Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Just Ducky

I'm not a big fan of repeated experiences (at least in terms of the execution of this blog), but my Monday night dinner deserves mention, even if I just wrote about dim sum haven Pacificana last week. We went back for the Peking Duck, which we had eyed on a neighbor's table that night that we ended up with the heavenly clams.

First things first. I started with a mediocre hot and sour soup that I would never order again. Strike one. But the vegetable dumplings that followed--wrapped in a translucent dough and stuffed with all sorts of chewable veggies, like mushrooms and water chestnuts--made up for the minor misstep. If these dumplings are any indication of the dim sum experience at Pacificana, it's one I wouldn't want to miss out on. We also ordered a plate of bone-in spare-ribs. They were fatty and luscious and salty and sweet and there were a lot of them for $6.

And then there was the duck.

You can order a half duck--which we did--for $14.95, or a whole duck for $28.95. A whole duck would have garnered way too many wasted leftovers. Our lacquered beauty came to the table in one piece. Our waiter sliced and diced, taking large squares of skin and dipping them in hoisin sauce before placing them on pillowy buns. Next came dark meat, followed by cucumber spears and more sauce. We each had three buns and the waiter disappeared and then returned from the kitchen with the rest of our carved bird, most of which we ate with our fingers.

This is not your traditional American duck-on-withered-pancake guy. No way. It's so much better. And at under $15 a pop, it's a stone's throw away from cheap eats.

813 55th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11220

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Gone Fishin'

I did have a few minor restaurant dalliances this week, which I won't get too far into, since this post is primarily about cooking and not dining. Lunch with a friend (and on a friend) at Mary's Fish Camp yielded a perfectly sufficient lobster roll, though the hot dog bun could have used a bit more butter. It was literally bursting at the seams with lobster, certainly not something a New Englander complains about. Also, I finally found steamers in New York. Real steamers. Fragile and white-shelled steamer clams that need the sand washed off before you dip the suckers in butter. The portion was too small, but I'll live. I'll likely take another trip to Mary's in the future for a whole fish (they had several varieties, both roasted and flash fried). Lobster roll is one of those things you order when someone else is footing the bill.

Yesterday, I decided to tackle a fear of my own and prepare a whole fish at my house. I've never done this before and I disagreed with a lot of the recipes I read. I didn't want to cook en papillote, because I wanted a crispy skin on the fish. I also didn't want to blast it at 400 degrees because I had chosen fennel, a thick and fibrous vegetable, as one of the stuffing elements. I decided on a 350 medium-slow roast and a finish under the broiler.

One of the great things about living in Astoria is the fresh fish markets. I asked for a whole red snapper and was shown several. I settled on a 2lb fish (generally a pound lighter after de-boning) and asked the monger to clean it for me (gutting and de-scaling, basically). The same red snapper that went for $5.99/lb went for a whopping $14.99/lb at the fish market at Grand Central. Astoria is chef-friendly; Manhattan is not. Back home, I slit the skin so it wouldn't rip and stuffed it with things I had in the fridge: garlic, thyme, the fennel, nicoise olives, halved grape tomatoes, salt, pepper, and olive oil. The remaining items I placed around the fish in a baking dish. Then I let the whole thing rest in the refrigerator for a few hours.

I cut red bliss potatoes in half and covered them with thyme, salt, pepper, garlic, and olive oil in a separate baking dish. These went into the 350 degree oven twenty minutes before the fish. Once the fish went in, it was only twenty or so more minutes until the whole lot was ready for the broiler (larger fish obviously take longer; we were basically waiting on the fennel). I finished the fish off with some amontillado before browning it to deglaze the pan. The broiler browned the fish and potatoes, which were completely up to my high standards.

This fish was among the most aromatic and freshest I've had in a long time. We drank mint lemon-limeade with it, our own creation, made from a dozen lemons, a few limes, and a simple syrup made from cane sugar. My regret is that the mint turned brown. In the future, I might try blanching the mint first to preserve its color.

But all in all, this was a resounding (and resoundingly inexpensive) success.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Asian Sundays

According to former-Times-writer/current-cookbook-writer/DavidChang-confidant/hippie-dippy-foodie/brother-of-famed-cocktail-maestro-Jim Meehan Peter Meehan, a meal at Pacificana, in Sunset Park, is best enjoyed with the dim sum throngs on weekend mornings.  It isn't to say that Pacificana doesn't have anything to offer beyond congee and dumplings, but evidently the cart game is their specialty.  Oh, that and the $30/lb. king crab, prepared in a 4-course meal, dinner only.  Average weight of a king crab: 7 lbs.  

