Sunday, November 29, 2009


On my way north from New York, my brother and I hit bad traffic on the Merritt Parkway, which somehow ended in a discussion about where we should eat. I usually don't stop at all on the four hour drive to Massachusetts, but I also usually drive alone. This time, with night approaching and my stomach forging a convincing argument about stopping for dinner, I took my brother's advice and took at detour in New Haven.

Now, he claims that he didn't really know how to get to Frank Pepe's, home of Connecticut's best pizza. I remember the details differently. Regardless, we drove around on New Haven's convoluted one way streets for 45 minutes before we found the Italian district. By then, we were famished and slightly opposed to waiting in line behind yuppies buying pizza. We made a decision to take ours to go, convinced in part by the cankle-y and cantankerous waitress who barked at us to wait outside. Twenty minutes later, a pierced pizza attendant slashed our pie (half-mushroom, half-pepperoni) into odd-sized slices and we hit the road again. With no napkins.

Let it be known that I have driven without a seatbelt, have texted while driving, and have, in my youth, made other unsafe driving decisions, but deciding to drive three hours while eating a hot pizza--pizza that dripped down my shirt and onto my expensive jeans--may have been my most hazardous driving decision yet. Imagine negotiating the road, a manual transmission, and a drippy mushroom slice simultaneously. Not good. But what was good, and well worth the hazard, was the dough, giving slightly at the tooth. And my brother and I, perhaps inspired by all good American road trips, ate all but two small pieces of our large pie, furiously fighting the resultant food coma. It was the all-American lead in to the all-American holiday.

As for the holiday itself, I reigned in my over-preparatory impulses this year, sticking to basics. Appetizers may have still been over-the-top (I judge this by the amount of leftovers amassed), but no harm, no foul. My six-cheese American artisanal platter from Murray's went over well enough, even if I did find myself with too much Rogue River Blue afterwards.

Our first-course spread included sauteed jumbo shrimp with a parsley pesto (nuts omitted), a giant pickle plate (made from New York greenmarket veggies: Tokyo turnips, red ball radishes, carrots, fennel, celery, shitake mushrooms, Asian pears, pumpkin, and cucumbers), Broadbent ham with red-eye gravy and whole-grain bread, pork dumplings with a soy-ginger dipping sauce, miniature muffins from my mother, pate from Stinky Brooklyn, and a concord grape compote and fennel-pumpkin grain mustard to accompany the cheeses.

I brined a 25-pound turkey in brown sugar, salt, water, green peppercorns, rosemary, thyme, oranges and lemons. We basted with butter and the result was a brown and moist bird, one of the prettiest I've seen. Our roasted Brussels sprouts were not as charred as we would have liked, but they went over well enough. We always make too much cranberry sauce (an old family recipe), but my brother can eat it by the bucket. Caramelized onions were a modest hit. My mother made mashed sweet potatoes with sauteed apples. Pureed butternut squash and mashed potatoes came from the homes of others. Stuffing was our greatest accomplishment: three loaves of bread disappeared in minutes. The secret: Two and a half pounds of mushrooms, fresh sage/rosemary/thyme, and four or five ounces of rendered chicken fat. Even cooked outside of the bird, it tasted poultried enough.

For dessert, I used a Martha Stewart recipe for a pumpkin pudding, but the recipe, I later discovered, was wrong, requiring too much salt. The end product was a savory custard, so to cut the saltiness, I made a cocoa bourbon whipped cream and layered three inches of it atop the pudding in a trifle bowl. Family members brought chocolate farm cakes, a blueberry pie, a fruit tart, a winter fruit pie with walnut crumb topping, a cheesecake, and brownies, in addition to the butterscotch blondies baked by my mother. We're swimming in dessert here. I'm ready to go home to escape the sugar shock.

And so, I'll be dragging home some leftovers this afternoon, in addition to a lovely gift given me by a farmer friend who works at Russell Orchards: pickled dilly beans, summer squash with turmeric, blueberry jam, and apple butter. Not to mention three dozen farm cakes. So much for dieting through the holidays.

