Archive for March, 2012

New York minutes/Mid-March 2012

March 2012

The great (expedition): Four Brooklyn destinations my consort and I trekked to after a Tweetresponse by one of my followers to a request for suggestions on where to eat after the Greenmarket at Grand Army Plaza. As we told Ray Bradley, we had to come to him since he has not turned up at our market this year, and Blue Moon was back in biz after the winter off, so it was all vaut le voyage even though we only bought spinach and potatoes and a couple of apples beyond the meat/eggs/fish (oh, and a cider doughnut, too). I jokingly suggested we should eat pizza, then roti, then tacos, then ice cream, and Bob actually took me seriously. So we set off to Barboncino, just down Eastern Parkway from the market, for an outstanding pizza with artichoke hearts and pancetta, plus a glass of rosé on that premature spring day for me and a Crushed Velvet for Bob after he saw a single guy indulging at the bar. The combination of Chambord, prosecco and chocolate stout was about as close as you could get to a fortified beer to go with that great pizza. Add in superb service and an atmospheric room and I’d give an immediate yes to WIGB. From there Bob and his iPhone mapped the other suggestions from our digi-guide, so we set off first to Gueros for a good fried avocado-and-jalapeño taco and an even better house-made chorizo-with-potato taco for all of $8.05 with tip. The former was flawed by the gummy flour tortilla but redeemed by the jalapeño buttermilk transforming the winter tomatoes; the latter had a fascinating cinnamon undertone but otherwise finally converted Bob to the church of fresh corn tortillas. The place is minuscule, and loud, but the people could not be nicer, or the water drinkier if you choose not to indulge in the beer or tequila making the walls reverberate. Afterward we headed to Ample Hills Creamery, a rug-rat-infested shop with the most charming counter staff, one of whom jokingly said he could not sell a child-size portion of the salty crack caramel to us. And that super-caramely, very un-sugary scoop (for $2.30) did turn out to be the better of the two adult flavors, the “nutty nuts” being overwhelmed by chocolate. (My mom always made a “burnt-sugar” cake about once a year that I have never been able to replicate; this came close.) I just wonder what the owner takes to keep from having his cranium blow up with all the kids onboard. Then, finally, we trekked to Brklyn Larder, recommended for sandwiches, even though all we needed at this point was coffee (Bob gave it about a B-). The shop is pretty cool, to the point that it struck me as the model for the new Gastronomie 491 in our neighborhood. But we got away with just Taza chocolate for $4, on sale from $6, and a ginger-molasses cookie for the studio manager left behind while we gorged. Walking back to the 2 train, we talked about what four places of equal quality in our neighborhood we would recommend to a Brooklynite. And I have to say short is what we came up on . . .

The bad: Vai on the Upper West Side, where we headed for an early Monday dinner after passing it and reading the menu, and where we walked out wishing we had gone for the Social Media password at Mermaid Inn yet again. The place looks great, with Recipe aesthetics but a larger room, and the people were hospitable almost to the point of obsequious. But the fud. Jeebus. We walked out feeling we’d dodged a tank on the chef’s regular tasting menu, let alone on the $79 “10 course spontaneous menu.” The hamachi and yellowfin tuna crudo with avocado and preserved ginger went down passively enough. But my “burrata ravioli, truffle cream, ‘parmiggiano’” added up to white slime — superb cheese lost in bland richness. And once Bob sliced into his “roasted double cut pork chop,” there was no talk of the “caramelized onion agre-dolce sauce,” only sadness at how plastic the meat tasted (the $18 price tag on a menu more aligned in the $20s to $30s should been a clue: not heritage). Wine was also overpriced for what it was. WIGB? Not on a bet.

Oh, and this.

