The Braise of Winter
Photo by Anne Fishbein
In these cooler months — when the temperature dips down below 55, appetites increase, and the need for coziness manifests — there’s nothing like a piping-hot bowl of something braised or simmered or slow-roasted in a big pot for hours. For over a month now, I’ve made a project of eating the one-pot meals of winter in some of the city’s best restaurants: daubes and ragù; bouillabaisse and cassoulet; short ribs, beef bourguignon, coq au vin, chicken curry — all hot and hearty foods that warm the cockles of the heart and stick to the ribs. Literally. Such, indeed, is not the dieter’s path, and I have the few new pounds to prove it.
When I first set out on this all-in-one-pot sampling mission, the dinner excursions were just like going out to eat, with everybody at the table ordering what they wanted, the only caveat being that it could be construed in some way as a one-pot meal. Our decisions went something like, “You have the short ribs, I’ll have the bouillabaise, and so-and-so’s stuck with the coq au vin.” (Don’t get me wrong, I like coq au vin, but it is a trick to find a good version.) Thus, at any given meal there would be two to four one-pots at the table. In a subtle way, this defied the very spirit of vat-cooked food, and soon enough, even in the finest restaurants, we began asking to be served family-style, with the various dishes set on the table so we could at least all eat out of the common pots, which really is what this hefty, homey, heartwarming food demands. There is something social in the reaching and the passing and the clash of competing spoons — these family-style free-for-alls wound up being a lot of fun.
Ten years ago, veal osso buco seemed to be the all-in-one dish of choice in many upscale restaurants. Five years ago, lamb shanks, caramelized and big as cavemen’s clubs, were sailing out of good kitchens like hotcakes in a breakfast house. This, however, seems to be the year of the beef short rib. A chunk of meat on an inch or so of rib bone and â layers of fat, the short rib comes from the chuck (or upper shoulder) of the beef, or from the “short plate,” which lies just south of the brisket. Tough and fatty to start with, these smallish squares of inexpensive beef have been transformed by slow, moist cooking at the hands of the city’s best (and most patient) chefs, into an intense, madly flavorful, quintessentially meaty winter treat.
Other one-pot trends include a proliferation of excellent bouillabaise and good cassoulet. I also found a dreamy ragu, an unforgettable chicken curry and a legendary goulash.
At Spago in Beverly Hills, listed under Wolfgang’s Childhood Favorites, the reigning one-pot isrindsgulasch mit spaetzle, or goulash. This is an Alp of a meal: big and solid and no-nonsense, chunks of beef smothered and slow-cooked in Hungarian paprika, served with squiggly, chewy spatzle, that curious cross between pasta and a dumpling. This goulash is nothing fancy; its meatiness and basic starch appeal is single-minded, even borderline austere. No carrots or potatoes or mushrooms deflect the carnivorian focus. There’s enough protein in that bowl to satisfy a family of four. But this goulash is an apex of its genre, and since I first had it two years ago, I’m surprised how often Wolf’s childhood goulash comes to mind: a bowl filled with meat, so basic that it’s mythic.
In these blistery days, Spago’s endlessly imaginative chef de cuisine, Lee Hefter, is apt to add other braised-meat dishes to his ever-changing menu. Hefter has mastered the art of cooking meat long hours at very low temperatures. I recently had his slow-braised short ribs, which were dark and sticky, lacquered (almost candied) in their meaty essence, with the great mineral richness of having been cooked on the bone; these ribs were served with truffled grits — grits with lots of butter and shaved black truffle, a combination delicious and witty. Also, look for Hefter’s slow-cooked brisket — it all but melts in your mouth — and his braised short ribs with tiny round pastina, another textural cold-weather epiphany.
Campanile’s winter dishes have a certain refined quality, even at their heartiest. Chef Mark Peel’s braised veal short ribs could define sophisticated all-American cuisine; the dish is Mom’s meat, potatoes and green vegetable taken to the highest levels of both quality and technique. These rich, tender caramelized ribs are served on horseradish-spiked mashed potatoes with a snarl of dark, vitamin-rich bitter greens — chard or cavalo nero or dandelion, depending on what’s available at the farmers’ markets that week.
