Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Beauty Queen

I found out about The Flying Fishbone through Chowhound, an often reliable source of information for foodie travelers.  The reviews were mixed.  Almost everyone raved about how breathtaking the restaurant was, but only a few people raved about the food.  

It doesn't really matter.  My family isn't intrepid enough to make the trek into the small Aruban towns that house actual Arubans so we're never going to have the 'authentic' experience.  So we'll take the best tourist trap we can get. 

The thing about The Flying Fishbone is that it really is breathtaking.  Located in Savaneta, a town 30 minutes from the high rises of Palm Beach, the restaurant does require the get-up-and-go mentality that some people lack on vacation.  That's a plus.  

Also a plus: the restaurant is housed in what looks like an old hacienda, an open wooden building with indoor gardens that stretches onto a private beach.  There are a few tables inside for those worried about the weather (it was raining when we arrived but stopped shortly thereafter) and the remainder of the tables are on sand, sloping down to the water.  When the tide is high eaters at the deuces on the shoreline can dangle their toes in the water. 

Short, stocky palm trees are lit with Christmas lights and each table has its own iron lantern.   I have never eaten in the sand before and loved being able to dig my toes in while eating. 

Now for the bad news.  The Flying Fishbone's menu reaches too far.  Why feature a full page of cold appetizers (salmon and scallop tartare, smoked duck breast salad, etc.) alongside a full page of hot appetizers?  I will admit that my veal sweetbread salad was delicious--fried sweetbreads over romaine with a perfect eggplant caponata on the side.  But sweetbreads, and foie gras, another offered hot appetizer, don't have much of a place in the Caribbean.  And that foie appetizer, by the way, packed a hefty punch to the wallet at $29.50 a plate.  

My entree, which should have been more successful, fared poorly.  Sea scallops were rubbery and overdone and swimming in a squid ink sauce that literally turned my teeth black.  My brother's $40 veal chop was also overcooked and he had such a depressing experience that when dessert was offered he begged my mother to ask for the check. 

The menu focused more on land than sea.  The only catch of the day was grouper, pan-seared and served over mashed potatoes, of all things.  The serving was enormous and virtually unidentifiable as grouper.  I was not impressed. 

The wine list, however, unlike most threadbare Caribbean versions, had many, many drinkable options for even the most frugal oenophiles.  For us, it was a 2006 La Crema pinot noir from the Sonoma Coast.  For those unaware, I have a secret crush on California pinot noir, with its lush, supple fruit and woody finish.  If you're going to drink New World wine, it might as well be California pinot.  

I wouldn't send anyone to the Fishbone, which is regrettable, because it really is so beautiful.  But their prices aren't worth the hike or the hype, and even though the majestic seascape is captivating, it doesn't make up for a less-than-captivating meal. 

The Flying Fishbone
Savaneta 344
Savaneta, Aruba

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

It Ain't Easy Being Tan

Here's a formidable challenge: just try and find a reputable dining establishment in the Caribbean in the heart of tourist season that hasn't already been inhabited by Jewish tourists making their annual diaspora away from the nativity scenes of the northeast.  Seriously.  I dare you.  I swear, there isn't a spot on this whole island that hasn't already been "found" by my Long Island brothas and sistas.  

It's an uphill battle.  I'm never going to find the restaurant frequented by natives where you have to order off the menu in Papiamento.  I might as well give up the ghost.

In the meantime, a girl has to eat.  Especially this girl.  Like, constantly.  Research brought me to Driftwood for a more-than-decent meal last night.  Here's what I liked about Driftwood: the owner/primary fisherman bases the menu on whatever he finds at sea that day (last night it was wahoo); the dining room is an overtly kitschy throwback to bad 70s cruises, replete with a bar made entirely of--you guessed it!--driftwood; they serve passable white sangria that they garnish with fresh watermelon and I'm so crazy about watermelon I will pretty much eat/drink anything remotely associated with it.  Here's what I didn't like: the menu, aside from its focus on fresh (and local... yay!) fish, was pretty pedestrian.  Could I get a crab cake anywhere?  Probably.  Would it be as delicious, with its serrano pepper-laced filling and its sweet sauce?  Probably not.  Could I get shrimp scampi anywhere?  I'm sure the Olive Garden sells it.  Would the shrimp have been as large, lovely, and succulent as they were swimming in my linguine and olive oil?  You get the picture. 

Honestly, the food was good and the kitsch was appreciated by those of us, ahem, who seriously needed a respite from the seriousness of serious New York dining rooms.  I can't help but think, though, that was really in short supply was originality of preparation. 

By now, you're probably thinking: this girl eats everywhere--can't she just be satisfied with shrimp that just came out of the ocean, even if it's arriving at her plate Olive Garden-style? Well, no.  I can't.  It's just who I am.  If I stopped looking for culinary perfection, what on earth would I have to look forward to?  

Klipstraat 12 
Oranjestad, Aruba

Monday, December 29, 2008

On The Waterfront

I don't spend a lot of time discussing the aesthetics of restaurants because, frankly, the aesthetics don't matter all that much to me.  I appreciate a beautiful room as much as the next person, but the true measure of a dining experience (for me, anyway) lies in the food. 

That being said, I had a dining experience last night where the ambience seriously contributed to the overall quality of the meal.  We ate at Pinchos Grill and Bar, a local Aruban restaurant out on a pier literally over the water.  And talk about weather-dependent.  This particular spot had no provision for rain, so when the downpour hit approximately 20 minutes before my party of four arrived, waiters were sent scurrying with towels and fresh table settings.  I anticipated a legitimate catastrophe when raindrops started to fall mid-meal, but, luckily, said rain disappeared into the passed Caribbean sunset. 

The food at Pincho's was simple.  I had a cucumber salad dressed with soy sauce, sesame oil, and sesame seeds followed by skewered shrimp with a mango dipping sauce.  Dessert was a large slice of 'banana split cake,' which tasted more like a sublime and chocolate-frosted slice of banana bread. 

Yes, the champagne mojito was good and the food, overall, tasty, but what left the greatest impression were the swings that served as seats alongside the circular bar, the blue lights underneath the dock that lit the evening plankton, the glowing walk down the pier onto a dining room suspended over water.  I would go again just for that feeling of eating on top of the sea, minus the motion sickness.  

I should add a caveat: I would go again, if I ever made it back to Aruba.  

Pinchos Grill and Bar
L.G. Smith Boulevard 7 at Aruba Surfside Marina
St. Cruz, Aruba

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Arubian Nights

One would think that the Caribbean would be rife with fresh seafood for immediate consumption.  Well, that might be the case if you aren't a tourist.  But for the hundreds of thousands who fly south from bitter winters, seafood is alarmingly scarce.  

Take last night, for example.  We came in late and my mother is not a planner.  We ended up, therefore, at the hotel's 'formal' restaurant, The Sunset Grille.  It was a steak house.  Seriously. 

The menu promised fresh seafood selections, but from what I could tell, almost none of those selections came from local waters.  There was Chilean Sea Bass (question: isn't this endangered?), cold-water lobster tail (I could definitely get better back in New England), diver sea scallops, and Maryland crab.  The only identifiably local fish was red snapper.  Where was the mahi mahi and the grouper?  

My appetizer, tuna tataki with seaweed salad, could have come from any state on the eastern seaboard.  The tuna was good, but I had to wonder about its provenance.  Another appetizer we shared consisted of a decent crabcake and an overcooked pair of seared diver scallops accompanied by two sliced apples.  Apples, the quintessential cold weather fruit of the north.  Nothing about the dish reminded me of how warm it was outside. 

Main courses leaned towards land rather than sea.  My brother and I shared a bone-in rib eye and lamb chops that were cooked past medium and underseasoned.  Asparagus came steamed to a pale, lifeless green and our dessert, touted as a coconut chocolate souflee, and which I ordered because it sounded particularly island-y, was actually the anemic cousin of Jean-Georges' molten chocolate cake.  

The best part of our meal, by far, was the 2003 Tinto Pesquera 'Crianza' Ribera del Duero, which, at $55, spared our pockets when our steaks did not.  I couldn't help but wonder at meal's end where the Aruba had been during our Aruban meal.  

Sunset Grille Seafood and Chops
Radisson Aruba Resort
J.E. Irausquin Boulevard 81
Palm Beach, Aruba

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Winter Storage

I've noticed, during my short stay up north, that the diets of my northern friends pale in comparison to my own diet. Literally.

Up here, beige carbohydrates, beige fried chicken cutlets, and other beige delicacies constitute a solid New England diet. Italian restaurants, sub shops, and pizza joints run rampant. Back in New York, we're overrun with protein and vegetables. Aside from my insidious pizza adventures in the City, I couldn't tell you the last time I sat down to a carb-based meal.

People up here walk less; they just don't have to spend as much time on the pavement as New Yorkers do. The weather is colder and they turn to satisfying, high-fat, low-protein meals. The population at large is heavier and less fit. Could New Yorkers, with their home-cooking anemia, be the model for a healthier America?

Possibly. These days, New York is the hotbed of the local food movement, which is ironic given how many small town dwellers coexist with farmers and still buy their food from large chains that source produce from California and Mexico. Nutritionists say that a healthy plate is a colorful plate, but most New Englanders, despite their access to all kinds of colorful foods, fall back on the beiges of fried fish and potatoes and pasta and the other devils of the food pyramid.

So New Englanders, take note: throw out the fryer and the ecru dining palette. Your body and farmers will thank you.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas In Whoville

Lucky me. On a trip to a friend's farm--Hurricane Farm of Scotland, Connecticut--in October I learned that pigs would led to slaughter near Christmas. Pinky, one of the two fine specimens, would become the centerpiece of my Christmas dinner.

I've never cooked a fresh ham before. Research revealed an optimal internal temperature for a fresh ham at 160 degrees. An Emeril Lagasse recipe suggested a slow roast (325) for two to two and a half hours.

I scored the skin, gave the ham a dry rub, stuck cloves in the scores, packed dark brown sugar all over, and filled the roasting pan with a few cups' worth of Dr. Pepper and Buffalo Trace bourbon. But after two hours, my piggy was at a paltry 120 degrees. It took over three hours for the ham to reach 150; I figured the carry over cooking would bring me to 160.

