Saturday, August 30, 2008

Where the noodles come in pink: Zabb Thai

While wandering around Astoria looking for a place to eat, TL and I passed by Zabb Thai, which had taken over the space that used to be Thai Angel. The weather was fine and a street fair was going on, but TL had eaten at Zabb once or twice before and I was always game for a good dish of noodles. So Thai for lunch it was.

Above: Iced tea for TL, iced coffee for me. Way too sweet but nice and strong.
As I'd never had Thai sour sausage before I tried for the Esan sausage appetizer, but the server came back after we'd ordered to apologetically inform us that they were out of it that day. I then tried to order a different appetizer, which they were also out of. We ended up with a string bean salad though, which was delicious: snappy blanched string beans, ground chicken, chopped peanuts, and a handful of medium-sized shrimp tossed in a sweet, thin coconut milk dressing. The chicken was warm and the salad was cool, a good showcase for all the different textures and flavors. While waiting for our entrees we happily ate every last bean.
I loved the crab fried rice, which was delicately paired with scallions, onions, and egg. I kept turning up big lumps of crabmeat with my fork, which was a surprise at only ten dollars for the dish. I was really into the light flavor and perfect, chewy consistency of each grain.
Pad mee ka tee
Photo by TL

At Thai restaurants noodles are always a must for me, but when we ordered the pad mee ka tee (described as "sautéed rice noodle (angel hair) w. creme coconut milk, bean sprout, bean curd, and chive"), neither of us expected the bright pink mass that was delivered to our table. I still haven't figured out what gave it that particular hue, but the noodles did have a flavor that I couldn't place no matter how many times I took another bite—plum? It was really tasty whatever it was; TL was such a fan he ended up finishing off the plate.

The prices at Zabb are a little higher than the neighborhood average given its portion sizes, but it's certainly still inexpensive and the quality of the food is worth it. There are items on the menu that I don't typically see, and the dishes are clearly fresh and prepared with care. I'm glad it's around!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Dos Caminos: Fancy pants Mexican

Last month, another birthday dinner, this time for JS, whom we hoped to stuff with guacamole until he cursed us all. For six or seven of us we ordered two huge bowls of the stuff at Dos Caminos, which were mixed and mashed on the spot and served with thick, hearty tortilla chips. One bowl was mild and one was spicy, but sadly for the heat fiends, there ended up being little difference between the two.
I ordered a Negra Modela served "Mordida style," which meant there were chilis and a lime wedge and a salt-rimmed glass in the mix. The spiciness of the concoction made me sweat, but it was pretty awesome.
For my entree I got the baby back ribs, which were served with "Mexican street style" creamed corn and a radicchio-bacon slaw. The slaw was overwhelmingly salty, but the ribs were sweet and smoky and tender, and tart from a pomegranate-mustard glaze. The cup of creamed corn—a bowl really—was thick and cheesy, like a dip. I found myself eating it with the remaining tortilla chips from the guacamole; consuming it straight would have been too much, I think.
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I took a few spoonfuls of GQ's camarones en cazuela, an excellent dish of sautéed jumbo shrimp over saffron chorizo rice, the latter which reminded me of a cross between risotto and paella. Not excellent were TC's crab empanadas, which were total clunkers: flaccid, soggy, tasteless, and without any noticeable crab.
After our entrees I went for something coffee-based—I don't remember the name, but it was sweet and milky and shot through with dulce de leche. For me this was dessert in itself, but there were actual desserts to share….
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On the left is the "Mexican banana split," with white chocolate coffee/peanut butter crackle/Mexican chocolate flavored ice creams; cajeta; pineapple and chocolate sauces; bananas; churros; and a sprinkling of jalapeño brittle. The individual parts were good, but altogether it all seemed sort of muddled; maybe this is desirable in a sundae? I fared better with the white and dark chocolate fondue, which came with strawberries, bananas, brownies, passion fruit marshmallows, and mini churros, the last one being my favorite. There was the third dessert, too: the "Oaxacan chocolate mousse cake," which came with pistachio ice cream…and a candle on top. The desserts were good, but singing and humiliating JS was better—we might have been celebrating his age, but embarrassing the hell out of friends is just one of those things that so far, hasn't gotten old.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

When intimidated by lit class

Wonton noodles with bok choy, fried shallots
…go home and eat noodles.


Wonton noodles with bok choy, fried shallots, oyster sauce, Sriracha, and sesame oil.

