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.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Adventures In Entertaining: Lessons Learned

1. Glazed onions congeal when left overnight, even at room temperature. To restore the glaze, bring them up to temp on a low heat and re-glaze them in the pan.

2. Brined turkeys release a fair amount of salt during the cooking process. This means that the drippings are saltier than they would be with an unbrined turkey. To cut the salt for the gravy, de-glaze the pan with white wine rather than chicken/turkey stock. The acid in the wine makes a big difference and you won't have to dilute your gravy.

3. Adding extra milk and butter (I like to simmer them separately, adding ample amounts of salt, pepper, and nutmeg for good measure) to mashed potatoes and making them a bit in advance makes the whole process easier. I made my potatoes in the morning, oversaturated them a bit and left them in the oven warming tray. Any dehydration suffered was tempered by the extra milk, whole, of course.

4. If you're making homemade whipped cream and are concerned that you'll lose the whip if you make it in advance, err on the side of caution and whip longer than you normally would, almost until you reach the butter point. I like to add just about a teaspoon of vanilla extract to every 8 oz of whipping cream.

5. Browning the organ meat before adding stock veggies and water really does enrich the stock. We made two batches, once we realized that the additional 6 lb breast we had came with its own set of organs. The first batch tasted better than the second. A lot of people discard turkey liver because it is strong and can turn bitter in stock, but a rough chop and a few minutes' simmer at the end of the process adds flavor.

6. More people drink light beer than you think.

7. People will try things that scare them as long as these things are presented on pretty plates and are decorated with colorful garnishes, like mango.

8. Even the best manicure cannot hold up to three days of peeling, washing, brining, toasting, mashing, slicing, sauteing, and basting.

9. Always set a timer when toasting bread or nuts. Always. By the time you can smell bread (or pecans) toasting, it is too late.

10. The best thing you can do for yourself when planning dinner for, like, a million people is to cut and peel EVERYTHING in advance, even down to the onions and garlic for saute. The more prep you do the more you can actually sit down and enjoy Thanksgiving, the profits of which (for the cook, at least) are best collected the day after, in the post-T-Day bacchanal known as Leftover Lane.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

It's Over

First things first: last night's BLT at the Park Lunch, the quintessential hometown bar, was the perfect sandwich. I'm a purist. Give me white bread, ample mayo, a decent tomato, lots of iceberg, and crispy lettuce. Enough said.

In lieu of an actual post, I'm just going to post tonight's menu. And the next time I offer to cook for this many people, I hope someone reminds me how crazy the whole notion is.

Prosecco with Ginger Cranberry Syrup
Buffalo Trace Bourbon and Maple Cocktails

Smuttynose IPA, Portsmouth, NH
Ommegang Witte, Cooperstown, NY
Ommegang Abbey Ale, Cooperstown, NY

Lieb Family Cellars Chardonnay, North Fork, NY
Raphael 'La Fontana' Meritage, North Fork, NY

Sauteed Shrimp and Chorizo
Endive with Blue Cheese and Caramelized Pear
Mushroom Pesto Crostini
Homemade Guacamole and Blue Corn Chips
Marinated Olives and Corinchons
Sea Scallop Ceviche

Main Courses:
Brined Turkey and Gravy
Bread Stuffing
Traditional Cranberry Sauce
Milk and Butter Mashed Potatoes
Roasted Winter Vegetables
Sauteed Green Beans and Shallots
Balsamic-Glazed Onions

Pumpkin Gingerbread Trifle
Butterscotch Blondies
Aunt Linda's Farm Cakes

Happy Thanksgiving to all and to all a good night.

Park Lunch
181 Merrimac Street
Newburyport, MA 01950

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving, Part II

Events beyond my control--Bud Light with an old friend, an unexpected encounter with a MENSA member, Hendrick's and Fresca, and a 3am trip to Dunkin' Donuts with an old flame for a French Vanilla--saw me home later than I had planned. Note to self: Do not eat kimchi-flavored ramen at 4 in the morning if you have any intention of feeling human the next day. All that aside, I still had to get up early for another day of chopping, peeling, and assorted holiday fun. Today was turkey brine day. Our baby's resting in a cooler in the 40-degree garage and has been all day. There were, of course, other courses to prep. See below:

*Pumpkin Trifle, Courtesy of the Internet*
Assembled using yesterday's gingerbread cake and vanilla pudding, along with the addition of a 30 ounce can of Libby's pumpkin puree. (Don't knock it until you've tried it.) Gingerbread on bottom, then vanilla/pumpkin pudding, then hand-whipped cream, more gingerbread, etc. You get the picture. On top, for fun, dried orange flowers and cranberries. The thing is gigantic and inhabiting the same space the turkey inhabited yesterday.

