The Last Course - Thanks to everyone who's read my blog, offered recommendations, provided criticisms and made comments. I've really enjoyed working on A Year In Food, through the many superlative meals and the few life-scarring ones. I wish I could've gotten through my entire European adventure and kept going in California, but I'm too busy and poor at the moment to make it worthwhile. As for what's next, my long-gestating novel will be done within the month, and I'm focusing on thrusting it into the waiting arms of inevitable rejection. I may also try another blog down the line, if inspiration happens to strike. (If so, I'll post about it here.) In the meantime, in lieu of petit fours, I offer you some of my favorite posts to conclude this last meal...
- Lonesome Hero.
The Grocery, August 4, 2005
Pizza World Tour, May 22, 2005
Per Se, June 4, 2005
Tia Pol, April 3, 2005
Himalayan Yak, July 6, 2005
Pó, May 19, 2005
Le Bernardin, July 22, 2005
Tomatina, August 30, 2005
WD-50, April 2, 2005
The Modern, April 16, 2005
A Year In Food
From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out
- Name: Lonesome Hero
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
Sunday, February 26, 2006
Special Feature -
A Year In Food - What I thought would be a year in food turned out to be the year in food. I really feel gratified to have shared so many tremendous experiences with all of you, to have learned so much and tasted so much. Now that I'm poor again, trying to cook (not pretty) and subsist on tacos, the idea of $300 dinners seems like a long-distant memory. Still, they're a memory I'll carry permanently with me, along with the perfect hummus, gorging on gelato, exploring Costa Rican backroads, discovering the outer boroughs' wonders, and so much more. With that in mind, here's a look back at 2005, three hundred sixty-five days that have proven to be even richer than the cannoli filling at Rocco's.
Best New Restaurant (over $50 meal)
1) Per Se
2) The Modern
5) Cacio e Pepe
Best New Restaurant (under $50 meal)
1) Una Pizza Napoletana
2) Hummus Place
Best Appetizer (over $50 meal)
1) Oysters and Pearls (Per Se)
2) Uni risotto with black truffles (Masa)
3) Ceviche Progression (Le Bernardin)
4) O-toro Tartare with Iranian osetra caviar (Masa)
5) Octopus, tomatoes, olives, purslane, oregano vinaigrette (The Grocery)
Best Appetizer (under $50 meal)
1) Steamed pork and crab tiny buns (New Green Bo)
2) Shrimp Pakoras (Tangra Masala)
3) Venison and Chestnut Terrine (Craft)
4) Roti Canai (Overseas Asian)
5) Herring Sampler (Aquavit)
Best Entrée (over $50 meal)
1) Black Spaghetti with Rock Shrimp, Chorizo and Black Chilis (Babbo)
2) Roasted Maine Lobster in a "Folly of Herbs" with Asparagus and Salsify (The Modern)
3) Mint Love Letters with Spicy Lamb Sausage (Babbo)
4) Homemade nettle gnocchi tossed with tomato comfit, rosemary and buffalo mozzarella (Cacio e Pepe)
5) Chorizo-Crusted Chatham Cod with White Cocoan Bean Puree and Harissa Oil (The Modern)
Best Entrée (under $50 meal)
1) Lobster Roll (Pearl Oyster Bar)
2) Pan Roasted Sea Scallops (Pearl Oyster Bar)
3) Banana Walnut Pancakes (Clinton St. Baking Company)
4) Mushroom-stuffed Veal with Porcini Risotto (Assenzio)
5) Roasted Atlantic Salmon with Soba Noodle, Soy Beans, Shiitake Mushrooms, Soy-Wasabi Vinaigrette (Bistro St. Marks)
Best Dessert (over $50 meal)
1) "Coffee and Doughnuts" (Per Se)
2) "Snickers Bar" (Per Se)
3) "Egg" (Le Bernardin)
4) Austrian Chocolate Hazelnut Souffle with Chocolate and Vanilla Ice Creams and Apple Sorbet (Danube)
5) Milk chocolate-hazelnut parfait, orange reduction (WD-50)
Best Dessert (under $50 meal)
1) Assorted Ice Creams (Berthillon) (Paris, France)
2) Assorted Gelatos (Della Palma) (Rome, Italy)
3) Assorted Gelatos (San Crispin) (Rome, Italy)
4) Goat's Milk Ricotta, Rose-Rosemary, and Meyer Lemon with Blackberry Gelato (Otto)
5) Dulce de Leche (Itzocan Cafe)
1) Butternut squash shrimp bisque with saffron (Itzocan Cafe)
2) Barbecue duck dumplings in corn soup with sweet corn and pepper relish (The Grocery)
3) Hot and Sour Soup (Tangra Masala)
4) Matzo Ball Soup (2nd Ave. Deli)
5) Celery Root Soup with Maine Diver Scallops, Black Trumpet Mushrooms and Chervil (Hearth)
1) Fried Watercress Salad w/ Chicken, Shrimp and Squid (Sripraphai)
2) French Fry salad, hen of the woods mushrooms, parsley, capers, lemon juice, olive oil (The Grocery)
3) Octopus Salad with Spicy Lemon Dressing (Tab Tos)
4) Heirloom tomato salad with olive oil, basil and sea salt (Diner)
5) Roasted beet salad (Babbo)
1) Una Pizza Napoletana
2) Trianon da Ciro (Naples, Italy)
3) Da Michele (Naples, Italy)
1) Mango-Passion Mojito (The Modern)
2) Per Se Cocktail (Per Se)
3) Monkey Business (El Avión)
4) Danube Cocktail (Danube)
5) Coming Up Roses (The Bar Room at the Modern)
1) Sesame bagel with lox, tomato and cream cheese (Russ and Daughters)
2) Classic Vietnamese Sandwich (Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches)
3) Doner kebab (Imbiss International) (Berlin, Germany)
4) Pastrami sandwich on rye (Katz’s Deli)
5) Arepa con Perico y Carne Mechada (Caracas Arepas Bar)
Best Day of Eating
1) May 22 - Pizza World Tour
2) Jan. 30 - Three Meals Under $30
3) Apr. 3 - From Jewish to Spanish
4) Jul. 10 - Asian Adventure
5) Jul. 25 - Dessert World Tour
1) Per Se
2) Le Bernardin
And finally, here is a list of my favorite 50 meals and my favorite dish at each place...
