A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Monday, January 31, 2005

Jan. 31.

Breakfast
-



Veselka - 144 Second Ave., East Village
Corn and coconut chowder, Ukranian kielbasa sandwich on challah, hot apple cider
$16
6/10



Lunch -

Khushie - 139 Essex St., Lower East Side
Lamb Vindaloo, Naan
$9.65

After my wonderful experience last time (see Jan. 16), I'd been craving a return trip to Khushie ever since. Eager to try their lamb vindaloo, my favorite Indian dish, I came in with high hopes. Again, I decided to eat in, and killed the ten minute wait by enjoying the fun music filling the little room.

If ten minutes seems like a long wait for Indian, that’s because I forgot to mention another important aspect that sets Khushie apart from the herd. Like Chinese restaurants, the staff makes everything to order rather than dishing out pre-made food. That difference, I believe, is a key factor in the great cooking they produce. It also substantially stokes the appetite, as the scents of curries, corianders and chilis of other people’s orders fill the air.

The vindaloo was, at the very least, worth the wait. It was as wonderful as the kali mirch, having a nice, building heat but also much deeper and more complicated layers of flavor. The first thing it reminded me of was the food at Sripraphai (see Jan. 8, Feb. 5), which can also be spicy but is never only spicy. There is always flavor beyond flavor. Back at Khushie, the portion of lamb was fairly good and the pieces were soft and well-cooked. It was only the last two pieces of meat that were fatty or tough. If it hadn’t been for them, I really think this meal would deserve a rating of ten.

The naan again was perfect. It was soft, light and delicious. Since trying it, it's become hard for me to have naan at other places. Everywhere I go, I want to taste like this. So far, only a few places (e.g. Angon) have come close. Needless to say, I will definitely be returning to Khushie, and though it's only been a few hours, I'm already craving it again.
9/10



Dinner -

Schiller's Liquor Bar - 131 Rivington St., Lower East Side
Steak frites au poivre, a glass of "good" red wine, some of Perry's bangers and mash
$32.40

It was a frosty Sunday night and the East Village was so dead I thought of the eerie calms in zombie movies before the carnage starts. The Lower East Side wasn’t much crazier save for occasional indie tunes blaring out of neighborhood bars. So I was quite surprised when Perry and I got to Schiller’s Liquor Bar at 8:45 on a Sunday to find the place not only packed but full of energy. In fact, a table for two required a forty-five minute wait. (Schiller’s doesn’t take reservations, but for some reason, I didn’t mind. It was either the fun vibe or my insatiable craving for steak frites.)

We killed time and kicked back some IPAs at Welcome to the Johnsons and returned forty-five minutes later. The raucous buzz in the air had only grown. It continued unabated throughout the night, our city’s answer to crickets in the country. It makes sense that Schiller’s would be a hotspot for the chilly night in question though. Its atmosphere, consisting largely of white light and wine bottles painted black, was trendy but informal, cool but relaxing. In short, everything a Keith McNally bistro should be.

The dinner menu does feature some traditional bistro influence (French onion soup, steaks) but aims internationally to appeal to everyone. For instance, fish and chips sit alongside Cuban sandwiches and on Wednesdays, wiener schnitzel with spaetzle. Perry followed the English thread and ordered the Sunday special, a very tasty dish of strongly seasoned bangers and mash and a glass of beer. I stuck with my initial instinct of steak frites.

Before I get into the food itself, let me detour with a short word on value. As in, it's a great value. At $18, the steak frites was one of the most expensive items on the menu. The house wines are playfully divided into three columns, cheap ($5 per glass), decent ($6) and good ($7). The appetizers ranged from $6-$12.

Now steak isn’t my favorite food, but every so often, I’ll really have a craving for it. When this happens, I like satisfying it at bistros, because they provide a nice intermediary between divey diners and serious French restaurants. It’s even better when the frites are as delicious as they are at Schiller’s. The plate was stacked with fries and I finished them without complaint. The steak au poivre (medium rare) wasn’t as excellent due to a little overseasoning, but it was still delicious and went well with the good wine.

Perry very much enjoyed his meal as well although we both decided against desserts. We lingered a little longer after our plates were cleared, a little reluctant to set back into the cold night. But eventually, we had to go, leaving behind the still-powerful crackle of voices joyfully deep in conversation. 7/10

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Jan. 30 -



Breakfast -

Russ and Daughters - 179 E. Houston St., Lower East Side
Sesame bagel with belly lox, tomato and plain cream cheese; fresh-squeezed orange juice
$10.50
9/10



Lunch -

Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches - 150 E. 2nd St., East Village
Portabello sandwich (without jalapenos), lemonade
$5.70

Back again (see Jan. 8) to sample some more and to introduce Vince to the wonders of bahn mi. He got the standard bahn mi and loved it. I got the portabello option to try out another option. It would make a great vegetarian alternative, but I found myself missing the ground pork and the Vietnamese ham. Next time, I'll be sticking with the classics. 7/10



Almost all that's on the menu

Dinner
-

Hummus Place
- 109 St. Mark's Pl., East Village
Hummus masbacha with egg, some of Vince's hummus tahini with egg, mint tea, almond and date cookies
$12

Although I live across the street, I had never been to Hummus Place. The word on it was very positive, the small dining room was often packed at night, and at $4.95 per plate of hummus, it was a bargain. I suppose the problem was that although I enjoy hummus when it’s available, it’s never struck me as something I would want to have as my main dinner. How wrong I was.

Israeli-owned and popular with Jews (this along with the Holy Land Market are making St. Mark’s between 1st and A a bit of a Hebraic enclave), this hummus is unlike the varieties I’ve experienced at Greek restaurants. Though to be fair, it’s unlike any other hummus I’ve had before. For one thing, it is practically the only thing on the menu (there’s also a salad, a soup and cookies, but those are more to complement the main attraction). Also, the hummus comes in three varieties – foul (with fava beans), masbacha (with chickpeas) and tahini.

Vince and I essentially split the tahini and masbacha, enjoying the subtle but distinct contrasts the choices provides. Both were undoubtedly nutty and creamy, swirled with olive oil and topped with a sliced slow-cooked hard-boiled egg. However, the mosbacha had a softer pea center whereas the tahini had a consistent texture throughout. Even without trying the third option, I feel I can say with confidence that I would’ve been very happy with any of the three.

On its own, the hummus would have been quite wonderful, but it was only improved by the unequaled pita. Aside from the stupendous naan at Khushie (see Jan. 16 and Jan. 31), I can’t remember when I’ve had bread this good. It was so light and fluffy that I thought the secret ingredients might have been clouds. It had no problem matching the lofty quality of the hummus.

Finally, Vince and I finished with the almond and date cookies, three small morsels that weren’t particularly tasty or memorable. They were anticlimactic if anything. Hey, Hummus Place, how about adding a dessert that can match the rest of your menu?

Of course, their response may be that they only want to focus on hummus, and that would be fine with me. Because now when I walk down my block and pass Hummus Place, I only see one more great reason to love where I live. 9/10

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Jan. 27.



Lunch -

Nougatine -1 Central Park West, Upper West Side
Parsnip Soup with cider gelee and spiced bread croutons, Slow-Baked Salmon with Pad Thai, chocolate panna cotta with Earl Grey gelee, some of Vince's poached pear, Passion-Chili soda, cappuccino
$44

When I used to work on 54th and 7th, I had to walk by the Trump Hotel on Columbus Circle on my way to the gym. I would walk by Central Park and into the lower reaches of the Upper West Side, into a terrain of opulence where I felt uncomfortable and outside. Five years later, I still don’t feel altogether comfortable among luxury and conspicuous consumption, but luckily, it only cost an entrance fee of $20.12 to make my way into Trump’s gold-saturated building.

I’ve never been to the four-star-rated Jean-Georges, the most venerated kitchen of the considerable empire chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has built, so I welcomed the opportunity to dine in its more informal front room restaurant, Nougatine, for Restaurant Week. Meeting up with Vince, the two of us were promptly seated at the window, which offered the added bonus of a Park view. The room was spacious and bright with daylight, elegant but not overdone. It was the kind of space I would be happy to linger in.

The Restaurant Week menu was limited to two choices per course, and in the same spirit as Aquavit, provided a safer and a more interesting choice. Naturally, I opted for the dishes that seemed more challenging.

For starters, this meant choosing the parsnip soup as my appetizer. Taking my first tastes, I felt like I was welcoming back an old friend, as I’d recently had the vegetable pureed both as an amuse and as a part of an entrée at Hearth (see Jan 17). I liked the presentation of it here even more, with the nice touches of the spiced bread croutons and the cider gelee. Both shook up the dish’s creamy consistency with small bursts of fresh texture and flavor. Based on my previous successful experiences at Vong and Spice Market, it was another example of Jean-Georges tweaking more traditional culinary dishes with surprising ingredients.

