City to Make Eating Disorders Mandatory by Law

I nearly fell out of my chair when I read this one.

We already heard the city wants to ban the use of trans fats in cooking - not to be outdone by the food fascism capital of the U.S.A., Chicago - but this may be going a little too far. According to Clyde Haberman in this morning's New York Times, the Bloomberg administration wants to implement a series of regulations that would control everything from the maximum thickness of a steak to the number of glasses of wine each diner is allowed with their meal. Other highlights: mandatory goggles for customers at sushi bars, in-depth examination of the Heimlich maneuver poster before seating, and decaf coffee only after 10 p.m. Worse, diners would be forced to eat whole wheat pasta.

Has Bloomberg lost his mind? I always liked the guy, but this is the kind of stuff fellow gazillionaire Howard Hughes would dream up. Though fantastical, the details in this column must be true. Even Jayson Blair couldn't invent something like the "P.M.I. - formally known as the Proper Mastication Initiative," which would require diners to chew their food for at least twelve seconds before swallowing. (Um, that's not what we meant by slow food.) It takes a government official to think of that hooey.

Aren't New Yorkers neurotic enough? Is it necessary to actually sign neuroses into law? Haven't people's eating disorders and weird diets done enough damage to the city's restaurants?

It's kind of fun, however, to imagine the enforcement of these rules. An entire new class of restaurant worker could be created - think of the jobs! Now each table would be served not only by a waiter, a sommelier, and a maitre d', but perhaps a uniformed someone-or-other who discreetly interrupts to remind you to . . . chew your food and - are you listening? - don't talk with your mouth full! Now look at the Heimlich poster. What are the steps? Now tell me without looking. All right. Put down that wine. Haven't you had enough? Watch out for those chopsticks - you're going to put somebody's eye out!

Whew - where did that come from? Channeling a Philip Roth character there. Anyway, I really look forward to the passage of these new regulations. Restricting people's personal choices about how they live their lives has always worked well in America, the country that never listens to anyone, no matter how right they may be. After all, it worked with foie gras in Chicago, right?

Oh, whoops. Sorry, Charlie.


The Copycat Chef: Risotto with Mushroom Fricassée from Café Gray

Why cook? There isn't much need to in this town, home of 18,696 restaurants, many of which offer delivery to your door. It's instant gratification, it's indulgent, and best of all, it's often cheaper than buying the ingredients and slaving over a hot stove yourself.

Cooking is an activity that many consider quaint and vaguely self-sacrificing. But I assure you it is nothing of the kind. I cook because I am even more of a diva than those who rely solely on delivery. I can't stand pasta that isn't al dente. I won't eat Thai sauces that taste more like sugar than spice. And always, I want what I want when I want it, whether or not it is in my neighborhood and available for delivery. Thus, I learned to cook.

The Copycat Chef is a series that I will run at least once a month. In it, I attempt to recreate at home a particularly delicious dish I've had at a restaurant. It's kind of a game, and here are the rules:

1. The chef's recipe should be a secret one, not published in any of his or her cookbooks.
2. No one will tell me exactly what is in it.
3. It should be a signature recipe, very good, something you would crave when you think of that particular restaurant.

The mushroom risotto at Café Gray was an easy pick for this series. It is so good it made another reviewer actually lick her bowl, and it might even be the answer to somebody's if-you-could-only-eat-one-thing-for-the rest-of-your-life question.

I studied several things at Café Gray to come up with the recipe:

The Menu. The menu does not give away much; it says only "Risotto with Mushroom Fricassée." But the word "fricassée" is a good clue. As Julia Child explains in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, "The fricassée is halfway between [a saute and a stew]. When chicken is fricasséed, the meat is always cooked first in butter--or butter and oil--until its flesh has swelled and stiffened, then the liquid is added." So Gray Kunz has playfully adapted this technique to mushrooms.

Taste. The risotto was of excellent quality, obviously made with lots of butter, but cut by a hint of something tart - lemon? There were some interesting herbs mixed in. The mushroom sauce was harder to pin down. What gave it that level of complexity and darkness of color? It reminded me of an ingredient more prevalent in Chinese cuisine: the liquid that dry mushrooms sit in when they are reconstituted, liquid which is often added to the main dish in cooking. I came back to the cafe again for a second tasting. Something about the mushroom sauce reminded me of French onion soup. Then it struck me: onion! And a dash of cognac.

Texture. As mentioned in the review, the risotto itself was not a glutinous mass, but a velouté mix the consistency of thick porridge. The mushroom sauce had the consistency of gravy, and the mushrooms themselves were still crunchy and slightly rubbery, as if they'd just barely been cooked. The reconstituted mushrooms were almost as plump as the fresh ones, which indicated that they had been soaking for quite a while.

