Friday, December 31, 2010

Market Fresh

The food at Market Table reminds me of most of the other food coming out of New York kitchens these days--seasonal, homey, ingredient-focused, and lacking a little bit of fire. That's ok. Sometimes you just need a tasty meal and, for me, last night was one of those times. Anyway, who could pass up sitting in such a pretty little restaurant, with its floor-to-ceiling windows facing snowy Carmine Street, with its colonial Christmas wreaths on the doors and windows, with its string of precious little white lights running up the bar's central wood column? I love Christmas as much as any Jewish girl ever could and I love sitting in a warm and glowing restaurant on a December night wrapped in a soft sweater and a wisp of red wine.

Speaking of wine, the Market Table by the glass list isn't deep, but it is thoughtful. I had an inexpensive (by European standards) Corbieres from the south of France, followed by an Olga Raffault Chinon, one of my long-standing favorites. It was a little young and not as dirty as it gets with age, but I appreciate any restaurant that sells a Chinon by the glass.

And so, the food.

My hamachi crudo starter came with the obligatory sliced fruit--in this case, julienned pears. The dish hit all the right notes, with clean acid and sweet fruit and a slight hint of the ocean, but it was a dish I had tasted before on another night in another farm-to-table restaurant. No spark, no fire.

Next came a generous pork porterhouse, bone-in, cooked to a perfect medium and topped with a red onion and vinegar slaw. The meat was surprisingly underseasoned, forcing me to reach into our complimentary bowl of Maldon salt for some pork triage. It helped. The meat itself was leaner than I had expected but still possessed of the perfect texture of well-cooked pork. The creamy, cheesy spaetzle underneath, dotted with fine leaves of Brussels sprouts, went down easily indeed. So did the crispy, crunchy Old Bay fries with their horseradish ketchup (which really tasted of nothing but cocktail sauce). And so did our two scoop gelato finish, a rich dark chocolate and a nutty bourbon pecan.

It all tasted good and I left nothing for the waiters to scrape into the bins out back, but I still have to wonder if good tasting food is enough anymore. Maybe I miss the fire.

Market Table
54 Carmine Street
New York, NY 10014

Saturday, December 11, 2010

In Season

I don't have too many opportunities to discuss restaurants that I believe to be nearly perfect, but last night's dining experience, at Seasonal, was one such pleasure. I started off on the wrong foot at a table too near the door and hostess stand and without wine or cocktail list for ten minutes before a lanky manager arrived to quench my thirst. From there, the night could have gone sour, but it didn't, not by a long shot. To start, K. and I ordered cocktails made with Sekt and apricot nectar and elderflower. Next, I flagged our thickly-accented server-manager-type and asked for a bottle of 1992 Spatlese riesling from Germany, a surprising steal on an otherwise expensive list. Recognizing my pedigree from my pick, my new manager friend sent, to start, a glass of J.J. Prum.

I should have known from the amuse bouche, a sliver of cured fluke that should speak for all raw fish everywhere, that our meal would sing. We wanted to eat three courses and began with a soft-poached egg, which came with rich lobster knuckles and pumpernickel crumbles and hen of the woods mushrooms. It was delicate and earthy with a touch of salinity from the sea, a stark comparison to the rich pork belly, adorned with silken quince and honey. The belly itself was fork tender, a pink plume of meat that can so often disappoint, rose to the occasion.

Next, a midcourse of consomme with rock shrimp and bone marrow and cubed rutabaga. I didn't know it would be such a pristine show-stopper, elegant and flush with contrasting textures. The bone marrow, no more than an inch wide, would have been fine on toast, but in the clear soup, bobbing around like the world's best butter, it inspired.

The house sent a second midcourse, fried veal sweetbreads with an accompanying cream of celery root, a sliver of onion, a leaf from a blanched Brussels sprout. I was relieved at its arrival--the dish was one I had wanted to order when I had originally considered my options. With our extra course, our manager returned to bestow upon us mystery glasses of wine, on him. I guessed Gruner Veltliner, from its crispness and aroma of green apples and was rewarded with a nod.

And then our entrees arrived, pillowy veal wiener schnitzel with lingonberry jam and soft, creamy, salty scalloped potatoes. On the side, a cucumber salad, cut into ribbons and slickened with mayonnaise, provided crunch. Cheesy spaetzle sent my stomach over the line into deeply full, even though it teemed with vegetables. Still, I had room for a recommended dessert: kaiserschmarrn, or dough dumplings that are pan fried and coated in sugar and spice and served with sliced apple compote on the side.

132 West 58th Street
New York, NY 10019

Friday, December 10, 2010


Last week, I stumbled into a nearly empty Sorella, a pity on a Thursday night. Only a block away, Mary Queen of Scots, the LES newcomer who denied us a table, was filled to the gills with hipsters and mock foodies, leaving poor Sorella to fend for herself. Why would anyone pass up the dense, generous beef carne cruda, or the slick pici with its economical pool of creamy sauce? What misinformed eater would have chosen an overdone burger over the flash-fried and bacony Brussels sprouts, or the potatoes with speck that arrived crusty and lacquered with mayonnaise in the style of fine patas bravas?

I couldn't say. I felt sad for the lonely, crispy, salty, herbaceous breadsticks, which assuaged my hunger before our food arrived. My sweetbreads were a touch overcooked, but their crust--it must be cornmeal--lingered. Even our desserts, scoops of gelato laced with chocolate and caramel and banana and a host of other secrets belied a restaurant that should be remembered and isn't. The food is delicate and modest in its portions. There are no disappointments, aside from the spare following. I hope they keep their doors open through another long winter.

On to other sprouts. In Astoria, on another cold night, I found myself at Vesta, a wine bar with Italian inclinations that opened a year or so ago. Upon first glance, one might think their pizzas a hair too large, but the crust is cracker-thin and so the slices go down easy. I could have used more blue cheese and less sauce on my pie of blue and caramelized onions, but never mind. The fusilli, while too large a portion for sure, came with crisped sweet Italian sausage and a sauce that boasted an old Italian secret: starchy cooking water from the pasta pot. It was a stick-to-your-ribs bowl perfectly suited to the weather. The grass-fed rib-eye is a steal at $25. I would have liked to have sliced it myself, but never mind. It came rare, as ordered, and well seasoned, which says something about the diligence of the kitchen.

For dessert, I allowed the server to talk me into Baby Jesus Cake, which is really just a toffee steamed pudding adorned with fresh whipped cream. My server was right; I was glad I had listened.

95 Allen Street
New York, NY 11201

Vesta Trattoria & Wine Bar
21-02 30th Avenue
Astoria, NY 11102

Monday, November 15, 2010


It would seem unbelievable, to most, that I, devotee to all things culinary, had never before sat down to an omakase sushi dinner. Well, for one, omakase can be insanely expensive and not everyone is comfortable with the wide open unknowingness that comes with sitting down for a multi-course raw fish meal. T. and I were planning to go well before now, but she suffered an allergic reaction to fish over the summer and was told by the doctor to wait it out. And so it was not until cool November that we made it our mission to eat through an omakase menu at 1 or 8, a stylish-but-homey (surprising, since the restaurant is all white) sushi joint in Williamsburg that has gotten anemic press since it opened last year.

First of all, the Sushi Sekis and Sushi Yasudas of the world will happily charge you $200-$300 for an omakase tasting, but at 1 or 8 you can sit at the bar and do the flight for $50, $70, or $90. We chose the middle route, sushi rather than sashimi, though I would have been happier with either. I've decided to list what we ate below, since it was mostly an undulating flow of raw fish affixed to rice with a dollop of wasabi and a faint glisten of soy sauce.

Blood red raw tuna
King salmon
Red snapper
Raw squid with uni
Chopped mackerel with scallions and yuzu
Poached eel
Sea scallop
Fluke with monkfish liver
Big-eye tuna
Mackerel, unchopped

Finally, the piece d' resistance: a thick, toro-like slice of tuna, seared on each side and dusted with salt, pepper, and lemon. It tasted like steak and that heartiness was not lost on us.

I could have lived without the sardines, which were almost unbearably fishy. Eel isn't really my cup of tea, either, but the large mouthful was cut by the sticky rice. I was glad, on both courses, that we had opted for sushi and not sashimi. I missed ama ebi; T. had informed out sushi chef that she had a shellfish allergy, but despite my enthusiastic endorsement, the chef kicked me out of the shellfish dealings, too. T. offered to buy me a hand roll, but I declined. It seemed rude, after all.

I was surprised by the mildness of the raw squid. Squid isn't my favorite fish and I tend to avoid it in restaurants, but this version was chewy and complimented by the soft, briny sea urchin. The yellowtail, or hamachi, was one of the cleanest fish I have ever eaten. 1 or 8 turned out consistently fresh and clean product. At meal's end, they offered us steaming bowls of miso soup where, at bowl's bottom, we found a surprise lurking: house-made soft tofu.

Modern eaters, in the face of heritage pork or American wagyu beef, eat far too little good fish. Forget about the tuna or the swordfish or the prawns; we have forsaken fine raw fish in favor of a little more meat in our diets. I realize that it requires skill and attention and good fishing to produce such a noteworthy meal, but it's worth recognizing that the beauty of fish can sometimes surpass even the fine marble of an aged rib-eye.

Monday, November 1, 2010


Oh, dear blog, fear not; I have not forsaken you. I just got really busy and spent most of my time cooking vegetarian meals for one, topics not worthy of you. I can't promise full redemption--New York is expensive, and my budget is nonexistent--but I will try to do better.

Anyway, what better night to dive back into the New York scene than Halloween? And of all the neighborhoods to choose from, why not torture ourselves with the West Village, home to New York City's most decorated (and possibly most obnoxious) seasonal parade. I don't go to Times Square on New Year's Eve and I sure as hell don't stand on Fifth Avenue on Thanksgiving morning, so my lack of cohesive thought when T. and H. and I decided on a trip to Takashi (Hudson and Barrow) was out-of-character and very non-New Yorker of me. Also, between the three of us, we had over thirty years of New York living, and we still needed a iphone map to figure out the geography of the West Village.