The ham was dry. Don't get me wrong: the flavor of the pig was truly unparalleled. Unlike cured hams, Pinky was not aggressively salty. The meat was tender and rich and, well, porky. I made a sauce from the jus and cola/bourbon blend, separated in a gravy separator and that hydrated the meat well enough. But I can't figure out what exactly went wrong. It is possible that our oven decreased in temp mid-roast, which it sometimes does and which might be the cause of uneven results.

With Pinky, I served sugar snap peas sauteed in olive oil with lemon and mint, a gruyere/cheddar macaroni and cheese, and homemade butterscotch pudding with bourbon whipped cream. And by homemade, I mean homemade; I made my own butterscotch before mixing it with my puddibg base. Cocktails consisted of my own hot buttered rum (thanks to Caneel Bay for the rum) and the 2002 Flowers 'Andreen-Gale' chardonnay from Sonoma. The pig may have been a little dry, but we finished all six pounds of it. Even my grandmother, who has never before sampled ham, determined that mine was delicious.

I will buy from Hurricane Farm again, but next time I'll research my recipe more thoroughly. For those in the Connecticut area looking for local farm goods, Hurricane sells eggs, maple syrup, turkeys, ducks, and, of course, country hams.

Hurricane Farm
65 Kasacek Road
Scotland, CT 02647

Thursday, December 25, 2008


Unlike most practicing Jews, I don't spend Christmas Eve holed up in a Chinese restaurant. Usually, my plans involve peppermint schnapps and Bud Light with my old clique.

Change of plans.

I ended up at the house of a family friend last night for their annual turducken. For those unaware, turducken is a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey. Layers are separated by cornbread stuffing and the Frankenbird commands a hefty fee of over $100.

Was it worth it? The turkey part was good, kept moist by the fat from the duck. Fine. The only thing that distinguished this bird, however, from its brethren, was the color of the meat: three varying shades of beige.
The final result of turducken, I think, is a product that tastes nothing like the sum of its parts. Why eat a duck stuffed inside a turkey? The best parts of the duck--crispy skin, tender breast--are masked by the pedestrian stuffing and the ordinary tastes of the other meats.

Why eat a chicken that doesn't taste like chicken, or a turkey that doesn't taste like a turkey? Turducken is the antithesis to my feelings about land and agriculture and the importance of knowing the genesis of food. Simple, quality food prepared simply turducken simply is not.

Next year, perhaps I'll try my hand at Christmas goose.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mama Celeste Does It Best?

I'm a New Yorker, so pizza is really important to me. I consider it a cornerstone of my diet and I really don't want to spend time thinking about how unhealthy that probably is.

Then again, if you run like I do it's okay to crave carbohydrates and pizza is the ultimate cross-food-group carbohydrate, including dairy (most of the time), vegetables (some of the time), and meat (in my case, almost none of the time). In my estimation, there are few more complete meals on the planet.

You're probably thinking that I'm some kind of pizza snob who turns her nose up at anything non-New York. Au contraire. Actually, my dirty little secret is that I will eat any kind of slice you shove in front of me.

Stouffer's French Bread pizza? Check. Papa Gino's soggy-crusted monstrosity? Double check. English muffin pizzas made in my substandard kitchen, the result of debilitating hunger and absolute poverty? Well, you get the picture.

One of my favorite slices (ok, let's get real; when I order this baby, I eat the whole pie) comes from a dive in my hometown, The Park Lunch, whose BLT I described ad nauseum about a month ago. I know their pizzas are frozen; they have the same anemic crust those Mama Celeste single-servings I used to eat have. But their oven must be really hot because the pizza is always crispy and dripping with cheese.

Dried flakes of oregano are no sophisticated touch, but I like them. Fresh mushrooms and other veggies make me feel like a healthier person, although I'll admit that I'm totally a sucker for canned mushrooms on pizza. Call it a shortcoming.

With my friend's help last night, I polished off a pie in record time. But I did a long, snowy afternoon run, trekking through almost nine miles of slushy terrain. And so I believe, as I always have, that the best restorative soul food is a fine little re-heated pizza that wouldn't hold a candle to a New York eatery and that I love all the same.

Park Lunch
181 Merrimac Street
Newburyport, MA 01950

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Rule Number One during a recession: find your friends. A free glass of wine is still a free glass of wine. The friend factor--in this case a bartender--is what brought me to Solex last night, a French wine bar owned and operated by the same cats who run the popular Italian wine bar Bar Veloce (actually, there are three of them) and Veloce's Castillian cousin, Bar Carrera.

I had been to Solex over a year ago, right around the time that it opened. Back then, it had a full menu not dissimilar from the one at Daniel Boulud's uptown Lyonnaise bistro Bar Boulud. One could expect good charcuterie, country pate, boudin, etc. Solex, like so many other New York restaurants, has readjusted to meet the demands of dire times. No more pricey pate; instead, the menu consists mostly of "pizzetes," thin and crispy pizzas served in two sizes that arrives with a lightly dressed arugula salad.

I will say this: my pizza was sublime, crispy, and not at all overrun by the black olives, salami, gruyere, or plum tomato that topped it. A 500 degree pizza oven at the restaurant's rear ensures black bubbles on your fresh crust. The pizza was also small. And we had a large. The pizza, all $12 of it (still cheap by city standards, mind you) was gone in just a few minutes. I could have eaten another but dedicated the day's calories, instead, to rustic country bread and more than one, ahem, class of Cote de Provence. Provincial French wine is perfect for cold weather: earthy, tannic, and true to the land. My wine was a meaty blend of grenache, carignan, and mourvedre.

Like the pizzettes, the wines at Solex are affordable, running between $8 and $12 a glass, nothing to scoff at when your wallet's noticeably skinnier, even if you aren't. And if you're fortunate enough to become a friend of the Solex staff, they'll let you play pool on the table in the hip, graffitied back room amidst the prep cooks.

103 1st Avenue
New York, NY 10003

Monday, December 22, 2008

Latke Vs. Latke

To celebrate the so-called Festival of Lights, I took a trip to Stamford, CT, where my aunt promised Jewish vittles. For the sake of our respective places in heaven, I'll ignore the fact that she served shrimp cocktail (gasp!) alongside a giant cheese board (double gasp!) and latkes with sour cream alongside brisket and turkey. You can't win them all.

This year, my aunt embarked on project "no frying pan," meaning she was going to attempt to replicate the crispiness of the traditional holiday latke without using a skillet. Instead, she took baking sheets and covered them with vegetable oil, cooked those lovely pankakes on one side at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, flipped them, gave them another 10 in the oven, and served them hot.

The key to good latkes, I learned from my father, is the squeezing. The potatoes and onions, which are grated together in one unruly mess before the egg-ing/seasoning/frying begins, must be as dry as is humanly possible. The drier the latke batter, the browner the latke, or so I've been told. My aunt's experiment proved successful; our latkes were brown and crispy on the outside and pliant within.

Today, I found myself in midtown for lunch. I'll skip the brutal details, including the many tourists I dodged through homicidal thoughts, the mayhem that is Rockefeller Center, and the congestion of Fifth Avenue.

I will mention, however, that I was taken to Carnegie Deli to eat, a stunt I haven't attempted since my childhood, when my grandmother took me whenever we came into the City to see a show. Pickles still get an enthusiastic thumbs-up (I prefer the half-sours), and the chicken soup was good, if undersalted and a disquieting shade of yellow. Matzo balls were fluffy but ill-flavored; they didn't hit me over the head with schmalz (for all the non-Jews out there, that means rendered chicken fat) and they weren't particularly well-seasoned. Then again, they didn't stick in my throat like some matzo balls do. I will not name names.

But my main point of comparison dining was the latkes, which arrived a little too light and a little too large. They were breakfast pancake-sized and when it comes to latkes I am a purist. Give me tiny pancakes that I can eat six or seven of, not one giant potato pancake that dominates my plate. These latkes, which Carnegie calls famous, were under-crisped and under squeezed. Enthusiastic thumbs-down.

Here's a few other things about Carnegie that drove me absolutely insane: they don't accept credit cards; they require a $12.50 per person minimum and only allow you to share their enormous sandwiches for an additional fee of $3; they sell latkes for $15 a plate; their servers are rude and angry; the food arrives whenever they feel like sending it out. In times of economic crisis, I understand minimums. I understand wanting a guest to spend at least enough money so that the gratuity covers the server's subway ride to work. I do not, however, understand why I would want to pay so much for so much excess. The food is indulgent enough. I don't need more of it. And gruff service doesn't get you anywhere these days. For the same amount of calories, I could have been sitting at Burger Joint in the Parker Meridien having a much better--and cheaper--meal.

I'm done with the New York deli scene. Sorry, Grandma. I hope you can forgive me but on Jew food, my aunt takes the cake. And while Carnegie Deli may be a "New York institution," it really needs to clean up its act.

Carnegie Deli
854 7th Avenue
New York, NY 10019

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hungry Heart

I could tell you about the mediocre dinner I had in the east village last night after an early evening showing of Milk. I could tell you how two of my favorite restaurants, Terroir and The Redhead, claimed to have hour-long waits, forcing me into a cozy-but-slightly-terrible French Bistro on Avenue A.

But you don't really hear about my perfectly decent shell steak and frites.

Actually, going to see Milk was the perfect segue way to the holiday season. Sometimes I think of the things I see in this world and I lose hope for humanity. Someone in my building stole a tip I left for my New York Times delivery person; seven days a week, 365 days a year, he or she gets up hours before I do to deliver my paper. And the money I left, in a Christmas card taped in the alcove of my own building, had been stolen before morning.

But Milk cast a new light on people and priorities. It was a movie of phoenixes rising from the ashes, of hope born from desperation. I watched old news reels of marches and rallies, where tens of thousands of people galvanized a movement that would challenge the way humans treated other humans. What a sight it was.

Which got me thinking. These are desperate times, perhaps just as desperate for us everyday Americans as they were for a terrorized and demonized Harvey Milk in 1978. Every day another one of my middle class friends loses his or her job. Every day another one of my comfortable friends tries to figure out how on earth he or she will keep the apartment, pay the bills, put food on the table.

New Yorkers have always had to live with the homeless. We see destitution and loss on our trains and on our streets and we turn our heads to the newspaper or walk past without filling outstretched cups. We can't be blamed; it's just what we do. Filling every cup would render us broke. A dollar for every homeless person would leave no dollars for us.