Frank Pepe's Pizzeria
157 Wooster Street
New Haven, CT 06501

Russell Orchards
143 Argilla Road
Ipswich, MA 01938

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Gluttonday

You get the picture.

I guess Sundays are my "free days," in which I pay less attention to the nutritive value of what I eat. That isn't to say all bets are off (I was offered a late-afternoon cupcake by a friend and declined), but it does mean my standards are lowered a notch.

For lunch, I went to Sunset Park's Ba Xuyen, known for their banh mis. But instead of sandwiches, we had soups, two steamy bowls of pho filled with noodles, shrimp, boiled quail eggs, cilantro, bean sprouts, pork sausage, and boiled beef. I made mine pretty spicy with the help of some nearby chili paste, but regardless, the soup was soul-satisfying. I skipped the boiled beef, which always freaks me out a little. The shrimp was enough protein for me.

Later, I had a birthday dinner planned with a friend, but we were early for our reservation. Walking past Sushi of Gari on 77th and Columbus, we decided that we had to begin our evening with raw fish. Maybe we didn't have to order toro, snapper, and hamachi, but we did anyway. Three perfect sushi pieces came with the perfect compliments. Atop fatty toro, we received a salty radish puree. Hamachi came with lightly pickled jalapenos and my snapper was topped with something deep-fried and something else involving nuts. The pieces were perfect and I think we both wished we had time--and money--for omakase.

But we had a reservation to make down the street, at Dovetail, where the Sunday Suppah is a 3-course meal for $38 (not including extras, supplements, and alcohol). My starter of beef tartare tasted really ketchupy, which I liked, though others at my table disagreed. Perhaps they were put off by the accompanying huckleberries, but I liked the contrast of salty and sweet. Seared foie gras was by the book (served with something sweet--in this case, huckleberries again), and a salt-cooked onion was layered with unexpected shaved black truffles. It was difficult to cut, though worth the challenge. Crab ravioli sang with a smokiness imparted by diced chorizo.

My entree of chicken was tasty enough, left moist and draped with a crack-your-tooth crunch layer of skin. I could have done without feta cheese creamed spinach and I only ate the boring root veggies out of respect for the vitamins they possessed. A cheese plate did us fine. Dovetail pits old world cheeses against their Vermont counterparts. In this case, the Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen Blue lost to a runny and pungent French blue. The sheep's milk cheeses were a tad bland for my taste, though I loved the onion and black pepper jam that joined them.

I would have passed on dessert, had they not arrived in that obligatory "share all" fashion. Apple crumble was fine, though the real highlight of the plate was Calvados ice-cream. I didn't care for the peanut butter and chocolate moussy thing, and could have skipped the sorbets and ice-creams entirely. A warm bread pudding with black mission figs came with a nice glass of malted Ovaltine, not a bad way to end the evening. By then, our heads were swimming from a 2008 Brocard Chablis and a 2007 COS Nero d' Avola. The expensive wine list plundered any notions of a cheap Sunday Suppah. But then, wasn't that to be expected?

Ba Xuyen
4222 8th Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11232

Sushi of Gari
370 Columbus Avenue
New York, NY 10024

103 West 77th Street
New York, NY 10024

Monday, November 16, 2009

Celebrity Sighting

Saturday night is amateur night, so no, I did not expect to see any famous people, even though I had been warned that the Bowery Hotel plays host to the creme de la creme. But there I was, tucked into a cozy booth at Gemma, waiting for my sister, and when I looked up I discovered Julianne Moore and Family three tables down.

Five minutes later, Max Fischer from Rushmore (a.k.a. Jason Schwartzman) sat one table next to Julianne. I wonder if celebrities give one another the obligatory wave that I give to fellow runners I see in rural places. Probably not.

We were well cared-for at Gemma, despite how busy they were. A call to a friend meant no wait for us, a coveted position for any Saturday night diner in New York. My sister's Coca-Cola and my bellini arrived gratis, as did dessert. Our arugula salad was crisp and fresh, topped with several thin shaves of parmesan cheese. A charcuterie platter was a bit of a disappointment--the meats tasted a little process-y and the cheeses (two of them) were too similar. They were good, yes, but I would have preferred more contrast. Instead, we were met with nearly identical semi-firm cheeses, about which not much was divulged.

