Ride south

I had high hopes of listing five reasons to Amtrak to Philadelphia right now, but the weeks Twittered by and now the phenomenal Bill Viola at the Barnes Foundation has closed and the great “Souls Grown Deep” at the art museum is gone, too. So here are three: The Constitution’s Center’s new permanent exhibition on Reconstruction is vaut le voyage, not least for the potholder reading “any holder but slave holder.” As James Baldwin said, not every problem that’s confronted can be solved, but no problem can be solved unless it’s confronted, and this is a huge step forward toward understanding how American slid back into its bad old ways after the Civil War. It actually equates “Gone With the Wind” with “Birth of a Nation” in messing up people’s heads.) Then there’s High Street on Market, right nearby, where we had another excellent lunch (gazpacho and a good and gooey grilled cheese). And I’m looking forward to our inevitable next trip so we can eat again at Alimentari, the sleek, airy cafe Di Bruno Bros. just opened upstairs from the outstanding food shop that’s one of our regular stops on every trip, just to gawk and maybe buy a bottle of Italian wine you won’t find even in the best state store. We ducked in for a quick lunch on the way to 30th Street Station for avocado and smoked salmon tartines with Calabrian chilies on Lost Bread Co.’s finest; asparagus and zucchini pizza, and the one underwhelming dish, “The House of (Grilled) Cheese),” a skillet of raclette and taleggio teamed with San Marzano tomato dip. Call it Italian queso fundido and wish it hadn’t been roasted to rubber. Cucumber-watermelon hard seltzer from Two Robbers was the talk of the table, though.

This trip we also indulged in dinner at Big Fish, at our hosts’ recommendation, and it put the din in dinner. (The server was not amused when one friend asked if she went home with a headache.) The place is cute and tiny, and the food was good if overwrought to the point where the main ingredient on every plate felt peripheral to all the frou-frous. Because it’s BYOB, entree prices were in the high $30s. And I was glad the H&J innkeepers admitted they were also underwhelmed by SpiceFinch, where they had had a spectacular meal. The server was overwhelmed, for starters (this being a hotel resto). And the food was just adequate. Suraya was a dinner disappointment on our previous trip, so maybe the message is we should get ourselves to Zahav?

New York minutes

My desk is stacked high enough with restaurant receipts that The Cat Who Came to Live With a Food Writer can actually make a nest out of them to keep me company as I dick around on the internets. And all those are an accumulation of guilt for not writing about so many destinations as this joint has been gathering dust. So rather than just trying to catch up on all the good, the bad and, worse, the mediocre, here are a couple:

Saint Julivert Fisherie in Brooklyn had the most transporting food in donkey’s years: mackerel whipped into a creamy spread accented with piri piri oil; raw scallop in tacos formed of shiso leaves, with salsa macha; squid carbonara, with the tentacles cut into “noodles” and tossed with Parmigiano and spicy squid ink, with strips of Belgian endive to trick your eye and palate, and hamachi collar cooked jerk-style that almost had us sucking the bones. Service was unnervingly friendly, and the wines were all over the map, given that the theme of the place is oceanic. WIGB? I have recommended it to like 50 people, but next time we might head to the same owners’ La Vara just a couple of doors away.

And Momofuku in the dread TWC will leave you marveling “did we just eat in a mall?” It’s worth at least half an hour’s wait in line for just the Bang Bar options of extraordinary spicy pork wrapped in what Trinidad would be considered a roti and the “rip & dip” with the same flaky bread to dunk in either eggplant or chickpea dip, both phenomenal. But it’s better to snare a table inside at the Noodle Bar for both the service and the specials board behind the bar, which flips over the way the Amtrak announcements used to at Penn Station. I’ve been twice so far for the steamed buns enfolding shiitakes cooked so artfully they could pass for pork belly, the fried Japanese potato with “white sauce” (Alabamaesque BBQ), the lively cucumber salad with halved and smashed radishes in a sesame-chili dressing, the carrots roasted to intensity with scallions and pumpkinseeds and the ginger-scallion noodles, which are nothing like the homage to NY Noodletown you would expect but are amped up with pickled shiitakes. The one dish we shared that would have been better hogged was the mixed spicy noodles with herbs and fried egg. Chopsticking down to the incendiary sauce would have been more satisfying in one bowl. WIGB? Any chance I get. Not least for the soft-serve dessert made with Chang’s trademarked Hozon, based on chickpea water. It’s light but butterscotchy.

