The revolution will be experiential

I wrote this for our coop newsletter this spring but am re-upping here as so many wiser heads are wising up to the grim reality that the American Nazis claiming to be trying to take their country back have absolutely no idea of its history. To be fair, even I had never absorbed the notion that the Revolutionary War was not “Americans” against Brits. It was Brits against Brits. If there had been Thanksgiving dinners back then, they would have ended with pewter mugs of rum being flung at drunk uncles. So: 

Our last Amtrak trek from 12 West to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia took just under two hours, about the same amount of time we’d devote one way to a weekend outing for Chinese in Flushing. Which is just one reason I’d recommend an expedition to the new Museum of the American Revolution. Every exhibit in this lively museum makes clear how the country began with #Resistance and needs more of the same to survive.

Whatever you learned in grade school is not what you will come away understanding from this museum, with its inclusion of the roles of native Americans, African-Americans and women in the struggle to establish a republic. The rooms devoted to battles in and around Manhattan are particularly vivid, and the closing multimedia presentation showcasing the tent George Washington operated out of more than 200 years ago is surprisingly moving.

You could Amtrak down and back in a day, but Philadelphia is too great a city not to warrant a sleepover. For away-beds, we like the Hotel Palomar off Rittenhouse Square (pets welcome although we’ve never taken our cat). For diversion, we love the Reading Terminal Market, with its dozens of constantly changing food stalls. For culture, we really love the Museum of Art. For restaurants, we can’t count the choices.  Closest to the museum are High Street on Market, Good King Tavern and the Hungry Pigeon, but there are so many other options to Google: Vernick or 24 or aKitchen or Barbuzzo or Blue Corn or Bing Bing Dim Sum or V Kitchen. There’s also a cafe in the museum, but our first president surely did not work so hard to make eating easy. Walk west or south.

When you know you will pass this way again

There is no travel luxury like time. When you have 18 days in one place, a Mollica can happen.

One afternoon in Torino I was wandering back from an hour studying the alimentary canal (and femurs and brains) at the anatomy museum and swung past a new restaurant a food photographer had recommended. It looked a bit too intimidating for a sweaty traveler at lunch, but a couple of doors up on the piazza I spotted an enticing little sandwich shop with the most alluring concept: panini made to order with bread, cheese, salumi and salse from small producers in and around the city. It had a line and looked tricky to navigate for someone still sleepwalking through jet lag, but I took a couple of snapshots. On a quick trip that would have been the end of it.

A few nights later three of us who can speak about three phrases of Italian among us braved the intimidating restaurant for a two-bottle dinner (more about that later, of course) and then wandered past the shop again. This time a small group of youngs was clustered outside, so we stumbled in to gawk at the design and were followed by the owner, who explained the concept. In English, because this generation of food-changing Torinese always seem to speak it, usually well.

On a quick trip, that would have been the end of it. But my consort and I had the luxury of time the following Monday to make a foray. And it was so worth the journey. The counter was manned by two stylish women (daughter-mother?) who summoned an older man from the courtyard to translate even though it turned out daughter? spoke excellent English. We could choose from three breads (I learned morbidoso is not stale but soft), half a dozen each cheeses and meats, grilled eggplant or zucchini or sun-dried tomatoes and four salse, from verde to oliva. Even with gentle explaining, it was all a bit overwhelming, so Bob went with one from the list of suggestions for the undecided (coppa, cheese, grilled zucchini) and I stupidly chose mortadella as the base for mine, meaning there were limits to what could be added without overwhelming the main ingredient (robiola, though? great). Of course the sandwiches themselves were nothing like what you get in train stations and stand-up caffes, just layers of perfection, but the mother? also plied us with tastes of cheese and lardo. Wine was E3 for a little plastic cup of serve-yourself local white or red. And the bill came to all of E15. Because we drank wine, water was free. WIGB? I hoped to, but there are so many choices and now so little time. It says everything, though, that when I touted it on FB the owner responded with a grazie.

New York 60th-minute

So where does $60+ go on a Friday night? Not to either Mermaid Inn or Tangled Vine, both swamped when I hooked up with my consort after a friend bailed on us. We wound up at Barley & Grain for dramatic hummus with warm, puffy pita, a nice deal at $6 even though they charged for the necessary extra bread. But we passed on the $6 happy-hour wine deal in favor of a $42 bottle of Provencal rosé. Pinot grigio is just one step up from Flint water.