*Stilton Mixture and Caramelized Pears, Courtesy of*
Pardon me for overinflating my caramel skills in yesterday's post. As it happens, I jumped too quickly into caramel part dos and, thusly, misread my recipe, which meant that my ratio was off (this was a butter caramel, as opposed to a water caramel and I missed a full tablespoon of sugar, which I had to add after the pears had already hit the pan). So the pears took forever to brown and never got as sweet as I would have liked, but they're still pretty tasty. The stilton is mixed with white wine vinegar (an improvisation--we ran out of red), salt, pepper, garlic, and extra virgin olive oil. This will go on pieces of endive, which will then be topped with pear and a toasted pecan.

*Stuffing, Courtesy of Old Family Recipe*
Thank god my mother cubed and toasted three full stuffing loaves because, otherwise, I would have freaked out. I sweat down 2.5 lbs of button mushrooms along with 3 white onions and a bunch of celery. Salt, pepper, Bell's Poultry seasoning, fresh thyme, a few handfuls of oatmeal to bind, and chicken stock to moisten and... voila. Stuffing. You have to mix this stuff by hand. Otherwise the bread begins to lose its shape and the moisture isn't well-distributed.

*Gucamole, Courtesy of Dean and Deluca Cookbook*
Hass avocados are not cheap. Ten cost me 20 bucks. I went food-processor with this recipe because I simply didn't feel like dealing with a hand-mashed guac. Also, I doctored it by adding garlic (2 cloves) and by subbing serrano peppers for the jalapenos (6 total). Also in the mix were 4 tomatillos, 3 limes, 1 red tomato, 1 red onion, and a handful of cilantro.

*Sea Scallop Ceviche, Courtesy of... I Forget*
If 12 limes seems excessive to you, try squeezing them by hand. It might be worth it in the end, though. The ceviche is looking and smelling faboo. Serrano peppers, cilantro, mango, and green onions top off a few pounds worth of sliced Atlantic seas.

Pretty much everything else today was mise-en-place. We'll see how it goes come execution time, especially given that tonight is THE GREATEST PARTY NIGHT OF THE YEAR (or so they tell me).

Next year, I'm only inviting ten people.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thanksgiving, Part I

I have moved on to the better part of my day, where the first phase of my newest project, roughly entitled "Preparing Dinner for 20-Something People, None of Whom Like Anything Raw or Spicy and One of Whom Is a Vegetarian" has officially ended. Today, I had the unrivaled opportunity to 1.) cook in a nice kitchen that has a dishwasher without anyone looking over my shoulder, since all shoulder-lookers were at work, 2.) Grocery shop at big and shiny grocery stores with more than one aisle, and 3.) Do both in my pajamas. I would like to point out that although Massachusetts is officially termed the Bay State, I couldn't find one effing bay scallop. Not one. Looks like my bay scallop ceviche may become a sea scallop ceviche, due to circumstances beyond my control.

But I did cook the following today, for those wondering how far my culinary skills extend.

*Balsamic Glazed Onions, Courtesy of Food and Wine*
The recipe calls for cippolinis but I used multi-colored pearls instead. Blanch the onions for 3 minutes in boiling water to facilitate peeling. Warning: do not try to glaze anything if you are the type of person who burns down the kitchen making a simple caramel, because step one of glazing usually involves the reduction of a simple syrup. This recipe took over an hour, but it was pretty easy once I got passed the caramel stage. For the record, I am not the type of person who sets fire to the kitchen when making a caramel.

*Ginger and Cranberry Simple Syrup for Cocktails, Courtesy of Myself*
One to one ratio on the sugar and water here, plus a handful of cranberries (mostly for color) and a cup or so of crudely chopped ginger. Don't get too occupied with the ginger; the syrup will need to be strained regardless. I'm planning on doing a simple syrup and Prosecco deal garnished with fresh cranberries.

