Archive for September, 2014

New York minute/September 2014

September 2014

Playing catch-up (which is different from ketchup, and definitely from ketchup of the mushroom variety): My consort and I had a restore-your-faith-in-eating-out experience at the Musket Room in NoLiTa, after Lou DiPalo’s superb presentation at the Tenement Museum to promote his new book. He was so eloquent on the immigrant experience, which made it that much more seamless to move from the generous tastes of his product line to dinner next to a New Zealand couple in a restaurant with a New Zealand chef and New Zealand wine list. I had been there on the rare assignment with a bit of expense budget and really wanted Bob to experience the smoked scallops, which sound like a gimmick but are actually brilliant, from the presentation (dome whisked off to emit a cloud of smoke) to the expedition through flavors and textures of black garlic and cucumbers and pears. We split another appetizer of quail with the wild-sounding but harmonious accoutrements of blackberries, roasted onions and “bread sauce.” And then the kitchen, when we asked to share, actually split the duck entrée for us. The breast was sous-vide-tender, laid over a sublime carrot purée and paired with halved “Tokyo” turnips and little logs of baby zucchini, both roasted. All that was after the greatness of the bread basket — bacon brioche (eat that, Marie Antoinette), a little sourdough roll and a mini-loaf topped with caraway seeds — all teamed with great butter. The $54 Misha’s Vineyard sauvignon blanc pitched by the sommelier actually made Mr. ABSV happy, too. On top of all that, the restaurant is sleek and happy: New York, just as someone from Ozville would picture it. WIGB? No question, not least for the chance to advise a coupla NZers on what to see in NYC, like the Louis Armstrong House in Queens (not least for the kitchen). The tab, with 20 percent tip, was all of around $135.


New York minute, Brooklyn edition

September 2014

You can mock Yelp and you can mock “farm to table,” but when you put the two together you can actually steer yourself to a good meal. The latter filters out the crapola. Twitter has been a huge help the last few years when I’ve been soliciting advice on road food (and Brooklyn is a serious road trip even underground), but it’s not very nimble and not always quick. So when I put out a plea for suggestions in Bushwick, I got one recommendation but wound up rewarding “location, location, location” and heading to the Yelp FTT restaurant closest to the gallery where the “Appetite” show with my consort’s photo in it was opening that night. Haters gonna hate, but it was the right choice.

Just walking into Northeast Kingdom in that industrial wasteland was a lift — the unwomaned hostess table at the door had a Chanterellesque vase of flowers on it; the lighting was seductive, and we got a table right away. I had a special appetizer as my main course, peekytoe crab mixed with creme fraiche (which really is better than mayonnaise [sometimes]) and paired with jalapeño slivers and green apple slices. We shared a jazzy cauliflower appetizer, the florets dressed with coconut harissa and pistachio gremolata, the flavors and textures so fascinating I could forgive what I think of as a winter vegetable of last resort being showcased in peak summer produce season. And Bob was thrilled with his special, a fat and perfectly cooked pork chop with kale, peaches and maple syrup countered with just the right amount of acidity. The waiter’s description of how the chef butchered it, leaving all that fat on, was so farm to table it deserves a Yelp.

New York minutes

September 2014

If you had told me in December 1980 that I would, in August 2014, be eating kelp salad followed by braised pork belly — with chopsticks, to boot — I would have said subsisting on one tiny bag of potato chips plus a few Cokes must have made you delusional. And I have to admit I thought my consort was kidding when he suggested the salad, but it was surprisingly palatable despite the slight fishiness he couldn’t detect. It was definitely better than the woody green beans in peanut sauce we’d tried as a starter at our first lunch at Jin Ramen in Harlem, a few months ago. The rice bowl this time, topped with pickled ginger and brisket cooked with onions to falling-apart tenderness, was also better than my introductory version ($6 for the small, more than I could finish). Bob, as always, had to try something new and took the server’s recommendation of the spicy tonkotsu ramen, with liquid-bacon pork broth seasoned with the house blend of soybean and roasted garlic paste plus hot sesame oil. And it was even better than the milder ramen he’d chosen last time (well, last time with me — he confessed he’d gone there on his own once). The whole $12 dish is a fascination, with the noodles and the pork belly and the soft-cooked egg and the bamboo shoots and the scallions to mix and match on a wooden spoon. WIGB?  Absolutely. Between the food, the efficient service and the show, it’s the perfect pit stop before braving the miles of aisles at the uptown Fairway (the one where the stock and spaciousness make the Broadway store look like a shithole). Still, while the couple at the next table eating their way through half the “raymen” menu made me wish I’d spotted the gyoza on the menu, I realize on checking the fine print that we could not have ordered them. Because I still won’t eat (more than a taste of) chicken.

The weekend before I also got to engage in behavior, and food, that would also have felt beyond alien before I met Mr. Omnivorous Adventurer. And I actually found the place: IndiKitch, west from Eataly in the Flatiron. This was our second lunch together there and my turn to confess I’d been back twice on my own, for a quick snack after the Wednesday Greenmarket, simply for the samosas, which are among the best I’ve had in this city of fried-and-dried. The place is clearly staking out a claim as the South Asian answer to Chipotle: You choose feast (burrito), biryani (bowl), salad (salad) or sandwiches (tacos) and the counter crew assembles and sautés (actually finishes) to order. “Feast” is a serious deal for $9.87, with a main ingredient like saag paneer or mushroom kadai or chicken tikka teamed with a choice of rice (saffron is best), dal (chickpea or yellow lentil is best), side salad (carrot is definitely best) plus naan (garlic, of course). The naan is surprisingly good, better than in far too many Indian restaurants, because it’s both well-flavored and pliable enough to wield as your utensil, just the way you would eat in India. And if you order your food spicy, it’s near-perfect pitch, seasoned  to be balanced by the bread. The bathrooms, entered by entering a code, are spotless enough to encourage just that authentic way of eating.

