A Year In Food

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

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Nov. 19.

Lunch -

DiFara -1464 Ave. J, Midwood, Brooklyn
Two squares, two zeppolis, a can of A&W Cream Soda

Once again, I was facing a monumental decision. Reunited with New York, I had to figure out where I'd go to celebrate my return. There were so many places I missed while traveling, so many flavors and locales unique to my hometown, and I had such a limited time left to eat. I just couldn't bear to squander any opportunities with a mediocre meal.

But then I remembered that I was meeting up with Dario, my former officemate from the law firm and a two-stop veteran of the now-famous Pizza World Tour (see May 22). He'd been floored by DiFara that day and proceeded to bring it up for weeks. He spoke about Dominic's square (known as the Sicilian elsewhere) with a kind of breathless reverence ordinarily reserved for A-list celebrity sightings. I half-wondered if he would still be rhapsodizing about it now, six months after the fact. Sure enough, when I asked him if he had any dining out suggestions, right away he threw out, "How about DiFara?"

We met up outside the pizzeria, a street down from the J train in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Midwood. Inside, the line was already packed, as veteran pizzaiolo Dominic and his son focused on crafting pie after beautiful pie. He cut and sprinkled fresh basil on the creations. He ground cheese and poured olive oil across the dough canvases. It was just as enjoyable to watch as ever, making the crowded half-hour wait a little more tolerable.

I'd been planning to order a plain square and a sausage square, but by the time I got up to the counter, I compromised by getting two of the plain squares fresh from the oven. It was faster and easier than waiting for the customized sausage. I also got zeppolis, which came three for a dollar, to split with Dario. After all, what could represent Brooklyn better than fried dough?

The squares, like all the pizza at DiFara, taste infinitely better when they're steaming hot. That wasn't a problem as, right away, we tore into the delicious dishes. The pizza was still as quintessential New York as we had built it up, the square still as complex and simple as the best out there. It didn't compare to the Naples pizza I recently had (reviews still to come), only in the sense that they were so different in style and execution they were practically unrelated.

The zeppolis didn't inspire the same amazement. They were good in the same way all zeppolis in any neighborhood pizzeria are tasty, but they didn't stand out or wow us like the pizza. Part of the reason was that the dough balls had cooled off by the time we were ready for them. Also, it'd be hard to imagine a dessert that would be able to compete with the pizza. In fact, in a city of thousands and thousands of restaurants, it's hard to think of much that could compete with DiFara's pizza, or a food that could have made for such a welcoming homecoming. 9/10

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Sept. 19.

Copenhagen, Part One - Having previously traveled to Spain, France and Germany, I had a good sense of what to expect. But Scandanavia posed a big, exciting question mark for me. All I could picture were towering blondes, frigid temperatures and lots of fish. That wasn't quite true, at least not in idyllic Copenhagen. Instead, I found a city that blended the urban and the pastoral, the stunning with the quaint. For a capital city, it felt surprisingly accessible and humble, offering pretty views of the water and landscape without overselling itself. And best of all, it was seventy degrees the entire time we were there. In a weird way, with its charming restaurants and shops, it even reminded me of coastal Maine.

After taking in the vistas, it was time for a visit to Copenhagen's pride and joy, the Carlsberg Brewery. Carlsberg's beers were nearly as ubiquitously consumed in Denmark as Pilsner Urquell is in the Czech Republic, and its green-and-white logo proudly adorned every restaurant awning and napkin dispenser in sight. I'd tried Carlsberg ("Probably the best beer in the world") before but didn't realize what a big deal it was to the Danish. Then, after getting a thorough education on everything from brewing, bottling, marketing and scientific innovations, Vince and I got two laminated tickets to taste the product at the end. Not only could we choose from the Carlsberg varieties, but their other storied brands, Tuborg and Jacobsen, as well. I started with the Jacobsen chocolate stout, which had dark and wonderful undertones, tasting all the better as I considered the immense process it required to reach my glass. Then I cleansed the palate with their wheat beer, a delightfully white, light contrast quite similar to Hoegaarden.

After the tour, we walked around the downtown area some more, looking for a place to eat dinner. (We'd had an included breakfast at the hostel in Hamburg, but I won't bore you with the tales of cereal and fruit cocktail.) Because it used the krone rather than the euro, Copenhagen proved to be more expensive than any of the other places we'd been so far. Thus, we had to restrict ourselves to searching supermarkets and very cheap eateries. Eventually, we settled on a place called Toppoli Pizzeria, a few streets away from our hostel. The idea of eating Scandanavian pizza seemed interesting enough, and both of us really missed the good old days of DiFara (see May 22, Jan. 1) and Denino's (see May 22). Of course, the menu was in Danish, which meant a cavalcade of v's, o's with slashes through them and j's somehow following h's. We were able to decode enough of it to clumsily order a Pizza al Mare which came with tiny shrimp, spinach, mushrooms and ham. It was surprisingly not bad, although it was also nothing special. Still, for a day that would be otherwise boring-- eating pizza and drinking beer-- we made it quite memorable.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Nov. 18.

