A Year In Food

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

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

May 31.

Dinner -

Menkui Tei - 60 W. 56th St., Midtown West
Menkui Ramen (seaweed broth flavored noodle soup with roast pork, bean sprouts and bamboo shoots)

Tampopo has to be one of the all-time greatest food films (see also Big Night and Eat Drink Man Woman). Between its quirky, surrealistic interludes, it depicts the title character going to extremes to create the perfect ramen soup. She has to hone her technique as well as her confidence. She has to hone her movements into a judoist dance, every stroke engineered to be lithe and exact. She has to perfect every ingredient individually before they can come together into a perfect whole.

The lengths Tampopo goes to achieve her goals only slightly exaggerate how central ramen is in Japanese culture. As essential to the Tokyo landscape as pizzerias are to Gotham, ramen soups promise a quick source of cheap, filling sustenance. But as with pizza, the best places can also elevate a seemingly easy-to-produce item to incredible heights. After seeing the soup so lovingly treated in the movie, I wanted to try the best of Manhattan's best. My experience was limited to the excellent Minca and the fairly good Momofuku but I hadn't yet hit the uptown Menkui Tei, which many say is the top spot in the city. Tonight would be the night to change that.

Located in the mid-fifties, where the Japanese restaurants are heavily frequented by Japanese clientele (the other area is, of course, my beloved St. Mark's), Menkui Tei is a very characteristic noodle shop. The waitresses greet you eagerly when you walk in, their Japanese accents asserting authenticity. The bar is taken up by solitary, black-suited businessmen, grabbing a bowl between deals. The decor consists of white walls and wooden tables topped with menus and Kikkoman bottles. It's as spare as can be, because the focus rests solely on soup.

Vince and I both ordered the namesake Menkui ramen, which was flavored with seaweed. Long strands of noodles sank to the bottom of the tan broth. Bamboo strips and bean sprouts mingled into the mix like sociable party guests. Triangles of pork floated serenely, pearls of oil glistening around them like gold ore. Following the instructions of the movie, I delicately ran the tips of my chopsticks along the surface and took in every element.

The soup was very good with the best element being the firm noodles. They confirmed the level of care a superior ramen shop must show. I also enjoyed the bamboo shoots, which almost had a mushroom-like quality. I found the broth too one-dimensional though, essentially salty and dark. It may have been that I just preferred tonkotsu, the pork-flavored ramen I enjoyed even more at Minca. It may have been that the movie had me expecting a earnest woman slaving over pot after pot of simmering noodles, giving her all to achieving the perfect bowl. Menkui Tei's product may not have been perfect like Tampopo's, but it was still a satisfying meal, one that's already making me crave a sequel. 7/10

Monday, May 30, 2005

May 30.

Lunch -

Jean Georges - 1 Central Park West, Upper West Side
A shot of Coconut-Passion soup, Peekytoe Crab Salad, Asian Pear with Red Onion Chutney (Amuse); Black Sea Bass Crusted with Nuts and Seeds, Sweet and Sour Jus; Maine Lobster with Saffron tapioca, spring vegetables, gewurtztraminer; Soy-Glazed Veal Cheeks, Apple-Jalapeno Salad; Exotic (Warm Pineapple Polenta Cake, Caramelized Ginger; Coconut-Passion Vacherin, Passion Seeds); Black Cherry-Yuzu soda; a Duvel

I like to pretend the four-stars are high school students. Daniel is the rich kid who flaunts his Rolex and his BMW. Le Bernardin is the captain of the swim team, always striving to shave a second off of his best time. Masa (see Feb. 2) is the foreign exchange student most people never meet. Per Se is the class president and straight A student that somehow manages to stay down to earth. And finally, there's Jean Georges, who just landed the lead in the school play and, even though he's going to Yale next fall, still sneaks smokes in the bathroom between classes.

That's right. Among his esteemed peers, Jean-Georges Vongerichten is the maverick. He's the chef most prone to boundary-pushing. He's not as iconoclastic as a Wylie Dufresne (see Apr. 2) but between his penchant for Asian fusion and his creatively bizarre combinations, he still packs a lot of novelty into a dining experience. (It also doesn't seem coincidental that Dufresne worked his way up in Jean-Georges's kitchen rather than, say, Boulud's.)

Vince and I had already enjoyed a great meal in the Nougatine section of the restaurant (see Jan. 27), the less formal front room. This time, wanting the full experience in the main room, he, Libby, his friend Courtney and I made it happen on Memorial Day. The main room like the Nougatine, was minimalist and elegantly spare, relying on white paneling and large windows as the crux of its decor.

The menu for lunch was more original in its approach, starting with a base of two courses for $24. Each additional course was $12, with no differentiation between lighter or larger, appetizer or entree. Right away, I tried to figure out where I'd get the most value (the plate of asparagus was not it) and what sounded most intriguing among many possibilities.

I dove in with the bass as the first course. The fish was cooked wonderfully, every forkful tender. Its coating of nuts and seeds, which wasn't as strange as it sounded, gave the fish a great texture and contrasting crunch. I wasn't as taken with the sweet and sour sauce, a long way off from the Chinese takeout version but still a little too ostentatiously sour for the dish.

Next came the lobster, a five-dollar supplement and the course I was most excited about. Along with gnocchi, risotto, mushrooms, ice cream and mangoes, that meaty crustacean is one of my all-time obsessions. Here, the lobster was incredible, rich, sweet, soft and firm, everything I could hope for. As with the bass though, the sauce was trying too hard to stand out. The gerwurtztraminer, German for "spiced grape," should've been a citric break from the tapioca and foam. Instead, so liberally splashed, it overwhelmed the other components and most criminally, took the spotlight off of the stupendous lobster.

