Monday, March 24, 2008

New Orleans! Suggestions?

Just a quickie: I am going to New Orleans tomorrow, and will be there for the next week! I've never been before, but I am sooo looking forward to the eats. So all those knowledgeable, what are some of the must-haves?

(Zach, I'm looking at you. Your posts from Jazz Fest last year made me drool!)

Pearl Oyster Bar: Crustacean revisitation

Lobster roll, Pearl Oyster Bar
Just as I had finished posting a status message on Facebook saying that I was "in the mood for an excellent meal," BH sent me an IM asking if I was up for dinner that night. Though I hadn't seen him in a while, I also had some other options on the table, so I hesitated. Then he popped the deadly question: "Want to get lobster rolls?"

I had my very first lobster roll two or three years ago. I went with TC and RT to Pearl Oyster Bar, and I remember that all three of us just stopped talking once our plates came out—we had been that blown away by what we were eating. About once a month for a year afterward we talked about returning, though we never did. In the meanwhile, I had tried a few times to recreate the experience elsewhere—in Boston, Massachusetts at Neptune Oyster, in Portland, Maine at Becky's Diner, and a few other places. Most I tried were good, but none compared to what had become a serious taste-memory holy grail.

I had introduced BH and JSK to this New England classic while we were in Maine, and at the time I had spoken of the great, luscious lobster rolls that could be had in the West Village. I think BH had remembered my pronouncement ever since. And so the decision was made: we would have lobster that night.
Oyster crackers, Pearl Oyster Bar Bread and butter, Pearl Oyster Bar
After discarding the idea of checking out Mary's Fish Camp (those I consulted said they liked its rival better) we arrived at Pearl Oyster Bar a little before they opened at 6 pm. There was already a small line at the door. Once inside, BH and I settled ourselves at the bar, where packets of oyster crackers were waiting at our settings. After we ordered we were given a chunk of crusty sliced bread and some butter.
Mussels, Pearl Oyster Bar
As an appetizer, we split an order of the Prince Edward Island mussels in a wine, mustard, and cream sauce. The shellfish were plump, and their creamy sauce was perfect, its richness complementing the briny flesh without being overwhelming. But as you might be able to tell in the picture above, the serving included a disconcertingly high proportion of empty and/or cracked shells. We did find a few stray mussels at the bottom of the bowl, but not as many as the empty shells we were given. One or two were also a bit sandy.
Lobster roll, Pearl Oyster Bar
Then came our lobster rolls ($27 each that evening). Two huge piles of lobster salad in buttered, toasted buns, accompanied by equally huge piles of shoestring fries. The lobster was cool and sweet and creamy with mayonnaise; the bun added a nice salty, buttery element. Despite my overall preference for thicker fries—the thin ones always seem so fussy and insubstantial—the shoestring fries were good, full of crunch and potato flavor.

Nothing seemed different from the first time I had eaten at Pearl, but as I continued eating, I realized that I wasn't finding the experience as transcendent as I had remembered it to be. Each bite I took became heavier and heavier. I grew sick of mayonnaise. Maybe my tastes had changed, or maybe I had elevated it all too much, or maybe it was all simply too much food. Whatever the reason, what had started out so deliciously just made me feel inert and bloated by the end.

I was glad for the chance to revisit Pearl, and maybe I will go again sometime (or maybe check out Mary's after all). But in the meanwhile, I am all lobstered-out.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A chicken in every pot

The Green Table
Before my appointment at Bumble and Bumble a few weeks ago, SYB met up with me to wander around Chelsea, where we dipped into various bakeries for a gander before heading over to Chelsea Market to have dinner. We didn't have anyplace specific in mind; after trying unsuccessfully to dine at Ronnybrook Milk Bar (their kitchen was closed) we settled on Cleaver Co.'s The Green Table, where we ordered both varieties of their pot pie to share.
Chicken pot pie, The Green Table
I was charmed by the cute little cutout decorating the crust of their chicken pot pie; the pastry itself bordered on tough, though. The pie was filled with nice big chunks of tender meat, and tarragon added a complementary herbal note. Pretty tasty overall.
Mushroom Pot Pie, The Green Table Mushroom pot pie, The Green Table
The mushroom pot pie was good too, just not as good as the chicken. I liked the whole wheat crust (alas, no cute mushroom cutout atop this one), but the filling was rich and salty, and got tiring after a while. I ate about a third and SYB polished off the rest.