But nevermind. Our pasta had been thickened with starchy cooking water and the sauce stuck perfectly to coiled noodles, the name of which escapes me. Spicy sausage in the dish was neither too fiery nor too tame. Our pizza was paper thin, crispy, blackened in the right places. It never betrayed the weight of its (admittedly light) toppings: tomato sauce, cheese, and fresh basil. Maybe our bing cherry clafouti could have used a few more cherries, but the custard was buttery enough to forgive the oversight.

The truly epic--and quite unexpected--turn of the evening came nearly at meal's end, when a familiar face appeared hovering over our corner table. It was my New Jersey-dwelling uncle, who just happened to be an hour from his home at the same restaurant as us, celebrating the 60th birthday of a friend. He and my aunt were the celebrity sighting that neither my sister nor I saw coming. I always say New York is the smallest city on earth.

335 Bowery
New York, NY 10003

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Where It's Hip To Be... Hip

Williamsburg. Proverbial home of the hipster. If you don't have bangs and a pair of skinny jeans, may I suggest sticking to Park Slope?

I guess somewhere along the line, I, too, became a hipster. Note what my friend C. said as we walked in the door at Rye last night: "See, if you don't have a haircut like that girl [pointing at the waitress with really dark, shoulder-length hair and straight down bangs], or like Genavieve [noting that I also have really dark, shoulder-length hair and slightly overgrown straight down bangs], you'll never fit in here." That comparison scares me a little. Our waitress was dopey to the point of common thievery. Our bill, which arrived after a good long period of our party of five sitting around and staring at empty water glasses, exceeded what we had actually spent by $80.

But nevermind. The food was good. C's mother kept talking about how bare and unclean the walls were. In Williamsburg, that's cool. Maybe I would have minded if the lobster bisque hadn't been so rich and lobstery with a hint of spice at the finish. Maybe I would have been staring at the walls, too, had I not been digging into my endive/apple/bacon/walnut/blue cheese salad. Everything was julienned, turning the salad into a giant, cheesy cole slaw. Maybe I would have felt less satisfied if the meatloaf sandwich--suitable for at least three hungry eaters--hadn't actually tasted like the duck, veal, and pork from which it hailed. Or if the pickles hadn't been perfect. Or if the French fries had arrived late or cold, which they did not.

Beausoleil oysters were clean and fresh and a dozen didn't punish our pocketbooks the way a la carte oysters do in Manhattan. Our teeny tiny quail came with bittersweet radicchio and a precious mold of polenta. The only disappointment came in the form of macaroni and cheese, which is rarely a disappointment. But despite the lardon and the tasty noodles, the cheese sauce was insufficiently creamy, a rookie mistake.

For dessert, we headed to Penny Licks, a half-vegan/half-regular ice-cream shop on Bedford. Considering the fact that they still had over an hour left until close time, they were out of a good number of things, including the "penny lick" size cones and all of the sundaes. I had a half-dairy-half-vegan ice-cream, which amounted to mint chip ice-cream (regular) topped with a scoop of pumpkin pie ice-cream (vegan). I have no idea what is in vegan ice-cream and I prefer to remain in the dark. The baked goods looked promising. I probably should have gone for the red velvet cake instead. My ice-cream was fine, but nothing to write blogs about.

247 S. 1st Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211

Penny Licks
158 Bedford Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11211

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Better Burger?

Lately, I've been confronted with all kinds of ethical eating issues. I've stopped eating beef and chicken without first knowing their provenance. Michael Pollan scared me, and I'm not interested in being one of the huddled masses who unthinkingly consumes chickens that have been standing around in their own waste, pecking at their own waste, yearning to breathe free. Cutting most commercial chicken and beef from my diet has some consequences. Fewer burgers, for one, not that I ate too many to begin with. But, I must confess, I've always loved a traditional American burger with the traditional American accoutrement. And these days, McDonald's just won't cut it.

On a bus ride home from the city last week, I met a fellow food liberator who happens to live in my neighborhood. She gardens, blogs, and seems to live the perfect sustainable lifestyle. I'm teeming with jealousy. She also happens to be an excellent resource for where to find local and organic stuff here in Astoria, which is, most of the time, a locavore's nightmare.