But I've heard a different sentiment expressed lately. People are still dining out, but tipping less. People are using a damaged economy to avoid tipping civic employees, or their delivery people, or their building's supervisor, or their waitress. The indulgences we cut back on, apparently, amid a perfect storm are the indulgences that only affect other people.

Last week, reported that the New York City Food Bank has received fewer donations this year, which means less food to distribute to New York's growing homeless. Other charities have suffered as well. In a struggling economy, even as we work towards our own financial stability, it is still our responsibility--perhaps now more than ever--to give what we can to help others.

I donated between $10 and $20 to a few different charities. It isn't much, but maybe a donation like that has the same weight as, say, a cast ballot. By now, I think we all know that every vote counts. After all, I spend most of my time thinking about and nurturing my stomach and its complicated desires. I am fortunate. I am warm in winter, I am cared for, I am well-fed beyond measure. I don't deserve even half of what I was born into. Like Harvey Milk, I wish a better world for all of my fellow Americans. I wish for a perfectly roasted heritage chicken in every pot.


Food Bank for New York City
39 Broadway
New York, NY 10006

New York Cares, Coat Drive
214 W. 29th Street, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10001

New York Times Neediest Cases Fund
4 Chase Metrotech Center, 7th Floor East, Lockbock 5193
Brooklyn, NY 11245

City Harvest
575 8th Avenue, 4th Floor
New York, NY 10018

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What A Long, Snowy Trip Its Been

I will never understand the anxiety of a forthcoming storm. Does three inches of snow and sleet really require the suspension of alternate side of the street parking, plows and salt trucks before a flake has fallen, and more than one of those infinitely annoying broadcasts: "we interrupt this program to bring you this special weather report"?

No. Get real. Snow in New York is rare and never as severe as predicted. If my front wheel drive Volkswagen can get over the snowbanks, so can a few paranoid New Yorkers.

The flurries didn't stop the hipsters from hitting Bedford Street in Williamsburg. Until about eleven, the streets were packed with people smoking cigarettes and leaning up against things and wearing tight clothes and ridiculous heeled shoes, despite street conditions. That must have been the witching hour, because after eleven, desolation set in. Even the cafes closed early. Finding a cab was purely up to providence.

I went out to Williamsburg for a birthday party buyout at Egg, a spot off Bedford known for their stellar breakfasts. Totally a cult Billyburg place, but the all-you-can-eat menu of southern snacks sounded appealing enough. I waited for an hour at the Bedford Street "mall," since a fire on the L train delayed my friend, who had to get a cab from Union Square at rush hour, no small feat. A fire in a snowstorm. Only in New York.

By the time we got to Egg, it was already packed. We shelled out our 30 bucks and hit the buffet. Fried chicken was perfect. Perfect. I'm not usually a dark meat girl, but I went straight for the thighs. Juicy meat, very crispy exterior. A fresh batch of macaroni and cheese came from the kitchen right after we got there. That was top-notch, too. Sharp cheese, very creamy, nice breadcrumb topping. I would have added black pepper had I seen any, but there was only hot sauce. Hot sauce it was.

Cornbread and biscuits were both on the dry side; a bite of each and I decided to skip the cards. Collard greens aren't really my thing, but my friend declared them wonderful.

The gaping hole was dessert. I was hoping for banana pudding, or at least a cupcake. Alas. No sweets. That sent us on a goosechase down Bedford, where the last available cafe, Verb Cafe--"We're closing in ten minutes," the not-so-friendly barista informed me--showcased some tired looking cookies and pies behind glass. It would have to do. A slice of apple crumb pie for my friend ("It would be better hot") and a chocolate chip brownie for me and it was back to the BQE and that other distant borough.

135 N. 5th Street
Williamsburg, NY 11211

Verb Cafe
218 Bedford Avenue
Williamsburg, NY 11211

Friday, December 19, 2008

Oh, How I've Missed You

My dearest Hagi.

That's right. I finally made it back.

Once our pitcher of Sapporo had arrived safely, my friend and I took turns shouting suggestions at one another.

"Calf liver sashimi?" I asked.

"I had it earlier this week," she told me. "It's disgusting."

Hagi is subterranean, inviting, low-ceilinged, bamboo-heavy, and warm. The service is rushed and you can never get much of an answer from the waitstaff. And no, they don't bring you water unless you ask for it. But who cares? The food is so incredibly good and cheap that it would be hard to leave disappointed.

Our neighbors ordered the liver sashimi. It did look kind of disgusting.

As for us, we started with a pickled radish special (3 bucks--beat that!), yellowtail sashimi (much better than Astoria version I had earlier in the week), and beef short ribs. The short ribs are not what I had expected. For one, they aren't slow-cooked. They arrive, seven or so to a plate, as small cuts of steak--in flavor, closely resembling a rib eye--on the bone. You have to pick them up and chew the meat, which is rich and flavorful and accented by the soy sauce and wasabi that comes on the side.

Round two: vegetable tempura, fermented soybean wrapped in fried tofu, and fried chicken. The vegetables were, specifically, shitake mushrooms, long thick spears of asparagus, and onion that reminded me of the famous Outback bloomin' onion. In a good way. Vegetable tempura might seem a bit pedestrian, but this version was balanced and tasty. For dipping, ponzu with fresh minced ginger.

The fermented soybean wasn't my favorite, possibly because it came swathed in bonito flakes, which kind of freak me out. First of all, I don't like the fact that the flakes move as if they're alive when they hit something hot; it's gross. Second of all, bonito comes from the shaving of petrified skipjack tuna over a mandoline. The fish, when fermented, is black and rock hard, kind of like amber. I can get past it in dashi, the famous Japanese broth for which bonito is also used. But thinking about old fish shavings on top of my old soy beans is a little too much to handle. I'm just saying.

I wasn't in a noodle mood, which was why I passed up my favorite Hagi dish, the udon hot pot. The fried chicken was a fine replacement. In this particular situation, Japan has the deep south beat. These are glorified white and dark meat chicken nuggets, almost the size of a fist. They are crunchy, gingery, umami-tastic.

Fearful Americans, be not afraid: Hagi provides full color photographs of most of their dishes, so you know exactly what chicken gizzards on garlic sprouts, or octopus balls, or spaghetti with cod roe and ketchup (my friend, who is half-Japanese, swears this is a traditional Japanese dish) look like before you order.

Those pictures will also help you identify the wildly popular--and incredibly potent, at 19 percent alcohol--sake-in-a-can, which should come at the end of every superior dining experience.

152 W. 49th Street
New York, NY 10019

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Casablanca, Astoria

Had I not run eight miles yesterday afternoon, I probably would have passed on the merguez sausage. I try not to make sausage a part of my everyday dining diet. But those eight miles burned a hole in my stomach the size of Morocco so I headed a few blocks past my apartment for possibly the best sandwich has to offer.

Merguez, for those unaware, is a spicy lamb-based sausage. Origin, Morocco. The spot I visited, which was also visited last year by intrepid borough hounds from the New York Times, is called Little Morocco and serves far more than the hailed merguez sandwich.

The glass case near the register boasts different types of meat, some on skewers and some not. Chicken, pork, and lamb skewers are all marinated and waiting. Organ meat--liver, heart, kidneys--is available, grilled, for the more adventurous eater. Tiny lamb chops (next time, next time) look more than inviting on a large platter on the case's top shelf. Red merguez sausages crowd an adjacent plate.

Order a sandwich or plate at Little Morocco and you'll have to wait about five minutes while they cook your meat to order. I stood and watched the sandwich guy negotiate several orders of merguez over a large grill behind the glass case. When the sausages have the requisite grill marks, they'll end up in a hero roll with chopped onions, lettuce, and hot sauce. The hot sauce is hot, but not unbearable. Don't skip it.

The sandwich, sliced in two, is wrapped in wax paper and foil and stays warm for a good ten minutes. Everything about this sandwich is perfect, right down to the hot sauce. The meat isn't mealy, as merguez sometimes is. The vegetables are crunchy. The roll is fresh. The sauce makes my nose run.

I'm not sure I even stopped to breathe between bites. It was that good. Maybe next time I'll try the grilled kidneys.

Little Morocco
24-39 Steinway Street
Astoria, NY 11103

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hip To Be Square

Snowy nights--a rarity in New York--go hand in hand with delivery. In honor of the season finale of Biggest Loser, my two Astoria pals and I decided to order pizza. What better way to celebrate the extreme weight-loss of others than to pack on the pounds ourselves?

Astoria is not known for its pizza, buy locals will tell you that the two top choices are Sal's Pizzeria and Rizzo's Pizza, one known for its circular pies (the former) and the other known for its square, or Sicilian slice (the latter). I've eaten at Rizzo's before; it happens to be on my way to the train and I occasionally stop in for a slice. But I rarely order it for delivery because they're cash only, and I'm generally cash poor.

We tested Rizzo's delivery skills last night. To be fair, we were warned in advance that a large Sicilian pie (not so recession-proof, at $16, plus toppings) would take 45 minutes. In truth, it took over an hour and by the time it arrived we may have been too annoyed--and too engrossed in the weight-loss of others--to enjoy it fully. Here's the other thing: on the way from Steinway to 33rd Street, the pizza lost its snap. Yes, the sauce was still spicy and delicious. Yes, the cheese was still one slice of mozzarella, browned beyond recognition (the way I like it) in the middle of each slice. Yes, the mushrooms were sauteed in garlic and butter before landing on each slice. But the pizza was no longer crispy on the bottom. Delivery had taken its toll.

Considering the cost, time, and mediocre results of my Rizzo's delivery experience, I'll be exploring other options on those nights when walking out in the cold seems a distant possibility. Don't worry, Rizzo's: I'll still stop by for a slice when I'm in the neighborhood.

Rizzo's Pizza
30-13 Steinway Street
Astoria, NY 11103

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Fish Tale

I've been trying to find decent sushi in Astoria and so I did a bit of Internet research, hitting up the usual board suspects. As it turns out, only Chowhound had any useful threads on sushi and Astoria and the general consensus was that Watawa Sushi was the most decent it got for this part of Queens.

