Friday, February 27, 2009

East Japanese Restaurant: In-between cuisine

I've gone to the various locations of the East Japanese mini-chain several times now over the years, mostly because they offer okay sushi at very low prices—a step up from the boxed, pre-packaged stuff, but at nearly the same price and in a full restaurant setting. And every Tuesday at the 44th Street location, all yakitori is offered at a 50 percent discount, making it an ideal place for MH and I to meet for a late dinner after I parted ways with DL at Wined Up.
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As you might expect, we took advantage of the Tuesday night special by ordering a bunch of items from the yakitori menu. These were the first two to come out: grilled broccoli and a grilled rice ball. The rest were going to take longer, since the skewered items were in hot demand.
We also got several maki: yellowtail and scallion, spicy tuna, and the "East roll" (egg, shrimp, cucumber, and avocado, rolled in tobiko). I know I said the sushi at East wasn't great (actually, East's 27th Street location provided the food at the booze and karaoke fest at Japas 27 I wrote about earlier, so I figured it was the same caliber), but the rolls I had on this night were even more mediocre than usual. We ate them, but there's nothing much to talk about here.
Finally, the yakitori came out. We were both too full from the mediocre sushi to eat much of it, and some we abandoned entirely after one bite, such as the filler-packed chicken meatballs. But the beef-wrapped asparagus was excellent, and so were the sweet grilled scallops, which came with the gills still attached: a deterrent for MH, but not for me. The shrimp was just okay.

East is where you go when you want cheap Japanese food in a decent setting, and that's about all you can expect from it. Still, for the place it fills between supermarket sushi and high-end joints that I can pretty much never afford, I'm glad it's around.

Sips and nibbles at Wined Up

After spending an afternoon taking advantage of the ridiculous sales taking place in all the stores along Fifth Ave, I made my way over to Broadway and 20th to meet up with DL at Wined Up for a drink and light nosh after she was done with work. Wined Up is the sleek, comfortable wine bar located above the restaurant Punch, and while we had the option of ordering from Punch's dinner menu, we opted to pair our vino with a selection of cheeses instead. How could we not, with both of us being total cheese-lovers?
We chose three—La Tur, Brie de Nangis, and Mil Ovejas—and you can see some of the adjectives Wined Up used to describe the different cheeses in the first photo. I think my favorite was the La Tur; it had the texture of a dense cheesecake, and was perfect alone or spread on a bit of the accompanying grilled bread.
DL wanted dessert, too, so she asked for the bread pudding, which came interspersed with bits of roasted strawberries and was topped with a scoop of amaretto ice cream with cocoa nibs and toasted almonds. This was pretty good, and just the right size.

While I don't know enough about wine to comment on what we drank—except to say that I liked it—I think Wined Up is a great place to linger with nibbles and drinks, especially with the floor-to-ceiling windows at the front offering a nice view of Broadway and beyond. And romantic, too, if you're looking for a date spot.

Snacking on the cheap in Flushing

Photo taken April 12, 2008

Each week, my parents drive into Flushing, Queens and spend the afternoon ballroom dancing and singing karaoke. When I was home during break, I took the opportunity to tag along, mostly so I could get my snack on in the area while they tangoed and waltzed.
The roast pork triangles from the new Fay Da Bakery location near Queens Crossing are awesome, especially when eaten still warm from their heated display next to the cash register. The pastry crust is flaky and tender, and the whole thing is practically bulging with sweet roast pork. Unlike other versions, where the roast pork filling often tends to be full of chunks of fat, Fay Da's is relatively lean and not too sweet, either. I'm sure the lard in the crust will still kill me, but at least the filling won't.
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I stopped by Gu Shine, too, to see if I could get my hands on some of the bing that I saw being griddled in the window the week before. When I had tried to order one then, it was late in the day and all of the remaining bing had already been reserved by someone else, and this time I was informed that none were going to be prepared until a few hours later. Fail!

But seeing my disappointment, my mom picked some up after their ballroom dance session, and I tried them the next day. While the loss in freshness may have accounted for some of the disappointment I felt when I tasted them, I'm not sure how much better they would have been considering the meager ratio of filling to dough. There was simply too much bread to make the bing notable. So much effort, so little reward.
The gua bao from Gu Shine, though, was much better. Braised pork belly, pickled mustard greens, chopped peanuts, cilantro, and sugar (yes, sugar) inside a soft steamed bun, which at two bucks for the whole monster beats the hell out of Momofuku's pork buns, at least in terms of cost value. Granted, the ones at Momofuku use pedigreed ingredients, but at less than half the price for nearly four times the size, I'm not asking for my pork bun's credentials.

This one I dropped off at my brother's office, along with a load of taro and turnip cake and a bunch of other goodies from my parents. I serve as a pretty good food shepherd, if I do say so myself.