1) Per Se - Oysters and Pearls
2) Masa - Uni risotto
3) The Modern - Roasted Maine Lobster in a "Folly of Herbs" with Asparagus and Salsify
4) Sripraphai - Fried Watercress Salad w/ Chicken, Shrimp and Squid
5) Babbo - Black Spaghetti with Rock Shrimp, Chorizo and Black Chilis
6) Una Pizza Napoletana - Margherita Pizza
7) The Grocery - Barbecue duck dumplings in corn soup with sweet corn and pepper relish
9) Cal Pep (Barcelona, Spain) – Fried shrimp, calamari and sardines
10) Danube - Maine Day Boat Lobster with Sunchoke, Mango, Hon-Shimeji Mushrooms and a Saffron Curry Broth
11) Craft - Venison and Chestnut Terrine
12) Itzocan Café - Dulce de Leche
13) Pearl Oyster Bar - Lobster Roll
14) Tangra Masala - Hot and Sour Soup
15) Russ and Daughters - Sesame bagel with lox, tomato and cream cheese
16) Devi - Tandoor Grilled Lamb Chops with pear chutney and curry leaf potatoes
17) Da Michele (Naples, Italy) – Margherita Pizza
18) Le Bernardin - Ceviche Progression
19) Tia Pol - Patatas Bravas
20) Hummus Place - Hummus Tahini
21) DiFara - Plain square
22) Sac Buregdzinica (Sarajevo, Bosnia) – Beef burek
23) Taqueria Cancun (San Francisco, CA) – Al pastor taco
24) Franny’s - Tomato and Mozzarella with House-Cured Garlic Sausage Pizza
25) Grimaldi’s - Pepperoni pizza
26) Denino’s - Sausage and mushroom pizza
27) Al Di La - Malfatti
28) Pó - Tortelloni with Ricotta and Ramps in a White Butter Truffle Sauce
29) Cacio e Pepe - Homemade nettle gnocchi tossed with tomato comfit, rosemary and buffalo
30) Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches - Classic Vietnamese Sandwich
31) Imbiss International (Berlin, Germany) – Doner Kebab
32) Congee Village - Lobster Congee
33) Shake Shack - Double Shack Burger
34) Khushie - Chicken Kali Mirch
35) WD-50 - Slow poached egg, parmesan broth, tomato
36) Rose Water - Kevin's Farm Grilled Chicken With Mustard Greens, Falafel, and Roasted Pumpkin Seed Sauce
37) New Green Bo - Steamed pork and crab tiny buns
38) Shimizu - O-Toro sushi
39) Taverna Kyclades - Roe dip
40) Mercadito - Shrimp Tacos
41) 2nd Ave. Deli - Matzoh Ball Soup
42) Dix Vins (Paris, France) - Entrecote
43) Otto - Goat's Milk Ricotta, Rose-Rosemary, and Meyer Lemon with Blackberry Gelato
44) TiJo's (Paris, France) - Grand Marnier crepe
45) Itzocan Bistro - Pumpkin Seed-Crusted Red Snapper with Zucchini
46) Assenzio - Mozzarella-stuffed Veal with Porcini Mushroom Risotto
47) Sorbillo Pizza (Naples, Italy) - Calzone
48) Nougatine - Slow-Baked Salmon with Pad Thai
49) Overseas Asian Restaurant - Roti Canai
50) Tacos Matamoros- Al pastor taco
Sunday, February 19, 2006
Taqueria Cancun - 2288 Mission St., Mission District, San Francisco
An al pastor taco, a carnitas taco, a Mandarin Jarritos
It’s different in San Francisco. The architecture here is painted in colorful pastels, the sky rivals London for all the shades of grey it can turn, I’m treated to daily views of the Golden Gate Bridge outside my window. It’s beautiful and calm, it’s lonely and foreign, it’s overwhelming and exciting. I’ve been exploring the sights like a fourteenth-century conquistador, walking the city out of breath from its insurmountable hills.
One particular area of interest for me is the Mission District. Before I settled in the Richmond, with its alluring mix of Hakka joints and Russian bakeries, I was planning on living there. It was the closest thing to my beloved East Village, my friends told me. And though I’ve found it closer to a mashup of Sunset Park and the Lower East Side, it’s still an intriguing cross-section of thrift shops, homeless people, swank bars and taquerias.
Knowing me, the taquerias came first and foremost. I did my research, and learned about Taqueria Cancun, which has won more superlatives than a high school beauty queen. It sounded delicious and the prices were extremely affordable so I anointed it my first official meal in my new city. As I walked in, the smells of frying beef were thick in the air and a homeless man in a ragged suit was screaming. A punk girl with a scissor-sharp mohawk was ordering a burrito. Her cuter friend had piercings up and down her face.
