Columbus Park Ramen Shop opened this past week to the delight of Kansas City diners waiting for Josh and Abbey-Jo Eans’ new restaurant to open. The wait was worthwhile.
I won’t go into much detail since the ramen shop has only been open a few days. The compact space is minimalist out of necessity given that it is shoehorned next to sister restaurant Happy Gillis Cafe. The few furnishings and decor exhibit modern craftsmanship. Accents like a maneki-neko, or beckoning cat believed to be a good luck charm, and a J-pop soundtrack reference Japanese culture. This space isn’t meant to be a splashy setting worthy of a lifestyle magazine spread. Food and social interaction is the draw.
The atmosphere on a preview night with friends, neighbors and service industry people was upbeat and celebratory. Guests seemed pleased to eat a tasty bowl of ramen. And that ramen. It’s going to sustain diners all winter that crave a soul-uplifting pick-me-up.
I ordered Shoyu, a dish that begins with chicken and dashi broth and is layered with braised Amish chicken, marinated farm egg, pickled shiitake, scallon and yuzukoshō. The latter is a Japanese seasoning made from yuzu peel, salt and chili pepper and used as a condiment. The citrus accent and mild bite of pepper from the seasoning and bright acidic nip of the shiitake’s pickling provided needed counterbalance to the rich, soothing broth. The ramen noodles and broth, studded with bits of chicken, pickled halves of egg and scallion, is sheer comfort food delivered in spoon-fed bites and slurps.
The menu offers four versions of ramen. Given the preparation of the ingredients and dishes, plus the tight confines of the kitchen, don’t expect an expanded or regularly rotating menu. Instead, visit regularly and explore the textures, flavors and careful balance that each type of ramen offers. I intend to return often.
Master distiller Tom Nichol arrived in Kansas City this week for the debut of his gin made in collaboration with J. Rieger & Co. The East Bottoms-based distillery, co-founded by Ryan Maybee and Andy Rieger and led by head distiller Nathan Perry, enlisted the services and expertise of Nichol, who retired from Tanqueray in July, earlier this year to develop its new gin.
Nichol, Perry, Maybee and Rieger joined about 50 professionals in the bartending industry at Republica on the Country Club Plaza for a gin tasting and industry launch party hosted by JP Gilmore of Vintegrity Wine.
Andy Rieger, Tom Nichol, Nathan Perry, and Ryan Maybee.
The botanical recipe for the gin is deceptively simple, using juniper, licorice root, orange peel, angelica root and coriander. The ingredients were sourced from Europe to obtain the finest quality at no small expense. That costly decision was a price to pay to attain the level of quality that Nichol and the team sought and achieved in the final result. They opted to not use exotic or local ingredients of lesser quality nor any crazy methods.
“It didn’t translate,” Maybee said. “We kept it practical so we could make the best possible gin.”
Nichol’s straightforward recipe resulted in a classic, moderately London dry style that began with a neutral wheat-based spirit. J. Rieger’s version differs from Tanqueray’s well-known gin and stands on its own merits. Nichol explained that he had to find a new balance for this gin that put light between the balance he had devised for Tanqueray.
“I’ve had a recipe in my head to make a great gin,” Nichol said. “It’s simple but a great gin. It takes months to get there. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
The gin has character by itself but enough structure and flexibility to allow creativity by bartenders crafting a gin and tonic, Campari or original cocktail recipe. Various drinks served at Republica for the industry event used garnishes of rosemary, flowers, and citrus separately, each lending an herbal, floral or acidic note to the aroma and taste of the drink. In short, the J. Rieger & Co. gin is both versatile and a classic that should stand the test of time as tastes and trends evolve and return to form.
Nichol, a native of Tullibody, Scotland, earnestly spoke in complimentary terms about the guys at J. Rieger and bartenders in the industry.
“Bartenders are my favorite people,” Nichol said. “You are my heroes.”
He also laced his comments with a few choice swear words in his brogue. Nichol admonished bartenders at large that don’t respect the integrity and hard work that goes into making a solid gin.
“What’s the point of me making it if a bartender’s going to fuck it up?” Nichol pronounced. “Shit bartenders aren’t worth a fuck.”
