Archive for April, 2013

New York minutes/Mid-April 2013

April 2013

The pretty good: La Camelia in the West Village, where my consort and I trotted after two friends’ opening at Leica Gallery after regretting passing it up despite a Twitter recommendation a few nights before. Outsized tequila bottles in the window made me fear for my ears, but we got a table in the window and had no problem talking, not least because the place never filled more than halfway. (Having Cantina Loco* a couple of blocks away must hurt.) The room is really quite lovely, and the waiter actually addressed me as both Milady and Madame. I just had a chorizo quesadilla, with low expectations, but it arrived in four wedges laid out over deflamed sliced onions with a bit of tomato and cilantro, and it was excellent for $10. Bob finally got his wish of mixed fillings for his $16 plate of tacos — chicken, mushroom, chorizo — so who cared that the beans and rice had apparently bypassed the flavor filling station? His margaritas were exemplary, my Chilean sauvignon blanc worth $8 a glass. WIGB? Absolutely, especially given the proximity to Film Forum.

*Oops. Cantina Loco’s a few hundred miles away. I meant Toro Blanco, of course. And wonder if I will miss my mind when it’s fully gone . . .

The half-good: Murray’s Cheese Bar in the West Village, where we headed with two friends after the turgid and narcissistic “Before and After Dinner” on Andre Gregory at Film Forum. And may I just ask why restaurants pay OpenTable to show a place fully committed when you can call and get a reservation and then spend your entire evening looking at a half-empty dining room? Late for our 7:30 phone booking, we had a choice of two big tables in the front and eventually managed to figure out hear each other speak despite the din. Our first shared dish, a kale Caesar, was faultless. Our second, the macaroni and cheese I’d balked at, was above average, not least because it was so creamy and the onions atop it such a smart counterpoint. Chorizo chili came with tortilla chips, so it was like a chunky queso fundido, and a fine one at that. (Each little dish was $12.) I balked at ordering a cheese board to start because it seemed so stupid when a fully stocked store was just a couple of doors down, but I was glad we gave in for a bit more sustenance for the last course. Naturally the torta del casar etc. were in peak condition, and each was paired with a fruity/acidic counterpoint. Breads and flatbreads also merit an A, as did the two bottles of cheapest-on-the-list red. The demerits? The server was just slightly smarter than rennet. She obviously couldn’t tell chevre from Shinola (and was clearly blowing wine words out her fanny). Which would be tolerable. But we’re talking cheese here. Still, WIGB? Probably, but to sit at the bar.

New York minutes/March into April 2013

April 2013

The good: Mighty Quinn’s BBQ in the East Village, again, where my consort and I headed for an early-bird Saturday supper after a great screening of a friend’s shorts at Anthology Film Archive and where the availability of only beer was easier to swallow since we had just tried Fairway’s private-label prosecco. We were lucky to wander in and take our slow time ordering so that we snared a table and were soon making a mess of the super-tender ribs, with their crusty spicing, and the meltingly fatty slabs of smoky brisket. Both came with good coleslaw and pickled onions, red jalapeños, cucumbers and celery, the acid cutting the richness. WIGB? As Bob said: “Hill Country is good. This might be better.”