Which is how I found out about Bare Burger.

Actually, I had walked by it before, but I really just thought it was another faddy burger joint, selling patties for ten bucks. Truth be told, it's kind of an eden. The decor--including awesome light fixtures made from those metal spoons that so often disappear in restaurants--comes entirely from recycled things. The burgers (take your pick of elk, ostrich, turkey, chicken, or beef) are all organic. Instead of Heinz ketchup, which contains High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS is not organic because the corn used to produce it is genetically-modified. FYI), Bare Burger serves Annie's organic. Instead of store-bought burger buns, they offer a choice of brioche or multi-grain, both baked locally. Fries are done in peanut oil. Onion rings appear to come from real onions. The list goes on.

I had a turkey burger on multi-grain with a touch of mayo and some Annie's. Okay, it tasted like turkey, but I'm not expecting miracles here. I also had a tiny cob of corn, grilled to almost-burnt, which is how I prefer it. My lunch date had a beef bacon-cheeseburger on brioche and panko-dipped onion rings. He's a tough customer, so when he deemed his burger "delicious," I had to trust that it was.

Sodas are Boylan's and coffee is direct-trade. What more could someone like me ask for in a place like this?

Bare Burger
3321 31st Avenue
Astoria, NY 11106

Monday, November 2, 2009

Detox And Retox

I was "keeping it clean" this past week, in preparation for yesterday's ING New York Marathon. (Yes, I finished; no, I did not qualify for Boston.) That meant a bunch of whole grains, vegetables, and lean meats leading into the race. On Tuesday, a friend and I opted for nice, clean Asian cuisine, and, for lack of better ideas, stumbled upon Indonesian at Minangasli in Jackson Heights.

I've never had Indonesian food before, so I'm not sure what I would compare it to. An egg pancake was more like the delicious skin of an egg roll, deep-fried and served with a viscous soy sauce that was almost good enough to eat straight. Our satay combination platter included beef, lamb, and chicken (though the meats were virtually interchangeable) and came with the traditional accoutrement: peanut sauce, cubed cucumbers, red onion. It was tasty enough. But the true meaning of Indonesian food was best expressed to us upon the arrival of our noodles.

They were medium-width noodles like the ones you might find in Pad Thai, covered with browned mushrooms, bean sprouts, and ground meat. On top, three delicate fried wontons greeted us. They were stuffed with an equally delicate meat. On the side arrived a bowl of fragrant broth with tiny, perfect meatballs. We divided the broth, squeezed in some of whatever hot sauce happened to be on that particular table, and dumped our noodles in. The result was perfumy, light, and all in all worth the trip.

That was my last real meal of note until last night, when, in celebration of my own feat (and feet), I lined up for a rib-eye at Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens. I've written about Prime Meats in the past, but I have been waiting for the select opportunity to sample their 36-day dry-aged prime rib-eye (bone-in, of course), priced $1.80/ounce. If you know anything about steakhouses in New York, you know that this per ounce price is criminally low. I hoped it would be worth it.

We began with a crispy salad of celery and celery greens, a plate of addictive (and addictively fatty) lamb ribs, and a soft pretzel with butter and mustard. The salad was dressed with sunflower oil, showcasing the celery-ness of it. The lamb ribs were smoky, charred, and perfect, accompanied by beautiful roasted slices of local squash.

And then the steak. Nearly fifty ounces of it. By the time it arrived, by body had started to revolt. I wasn't hungry, but I soldiered on, making not even a small dent in our chop. The dickle, pure fat, melted. I skipped the chimichurri sauce--an applaudable version--in favor of the steak on its own, showcased only by Maldon salt. The char was perfect, the meat tender (it almost did not require a knife). I ate two pieces and packed the rest up, a moment of clarity that will bring much joy during tonight's Yankee game. Our big bowl of perfect French fries remained untouched and I offered it to the kitchen gods. It was my mistake for over-ordering. But I brought the tender mushroom spaetzle home; it, too, was not worth parting with.

8610 Whitney Avenue
Elmhurst, NY 11373

Prime Meats
465 Court Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231