No one at the table ordered a third course, but with so many capable choices, I hadn't been able to resist. This time, I went with the veal cheeks, a delicious, hearty dish made even better by the light soy sauce and vanilla dip. But even as tasty as the cheeks and the saucing were, the third time was not a total charm. Half of the veal was pure fat, the poor cut all the more frustrating on such a good preparation.

Finally came dessert, which continued the novelty of the first menu. There were only four choices, Exotic, Citrus, Chocolate and Rhubarb, each one offering two desserts that fit the theme. Naturally, I opted for Exotic, and was satisfied with my decision. The polenta cake had a great grainy crust and reminded me of an upside down cake. The coconut-passion vacherin, a meringue-like dessert, was a pleasantly tropical and well-executed ending. We were also treated to an excellent assortment of chocolates as well as marshmallows that came in large apothecary jars and were sliced at the table. Coming in cardamom, cappuccino and vanilla, they were another unique touch setting Jean Georges apart.

The service also deserves praise for being so polished and unobtrusive. A waiter is always there when you need one, the courses are perfectly timed, and every question receives an informed answer. The waiters aren't particularly warm, but that's part of the four-star service that Jean Georges strives for and accomplishes exactly. In a very good but ultimately flawed meal, it was nice to see the waiters removing silver lids in unison, reciting ingredients with care, hitting all of their marks perfectly. If only the star of this sold-out production had remembered all of his lines as well. 7/10

A rave review in Vinography from June 2004

Sunday, May 29, 2005

May 29.

The Modern and Our Drinks

Tartare and Octopus

Quail and Carpaccio

Dinner -

Bar Room at The Modern - 9 W. 53rd St., Midtown West
Arctic char tartare with daikon and trout caviar; Foie gras torchon with muscat gelee and toasted country bread; Charred octopus with warm potato salad; Artichoke soup with lobster salad; Grilled quail with chive spaetzle and lentils; Braised pork cheeks with sauerkraut and ginger jus; Blood orange carpaccio with pomegranate granité; Beignets with maple ice cream, caramel and citrus mango marmelade, Coming Up Roses (Rose petals, lime, rosewater, Bacardi Raz and champagne on ice)

The other diners probably thought it was a lightning storm. Maybe an attack by the paparazzi. But no, those blinding bursts of light were merely what happens when two foodbloggers cross paths. A fan of The Amateur Gourmet's wacky exploits, I invited Adam, the man behind the blog, to co-review a restaurant with me. And while I'll let you decide if this epic experiment paid off, I'll just mention that many critics are already calling it the most important artistic collaboration since Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men.

I devised a list of restaurants I've been meaning to visit and let Adam choose. He selected the Bar Room at the Modern, which I was eager to try since my astounding meal in the Main Dining Room (see Apr. 16). Meeting at eight, we took our seats in the intriguing space and looked over the menu. Livelier and hipper than its austere neighbor, the Bar Room interestingly attempts to fuse a young setting with fairly formal service and seriously intentioned food.

The menu similarly offers a change of pace, divided into three ambiguous sections. The first two are described as appetizer-sized and priced in the low- to mid-tens. The third, ranging in cost from the mid- to high-ten, features half-sizes of entrees. Taking up Adam's suggestion that we "live a little," we opted to choose one course from each column. He astutely observed that he probably would've ordered differently if the menu hadn't been arranged that way. Nonetheless, even when I'm being tricked by those evil Union Square Hospitality Group geniuses, I'm all for sampling as much as possible.

First came our drinks. With the same cocktails as the other room, the list continued to impress. The Coming Up Roses was another vibrant success, making a terrific palate-cleansing companion to my courses. Adam got the mango-passion mojito that I love and I contemplated stealing it and running for the exit while he was in the bathroom.

Foodwise, I started off with an arctic char tartare, an increasingly omnipresent salmon-like fish topped with red roe and served raw. It was delicious and low-key, a light opener that didn't try to fight the natural flavor of the fish. On the other side of the table, Adam had chosen the foie gras with muscat gelee. The foie gras was standard, which is to say quite good, but the novel gelee was the big standout. Tart and spry, it contrasted with the dense torchon in unexpected ways.

For the next course, I had the charred octopus on potato salad. This was another solid and handsome offering, the mollusk cooked to a happy median between tender and firm. As with the tartare, the flavor of seafood was on full display. The minced potato salad under it made a nice counterpart, but I wouldn't have minded something more substantial than the finely chopped bits of potatoes, tomatoes and red onion. Across the way, Adam had an artichoke soup that I found pleasant enough though it was too thin for my taste. However, the small side of lobster salad it came with was predictably wonderful.

Next came the Modern's pared down take on mains. To avoid only having seafood, I'd skipped over some promising fish options to go with the grilled quail. It's rare that I'll order poultry at a nice place and the quail reminded me why. It was certainly serviceable but also boring, the safe course on the menu for tamer taste buds. I also thought the portion of bird could've been bigger. Adam did a much better job on this round, choosing the pork cheeks and sauerkraut. The dish was Danube-esque (see Feb. 19) in its haute reinterpretation of Germanic basics. The meat also happened to be cooked expertly, tasting deep and rich against the sour, softer cabbage.

Finally, there was dessert, which may have been our best cumulative showing. I had the blood orange carpaccio, a spare treat of fruit topped with sugar and a great pomegranate granité. It was a light but tasty break from insanely decadent chocolate confections. Luckily, Adam went in a different direction, getting beignets that were also quite good. These French doughnuts came with three dipping sauces, maple ice cream, caramel and citrus mango marmelade, each one adding a delicious element to the mix.