Special Feature -

Reader Mail - I recently received an e-mail from Emile, a knowledgeable reader from Melbourne, who wrote in with more info on the broodjes I loved so much in The Netherlands:

"The broodjes you mention definitely are the number 1 thing I miss from amsterdam after moving overseas (and salted herring from the street stalls of course. I do urge you to try them, possibly on a roll with fresh onion).

I just wanted to mention that they're a speciality unique to suriname, and perhaps the dutch antilles. Like suriname itself, they're basically a fusion of various ethnic cooking styles, most prominently hindustani and javanese. This is why they might appear 'asian.'

If you like surinami and are adventurous, consider going into an eatery and see if they serve:

vlees - meat sausage
bloed - blood sausage
fladder - intestine
bere - fried spiced doughnut

They should be offered with pickels and 'peper,' the latter being a relish of 'madame chanet' peppers, which are extremely hot. Be careful with this. A good place to get this kind of thing is on the very exotic Bijlmer market. The Bijlmer is a mostly ethnic suburb southeast of the center easily reached by metro. It features lots of hideous 70/80s highrise, an architectonic turkey with weird ideology behind it."

Architectonic turkey with weird ideology, huh? Sounds pretty cool. Thanks, Emile. If I ever get back to Amsterdam, I'll definitely take your advice. And if anyone else has more to add on a topic I've covered, send it my way and I'll be sure to share it.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sept. 17.

Amsterdam, Part Four - So far, I had been trying to stick to Amsterdam's cultural side, but there was no way to deny its more hedonistic impulses. Perhaps more than any other city (Las Vegas?), its image is tied to its permissiveness and indulgence. Even my mother, when I told her that I was going there, couldn't keep from offering a strange grin and warning me not to "smoke anything strange." I assured her I wouldn't.

Instead, I went up to the Red Light District. It was only around noon so I wasn't sure if there'd even be any red lights glowing. There were about ten, scattered around the widespread area, where women in day-glo bikinis sat behind glass doors in claustrophobic little booths. They tried to do their best approximations of sexy as they filed their nails or surveyed the empty streets. A few of the prostitutes were beautiful in the generic Playboy sense of beautiful. The others had bobbling stomachs and massive breasts and thighs. Far more than sexy, the whole scene seemed kind of sad.

Then, finally after that, it was time to disobey my mother. I did my research and found a place called Grey Area, which many call one of Amsterdam's best coffeeshops. Vince and I met up at the small shop on Oude Leliestraat, run by two American expats, and I perused all the interesting offerings. (My plan was to smoke before our dinner at Tempo Doeloe, hoping it'd only increase my already huge appetite.) After a consideration of Grey Area's tempting menu and asking for some recommendations, I ended up going with the Greyberry, which had a light blueberry flavor. John, the owner behind the counter, rolled the very reasonably priced weed for me into a joint. Vince and I claimed one of the tables among the walls plastered with graffiti, signs, stickers and photos, and I lit up. This was easily the best marijuana I've tried. It was like a tasting menu at a four-star after so much mediocre fast food.

From there, we went onto Tempo Doeloe, probably Amsterdam's most famous Indonesian restaurant. After severely missing the heat and spices from Sripraphai, I was ready for all the hype surrounding this place. The guidebooks all warned that the food was blazingly pedis, the on-line reviewers sang the praises of extra spicy dishes and even the restaurant's own menu cautioned to work your way up to the options marked with three red pluses (the ones where "our 'kokkie' (chef) has not shown any mercy with various kinds of peppers.") It sounded perfect. I was so ready that I even ordered the most expensive choice on the menu, the rijsttafel istemewa. The rijsttafel is a rice table, in which small bowls of various entrees are all centered around heaping bowls of rice. My istemewa (the grand rice table) came with twenty-five little courses, with low flames burning under them to keep them warm.

Even without the berry high, I would've been a happy man. The flavors here were multifaceted and beautifully crafted, all the more apparent after comparing to our earlier experience at Tanjung Sari. There was clearly great care put into the shaping of each miniature plate. As our waiter explained to do, I started at the far right with the mildest dishes and slowly worked my way over into the spicier quadrants. I made sure to also follow his instructions and to treat every dish individually, rather than making some mash of them in my rice. A quarter of the way through, my favorite tastes were the Gadon Dari Sapi, or "beef in creamy sauce with coconut cream and fresh coriander," and Orek Arek, or "stirfried cabbage with garlic and various herbs." As I moved into the dishes marked by one plus on the menu, I started to detect some really nice mild heats. The vegetarian options particularly had a sharp pepperiness to them.