Appearance. The mushrooms involved were hen o woods, and a couple others I couldn't identify at first. One was an Alice-in-Wonderland toadstool-looking type. The dried were a mix of these and chanterelles, with the odd morel thrown in. Also, there was a sheen on top of the sauce, which meant - egad! - that not only had butter been used in the roux, more had been added to finish the sauce. The minced herb in the risotto looked to be tarragon.

Waiter Give-Aways. To elicit some clues from the waiter, I joked after devouring the whole dish of risotto that it was "non-fat, right?" He looked momentarily alarmed, as if I might be serious and about to sue, then realized I was kidding and said with a smile, "It's all butter and white wine." Interesting. I guessed there was a ton of butter - this is restaurant food, after all - but I didn't realize there was that much wine in it. White wine, not lemon, must provide the tartness to the risotto and the very French quality to the mushroom sauce.

I began the quest for Gray Kunz's mushroom risotto in earnest. There were key things to consider, namely, supplies. Good mushrooms are hard to find, especially a good variety of "wild" mushrooms. But they are in season now in France and Italy, thus 'tis the season for mushroom fricassée. I did some research on eGullet (the wisdom of crowds definitely applies in NYC) and meandered down Avenue B. The place to which one poster refers on Avenue B just south of Tompkins Square Park is S.O.S. Chefs, which feels very secret and in-the-know, not just because they supply provisions for Per Se and Jean-Georges. The fresh mushrooms are kept in a refrigerated vault in back, and the very chic, knowledgeable proprietress takes you there and lets you inspect the wares. I chose some hen o woods and chanterelles, then picked up their "forest mix" of dried mushrooms, which proved to be a winner and the key to this dish.

After another trip to Cafe Gray, I realized I was still missing some types of mushrooms, namely oyster mushrooms, morels, and fried chicken mushrooms (the Alice-in-Wonderland toadstool-looking ones). I went to the Garden of Eden on 14th off Union Square, which also has an excellent selection, though they had no morels. The head of produce there was forthcoming yet evasive. He had morels six weeks ago, he could have them again, or maybe not. Mushrooms and sellers of mushrooms work in mysterious ways, it seems. "There are fifty varieties of mushrooms," he said. "We can't stock them all." Good point.

The recipe itself is based on the best recipe for risotto I've encountered, Nigella Lawson's Lemon Risotto (Nigella Bites), which is in turn based on Anna del Conte's recipe in Secrets of an Italian Kitchen. Food is like fashion in this regard: no need to reinvent the wheel when you can just pull something out of the archives and put a new spin on it. The mushroom fricassée evolved from a hodgepodge of recipes from Julia Child and The Joy of Cooking.

Et voilà:

Risotto with Mushroom Fricassée From Café Gray

Time: 2 hours 45 minutes. Active time: 45 minutes.

For the Fricassée:

1/2 cup dried mushrooms - a mix of chanterelles, morels, hen o woods, oyster
1 cup hot chicken broth, preferably organic
1 cup fresh mushrooms - hen o woods, oyster, fried chicken mushrooms, or whatever is flavorful, available and preferably French
2 tbsp flour
1/2 tsp salt
pinch white pepper
4 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup white wine - a dry Riesling or a floral Sauvignon Blanc
1/2 onion
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 sprig parsley
dash of cognac

Pour the hot broth over the dried mushrooms and soak for at least two hours. You can soak them all day and finish the recipe in the evening if this is more convenient. Scoop out the mushrooms and carefully decant the soaking liquid into a saucepan, leaving the gritty residue of the mushrooms behind. Pick over the reconstituted mushrooms; separate out the tough bits and stems and discard. Prepare the fresh mushrooms: separate them into individual pieces, cutting stems as necessary.

Make a bouquet garni of the onion, bay leaf, thyme, and parsley. Add the water and wine to the mushroom liquid, pop in the bouquet garni, and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat.

Mix the flour, salt and pepper together in a small bowl. Heat 2 tbsp of the butter and the oil in a saucepan. Saute all the mushrooms, the reconstituted dried ones and the fresh ones, over medium-high heat for a minute. Sprinkle the flour mixture over all, saute for a minute more until the flour melds with the butter and oil, then pour in the mushroom broth, transferring the bouquet garni as you go. Bring it to a boil, then simmer on the lowest temperature, covered, for 10 minutes. The mushrooms should be crunchy, so don't overcook them. As with any fricassée, you can turn off the heat and reheat the sauce without any negative consequences.

For the risotto:

2 shallots
1 rib celery
1 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp butter
2/3 cup arborio rice
1 quart chicken stock, preferably organic
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp white wine
1/4 cup half & half
salt and white pepper to taste
2 tbsp finely chopped tarragon

Bring the chicken broth to a boil, then cover and reduce to a low simmer.