My entrée, the salmon with pad thai, was another treat. Again, after dining at two of his other franchises and being familiar with the menu at 66, this was an Asian Fusion dish I would very much expect from a Jean-Georges spot. Although I don’t particularly like salmon (smoked salmon a notable exception), it was the second time in two days I was having it and the second time I was glad that I did. The fusion elements such as the ginger and citrus perked up the large portion of fish and the pad thai noodles were a more refined, less oily version of the kind you’d find at a Thai restaurant.

The dessert was the least satisfying course, not because it wasn’t good or well-made but rather because it was the least interesting. Chocolate, it seems, is too often used as a restaurant shorthand to mean pedestrian, which is shortchanging a tremendous ingredient. But with that said, I still enjoyed the dessert and probably could have managed with another serving of it. Vince’s poached pear turned out to be the more inventive option, a very delicious and nicely presented dessert that made for a pleasant and not cloyingly finale to a great lunch.

I have also to include that, after finding the wine-by-the-glass list very expensive, I opted on a whim for the fruit sodas Nougatine offered. They seemed creative and unlike anything I’d encountered before. I went with the passion-chili soda, which was carbonated passion fruit juice with a tangy kick of chili. This may be a sensation that sounds worse than it tastes, and if so, let me say it was wonderful – both refreshing and novel. I would absolutely try another fruit soda over a wine next time.

And speaking of next time, it’s highly possible there will be one. I found out later that this $20 lunch prix-fixe is an option that Nougatine features throughout the year. This, along with Fleur de Sel and Bouley, would put it up there among the best fine dining lunch deals in town. If only I had known five years ago as I was busy picturing millionaires lighting up their cigars with thousand dollar bills. 8/10

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Jan. 26.

Lunch -

Aquavit - 65 E. 55th St., Midtown East
Herring Sampler; Hot Smoked Salmon with salsify puree, asparagus, and apple and horseradish broth; Chocolate Ganache with pineapple, black pepper cheesecake and lime sorbet; Roasted Pumpkin and Espresso aquavit; Raspberry, Lime and Ginger Aquavit
$45

I have wanted to go to Aquavit for years and years. Upscale Swedish fusion struck me as bizarrely wonderful back then, and even now, it remains a very exciting prospect. Knowing that the restaurant was relocating, I wasn't sure if this would be the best time to check it out. But with the allure of Restaurant Week and the notion of seeing the new location in its first month, I couldn't resist.

The front of the very long space is the lounge area, where diners can have a reduced bar menu or have drinks. The cafe, which was formerly upstairs, is now a room on the side. In the back is the more formal dining room, with the more ambitious (and expensive) menu, where Perry and I would be dining. Decorwise, the new Aquavit easily has the most austere atmosphere I've seen at such a high-end place. The walls are white, the design is ultraminimalist, and the furniture is sleek and Scandinavian. I vacillated between being impressed and feeling underwhelmed.

This soon ended when the food began arriving. Again, I had chosen what I felt were the more adventurous and Swedish-influenced dishes, beginning with the wonderful Herring Sampler. There were four servings of herring, each one incorporating a novel influence. There was curry herring, herring in herb sauce, spicy herring and herring topped with creme fraiche and a swirl of red onion. Trying them in succession was both interesting and revealing, showing how distinctive and prominent herring can be while still fitting and flattering the various preparations. While I liked them all, my favorite was the curry, which was a dish I would have never expected and a perfect embodiment of Marcus Samuelsson's unique vision.

The entree was another demonstration of creativity and presentation. The waiter brought a large, attractive hulk of smoked salmon on top of a salsify puree flanked by thick stalks of asparagus. He then poured hot apple and horseradish broth into the dish, the broth's bright lime hue bringing it all together simply but impressively. The entree would have been perfect if the fish hadn't been so salty. I love the saltiness of smoked salmon, but the level here was excessive, overwhelming the tastes of the wonderful broth and the refreshing puree.

The dessert I chose, Chocolate Ganache and pineapple with black pepper cheesecake and lime sorbet. It was perhaps both the weirdest and most inventive dessert I’ve had this year so far, with so many prominent flavors and textures. Like the herring sampler, it proudly called attention to itself in a way completely antithetical to the décor. Yet as brash as the room is subtle, the dessert was delicious. It didn’t hurt that I’d chosen to have another round of Aquavit’s eponymous drink to go along with it.

After waiting so long to come to Aquavit, I was quite eager to taste some of their famous Swedish liquor. With my lunch, I’d had the sienna-colored roasted pumpkin and espresso aquavit and with dessert, I tried the mauve-colored raspberry, lime and ginger. Both came from a list of about ten housemade flavored aquavits, each one quite distinct and unique. Their drink list also included unflavored imported aquavit from Sweden for diners seeking more authenticity.

While I would’ve loved to see the old Aquavit with its famous waterfall, I was relieved that this relocated, Restaurant Week-limited experience lived up to my high expectations. Even after eating at so many restaurants, I was impressed by how Aquavit distinguished itself naturally, paying respect to its Scandinavian roots and then reaching for the sky. 8/10

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Jan. 25.

Lunch -

Craft - 43 E. 19th St., Gramercy Park
Venison and Chestnut Terrine, some of Pat's Foie Gras Pate, Veal Breast with Assorted Mushrooms, some of Pat's Chatam Cod with Potato Gnocchi, Banana Tarte Tatin and Calvados Spice Ice Cream, some of Pat's Toffee Sticky Pudding and Malt Chip Ice Cream, a glass of Syrah, a cup of Lemon Verbena Herbal Infusion tea
$40.13

In my humble estimation, Restaurant Week is a brilliant idea. It allows people who ordinarily can’t afford fine dining to participate, students with toques in their eyes to gain some new techniques, and diners like me with very long lists of restaurants to visit to sample a few more spots affordably. Of course, there can be some serious drawbacks to the execution to the two week special. Restaurants can limit their menus to two boring and inexpensive choices per course or waiters may give RW participants inferior service. Also, with many restaurants now offering daily prix-fixe menus of their own, the Restaurant Week menus don’t necessarily translate to any savings.


I’d read in a review of the Summer Restaurant week that Craft was especially successful. Since I’d always been intrigued by its deconstructionist concept of disassembling menus down to their basic components, I thought this would be my chance. Pat, who works within walking distance, and I met for lunch, the only option Craft and almost all of the other top RW restaurants provide.


When I first saw the menu, I was confused, certain that we’d only been given the regular selections. No, the waiter explained, we were supposed to choose from the list of six or seven appetizers, from the list of six or seven meats, and from the list of six or seven side dishes. I’d never seen anything close to this extensive during Restaurant Week, and making it all the more complicated was that every choice sounded delicious. To maximize our tastes, Pat and I decided to split our courses.


I started with a Venison and Chestnut Terrine, which was terrific. Its base was smooth and creamy, the meat was rich and soft, and the chestnuts were crunchy and perfectly proportioned. It also had a nice saltiness that was just right. Pat’s Foie Gras was as good or even better. It was the richest version of the dish either of us had ever had. Intensely buttery and velvety, even a teaspoonful’s worth seemed almost too decadent. Of course, neither of us considered stopping on account of considerations like those.


From there came the entrées, just as impressive. My veal was another exercise in opulence, the taste of the meat as rich as its quality and pairing very well with the smooth palate of the wine. Loving mushrooms, I also enjoyed the side of assorted funghi. It included four or five varieties, one of which I recognized as black trumpet. One quibble was the dark sauce covering the mushrooms was too salty, but with the veal, this was hardly noticeable. Pat had also high praise for his cod, which I didn’t get to try. (We were both too caught up in our own entrees.)


Dessert topped off the meal perfectly, as the waiter informed us there were yet more choices to make. We could choose either a pastry or a cheese and a fruit dish or an ice cream. I went with the banana tarte tatin, a French upside-down tart I’ve always enjoyed and a scoop of Calvados Spice ice cream. The warm banana and melted chocolate on the tarte tatin made it luxuriously gooey and sweet without being cloying. The Calvados Spice didn’t taste like brandy, but the cool apple flavor provided a sharp and cleansing contrast to the vividness of the pastry. Pat was just as impressed with his Sticky Toffee Pudding, which was from my one spoonful as good a choice.


In fact, that may be the craft of Craft. Even with so many options, it’s very difficult to make a mistake, because everything is so good. So I guess the biggest mistake you could make (brace yourself for the cheesy ending) is not checking it out for yourself for summer Restaurant Week.
10/10

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Jan. 23.



Dinner -

Odessa - 119 Ave. A, East Village
Silver Dollar Pancakes with maple syrup, two hot chocolates
$11
2/10

Friday, January 21, 2005

Jan. 21.

Dinner
-

Pizza Boli's
- 2455 18th St., Adams Morgan, Washington DC
Jumbo Cheese Slice
$3.50
3/10

Monday, January 17, 2005

Jan. 17.



