Sunday, September 28, 2008

Seva, you complete me

Astute readers of this blog (hello!) might recognize these pappadum crackers, so gracefully tilted on the plate. Yes, TL and I were at Seva again, this time for lunch the day before I flew out to Fort Collins. I don't think either of us meant to eat at a restaurant we had gone to only a few weeks earlier, but I wanted a really good meal and we knew Seva would satisfy.
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Once again we took advantage of the lunch specials, but added on two appetizers. On the left is a shrimp dish—a special that day—which consisted of shrimp, onions, and peppers cooked in a sweet and tangy sauce, and on the right are masala crab cakes, described as "lump meat, garam masala, mint, lemon-cilantro dip." The filling of the cakes was a little mushy and seemed more like krab than crab, but like the "bok choy crispy curls" we had previous, they were perfectly fried.

The Mulligatawny soup seemed slightly different on this visit—a little less creamy, a little more chunky maybe—but the flavor was still good. And I took a sip of TL's mango lassi (top photo) and it was sweet and thick and mango-ey. Good stuff.
For my entree I went with the chicken saag ("pureed spinach, peppercorns, onion, ginger, garlic, tomato"), which had the same lightness and good flavor as the korma and tikka masala we'd eaten last time, but which was also much spicier than I expected.
Same went for TL's chicken vindaloo (on the menu as "fiery sauce, dried red chilies, potato, tamarind, vinegar"—I guess "fiery" should have tipped us off). Immediately once the owner noticed us sweating over our curries he came over with an offer to replace both with new, less spicy versions, a surprising gesture that I really appreciated. We didn't take him up on it, as we were enjoying the flavor; I just asked for some raita to mellow out the heat and he came back with a good bowlful, which made my eyes light up. That stuff is delish.

Later, as the owner cleared our table he commented that before we had chosen the two most mild curries and now we had chosen the two spiciest, and that next time he will be sure to turn the heat down a little. He even seemed apologetic, like he should have realized our preferences somehow. He was just so nice, and I was impressed that he had not only recognized us but remembered what we'd ordered, too. And when I unpacked our leftovers later, I discovered he had thrown in an extra container of raita.

So once more: I love Seva. You can bet I'll be heading there once I'm in NYC again.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

East Buffet will knock you flat, but not in the good way

Photo by TL

Years ago, when I first went to East Buffet, the place was the shit. My family and I would drive all the way out to Huntington to eat at one of the first Chinese/Asian high-end "super" buffets around, and it was even more exciting when branches began opening closer by in Elmhurst and other areas of Queens. Unfortunately, after a long hiatus I ate at the Flushing location a few months ago with TL, and realized the place is now just simply…shitty. At a mere $7.99 for the weekend lunch (slashed from $15.99 through their seemingly perpetual 50% off promotion) I didn't feel overcharged, but I did feel stuffed to the gills with greasy, mediocre, not-so-fresh food. Maybe it was because we arrived at the tail-end of lunch service, but I remember the place just being better all around.
There are two areas of the buffet where you can really make things worth your while, though. One is the sushi bar, which while not excellent by any means, is decent enough. I'd advise the maki over the nigiri, since we're not talking amazing raw fish here.
Photo by TL

The other area is the Peking Duck station, where a man carves slices of meat and skin directly off the bird, layers them atop fluffy pockets of steamed bread, and then hands the plate back so you can dress the combination with with hoisin sauce, cucumber shreds, and slivered scallions as you please. TL came back to the table bearing six of the lil' babies, since the station was about to close (good man). The duck was fatty and the skin soggy—a mark of good Peking Duck is crisp, lacquered skin with the fat rendered out of it—but even bad Peking Duck tends to be pretty enjoyable. Especially when it's unlimited.

So don't go to East Buffet expecting great food (or even good service). But do go expecting mediocre/average Chinese food in wide array, with some sushi and Peking Duck thrown in. And make sure you ready yourself for passing out immediately afterward, which is exactly what TL and I found ourselves doing after our meal.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Baden Baden: Chickens and Koreans

For TC's birthday last month, we gathered at Baden Baden in K-town for Korean-style chicken and pitchers of beer. It's the kind of place you would never know existed unless you had been expressly told about it. From the street there's no obvious signage, and even when you've arrived to the right building you have to hunt out the entrance, which is an elevator hidden just beyond a small gum-and-cigarette counter that doesn't look like you're supposed to venture past it. Still, once you get in the door, the place opens up into a comfortable bar and restaurant that serves up pretty decent chicken. While this definitely is not BonChon Chicken—the style is completely different—the birds at Baden Baden are crisp-skinned and juicy enough if not super flavorful, and it's served with rich, mellow cloves of creamy fried garlic, sweet and tangy radish pickles, and a scattering of prefab onion rings. The onion rings aren't great, as The Amateur Gourmet points out, but who's not going to still eat them when sloshed on beer and soju?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Eating Asian in Flushing Mall's food court