Up from “The Flavor Genome”

Picture yourself on a couch in the lobby of the Whitney after the kick-ass, so-urgently-political Biennial, and you’re trying to find a place to have a nice (not stand-up-in-a-stall-at-Chelsea-Market) lunch and Yelp is no help as you back-and-forth on restos you both like but have been to way too often. And then it comes upon you that Cookshop gets so much Twitter love and is just a High Line walk away. The last time I was there was with another professional eater, and I suspect her ears are still ringing from our brunch. But my consort and I landed right before 2 on a Wednesday and got a table for four in the back where we could sit side by side and not yell even a little bit. An hour later we walked out pretty much wanting to RT everyone who touts the hell out of the joint. We split an order of tempura-fried squid that transported me back to my best meal in Torino last summer, at a seafood resto in the great open-air market, where I had the perfect combination of fresh seafood and precise cooking. The little, light, just-salty-enough rings were laid over lemon aioli, so we got to dunk when you needed to, after appreciating the freshness and the frying. Bob’s lamb sausage sandwich was also world-class if messy, with the not-gamy-at-all meat stuffed into a bun between black olive aioli and pickled cucumber slices and teamed with faultless French fries. My asparagus “casserole,” though, was just what i deserved for ordering for $15 what I could have done at home for a coupla bucks: blanket a few spears with a sludge of melted cheeses. Coffee, though, was outstanding. Rosé? Ditto. WIGB? Not at crunch time, but absolutely. 

“A chain?” “No, it’s one chef with 3 restos.”

When it comes to getting motivated to write about a consistently great experience, the fourth time is apparently the charm. We just ate at a Fonda again and came away, once again, as amazed by the service as the food. It might be a little worrisome that we feel compelled to order the same dishes at both the Park Slope and the Chelsea locations, but if you tasted ‘em you’d know why. They are consistently great. Start with the guacamole, which is served not just with chips but with warm fresh corn tortillas and a little ramekin of chipotle(?) sauce. Order the outstanding queso fundido with chorizo, which also comes with warm tortillas and a little ramekin, this time of salsa verde. Get the crab croquettes, three to an order, perched atop different sauces (and sometimes over-dusted with chile flakes). Get the zarape de pato, tender chunks of duck layered in more fresh corn tortillas with a creamy roasted tomato-habanero sauce. Get the taquitos, especially the ones with crisp pork belly. Get the refried beans with queso fresco and avocado. Get a classic margarita. Maybe two. You could order a main course, but the food communicates so clearly in small bites that you could almost be eating Chinese. You’ll walk, not waddle, away feeling so pleased.

Note: On our latest visit, we tried a flan, one made with cajeta. Suffice it to say I grew up in a Mexican neighborhood and will never believe desserts are part of the program. Except for pumpkin empanadas, which of course are not a cena-ender. 

Note 2: We called last minute for a reservation for our last foray, in Brooklyn, and they fit us in. And when they asked for our six-top back after we’d paid but were lingering to shoot the breeze with friends we see too seldom, they offered to move us to the bar, shots on the house. WIGB? Anytime, any location. Even though brunch is deafening.

Seamless for sure

Not sure how long I can keep this up, but I’ve surprised my consort on significant birthdays three times now. For the first, I did a decoy duck — told him I was cooking a whole bird Chiu Chow-style (Cantonese with flavor) for just us, let him go jeans-shopping and had friends sneak into our apartment, after which I had dumplings delivered. For the second, fellow graduate students where he was off in Middle Earth coordinated a multimedia extravaganza and all I had to do was orchestrate digital contributions and long-distance-travel invitations and pay for the buffet in a great bar. For the third, I was feeling a bit wan. I gave my own “big” party for myself last time, and it didn’t seem so important. But a friend who is even older than I am prodded me into at least arranging a picnic in Central Park where I would tell him we were meeting a poor, sad friend left home alone on the first weekend in summer but where he would arrive to find a little clot of well-wishers (hard to round up on Memorial Day Sunday). I knew I couldn’t tip him off by making great quantities of food, so we came up with the idea of ordering pizzas. Which you can really do in the park; Bob has always marveled when we see a delivery guy on a bike with boxes heaped high on a Sunday when we’re walking to the Greenmarket down at the natural history museum. It took a bit of sleuthing to find not just a pizzeria that would deliver but one that could deliver pies fit to eat, but I settled on V&T, up by Columbia. And it was so worth it. The expressions on the faces of both the guests and the I-know-I’ll-get-a-great-tip delivery guy were unforgettable (iPhones shot right out). Thanks to the science the wingnuts deny, we were able to have a plain, a mushroom and a pepperoni dropped off at our blankets at 90th and West Drive. We came home with the equivalent of a full pizza, but it froze well. These are the days of miracle and wonder for sure.

