A Year In Food

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

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Mar. 29.




Dinner
-

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que - 646 W. 131st St., Harlem
A solo order of Fried Green Tomatoes, a 3/4 rack of ribs with cole slaw and mac and cheese, a Middle Ages IPA, Sweet Potato Pecan pie
$37.17

Abortion and religion seem like quaint, friendly discussions compared to the maelstrom of barbecue debate. I can’t think of any food nearly as divisive (pizza may be a distant second), with topics such as region, meat, sauce and style all invitations to an inevitable smackdown. So with this in mind, let me lay my mesquite-scented shortcomings on the table now: I’ve never eaten ribs south of Virginia. The only place in the Midwest I’ve been is Chicago. I also don’t have, nor have I ever had, barbecue sauce coursing through my veins.

Things got particularly messy in New York when Syracuse-import Dinosaur Bar-B-Que opened a remote outpost in Harlem. After the early raves, there was the predictable backlash culminating in the triple slam of The New York Times, The Village Voice, and even The New Yorker’s usually benign Tables for Two. When the dust eventually settled, what remained was a very good, unpretentious restaurant that had gotten caught on the battlefield in the relentless barbecue war.

On my first visit, I got the Extreme Sampler, a gargantuan plate of a half-chicken, a half-rack of ribs and Texas beef brisket. The brisket was too dry and the baked bean side was just okay, and the portion far outweighed my hunger, but otherwise, I was very happy with the meal. The impressive beer list, focusing on upstate drafts, didn’t hurt either. This time around, I gauged my hunger better and selected the ¾ rack of rib with sides of mac and cheese and cole slaw. Pleased with the work of the Middle Ages brewery last time, I picked their IPA to wash down my food. It didn’t let me down.

The ribs were as good as I remembered too, loaded with meat and just enough fat. The smoked pork fell gently off of the bone, with a pleasing well-cooked and mildly sweet flavor. They also smelled terrific, making me wish I could eat more than seven in a sitting. But because they are so meaty, I filled up fast and had to give my last two to Vince. As for the sides, they inevitably play second-fiddle to the violin solo of the meat, and at Dinosaur, they fit the role, being good but not outstanding. The best was the offbeat mac and cheese, with stringy cheese and a slight kick. I also liked the fresh-cut fries that I tried last time and the salt-baked potatoes.

Dinosaur’s desserts are also nothing mindblowing, but sturdy renditions of reliable standards. They’re also gigantic. I enjoyed my last choice of key lime pie, but even better, was the sweet potato pecan pie I split this time around. Subtle and just sweet enough, with a thick crust and a light filling, it made me glad I saved room for it.

Another feature of the restaurant that deserves note is the service, which both times has been alarmingly casual, friendly and helpful. Our waitress seemed like she was having fun and, always on top of what we needed, made our experience that much more pleasant. By the end of the meal, I was relaxed enough to sink down into my seat, my full belly bulging out, sipping the last drops of my IPA. “Have a good night, boys,” our waitress said with a laidback grin.

So while it may not be the Holy Grail or even the world’s best barbecue, I will stand by my claim that Dinosaur is New York’s best. And if anyone feels like arguing that point, my suggestion is that you head up to Harlem, have a beer and a rack of ribs and just relax. There's already so much in the world to divide us. 7/10

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Mar. 27.



Dinner
-

'ino - 21 Bedford St., West Village
'ino antipasti; Chicken, oven-roasted tomato, asiago and rucola panino, a glass of Malvasia Bianca
$30.90

The last time we went to ‘ino, it was a minor nightmare. Perry and I met at this miniscule panini restaurant at eight on a Friday (admittedly a stupid move since the place won’t take reservations), planning to make the ten o’clock movie a block away at Film Forum. The host kept assuring us a table was coming even as soon as we walked in. To make matters worse, because it was winter, everyone waiting in the miserably packed alcove was wearing thick coats. It was hot and more people kept pushing their way in.

By eight thirty, two spots at the bar opened up and we were first in line. “You can have those,” the host said, “but I’ll have a table in less than five minutes.” Thinking of my problematic back, I decided to wait for the table. Meanwhile, couples that had finished eating a half hour ago were still occupying tables, leisurely talking away. At eight forty-five, a table finally opened up, but the host casually explained that it was for three people so he had to give it to the people behind us. It didn’t matter that they had come in ten minutes ago. But fear not, he promised us another table would open up very soon.