A 2nd life for 2nd Ave Deli

DW was skipping off to China, I was skipping off to Northern Colorado, and along with our former and current coworkers MW and LF, we had a small send-off/catch-up lunch at the new 2nd Ave Deli. It was no longer on 2nd Ave, but according to most reports little else had changed. I had never eaten at the original so I wouldn't have been able to catch any differences anyway—I just knew I wanted to give this new/old New York institution a try.
Pretty soon after we sat down, three items were placed on our table: a bowl of pickles (half sours, full sours, and a green tomato); a sweet, vinegary slaw; and a small dish of gribenes, or fried chicken skin with caramelized onions. I was only one of two people to taste them, and perhaps those who didn't knew what they were doing—aside from the novelty of it, the morsels of skin were hard instead of crunchy and tasted like grease. Good pickles and cabbage salad, though.
We ordered, and I also asked for a Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda to wash down the pile of carbohydrates I was about to consume. Whose idea was it to throw celery into a sweet, fizzy beverage? Who knew that it would actually taste pretty good?
The matzoh brei was fun for about five forkfuls, them sickening for the rest. It was oily, bland, squidgy in the teeth. While I liked the chewiness and the egginess (sort of like my beloved egg pancakes in chunk form), it badly needed something to boost up its flavor. I ate some with ketchup and with caramelized onions I nicked from LF's potato peirogi, but after a while even that didn't help anymore.
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The "hush puppy," which was a hot dog inside of a potato knish instead of the little fried blobs of cornmeal I was accustomed to, was tasty, nudged along even more by dollops of mustard. It was good in that junk-food kind of way, but sat like a brick in my stomach later on.

And that photo at the very top? A complimentary shot of chocolate soda that came along with our bill, which tasted just about how you'd expect. Fizzy, chocolately, a wee bit sour from the carbonation.

So. I don't know what the original 2nd Ave Deli was like, but I wasn't that impressed with my meal, and I'm not sure my dining companions were with theirs, either. Maybe I didn't order the right things—a spoonful of DW's matzo ball soup was quite delicious, and the matzo ball itself light as air; LF's peirogi were good, too. Still, as its prices weren't too cheap, either, I'm just not sure it's worth a return visit. Ah, well.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Real fireworks, this time

Last month my family and I attended the Cunningham Park performance of the New York Philharmonic, part of their Concerts in the Park program. I first went with RO years ago, and have been taking my parents since (I skip the ones held at the Great Lawn in Central Park as they're simply too hectic). Typically, the folks bring food, lawn chairs, and blankets from the house and my brother and I meet them at the park after work, but this year I told my parents I would take care of dinner. However, since I was a little lost for inspiration and short on time, I turned to the old standby: spicy tuna kimbap (and assorted pajeon) from Woorijip. Like I said, kimbap makes the perfect picnic food.
Since there were more of us this year than just my family—TC and her family met us there, and GQ came along too—I also hopped down to Chinatown to pick up several bánh mì from Sau Voi Corporation, which I've written about before. Two of the special, and two of the grilled chicken variety; both were great. Sau Voi is actually growing on me as one of the most consistently tasty bánh mì in town.
Aside from avoiding the crowds, the other main draw for going to Cunningham Park is that their firework display at the end is awesome, way more awesome than the one in Central Park, which you can only see off in the distance. At Cunningham they really do look like they're falling on your head, and for me (and TC) it's the real highlight of the night. Especially after our debacle at the LIC piers just a week or so earlier, it was just what we needed to satisfy out fireworks jones.

Limes in phở, lemons in soda: Nha Trang

Phở, oh how I love you phở. Continuing the Vietnamese food kick, I met up with SYB for lunch at Nha Trang on Baxter Street, where I promptly ordered the phở dac biet, a large bowl of slippery rice noodles swimming in a soup with brisket, eye of round, tendon, and tripe, and some beef balls I added in for good measure. From watching TL eat his phở when we were in Boston, I learned to squeeze in a ton of limes along with the hoisin and Sriracha sauces, creating a dark, beefy broth full of smoky, spicy, and sour flavors. Mmm.
Along with my heaping bowl of phở, I asked for a soda chanh muoi (salty lemon soda). Served as a can of seltzer and a few spoonfuls of preserved, salted lemon at the bottom of a cup of ice, you're meant to pour the seltzer over the sweet and salty lemon pieces and mix the whole thing up with a spoon. It's a really refreshing and uniquely Vietnamese beverage, and when I'm not looking for a caffeine hit from their strong coffees, I usually ask for this or the salted plum version.

Between the phở and the soda, however, that was a whole lot of liquid, and I walked out of the restaurant feeling a serious sloshing in my belly. Next time I know, only one or the other—not both.