Anyway, obviously it wasn't a king crab kind of night, and we missed the boat on dim sum.  That didn't keep us from the cavernous, banquet hall-style Pacifica, where we were the only white people in a sparsely seated dining room.  Like most dim sum restaurants, Pacifica presents a regal touch: chandeliers, white linen, servers in tuxedos, non-disposable chopsticks, bright red walls.  I could imagine a bustling brunch somewhat resembling a wedding. 

We started with small cups of wonton soup.  The wontons were delicately wrapped and full of all kinds of hidden gems, like chopped shrimp.  The broth tasted like it came from actual chickens and the bok choy floating therein gave the soup crunch.  To satisfy the health nut in me, I ordered a plate of sauteed mixed vegetables: broccoli, green peppers, snow peas, bamboo shoots, cucumber, and celery.  They were tossed in some kind of delicate salty white sauce, not the gooey glop that so often accompanies mediocre Chinese.  Next up, the star of the evening: manila clams in a brown sauce sizzling on their hot plate atop tiny bundles of rice noodles.  The noodles had literally been bound unto themselves. When I bit into these hot packages, they pulled back against my teeth, the perfect bounce for a noodle.  The clams slipped easily from their shells and we dragged them through the brown sauce, some amalgamation of garlic and onions and ginger and, well, something brown. 

For dessert, the Asians around us received complimentary bowls of something black and beany.  Maybe we reeked of our Americanness, as no such bowls arrived at our places.  Instead, cubes of coconut jello jiggled their way to our seats.  I didn't complain. 

813 55th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11220

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bay What?

I think the last--and possibly only--time that I visited Bay Ridge was in the late 1980s when my parents went to pick up their Volvo station wagon at the Bay Ridge Volvo dealership.  Pretty much the only details I knew about Bay Ridge were: 1. There was a Volvo dealership there, 2. It was farther into Brooklyn than Park Slope, and 3. My friend Peter lived there and drove to the train station in Sunset Park in the mornings because it was too dang far from the City.  

But I spend a lot of time in Brooklyn and I've learned that you can save more than a few pennies eating in the boroughs instead of eating on the island.  Last night was a terrific case in point.  A google search for "steak" led us to Austin's Steak House in Bay Ridge.  Decor is Sopranos-inspired.  Maitre'd might actually work for the mafia.  More than a few male patrons were wearing loafers without socks.  The woman sitting by herself at the bar in high high heels and a lot of lycra is, my date assures me, a prostitute.  Not that I really care.  A man in his 60s singing misquoted pop songs floats around the dining room with a microphone "delighting" guests.  Or whatever you want to call it.  I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried. 

We skipped appetizers, the traditional steakhouse platitudes: shrimp cocktail, caesar salad, crab cakes.  In retrospect, we could have skipped sides, too; our skinny asparagus with browned garlic came undersalted and mashed potatoes were too watery in consistency.  But oh, the steak.  I can't believe I'm writing this, but I'm pretty sure that's the best steak I've ever eaten in New York. 

It was a cowboy steak, otherwise known as a rib-eye.  It came on the bone, an inch-plus thick.  It had the black crust that only comes with super high heat and a butter glaze at the end of cooking.  It was a little too salty (believe it or not), but the meat itself had the dense funk of honest-to-goodness dry aging.  It was just as black-and-blue as I'd ordered it, with a perfect deckle at the top of the rib.  What can I say? I'd put that baby up against a Luger porterhouse any day of the week.  Even my date's filet mignon (ugh), definitely not my cup of tea, tasted remarkably good.  

Austin's is not a whole-package experience.  If you want that, go to BLT Prime, or another trendy steakhouse that serves overpriced and admittedly delicious side dishes and desserts (Austin's sources their desserts from elsewhere and we didn't even bother trying them).  But if you truly want the best rib-eye in New York, I think I've found it.  Trust me, I'm just as surprised as you are. 

Austin's Steak House
8915 5th Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11209

Friday, July 10, 2009

Living On Dimes

That should be my new motto, since I'm pretty broke. But a girl still has to eat.  On Sunday night, I was craving Chinese, and there's no better neighborhood for an MSG-lover than Sunset Park.  I required only that our restaurant accepted credit cards and that our menus arrived in English, so a brief menupages search sent us towards Park Asia, a respectably clean and bustling haunt past the stretch of Chinese markets on 8th Avenue.  Once inside, we noticed not only how white we were (a mark of authenticity when shopping for ethnic food), but also how large all the parties were.  Most of the tables were six- and seven-tops, communal sharing made easier by the ubiquitous lazy Susan. 