*Turkey Stock, Courtesy of My Mother Telling Me Over and Over Again How to Make Stock*
Neck, giblets, heart sauteed until brown. Add aromatics (today, this included carrots, onions, and 2 bay leaves) and sweat down a bit. Add 2 cups chicken stock and 3 cups water. Boil and then simmer for roughly an hour. I chop the liver and add it towards the end, along with salt and white pepper. Adding the liver too soon will make it bitter. Strain the stock, keep the delicious organ meat, and skim the fat after the soup's been cooled in the fridge.

*Turkey Brine, Courtesy of the Internet*
I've finally convinced my mother to allow a turkey brine instead of stuffing the poor thing. She's rooted in the belief that the stuffing won't taste good out of the bird but I promise to use enough turkey stock and rendered fat to make that impossible. Plus, honestly, my stuffing is awesome. Awesome. Anyway, you can't brine a turkey and stuff it unless you totally love the idea of spending Thanksgiving with a mild-to-severe case of salmonella. For the brine, I went one-to-one brown sugar and salt along with many gallons of water (depends on your bird size). Aromatics in this one included oranges, lemons, onions (all quartered), bay leaves, and green peppercorns. Usually, I'd throw in some whole cloves and cinnamon sticks for good measure but we didn't have any.

*Gingerbread Cake, Courtesy of Betty Crocker*
Ok, this doesn't sound too hard but let me say that the box was thrown out after I had mixed the batter and before I had cooked the thing, so it's a miracle I didn't burn it or case some other minor kitchen disaster. Also, I'm using the cake as part of a pumpkin trifle but I decided to wait on final assembly because I am completely against using Cool Whip in my trifle and I don't think home-whipped cream will keep its aeration for more than a day.

*Doctored Vanilla Pudding, Courtesy of Me*
Vanilla Pudding Mix. Whole Milk. A host of spices that looked tasty, like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice. Also for the trifle.

*Mushroom Pesto, Courtesy of the Internet*
God, I love the Internet. Rehydrated porcinis and button mushrooms pureed with toasted walnuts (I did this myself), a few handfuls of flat leaf parsley, fresh garlic, extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh-grated parm. Pulse chop for texture. This is going on oil-brushed and toasted baguettes.

So, day over, it's just me and my Dogfish Head Punkin Ale. Sorry, Dogfish; we'll be drinking Ommegang Witte, Ommegang Abbey Ale, Smuttynose IPA and, ahem, Molson on the big day.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fear Of Flying (The Coop)

Seven years ago, I was a senior in college with an admirable GPA and a wide-open future. My interests, at the time, included a fantasy baseball league I had haphazardly entered into (I remain the only girl, all these years later), vodka tonics, the Food Network, and American fiction. I was poised to graduate from a prestigious university without debt and with a hefty resume. And it is no inflation of self, no over-aggrandizement to proclaim that I probably could have done whatever I wanted.

I also felt that, after an entire lifetime identifying myself as a student and little else, I needed a break from my own life. Perhaps it was the state of the world, where, in Yeats-ian fashion, the center wasn't holding. Or maybe it was my own generational despair, the malaise that afflicted many people like me who believed themselves to be worth more than an ennui-inducing desk job, who believed that all those years of bookishness entitled them to a more exciting twenty-something existence.

And so I made a decision that has informed the path of my life, a choice that never seemed particularly important at the time. I became a waitress.

The first restaurant I worked in was a high-end pizza joint. I once had to ask a customer to help me dig the cork from a bottle of Chianti. That's how poor my skills were. A few months later, I was slinging burgers at a local tavern, where the cash was good and the perks included free margaritas and Bud Lights after work and an endless supply of fellow drinkers willing to blow tips at the bars. I got a Master's degree after one year of clearing plates but the frenetic restaurant life--the youthfulness, the fun, the energy, the nonstop of it all--never went away. Degree in hand, other restaurants would follow. Until I looked up and realized that thirty was closer than twenty it didn't seem possible that someone like me could get so caught up in something like this.

All these years later, I am considering changing fields and so I am constructing a pro/con sheet, like every good student does when faced with an existential crisis. Because my fear of flying from restaurants may be well-founded or idiotic, so perhaps empirical evidence will help establish truth from fantasy.

