Archive for July, 2014

New York minute

July 2014

Sometimes I humor my consort on the rare weekend he’s in town and insists there is life beyond the tell-me-more Internets. Which is how we wound up, on a Sunday afternoon last spring, at the Studio Museum of Harlem, for one of its always-worth-the-journey/show-not-tell “3D is better than digital” exhibitions. The walk home was a revelation, since we took it down Frederick Douglass Boulevard — thanks to my online research into what we might find on this forced exile from Twitter/FB virtual heroin. And that stroll led not just to an actual story produced for cash money, plus a video for a few bucks more, but to expanded restaurant horizons.

We stopped at every one of the many eating opportunities we passed to check out the menu, but at Vinateria we were so taken by the space and the actually-hostessing hostess that we came back not long afterward for dinner. And if the cooking was only one step beyond what I would consider restaurant-school level, the whole experience would have rated a resounding yes to the old WIGB question. Which is why we just headed there straightaway after a stressful day when I needed to decompress and Bob wanted a good walk to/from dinner. Barely over a mile from our own kitchen I got new respect for restaurant-school cooking/conceptualizing.

The first time we split hmm-good fried artichoke hearts with lemon-”anchovie” dipping sauce, then I had respectable duck confit and Bob hoovered up very good chicken breast. We sat in a corner table in the front with a great view of both the street and the room, and the service was exemplary even though it took us several tries to get a bottle ready to drink (after the first were out, the next was not chilled). If I had come straight home and asked that old question, I would have said yes for the setting and proximity as much as the food.

But on this latest visit we scored a sidewalk table, the perfect place to watch one of the great evolving neighborhoods on promenade. Eating there really is like few other places in Manhattan, a harmonious scene that would scare the Pampers off most of the wingnuts out in “real” America. No wonder Harlem Shambles saw more potential there than over in the Nineties on Amsterdam.

As for the food, it was a night for bacon balls (croquettes, officially), which were almost liquid inside but with the richness offset by the mustardy swiping sauce. Bob had that chicken again, for all of $18, and the creamy mashed potatoes and pickled-tasting onions with it only amplified the juicy/crisp meat. I was looking for light and ordered the flatbread topped with brandade, which was Goldilocks-right and even better next morning. (The Cat agreed.)

Wine was a $42 bottle of Spanish rosé. Service was superb. The street show? Mesmerizing. Walking the 23 blocks home, I decided they should change the name of Frederick Douglass Boulevard to Central Park West Extended Northward. And noted that there are no restrictions on food & drink businesses once you get past that defunct gas station at 110th Street.

New York minutes

July 2014

All through “Chef” I kept wondering where in holy hell we would go eat afterward. Between the food and the philosophy onscreen, there was no way we were going to, as my consort put it, risk a crappy Cubano. Luckily, the theater was only blocks from Momofuku Ssam, so we trotted there even though it was a Saturday night and seats might be lacking. Within five minutes of walking in, we were ensconced at the bar and ordering a food-friendly pinot bianco and a Gin No. 3 (with apricot, Campari and lemon). And of course the food was perfection. In my most fat-obsessed delirium I would never conceive of pairing tempura softshell crab with pimento cheese and sesame seeds, but the diced green tomatoes offset the potential overkill. Then, the kimchi was so pungent I could forgive the Mason jar it was served in (as I’ve often said: only those raised prosperous can appreciate that presentation). The Buffalo pork buns were outstanding, the fat crispy and enhanced by both hot sauce and blue cheese. And the seafood hot pot was so sublime, with a coconut-sambal brodo floating rice cakes and killer kohlrabi, that I ate it even though it contained human-of-the-sea. WIGB? The new double feature would be “Chef” and Chang, any day.