Hatin’ on gypsum, too

I typed this months ago but keep thinking about it, so I swung by the Union Square Greenmarket (motto this time of year: “All this useful beauty”) on a Wednesday to see if it was still boiling up. And, yes, it is, with even more events:

So we’re finishing up our rigatoni with ragu, dainty eggplant parm and awesome garlic dots on a Saturday at Pasta Flyer and I’m bloviating about why the concept is genius for a chef — he can create the menu, develop the recipes and technology, staff up and take weekends off. Then Mr. Curious, the guy I sleep with, goes back to the counter to ask how long it takes to cook the pasta (15 seconds) and how (water’s constantly boiling). One of the five staffers says, “You can ask Chef. He’s right there.” And Mark Ladler was indeed in the kitchen, dumping a big pot of ragu out and looking quite pleased with himself.

I’d been wanting to try the fast-pasta place ever since we wound up with friends (after the amazing “Faces Places” at the Quad) at a seriously mediocre Syrian place nearby. That night I didn’t argue for it because I thought it would have no atmosphere. But maybe it has too much. The design is subtly dazzling, with upholstered benches and rustic-looking tables and chairs and tulips in vases and a huge black-and-white photo of Rome with a flying saucer dominating the room (the bathroom is just as wild). Planters are filled with wheat sheaves, the main lighting fixture is Del Posto-evocative. In any other neighborhood the joint would be jammed. (I wish I could argue for the UWS, but I’m not that dumb.)

When we walked in we were given samples of fried mozzarella sticks in a fabulously spicy tomato sauce, a special of two for $1? Our whole meal came to about $13, and it was enough for both of us. Servers delivered the dishes and cleared the table, and one came around afterward with a little pill cup with three chocolate-covered espresso beans (“to help the digestion”). Both the denteness of the rigatoni and the restraint of the ragu were Italy-worthy. I read about the garlic knots while waiting in the deliberately slow line at Di Palo so had new appreciation for what were essentially Italian gougere.

So it was fascinating to come home and read up on “real” critics’ reactions. The same people who slaver over McD’s/Dunkin’/Taco Bell are so harsh when top chefs try to reinvent the genre.

The $7-a-glass wine looked good & there was a loyalty card on offer. WIGB? Absolutely. Even after a movie. 

No hot coffee in the courthouse, either

The upside to de Blasio’s New York is that crime is down so far you can get sprung from jury duty in less than a day — there are no trials. The downside is that you’ll get only one lunch in Chinatown. I spent my penned-up morning planning where to head during what turned out to be an hour-and-a-half break and was not really surprised most online recommendations were for anything but Chinese. Which is how I wound up in the whitest place for blocks. I’d been to Dim Sum Go Go many times, but either I have been spending too much time in Flushing with savvy eaters or it was always “safe.” My duck dumplings and snowpea-leaf dumplings, both steamed, took a while to arrive and tasted bland in the case of the latter and borderline geriatric in the case of the former. Each order of three was about $4.50, too, which made me wonder why people bitch about RedFarm’s prices. I also left thinking you can eat Chinese alone but you really shouldn’t. Although the one time the waiter smiled was when he saw the 20 percent tip from an old white lady with no sharing companions.

The revolution will be experiential

I wrote this for our coop newsletter this spring but am re-upping here as so many wiser heads are wising up to the grim reality that the American Nazis claiming to be trying to take their country back have absolutely no idea of its history. To be fair, even I had never absorbed the notion that the Revolutionary War was not “Americans” against Brits. It was Brits against Brits. If there had been Thanksgiving dinners back then, they would have ended with pewter mugs of rum being flung at drunk uncles. So: 

Our last Amtrak trek from 12 West to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia took just under two hours, about the same amount of time we’d devote one way to a weekend outing for Chinese in Flushing. Which is just one reason I’d recommend an expedition to the new Museum of the American Revolution. Every exhibit in this lively museum makes clear how the country began with #Resistance and needs more of the same to survive.