By nine, we gave up, knowing there would be no way we’d have time to have a relaxed dinner and still catch Notre Musique. But more than logistics, we were both sick of being jerked around by the insensitive host and his unrealistic promises. I told Perry that ‘ino would be better at lunch when there’d be less of a crowd, but he was already vowing not to return. If it hadn’t been for my very positive experience at ‘Inoteca, I would’ve made the same vow.

Four months later, in the mood for panini and reluctant to travel out to Moto in Williamsburg, I left my apartment at five to give ‘ino that second chance. This time around, I got a seat at the bar with no problem, instantly restoring my high hopes. But as I reviewed the menu and asked the bartender questions, she seemed apathetic and distracted. Her answers weren’t helpful and I had to pry information like we were playing a guessing game. I apparently could’ve used the guidance, because the Malvasia Bianca I got wasn’t very good, all the more upsetting because ‘ino is supposed to have a cheap but strong list. Also, the antipasti platter was another disappointment, scrimping on cheeses and meats to focus predominantly on vegetables. It was a competent but lackluster assortment that included fennel, roasted garlic, asparagus and eggplant.

Midway through the meal, the bartender’s demeanor chilled and she became friendlier (as she was packing up her things to leave). My mood also lightened when my chicken, roasted tomato, asiago and rucola panino arrived. It was nearly good enough to erase the bad karma ‘ino had racked up thus far. The toasted bread was wonderfully soft and crisp at the same time, providing a terrific frame for the terrific things inside. The melted asiago was a great glue to the crunch of the rucola and the melt-in-your-mouth chicken and tomato.

Simultaneously though, the room filled up to maximum capacity and again it felt overly claustrophobic. When the new bartender came on, one of the diners had a question for him. “What is bres-ay-oh-la?” she sounded out. He rolled his eyes. “Bresh-oh-la. Bresh-oh-la,” he repronounced as if it were obvious. “Air-dried beef.” Finishing my meal quickly, I paid the check and got out of there. If it weren’t for their panini, I would be happy to write off ‘ino altogether. Maybe even with their panini.

This sentiment only strengthened when walking home across Houston, I happened to peek into a tapas bar named Oliva. The bartender was grinning, telling a joke, and the two patrons at the bar were laughing enthusiastically. “Now that’d be the life,” I thought. 5/10

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Mar. 26.




Lunch
-

Tangra Masala - 87-09 Grand Ave., Elmhurst, Queens
Hot and sour soup, chicken pakoras, Manchurian tiger prawn sizzling platter, rosewater ice cream, two Snapple iced teas
$35

I’ve wanted to go to Tangra Masala for months, but the prospect of riding the subway for almost an hour each way always daunted me. So laziness (and a consistently hectic schedule) trumped curiosity weekend after weekend, until I finally couldn’t resist any longer. MTA delays and stalled trains be damned, the lure of sampling the mysteries of Indian-style Chinese food were just too strong. And now that I’ve had my taste, I’d be willing to walk out to Elmhurst for a second meal.

Much like Taverna Kyclades (see Mar. 6) or Sripraphai (see Feb. 5, Jan. 8) , Tangra Masala is doing its outer-borough address proud, providing exemplary ethnic food at an affordable price with minimal fanfare. You can tell just walking up to any of these restaurants, with their humble awnings, no-fuss interiors, and exotic smells wooing you inside.

Tangra Masala stands out though because of its unique hybrid of Chinese and Indian. The staff is all Chinese and the clientele is almost universally Indian. The meat is Halal in deference to Islamic culture. The menu is predominantly something you’d recognize from a takeout Chinese joint, but the number of stars indicating “hot and spicy” makes it look more like a planetarium.

I started with the hot and sour soup, which was by far the best version I’ve ever had. With so many layers and complexities to the spices, I finished off the large bowl greedily. It bore some resemblance to the more generic Chinese version, but only in the way a Van Gogh compares to a Kincaide.