The Industry--Pros:
1. Sleeping late
2. Comps at some of the greatest restaurants in New York
3. Likely encounters with famous people
4. Quick and good money
5. Automatic circle of friends
6. Social acceptance regarding the party-animal lifestyle
7. Social acceptance regarding eating pizza for breakfast (when breakfast is at 4pm)
8. Ability to rattle off a series of cool and unknown restaurants on command
9. Utter lack of boredom
10. Social acceptance regarding wearing clogs to work

The Industry--Cons:
1. Uniforms
2. Long hours
3. Holidays do not exist
4. Neither do 'Sundays'
5. Shitty health insurance, if there's any at all
6. Hangovers
7. Few nights off in which to explore the cool and unknown restaurants so often recommended to others
8. Touching dirty plates
9. Anything involving carrying heavy boxes up stairs
10. Having to use French all the time

If leaving the bright lights of restaurant row is a twelve-step program, I'm one step there.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Weekend In Queens

I was invited to be the date of my college roommate at a Long Island City wedding last night and, being the type of person who never passes up free food or booze, I was obliged to attend. No one should ever expect anything good from wedding food, even if the event comes billed as "fancy." Wedding food routinely fails to impress. I should know. This was my twelfth wedding since 2005.

Actually, the central conflict of a wedding I attended over the summer revolved around an overcooked steak that I politely passed on. I was accused of being a bad guest and I don't take criticism well. These days, I push the food around to conceal my distrust of banquet food.

Given the fact that I entered last night's soiree with diminished expectations, things could really only look up. So I was pleasantly surprised when a moist red velvet wedding cake (the ultimate Magnolia Bakery cliche, I know) made an appearance at my place setting. I can unequivocally say that the cake--threaded with layers of cream cheese frosting--was the best wedding cake I've ever had. That, and the somewhat majestic view of the city, unencumbered by any familial or other obligations, made the night very worthwhile.

Today's Queens adventure would have been the perfect remedy for a hangover had I overimbibed last night, which, incidentally, I didn't. A drive to Flushing yielded brilliant dim sum at Gala Manor (right off Main Street, for the intrepid). Baby clams came swimming in a thick and salty brown sauce. Stuffed shisito peppers and soy sauce were fresh and bright. Several varieties of dumplings (shrimp, mushroom and shrimp, vegetable and shrimp, pork and... shrimp?) and a weird mochi stuffed and fried with something unidentifiable were the makings of the perfect brunch.

Twenty-five dollars poorer--perhaps the steal of the century, FYI--we ventured to the Flushing Mall, where my friend begged me not to cruise the stalls of the food court. But I had to. And left vindicated, honey dew bubble tea in hand. My friend had never tried a bubble tea herself but I won her over.

My conclusion, weekend's festivities done, is that one can spend a perfectly awesome weekend in the boroughs without even touching foot to island. I'm no anti-Manhattaner, but maybe the perfect respite for winter city blues lies on the other side of the river.

Gala Manor
3702 Main Street
Flushing, NY 11354

Saturday, November 22, 2008

How To Succeed In Eating Without Really Trying (Or: How To Get In Trouble On A Friday)

Act I. Oysters (ok, clams) and Pearls.

A blustery Manhattan afternoon finds me on Cornelia Street, where I've agreed to meet an old friend for a much-procrastinated lunch at Pearl Oyster Bar. Pearl's possesses--even in the cold--the modestly adorned charm of someone's New England summer home. A long bar in the front room plays host to hungry, oyster slurping patrons while, in the back, two-tops and four-tops of West Villagers chomp away. There are, of course, the requisite photos of northern seascapes, the blackboards announcing the day's freshest market catch, the display pie. Pearl's is the kind of place that relocated New Englanders like myself visit to regain a sense of home.

A lovely Macon-Villages (clean, unoaked, and cold, not unlike the weather itself) saw us through a metal bucket's worth of steamers. If you thought clams were a summer luxury, you'd be wrong. These suckers had big bellies and the grit of the ocean (they welcome a washing in salt water and butter) and go down just as easy as the Macon.

But the piece d' resistance was, without question, the famous lobster roll, served, as tradition demands, on a buttered hot dog bun and accompanied by a side of addictive shoestring fries. The lobster meat is chunky and abundant, seasoned mostly with a healthy helping of mayonnaise and a few decorative leaves of red leaf lettuce. Ketchup and malt vinegar arrive for the condiment obsessed, but this sandwich doesn't really need it. The caveat? As my friend remarked as I attempted to bring the beastly sandwich to my mouth, this baby's really a knife-and-fork kind of deal, a slight departure from the more traditional wax-paper version you find up north.