Lunch
-

East Village Sushi Park
- 121 2nd Ave., East Village
Seaweed Salad, House Salad, Miso Soup, Sushi Sashimi Combo A
$21

Anthony Bourdain would not approve. In his book Kitchen Confidential, the Les Halles executive chef warns the reader against many minefields in the culinary war zone. One in particular is half-price sushi restaurants. Another is eating fish on Mondays, the day, he says, when seafood is generally the least fresh. I committed both of these faux pases knowingly and broke another commandment many foodies frown upon: going to a Korean-owned Japanese restaurant.

East Village Sushi Park doesn’t rely on great sushi but rather great prices to draw in the crowds. It became my standby when Tab Tos closed for a month, only because I have a bad tendency of blowing lots of cash on sushi dinners if I go to more expensive places. The obvious counterargument that people make is that you get what you pay for and that there’s a reason that well-prepared sushi should be more expensive. I agree with this point of view in theory, but for me, East Village is fine for the quick fix of a sushi craving. The service is nice, the menu is extensive and the food is adequate. And besides, according to his book, it took Bourdain about forty years to come to his senses. I figure that I can always write off this lunch as youthful rebellion. 4/10



Dinner -

Hearth - 403 E. 12th St., East Village
Tasting Menu - Parsnip Puree Shot (Amuse); Celery Root Soup with Maine Diver Scallops, Black Trumpet Mushrooms and Chervil paired with 3 oz. of Gaston Chiquet Brut Tradition, Napa Valley, Dizy champagne (First Course); Scallops with Prosciutto and Fingerling Potatoes paired with 6 oz. of Semillon, Kalin Cellars, 1994, Livermore Valley white wine (complimentary); Roasted Striped Bass with Winter Vegetables, Parsley Root Puree and Black Truffle Vinaigrette paired with 6 oz. of Semillon, Kalin Cellars, 1994, Livermore Valley white wine (Second Course) with a side of Hen of the Woods Mushrooms; Stone Church Farm Duck with Confit Leg, Quince and Brussel Sprouts paired with 6 oz. of Pinotage, Southern Cape, 2002, Western Cape red wine (Third Course) with a side of Polenta (complimentary); Pistachio Semifreddo with Plum Preserves (Dessert Amuse); Pear-Hazelnut Crisp with Cranberry Ice Cream paired with 6 oz. of Malvasia delle Lipari, Passito, Hauner, 2000, Salina dessert wine (Dessert); Molasses Cookies (complimentary)
$140

I went into Hearth with a game plan: I'd sit at "The Pass," the three seats with a front row view into the kitchen, I'd order the lamb entree with sides of gnocchi and hen of the woods mushrooms (as both a big gnocchi and mushroom aficionado, I was most excited about these two much-buzzed about items) and for dessert, either have the apple cider doughnuts or the pecan tart, depending on what appealed to me at the moment. I'd also ask for suggestions to pair wines for both courses. (Oddly, none of the appetizers particularly appealed to me.)

When I walked into Hearth, I was happy to have a seat at the Pass offered to me. They were about to replace the settings, so I had a few minutes to sit and take in the scene. It was a little strange to see. One table's diners were wearing jeans and T-shirts while right next to them, the man seated next to them was wearing a suit and his date was wearing an expensive dress. Further confusing matters, the waitstaff were dressed in ugly striped dress shirts and jeans. They looked like they were working at a fancy barbecue joint. They were also playing rock tunes while the lighting was dim, another strange juxtaposition. I have no problem with more casual places, but my very initial impression was that Hearth wasn't sure if it was downscale or upscale. In my mind, they were much closer to upscale but they were trying hard to evoke that casual ambiance that is supposedly associated with the notion of a "hearth." Maybe it's just my bias, but I would have rather have the waiters wear black and have a business casual dress code. (Sure, that'd be like so many other places, but there's a reason so many other places do it.)

But anyway, onto the food. As I stated, I came in with lamb intentions, but done in by the excitement of sitting in front of chefs, I wanted to see a greater scope of their abilities. So I opted for the tasting menu ($62) with the wine pairings suggested by my knowledgeable waiter. I also got a side of Hen of the Woods mushrooms, just because I really wanted to try them.

First up was an amuse of hot parsnip root puree in a tall shot glass. It was nice and warm, especially on this very cold winter's day, and tasted good, though it paled in comparison to other amuses I've received for tasting menus.

Next was the Celery Root Soup with Maine Diver Scallops, Black Trumpet Mushrooms and Chervil, paired with 3 oz. of Gaston Chiquet Brut Tradition, Napa Valley, Dizy. The soup was delicious and very creamy, and the scallops were soft and tender. I'd never had trumpet mushrooms, but they were interesting and added a nice, firmer texture and color to the yellow liquid. All in all, a nice start. The champagne, the most expensive glass on the wine-by-the-glass menu at $16.50 for 6 oz. and $8.50 for a tasting of 3 oz., was a nice choice. I'm not ordinarily crazy about champagne, but this one was quite good and did go well with the soup.

Next, I got a small serving of Scallops with Prosciutto and Fingerling Potatoes. By small, I mean, there were about two tiny scallops, two pieces of prosciutto and three thin slivers. All of it tasted pretty good, but considering it was only a five-course tasting menu, at first I thought the portion way too small. Then I realized my mistake. This wasn't one of my courses, but complimentary from the kitchen. Seen from that vantage point, it was a touch nice, almost like a second amuse. My waiter made the same mistake, bringing out my second wine, 6 oz. of Semillon, Kalin Cellars, 1994, Livermore Valley, to pair with this complimentary course. I didn't like this wine that much, but didn't dislike it enough to send back.

Next up was the Roasted Striped Bass with Winter Vegetables, Parsley Root Puree and Black Truffle Vinaigrette, again paired with the same wine. The waiter was conciliatory and comped my second glass of the Semillon, and since he made a big point of apologizing, I accepted it and to my surprise, found myself starting to enjoy it more. One of the chefs also brought by my Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, explaining (correctly) that they would best be paired with this dish. The bass and their accompanying sauce were very good and I liked the reappearance of the parsnip puree as a kind of culinary connector of courses. The winter vegetables I liked less so, and surprisingly, I was disappointed with the mushrooms. Or rather I should say I very much enjoyed the mushrooms themselves, but I found their preparation to be overseasoned and overwhelmed by the flavor of herbs rather than the mushrooms themselves.

Maybe I should have gone with the gnocchi instead. The Italian couple occupying the other two seats at the Pass got complimentary servings of gnocchi. Midway through, the woman flagged down a waiter. "Where is Marco from?" she asked him. "He's American," he told her. "American? No. He's not from Italy?" Again, he told her Marco Canora, head chef at Hearth, was American. "Because these gnocchi," she said happily, "taste just like they do in Rome!"

The next course, Stone Church Farm Duck with Confit Leg, Quince and Brussel Sprouts, was my favorite and it was paired with my favorite wine of the night, the Pinotage. The duck was expertly prepared, flavorful, both soft and firm, and most importantly, delicious. The quinze and brussel sprouts were both successful, contrasting each other and prominent in their tastes, but both secondary and in service to the duck. The red wine was well suited to this course and just a very good wine overall. I was also comped a side of polenta, which was wonderful and very warming for the winter. The polenta was quite creamy, more so than most varieties I've had, and came with a swirl of olive oil. If I hadn't gone with the gnocchi choice, I should have gone for the polenta.

The dessert amuse, a Pistachio Semifreddo with Plum Preserves, followed without a pairing. The semifreddo was a nice palate cleanser and it was fairly creative, but as I found with the initial amuse, I've had better and more inventive amuse offerings.

The dessert, a Pear-Hazelnut Crisp with Cranberry Ice Cream, was pretty tasty and filling, and hazelnuts are a favorite of mine so that was a nice treat. All in all, the dessert wasn't a standout, but it was good and a nice finale. The dessert wine, which had a golden raisin flavor, was excellent.

All in all, it was a very good meal, the menu well designed for a frigid winter evening. It wasn't superlative, but once I stopped comparing it to my last tasting menu (Hearth isn't Bouley by any means, but also isn't trying to Bouley. However, Bouley's tasting menu is only $13 more, which does invite the comparison) I realized how much I enjoyed my dinner. I'd like to explore some more of the regular menu and I'd absolutely recommend to anyone dining solo to sit at the Pass. 7/10

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Jan. 16.



Lunch -

Congee Village - 100 Allen St., Lower East Side
Minced Pork Buns, Lobster Congee, herb tea
$11

I discovered Congee Village when Robert Sietsema named it the best place for Chinese in the city. That's very high praise to bestow, but after many happy visits, I'm willing to name it my favorite too. There's just so much to love about it. There's the faux-tropical bamboo decor that isn't sure if it's trying to be exotic or campy. There's the very expansive and wild menu with ingredients (goose intestine, fish maw, jellyfish, snail, turtle) that seem to be straight off of a witchdoctor's shopping list. There's the Lower East Side address with the Chinatown prices. And then, most importantly, there's the food.