The next course, the chicken pakoras, was similarly stratospheric. These deep-fried fritters seemed daunting when a large plate of eight arrived on my table, but biting into the first, I pondered, in classic TV-style, if eight was enough. The chicken inside was deliciously tender, contrasting well with the rocky fried texture outside. I'm not sure what the other elements of the filling were (chickpeas?) but they were equally soft and addictive.

From here, I went onto the Manchurian tiger prawn sizzling platter, which was wonderful if mildly disappointing after the heights the previous courses had scaled. For one thing, the dish only consisted of about eight shrimp and a bowl of rice, which at $13.95 seemed expensive in comparison to other prices. Still, the enlivening cilantro sprinkled liberally over the shrimp and the other seasonings subverting notions of boring brown sauce left little room for complaint. I haven’t tried many things cooked Manchurian-style before but after trying the tiger prawns, I’d be very interested in having the goat next time.

Reluctant to cap my gastronomic odyssey, I prolonged the meal with a little dessert. Again, like its Queens counterparts, Tangra Masala disappoints in this department, offering a few choices more out of obligation than desire. But from the available options, the rosewater ice cream seemed like the best palate-cleanser to end on. The two bright pink scoops they brought over were packed with raisins and various nuts, which made for some interesting if not particularly inspiring flavor combinations. But honestly, after the amazing dishes that came before, they could’ve served me a Pez in a dog dish and I would’ve walked out already eager to return, already plotting another long ride on the R, already fantasizing about what other secret magic Indian-style Chinese food may hold. 9/10

Friday, March 25, 2005

Mar. 25.




Lunch
-

Win49 - 205 Allen St., Lower East Side
Chirashi sushi, Udon noodle soup, hijiki salad
$11.94

Sometimes I go out with a plan and sometimes I just like to wander. Today was a wandering day as I set out south to see what I could find. With nothing in mind but a cheap lunch, I traveled down Clinton St. and came up short. I went east across Rivington and briefly considered ‘Inoteca, but I knew I’d overdo it there. So defeated and hungry, I turned north onto Allen and rewound back toward the East Village. Then spotting the bright pink sign of Win49, I realized I’d stumbled upon my place.

I’ve long been meaning to check out Win49, won over by its sign with the odd pig logo and the promise of “homey Japanese food.” Going in only made me more curious, as I learned that it specialized in kushikatsu, which are fried and breaded Japanese skewers of various vegetables or meats. I wasn’t in the mood for that today but the expansive variety of snacks for the tasting did plenty to stoke my appetite. Salads, soups, sushi, shumai, donburi and bento boxes, among other tasty treats, all begged to be picked like puppies at a pound. Of course, being magnanimous, I did my best to oblige as many as I could.

I started with a tray of chirashi sushi from the refrigerated display. What could have been a boring, stale Daikichi assortment was delicious and well-prepared. The fresh tuna, yellowtail and salmon sashimi came on a layer of sticky white rice, but it was the extras that distinguished the chirashi. The fish was decorated with three soybeans. It came with a small scoop of terrific and unexpected spicy lobster salad. There were even enoki mushrooms and vegetables waiting on the other end of the tray. Best of all, it was a bargain at $4.50.

The next item I tried was the udon noodle soup. This too wasn’t anything radical but it was well-made. The soup base was salty and had a soy flavor, very reminiscent of miso, which contrasted well with the thick, subtle udon. I was also given the choice of topping, between bean curd and vegetable tempura. I went with the former, but found it too sweet and cloying, out of place in the salty soup. Next time I would try the tempura.

I finished with a hijiki salad. This again was unsurprisingly delicious, with the dark seaweed, carrot slivers and chunks of bean curd full of strong and rich flavor. Fitting in with the other items I’d tried, it was merely a great rendition of a typical Japanese food but that was all right by me. After all, this is what Win49 aims for, with its self-proclaimed focus on homey foods. In a land where too many chefs are derailed by Icarus ambitions, it’s refreshing to see a place that may not be a destination but is easily deserving of a wander. 7/10




Dinner
-

Tab Tos - 543 E. 5th St., East Village
Octopus Salad with Spicy Lemon Dressing, Spicy Tab Tos Roll, a can of Pokka green tea, a green tea mochi ice cream
$13

Blame it on Masa (see Feb. 2). Since going there, I've barely been able to eat sushi. Any other place just suffered too much in inevitable comparison. That’s the only reason I haven’t been back to Tab Tos in so long, and today, I decided it was time to break the streak.