I won't get into the crowds, the costumes, or the overburdened subway that stopped so frequently that we were forced to take a cab home from the 20s. I will get into Takashi, the Japanese steak joint I have been meaning to eat at since June or July. Normally, this small restaurant requires great patience. They are always full and the wait usually exceeds an hour. There was our one gleaming prize in all of this Hallow's Eve madness: No one had gone out to eat. And so we were seated instantly, at a wooden table designed for four and outfitted with a grill top for our own personal use. First came the candy-sweet plum wine (on ice), which the generous waitress decorated with a whole cured green plum. Next, a series of delicate wonders. Here, a scallion salad demonstrating admirable knife skills and a confident condiment hand in the application of sesame oil and soy sauce. There, thick swaths of cucumber bathed in something that rose to a warm spiciness on the back palate. Finally, the appetizer piece d' resistance: four squares of raw and marbled meat, topped with shiso leaves and a spoonful of uni. We were instructed to top the uni with wasabi and roll everything on the underlying nori sheet, dip in soy sauce, put in mouth. The meat was a faint note, earthy and creamy, almost overpowered by the herbal shiso, the briny uni. Almost.

Next came a crispy achilles tendon salad, served cold. Tendon takes some getting used to, but this was one of its finest hours, cut into pieces small enough to render it chewy but not inedible. And then the meats began. We started with a tongue tasting, three different sections of cow tongue, each adorned with a simple seasoning. We were told by our waitress about cooking times (certain parts of the tongue needed as much as one minute per side) and began our grilling session. The tongue was not tough, but supple, meaty, filled with the flavor of beef that beef itself so rarely provides. The short rib did not disappoint, either. It was more like eating a piece of grilled butter. Sweetbreads required the most patience, four minutes per side, but we were rewarded with generous, clean, and silky thymus glands with a well-earned grill crust. Beef cheeks were not the version we were accustomed to seeing in a fine restaurant, stewed to oblivion and dark in pallor. No, these beef cheeks were red and white and thin and we kissed them to the grill, flipped, and ate. They, like the short ribs, came in the house marinade with a side dipping sauce that was just light and fragrant enough to stand up to the meat without subverting its subtlety.

Takashi serves any part of the cow you can think of, and that includes such delicacies as first stomach, second stomach, liver, and heart. We didn't venture too far into the weird, but then again, we've eaten a lot of this stuff before. Instead, we stuck to our favorites--fatty, marbled cuts of meat that could stand up to a hot grill. But if I make it back, braving the West Village and all its insanity, I may opt for a little beef liver and skirt steak, just to make things interesting.

465 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10014

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The North Shore

It is always surprising to me that a town like Newburyport, Massachusetts, hailed for its beauty and proximity to the ocean, has so little to offer the dining community. Everywhere along rolling hills are farms and farmers with corn in summer and apples in fall. The sea coughs up scallops, clams, mussels, oysters, cod, and striped bass. But the local menus reflect a dedication to Sysco, not the earth. It's sad to see such summer bounty wasted.

I've been to Ristorante Molise in Amesbury over and over again. I never liked it, not its massive, encyclopedic menu, and not its repetitious use of the same "Italian" ingredients: mushrooms, artichokes, proscuitto, garlic, and roasted red peppers. Recently, a restaurant consultant revamped the place and pared down the menu, offering up fewer offerings. Less is definitely more. On a recent visit, I asked to order one of the pastas, advertised as homemade, as an appetizer. And homemade it was, thick, unyielding pappardelle in a light dusting of marinara and ricotta salata and tossed with thick cubes of summer's last eggplants. The salad that came with my meal was no longer an exercise in excess (servers used to list a litany of available dressings, but this one came with no more than a hint of oil and white vinegar). It was a small tumble of arugula and lettuce, cherry tomato and whisper-thin red onion. On principle, I'm against the "salad that comes with your meal," but this was best described as an intermezzo. My entree was everything one could want from a summer meal: large local clams, fresh stewed tomatoes, yellow potatoes, fennel, caramelized onion, sausage removed from its casing and seared on a flattop. The bowl of meat and fish and vegetable and broth came with two thick slices of grilled bread, perfect for sopping up the clams' remains. The portion was overgenerous and I could have done without the tomatoes, but the plate was spicy and sweet and an ode to the ending of a season. It made me wonder why more places in Massachusetts don't serve the very foods that crop up in their local gardens.

Two nights later, I found myself in Portsmouth, New Hampshire again, this time along the water and the wharf at a place called Black Trumpet. The restaurant bills itself as a bistro and wine bar, but the wines in the 40-70 dollar range were disappointingly slim pickings. A house cocktail of sparkling sake, muddled nectarine, and pineapple-mint simple syrup saved the alcohol component of the evening. The food was uneven. Rock shrimp cooked in garlic and harissa (one of the restaurant's "small plates") was delicious, but I felt cheated by the name. Had I known that rock shrimp would appear, in place of tender prawns or normal sized shrimp, I would have saved my appetite for something else. Sauteed foraged mushrooms were woefully undersalted, but a plate of house-made sausage and torchon was a resounding success. The sausage itself was livery and more in the vein of a good morcilla. The torchon, made with foie gras and duck bacon, melted into the bread. Pickled cauliflower and carrot provided the requisite tang and crunch and a stone fruit mostarda cut all that salty with a little sweet. Also delicious was a small plate of cured pork and cooked potatoes. There were two types, one closer in style to a chorizo, and the potatoes were browned and chewy. It was a hit with all of us.

Next came a medium-sized plate of quail, cooked over roasted vegetables and served with a heap of cous cous. It was perfectly executed if not terribly inspired. The same applied to my veal chop, weighing in at close to a pound on the bone. The fig sauce underneath was too sweet, the mustard greens too bitter for my palate, and the grain salad simply boring. The dish needed something with more salt to balance the fig, but the sides were yawn-worthy. I applaud Black Trumpet's dedication to local and homemade foods. I applaud that they use good purveyors who bring in meat and fish that is sustainable. But I left a little less inspired than I had hoped to be. At least I know we're moving forward, always forging new territory.

Ristorante Molise
1 Main Street
Amesbury, MA 01913

Black Trumpet
29 Ceres Street
Portsmouth, NH 03801

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Down The Cape

We had a run of bad weather. The summer has been hot and sticky and dry, but we picked the week on the Cape when the weather changed and brought in torrential downpours and a night chill. For most of the week, the beach was out, which meant we had to spend our time doing other things (like eating).

On our drive to the Cape, we stopped at Sea Swirl in Mystic, Connecticut for fried food and ice-cream. I shared a scallop roll and a clam roll with my sister. Fried seafood doesn't really do it for me, but the scallops were sweet and delicious. The clams were mostly strips, not at all my bag. Onion rings were the frozen variety. Oh well. I should have stuck with my original philosophy: eat as much lobster as possible. But there was time for that.

Our second night in Harwich, we ate at Twenty-Eight Atlantic. We would eat there twice over the course of the week. The dining room is pretty if a notch too formal, with straight backed upholstered chairs and plush carpeting, but the view makes up for the stodgy appointments. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows face the Nantucket Sound, with its bobbing sailboats and sunfish. A foie gras appetizer--piped pate over duck bacon--was delicious if ordinary. On our second meal, I had the tartare trio (tuna, hamachi, salmon), tasty if non-experimental. The accoutrement was what you would expect with tartare: quail egg, tobiko. What was extraordinary was a fried rice cake (risotto-style) with a creamy interior, possessed of all the right flavors and textures. One night, I had seared scallops over mushroom ravioli. The ravioli was creamy and tasty, but the whole dish was a little too rich and I left it unfinished. My second evening's entree was shelled king crab legs, poached in butter and served with a corn and pea risotto. It was a harmony of salty and sweet but once again I felt assaulted by all the cream and butter and left some uneaten. Desserts were a disappointment and the only element that registered as worth discussing was a basil sorbet, as clean and fresh as August basil itself.

My first gray day found me in downtown Chatham, where I fought my way in to the Chatham Squire, a place I last visited in 1998. I have no recollection of my earlier visit but this time around, I found the place charming enough. I shared a solid lobster roll with my sister (just enough lobster, just enough mayonnaise) and ate my way through a half a dozen raw oysters (salty, briny, perfect) and a crock of onion soup. The Chatham Squire provides fish and comfort and I wasn't looking for much else.

That night, we drove to Orleans to a place called the Lobster Claw, where I enjoyed my first--and only--bona fide clam bake: 1.25 lb. lobster, steamer clams in broth and drawn butter, corn on the cob, and French fries. The ambiance, full of fish netting and decaying buoys, was nothing to marvel at, but the lobster sang. And I had forgotten, in the offseason, how much I love those slimy steamer clams, with their grit and their goo. My father deemed his full-bellied fried clams the best of the trip (he had four separate incarnations), a triumph in itself.

It rained buckets on Monday and it was difficult to get through the wet weather, but we went to Orleans for dinner at Joe's Beach Road Bar & Grille. The best thing about Joe's is their stellar wine list, which is aggressively underpriced and surprisingly comprehensive (for the Cape, I mean). We drank a bottle of Kistler 'Les Noisetiers' for under a hundred clams, but that didn't make up for my undersalted frog's legs or my overcooked seafood pasta (lobster, shrimp, and scallops, but who wants to eat chewy lobster, anyway?). Rumor has it that Joe's slashes their prices on all bottles by fifty percent in the month of October, so maybe the place is better for a bar bottle and a side salad.

On another rainy afternoon, we drove to Wellfleet and ate lunch at Bookstore & Restaurant, a fitting name that describes exactly what this establishment is. As for the restaurant part, it was decidedly New England, with wooden tables and nondescript brown carpeting and valances above the windows that looked out onto Wellfleet Harbor. When in Wellfleet, one must eat local oysters and so I did, another half dozen. But the true star of lunch was local littleneck clams steamed in wine, garlic, and butter, and served with a half loaf of crunchy white bread. We asked for two extra servings of bread and still made no dent on the pool of butter and broth at our bowl's bottom. Alas. Bookstore & Restaurant has a bookstore, too, filled with ancient copies of books you've never heard of, as well as some you have. I stumbled upon a second edition of Emily Post's Etiquette and brought it back to Harwich.

