80 minutes away, and not Flushing

Word on the estreet that a great friend in Philadelphia was going to cash in his fairbandb gift card at the hottest spot in town on his birthday did the impossible: got me motivated to post here, on Double Knot, the latest from Michael Schulson, whose Buddakan background shows. With luck, he and his wife would be seated in the space my consort and I were, away from the where-do-they-get-the-money whippersnappers rousing it up in the next room in that subterranean wonderland, and would get the superb waitress we scored, the one who spent so much time talking us through the virtually noun-only menu.

She advised us to order six to eight dishes to share, and the prices made us both wonder if we shoulda doubled up. But the first little bowl to land, for all of $7, held four edamame dumplings,  scented with truffle in very tender skins. Tuna on a “rice cracker” for $8 proved to be even more sensational, the tartare set over what could have been fried risotto, not the lame-ass crackers we were anticipating. Of course we had to try the duck scrapple bao, and it was not just plural but exceptional, the meat sausagey but not scrapple-weird, the steamed buns just light enough to contain it. Pastrami bao was nearly as sensational (each order $7). “Enoki bacon” translated as those little outer-space mushrooms wrapped in pig belly and grilled on skewers, the one dish that did not hold up so well in the microwave in the fairbandb next a.m. (We could have gotten away with just one order of those at $4 apiece, too.) A heaping bowl of miso fried rice with black cod, for all of $9, made me rethink my Chiu Chow recipe from Hong Kong; fish chunks and ginger and scallions would definitely make it even better. But the real winner of this feast of small plates was our $7 order of gyoza, dumplings with savory filling fried into almost a cake.

As always, I wondered why more chefs don’t indulge their patrons by making food effortless to share. Bob is a knife whiz who can even get four portions out of a soft-shell crab already cut into thirds, but no one should have to work that hard.

Anyway, I had two glasses of (surprise) sauvignon blanc, a good pour for $11, but I’m amazed Bob managed even one of the Double Knot cocktails, made with bourbon, rye and two types of vermouth. The stairs were tricky going down; I wondered if he’d navigate back up. The presentation alone might make you high, though: That excellent waitress torched a little mound of spices on a barrel stave, laid the snifter over it to capture the smoke and then poured in the high-octane drink.

We couldn’t even finish all our food and pitied the two olds at the next table who had ordered 11 dishes between them. Shorter? Put the brakes on, Don. 120 South 13th Street, 215 631 3868.

The duck will abide

hunan house flushing soup dumplings-3659

So I walked onto a 7 train car at Main Street/Flushing at 2:38 on a Saturday afternoon and stepped off the C at 96th Street and CPW just about 12 miles and exactly one hour and 47 minutes later (USofAusterity, No. 1!) I could have Amtraked to Philadelphia in that time. But aside from my digital whining, I really didn’t mind at all. Hunan House is so vaut le voyage the chopsticks come in Michelin sleeves.

On this frazzled day I met only six other friends and worried that the bill would be more than the inevitable $20 a head. But we all ate our fill to the point of succumbing to an eight-treasure fried rice dessert and still walked away for $23.

We started with two dishes I flinched at as the excellent waiter laughed: jellyfish (which made me contemplate where aspic originated) and “ox tongue and tripe in peppery sauce.” Then again, no one seemed to much appreciate my choice of Hunan pickled cabbage, either. I did try to push for soup dumplings, but they were not immediately findable on the menu, only in my photo files.

Water spinach stems proved to be texturally sublime but cough-inducingly painful thanks to the peppers. Preserved pork with leeks proved to be near-bacon with great chunks of ginger, and I could have eaten another platterful. But the dazzlers on the Lazy Susan proved to be my choice of smoked duck, the meat super-tender, and the steamed eggs with pork, like a quivering custard topped with sausage bits.

For the record, afterward I stopped at the Petland under the yellow awning with Chinese characters on Main Street and then picked up a matcha-flavored egg tart at the Taipan bakery for the ride home. Either its flavor fell short or the ride was too damned long.  The Cat has not forgiven me for arriving with not even a whiff of duck on my fingers.
*Posting this feels grim on considering how neglected my Trails trail has gotten the last few years; I have been repeatedly as the resto has gotten swankier and better even as the staff and food have stayed the course. Shorter? So many photos, so few verbal journeys . . .