Chop the shallot and celery to a pulp in a food processor. Heat 2 tbsp of the butter and the olive oil and saute the shallot mixture over medium-low heat for a few minutes, until softened. Add the rice and stir until thoroughly coated with the oil, about 1 minute. Add a ladleful of the broth and stir once. Wait until the rice settles to the bottom and the broth bubbles on top before you stir again. Stir several times and let it settle. Repeat until almost all the broth has been absorbed, then add another ladleful. Don't forget to salt the risotto to taste as you go.

It's a myth that you have to stir risotto "constantly." You can't really leave the room while you're making it, but you don't want to bother it too much, either. Stirring releases the glutens on the rice's surface and makes the mixture stickier. With the Café Gray risotto, you are aiming for a suspension of rice in thick liquid, not a gummy mass of rice. Don't overagitate it.

The stove is at the right medium-low temperature when it takes about a minute for a new ladleful of broth to start bubbling quickly at the surface.

When the rice is almost done: If, as you reach the end, you start running out of broth, dilute the remaining broth with hot water and forge ahead.

Whisk the Parmesan, egg yolk, half & half, and white wine together in a small bowl.

Finish the fricassée: Reheat the mushroom mixture and stir in the remaining 2 tbsp butter and a dash of cognac. Salt and pepper to taste.

When the rice is just al dente, the risotto is done. There should be about half a ladleful of liquid remaining with the rice, so that it is the consistency of porridge. Turn off the heat, then stir in the eggy mixture and the remaining 2 tbsp of butter. Salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the chopped tarragon.

Serve absolutely immediately. Pour the risotto into a bowl and the mushroom fricassée into a miniature silver tureen with a jaunty man on top, if you have it. If not, a ceramic dish will do.

Serves 2.


Café Gray

I've eaten at places in the Time Warner Center on several occasions now, but each time, I can't quite get over that Alice in Wonderland feeling that strikes at the entrance of each restaurant. One minute you're checking out shrunken vests in the window of J.Crew, the next you're transported to a restauranteur's very different world.

The feeling is intensified at Café Gray, where entering is like stepping back into another decade, one that some of us might like to forget in the fashion sense. The bar area is a riotous mix of bevelled mirrors, exposed bulbs in glitzy fixtures, and gold, gold, gold as far as the eye can see. It screams 1980's Trump, which is doubly ironic because the master of the universe across the way has never minced words about his feelings for the Time Warner Center. Someone channeling him must have decided to create an entry that spells klassy with a kapital K. But the over-the-top décor is kind of flattering, actually. Café Gray is certainly making an effort to impress, and in the process it creates nostalgia for schmancy restaurants past, where the service was courteous and the experience easy.

Beware the drinks, Alice. Not because they are bad, but because they are good, tempting, and quite potent, though the bartender kindly lets his brandied-cherry version of a Manhattan sit on ice for a few minutes before straining it into a glass. Thank God for the extra water in that one. Stumbling into the dining room, which is an open, airy, convivial space with views of the Columbus Circle fountain and, unfortunately, the apartment building across the way, you may find yourself seated near Richard Parsons, as I did. Seeing him here, in the least expensive of all his Time Warner restos when the guy can afford to eat anywhere, was revelatory and inspirational. Richard Parsons isn't having his secretary speed dial Per Se to wriggle his way into their busy schedule, if he even has to go through that rigamarole. Richard Parsons is dining at Café Gray.

No wonder: it's cheerful and warm inside, and packed with everyone from models in backless dresses to ladies of a certain age keeping their Goyard bags close at hand. We order the risotto with mushroom fricassée to start. It arrives as a bowl of risotto on one side and a small silver chafing dish of mushroom fricassée on the other. The chafing dish even has a little jaunty man on top, holding a chicken! It's so cute I want to put the silver dish in my handbag and run out of the restaurant before anyone can stop me! But then I wouldn't be able to eat the risotto, which is so good it makes me want to cry. A dish of nearly undiluted carbs, it is intriguingly delicious - velouté risotto mixed with subtly smoky mushroom sauce that you fold in yourself - and my friend an I inhale all of it. (We each ordered our own portion, of course.) Her fiancé has something inoffensive to start, but I am so distracted by the risotto that I forget what it is.

Continuing in the "lite" vein (not), the rabbit stew with foie gras, chanterelles, bacon, and apples is just as appetizing as it sounds. My friend orders a pork chop that could be from a genetically modified pig it is so large. Exhausted from the risotto high, she can't eat much of it, though it's perfectly cooked. Her fiancé committed a rare misstep earlier in his choice of appetizers. Actually, he is the Master Orderer, the sort of guy who, Jedi-like, can hone in on the best thing on the menu by intuition alone. The Master Orderer now digs into a plate of short ribs with soft grits and meaux mustard. The tangy sauce cuts the sweet fattiness of the ribs. These and the stew tie for first place in the mains, though I am rather tired of short ribs because everyone's doing them now. (Does anyone know which chef/restaurant started this trend in NYC? Please comment below if so.)