In other words, know your craft and respect the quality spirit being used.
Regarding Perry and his aptitude for learning, Nichol was quick to tell the audience, “Nathan is a master distiller. He reminds me of me when I was young. He sucks it all in.”
The gin joins its sister spirits vodka and whiskey from J. Rieger & Co. that have also had successful launches into the marketplace in Kansas City and elsewhere around the country. The gin is available at The Rieger, Republica and other select restaurants around town, area liquor stores including Underdog, and area Hy-Vee and Pricechopper stores.
I’m reading Conversations With M.F.K. Fisher, a compilation of profiles and interviews of the famous food writer, as a prelude to reading her work The Gastronomical Me. It’s been an eye-opener.
The writing style and voice of these profiles in the 1970s is quite different from today in some ways. The first six pieces in the book are pure hero worship from food writers tripping over adjectives to heap praise on their object of worship. M.F.K. was important as a food writer that happened to be a woman, especially in the context of her time. Still, I cannot believe the rampant brown-nosing by these writers that made it into print. It makes any modern media hero worship of chefs and food personalities like David Chang, Anthony Bourdain, Lidia Bastianich and Alton Brown pale in comparison.
Here are a few examples from James Villas’ “A Simple Country Lunch with M.F.K. Fisher” from 1978 that was published in his book, Villas at Table: a Passion for Food and Drink. The profile-interview begins with Villas spewing about 1,000 words to heap adoration on his subject, introducing her through physical description, setting the scene in her kitchen and citing her accomplishments.
We laughed at Mrs. Fisher while she strove to get her fill of caviar in The Gastronomical Me, but we shared her pain and heartbreak… We admired her brilliant translation of Brillat-Savarin’s La Physiologie de Goût, and how proud we all felt in the late sixties when this great American lady was chose to write The Cooking of Provincial France for the Time-Life series.
Villas’ prose reeks of soap opera narration. It includes the reader through the use of “we” even as he tells his audience how they should have felt or responded. It’s as though readers were physically by Fisher’s side and cheering her on as she accomplished each literary feat. It’s a transparent literary device that writers still use today to craft an accessible (or inaccessible in some cases, thereby elevating the writer’s status for having access) image about celebrities in order to create this false sense of closeness between the reader and subject. Yet coming from Villas, the passage above reads more like his voice making grand declarations on his behalf and, by the way, don’t you agree? Yes, we certainly must.
Villas puts Fisher on a pedestal. He extends a hand to readers in order to lift them up so that they may also see the view and behold the wonder that is M.F.K. Fisher. Later in the piece, Villas writes about the lunch he had with Fisher.
And the lunch? Oh, nothing really fancy: a few large Mexican prawns marinated in oyster sauce, baked quickly and served on a bed of duxelles; sliced plum tomatoes and zucchini topped with mild chilies; fresh sourdough bread with individual crocks of the sweetest butter; baked pears with fresh cream; and a carafe of Chablis from a local winery. No, nothing fancy, just one of the best-prepared and most-memorable meals of my life.
This paragraph is humble bragging years before the term was invented. Simply listing the dishes in the meal would suffice to paint a picture for the reader. This list as device is still used today. I do it from time to time. Villas’ commentary to downplay the “nothing fancy” meal while praising it inserts him firmly as a character in this piece, even as he brags with a “no big deal, just eating a modest meal with M.F.K.” vibe.
This sort of hero worship reminds me of the bubble of praise, respect and adoration that surrounds Ferran Adrià. He visited Kansas City in March 2015 as part of a promotional tour for his exhibit Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity that was on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art through August 2. While I’m no expert on the man by any means, it seemed that Adrià navigated the food celebrity attached to him by focusing on delivering his ideas through food, art, teaching and conversation. He was patient with people and gracious with his time, but spent his time being in the moment while also pursuing his interests and goals. Celebrity was and is more external than self-generated and perpetuated for him, based on limited observation.
It’s easy to understand why writers, foodies and professionals in KC’s culinary industry were excited by Adrià’s presence and thrilled to have access to him albeit brief. Some writing spawned from his visit bordered on fawning that was reminiscent of Villas blubbering about Fisher. I attempted to write my article about Adrià’s visit by acknowledging the set-up – a handful of people joined Adrià on a half-day “foraging” tour of Kansas City – without overtly inserting myself in the story.
