Thursday, December 17, 2009

Jack Frost

I should have stayed inside yesterday. I realized this after dinner, as I tried to make it home in the cold. Is it even worth it to eat out when the weather's like this?

But my friend A. was in from California, so we decided on a quick (and cheap) lunch in midtown. We went to Obao, one of Michael Huynh's restaurants (and I say "one of" because he has, like, a trillion). Obao opened in November and is a refreshing respite from the delis and sub-par dining experiences that make midtown lunch what it is. To start, we ordered pork belly skewers, which came lacquered in a salty, sticky sauce and accompanied by pickled vegetables. They were tasty, and not at all good for us. To that appetizer, we added two separate noodle dishes: radish noodles with shrimp, which were a soft, pan-seared noodle, and Singapore noodles with Chinese sausage, which were a little flavorless but improved with a helping of hoisin sauce (available at every table).

The food was a tad greasy, but satisfying enough. It's not hard to understand why Huynh has been so successful.

For dinner, I wanted seafood, but my dining companion was pregnant, which ruled out raw fish. So we headed to the East Village's Mermaid Inn, which has been around for a while. I wanted fluke ceviche, but settled for a shared crab cake. It was made with lump crab meat (delish) and served atop a very mayonnaise-y cole slaw (fine by me). All those thoughts of a nice fillet of fish were dashed in the face of a lobster sandwich, which arrived on a fresh and buttery piece of brioche. In the interest of health, I substituted grilled asparagus for my French fries and was not disappointed by the hearty, smoky spears. My sandwich was more lobster than even I could handle, and I took half home. In lieu of dessert menus, our server brought tiny cups of chocolate pudding with whipped cream on top, a slight disappointment. They tasted over-refrigerated. But no matter. Despite the cold, the lobster sandwich just might have been worth the trip.

222 East 53rd Street
New York, NY 10022

Mermaid Inn
96 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10003

Monday, December 14, 2009

Apologies, Apologies

For my extended absence. I had a wedding in Mexico, which, beyond tequila, is not worth reporting (beach was beautiful, resort food was resort food). I found myself back in professional eater-mode when I hit the city again. Actually, a trip up to Larchmont, NY, where my parents live, yielded a noteworthy dining experience on Thursday. We ate at Plates, a small restaurant run by a Per Se alum. My own personal Moment of Zen? A cru Champagne poured by the glass for--gasp!--$13. What are these guys, the Robin Hoods of restaurants? I could have scored a foie terrine for just as little, but ate the smoked chicken wings instead. They are best compared to Momofuku Noodle Bar's (I'll get to those later), but are grilled instead of seared in a pan. Who knows how they get smoky and spicy beforehand. I'm not sure I want to.

The night's special was baked ham with baked beans and cole slaw. I took the bait and was not disappointed. The slabs that made it to my plate were the fattiest and most worthwhile pieces and made an excellent breakfast the next morning. We ordered no dessert and so, in true restaurant VIP fashion, we were awarded a giant ring ding for our efforts. Somebody--I won't name names--hogged all the cream.

When we were leaving, I talked to the general manager about his suspiciously approachable prices. Champagne for $13? Was it made by trolls? No, he assured me. He just believed in charging people fair prices that would actually encourage them to become regular guests. Imagine that. A restaurant manager more concerned with guests than the almighty buck. You don't see that too often.

I guess I should compare that experience to Sunday's, in which I spirited around the city in search of gastronomical greatness. Brunch was a bowl of "rice noodle with crispy meat sauce" at Yun Nan Flavour Snack in Sunset Park. Don't go for the ambience, because there isn't any. Go for the slippery rice noodles, which are impossible to eat without chopsticks, or for the spicy chili paste that tops each bowl, or for the faint song of cilantro, or for the crispy pork bits that are either skin or belly (but I don't care what they are). Go because a huge bowl will last two days--I eat as I type--for four bucks. Just go.

In light of a great Thursday meal and a transcendent Sunday breakfast, I was hoping for more boom than whimper on Sunday night. We started with octopus and a pie (as in a pizza pie) at Motorino in the East Village. The octopus was intolerably fishy. But the pie was worth the adventure: doughy, black-bottomed, and smeared with a sweet tomato sauce.

Then came the disaster of the evening, Momofuku Noodle Bar. While we waited for our table, we drank a soju apple cider slushie, a ludicrously awesome invention that is sure to get even the most hardcore alcoholic a little buzzy. But that was the best the place had to offer. A soy sauce egg was, um, salty. Ok, fine. Our chicken wings were good, but I kept thinking about the wings at Plates, which might have been better and were definitely cheaper. Also, I happen to know that the Momofuku wings are cooked in pork fat for almost a whole day, so those calories might undo any beliefs I once held about their greatness. The rice cakes were crispy and toothsome at the same time, the perfect consistency. Too bad the sticky sauce didn't hold a candle to them. The worst tragedy of all, however, was the $22 seared foie gras. It arrived both undercooked and cold atop salty pineapple and next to a weird miso-brown butter sauce that was more savory than sweet. All that fat and you need sweet to cut it. No dice on this plate. The consistency of the lobe was so far off that we ate less than one bite apiece and then pretended to be full when the server--a former co-worker--came to collect the plates. She didn't ask any questions anyway. "If you didn't know her, I would have sent it back," my friend said.

Well, anyway. She should have noticed our apparent disgust. Also, unless those ducks are eating gold, $22 is highway robbery for four ounces of foie (and it may have been less). I'm over it. If only they sold those slushies from a street cart.

121 Myrtle Boulevard
Larchmont, NY 10538

Yun Nan Flavour Snack
775A 49th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11220

Motorino East Village
349 East 12th Street
New York, NY 10003

Momofuku Noodle Bar
171 1st Avenue
New York, NY 10003