New York minutes/Early March 2012

March 2012

The good: Northern Spy Food Co. in the East Village, where my consort and I finally made our way after contemplating it many times for Saturday lunch but always being dissuaded by the brunch focus (AKA eggs). This was early Monday dinner, so we were able to walk in and get a table in the cramped dining room; it filled up fast. I was worried the food would be too much like eating at home, since we both source from the same Greenmarket, but the menu had lots of twists. We started with $7 bluefish rillettes that, luckily, did not taste too much of bluefish and came with great garlic toasts plus pickled onions to cut the richness. Then both of us just had outsized starters, of which only the $12 kale salad was underwhelming; as Bob said, it was a bit of a slog, with nothing to break up the greens but bits of sweet potato, almonds, Cheddar and pecorino. File it under negative calories. A little acid would have helped. But the $12 farro and egg, with rye, sunchokes and cured lamb belly, was clever, and the $14 crispy potato gnocchi with sage and brown butter was superb, even though I don’t care if I ever eat a Brussels sprout again. We also split an order of duck-fat fries with malted spiced yogurt, and they were amazing, big wedges with no funky duck flavor and great baked-potato-type texture inside. We almost never order dessert, but we felt on such a roll we forged on with the $7 honey mousse with parsnip cake and poached pear. And it was okay but maybe not intended for the tastes of recovering Catholics. Wines by the glass came in tumblers, which I generally hate, but at least they paired perfectly with the food. WIGB? Absolutely. It’s like Brooklyn without crossing the water.

The great: Hunan House in Flushing, where three of us with smoked duck on the brain headed for St. Patrick’s Day lunch on a shopping outing and where the whole experience was worth braving the drunken O’Snookis on the train there and back. Everything we ordered was perfect if you don’t count the soup dumplings mistakenly delivered to the table next to us, where a bunch of young guys were obviously inhaling their lunch mindlessly. The smoked duck was as spectacular as we remembered, very tender and flavorful, with just enough crispiness to the skin. Fresh tofu with scallion sauce came in cubes as a cooling counterpoint to the mustard greens Hunan style, with slivered garlic and chilies, and especially to the platter of blue crabs in super-spicy sauce, which our friend spotted as a photo on the menu, with only Chinese characters and a price listed. Each dish had nuance and intensity and no greasiness. Aside from the dumpling glitch, the service was great (the waiter made it clear we should not try the “stinky tofu” but stick with the fresh). And the whole place is so pleasant, so very different from Chinatown. WIGB? We could become regulars. With tax and tip, the tab was all of $60. 137-40 Northern Boulevard, 718 353 1808.

DC represents

March 2012

The train to Washington was rolling hell, with me trapped between a family with three noisy young kids and a texting-ignorant businessguy braying out all the dirt on his Newark deal, but the ride back was bliss, with almost no one in the quiet car, WiFi all the way and a luminous lopsided moon out the window. And the difference reflected how my attitude improved in just 36 hours. I saw a whole other side of the city and realized I have never hung out with people who choose to live there; I mostly know exiles from New York, there only for the job. Money has changed everything (except the restaurant situation across the Anacostia River), and it’s a much livelier place — it’s had to believe this was once a city where you would eat heavy French food in a stuffy dining room surrounded by fat cats drinking bourbon.

I was a guest for dinner at Lima, so I’ll be gratefully gracious. Spicy tuna sushi was spicy, and my steak was perfectly cooked. Afterward I was treated to palak chaat and a glass of gruner at the crowded bar at Rasika, the Indian restaurant everyone raves about, and the fried spinach assemblage was lighter than I’d ever had. (I was less impressed by the assholes next to me, a rowdy young couple on about their 16th cocktail who were surely only going to rent the food they finally ordered. At least thanks to them I know what “heads” make — about $60,000 — and that they get profit-sharing.)