I found the Watawa menu online. I should state upfront that I'm not big into sushi rolls; I like my fish cold, fresh, firm, and raw. For me, sashimi is the name of the game. If a restaurant serves proper sashimi, they have my business indefinitely.

So sashimi it was, though I supplemented my order with a clear soup (broth with enoki mushrooms and sliced snow peas) and wasabi shumai (open dumplings stuffed with water chestnut, pork, wasabi, and tobiko). As far as the actual fish was concerned, I ordered a la carte: tuna, white tuna, striped bass, yellowtail, scallops, and amaebi (sweet shrimp). Sweet shrimp are different from the traditional shrimp served in sushi restaurants. First of all, they're served raw, while regular shrimp are caught, frozen, poached, and chilled. Second of all, they're, well, sweet.

It would have been hard to mess up the clear soup, and the plentiful enoki mushrooms made it worth my while. The wasabi shumai were perfect and sinus-clearing, just the way I like them. My fish order, however, got mangled in the delivery process.

In lieu of scallops, I received raw sliced octopus. I love octopus when it has been braised and grilled, when it has had the opportunity to shed its chewiness. But raw octopus? Not exactly my bag. Regrettably, I sent those two pieces to the garbage gods.

The striped bass was, by far, the sashimi winner. It was very fresh and actually tasted like bass. Bad sashimi often tastes like nothing at all. The yellowtail was tasty but not as firm as I generally like it. Ditto for the tuna. The white tuna was lush and reminiscent of toro. As for the amaebi, what arrived was actually a single poached shrimp. Maybe they cook their shrimp at Watawa, or maybe I got the wrong order. Regardless, it wasn't what I'd been hoping for.

I guess the most redeeming part was that dinner only came to $25, and that included tax and a tip for my friendly deliveryman. For sashimi, that's a steal. And it beats the pants off its nearest rival, Go Wasabi. I'll probably be ordering again.

Watawa Sushi
33-10 Ditmars Boulevard
Astoria, NY 11105

Monday, December 15, 2008

Asian Fusion

In search of a perfect bowl of ramen, my standing Sunday date and I migrated to Sunnyside, Queens, home of the tiny and somewhat perfect "Japanese and Nepalese" restaurant Hanami. Judiciously salted edamame led into two bowls of the Hakata ramen: broth made from roasted pork bones, sliced roasted pork, shitake mushrooms, pickled red ginger, springy ramen noodles, scallions, and whole sesame seeds. The broth left nothing to be desired and while the east village's Ippudo has more options, it is pricier, more more of a scene, and a little less down home.

Where Ippudo is flash--red and gold everywhere, a cavernous dining room, mirrors, crystal, large light fixtures--Hanami is subtlety. Simple wood tables and a modest sushi bar is all you get, although we were delighted to hear the wordless version of Pink Floyd's The Wall playing in the background, elevator-style with Japanese instruments.

Lunch cost a whopping $11 per person, another reason I'll be heading back. I can't remember the last time I got anything decent for $11.

Dinner found us, joined by two enthusiastic friends, at Sripraphai, long billed as New York's best Thai restaurant. Sripraphai is in Woodside and it's cash-only, so I envisioned a small spot populated only by regulars.

Boy, was I wrong. The place was slammed. When sat, we ordered in two rounds to avoid the speedy frenzy of Thai meals. Round one included chicken curry puffs served with a cucumber-onion vinaigrette (similar to the sauce served with satay), a crispy watercress salad (possibly our favorite dish--tempura-battered and fried watercress served with onion, ginger, mint, squid, chicken, and shrimp), fried pickled pork spareribs (off the bone, not too salty but very delicious), and sweet sausage with cucumber (resembling pepperoni and also very tasty).

For round two we continued on the appetizer track, ordering only one entree, the sauteed drunken noodles. The noodles came with a serrano pepper sauce on the side that was fiery but not too fiery. The noodles were toothsome and perfect and came with ground chicken, Thai basil, and cherry tomatoes that popped in our mouths when eaten. Sweet and sour crispy vermicelli with shrimp was the big loser of the evening, resembling nothing more than noodles dipped in sweet and sour sauce. Steamed chicken and shrimp dumplings were really small and delicate shumai that we collectively loved. The fried shrimp wrap was not my personal favorite--whole shrimp wrapped in egg roll covers and deep-fried--but the others seemed to like it. The BBQ beef salad, served with chili, mint, onion, and lime, on the other hand, was amazing. The beef actually tasted like beef, which sounds silly, but doesn't always apply to this genre of cuisine.

For dessert, green tea ice-cream arrived with whipped cream and tapioca. We also ordered a basil seed dessert that was pretty to look at (it looked like pink and green icecubes topped with basil seeds) but had the consistency of too hard jello. I ordered something called "mock pomegranate seeds and jackfruit in coconut ice" and although I still have no idea what exactly I was eating, it tasted very fresh and coconut-y. Finally, the ubiquitous Thai dessert, pumpkin custard, cut into cubes.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "they must have spent a fortune." And I haven't even told you about the two liters of house wine we enjoyed during our meal. But actually, all that food--and it was certainly a lot of food--plus tax and tip set us back $34 a person. In the city, that would have bought me a single entree. Perhaps Queens dining is recession-proof. Well, for now, anyway.

Hanami Japanese and Nepalese Restaurant
39-11 Queens Boulevard
Sunnyside, NY 11104

64-13 39th Avenue
Woodside, NY 11377

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Are You Being Served?

Last night found me in Hoboken at a mediocre sushi restaurant. Actually, the food itself was decent. My appetizer, hamachi with chopped jalapenos and yuzu, was clean and refreshing. Hamachi, otherwise known as yellowtail, is a firm fish that holds up well to raw and ceviche-style preparations. It's one of my favorite fishes to enjoy raw. The yuzu juice acted as a par-cook marinade, not unlike a traditional South American ceviche. I prefer fresh jalapenos to canned, as these ones were, but regardless, the heat was ample without overwhelming the fish. All in all, nicely done.

I probably should have stuck with raw fish through and through--usually, at sushi restaurants, I either sit at the bar and order omakase, or I order sashimi a la carte. The fish, unadorned and fresh, is what I crave.

Last night was cold, though, and I felt like something more substantial so I ordered a soup of udon, chicken, shrimp tempura, and egg. Honestly, I don't know why I continue to order udon soups because I am always disappointed. I love the consistency of the noodles but the broth always leaves something to be desired and the things floating in the broth are never better than the noodles themselves. My two udon exceptions are the udon hot pots at Fatty Crab and Hagi, where Chinese sausage and soft poached eggs contribute to a delicious udon stew. In any case, I hope I learned my lesson: at sushi bars, stick with the sushi.

The only truly terrible part of dinner was the service. I am not one of those uptight crazies who gets all nutso over careless service. Certain things annoy me; I hate having to hunt for my server and I hate having to wait an inordinate amount of time for my drinks and food. But most of the restaurants that I choose to spend my money at have pretty high service standards.

Not so much for Sushi House, where my dining companion's salad arrived a full ten minutes before my hamachi. (By the time my hamachi hit, her salad was gone and cleared.) Drinks came after our appetizers and a glass of plum wine I was drinking on ice was mistaken by a busboy for tap water. Despite my hand-waving and desperate cries of "No, that isn't water," the busboy poured tap into my drink. A few minutes later, a manager arrived to offer me another drink, but mine was already half-gone and I was driving, so I didn't want another drink. What I wanted was for that particular drink, all six dollars of it, to be removed from my check. I didn't say this, of course, but it's one of those unspoken things that managers do when a customer is visibly upset about having lost her drink to tap water.

The drink was on the check and I paid that check without complaint. So my distress wasn't exactly recognized by the FOH staff.

Our waitress cleared our plates by stacking everything in front of me at the table and then lifting them out of my way. It's a pretty gross method of table-maintenece. I don't particularly want to look at someone else's ort after I've eaten. For that, I work in restaurants.

Finally, our check sat out, AmEx protruding, for another healthy ten minutes before our waitress returned to run the card.

Perhaps I'm too picky, or too observant, having spent most of my life trying to avoid service snags in a professional setting. No matter the caliber of the restaurant, though, service standards should be consistent and fluid. Servers exist to ensure the comfort of the guest, not heighten the guest's anxiety level. For that, I have a personal trainer.

Sushi House Bar and Lounge
1319 Washington Street
Hoboken, NJ 07030

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Chillin Out, Maxin, Relaxin All Cool...

Ten points for whomever can identify the title quote.

I went to Carroll Gardens last night to have someone cook for me, a nice change of pace. I had plans to hit up Spicy and Tasty in Flushing but they fell through. Getting people to commit to Flushing is really hard, let me tell you.

First, I ended up at the apartment of a friend of a friend of a friend. Apartment resident baked fresh chocolate chip cookies. I am a complete and total sucker for chocolate chip cookies. Baker in question said the reason his cookies were so good was because he dissolved his baking soda in hot water beforehand. Maybe that's true, or maybe it was the butter and sugar and chocolate chips. Either way, I don't care. I had two before dinner. Growing up, that would have scored me a night without television.

Next, I allowed my friend to cook for me while I drank Gigondas with his wife. He made French onion soup topped with stale bread and Gruyere in ramekins browned under the broiler, the ultimate comfort food. I guess he had wasted an afternoon making a homemade veal stock, which he swore to me he would never do again; too much time for too little reward. The soup was rich and meaty but I'm not sure I wouldn't have been just as satisfied with a store-bought beef stock base. I'm just saying.

After the soup, ricotta meatballs braised in milk. I'm not sure what meat he used. Probably veal. He also chopped up some cornichon and threw it in there for some texture. Meatballs were silky, not at all overdone. Very delicious.

And finally, a heaping portion of Alsacian choucroute: sausage, sauerkraut, ham hock. It came served with a whole grain mustard and a spicy yellow mustard. Also very delicious, but nothing to scoff at after the soup and meatballs. I'm sure I left Brooklyn a little heavier. You can't win them all.

We skipped dessert. The cookies had done the trick. Maybe next week he'll make me something else. It's nice having friends who cook.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Rain In Spain

Despite my still-undefined illness and the cold rain, I did manage to keep up appearances last night at Bar Jamon. Had I not made plans in advance, I would have taken the opportunity to watch Grey's Anatomy over takeout. But my daily goal usually includes leaving my apartment once during the day. So mission accomplished.

