Vacation almost over…

Hello again from the Conch Republic!

Last night we went back to Michaels and ordered the 4-cheese fondue. We were disappointed in it. As Ruth said to Marc, “It looked better on somebody else’s plate.” The fondue itself was OK, but the dipping items were breads, salami, cold roasted chicken, broccoli, carrots, raw zucchini and yellow squash. Large hunks! Just not something we would ever order again. We had maple pecan ice cream for dessert — but we think the ice cream we make is so much better.

We did sit next to two very interesting men who just came back from California — the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. They were very much into wine and food. They talked about having dinner at The French Laundry. They made their reservation six months in advance — dinner for three people — which was $1,400. You read that right! And guess what: They didn’t like it! On the other hand, they have frequented another Thomas Keller restaurtant, Bouchon, many times and really like it there. They did say the wine selection at The French Laundry was wonderful — go figure!

Our bartender last night was really nice. She moved here 14 years ago from Manhattan — talk about a lifestyle change! She came down here for vacation and never went home. We can definitely see doing that. It is such a laid-back and easy place to be.

Today, we are going snorkeling, and then back to Louie’s Backyard for tapas on their upstairs patio. Some of the restaurants we wanted to go to are closed for vacation, as this is the off-season.

We are leaving tomorrow. Oh well — back to reality!

Vacation Day 1: dining Key West style

Hi again! It is definitely hot here — makes the margaritas taste better.

For us, vacation time is an opportunity to stop running our own restaurant long enough to enjoy the atmosphere and cuisine of other restaurants, and Key West is a great place to do just that. Last night we ate at a local favorite, Seven Fish on Olivia Street. The interesting thing with this restaurant — at least to Ruth — is that they never change their menu. It was exactly the same as when we visited last year. That concept is so different from the way we operate the Bistro.

The food is very good. Marc had yellow tail — locally caught fish in a Thai curry sauce with sticky rice and vegetables. Ruth had sautéed scallops (from California!) with mashers, peas and spinach. Odd combination — but it somehow works.

For lunch yesterday, we went to Louie’s Backyard — a beautiful spot right on the water. The food was nice.

Today we went fishing and caught our lunch. We took the “grunt” fish fillets to a restaurant by the dock, and they cooked our fish for $7.99. We had it fried, served with rice and beans — could not have better or fresher.

More later, including information on our Day 1 dinner!

Some thoughts on a new old bestseller

Greetings from Key West! We were offline for a while there, but we’re back on again! And what did we see in this morning’s New York Times but an article about how Mastering the Art of French Cooking has become a surprise bestseller, “bringing with it all the butter, salt and goose fat that home chefs had largely abandoned in the age of Lipitor.”

Aside from the spotlight brought back to it by a popular movie, why is a cookbook advocating such labor-intensive, time-consuming recipes, featuring some rather expensive ingredients, that recommends liberal use of cream and real butter in an era in which we are all cholesterol conscious, a bestseller yet again? It would seem to contradict all logic about the world we live in today. But we think we understand this phenomenon a bit. And part of the answer may even be found in a New York Times bestseller from way back in 1982.

In that year, a man named James Naisbitt first published a book called Megatrends, in which he attempted to identify trends toward which our society would move during the next decade. He identified one of these by calling it “high tech/high touch.” It’s paradoxical: The more technological and scientifically streamlined our society becomes, the more popular will become trends in the opposite direction to counteract the effects of all that technology. For example, the wider the variety of mass media entertainment we have available to us, the more some of us will value still being able to curl up with a good book (even if it’s on an electronic reading device!). The more capable modern medicine becomes at diagnosing and treating some of our most challenging diseases with pinpoint accuracy, the more appealing homeopathic remedies become for treating other ailments. And, we would add, the easier the food industry makes it to put meals on our tables that are quick, easy to make and follow all modern nutritional guidelines, the more our bodies long for a good old-fashioned traditionally cooked meal featuring sauces rich in butter and — yes — even some nice crispy bacon. And that’s not just a trend that’s lasted a decade; it’s followed us right into the 21st century.