With each course and with each order, I found many aspects to enjoy. It was, after all, a solid meal from start to finish. But even with highs like the beignets, the pork cheeks and the octopus, nothing truly wowed me. At the Bar Room's price points, I wanted to be pumping my fist in the air and leaping on couches Tom Cruise-style, declaiming, "I love this Modern!" Instead, I was very satisfied but not enchanted as I'd been in the other room. It may have to do with the room and the atmosphere being too trendy for the food. And while I fully respect and admire a place that treats its cooking with seriousness, the Bar Room if anything could use a little more flash. Because there's only so much two foodbloggers and their overactive cameras can do. 7/10

See Adam's take on our dinner at The Modern

Saturday, May 28, 2005

May 28.

Dinner -

Roberto's - Gamberi e Fagoli (Shrimp and white cannellini beans); Bucatini alla tre salse (Pasta with a blend of pesto, mascarpone and tomato sauce); Penne con salsiccia e broccoli di rapa (Penne with Italian sausage and broccoli rabe sauteed in garlic and oil); Veal scaloppine with smoked mozzarella, prosciutto and tomato sauce; Tartufo; one-fourth of a bottle of San Giorgio in Villa, Chianti Classico 2001; a bottle of Amstel Light

Just try getting a foodie to eat in Little Italy. Most of them would rather eat rusty nails cooked by Emeril Lagasse at Applebee's. But your chances improve when the neighborhood in question is Arthur Avenue in the Bronx and not tourist-mobbed Mulberry. Known as a more authentic version of the Italian-American experience, we wanted a taste of what it had to offer.

And so Steve picked me up in his snazzy Acura on Saturday, and GPS-powered, we charged toward the unknown through mostly deserted streets. As we raced out of Manhattan, I felt a hint of adrenaline and the possibility of adventure, but more than anything, I was hungry. We were headed to Roberto's, which people often refer to as the best restaurant in the Bronx and the best traditional Italian in the city. And while I'm admittedly not the biggest fan of red sauce fare (see May 23), I figured that the best would have to be pretty good.

Because Roberto's doesn't take reservations and their waits are famously maniacal, Steve and I had planned to meet Vince and Libby at a Boca Raton retiree-early six o'clock. Walking up to the attractive pink building just off of Arthur, the front room was more crammed with parties waiting than diners, many of them decked out in navy Jeter T-shirts. Somehow, we hadn't considered the Yankee game that had recently let out or the complication that would pose. Still, with no better option, I put my name down and ordered a beer at the packed bar.

Forty-five minutes later, the hostess led me, Steve, Vince and Libby downstairs to a more sedate wine cellar. A waiter recited a litany of specials, his eyes rolling back into his head to remember each ingredient. We read through the menu although it was practically unnecessary. Every dish was so familiar and plain it almost induced a sense of deja vu. We did our best though to dig up the most interesting items.

We started with Gamberi e Fagioli, or shrimp and beans, which is essentially what it sounds like. Add a little balsamic vinegar and a few hunks of soft bread and you're done. It wasn't a bad dish exactly, but the whole time I thought how easy it would be to make. Considering my ability to mess up a bowl of cereal, that's saying a lot.

Next we had two pastas, bucatini in three sauces and penne with sausage and broccoli rabe. In the former, we had substituted bucatini in place of farfalle, because I don't really like bowtie pasta. It turns out however that the sauce was the problem here. Instead of the pesto, tomato sauce and mascarpone combining to form some hybrid supersauce, they reduced to a milky, watered-down pesto. The penne was better but again tasted standard and uninspiring.

My entree, the veal scaloppine, showed no symptom of improvement. Instead, it was my least favorite dish of the night. The meat tasted like cafeteria-quality and the preparation was exceptionally ordinary. Every bite was salty and obvious, and again, I thought how I could have made this at home -- and better.

Thankfully, I was at least wowed by dessert, a tartufo that delivered the straightforward wallop nothing else could. It was simple but intense, and unlike the veal that I half-heartedly finished, I savored every spoonful here. It proved at least that Roberto's wasn't a total washout and that if we had ordered differently, we may have unearthed more wonders. Still, with the wait we stood through, the friendly but ultimately too sloppy service we received, and most importantly, the unsatisfying meal we had, the restaurant was a big disappointment. In fact, thought it may shock many foodies, I've even had better dinners in Little Italy. Yes, that Little Italy. 4/10

Friday, May 27, 2005

May 27.

Dinner -

Perbacco - 234 E. 4th St., East Village
Sformatino di mais e broccoli rapa, pane croccante al sesame e fonduta di pomodoro (Corn and broccoli rape soufflé with crispy sesame bread and tomato fondue); Tagliolini allo zafferano con gamberi, emulsione di rucola e pomodorini (Saffron tagliolini with shrimp, arugala emulsion and cherry tomato); Ravioli di grachino e zucchine con ragout di vongole (Crab meat and green squash ravioli with clam sauce); Crostatina di ricotta, cioccolata e lamponi, salsa zabaione (Chcoolate, raspberry and ricotta cheese tart with sabayon sauce); a bottle of Gavi Masera Marc de Grazia 2004; an espresso

My friend Steve's birthday posed a challenge. Because he's a lover of all things Italian, I knew that it'd be the cuisine of choice. He also requested a more laidback and casual place. But the problem I faced was how I could impress Steve, who is Italian, spent a semester in Bologna, traveled extensively through the boot, and has eaten at heavy-hitters like L'impero. My foodie cred was once again at risk.