Bar Jamon, essentially a more casual version of Casa Mono, with which it shares a wall, features small plates from Spain. Their wine list is more than extensive; it's encyclopedic. I'm not sure there's a more expansive Spanish wine list in New York City.

Like Otto, another of Mario Batali's hot spots, Bar Jamon sells wine by the quartino (more than a glass, less than half a bottle), making experimentation a very real possibility. We started with an old standby of mine, the Vega Sindoa 'El Chaparral' Garnacha from Navarra.

With that Garnacha, we snacked on many, many small plates. Pan con tomate is a Bar Jamon signature dish--crusty pieces of bread doused with tomato and garlic. A lomo (air dried pork loin) and roasted shitake mushroom plate came garnished with a fistful of my favorite salad green, arugula. The duck liver--billed simply as duck liver with apricots--was actually much more. The liver had been prepared au torchon and had the consistency of that other liver. You know, the ethically questionable one with the high fat content and creamy texture? Apricots were reconstituted dried specimens accented by mustard seeds. I could eat this every day for the rest of my life.

Cauliflower with salsa verde was simple and sublime in its simplicity: roasted cauliflower, caper-tomato vinaigrette. The dish was devoid of pork and, consequently, guilt. A slow-cooked and fried egg served over toasted bread had been listed as "Soft Egg Ramesco," but the romesco was actually part of the frisee salad on the side of the plate. The dish was lovely enough, though the egg could have seen a minute less in the pot.

Our tiny quail escabeche--a method similar to ceviche in which a marinade of acid cooks the meat--came with feet intact. It was a lovely touch, though I prefer my quail hot and crisp-skinned. The bird had nice flavor, however, and came atop ribboned greens and dried apricots and over some kind of fruit vinegar reduction, which I couldn't stop myself from dipping extra bread in.

When our plates had been cleared, we were still hungry, so we ordered the Coach Farm piquillo, an ample piquillo pepper stuffed with the iconic goat cheese, as well as the Serrano ham. The Serrano was smoky and just fatty enough, although it could have benefitted from that David Chang's red eye gravy that should be mandatory with all ham plates nationwide.

For dessert, churros with chocolate and cream sherry. The churros were a bit too cold but the chocolate was hot and spicy, made more authentic with the addition of some detectable chili. Two churros for one cup of chocolate was not nearly enough and we resorted to dipping our extra slices of bread in the cup to sop up those final hot gulps.

If you can get a seat--and at Bar Jamon the true challenge is getting a seat--you can do some serious damage here. My final missive? Can New York please be done with the backless stools already? It's killing my posture.

Bar Jamon
125 E. 17th Street
New York, NY 10003

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dog Day Morning, Afternoon, And Evening

I'm not sure how one knows if she is suffering from pneumonia, but if having pneumonia makes you feel like someone is sitting on your chest, well, I have it.

I canceled plans last night to spend the evening with my DVD player and a few mediocre slices of takeout pizza. It wouldn't have mattered; I can't really taste anything anyway.

The reality is that people who work in restaurants almost never get sick. I can count on my hands the number of times I have been truly ill in the past six years, and one of those times was either food poisoning or something closely approximating food poisoning. Like nurses and schoolteachers, restaurant employees come into close contact with germs on a daily basis. And no amount of hand washing or cautionary tactics can prevent those germs from slipping through.

In truth, it's the perfect argument against all of those antibacterial hand sanitizers; if I had less exposure to germs I surely would have been sick more often. If I had killed the bacteria rather than learning to live with it, my immune system would be far less than ironclad.

A few years ago, I worked at a restaurant where the common practice was something we liked to call "eating garbage." This particular restaurant was known for its shared side dishes and steaks and many of the foods came to the table for sharing in small cast iron Staubs. Certain items--the french fries, mushroom caps, asparagus, skirt steak, tater tots, onion rings, and porterhouse, most notably--were returned to the kitchen followed by an army of hungry waiters. At the dish station, servers palmed whatever they could get their hands on and shoved said garbage into their mouths before any manager or sous chef could see them chewing.

When I started my job at said restaurant, I was completely disgusted by the idea of eating other peoples' leftovers. But it didn't take long for the zombie waiters to coerce me. Those onion rings did look beautiful, and they were even more beautiful in the middle of a rush when I had gone hours without eating.

Along with the other servers, I ate garbage for two years. Servers I still speak to from this restaurant confess that they never ate garbage at any other restaurant before this one and they would never do it again. But there, in that moment, at that particular place, it seemed completely normal. Why wouldn't we finish a pre-sliced skirt steak that no one else had touched? Why would we send all of those perfect french fries to uncertain death at the bottom of a pitiful trash bin?

In retrospect, it seems gross. Seriously. We ate garbage. That's how hungry we were. We had been doing it for so long and with such regularity that we didn't even believe that it was wrong to eat garbage. Then again, none of us was ever sick. We had limitless tolerances for germs. We were infallible.

I worked at that restaurant for two years and it was never the garbage that made me sick. I never got sick, not once in two years. Now that I am sick, I can't help but wonder what I should do to get immunity back. Bring on the germs; they're the only ones who can help me now.

Either that, or it's back to the medicine cabinet. TheraFlu might be the next best thing to trash-picking.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Around The City In Fewer Than 80 Hours

That was the name of last night's game.

First, it was cocktails with college friends at Ruby Foo's in Times Square. I hate Times Square and I'm not a huge fan of Ruby Foo's, either. I went there a few times with my family back in the 90s. Rest assured: it still has that 'Asian-fusion is so cool' quality to it. A drink I remembered fondly, the Ruby Foo, a martini dolled up with plum wine and lemon juice, was less plummy than I remembered. I didn't stay long. Time Square gives me heartburn.

Next up, a trip to 10 Downing Food and Wine in the west village with an industry friend. The decor is simple and teeming with avant garde art. I particularly enjoyed the Cy Twombly poster in the bathroom. It doesn't get much more obscure than that.

But the food was not obscure and neither was the wine list, which is small and mostly affordable (though they have a Chave Hermitage listed at well over 3,000 dollars, which seems like nothing short of highway robbery). My partner in crime selected a 2006 Comte Armand Volnay from Burgundy's Cote de Beaune. For Burgundy drinkers turned off by the 05 vintage--aggressive and aggressively priced--06 is like slipping into a pair of sweatpants after wearing a suit all day. This wine, like many of its counterparts, was traditionally Burgundian with red cherries on the palate. A delicate drink, like Volnays were in 2000 and 2001.

Actually, I had started with a glass of Franciacorta, which you don't see everywhere and which matched perfectly with my Nantucket Bay scallops (in season this month only), served over a sunchoke puree with balled pears. Franciacorta is the Italian answer to Champagne, made in the traditional method and demonstrating a lot of the same qualities as good vintage bubbly. The bay scallops were sweet like candy. My friend's duck meatball cassoulet would have been more appropriate in colder weather, but were delicious nonetheless.

For entrees I ordered another special, the pan-seared squab over raviolini. I love game birds and this was game bird at its finest: skin crisped, flesh cooked medium-rare, raviolini filled with the bird's liver and heart. The one dissonant component of the dish was a vinegar-sodden cabbage slaw with shitake mushrooms atop which the bird arrived. I could have done without it.

My friend had striped bass, another lovely specimen, skin on, delicate, moist. For dessert, we turned once more to the savory for a domestic cheese plate. The cheeses themselves were impressive. The blue was as strong as blue cheeses get, the triple-cream oozing off of the board. A semi-hard was just okay. And although the board itself was not as interesting or charasmatic as the boards at Casellula, I couldn't complain about the puree served as accompaniment, which I'm pretty sure was quince and pear.

From 10 Downing, I headed down to TriBeCa for a late-night tasting at the office of one of my favorite distributors, where I enjoyed two nightcaps: Jamey Whetstone's 2006 Jon Boat Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast and, finally, a Stella Artois served, appropriately, in a Burgundy glass.

Ruby Foo's
1626 Broadway
New York, NY 10019

10 Downing Food and Wine
10 Downing Street
New York, NY 10014

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Cooking By Numbers (Or Not)

My mother is not a revelatory cook.

Don't worry. She doesn't read blogs.

Growing up, the go-to cookbook in our house was a little number by the name of 365 Ways to Cook Chicken. Even with all of those options, we rotated between two or three chicken recipes per week. This made room for random fish night (whatever was available at the supermarket) and random meat night (either pork chops or pork stir-fry, since my stepfather had spent time in Thailand and loved to use his wok). Side dishes included, but were not limited to: steamed Brussels sprouts, steamed broccoli, steamed asparagus, steamed cauliflower, steamed green beans, and sauteed summer squash/zucchini with chopped dill and dried chopped garlic.

There were, however, certain long-standing recipes that my mother executed perfectly. Her bread stuffing is now my bread stuffing. She taught me to roast a chicken. Her butterscotch blondies are out of this world. And on cold winter nights, if I begged long enough, she would make me my favorite dish, adopted from an old recipe in an old vegetarian cookbook (The Moosewood) by Mollie Katzen. Minestrone soup.

I was not raised vegetarian but I have gravitated towards vegetables my whole life. This may sound surprising to those of you who view me as the consummate pork-fat lover, but the truth is that my daytime diet--essentially, what I eat before I go out to eat--consists of a lot of fruits, vegetables, and simple proteins like eggs. If I ate restaurant food for every one of my meals I would be wearing a size 20 and tapping my heart in the mornings to make sure it still worked.

I live what I like to call an omnivorous lifestyle. My diet cannot be confined to one or two types of food; I eat everything and in any given week I eat very diversely. In the world of professional eating, it's probably the best anyone can hope for. Incidentally, living this lifestyle requires a serious amount of body work. My routine of eating opulent dinners is countered by my rigorous routine of exercise: pilates refomer on Fridays and Saturdays; weight-lifting on Wednesdays; running on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. That's right. I'm a runner. I run to eat.

Running obviously burns calories, but the sport also changes the way the body metabolizes food. Because of the sport's required endurance, the heart works hard and continues to work even after you stop running. This means that distance runners burn calories even when they aren't running. So that's the secret to staying trim and eating like a hedonist: short runs, long runs, tempo runs, interval runs, hill runs... all of it.

Why am I telling you this? Because it's important to know that eating like an ovine has consequences and those consequences are only mitigated by serious and dedicated exercise. End of story.

