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