The next day, I drove all the way to the end of the Cape, to Provincetown, a good hour from where we were staying. We wandered into Pepe's Wharf Restaurant and I found myself a perfect plate of linguine with littleneck clams. The sauce, though buttery and full of garlic, wasn't quite as spectacular as my lunch broth at Bookstore & Restaurant. My clams were still delicious, and anyway, the whole meal was redeemed by my sisters' joint order, two giant pork meatballs sitting in a sea of fresh tomato sauce and cheese. We needed extra bread for that, too.

That evening, we tried to get into the Brewster Fish House, which doesn't accept reservations, but a rude hostess sent me away. Next door, at the Brewster Chowder House, I found solace over bacony stuffed littlenecks and a plate of shrimp scampi that exceeded my mediocre expectations. There's nothing fancy about the Chowder House, which is part of its charm. The menu prices are written in by hand and the focus is on simple meat and fish. The restaurant looked like an old Victorian home that had been haphazardly redone. Old flowered wallpaper still clung to the walls, as did antique mirrors. It bore an unsettling resemblance to the house in Psycho, but we managed to leave the property unscathed.

By Thursday, we could see the sun again, so we went to Nauset Beach, where there had been warnings of Great White sightings. Nauset has its own clam shack, Liam's, and we spent the better part of our afternoon waiting in the Liam's line. I was rewarded with a monstrous lobster roll (1/2 lb. of meat, the sign said) and delicate, beer-battered onion rings. My watermelon freeze, one of my favorites up in northern Massachusetts, was too sweet and I drank only a few sips. Now, about that lobster roll: It was too big. I know some people would argue that more lobster is better lobster, but this sandwich was hard to eat and the pieces of claw were completely intact. I felt guilty tossing some of it away, but I had no choice. As far as clam shacks go, Liam's was fine, if a little too expensive. We should have done what neighboring beachgoers were doing. They had set up two grills and coleman stoves with boiling water and were making their own lobster lunch.

For our last Cape dinner, we went to the Academy Ocean Grille in Orleans, where I had my final clams for the week. These ones were littlenecks stuffed with breadcrumbs and served in a thick, bready broth. In clam world, it was the best of both. My pork loin was impossibly tender and matched with fresh, sweet corn, cut off the cob. I skipped the wan and overcooked green beans, but I did order dessert, a sticky toffee pudding that demanded my full attention. It was a fitting farewell.

Sea Swirl Seafood Restaurant
30 Williams Avenue
Mystic, CT 06355

Twenty-Eight Atlantic
2173 Massachusetts 28
Harwich, MA 02645

Chatham Squire
487 Main Street
Chatham, MA 02633

The Lobster Claw
52 Cranberry Highway
Orleans, MA 02653

Joe's Beach Road Bar & Grille
5 Beach Road
Orleans, MA 02643

Bookstore & Restaurant
50 Kendrick Avenue
Wellfleet, MA 02667

Pepe's Wharf Restaurant
371 Commercial Street
Provincetown, MA 02657

Brewster Inn & Chowder House
1993 Main Street
Brewster, MA 02631

Liam's At Nauset Beach
4 Nauset Beach
Orleans, MA 02653

Academy Ocean Grille
2 Academy Place
Orleans, MA 02653

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Chicken Little

Somehow, my friends and I miraculously missed the line at Pies 'N Thighs last night. It helps to know the people who make the chicken. As it was my first time at this famed establishment, the group suggested I order the Fried Chicken Box, a three-piece fried set (what pieces you get seem dictated by chance), which comes with a buttery biscuit and choice of one side. Chance fell in my favor: I ended up with two thighs and a bone-in breast. The exterior of PNT chicken is pretty much crispy chicken heaven. New York is no groundbreaker when it comes to the stuff, but no matter. Any southern food worshipper can get a fix in Billyburg.

The sides? The sides were fine. Macaroni and cheese was a slight disappointment, with a grainy and broken cream sauce. My watermelon and cucumber salad was assaulted with a little too much mint, an assertive flavor that tends towards the vegetal in excess. Deep-fried zucchini was the perfect mix of savory and sweet, enclosed in a thin and delicate batter and dressed with honey. Biscuits, if you like that sort of thing, were a standout, too. "These are the real thing," a co-eater exclaimed. It's all about the butter. The other ladies ordered the chicken on a biscuit, one white breast with a hit of spice served in the middle of one of those buttery biscuits and topped with honey or maple syrup (it was hard to tell which). The biscuit meal is less food than the three piece and less money, too, and if it hadn't been my maiden voyage, I may have gone down that road, too.

My watermelon agua fresca proved the perfect respite from the spicy Frank's Red Hot that came drizzled atop my thighs. But what rounded out my meal completely was that final piece, a sour cherry hand pie, which is a polite way of saying that it was deep-fried. Call it a turnover, call it a slice, call it whatever you like. What it was, in its simplicity and brilliance, was a sour cherry pocket doused in hot oil and topped with powdered sugar. What better way to bid adieu to cherry season and to summer?

Pies 'N Thighs
166 South 4th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Second City

I took my first trip to Chicago to accompany my sisters to Lollapalooza, a three-day festival held this past weekend in Grant Park. The food at this year's Lolla deserves a nod; local restaurants were asked to set up shop in the festival's two giant food courts, which made eating at the show less disgusting than usual. Graham Elliot served lobster corn dogs and truffled popcorn, but we skipped those decadences in favor of watermelon gazpacho, as good as you would expect from the tatted, roly-poly chef. At Blue 13, we grabbed perfectly decent pork belly sliders, which we followed with Mexican corn and a pork belly tostada from Big Star. There were plenty of choices, but nothing came cheap; a modest lunch for three rang in at over fifty bucks.

But nevermind. The weekend's most successful culinary adventures didn't begin or end on the concert grounds. Our first night, we trekked across the Chicago River to Blackbird, Paul Kahan's minimalist spot. An amuse bouche of smoked sturgeon left me breathless, as did my appetizer of pitch-perfect sweetbreads. They were at once crunchy and soft, salty and sweet, paired with an unexpectedly delicious (and not at all weird) combination of pickled lime and flash-fried chocolate. The suckling pig worked, too, as did the duck liver pate, smoky like good southern barbecue. Even an endive salad, presented with a runny egg in a potato gaufrette and then dissembled table side, showed the majesty of simple things done well.

We waited over an hour for our entrees, a misstep the kitchen acknowledged with a midcourse of seared halibut, a fine example of the fish in all its glory. When my entree finally did arrive, it was a tad disappointing; my quail was unexceptional and the duck my sister ordered was by the book. We all agreed that entrees had been the weakest aspect of the night. We ordered two desserts and received four for our trouble and these were savory, sweet, crunchy, soft, and everything in between. The best, a coconut cake with passion fruit, disappeared from my sister's plate before the rest of us had time to dig more than one spoon in.

The next afternoon, I convinced our group to take a cab to the outer reaches of Roscoe Village, where there's this hot dog joint that everyone agrees is a must-see: Hot Doug's. Must-wait is more like it; the line progressed at a snail's pace and we waited two hours for our dogs, Chicago-style. But it was worth the wait. Chicago-style means a poppy seed bun, celery salt, green relish, onion, a pickle spear, mustard, and probably other elements that I'm forgetting. The vienna standard was fine on its own, but we got fancy and ordered a bratwurst and some other types of sausage, which came grilled and split with all the same accoutrement. The sausages' flavor was top-notch and even the corn dog--never my favorite--was the best of its breed. Duck fat French fries are only served Fridays and Saturdays, so keep this in mind if you're thinking of doing the dog-waiting thing. It's worth the extra calories.

Saturday night found us in Chinatown at Lao Beijing. Chicago's Chinatown is tiny by comparison to other metropolitan enclaves, but it still boasts great eats. The back alley that is Archer Street is basically a Chinese mall, studded with bubble tea joints, dim sum restaurants, and novelty stores. Lao Beijing is the third in a restaurant trilogy owned and run by Chef Tony Hu, this one serving food from the Beijing province. We started with chewy homemade noodles and pork. The texture won me over, even if the notably bland sauce didn't. It was no match, however, for our beef in garlic sauce, which came next, covered in a spicy sauce and adorned with wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and peppers. Tony's special dumplings look more like giant pigs in blanket (and taste like them, too). The cylindrical tubes of pork came sheathed in delicious and addictive dough. And while we're on the topic of dough, there was fried dough, simply called, "Fried Dough, Northern Style." It was sheets upon sheets of crispy fried dough, savory and served with two different chili sauces. It put every American incarnation of the stuff to shame.

We had pork and cabbage dumplings, too, as well as a chive cake that failed to resonate. The Chinese couple sharing our table laughed at our gluttony, but we had enough food for another meal. We did, however, regret not ordering the gorgeous bok choy and mushrooms enjoyed by our tablemates. Alas. Next time.

Caught in the rain on Sunday afternoon, we braved the half-hour wait at Mindy's Hot Chocolate in Wicker Park (Chicago's version of Park Slope) and allowed our cheery server to upsell us donuts with raspberry compote while we awaited our meals. But wait--before the food came the hot chocolate. Hot Chocolate serves four varieties: milk, dark, Mexican, and Chai. I opted for dark, the closest to straight melted chocolate. My sisters ordered milk, which came with a heavy hand of caramel and was a notch too sweet for my palate. J's Mexican was spicy and sweet and gone before we looked twice. Each mug came with a homemade marshmallow on the side. By the time my open-faced BLT arrived, I could have called it a day, but I soldiered on, eating my way through heirloom tomatoes, market arugula, local bacon, two sunny-side-up eggs, homemade focaccia (Hot Chocolate makes all of their own breads) and aioli. Brunch isn't my thing, but this version won me over, albeit temporarily.