I’m not trying to humble brag here myself but merely discuss the decisions a writer makes when telling a story. My implicit presence is established up front in the Adrià article. It takes a tiny bit of skill and forethought to use this approach, one that I prefer to do in most cases. This approach doesn’t position the writer between the subject and the reader in the way that Villas does in his piece, as I’ll demonstrate soon.
Implicitly establishing the writer as a background presence in the story runs counter to Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo style of inserting the reporter into the story. With this style, the reporter casts himself or herself as a character in the story and interacts with the subject(s). The reporter’s presence and voice is explicit and subjective rather than a more detached attempt at objective reporting. No reporting is completely subjective, by the way. I’ve used this approach at times but selectively so.
In the case of Villas’ article, the article’s title implies that he is lunching with M.F.K. He is a presence and observer describing the subject, scene and action for the reader. Rather than keeping his subject in the forefront, Villas intrudes as a writer by praising Fisher while using an inclusive “we” before he ventures into the meal itself and inserts his personal take on it.
No, nothing fancy, just one of the best-prepared and most-memorable meals of my life.
That statement is about Villas and shifts the focus away from Fisher. That’s distracting and uninteresting to read about how much the experience impacted the writer. I want to hear about the experience and the subject. Once the interview commences in question-and-answer format, Villas takes consistent opportunities to insert his musings and opinions into the exchange. Again, this distracts from the flow of conversation and yanks the focus away from the subject, the person that is notable enough to write about in the first place.
In television or cinema, this would be akin to breaking the fourth wall where the protagonist diverts from the scene to address the audience. When executed well, the device can have great impact and draw the reader into the story and build a relationship with the viewer. The asides of Villas, when thrust between the responses of Fisher, feel awkward and clumsy. For example, one exchange follows:
Villas: Your book A Considerable Town revolves around Marseille. Where in the world would you most like to be living now? Is it here in Sonoma?
M.F.K.F. No. If I were able I’d like to live in Aix-en-Provence, which is near Marseille. I first went there in 1929 and have loved it ever since, most likely because it is so close to that dirty, mysterious port town. I wrote a book on Marseille in an attempt to explain to myself this inordinate attraction I’ve always had to the place.
[Suddenly M.F.K. Fisher’s blue eyes became fixed on the flames quietly lapping the small logs in the fireplace, and I tried to imagine to just what point in the far distant past my question had forced her to retreat momentarily. Perhaps she was thinking about the time she, Al, and her sister Norah (who now lives down the road and is still one of her closest companions) sat in a small restaurant overlooking the Old Port in Marseille, played an accordion, and shared a steaming bouillabaisse. Or maybe the vision went back further, to the whorehouse in Marseille where she and Al innocently booked a room and spent the evening eating fresh cherries. Or, who knows, she could have been remembering the old butcher, Cesar, whom every woman in town thought to be the devil himself but who once prepared the best steak she’d ever eaten.]
Villas performs the nifty trick of packaging three abbreviated anecdotes about Fisher into his aside that runs more than twice as long as Fisher’s original response. Now, any or all of those anecdotes conveyed directly by Fisher or recounted with the writer’s less explicit presence and musing would be more interesting than this delivery.
Again, Villas thrusts himself into the Q&A as he shifts focus away from Fisher “…and I tried to imagine…”
Then, he exerts literary license and his omnipotent choice of words to ponder (or assert?) how his question “…had forced her to retreat momentarily.”
Wow. The swagger and pretentiousness of Villas can’t be ignored here. Further, rather than ask what was on Fisher’s mind as her blue eyes watched the fire, and in doing so keeping the focus on the subject, Villas strings together a series of self-indulgent musings. He conveys tidbits of detail about Fisher but within the framework of “forcing” her to reflect in response to his question and then indulging in a romp across her mental landscape with his own fanciful imaginings.
It’s flabbergasting. Villas continues to use this technique of inserting his asides into the Q&A, one of the most basic and naked forms of reporting where the subject’s voice is prominent and clear using their own words. Villas undermines the exchange.