I selected Perbacco, an East Village osteria I've walked by countless times. (As many Italian places as I've hit in my neighborhood, they keep springing up like Hydra heads.) The restaurant was buzzing with energy but still relaxed when we arrived, catching up on the year since we'd seen each other. We waited for ten minutes (it was a Friday night and Perbacco doesn't take reservations) before the hostess showed us to a table in the center of the room. Steve reminisced about his European odyssey and the ebullient sommelier came over. "I'm the wine guy," he explained, his accent heavy. The two of them started to talk wines in Italian and I sat back, listening to the poetry of elongated vowels, so far pleased with my choice.

The wine guy brought over his recommendation, a 2004 Gavi, an Italian variety neither of us had tried. It was very light and dry, gentle and easy to drink. It paired well with the four course we split, a corn and broccoli rape soufflé. Like the wine, it was a pleasant surprise, as I usually expect soufflés from the French. Ours was delicate and well-made, the flavors soft but potent. It was also complemented by the unusually good side of what the menu calls "tomato fondue." Tangy and creamy, the sauce added a contrasting liveliness to our muted appetizer. Of all the things we would have, the soufflé proved the most elegant and impressive.

Next, Steve and I shared tagliolini with shrimps and tomatoes in an arugala emulsion. I enjoyed the pasta and the various elements in it were just inventive enough to distinguish it. It wasn't amazing though, just a solid course that was worth the cost. From here, Steve and I got individual courses, but instead of following the typical path of primo to secondo, we both stuck to two primi. I got a crab and squash ravioli while we opted for a whole wheat tagliatelle with veal and snow peas. His was the better course because my tasty ravioli was marred by a very salty crab filling. As is all too common with Italian cooking, the presence of salt dominated the dish and overshadowed what was otherwise a promising preparation.

Finally, we ended on a crostatina, a chocolate, raspberry and ricotta tart that was tasty though more subtle than the Italian desserts I'm used to. Like the soufflé, it demonstrated care and a charming confidence on the part of the kitchen. Again, it wasn't the best dessert I've had or even one that I'll feel compelled to reorder, but it was an enjoyable last course.

Still catching up, we finished off the bottle and each ordered a espresso, knowing that Italians would never drink cappucino after noon. It was a detail of authenticity we could add to an evening that didn't replicate Italy but, between Perbacco's laidback ambiance and attention to cooking, did a worthy job of evoking it. For two guys who still missed the charms of Tuscan vineyards and raucous Roman trattorias, this was still a cause for celebration. 7/10

Thursday, May 26, 2005

May 26.

Dinner -

The Warsaw - 261 Driggs Ave., Greenpoint, Brooklyn
A plate of potato-and-cheese and mushroom-and-sauerkraut pierogies and kielbasa, a bottle of Zywiec

I can't really describe the Warsaw better than their tagline already does: "where pierogies meet punk." What more could you need to know? For one, it's my favorite concert venue in the city, with its huge room, thoughtful lineup and fun vibe. I also can't resist concluding a night waiting for the Bedford L with every hipster who's ever existed.

But really, what wins my heart most is that the Warsaw is located in the Polish National Home, and accordingly sells hearty Polish food during shows. Last time I was here, I had a plate of mushroom-and-sauerkraut pierogies between the Chromatics set and TV on the Radio's and it helped to make my night complete.

This trip to see the Decemberists on the final stop of their tour was even more special. Since I had actually been to Poland somewhat recently, the sight of white-labelled Zywiec (loosely pronounced "Zhiv-its") bottles came tinged with nostalgia. The split plate of pierogies and kielbasa brought back memories of eating the same dishes in the pastel-painted town square of Warsaw. The food at the concert was just as hearty and tasty as in Europe. The light-bodied beer was also a match. It was a cheap, delicious prologue to a terrific night of music, a reminder of what I love about Warsaw, here and abroad. 7/10

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

May 24.

Dinner -

Great N.Y. Noodletown - 28 Bowery, Chinatown
Seafood noodle soup

N.Y. Noodletown is loud, crowded, ugly, frenzied and full of great food. In other words, it typifies everything I love about Chinatown. The portions are also enormous, the service is nearly nonexistent but (if you can flag down a waiter) efficient, and the menu is long and varied.

Many people rave over the salt-baked squid or the soft-shell crabs but I haven't had those yet. I hit Noodletown whenever I have a craving for one of their gargutuan soups. Similar to Japanese ramen soups, they have delicious firms noodles at the bottom of a heavy, salty broth, and are topped with pieces of meat or seafood.

Always a fan of the life aquatic, I went for the seafood, which came with a generous helping of shrimp, scallops and squid. As with all of their other soups, this one was a great and filling meal. My one complaint is that I'd prefer the broth to be milder and subtler, but then again, if the flavors weren't strong, this wouldn't be Chinatown. 7/10

Even Star Wars fan like it: Wookiee Hut on Great N.Y. Noodletown

Monday, May 23, 2005

May 23.

Dinner -

Al Di La - 248 5th Ave., Park Slope, Brooklyn
Malfatti (Swiss chard and ricotta gnocchi with brown butter and sage), Saltimbocca Alla Romana (Pork loin scaloppine with sage leaves and prosciutto served with sauteed potatoes), a side of grilled Swiss chard stems, Affogato (vanilla ice cream topped with coffee)

Italian food is as ubiquitous in New York as traffic, and too often, the experience of eating out is as interesting as sitting in mile-long gridlock. It's the same stale dishes in the same anonymous settings, the only imagination in the menus found in their font selections.

Al Di La in Park Slope is the antithesis of marinara. It's one of my favorite restaurants, the personal touches so prominent you could be dining in a friend's living room. The frequently changing menu never lacks originality, but it also builds on a base of appreciation for the classics. The daily specials are always tempting detours. Chef Anna Klinger's Venetian cooking is consistently graceful yet hearty.