Ever since Tab Tos opened, with four tables in a tiny space in Alphabet City, I’ve been there to enjoy it. For the first few weeks, I’d sometimes go three nights in a row, because there was so much to try. When it closed for a month after Thanksgiving, I felt like a baby left on a doorstep. When it reopened at year’s end, but there was no room to eat in the restaurant, I literally ran back to my apartment with takeout in hand because I was so excited.

Tab Tos actually has much in common with Win49 (see Lunch today) in that it aims for hominess. The walls are decorated with ears of maize, overalls, branches and other country tchotchkes. The restaurant is run by a family, with the father cooking and the mother and two young daughters alternating as waitresses. At the end of the meal, they bring you Japanese chocolates or a bowl of grapes or, today, two buttery sugar cookies. In short, it’s the kind of place you really root for.

That isn’t to say the food isn’t of great quality too. Considering the minimal prices, the amazing specials and the proportionally high level of fish, Tab Tos is perhaps the best Japanese deal in town. For example, I ordered my usual, the Spicy Tab Tos roll, which also comes with the choice of accompanying soup, salad or maki. And I’m not talking about wimpy Iceberg lettuce doused in carrot-ginger dressing salads. I’m talking about a hulking bowl of superb greens, carrots, cucumbers, buckwheat noodles, spicy lemon dressing, and slabs of octopus big enough to be the villain in the next Peter Benchley novel. This salad alone could make for a terrific meal.

The maki too is quite special. If it were up to me, I’d just call it the Tab Tos roll, because it isn’t spicy. But this giant creation filled with tuna, cucumber, avocado and asparagus is worthy of being the house roll. Its outside features a dusting of some green and red herbs and all in all, it’s quite a great treat. I’m still not totally sold on the massive size of the Spicy Tab Tos (one piece is as big as two normal pieces) because it can be a challenge to eat for newcomers. I’ve long since learned how to do it – put the first half in your mouth and then use the chopsticks to nudge in the second half – but sometimes I also wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to just make a regular-sized roll. (My other pause came with my choice of green tea, which canned and cold, was not a good call.)

Even for all of its homey touches, Tab Tos likes to stand out though. Like Jewish grandmothers, they want to give you big bowls of great soup on top of the main course. They want to give you as much value for your money as possible. They want to put in extra touches of effort that you’ll never witness at a chain. And while they’ll never earn four stars, Tab Tos was thirty-seven times less expensive than Masa but showed a hundred percent of the love. 8/10

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Mar. 22.




Dinner -

Congee Village - 100 Allen St., Lower East Side
Corn and chicken soup, minced pork buns, chicken and black mushroom congee, Singapore mei fun, a ginger ale
$11

Congee Village is the first restaurant I've been to three times (see Mar. 6, Jan. 16) in three months, and it's no surprise. Every time I'm here, I have a great time for a pittance. Interestingly, of all the times I've been here, this marked the first I was visiting it for dinner. The only differences though were the fifteen minute wait and the bigger crowd inhabiting the bar room. Service remained friendly, the food remained wonderful and unique, and the atmosphere remained fun.

Since I went with Vince, we were able to get more food and split everything. Every course turned out to be a hit. The corn and chicken soup was delightful, with a pleasant egg base and lots of corn kernels and pieces of chicken. The minced pork buns were giant beanbags of flavorful dough and ground pork. The chicken and black mushroom congee was just as good, with its infusion of ginger slivers, as the lobster version. Even the Singapore mei fun, which I was slightly nervous about because the restaurant isn't known for their noodle dishes, was executed very well. It wasn't as much of a standout, just because I've had similarly good renditions elsewhere, but it certainly didn't let us down. In fact, after three great and filling visits this year alone, I'm starting to think Congee Village may never let me down. 8/10

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Mar. 20.


