Honolulu Dining Writer Seconds My Rumbi Comment

Back on October 11 — long ago in this blog’s lifetime — I posted my observations on Boulder’s newly opened Rumbi Island Grill, part of a Salt Lake City-based chain, and contrasted it with Rhumba, locally owned and very distinctive. Let’s just say I wasn’t enchanted by the Rumbi “concept” — neither the non-Hawaiian food nor the stereotypical decor.

It was truly gratifying to receive an E-mail from Erika Engle who covers restaurants for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. “Inspired” by a less-than-accurate press release about the newest Rumbi down the road from here in Westminster, she devoted today’s column, “TheBuzz,” to everything she finds wrong with the place. In that column, titled ‘Hawaiian, schmawaiian,she took umbrage at the chain’s gratuitous confusion of Hawaiian, other Polynesian and even Caribbean foods and traditions, as did I. She was particularly irked by Hawaii “stereotypes [that] are usually exploited by outsiders with little to no understanding of the cultural and often spiritual origins of Hawaii icons. In other words, they know not what they do.”

Engle quoted some of the observations from my blog in her column and in letting me about it, she E-mailed that “a news release Rumbi sent out ‘raised eyebrows’ in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin newsroom,” adding that she came across my blog entry while researching Rumbi. There’s satisfaction in learning that she agreed. She certainly should know.

Denver Restaurant Week Coming Up

Coming up a mere month from now is the second annual Denver Restaurant Week, from February 24 to March 2, 2007. This year, 150 restaurants are offering multi-course dinners for two for the mile-high price of $52.80 ($26.80 for one), plus tax and tip. That’s 59 restaurants more than in 2006. Each restaurant decides what it wishes to include in the offer. Many make up a special menu for the week, and 30 are including a glass or even a bottle of wine for that set-menu price.

Restaurant-goers use it to get a good deal at a pricey place they might not usually try. Some like to have a value dinner at a favorite eatery. Others just feel it’s a way of stretching the dining-out budget.

You can now check out menus of participating restaurants at the www.denverrestaurantweek.com website. The Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau has counted and discovered that participating eateries include 21 Italian restaurants, 10 Mexican and Latin restaurants, eight seafood houses, 16 steakhouses, six Asian fusion places, four brewpubs and three Indian restaurants.

Inauguration Dinners, Redux

On January 10, before Gov. Bill Ritter’s inauguration dinner, I posted what I then knew about the festivities. Denver Post food writer Ellen Sweets hovered around the cavernous kitchens of the Denver Convention Center to tell us more. Her story, “Cooking for 7,000,” appeared in Wednesday’s paper. In addition to the Ritter banquet, meals had been ordered for one group of 2,500 and one of 300 meeting there. The convention center’s catering staff plus hired guns from out of town, culinary schools and the occasional retiree who comes in to help for such “monster events” prepared something like 7,000 meals for the Ritter banquet and for two groups, one of 2,500 and one of 300, who were meeting there.

In my earlier post, I wondered what non-meat-eaters would be served. “We usually figure that in a gathering this large, about 5 percent of the diners will be vegetarians,” executive sous-chef Carmen Callo told Sweets. Vegatable Wellingtons were available for them.

The paper also published recipes for the entree (Governor’s Beef Wellington with Cabernet Sauvignon Demi-Glace Sauce) and for the dessert (White Chocolate Winter Wonderland Parfait of Blackberry Swirl Mousse Topped with Biscotti Crunch). Mercifully, the beef Wellington recipe is broken down to serve six and the parfait serve three.

Tasteless Food? Blame Washington

Was I ever happy to read an op-ed piece called “Amber Fields of Bland” in today’s New York Times. It was written by chef Dan Barber, co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a utopian combination educational center, conservatory of natural food and restaurant in or near the hamlet of Pocantico Hills in New York’s Hudson River Valley.

Barber wrote: “Bad decisions about agriculture have defined government policy for the last century; 70 percent of our nation’s farms have been lost to bankruptcy or consolidation, creating an agricultural economy that looks more Wall Street than Main Street. Now, after the uprooting of a thousand years of agrarian wisdom, we chefs have discovered something really terrible — no, not that the agricultural system we help support hurts farmers and devastates farming communities, or that it harms the environment and our health. What we’ve discovered is that the food it produces just doesn’t taste very good.”