The last time I was here, I was floored by some life-changing ravioli, so I was eager to try their malfatti on this visit. A Swiss chard and ricotta gnocchi, it was a deliciously green appetizer made just a little sinful by its brown butter sauce. Somehow, it managed to taste both decadent and healthy, both novel and familiar, a feat accomplished by much of Al Di La's output. And though it couldn't live up to that exquisite ravioli, the malfatti ended up being my favorite course of the night.

This should say more about the greatness of the gnocchi than cast any criticism on the entree. The saltimbocca, which literally translates to "jump into the mouth" nearly succeeded in living up to its impossible definition. Tender and beautifully seasoned, this pork and prosciutto dish was a joy to eat. It even topped Cacio e Pepe's great rendition.

Finally, I finished with an affogato, which was the one misstep of the night. In New York, I've only had this dessert drink once before at 'inoteca and it was perfect. Coming in a tall glass with scoops of vanilla gelato and chilled espresso, the liquid and solid intermingled, fusing into each other, forming a bond but retaining their own unique personalities.

At Al Di La, the waitress brought out a bowl containing vanilla ice cream and then poured steaming coffee over it. In about twenty seconds, the ice cream had melted, turning my dessert into a cloudy coffee soup. Not altogether unappetizing but a long way from the allure of affogato.

Still, the restaurant redeemed itself when I tried Vince's desserts. Perpetual glutton that he is, he ordered not one but two desserts, both of which were magnificent. In an arena where the choice often ends with tiramisu and cheesecake, his apricot and pecan torta and his pear cake with bitter chocolate chunks reaffirmed Al Di La's commitment to creativity. In a city of red lights and Stop signs, it breaks every speed limit. 8/10

Sunday, May 22, 2005

May 22.

Special Feature -

Pizza World Tour - When my parents set sail from Russia to the United States, it was ostensibly for a taste of democracy and the American dream. But, between you and me, I think it had to do more with getting better pizza. Why else would they have settled in New York, arguably the pizza capital of the world? And really, who wouldn’t get tired of eating slab-gray slices topped with beets, herring or beef stew?

On Sunday, I set sail for my own pizza quest, leaving my apartment at a painfully early 10:45 a.m. I wouldn’t return home until 1:05 the next morning, having ridden the Q, Q, G, E, F, 4, Bx19, 2, 1, Staten Island Ferry, the 44 bus, the 44 bus back, Staten Island Ferry, and the R, and having sampled pizza in all five of New York’s esteemed boroughs in one day. And just like my parents like to rehash their journey across the choppy Atlantic, I’ll share with you the multifaceted adventure that was the Pizza World Tour.

DiFara Pizzeria – 1464 Ave. J, Midwood, Brooklyn
A porcini slice, a Square, an A&W cream soda

To the common eye, Dominic DeMarco is a kind-looking Italian grandfather, but to a select group, he’s a celebrity. Foodies talk about his cooking with an astounding reverence. Crowds form around his counter at all times, calling out their orders. People trek in from long distances just to get a taste. Waits under an hour can be considered successful.

When I arrived at DiFara fifteen minutes before it opened, I found a guy banging on the window through the lowered gate. “Do me a favor, Dom,” he kept insisting. “Do me this favor. Put in my square pie.” He was chewing on a cigar, pacing the perimeter nervously, insisting to his two friends that this really was the best pizza in the city. They’d have a chance to find out for themselves when the gate rolled up and we stormed the pizzeria.

Dario, Vince and I took advantage of the lack of line and placed our orders. Dom worked at a leisurely pace, dutifully applying porcini caps to my slice. He grated fresh chunks of mozzarella onto a pie. He smiled and made conversation, more relaxed than our last visit (see Jan. 1) when the crowds were impenetrable. And in another key difference, our slices were ready in five minutes, about one-ninth of the wait we had last time.

I started with the $5 porcini slice, a surprisingly upscale nod for such an unpretentious place. (The décor is so barebones it barely exists.) But given my love for mushrooms, I was very excited to try this slice. Sure enough, it was phenomenal. The slightly vinegary mushrooms and the liberal pour of olive oil melded beautifully. The cheese was a great blend, the sauce had just a hint of tanginess, and the dough was crispy but soft. If I had any complaint, it was that the slice could’ve been a little bigger for the price.

I also had the square, everywhere else known as the Sicilian, a DiFara specialty. It too was pretty amazing, for many of the same reasons. The square was also messier though, oilier and cheesier, the flavor literally and figuratively extending to the very edge of the pizza. Dario proclaimed it the best square he’s had, and that he preferred it to his regular slice. Vince also gave the nod to the square over his porcini. Finally, taking the last bite of my square, as difficult as it was, I had to make it a clean sweep. It was the kind of pizza that would have anyone knocking on windows, begging for more. 9/10

Nick's Pizza - 108-26 Ascan Ave., Forest Hills, Queens
One red slice of spinach and prosciutto pizza, one white slice of spinach and prosciutto pizza, a pineapple Fizzy Lizzy

On our arduous trip up north to Queens, we picked up our friend Pat and headed to Forest Hills. As drastically as this rich enclave differed from the heavily Orthodox Midwood, so was Nick’s just as different from DiFara. For one, the atmosphere was much more serene and privileged. Vince kept remarking that it reminded him of Greenwich, Connecticut. I was just wondering if a pizzeria so fancy could genuinely produce Queens’ best.

Because Nick’s only serves pies, the four of us decided to order one topped with spinach and prosciutto. Intrigued to try more, we also opted to go half-white and half-red. After a short wait, during which Pat kicked back the chianti, the waitress brought over our pie. Again, just as DiFara’s pizza reflected its pizzeria and its neighborhood, Nick’s pizza seemed like an exact match for its environs. Clean and polished, this was a pie with pedigree.