Flushing Mall isn't a mall in the conventional sense, as in a place filled with popular retail, Auntie Anne's "pretzels," and brand-name clothing. If anything, it's kind of dinky and more like an indoor flea market, with random booths selling knockoff dvds and imported accessories and clothing from Asia. There's a damn cool comb store, where hand-crafted wooden and horn combs boasting well-being properties are on display, but like Roboppy, the main draw for me is their food court.
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Flushing Mall's food court features numerous stalls, all of them Asian. There are hand-pulled noodles and handmade dumplings, Taiwanese and Japanese pastries and snacks, shaved ice and bubble tea, and lots of "over rice" offerings. There used to be a conveyor-belt sushi area and shabu-shabu, but when I went with TL before his dentist appointment, both of those seemed to be gone.

It always takes me a while to decide when I'm in there, because everything looks so darn good. But between the two of us we settled on noodles with Taiwanese meat sauce, egg pancake (love those egg pancakes), grilled corn painted with sha-cha sauce, and pork dumplings doused with soy sauce, chili oil, and a heaping pile of raw chopped garlic. Um, because we were aiming for complete love from TL's dentist.
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We also ordered two pastries, one filled with shreds of savory turnip and the other filled with a mysterious combination of scallions, lard, and maybe a bit of pork. Both had nice and flaky crusts and great flavor.

So Flushing Mall is a great place to get food, not such a good place to go shopping. But if you're still curious about the place, these two photos, taken by TL in the men's room, should explain everything you need to know:
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I mean…what can you do but give love to a place that has specific instructions on where you can and cannot vomit?

At 8th Street Wine Cellar, the bacon dish of my dreams

Before I explain what you're looking at up there—no, it's not an ice-cream sundae—let me just say that it was one of the most friggin' delicious preparations I'd put in my mouth for a long time. Two months later, I still dream about it.

But first things first. The above photo was taken at 8th Street Wine Cellar, where I met up with BH for dinner for a few glasses of wine and an assortment of small plates. I had just gotten a haircut and she had come in carrying two huge picture frames, and so we ended up oohing and ahhing for several minutes before getting down to the business of ordering.
We began with a cheese plate…you all know, of course, how much I love cheese. I don't remember clearly, but I believe there was a morbier, a manchego, and something truffle-flecked, all from Stinky Bklyn. The three cheeses came with slices of currant-and-walnut-studded pumpernickel (probably from Amy's Bread) and I believe a tapenade and some kind of chutney. All were pretty good, but I admit to being partial to the truffled cheese: truffles = luv.
We also picked out a "Tuscan Grilled Cheese," which consisted of mozarella, tomatoes, and pesto pressed between ciabatta. Good ingredients, pretty good sandwich.
BH is no fan of seafood, but I had to order the yellowfin tuna sliders, which just sounded right up my alley (I like little burgers!). These came with a marinated cucumber and red onion salad on the side, which was a refreshing accompaniment. The burgers themselves were okay—the whole thing was going for some kind of "Asian" flavor profile, which in this case meant there was ginger in the tuna and sesame oil with the cucumbers. The patty was slightly dry, but maybe that's just the nature of a burger made with cooked tuna.

And okay, okay, back to the photo at top. That was our order of "bacon and figs," which ended up being several slices of very thick-cut bacon that had been broiled and glazed with sweet balsamic vinegar, paired with dried figs and a good dollop of crème fraîche, and then drizzled with more glaze. Altogether, the combination was downright amazing. Smoky, meaty, and savory skipped hand-in-hand with sweet, creamy, and tangy; we all but licked the plate clean. Both BH and I agreed that fresh figs instead of dried would have really ramped it up even more, but that didn't stop us from immediately contemplating another order once we finished it. Such is the power of figs and bacon.

I ended up heading to TL's place after that, bearing cream puffs from Beard Papa for him and his friends, which I thought I was too full to consume but then somehow did anyway. It's obviously true what they say about a separate stomach for dessert….