The seriously good: Lao Chengdu in Flushing, where we hooked up on a Sunday with our eating-Asian/Asian-eating group for an especially satisfying expedition through yet another particular subset of Chinese and where the seating arrangement turned out to be the most ideal since our virgin outing, to the now-vanished Excellent Thai. Nine of us fit around a big table in the back of the small dining room, with a Lazy Susan (an amenity rarer than you might think out there), so we could easily both share and talk. Both of which we did with abandon. I should have written this as soon as we got back off the three trains it took to get from there, but I do recall the spicy beef tendon was so sensational I tried a second piece despite knowing what it was — the slices were parchment-thin and beautifully seasoned. Wontons in red chili sauce seemed more predictable but well-executed, while thousand-year eggs tasted great but kind of creeped me out, between the camo color and the Jell-O-y texture. Tiger-skin peppers were as Russian roulette-like as shisitos or padrons: some incendiary, some tame. We had great pork belly with green vegetable and Sichuan chicken with peppers and, most amazing, a house special of “steamed pork” teamed with mushy peas, almost like a Chinese interpretation of a timballo with meat instead of rice or pasta. I know there was  a great green vegetable, and beautifully presented if slightly syrupy whole fish with “pine seeds,” and a fish soup with chunks of tomato. I think that was on the house, along with a dessert of a sweet soup afloat with what tasted like rice balls along with maraschino cherries. WIGB? Absolutely, but only in a big group to taste as much as possible (the bill was so ridiculously low we each chipped in $20 and wound up leaving a 50 percent tip). 37-17 Prince Street, 718 886 5595.

The historically good: Grand Central Oyster Bar, where Bob and I headed after the first part of a weekday daytime date, at the Nick Cave Heard NY performance of dancing “horses” and where the whole experience was the same as it ever was. We found seats at the counter, were instantly handed the big menu and the lunch special cheat sheet, got water and warm roll and cold flatbread with butter and, after perusing the insanely long and inventive list of specials ($39.95 softshells, $31.95 grouper), ordered what we always do: the $11.95 oyster pan roast and a $10.15(cq) crab cake sandwich, plus a glass of riesling to share because everyone else was drinking at just-on noon. The former dish is one the many decades could never improve, with richness countered by a bit of heat and a hunk of toast and a generous portion of oysters not quite cooked in the hot cream. And the sandwich was a plain thing, with cocktail sauce served alongside rather than tartar, and rather too much good bun, but the crab cake itself was thick and meaty. Coleslaw alongside helped. WIGB? Of course, and not just to use the facilities, among the most old-school in all of Manhattan.

The good to my untrained palate: Malay Restaurant in Flushing, another destination booked by our Asian-eating/eating-Asian group, where we crowded around a tight table to indulge in a cuisine with which none of us could claim to be expert. We were there for the Haianese dishes, though, and they were all good, such as the chicken and the rice. Roti canai proved to be a fine rendition, and I only wish we had ordered four, not just three, to share. Beef rendang was also excellent, with big tender chunks of well-sauced/spiced meat. Popiah, translated as Malaysian spring roll, was a big hunk of great flavors, the soft slices meant for dunking in a spicy sauce. I liked the fruity Indian rojak salad better than the Malaysian interpretation, which was just too funky-powerful with fish sauce. Judging by the scribbles on a takeout menu we took out, we also had kang kung belachun, a good water spinach, and “fried pearl noodles.” (Guess I’d better go back to shooting my meal.) Everyone got most excited over the durian-red bean shaved ice and ABC shaved rice, both weirdly wonderful (the latter had corn kernels in it, although none could say why). WIGB? Maybe. It was all satisfying, but I’d do more homework before any encore.

The good for the first time: Gran Electrica in Dumbo, where we had the good sense to reserve for after an enlightening presentation on food rackets in NYC at the Brooklyn Historical Society and where we were able to walk right in and get a table in a packed place for shared small plates. The crab tostada, with peekytoe meat, grapefruit, orange, cilantro, onion, avocado and habanero, was close to mind-blowing, the corn tortilla pliable enough to cut into wedges but crisp enough to support each perfectly balanced bite of the topping. I got tricked into trying the lengua taco after Bob insisted the server must have made a mistake and brought beef because it was so tender. Nope. He slipped me tongue. (And it was sensational, but jeebus, I don’t need to eat that.) I was busy with my chorizo con papas quesadilla, an excellent balance of fat and starch. His margarita also made him happy (as I was with a taste). I do like a menu that lists purveyors first, too. WIGB? Absolutely, but as much for the hospitality as the fine food. Everyone we came in contact with seemed genuinely happy to serve us.