Hear! Hear! We are constantly assaulted by advice on “eating right” for good health, longevity, weight management and the like, but the bottom line, for many of us, is that food really does need to taste good if we are to bother eating for anything other than fuel. And food that comes from “food-growing factories,” as I think of them, often doesn’t taste very good.

As Barber sees it, “Who’s responsible for the blandness? Look no further than Washington: There you will meet not farmers, but the people determining how our farmers farm. They do it through the farm bill, a mammoth piece of legislation that designates American agricultural policy every five years and that Congress is preparing to take up in its new session.” This bill, he notes, covers nutrition, conservation, genetic engineering, food safety, school lunch programs, water quality, organic farming and much more. He calls it “a food and farm bill” that “determines what you eat and how what you eat is grown.”

Read his whole piece, and if you care, now would be the time to contact your Senators and your Representative, and perhaps the entire House and Senate agriculture committees, to encourage them to put crop diversification into the equation when drawing up and voting on the next legislation. Let’s vote with our palates. We do it whenever we buy at local farmers‘ markets. Let’s do it as a matter of public policy too.

Boulder Weekly Expands Dining Section

The new Boulder Weekly (January 11-17 edition)– the one with Jimmy Carter Photoshopped as if wearing Palestinian headgear on the front page — debuts an expansion of its dining coverage. In the wake of the departure of long-time restaurant reviewer Jessica Hersh, Clay Fong recently began reviewing restaurants. Judging from his first few weeks on the beat, he seems to favor economical and moderately priced places.

In this issue, a second writer, David Miller, debuted with a lengthy write-up of L’s, the new incarnation of Laudisio’s in the 29th Street development. Fong is more of a reviewer, commenting extensively on the food. Miller is more of a feature writer, having been toured around L’s by Antonio Laudisio himself and quoting the veteran restaurateur, the kitchen manager, a sous-chef, a manager and a hostess. Neither is better or worse than the other; they are just different approaches to writing about restaurants.

What I do miss is the useful nuts-and-bolts information that Jessica Hersh, herself a chef, used add to her reviews until near the end of her tenure: days and hours of operation, whether a place is vegetarian-friendly, whether it is wheelchair-accesible, the upside and downside of the place, and what is noteworthy (a weekly wine tasting, for instance). Neither Fong nor Miller bothers with that. Is it too much work? Do they (or the editors) think that readers don’t care?

The new section, called ‘Cuisine,’ also includes some shorter writeups. For the first issue, which included Fong’s review of a Japanese restaurant called Ichi Ban, there is a bit of background of sushi and sashimi. As a side note, I have observed that when sushi is suggested, many people say, “I don’t like raw fish.” Clarification between sushi and sashimi is therefore welcome.

Other short items include a brewpub review (Southern Sun), a ‘News Bites’ section with brief items of interest to local foodies and a short profile of a wine buyer (John Balliet of North Boulder Liquors) and his recommendations of three sparkling wines.

I welcome more food coverage in the Boulder media.

Best of Times – Worst of Times, Redux

A couple of days ago I cyber-ranted about chain restaurants in general and franchises in particular. Food writers and restaurant critics and I tend to be united in our chain disdain. The fresh-off-the-presses issue of Westword, Denver’s alternative weekly, includes restaurant critic Jason Sheehan’s opinion on the topic.

Sheehan wrote, “Solitudinem fecerunt, pacem appelunt: The legions created a desert and called it peace. Roman historian Gaius Tacitus said that, and though he was speaking of the tendency of the Roman legions to slaughter, then burn and salt the earth behind them, he might just as well have been describing the tactics of big chain-restaurant operators. Theirs is a strategy of total dominance, to move into a new location — a strip mall, a retail development, a community — and become the only Italian, the only pizza, the only Chinese. They win when they have created a desert of taste, a wasteland of unlimited breadsticks where all cuisine comes in a bag and all flavors are decided in a boardroom.”

Sheehan apparently paid more attention in Latin class than I did, and he therefore came up with a more erudite analogy about chain restaurants than I managed. He certainly doesn’t need my nodding agreement to validate his opinion, but I do believe that he’s right on target. Specifically, he praised diners for eschewing P.F. Chang’s near the Park Meadows Mall (one of more than 150 in the country) in favor of nearby John Holly’s Asian Bistro, locally owned by chef John Ye. But for the record, I heartily second Sheehan’s praise.