New York minutes

My road to hell is apparently being paved with receipts from dozens and dozens of restaurants signifying my good intentions of writing about the good, the bad and the just okay (and, also, too, the surprisingly not bad). So I’m forcing myself to type about our latest meal out, the one where my consort noted we had had all appetizers the night before and I had to ask: Where did we eat last night?

(Mermaid Inn on Amsterdam, FTR, which was, yet again for like the eighth time since it expanded, close to perfect — points off for no “bread” offered, but we didn’t need it given that we were eating light with oysters on the half-shell [for Bob], fried calamari, wedge salad and grilled octopus with frisee, gigante beans and paprika aioli [again for Bob; I ain’t eatin’ no near-human]).

I actually had done a little research before we headed down to IFC for the amazing “Cameraperson,” so we were able to resist the fine-and-affordable siren song of Baker & Co. in order to stroll a couple of blocks north to the new Seabird, downtown relative of Mountain Bird, that awesome East Harlem destination that unfortunately represents a paving stone on my cluttered-desk highway (thanx again, Cheese Jenkins). It was only 7:30 or so and there were actually sidewalk tables available, but we headed into the din for our dinner.

I could complain about the table being too small, but the servers were too friendly; our main one jokingly offered to eat what she recommended if we didn’t like it although we would still pay. We took the cheaper of her recommendations, passing on the $32 bouillabaisse after she translated it as if we were rubes. Salmon poke with avocado and seaweed was about 10,000 times better than I expected, with the perfect balance among fatty, fatty and tangy. Crab and artichoke cheese dip was like a flashback to the TGIFriday’s 35 years ago where we agreed to move to NYC, but with real artichokes and real crab and good chips for dipping. “Fried oyster taco” proved to be three, each with a huge fried mollusk set over coleslaw (marred by celery). Ms. Charming apparently forgot to put in our last order, for the “crab lasagna mac-and-cheese,” because it took forever, but it was worth the wait, with an insane amount of lump crab in and atop the creamy shells with a touch of tomato sauce. Our $44 bottle of albariño was poured a little too fast, but maybe that’s because we were thirsty from the #bestintownpopcorn. WIGB? Absolutely, but only in a party of two able to lip-read.

New York minutes/August 2016

Hot is about the least alluring adjective for a restaurant these days, and not because it’s 160 degrees outside. I’m happy to wait till the digitally driven hordes have moved on before trying anything new. Or so I thought until I started seeing excited Tweets pop up in my stream about @paowallanyc, even from other chefs. Floyd Cardoz in a bread-centric return engagement seemed worth jumping through a few hoops to experience. So I reserved nearly a week ahead, and the joint was packed, in SoHo, at 7 o’clock, on a Tuesday. Between the service and the cooking/wine, it was easy to see why. When the crab ranks No. 4 out of six dishes, you know the kitchen is in transformative hands. As my consort, just back from Torino/Santa Fe/Tuscany, confessed: “When you said Indian, I was not looking forward to it. This is not what I was expecting.”

So what was No. 1? Easily the shisito pakoras, the peppers halved lengthwise, coated with chickpea flour and fried, then paired with peanut and red onion “salsa.” The textures and the flavors were equally lively. Grilled stuffed calamari was almost as sensational, tender but with deep char and a fabulous if mysterious filling (mushrooms? I feel like that idiot writer at the Beard House who once tucked into shiitakes and asked: “What is this? Baloney?”) A chat with black chickpeas and edamame was also great, and maybe even better kittybagged the next day. The tingmo turned out to be even more spectacular than the waitress described it, a steamed bread wrapped around a very hot chile paste, while the cheese kulcha Dan Kluger had raved about was like an Indian quesadilla but with seriously good bread as the “tortilla,” and cumin seeds to deliver haunting flavor. As for the crab, the seafood itself was outstanding and the seasonings perfectly calibrated. Modern Indian is an understatement.