I had breakfast (respectable student-baked croissant and scone) and lunch (restaurant samples of clam chowder from Ris, hummus from Lebanese Taverna, spring roll and dumpling from Hollywood East Cafe) at the Dames event out in what friends said was the boonies, then I hitched a ride back into town and walked through the Eastern Market. Which seemed smaller since the fire a few years back but had some great stalls with things I don’t see every day, particularly turkey transformed into pork (ribs, chops etc.) The produce outside, though, made me respect the Greenmarkets here even more for having principles. The day was so weirdly warm that the cherry blossoms and dogwoods are already in full bloom (nice habitat we had here; a shame we chose to ruin it), but it was still weird to see corn on the cob, watermelons, berries and more 10 days before spring even begins.

I knocked back an acceptable iced coffee (with only half-and-half to lighten it, no milk) at Port City Java, where you have to use a gas station-type key to avail yourself of the facilities (at least the ladies room was reasonably clean if not papered). And then I met up with my young genius friend to walk and walk to dinner at Bibiana, which was recommended by no fewer than four people in person and on Twitter. One slipped me her card in case I needed it to get a reservation, but Pam just went on Open Table and we were sitting down at a window table in that dramatic room shortly after 6 (after rejecting a cramped one on a banquette; as always, couples get first dibs on prime seating).

As I suspect I’ve mentioned many times, Italian is the least exciting style of cooking for me (I can’t even call it a cuisine), so I would have been happy settling for one or two twists on classics. But this menu was blowaway, and that was before the charming waiter came over to describe the specials: baby fried eels and a pasta with eel (if we heard right) and bottarga. We shared the dates stuffed with foie gras mousse and topped with crisp spiced almond slices, which Pam was seduced by online, and then one of the most amazing assemblages I’ve encountered in donkey’s years: a “45-minute egg,” poached sous vide, I’m guessing, topped with sautéed wild mushrooms and a crunchy mushroom “crumble” and teamed with a puree made from three kinds of dried mushrooms, reconstituted and blended to silkiness. Conceptually, texturally and flavor-wise I’d give it an A+. The egg was just runny enough to bring all the elements together, and the potato focaccia was perfect for mopping them up.

All the pastas read well and sounded better when the CW described how they were put together. Pam’s “burnt-wheat” cavatelli arrived looking like a salad, with a shower of Tuscan kale and shredded pecorino over the pasta and the coffee-fennel sausage with it. My cannelloni stuffed with braised beef seemed a bit dried out, but I blame us for taking too long with the appetizers while catching up on Pam’s new life in exile. (She likened them to sliders, her favorite.)

Prices were amazing, too: $8 for the four dates, $12 for that egg, $17 and $19 for our pastas. And the wine list was also a deal, to the point that I didn’t mind my Ceretto arneis was not the usual marvelousness — a quartino was only $17. By the time we were ready to haul ass to retrieve my bag at the hotel nearby and speed to Union Station, the place was packed and the CW had gone AWOL. But WIGB? Absolutely. I’ve even persuaded my consort maybe we should make a pleasure trip back just to eat at a few more places from the same owners.

New York minute/End of February 2012

March 2012

The good again: Loi on the Upper West Side, where my consort and I headed after passing up the great vittles at OSF at a showing of his short film on forced sterilization in Namibia and where everything combined to create the perfect reconnection point after his five days’ shooting on the road in Middle Earth. The hostesses gave us a great table for three where we could sit side by side, the usual plethora of freebies landed right away (stuffed grape leaves, yogurt/olive oil spread and three types of excellent warm bread) and the waiter was unperturbed when we only ordered wine by the glass and three small plates rather than any of the main courses running high-$20s into the $30s. Stuffed eggplant was exquisite, compensating for the calamari ribbons with pistachios that seemed a bit old and chewy. And the Greek salad by a fancier name was as satisfying as always despite the anemic rock-hard tomatoes — composition is good for the soul. Bonus points for a low din level and an exuberant Ms. Loi stopping by to compliment me on my scarf and talk up the menu. Who cared that we were surrounded by olds? I suspect we looked the same to them. WIGB? Absolutely, and not least because they packed up the last couple of slices of cucumber and the feta plus half the squid in a kittybag: omelet filling made to order. 208 West 70th Street.