Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Red Farm, soon to open to the public, samples their dim-sum on friends

Red Farm, soon to open to the public, samples their dim-sum on friends By some glitch of the iPhone Facebook application, my friend Kendra “checked me in” to a yet-to-be-opened restaurant in the West Village of New York City for whom she is doing the PR. Well, Kendra, if you insist!

I had literally just stepped off the bus, arriving on a Monday night around nine. I commented on her check-in, letting her know that in fact, I was in town, shall I come down to do some taste-testing? We made a date with my sister and another childhood friend to have a dinner at their extra-soft friends and family opening there the following evening. In town for five minutes and I already have insider access to restaurants on the cusp! Not bad!

Located above a laundromat at 529 Hudson Street between Charles and W10th, Red Farm is the brainchild of chef Joe Ng of Chinatown Brasserie, restaurateur Jeffery Chodorow (Asia de Cuba, China Grill), and leading Asian cuisine expert Ed Schoenfeld. Designed to look like a farmhouse inside, bench seating and communal tables welcome you in. Lots of red gingham fabric and mason jars set the tone. While the ambiance screams farm to table, even mimicking a barn in some respects, the food (and a few other surprises) are decidedly not from any rural, farmland spot in this country.

Kendra, me, and my over-expressive hand movements. Jenna Bell photo.

With a farm-to-table liaison on staff, Red Farm will highlight locality and seasonality in their menu. But this won’t be just any farm-like food; Red Farm will be serving dim sum style Chinese food with a whimsical flair. More than one dish came to our table with dumplings that looked like mice, stingrays, palm trees… they are having fun in this kitchen. So yes, once you’ve wrapped your head around the idea that this farmhouse is serving you fantastical dim sum, you’ll be in for a smooth ride and a delicious meal.

We started with Kowloon beef tarts, which, Ed declared, were just one bite. “Just pop it in your mouth,” and after I nearly unhinged my jaw to do so, I was pleased to find sweet and savory, spice and tartness. It should have been two bites, but I felt challenged.

Kowloon Beef Tart

Next were the Shu Mai shooters; a jigger half full of carrot-ginger gazpacho and topped by a skewered dumpling with morels. This was more interactive of a bite, but delicious. Next was something they were calling a Grilled Vegetable Salad, but it was so much more than that. Inspired by a dish they recently experienced on an eating journey through Spain, they made their own rendition. The original dish was a vegetable garden, complete with “dirt;” dried and crumbled beets on the plate, held in by cracker fencing, with miniature vegetables throughout. Needless to say that chef has been compared to Ferran Adria. This dish however, had tofu and artichoke blended dirt and vegetables sprouting out from its crackered quarters. The tofu blend served as the foundation and the dipping sauce, creating a fun and yummy plate. It was also my first fairytale eggplant experience, and yes, that’s the name of an eggplant variety. They were tiny.

Shu Mai Shooters
Grilled Vegetable Salad, Jenna Bell Photo.
Mushroom Spring Rolls, Jenna Bell Photo.
Karis likes the mushroom trees

The night continued with Kumamoto oysters with meyer lemon-yuzu ice, which my sister nearly couldn’t choke down (we don’t share oyster DNA apparently because I LOVED them), mushroom spring rolls shaped like palm trees (or were they mushrooms?), the mouse and stingray shaped dumplings, squid stuffed with mushrooms, lotus leaf black cod, clay pot chicken, and marinated rib steak. It was a bit too much food to keep good track of, but I’ll say this: they are not afraid of spice, the food is beautifully presented, the cooking times of everything were spot on. Not one dish disappointed and each could stand on its own. I just couldn’t put much more in my body. By the time dessert came around, I felt French Laundry-ish—please God, no more food! But I found the strength to persevere and dove in to the guava jellyroll and chocolate pudding. They also gave just a plate of tiny plums, and that dessert proved to be my favorite.

Jenna having a tough go with the oyster
Shrimp and Snow Pea Dumplings. Jenna Bell photo.
Clay Pot Chicken, Marinated Rib Steak and vegetables

The biggest surprise though—and I warn you I’m about to talk about something less than kosher right now— is that they have a Japanese toilet/bidet. My friend exited the bathroom exclaiming that one could spend all day in there. We all tried it, and yes, it’s a very different experience than one normally has in a public NYC toilet, but so is everything about this restaurant. Embrace it. We all did.