But I digress. I was thinking, yesterday afternoon, as I hit up the grocery store, that I would prepare my favorite vegetarian meal, not because I had any particular desire to go healthy for a day, but, rather, because it was really the kind of day (unbearably cold) that warranted a hot soup. So I bought vegetables for the soup--eggplant, green bell pepper, carrots, yellow onions, fresh garlic, and zucchini--and some ingredients for a salad that caught my attention. The C-Town grocery store in my neighborhood has produce aisles filled with exotic foods from Mexico and the Middle East. I found beautiful Persian cucumbers, smaller than pickling cukes and seedless. I couldn't resist.

Back home, I tackled the soup's biggest challenge: chopping. The key to making soup easily is doing all of your chopping first, separating the vegetables that cook together. Five diced cloves of garlic and one whole onion go in for the first round of cooking. Diced eggplant and carrot go in next (the recipe essentially calls for mirepoix, but I drop the celery because I have a weird aversion to mushy celery in soups). Then the diced zucchini and green pepper. The structure is: sweat down the onions in olive oil for a few minutes with garlic and salt, add dried herbs/eggplant/carrots and cook covered for ten minutes, add four cups of water (here's where I cheat: I always use chicken stock, but if you're a tried-and-true vegetarian you can use veggie stock instead) with a can of tomato paste and the zucchini and green pepper, cook for fifteen more minutes at covered simmer, add can of kidney beans (your call on can size; last night I used two cups), cook five more minutes, serve. Usually, I cook macaroni on the side and add it to each serving of soup, but this time the extra beans were substantial enough to forego the pasta. I like to serve my soup with fresh grated parm.

I had a friend coming over, so I also made a quick salad. I tossed together pre-washed arugula, ribboned red onion, and those two Persian cucumbers with thinly sliced parmesan cheese. I made a quick dressing of fresh lemon juice, a hint of balsamic vinegar, cracked black pepper, and olive oil.

We drank a spicy little red, the 2005 Weninger Zweigelt from Austria, and ate my favorite hand-me-down recipe, The Moosewood Minestrone. The best part? There's enough left for lunch.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Finally, A Decent Burger Spot Opens In Astoria

The long-hyped Petey's Burger has finally opened in Astoria. Bloggers have already dubbed Petey's the east coast In 'N Out. I respectfully disagree. The product is good, and, surprisingly, holds up to the challenge of delivery--no soggy burger, no wilted fries, no long wait. Below are Petey's pros and cons, for the burger lover in all of us.

*Flavorful patty that is neither too large nor too small. The burger is comparable in size and execution to the Burger Joint burger, arriving in waxed paper and flanked by a traditional store-bought bun (which I like).
*'Special sauce' (Thousand Island) is another hit.
*Burger comes loaded with lettuce, tomato, and big onion rounds.
*Fries are skin off (another plus for me) and are cooked perfectly and well-salted.
*Considering the recent surge in expensive burgers--Irving Mill's Skeen Burger, City Burger's Black Label, DB Bistro's Foie Burger--this baby is more than affordable (delivery cost for the combo of burger, fries, and a Diet Coke ran under $8).

*Burger contained no pickle, a big no-no.
*Diet Coke arrived in a can. I'm not sure if that's because of the delivery but in my mind all proper burger-and-fries combos should come with a fountain soda. Canned soda is just... unnatural.
*Delivery came sans ketchup. I realize that the burger was already dressed but all fries deserve ketchup.
*Unlike Blue 9 or In 'N Out, there were limited options in terms of burger preparation. Both Blue 9 and In 'N Out offer choices; you can get barbecue sauce on a Blue 9 burger or order your In 'N Out burger 'animal style' (that means with extra pickles, grilled onions, and other assorted goodies). The purist in me accepts the limited option menu, but the opulent burger lover in me would love a little more stuff on her burger.

Petey's Burger falls somewhere between Burger Joint and a very good Whopper. Regardless, Astorians should be happy to have the freedom to get a decent sando.

Petey's Burger
30-17 30th Avenue
Astoria, NY 11102

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Adventures in Manhattaning

Yesterday couldn't have been more prototypically New York. While waiting for friends outside the Whitney Museum, I couldn't prevent myself from buying a dirty water dog. To be fair, I haven't had one in years, and though the bread is always mushy and the onions swimming in some red sauce that no one has ever properly described (why is it red, anyway?), it was the perfect midday snack.

Fewer than two hours later, we were done with the Alexander Calder exhibit (amazing) and the William Eggleston exhibit (not the day's prize winner, I'm afraid). Outside, it had turned cold and dark and so we walked down Madison Avenue in search of a bar. We landed at Park Avenue Winter, the seasonal restaurant that changes decor, theme, and menu on the quarter. Lucky for us, winter had come early to the Upper East Side; the restaurant changed from autumn to winter at the beginning of the week. We sat on fur-backed chairs at the ice bar, a built in trough of ice housing several vodkas and sparkling wines. Park Avenue makes three seasonal simple syrups for their make-your-own seasonal cocktails. This season, it's litchi-elderflower, Bartlett pear, and lemongrass. I had the Bartlett pear and Prosecco, but after trying my friend's litchi-elderflower and Prosecco I regretted my choice. The good news? I can always go back.

Next up, a trip to Chelsea to test the waters of the recently-reviewed paella bar, Socarrat. When we arrived--there were three of us awaiting a fourth--the maitre'd (if you can call him that) informed us that they could not seat incomplete parties. It didn't seem like a problem because, although there was one other woman waiting ahead of us, the resturant was rife with empty spots. I should add here that the restaurant consists of one long bar where diners sit across from one another in addition to one raised four-top. All told, the restaurant can accomodate about 25 people, no more. My friend showed up 15 minutes late, and by then other parties of four had arrived to take the seats over which we had been hovering. The paellas themselves take between 35 and 45 minutes to cook, so turn time... well... there is no turn time. Our plans, dashed.

Two of my friends, a married couple, offered to dine elsewhere. I bought their drinks to make the trade fair. The seating system, notably, makes little sense and inspires stress and irritation, which are never good qualities to impart on guests before they even have a chance to look at the menu.

Regardless, my tardy friend and I were eventually able to dine, and the paella didn't take nearly as long as they said it would. To start, we had roasted piquillo peppers (no spicy ones in the mix this time), the traditional Spanish 'pan con tomate,' essentially a very garlicky bruschetta, and deep-fried artichokes. The tapas menu is extensive and I could have picked a bunch more to snack on if given the time.

And then. Paella. Socrarrat offers about six paellas nightly. Paellas are for two people or more and arrive in a large cast iron skillet on a raised trivot. The word socarrat itself refers to the caramelized rice at the bottom of the paella pot. These pieces are eaten last and with the most gusto. I'd go back just for the black rice.

The paella we ordered--Valencia, featuring sugar snap peas, asparagus, scallions, pork rib, rabbit, and snails--looked incredible. Tender snails arrived in large and gorgeous shells. The pork rib, though often still attached to the bone, had tremendous flavor. But the rabbit was dry and tough and the asparagus was nowhere to be seen. Next time, I would opt for the traditional paella, enjoyed by our dining neighbors: head-on prawns, mussels, cockles, and vibrant fava beans (not in season, but who cares?). At paella's end, the restaurant's owner, speaking with a thick Castillian accent, came over to scrape the pot for us. "This is the best part," he instructed, as he divided the socarrat between our plates. He was right.

Desserts are minimalist. A delicate creme brule with a thin crust and a lemony finish was a nice way to end the meal. Wines cover important Spanish regions of interest without exhausting any possibilities. I had a nice garnacha rose followed by an aggressively oaky tempranillo from Ribera del Duero, which was probably the perfect match for Spanish home cooking and a blustery, snowy evening.

259 W. 19th Street
New York, NY 10011

Park Avenue Winter
100 E. 63rd Street
New York, NY 10021

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Back To The Cheese Board

I can freely admit that my diet this week has been less omnivorous and more carnivorous. I disclose, also, that it was my intent to eat more fish but I just kept finding myself at restaurants where meat and cheese were the name of the game. Case in point? Last night's visit to one of my favorite restaurants, Casellula.

Last night was a cold night and Casellula is the type of place that makes you feel warm even if it's 100 degrees below zero outside. Possessed of all the warming elements of a fine New York apartment--high ceilings, exposed brick, hardwood--Casellula is the type of haunt that makes it impossible to feel ill-at-ease.

Which may be why the place was so crowded, a luxury in such rough economic times. In fact, my friend was halfway through her Xarel-lo by the time I arrived, ten minutes late. (I drank the Kingston Pinot Noir from Chile, by the way.)

We began with the miso-mustard pickles, a melange of whole baby carrots, green beans, cippolini onions, and cucumbers. (The pickles used to include radish; where did they go?) This recipe actually appeared, alongside an arranged cheese plate from Casellula, in last month's issue of Food and Wine. Next up, four cheeses, selected by the lovely and knowledgable fromager, Tia Keenan. I mistakenly failed to take notes and cannot tell you which cheeses we enjoyed (Casellula regularly keeps 50 or so in rotation), but I can tell you that, in order, they were served with a sage pesto, a chocolate hazelnut brittle, a red-wine poached pear that tasted of Christmas, and a butternut squash puree. Rather than serving a condiment to cover all bases (say, honey), Casellula pairs each cheese indivudually. A peek near the cheese station before I left revealed lemongrass fudge and candied rose petals, as well as other goodies.

Next arrived our crostini, three tiny pieces of toast topped with fresh ricotta, honey, and hazelnuts. Followed by a beet salad with goat cheese and, my personal favorite, the Pig's Ass sandwich, Casellula's take on the cubano. The Pig's Ass comes stuffed with pulled pork, house-made bread and butter pickles, ham, and cheese. The bread is buttered and cooked in a panini press until crispy. The sandwich arrives with a spicy aioli for dipping.

The kitchen sent, with compliments, a new addition to the menu: a short rib sandwich. Braised short rib comes atop a thick and toasted piece of focaccia and is topped with roasted tomatoes and onions. This is the kind of sandwich that would make any slow-cooked meat-lover (actually, I'm thinking of my sister here) drool over her keyboard.