Confidently, I pressed on, eager to get to the real firestarters among the bunch. The wonderful and well-crafted flavors continued, but the heat never came. Despite all of the press to the contrary, I found the so-called spicier dishes kind of bland, lacking that necessary spark that can truly elevate a dish. I even started to wonder if I'd been given the wrong table by mistake, or if there might be another one coming. But then, there still stood before me, the two plates that were supposed to be the spiciest of all, the Ajam Roedjak, or "chicken in hot sauce with cream of coconut and tjabeh" and the Daging Rendang, or "beef cooked in tasty, hot sauce with cream of coconut," which came with the dreaded three-plus warning. I tried them both and felt barely a tingle. I was quite disappointed, but felt that at least the dinner was redeemed by how good everything had tasted. Tempo Doeloe may not have produced the heat it promised, but it remained a quality meal. Still, I probably wouldn't make another reservation there without reservations.

After dinner, I went back to the Red Light District to see how it had changed at night. Sure enough, it had transformed from desert to full-blown circus. Over a hundred red lights were glowing, with girls in the same fluorescent bikinis striking poses and calling out to clients. The alleys were packed, mostly with college-age boys in clusters but also crowds of curious gawkers and even tour groups of rowdy seniors. There were also a lot of women taking in the sights. I saw a guy my age unabashedly approach the glass and ask how much "it" cost. "Fifty euros," came the woman's seasoned response. He nodded meekly and disappeared behind the pulled red-velvet curtain. The scene only felt more pathetic to me, as more men disappeared and emerged from the booths. While I'm far from a prude, and don't really see the point of criminalizing prostitution, the Red Light District struck me as perhaps the least sexy experience possible. Even the model-beautiful women seemed more like prisoners in their glass rectangles than prospects. Nonetheless, I was glad to have witnessed this side of Amsterdam, probably as an integral part of a very complex city as any.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Sept. 16.

Amsterdam, Part Three - It was another day of exploration. Vince had headed to Delft, the world's blue-and-white ceramic capital of the world, while I stayed behind to see more of the capital city. I started off the morning with a visit to the Albert Cuyp market, located on Albert Cuypstraat in the neighborhood of De Pijp. Unlike its Spanish counterparts, which also had a wild assortment of foods, the Cuyp functioned more as a flea market, offering everything from shoes to cameras to medicine to herring. A brass band was playing too, making the morning a lively one. I bought a few tangerines (I'd already had delicious free cornflakes at the hostel) and got going when it again started to drizzle.

I headed up to the Anne Frank House, another one of the landmarks I had long been looking forward to seeing. It was definitely well worth the wait. Walking through the house and up to the attic where the Franks hid was a starkly powerful experience, and the exhibits provided a lot of harrowing but necessary information. Instead of trying to present the magnitude of the Holocaust, the museum showed the tragedy through the lens of a single family, making the loss feel all the more personal and intimate. Afterwards, I went to a bookstore and read all the English-language news magazines I could find. Everywhere, the story was about Katrina and the government's mismanagement of the hurricane's aftermath. It was an unfortunate reminder that social inequities and governmental apathy can still add up to disastrous results today.

For dinner, Vince and I met up to honor the Dutch's love of all things fried. Along with croquettes, the most prominent food is patats, or their steak frite-like French fries. Like the Belgians, the Dutch enjoy mayo on their potatoes, but that's only one of many choices they'll consider. Their patat shops are known to offer more exotic combinations like wasabi mayo, spicy ketchup and peanut sauce. I went with the more traditional curry, which turned out to be a watery but tangy brown-red sauce. It wasn't bad, and neither were the fries, which were served in a paper cone. Still, they were thick and dry and I had to grudgingly admit that I preferred the ones from the Lyon McDonald's. It was a slight disappointment, but I was still very much excited, because the next day, Vince and I had reservations at the famous Indonesian restaurant Tempo Doeloe, slated to be our second big splurge of the trip...

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Nov. 15.

Home - Well, I'm back safe and sound in New York, after three months in Europe. I've done my best to update from the road, and I appreciate all of the kind e-mails with thoughts and advice. But now that I'm back, get ready for more updates, more photos and more food, as I recount the rest of my trip and take as many bites of the Big Apple as I can before I move onto California on December 5th. Most importantly, there are still many standout meals from Europe on the horizon, and, I expect, some to come from NYC too.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Sept. 15.

Amsterdam, Part Two - Beware the bike. In Amsterdam, standing in the mauve-painted bike lane is more dangerous than the street. Everyone, of all ages, sizes and races, is a two-wheeled demon, and the city is a constant chorus of bike bells warning errant tourists to leap for cover. Eventually, I was mostly able to avoid walking into the lane, but the first two days were a series of near-collisions and deft footwork.