And then there was the wine: A fascinating Sula sauvignon blanc, one we had had in Bangalore years ago, was $40, less than you’ll pay for a mediocre California or even more mediocre Italian white these days. Extra points for perfection in pouring. WIGB? Not right away if only because Bob is now so psyched for hot and new if they can deliver on this level. But we would both go back hungry and not jet-lagged because the big plates sound mighty alluring.

You can also file the Great Northern Food Hall in Grand Central Terminal under hot, but I was glad we made an exception for it, too, on a Saturday when Bob was between workshop gigs and I wanted him to see what I’d only reported on. The best pastrami I have ever had came not from a deli or even a BBQ pro but was tucked inside a slab of Danish bread, along with a thick mayonnaisey sauce and crunchy shallots for contrast. Bob was just as thrilled with his lamb sandwich, even though he’s not usually either a sandwich or a creamy kind of guy. The prices seemed high until I took half my lunch home for dinner. WIGB? I’m planning to soon with a friend who married into a Danish family, just so we can check out all the gorgeous blondes wandering from food stall to food stall.

Plus 7

Pro tip: If you’re going to lunch with what has now been officially christened the Flushing Eating Club, bring a takeout menu to the table and circle every dish ordered. Otherwise you’ll be like me, looking at photos and remembering extraordinary flavors/textures but with no idea what the names of the sensations were.

The most recent example was at Grain House, way the hell out past Flushing in Little Neck, where six of us convened in relative swankiness on a Sunday afternoon when the place was nearly empty while lines were out the door at the dim sum halls just down Northern Boulevard. The cooking is Sichuan, but you knew they meant business by the dessert card on the table promising the likes of “purple potato pumpkin pudding.”

We started with extraordinary noodles heaped with a spicy meat sauce, but damned if I can find that on the menu. (Pan-fried vermicelli?) And I am also not sure what the whole fish dish we tucked into was (spicy boiling fish?), but I do know the red brodo it was swimming in was exceptional. I’m clearer on the excellent cumin tofu, crisply cooked cubes mounded with dried red chilies, and on the buttery-tasting loofah although I can’t find it on the menu, either. I passed on the ox tongue and tripe starter, but it appeared chopsticks-licking good.

grain house little neck spicy noodles-1632

The one dish easily detected on the menu and that now haunts my dreams was the “salted duckling smoked with Lauraceae tea.” The meat and skin were seriously smoky and very tender; it was definitely among the top renditions of this since Hong Kong (and very reasonable at $17.95). I am not a shrimp eater but had to try the big basket of fried guys with corn crunchies, and that bite was both fresh and not at all chewy. Pork and vegetable dumplings, fried at our request, also surpassed any you could get in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

The tab was much higher than usual, at $31 a head, but that was partly because we got three of each of the two desserts we had to order because how often do you get desserts offered in a Chinese resto? The PPPP was odd but cerebral; the other, which of course does not show up on the menu, was like a sweet soup with weird but oddly seductive textures. As always when someone at our table speaks Mandarin, the service was also worthy of more than a 20 percent tip.

WIGB? Bummer they were out of the stir-fried milk. And that we never asked about the “sting in hot pot.” And as good as the food was, the $20 it cost to get there and back did give me pause. The best of Flushing is slow food at $5.50 RT.

Beyond duck scrapple

Pretty certain I’ll be late to my own funeral, so I shouldn’t be surprised I’m barely making it under the wire in confirming a Tweet by @Atrios, expert in the urban hellhole: “No one will listen, but plenty of good non-cheesesteak food in Philly.” The Dems in disarray and the reporters determined to portray them that way may have only a couple more days to listen to me, but at least I’m motivated to update on our last two trips. These are just some of the more representative local flavors to sample. Before or after experiencing the phenomenal “Creative Africa” show at the Rocky museum, of course.

Like the Double Knot, the Fat Ham is exceptional, not just the food and drink but the caring (we were cranky about our two bags taking up too much space in the tiny dining room and they comped us a great hummingbird cake in a Mason jar for the Amtrak ride home). A plate of smoked ribs and pulled pork with coleslaw; a brisket slider with white barbecue sauce, and pimento cheese served easy to eat on one slice of toast all wowed us, but the surprising standout was the cornbread, baked to order with tasso and molasses butter. It was $8 and worth even more. Unsurprisingly, the cocktail list is heavy on the bourbon.

ribs and pulled pork phila fat ham -0240

At the other extreme from that carnivorous overkill, V Street serves the most impressive vegan food either of us have ever encountered. Highest praise: If they didn’t label it, you wouldn’t know it. Everything had deep flavor and almost the mouth feel of meat, especially the charred and chewy carrot asado salad, with avocado, poblano and pumpkinseeds. Curried cauliflower nuggets came with whipped dal and mint chutney, so it was like eating in Kolkata. And the dan dan noodles were almost too filling, with five-spice mushrooms and zucchini in a spicy red chile sauce.