If I had to cite any weakness, it'd be Congee Village's limited selection of appetizers. I had to look long and hard for something to pique my interest, but ended up settling on the pork bun. Despite all of my successful visits, I was imagining one wimpy pork-filled bun for my still reasonable $1.25. To my pleasant surprise, the waitress brought over three fist-sized buns, made of soft, buoyant dough and a stewed pork interior that was almost as great as the exterior. Filling and fantastic, these buns are an item I definitely plan to revisit.

The congee, a hot Chinese rice porridge, was less of a gamble because it's among my favorite dishes at Congee. Along with the creamy rice stew and plentiful chunks of lobster, bits of ginger mixed in give another layer of flavor to an already interesting combination. The lobster, which is mostly arm and claw, comes in its shell, although it's cut up so the meat is easily accessible. Aside from providing a very cheap crustacean fix, the lobster congee is also quite filling and very warming, making it an ideal meal for the winter. I would expect nothing less of my favorite Chinese place and luckily, Congee Village doesn't deliver any less. 8/10



Il Laboratorio del Gelato - 95 Orchard St., Lower East Side
One scoop of Gala apple sorbet, one scoop of chestnut gelato
$3.25

This is my favorite place for gelato and sorbet in the city. Considering how obsessed with these two foods I am (and how half of my expenses in Italy were probably gelato-related), this is quite a lofty title to bestow. The Lab earns it though. Jon Snyder and his team are producing so many groundbreaking flavors and so many ingenious tastes that they’re really in a class of their own.

With that said, I’m either setting my expectations too high lately or they may be slightly lowering their bar. The flavors in my recent visits have been getting more standard. That doesn’t make them any less delicious (one of the best I’ve had was a simple peach sorbet) but I’m primarily attracted to their novelties such as prune armagnac and toasted sesame. Another problem I’ve encountered is that some of the sorbets can be too hard. Usually, this can be avoided by not ordering from any containers of sorbet that are almost empty. Still, when I got my apple sorbet, the container was half-filled and yet my serving came harder and chunkier than it should’ve been. With places like Otto and Cones proffering an almost equal caliber of gelato, Il Laboratorio doesn’t have much room for error. Especially when it’s the paradigm. 8/10

Dinner -

Khushie - 139 Essex St., Lower East Side
Chicken Kali Mirch, Naan
$8.65

I continued my theme of Sietsema recommendations by having dinner at Khushie. Back in June, he’d given the spot a great review in his Village Voice column, Counter Culture, singling out their chicken kali mirch. While I don’t always agree with his criticism (Dinosaur BBQ being a recent example), he has a knack for finding modest ethnic gems and he did point me in the direction of Congee Village (see Lunch today).

Khushie, the Punjabi word for happiness, is a small, yellow-colored restaurant that’s low on décor. That’s because, while it offers two tables and a narrow bar to eat on, its business is almost all carryout and delivery. I decided to eat in though, to avoid my food cooling down or getting thrown around on the walk home. And despite its status as a carryout joint, Khushie’s owners are still mindful of details. They pipe in a constant stream of energetic Indian pop and provide a free watercooler, in addition to the drinks they sell.

Intrigued by Sietsema’s rave of the kali mirch, I decided to take his lead and try this dish for the first time. It was nothing short of stupendous, with the black peppercorns in gravy sauce contributing a unique kick to the tastebuds. The chicken was delicious, but the sauce was the star. It was not especially hot or spicy but still as far from ordinary as you can get. It’s the kind of food you know, even as you’re still eating it, that you’ll be thinking back on fondly days and weeks later. Because I’ve never had kali mirch before, I have nothing to hold it up against, but based on the only average fare I’ve had at many Indian dives, I can only imagine this is an exemplary form.

Another clue I got was the unbelievable naan. Soft as a pillowcase out of the wash, this bread was probably the best naan I’ve ever had. Between it and the kali mirch, I couldn’t decide which I was afraid of running out of first. If I lived closer to Khushie (it’s about a fifteen minute walk), I’d just go there every day and get their naan to go with every meal. Because sopping up the remnants of the kali mirch with the last shreds of naan, I was tasting true happiness. Thanks, Sietsema. 9/10

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Jan. 15.



Brunch -

Prune - 54 E. 1st St., East Village
Omelette with Swiss, Cheddar, Canadian Bacon and Smoked Salmon with buttered Pullman toast, a Kir Royale with Creme de Cassis
$23

Brunch: the meal of socialites and hipsters. Or as Jacques, the bowling instructor on The Simpsons, aptly puts it, “It's not quite breakfast, it's not quite lunch, but it comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end.” Ordinarily, I’m not one for brunch because I like to sleep obscenely late on weekends. But with Perry’s girlfriend Caroline visiting from Washington, it was a great opportunity to make a change.

It helped too that we decided to go to Prune, which many cognoscenti call the best brunch spot in the city. In fact, it seems the East Village and its outskirts are full of top contenders, including Ninth Street Market, Five Points and Clinton Street Baking Company. Unfortunately, (this is one of my big gripes), none of these restaurants will take reservations, which inevitably results in monumental waits. But apparently, hipsters and socialites don’t like to plan ahead.

The first time I’d tried to go to Prune, I was told at 1 pm that the wait would be an hour and a half. Understandably, it’s a very popular place and can’t seat too many. But because I didn’t want my brunch stretching into dinnertime, I opted to go somewhere else (Golden Unicorn). This time though, we called ahead and got lucky. Again, at 1 on a Saturday, we were told the wait would be about twenty minutes. Cheered by the good news, we sped down the brisk stretch of First Avenue.

Prune can feel cramped, but they make the most of the space they have. The staff is unmissable in their pink shirts, and all the servers seemed very friendly and laidback. The other diners all looked very local, the same well-read glasses-wearing thirty year olds that read the New York Times in coffeeshops and maybe even work in community gardens. The menu seems designed for them, featuring selections from popular neighborhood suppliers (Joe’s Dairy, Russ & Daughters) among their choices. In a word, Prune is very “cute,” a place to take your (very patient) parents when they visit.

But for all of its cuteness, its food and drink more than satisfies with creativity and flavor. Instead of stopping at the rote selections of brunch alcohol, Prune tweaks the formula and offers up nine (!) reinventions of the Bloody Mary. Some require braver guts than others, but at least one is sure to appeal to everybody. I decided to skip them in favor of the lighter Kir Royale, but I was almost seduced into sampling the Chicago Matchbox. It came equipped with lemon vodka, a skewer of vegetables, caperberries and a beer chaser. Take that, pedestrian diner fare.

Not that hungry (my stomach just isn’t used to eating early), I forwent their interesting eggs benedict to customize an omelette. Each ingredient was an extra dollar, but they all sounded so good so I just kept adding them on. “You want all four of those?” our friendly waitress marveled, in response to the requests for smoked salmon, Canadian bacon, and Muenster and Cheddar cheeses. “Yeah,” I said, before agreeing to a side of Pullman toast for good measure. It could’ve gotten embarrassing if I’d actually been hungry.

In retrospect, I think that I should have chosen something more unique. My omelette was good and the Pullman bread was a delicious touch, but it failed to stand out, especially amongst the other dishes coming out of the kitchen. Likewise, the Kir Royale with cassis was nice and smooth, but the Bloody Marys are where Prune earns its fame. Caroline, who went with the Eggs Benedict and mimosas, said she really enjoyed both.

All in all, I agree with the hype. Prune is a great place for brunch and a perfect fit for the quirky homespun charms of the East Village. My only hesitations remain the frequently unbearable waits and my own unwillingness to wake up that early to eat. However, if I knew there was a seat waiting for me at Prune, I’d be more likely to start setting my alarm, hipsters, socialites and all. 7/10

Dinner -

Chip Shop - 383 5th St., Park Slope, Brooklyn
Battered Haddock and Chips, a 20 oz. glass of Old Speckled Hen Fine English Ale, half of a Fried Snickers bar
$22

When I was in London, my friends and I wanted to try some authentic fish and chips on our last day in town. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday afternoon and all the pubs were closed, and we practically had to wander the entire city before we could locate a place willing to serve us this supposedly iconic dish. To add to the disappointment, I didn’t really like it all that much. If they’d just called it fried fish and fried potatoes, we wouldn’t have gone so far out of my way.

Enough time had passed to work up a fresh craving for the food. Chip Shop, the restaurant in Park Slope that I’d picked, specialized in it. I’d also heard good things, so I ventured out to Brooklyn, optimistic but cautious. Vince and I met (we actually ended up sitting in the adjacent Curry Shop, which focuses on the Indian segment of British cooking) and ordered pints. Right away, a good start.