The bikes were all the more prominent because I was again walking all over town. A large circular ring of canals and bridges, Amsterdam proved quite the pleasure to maneuver, even under the continuing drape of mist. In the northeastern part of town, I found a sandwich shop called Tokoman that served the same Asian broodjes I loved in Rotterdam. The spitfire proprietress had a sign hanging up that read "This isn't Burger King. You either get it my way or you don't get it at all," which didn't faze any of the customers on a line that was consistently twelve people deep. The shop smelled wonderful too, charged with exotic and sharp aromas. When my turn came, I randomly ordered a pom and a gehund brahkt. I'm still not sure what I had as she spooned the fillings from the metal containers, but both were wonderful. With an excellent bread with a ripe crunch, the two broodjes were even better and more unique than Rotterdam's. I was appalled all over again that, as far as I knew, nothing like this was available in New York.

Afterwards, the rain really started to hammer down so I sought refuge in a lugubrious bar called Cafe Eik en Linde. It was almost a saloon, populated by world-weary locals and women who've downed more than their share of suds. I ordered a WeiƟbier and took a seat in the corner to write a little poetry. Long-haired septugenarians who looked a long way from a shower played an odd variation of billiards with only three balls and a table with no pockets. Then a frail man in a felt hat and a wheelcahir started to blow into a harmonica. I finished my beer and ordered a coffee to make sure I wasn't dreaming.

The rain never let up so I started on the winding road home. I made it back eventually, my clothes reduced to cotton sponges. I dried out in the lounge of my hostel, while five or six people rolled massive joints around me. Eventually, Vince made it back from his daytrip to Leiden, and we ventured out to find dinner. Naturally, the rain charged down more forcefully than ever as soon as we had gone too far to turn back. We chose a neighborhood Indonesian place called Tanjung Sari as much for its dryness as its intriguing menu. Also, I had really wanted to try the cuisine, reputed to be Amsterdam's biggest food specialty.

For eight and a half euros each, we both ordered fried rice with chicken sate, which came with eight accompanying sides. I was most interested in the daging rendang, or stewed beef in Sumatran sauce, eager to experience the full spiciness of Indonesian food. To further underscore my mission, I stressed to the waitress that I would like it very spicy. Our dishes came, my rice flanked with such curious companions as sambal goreng telor, or egg in tomato sauce and opor ayam, or chicken in saffron sauce. All of them were tasty, but I was most interested in the daging. Taking my first bite of meat, I was reminded of flavors from Thailand and Vietnam but most prominently Malaysia. There was the same interplay of spice and sweetness that made food from that region so wondrous but also difficult to pull off. Like much other Southeast Asian food, my meal had great flavors but was still missing the essential heat to truly make the dish sing. Nonetheless, as an Indonesian introduction, dinner only confirmed what a strange and diverse variety Amsterdam could offer.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Sept. 14.

Amsterdam, Part One - When we arrived in Amsterdam, it was mourning. The sky was a limp grey, the clouds drooped like surrendering shoulders, and a heavy misty drizzle was spraying down. It was far from the bacchanalia I was expecting, but we hopped on the tram and went with the flow. After arriving at the Flying Pig Palace, I dropped off my backpack and headed directly to the Van Gogh Museum (Gogh pronounced like a man clearing his throat). Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists and I had been waiting to visit this museum for a long time. It was of course beautiful and inspiring (though overpriced) and I learned just how heavily influenced he was by Japanese painting.

From there, it was a matter of meeting Amsterdam, even in all of its soggy gloominess. I walked around aimlessly, along the Leidesplein and across the canal bridges. It was amazing in such a different and distinct way, worlds apart from the romantic designs of the Romance countries. Here, the predominant color was brown and beige and the houses were low and shy. (Interestingly, even as so many windows faced the street, almost none had curtains to cover them.) From my initial views, Amsterdam seemed quite enchanting, but of course, it wasn't without its other side too. There were practically more souvenir shops than people. The city was teeming with American and Australian kind, to the point where English had become the default language. And for a place with such a liberal stance toward sex and drugs, it also seemed caught up in flaunting them, like a friend's parents who brag to everyone about how permissive they are. Also, with so many seedy coffee shops lining the streets, the smell of weed was a constant and looming presence.

That smell must've built up our appetities at least, because by six, Vince and I were both ravenous. The obvious choice was our old favorite from Barcelona, Maoz Falafel, which originated and has the most outposts in Amsterdam. One was quite close to our hostel thankfully, so we both ordered a falafel grosse and dove into the salad bar fix-ins. Again, the choices were surprisingly healthy and thoughtful and the fried chickpea balls were better than should be expected from a franchise. I made so many return trips to stuff some more parsley-laced tabouli or butter pickles into the pita that I thought we might get kicked off. But alas, Amsterdam is a city invested in sin, and Maoz is one gluttonous temptation that there's no need to resist.