Everything was fresh and flavorful, which is to be expected given the restaurant's philosophy. Their pot pies are also available frozen for takeout and wholesale orders.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Introducing BigJeff, and recipe #1

This morning, after reading about the health difficulties of the food-obsessed in the New York Times article "The Fat Pack Wonders if the Party's Over," I thought of my brother, who I mentioned in my last post. We always talk about food, but the nature of our conversations had undergone a marked change in the last several months; now, instead of telling me where to find the best chicken wings or enthusing about the tripe tacos at Taqueria Coatzingo, he is debating the merits of macrobiotic restaurants and making recommendations for high-fiber cereals. Like Ed Levine and Jason Perlow, my brother is one who has seen the light, and his turnaround has definitely shown results. And since he's been sending me a bunch of great recipes lately, I thought it'd be cool if he started posting some of them up here. So here's BigJeff (who is not so big anymore)—say hi!

Hello all. Jealously observing the rise of S(cubed), I figured I'd piggyback with a series of recipes I've started writing down—all healthy, delicious, and kitchen-intensive (so you can still get that cooking fix).

Is this a big change for me, making healthy recipes? I've always loved food and cooking but after a ridiculously rich and hedonistic week spent in a cabin in California's wine country (where my friends and I cooked two huge meals a day, interspersed with Wii and a constant double Knob Creek and single rock), I came back to New York with an epiphany: I'm gonna die. Or at least die earlier if I continue with my food/alcohol-enthusiast lifestyle. I made a similar change about two years ago (my doctor's scary diagnosis of Syndrome X helped) but I got bored after four months and fell off the alfalfa sprout/tofu/sunflower seed/bulgur wheat wagon. This time, I knew it without anyone telling me (my friends were too polite to do that).
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Consider that I used to host "meatups" at my house where we'd roast twin orange-glazed pernils in the oven, serve six different kinds of satay, or do huge pots of confit or braised short ribs (whatever you do, don't trim the fat before browning!). One year, I made a ridiculous amount of Ming Tsai's delicious Soy Dijon Chicken Wings using 60 orders of Chinese takeout wings (240 wings total, folks). I've hosted DIY parties with full toppings and sides for both cheesesteaks and hot dogs (not at the same time), while Sunday brunches were full-on cooking demos. Christmas and Thanksgiving meals were always at least a dozen plates on the table (this past year, the mirepoix for my sausage stuffing was prepared with duck fat, and the whole thing was moistened with duck broth). And of course, this is just the food I cook so I'm not even gonna bother listing the stuff that other people cooked, although needless to say, all just as intense.

So with a deliberate change in my life (and no alcohol), I've simply converted my food style to one which is low in fat, high in fiber, heavy on the counter prep, and super tasty. I'm cooking just as much, if not more, but way healthier and still delicious. My sister mentioned the ten-grain "rice" that my dad makes, which is chock full of soy beans, lentils, barley, oats, mung beans, etc.; it goes great with the simple sautéed or roasted veg I usually eat. Salads have become full-on affairs, packed with crunch and taste while using minimally processed ingredients. Most of my meals consist of macro-style food groups (grains, legumes, simply cooked vegetables such as greens, cauliflower, or pumpkin). There's plenty of spice in the form of fresh chilis and herbs, while healthier food preps such as poaching, steaming, and roasting retain and intensify natural flavors.

The first recipe I want to share is typical of my style: clean out the crisper drawers and pantry and find some delicious goodies which, thankfully, make a great salad.
Fruit and Vegetable Salad
by BigJeff

2 Asian pears (julienned into 1/4" matchsticks)
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup dried apricots, chopped
4 plum tomatoes (seeds removed, cut into long eighths)
2 cups snow peas (trimmed)
1 large beet (roasted for 40 minutes in foil, cooled and then julienned into 3/8" matchsticks)
3–4 jalapenos (keep the seeds and ribs, cut crosswise into circles)
1–2 carrots (shredded)
1 unripe green papaya (shredded with a mandoline)
1–2 stalks celery (cut into 3-inch long matchsticks)
1/2 head of red or savoy cabbage (shredded as if for slaw)
1 medium red onion (sliced into rings, as thin as possible)
1/2 cup rice vinegar
juice of 1–2 limes
1 tbsp sesame oil
salt and pepper to taste