With a little input from the waiter, we also both chose the Fried Haddock. It was a large-sized piece of breaded and fried fish, with the golden-brown color of a Chicken McNugget. The chips were thick, somewhat greasy and stubby, most closely approximating steak fries. Both parts of the dish tasted good and the fish was fresh, though I still had trouble getting past all of the oil and fat. I don’t mind eating somewhat unhealthily when dining out (if I did, I doubt I’d have too many places to eat), but finishing off that fish made me feel almost as guilty as a conversation with my mother.

Apparently, I didn’t learn my lesson though, because almost as a dare, we decided to finish off our caloric spree with a fried Snickers bar. I knew that fried candy bars are very popular in Great Britain, but the entire concept just seemed so baffling and horrific to me that I had to try it out. In the end, it turned out to be neither as bad or as good as I feared. Instead, it tasted like a candy bar covered in the same tempura coating you’d find in a Japanese restaurant.

As the meal ended, I felt like I understood why people enjoyed the food. It was sinful and tasty and went well with beer. It’s also a nice rebellion from the food pyramids and self-imposed salad days thrust into many Americans’ diets. Still, I don’t think I would be able to justify eating fish and chips more than very occasionally. That’s thankfully about as often as I have the craving to do so. 6/10

Monday, January 10, 2005

Jan. 10.



Dinner -

Assenzio - 205 E. 4th St., East Village

Gnocchi di Patate al Profumo di Tartufo Blanco, Mozzarella-stuffed Veal with Porcini Mushroom Risotto, some of Perry's Carpaccio di Pesce Spada, a glass of Sardinian red wine, limoncello (complimentary)
$50


One random Sunday, Perry and I were drinking and playing gin, and I was winning hand after hand. Finally, feeling cocky, I proposed a bet for the final round, convinced my win was guaranteed. Perry set the stakes at the loser buying the winner dinner, not to exceed a value of $30. I picked up my cards, relieved and excited: I only needed three cards to win. But sure enough, about two minutes into the game, Perry puts down his extra card and reveals his combinations. “I only needed one card to win,” he informed me. And so like the villain in some moralistic fable, I’d gotten my comeuppance.

I chose to pay off my forfeit at Assenzio, a Sardinian restaurant I’ve walked by so often I could mistake it for a monument. Last year, I really branched out in exploring Italian regional cuisine in New York, venturing into Roman (Lupa and Cacio e Pepe), Venetian (Al di La) and Apulian (I Trulli) cuisines, but so far never having Sardinian. The idea intrigued me, as did the inventive but reasonably priced menu.

The place was nearly empty, with the few diners all inhabiting the seats at the bar. Our accented waiter directed us to a four-person table, giving us ample room to stretch out and take in the funky décor. With quotes scribbled on the green walls and Italian pop piping in, Assenzio (Italian for absinthe) feels like a neighborhood labor of love. Our waiter who may have also been the manager was very friendly and informal, eager to please and recommend.

Perry and I started out with glasses of Sardinian wine to complement our meals, and herein I found the restaurant’s main vulnerability. The wine list was disproportionately expensive in relation to its affordable menu. I could hardly find any bottles under $30 and most were well over that. It was a strange quirk I hadn’t previously encountered. When I asked about wines by the glass, I learned there were three reds and three whites, a tiny fraction of the massive list. I chose the Sardinian glass of red at $9, thinking this restaurant should do much better than six wines by the glass.

Turning to the better designed menu, divided in the familiar antipasti, insalate, primi and secondi categories (though they had carpacci rather than contorni), Perry and I decided to split a primo of the homemade gnocchi in white truffle sauce. For his secondo, he ordered the swordfish carpaccio whereas I switched at the last moment from the braised wild boar in a red wine sauce with juniper berries to a very appealing special of mozzarella-stuffed veal with a porcini risotto. I am a big fan of fresh mozzarella, veal, porcinis and risotto, so it was impossible to resist.

The large portion of gnocchi came already split onto two plates by our helpful waiter. I was quite excited, because recently, I’ve become something of a self-appointed gnocchi connoisseur. Since being absolutely floored last year at Cacio e Pepe’s stinging nettle gnocchi and then similarly wowed by Lupa’s ricotta gnocchi with fennel sausage ragu, I’ve tried to seek out this very versatile dish whenever I can. Assenzio’s version was made of potato and was covered in the white truffle sauce. It was very good but the gnocchi themselves were lost in the strong flavor of truffle oil. That wasn’t a big problem for me, because I happen to really love the taste, but it would have been nice to taste both flavors in a little more balance.

However, my special was excellent. The risotto was unbelievably palatable and the mushrooms were fresh and delicious. I just wanted this entrée to go on and on, infinitely growing in my plate. The veal held up its end of the bargain too, being soft, cheesy and well-seasoned. I also had a taste of Perry’s carpaccio which was good (caveat: I’m not a big carpaccio eater) though he attested it was “great.” God, that risotto was stupendous, in case I haven’t mentioned it.

The waiter then brought out two shots of limoncello for us to enjoy. He couldn't have known of course, but I'm fairly obsessed with the drink, because it reminds me of the great time I spent in Sorrento. (That and it's a delicious citrus alcohol that packs a surprising punch.) The free alcohol wasn't a gesture I was expecting and one the waiter had no obligation to provide, but it fit the feel of Assenzio. It's welcoming, friendly, pleasant and fairly thoughtful. I'd come back anytime, though until then, I'll continue to walk by it day after day, finally knowing now the pleasures it houses. And Perry, if you're reading this, I'm glad I lost that bet. 8/10

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Jan. 9.

Dinner -

Mercadito - 179 Ave. B, East Village
Ceviche Sampler: Ceviche de Camaron with shrimp, pineapple, serrano coconut milk, milk and lime juice; Ceviche de Mahi Mahi Ahumado with smoked mahi mahi, ruby red grapefruit, cactus, pico de gallo and citrus-chile habanero broth; Ceviche de Salmon with wild king salmon, pickled jalapenos, capers, orange, parsley and cucumber-horseradish broth); Beer-Battered Taco de Mahi Mahi; Tacos de Camaron with shrimp, avocado and roasted garlic chile chipotle mojo; Mango Mojito; Mojito de Casa (complimentary)
$49

Restaurants already have reputations by the time most diners get to experience them. That’s why when Mercadito opened in Alphabet City, I was eager to check it out before the buzz became too deafening. I wanted to form my own take on the spot before the Times and New York had put their critical stamps on it. It wasn’t too risky a venture though, because the early word was already exceedingly positive. My first impression, when I went with Perry a while back in its opening weeks, was more mixed though.

Of the many pet peeves I have about restaurants, Mercadito was initially guilty of two of the worst: a no reservations policy and cramped seating. With only thirty seats in their packed room, the waiting list on a random Tuesday night hovering at an hour, and people pushed into the space in the hopes of their names being called, Mercadito didn’t fit my idea of a relaxing night. Even after Perry and I killed lots of time at Louis, a cool jazz bar on 11th and C, we were relegated to sitting at the bar for an evening of waiters and hostesses shuffling back and forth behind us.

The nouveau Mexican menu proved to be a great consolation though. Good flatbread, a great ceviche sampler, a nice array of margarita and mojito options, and superb shrimp tacos. As we chowed down, we talked to our very friendly (and attractive) bartender/server and I questioned her about where the restaurant was heading. A reservations policy or some more seating would be nice, I unsubtly suggested. Along with great drinks, she offered great news: in the coming weeks, Mercadito would be opening up another room and taking reservations to boot. I promised her I’d return.

Sure enough, weeks later, just as my friend Pat and I decide to see these new developments in action, the Times prints a fairly complimentary Diner’s Journal, New York has its say and a solid cocoon of praise has formed around the restaurant. I warned Pat that the wait may have only worsened (the reservations policy unfortunately never materialized), but as our luck turned out, Sunday was the day to go. We were escorted right away to a table in a back room serene enough to make the bar room look like a train station at rush hour. Our waitress was again friendly and flirtatious, making suggestions and prompting us to order more.

I went for a mango mojito to compare with the mango margarita I’d opted for last time. This mojito wasn’t great and the chunks of mango thrown in didn’t do anything besides raise the price to a lofty eleven dollars, whereas the margarita was tastier and more unique (though no cheaper). Otherwise, by sticking with and minorly tweaking dishes I’d already tried and enjoyed, I had more success. Pat and I split the ceviche sampler, keeping the shrimp in coconut broth and the mahi mahi in three-citrus broth I’d already tried but switching tuna for Pat’s pick, the king salmon in horseradish-habañero broth. Though all three had their moments, and the shrimp ceviche was a little too soggy, both times it was the best.