Overall, I look forward to returning to this comfortable and welcoming space. The staff was lovely, interested and funny. Ed was the consummate host, keeping us entertained with his stories of service in restaurants in years past, complete with stories of guests like Sinatra, Liz Taylor, and Aristotle Onassis.

Guava Jelly Rolls and Chocolate Pudding

They’ll be open all day, even serving afternoon tea and staying open until the wee hours, starting August 23rd, if these last few weeks go swimmingly. They’re accepting email addresses of neighbors now for opening updates. Do stop in, it’s definitely different than every dim sum place you’ve ever been.

Red Farm
529 Hudson (between Charles and W10th)
West Village

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Island Creek Oysters: A Celebration of Sustainable Farming and Bivalve Deliciousness

Island Creek Oysters: A Celebration of Sustainable Farming and Bivalve Deliciousness
I had my own personal Oyster Festival this weekend. While Island Creek Oysters is holding their 6th annual celebration of all things oyster Saturday, September 10th in Duxbury Bay, MA, I cannot attend. Instead, I designed my own Island Creek Experience, and I tell you, it was three days of oyster heaven.

It began with a dinner with friends at their city outpost, the one-year old Island Creek Oyster Bar on Commonwealth Avenue in the Kenmore Square area of Boston. I love this place, even though it breaks some of my rules about ambiance. Sure, it’s part of a giant hotel, and yes, it’s giant itself, and certainly, it definitely has too many Red Sox fans cluttering its parking and bar … but it keeps winning me over despite these qualms. The staff is amazing. I even ate dinner next to one of them in Montreal at Au Pied du Cochon, so I know they have the same culinary requirements and aspirations that I do. Their drinks are as tailored and impressive as at Drink, the local place that gets all the attention for having a truly inspired bar program, which they absolutely do. And, the food. Goodness. I’ve had lobster sliders here, fried oyster sliders, platters and platters of raw oysters with sweet mignonette, striped bass terrine, house smoked salmon, ahi tuna tartare … and need I go into the perfection that was the warm jelly doughnut I had for dessert? I won’t tempt you further. They have an extensive dessert wine list, all the amaros and aperitifs you could ask for, and a well-chosen wine list as well. I sit at the bar every time, so I can’t vouch for table service, but I always feel welcomed and as if the employees love what they’re doing. It’s a professional and appreciative staff; of one another, of the customer, and of the establishment.

Island Creek Oysters

But it’s the design of the restaurant that will transport you back to their roots. The walls cage in thousands of oyster shells, floor to ceiling. Other walls, the bar, and the reception area are made to resemble to wooden bridges of Duxbury. The whole place reminds you of sand and of the sea. I am happy to be transported to the beachy south shore without leaving Kenmore Square, but what I did the next day raised this experience to a new level.

We arrived in Duxbury for the morning low tide. This tiny town is full of big, summertime trees and sweet little shops. There’s even a Danish ice cream shop and a place that all employees of Island Creek swear offers the best fish sandwich you’ve ever had. We met up with Chris Sherman, head of marketing, and set off in a Jeep with no doors. Chris was wearing a Hog Island hat, their cohorts raising oysters in Marin County. I love Hog Island, and knew when I saw that hat, that these were my people.

Duxbury Bay

We drove down the famed Washington Street, apparently famous for its beautiful cottages and homes built by the shipbuilders who used to populate the area. Chris tells us that Duxbury used to be one of the top shipbuilding ports in the nation, but that changed once ship design began to include a larger keel; the shallow waters of the bay couldn’t support these boats. The last ship built in Duxbury was reportedly launched only to immediately get stuck in the mud. Nevertheless, these shipbuilders built charming and lovely homes too.