Our final culinary adventure was a trip to Pilsen, Chicago's Mexican neighborhood. In Pilsen, we stopped off at Nuevo Leon, an institution since 1962. Women in traditional costume brought pickled carrots and jalapenos, fresh chips and salsa, and tiny bowls of chicken soup with stewed drumsticks. An appetizer of taquitos proved heartier than advertised, five open-faced tacos topped with marinated skirt steak, onions, and cilantro. I didn't really need the chorizo tacos afterwards, but food isn't always about need. Those tacos--fatty and served with the traditional American set of tomato, iceberg lettuce, and onion--were equally tasty, though I couldn't finish my plate. Neither could my sister, who had opted for the chorizo tostadas, crispy corn shells with refried beans, meat, and the same set of veggies. We drank our Jarritos (lime, pineapple, and grapefruit) and then decamped for the El. I was impressed by the city's culinary breadth and depth. It's no wonder they call it the Second City.

Graham Elliot
217 West Huron Street
Chicago, IL 60654

Blue 13 Restaurant
416 West Ontario Street
Chicago, IL 60654

Big Star
1531 North Damen Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622

619 West Randolph
Chicago, IL 60661

Hot Doug's
3324 North California Avenue
Chicago, IL 60618

Lao Beijing
2138 South Archer Avenue
Chicago, IL 60616

Mindy's Hot Chocolate
1747 North Damen Avenue
Chicago, IL 60647

Nuevo Leon
1515 West 18th Street
Chicago, IL 60616

Monday, August 2, 2010

Northern Exposure

I home for the weekend, up to the northern reaches of Massachusetts, where the ocean water still isn't warm enough to swim in, even in August. The food in my hometown is generally unimpressive, ranging from greasy pub fare to overpriced seafood. What the locals call fine dining I call Sysco-supported agriculture. You heard it here first.

But my best friend is dating a chef now, and even though said chef works at an equally ennui-inspiring Italian joint, he seems to know a thing or two about food. That means that my best friend, who really has no interest in food beyond her corporeal need for it, has suddenly found herself itching for haute cuisine. "I want to eat something that doesn't disappoint me," she said, so I searched the internet for something--anything--that would fit the wide criteria.

I stumbled upon Mombo in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which opened two months ago and is still showing some signs of growing pains. The restaurant itself is a sight to behold, a Colonial building tucked into Portsmouth's prestigious Strawberry Banke. The front porch resembles that of an actual home and the wood has been painted a quaint cream. The dining chairs are antique replicas made from dark wood and the room is raftered and equipped with a functional fireplace. I imagine it's lovely in winter, but even in summer, my view from a corner table faced a shingled home and leaning wildflowers and a triangle of blue Atlantic. The bar is minimalist, boasting only a handful of spirits, and the outdoor space in back, covered by a white tent, is a brick patio with cast iron furniture and one small fountain. The cozy atmosphere can't really be matched in even the oldest and coolest New York haunt. I was hoping the food would match.

First, the wine list: underwhelming, but given my surroundings, I was happy to find a perfectly drinkable Saint Emilion on the list. The chef's tasting menu was a mere $55 for five courses, a New York steal. We bought in. Our first course came in white porcelain mugs, chilled melon and heirloom tomato soup with a fiery finish of ground cumin. Our second courses were both different. L. had duck breast carpaccio topped with a poached egg and accented with arugula and green zebra tomatoes; I had seared yellowfin tuna with fresh peaches and black truffles. The tuna took the prize. Next came country pate with spicy yellow mustard, toast, and cornichon. It was L.'s first pate and she ate the whole thing. I felt like a proud parent, having opened the doors to offal. Cod came next, a fat fillet (clearly over five ounces and topped with a crispy sheath of skin) over black trumpet mushrooms and overcooked potato spaetzle, a rare misstep. The fillet came with fatty cod cheeks over black olives, cubed apples, and Marcona almonds. I had been hoping for a proper meat course, or at least a one-and-one, and I must admit I was a little disappointed. But even as dessert arrived, I knew I was very full.

Dessert was the same for both of us and I felt a little cheated with the lack of variety, but for $55, who could complain? We each received pre-dessert ice-cream sodas spiked with bourbon in tiny glasses with cocktail straws, a precursor to our blueberry cakes, cinnamon ice-cream, and grilled peaches. We left and unbuttoned our pants in the parking lot. It is refreshing to see seasonal cuisine arriving in New England, even if they are a few years behind. I wonder what fall will bring.

Today, I crossed back into the city and hit up another local Bosnian restaurant, Ukus, for cabbage pie and cevapi. Cabbage pie is basically cooked cabbage in delicious puff pastry. One piece could feed five. Why we thought we needed a 12-sausage order of cevapi remains a mystery. Our salad came with bright red tomatoes ('tis the season) and a salty, crumbly cheese that tasted like ricotta salata. Cevapi came with a large, puffy, and warm pita on the side, along with the traditional condiments of chopped onion, red pepper paste, and some kind of thick cream cheese. I might have dreams about that cabbage pie. Luckily, Ukus is right across the street.

66 Marcy Street
Portsmouth, NH 03801

42-08 30th Avenue
Astoria, NY 11103

Friday, July 16, 2010

To The Ends Of The Islands

I spent two rainy days in Montauk, cursing the weather and eating my way through the Hamptons' haul. On Tuesday night, I stopped at Bostwick's, the East Hampton version of a New England chowder house. The prices were reasonable--for the Hamptons. My one-pound lobster, served cleaved in half (an insult, really), was a scant eighteen bucks. Still, the poor beast was sadly overcooked and a far less sweet version of the crustaceans I'm used to. A side of corn, gratis with the lobster, was mushy and tasteless and decidedly not from Long Island. The real winner of the evening was my appetizer of stuffed clams, which was full of texture and salt and crunch, like a clammy Thanksgiving stuffing.

I had a lobster roll the next afternoon at Gosman's, which was a fine specimen, even if the hot dog bun, grilled, lacked butter. The lobster mix itself was heavy with dill and chopped celery and decorated with only a touch of mayonnaise. The roll was approachably priced at fifteen dollars, though I will say that the true Maine version goes for loads less. In a time when lobster is overabundant (you can find them on the Maine and Massachusetts docks for $1.99 a pound), it is hard to justify paying such premium price for mediocre product.

The Hideaway, Montauk's ode to Mexican, is a far more successful establishment. I drank a Pacifico and ate grilled pork tacos and Mexican corn, my own homage to summer. Who wouldn't toss their calorie count aside for grilled corn with cayenne, mayonnaise, and cotija cheese? The Hideway's food is authentic and tasty and causes far less damage to the pocket than any of the seafood joints in town. It is a shame that the finest food in Montauk has nothing to do with ocean fare.

The stretches of Long Island led me to the stretches of ninth avenue this afternoon, where I lunched at Google for the second time in my life. The Google dining room is run by Restaurant Associates and features a grill station, a "special of the day" station, a salad bar, a raw food station, a dessert station, a soup station, a fish station, and other miscellaneous stands with other miscellaneous eats. A map on the wall near the desserts pinpoints all of the farms from which Google gets its produce. Index cards actually spell out what comes from where, right down to the melons in the chilled melon soup. It is a tirelessly modern ideal in a world where local and sustainable often comes up short against corporate interests.

We arrived at Google on the later side; the dining room closes at two every afternoon and the pickings are slim after one thirty. I had a hamburger with extra pickles, a personal favorite, as well as a fresh cucumber salad, roasted fingerling potatoes, and green beans tossed in sesame oil. B. ate swordfish with polenta and T. ate a raw butternut squash salad. Would that all workplace cafeterias offered so many options for so little dough (and by so little, I mean none).
By the time we were finished, the gelato cart had closed up shop, a near miss. We went to the snack room for fresh fig newtons and Red Jacket Orchards Fiji apple juice and plums. The snacks at Google are endless, which must be why so many young workers stay so long.

Bostwick's Chowder House
277 Pantigo Road
East Hampton, NY 11937

Gosman's Clam Bar
500 West Lake Drive
Montauk, NY 11954

The Hideaway
364 West Lake Drive
Montauk, NY 11954

Monday, July 12, 2010

They Aren't Actually Known For Their Kababs

Kabab Cafe has about eight tables (and that's an optimistic estimate). The set up behind the make-shift line more closely resembles the cluttered space of a home cook than it does the professional space of a New York restaurant. There is one chef and one assistant and the chef, donning a green apron and hulking around his tiny restaurant--he's about six foot four and well into the three hundred pound range--takes up a lot of space. When he comes to your table, he lists of a selection of items that he has special tonight. There's no menu and you might not be able to order what you see on your neighbor's plate, since plates seem in a constant rotation of unavailability. Alas, the lamb shank that table is eating is gone, gone, gone, but there are sweetbreads.

Order the sweetbreads.

We told our chef what we did want to eat (vegetables and meat) and what we didn't want to eat (fish, due to a table allergy). He brought us cold mint tea with sugar and green apples. Next, he brought a meze platter with bright hummus, fava bean dip, baba ganoush, and fried lettuce. It's as good as it sounds. Then the sweetbreads arrived. They were lamb, not veal, and carried with them the gamy sophistication of good meat. Sauteed peppers and onions and garlic decorated the plate.

A roasted beet salad wasn't exactly my jam, but I loved the sweet roasted apple that came with them, as well as all the garlic. Lamb chops didn't disappoint, either. We were told to use our hands for the chops and I happily obliged. The potatoes and onions and peppers had been cooked in lamb fat and were dark brown and slick with a pomegranate sauce.

It was late, so we weren't offered baklava and Egyptian coffee (basically the same as Turkish coffee: short, concentrated, served black and unfiltered with sugar in the brew), but we drooled over a neighboring table's good fortune. Their baklava looked flaky and delicious.

Kabab Cafe
25-12 Steinway Street
Astoria, NY 11103

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Queens Tweet

I was invited to a Queens tweet-up last night at Dutch Kills, the bar that mimics its sister and brother bars in the city: Milk and Honey and Little Branch. In keeping with the Prohibition-era theme of these Manhattan bars, Dutch Kills is dark and wooden with mustachioed barkeeps in suspenders. In the bar's rear, the floor is covered in sawdust like the butcher shops I remember from my youth.