The tacos were the stars though. The portions were small, at only three hand-sized soft-shell tacos per order, but what they lacked in size they more than compensated for in flavor. The beer-battered mahi mahi variety was excellent, outshining many of the traditional tacos I’ve tried. Better yet though, the shrimp tacos were as superlative as I’d remembered them. After we each had one and a half, I only regretted that there weren’t six more waiting. But alas, Mercadito is far more based on the paradigms of small plates and taperias than any hearty Mexican feast. In other words, it’s more about fun than full.

Although the food was very good on both of my visits, I have to say that my second trip was much more enjoyable. The back room was far more conducive to enjoyable eating and not waiting an hour is always a good appetizer. I don't recommend trying to go on Thursday through Saturday for a while without at least calling ahead and putting your name on their growing list. Then again, lots of people will show up anyway, seemingly enjoying the craziness of a packed room, especially after Mercadito continues to prove its reputation right. 8/10

Update (3/2/05): Mercadito now takes reservations.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Jan. 8.



Lunch
-

Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches
- 150 E. 2nd St., East Village
Classic Vietnamese Sandwich (without jalapeños)
$3.95

Ah, bahn mi. It was one of my most prized food discoveries of last year and a rare beacon of joy in my otherwise mundane workweeks. Back when I was still working with Manny, he’d occasionally ride his bike to Chinatown at lunch and bring back two of these delicious sandwiches ($2.75 each!) from the mysterious Saigon Bahn Mi. Before trying my first one, I was a little suspicious, because I thought that if it were really as good as he made it out to sound, I would’ve at least heard of it. After all, I’ve eaten in Vietnamese restaurants and had never seen them appear on any menu. Never underestimate the extent of your own ignorance. They’ve since become my favorite sandwich.

Bahn mi (or simply Vietnamese sandwiches, as Nicky’s refers to them) are a culinary byproduct of colonialism, the legacy of cultural imperialism found in the form of very delicious French bread. I believe the pâté found inside can also be traced back to the Europeans, whereas the daikon radish and cilantro found in many varieties are Asian contributions.

Since getting hooked on Saigon Bahn Mi (a place I’ve still never been in person), I was happy to hear that Nicky’s was opening up in my neighborhood. Run by a friendly Vietnamese family, this small two-table operation promised to bring the meal within a much more walkable distance. Both times, I’ve opted for their Classic Vietnamese Sandwich, which contains pâté, Vietnamese ham, roasted ground pork, pickled carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, and mayo on a toasted baguette. (I forgo the jalapeños.) It’s proven nearly identical to Saigon’s version, meaning quite amazing, with maybe a little more mayo added in. The main difference is that Nicky’s is more expensive, at $3.95, but then again, the East Village is costlier real estate. Also, even at the higher price, the sandwich is very filling, a great bargain, and a hell of a lot more interesting than Subway. 8/10



Dinner
-

Sripraphai
- 64-13 39th Ave., Woodside, Queens
Fried Watercress Salad w/ Chicken, Shrimp and Squid; Penang Curry with Beef; Tom Zap Talay soup; coconut rice; some of Vince's Papaya Salad and Chicken Drunken Noodles; some of Anne's green tea cookies; Sweet Mung Bean candy (fruit-shaped soft "marzipan"); Vince's Fat Bastard Chardonnay (BYOB)
$26

The best restaurants force you to reconsider the parameters of what a cuisine can be. With that in mind, I’m happy to say that I’ve eaten in two of the best restaurants in two consecutive days. First, there was Una Pizza Napoletana (see Jan. 6), whose Neapolitan pie was so good I literally had a dream about it, and now, there’s the outer borough magic of Thai haven Sripraphai.

Taking the 4 at Union Square and transferring to the 7 at Grand Central, I managed to make it to the restaurant in an impressive forty-five minutes. Also, because Vince and his friends Anne and Emily met me just before seven, a friendly hostess sat us right away. (This was no longer the case by eight, when groups crowded by the door, even despite Sripraphai’s December expansion.) Looking over the menu, it was readily apparent to all of us that this wasn’t going to be your average Thai spot. In fact, the hyperbolic claim I’ve heard repeated many times – “the most authentic Thai restaurant in America” – seemed much less farfetched suddenly.

I was intent on eating authentically, so I made sure to order unique dishes and to get them “Thai spicy.” Anne and Emily didn’t embarrass either, following Vince’s edict to eat interestingly. In fact, the daunting problem he and I had was narrowing down our choices on a menu that offered so many novel options. My solution was just to eat a lot and sample – at such fair prices, it would’ve been a shame not to.

I started with the Fried Watercress Salad, which was amazing. Not only was it loaded with seafood, but it had a sweet, sharp kick. The titular vegetable provided a great crunch and though the portion was large, it was too good to leave any leftovers. I similarly loved my sample of Vince’s Papaya Salad, which was certainly Thai spicy and which I plan on ordering the next time around.

For my next course, I had the Tom Zap Talay soup, a delicious spicy-sour concoction that comes packed with seafood and isn’t on the menu. The regular variety, the Tom Zap, is the same soup with beef offal, but they’ll substitute seafood if you request it. This soup was too sour for Vince, but I thought it was great. Its piquant bite reminded me of the Asam Laksa at Nyonya, which is very fishy and acidic and comes complete with a warning on the menu to discuss it with your server before you order it. (To my warped logic, that’s only greater incentive to get something.)

From there, it was the less interesting but still good Penang Curry with Beef and a side of coconut rice. The rice was predictably great and the curry, though different from what I imagined, was sweet and rich. The dish basically consisted of slices of beef covered in the curry sauce, which was a viscous red-brown mixture. As good as it was though, my choice still paled in comparison to Vince’s winning Drunken Noodles. Even with the little that I tried, I could tell they were the best version of this meal I’ve had. It was spicy, flavorful and addictive with great seasoning to boot. Another must-order.

Finally, there were the desserts, easily the restaurant’s weak suit. They know that though and don’t attempt to disguise it. The dessert offerings aren’t even listed on the menu, sequestered instead to display racks in the front room on a daily basis. Diners can look at the offerings du jour and choose whatever happens to pique their curiosity. I had received recommendations for the banana sticky rice, which was notorious for disappearing early. Sure enough, it was gone when I requested it, substituted with the less appealing taro sticky rice. I passed on that and found some bizarre marzipan-esque mung bean fruits (shaped like apples, oranges, mangoes, etc.) in the refrigerator. Anne got little green tea cookies topped with cashews, a veritable steal at $2.50. (Try even seeing the dessert menu at most Manhattan restaurants for $2.50.) Both desserts were bad but fun to try, and at that point, I was too stuffed to care.

After so much hype and so much waiting, I had made the trip to Woodside. It turned out to be much easier to reach than I'd expected and even more delicious than I'd imagined. It required only one visit to redefine my understanding of what American Thai food could accomplish. Hopefully though, there'll be more visits to further defy my much higher expectation. 10/10

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Jan 6.


Lunch

Dumpling Man – 100 St. Mark’s Pl., East Village
Steamed Shrimp Dumplings in “brave” Red Monster sauce with peanuts (6), Teany Herbal Citrus Cooler
$8.13

I was at Dumpling Man on the day it opened in July and it’s been interesting to watch it evolve since. I saw it sadly lose its calamari dumplings to later be replaced by the more generic but tasty shrimp. I saw the addition of the Marco Polo option (a homemade tomato sauce option – their response to ravioli), the appearance of desserts like mango shaved ice, green tea flan and the red bean latte, the introduction of beef dumplings with black sesame seeds, and finally, the newest innovation: Red Monster sauce, in gradations of mild, brave and crazy. Because I live so very close to Dumpling Man, and because I do genuinely enjoy their food, I’ve essentially tried the entire menu. I discovered that I like the steamed shrimp dumplings the best (although the mix and match option is a good opportunity to sample some of each), but finding the Marco Polo sauce ill-fitting, I’d settled for eating the dumplings plain. With Red Monster sauce, that may be (like my much-lamented calamari) a thing of the past.

Spicy sauces often fail when their only concern is bringing the heat. If there’s no nuance or complexity to the sauce, I don’t see the point of using it. I might as well chew down on a chili pepper and save time. But the brave sauce, while unsparing of kick, is also nuanced, with a hint of sweetness. It goes well with the optional peanut topping and the corn and white pepper in the dumpling. In fact, I found it so tasty that I couldn’t help dragging my chopstick through the empty container to try a little more of the sauce on its own. We all have our private shames, I suppose…

As for my beverage, I decided on a whim to finally try a Teany tea. Teany is a tea shop on Rivington co-owned by Moby, and its cold bottled drinks have been popping up in stores around the city. I guess I got it because the Herbal Citrus Cooler sounded like an interesting flavor and probably a good coolant in case the brave overstepped into crazy territory. But also, I felt a little sorry for Moby after his last unimpressive albums. The tea itself (it can be so hard to ignore packaging and context) was tasty and refreshing, but I couldn’t help think of the vast profit margins selling a bottled tea would bring. And ultimately, bringing the packaging and image of the company back into the discussion, Teany is reminiscent of Moby’s music of late: its preciousness feels a little too market-tested. 7/10


Dinner

Una Pizza Napoletana349 E. 12th St., East Village
Margherita Pizza, San Pellegrino Aranciata
$24

If Domenic DeMarco of DiFara's fame (see Jan. 1) was about forty years younger and lived in the East Village, he might have turned out to be Anthony Mangieri. Both show intense commitment to their ingredients, their artistry, and their finished products, and both most likely have tomato sauce running through their veins.