Eager to show off my newfound knowledge, I stepped up ordered an al pastor taco and one with carnitas. I trilled my R’s, flaunting my accent from my days of presiding over the Spanish Honor Society. I did my best not to drool as I watched the line cooks scrabble together the meal. Then I took my free basket of chips, and picked up my first grilled tortilla. To my mostly uninitiated taste buds, it proved to be an experience, an event. Not just good Mexican, but outstanding, soul-shaking, rapturous Mexican. I tasted flavors on some other level, a tango of cilantro, hot sauce and tender, seasoned meat, simple and unpretentious but oh so necessary. It was as good a welcome mat to my new home as I could hope for.
Of my two tacos I had, I preferred the al pastor, but compared to any others I’ve had, both easily ranked at the top. Next time, if I decide to brave Fear Factor territory, I may even try the tripe or brains also tantalizingly featured on the menu. Whatever I get, there’s no doubt that I’ll be back at Taqueria Cancun to keep being amazed, while also checking out the hundred other taquerias within walking distance.
After so many incredible food experiences in 2005, I was surprised and grateful that one last one snuck in under the wire. After so many highlights, I couldn’t believe that something could still taste so new and unknown. So while I may have given up great bagels in the trade, my Cancun trip made coastal differences seem ever more beautiful. 9/10
Thursday, January 26, 2006
Special Feature -
All About Me(me) - I've kindly been tagged for memes before by some very cool blogs and I've always meant to answer them. But then I'd see a turkey reuben or a jar of cilantro chutney, and I'd get distracted. But no more! Goaded into disclosure by Mona's Apple's very own Mona, here's an exclusive glimpse at the man behind the stomach:
Four Jobs I've Had in My Life:
1. Editorial Associate at a small publishing house
2. Paralegal at a large, soul-numbing corporate law firm
3. Minimum wage librarian
4. "Sandwich artist" at Subway (Fuck yeah!)
Four Movies I Could (and I do) Watch Over and Over:
2. Waking Life
3. In the Mood for Love
Four Places I've Lived:
1. San Francisco, CA - now
2. New York, NY - before now
3. Charlottesville, Virginia - before before now
4. Staten Island, NY - before before before now
Four TV Shows I Love to Watch:
1. Freaks and Geeks
2. Nowhere Man
4. The Wire
Four Places I Have Been on Vacation:
1. Costa Rica
Four Websites I Visit Daily:
1. Prefix Mag
2. The New York Times
3. Le Monde
4. The Delicious Life
Four of My Favorite Foods:
1. blood oranges
2. spinach paratha
3. lox and cream cheese
Four Places I Would Rather Be Right Now:
1. The Delicious Life
2. Amateur Gourmet
3. The Taste Land
4. Eat Drink One Woman
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Shake Shack - Madison Square Park, Gramercy Park
Double Shack Burger, cup of pumpkin frozen custard
Maybe I forgot. Maybe the formula was tweaked. Maybe the products got even better while I was gone. Whatever it involved, I was blown away on that wintry night I made my return to Shake Shack. Already my favorite burger, it managed to become even better, literally rolling my eyes back with total pleasure. The meat is probably the key, its premium pedigree distinguishing itself from its burger competitors. But all of the other ingredients played their part too, from the warm, melted cheese to the soft bun to the creamy complement of secret Shack Sauce. Even as I type this, my mouth’s drooling from the memory. A knowing smile is lifting my lips. It was that good.
Somewhat disappointed with the concrete and the shake on my last trips (see May 3, Apr. 10) I decided to give dessert one last try. After such a satisfying entrée, it was a risk, but I hadn’t had any sugar in about, oh, two hours. Also tempting was that the frozen custard now came in the special seasonal flavor of pumpkin. So, ignoring the bitter temperature and the icy wind, I stepped back up the counter and bravely ordered away. Finally, letting out a sigh of relief and enjoyment, I’d found a fitting end to a terrific meal. The pumpkin custard was like a great Thanksgiving pie in scoop form. With dashes of cinnamon and a thick but soft consistency, it was even good enough to stand alone, a success in its own right. By the end of the meal, I’d decided that I must’ve forgotten just how incredible Shake Shack could be. It’s not a mistake I’ll be making again. 9/10
A Hamburger Today's May review of Shake Shack
Thursday, January 12, 2006
Tacos Matamoros - 4503 5th Ave., Sunset Park, Brooklyn
Two al pastor tacos, a chorizo taco, chalupas mixtas, some of Ganda's shrimp cocktail, an horchata, a lemon-lime Jarritos
My friend Dario asked me one day why Mexican food was subpar in New York. In a city that excels in so many nationalities, it feels like people have pretty much ceded the wonders of tacos and burritos to the West Coast. And while there are some bright spots that tweak the formula (Itzocan Café, Bonita), outstanding straightforward Mexican fare is pretty hard to find.
Still, I knew that it had to be out there after I checked in on other food blogs. The most promising lead was Ganda’s impassioned defense of Sunset Park’s Tacos Matamoros on her site Eat Drink One Woman. There, she called it the best tacos in the city, in caps no less, a tall claim to make and one that I just had to investigate.
Ganda and I decided to meet up just after Thanksgiving, when the effects of turkey and tryptophan had time to wear off. On a dark and frigid night, I made my way down to Sunset Park, a neighborhood I’d only been to a few times. It boasted a densely Mexican community, a fact that boded well for the food. Through the drizzle, I also walked by a busy Taco Bell, a fact that foretold of less promising results.
It quickly became obvious though that I was in the hands of an expert. Ganda, who grew up in Los Angeles and went to school in Berkeley, had grown up on great Mexican food. She elaborated on the differences between Southern and Northern Californian Mexican (the former is closer to the food in Mexico). Living in the area, she’d also had time to master the Matamoros menu and provide some helpful recommendations. I went along with everything she suggested.