For dessert, we ordered the necessary chocolate cake, a many-layered chocolate buttercream-frosted fiasco (and I mean that in a good way) that is drowned, tableside, in an ample helping of local heavy cream. To honor the holiday spirit, we also had the egg nog, served in a large cappucino cup with three small salty cookies for dipping.

And even though the meal contained no fish, it was exactly the kind of fortification I needed.

Casellula Cheese and Wine Cafe
401 W. 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019

Friday, December 5, 2008

Late Night

I was supposed to have dinner at one of my favorite late-night spots last night but my friend came down with a cold, leaving me to fend for myself with takeout and bad television. The place we had planned to visit, Hagi, is actually a late-night destination restaurant. There aren't enough of these serving decent grub in New York.

For those of you looking for something to eat into the wee hours, I've compiled the following list. If this list doesn't do the trick, you can always take the trip to K-town, where kimchi flows 24/7. Enjoy.

(Sake, yakitori, sushi Bar)
Open 5pm to 5am
152 W. 49th Street
New York, NY 10019

Smith and Wollensky
(Grill only; steaks available)
Open until 2am
797 3rd Avenue
New York, NY 10022

Momofuku Ssam Bar
(Pork-heavy snacking)
Open until midnight weekdays, 2am T thru Sat
207 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10001

Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar and Grill
(Sushi, cocktails, full grill menu)
Open until 2am
308 W. 58th Street
New York, NY 10019

Blue Ribbon Brasserie
(From matzos ball soup to hanger steak)
Open until 4am
97 Sullivan Street
New York, NY 10012

Casellula Cheese and Wine Cafe
(Cheese, chocolate cake, delicious sandwiches)
Open until 2am
401 W. 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019

(Truffled egg toast, traditional Italian treats)
Open until 4am
98 Rivington Street
New York, NY 10002

Landmarc Time Warner
(Ample wine list, bistro fare)
Open until 2am
10 Columbus Circle, 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10019

(Wine bar with many options)
Open until 1am
412 E. 12th Street
New York, NY 10009

Sushi Seki
(Where the chefs go for omakase)
Open until 3 am; closed Sundays
1113 1st Avenue
New York, NY 10021

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Crocodile Beers

My only real experience concerning 'authentic' eastern European beer halls has been a few nights in the Astoria Beer Garden in Queens, a seasonal delight. At the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden, one can enjoy grilled burgers and kielbasa, pitchers of Hoegarden and, on occasion, some fine pierogi. Bohemian's space is mostly outdoors and closes once the cold weather hits.

Last night I had the good fortune to visit Bohemian's counterpart, Radegast Hall in Brooklyn, more German than eastern European and possessed of a slightly more elaborate menu. Also, the venue is indoors, a cavernous hall filled with wooden communal tables. Decor includes waitresses in ridiculous Heidi-esque costumes, wooden posts and beams, vaulted ceilings with old-looking chandeliers, and a general feeling of medievalness.

Do not visit Radegast for the barely adequate service. That would be a mistake. Visit Radegast for the thirty-or-so beers on tap, the nightly beer specials, or, just in time for winter, for their delicious mulled wine. Choose white or red (we chose white) and for your patience you will receive a stout glass full of warm wine, honey, cinnamon, and cloves. It's the kind of cocktail one can imagine coarse, unshaven warriors enjoying after an afternoon of plundering.

No beer garden adventure would be complete without snacks and Radegast has plenty of those. The grill station offers burgers, sausages, fries, and pulled pork. The pork is slow cooked for nearly a day and topped with onions that have been slow cooking as well in some kind of outstanding ketchup reduction.

As for the regular menu, expect hearty and heart-stopping selections, from pate on down. We enjoyed steak tartare, served finely chopped beneath a raw egg yolk and with the traditional condiments of worcestershire sauce, onion, cornichon, and whole grain mustard. Bread and butter pickles, caramelized pearl onions, and walnuts accompanied a creamy chicken and duck liver pate. Raisin walnut bread, hot cherry peppers, and fresh charcuterie--two versions of sopressata and one speck--brightened a cheese plate (six cheeses, ranging from very soft to very hard, none of which were ever explained to us).

The plates, billed as appetizers, were all very large and very affordable, falling in the 8-12 dollar range. We would have been fine with one fewer dish, but that wouldn't have been nearly as fun. Given the medieval setting, it felt appropriate to overindulge. After all, we're all just trying to store up for winter.

Radegast Hall and Biergarten
113 N. 3rd Street
Williamsburg, NY 11211

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Star Struck

No doubt the following rant will make me wildly unpopular with some equal-opportunity foodists in New York, but I've never been afraid of a few divergent opinions. I feel it my obligation to delve a little deeper into the three-star phenomenon that has now officially bludgeoned the City.

Here's the thing: I'm a liberal, a democrat, a socialist when it comes to all things, well, social. Anyone who knows me would probably think that, in accordance with all of my other political views, I would support a system that encourages a larger cross-section of the population to enjoy extraordinary dining experiences. My confession? I am a food elitist. I do not believe that every Tom, Dick, and Harry is equally entitled to the so-called scene because, frankly (no reference to Mr. Bruni here, I swear), not every Tom, Dick, and Harry really appreciates food.

Do I believe that every American, regardless of income, should have at his or her disposal healthy, sustainable food? Of course. But the attempt to level the playing field of fine dining is nothing short of ridiculous. Changing the structure means an overhaul of the way things are and some of us still have fond memories of nice meals out, back when Chinese restaurants used real china and tablecloths, back when ordering a Shirley Temple served in a tall crystal glass with extra cherries epitomized luxury.

The process of awarding stars to restaurants based on their excellence was never an attempt to bring restaurants to the people. Refinement, class, luxury: these tenets established the framework for fine dining in New York. Three and four-star spots were meant to provide respite from the hectic world outside. A dining experience should be two hours of uninterrupted grace. The materials that don't surround us at home--silver, crystal, truffles, caviar, fine linen--surround us in nice restaurants. What we gain when we go out to eat at a nice restaurant is an experience, something that cannot be replicated and something that exceeds the corporeal need to feed our stomachs. Good restaurants feed something diminished in the human psyche.

Which is precisely why I take umbrage at the elevation of Momofuku Ssam Bar to three stars. The food is unparalleled, it really and truly is. And for the most part, it is consistent, although you can bet your pork buns that you're getting better treatment if you're Frank Bruni and you can also bet that the buns at 10pm are much better than the lackluster ones served to drunk foodies at 1am. But what you get when you enter Ssam Bar is not an experience; it's good food prepared well and it's cool and hip and yes, you will probably run into that food celebrity you've been stalking if you hang out there long enough. That's food for the stomach. That's food worth remembering. That isn't, however, the two hour meal without the clamor and clang of real life. All that Ssam Bar isn't--refined, delicate, service-oriented--is all that separates two-star dining from three.

The best two-star restaurants are an extention of our living rooms, and that's always how I regarded the Momofukus (with the exception of Ko, of course). That system wasn't so bad. At the end of the day, most of us seasoned diners visited two-star restaurants with the most frequency. Three and four-star dining was a treat, reserved for birthdays and other special occasions. So where does one draw the line? If backless stools and rude waiters have become our milieu, what will happen to the antique dining traditions that our parents and grandparents enjoyed?

I am an elitist, yes, but I am also a preservationist. Our culture demands immediacy, constant stimulation, babying. Our position as cultural critics, or conscious eaters, or lazy Americans, even, should be to care about preserving the way things were as we usher in a new era. Ten years from now, it might be impossible to sit down at a table in New York where you can still hear conversation over the din, where you can enjoy two uninterrupted hours of time with friends and lovers before returning to the real world. That predictive reality would be a sad thing, indeed.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Have You No Decency, Sir?

Dear Frank,

I feel like I can speak honestly and freely with you. We've had all of these intimate encounters, after all. Remember that time I poured you Budweiser from the bottle? Remember the time I accidentally poured Saratoga sparkling into your tap? How many times have we met now, five? Six? How many times did you pass up the corporate American Express card under the name John Maroni?

There they are. Three stars in the New York Times for Momofuku Ssam Bar. Three stars! Frank, I really feel you've betrayed me. Worse, I feel you've betrayed New York. We all looked the other way when you started awarding three stars to restaurants without tablecloths. We all looked the other way when you practically made out with Mario Batali on the page every effing time the man opened a restaurant. And we all hoped that the unhealthy David Chang obsession would end with last April's Ko review.

Don't get me wrong, Frank. I love Ssam Bar just as much as the next offal addict. I loved the grilled sweetbreads so much it broke my heart to see them go. I hold every pork up to the Chang standard and I never eat butter at other restaurants because the butter just isn't as good. But do I believe--honestly believe--that Ssam Bar, a haven created for the carnal enjoyment of overworked restaurant employees, is worthy of the same number of stars as, say, Babbo, or Bouley, or Blue Hill Stone Barns?

No. No, it isn't.

Anyway, have you ever heard of a PX? Personne Extraordinaire. That's restaurant-speak for really really damned VIP. Have you ever heard the term 'soignee'? Soignee. Root: French. Definition: Polished and well-groomed; showing sophistication and grace. Applicable translation? A small piece of paper alerting restaurant staff to the presence of a PX. Other applicable translation? Service that is so disgustingly over the top in its execution that no restaurant critic could ever write a bad review afterwards.

My point? They know you and your fake names over there, dear friend. So if you think you can be objective, tossing extra stars out because you think everything is so vastly different this time around, you have another think coming. Not everyone gets that extra-special Macari poured tableside. Trust me, I know soignees and you were one soigneed cat.

And awarding three stars, Frank, well, it's going to change absolutely everything in New York. Congratulations. Your vigilante-ism will 1.) destroy a place that some of us actually enjoy eating at, 2.) encourage industry a-holes to employ the Ssam Bar method of service (see guest; act rude; throw plates in plastic bins; refuse to offer second drink; drop check), and 3.) perpetuate the already rampant 'too cool for school' fallacy of the East Village. So thanks, Frank. Thanks a lot. For those of us who actually respect what we in the FOH (front of house) call POS (points of service), the New York Times has now proven itself the least reliable source of food-related information.

I mean really, FB. Three f@*$&ing stars? Are you f@*$&ing crazy?

Love Always,


From The Makers Of The Harrison...