New Year’s (Kitchen) Resolutions

Shape-up suggestions for the cooking year ahead

In an article on the front page of the food section in today’s Denver Post, writers Ellen Sweets and Tucker Shaw and food editor Kristin Browning-Blas suggested that readers “spend a little energy now to get the kitchen back in tip-top shape” following a holiday season filled with cooking and baking. Their article is worth reading in its entirety, but here is a list of their good counsel — and what I’m resolving to do about them.

Sharpen Your Knives: They suggest having them professionally sharpened now and again — and I’ve done that, now and again. When the Cooking School of the Rockies (now the Culinary School of the Rockies) had a volunteer assistant program, I took advantage of the knife-sharpening services whenever I was working on a day that the truck rolled in. Coincidentally, the Post’s business section recently featured one such service in a front page business story.

Refresh Your Spices: Mine really need refreshing. I do cook through mainstream ground spices and herbs fairly quickly, but some of the exotic ethic seasonings — Indian, Chinese, Indonesian. Thai — linger and linger. In fact, I should probably be too embarrassed to admit that some of my Indian spices moved to Colorado with me from New Jersey in 1988 — but the fact that I am doing so publicly might motivate me to toss and replace them. We have wonderful Asian and Middle Eastern grocery stores, as well as a couple of dedicated spice shops in Denver, so there’s no reason for me to keep these almost-flavorless powders around….except I’m habitually too thrifty to throw them out.

Replace Your Sponges: I do replace them when they get too grody, but whenever they need a bath, I stick them in the dishwasher. The Post writers also suggest nuking them in the microwave as a maintenance tactic, but I’ve never tried that.

Clean Your Oven: I’m pretty conscientious about this, because I hate to bake in a dirty oven. My Viking range’s self-cleaning oven makes conscientiousness pretty easy. While it is self-cleaning, I soak the stainless steel racks in a strong ammonia solution and remove the residue with steel wool.

Toss the Live Stuff: The Post food team suggests replacing baking soda, baking powder, self-rising flour, yeast and such every few months. Of those, I only have baking soda and powder, and I’m afraid I’m not too good on keeping fresh products on hand.

Arm & Hammer in the Fridge: Sometimes a box is in there, but not right now. Thanks for reminding me.

Get Wired: They suggest the availability of music to listen to while cooking. We have a good radio with satellite reception in the next room, which I listen to mostly when preparing a big meal for a lot of people — Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. They also think an Internet hookup in the kitchen is useful. We have wireless networking in our house, so I wouldn’t need a hookup — but I also wouldn’t dare have my laptop in the kitchen. The potential for disaster is just too great.

Can the Jars: The writers remind readers to toss old and unrecognizable items that lurk in the back of the refrigerator. I’m pretty good at doing this anyway, but I’ll go through the shelves again.

Cull Your Cookbooks: They think a cookbook that hasn’t been used in a year or two should be off the shelves. I could no sooner do that than cut off my left arm. I always mark up the recipes that I’ve made, date them and note the changes — and how the dish turned out. I couldn’t part with any of them. Sorry.

Organize Those Loose Recipes: I keep them organized in looseleaf notebooks — a fat one with most of my recipes, one just with Asian and Mexican dishes and a third with Cooking School of the Rockies recipes (plus those from other cooking classes). I treat them like cookbooks, marking them up as I cook along.

Clean Out the Utensil Drawer: I last did this when my son got his own apartment a few years ago and outfitted him very well with extras. I do keep nostalgia utensils, some that were my late mother’s, that I’ve hung on the wall. I use just about everything that’s left.

Wash the Walls: I don’t think so! It might be necessary, but this is not a task that I will take on. I periodically take down the stuff that’s hung on the walls or perched on top of the cabinets, but that’s as far as I’ll go.

Get on Your Knees: The Posters remind us to “give thanks for the good meals you had in the past year and the ones yet to come.” While there, they suggest scrubbing the baseboards. I’m off the hook, because my kitchen cabinets go to the floor, and there’s hardly any additional wall or baseboard showing.

Fight Fire: They also remind readers to keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen. We have one, and we’ve fortunately never had to use it. Another reason to get on our knees with gratitude.

Happy, healthy and delicious 2007 to all!

Claire Walter's Colorado-oriented but not Colorado-exclusive blog about restaurants, food and wine events, recipes and related news. For address of any restaurant, click on the Zomato icon at the end of the post.