Prep all the fruits and vegetables, toss with the wet ingredients, and serve. All ingredients and proportions are mere suggestions.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A loving bounty

Garlic Marinated beefDried shrimp King mushrooms
If there is ever a question about how I came to love food, you can look to my family for the answer. My brother and I grew up with two parents who unabashedly enjoy cooking, eating, and trying out new items, and by hanging out in the kitchen as they prepared our meals, we learned how to taste and to create. We learned how to steam, sauté, braise, and bake; we learned which elements would balance others, how particular ingredients should be prepared, and the ways in which to make a dish brighter or richer or earthier. And as my brother and I each cook more and more on our own, we bring our discoveries back to the table, sharing our knowledge with one another as we acquire it.
Garlic and cilantro Green papayaMarinated pork Sliced carrots
So of course, whenever my brother and I go home to hang out with our parents, food plays a big role. My mom always has a multi-course meal planned. My dad usually has several large batches of his excellent mantou already steamed, and different dry grains measured out into a healthy mix for us to use instead of white rice. In turn, my brother and I show up with dishes we've made on our own, or interesting treats we've picked up along the way. Food, without question, is one of our happiest connections.
Braised tilefish and tofu
The last time we visited our folks, my family and I made five dishes for dinner: julienned king mushrooms sautéed with garlic and black sesame seeds; stir-fried snow peas and carrots; bulgogi-style beef over steamed broccoli; sliced green papaya sautéed with dried shrimp and pork; and soy-braised buffalo fish and soft tofu (pictured above). On a holiday or a special occasion the number of dishes would probably be double, but for just a regular stop, this is all pretty normal. And as usual there was plenty left over. So my brother and I packed up the remainders to continue enjoying the food of our family, even away from home.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Fast-food beer googles

I think the drinking started at 3 pm. As soon as I walked into the apartment of my friend's coworker, a shot of whiskey was thrust into my hand. I downed it, of course—it was Hoboken St. Patrick's Day.

Nine hours and many, many beers later, I found myself with TC in a KFC at Herald Square, staring dazedly at a pile of breaded chicken and fried potatoes. How did I get here? Nevermind. I ate my meal of fast food. And let me tell you, the potato wedges were diggity-dang delicious.

Friday, March 14, 2008

But before shabu, there were two stops

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I had some time to kill before dinner at Minni's, and I ended up moseying around Hong Kong Supermarket. I always find grocery stores amusing, and I especially enjoy poking around the Asian ones. Since I was about to go eat, I didn't buy much here, just some wasabi for my soba and a few heads of baby bok choy, which I like steaming and drizzling with ponzu as a simple veggie side dish (another idea from SO).
On the way out, I stopped at Fay Da Bakery (which has just opened a branch in Forest Hills). As it was the end of the day there wasn't much left, but I picked out two items to bring home.
I'd never seen a roll like this in a Chinese bakery. I had no idea what was inside; I asked the woman at the counter, but she just shrugged her shoulders and said, "egg." When I ate it the next day, it turned out to be a dryish, slightly fried round bread that had been wrapped around takuan, rousong, egg, lettuce, and a bit of sweet mayonnaise. I wasn't too impressed, but to be fair, I was eating it a day later and it probably would have tasted better fresh.
I also got a roast pork triangle. I love these, but never eat them because they're pretty heavy. This one was okay; it was a little too sweet and the crust wasn't as flaky as I would have liked. And I should have put it in the toaster oven beforehand, I think.