Cocktails are slightly less pricey than in the city at ten bucks a pop and you should order one for the aesthetic alone. The bar produces four separate kinds of ice: chunky granules of even shape and size; smooth cubes; one large block for scotches and other brown spirits; and crushed ice for shaking and muddling. My Marie Antoinette resembled a pretty little sno-cone and came topped with a chilly raspberry. The drink itself, in fading shades of red and pink, was a sweet and tart combination of crushed berries, creme de cacao, and light rum. Regrettably, I kept forgetting that Dutch Kills serves its libations with metal spoons and more than once found my teeth clicking against the straw.

As a follow up to our Queens tipple, we headed over to Sweet Afton, which really looks like the type of place you would find in Brooklyn, not Queens. There is exposed brick and all the food and drink is local and the hipsters seem to have invaded from Williamsburg. The Brooklyn vibe doesn't change the fact that Queens is clearly the borough of choice for ethnic food, but it is nice to feel like Astoria is getting some locavore chops. Finally.

The fried pickles are McClure's, of course, and come with a mayonnaise-based dipping sauce. They erred a bit too far on the side of doughy, but I'll take my pickles any way I can get them, which is why I doused my spicy hot pickle bites with a McClure's pickle martini, one of the house cocktails. Next arrived a truly transcendent grilled cheese sandwich. You can choose your cheese and we chose muenster. We also chose to add to our sando caramelized onions and chewy, smoky bacon. The sandwich's strongest asset is the tasty whole-grain mustard and side of pickles (yes, I'm obsessed).

The French fries that came with our perfect burger were an unnecessary addition to an already-full meal. But that burger... mid-sized patty on white bread with lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickle, and cheese. No mayonnaise, but I can live without. The burger had the oniony seasoning I love. I'll be back for the Irish sausage next time: sausages wrapped in puff pastry and baked until brown. Sounds right up my alley.

Dutch Kills
27-24 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City, NY 11101

Sweet Afton
30-09 34th Street
Astoria, NY 11103

Friday, July 9, 2010

Meat To Beat The Heat

Counterintuitive, isn't it? But then, steakhouses are always well air-conditioned, so steak it was this past Wednesday evening. I had read Alex Witchel's rave reviews of the old school joint Frankie and Johnnie's in the Times a few months back, so it seemed the perfect place to dig into a dry-aged rib-eye. Also, I find an unusual and somewhat secret comfort in traditional steakhouses. I love the leather and the white linen and the dim lights and the booming voices of fat businessmen. This must make me an American.

Pine Island oysters, hailing from Oyster Bay on Long Island, were buttery and fat specimens, even if they came sparsely adorned with lemon, horseradish, and cocktail sauce. I'm a mignonette girl myself, but I'll pardon the omission because the oysters were clean and substantial. A crab cake duo surprised us with a crunch of potato. The outer layer of the cake, generally breaded in something like panko, was sheathed in a mini potato hash brown that was all snap but still yielded to the fork. Okay, the crab itself--the real deal--didn't have enough binding to it and fell apart into shreds of crab and crunch, but I'll forgive that misstep, too.

I can't really forgive the distracted waiter who brought my warm half-bottle of Sauvignon Blanc twenty minutes after I had ordered it, but even he is a distant memory in the face of the massive cut of beef that appeared before me. Frankie and Johnnie's makes their own steak sauce, but there's no need; the fatty dickle and salty crust provided all the condiment this steak required. I prefer my rib-eyes bone-in and this baby was no disappointment. Garlic mashed potatoes were pedestrian, at best, and the mint jelly served with my co-eater's lamb jobs was just gross. But the asparagus, shaved expertly at the ends and sauteed in hot oil with slices of brown garlic, more than fulfilled our quest for a decent green vegetable.

But Frankie and Johnnie's was closing all around us, even though it was just ten o'clock, so we decamped for Keens Steakhouse, home to over 250 single-malt and blended scotches. Laphroaig 10 with a hand-cut ice cube was my particular brand of poison, but the bartender could have pointed me in any direction at all. "Drink what you like," he said. "That's what I tell people all the time."

The morning after, in need of more meat to sop up that lingering Laphroaig, I headed to the end of my street, where there's a Bosnian restaurant that I have, embarrassingly, never visited in my five years living in Astoria. The place is called Old Bridge Restaurant and serves "traditional" Bosnian cuisine, which, nearest I can tell, is a combination of meat, meat, and more meat. I started with a Cockta soda, made with real sugar and "natural plant extracts" (for what it's worth) and no caffeine or phosphoric acid. It tasted like a marriage between Moxie and Coke, and I'm sure it isn't for everyone.

You can forgive the modest decor and scattered waitservice when you come upon your very own cevapi, ten grilled beef sausages served in something resembling muffaletta bread and served with chopped onions, cheese, and a roasted red pepper paste. The sandwich is roughly the size of a dinner plate. So, too, is the pljeskavica, a thin beef burger on that same bread with more chopped onions. As in Croatia, where every meal I ate was accompanied by a slim salad of cucumber, tomato, and vinegar, our meal came with a crisp little ode to summer: cucumber, tomato, iceberg lettuce, and mozzarella cheese with white vinegar and oil. It was crunchy and salty, like most of the food at Old Bridge. I should have eaten there years ago.

Frankie and Johnnie's
32 West 37th Street
New York, NY 10018

Keens Steakhouse
72 West 36th Street
New York, NY 10018

Old Bridge Restaurant
28-51 42nd Street
Astoria, NY 11103

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fort Defiant

If Fort Defiance, in Brooklyn's newly-gentrified Red Hook, were a little more ambitious and on-point, it would be a great concept. Plates are small and inexpensive. One could order every item on the menu for under $150. Cocktails have that Prohibition-era twang.

If only.

The restaurant is unbearably cute, with fine touches here and there. I loved the brass leaf-shaped chandeliers and the lacquered tables that were covered in what best resembled shelf lining or summer picnic tablecloths. The restaurant has the spirit of eclectic Brooklyn bohemian chic down to a science. But the food--however cheap--couldn't stand up to the cuteness of the decor.

First, my drink, billed as "punch," was really just rum with simple syrup and a paltry squeeze of lime. When I asked my overburdened waiter for more lime juice, he took my glass and returned with a drink that tasted exactly the same as it had minutes earlier. Chicken liver pate, smooth and sweet, matched well with tiny slivers of baguette crostini, but deviled eggs lacked the requisite punch. Yes, they were smoky and salty, but where was the heat?

Pimento cheese on Ritz crackers would have been difficult to mess up, but the corn soup was a substantial disappointment, lacking texture and taste. Corn isn't sweet enough yet, maybe, but the dish was undersalted and overblended. I missed the subtle crunch of early season corn.

And then: pork chops. We ordered two. The meat itself was fatty and rich, but our chops, bone-in, were, sadly, overcooked. A side of grits was a little sticky for my taste and the side of squash reminded me of wan vegetable sides in bad pubs. But our side of asparagus, lightly blanched and served with a salty, creamy version of hollandaise, redeemed those soggy squash. Hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, slick with butter and woodier with thyme, almost made us forget those overcooked chops. Almost.

Fort Defiance
365 Van Brunt Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Here, There, And Everywhere

Sunday night, my family and I headed out for seafood, the perfect match for a hot June night. Eastchester Fish Gourmet serves clean, honest seafood, the kinds of dishes I crave when the weather gets hot. Truth be told, I feel nostalgic for afternoons that sweep into evenings on decks above the Atlantic in Massachusetts, where lobster comes with a plastic bib and a bright cylinder of corn. New York is full of many culinary possibilities, but I've never felt that the dining scene here ever truly understood a proper New England seafood meal.

I considered the steamers, of course, but they are messy and I was wearing silk. Instead, I settled for east coast oysters, five different ones (Peconic, Blue Point, Malpeque, and Beau Soleil) that were as clean and briny as any served on any fine coastline. My softshell crab appetizer was crispy and well suited for the caper and pepper sauce that accompanied it. The bed of chopped spinach underneath was a nice final touch.

And then, my lobster. They had no chickens in house, so I bumped up to the next bracket, 1.75 lbs. of pure Maine crustacean. Any New Englander will tell you that the smaller lobsters yield the sweeter meat and the greed of diners who order the 3 or 6 or 9 lb. beasts is never rewarded. Lobster is a true measure of quality since it's eaten with nothing but drawn butter and this specimen didn't disappoint. I remember a time when I hated lobster, the one food in my home that my mother permitted me to pass up. More for her, she always figured, and now I know the error of my ways.

Dessert gilded the lily--I could have (and should have) stopped after my shellfishpalooza--but I needed that pineapple upside-down cake, didn't I? Or maybe I just needed the caramelized banana ice-cream that came with it.

From linen tablecloths to cafeteria dining, my next night out found me in Flushing, back to the Golden Mall for noodles, dumplings, and other assorted snacks. At Xi'an Famous Snacks, one must never leave without trying the Liang Pi noodles (cold, thick, glutinous noodles served in a secret sauce with slabs of tripe) or the lamb burger, a spicy combination of lamb and cumin served on a thin and crispy bun. You would never expect from the dinginess of the place that this stall has played host to Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain, but they know good tripe when they see it. Next door, the noodle-pullers at Lanzhou Handmade Noodles served us beef and noodles in broth, far tastier than whatever incarnation I had the last time I came (skip the gristly beef itself, but drink the cilantro-flecked broth).

At House of Xie, another mall stall, we sat down to julienned potato salad, slick with chili oil. Then: a perfect, sticky bun filled with savory beef and sweet onions; thin sliced kielbasa, served cold; chewy pig ear cut into fine ribbons. Nan Shian Dumpling House graced us with chive and meat dumplings, pan seared. They were soft-topped and brown-bottomed, like any good fried dumpling should be from a combination of steam and oil. A good dumpling sticks to the bottom of the pan. We ate ours with black vinegar and black garlic.

Back on the street, we stopped at the duck bun vendor for $1 duck buns, flesh and a perfect square of crisped skin served on a white, doughy bun with hoisin, scallion, and cucumber. There is no better dessert.

