. Henry could not resist ordering the loin of pork with braised shoulder and braised belly because they were finished with “chocolate stout” – a very light, subtly aromatic, slightly bitter chocolate ale. It was a remarkably appropriate complement to pork’s mild flavors.

giada.jpgLast night at Mary and Michael’s house, the worldly and curvaceous Donna, fresh from a day of rock-climbing, cooked an imaginative short ribs with tagliatelle topped NOT by Parmesan cheese but by finely grated bitter chocolate, a recipe borrowed from Giada Di Laurentiis.

Lighter and less insistent than Parmesan, the bitter chocolate awakened taste buds not otherwise aroused by the sweet round flavors of slowly braised short ribs. It was a success made more exciting by being so unexpected.

Will chocolate hamburgers be the next new thing? Let’s see….ketchup and bitter chocolate together, isn’t that almost a salsa molé?

Taking Tea


Not only has Mr. Henry been drinking tea in copious quantities, he has been thinking about it, too. A healing broth, tea is the drink of contemplation (and idleness?). If coffee is amplified music, tea is acoustic. Mr. Henry’s morningissawis-laws.jpg quart of English breakfast (with whole milk, no sugar) washes away yesterday’s misdeeds, physical and spiritual. A calm, hopeful, cerebral, and gentle infusion, tea hosts renewal.

“I often wonder who left mankind the greatest legacy, the Arabs for coffee or the Chinese for tea. I think, on balance, it was the Chinese, because one must be feeling healthy to take coffee, whereas one may take tea whether feeling sick or well.” — Charles Issawi (1916-2000).

Mohandas Ghandi drank tea, and surely he greeted his daily obligations with equanimity. Perhaps the quiet, strengthening properties of tea gave him a foundation for his remarkable stoicism, his capacity for hope in such a benighted country, his ability to fast for weeks without dying.barack-obama-bw.png

Running the race, in the past few months Barack Obama has suffered a loss of five pounds. Is he fasting until we accede to his demands for bi-partisanship? Please, Barack, if it didn’t work for the Mahatma, will it work for you?

For Mr. Henry, unburdened by such weighty matters, tea simply re-hydrates the body after its wrestling match with the nightly incubus. Tea reanimates his petrified vitals and permits the introduction of solid food. After a warming mug of tea, the world as reported in the New York Times looks remarkably less bleak.

At night, draining the last drops of wine from the glass, Mr. Henry sulks a bit at his self-imposed alcoholic limits and then brews a cup of mint tea (Tazo). In the night a cold glass of water with another bag of Tazo mint tossed in slakes his parched, 3:00 a.m. throat.

tazomint.jpgThe Founding Fathers drank it. They even launched a revolution over it. To arms, patriots! To arms! (Perhaps one more cup before taking the streets.)

Looking to be Happy

What advice would you give to people who are looking to be happy? “For starters, learn how to cook.” From In-Verse Thinking, Questions for Charles Simic, interview by Deborah Solomon, February 3, 2008, New York Times Sunday Magazine.
All week long Mr. Henry has been chewing over this pithy admonishment. Unfortunately for his waistline, he has been chewing a lot more. The virus colonizing his sinuses hacked into Mr. Henry’s appetite control center. Its sinister program impels Mr. Henry to rise in the night like a Transylvanian Count and glide towards the kitchen to graze. His current fixation is toast, cottage cheese and umeboshi, Japanese salt plum.
Cottage cheese is a preparation not seen in this household since Mrs. Henry’s pregnancy when every few hours she too rose like a wraith and shuffled kitchen-ward to ingest anything resembling pabulum.

Did not Nixon, Haldeman, and Erlichman sitting round the Oval Office lunch on cottage cheese with ketchup? Such satanic visions calls to mind the most famous aphorism from Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s (1755-1826), The Physiology of Taste, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”

Mr. Henry is laid low. He can offer no explanation or defense for this craven departure from virtuous habit. Those familiar with Mr. Henry’s Dietary Dicta must be shuddering at this late-night eating, this blatant trespass on established rules.

Perhaps Dickens is to blame. Yes, that must be it. Hardly a chapter of Great Expectations goes past without someone sitting down to enjoy a joint of mutton or a tankard of ale. (As a boy, Dickens was poor and knew what it was to go hungry.) Mr. Henry should go back to reading Samuel Beckett, a writer who genuinely appreciates denial. Though he sucks on a pebble to abate hunger, for the whole of the book Molloy never actually eats anything.
Simic, poet laureate of the U.S., is right. To achieve happiness in life you must learn how to cook. Why? Because you can never really know how to eat unless you understand how food is prepared. And it follows that if you never really learn how to eat, you never really learn how to be happy.