Monday, August 25, 2008

An alluring burrito at Elora's

It's a terrible photo, I know, but this is the best damn burrito ever, and I had to share. Above is an "Elora's Burrito" from Elora's, a Mexican/Spanish restaurant in Park Slope. DT and I had walked in just ten or fifteen minutes before the place was about to close, soaked from being outside in the rain during the Feist concert at the Prospect Park Bandshell, and luckily weren't turned away. In fact, we were ushered in and warmly greeted.
And it could have been the three or four beers we each had during the concert, but everything was especially delicious that night, including the quesadilla that we split, above.
Elora's Burrito is stuffed with rice, refried beans, large pieces of snappy shrimp, and chunks of cauliflower and broccoli—and doused with a thin, creamy, completely addictive white sauce. I have no idea what was in that sauce (crack?) but I couldn't get enough of it. Even after that initial quesadilla and many, many tortilla chips, I wanted to eat that burrito until I burst. As for DT, after one bite of the burrito he pretty much abandoned his entire order of carnitas in order to dig into my plate.

We ate quickly despite the assurances of our server, who even as the place closed up around us was extremely gracious and urged us not to worry, that we could take our time and that they would take care of us. Needless to say, we left a large tip, grateful for Elora's hospitality and nearly giddy from one of the best (and unusual) burritos either of us had ever tasted.

Popping my macaron: Madeleine Patisserie, Bouchon Bakery

I'd never had a French macaron before, but had been reading about them forever. People seemed to be nuts for these airy, pastel-colored sweets, but I still had no idea what they tasted like. It's not that I didn't have access to macarons; they're sold in many places, but I wanted my first experience to be…perfect. So unless I was in a bakery where I knew someone else had deemed them worthy, I always passed them by.

However, when I met GQ for coffee at Madeleine Patisserie one afternoon and she started exclaiming over the macaron display, I gave in. They looked tasty for sure, winking up from the display case in their jewel-like glory. She chose crème de cassis, I chose pistachio, and we took them outside with our cups of coffee and settled ourselves on a bench to dig in.
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And they were delicious. I know I'm just a newbie, but without anything to compare them to, these were some damn fine macarons. Each bite of the light, chewy cookies gave way to a buttery-soft creme filling. They were moist and dense and just sweet enough. The only quibble I'd have is with the flavoring: while I could taste the floral, nutty flavor of almonds, I couldn't taste much pistachio or blackberry. Really though, I didn't even care—I liked them just fine.
Several weeks later I was with TL in the Time Warner Center, and I dropped in at Bouchon Bakery to check out their macarons. Theirs are ones that I have heard about, and after sampling Madeleine Patisserie's, I was eager to see how my first ones had compared.
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I bought two for us to share, but for various reasons TL and I didn't get to sample them until a day or two later (so they could have been a bit stale, though they seemed okay). I wasn't as into the "Fruits of the Forest" flavor, which had a hard, jellyish filling that seemed to detract from the sensation of biting into soft cookie with soft filling. But the other one was divine—and unfortunately I can't remember what flavor it was! I do remember a sweet, jammy filling; I want to say passionfruit but I don't want to mislead anyone. But yeah. If you see that macaron above: get it.

Now I know the allure of the macaron…and how some have been driven to obsession over them. Overall I think I liked Madeleine Patisserie's macaron's better, but I wonder if it was also the magic of my initial taste. Because you know, there's just nothing like the first time….

Saturday, August 23, 2008

To market, to market: Westville East

For simple, fresh food, Westville is the place to go, but though I'd eaten at the original Westville several years back and liked it a lot, its small size had always made it tricky to suggest it for meals and I hadn't returned since.

Westville East to the rescue. With nearly triple the amount of seats as the original, BH and I managed to get a seat in no time. It's still not huge, but it can certainly accommodate more diners than their eighteen-seat West Village location.
One of the notable features of this restaurant is their offering of "The Westville Market," which is a daily listing of seasonal fresh vegetable sides. For five bucks you can choose one, or for thirteen you can choose four, the latter being what BH and I decided to share as one of our two entrees.

Above: cauliflower dijonaisse; brussel sprouts with honey dijon; Asian style bok choy; lemon grilled asparagus with parmesan. It's been a while since this meal, but I do remember especially liking the cauliflower and the sprouts. The only bummer was the "Asian-style" bok choy, which had been overwhelmed by a too-liberal dousing of soy sauce.
One half of the "cast-iron" turkey burger, which we requested with sweet potato fries. This was a generously sized burger, paired with pickles and tomatoes on a slightly sweet Portuguese muffin. The burger was juicy and flavorful, and the pile of fries deliciously crisp, too. For a turkey burger, it might be one of the best I've ever had.

