Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Literal Re-Fuel

I ran my first marathon on Sunday, surrounded by friends and family. Some I had expected to make the trip up to Vermont and some surprised me on the course.  If you've never run 26.2 miles, you may not know how much it matters to hear your name called at the top of a hill, or as you're about to crush your last mile.  And oh, it matters. 

That night, I was taken out to dinner in Burlington.  Someone found this place, A Single Pebble, a traditional Chinese restaurant (which, since it's Vermont, is run entirely by white people) not too far off the hippie drag of downtown.  Each table had a vase of fresh tiger lilies and a lazy Susan at its center (dishes are meant to be shared).

I drank a lychee martini that was finished with a drop of grenadine.  We ate delicately battered and fried eggplant chips that came with a hoisin dipping sauce.  We ate duck pancakes that were a little too tortilla-ish for my taste and thick-skinned ground pork dumplings.  

Batons of tofu arrived battered and fried and topped with green chiles in what was called Salt and Pepper Tofu.  Chow fun boasted plump shrimp, a wide array of vegetables, the toothsome noodles and pieces of dark meat (I think it was chicken).  Rabbit was a little on the spicy side, cooked in a black bean sauce and resting on withered greens.  It wasn't my favorite; the barbecued pork was.  The pork had been rubbed with Chinese five spice and came with a "white" barbecue sauce, which was really more clear than anything.  

It made me wonder why all the Chinese food in my own, supposedly "ethnic" neighborhood is so completely atrocious.  So if you're already making the drive, it's well worth the trip. 

A Single Pebble
133 Bank Street
Burlington, VT 05401

Friday, May 22, 2009


That's how they say it in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  I'm not one of those New Englanders who always has to have a lobster dinner every time I find myself in the vicinity.  I more or less consider it a special occasion thing and growing up we almost always ate it at home and not at any of the local lobster pools.  

But here's the thing: if you go to the fish markets and buy chicken lobsters and steamers and three pounds of butter, and corn on the cob, it will probably cost you much much more than last night's dinner cost me. 

I spent the first hot day at the Seabrook/Salisbury beach, where I suffered a stupid pre-marathon sunburn and played in the tide pools, since it was too cold to go in the ocean.  We drove past Brown's and Markey's on the way home, two rival lobster pools facing eachother across route 286 in Seabrook, NH.  I decided we should go for dinner. 

I don't know why, but people around here have loyalties when it comes to these lobster pounds.  I've never been to Markey's because everyone I've ever eaten lobster with has been a Brown's devotee.  

This is how it works: fried food is ordered on the outside, through a window.  For lobsters and steamers, you walk into the actual restaurant, if you can call it that.  Really, it's just a large room with long tables and benches and screened windows and a wraparound porch out on the marsh where you can sit and watch the fisherman net things and the sun slip below the horizon.  I recommend ignoring the view of the dome of the Seabrook nuclear power plant.  

You have choices, of course.  Chickens are the smallest lobsters, followed by medium lobsters, large lobsters, and premium lobsters.  Steamed clams come in one size only.  When you tell the surly dude working the register what you want (I have no idea why, but my surly register man was wearing a Yankees cap and sporting a Joba Chamberlain jersey, even as he barked at me with a very distinct New Hampshire accent), he'll grab and weigh your lobsters--in my case, chickens--and ask you if you want anything else.  I ordered corn.  I love steamers, but my best friend has a late-developing bivalve allergy and we were scared to test whether clams made her puke as bad as mussels do.  Surly man will give you a wooden paddle with a number on it and instruct you to wait until called over loudspeaker. 

Brown's, like Markey's, is BYOB, which meant Wachusett blueberry beers on the back deck, three apiece if we were dividing fairly.  Eventually, our number was called and we picked up two perfect lobsters, clarified butter in plastic cups, wooden stakes for pulling out claw and knuckle meat, and two foil-wrapped pieces of corn.