Thankfully, it tasted as good as it looked. The spinach was clearly fresh and gave the slices a chewy crunchiness. The prosciutto was also a great touch, the salty strips contrasting well with the leafy green. The crusts packed the right amount of light char. Between the red and the white, I preferred the white, the ricotta base offering a more unique taste than the standard tomato sauce. Vince also preferred the white while Dario and Pat pledged allegiance to the red side.

The fact that pies this good could come from a gas oven was a surprising rebuke to conventional wisdom. But, between its location, its toppings and its décor, it was yet one more distinction that keeps Nick’s Pizza in a class all its own. 8/10

Tien Mao on Nick's Pizza

Full Moon Pizzeria - 602 E. 187th St., Belmont, the Bronx
A plain slice, a can of Mug cream soda

Next, we ventured west, toward the day’s biggest wild card. Of all the boroughs, I’ve spent the least amount of time in the Bronx and by a wide margin, eaten the fewest meals there. Also, our destination, the Full Moon Pizzeria, had received much less press than our other four spots. (The only other Bronx pizzeria to earn much attention, Louie & Ernie’s, was obscenely out of the way.) But still, we ventured forth, with some mix of curiosity and trepidation, as we hit upon the midpoint of the day.

Losing Dario and Pat to previous engagements, Vince and I got out at 187th and walked crosstown to Arthur Ave. We walked past bodegas, barber shops and modest Hispanic restaurants, another vastly different neighborhood from our prior two. When we reached Arthur Ave., Bronx’s Little Italy, the eateries changed somewhat, becoming more about pasta than pernil, more pizza than plátanos.

At Full Moon, we met up with Alex and his girlfriend Emily. They also had trouble finding a close subway stop (there apparently aren’t any) so they got lost and soaked by the rain. Emily’s first words, upon meeting Vince, were “I hate you,” but soon, she calmed down and we put in our orders.

Full Moon surprised me in its simplicity, a corner pizzeria just like you can find on most corners of the city. It had the standard slices, with a few specialties that they happened to be out of. I decided to keep it fittingly simple, and went with my first plain slice of the afternoon. It reminded me a lot of Sal’s (see Lunch, Mar. 19) and Nino’s (see Mar. 5), in both its texture and smell, although it was larger than both. After topping it with red pepper flakes, I bit into it. It was a very good pizza – not tremendous or magnificent, but very good.

Full Moon’s humility was a nice break from the more hyped spots we were hitting. We had gone in with no expectations, no Zagat’s cheerleading and no unachievable superlatives. All we were looking for was a refuge from the rain and a quality slice, which they happily provided. And though it’s not a destination restaurant, it was more than worth the trip. 7/10

John's of Bleecker Street - 278 Bleecker St., West Village
Half of a sausage, mushroom and pepperoni pie, a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

From the Bronx, we took the express train back to the city. Leaning against the rattling door, I used the opportunity to get to know Emily. It turned out that she was from Maryland and was going to be an au pair in Rome for a year. What better person to have on the World Tour than a future resident of Italy.

We arrived in the West Village and made our winding way to Bleecker Street. Situated between Cones, the Argentinian gelateria and Rocco's, the Italian bakery, John's would have to be pretty tremendous to fit into this neighborhood. It certainly had a strong enough reputation, frequently cited as one of New York's best.

The pizzeria was broken up into two rooms, so we picked the one with the breeze. Aside from the paintings by local artists on display, it had the decor of a dive bar (right down to the noxious-smelling bathroom). Alex, complicating our plans, decided that he and Emily were going to split a pie by themselves. Because John's doesn't serve slices, this meant Vince and I would somehow have to manage a pie on our own.

We opted for a small topped with sausage, mushrooms and pepperoni. Depsite being a small in name, our pie arrived at the table looking pretty hefty. Still, we didn't have much of a problem finishing our shares, because it was very good pizza. Though Vince wasn't as taken by it, I thought the Italian sausage was especially outstanding.

On the other hand, John's had its limitations too. The mushrooms and pepperoni were both good toppings but they were also decidedly ordinary. I found the charred crust too dry. Also, while I really liked the pizza's flavor, it didn't seem as distinct and singular as, say, a Grimaldi's or DiFara creation. Still, taken on its own merits, John's was a solid effort and an enjoyable, laidback environment to spend an hour. It was only when holding it up to New York's top tier that it fell slightly short. 7/10

Tien Mao on John's

Denino's - 524 Port Richmond Ave., Port Richmond, Staten Island
Half of a half-sausage and mushroom, half-cheese pie; half of a small pitcher of ginger ale

Dusk was already setting in when Vince and I set off on the last leg. We were the only ones left on the tour, sailing across the water on that orange behemoth otherwise known as the Staten Island Ferry. It was a strangely surreal moment for me, having grown up on the forgotten borough, having contemplated its boring mysteries from ages four to eighteen.

In all that time, I somehow never made it to Denino's, the Port Richmond Pizzeria many call the island's best, so tonight was my chance. It was surprisingly easy to reach from the ferry, the connecting bus literally dropping us off in front of the restaurant. From outside, it looked low-key, a local watering hole where draft beers and Yankee games took precedence over the food. Inside, Denino's was just as casual, its stripped decor evoking the feel of a down-home diner more than a famous pizza joint.