Westville East had a tempting menu of desserts, too, but BH and I were happy after our veggie plate and turkey burger and opted to hit up a nearby bar for a beer instead, feeling quite virtuous after our hearty and semi-healthy meal.

Pio Pio: Roasted chicken for giant appetites

Note: I am in Fort Collins now and no longer in New York City, but though the Colorado posts will definitely follow, I'm going to continue with the backlog of New York posts for now….
One afternoon several months ago, RL came online and began raving about the meal she had eaten at Pio Pio, putting the place once again on my radar. It wasn't the first time I had heard of the Peruvian restaurant—BH and I had also attempted to go before (and never made it) and even before that, I had been hearing about the chicken at the various locations of Pio Pio for years. Specifically, the thirty-dollar Matador Combo: a whole roasted chicken accompanied by rice and beans, tostones, salchipapa, and an avocado salad. That's what had inspired RL to her ravings, and I wanted in.
So last month, with GQ in town and RL and I trying to figure out where to take her for dinner, Pio Pio seemed like the perfect choice. At the Murray Hill location (home of the world's surliest waiter) we started with a pitcher of sangria, too syrupy for my tastes and nearly without fruit, but sweet-toothed GQ seemed to enjoy it.
Before we get to the Matador Combo, let's talk jalea. Misled by RL's assurance that ordering both the combo and another item wouldn't be too much for three people, I added on an order for jalea, described on the menu as "typical Peruvian seafood platter topped with an onion and tomato lime sauce." I was completely bowled over when the above plate came out—not only was the entire damn thing deep fried (I had been expecting something more like ceviche), but that was the small size! I cannot even imagine how big the large size would have been.

And then the rest of it came out….
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Tostones, avocado salad, salchipapa, rice and beans. It was all a little bit nuts. The fried green plaintains were huge, the fries and fried hot dogs were huge, all of it was huge. Including the chicken:
Yeah. I could barely hide my shock over how badly we had misjudged the portion sizes.

But so?
you're thinking. How was it?

In a word, awesome. The jalea, a good mix of fish and seafood though heavy on the shrimp and squid, was really well fried and paired perfectly with the vinegary red onions scattered on top. The chicken was extremely flavorful and juicy as hell, and had a nice crisp skin. And the sides, aside from the tostones (which were dry and hard) made excellent companions.

We couldn't finish everything, of course, and the tragedy is that fried food never keeps very well. So though we ate what we could and took whatever we couldn't finish home, the leftover seafood and fries eventually went into the bin. So here's the lesson: go to Pio Pio, order the Matador Combo and the jalea, but come prepared with a huge appetite—or several other people!

Friday, August 22, 2008

I'm here, I'm here

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Yes. I made it to Fort Collins, and have been here for several days now trying to get settled in. I flew in with two suitcases and a backpack, and on the way managed to get a free round-trip ticket to anywhere in the US by volunteering to give up my seat for one on a flight an hour later. And though it took some huffing and puffing, I still made my originally scheduled shuttle bus which would take me from the Denver airport to campus. Score.
On my first and second day here CH was nice enough to take me grocery shopping, both at King Soopers (a local supermarket) and at a huge Vietnamese grocery an hour away in Denver, followed by a massive trip to Target for apartment needs. My place had come furnished, thankfully, but was still missing all the little things: the lamps, the bathmats, the shoe racks, the bowls and plates. I think I blew nearly 250 bucks on groceries and about 400 at Target…brutal but necessary, I suppose.
I did pretty well though, don't you think? Since I don't have a car, I figured I should stock up on as much as I could while someone was driving. So now I've got rice, and noodles, and sauces and snacks and pickley things, and a whole bunch of whatever else caught my eye that day. I've got eggs and produce in the fridge and another cabinet full of condiments. I just hope I can make everything last.
Because honestly, I don't fancy the walk needed to make it to the nearest supermarket. I tried it a few days ago and it's about 1.5 miles, mostly on this road above…gone are the days of popping into a bodega for a lime, an onion. The walk is alright once or twice for novelty, but until I get myself a bike (soon) I don't think I'll go for it again. And who knows when I'll make it into Denver again for the Asian goods?
What I've been eating for lunch these days: fried eggs with oyster sauce over rice. There's some cut-up broccoli hidden under there.

So I'm thinking that the nature of my posts is going to be quite different. Lots more home cooking, far less eating out. Which is all well and good I suppose, since I was getting just a wee bit indulgent with restaurant-hopping in NYC. I've still got a backlog of posts which I'll finish up, but after that…we'll see what this graduate student life holds in store for me.