Eastchester Fish Gourmet
837 Post Road
Scarsdale, NY 10583

Xi'an Famous Snacks
Golden Mall
41-28 Main Street
Flushing, NY 11355

Lanzhou Handmade Noodles
Golden Mall
41-28 Main Street
Flushing, NY 11355

House of Xie
Golden Mall
41-28 Main Street
Flushing, NY 11355

Nan Shian Dumpling House
Golden Mall
41-28 Main Street
Flushing, NY 11355

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Queens Vibe

It is a rare pleasure to spend the day at the beach and the night in a fine Italian joint, but that was the story of my Saturday. We started at Cedar Beach, past Jones in Long Island, where we arrived early and inconspicuous enough to pirate a small dog onto our private slice of sand. The heat propelled talk of ice cream and ices and we decided that a trip to Long Island would be incomplete without a pit stop at the Lemon Ice King of Corona on the way back.

The name is a misnomer, because the Lemon Ice King actually serves twenty-five different ices, and only one of them is lemon. Sizes range from pizzeria standard (a whopping $1.50) to a full gallon (price unknown) with a range in between. T. ordered mint chip, a vibrant green, but I prefer a fruitier style. I almost fell for my all-time favorite, rainbow, but I veered at the last minute and found surprising joy in fruit cocktail, which had real fruit floating around in all that ice. The Lemon Ice King is open all year long and if Corona was a little closer to Astoria, I might find myself saving my spare pennies for a daily ice. Where else can you sit in a park full of old timers watching bocce while sucking your ice from a dixie cup?

Our final stop was in Woodside, where we hit up Sapori d' Ischia, known to insiders for its incredible pasta. We could have skipped our sloppy mushroom salad (too many ingredients, we decided) and the passable carpaccio (canned truffles on top were impressive, but not that impressive), but we could go back again and again for that decadent pasta. Our pick? The restaurant's famous fettucini, made fresh and tossed with ham and cheese and heavy cream in--get this--a hollowed wheel of Parmesan. If you're wondering whether this is cheese overkill, well, it isn't. The dish never bores me and I am easily tired of dining trends. But that soft and toothy pasta in all that cheese was our perfect sunset.

Lemon Ice King of Corona
5202 108th Street
Corona, NY 11368

Sapori d' Ischia
5515 37th Avenue
Woodside, NY 11377

Sunday, June 6, 2010

To Montauk And Back

It is worth comparing the Hamptons to other seafaring communities, since--externally, at least--this Long Island enclave bears resemblance to them. Like in Martha's Vineyard, farms and farmstands are abundant from Southampton through Amagansett. Like in northern Massachusetts, rolling, verdant hills lead to eroding (but still breathtaking) dunes. Like in most of New England, summer means a return to clams, lobster, and other shellfish.

But unlike New England, where blue collar really does still reign except for in specific places (see: Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard), a lobster roll in Montauk, while delicious, will set you back an astounding eighteen bucks. That's right. Eighteen dollars for a hot dog bun with mayo and lobster. This is even more ridiculous given the fact that last year's lobster bounty was overabundant, sending lobster rates down nationwide. In my hometown, our local grocery store sold summer soft-shell lobsters for $2.99 per pound. A lobster roll weighs in at about a quarter of that.

Of The Lobster Roll Restaurant, known by locals as Lunch because of the large sign out front, I will say this: the roll is good. The elements are mostly there (the crunch of celery, the ample but not heavy-handed application of mayonnaise, the hearty-but-not-over-chopped presence of tail and knuckle and claw, with the noted exception of the buttery bun. My bun, while traditional in style--supermarket-bought hot dog variety--was neither grilled nor slathered with warm butter. For eighteen bucks, they should have offered me a stick to go. Accompanying French fries were wan and once-frozen crinkle cut atrocities. Don't these people know that matchstick is protocol?

I also made a trip to Gosman's, sort of the Disney World of Montauk, where I drank a bad mojito (made with too much Rose's lime juice) and sat out on the water and munched on Blue Points. Blue Point oysters are native to Long Island and were impressive in their own right, much more than the baked clam (which was a Cherrystone, or Quahog, a bit more than I'd bargained for in the chewy department) and the crunchless crab cake (which I'm pretty sure featured Maryland--and not Long Island--crab). Go for the oysters and the oysters alone.

Farther into Amagansett, though, you might find one place worth your mighty dollar. La Fondita sells convincingly good tacos for a small price. They also sell traditional Mexican drinks like watermelon juice and horchata. My watermelon juice could have benefitted from the tart presence of lime, but I will let it slide. La Fondita hawks all different kinds of tacos, but I ordered soft-shell crab ('tis the season) and carne asada (always a good representation of a taco joint's abilities). Limes and various salsas are available in a corner near the pick up station. I brought to my table all shades and varieties of red and green with the exception of habanero, too spicy for this gringa. Tacos arrive open-faced on corn tortillas with a variety of accoutrement. Soft-shell came with mayonnaise and cabbage slaw, while carne asada was graced with cilantro and chopped onions. I could have eaten twenty of these suckers had my diet provided for it.

Still, I was glad for my return to the mainland and its less expensive and hard-to-reach sweet eats. On Wednesday, that meant oysters and scallops at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. Oysters here are still plentiful and inexpensive enough, coming in at just under two bucks apiece, depending on the variety. We ate our way through two dozen of the smaller ones, a mix of both east and west coast. I suggest finding a friendly bartender who will see you through three hours of your evening, and relying on his oyster-y expertise. We did. Of course, oysters aren't the best food for sopping up alcohol, so for that, we turned to a big plate of McDonald's-type French fries and a scallop pan-roast that was a little too goopy for my taste. Certainly Grand Central's lobster is more fiscally approachable than the lobsters of Montauk and that will be the road I head down the next time I find myself waiting for a commuter train.

Yesterday, two friends and I took an adventure to the new Hester Street Fair on the Lower East Side, where we shmoozed with banh mi from An Choi NYC (pork meatballs as well as the rest of the traditional toppings) a chili kimchi dog made with sausage from Williamsburg's Meat Hook, fresh lemonade from Too Good Traders, maple-bacon-cream cheese macarons from Macaron Parlour, and pineapple-mint popsicles from La Newyorkina. Vendors change from Saturday to Sunday and I'm excited to go back some weekend for Luke's Lobster Rolls, meatballs from Meatball Shop, and other tasties. It was a good way to spend an admittedly hot afternoon and it cost nearly nothing for all our treats.

Would that it were all the damage I could do in one day, but evening found us at Kanoyama, one of the most astoundingly awesome sushi places I've found in recent days. For the good stuff, you will pay the price, and some day, when I'm rich and famous, I will sit at the bar and order omakase, but for now, I can live with an a la carte lifestyle, especially if it includes Japanese baby red snapper. Why? Because this snapper, thin-sliced, raw, and skin on, comes with a tuille of fish carcass that our server generously offered to deep fry after we had eaten our meat. First, the fish was impeccable: clean, redolent of a fine ocean, and salty in a splash of ponzu. But the bones, which I have only had once before, were battered (along with head and eyeballs) and fried and served to us with salty green tea powder. It was like the best, crunchiest potato chip you've ever had and not at all gross, if that's what you're thinking. Impressive, too, was a light and peanuty watercress salad, a thin slice of duck breast rolled and served warm, a pan-fried pork gyoza with more ponzu, a roll of spicy tuna and cucumber, an eel roll with cucumber instead of rice as the binder. Hemlock oysters, hailing from Connecticut and arriving with their own version of ponzu and scallions, were as fresh as any others I had in the past few weeks. But the snapper was its own delight and I would return just for it and the other sashimi that I was too poor to try. Next time. Next time.

For dessert, we disappointed ourselves with cupcakes from ChickaLicious, which had turned soggy and sticky in the June heat wave. Our s'more stuck to our hands and faces and the carrot cake cupcake wasn't tart enough on top for my liking. I'm told that this was one poor performance and that I owe it to myself to return on a cooler evening, when the cupcakes are showing better. We'll see if that's in the cards.

The Lobster Roll Restaurant
1980 Montauk Highway
Amagansett, NY 11930

Gosman's Restaurant
500 West Lake Drive
Montauk, NY 11954

La Fondita
74 Montauk Highway
Amagansett, NY 11930

Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant
Grand Central Terminal
15 Vanderbilt Avenue
New York, NY 10017

Hester Street Fair
Saturdays and Sundays, 10am to 6pm
Hester and Essex Streets
New York, NY 10002
175 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10003

ChickaLicious Dessert Bar
203 East 10th Street
New York, NY 10003

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Downtown Is For Hipsters

And I'm no hipster. Maybe the lack of a truly entrenched "hipster scene" is what left Village Tart empty at eight o'clock on a balmy Friday night. Who knows. Surely it isn't the tasty food that's keeping the masses away.

The food really is tasty. Ok, the parmesan popcorn, served in a wax paper sleeve, tastes little of cheese and a lot of drippy movie butter (and I mean that in a good way). I'll take my butter where I can find it. A salad of golden and red beets comes together with the help of unctuous Greek yogurt. And while the enormous Wagyu pig in a blanket, shrouded in buttery croissant, needs no help, the spicy mustard it comes with would be delicious even on toast.

Brussels sprouts with bacon and honey were too heavy-handed and sweet and not charred enough to my liking. I was hoping for some salt from the bacon, but sugar was the name of that veggie game, and next time I'll pass. I will order, however, the mushroom tart, thin sliced cooked beauties over another flaky open-faced croissant. The arugula salad that joins it, full of lemon and pepper, is just an added bonus.

Village Tart is the handiwork of pastry chef Pichet Ong, so one would expect pastry to reign supreme. We took our strawberry tart to go, and by the time we ate it, over an hour later, the cream had redistributed and the pastry was hard to get at. I'm not sure if that was a reflection of a chef's misstep or ours, so I'll make my way back, eventually, to indulge my sweet tooth.

Village Tart
86 Kenmare Street
New York, NY 10012

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Pizza Party

Pulino's, Nate Appleman's New York venture, opened a few months ago. It's the only pizza place I know of that has brunch service, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has been to collaborator Keith McNally's Balthazar. Appleman used to work at San Francisco's A16, which he abandoned last year when he decided to come east. I've been to Balthazar and Minetta Tavern and I've never felt terribly inclined to give a transcendent review. McNally's restaurants are always busy and fun to eat at, but I've never left one of his spots thinking it was the best meal I'd ever had. Yes, the steak at Minetta Tavern ranks high on my all-time list, but the other food was just adequate.