Dim sum dishes at home

In January, when I was home in NYC for winter break, my parents went over some of the dishes they wanted to cook while I was home: beef noodle soup, turnip and taro cake, and sticky rice. Unfortunately, I was running around so much that I was rarely home while they were. So it wasn't until near the end of vacation, after I got back from Montreal, that I was able to be home while my parents were cooking.
It was worth the wait. My mom's turnip cake is studded with bits of Chinese sausage, pork, dried shrimp, and shallots and full of turnip flavor. The taro version is tender but chunkier than the turnip one, and both share the same rustic quality that one day I'm determined to replicate. We pan-fried slices of both cakes with a minimum of oil, so they didn't get as crisp on the outside as I might have liked, but the decrease in fat and calories is worth the trade, I think.
The sticky rice, too, was delicious; each grain was perfectly chewy and imbued with flavor. If this kind of grain wasn't so difficult to digest, I would have have more than just a bowlful. I'll have to learn how to make this dish here in Colorado, once I get my hands on some sweet rice.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Now, writing for The Coloradoan!

I know I'm woefully behind in my posts, but I'm breaking the chronology to invite you to check out my writeup of Ti Bar in this week's entertainment section of The Coloradoan. From now on I'll be contributing a profile of a local restaurant every month!

(And yes, I'm still posting. Just…slowly.
Schoolwork man, it can kill you.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Meandering in Montreal, Part 2: Le Taj, Fairmount Bagels, Le Cheval, and Pho 32 revisited

Catch up here! Meandering in Montreal, Part 1
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AS had announced his desire to try one of the numerous Indian buffets in the area, so the next morning after checking out of the hotel we headed to Le Taj for lunch, a large open restaurant with high ceilings and uncrowded tables. The price for the buffet was something around $12, and boasted a good selection of dishes for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
Here's my plate. From what I can remember, there's lamb curry, fish curry, a samosa, lentils, tandoori chicken, string beans, eggplant and potato curry, a fritter, pickled cabbage, and curried cauliflower on there. Except for the fried goods which were too greasy, most items were fresh, well-balanced, and of good quality; the naan, which usually gets dried out on buffet steam tables, was fluffy and moist too. I especially enjoyed the fish curry made with tender hunks of salmon, a fish that was a surprisingly good match for the strong flavors and spices.
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I was surprised by the dessert table too, which had really fresh gulab jamun (still hot and crisp-edged despite its syrup soak), mildly sweet, moist squares made with semolina flour, and kheer, a creamy Indian rice pudding flavored with rosewater and cardamom. At most buffets you don't get this many dessert options.
Not sure of what else to do, we found ourselves back on Rue Mont-Royal, hoping that a stroll in the daytime would prove less frigid than our nighttime sprint. After walking around for a while we headed to Fairmont Bagels, a Montreal institution for the boiled-and-baked good. It was crowded both inside and out, with orders being rapidly placed and filled at the narrow counter. I made my way to the front and asked for a dozen: half everything, three onion, and three poppy seed.
(I didn't taste them until I got home, but when I did was terribly disappointed. I'd heard so much about the unique, Montreal-style bagel, and expected something pretty extraordinary. After toasting one of them to restore its crust, I bit into the bagel and found myself with a mouthful of bland, vaguely chewy bread. Later, when I examined the bag, I saw the words "salt-free." Let me just say this: these bagels need some salt, and the much-touted Montreal-style bagel is just not great. Sorry.)
It's been said that no visit to Montreal is complete without poutine, and we weren't about to miss out. Unfortunately, the place I had wanted to try—Patati Patata—was filled to the brim with other poutine-noshers and for the four of us, simply too crowded to attempt. After trying desperately to look up other good options in the area, we gave up and headed to Casino de Montreal as planned, hoping that in one of its restaurants the dish would be on offer.

It seemed like a miss at first until I spotted the little placard sitting on the bar at Le Cheval, one of the snack and bar areas roped off from the rest of the casino. Poutine wasn't available on its own, but could be purchased as part of a set meal including either one or two hot dogs and a drink. We went for the deal.

I'm sure this wasn't the best version I could have tried, or even anywhere close. The fries were frozen, the thin gravy probably canned, and the cheese curds soft and tasteless, melting in a way that was completely unlike the fresh, squeaky curds I had envisioned. Still, it gave me a taste of what I might be looking for. And according to TL, TVD, and AS, the hot dogs were decent too.

After that, we headed out. We crossed the border successfully, drove six hours a little less successfully due to the administration of a speeding ticket, and finally reached Manhattan near midnight, starving.
Where else but K-town to satisfy a late-night dinner craving? We headed straight for Pho 32 & Shabu, where one server alone was handling the entire restaurant. At that hour, there weren't many people in there, but nearly all the empty tables were piled high with abandoned plates and food because he didn't have enough time to clear them. It looked as if people had been called out of the restaurant for a sudden fire drill.