The service was as friendly and relaxed as the ambience. When I told our waitress about the World Tour, she was genuinely intrigued and impressed. She kept asking us questions about our other stops, telling us it was a good thing we had saved the best for last. Soon, the other waitresses came over to meet us, equally curious and charming. They reminded me of the Italian mothers who used to live on my block. I was transported back to kickball afternoons, ice cream trucks blaring "Pop Goes The Weasal," the massive bagels at Novelli's bakery, getting cherry ices at Villa D'Este on my walk home from school.

Like John's and Nick's, Denino's only served pies, so Vince and I decided to split a half-cheese, half-sausage and mushroom. It was an interesting and confident quirk of the menu that would let us sample the pizza with and without toppings. As we waited for the pie and ruminated on the day, we were greeted by Rose Zancocchio, an 87-year-old spitfire and Denino's hostess who's also known as Aunt Rose. She too had learned of our odyssey and wanted more info. When we told her we'd just been to John's, she shook her head and laughed. "John used to come in here all the time when he was young," she confided.

Our pie arrived and the waitresses all smiled and watched as we snapped our photos. "So did you guys save the best for last?" they called. I bit into my first sausage and mushroom slice and at that moment, was sure that we did. Thin-crusted and mid-sized, it was similar to John's, but it packed much more flavor and depth. This was a pizza with soul and complexity, not polished like Nick's, but authentic and honest. The sauce and the cheese were both great and the dough was expertly cooked. The plain half was also excellent, exhibiting many of the same qualities, but the Italian sausage was too good to ignore.

And so, in a borough often maligned or omitted, Vince and I ended the Pizza World Tour on a triumph. Throughout the day, we had toured the city and not encountered a single disappointment, only gradations of successes, only a cross-section of styles, neighborhoods and experiences. I'd also eaten thirteen slices and more than once, tasted triangular-shaped greatness. And whether or not it was what my parents had intended a quarter-century ago, this was an American dream achieved. 9/10

See also April's Dumpling World Tour and look for the Sandwich World Tour and the Dessert World Tour coming in July.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

May 21.

Breakfast -

Veselka - 144 2nd Ave., East Village
Raspberry cheese blintz, sweet potato fries, a chocolate walnut brownie

I feel like I’m at Veselka as much as the staff. But as I’ve noted before, it’s where Vince and I usually head at the end of the night, to decompress, relax and talk. Going there has become as much about tradition and familiarity as the food, but after a series of disappointing meals (see May. 6, Feb. 21, Jan. 31) I was wondering if we shouldn’t start looking for something better.

Tonight won me back. I started with a raspberry cheese blintz, a food I grew up with and knew very well. The one here was delicious, with the warm cheese and raspberry sauce especially worth of praise. The applesauce and dusting of powdered sugar were also quite good. The side of sweet potato fries Vince and I split was another strong choice, the texture and taste of the vegetable making these fries a standout. Finally, I finished with a chocolate walnut brownie, which was a little too expensive and little too dry, but I didn’t regret getting it. I knew I’d be back at Veselka soon enough to try again. 6/10

Dinner -

Havana Chelsea - 190 8th Ave., Chelsea
Cubano grande, maduros (fried yellow plantains), white rice and black beans, a Morir sonando, some of Vince's Cuban tamal

Friday, May 20, 2005

May 20.

Dinner -

L'Ecole - 462 Broadway, Soho
Steamed Clams with Roasted Red Pepper, Hazelnut and Ham; Sauteed Codfish Fillet, Yellow-Tomato Tarragon Emulsion; Sauteed Beef Fillet with Spring Vegetables, Red Wine-Marrow Sauce; Digestive Salad; Apple-Rice Pudding Tart; a glass of Riesling

For a few months, I flirted with the idea of culinary school, imagining only the idyllic aspect of being a chef. Wowing people with my inventive ideas, creating a scene where people could enjoy themselves, cultivating a relationship with regular customers, always experimenting and innovating my cuisine. But I knew the reality was often grimmer, with stressful, chaotic kitchens, low wages for years, constant pressures, and tough hours. So I decided to eat and write and leave the cooking in more skillful hands.

Still, my appreciation for the profession ranks right up there, so a visit to L’Ecole seemed necessary. Students at the French Culinary Institute run the show at the Soho restaurant, so diners get a chance to support some of tomorrow’s stars. The value, a measly $31.50 for five courses, is another big draw.

Vince and I paid L’Ecole a visit on Friday. Our hopes were high, because he’d already been there once before. The menu, which rotates on a daily basis, looked promising too, with enough variety between the choices. Our server was friendly and the room, though not very special, was nice enough. It looked to be a solid meal.

I started with the steamed clams, an impressive opener that nailed an elaborate sauce. Slightly spicy and very flavorful, the red pepper broth gave the clams a shot of energy and verve. The sauce appealed to me so much that I even found myself dipping my bread in it to get another taste. All in all, a great appetizer.

I had much less success with my seafood course, the codfish. Just as the clams stood out for a great saucing, the codfish distinguished itself with bad saucing. A violent rainbow of tastes, the emulsion was an overwhelming mess. Like a frazzled multitasker, it was trying to accomplish way too much at once. The fish itself was cooked well and would’ve benefited from a simpler and more confident preparation.

The beef fillet was a better dish, the stewed carrots and peeled tomato tasty touches. But the beef was also very standard, the peas seemed almost frozen, and the thinly sliced potato nest wasn’t particularly good. Thus, I downgraded it to average and maybe even disappointing.

In deference to the French ways of eating, the next course was a digestive salad, a small plate of mixed greens in oil. It seemed strange to revert to such a light course after two heavier ones. But in the spirit of novelty, I forged ahead and ate my greens. There’s very little I can say about this dish, either positively or negatively, but still think salad belongs at the beginning of the meal.