So I was pretty surprised by how much I liked Pulino's, despite the hype and the hour wait, despite the fact that the restaurant looks vaguely similar to Balthazar inside. Cocktails were fine--I had the house julep--if on the weak-and-miserly side. The menu offered more than just pizza. We started with two crispy pieces of pork belly and a pear mostarda, which I could have ordered again and again. Next came grilled asparagus spears with rhubarb, charred and perfect. Pasta courses are offered in small and large (we chose small) and ours, a large noodle stuffed with lamb ragu, was toothsome and earthy. Nduja sausage isn't for everyone; it's served on the cool side and is the texture of loose pate. But I was happy to spread it on crispy bread. It was studded with red peppers.

The pizzas are thin and crispy and cut into squares so that some slices have no crust. Discard your notions of the Neapolitan pie, or the New York pie, or the Chicago pie, since the Pulino's pie is none of the above. It's wafer-thin and charred and the toppings stay put and don't well up the dough with moisture. We had a meaty combination of meatballs and sausage, though basil leaves provided a vegetal respite from so much protein.

It isn't like me to skip dessert, but skip we did. We didn't need the calories anyway. I'm going to have to go back to Pulino's for brunch (who doesn't want and excuse to eat pizza in the morning?), or, better yet, for their late night menu, which features a burger notably absent from the regular nightly menu. Go now. It's worth the wait.

Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria
282 Bowery
New York, NY 10012

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The San Francisco Treats

I put my heels back on for some serious, mindful west coast dining. I tackled Manresa first, which I've heard loads about. I actually watched David Kinch cook--and lose--to Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. I remember thinking that his plating was pristine and unique, but I didn't really know the level of precision exacted until I went up to Los Gatos on Thursday night. It's amazing I survived the red eye and didn't fall asleep in my veloute. But I didn't.

The dining room is intimate and warm, with red walls and dark wood. Somewhere, there's a garden, but night hid it from us, which is a shame. I would love to see where the produce comes from. Amuse bouche included crispy kale chips (similar to a recipe from The New York Times that I recently oversalted and consequently botched), warm savory beignets filled with chard and cheese, and an impossibly delicious egg; it somehow arrived in its shell, soft cooked and blended with creme fraiche and maple syrup. We had to dig deep and get each yolky combination on the spoon. It tasted like a condensation of breakfast, like we had mistakenly blended our eggs with our French toast, and in the best possible way.

Manresa offers two different tasting menus and we opted for the less pricey of the two. For that, we were able to choose an appetizer, a fish course, a meat course, and a dessert. As there were three of us, we decided to order twelve different dishes, a good representation of the restaurant. Appetizers included a light and delicate sea bream sashimi, with olive oil and chives; a verdant soup poured table side with tiny purple flowers and ground mustard; and battered, fried mussels with stacked stalks of asparagus. Flowers are abundant in every dish, a reminder of warmer weather. For fish: diver scallops seared and only slightly memorable; cod with a rich and salty brown sauce; seared sea bass with pureed parsnip. A fine nod to the sea, if not anything particularly mind-blowing. Our meat courses were larger than we expected, especially given the price to food ratio usually observed in fine dining (the larger the price tag, the smaller the meal). Duck breast came with an over oranged glaze but an addictive mashed beet side. Beef bavettes were fine, as were the accompanying grain, but the lamb won the show--loin and tongue, in a sea of spring ramps, mint, pea puree. We couldn't finish.

Manresa's wine list is manageable enough and we drank Sekt to begin and then a bottle of Brewer Clifton "Ashley's" pinot noir, cheap by New York standards. Drinking California in California is a bargain. We chose three cheeses for an extra fee, and the fromager, impressed by my limited but existent knowledge of American artisanal cheeses, brought over three extra, aged provolone and parmesan and creamy unnamed sheep's cheese from the back. Pre-dessert, a buttermilk sorbet with tangy foam. Desserts were combination plates, full of beignets with powdered sugar, ice-cream, caramelized banana, cake, nougat, mint panna cotta, and caramel. My favorite was a limey semifreddo served with strawberries. I could have done without the truffles that signified the meal's end, and even without the soft caramels that came as we walked to the car. But each plate maintained the signature of Kinch's sure hand, a delicacy and a beauty that only comes with a deep love of the craft. So I admire the ambition, even if I won't ever return.

For lunch on Friday, I headed to Japantown with my friend A. We went to Tanpopo, for pork broth ramen and then to a crepe place in the Japanese mall for crepes with banana and cinnamon and sugar and butter. Later, I met up with an old friend who, for several years now, has worked as a server at Traci des Jardin's Jardiniere. After a lot of complimentary Laurent-Perrier, we moved on to a complimentary charcuterie plate, the winner of which was the stellar pate and cornichon. We shared salty, pan-seared quail and diver scallops with fava beans and an uni emulsion that mostly tasted of butter. Next came a mid-course of gnocchi and mint and stewed lamb, extremely soft pasta that still took ample space in my stomach. I had to stop before I finished to save room for the next course, halibut and a pork tasting. The pork was rich, but once again too much on my plate. We washed this down with a Littorai pinot noir. Dessert remains a wide gap in my memory, which leads me to believe it wasn't particularly memorable. But the macarons that came with our check were chewy and sweet, a nice end.

Saturday found me first at the Japantown cherry blossom festival, where I watched my friend A. obsess over spam musubi and these little pancakes filled with red bean paste. We went to Absinthe for a drink and bowl of onion soup, a decidedly good version of one of my old favorites. By dinner, we were bored with nice restaurants and had decamped for the Mission, where we ate tacos and burritos and fine guacamole at Puerto Allegre. We ended the day of gluttony with cakes and puddings at Tartine, where I've heard they make a mean croissant (they were out). Instead, I had a lackluster and very sweet lemon meringue cake and a taste of a friend's smooth chocolate pudding, the surefire dessert winner.

Finally, for my last moments in the Bay Area, I pushed through rain and cold in a panda hat to the Ferry Building for lunch at the long-lauded Slanted Door. Thank heavens for my hearty eater friend N., who was up for the challenge of eating through the menu. And thank heavens for our server, who suggested half-portions of some dishes to save room in our stomachs and wallets. As a result, we had room for yellowtail sashimi with Thai basil and fried shallots; spring rolls with pork and prawns and peanut sauce; wood-fired Manila clams in broth with sliced green peppers, onions, and pork belly; sticky pork spareribs; a large daikon rice cake, swimming in soy sauce and cilantro; cellophane noodles with dungeness crab; and sugar snap peas with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. We drank a surprisingly reasonable 1992 Zilliken spatlese riesling and came out in the clear. So long, San Francisco. Thanks for all the fish.

320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, CA 95030

1740 Buchanan Street
San Francisco, CA 94115

300 Grove Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

Absinthe Brasserie and Bar
398 Hayes Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

Puerto Allegre
546 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

Tartine Bakery
600 Guerrero Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

The Slanted Door
1 Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94111

Friday, April 9, 2010


If you're wondering where I've been, I slipped off to the west, first to Hawaii and then to San Francisco (where I'm currently typing). San Francisco deserves its own proper blog, and I'll commit to that task later in the week. As for now, I give Oahu its due.

I spent the week with an outpost in Waikiki and from there I explored the leeward and windward sides of the island as well as the island's north shore. On my first afternoon in Waikiki, I ate lunch at Todai, at the suggestion of a friend. Todai is an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet that charges a minimally-invasive $15 at lunch. Sound gross? It wasn't. The sushi bar featured everything from shrimp tempura maki rolls to fresh tuna and avocado maki rolls. Individual pieces of sushi ran the gamut from ama ebi (sweet shrimp) to octopus. Even non-sushi-eaters would find this place a bargain. The cold bar included a range of pickled salads, like kimchi and taro root. The hot bar serves ramen and udon made to order, steamed and fried dumplings, shrimp tempura, addictive barbecue pork, glazed chicken, beef, and other delights. The dessert bar features all those weird and crazy desserts you get at dim sum brunch: gelatin cubes in varying colors, mango pudding, miniature pumpkin pies, crepes with cream. Dinner is $30, but for that still reasonable price, you get sashimi, too. In the late afternoon, I walked to the International Market in Waikiki, where a farmer's market was taking place. I had a pineapple to end all other pineapple-eating--they cut it up for you fresh and deliver it in a plastic bag--and bought some brown fruits called "chicos" and some fresh litchi and green mangoes. I also bought a red papaya, because I could. The chicos are like a sweeter version of a pear.

For dinner that night, we ventured to BLT Steak, where my friend is chef. I've written of the BLTs before, so I won't go into much detail here, though I will say that the Hawaii-inspired grilled corn with barbecue sauce is a nice side, the tomatoes in the tomato and stilton salad are the kind of tomatoes that remind one why all supermarket tomatoes should be permanently banned from sale, and the rib-eye was transcendent, as usual, marked by a thick sear crust and rarety rare in the middle. Chef sent a kurobuta pork belly, braised and served over risotto, a decadent and worthwhile trinket of tastiness. Later, we ate the blackboard special desserts: light steamed chocolate pudding and a coconut mango concoction that I can't explain but enjoyed eating.

The next day's lunchtime found us on the windward side of the island, near Lanikai and Kailua. There's only one place to eat over there and that place is Buzz's Steak House. At lunch, they feature less steak and more stuff. I made the mistake of ordering the house specialty, the "Big F*cking Rum Drink," a mai tai that tastes of diesel fuel and had me sleepy and inebriated for the remainder of the day. I also had a surprisingly great prawn salad. Buzz's was generous and gave me five big, smoky Hawaiian prawns, shell-on. Fresher is always better.

