Thursday, August 30, 2007

Dispatches from Santa Fe

I recently returned from working a few events in the magical town of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It has been several years since I've spent any considerable time in the Southwest, specifically Santa Fe, and aside from the obvious: a dry heat is better in August than a humid heat, I gained a newfound respect for the culinary scene there. From old stalwarts to new juggernauts, as always, there's a lot going on food-wise in this vibrant art community. Here are a few places not to be missed the next time you visit:

Joseph's Table Actually in Taos, about an hours drive North of Santa Fe, Joseph's Table is a restaurant I've wanted to visit for years. Located in the folksy Hotel la Fonda directly on Taos Plaza, Joseph's Table is the progeny of chef Joseph Wrede who also happens to be the grand puba of the local/artisanal movement in Northern New Mexico (the restaurant's motto: "The World is Our Country, Good Food Our Religion, Organic & Wild Our Mission"). Chef Wrede prints his small menu nightly and works with most of the areas more renowned farmers and ranchers to create his delicious Southwestern inflected New American cuisine. Highlights of my meal were the Sauteed Kale & Beet Greens in Tomato Vinaigrette and Soy Marinated Duck with Saffron Onions and Juniper Sauce.

Coyote Cafe When I first visited Santa Fe in the early nineties I ate at Mark Miller's Coyote Cafe, which had just opened, and experienced his interpretation of Southwestern cuisine. Widely considered the originator of a new way of cooking tacos and chiles, think Nuevo Southwestern, Miller had a impressive track record including a stint at Chez Panisse in the very early days. Almost twenty years later while your chances of seeing Miller behind the stove probably aren't good, among many other endeavors he's teaching courses at the University of New Mexico, the restaurant is as good as ever. And the best part about the Coyote Cafe experience is you have three different options to try their food: the formal Cafe, the casual rooftop Cantina and the lunch counter Cottonwoods.

Cafe San Estevan If you're looking for something eclectic and away from the main drag, visit Cafe San Estevan at the corner of the SanBusco shopping center. Café San Estevan also has an interesting story behind it: Estevan Garcia, owner and creator of the menu, is a monk with serious passion for food and flavors. His food combinations are quite unique, and the care with which the food is prepared is always evident. You can read more about Garcia’s story on the menu as you are deciding what to eat. The environment is a memorable melange of religious artifacts (surprise, surprise), burning candles and old wood; which makes for a completely romantic atmosphere.

Santa Fe Farmer's Market As much as I enjoyed eating in Santa Fe's restaurants and street stalls, which provided much of my green chile fix, probably my favorite food experience while there had to do with the community's incredible farmer's market. Every Saturday from 7am on, over 150 vendors sell everything from roasted green chiles (of course) to wild New Mexico pine nuts and artisanal sheep's milk cheeses. And as a farmer's market aficionado, having been to them on almost every continent, I must say it is one of the more exciting ones that I've been to in the United States. Maybe it was the morning I visited, but the energy level and variety was unparalleled when compared to other domestic markets I've visited recently. Also, the extensive prepared food offerings make it a great market to visit even if you're not interested in arugula or lamb shanks.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

"Do you deliver to Manhattan?"

Chinn Chinn Restaurant in tiny Mattawan Michigan, just off highway 94 a few miles west of Kalamazoo, serves some of the best Northern Chinese food in the state. If you need a testament to this assessment just talk to my sister. A longtime resident of New York City, she lives within walking distance of hundreds of the countries best and most authentic Asian restaurants in Chinatown. Yet despite having tried many of them, she still claims the best Chinese food is found in this 10-table restaurant located in a strip mall next to a flower shop.

Now my sister may be biased by the fact that she was practically weened on the recipes served at Chinn Chinn, we all were. Long before chef/owner John Tsui opened his new restaurant, his parents ran Peking Palace, the original great Chinese restaurant in Southwestern Michigan, using many of the same recipes prepared at Chinn Chinn. While I was growing up my family would go to Peking Palace at least once a week with near religious consistency. In fact I typically found the experience of breaking-bread at Peking Palace (can you break steamed buns?) much more spiritual than church, but then again I'm a food person. The memories of sharing dinners of honey glazed chicken, crispy duck, or sichuan shrimp are good ones. Although my favorite Peking Palace memory would have to include the fun, and challenge, of dining with my 100-year old, legally blind, great grandmother Warner. A proper lady and the consumate host, I never saw her in anything other than a nice dress, she wouldn't dare enjoy her dinner until everyone had been served. And seeing how she would usually be dozing off by the time the food finally came, she typically self-medicated with a single glass of Warner Vineyard's Riesling, we had to feed her as soon as we arrived at the restaurant. This would require Mr. Tsui, John's father, to bring out great grandma's dinner as soon as we arrived at the restaurant. However, in order to get her to eat the food we had to convince her that we were also enjoying dinner. So everyone at the table would have to grab a teacup and smack it with a fork to mimic the sound of a massive feast. I will never forget the question she'd ask me every week while she was enjoying her dinner. She'd lean over to me as if she were going to confide a meaningful secret and say "how's yours?". I'd look down at my empty teacup and shining fork and reply "it's great grandma." To which she'd say "it is, isn't it" and continue with her meal.

Chinn Chinn Asian Restaurant
52885 N Main St
Mattawan, MI 49071
(269) 668-7667