By the time we leave, we all have that equally '80s feeling of having indulged in absolute gluttony. All we need now would be a couple of fat cigars and a ride home in a Lamborghini with vanity plates to top it off. But reality strikes at the sight of the J.Crew, and we somberly descend the escalators while contemplating the huge buttocks of the Fernando Botero sculpture at the base.

Even if we end up looking like that, it was worth it.

Next up: As the Copycat Chef, I will attempt to recreate the risotto with mushroom fricassée at home and share the recipe with you, dear readers.

Café Gray
10 Columbus Circle
Time Warner Center


Bubble Tea Trend Officially Over

You know an innovative food trend is officially over when it makes its way to University Restaurant, perhaps the least creative restaurant in the world. It's a diner on University Place, right near New York University. So what do they name it? University Restaurant. The food so plain it's not even something-hyphenated-American. It's just a restaurant. On University. And now they serve bubble tea.


Tribeca on a Sunday Afternoon

Café culture thrives in Tribeca, especially on the main drag of West Broadway, where Odeon first put down roots in 1980 and many sidewalk cafés followed. Even on a drizzly day there's not much incentive to sit indoors. You'd just miss the view: the people.


Blaue Gans (Oktoberfest Has Begun)

When Blaue Gans first opened last year, chef Kurt Gutenbrunner was criticized for not even bothering to redecorate. The single, high-ceilinged loft dining room originally belonged to Le Zinc, which shut its doors after a suspicious hiatus by the owners "at the beach," as the chalkboard sign in the window once announced. It was terrible to lose not only Le Zinc's country-style pork paté with its grainy mustard and little cornichons, but the serene yet stimulating space it occupied. The old posters from art shows past - Clemente at the Guggenheim, Kiki Smith in Vienna - would presumably be demolished to make room for someone else's idea of cool.

Shockingly, the only thing different about the space are the floors - nicely refurbished with a mahogany stain - and the chairs and tables. The Clemente poster is still there, and the Warhol silkscreen poster of Marilyn Monroe. The music is jazz, the pace is leisurely but efficient, and any people watching is done on the sly. Just walking into Blaue Gans is a relief.

I came here in the first place because a friend recommended Gutenbrunner's other restaurant Wallsé, which, like Café Sabarsky, I have never tried, Wallsé because it's fancy, Café Sabarsky because it's mobbed. Gutenbrunner just left Thor, a restaurant that never seemed to fit in with the rest of his portfolio. Though the food was quite good, the dark, cold space, presumably designed by the Hotel on Rivington, had all the warmth of a Gattaca set.

Try convincing a mixed group to go out for plates of bratwurst. It's not an easy sell, because sausage and sauerkraut don't exactly fit into the "lite" theme of the moment. If you can put aside any memories of Christmas at Rolf's, where each entree represents approximately a week's worth of food, here you'll discover bratwurst that is actually light. Gently boiled then briefly seared, Blaue Gans's bratwurst bears no resemblance to the charred stubs of unchewable links that make their way off barbecue grills every summer. This sausage is a delicately balanced dish, served alongside crunchy sauerkraut and mustard with a real kick to it.

The smoked trout appetizer also demonstrates the same kind of balance: the fish salad is served very cold, sandwiched between crepes. Had I known smoked trout, like riesling, tastes so much better at near icy temperatures, I would never have eaten it lukewarm off a bagel. Next to the trout are sweet cooked beets, the perfect complement to the smoky savoriness of the fish, and a very fresh mache salad. Don't forget to eat the warm rye bread (this means you, carb-phobes) and order a draft of Hofbrauhaus Oktoberfest beer (ditto). Each flavor goes so well with the next; it is the kind of harmony that is almost always achieved by sticking within a certain region and a certain cuisine.

Which seems to be the real gift to Gutenbrunner's thinking. If it ain't broke, why fix it? There is nothing lacking in the old décor, just as there is nothing lacking in the Austrian cuisine he promotes. Instead of aiming for something so new-fangled it hurts, Blaue Gans reintroduces a European idea to New York with its casual, arty atmosphere and expertly prepared food, served in restrained portions on Herend-esque porcelain. Sometimes respecting tradition is the most revolutionary thing you can do.


Black and Blue

Taught from infancy never to mix black and navy, I report on this latest trend with a particular frisson of rebellion. Now it is not only OK to mix black and blue but endorsed by the fashion police. The blues in question are usually of the midnight or slate variety. Finally we can put to rest that age-old question: does anyone really have/want navy blue shoes?