Similarly, Peel’s fish stew is a civilized, somewhat tempered version of the more rustic Provençale soupe de poisson and/or bouillabaisse. Campanile’s roux-based soup — the liquid or bouilla component — is the color of butterscotch, delicate and beautifully balanced rather than robust in flavor, with an excellent assortment of “baisse,” those items that are lowered into the “bouilla,” or boiling soup: clams and firm-fleshed fish, shrimp or langoustine, mussels and scallops. The stew is served, as is traditional, with toasts, and only a paltry daub of rouille. (Rouille is a saffron- and sometimes red-pepper-flavored mayonnaise. In France, rouille comes to the table in veritable tubs to be both smeared on toasts and spooned into fish soups and bouillabaisse with a sensuous abandon, but Americans have yet to adopt these naughty, high-cholesterol ways; in all my sightings of rouille, amounts have always been trifling.)
Campanile has a family night every Monday. Often, one-pot dishes are featured; there has been pot au feu, soupe au pistou with lamb, and mussel-and-clam stew.
Mimosa, the stylish, very French French bistro on Beverly Boulevard, has gone through cycles over the years; it sagged for a bit when the owners bought and reopened the nearby Café des Artistes, but the quality is up again. Mimosa is the place for one-pot meals. The presentation — where the presumed cooking pots are brought to the table — couldn’t be more beguiling. We tried the bouillabaisse, which came in a copper braising pan set in an elegant silver chafing contraption, with Sterno flame to keep it warm. Mimosa’s version of bouillabaisse is a full-bodied, dark, thick soup with a daring dose of saffron, assorted shellfish (including the unusual scallop-shell), shrimp and firm flakes of meaty fish. We also tried a kind of hybrid bourgignon, a combination of onglet (hanger steak) and braised short ribs, both sauced with a deeply dark wine reduction, plus a big, juicy marrow-bone-like miniature cooling tower — all served with mashed potatoes. Mimosa’s other charmingly presented one-pot meals include a very respectable cassoulet (a rich French casserole traditionally made with duck confit, sausage, pork and white beans) and a veal daube (a traditional slow-cooked stew). Don’t miss the soupe de poisson — it’s all bouilla, no baisse.
Bouchon on Melrose is another French-style bistro, this one Lyonnaise in flavor. Now a couple of years old, it seems to be aging well; the menu has become more interesting, the cooking has improved, and the crowd is a smart urban mix of industry and intellectual, hip and unhip, and an interesting range of ages. The dining rooms remind me of the interiors of the great French cafés: dark bar, polished woods, white tablecloths. There are two classic stews on the menu. The beef bourguignon will win no prizes; the dark, cooked-down, wine-based gravy is good enough, but the beef is dry and clearly reheated, i.e., not heated through, which gave it the slightly old, cold-fat taste of leftovers.
The coq au vin, however, is delicious, again dark in color, like something from an old painting, but with a depth of flavor, almost a smokiness of deep, long, steamy submersion in a decent wine. It’s a chef’s maxim that one shouldn’t cook with any wine one wouldn’t drink. Of the several coq au vins I have sampled in the last month, Bouchon’s alone may have incorporated this culinary imperative.
On a chilly January night, and we’ve had some this year, I met two friends at the redoubtable Chez Mimi, on 26th Street just south of San Vicente, in Santa Monica. Once you pass though the gateway, it’s hard to remember you’re in California and not in some gentrified country stable yard in France. This cluster of buildings and courtyard has always offered some of the loveliest patio dining in the city, but the charm and wintertime coziness of the two dining areas — which seem like homes converted to that purpose — are not to be underrated. Fires snapped in the fireplaces, the ceilings were low, the floors covered with rugs. We shed our heavy coats and ordered . . . cassoulet and bouillabaisse. Cassoulet really is a most exalted version of pork and beans, with duck and spicy pork sausage sweetening the pot. This cassoulet had a vast, cooked-in depth of flavors; it was thick and hot and addictive and profoundly rich.
The bouillabaisse was the richest, yet, truly, there’s something curative in the tawny soup made from long-simmered fish stock and good saffron. It’s like a dose of Provençale sun and sea with a whiff of the mistral. Great, silky rouille. For our dark greens (we were turning into creatures of habit), we ordered a side of delicious sautéed spinach.