He added a postscript to the interview and his closing remarks, stating how proud he was of the profile particularly since it was the first interview she granted in many years. I’d be curious to hear Fisher’s thoughts on the result of Villas’ published piece. I can only imagine in my humble opinion [insert sarcasm here] that maybe there was a reason why she granted so few interviews at this stage of her life and career.
I don’t see many examples of modern writing that emulates what Villas did in this piece, thankfully so. Reading several articles from nearly 40 years ago in this book has been instructive on what passed for food-related reporting in another era. Even though I’ve been writing professionally for 15 years, I still have plenty to learn and refine as my talented editors demonstrate when they tweak my articles. It’s helpful to see how writing from the past and present is crafted and published as a tool for me to help improve my own work.
For another writer’s take on M.F.K. Fisher and her impact on modern food writing, read Josh Ozersky’s “Consider the Food Writer.” Here’s a sample:
Whether you enjoy her work or not, there is no doubt that she more or less invented first-person food writing as we know it today. Fisher swept away the bombast and pomposity of nineteenth-century epicurean food writing, a decadent, rotting edifice already crumbling under its own weight. She had what few writers have, a distinctive style, and like her contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, whom she in many ways resembled (though not physically), it was as much a moral as a literary one. Her writing is wise, in a superficial way, but not especially reflective; for that reason, she is at her best when generating brief, self-contained observations.
The vibrant color of produce in the fall excites me more than the changing color of leaves. Late summer produce arrives with a flashy array of purples, reds, golden yellows, oranges, chartreuse and deep greens. This week’s haul from the City Market included choices driven by color as much as the week’s menu of meals in my head.
Purple and green snow peas (pictured above) will be julienne-cut. The skins of the whole peas are a bit too tough and bitter to eat raw. I’ll stir-fry the batch with onion and yellow bell pepper.
I couldn’t resist buying late-season tomatoes since they were farm-grown. The farmers always have a few tomatoes sliced into chunks with a bowl of toothpicks nearby, waiting to tempt passersby. I’m a sucker for sampling every time. Those flavor-filled tomatoes will disappear for good in a week or two. I bought a small basket of the beefy, Rubenesque red beauties for BLT sandwiches.
Orange-yellow squash blossoms were abundant. I didn’t buy any but admired their appearance, a market item that only shows up for a brief time before October frost brings down the curtain. These frilly flowers remind me of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings of women in dresses and dance hall attire at the cabaret and ballet, such as Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in “Chilpéric” or The clownesse Cha-U-Kao at the Moulin Rouge.
These purple hull beans will be steamed and shucked. I’ll toss the beans with smoked sea salt and nosh away.
While I didn’t buy any, I was pleased to see whole fresh ginger with the stems and leaves still attached. Chef Renee Kelly of Renee Kelly’s Harvest writes about her source for fresh whole ginger and how she uses it in The Star’s food blog. Asian farm vendors at the City Market carry this tender young ginger. I can’t wait to buy some next week and cook the roots, stems and even palm leaves that have a faint ginger flavor.
Even though the mustard greens (below) had many tiny pock-marked leaves from insects, I still bought a bunch for a mere $2. The Swiss cheese appearance doesn’t impact the flavor, a mild bitterness overshadowed by a slowly building wasabi-like peppery bite. The imperfections of the leaves only made them look more interesting to me. I’ll steam them and eat them on the side with rice and other dishes like stir-fried shrimp that will counterbalance the heat with sweetness.
These baby bok choy (above) will be lightly stir-fried in sesame oil and oyster sauce. A splash of prik nam som, a condiment with vinegar, garlic, sugar and chilies, adds some acidity to brighten up the flavor.
I’ll use the Thai bird chilies below to make a batch of prik nam som and nam pla prik, a condiment made of fish sauce, lime juice, chilies, garlic and shallot.
I spotted a nifty pepper-roasting operation at the market. The aroma made me hungry for chili. The final photo below of colorful bell peppers made me want to buy an entire batch but I couldn’t use that many right now. They’d be perfect in a raw salad, stir-fry, succotash or even a ratatouille.
I can’t wait to see what next week’s market brings, knowing that the variety and abundance of color will soon be reduced to pumpkins, gourds, potatoes and apples.