Whatever you learned in grade school is not what you will come away understanding from this museum, with its inclusion of the roles of native Americans, African-Americans and women in the struggle to establish a republic. The rooms devoted to battles in and around Manhattan are particularly vivid, and the closing multimedia presentation showcasing the tent George Washington operated out of more than 200 years ago is surprisingly moving.

You could Amtrak down and back in a day, but Philadelphia is too great a city not to warrant a sleepover. For away-beds, we like the Hotel Palomar off Rittenhouse Square (pets welcome although we’ve never taken our cat). For diversion, we love the Reading Terminal Market, with its dozens of constantly changing food stalls. For culture, we really love the Museum of Art. For restaurants, we can’t count the choices.  Closest to the museum are High Street on Market, Good King Tavern and the Hungry Pigeon, but there are so many other options to Google: Vernick or 24 or aKitchen or Barbuzzo or Blue Corn or Bing Bing Dim Sum or V Kitchen. There’s also a cafe in the museum, but our first president surely did not work so hard to make eating easy. Walk west or south.

When you know you will pass this way again

There is no travel luxury like time. When you have 18 days in one place, a Mollica can happen.

One afternoon in Torino I was wandering back from an hour studying the alimentary canal (and femurs and brains) at the anatomy museum and swung past a new restaurant a food photographer had recommended. It looked a bit too intimidating for a sweaty traveler at lunch, but a couple of doors up on the piazza I spotted an enticing little sandwich shop with the most alluring concept: panini made to order with bread, cheese, salumi and salse from small producers in and around the city. It had a line and looked tricky to navigate for someone still sleepwalking through jet lag, but I took a couple of snapshots. On a quick trip that would have been the end of it.

A few nights later three of us who can speak about three phrases of Italian among us braved the intimidating restaurant for a two-bottle dinner (more about that later, of course) and then wandered past the shop again. This time a small group of youngs was clustered outside, so we stumbled in to gawk at the design and were followed by the owner, who explained the concept. In English, because this generation of food-changing Torinese always seem to speak it, usually well.

On a quick trip, that would have been the end of it. But my consort and I had the luxury of time the following Monday to make a foray. And it was so worth the journey. The counter was manned by two stylish women (daughter-mother?) who summoned an older man from the courtyard to translate even though it turned out daughter? spoke excellent English. We could choose from three breads (I learned morbidoso is not stale but soft), half a dozen each cheeses and meats, grilled eggplant or zucchini or sun-dried tomatoes and four salse, from verde to oliva. Even with gentle explaining, it was all a bit overwhelming, so Bob went with one from the list of suggestions for the undecided (coppa, cheese, grilled zucchini) and I stupidly chose mortadella as the base for mine, meaning there were limits to what could be added without overwhelming the main ingredient (robiola, though? great). Of course the sandwiches themselves were nothing like what you get in train stations and stand-up caffes, just layers of perfection, but the mother? also plied us with tastes of cheese and lardo. Wine was E3 for a little plastic cup of serve-yourself local white or red. And the bill came to all of E15. Because we drank wine, water was free. WIGB? I hoped to, but there are so many choices and now so little time. It says everything, though, that when I touted it on FB the owner responded with a grazie.

New York 60th-minute

So where does $60+ go on a Friday night? Not to either Mermaid Inn or Tangled Vine, both swamped when I hooked up with my consort after a friend bailed on us. We wound up at Barley & Grain for dramatic hummus with warm, puffy pita, a nice deal at $6 even though they charged for the necessary extra bread. But we passed on the $6 happy-hour wine deal in favor of a $42 bottle of Provencal rosé. Pinot grigio is just one step up from Flint water.