We arrived at the docks to find that our boat had been borrowed—by the owner of the company, Skip Bennett—and that we’d have to wait. We decided then to start in the nursery in order to see every step of the oyster growing process. In a nondescript part of a giant boat storage barn is the beginning of all Island Creek oysters. In something akin to a chemistry lab, the oyster growing process is designed for minimal inputs and efficiency. In giant tubs, oysters grow from the size of 1/10th of the size of a flake of black pepper to an actual flake size. Through a system of water circulation tanks and containers made of nearly-invisibly fine mesh, countless numbers of oyster babies have their start. In beakers lining the walls, Island Creek makes its own algae in order to assure perfect nutrition for the oysters as they grow. They also make sure that the oysters have plenty of water circulation, something that helps form strong healthy shells and oysters quickly. These efforts help them grow harvestable oysters in 18 months, whereas most other oysters we eat grow in about two to three years.

Second stage- tiny, baby oysters

Island Creek does something else I found innovative and smart: they inoculate the tub of water housing the oyster seeds (first stage oyster growth) with eggshells. The shells act as a calcitic agent that bonds to the oyster seeds, helping to form individual shells for each one. Wild oysters, Chris explains, would bond together and form a cluster, forcing them to compete for space and therefore make their shells irregular and unpredictable in shape. This method, the use of egg shells from chickens that live at their office and roam free, ensures that each shell will have a deep, rounded cup and a nice appearance. To complete the cycle, the chickens consume a fair amount of oyster shells, something that hardens and strengthens their eggs. It is this attention to detail and creativity in farming methods that has made Island Creek oysters a staple offering at top restaurants, including those of famed chef Thomas Keller. When sorting, there’s even a box for pulling out the absolute best oysters, simply referred to as Per Se, the Keller outpost in New York City.

Once the oyster seeds are the size of a flake of pepper, they are moved down to the docks into the upweller. Housed in boxes made with silos and more fine mesh, there are 800,000 oysters in each, initially weighing only two pounds. The upweller, built directly into the dock and situated beneath it in the bay water, is the only energy intensive time in the growing process, for they need pumps to circulated the water. Otherwise, the company is actually carbon negative, they say, using solar energy for the bit of energy they do need. This, combined with the water filtering abilities of oysters makes for an organization that is truly benefiting the environment.

Culling, sorting and sizing on the barge after harvest

Shucking lesson, step one. Lollipop Oyster. Julia Frost photo.

We swerved around the moored boats, making our way to the farms further out. Marked by buoys and netting, the oysters that numbered 800,000 and weighed two pounds in the upweller, now have the space to grow to 280,000 pounds and to take up an entire acre. The farms are just like plots of agricultural land, although they never need to lie fallow, that are rotated in use.  Abutting the farms is Clarks Island, where the Mayflower landed, home of the Plymouth Rock and namesake for the county. The Miles Standish Monument faces the island, visible as it juts out from the landscape. Chris mentions that Truman Capote wrote part of In Cold Blood there too, making it all the more famed.

We made it to the barge just as the farmers were returning with the morning’s harvest. After immediately poking fun at the dinghy, they welcomed us in and showed us around. They were culling, meaning sorting and cleaning the day’s catch. I donned a pair of gloves and jumped in to help. Sorting by size, shape and beauty, the oysters were separated into different crates. It was here I learned of the Per Se specific crate. Now that’s service.

We chatted about throwing a dinner party on the barge, something that the crew likes to do every once in a while. Chris gave us a shucking lesson with delicious results, and we snapped a million photographs, trying to grasp this incredible experience. We were eating freshly harvested oysters that still had mud on them. It was lovely.

Crack the hinge, turn the knife to remove the top shell. Julia Frost photo.

Separate oyster from shell, don't scramble it! Julia Frost photo.

We left Duxbury, bellies full of fish sandwiches and the taste and smell of oysters still palpable. We jumped in the ocean first though, completing the perfect seaside day.

But that’s not it. We threw a party the next night in Gloucester and Island Creek was hired to cater. With a wooden skiff full of crushed ice and laden with seaweed, they shucked oysters and little neck clams and filled the bow with shrimp cocktail. It was indulgent, to say the least, and the perfect way to end my weekend celebration of the coolest oyster company around.