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Lamazou: A small, homey shop with big taste

Pate sandwich from Lamazou
While running errands, I passed by Lamazou in Murray Hill. People had been urging me to check out this tiny cheese and sandwich shop for a long time, among them JSK and my brother, so I stopped in to pick up a quickie lunch. There was a bewildering variety of options on the menu, with full and half sizes for each; with the help of the friendly counterman, I went with country pate and cornichons on a ciabatta roll. The sandwich came to a little over six dollars for a half. It seemed small at first, but soon proved itself to be the perfect size as I made my way through the pile of rich pate on chewy, fluffy bread while I walked. I could have used more cornichons; they were a good addition, brightening the whole with their crisp, tart bite, but there weren't many. Next time I'll try one of their numerous combination sandwiches, such as the "Smart Duck," listed on the menu as smoked duck breast paired with brie and cornichons. Anyone have a favorite sandwich to recommend from this place?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Red Mango: Richer, tastier, better

After Tebaya, TL and I stopped for frozen yogurt at Red Mango, which in the fro-yo wars, has emerged winner in my book. Compared to Pinkberry and VeryBerry, Red Mango's tangy offering is more creamy and rich, less watery and icy. The mochi chunks I asked for were pretty much identical to the competition's, but the blueberries that topped TL's order were big and plump. Thumbs up, Red Mango!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Gramercy Tavern: No deal, but an excellent lunch

I'd wanted to go to Gramercy Tavern for lunch after reading about their "secret" lunch deal on VittlesVamp, but when I met with JL, JSK, and BH there, we found ourselves seated in their formal dining room instead of their Tavern room, which is where the deal was offered. So instead of getting a steal at one of the fancier restaurants in town, we ended up ordering from the pricey regular lunch menu.

The meal, at least, was beautifully done. The small olive rolls served as part of the bread selection were delicious and addictive, crusty and studded with large chunks of briny purple olives. I found myself agreeing to a second, and then a third, smearing each with a curl of good butter. And the braised shoulder of lamb I ordered was served nearly falling apart on a bed of bok choy, and the meat was tender and rich and utterly satisfying.
Dessert was good, too; we split the warm chocolate bread pudding with cacao nib ice cream, and alongside it came a plate of delicate petits fours, including tiny buttery rounds with a single plump blueberry sunken in the middle, sugar-coated fruit jellies, and chocolate balls filled with salty peanut butter. At the end, JL declared it one of the nicest lunches he'd had in a long time. I'm definitely going back to check out the Tavern room.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A fish tale

Not only was I going off to graduate school in Colorado, but my young cousin ML was headed for Boston to start her undergraduate education. We had prepared our applications around the same time, bonding while writing out essay after essay and filling out form after form, and each of us had received our admission notices around the same time too. Since we were both leaving soon, the day I got back from the Catskills, my aunt and uncle and my two cousins came over to my parents' house for a celebratory/send-off family meal.
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My mom set out two items for us to start with while the rest of the food was being finished at the stove. On the left is a jiu cai bing, thin dough wrapped around a filling of chives, eggs, and bean-noodle threads and then pan-fried—my mom deposited each one onto our plates hot from the pan. The platter on the right is an assortment of cold appetizers, including slices of sweet Chinese sausage, marinated dried tofu, braised beef, and a vinegary cucumber and pepper salad strewn with black sesame seeds.
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Then the dishes started rolling into the dining room. Clockwise from top left: chives with squid; vegetarian noodles (prepared by my aunt); meat-stuffed tofu braised with assorted mushrooms; and tail-on shrimp sauteed with garlic and cilantro. My aunt also brought over roasted acorn squash and beets, as well as some thinly sliced raw Chioggia beets marinated in cranberry vinegar, which I couldn't get enough of.
Earlier in the day, my dad had taken me to the Chinese supermarket in order to purchase a live carp. I had cringed when I watched the fish being scaled, but that night, it appeared on the table steamed and insanely delicious covered with a sauce of spicy bean paste cooked with plenty of cilantro, scallions, basil, and garlic. This preparation is called dou-ban yu ("dou-ban" referring to the sauce, and "yu" meaning "fish"), and there was sentiment to this dish, too: my dad explained that years ago he had loved eating dou-ban yu at a certain restaurant in Flushing, but the place had one day closed down, shuttering its dou-ban yu with it. My dad had searched for a long time and never found a good version in any restaurant since…so he decided to take matters into his own hands, and re-create it himself. At dinner that night, my happy dad declared the dou-ban yu a success, with the flavor of the sauce spot-on to the original. The carp's white flesh was sweet and firm, and the dish was extremely xia fan and ended up being the star of the show.
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For dessert, there was a towering chocolate cake and a sweet green-bean and barley soup. The cake, from a Chinese bakery, boasted layers of light chocolate sponge instead of buttery, rich cake, and somehow the two desserts went well together.