Greened

Apparently this is International Belfast Month, what with the pubs getting a shoutout in the NYT magazine and the restaurant scene enjoying a good tongue bath over to the Independent. But, as usual, my consort and I got there too soon. And it was a very different experience.

This was way back in a rare break in the Troubles, in 1996. We were in London on one of Bob’s corporate boondoggles, photographing banksters on their bonus trip (I think the Ubs met Maggie Thatcher that year), and while he was working, hard, I had lunch with a restaurant critic someone connected me with who insisted we had to make a pilgrimage to the most underrated food city in the UK. “It has a Michelin one-star restaurant!” My mom was born in Belfast, and I’d always been curious, and we’d added a week to the end of our trip for some excursion. So why the hell not?

A couple of days later we were eating little tea sandwiches and orange cake on British Midlands. In that pre-Google era I have no idea how I found our B&B, but I’m pretty sure we reserved via fax and I’m absolutely certain it was like checking into a home for unwed mothers. Monastic would have been an understatement, but it was all of 49 pounds a night. And I remember when we went out to explore that first afternoon we were passed by an armored car with soldiers with rifles hanging off and even under it. Lovely welcome.

Judging by the chicken scratches in my notebook from that trip, we had a bacon and onion tart with gravy(?) and salad at a pub nearby and a Sicilian pizza with olives and anchovies at Villa Italia that night. Apparently we were staying in the comfort zone of the hotel. Or: Wherever you travel you will eat pizza.

My notes and Quicken don’t document this, but I also remember we had quite an experience at the famous Crown Liquor Saloon, with its gaslights and private enclosed booths. I wish I had realized my cranium would eventually become a sieve, because there was a very amusing interaction with a local guy who wound up showing us all the contents of his wallet. Did we buy him a beer? Or six? I know I drank white wine. Probably Jacob’s Creek. Because it was Northern Ireland.

Our B&Breakfast next day was the same as it would be for the rest of the week moving farmhouse to farmhouse as we explored: porridge, eggs, bacon, sausage and grilled tomatoes. My notes don’t show it, but there had to be wheaten bread, too, which was outstanding. (Those were the days when everyone said you could eat well in Britain if you ate breakfast three times a day.)

After that we should not have had room for our reason for going: Lunch at Roscoff, in a sunlit dining room with casually perfect service. This was 1996, remember, and I had duck ravioli with scallions and mushrooms and seared hake with Asian coleslaw and crispy wontons and lemon cheesecake tart with sweet Irish strawberries. Bob cleaned his plate of scallops with lobster spring rolls then was in ecstasy over char-grilled eel with pimentos and salsa verde, followed by pot au caramel with cassis and fruit. I bought both cookbooks the owners, Paul and Jeanne Rankin, had done for the BBC because even then chefs had to have teevee platforms. And I got my 26 pounds’ worth: About once a year I’ll still make the superb warm pasta salad with smoked salmon, lettuce, chives and dill.

Writing this, and reading all the new coverage that never mentions the place, I wondered what happened; apparently the end was not pretty.

Mostly what I remember from that trip was setting out for the graveyard to see if we could find where the grandmother I never met might be buried. Instead we watched boys playing soccer under the eye of more military, in huge ugly watchtowers. And then we decided to go look for Van Morrison’s birthplace. (Two-for-two fail.)

Overall, things may have radically improved, but I’d have to echo James Boswell’s reaction to the Giant’s Causeway: Worth seeing. Not worth traveling to see.

After days of having our bags checked everywhere went, then after the most invasive security checks at the airport, I also remember boarding that British Midlands flight back to London feeling very grateful to be an American, living in the land of the free, home of the brave. Thanks to the Panchito-enabled Bushwhacking, we are all Belfast now.

If they expand it, you will go . . .