Mangieri, with his neck, back and arms coated with tattoos, and young enough to make me jealous, isn’t what you expect a serious pizzaiolo to look like, and his plain restaurant, decorated with drawings of Jesus and saints in agony or ecstasy may not fit what a serious pizzeria should look like. But, again like DeMarco, Mangieri doesn’t care what you think. He believes in his work strongly and isn’t shy about making it known. On the very involved menu, he speaks his mind freely: “Pizza… is a word used to describe many products; deep-dish, cracker thin, stuffed crust, etc… [A]ll the square, round, thick, stuffed and over-topped pieces of dough may be to your liking, but don't call it pizza.” And if you think those are fighting words, he even added in an interview that he thinks there’s no good pizza left in New York.

With mozzarella balls that big, he’d have to put up a pretty amazing pie to back up the bravado. I hesitate to say it, because it may come off a tad hyperbolic, but here it is regardless: Una Pizza Napoletana is the best pizza I’ve eaten in this country. There -- it's been said.

Part of the beauty is the simplicity. There are only four kinds of pizza available: marinara, margherita, bianca and filetti, and each one contains some permutation of eight possible ingredients: San Marzano tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh basil, sea salt, buffalo mozzarella, oregano, fresh cherry tomatoes, and fresh garlic. Want pepperoni on there? Go try Pizza Hut, the menu seems to suggest. The dough too is unique, made by hand every day with Mangieri grinding wheat berries into flour by stone. If he runs out of fresh dough, he closes up shop for the day, and if he has leftover dough, he throws it out.

I opted for the Margherita (the other three all had fresh garlic) which was topped with San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh basil, and sea salt. It was a pleasure to watch to watch Mangieri preparing the pie and sliding it into the wood-burning oven. The oven, prominently displayed because he was clearly proud of this other authentic element, glowed a phosphorescent orange as he stoked it with more wood chips.

But all of that of course is tangential. In the end, it must come down to the food. At twelve inches, and presented without fanfare on a white plate with knife and fork, the pie looks just big enough to fill you up. It also looks quite appetizing, with the red, white and green aesthetic (mixed in with yellow swirls of olive oil) that distinguishes Neapolitan pizza vividly present. After all this anticipation, I was nervous to slice into such a high-pedigree meal (at $16.95, may strike many as way too exorbitant a price), but I dug in with an excitement I haven’t felt foodwise in too long. From the first bite, I was won over, transported back to that summer afternoon in Capri when I had the best pizza I’ll probably ever have. Una Pizza Napoletana’s mozzarella was so soft it nearly evaporated. The sweet tomatoes and slightly charred wood-allusive crust provided a perfect juxtaposition of flavors of textures. The sea salt added an elusive tang of sodium to the mix and the oil was as pure as promised.

Enjoying my transcendent slice, I studied the sketches of saints above me and understood that I must've somehow ascended to pizza heaven. And when I saw that Mangieri had also written in his menu, "Nothing more pure or honestly wholesome can be bought at any price," I now knew it wasn't hype or arrogance talking, but the gospel truth. 10/10

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Jan. 5.

Dinner

Sea
– 75 2nd Ave., East Village
Tup-Tim Fritters, Chicken Drunk Man Noodles
$14

Another night, another Thai craving. I left work tonight at a reasonable time (eight o’clock) because I had to pull my first all-nighter at the office yesterday. For about ten hours straight, I was confined to my desk, reading and summarizing documents and entering basic information about them into an Excel spreadsheet. I came home for fifteen minutes to shower and change and then came back to the office to finish the project. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t about to subject myself to the cafeteria options tonight on top of my queasy stomach and narcoleptic napping.

My roommate Perry and I made plans to get dinner, but decided to stay in and get delivery instead. I suggested Thai, he suggested Sea, and forty-five minutes later, we were ready to eat. I’d ordered the Tup-Tim Fritters, fried chicken and shrimp balls with a sweet and sour dipping sauce, as an appetizer on someone’s raving recommendation. They were only pretty good, but I don’t normally enjoy fried food and they weren’t so good that I could casually dismiss the thought of my arteries gradually sealing off (shrimp tempura is my main exception.)

My noodle dish was also pretty good, but that’s the highest praise it would sustain. It reached a nice level of spiciness, but was too greasy and didn’t particularly distinguish itself as some other Drunk Man or Drunken noodles I’ve had. (This is one of the better dish names in Thai food, because it really is fantastic when you’ve had a few too many drinks and come stumbling toward the fridge for leftovers.) Perry opted for his mainstay Pad Thai, and also seemed to like it well enough, though he did say that he really needed to start branching out to other dishes. True enough.

Sea, like the previously mentioned Klong, straddles an interesting and increasingly flexible line between trendy and budget. It boasts a sleek decor and is frequently packed by Friday night scenesters (or at least wannabe scenesters) who are there as much for the atmosphere as the food. There’s also a much larger outpost of the restaurant in Williamsburg, that ground zero of scenesterism, where the cooking is supposed to be better and the location even trendier. Given that Perry and I only had the food to judge, removed from its natural environs of dim lighting and indie tunes, I could be convinced that the Brooklyn location is better. It’s not that the East Village Sea isn’t good though. In a very crowded field, it just may not be good enough. 4/10

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Jan 2.



Lunch

Klong7 St. Mark's Pl., East Village
Chicken Tom Yum Soup, Rangoon shrimp with spicy lime sauce, Chicken Kee Mao (extra spicy), Thai Iced Tea with fresh apple syrup, Thai Iced Tea (regular)
$22

When I first walked by Klong, I looked at its dimly lit interior, ornate gold-sculptured façade and sleek entranceway art, and shook my head in disdain. Here was yet another symptom, right up the street from the newly opened Chipotle and Supercuts, that my neighborhood was deep in the throes of gentrification. Here was another swank hangout ready to sling pale imitations of Thai food and overpriced Red Bull and Vodkas for wannabe hipsters and unwitting tourists. Then I walked up to the menu and did a double take. The prices, even next to a trendily named Lychee Siamese Duck, were remarkably reasonable, the same kinds of prices you’d pay, in fact, at any neighborhood Thai joint. Still suspicious, I figured that all this dressing up was just a distraction from mediocre cooking. Five visits later, I have been happily proven wrong time and time again.

Because it flouts convention in several ways, Klong is a difficult place to classify. One way I’ll try is to say that it’s a strange hybrid of upscale Thai restaurants such as Spice Market or Kittichai and downscale neighborhood Thai joints. That’s not entirely right though either. Spice Market and Kittichai, armed with celebrity chefs, are far more interested in Asian fusion, inventing such offerings as Vietnamese coffee tapioca affogato and Hudson Valley foie gras with pineapple marmalade. Klong, on the other hand, sticks primarily to the classic noodle, curry and fried rice dishes, but even when venturing into more creative realms with certain appetizers, entrees and mock meat offerings, grounds them in a more concretely Thai context. Yet with its unique and relaxing décor, replete with abaci walls, running water and even elegant bathrooms (!), the use of stacking, decorative spicing and square plates in food presentations, and a cocktail menu that wouldn’t be out of place at a Chelsea hotspot, Klong hardly fits alongside its simpler brethren.

Still, all of this would be irrelevant if the food weren’t great. It isn’t quite Kittichai caliber (then again, I shelled out $90 for dinner there), but for “regular” Thai fare, it is certainly a cut above what you’d find almost anywhere else. Of course, purists would argue that it isn’t as authentic as a place like Sripraphai, the famed Woodside restaurant that Frank Bruni in the Times awarded two stars to, and of course, they would be right. But Klong isn’t trying to be Kittichai or Sripraphai. It’s happy being what it is: a modest restaurant with lofty intentions, and I’m more than happy to keep coming back. After all, who needs classifications and dissections when you’ve got a plate of Spicy Basil noodles waiting in front of you? 7/10

Dinner

Loreley7 Rivington St., Lower East Side
A stein of Spaten Oktoberfestbier, Potato soup with smoked bacon and croutons, some of Vince’s pretzels, Cheese spaetzle with mixed salad, some of Vince’s pork schnitzel with French fries, Apple strudel with vanilla cream
$46.50

Germans are heavy. Think Nietzsche. Think Kant. Think Rammstein. Think fried wiener schnitzel drenched in gravy, generous portions and beersteins almost the size of my head. After work today, Vince and I drove out to Loreley just off of Bowery, a restaurant I’ve been looking forward to trying ever since I returned from Eastern Europe in September. I wasn’t even that crazy about the food in Berlin (save for the impossible-to-find-here döner kabobs), but I loved the convivial atmosphere of the biergartens. I wanted to see how a New York facsimile could stack up against the real article.