Afterward my cousins and my brother and I watched the Olympics while our parents sat around the table chatting over tea, typical behaviors for all. With my warm, loving family gathered around the house, it felt like the perfect way to celebrate.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

In the Catskills, the end draws near

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I only had a week left in New York City, and boy was I in denial. It didn't at all feel like I was about to move myself across the country to start school—all it felt like was me living with my parents and hanging out with my friends. Colorado what?

But several weeks earlier, TC had cooked up the idea of a final weekend trip on the East Coast before I left (and I did leave, I swear, as much as my posts make it seem like I'm still in NYC). After figuring out what our options were—beach camping in Maryland was the original plan, but it was too late to stay on the island we wanted—she managed to find a house that could accommodate all of us. Two artists, a married couple formally from Brooklyn, were renting out a converted barn in the Catskills that boasted several beds and futons, a large kitchen and dining area, two bathrooms (one with a claw-foot tub), and a completely open loft structure. It had been their home just before, so the place still bore signs of their presence, such as their artwork on the walls and an entire jewelry studio in one of the rooms. It was easily one of the most unique houses I'd ever stayed in.
Photo by TL

It even had a hammock, for godsake.

Since there were so many of us, we straggled in at various times Friday evening. The first night was mellow; mostly we waited for people to arrive and sat around the dining/living room drinking and chatting. The majority hit the sack early, as we had an early morning ahead.
When we woke, a group effort led to this spread on the table. Scrambled eggs; toast; bananas; grapes; pan-fried salami; sausage and peppers; tomatoes and mozzarella. As much as we wanted to, we didn't linger too long over breakfast. Hustle, hustle…we had places to go, and things to do.
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Photos by TL

Things like…kayaking! We spent the morning floating down the Delaware River. There were only a few mishaps, which did not involve making a wrong turn, getting stuck on rocks, and losing everyone else on the river for the last hour. Not did it involve JL refusing to apply sunblock and ending up with a crazy burn stripe on top of his thighs and calves, like a roller of hot pink paint had swept up his legs. A certain DL didn't tip right into the water at the end of the ride, either.

Of course not.
After kayaking, most of us took a nap after getting back and eating lunch (and showering). But before dinner, AT, RA, TL, and I took a walk and went exploring the graveyard and the gravel pits nearby. "It feels like you're in the middle of the desert," was how the owner had described the area. He was right.
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Once it was about time to start preparing dinner several of us got to work. The plan had been to use the grill outside, but as it had gotten cold and the mosquitoes were biting, we opted to sear the steaks in a large cast-iron skillet and to boil the sweet ears of corn for our Mexican-style cobs instead of grilling—both came out successfully. The zucchini, yellow squash, onions, and eggplant didn't fare as well; they were meant to come out roasted, but overcrowding in the oven made them more steamed than charred and they were a little undercooked to boot. But SH had made a killer pasta salad, and we cooked up some turkey burgers and garlicky sauteed portobello mushrooms as well. Once we threw in the random leftovers from lunch (cold cuts, bread, cheese), there was plenty of food, and I'm pretty sure no one went hungry. Especially TL the corn-lover, who downed two of the cheesy, spicy suckers lickety-split.

That night, we were in for the "serious drinking" portion of the trip, which involved Patrón, Grey Goose, Sana-ritas, and many cans of beer. Throw in a deck of cards and a bunch of alcohol penalties, and you've got "I Never," Kings, boob-grabbing, and some mighty embarrassing dance moves.

It was a while before we got to sleep.
What 30 eggs look like
The next morning, I woke up early to get breakfast started. Given a slight shortage the morning before, we compensated by making an extra large batch of eggs. In case anyone is curious what thirty eggs look like cracked into a bowl, well, here you go.
Scrambled with scallions and parm
With the help of milk, salt, and a whisk, thirty floating yolks became two pans of scrambled eggs with scallions and parmesan.
Farm-laid eggs Fryin'
There were also six fresh eggs…
…courtesy of these fellas. Look at the difference in yolk color! I simply fried them up in a pool of butter, and the six farm eggs disappeared quickly.
Inside Turquoise Barn
After that, it was time to get ready to leave. Some of us went to take a look at the Turquoise Barn gallery nearby; the house owners had held a reception there the day before, but as we had been out kayaking, we missed it. As we packed up, I thought about how it would be a long time before I would take a trip like this again, and even if I did, it probably wouldn't be with exactly the same set of friends. Already others were making plans and moves in different directions, and there was just no telling where any of us would end up. Whatever later-on was going to be, though, I had just spent a very fine weekend with a group of loved ones, and it was that which made me realize who and what I was leaving behind. That weekend, I allowed myself to admit that I was going to be saying goodbye.