But whoever said convenience was a deal-breaker?

Pearl Oyster Bar
18 Cornelia Street
New York, NY 10014

Act II. The Institution.

A glass of Chianti at Mia Dona parlayed itself into amuse bouche at Felidia where, sipping schioppettino, my friend and I discussed where we should actually eat. Lidia Bastianich, flanked by her minions, was just leaving as we were coming in and the restaurant showed no signs of a downturned economy. Such is the way with culinary institutions.

Thanks to a forgiving chef (I once served him a corked bottle of Torrontes at the end of a very long night), we enjoyed an elaborate plate of Nantucket Bay scallops, burrata with sturgeon caviar, octopus terrine, roasted squash with ricotta, and house-cured flatiron. We made ten thousand phone calls to other restaurants before we settled on a trip to the Bowery, even though my friend swore that she was not "a downtown person."

243 E. 58th Street
New York, NY 10022

Act III. The Fledgling.

We probably could have skipped the Pimms Cups, but they were delicious and cucumber-y, which might be all I need in a drink. Somewhere around 11 the hip staff at Double Crown sat us and a few minutes after that we were joined by another foodie, which made it more forgivable to order the entire menu, which we pretty much did.

We had crispy whitebait with chili lime (squeeze the lime over the crunchy bits), Sea Bream sashimi (decent), prawns (heads served fried and with some kind of aioli, a real treat), Pigs in a Wet Blanket (I still have no idea what that was), duck steamed buns (yum), pork rillette (double yum), braised pork belly (hackneyed, but good), miso glazed bone marrow (not as ample as the versions seen at Landmarc or Blue Ribbon), tandoori foie gras torchon (nothing to complain about here), and Singapore laksa (some underseasoned noodle dish that none of us was in love with). You would think that would have been enough for even the most gluttonous eaters but, emboldened by a bottle of champagne and a subsequent bottle of... something red... we moved on to entrees of short ribs and lamb and cashew meatballs. The short ribs were majestic and perfect, the meatballs forgettable.

For dessert, two things arrived, one with a candle in celebration of my friend's impending birthday. I remember neither, a sign either that the meal was a resounding success or, alternately, that I was much too drunk to be out in public.

Double Crown
316 Bowery
New York, NY 10012

Act IV. Redaction.

In an earlier post, I listed a bunch of my favorite eats in New York and I was reminded, in the wake of that post, that I may have made an error in my execution. I should state, first and foremost, that I give Gramercy Tavern credit for teaching me about cheese. I had never been a cheese lover before getting some post-service love at Jim Meehan's pre-PDT bar, and so that culinary door really opened to me as a result of nights spent with Bual Madeira and the cheese list. Also, I love the tavern at Gramercy Tavern because it always smells like Christmas, with the wood stove burning in the background. Their drinks do not outdo the PDTs and Apothekes of the world, but the ambience is totally top-notch.

But I was scolded last night for marking the cheese plate at Gramercy Tavern as my favorite when, in truth, the cheese list at Casellula is much more far-reaching, much more ambitious, and much more central to the whole j'nais ce quois of the restaurant. And that's just the beginning. While Gramercy serves the delicious-but-pedestrian quince paste/honey/raisin bread with their cheese, the fromager at Casellula is far more inventive. I once had the pleasure of enjoying a piece of bacon that had been cooked until crisp and then dipped in white chocolate. Sound strange? It wasn't. Actually, it was the perfect accoutrement to a briny, soft cheese.

So, for the record, Casellula has the best cheese plates in New York and although I will always enjoy nights spent at the Gramercy Tavern bar, I would never in a million years choose their cheese over C's.

To that I will add that, although it does not approach Casellula in scope or originality, the brandied cherries and black truffle honey that come with the Otto cheese plate are also quite nice, should you happen to be in the West Village and in need of some serious lactose therapy.

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

Friday, November 21, 2008


Not that I'm stalking Frank Bruni (ok, maybe I kind of am stalking Frank Bruni, but I swear it's coincidental), but we just keep crossing paths.

I've seen him in review-context exactly five times.

I read a book in which an entire chapter was dedicated to him.

I know someone who made out with him at a bar.

And recently, a close friend of mine started a huge (and still unresolved) argument with me based on whether or not I knew that Bruni had made an appearance at an East Village spot that will heretofore go unnamed.