I usually stick to Manna House or Tai Pan for Chinese baked goods, and so far Fay Da hasn't made me change my mind. I'm always down to eat a bun or two in the name of research, though.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Shabu gone shabby

A few weeks ago, I came home to discover that my apartment had been broken into. The thieves had made off with my Macbook and my roommate's, and a few other items as well. I stayed home from work the next day to deal with everything, and when MH and TC proposed that we meet for dinner that night at Minni's Shabu Shabu in Flushing, I jumped at the opportunity. A hot, comforting meal of Chinese-style huoguo with close friends sounded like exactly what I needed.
Minni's is one of our regular meeting spots, so after we were seated the three of us placed our orders quickly. Between us we covered the trifecta of animal flesh: beef for MH, pork for TC, and chicken for me. A waitress came and poured hot broth from a kettle into the individual pots sunken into the table in front of us, and we each received the standard plate of accompaniments: sliced napa cabbage and water spinach; enoki mushrooms; shitaki mushrooms; pickled vegetables; several types of fish balls; three kinds of tofu; a small corn cob; a wedge of tomato; and some thin rice noodles.
The easiest way to cut meat thin enough to cook quickly in broth is to slice it while it's frozen, which is also how the chicken can be presented in these neat little rolls.
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My favorite part of eating huoguo is creating the dipping sauce. Unlike Japanese-style shabu-shabu, where typically two condiments are employed—one sesame-based, and the other ponzu—Chinese huoguo includes a pretty large variety. At Minni's, the choices are presented at a bar to the side so that you can mix things up to your liking. Usually I end up with a hodgepodge of ingredients in my bowl, some combination of chopped scallions, cilantro, shacha, hot sesame oil, peanut sauce, rice vinegar, hoisin sauce, and red fermented tofu paste. Certainly I could keep things simpler with a classic sauce of shacha with a raw egg yolk swirled into it, but I just can't say no to a condiment bar.
While we waited for the broth to come to a boil, we snacked on an order of egg pancakes. We get these every time. They aren't the greatest and I'm always disturbed by their flavor of artificial butter, but I always end up eating a piece or two—the layer of egg is thick and fluffy, and the pancakes, despite their fake taste, are addictive in that greasy, bad-for-you kind of way. (But ughhh, that chemical flavoring.)

Before long, the broth in our pots was bubbling and our meat was ready to cook. And here is where the meal really falls flat: the chicken was terrible. The pieces emerged from the broth as tough little discs of freezer-burnt rubber, not even saved by the sauce I slathered over them. About halfway through I gave up on the chicken and just ate from the plate of vegetables.

After I was done with my veg, I cracked my raw egg into the soup to quickly poach it, and then added in the rice noodles to suck up the remaining broth. I mixed these with the sauce left in my bowl and topped the combination with my egg, and as always, that small final bowl of noodles was what did me in. I was stuffed.

Minni's used to be a good bet, but I am starting to conclude that the place might have gone downhill. Their beef and pork options are superior to their chicken, so it's not all terrible, but I think the place just used to be better overall—fresher ingredients, and more variety. I'm not done with the place just yet, but if anyone has suggestions for other huoguo in the Flushing area, do tell.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Choosing eats at Choice Eats

This is how crazy-ass packed it was at tonight's event, Choice Eats. From the website description:

In recognition of the tantalizing and eclectic cuisine featured by resident food critic, Robert Sietsema, The Village Voice is proud to present our first-ever Choice Eats tasting event. We have scaled New York’s eclectic culinary landscape to bring together Robert’s tastiest picks from years of unearthing the five borough’s best-kept secrets. Set amid the backdrop of the historic Puck Building, guests will be invited to sample delicious treats that would otherwise require days of travel.