My consort and I went back and forth on whether Mermaid’s pizza expansion would be a regular WIGB. On the minus side, the space is just as loud, maybe more deafening, than the original. On the plus side, the service is just as great. OTMS, did the neighborhood really need just-okay pizza? OTPS, the befores are just as good as next door, particularly the bruschetta heaped with zucchini, super-creamy ricotta and pine nuts (the kale salad at least did not promise more than it delivered, as in cavolo nero leaves). The pizza, however, is fine for the neighborhood although I would not recommend traveling to try it. Ours was (sloppily, as in sloped onto one side) topped with fennel sausage, onions and mozzarella, and the crust was the sort that makes you leave bones behind. (Surviving slice was actually better reheated next day.) Back to OTPS, the wine comes by the quartino, fairly priced, and the free dessert is now “panna cotta” rather than chocolate mousse.

Plus one . . .

When I was totting up our favorites, I forgot about Parm, Upper West Side division. Which has become one of our regular destinations after the Sunday Greenmarket because it’s the rare egg-free and day-drunkless environment on Sunday afternoon. We always sit in the bright and sunny back room and always split a perfect eggplant parm sandwich (hero is too big) along with Buffalo cucumbers, awash in hot sauce and chunky with blue cheese. As a starter, we have either the very satisfying fried zucchini, which now comes with cocktail sauce and a spicy mayonnaise, or the artichokes casino. And the tab is about what a lobster roll plus a lobster combo at Luke’s would cost. Some of our Upper West Side friends don’t get the place or the tongue-in-red sauce menu. But then they apparently haven’t eaten as much in Italy, cuz they’ll settle for the earnest but sad “true Italian” in other restos.

New York minutes

New rule: When the menu mentions chorizo, said ingredient had damn well better be perceptible, either visually or as you chew and chew. But the missing element was one of only two flaws when we stopped at the newish Tasca Chino in search of something different after a rare Saturday outing to the Greenmarket on Union Square. Bob chose those pallid losers (for once the taste-free chicken deserved the cliché description of rubbery), but I scored with another steamed dumpling option, the Woodland, which had a filling with seriously meaty mushroom flavor inside the light wrappers and a broth with intense and complex taste. We also split patatas bravas, perfectly cooked with crisp outsides, fluffy inners, with yin-yang dipping sauces in a too-small ramekin/portion: “Szechuan aioli” and tamarind barbecue. The restaurant itself has style to burn, with oversized paintings of, say, Mao overlaid with bullfighting images; it’s clearly designed for nighttime action. But at that most dread eating occasion, brunch, it’s quite pleasant, huge table of drinkers of $20 bottomless margaritas to our left notwithstanding. And I can’t remember the last time we left a resto with so many big smiles and “thank yous.” WIGB? Yeah, actually. For that dread eating occasion, the menu had quite a few clever huevos, plus duck & waffles. I would be tempted by the “nested eggs Benedict,” in a blue corn tortilla with miso hollandaise. But the menu said chorizo. And you never know.

Old rule: Always head to Baker & Co. after a movie at IFC; we have not found a more affordable hospitable option anywhere for blocks. On the occasion of our meeting two friends for the slow but powerful “Mustang” (lots o’ food in that film, BTW), we ran ahead and made reservations for dinner after the show. And so we wound up with the table in the window right after an obnoxiously entitled mom with stroller the size of a Cuban Buick strutted in with her husband and another guy and told the hostess that that six-top should be their spot. The din level was even more bearable there, and the food and service were, as always, a notch above. We all shared a jazzy special of anchovies laid over blood orange slices with red onion, capers and microgreens. And when we all passed plates, I scored again, with the lasagne packed with pork slices and ragu, enough for dinner and then lunch for two next day for all of $17. Garganelli must have been house-made because they were not little rolled handkerchiefs but unfurled, under a lavish layering of burrata. Bob’s pappardelle with veal ragu was almost more meat than pasta, not that there’s anything American-wrong with that, while our other friend’s orecchiette with shrimp and roasted cauliflower landed with a whiff of rancidity, and there is something wrong with that. (The bread crumbs? WTF?) With two bottles of food-friendly Grillo from Sicily, the bill was about $50 apiece. WIGB? Undoubtedly. Despite the one-holer bathroom where you can only feel the dread rising as the person taking too long is a guy. Still, as someone said over to FB: Sometimes they like to sit and think, too.