Babbo and Beet Salad

Mint Love Letters and Black Spaghetti

Beef Cheek Ravioli and Five Cheese Tasting

Yogurt Cheesecake and Hazelnut Cake

Dinner
-

Babbo
- 110 Waverly Pl., West Village
Chickpea Bruschetta (complimentary); Roasted Potatoes with Rosemary; Roasted Beet Salad with Ricotta Salata; Pumpkin "Lune" with Sage and Amaretti; Mint Love Letters with Spicy Lamb Sausage; Black Spaghetti with Rock Shrimp, Chorizo and Black Chilis; Goat Cheese Tortelloni with Dried Orange and Fennel Pollen; Beef Cheek Ravioli with Squab Liver and Black Truffles; Five Cheese Tasting (Robiola Cravanzina, Coach Farm’s Finest, Taleggio Latte Crudo, Gorgonzola Piccante, Parmigiano Reggiano); Chocolate Hazelnut Cake with Orange Sauce and Hazelnut Gelato; Yogurt Cheesecake with Lemon Cream and Black Currant Jam; "Bomboloni Fiorentini" (warm Tuscan doughnuts); a glass of Prosecco sparkling wine; four glasses of white wine; two glasses of red wine; a grappa tasting; a cappucino
$144
10/10

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Mar. 19.



Lunch -

Crif Dogs - 113 St. Mark's Pl., East Village
Crif dog with ketchup, pickles and pineapple; Crif dog with ketchup, relish, lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers, a large red birch beer
$8

Remember that amazing Eddie Murphy song? “Party all the time/ Party all the time/ My girl wants to party all the time/ Party all the time.” That’s what Crif Dogs is to me. The mood is nonstop fun and uniqueness. Maybe that has a little to do with the hot dog sculpture hanging outside the place that reads "Eat Me" in mustard-yellow lettering. The flippant frequently changing sign imploring people to get their butts inside probably helps too. There’s the working Pac-Man arcade game that doubles as a table. The Homies toys still in their original packaging hanging on the wall. The action figures of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein dangling from nooses by the soda machine. Their logo of a pixie punk blonde girl hugging a giant hot dog. I could go on and on.

When I came in for lunch, everyone’s favorite cult classic, Office Space, was playing on the two TV sets. People were laughing and biting into elaborate dogs. The Kevin McDonald-lookalike behind the counter was white-guy-dancing to the soundtrack. Even at two p.m., the Eddie Murphy truism was proving true.

I ordered a birch beer and two hot dogs. The nice thing about Crif Dogs is, in addition to their signature dogs, most of which come either wrapped in bacon or topped with cheese, they have a laundry list of items to customize your own top dog. Since the idea of the Spicy Redneck (chili, cole slaw, jalapeños, bacon-wrapped) and the Good Morning (melted cheese, fried egg, bacon-wrapped) don’t appeal to me, I’ve made up my own special dogs. Next time you’re there, let ‘em know you want to see them earn a place on the full-time menu.

The first creation came in a flash of inspiration one tipsy night and I’ve never looked back. I call it the Sweet and Sour and it features ketchup, pickles and pineapple. It’s wacky enough to always get a comment from the cashier, but good enough to warrant it. The pineapple chunks and long pickle slices make a surprisingly good combo, fittingly offbeat for an offbeat place. My second invention, the Salad Dog, isn’t as novel but it’s still a frequent in my repertoire. It comes topped with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, ketchup and relish. At my most optimistic, I figure it’s a good way of eating my veggies.

Aside from the fun atmosphere and the multitude of options, Crif Dogs also makes pretty good food. They toast their inside of the buns, giving them a soft crunch. They have a veggie dog available and their pork-beef blend dogs are better than many. My first dog was too salty and a little dry which sometimes happens but my second was just right. The vegetables are also fresh. And of course, when you’re done eating, there’s always the Jesus and Moses action figures to keep the party going. 6/10



Lunch -

Sal's Pizza and Restaurant - 110 Ave. A, East Village
A plain slice of pizza
$2

I think of Sal’s and Nino’s (see Mar. 5) as twins separated at birth. Both have the same crispy crust, the same multifaceted mozzarella, the same tangy tomato sauce, the same convenient walk-up service. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that they’re owned by the same person, but so far, haven’t found any evidence to support the theory. My decision on which pizzeria to hit thus comes down to the arbitrary: whether I’m walking north or south. Or sometimes, I’ll give the nod to Sal’s because it’s one street further away from my apartment and I feel like a better foodie for making that trek. Either way though, the pizza’s quality and, for two bucks, a worthy counterexample for people bemoaning the dearth of good neighborhood pizzerias in New York. 8/10