That's the short version.  The long version is that they actually forgot our corn and we stood waiting in the angry anteroom for ten full minutes while they made it.  And we asked three times for an extra butter and set of silverware until surly man number one finally complied.  And then, worst of all, I noticed a photograph in the back of the room of the entire Brown's staff wearing their aprons and stickers with a smiling George W. Bush, all holding a sign that said BUSH 2000.  Turns out Brown's is a favorite of the Kennebunkport Bushes as well as that idiot ex-president of ours.  My best friend was getting surly herself, due to the butter and corn fiasco.  I was surly because of the Bush endorsement.  We both decided to do Markey's next time. 

I will say this: those lobsters were sweet as anything and the early-season corn was, too. And the whole meal came to a whopping $28.  Try getting two lobsters for under 30 bucks anywhere else and you'll see the appeal.  But the rival spots catch their wares in the same neighborhood and their prices are, well, rivaling, so next time, we'll be headed across the highway to Markey's.

As an epilogue to lobster fest 2009, I should add that I was still hungry after our lobsters because, these days, I am always hungry.  Consequently, I drove down to the heart of Salisbury beach, where the arcades and dough stands are, for a slice of beach pizza, native to the area.  Beach pizza is crispy, flat, and square.  If you ask for extra cheese, you'll get a slice with a circle of provolone on top.  I had a square exterior piece from Christy's, very much worth the calories and the price ($1.75).  It was sweet-sauced, crisp as any New York slice, and possibly a better dessert than anything sweet I could have imagined. 

Brown's Lobster Pound
Route 286 
Seabrook Beach, NH 03874

Christy's Pizza
13 Broadway
Salisbury, MA 01952

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Italian Birthday Dinner

Believe it or not, there was space at the bar for four at Po in Carroll Gardens at 8pm on a Saturday night, not an opportunity we were willing to pass up given our experience at the Red Rose two weeks ago.  Po is one of those reliable Italian restaurants where you know everything will meet basic expectations.  They didn't disappoint. 

I like the amuse bouche of charred bread topped with olive oily white beans, mostly because I like charred bread.  Soft shell crabs, a personal favorite, are currently in season, inspiring off-menu specials city-wide.  Po was no exception.  Our soft shell appetizer came lightly battered, pan-seared, and served atop spinach and julienned vegetables with a pink aioli.  

I ordered with linguine with clams, which is my definition of the ultimate in carb comfort foods.  My objection regarding Po's version has to do with moderation rather than technique.  They use pancetta in their sauce, and I'm a purist and would prefer the dish without.  But I could have dealt with the added meat if it had been added to the dish with a lighter hand.  Lardon-sized chunks of pancetta overwhelmed the dish, which was otherwise tasty, even if they substituted cockles (very tiny) for my personally preferred littleneck clams. 

My friend, enjoying a birthday, ordered oricchete with broccoli rabe and sausage, but this dish was a twist on the traditional, made with a spicy red sauce.  Her husband's spaghetti swam with an ample helping of boar bacon.  It was... bacony.  

Dessert was simple and seasonal: ricotta ice-cream with a sauce of strawberries and rhubarb.  Wines at Po are affordable and, of course, Italian. 

It may not have been the kind of meal you have dreams about, but it was good enough for carb-cravers looking for a quick fix. 

276 Smith Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

You Really Do Need The Fifth Napkin

 Burgers are back.  It's probably the economy.  I like burgers well enough, but I don't eat them various often.  (I'd rather eat pizza.)  

Well, hey.  It's important to stay abreast of trends.  I heard good things about Hell's Kitchen's Five Napkin Burger so west it was.  

A few notes: 

1. The menu is insane, and I don't mean that in a good way.  I want to know who's ordering the maki rolls at a burger joint.

2. Really, really, are you serious?  $13.95 for a burger?

3. I've never been a fan of brioche-as-burger-bun.

The fries were thin, salty, passable.  The meat was tasty but a bit mushy and guilty of slipping from the bun.  The cheese completely overwhelmed the burger and it came with no lettuce or tomato, or mayonnaise, a big no-no in my book.  Also, I'm not crazy about caramelized onions on burgers.  I like them raw, for the crunch factor.  