At the top of her to-do list was the al pastor taco, which is roasted pork that came seasoned with cilantro and salsa. We both ordered two in Spanish from the friendly waitress – I added my obligatory caveat “sin cebollas” – and I also added a chorizo taco. Ganda got a plate of chalupas mixtas, alternating between red and green salsa, for us to share.
She also ordered another favorite of hers, the shrimp cocktail, whose description she nails in her own review: “served just like it is in Mexico City, in a tall old-fashioned sundae glass, [t]he cocktail sauce is pretty sweet, chock full of creamy ripe avocado cubes and a ton of impossibly fresh, plump shrimp.” The taste I got of it ensured that I would definitely get one for myself next time.
Through dinner, Ganda and I talked about my imminent move to San Francisco and she started to list all of the amazing restaurants I needed to visit. It was nice to meet someone whose eyes bugged out in joy over a perfect bowl of pho or a transcendent baguette. Her recs gained even more credence when I took a bite of my al pastor taco. The flavors were bold, lively and exciting. The chorizo, which I’ve loved ever since my first trip to Spain, was nearly as good, with an oily heat that lit up my taste buds. Everything else was also consistently great, from the sharply flavored chalupas with their crispy corn bases, to the horchata, the cinnamon drink that I enjoyed in Valencia.
By the end of my meal, I walked to the subway on quite a high. Meeting Ganda was a pleasure, and our one conversation that night made me more eager to move to the West Coast than any number of travel brochures and guidebooks. I also knew that I now had an answer for Dario. Though New York may still not be able to compete head-on with California, its Mexican gems are much like any other ethnic food in the city: They just require a little digging and a dependable guide to be unearthed. 8/10
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
On The Move - So I arrived in San Francisco last night and today, I already had my first day at work. I'm now a copy editor at a small publishing house and I'm already waist-deep in manuscripts. As such, I'm taking a brief hiatus as I get adjusted to a whole new city and a whole new set of circumstances. (Anyone have a great cheap studio for me to move into?) But with a new state comes many exciting new food possibilities, along with a lot more posts from Europe and New York still to come...
Update: I now have a great cheap studio!
Friday, December 09, 2005
Copenhagen, Part Three - Supermarkets in Europe can be a real experience. They can range anywhere from the palatial Auchan in Bordeaux to the dingy, depressing aisles of Netto in Copenhagen. The latter looked like some holdover from a Bolshevik-era Baltic state, with sparely stocked shelves and unappetizing options. Even exiting was an issue, as the only way out involved pushing past the staggeringly long lines at the one open checkout. After giving Netto a few chances, we resolved to go to the Irma a few doors down instead. It was more expensive, a concern in already-expensive Copenhagen, but its relatively large layout and recognizable products made it seem like a Whole Foods in comparison.
At the Irma, I bought my breakfast that morning. Once again, I went with a jar of trustworthy taramosalata, but in the name of innovation, paired it with a package of garlic-coriander naan. Vince and I found a nearby park to sit in, not a difficult task in Denmark, and I proceeded to attempt my Greek-Indian fusion. It was mostly a tasty success, though the bread itself was too dry and boring. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if my idea inspires a trailblazing restaurant called Curry Roe or Athen’s Delhi.
From there, we set off on our day’s itinerary. Because it was Wednesday, all of Denmark’s museum were free, so we started with visits to the Staten Museum for Kunst and the National Museum. The Staten Museum for Kunst, or the State Museum for Fine Arts, was renovating its gallery space, so walls that usually displayed four paintings now had fifty. It made for a novel though overwhelming viewing experience, as any one room saturated hundreds of works mere inches away from each other. Still, the power of the collection, which spotlighted Danish art and covered the centuries admirably, made it a valuable visit. Less interesting was the National Museum. There, we checked out a special exhibit about toys, but it was only a paltry few rooms of stuffed animals and soldiers.
After the museums, we went to Christiania, a spot that I’d been eagerly awaiting. It was a commune that operated independently from the rest of Copenhagen, populated by hoards of hippies, squatters and radicals. It was, until 2003, considered very dangerous, because of the heavy sales of hard drugs and a tendency toward violence, with the worst offender being the notorious Pusher Street. Since then, the increasingly conservative government has cracked down on alternative Christiania, with aggressive raids that closed down the drug shops. It's tried to bring the “free state” under control, while threatening to shut it down permanently.
Christiania ended up being very interesting though also at times, uncomfortable and depressing. On the positive side, the omnipresent graffiti was beautiful and passionate. For an aficionado like me, it was startling, almost as inspiring as all the walls of the Staten Museum. Also, it was nice to see a self-sustaining community, complete with bars, homes, vegetarian restaurants, and communal meeting areas. (It’s impossible to buy property in Christiania. When a space becomes available, the community decides who can move into it.) On the other hand though, so much of the area was in disrepair, with bare barracks and broken-down shacks serving as shelters. Many of the inhabitants looked dirty and unhealthy, smoking and drinking throughout our visit. Dirty dogs roamed around too.
There were many other downsides. For one, the police presence created an uneasy tension between the residents and the officers. At one point, some of the drunk and angry residents got into the faces of the cops, chanting and screaming for them to leave. Also, in order to supplement their incomes, some of the Christiania population sell cheap souvenirs to tourists and operate more expensive, tourist-friendly places, diluting the character of the independent-minded community. Lastly, for all of its trouble over drugs, the problem still lingers, both for residents who use and visitors. Throughout our walk, men in trenchcoats whisper-asked if I wanted hash or coke. My stress-free experience in Amsterdam seemed to make more sense by the minute.