Dinner
-

Dim Sum Go Go - 5 E. Broadway, Chinatown
Shrimp and mango rolls, crab meat dumplings, shrimp dumplings, mushroom dumplings, a can of Coke
$21.05

I suppose I avoided Dim Sum Go Go for so long because of its mildly stupid name (is it a dumpling strip club?) and its willingness to sell a wide scope of dim sum at all hours. Now I’m no purist, but there’s just something beautiful about cart service, pointing bravely at some mysterious dough, struggling to catch the quick mumbled explanations of the women maneuvering the carts, being squashed at banquet tables with strangers. But since it was almost eight when I had my dumpling craving and cart service was long out of service, I decided to listen to the good things I’d heard about Dim Sum Go Go and check it out for myself.

Situated at the start of East Broadway, by the Confucius statue on Chatham Square, Dim Sum Go Go was quite busy when I went on Saturday night. The bottom floor was full so they sent me upstairs where another large room awaited. The menu seemed as unique as many in Chinatown’s depths, but it didn’t matter to me at the moment. The name of the place wasn’t Quails on a Bed of Baby Bok Choy Go Go. I was here for the dim sum, and so I promptly ordered crab, shrimp and mushroom dumplings. Just for good measure, I also got fried rolls filled with shrimp and mango.

The three rolls were deeply fried, their shells oily and crispy. More than anything, they tasted like the coating of fish sticks. But heated up and fresh from the kitchen, filled with long slices of sweet mango and pieces of shrimp, they didn’t have trouble outdoing Gorton’s. I’m not sure I’d get them again, but for what they were, the rolls were enjoyable.

Soon thereafter, one of the two waiters serving me brought my first two sets of dumplings, the crab and the shrimp, in bamboo steamers. Alternating between the two choices, I was very pleased with both. Their dough was light, thin and tasty, and the shrimp’s speckled lime covering was a striking though simple touch. The dough was also nice because it put proper emphasis on the fillings. Especially for the wonderful crab, that I seriously contemplated ordering more of it, this was the right call.

For the mushroom dumplings, I had to wait and wait. I gave the kitchen more time than I normally would before asking, because I thought the quite large (and annoying) birthday party also occupying the room was preoccupying their attention. Finally, when the wait stretched beyond extended, I flagged down one of the always-near waiters to ask. “Mushroom?” he repeated tentatively. It turned out that he’d forgotten to put in the order.

While the mushroom dumplings were pretty good, I’m not sure if they were worth the wait. Dim Sum has more intriguing vegetarian options that I considered exploring, such as bamboo heart, abbot's delight or snow pea leaf. Or better yet, order a sampler of all ten of their meat and seafood options (including duck and shark’s fin), a sampler of all ten of their vegetarian options or both. From the pictures I’ve seen of these samplers, the different dumplings come with different colored or speckled doughs, making for a handsome platter. Sure it’s not something you would get in a “real” dim sim joint, and sure the purists might balk, but Dim Sum Go Go, stupid name and all, is just as worthy a contender.
7/10

Friday, March 18, 2005

Mar. 18.


Sogo and Yellowtail

Tuna tortilla pizza and Honey Nuts Roll

Spicy Dynamite Roll and Sushi-Sashimi Combination

Dinner -

Sogo NY - 337 W. Broadway, Soho
BBQ-Marinated Yellowtail in Wasabe Soy Sauce, Tuna tortilla pizza with creamy spicy sauce, Alligator Roll (Shrimp tempura, mayonnaise and tobiko topped with eel), Honey Nuts Roll (Roasted honey nuts, avocado and cucumber topped with avocado), Spicy Dynamite Roll (spicy tuna, spicy salmon and spicy yellowtail topped with eel, spicy crab meat and tempura flakes), Sushi and Sushi Combination Sampler, Sawanoi sake, Lychee martini
Complimentary

Growing up on late-era Reichl, I’ve often wondered what the life of a food critic is like. That’s why I was happy to acccompany Jennifer Blowdryer from the New York Press and one of her Japanese students to Sogo NY as their expert in Japanese fusion. Going behind the scenes also turned out to be one of the most informative dining experiences I’ve had thus far this year.