The best part of this overpriced experiment was a side of pickles, the bread and butter kind.  They were sweet, salty, and flanked by onions, coriander, and mustard seeds.  If you're watching your wallet--or your figure--I'd suggest opting for the side over the entree.  

Five Napkin Burger
630 9th Avenue
New York, NY 10036

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Is Having A Second Branch The Same As Being A Chain?

I went to the newest addition to the Upper West Side, Zak Pelaccio's Fatty Crab on 76th and Broadway.  I can't help but think, in retrospect, that this restaurant is way too cool for the Upper West Side.  It's hard to envision a bunch of affluent, middle-aged Jews sitting down to a fried oyster banh mi and a plate of Malaysian chicken wings. 

But New York is all about expansion.  All great restaurants now have to have an "uptown" and "downtown" location.  It's the new hot thing.  Small spot downtown, where space is limited.  Large, sprawling space uptown that never feels full.  The American way.  

Needless to say, the larger Fatty Crab was not full on a Monday night.  We sat down and had cocktails, a Mai Tai for my date (adorned with brandied cherries) and a watermelonish cocktail for me (adorned with pansy petals).  We ordered the special, a fried oyster po' boy banh mi.  The oysters were good, but the sandwich lacked some of the subtlety of better versions.  Next came the so-called Fatty Dog, a spicy sausage covered in cilantro, pickles, radish, and onions.  My date declared it too spicy.  I don't believe in such terminology. 

My favorite by far was a sticky salty sweet noodle dish topped with baby shrimp, cockles, sliced chicken, steak strips, hot peppers, pineapple, and the motherload of brown sauce.  The noodles were long and similar in consistency to good udon.  The sauce was excessive, but it was the kind of excess I like.  We ordered more cocktails, a tequila-yuzu concoction for him and a bourbon-Pedro Ximenez drink for me.  The Fatty Duck arrived, three pieces of duck breast served on the bone over rice.  "The chef recommends you eat this with your hands," the waiter said.  We obliged.  It was messy and slightly overcooked, though the plentiful breast fat made up for it.  I would have eaten the crab special, too, crabs doused in chili paste and served over white bread.  But it would have been too much food. 

We ordered dishes that are native to the UWS branch of the restaurant, which meant not eating some of the dishes I love more (sliders, tea sandwiches, rice noodles with Chinese sausage), but that was part of the point.  

I prefer the frenetic, intimate setting of the Hudson Street restaurant.  And I don't see the point in opening a nearly identical restaurant in the same city.  Regardless, I could eat those noodles again and again. 

Fatty Crab
2170 Broadway
New York, NY 10024

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Age Is Just A Number (Or So They Say)

I bring that up because my most vivid memory of Lupa, Mario Batali's bustling Thompson Street joint, is from my 21st birthday.  That seems like ages ago now.  September 11th had just happened.  My family rented out the back room and people drank bellinis and we all ate charcuterie and rigatoni with breadcrumbs.  

It was a transcendent meal, but it was also a long time ago, so it's always amazing to me that Lupa never suffers from diner boredom.  They're busy seven days a week.  Their menus don't change dramatically but people still go back.  

I stopped in for a midday snack yesterday.  I had the shaved asparagus with pecorino, a plate of ricotta gnocchi with a sausage bolognese, and some bavette (thin linguine) with black pepper and cheese.  The bavette was the best.  It was simple, it was rustic, it was al dente, and it was perfectly satisfying.  Which, I guess, is why people go back.  You can get what you want.  No fuss, no muss.  No hundred dollar check, either.  The bellinis lack the spirit of invention, but they are delicious.  Maybe that's all food needs to be sometimes: delicious. 

170 Thompson Street
New York, NY 10012

Friday, May 8, 2009

Flushing Is A Foreign Country

I went there for dinner because it's cheap and exotic and because I love the scared look on people's faces when I try to get them to try weird Chinese stuff.  Last year, the New York Times wrote about Flushing, calling attention to the dingy (and very un-mall-like) Golden Mall, the bottom floor of which houses a food court (if you can call it that).   One of the court stalls interested me.  It was a place called Lan Zhou Handmade Noodles.  