The Oyster House on Sansom felt like a bridge between classic Philadelphia and pushing-the-envelope Philadelphia. The servers are total (I guess I shouldn’t say old) pros, the modern room is get-’em-in-and-get-’em-out spare but attractive and the food simply makes you happy. My jumbo-lump crab cake at lunch sat atop “Chesapeake remoulade” and alongside an odd but addictive salad of broccoli, dates and almonds in a creamy dressing. Bob, however, scored with the softshell crab banh mi. Where has that idea been all our lives?

On the trip before that, for a wedding right after New Year’s, I was shocked to get four good meals within just a few blocks’ of our hosts’ dazzling townhouse in Graduate Hospital (which is a neighborhood, not anywhere to go get better). We couldn’t do that at home.

The tiny and charming Fitler Dining Room at lunch had great little pimento cheese fritters and amazingly light gnocchi Parisienne with cauliflower. I actually laughed when my consort’s “Waldorf Cobb” salad landed; it looked like deconstruction gone tiny-wrong. But the combination of grapes, spiced pecans, julienned apple and well-dressed greens added up. Southgate, a Momofuku knockoff, was a fun destination to meet up with our hosts and the newlyweds to share “fish and chips,” Korean tacos, bibimbop, sweet potato fritters, chicken wings and “Koreancini.” If it all had a one-noteness to it, and too much sweetness, that may have been thanks to our not-smart ordering. And the meal that is usually our least favorite, brunch, was perfect at Pub & Kitchen, including a massive and well-made cheeseburger with great fries and a spinach omelet. It’s a bar but a nice one I wish would move closer to us.

I was most thrilled with Blue Corn, a little farther away in the Italian Market, because it serves gorditas, which I developed an obsession with long ago in El Paso. These were obviously just fried, a plate of three filled with chicken, with pork and with cheese. Tacos were well-spiced, the queso fundido excellent. Red and green salsas with the (yes) blue corn chips were also superb. All I foggily remember of Mexican in Philadelphia from my three years there were the margaritas at some mill on Second Street. They were no more like Blue Corn’s than the menu was.

For the record, the letdowns on our most recent getaway included Distrito in University City, where we landed for lunch because it was close to the always-worth-the-trip Institute of Contemporary Art at Penn and because we had never tried a José Garces joint. We won’t be repeating that mistake. The food was one step up from Blockheads’: bland guacamole, dishwatery pork tacos, pallid queso fundido, the side of pico de gallo tasteless. Too bad you can’t eat decor. And I’m cutting Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in newly hip Fishtown a break because it had just opened when we had clumsy wine service and underwhelming food, including just-average double Margherita pizza with cold burrata and okay garganelli with duck. Dates stuffed with Gorgonzola and baked dry in speck earned a “worst date I ever had” from one friend. Asparagus salad with egg, pancetta and capers, however, was impressive if tricky to share. And maybe we would not have been so let down if the hamachi crudo with grapefruit and pistachios we started with had not been so impressive. The wine list was, as so many Philadelphia restaurants’ are, Gouge City. We also finally tried a Marc Vetri joint where the mortadella mousse was blow-away and the paccheri with swordfish and eggplant at least inventive. The dismissive waiter kept insisting the sausage of the day was chorizo, but it certainly looked and tasted Italian. Still, I think we would have liked the food more if we hadn’t had to walk out before they would give us a decent table in the deafening space. (“Those are reserved.” “Well, we reserved.”) At least a manager ran out and talked us back in. For a place named Amis it felt awfully like a club, one that would not admit us.

WIGB really doesn’t count in Philadelphia because we try not to repeat any resto on our eating expeditions to the town where we met. When or if we do it’s at a.Kitchen off Rittenhouse Square, where the smoked beet salad is extraordinary, and Barbuzzo, where the vibe and the pizzas etc. are so great, and Vernick, where the chef who comes up with such lively food was so generous in recommending other places, including Le Virtu in South Philadelphia, and finally Dizengoff, where the hummus platters are perfection. Even though we could now get one of those at the Chelsea Market it would not be as transporting.