That's not even the weirdest part. Not five minutes ago, just as I had finished the mental preparation necessary to get me out of the apartment and into the cold, cold city, my bberry buzzed. "Bruni in house as a heads up," the text read. It was from the bartender of my favorite bar.

The man is everywhere, so maybe it's high time I embraced my fate. I'm thinking of rethinking my evening. Next on tap? Maybe drinks with the New York Times restaurant critic. There are worse ways to spend a Friday evening.


The industry buzz (and the generous suggestion of some Carroll Gardens-dwelling friends) suggested my next restaurant foray be a trip to Char No. 4 on Smith Street, a small and unassuming spot that bills itself as a BBQ Haven-cum-Whiskey Bar. Surprisingly, our three-top suffered no wait on a cold and thirsty Thursday, although we weren't the only ones thinking pulled pork: the restaurant was basically full and the pork sandwich was, regrettably, 86ed.

The 86 was a point of multiple confusions. 1. The server only informed us of the non-existent sandwich after we'd been sitting with our whiskeys for 20 minutes. 2.) A menu staple, the Lamb Pastrami, did not appear on the menu but arrived at our table anyway. And then it left. And then it reappeared. According to our addled server, it had been a verbal special (of which we hadn't been informed) and had come out by mistake. Eventually, he offered up the app on the house. A lesson learned early in our dinner: don't expect the servers at Char to fawn all over you. Actually, don't expect them to be even remotely present.

But the pastrami was good, thinly sliced lamb (which wasn't all that 'lamb-y,' but whatever), mixed with pickled onions and flanked by grilled bread. The same bread and pickled onions made an appearance on our Cured Kentucky Ham plate, which also came with some kind of fruit compote. It was unidentifiable, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. The ham was good. Good. But I couldn't help but compare it to that other ham plate, the one at Momofuku Ssam Bar, where the ham comes with a coffee/kewpie mayonnaise dipping sauce and Sullivan Street bread. That ham is one of those dishes that keeps me up at night when I'm unassailably hungry and, I'm sorry to say, Char No. 4's just didn't live up.

But the pork nuggets, served with hot sauce, were so much better than the ones Marc Forgione is frying up in TriBeCa's Forge (sorry, Marc) and the apple and fennel salad, though a bit light on the blue cheese, was crunchy and satisfying.

It was no surprise that, by the time our entrees hit, I had already exhausted my appetite. I plowed through less than half of the beef hot links (not as good as the unadorned kielbasa of the Astoria Beer Garden and a sorry replacement for the pulled pork sandwich I had been craving, but the pickled cippolinis and mustard-drenched fingerlings almost made up for it) and most of the smoked scallops (good-sized divers, oyster mushrooms, pumpkin puree) before throwing in the towel. I found the starters more impressive, though all of it was across-the-board good. If I lived in the neighborhood, I might even venture to say great.

The greatest part, actually, was a bowl of butter pecan ice-cream nested in a pool of bourbon. Those pecans--covered in brown sugar and comparable to the best maple sugar candies ever--are, like the Momofuku Ham Plate, the kind of unexpected pleasure that will definitely keep me awake for nights to come.

And as for those several hundred whiskeys and bourbons for which Char No. 4 has garnered so much press? A clean and straightforward Noreaster, featuring ginger beer and a hint of maple syrup was the perfect companion for a night of artery-clogging pork fat. My actual, human dining companion enjoyed a Hot Toddy, which, given the weather on one cold November evening, could not have been more appropriate.

Char No. 4
196 Smith Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Thursday, November 20, 2008


I would be remiss in my duties as a food blogger if I did not profess my love for the following New York culinary goodies:

Pig's Ass Sandwich and Chocolate Cake (Casellula)
Pickle Plate and Pork Buns (Momofuku Ssam Bar)
Ramen, All Kinds (Ippudo)
Roasted Bone Marrow (Landmarc)
Hot Pepper Plate (Blue Ribbon Bakery)
Udon Hot Pot (Hagi)
Tuna Tartare and Dry-Aged Rib-Eye (BLT Prime)
Blue Cheese Potato Chips (Bar Americain)
Fried Okra (Grayz)
Amaebi with Fried Heads (Yokocho Village)
Steamed Vegetable Dumplings (Plump Dumpling)
Antipasto Platter ('ino)
Truffled Egg Toast ('inoteca)
Grilled Asparagus (Quality Meats)
Fried Chicken and Banana Pudding (Amy Ruth's)
Jumbo Slice (Koronet Pizza)
Kidneys on Toast (Fergus Henderson Special at The Spotted Pig)
Handmade Soba (Soba-Ya)
Soup Dumplings (Grand Sichuan)
Fettucini in Wheel of Parmesan (Sapporo d'Ischia)
Sauteed Gnocchi with Lardon (Chestnut)
Coconut Bubble Tea (Saint Alp's Tea House)
Pan Fried Noodles (Great New York Noodletown)
Eggleston's Pork Shoulder Steak (Terroir)
French Onion Soup (Odeon)
Egg and Caviar (Jean Georges)
Tomatoes, Tomatoes, Tomatoes (Blue Hill Stone Barns)
Cheese, Cheese, Cheese (Gramercy Tavern)
Porterhouse (Peter Luger)
Burger and Fries (Burger Joint)
Burger with Bacon (Corner Bistro)
Meat-on-a-Stick (Kebab Stand at Steinway and 31st Ave)
Egg Bagel (Absolute Bagels)
Kampachi Tartare (Forge)
The Sicilian Slice (Rizzo's Pizza)
Buffalo Shrimp (BLT Fish Shack)
Love Letters (Babbo)
Rigatoni with Breadcrumbs and Peas (Lupa)
Lardo Pizza (Otto)
Duck Egg and Ham (Casa Mono)
Chips and Onion Dip (The Redhead)
Burger, Medieval Style (Blue 9 Burger)
Chicago Dog (Shake Shack)
Chicken Fried Steak (Blue Smoke)
Garlic Potato Chips (Union Square Cafe)
Margherita Slice (Artichoke Pizza)

There are more--so, so many more--but listing them all now will give me nothing to talk about tomorrow.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Food

For years, I promised myself that I would never become a blogger. I worked (ok, work) in the food industry, where thousands of patrons regularly spent a meal's aftermath clicking away at their laptops only to undermine the hard work and fine intentions of chefs and their minions. It seemed ridiculous to give credence to the so-called foodie population who knew nothing of classical cuisine, who took laborious notes during meals, who snuck camera phone shots of foie gras and pheasant, who would never be able to discern the difference, say, between a Gevrey-Chambertin and a Vosne-Romanee.

What I regarded as a movement fueled by uneducated populists--a movement that would surely flicker and fade with time--turned out to be what Americans were seeking. Enough of the unpronouncable and unapproachable, they seemed to be saying. Enough with the complicated details of French cuisine. Enough with snifters and white tableclothes and downfacing silverware and crystal and quiet dining rooms and stuffy sommeliers and captains in tuxedo tails. Enough, enough, enough. Here was a concerted attempt to bring food back to the people.

And so I could ignore it no longer. Let it be known that I still believe in the tenets of fine dining. I believe in the formal education of a chef. I believe in the classics. I believe that every chef should know how to dice the proper mirepoix before he progresses to saucing, just as I believe that every writer should know Twain and Dickens and Woolf before embarking on his or her own. The kitchen requires a world of patience, dedication, drive, and good temprament. Such qualities should never be overlooked or dismissed when we talk about when we talk about food.

In this blog, I will speak freely and objectively about restaurants, markets, wines, service standards, and my own personal feelings about dining in America. I will discuss my favorite restaurants and my least favorite restaurants. I will describe dishes I love and dishes I hate. This isn't a space for the proverbial 'food porn'; I have no intention of marking my meals with grainy photographs of organ meat. But I promise to be true to food and experience, to offer my own insight regarding what I see as an infinitely advanced--and infinitely nascent--dining scene here in New York City.

It is my belief that we do service to our world and to ourselves to pay attention to what we eat. Sure, the pleasure of eating and drinking is corporeal, but our relationships with food will make more and more of an impact on the world and its resources in the year to come. As Michael Pollan wrote in a recent article for the New York Times Magazine, food and its provenance is, increasingly, a matter of homeland security.

Being conscious (and, more important, having a food conscience) does not mean giving up the luxuries of life. We can be omnivores, people who consider our choices, and still stay away from the "alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast" that Alvy Singer so famously ordered at that Sunset Boulevard restaurant in Annie Hall. And so I welcome you, dear readers, to the world of my stomach. Because food is my passion and it is my belief that, as the infinitely quotable Calvin Trillin once wrote, "health food makes me sick."