It may well be that many people are buying MtAoFC “just to buy it”; it may spend more time in most homes sitting on the kitchen cookbook shelf looking impressive than actually having its spine cracked and its pages spattered with oil and butter during a vigorous cooking session. (Although we certainly hope that isn’t true for everyone; the more you try to make these dishes at home, the greater appreciation you develop for what goes into them, and the greater your feelings of accomplishment as a cook, even if you have no ambitions of becoming a chef.) But even those who never actually open their copies of the book (are there such people?) are demonstrating a hunger for the kind of “high touch” that comes from engaging with a truly superb meal, even if it’s at a distance.

Here in Cleveland, we’re lucky — we have a population that appreciates great food and a restaurant community that is working hard to satisfy that appetite. We can do more than just watch Iron Chef on the Food Network; we can actually go to a local restaurant (or two, or three) and experience an Iron Chef’s cuisine. Michael Symon’s success and high profile have helped lift the boats of all the independent restaurants in this area, and we’ve enjoyed being part of that. He’s raised the bar for restaurateurs as well, and with such high-quality establishments competing with ours, and the palates of the local community so well educated, we feel even more keenly the need to not only maintain the integrity of our own offerings but also bring them to a new level.

Here’s another paradox: Even in a recession, and in a city like Cleveland that has operated on a Rust Belt economy for a long time, restaurants that strive to bring truly fine dining experiences to their patrons can survive and thrive. Part of the reason is that recessions that affect even wealthier diners may cause them to choose to postpone an expensive vacation and substitute a series of nice evenings out at good restaurants instead. If your original plan was to travel to Paris this year, and now you can’t afford it, you can still come to the Bistro and enjoy the kind of dishes Julia Child did when she lived there decades ago. Sit on our patio, feel the breeze, order a bottle of wine, and let a bite of something savory soaked in a butter-cream sauce linger on your tongue. For a few hours, you’ll feel as if you’re at a sidewalk café on the Left Bank — but it’ll cost you a lot less.

There will still be some time left for you to take that kind of summer “stay-cation” when we return home and reopen. It won’t even matter that the kids are back in school. (In fact, having successfully gotten the kids back to school, you may be more than ready to treat yourself.) Stop by, and we’ll make you forget you’re only a few miles from home.

Speaking of vacations, though…in case you’re wondering where we are today, our plans include a fishing expedition. The object: landing something delicious for dinner. Check back in later; we’ll let you know what we caught and what we did with it!

Behind the Dish: Steak Diane

A little inside baseball on how we’re preparing our Steak Diane for you tonight…

As Julia shows in the video we linked, Steak Diane is normally cooked in a pan, right along with the sauce with which it is served. Because we’re making a larger number of servings, however, it’s more efficient and logical for us to grill our filets of beef separately while preparing the sauce for the dish in a large saucepan. Fear not, however; the magnificent taste will still be there.

The basic elements of our sauce are butter, oil, brandy, shallots, parsley, mushrooms, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, a bit of Marsala wine, and some pepper. To that we’re adding a unique Bistro 185 touch: black truffle paste and just a smidge of brown sugar.

When finished, our Steak Diane will go out on the plate with mashed potatoes and a little sautéed spinach on the side. Perfect for treating yourself or someone you love (or both of you!) at week’s end.

Julia Project Week 4 Is Set!

We’ve literally just selected our dishes for Week 4 of the Julia Project, August 31-September 5, and will be announcing them very soon. You will not want to miss these — we’re combining some amazing special-occasion dinner entrees with some terrific last-gasp-of-summer-style comfort food, and we’re even dipping into some of Chef Todd’s back pages to bring you one with a special touch from his past. Watch this space!

Join Us On Vacation — Here on the Blog!

Tomorrow we start our week’s vacation in Key West, Florida, a place where great food and fine dining are everywhere you look. Which is why, even though the Bistro will be closed tomorrow through the 30th, we’re not just leaving you at home pining for us to come back!

On our vacations, we never fail to discover new things and come up with fresh ideas to take home with us and share with you back at the Bistro. So, please drop in on the blog over the next week as we tell you about some of the sights, sounds and tastes we encounter during our trip. We’ll keep you up to date on what we’re experiencing, thinking about and planning to do next — and you can let us know what you think of them!