...Comes Braeburn, a small-but-cozy spot on Perry Street, west of Hudson. My memories of The Harrison are dim, but I do remember a pleasant atmosphere, pleasant wines, and pleasant looking and tasting food. Pleasant. I remember seasonal American cuisine and a dining room that was warm and open. Most of these definitions apply to The Harrison's West Village sibling, Braeburn.

Take, for instance, a cornbread biscuit served with sweet butter at the meal's beginning. Perfectly pleasant, but somewhat predictable in the age of newfangled bread plates. The 'quail sausage' (their quotation marks, not mine) was actually a pressed torchon of breast, stuffed, rolled, and sheathed in quail skin, seared until crisp. It was innovative in its inception and it was pleasant enough, but something about the spaetzle disrupted the originality. Haven't I seen this dish a million times before?

Other appetizers were similarly quaint: seared sea scallops over a walnut puree, short rib pastrami over sauerkraut. The limited menu and its few entrees (six, I believe) followed suit. The usual suspects (duck, steak, pork) came with the usual suspects (Brussels sprouts, cippolini onions, savoy cabbage). The duck breast was rich and somewhat stunning, though a few pieces came overcooked. The steak, billed as a rib eye, looked and tasted more like a filet. And the pork was not nearly fatty enough to arrive medium well, which it did.

Desserts were good. More than pleasant, even. Banana pudding took the traditional route, a parfait layered with nilla wafers, slices of banana, whipped heavy cream. An apple 'hand pie' looked a lot like a McDonald's number, though it tasted better. Pumpkin cheesecake had been left too long to set and donut holes with a cider dipping sauce were good but... didn't I just have fresh donuts yesterday? I loved the petit fours, slivers of dark chocolate topped with marshmallow kisses and blow-torched, an homage to the s'more (sans graham cracker, of course), but all in all the meal served expensive comforts that reminded me of, well, other expensive comforts served elsewhere in this same large city.

It's no repudiation. Sometimes we all need a bit of comfort.

117 Perry Street
New York, NY 10014

Monday, December 1, 2008


Brunch isn't really my thing. I'm over egg-y attempts at the perfect fritatta and over-crisped bacon. The more excited I get about food the less excited I get about brunch. Because, let's face it: if brunch were a sandwich, it would be peanut butter and jelly with the crusts cut off, satisfying but not particularly adventurous.

That being said, I had heard great things about Back Forty's burger and they do serve said burger at brunch, so I found myself dining with other Bloody Maryied New Yorkers early Sunday afternoon.

I'll get to the burger in a second, but it should be noted first that Back Forty makes a mean Bloody Mary, adorned with pickled vegetables (fennel, wax beans) and served a little spicy. If I hadn't been driving, I would have indulged in the Voodoo Root Beer (house-spiced rum, stout) or the Honey Margartia (honey sourced from the rooftop apiary of the chef himself).

And still, before the arrival of that infamous burger, we had other treats to enjoy. First up, two perfect donuts, topped with a concord grape syrup. They were still warm. Following the donuts, three equally impressive pork jowl fritters arrived atop a lovely jalapeno jam that reminded me of something I couldn't quite place. It was both savory and sweet and more than a little spicy, which worked perfectly with those fried and fatty jowls of love. Had they posed no danger to my ability to fit into my pants, I would have chosen to eat those things all afternoon.

And then... the burgers. The ketchup arrived first, billed as a "spicy house-made ketchup." It was darker than the processed variety and, yes, it was a bit on the spicy side, but mostly it was rich and sweet and full of molasses. The burger itself--about a 6oz patty, if I had to guess--was grassfed beef served on a buttered sesame bun. With it came sliced pickles, red onion, and some beautiful Boston lettuce, along with a hearty helping of rosemary fries. No tomatoes with this burger until tomatoes hit the markets again next summer. Back Forty puts a clear and present emphasis on seasonal, local, and slow.

The burger was perfect and well-seasoned. I passed on the additions of heritage bacon and cheese, but those options are available. The only disappointment suffered with Back Forty had to do with their fries, which were overcooked and, for my taste, sliced far too thick. The rosemary imparted very little flavor and what remained were too crispy potatoes. I would have preferred a second helping of the jowls instead.

Back Forty
190 Avenue B
New York, NY 10009

Early in the day, my Back Forty friend and I decided that we'd have dinner at BLT Prime, an old favorite. But as the day (and the rain) wore on, we decided to head back to Astoria for a more local dinner. We had already spent the day dreaming of a steak dinner, so we decided to try Christos Steak House, which a friend had once lauded as completely reasonable and completely delicious.

Christos is an American steak house with Greek influence, but we were really looking for the traditional goodies, so we skipped the tzaziki dip and the veal sweetbreads sauteed in lemon in favor of clams casino. I'm not sure I've ever ordered clams casino in my life, but it was as predictable and yummy as I could have imagined, six Cherrystones stuffed with bread and minced peppers and topped with a squirt of lemon juice. Bread service included a grilled assortment and a black olive tapenade that was neither too oily nor too aggressive.

For dinner, we shared a 24oz bone-in rib eye, grilled asparagus, roasted mushrooms, and creamed spinach. The rib eye was perfect, charred on the outside and fatty inside. The meat was tender and well-rested and had definitely been dry-aged. I'm not sure if it was prime or not, but it certainly tasted so. The asparagus were thick-stemmed (my favorite) and came topped with a chiffonade of basil (an interesting touch, but completely unnecessary). The creamed spinach seemed to please my friend, the spinach connoisseur, and the roasted mushrooms (shitakes and oysters, mostly) were buttery and rich. At the end, I struggled not to pick the bone up and chew from it like the old ladies I always mocked during my steak house days.

For dessert I visited Greece, ordering a sheep's milk yogurt with walnuts, honey, and quince. Fine Greek yogurt has the consistency of sour cream and this was no exception. The honey cut the assertive tanginess of the yogurt and the walnuts offered crunch. I was not disappointed.

And neither was my friend, who finished every last bite of her apple crumble. It seems we've found a new spot for our iron-deprived Sundays in Astoria.

Christos Steak House
4106 23rd Avenue
Astoria, NY 11105

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Dining With The Fishes

SoHo's Aquagrill isn't quite what you'd call a New York institution but the restaurant has occupied real estate on the corner of Spring and 6th for a very long time. Even so, I'd never eaten there and did not object when a friend from college suggested it.

We started with a dozen oysters. Aquagrill features about 25 to 30 oysters nightly, both east and west coast, so we instructed our server to choose for us. Aquagrill features a few sakes by the glass, which, in my estimation, are the perfect compliment to a briny bivalve. Once the sake was gone, we had a very inexpensive and very pedestrian bottle of Sauvignon Blanc (Sauvignon Republic, Stellenbosch, South Africa), which is actually just the kind of wine that really highlights seafood as the main attraction.

When the oysters arrived, our waiter was nowhere to be found. Instead, a backwaiter supplied a kitchen chit listing the oysters we were eating. The move was not charming. For three bucks an oyster, I'd like to know where my fish is coming from. Alas. The Moonstones (Narragansett, RI) were too briny and a bit mealy. The Easthams (Eastham, MA) were small and compact and very flavorful. The Royal Miyagis (British Columbia, Canada) were substantial and the right degree of briny, the Kumamotos (Humboldt, CA) were very small and delicate, the Raspberry Points (Prince Edward Island, Canada) were virtually forgettable and the Canoe Lagoons (Coffman Cove, AK) were possibly the creamiest oysters I've ever had. The mixed bag arrived with the traditional accoutrement of horseradish, cocktail sauce, and migonette. Nothing surprising here.

For our so-called first courses we both had tuna tartare because, well, I'm a complete and total sucker for tuna tartare. This version was the yellowfin tuna variety, served with taro chips (in lieu of gaufrettes, I guess), thinly sliced cucumber, and tobiko, and topped with julienned ginger. The tuna tartare was good. That's all I'll say. Nothing holds a candle to Laurent Tourondel's, a position I'll maintain until death.

I had one of the specials for my actual meal, Alaskan King Crab with pumpkin gnocchi, Hen of the Woods mushrooms, sauteed spinach, and a lobster emulsion. There was way too much going on in this dish. The sauce overwhelmed the delicacy of the crab. I'm not a crab fanatic like some people, but I ordered the Alaskan King Crab because you don't see it too often here on the east coast and it truly is a delicacy when prepared correctly. But the gnocchi was tough, the spinach completely unnecessary. I ate about a quarter of the dish before throwing in the towel, not a good sign. In retrospect, I should have ordered the snapper.

My friend had diver scallops over a mushroom risotto. She loved it; I did not. The risotto was a bit gummy, the scallops nothing special. It was the kind of dish we could have encountered absolutely anywhere.

But my coconut panna cotta, served with some kind of macerated fruit, was really perfect; I could eat it every day. And my friend's pear tartin, although a little too large, was also fairly perfect.

For those of you wondering what's going on with the new Boqueria SoHo, which has just opened on Spring Street not too far from Aquagrill, the place is booming. In search of a nightcap, we headed to Boqueria, but their bar was full. Instead, we ended up at Cafe Figaro, a dive where I once spent a night four years ago. How time flies when you're having fun.

210 Spring Street
New York, NY 10012

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Getting On The Bus

After four full days of cooking, imbibing cheap American beer, and fielding half-serious marriage proposals, it's high time to brave the trip south. I'll be retiring my apron in favor of my American Express card, retiring my knives in favor of corkscrews. My home kitchen is the type of kitchen that performs best as a reheating area, where canned soups and takeout containers transform themselves into adequate dinners. There is no Viking stove and ventilator hood, no granite countertop, no Cuisinart, no Sub-Zero. My Kitchen Aid is dusty from lack of use. In New York, accomplished home cooks who live alone become accomplished diners.

I did miss the familiarity of restaurants during my time out of New York. I missed wine lists and I missed my food friends. But I suspect that when I arrive back in town I'll feel equally nostalgic for the facility of cooking afforded by a nice kitchen and willing test subjects.

Well. The grass is always greener and one luxury always supplants the next. Next week I'll no doubt wax poetic about the bread stuffing I miss so completely, even as I sit at some hip New York joint eating the world's best bone marrow. You can't have it all. But as for my foray into entertaining, the cupboards are now officially closed until the next holiday impels me to drag out the skillets.