In between N & O Rules: We ducked into Amy’s Bread on Bleecker to pick up bread (olive fougasse, just like I’d pictured it) and were seduced into trying a new item, a croissant pistachio twist. Which was sensational, with just enough balance of nutty paste and buttery dough that made you long for a swig of coffee. Somehow it was fitting that we shared it on the sidewalk just steps from a homeless guy going through a trash can and pulling out unfinished hot dogs still in buns. It was a survival model: Station yourself near a tourist attraction where the food actually sucks. And scoop up what they leave behind. Side note: Said homeless guy was annoyed when a family pulled up in a car and a kid inside jumped out to carefully deposit what was apparently an unfinished large coffee drink atop the debris. The intended recipient was not happy it could have leaked onto “the food.” Sadder side note: We saw all this after passing yet another homeless guy on Sixth who had a big bleak sign (where do they get the Sharpies?) laying out how desperate he was. While he sat and ate a presumably donated sandwich offa which he had pulled all the crusts. Beggars/choosers? This is someone’s America.

New York minutes, A (plural) to Q

Twitter might have done me a favor for once. A digital pal just asked what my favorite dining/drinking spots, $ to $$$$, might be. And of course the answers would take more than 140 characters. And of course I couldn’t just send her here because my site is a bit dusty, which is an ass-saving way of saying downright neglected. Now I’m motivated, even though I have to quote my consort’s response whenever he was asked, back when he was on the road nine months of the year for National Geographic et al: Favorite city? The next one.

So. I haven’t gotten around to writing why RedFarm was my choice in early November for what could have been my last meal. The cooking and service are unsettlingly close to perfect every time we go. Pro tip: Stick to the dim sum and appetizers and you will eat extremely well for just $$ and not $$$$. We also find ourselves at the Mermaid Inn almost too often since it expanded and added soundproofing. Happy hour is even more of a deal for surprisingly creative cooking. (I can make a meal of the crab cake appetizer.)

We are also devotees of $ Jin Ramen, although I always get the rice bowl with beef rather than the namesake bellybuster. We like $$ Saravanaas in Curry Hill for the thali and the dosa and the atmosphere (uptown? not so much). Great New York Noodletown in Chinatown ($) never lets us down, either, but Hunan House in Flushing is vaut le $$ voyage for atmosphere as well as a great menu.

I always like Baker & Co. in the West Village after a movie because it’s good and quiet and $$. We usually get a good meal (prosciutto-arugula pizza for me, inevitably) with very cheap wine at Fairway’s upstairs cafe. We like the Smith, too, even though it’s loud and it’s not at all cheap — it delivers in a restaurant what nearby New York Look promises in clothing. Because of the peeps behind it, I like Toloache in any of its locations although, again, the appetizers deliver more than the mains for a lower tab. I could happily eat at least once at week at Momofuku Noodle Bar, the best duck dealer going.

But this all makes me realize how big this city is and how small the world is.

I think the birthday night we cabbed home from Le Bernardin and reflected that we (or one of us) could have flown to Paris for the same amount I’d just paid for dinner was sobering, because we almost never go out for fancy anymore. We’re much more interested in places like the awesome Fung Tu, or the Musket Room, where we’ve had perfectly splendiferous meals for less than a month’s maintenance.

Because Twitter is not the room for an altercation, I didn’t ask why my pal was asking about restos. But she has made me confirm something. The $$$$ is no longer about the food. It’s the experience. I went to a media event the other night at one of New York’s Finest and was kinda stunned by how bustling the place was, how mixed the crowd was, how lively the whole mood was. But the food just struck me as safe. And I wasn’t even paying.

New York minutes, scattered

Pizza Beach on the Upper East Side has many attractions: a cool setting with oversized color sand-and-water photos on the walls; a jazzy menu; unusually melanin-rich front-of-the-house representation. But I think we liked it best for the birth-control ad down the banquette. We got there crazy-early on a Sunday evening for reasons too depressing to discuss, and we walked in realizing it would all be kiddles. But the hostess seated us at a boothette in the back and things were fine till one of those unhappy rich families who are all alike walked in. It was not as bad as babbies on a plane, but it was annoying when the 2-something went ballistic. Luckily, they moved on soon. And our shared Tuscan kale salad turned out to be outstanding, with the julienned leaves interspersed with pickled red onions and grana padano in a mustard-seed vinaigrette. And while the crust on our pizza did make you want to leave the bones behind (more Piadina than Marta), the topping was sensational, with thick cheese, a generous paving of peppery “salumi” slices and a lavish sprinkling of microgreens to give the illusion of vegetables. The wine list was impressive as well, with 40 wines for $40 and a fair number of those available by the glass for $10 (Falanghina for me, Nero d’Avola and Barbera for Bob). WIGB? Absolutely. Although I have to take points off for the hostess denying us a four-top in the window because she was holding it for a bigger party. We walked past it on the way out to see it sitting just as we had on the way in: Empty.