After spending about forty minutes there, I was glad to have seen Christiania, but I was also glad to leave. While I respect the counterculture, my experience there also highlighted many of the shortfalls of isolated life. So we headed back to society, where we again had to choose a dinner option for the night. Tonight, Vince suggested Middle Eastern, which seemed just as curious an experiment in Copenhagen as pizza. I ordered a falafel sandwich with hummus and hot sauce, and the owner filled it up with lettuce, tomatoes and cabbage. I was shocked at how good it was, and Vince, who got a sampler of dishes including baba ganoush and hummus, agreed. Unlike the pizza, it wasn’t just good for ethnic food in Scandanavia, but flat out delicious, with every element at its prime. Best of all though, it meant that I’d never have to see the Netto again.
Tuesday, December 06, 2005
Tacobite - 905 Lorimer St., Greenpoint, Brooklyn
A chicken taco, a pork taco
I was helping Pat move from his Greenpoint apartment out to Boerum Hill. Along with his brother Jim, we loaded his CDs and books into boxes and drove them through the borough. Around two, whenever our mild hangovers started to wear off, we all went out in search of food. Jim suggested a new taco stand down by McCarren Park. I hadn't had a good taco in ages, so I quickly and optimistically agreed.
The cold was muted, even letting through a thin sun, as we walked up to the stand. It was attached to perpetually empty Monsignor's Restaurant and next to a mechanic's shop. The large board listed beef, pork and chicken tacos, as well as burritos and burgers. There were also Styrofoam plates taped to the window that listed specials such as chicken quesadillas and Coronas. The Mexican man behind the window pulled it open and took our orders. It turned out we all wanted the same thing, a chicken and a pork taco. As per usual, I asked for mine sin cebolla.
While we waited for the food to be made, Jim, Pat and I checked out the sale next door. In front of the mechanic's were tables and tables of fun junk, including John Kerry dolls, creepy frog statuettes, extension cords, coloring books and floodlights. To think, I could've done all my Hanukkah shopping right then and there! A few minutes later, our lunches were ready, the warm soft tortillas wrapped in aluminum foil. We brought them back to Pat's still-messy apartment and dug in.
The tacos proved to be very good, with their most admirable quality being their spicing. Far more dynamic than most Gotham Mexican, they had a complex mix of herbs and spices. Surprisingly, they even had a little heat and also came with lemon wedges, for fans of an extra citric touch. I did prefer the chicken to the pork though, the latter being ground and less satisfying. Also, they needed to be eaten right away, because letting them linger a little too long caused the lettuce and tortilla to soften. Still, Tacobite was a pleasant Sunday surprise, well worth its price and the walk. If Pat didn't have to be out of his apartment by the end of the week, I could see us making a lot more visits to the stand. 7/10
Sripraphai - 64-13 39th Ave., Woodside, Queens
Fried Watercress Salad w/ Chicken, Shrimp and Squid; BBQ Pickled Pork Spare Ribs; Beef Drunken Noodles; Southern style Curry with Chicken; Fried tilapia filet with Chu Chee Curry; coconut rice; Doughballs with Coconut; Coconut and Tapioca in Banana Leaf; a Thai Iced Tea
In Spain, I dreamt of curries, red or green, with splashes of coconut milk. In Germany, I longed for the fried crunch of watercress stalks. In Prague, Budapest, Sarajevo, I craved a heat as complex as multivariate calculus and flavors that lingered for days. In other words, all through my trip, I was dreaming of Sripraphai (see Jul. 10, Feb. 5, Jan. 8). When I left the country for three months, I knew that I’d miss my friends and my CDs and constant Internet access, but I was surprised to learn just how painfully I’d miss that excellent Thai restaurant in Woodside.
I shouldn’t have all that surprised that good Asian food was hard to come by in continental Europe, and that spicy Asian food was even more of an anomaly. Even here in New York, Thai kitchens frequently douse the heat to appeal to a larger audience. But I’ve yet to have a bad experience at Sripraphai, or even one that hasn’t had me speedily reaching toward the water glass with a fire-stricken grin. So since my return, I’d been counting down the days until I could fill the table with some of the best and most affordable plates in the city, until I could pour another classic concoction over the mound of coconut rice, until I could fill my plate with noodles, seafood, and greens. That moment finally came on Sunday.
Pat, Manny and I met up at seven, where the smells of crispy pork and peppers were already exhilarating me. Manny, in his first visit to the restaurant, suggested I take the lead and order for the table. He knew how to win me over. The problem though wasn’t in choosing the few star dishes, but the stars among stars. “You can’t go wrong here,” I explained. “It’s more about what you really like or want to try.” After some brow-furrowing deliberation, I set us on a path of action, with two appetizers, a noodle dish, a curry and a fish, mixing in old favorites with some new ideas. Manny wisely asked our very sweet waitress to stagger the meal.
First up was the fried watercress salad, one of my desert island picks. Every time, it astounds me with its abundance of textures and flavors. Manny claimed too that he was “blown away,” a very high compliment considering that he can be a tougher critic than Henry VIII, and Pat happily agreed. Our other appetizer, the pickled pork ribs, were also dead-on, a sour, piquant glaze jazzing up the familiar taste of ribs. They disappeared far quicker than the well-sized portion would’ve suggested.
Arriving next were the drunken noodles, the Southern curry, and the tilapia filet. The noodles were just as delicious as I remembered them, but somehow the other bolder dishes managed to outshine them. The curry, Southern because of the region’s even greater predilection toward heat, didn’t disappoint with its blazing taste. More importantly, the temperature didn’t mute, but instead elevated, all the other wonderful flavors. The winner of the night though may have been the fried fish, which all of us kept helplessly returning to. The fish itself was fresh and succulent, soft inside and crispy outside, and the sauce served as an addictively interesting complement. I also enjoyed the large halves of Thai eggplant scattered throughout.