In the grimy basement, a Chinese man with a bluetooth headset and baseball cap took dough and made noodles to order.  That involved smacking the dough down on a cold surface and winding it over his hands until he had perfectly uniform pieces the width of spaghetti.  He cut these into boiling broth and served them to us fresh.  Soups range from the basic (vegetable) to the meaty (oxtail) to the exotic (pig intestine), but the broths are all the same: rich pork and beef bone broth with a hint of star anise.  

My soup also had salty bok choy and scallions.  The noodles themselves had a spicy, star anise thing going on as well.  They were springy.  We were the whitest people in that windowless mall. 

I stopped at a bakery two doors down for a bubble tea.  I didn't get the name.  Unlike most bubble teas I have had in my lifetime, this one wasn't made from the flavored powders so commonly found in Chinatown.  Instead, my barista pureed fresh watermelon with ice and served it cold with lots of tapioca.  

Finally, I stopped at a food cart for snacks to take home.  I bought steamed pork buns (4/$1.25), doughy fist-sized balls stuffed with dumpling filling, and a large (and somewhat tasteless) scallion pancake that came wrapped in parchment paper.  My loot cost a whopping $11 total, and that included the trendy bubble tea.  

If you can stand a trip on the 7, or have a car like I do, it's worth the trip.  

Lan Zhou Handmade Noodles
Golden Shopping Mall
41-28 Main Street
Flushing, NY 11355

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Maybe I'm obsessed with the idea of making leftovers delicious because, growing up, just about half of my meals at home were leftovers.  And not necessarily good ones.  There was a lot of day-old chicken and dry pork chops and cold green beans re-steamed in the microwave.  I'm not unhappy that chapter of my life has closed. 

Yesterday, the rain brought out the homemaker in me and I made turkey chili, the same version I made for the Superbowl in January.  To refresh tired memories, that recipe involves ground turkey, poblano peppers, green peppers, corn, tomatillos, kidney beans, onion, and a tomato base.  It's spicy, hearty, and perfect for wet weather.  

But after a day of chili, I was sufficiently bored.  I started thinking about this sandwich I had a few weeks ago at Baoguette.  It was a banh mi made with the filling from a Sloppy Joe.  

Could I do it?  Could I make a knock-off banh mi with leftover chili?  

I had to make pickles first.  My pickles were a sweeter kind that I thought would be closer to the Vietnamese style.  I didn't use daikon, but I did use thin-sliced pickling cucumbers, shredded carrot, sliced hot green peppers, and white onions.  I salted them to draw out the moisture and then rinsed and dried them before putting them in the brine I had boiled and then cooled.  The brine was an apple cider vinegar-base brine, with the addition of kosher salt, cane sugar, allspice berries, cloves, mustard seed, a bay leaf, whole corriander, and water.  Most pickling recipes will tell you that pickles need to sit for days or weeks before they're done.  But with a mild sweet pickle recipe like this one, a few hours is more than sufficient.  

Next, my own version of kewpie mayonnaise.  Kewpie mayonnaise is the Asian condiment of choice and it appears on sandwiches everywhere.  It's mayonnaise with MSG added and it's pretty delicious, but not exactly good for you.  I made my own spread with olive oil-based mayonnaise, sriracha, and a teaspoon or so of fish sauce (a traditional condiment used on banh mi).  

I used whole-wheat baguettes, sliced and toasted, as my banh mi base.  Then the mayonnaise, the pickles, the chili and, finally, fresh-torn cilantro.  The sandwich tasted very much like the banh mis I know and love.  

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Old Skool

The Italian restaurant I ate at with three friends last night had a lot more to do with hunger pains and being in a "cool" neighborhood on a Saturday night than it did with any editorial choice on our part.  Our first choice restaurant, actually a much "cooler" joint, told us it was a 40 minute wait. I just couldn't wait that long.  

And so we wandered over towards the forgotten, old-timer Italian places that are holdovers from when Carroll Gardens used to be Italian rather than "seasonal and sustainable American."  That's how we found Red Rose.  