Eat at Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston: 500 Commonwealth Ave

Take a tour in Duxbury:

Hire the skiff for your next party:

Attend the Friends for Haiti Benefit and the Island Creek Oyster Festival:
September 9th and 10th, 2011,

Skip arriving at the oyster barge

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Design Inspiration in Finland

Design Inspiration in Finland I had arrived in Helsinki a few days before. Immediately taken by its architecture, design, public art, and parks, I was smitten. Having just spent time in Denmark and Sweden, my eye was attuned to the particular design aesthetic of the region. To come to Finland, though, is to see the work of the men that inspired much of the furniture, textiles, glassware, and architecture I adore so much. Here, the work of Alvar Aalto and Eliel Saarinen had shaped the city and still affects the designs coming from the region today.
I spent days entranced by the shops lining the Esplanadi park: Marimekko, Iittala, Artek, Arabia … these were the ceramics, textiles, and flatware of my dreams. Curse my tiny, full suitcase. I lingered and dreamed of shipping to California these dishes … equal cost to purchase as to ship. Another time. I buy an easy-to-fold-up-and-pack-away Marimekko shirt that I treasure still. I come back each day, hoping to find the perfect token dish to bring home. I cannot possibly decide on just one, and end up leaving empty-handed.

Statues in Esplanadi Park

I took a walking tour, since my time here was limited and I wanted to see as much as possible. We did a Nordic Walk, which I learned means walking deftly and with incredibly long strides–something that may come much more naturally to a very tall Scandinavian who must bear a walking commute during the brisk winters. I am not short and my legs are long, but I promise you that in order to not be left behind, I nearly ran behind this woman.

We started at Market Square, where stalls of artists, farmers, and cooks sell their wares near the port. I had spent the morning here the day before, and looked again—unsuccessfully—for my size felt booties. The search would continue.

From there we climbed the steep incline on Katajanokka Island, our guide pointing out Aalto buildings and influences at every turn, to the Uspenski Katedraali. The Uspenski is a remnant from Russian rule over Finland. A Russian Orthodox church, it is imposing and commanding. Built of dark brick high on a hillside, affording a beautiful view of all of Helsinki, it has golden turrets and domes. The icons within are said to be miraculous. I was taken by the turquoise blue paint used inside the cathedral; the vastness of the room and the blue ceiling give the impression of the sky within. With more gold than I’d ever seen in a building, the church had the usual portraits and statues, but on a scale that to my eyes (my inexperienced, non-church-going eyes) seemed bigger. Like it was not only convincing you, but telling you that this was what was right. I took a photo that makes this declarative church artful, and still love to see it hang in my sister’s house.

Interior of the Russian Orthodox Church

We trekked on to the site of the 1952 summer Olympics, its tall, modern tower looming over the stadium, recently renovated in 2005. From there we made our way through Central Park, a rich and continuous stretch of parkland through Helsinki proper. Ten kilometers in length, it holds public art, protected primeval forests, an arboretum, children’s playgrounds, access to hiking trails, lakes, farms, saunas and swimming halls. Most famous, besides the Olympic Stadium, is the Sibelius Monument, a creation made of 600 welded pipes by Eila Hiltunen in 1967. I stayed here for a bit, watching the tourists take photographs of one another in front of the monument, posing in those awkward photos that I wonder what will be done with them once in printable form.

Sibelius Monument

Next to the monument was a plot of land that didn’t ask for attention, it was planned, of course, from a landscaping point of view, but was unlabelled. It was just a stretch of land leading to the Sibelius monument of green grass and birch trees. The trees, each spaced with enough room for walking through and between, captured me. The strong color juxtaposition of white, papery bark, black striations across each trunk, the green of the grass below and the rich, blue sky stopped me in my tracks. I loved that moment, and photographed it to keep forever, or at least until I lost them in a hard drive failure. I would be reminded of this place years later on a visit to the Tate Museum in London, for their entrance gardens are similarly designed around the beauty of airy and fluttering birches.