Some of the things I learned: The restaurant was selected because of a press release. The owner was expecting us and came over a painful number of times to check on us. The food was comped. The owner just recently hired a publicist after being open for a year because he found out that was the best way to drum up business.

I can understand the need for publicity of course. Sogo NY is a nice Japanese restaurant with typical trendy décor and a fusion-heavy menu, but it’s unassuming and easy to miss. I was surprised that it’d already been open for a year since I’d never heard of it and could barely find any online information about it. And while the public rarely considers the process of how stories reach their eyes and ears, public relations is often at the root.

As I said, Sogo is easy to miss because it’s neither amazing nor terrible. It tweaks some dishes in great ways while others are only average or not properly proportioned. The chef’s efforts are apparent and the presentations are impressive and thoughtful, but whenever Sogo attempts too much creativity, it can fall short. For instance, one of their hyped maki, the honey nuts roll, which unites roasted honey nuts with cucumber and avocado, could’ve been very cool. But the exterior wrap of avocado was too dominant of a flavor and texture, dulling the novelty of the honey nuts (which I’m not sure would’ve worked anyway). Also, the barbecued yellowtail, which owner Sunny recommended as his favorite, was disappointingly bland, with no discernible trace of the wasabi its description promised.

When Sogo went spicier, it did better. The most inspired and successful dish we tried was the tuna tortilla pizza, which playfully updated the Mexican pizza with tuna and ponzu. Visually, the creamy orange ponzu sauce was a clever allusion to the gooeyness of cheese and the base of pink tuna fittingly stepped in for the red of the tomato sauce. It was also delicious, with all of the very distinct flavors and textures (tortilla, tuna, ponzu, scallions) making their presences clear. Also very good was another one of their specifically-mentioned maki, the Spicy Dynamite Roll, which had a center of spicy tuna, salmon and yellowtail and was also topped with ponzu. The surprising element introduced here was tempura flakes, which gave the roll a welcome crunch.

To see how their more traditional side of the menu was, we also ordered a sushi-sashimi combination that was atttractively presented on two tiers. The fish itself was good and reasonably priced, but nothing stunning. Aside from its fanciful appearance, the quality was about what you’d find in any sushi restaurant.

And what’s how I would categorize Sogo NY. It’s like an average sushi restaurant with similar prices trying to stand out with fusion elements and a Soho-friendly ambiance. It’s definitely worth a look for the level it’s on and it does try hard to please. The tuna tortilla pizza is also very much worth checking out. But what ultimately distinguishes it from the Japanese restaurant glut may just have to be the publicity. 6/10

Monday, March 14, 2005

Mar. 14.



Dinner -

Hummus Place - 109 St. Mark's Pl., East Village
Hummus fool with egg, hummus tahini with egg, mango nectar
$9

Hummus Place continues to be the paradigm against which all other hummus is held up.Vince, Lindsay and I split the previously untried hummus fool (which has a center of fava beans) and the previously loved tahini (see Dinner, Jan. 30). Vince decided that the tahini was his favorite, and if pressed, I’d agree. But the fool was just as melt-in-your-mouth creamy and perfectly balanced, which makes picking favorites an almost unnecessary task. The service was still somebody’s-living-room warm and the Israeli pop tunes played on unabated. Strands of conversation in Hebrew filtered in between beats. At the end of our meal, they told us they were starting a delivery service, but after spending a casual Monday night like this, I think I’ll just keep walking over. 9/10

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Mar. 13.



Lunch
-

Klong - 7 St. Mark's Pl., East Village
Chicken Tum Yum Soup, Chicken Kee Mao (extra spicy), two Thai Iced Teas
$14

I had to come back after so many good meals here. In fact, I liked my lunch special so much last time (see Jan. 2) that I couldn't resist ordering it again. The lemongrass soup was again a nice starter, providing just the right amount of kick. Still, I was caught off guard when I got to the main course. As good as the kee mao was before, it was incredible this time around. The spices were dead on, creating an intense and complex series of flavors. The noodles, chicken, tomatoes, carrots and basil leaves were delicious. I am quite lucky to have Klong as my neighborhood Thai place and I will certainly be back again. 8/10