The decor made a friend of mine shudder.  Literally.  The chairs had these black lacquered backs that were probably cool n contemporary kitchens in 1987.  The servers wore red polo shirts and black pants and when we walked in, the owner, bearing an uncomfortable resemblance--in both physique and style of dress--to the James Gandolfini of television lore, commented, "boy, this neighborhood sure has changed."

Well, nevermind.  We're snobs, but we're up for a challenge.  Semolina bread arrived seriously hot with a ramekin of balsamic vinegar and a handful of those tiny peel-back butter packets that I have not seen since 1.) my last breakfast in a diner, or 2.) an Italian meal I ate in, oh, 1987.  We ordered "Tony's Famous Rice Balls," because how could we not.  We ordered two.  That was excessive.  Each was the size of a proper goiter.  They were gooey inside, one stuffed with ground beef and peas (decent), and one stuffed with cheese (tasteless). They both came with watery marinara, as did our hot antipasto plate: fried shrimp, fried mozzarella, baked clams, fried calamari.  I haven't had that much fried anything in front of me in a very, very long time. 

The baked clams were really good.  I swear.  But the shrimp tasted suspiciously fishy (if hot oil and batter can't mask bad seafood, what, I ask you, can?).  The fried mozzarella was nothing to write home about, but it was decent enough.  

And then.  Entrees.  

I ordered chicken marsala.  My friend swore he could hear them pounding the chicken in the back--we sat near the kitchen.  The portion was massive, flanked by all sorts of wilty green veggies (zucchini, broccoli rabe, broccoli, string beans) bathing in olive oil and garlic.  Also on the plate?  Rigatoni with that watery marinara.  Everything was fine, though there was too much of it.  

Across from me, a friend had ordered grouper oreganata.  She pronounced it "disgusting," but the grouper, a fish not native to the east coast anyway, was always a risky gamble. 

To my right, spaghetti and meatballs threatened to strangle my friend, who seemed unable to make even a tiny dent in her massive meal.  Across from her, her husband pushed around baked ziti, which wasn't really all that baked.  Thirty minutes into the endeavor, I heard him say, "Ricotta cheese, where did you come from?"

Places like this need to exist.  They are culturally important and they can, at their finest, make you wonder if there's anything more satisfying in this god forsaken world than a bottle of pasta and a warm piece of bread.  

Not last night, though.  Sigh.  Not last night. 

Red Rose
315 Smith Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231

Friday, May 1, 2009

Outdoor Seating

For a friend's birthday last night, I headed out to the newly re-opened Trout in Carroll Gardens.  Trout is cute and reminiscent of a bad Caribbean beach bar.  And I mean that in the best way possible.  

The menu is limited.  Our burger arrived on a slightly stale bun and our Niman Ranch hot dog, while flavorful and large, lacked the adornments I have come to expect (what, no onions?).  Also, they were out of the "watermelon with wildflower honey," which is probably meant to be a mid-summer special anyway.  

But the kitsch was worth the trip.  My friends drank hurricanes out of plastic Coors Light cups.  Those drinks, never quite as potent in the islands, came topped with a heavy hand's worth of Bacardi 151, enough to get the average drinker more than averagely soused.  For the record.  

Today, I ventured out in the rain once more for yet another outdoor dining experience.  Habana Outpost, in Fort Greene, is really the kind of restaurants that all restaurants should be aiming to replicate.  They're sustainable.  In the realest way possible.  They collect rainwater from gutter drains into big buckets.  They use plastic cup made from recycled corn.  Solar panels above the restaurant patio collect and store energy.  A smoothie blender is actually powered by--get this--a human on a bicycle. 

So I could look past the cash only thing (a pet peeve), as well as the fact that the Cuban didn't live up to Casellula's Pig's Ass.  Anyway, the corn on a stick, grilled and rolled in queso blanco, lime juice, and chili powder, more than made up for the passable sandwich.  

102 Smith Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Habana Outpost
757 Fulton Street
Brooklyn, NY 11217