A hearty lamb stew is offered here at lunch time.
I’ve loved the small, family-run Girasole in Larchmont for years; a thin storefront café with far too few tables and odd enough hours that it’s tough to remember what days it’s open for lunch, for dinner or both. I hadn’t gone with the intent to eat stew; I was bent on the pasta sauced with only sautéed onions, and the house panna cotta, that white-cream custard. But lo and behold, a veal ragù was on the menu, and, in the depths of my one-pot obsession, I couldn’t pass it up. Lucky me. Ragù is not just a brand of canned spaghetti sauce; it is a long-simmered red veal stew, yet another instance of the lengthy dissemination and deepening of flavors and seasoning when a dish is held at a certain temperature. This tender, big-flavored, deep-red ragù was served on a bed of risotto — a visual delight. As with other all-in-the-pot meals, it’s rich and tempting, good to share with a friend. Again, a side of sautéed spinach was the perfect complement.
Chef-owner Joanna Moore at Axe in Venice admits that “In our winter months, I am definitely inspired by a piece of meat and long braises.” Axe, on Abbot Kinney, is Moore’s smart, eclectic neighborhood canteen, with reliably fresh food, and imaginative dishes with a good range of culinary influence. Dinner can be a big bowl of legume soup, made with white beans, favas, lentils, chickpeas and escarole — your week’s vitamins and minerals in one thick, soul-satisfying bowl.
Axe’s regular menu also offers an Asian-inflected red-curry lamb stew with squash and eggplant. A frequent special is braised pork osso buco, served with wilted cabbage and fennel, caramelized quince and apple. There is also a tender lamb shank long-braised in beer stock with chickpeas, prunes, a mesmerizing hint of cinnamon, all served over couscous.
On Sunday nights, Axe serves a three-course family-style dinner. Look to those dinners for more braises and stews: One recent Sunday featured beef short ribs braised in a stock of red wine, pancetta, mushrooms and mire poix, served over polenta with sweated greens.
I haven’t said much about soups. But I did have some knockout ones on my one-pot odyssey, and two of them were at Cayo: a curried cauliflower soup with smoked salmon, and a paradigmatic shrimp bisque. Chef Claud Beltran likes his soups presented with a flourish; in both cases, the protein (smoked salmon and shrimp, respectively) is served naked and a bit forlorn in the bottom of the soup bowls. Shortly, however, the waiter returns with a steaming-hot pot of puréed soup that he skillfully pours into the bowl, cooking the shrimp or salmon on the spot. The bisque has that many-layered flavor from shrimp long cooked in the nutty roux, and then the sweetness of the very fresh just-cooked shrimp. The curried cauliflower soup, also a purée, has a mysterious smokiness and alluring Indian spices; while visually only a few shades different from the bisque, it’s a continent apart in flavor.
Beltran is also famous for his pozole, a rich and robust chicken-and-hominy stew he first made for staff meals when he was back at Dickenson West. When the soup of the day went off one night, he served the pozole to customers, who have been clamoring for more ever since. Look for it as a special. And Cayo is currently hosting jazz nights, for which Beltran is cooking his own fabulous version of gumbo.
Finally, if I want a dreamy one-bowl dinner that doesn’t send my cholesterol over 300, however temporarily, I’ll go to Café Talesai on Olympic. There are several curries on the menu, but the one that beguiled me was the beautiful yellow chicken curry. The tender chicken, melting potatoes and yams are the perfect vehicle for the complex, compelling, warmly spiced curry gravy. Finish up with one last bowl of perfect, cool house-made coconut ice cream, or sliced fresh mango. Call it a one-pot, and then some.
Axe, 1009 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 664-9787.
Bouchon, 7661 Melrose Ave.; (323) 852-9400.
Café Talesai, 9198 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 271-9345.
Campanile, 624 S. La Brea Ave.; (323) 938-1447.
Cayo, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; (626) 396-1800.
Chez Mimi, 246 26th St., Santa Monica; (310) 393-0558.
Girasole, 225½ N. Larchmont Blvd.; (323)464-6978.
Mimosa, 8009 Beverly Blvd.; (323) 655-8895.
Spago, 176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 385-0880.
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