Finally, Vince and I both finished up with the apple rice pudding tart, an inventive hybrid of two standard desserts. I don’t especially care for rice pudding so my enjoyment of this finale was limited. It was well-made and tasty enough, but I like to be wowed and like much of my dinner at L’Ecole, it only earned some respect. It also reemphasized just how challenging it is to be a chef and how much there is to learn. 5/10

Thursday, May 19, 2005

May 19.

Pó and a painting of Pó

Bruschetta and Tortelloni

Gnocchi and Lamb

Cheeses and Terrine

Dinner -

- 31 Cornelia St., West Village
Six-Course Tasting Menu (White Bean Bruschetta (amuse); Mixed Green Salad with Asiago, Porcini Mushrooms and Salami; Tortelloni with Ricotta and Ramps in a White Butter Truffle Sauce; Homemade Gnocchi with Smoked Mozzarella, Rosemary and Tomato; Lamb with Cumin Yogurt and White Beans; Strawberries in Balsamic Vinegar, Chocolate-Hazelnut Terrine with Espresso-Caramel Sauce), half a bottle of Falanghina

I was on the verge of breakdown. My laptop, whose warranty expired only three days earlier, went to heaven (where it remains). As it ascended up to the firmaments, it took with it many drafts and documents that I hadn’t backed up. My workload at the office was formidable enough to make Atlas look like a lightweight. I was operating on five hours of sleep a day. The pit of my stomach felt like a wrestling mat.

There was only one solution: Italian food. As much as I love the haute elegance of French and the stark minimalism of Japanese, the shores of Italy are where I turn when I need nurturing. So with the day’s troubles nudging against my brain like a battering ram, I made reservations at Pó, a restaurant in the West Village I’ve long wanted to check out. If their seasonal cuisine couldn’t soothe me, I thought, I was beyond help.

As soon as we arrived, Pó seemed more and more like a good idea, epitomizing the idea of neighborhood restaurant. In a narrow rectangle of a space, the seating is close but not cramped. The décor is plain, but the lighting is relaxingly dim and the servers are friendly and personable. Already, just by taking my seat, I could feel myself relaxing. Now it was up to chef Lee McGrath and his staff to do the rest.

I decided to treat Vince to the tasting menu, a seemingly excellent value at $45 for six courses. (Even more astonishing, it used to be $40 not long ago.) First came the chickpea bruschetta as an amuse, a simple and hearty starter of olive oil-splashed beans on bread that was quite enjoyable. It presaged what Pó’s cooking to follow would be like: creative and thoughtful food that's also basic and elemental.

The salad was another exercise in elegant simplicity. Our first proper course, it mixed ingredients that I would’ve otherwise thought mismatched. But the slices of Asiago, plump porcinis, salami and mixed greens were all tastily brought together by a flavorful vinaigrette. Like the bruschetta, the salad did the exact job it was supposed to, opening the meal lightly and inspiring the appetite toward the courses to come.

Thankfully, this included the tortelloni, Pó’s pasta selection for the tasting menu that night. It contained ricotta and pickled ramps, that winningly elusive cousin of the leek that only appears for two spring months. Just as happily, it came in a white truffle butter sauce. Every bite of the tortelloni was a wonder, every component terrific. It turned out to be my favorite course of the night, but as the meal unfolded, I realized just what a high barometer that would be.

Next came the gnocchi, which lifted my spirits yet higher. (For those joining us late in the game, a quick review: I am obsessed with gnocchi, risotto, mushrooms and ice cream, and every day, have to fight the urge to start blogging exclusively about gnocchi.) It came in a rosemary-tomato sauce with chunks of smoked mozzarella interspersed throughout the dish. As our second pasta, it was a pleasant and delicious continuation of the dinner, with the gnocchi prepared very well. Still, of all the courses, this was the only one I could criticize. I was disappointed by the lack of discernible rosemary flavor, an herb I love and was excited to taste. Also, visually, the gnocchi and mozzarella were nearly the same shade, making the presentation a little dull. (My suggestion: kill two birds by sprinkling more fresh rosemary on the dish.)

From here, we moved onto the main course, a tender cut of lamb that was made all the better by its seasonings. The meat itself was richly mild, but with swaths of a red pepper dip and cumin yogurt, it roared to full life. It was lively and exciting, not to mention a joy to eat. It was nice to see the white beans from the bruschetta reappear as well, underscoring an awareness of theme and thoughtfulness. I also appreciated that the most creative dish of the night, the lamb, was just as successful as the simplest selections.

Three diverse and well-selected cheeses came next as a respite, followed by two even more diverse desserts. The first, a hazelnut-chocolate terrine, was the more traditional, a crunchy treat and a welcome break from the monotony of cakes. It was joined by our second offering, a glass of strawberries marinated in balsamic vinegar. I liked the novelty of the dessert, and the contrast to the terrine. Vince, who knew this dish well, wanted more vinegar and some black pepper, which would’ve been even more intriguing, but I was happy just to be introduced to it. Finally, something I could make at home to impress my friends.

However, as impressive as all of this food was, I can’t conclude without mentioning the service. It was among the smoothest and best I’ve ever seen, the movements and gestures so expertly timed that they verged on balletic. Vince, who puts away water by the gallon, never had his glass go empty. Our courses were perfectly spaced. The retrieval and introduction of plates never interrupted the conversation or intruded on our space. The waiters explained every dish with care and attention. I kept waiting for someone to falter, to lag on a refill, to delay a course, but it never happened.

When we left Pó, my laptop remained broken and my workload for the next day seemed just as ominous a mountain. But for at least two hours, those facts were utterly irrelevant. Pó reminded me that what mattered throughout our dinner is what should always matter: excellent wine, excellent friendship, excellent conversation and of course, excellent food. 8/10