Up from “The Flavor Genome”

Picture yourself on a couch in the lobby of the Whitney after the kick-ass, so-urgently-political Biennial, and you’re trying to find a place to have a nice (not stand-up-in-a-stall-at-Chelsea-Market) lunch and Yelp is no help as you back-and-forth on restos you both like but have been to way too often. And then it comes upon you that Cookshop gets so much Twitter love and is just a High Line walk away. The last time I was there was with another professional eater, and I suspect her ears are still ringing from our brunch. But my consort and I landed right before 2 on a Wednesday and got a table for four in the back where we could sit side by side and not yell even a little bit. An hour later we walked out pretty much wanting to RT everyone who touts the hell out of the joint. We split an order of tempura-fried squid that transported me back to my best meal in Torino last summer, at a seafood resto in the great open-air market, where I had the perfect combination of fresh seafood and precise cooking. The little, light, just-salty-enough rings were laid over lemon aioli, so we got to dunk when you needed to, after appreciating the freshness and the frying. Bob’s lamb sausage sandwich was also world-class if messy, with the not-gamy-at-all meat stuffed into a bun between black olive aioli and pickled cucumber slices and teamed with faultless French fries. My asparagus “casserole,” though, was just what i deserved for ordering for $15 what I could have done at home for a coupla bucks: blanket a few spears with a sludge of melted cheeses. Coffee, though, was outstanding. Rosé? Ditto. WIGB? Not at crunch time, but absolutely. 

“A chain?” “No, it’s one chef with 3 restos.”

When it comes to getting motivated to write about a consistently great experience, the fourth time is apparently the charm. We just ate at a Fonda again and came away, once again, as amazed by the service as the food. It might be a little worrisome that we feel compelled to order the same dishes at both the Park Slope and the Chelsea locations, but if you tasted ‘em you’d know why. They are consistently great. Start with the guacamole, which is served not just with chips but with warm fresh corn tortillas and a little ramekin of chipotle(?) sauce. Order the outstanding queso fundido with chorizo, which also comes with warm tortillas and a little ramekin, this time of salsa verde. Get the crab croquettes, three to an order, perched atop different sauces (and sometimes over-dusted with chile flakes). Get the zarape de pato, tender chunks of duck layered in more fresh corn tortillas with a creamy roasted tomato-habanero sauce. Get the taquitos, especially the ones with crisp pork belly. Get the refried beans with queso fresco and avocado. Get a classic margarita. Maybe two. You could order a main course, but the food communicates so clearly in small bites that you could almost be eating Chinese. You’ll walk, not waddle, away feeling so pleased.

Note: On our latest visit, we tried a flan, one made with cajeta. Suffice it to say I grew up in a Mexican neighborhood and will never believe desserts are part of the program. Except for pumpkin empanadas, which of course are not a cena-ender. 

Note 2: We called last minute for a reservation for our last foray, in Brooklyn, and they fit us in. And when they asked for our six-top back after we’d paid but were lingering to shoot the breeze with friends we see too seldom, they offered to move us to the bar, shots on the house. WIGB? Anytime, any location. Even though brunch is deafening.

Seamless for sure

Not sure how long I can keep this up, but I’ve surprised my consort on significant birthdays three times now. For the first, I did a decoy duck — told him I was cooking a whole bird Chiu Chow-style (Cantonese with flavor) for just us, let him go jeans-shopping and had friends sneak into our apartment, after which I had dumplings delivered. For the second, fellow graduate students where he was off in Middle Earth coordinated a multimedia extravaganza and all I had to do was orchestrate digital contributions and long-distance-travel invitations and pay for the buffet in a great bar. For the third, I was feeling a bit wan. I gave my own “big” party for myself last time, and it didn’t seem so important. But a friend who is even older than I am prodded me into at least arranging a picnic in Central Park where I would tell him we were meeting a poor, sad friend left home alone on the first weekend in summer but where he would arrive to find a little clot of well-wishers (hard to round up on Memorial Day Sunday). I knew I couldn’t tip him off by making great quantities of food, so we came up with the idea of ordering pizzas. Which you can really do in the park; Bob has always marveled when we see a delivery guy on a bike with boxes heaped high on a Sunday when we’re walking to the Greenmarket down at the natural history museum. It took a bit of sleuthing to find not just a pizzeria that would deliver but one that could deliver pies fit to eat, but I settled on V&T, up by Columbia. And it was so worth it. The expressions on the faces of both the guests and the I-know-I’ll-get-a-great-tip delivery guy were unforgettable (iPhones shot right out). Thanks to the science the wingnuts deny, we were able to have a plain, a mushroom and a pepperoni dropped off at our blankets at 90th and West Drive. We came home with the equivalent of a full pizza, but it froze well. These are the days of miracle and wonder for sure.