And now I’m repeating myself: Once upon a time we would have been thrilled to find ourselves just a block or so away from Roberta’s at lunchtime when we could probably have walked right in. But now that you can pass a pizza oven by that name anywhere in Manhattan, the exotic allure dims a bit. Which is how we would up going back to Northeast Kingdom on our outing to “East Williamsburg” aka Bushwick to drop off a chair to be reupholstered. Nothing else in the neighborhood seemed inspired, and we knew this would be good. From the super-peppery bloody mary to the smooth coffee the place delivered, yet again. Bob’s fried chicken sandwich, with a crunchy crust and juicy meat set off against shredded cabbage, probably outdid my burger, which, for all its gilding with mushroom duxelles and caramelized onion, was just okay beef slightly overcharred. The fries with it were fine, though, and Bob’s greens were perfectly dressed. The waitress was superb, and our booth came with a sidewalk view of the exotic street.

That night we had a flawless meal, yet again, at Baker & Co. in the West Village, where we met a friend in from Veneto who wanted to eat light. It was a Monday, so the place was quiet and empty, which was perfect for talking even in the glassed-in garden. As always, the ricotta-garlic spread for the bread started the dinner right. My salad was a marvel of flavors and textures, with tender kale and a showering of ricotta salata over roasted delicata squash rings, with toasted almonds and tahini in the dressing. Bob and Diego had the roast chicken with truffle-garlic fries, as great as it’s always been. And Diego was impressed by the Italian red. The occupant of the fourth chair, in from the Outer Banks, had a pizzetta and a beer and seemed satisfied as well. Beyond the food and service, it’s such a perfect spot pricewise.

And here some notes from various receipts on my cluttered desk: BEA in Hell’s Kitchen proved to be the perfect place for a good 18 people to gather for a drink after a showing of the very moving “Overburden” at CUNY — our reserved area was quiet enough for talking, the servers were superb at running separate checks and the wine was both decent and affordable. Wisely, we did not order any food. Elizabeth’s, the neighborhood standby we keep swearing off, sucked us back in on a sidewalk-cafe evening over the summer; the white was fine and my Cobb salad what it always is. But Bob was loving his lamb burger until he found a sheet of paper in the middle of it. I guess it was the liner between patties, but it was gross. They took the $18 charge off the bill, but still. And I shouldn’t have wasted 10 months waiting to write about the Empire Diner, because the Buffalo skate wings were pretty great the night we lucked into a table. But now they are no longer on the menu since the chef left. It was a “WIGB? Nope” anyway.

Taco & beer or rosé & tomato bread?

Do not get between a platter of beautifully composed sushi and a bunch of sports reporters at a US Open pre-opening tasting. Half of them will be jockeying to videograph the static stuff and the rest will be serving themselves with both hands. And when you finally figure out that this is one big wedding reception, where the best table is closest to the kitchen, they will have locusted through all the fancy fare. You will be settling for what you always envisioned as stadium fud, gut-busting indulgences like portobello fries and bratwurst re-presented as art on a skewer with a round of soft pretzel and a squiggle of mustard.

I blame myself for not asking about the rules of the game, though. After the half-hour-long BS intro with the “celebrity guest chefs,” I put my bladder before my stomach and wasted time walking half a mile to the closest bathroom while the pros were staking out tables and grabbing seats where the wine and cocktails and high-end tidbits would be served first. I didn’t realize the goal was to snare a chair immediately and dig into whatever the waiters were passing.

On the plus side, I finally chose a table that turned out to be occupied by a couple of producers from a local teevee station — and those are always guaranteed to be both the most experienced and the most gregarious guests.

