The Food Gal® and I recently subscribed to Milk Street – Christopher Kimball’s new food and cooking ‘zine. As an old Kimball fan, I’ve plowed through more issues of Cooks Illustrated than I can count, and still consider his old “America’s Test Kitchen” show to be the definitive television cooking show. Kimball’s Milk Street show on PBS recently debuted, and I’m sure that it will be every bit as good as his old enterprise.
Milk Street is very 21st Century in its sensibilities. Instead of the “perfect meatloaf” and “how to make a pie crust” articles of decades past, it is chock full of foreign foods and travel tidbits. There are also quite a few recipes for things like Peruvian ceviche, Indian curries and southeast Asian soups. All of which got our staff to wondering: What recipes are best left to the professionals, i.e., when are you biting off more than you can chew when you try to cook something at home that is always better in a restaurant?
The following lists are by no means definitive, but after 50 years of restaurant-going, and 40 years of serious home cooking, I’m a pretty good judge of when a recipe (or a type of food) is a waste of time for anyone but those who immerse themselves in it daily. These should give you a good start on what to avoid trying, even if a pro like Chris Kimball is doing the teaching. No offense to him (or avid home cooks everywhere), but no matter how hard you try, the best you can hope for is a distant approximation of what the pros turn out daily:
LEAVE IT TO THE PROFESSIONALS:
Bread (unless you bake all the time)
Vietnamese food (unless you’re Vietnamese)
Korean food (unless you’re Korean)
Chinese food (Take it from someone who spent the 80s cooking his way through a number of Chinese cookbooks.)
Indian food (unless you’re Indian and have a larder the size of ELV’s ego)
French food (Even simple French food has more steps than a Fred Astaire movie.)
Barbecue (unless you have the tools and the patience of Job)
Mexican street food (sophisticated Mexican food is another animal entirely)
Steaks (Although the best steakhouses always get the best beef, and they use higher heat, to get a better Maillard reaction than you can.)
Soup (Except ramen, pho and any number of other Asian noodle soups. NEVER try to make these at home. You will never master them so don’t even try.)
Stews of any kind
Rack of lamb
Filets of fish
Fruit (Fruit is its own best friend in the kitchen. You can get away with anything when you’re using good, ripe fruit.)
Home cooking is like any other skill: you have to do it all the time to be any good at it. Milk Street is a great place to learn, but never forget that your cooking reach should never exceed your cooking grasp.
The great Roman general Lucullus was known to throw the most elaborate feasts in all of Rome. Cicero, it was said, would decline invitations from him out of guilt at knowing all the expense Lucullus would go to to impress even a single guest. A famous story goes that one night, the general had no plans for his evening meal; no guests to entertain; no one to impress. Upon learning this, Lucullus’s chef remarked, “Sir, since you will be alone this evening, I thought I would prepare something simple.” “What?” Lucullus replied. “Did not you know, then, that today Lucullus dines with Lucullus?”
Single friends, solitary Romans, dateless gastronomes, lend me your ears. There’s a lot you can learn from Lucullus. He understood that the greatest dinner guest you will ever have is yourself. Instead of shying away from good meals when you’re traveling alone, without a mate, or waiting for your spouse to leave the slot machines, you should seize the day, and find a restaurant in which to indulge your wildest fantasies. And by “wildest fantasies” I mean eat and drink anything you damn well please. The joys of dining alone are many, and if you can get past your self-consciousness, you just might find yourself appreciating your meal in ways you didn’t think possible.
These days, you see single diners in good restaurants much more frequently. Gone are the stigmas attached to unaccompanied women (loose), and solitary men (loser), freeing them both to enjoy themselves. Just think about it: when you show up solo, you are the master of your domain. You can proceed at your own pace. Cocktails before dinner? No problem. Spend a half hour with the wine list? Why not? Dip your bread right in the butter dish? Of course! Flirt with the waiter? Great idea! Eat the butter straight up? It never tasted better. (You can also post all the pictures you want to social media without having to uphold your end of some pesky conversation…but I digress.)
Look upon eating solo as a chance to make your own excitement and you’ll find yourself enjoying things in unexpected ways. The key is to take control of the situation, and let the staff know right up front that you are not someone to be trifled with. Eating alone forces you to deal with your meal in a serious manner. When you dine by yourself, you will notice everything more: the taste of the food, the texture of the wine, the interplay of the service. Alone, you can digest everything in a more thoughtful way — and become a more thoughtful and appreciative diner in the process.
Those early years were exciting times. Las Vegas had never seen a jewel box like Adam Tihany’s 60-seat design, nor witnessed food so fine or service so precise. With the Maccionis patrolling the room and paterfamilias Sirio making constant appearances from his throne in New York, Las Vegas was a satellite operation, but one every bit the equal of its hallowed namesake. A succession of great chefs (beginning with Marc Poidevin) has kept this kitchen firing on all cylinders since day one, and one of the best service staffs in the business keeps the dining room humming like a long-running musical where everyone still belts out showstoppers after years of hitting their marks.
Showstopping has always been what Le Cirque has always been about, but I was afraid that show might come to an end in 2013 when the management deal with the family ended. With Sirio getting older (he’s deep into his eighties now) and son Mario gone, there is no longer a strong whiff of Italian buon gusto to go along with Le Cirque’s inimitable savoir faire. No one is showing me the contracts, but these days the operation is a licensing rather than a management deal — more Bellagio, less Maccioni. The good news is the food hasn’t suffered for it. Nor has the service.
Credit for that crackerjack service goes to a team that has barely changed in nineteen years. To put that in perspective: if you came here back when Bill Clinton was President, and returned today, you would see all the same faces serving you. Frederic Montandon still pours vintages (French, please! California, if you insist) with a twinkle in his eye, while Ivo Angelov manages with the touch of an orchestra conductor. A lot of restaurants start feeling stale after two decades. Here, phoning it in isn’t in their vocabulary.
The food has changed over time, but never wavered. Some of the chefs (Poidevin, David Werly) were superstars in their own right, while others were just putting in their time. But whoever was at the helm, the kitchen has always been solid — rendering classics like rack of lamb with glazed sweetbreads and rabbit with mustard cream sauce with the same aplomb it devotes to gold-crusted quail stuffed with foie gras, or blue crab under a robe of caviar. You can still get a lobster salad here that is almost note-for-note what Daniel Boulud invented in 1988, or have your taste buds startled by current wunderkind Wil Bergerhausen’s “hidden” spring garden of English peas, tendrils and garbanzos misted with strawberries.
What used to be dueling menus of Le Cirque classics versus more modern (read: lighter) fare has expanded under Bergerhausen into four offerings at all price ranges. You can do everything from a $108, pre-theater affair to a $350 extravaganza that steps into the ring with whatever punches Savoy, Gagnaire, or Robuchon are throwing and doesn’t flinch. There’s even a delicious-sounding five course vegetarian menu offered ($115) that looks like a good idea, in the same way that yoga classes, wheat grass and prostate exams do.
Now that we’ve rebounded from the Great Recession, every night seems like New Year’s Eve here. High rollers, celebrities and hedonic jet-setters treat this place like a private club, making a reservation a tough-to-impossible on weekends. Personally, I like to go early in mid-week, grab and seat at the bar, and watch the choreography unfold before me. After almost two decades, the balletic grace of Le Cirque is still something to behold.
Bellagio Hotel and Casino