Finally, we decided to finish with desserts, even though I warned that they were kind of peripheral to the Sripraphai experience. We pressed on anyway, and picked out two of the plastic containers our waitress brought over. One was soft balls of dough topped with coconut and the other was a base of tapioca pearls topped with a firm coconut cream wrapped in a banana leaf. I enjoyed them the most, probably because I knew not to expect too much. Of all the courses, dessert was the only one I didn't dream about. However, just about everything else about Sripraphai turned out to be a dream come true. 9/10
Monday, December 05, 2005
Copenhagen, Part Two - Vince found a walking tour in a tourist magazine, so we set off exploring the sights. Many of the buildings on the walk were from the 14th and 15th centuries, mostly fledging churches and royal offices that survived the years. More recent but still very pretty was the Radhaus, or town hall, which occupied the center of the city. Continuing on to the more pastoral part of Copenhagen, we pushed on to Frederikstaden, where den Lille Havfrue, or The Little Mermaid, sat waiting. Mournfully overlooking the water, the small sculpture by Edvard Eriksen looked appropriately trapped and conflicted, as tourists jostled to join her on her rock.
For lunch, we again had to look for bargains. Figuring it would be appropriate for Scandanavia, we bought a jar of pickled herring and a bag of black bread. This was a new experience for Vince, but, having grown up with hearty Russian eaters, I was well-versed in the ways of the briny, metallic fish and the dark, porous loaf. He scooped up the nubs of onion floating in the murky liquid while I avoided them. Reaching the end of the herring, I felt the same way about it as I always do. It's not bad in occasional doses, but it's not something I want more than that.
Afterward, I went into a clothing store to look around. I had only brought four white undershirts for the trip, and, over a month into a trip, that was proving to be a challenge. Now and then, I'd wash them in the sink with detergent, but it only seemed to mask the smell. I was looking at a pack of shirts when the unthinkable happened. My camera toppled out of my pocket and slammed against the linoleum floor. I raised it up and cradled it against my body, wailing a slow-motion "Nooooooooooooo!" After the loss of my laptop (see May 19), it was too much to take. I raced it to numerous camera shops, begging them to save my damaged camera. They shook their heads sorrowfully, with stares as helpless as the Mermaid's. Out of options, I stretched the black fabric of the camera bag over my poor Minolta and buried it in my backpack.
Still, I was determined not to let the loss ruin the day. After a full day of walking, Vince and I headed back toward Nørrebro, the area by our hostel. We decided to go back to Toppoli, the pizzeria we'd visited the day before. Even more than the affordable prices, I think we both wanted a place where the owner recognized us, where the menu was as familiar as a nursery rhyme, where we felt like we belonged. In other words, a Danish Veselka. But although we were just here yesterday, the pizzamaker showed no sign of recognition. Undaunted, we put in an order of a Quatro Stagioni which came out bubbling from the oven. We coated the semi-good pie with red pepper bits and ate up, again looking to find solace in food.
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
DiFara -1464 Ave. J, Midwood, Brooklyn
Two squares, two zeppolis, a can of A&W Cream Soda
Once again, I was facing a monumental decision. Reunited with New York, I had to figure out where I'd go to celebrate my return. There were so many places I missed while traveling, so many flavors and locales unique to my hometown, and I had such a limited time left to eat. I just couldn't bear to squander any opportunities with a mediocre meal.
But then I remembered that I was meeting up with Dario, my former officemate from the law firm and a two-stop veteran of the now-famous Pizza World Tour (see May 22). He'd been floored by DiFara that day and proceeded to bring it up for weeks. He spoke about Dominic's square (known as the Sicilian elsewhere) with a kind of breathless reverence ordinarily reserved for A-list celebrity sightings. I half-wondered if he would still be rhapsodizing about it now, six months after the fact. Sure enough, when I asked him if he had any dining out suggestions, right away he threw out, "How about DiFara?"
We met up outside the pizzeria, a street down from the J train in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Midwood. Inside, the line was already packed, as veteran pizzaiolo Dominic and his son focused on crafting pie after beautiful pie. He cut and sprinkled fresh basil on the creations. He ground cheese and poured olive oil across the dough canvases. It was just as enjoyable to watch as ever, making the crowded half-hour wait a little more tolerable.
I'd been planning to order a plain square and a sausage square, but by the time I got up to the counter, I compromised by getting two of the plain squares fresh from the oven. It was faster and easier than waiting for the customized sausage. I also got zeppolis, which came three for a dollar, to split with Dario. After all, what could represent Brooklyn better than fried dough?
The squares, like all the pizza at DiFara, taste infinitely better when they're steaming hot. That wasn't a problem as, right away, we tore into the delicious dishes. The pizza was still as quintessential New York as we had built it up, the square still as complex and simple as the best out there. It didn't compare to the Naples pizza I recently had (reviews still to come), only in the sense that they were so different in style and execution they were practically unrelated.