On the first Friday of every month, the art galleries in Honolulu's Chinatown open their doors late and allow in curious wanderers. So after a snorkel trip to famous Hanauma Bay, we headed to Chinatown, for art and Chinese. Chinese was a stop at Little Village Noodle House for fatty steamed pork dumplings, fried rice with tiny shrimp and roast pork, and a dish simply called "volcano." Pork chops are cut and flattened and battered in wondra and then dusted with five spice powder and flash fried. Then, they are put into a large aluminum foil egg, along with garlic, and set on fire at the table. The result is crisped pork and crisped garlic. It could have used an accompanying sauce, and the portion was so large it was almost ridiculous, but it made for good leftovers; I seared the pork in oil Sunday morning for my own personal Easter brunch.

On Saturday, I met up with friends of my father and we went to the Kapiulani Community College where, on Saturday mornings, a fine market opens and closes before eleven. We arrived in the nick of time and scored fried green tomatoes with wasabi aioli, tall glasses of fresh lemonade, butterfish (known to easterners as black cod) over salmon fried rice, curried rice with dried cranberries, and fried rice with some kind of sausage. It was a fine way to start the morning and sustenance for our long drive to the often unvisited leeward side of the island.
I met back up with my host for dinner and we hunted down Irefune, known by everyone for their "garlic ahi." Irefune offers a variety of combination plates that feature the ahi, so I ordered the garlic king crab legs (messy, but sublime) along with my ahi. The dish also came with miso soup, a salad, Asian cole slaw, and rice. For $17. And the ahi? It was cooked through and tasted of a fine marinated steak. You really have to like garlic, which, in my case, is no real dilemma. For dessert, we drove a little farther down the road to famous Leonard's for malasadas, a type of Portuguese donut that somehow made it to the island years ago. Leonard's has a few different varieties, including a "flavor of the month," which rotates seasonally between mango, lilikoi (passion fruit), pineapple, and some kind of nut. We are in mango season now, so mango it was, along with plain (dusted with Li Hing Mui sugar, or the island's well-known "salted plum sugar") and custard. Custard and mango won the battle. The donuts are round and leak cream when you bite into them and are best eaten hot or warm. The mango cream is less like a jam and more like a decadent custard that just happens to have mango in it. I'm glad there is no Leonard's near where I live or I would weigh 300 pounds.

Sunday's meals are not worth a mention, so I'll soldier on to Monday. For a late dinner, we headed to Side Street Inn, which is really a local outpost and also where people in the restaurant industry eat after work. Side Street is really a dive, which is part of what I loved about it. Pulled pork buns came with grilled pineapple and a sticky, yummy barbecue sauce. A salad of shrimp and dressed greens satisfied my healthy impulses, as did some of the finest poke I've had: cubed raw ahi tuna with soy sauce, Maui onions, and seaweed. The tuna is impossibly red. Kal-bi, or marinated bone-in short ribs, on the other hand, satisfied my unhealthy impulses. We could have skipped the massive plate of fried rice, which had spam hidden somewhere in it. But I would go back for the buns and short ribs.

On Tuesday, I took a trip alone to the north shore. The car rental people ran out of compact cars and gave me a convertible instead. My first stop in Hale'iwa was Aoki Shave Ice, not as famous as the idolized Matsumoto's, but equally good. They make their own syrups and keep them cold. I got rainbow. I don't know what flavors they put in there, but it was the perfect breakfast, regardless. (Please, don't judge.) As I made my way up and back around the leeward side, I stopped first at Giovanni's Shrimp Truck for six garlic shrimp in hot oil over rice. The shrimp trucks are world-famous, and there are many of them, but I was told to stick to Giovanni's. Next time, I'll do some comparison shopping. The shrimp were shell-on and scalding hot, but were also completely delicious and dripping in garlicky oil. I saved room for Uncle Bobo's, right outside of the Polynesian Cultural Center, where I ate a pulled pork sandwich with homemade barbecue sauce that was roughly the size and shape of a nerf football. They gave me all the crispy bits, and for this I thank them.

I had dinner alone at the Honolulu version of Matsugen, the noodle master's first restaurant in the United States. Unlike the Manhattan restaurant, which is in conjunction with Jean Georges and which charges an outrageous $30 to $50 a plate, Honolulu's modest Matsugen charges a more reasonable $13. I ate soy-pickled cucumbers and drank a glass of plum wine on ice (a taste for which I share with a family member) and had fresh buckwheat soba, cold, dipped in a soup of pureed daikon and perfect Japanese mushrooms. The restaurant was filled with Japanese, slurping their soba and udon. I can't think of a more modest decent meal in Waikiki.

On my final afternoon in Hawaii, I went to the Asian grocery store near where I stayed, Don Quijote. Don't ask me why the name is Mexican; I have no idea. In the store's fish department, they sell ten different types of ahi poke and a bunch of different kinds of kimchi. The fish counter guy will let you try whichever one you want with a toothpick. I bought a quarter pound of fresh ahi tossed in soy sauce and green onion for a staggering $2.50. Add to that a quarter pound of cucumber kimchi for $1.00 and you have the perfect poor man's meal. I met back up with my father's friends for dinner and we went for Korean barbecue at Gyu-Kaku. It was one of the craziest, most frenetic meals of my life. Like me, my father's friend has an impulse to order everything, and does. We ate fried calamari and edamame and deep-fried cheese dumplings and ahi poke and bibimbap (Korean rice pot with soft cooked egg) and kimchi ramen and seaweed soup. And then the barbecue came: two different types of marinated skirt steak, scallops, shrimp, filet mignon, zucchini, eggplant, corn, onions, tuna, enoki mushrooms, white button mushrooms. We dipped everything in sauce and finished every bite and then, when dessert came, we finished that, too. Dessert, tiny pancakes grilled on the barbecue and topped with azuki bean and green tea ice-creams and maple syrup, was the perfect sweet goodbye to Honolulu.

Todai Restaurant
1910 Ala Moana Boulevard
Honolulu, HI 96815

BLT Steak
223 Saratoga Road
Honolulu, HI 96815

Buzz's Original Steak House
413 Kawailoa Road
Kailua, HI 96734

Little Village Noodle House
1113 Smith Street
Honolulu, HI 96817

563 Kapahulu Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96816

Leonard's Bakery
933 Kapahulu Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96816

Side Street Inn
1225 Hopaka Street
Honolulu, HI 96814

Aoki Shave Ice
66-117 Kamehameha Highway
Hale'iwa, HI 96712

Giovanni's Shrimp Truck
83 Kamehameha Highway
Kahuku, HI 96731

Uncle Bobo's
51-480 Kamehameha Highway
Kaaawa, HI 96730

255 Beach Walk
Honolulu, HI 96815

Don Quijote
801 Kaheka Street
Honolulu, HI 96814

1221 Kapiolani Boulevard
Honolulu, HI 96814

Friday, March 26, 2010

From Low To High

For dinner last night, I joined friends in the east village for dinner at Northern Spy Food Company, named for the famous local apple. And boy, do they do local. Not only does Northern Spy sell farm-to-table dinners, but they also sell, as a part of a shop in the restaurant's rear, everything from local soup to nuts.

To start, we shared a raw kale salad with clothbound cheddar and kombucha squash, a fatty pork pate with nose-clearing mustard and a lightly dressed arugula salad, and a side of white beans cooked with more cheddar. Dinner included a sandwich of crisped chicken thigh with a poached egg and chimichurri sauce, a flatbread panini of ham/cheese/mustard/pickled onions, and a pan-seared fillet of black bass served on a bed of nettle and watercress. The former two impressed, while the fish was tasty enough, if not quite inspired.

Dessert included a slightly undercooked slice of apple pie accompanied by a perfect scoop of almond ice-cream and, my personal favorite, a raisin-heavy square of carrot cake with a pure half-inch of piped cream cheese frosting. The candied ginger on top, though a nice tough, was completely unnecessary; I would have eaten the frosting with or without it.

As for our non-alcoholic tipples, we enjoyed ciders from Red Jacket Orchards. For me, a concord grape and apple, for one of my friends a light-colored Fuji. Northern Spy is downright inexpensive and worth the schlep to Alphabet City for a pretty little market meal.

So compare that with today's lunch, which began as an unambitious trip to Eleven Madison Park for the restaurant's "two courses, $24" lunch. Sometimes, I'd rather just eat the ham sandwich. Two courses (per person) turned into six (per person); we were spotted, and sent four courses apiece, all on the house. Lunch began with a miniature olive baguette as well as a sourdough version. Amuse bouche were tiny savory macarons, one celery, one filled with foie gras. Then: uni custard with bay scallops and apple in the hollowed shell of an egg; a "cappuccino" of lemongrass, curry, and langoustine; a salad of shaved and blanched market greens with a red wine vinaigrette--asparagus, pea tendrils, multi-colored carrots, sugar snaps, baby lettuce; radicchio with buffala mozzarella and pickled persimmon; deep-fried veal sweetbreads over toasted fregola in a rich meat broth; fresh linguine tossed in butter and served with shredded king crab and herbs; a square of crisped halibut in a broth of mussels and chorizo; par-cooked salmon with daikon; pork belly and (regrettably overcooked) loin with gorgeous spring onions and salty-sweet rhubarb; lamb sausage, belly, and loin in a broth of paprika and jus. For all that? Fifty-eight buckaroos. Total.

Dessert is a la carte, and who knows how we had the room for a mango linzer tart, pine nut and ricotta tart, and slice of chocolate caramel pie. But we did--or so we thought, until I rose after lunch, sick to my stomach. Dinner desserts are composed plates, but our tarts came with a savory vanilla creme fraiche, not exactly the winner of the afternoon. The petit fours, more macarons, probably put us over the top. The different types included pink peppercorn, chocolate/banana, toasted coconut/chocolate, peanut butter/jelly, sesame/green tea/kumquat, poppyseed/lemon, and grapefruit. Wine is expensive, but varied, but get too carried away and you'll find yourself miles from that check of $24 per person. Luckily, there wasn't too much room for more damage this afternoon. The compositions at EMP are some of the most beautiful I've seen in any dining room, anywhere. The market salad alone would probably have encouraged me to come back, during fairer weather. But lunch is the way to go, if you're willing to skip the calories of dinner. Otherwise, you're sure to break the bank.

Northern Spy Food Company
511 East 12th Street
New York, NY 10009

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10010