The Church in the Rock

From there, The Church in the Rock, Temppeliaukio Kirkko, gave us a completely different church experience. Built directly into a giant rock formation in the center of the Toolo neighborhood, taking up roughly a city block, the church is minimalist and reserved. From the exterior, its entrance is barely a break in the side of a mountain with a tiny, steel cross planted near the top. Inside, one enters a room with a circular glass ceiling, a copper coil occupying the center of the ring of windows, and a room made of stone. The effect of the rock and the windows above makes you calm; it is elemental instead of ornate, natural over embellished. With sunlight coming in from above, a few candles lit on an iron candelabra on the far wall, I sat, amazed at the structure. A woman plays classical piano in the front, a few worshipers sit in the pews, and I sit, feeling more at home in a church than I ever have. The music, the copper ceiling and the shear beauty of the church are remarkable. I had read about this church before leaving for this trip in the Travel pages of the New York Times. I remember being interested in seeing the church after reading the article, but after seeing the church, I think that writer had the same difficulty I’m now experiencing; how to describe a place so different and so impressive that it’s almost impossible. I was speechless then, as I am now.

On the way back through town, we saw the Museum of Contemporary Art, the building itself a modern architectural feat. We pass the Aalto designed Finlandia Music Hall, the Saarinen designed National Museum of Finland where the country’s national animal statue of the brown bear sits up on a pedestal. My friend Jimmy poses like the bear—Jimmy be the bear!—we shout to get him to pose accordingly. He’s quite good at it.

Strawberry sculpture outside an administrative building

I was struck by the public art. Benches of various designs surrounded the art museum–some sittable, some concave, convex, slats crisscrossing, declining straight to the ground. A giant sculpture of a strawberry plant sat outside a modern building, directly next to one with such austere practicality that it looks more like a Berlin building than anything else. There were sculptures everywhere. I loved the street signs with three languages on them: Finnish, Swedish, Russian, some with an animal associated, and the old telephone booths. The city was beautifully designed and maintained; I was struck over and over how Helsinki is truly the most design-aware city I had yet visited. One of the favorite things I encountered was an art installation on the corner of a city building–the artist had set up a camera to photograph passerby. These photos were placed onto tiles and are now a part of the exterior. It was inspiring.

Art installation on city building

Unsittable Seats

To end our tour, we made our way to the Central Railway Station, Saarinen designed. The exterior was grand and commanding, especially with four giant statues of men holding round lamps that flank the doorway. The interior though, was like a mid-century modern design shop. This is exactly what Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe looked to for inspiration. Every light fixture, piece of furniture and window were designed specifically for the space. It felt more like a museum than I train station, or a Design Within Reach shop put to use.

Light fixtures in the train station

Our last step was the Esplanadi Park, where locals picnic and spend time in the sun under the trees. Surrounded by statues, artful landscaping, design shops and restaurants with outdoor seating, this was clearly the center of town. It led us directly back to the Market Square, ending the whirlwind tour of this gorgeous city. Exhausted, we made our way back to the Scandic Hotel for a sauna and rest before our traditional Lappish dinner of reindeer and Arctic char. Helsinki—entirely—in one day, and still time to watch the sun set.

Sunset in Helsinki

Helsinki: Hel-Looks, a World Heritage Site, and a Potato Revelation

Helsinki: Hel-Looks, a World Heritage Site, and a Potato Revelation I checked the website for a month afterward, hoping to find my image staring back at me. I thought, this is the coolest story to go home with, and I searched, hoping.
I had been walking to the grocery store, getting fixings for a picnic that my friends and I would have in the park outside of the Finlandia concert hall, when two Fins approached me to chat. I don’t speak a lick of Finnish, so I had to stop them halfway through their introduction. They are the photographers for the website Hel-Looks, and they post photos of what the locals of Helsinki wear. After a moment’s thought, they wanted to photograph me anyways; they’d never had an American on the site before, maybe it would work? I laughed through this process, standing on the street corner in the most foreign place I’d ever been, being mistaken for a local. I remember being even more confused because they liked what I was wearing; I’d been traveling for a month already, hadn’t washed my clothes, was wearing black and white striped maryjanes, a skirt I affectionately referred to as “my cupcake skirt,” a t-shirt bearing New Hampshire’s dogged motto “Live Free or Die,” a vintage sweater that anyone’s grandmother may have knit for them, and a scarf, sent to me by an EBay seller from Abu Dhabi. I looked like a traveler running out of options. Nonetheless, they were complimentary and took a zillion photos. Alas, either my Americanism or lack of photogeneity prevented my Finnish modeling debut. Looking at the website though, I totally understand why they photographed me; all the people are dressed creatively, to say the least. I went on my way.