The zeppolis didn't inspire the same amazement. They were good in the same way all zeppolis in any neighborhood pizzeria are tasty, but they didn't stand out or wow us like the pizza. Part of the reason was that the dough balls had cooled off by the time we were ready for them. Also, it'd be hard to imagine a dessert that would be able to compete with the pizza. In fact, in a city of thousands and thousands of restaurants, it's hard to think of much that could compete with DiFara's pizza, or a food that could have made for such a welcoming homecoming. 9/10
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Copenhagen, Part One - Having previously traveled to Spain, France and Germany, I had a good sense of what to expect. But Scandanavia posed a big, exciting question mark for me. All I could picture were towering blondes, frigid temperatures and lots of fish. That wasn't quite true, at least not in idyllic Copenhagen. Instead, I found a city that blended the urban and the pastoral, the stunning with the quaint. For a capital city, it felt surprisingly accessible and humble, offering pretty views of the water and landscape without overselling itself. And best of all, it was seventy degrees the entire time we were there. In a weird way, with its charming restaurants and shops, it even reminded me of coastal Maine.
After taking in the vistas, it was time for a visit to Copenhagen's pride and joy, the Carlsberg Brewery. Carlsberg's beers were nearly as ubiquitously consumed in Denmark as Pilsner Urquell is in the Czech Republic, and its green-and-white logo proudly adorned every restaurant awning and napkin dispenser in sight. I'd tried Carlsberg ("Probably the best beer in the world") before but didn't realize what a big deal it was to the Danish. Then, after getting a thorough education on everything from brewing, bottling, marketing and scientific innovations, Vince and I got two laminated tickets to taste the product at the end. Not only could we choose from the Carlsberg varieties, but their other storied brands, Tuborg and Jacobsen, as well. I started with the Jacobsen chocolate stout, which had dark and wonderful undertones, tasting all the better as I considered the immense process it required to reach my glass. Then I cleansed the palate with their wheat beer, a delightfully white, light contrast quite similar to Hoegaarden.
After the tour, we walked around the downtown area some more, looking for a place to eat dinner. (We'd had an included breakfast at the hostel in Hamburg, but I won't bore you with the tales of cereal and fruit cocktail.) Because it used the krone rather than the euro, Copenhagen proved to be more expensive than any of the other places we'd been so far. Thus, we had to restrict ourselves to searching supermarkets and very cheap eateries. Eventually, we settled on a place called Toppoli Pizzeria, a few streets away from our hostel. The idea of eating Scandanavian pizza seemed interesting enough, and both of us really missed the good old days of DiFara (see May 22, Jan. 1) and Denino's (see May 22). Of course, the menu was in Danish, which meant a cavalcade of v's, o's with slashes through them and j's somehow following h's. We were able to decode enough of it to clumsily order a Pizza al Mare which came with tiny shrimp, spinach, mushrooms and ham. It was surprisingly not bad, although it was also nothing special. Still, for a day that would be otherwise boring-- eating pizza and drinking beer-- we made it quite memorable.
Monday, November 21, 2005
Hamburg - Hamburg, we hardly knew ye. Inevitably, some places on our trip get shorter shrift than ours, and this northwestern German city was right up there with Lyon for most cursory visit. Because we had to transfer, our train didn’t roll into Hamburg until just before eight. Then we learned our hostel, which was supposed to be three train stops away, was more like three cities away. Along a dark, deserted crossing, we walked and walked, lugging our backpacks behind us like patient Atlases.
Finally, after a forty minute walk, we arrived exhausted and weary, but mostly hungry. We asked the receptionist what was still open, and she said we had the choice between a Greek gaststätte and another one of those strange pan-Asian places that dished up Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai together. We opted for the former, where Vince got the opportunity to put his German skills from college into practice. He ordered lamb gyros for both of us. I slumped into a metal chair and watched the counterman slice the long, thin strands of meat from the spit. All I had to eat all day was a bagel at the Amsterdam station and I was just happy to have anything at this point.
The gyros turned out to be pretty good, and thankfully fit for the historic German appetite. They came loaded with red cabbage and a tangy dressing, which both distinguished them from others. Eating by the bursting forkful, we started to relax and the stress of travel evaporated. Then, as if on cue, we noticed that the fridge was stocked not only with soda but minibar-sized bottles of liquor. We began with ouzo, moved onto the apple schnapps, and finished up with vodka. Suddenly, a night that seemed destined to be ruined was salvaged, as we lingered in the restaurant for hours, until it was closing. By then though, we had laughed ourselves stupid and undone all the angst of the day.
The next day, as with Lyon, we tried to fit in as much as possible in our brief chunk of time. We took the U-bahn in and started by seeing the Rathaus, the impressive town hall. From there, we walked north and sat by the water along the Alster Canal. Then, we stopped by the Reeperbahn, Hamburg's own seedy version of a Red Light District. It seemed to be on its last legs, a caricature of itself, much like post-Giuliani Times Square. I didn't care much though. I really only wanted to see it because of Tom Waits' song about the neighborhood: ("A high dive on a swimming pool/Filled with needles and with fools/The memories are short but the tales are long/When you're in the Reeperbahn.")
It wasn't at all the full tour that Hamburg deserved, but we tried to stay optimistic. After our impending three-city tour of Scandanavia, we'd be coming back to four more cities in Germany. They'd at least get our total attention.
Friday, November 18, 2005
Special Feature -
Reader Mail - I recently received an e-mail from Emile, a knowledgeable reader from Melbourne, who wrote in with more info on the broodjes I loved so much in The Netherlands:
"The broodjes you mention definitely are the number 1 thing I miss from amsterdam after moving overseas (and salted herring from the street stalls of course. I do urge you to try them, possibly on a roll with fresh onion).
I just wanted to mention that they're a speciality unique to suriname, and perhaps the dutch antilles. Like suriname itself, they're basically a fusion of various ethnic cooking styles, most prominently hindustani and javanese. This is why they might appear 'asian.'
