Bites, July 2006
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When I was a kid there was Italian food. Italian food meant red-sauce Southern-style cooking. There was also "Northern Italian food," but it was a rarity. If there were restaurants specializing in local or regional cuisines, I didn't know about them. There's hardly an Italian regional cuisine that's not available in New York now. There are plenty of Tuscan places, Sicilian, Roman, Sardinian, Pugliese, Venetian, etc. Le Zie, in Chelsea, is Venetian. I found out about the restaurant when I was researching Roberto Passon, whom I've written about earlier. I believe Passon, a Venetian, was the original executive chef at Le Zie. The food at Le Zie is very good and the prices are amazingly reasonable. My friend Joanna (who has a very quotable namesake) and I shared the cicchetti sampler appetizer and one main course, correctly assuming that the appetizer would be rather large. Cicchetti is the Venetian version of tapas that I first discovered not in Venice but at the excellent San Francisco ciccheteria, Pesce. I believe cicchetti are usually ordered individually, but Le Zie offers instead a cornucopia of 12 items for only $17.95:
"CICCHETTI" (Venetian Sampling)
Stuffed Fried Olives, Eggplant al "Funghetto", Marinated Zucchini, Beans and Onion, Cod Mousse, Shrimp Cakes, Sardines in "Saor", Octopus with Celery, White Baits in Ceviche, Meat Balls, Chickpea Salad Served with White and Yellow Grilled Polenta
The cod mousse, sardines, and whitebait (alici) were especially good. The chickpeas had a nice accent of lemon zest, and the zucchini was enlivened by mint.
For the main course we shared one of the daily fish specials, a whole branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) roasted in a salt crust, a traditional Venetian preparation. The salt casing seals in the juices and the result is an amazingly flavorful, delicate serving of fish. The fish is cooked with the scales on, which keeps the salt from permeating the flesh. In essence, the fish steams in its own juices. At Le Zie the fish was served fileted, accompanied by spinach and potatoes. I'd had fish prepared this way once before, at Brooklyn's stellar Al Di La. While Le Zie may not be in the same league as Al Di La, the bargain basement prices and the fact that it's much easier to get into (though neither take reservations) insure that I'll be returning.
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One of my favorite lunch and after-work early dinner spots is Menchanko-Tei, a Japanese noodle shop. Their namesake menchanko is an iron-pot noodle casserole that features a large cast of guest ingredients, but my favorite hot noodle dish is the Hakata ramen, served in a luxurious pork bone broth. Both are specialties of Fukuoka, the largest city on the Japanese island of Kysuhu; modern Fukuoka incorporates the old port city of Hakata. Menchanko-Tei also offers a wide selection of oden, small boiled items ordered a la carte and served in a bowl of hot broth; the takara bukuro, a "treasure pouch" made of fried tofu and stuffed with chicken, mushrooms and other goodies, is especially nice. On a hot summer day, however, there's nothing more refreshing than their hiyashi chuka, the classic Japanese cold noodle dish. The version at Menchanko-Tei features perfectly chewy ramen in a chilled soy and vinegar-based broth, topped with sliced chicken, shitake mushrooms, shredded omelet, lettuce, cucumber, pickled ginger and toasted nori seaweed. Add a little mustard to the broth, slurp, enjoy.
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A long overdue lunch date with Steve Smith* brought me to Tulcingo del Valle, a Mexican restaurant on 10th Avenue.
The New York Mexican community is overwhelmingly Poblano, i.e., from the state of Puebla. Tulcingo del Valle is the name of a town in Puebla that many Mexican New Yorkers hail from. In fact, it is estimated that the number of Tulcingo natives in New York equals the number still back home, with lots of back and forth making this small Mexican town a New York suburb of sorts.
The restaurant is an outgrowth of the Mexican deli-grocery next door. Their tacos and tortas became so popular (by word of mouth, of course) that the owners opened the sit-down restaurant a couple of years ago.
My adobo de puerco, was amazing: pork ribs stewed in a red chile sauce with a spicing that was wonderfully complex. Clearly the spices were freshly ground and combined with the alchemy of a Mexican abuela. The ever-so-slight sweet-sour finish made it, in a way, closer in flavor to a true Goan vindaloo than the vindaloos served at most NY Indian restaurants. The accompanying refritos, topped with some delicious sharp, crumbly cotija cheese, were excellent too. The Jamaica (hibiscus drink) was not overly sweet, as can sometimes be the case. I dipped my tortilla in Steve's pipian (pumpkin seed sauce, served with chicken), and that was quite good too, though it didn't cause dish envy. There are a number of Poblano places in Brooklyn, but none I've tried can rival Tulcingo de Valle.
* In addition to Steve's steady gig at Time Out New York, he has recently become a busy classical music stringer for the New York Times. Way to go, Steve!
I have recently fallen head-over-heels in love with several products from Les Trois Petits Cochons. The company is perhaps the premier maker of French-style charcuterie in the U.S., their all-natural pâtés and terrines enjoying wide distribution. They also cater to my wurst instincts with several world-class sausages. The saucisson a l'ail, a cold Parisian-style garlic sausage made with pork, chablis, and spices, is positively addictive, with a delightfully soft, moderately fat-speckled texture that is at once seductively buttery and earthily grainy. Almost equally delicious, and less of a coronary risk, is the turkey sausage with wild mushrooms and Cognac, low enough in fat to require they be fried with a touch of oil. Vive Les Trois Petits Cochons!