I heard about this grub-fest over a month ago, when it was first announced. As a long-time fan of Robert Sietsema, and of unusual, eclectic food, how could I resist? I quickly snapped up two tickets while alerting others who might be interested to do the same. By the time it rolled around I was there with five friends, and though it was impossible to stay together the whole time, between all of us I think we managed to sample almost everything being offered. Since there were so many items, I'm just going to briefly run down the things I tried—and rest assured that I did not eat everything pictured here. Mostly I just took a bite or two and passed it on.
Lentil and beef injera roll-ups, Queen of Sheba Pulled pork over stone-ground grits, Smoke Joint
Couscous plate, La Maison Du Couscous Cuban, fried chicken, octopus salad, shrimp salad, Margon
Clockwise from top left: injera roll-ups, one lentil, one beef, from Queen of Sheba; pulled pork on stone-ground grits from Smoke Joint; Cuban sandwich, fried chicken, octopus salad, and shrimp salad from Margon; a couscous plate from La Maison Du Couscous. All of these were tasty, though the octopus in the salad was a little tough.
Tamarind Short Rib, Kampuchea
This tamarind baby back rib from Kampuchea was a real standout. The sweet, caramelized meat was so tender it fell apart with the merest bit of pressure from my fork, and the bone left behind was completely clean. Tasting it definitely made me want to check out the restaurant.
Chorizo and croquette, Unknown Chicken "drumette," Yeti of Hieizan
Tuna and potato, El Anzuelo Fino Cornmeal mush, Unknown
Clockwise from top left: chorizo and croquette from…someplace?; fried chicken "drumette" from Yeti of Hieizan; some really bland cornmeal mush from I forget where (but I wouldn't go back anyway probably); tuna and potato thing from El Anzuelo Fino. Decent eats here, but not outstanding.
Vegetable-stuffed roti, fish ball, and sauteed roti, Nirvana
This plate, from Nirvana, was among my favorites. Aside from the fish ball (the round breaded item) which was extremely salty, I really liked the chewy, vegetable-stuffed roti (in back) as well as the stuff in front, which as far as I could tell was pieces of roti sautéed with shreds of chicken and some vegetables. The dish tasted familiar and yet unfamiliar to me, and was somehow very comforting to eat.
Chicken stuff on cucumber and fried thing, Pacifica Biryani, Deshi BIryani
Hummus and pita, Hummus Place Spicy shrimp stew on mini tortillas, Mercadito
Clockwise from top left: little cubes of chicken in a sweet sauce, on cucumber and a fried wonton skin, from Pacificana; lamb biryani (I think) from Deshi Biryani; spicy shrimp tacos from Mercadito; hummus and pita from Hummus Place. All of these, except the too-salty biryani (bleh), were quite good.
Short ribs? and coconut rice, Fatty Crab
I managed to snag one of Fatty Crab's last servings of these stewed short ribs (?) over coconut rice. The flavors and textures here were well balanced and it really made a difference that the dish was actually being served hot. As with the tamarind ribs from Kampuchea, this dish made me want to have a meal at the restaurant. Well, or maybe I just love Asian food.

I was definitely beyond full at this point, but I did still try a few other things, like beef goulash from Schnitzel Haus and dhokla from Tiffin Wallah, as well as a completely flavorless bean and pork dish from Maremma, the one real clunker of the evening (like eating nothing in bean-shaped form). And afterward, I emerged from the Puck Building (where my high school prom was held—um, what is up with these flashbacks recently?) groaning with fullness.

Now that I've digested a bit, here are some thoughts:

1) JL commented that there was a lot of "rice with stuff" action happening, as well as a lot of "cold fried meat" happening, and I agree. Most of these were pretty boring, except for the ones I pointed out as…not.

2) The restaurants that offered a single, representative dish made the greatest impression, since we were tasting their best item. There were some that had an entire assortment of different items, but with the sheer volume, I would only choose one or two and sometimes I would choose wrong (like the place with the bland chunk of cornmeal, for instance. That restaurant had about eight other items, but since they were along the lines of rice and fried chicken and stewed beef and there were plenty of those around, I skipped them in favor of what I hadn't tried). So I guess, in a bit of irony, I am actually arguing for less choice at Choice Eats.

3) I kind of wish there were more interesting beverages being offered at this event from vendors, not just drinks from the alcohol sponsors. Like the cashew fruit drink I had at Red Hook, say, or horchata, or chicha morada: all those fun drinks you can't buy bottled.

4) I'm glad that pains were being taken to recycle or compost everything later, but it was dumb that we were offered these nice, durable plastic cups from Preserve Everyday for our usage, and then forced to throw them out at the door (even if they were empty). Isn't one of the best environmental practices of all to reuse?

5) Even if they're being recycled, thousands of plastic forks and paper plates must have died for Choice Eats tonight. On my end, I held on to my fork instead of throwing them out each time, and I tried to get servers to just place whatever they were serving onto my current plate instead of a fresh one. I hope others did the same.

All in all it was a fun event, but I'm not sure I would do it again. I felt like I couldn't really savor anything because there was so much going on. My initial exhilaration from all these great dishes being available quickly gave way to exhaustion from the crowds; it was overwhelming. I'd much rather take my time and go to these restaurants for a leisurely meal. But this event has definitely helped me to shape my list and to sample new things, and for that, I'd recommend it.

For the complete set of photos, click here.