Congee Village - 100 Allen St., Lower East Side
Minced Pork Buns, Lobster Congee, herb tea
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
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
Khushie - 139 Essex St., Lower East Side
Chicken Kali Mirch, Naan
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