The good for the third time: Toloache 82 on the Upper East Side, where we rewarded ourselves with Saturday lunch after the outstanding AIPAD show at the Park Avenue Armory and where the cramped little dining room where we were seated was redeemed by the service and sublime food. I had the huarache again, with just the right balance of chorizo and cheese to masa, beans and egg, but Bob scored with the pork pozole, a splendid bowlful of corn, meat and chilies that was paired with a world-class black bean tostada and came with a little tray of seasonings, including chile salt. WIGB? Yep. As always, I walked out thinking you can never go wrong at a Julian Medina joint. Cooks and servers are all on the same happy professional program.

The surprisingly not bad: The Ellington on the Upper West Side, where we headed after one of those days when two people working at home (or one dicking around on the Internets) needed a change of scenery. And that’s all we were expecting, but the food turned out to be vaut le (short) voyage. We split a beet and quinoa salad with goat cheese and walnut vinaigrette that tasted a long way from 106th Street, then I had a $12 flatbread topped with smoked mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and pesto that was fine for dinner, even better for breakfast. And if Bob’s Cumberland sausage and mash was more about the onion gravy and braised red cabbage than the billed meat and potatoes, it was still a nice plate of food for $15 (star ingredient came from Myers of Keswick). We scored a nice table at the window, so there wasn’t much din in our dinner, but we were also there early. WIGB? If it lasts. That corner location does tend to shuffle restaurants in and out.

The good and reliable: Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table, in our neighborhood, where we hooked up on a night after one of us was teaching and the other was dicking around on the Internets and where everything was not just what we wanted but even better, right down to the kittybag. That room always seems so garish from the street but so homy once you sit down, even at the same awkward table you always get. But I always find it encouraging when the server is the same as the last times — consistency is not to be underestimated in a restaurant. Bob ate his fried chicken with many “wows,” and I was just as happy with my Cobb salad, which I ordered partly so I could bring something home to The Cat — the bacon, avocado, blue cheese, tomatoes were all perfectly proportioned against the chicken. WIGB? Why don’t we remember it more often? Bonus points for the kittybag: All our leftovers were actually carefully plated in their plastic takeaway containers.

The regrettable: Amigos on the Upper West Side, where we wandered in after the Greenmarket despite having been warned by my Columbia e-pal and where the food was not the problem. The aftermath was. We were suckered by the lunch menu lying on a table outside, but it turned out we had descended into brunch hell, and huevos do make me nervous when they’re mostly what’s on offer. I wanted to leave immediately, but the host/manager was so professional and friendly and the salsa so lively if weirdly tangy I shut up and ordered $6 black bean soup, which turned out to be better than I expected if oddly rich. Bob succumbed to chicken chicharrone tacos, which were overstuffed with crunchy skin bits with meat attached plus generous guacamole; three of those came with decent black beans and mediocre orange rice for $12. He paid the relatively tiny check and we started walking. And aching. By the time we got home I felt like Mr. Creosote. Whatever they put in that food, it has the bad Indian/Houlihan’s effect. Bob asked first: WYGB? And we agreed. Nope. Average food was not worth the distention. But I do hope someplace better hires away that superb host/manager.

The underwhelming: Buvette in the West Village, where I met two friends for one of those annual-or-so catch-up sessions and where the setting definitely outdid the food. Even at $13, the brandade was no deal — bland would be an overstatement. I kept thinking about the time a French friend and I gave a party together and her BFF Ariane Daguin advised me: “Take the garlic out of the guacamole and put it in the brandade.” Except there was no guacamole to garlic to the rescue. And while I would always prefer a teaspoonful of food to a heaping ladleful, I still thought the portion and presentation were just daintily silly. WIGB? Allow me to blurb: “Buvette was cute but probably too precious to make it a destination again for me.”

Ends and odds: While I was neglecting my updates here, we also had experiences so predictably fine at Fairway Cafe & Mermaid Inn & Luke’s Lobster that they would be soporific to recount. But I do have to note Rainbow Falafel, the most famous stand at least near Union Square, was a downer. If those sandwich assemblers were erecting skyscrapers, every one would collapse. In a hail of hard pink tomato chunks.