I had spent the morning waiting for a ferry to take me to Suomenlinna, a maritime fortress covering eight islands in the Baltic Sea. With a few hours to kill, I wandered the central plaza abutting the port. Here, vendors set up tents and tables, selling their wares and food, produce and memorabilia. It was a great mix of crafts; artisans that make hand carved children’s toys and woodblock puzzles, felt slippers and booties, pelts and furs, and lots of reindeer paraphernalia. On the next row, a farmers market. Fresh produce lay beautifully on the tables, locals walking through with baskets to do their shopping.

Giant hotplates with fresh food offerings

In the last row, tables and chairs surround hotplates with foods cooked to order. There was lots of fish cooking, a paella five feet wide, salads, meats, and what caught my hungry eye- tiny new potatoes sautéing with herbs and garlic, then dressed with aioli. This may be news to some of you; a new potato from the far north is unlike anything you’ve had before. These are the freshest, creamiest and most indulgent treats you’ll ever get in a root vegetable. In fact, I left this long, gastronomical trip talking about potatoes and strawberries as if they were new inventions. I have since heard Andrew Zimmern (of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods) talk at length about the beauty of a Finnish new potato. I ordered a bowl full, since thankfully everyone in Helsinki speaks perfect English, and sat confounded by their deliciousness.

New potatoes and herbs
Helsinki shoreline 

I reached the ferry, full of potatoes and aioli, to meet my friends. The ferry ride took about twenty minutes, and as we arrived, we were ushered in to watch a quick documentary about the fortress. This is where I would tell you all about that film, had the potato-y goodness not lulled me to sleep. I awoke in time to see the Prime Minister, a woman who looks like she could be related to Conan O’Brien, thanking us for our visit. We exited the theater to the sight of rolling, grass-covered hills, bright sunlight, stonewalls and cellars, canons and, most beautiful of all, a rocky coastline down to the Baltic shore.

Suomenlinna fortress

We walked the perimeter, realizing the hills were not hills at all, but underground shelters and lookouts. Suomenlinna, built in 1748 while Finland was under Swedish rule, shows its historical roots. The cannons are from the period of Russian rule in the 19th century, and now, run by the Ministry of Education and Culture, it houses the Finnish Governing Body of Suomenlinna. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, securing its preservation and history. It now is a functioning city sector, complete with renovated garrisons and fortresses made into homes and restaurants. My impression was that it was the most pristine and gorgeous parkland that offered the best views to the sea I had yet come across. Clearly, its founders felt as I did, deciding centuries ago to base their navies here.

Shelters and lookouts
The Baltic 
We separated, each being drawn to our own rock near the water, grass for a nap, or a moment to sit on the shores of Kustaanmiekka. I dipped my toes in the water, making the distinct memory: I just dipped my toes in the Baltic Sea. I see to my right, Emily is meditating, and further up the rocks behind me a couple is sharing a bottle of wine, watching the sun play on the water. Many people are scribbling in notebooks. I am wary of doing the typical thing; writing the journal entry, look where I’ve found myself, where does it mean I’m going? and instead take photos  (which seems only slightly less predictable): me and the Baltic, my toes in the water, and one for Grandpa’s refrigerator. I succumb to the pressure, I write a bit, not wanting to lose a moment of this place. This is the furthest north I may ever come, the bluest water of a sea I may only see once, and the greenest grass lay behind me, covering centuries of history. Each breath felt weighted with excitement, gratitude and a desire to truly appreciate my place there.

Me and the Baltic Sea

This excursion could have ended philosophically, but knowing me, something else came along to reshape my experience. I popped into Café Piper on the way back to the ferry, and in their case was the most memorable sandwich I still to this day have ever seen: a “filled meat pie,” as they called it, a starchy flat bun encasing two hot dogs and a sliced hard boiled egg. I did not order it, but have thought about it many times since.

"Filled meat pie"

We would end the day on a blanket, hotel property borrowed and returned, eating preserves, fruit, bread, cheese and cookies. We sat beneath street lamps shaped like hands that didn’t need to turn on until well after eleven. Helsinki in July needs no extra light to shine as brightly as it does.

Streetlamps above our picnic setting