TL and I split an order of the fried chicken dumplings, which had the exact shape and filling as the Ling Ling brand potstickers I wrote about. I'm almost positive they are the same—just look at 'em! I should start frying my own.
I got pho with extra meatballs, and it was perfect. Not a perfect bowl of pho—the broth was weak, the herbs and vegetation pitiful, and there were too many onions and not enough noodles—but a perfect thing to eat on a cold night after a long drive home. Something about parting ways after a trip always seems sad to me, so I was glad to have a final meal with AS and TVD before TL and I headed back to Astoria. Even then, I was sorry to say goodbye.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Meandering in Montreal, Part 1: Eggspectation, Marche Jean-Talon, L'Express, Second Cup, and Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill

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So maybe Montreal wasn't the best idea for a mid-January getaway from NYC. In my defense, it was probably 60 degrees in Fort Collins when I first made the plans with TL, TVD, and AS to go, and I have this inability to imagine shivering and being ridiculously cold when I'm sitting around in a tank top with the sun shining. How bad could it get, I figured?

When there's gusting wind, a thick layer of snow on the ground, and temperatures hovering in the teens: Bad, I tell you, bad.
Luckily, Saturday morning after our teeth-chattering, late-night arrival to Montreal in our rental car, there was breakfast. A good hot one, consumed at Eggspectation, a spacious "resto-cafe-bar" only several streets away from our hotel. As you might suppose from its name, the menu of Eggspectation is full of terrible egg puns, which of course I lovedno yolk!

I opted for the "California Benedict," which threw smoked salmon, spinach, asparagus, and whole wheat bread into the classic poached egg and hollandaise equation; as usual, I didn't care for the sauce so I'm glad I asked for it on the side. The benedict came on a pile of fried potato rounds, which you can't see in this photo, but were good. Altogether the four of us had a pretty solid breakfast, and thus fortified we went off to explore the Francophone city.
First stop was Marche Jean-Talon, a popular indoor food market I'd read about in Zach Brook's post on Serious Eats. It's fun, with coffee and pastry shops surrounding stands of beautifully arranged produce, but as we didn't have any reason to buy anything we didn't stay long.
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We ended up in Chinatown next, where TVD went on an epic paper umbrella hunt on behalf of her Vietnamese traditional dance team, and I peered into all the windows of the restaurants and bakeries. Montreal's Chinatown isn't large—maybe covering only a few streets—but seemed fairly diverse. The area was filled with tourists and locals alike, turning the uncleared snow on the ground into wet slush.
We hung out in Chinatown until TL's old friend CM and her significant other met up with us for lunch. I was psyched when they suggested going to L'Express, since I had noted it as one of the restaurants I wanted to try.
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L'Express is a very French-feeling place, with classic dishes and preparations. After we placed our orders, out came a giant mason jar of cornichons and baskets of amazing bread and good butter; I could have made a meal of these three items alone. The crusty bread had great toasty flavor and a chewy crumb that I simply could not get enough of.
I had read Orangette's loving ode to céleri rémoulade only a few weeks earlier, so when I spotted the creamy celery root salad on the menu I couldn't resist ordering it. I'd never tried this preparation before, and the dish was as she had described: a clean crunch in a rich dressing, a good accompaniment and starter dish. The recipe Molly posted for céleri rémoulade didn't include capers, but in L'Express's version they were there and added a nice pop and brightness.
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Three of us went with the croque monsieur, a hot griddled sandwich of ham and swiss cheese and béchamel. They came with a pile of excellent fries that were crisp and hearty with potato flavor, and I enjoyed the sandwich as well, which even made me a little nostalgic. The last time I'd had a croque monsieur was when I was in college studying abroad for a semester in London; my friends and I went to Paris for one weekend. At the restaurants, the croque monsieur was typically one of the cheapest items on the menu, so that's what I would eat. I wished L'Express had offered a croque madame, too—the same sandwich but with a fried or poached egg on top—but at the same time, that's really just overkill. The plate was rich enough as it was.
Something sweet was in order after that, so TL and I split a serving of orange flan, topped with candied peels and floating in a citrus-scented caramel. Light, creamy, and brightly flavored: it was a nice end to the meal.
We parted ways with CM and spent the rest of the afternoon walking along Rue Mont-Royal and Boulevard St-Laurent. After a while, the weather became so cold none of us could feel our faces anymore. It was time to turn back, but by then we had wandered so far from our car that we had to duck into a branch of Second Cup—a Starbucks-like coffee chain—to warm up before continuing the rest of the way.

Back at the hotel, all four of us nearly immediately passed out on the beds, not to wake until several hours later. We had gotten up early that morning, and it had caught up with us at last.
Finally, we roused ourselves and headed out in search of dinner. Since it was already quite late in the evening, our hotel concierge recommended we go to the nearby Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill where we could have a meal, take in some music, and have drinks without wasting time moving from place to place. This turned out to be a fine suggestion, as the place was intimate, the food satisfying, and the performance relaxed and friendly.
I had the pappardelle verona, flat pasta ribbons tossed with chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, and garlic in a white-wine cream sauce. It was a little strange to eat in near-darkness (you know how I feel about eating in the dark) but the meal was otherwise quite decent.

We moved on after that to a different sort of club—one I probably shouldn't mention here. Let's just end this one with us getting back to the hotel late and then passing out. The next day, we'd only have half a day left in Montreal…

Next: Meandering in Montreal, Part 2