A kitchen

April 2013

I promised a very promising chef I would honestly describe the menu he chose when I was treated to a mega-dinner by my hostess while doing my judging boondoggle up to the consort’s hometown. So, belatedly, here goes:

I had not been in a hostage situation since the illegal war began, and my stomach shrank when I saw 12 courses listed, each with a booze pairing. But thanks partly to the lively company and largely to the smart cooking/pouring, I had no Mr. Creosote outcome. And even managed to truncate this recollection:

My definition of breakfast radish is a bit different, but that might be because I live in Frenchytown. The “cultured butter pudding, porcini soil” amuse did elevate the ‘ish on the plate, and more power to all of them.

“Grilled oyster, smoked butter, guanciale, menthol,” however, was the early peak, not just because the Belgian Delirium Tremens beer paired so perfectly with the shock of the chemical mint against the salinity of the oysters. My notes show a garlic poundcake was also involved, and how can you go wrong with that? I knew right then not to eat the second oyster, because next came . . .

“Wagyu tartare, truffled yolk, nasturtium” with St. Michael-Eppan gewurtztraminer from Alto Adige. I dipped a tiny fork in only to see how the red meat went with the white wine and loved the pourmaster noting the difficulty of doing tasting menus when guests think they’re springing for big reds but whites are more suited to the food. With the next course, I learned a new word: Lacon, for lamb bacon. I am neither a lamb nor a scallop person but still enjoyed “seared bay scallop, lacon lentils, pickled ground cherries, sumac yoghurt” with Alsatian pinot Auxerrois from Trapet. Judging by the moans around the table, it was the husk tomatoes that stole the dish, though. The same wine went with the striped bass with calamari, finger limes and shiso, and there the finger limes were stars, as good as the rest of the dish tasted.

Speeding up, as my mind soon did: You can’t go wrong with seared foie gras, not least when it’s laid against wild rice popped like popcorn (and served with Elio Perrone Moscato d’Asti). I’m no lamb fan, as you might have read, but I actually could have finished the tender little chops if four more courses were not headed my way. The meat was beautifully cooked and perfectly matched with Roagna nebbiola. “A traditional ratatouille” with it was pretty wild as well, with the traditional pepper converted into almost a pepper roll-up. I’d be impressed if it landed on my plate closer to home, but this was closer to the boyhood home.

Thank allah our room was only an elevator ride away, because next came “meat butter:” Kobe beef strip steak with molti accoutrements that really didn’t matter because the meat really was so buttery (almost disturbingly so). Although I will give extra points for the smoked potato puree, Robuchon alchemy taken in a different direction.

As an intermezzo, we had a lemon sorbet with pine-scented limoncello (the adjective referring to foraged spruce), then a sliver of intense Winnimere cheese with apricot mostarda and Armagnac paired with a cocktail called Grammas Meds: apple-spiced rum, hot cardamom tea and orange-flower honey. And we all happily scooped up the “aerated Gianduja, blueberry, cured yolk” washed down with Malmsey Madeira, a dessert made for a town that knows from what I keep describing as “a party on a plate.”

I saved the one misstep for last here, not to leave a bad taste but to highlight its ambition. Onion soup really is one of the most misguided traditions, and it deserves reinvention. Reconceiving it as a sort of soup dumpling was pretty clever. Unfortunately, the “croquette” casing was too dense, the brodo inside too thick, the Emmentaler espuma too little, too late. But pairing it with amaro rather than wine cut through the overreach. And the dish illustrated why protracted tasting menus are so seductive for chefs if not diners: When else do kitchen geniuses get to experiment on human guinea pigs with trained palates?

WIGB? Absolutely. Buffalo will only get better as hometown boys migrate back from world-class restaurants to build world-class restaurants.

Mike A’s at Hotel Lafayette