Since I narrowly missed out on going to Oktoberfest, I opted for the Spaten Oktoberfestbier, which the company brews specifically for the beerfest in Munich. Feeling optimistic, I ordered a stein’s worth, whereas Vince chose a glass of lighter Radeberger Pilsener from the long list of drafts. His looked puny next to my hulking mug, which, he said, made him feel like he was naked in the high school locker room again. Brilliant.

The beer was great and instantly reminded me of my wayward nights trekking from garten to garten. My soup too was even better than I expected, exhibiting surprisingly complicated and rich flavors from the first bite. The dark bread croutons floating at the top provided a nice crunchy complement to the soup and the addition of bacon to the mix added a lot to the great taste. I had no trouble finishing off the bowl. Also fantastic were Vince’s pretzels, which had salt crystals baked in (they might have been a little too salty for me although they went very well with both the soup and beer.) The best feature of the pretzels was how warm and soft they were. I’d never had anything like them in Germany, although I wish I’d found out about them a long time ago.

Then came the entrees which led to my major disappointment. I’d chosen the spaetzle, wildly mistaking what I’d be getting. I had gone with the spaetzle because I wanted something lighter at this point (that may be impossible in German culture) and had pictured these flour-and-egg dumplings containing cheese and coming unadorned. Instead, they were saturated with cheese on top and onions inside. Since I don’t eat onions, and I was already getting full on what I’d had, I was not excited about the food in front of me. I poked around the melted cheese and scraped away the fried onions, picking out the tasty spaetzle, but it only made me more frustrated to find out how good it would have been if it’d come the way I’d pictured. I was jealous of the schnitzel Vince had picked, and after tasting a piece and having some of his McDonald’s-esque fries (one of the few times I will use McDonald’s in a complimentary fashion), I was bummed that I hadn’t ordered that instead. Actually, I think I would have enjoyed any of the other entrees. But Vince, undaunted by either cheese or onions though, finished off the rather large portion of my dish that I gave up on, confirming either that the spaetzle just wasn’t intended for me or that he’s a fat American pig.

I continued plowing forward with my beer, in the hope that dessert would redeem my restaurant experience. I hadn’t actually planned on ordering any, but Vince, being the dessert fanatic, ordered one and I couldn’t resist the (nonexistent) peer pressure. We both went for the apple strudel, a delectable dish that once again won my faith in the small kitchen. The strudel was flaky and warm with a well-proportioned seasoning of cinnamon and apple filling. The vanilla cream poured along the center of the dessert was an interesting addition, and a nice variation from the typical ice cream route. Even with this deviation, the strudel was simple, unpretentious and tasty.

As good as the meal was though, I remembered why I ate German food so rarely. On my way home, I felt so heavy that I suspected they'd slipped a lead weight into my strudel. My stomach bloated forward and my sides ballooned out, and I had to waddle more than walk. Now, five hours later, as I write this, I still feel just as full and fat. What's the lesson in all of this? Even as Wittgenstein and Wagner have their many virtues, they're just too heavy ultimately to enjoy on a frequent basis. But when I am in the mood for it, I'll be glad that Loreley's there. 7/10

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Jan 1.



Lunch -

DiFara Pizzeria – 1464 Ave. J, Midwood, Brooklyn
Three slices of mushroom and sausage pizza, one slice of mushroom pizza, a bottle of IBC root beer, a bottle of Orange Crush, a can of Wild Cherry Pepsi
$11.50

A new year, a fresh start. What better way to inaugurate 2005 than joining the illustrious ranks of the Polar Bear Club. Still a little nauseous from last night’s holiday festivities, I boarded the Q train and set off for the depths of Coney Island. I met Vince and Libby at the aquarium, choked down a lukewarm, foil-ensconced egg sandwich on a plain bagel and headed down toward the water. The Hungry Marching Band was loudly playing on the boardwalk, providing a soundtrack for the shirtless or bathrobe-wrapped men and bikini-clad women to dance to. On the glass-infested shore, we lined up en masse, undressed and waited for the call to run into the Atlantic. A pack of drunk men with gigantic beer bellies raised up a stuffed polar bear and an American flag and roared a call to arms, and away we went into the drink. It was certainly an experience, a baptism by ice, and certainly a very memorable way to mark the new year. That said, I could not wait to run back to dry land and begin the search for my now missing genitals.

After changing and picking up our snazzy blue “Did It” certificates, the three of us got on the uptown Q and got out at Avenue J in Midwood. I don’t think I’d ever been in this heavily-Orthodox neighborhood, but after all of the incessant hype about DiFara, I had to go out there and see for myself. It was, like the Polar Bear Club, quite an experience.

The pizzeria has survived since the 60’s, the entire time under the mindful eye of owner-master chef Dominic DeMarco. Walking inside, you instantly believe that it’s been around so long, because it’s doubtful the décor or even the tables have changed since then. But for since a modest place in a peaceful neighborhood, you also have many clues that you’re in for something special. The walls are plastered with high praise, from the 28 Zagat rating to the many articles pronouncing it New York’s best. The small space is crammed with eager customers, all angling among the chaos to get in their pie orders, shouting out, “Dominic!” “How you doin’, Dominic?” “Happy New Year, Dominic!,” like high school nerds trying to be seen talking to the quarterback.
For all the commotion, Dominic didn’t really seem to care. He went about making each pie to order, slowly and methodically kneading the dough, pouring on a ladleful of sauce, shredding fat, generous slices of mozzarella, liberally splashing around extra virgin olive oil, and coating all of this with another layer of mozzarella balls. “He’s getting lazy,” one of the Italian regulars informed us cheerfully. “He usually breaks up the balls before he puts them in.” Everyone seemed to know his every move, following the process like fans singing along with the band at concerts. I loved it too, never having witnessed such precision and utter disregard for efficiency in a pizzeria. Even though we waited about thirty minutes for our pies to come out, the display became a kind of performance theater or a cooking show too real for the Food Network.

As for the pizza itself, it was very good. The sausage was an excellent choice, because as I predicted, it was a much higher quality Italian sausage than the usual processed garbage you see polluting your slices. The toppings were plentiful and the taste of the fresh gooey cheese on the sauce and thin dough was just right. Vince proclaimed it was the best pizza he’s ever had, and corroborated his statement by finishing off seven slices. Libby put in a valiant effort of three mushroom slices, and I did my share with four. My main criticism I guess is that as time went on, the cheese dried up and cooled down and the pizza lost its bubbling fresh-out-of-the-oven look and took on a less appetizing day-under-heat-lamp look. Because of that, I think my last slice wasn’t quite as good as my first tastewise, but that still remains far better than most other places. As for where it stacks up in the pizza pantheon, I still give my much-vaunted nod to Grimaldi’s, more because I prefer their style of slice and the more spaced-out red-checkered-tablecloth atmosphere. But a visit to either DiFara or Grimaldi’s would make for a very great meal. Already, I’m craving a chance to try the square slices at DiFara that looked oh so good as hordes of hungry diners snapped them up with a smile. 8/10



Chinatown Ice Cream Factory – 65 Bayard St., Chinatown
One scoop of longan sorbet, one scoop of almond cookie ice cream in a cup
$4.50

We had to make a stop at my favorite ice cream shop in the city (not to be confused with Il Laboratorio del Gelato, my favorite gelato/sorbet shop or NYC Icy, my favorite Italian Ice shop) for dessert. I hear the usual suspect flavors are pretty great, but I can never make it past the Asian flavors like ginger, taro, red bean, lychee, and the best of all, almond cookie, to ever try them. 9/10

Dinner

Katina’s – 390 7th Ave., Park Slope, Brooklyn
A Belgian waffle with ham, coffee with milk, one of Davin’s French fries
$10

Davin happened to be up from Virginia, so I met up with him, Sean and Matt, who all wanted to meet up with old friends of theirs in Park Slope. It was one of those nights where I was just happy to go along for the ride, especially when it led to a 24-hour diner in Park Slope. Although I don’t go to them that often, I love diners for all of the opposite reasons I love fine dining. Diners are comfortable, casual, relaxed and simple. They’re the recliners or the sweatpants of the culinary world. I had a waffle while Matt had a Philly cheesesteak and everyone else had a burger. If they’d all been smoking and we were all half-trashed, I would have almost believed we were all back in Virginia. 5/10