A few times, after dropping a hundred bucks at the Greenmarket or having a couple of $15 lobster rolls at Luke’s, my consort and I stopped to check out the menu of the newish Bustan, on Amsterdam Avenue, and always decided it was too pricy to bother with. But I kept reading about it and hearing about it and finally suggested it to friends from the neighborhood who wanted to meet up somewhere different. Another friend had warned me she didn’t think it was worth the money, and the wine was really pricy, but then she admitted she’s “cheaper and fussier” than we are. So the four of us ignored her and agreed to meet up for an early dinner. They got there at 6:30 and were warned the table would have to be surrendered by 7:45, which is always annoying, but that was enough time to decide the buzz was justified.

We only shared small plates rather than springing for entrées in the high $20s. Len wanted beef cheeks, but I noticed they were an option on the hummus bowl for only $18. And it was outstanding hummus and very tender meat. The “mazettim” we chose were fine tzatziki and good smoked eggplant spread and amazing spicy Moroccan turnips, easily the best turnips I’ve ever eaten. Falafel were superb as well, perfectly crunchy outside and just soft enough on the green inside, and they came with both tahini and a pickled mango sauce for dipping; the latter was killer, like liquid chutney. A “popover” stuffed with lump crab, spinach, feta and leeks was more like a puff pastry box; the combination sounded over the top but tasted fine quartered. And the roasted beet salad was a nice toss of kale, pomegranate, shaved fennel, celery, pine nuts and, the nicest touch, grilled halloumi. Both the mazettim and the hummus were supposed to come with house-made focaccia, but we only got one loaf and were charged for the second one we requested. One of those little things that piss you off. Still, WIGB? Absolutely. A bottle of Provencal rosé was $42, which now seems reasonable. And aside from the bum’s rush, the service was fine, and the place is attractive. The stylish crowd I’d read about, however, must have been home watching the World Cup that night . . . .

Another New York minute

July 2014

Trying to force myself to realize a documentation of a thousand eating experiences can start with one post. So let this one be about our most recent Sunday outing to Flushing to connect with our Asian-eating/eating-Asian group, at a new spot specializing in Henan cooking. I deliberately do no research before jumping on the C train to the 7 train because a little knowledge can be a disruptive thing when the Lazy Susan leaders can speak and read Cantonese and have scoped out our destinations so smartly. And I keep my mouth shut except for regular infusions of hot tea as the ringleaders suss out the menu and decide on the order. Or, in this case, the over-order. For once we were at two tables (14 of us) and decided doubling up on everything was fairest. I cringed, especially when the waiter volunteered in English: “It’s too much food.” And he was right, but we still got away for the usual $20 a head (with generous tip).

The blowaway dish was the one I once would have vetoed because it was built on a nasty bird, but the “big plate chicken”/”chicken with special sauce” was fabulous, the leading flavor indicator being the star anise pods strewn over the top. I tasted the NB, which was great for NB, but it was the deep red sauce and the sublime noodles that pushed this over the top. Everyone asked for rice to sop up the sauce, but the smartest move was requesting more fresh noodles. Having just been to the food show, where everyone fantasizes about coming up with a liquid moneymaker, I’d say someone should start bottling this stuff ASAP.

I passed on the “sautéed chicken tripe with hot pepper” and tasted only enough of the “lamb soup with breast” to feel sickened (lamb is my deer meat). But the lamb-braised noodles were palatable to me and scarfed by everyone else. I also was underwhelmed  by the steamed whole tilapia despite the expert cooking — mud is mud to me. But the “stir-fried lecture” (crisp greens with wood-ear mushrooms) was outstanding and the braised tofu in brown sauce way better than it had any right to be. Pork dumplings with Chinese cabbage, landing too late in the rotation, were nicely executed but very bland, even with vinegar splashed on. And by the time the “wok vegetables” arrived, complete with meatballs in a stellar sauce, everyone looked over-satiated. That broth was amazing, though. WIGB? Absolutely, but only with someone who could communicate with the chef (in his coat emblazoned “celebrity chef”) and servers. While there are slick photos of the specialties festooning the walls, it really would be hard to know how to order. The place does not even have a name in English either on the sign or on the takeout menu (which does, however, list numbers for everything from Emergency to Public Housing Application, all those resources given in Chinese characters). 40-26 Union Street, 718 353 2816. Open daily.