Dinner
-

Franny's - 295 Flatbush Ave., Prospect Heights, Brooklyn
Broccoli Rabe with Pecorino Primo Sale Crostini, Wood-Roasted Cauliflower with Bread Crumbs and Olives, Tomato and Mozzarella with House-Cured Garlic Sausage Pizza, Tomato and Mozzarella with Mushrooms Pizza, a pint of Whale's Tail Pale Ale, a cappuccino
$41

For admirably fulfilling the bet payoff (see Special Feature, Mar. 13) Vince got his choice of dinner spot. I was more than happy to go along with his pick of Franny’s in Brooklyn, eager to see how it stacked up to Fornino (see Mar. 7) and Una Pizza Napoletana (see Jan. 6, Feb. 6). So we hopped the N out to the murky neighborhood between Prospect Heights and Park Slope that I think I’ll christen Prospect Slope.

Even at seven, there was a short wait at Franny’s, the fairly spacious restaurant seemingly filled with a mix of neighborhood residents and imported Manhattanites. (I like how lately we citydwellers, in the name of new options, have been sucking it up and reversing the bridge-and-tunnel paradigm.) But soon enough, a friendly waitress seated us and took to explaining the menu. In her estimation, everything rated as simply amazing, from the crostini to the appetizers to the pizza to the calzone. It may well have been true, but it didn’t give us much guidance.

“For this sausage pizza,” Vince asked, “could we also get mushrooms on it or would that be a no-no?” Our waitress smiled gingerly and leaned in. “Mmm… that would be a no-no.” After the two recent Times articles about formerly-of-Savoy chef Andrew Feinberg, in which he refused to serve pasta and he stopped serving diners’ favorites when he got bored making them, I knew we weren’t dealing with your typical pizzaiolo. It’s also clear from the Franny’s web site, which visibly touts the restaurant’s philosophy of sustainable agriculture. It’s clear in their house-cured meats and their revolving door of a menu. And if you’re still not convinced, have a peek at the Italian wine list and attempt to find a bottle under thirty dollars. (In contrast, try to find a bottle at Fornino over twenty.)

After some negotiation, we opted to start with the Pecorino-topped broccoli rabe crostini (no longer available, replaced by beef tongue and horseradish). For all of her hype, our waitress turned out to be right: it was a pretty great dish. The bread crunchy and laced with olive oil, the greens bold and unapologetically slimy, the cheese mild and smooth, every ingredient worked together like a championship basketball team. The three pieces disappeared with minimal effort on our part.

Next up was the wood-roasted cauliflower. It came layered with a finely chopped, buttery coat of black olives, shredded cheese and bread crumbs. It seemed like a good representation of Franny’s intentions, especially since I couldn’t think of another pizzeria that would serve something like this. As for the taste, it was very good though my least favorite of the night. The olive, cheese and crumb combination dominated the cauliflower taste just as it outnumbered and visually overwhelmed the four or five florets. The couple next to us raved about it though and since then, I’ve heard it garner other lofty praise.

Finally, the main attractions arrived, one pie topped with Shiitake mushrooms and the other with house-cured garlic sausage. Thick crumbs of parmesan and streaks of olive oil adorned both, but interestingly, the two pizzas were different shapes. The vegetarian was longer and more ovoid while the meat was closer to a circle. The pie the people next to us received was practically in the shape of a pizza slice. Many have also taken issue with Franny’s refusal to pre-slice the pies, leaving that surgery up to the customers. However, I found all of these idiosyncrasies to be fun and part of the restaurant’s bull-headed charm.

It’s also easy to get away with diva tendencies when your pizza tastes this superb. Both of them were just about perfect, with great dough, great sauce, great cheese and outstanding toppings. And while choosing a favorite element feels a bit like choosing a favorite child, I’d say it was the garlic sausage that deserves the most praise. The fact that it was prepared in-house and that its flavor was so thoroughly delectable makes me hope that Feinberg lets it tempt and inspire other diners for a long time.

Still, if the garlic sausage or the mushroom ever do get the boot, I’ll take solace in knowing that they’ll be replaced by something equally great. And for the flak Feinberg and Franny’s might get for being difficult and single-minded, they should get a lot of respect too. It’s heartening to see a kitchen that’s as committed to challenging itself as its customers, and it's even more heartening to see them pulling it off. 9/10