If you like surinami and are adventurous, consider going into an eatery and see if they serve:
vlees - meat sausage
bloed - blood sausage
fladder - intestine
bere - fried spiced doughnut
They should be offered with pickels and 'peper,' the latter being a relish of 'madame chanet' peppers, which are extremely hot. Be careful with this. A good place to get this kind of thing is on the very exotic Bijlmer market. The Bijlmer is a mostly ethnic suburb southeast of the center easily reached by metro. It features lots of hideous 70/80s highrise, an architectonic turkey with weird ideology behind it."
Architectonic turkey with weird ideology, huh? Sounds pretty cool. Thanks, Emile. If I ever get back to Amsterdam, I'll definitely take your advice. And if anyone else has more to add on a topic I've covered, send it my way and I'll be sure to share it.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
Amsterdam, Part Four - So far, I had been trying to stick to Amsterdam's cultural side, but there was no way to deny its more hedonistic impulses. Perhaps more than any other city (Las Vegas?), its image is tied to its permissiveness and indulgence. Even my mother, when I told her that I was going there, couldn't keep from offering a strange grin and warning me not to "smoke anything strange." I assured her I wouldn't.
Instead, I went up to the Red Light District. It was only around noon so I wasn't sure if there'd even be any red lights glowing. There were about ten, scattered around the widespread area, where women in day-glo bikinis sat behind glass doors in claustrophobic little booths. They tried to do their best approximations of sexy as they filed their nails or surveyed the empty streets. A few of the prostitutes were beautiful in the generic Playboy sense of beautiful. The others had bobbling stomachs and massive breasts and thighs. Far more than sexy, the whole scene seemed kind of sad.
Then, finally after that, it was time to disobey my mother. I did my research and found a place called Grey Area, which many call one of Amsterdam's best coffeeshops. Vince and I met up at the small shop on Oude Leliestraat, run by two American expats, and I perused all the interesting offerings. (My plan was to smoke before our dinner at Tempo Doeloe, hoping it'd only increase my already huge appetite.) After a consideration of Grey Area's tempting menu and asking for some recommendations, I ended up going with the Greyberry, which had a light blueberry flavor. John, the owner behind the counter, rolled the very reasonably priced weed for me into a joint. Vince and I claimed one of the tables among the walls plastered with graffiti, signs, stickers and photos, and I lit up. This was easily the best marijuana I've tried. It was like a tasting menu at a four-star after so much mediocre fast food.
From there, we went onto Tempo Doeloe, probably Amsterdam's most famous Indonesian restaurant. After severely missing the heat and spices from Sripraphai, I was ready for all the hype surrounding this place. The guidebooks all warned that the food was blazingly pedis, the on-line reviewers sang the praises of extra spicy dishes and even the restaurant's own menu cautioned to work your way up to the options marked with three red pluses (the ones where "our 'kokkie' (chef) has not shown any mercy with various kinds of peppers.") It sounded perfect. I was so ready that I even ordered the most expensive choice on the menu, the rijsttafel istemewa. The rijsttafel is a rice table, in which small bowls of various entrees are all centered around heaping bowls of rice. My istemewa (the grand rice table) came with twenty-five little courses, with low flames burning under them to keep them warm.
Even without the berry high, I would've been a happy man. The flavors here were multifaceted and beautifully crafted, all the more apparent after comparing to our earlier experience at Tanjung Sari. There was clearly great care put into the shaping of each miniature plate. As our waiter explained to do, I started at the far right with the mildest dishes and slowly worked my way over into the spicier quadrants. I made sure to also follow his instructions and to treat every dish individually, rather than making some mash of them in my rice. A quarter of the way through, my favorite tastes were the Gadon Dari Sapi, or "beef in creamy sauce with coconut cream and fresh coriander," and Orek Arek, or "stirfried cabbage with garlic and various herbs." As I moved into the dishes marked by one plus on the menu, I started to detect some really nice mild heats. The vegetarian options particularly had a sharp pepperiness to them.
Confidently, I pressed on, eager to get to the real firestarters among the bunch. The wonderful and well-crafted flavors continued, but the heat never came. Despite all of the press to the contrary, I found the so-called spicier dishes kind of bland, lacking that necessary spark that can truly elevate a dish. I even started to wonder if I'd been given the wrong table by mistake, or if there might be another one coming. But then, there still stood before me, the two plates that were supposed to be the spiciest of all, the Ajam Roedjak, or "chicken in hot sauce with cream of coconut and tjabeh" and the Daging Rendang, or "beef cooked in tasty, hot sauce with cream of coconut," which came with the dreaded three-plus warning. I tried them both and felt barely a tingle. I was quite disappointed, but felt that at least the dinner was redeemed by how good everything had tasted. Tempo Doeloe may not have produced the heat it promised, but it remained a quality meal. Still, I probably wouldn't make another reservation there without reservations.
After dinner, I went back to the Red Light District to see how it had changed at night. Sure enough, it had transformed from desert to full-blown circus. Over a hundred red lights were glowing, with girls in the same fluorescent bikinis striking poses and calling out to clients. The alleys were packed, mostly with college-age boys in clusters but also crowds of curious gawkers and even tour groups of rowdy seniors. There were also a lot of women taking in the sights. I saw a guy my age unabashedly approach the glass and ask how much "it" cost. "Fifty euros," came the woman's seasoned response. He nodded meekly and disappeared behind the pulled red-velvet curtain. The scene only felt more pathetic to me, as more men disappeared and emerged from the booths. While I'm far from a prude, and don't really see the point of criminalizing prostitution, the Red Light District struck me as perhaps the least sexy experience possible. Even the model-beautiful women seemed more like prisoners in their glass rectangles than prospects. Nonetheless, I was glad to have witnessed this side of Amsterdam, probably as an integral part of a very complex city as any.