Great lesson one: Charm the waiter. After just two “I love you” encounters with one overburdened carrier, our table leader had him sneaking her not just the chicken tinga taco our table had been deprived of but a glass of red to accompany the sliver of bone-in tomahawk rib-eye only she was able to cadge.

Great lesson two: Traditions matter. Our table leader pointed out that you got to keep the “glass” (plastic) if you took the sponsored cocktail; last year she amassed nine. Because I don’t have enough crap in my kitchen, I got in line to garner one, right alongside an Argentine sportswriter who wanted his refilled because this was his 10th Open and he actually had enough crap. (Hope he understands it was genuine curiosity and not Cougarism that led me to inquire where he stays on so many trips to such an expensive city. “With friends” was good enough.)

So was the food worth the schlep on four trains to the Mets-Willets Point stop (which has, incidentally, the first working bathrooms I’ve ever seen in a subway)? Michael White’s squid ink cassarecci was extraordinary, the pasta perfectly cooked and its dark flavor amplified by tiny bits of shrimp, scallops and squid, with a garlicky dusting of mollica for crunch (someone should do a story on how great that Italian garnish is). That composition was worthy of Marea. Unfortunately, I missed his lobster-topped burrata and his tomahawk steak (wary of feedlot beef, I did pass on his steak tartare).

Mantuano-of-Spiaggia’s avocado toast was also sensational, with pistachios for crunch and pickled serranos for heat, and his “tomato bread,” a soft slice also topped with Manchego and serrano ham, also delivered great flavor. (I passed on his flaming ouzo shrimp.)

I don’t eat chicken, so I didn’t mind not scoring Richard Sandoval’s tinga taco, and I missed his Maya chopped salad with steak (see beef wariness above) and chayote, which I later would see described as “a type of Central American cucumber” — take that, mirlitons!  Otherwise, what I snared was more like those portobello fries (tempuraed, BTW), a bready mini crab cake and over-grilled tuna about which everyone kept asking “what is it?” To be fair, salmon crudo had a pretty presentation, while the US Open Signature Lobster Roll was overstuffed, although the “spicy” flavor of the Louis dressing that was either promised or threatened proved to be imperceptible.

One amusing thing was that the chefs were subjected to the usual trite questions in the introduction beforehand (“what’s the best thing you’ve ever tasted?”), and of course grilled cheese came up and reverse snobbery rained down. All said it needs to be down-and-dirty, made with American “cheese” and cooked in the grease on a griddle so it takes on the flavor of whatever went before. (So much for “Chef”’s after-the-credits demo.) But later there were two types on offer, one made with Gouda, herb butter and bacon and the other with New York Cheddar and New Hampshire Landaff. And the sports types went nuts, one yelping “Jesus” as he tried to get through the scrum around a waiter.

The whole event reminded me of many in Italy that were sponsored by the local government. So I guess it wasn’t surprising that the cappuccino I finished with had “Lavazza for US Open” spelled out in dark chocolate on the foam.

Two last notes: I did hear a new line, after all these decades, after the inevitable “what do you cook at home?” was asked of the “celebrities.” Michael White: “That’s like asking a postman if he wants to take a walk at the end of his shift.” And I now think every chef who feels star-bound to show up in whites should take a fashion cue from Morimoto (my photo was even lamer).

WIGB, though? Yep. If only for the smug privilege of being media and avoiding the metal detectors the regular people had to walk through, here in the freedomest country in the world.

New York minute

My new/old goal is to clean off my desk and clear up my life (or vice versa), so here is a report on an encore at Bustan, on the Upper West Side, to which my consort and a friend and I resorted on a sweltering night after seeing a line out the door at the new, “downtownesque” Jin Ramen after the extraordinary “Wolfpack.” We were thrilled to get a table in the backyard garden even though the fan aimed in our direction was soon headed toward youngs. And the service was quite good, which meant we soon were tearing into the superb mazettim (taramasalata, hummus, smoked eggplant spread for $16) with the excellent flatbread that of course required reordering. Gummy-fried calamari, however, was Bottom Line-level and the felafel I insisted we order was fried-dry and unredeemed by the chutneyesque sauce with it. WIGB, though? Undoubtedly. Those spreads and that garden are quite a seductive combo. We blew through two bottles of verdejo like water, however, and paid $54 a head.