Of course I had to go and ruin my new infatuation by suggesting Indian for Sunday lunch after the Greenmarket on Columbus when neither our usual lobster rolls nor tortas/cemitas appealed. I’d been wanting to try the uptown Saravanaa Bhavan for the last year, since a pal at the Greenmarket on 97th recommended it, and the thali was about three universes beyond IndiKitch. Of course, it was also $19.99 (but so generous we could split it). Every one of the 14 little dishes tasted vibrant (although I’ll take points off for the soggy papad), and the spicing varied from dish to dish. The menu was all Hindu to me aside from a couple of words, so there’s no point in listing specifics. Just know that it was (almost) like being transported to Mumbai at a sidewalk table on Amsterdam. WIGB? Definitely, even though the hometown magazine ran a long and peculiar story on how the owner of the chain is a killer. The staff was a bonus — when was the last time a waiter came out to tell you the one-holer occupied by a young woman for a suspicious amount of time was free?

Another country, 5 stops away on the 2

September 2014

The smartest thing cultural centers in far-flung neighborhoods do these days is recommend close-by eating options on their websites. Which is how my consort and I wound up sharing some pretty great spicy guacamole with just-fried chips at Xochimilco, on our way to the impressive Bronx Documentary Center. Maybe we would have found the place on our own, given that both a NYT article on Baron Ambrosia and a TripAdvisor seal were posted outside, but having the options narrowed to four (the others being pizza/Italian or a bar) definitely made it easier to think we would not starve on our little outing to a whole new New York.

As you might expect from the neighborhood, the place is a long way from Rosa Mexicano design-wise — the “silverware” is mostly plastic, the “tablecloth” a sheet of clear plastic over place mats. But that guacamole was exceptional, and all of $6. Even next day the kittybagged cupful was darker but still vibrant. I passed on Bob’s lengua tacos but did try his overloaded spicy pork ones and agreed they were deal of the year at $3 each (you can have them for 50 cents less if you leave off crema etc.) I’m a sucker for gorditas because they’re so rare in New York and I’m too lazy to make them using the recipe I did for Esquire’s “Man at His Best” way back in the last century after a trip to El Paso. These were definitely made to order, the masa dough soft inside, fried almost crisp outside, with a filling of Oaxacan cheese, crema and lettuce (plus, in one, chicharrones). The sweet waitress brought two salsas, a nearly incendiary red and a just-made/still-warm tomatillo, and both those added the essential acid to the richness. WIGB? If I lived nearby, for sure. But the gorditas in Corona were actually better if I”m going to have to get on a train. We’ll go back to the photo center for sure, but next time I’d try one of the other recommendations for one reason: local insight expands horizons.

New York obits

September 2014

Guilt at least is a motivator. When anything dies, remorse sets in faster than rigor mortis, and suddenly here are all these restaurants going under before I could either praise ’em or trash ’em. The first and worst was almost too embarrassing to write about, so the months flew by, and then we saw a new sign over the grimy entrance. A friend who lives in the neighborhood and had steered us right in the past suggested the hellhole over the winter, and only once we’d been seated did he volunteer that he had never braved the place. Suffice it to say the food and prices were all a classic demonstration of why Indian just can’t get a break in this town. Everything was bland and bloating and priced to keep anyone from eating as you would in the Subcontinent. I couldn’t even get it up for a hugely negative WIGB, and then we walked by recently and saw a new sign. For a place that cannot be any worse. (Update: It’s changed again. . . Reincarnation lives!)

Now I see Cocina Economica, our Sunday reliable, is no more. We went there more times than I can count, always for the torta and the cemita with spicy fries, each for about what Chipotle charges for a burrito alone. The kitchen was amazingly consistent, if often brunch-poky, and those excellent chorizo sandwiches and those fine fries never varied. The mystery is how a restaurant with Michelin, Zagat, Trip Advisor etc. decals on the door can go under. Unless it was because a Chipotle opened right around the corner on Broadway.

And then there was Seersucker, which we quite liked in a “this kind of resto could never survive in our neighborhood” way. The cocktail menu was particularly happy-making for my consort, who has started to see barmanship as more worthy of megabucks than mere wine selection. I’m a little fuzzy on what we ate cuz my photos also were, but I know I liked my ricotta gnocchi with bacon and the biscuits with butter and molasses butter and a couple of salads, plus the room and the service and the lighting.The whole situation makes me think of that old saying: “She was good, as cooks go. And as good cooks go, she was gone.”

The demise of Loi only mystifies as to why it took so long. We went there repeatedly, since it was our Fairway default after movies at Lincoln Square or Lincoln Plaza, but we never went excitedly. On our last drop-in, with the Bugses, we shared spreads and a bottle of wine at the (as always) underoccupied bar and were even comped desserts, but the place still had the stench of death about it even as the middle-of-the-road menu at Cafe Luxembourg kept the hordes coming. Can I indulge in some Realtor-speak? Put a Shake Shack in there. Nothing ambitious will work if even all the vaginal mean-muscle of the hometown paper could not undoom the location.