We ordered three things, assisted by bold pictures affixed to our menus.  Steamed pork dumplings were heavy and nondescript.  They did not bode well for the meal to follow.  But oh, how wrong we were!  House special fried chicken was a half of a chicken with brown lacquered skin butchered into manageable pieces.  Sure, there were some bones to negotiate, but the meat itself was moist, only outdone by the transcendent skin.  The experience made us wish we had opted for Peking Duck--this is the place to do it.  And we'll be back for that. 

Pan fried noodles neither surprised nor disappointed.  The noodles were crispy by turns and gummy by others (a quality I happen to enjoy) and the sauce possessed the requisite amount of corn starch implemented in most Chinese restaurants. But, oh that chicken!  All I could think was: Americans eat way too much shitty chicken.

By Wednesday I was feeling like I'd neglected the cheap and interesting restaurants of my own neighborhood, Astoria.  So we moseyed down 30th Avenue to Thai Pavilion, where, this time, the dumplings were a resounding success.  Vegetable dumplings came fried, texturally perfect, and with the excellent condiment of a thick soy-sweet chili sauce.  Pad thai did its job but my prawns were more impressive, served in a spicy basil sauce with mushrooms, onions, and green peppers.  For dessert, we got a cheap sampler plate, but the delicate litchi ice-cream is the only dessert worth mentioning.  They should serve it in cones on street corners. 

Yesterday, I had another Astoria adventure on my way back from the Rockaways.  You would never expect life-changing sandwiches to come from a virtually unmarked deli on 23rd Avenue in Astoria.  Sal, Kris, and Charlie's Deli doesn't even have a storefront sign; a piece of white paper announces their identity, below which states, "The Sandwich Kings of Astoria."  They were right.  I passed on "the bomb," a sandwich that includes all available cheeses, proscuitto, ham, mortadella, sopressata, and everything else besides the kitchen sink.  It seemed a little crazy for my taste, so I settled for a proscuitto hero: mayonnaise, hot and sweet peppers, pickles, proscuitto (they must have put on a full pound), lettuce, tomato, and onion.  The sandwich was so large I nearly had to dislocate my jaw to get it down.  But the semolina bread was perfectly crunchy, even after all those wet toppings.  And the sandwich's other half is waiting for me to finish my morning run, perhaps the most exciting detail of all. 

Park Asia
801 66th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11220

Thai Pavilion
3710 30th Avenue
Astoria, NY 11103

Sal, Kris, and Charlie's Deli
3312 23rd Avenue
Astoria, NY 11105

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The 2.5 Hour Wait

I understand that this is a recession and that people don't want to spend a lot on food.  I get it.  And I understand how "cool" it is to know about the "best pizza in Brooklyn."  Fine, whatever.  But here's what I don't get: the streets of Carroll Gardens are completely abandoned, since everyone's left for the holiday weekend.  Why, then, is the woman at Lucali quoting a 2.5 hour wait at 6:15 the night before the Fourth of July?

Because, dear readers, it is now "cool" to spend $24 on an admittedly very good pizza (my dining companion last night: "this is as good as it gets.").  Yes, the pizza is delicious, thin, larger than the pies at Roberta's or Franny's or Co.  But toppings--even basil--cost extra.  And they're cash only.  And then there's the wait. 

We had been at Clover Club first for some swizzles and pate (very good stuff, fyi), because Lucali isn't supposed to open until 6:30.  Well, that was a flat-out lie.  Lucali takes phone reservations and seats VIPs willy-nilly anyway.  You can bet your bottom dollar Jay-Z ain't waiting three hours for a table.  No way, no how.  When we rolled up at 6:15, the dining room was full and there was already a 2.5 hour wait.  I put my name on the list and gave the frustrated host my phone number and then ambled over to Prime Meats for a soft pretzel and some rum punch, served from a scalloped crystal punch bowl in tiny handled punch cups.  The pretzel came with an addictive honey mustard.  I'm told the other snacks are equally delicious.  Next time.  

I did get to eat at Lucali, but by then I was tired and a little woozy with punch.  Our large pie was sufficiently crunchy but the service was worse than bad.  A redeeming feature of Lucali is that you bring your own wine, so you won't blow your budget on crappy Chianti.  And the atmosphere--candle-lit, aromatic, and centered around the guy stretching dough and shaving buffala mozzarella in the back--is more than pleasant.  You could eat pizzas here all day, if they'd let you (and they wouldn't; once the table is finally yours, it's order in, patrons out).  

The best bet for a Lucali pie is takeout--you can pick up your pie 30 minutes after order time, which seems like the time-saver of the century.  And I guess it beats Grimaldi's, which we drove past and which boasted a line stretching three or four city blocks.  All in the name of good pizza.  Maybe that's the necessary sacrifice we make to look cool in these empty-wallet days of 2009.  

Clover Club
210 Smith Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Prime Meats
465 Court Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231

575 Henry Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231