Thursday, December 27, 2007

Pete '07: The Year in Food

Tuna Mille Feuille at Aki on West 4th

I was telling my friend Donna recently that ever since I started my diet I haven't been writing much about food. Usually I have a backlog of restaurant reviews to post on the blog, which gets me through fallow periods, as I like to post at least once a week. Lately, however, I've had to resort to dredging up old travel memories.

"Well," Donna said, "you could always do one of those year-end roundups. I always enjoy reading those."

For some reason, the first thing I thought of was those dreadful family holiday newsletters that come, unrequested, from distant friends and relatives. You know, like "The Snurdley Family Gazette." Sometimes they do these elaborate sheets that look like a newspaper front page, full of the minutia of the family's existence for the past year. "Little Tommy got his first real haircut; you should have seen him kicking and screaming." If you're lucky there won't be a photo of little Tommy in the barber's chair. Or "Matilda raised $257 in the Seborrhea Walkathon." I think I pledged the $7. And let us not forget the bathroom renovations. In recent years I've taken to throwing those year-end roundups directly in the trash.

Do I want to become one of those people?

What the hell.

I'm rarely the first on the Web to write about any restaurant, so I was thrilled when, last winter, my friend Igor took me to Vostok, a Bukharian restaurant in Brooklyn that had not yet been discovered, at least by non-Russians. The food was wonderful, and through this blog and my Chowhound posts I was able to get other foodies interested in the place. I haven't been back, but I'm taking a group there in a couple of weeks.

I kept up the once-a-month Queens dinner club I'd started in 2006. Each time four to eight of us go to a different ethnic restaurant that I've never tried before. Among the 2007 highlights were Waterfront International, which serves the cuisine of Liaoning Province in China, a rara avis among Chinese restaurants; Little Pepper, which may be my favorite Sichuan restaurant in the city (I waxed poetic about the pig's ears); and Imperial Palace, where I had what was perhaps my best Cantonese meal of the past five years. I also learned that not all Istrian sports clubs are created equal. Two places I enjoyed but haven't written about yet are Malagueta, an excellent Astoria Brazilian restaurant (if I had to recommend a single dish it would be the duck breast), and Himalayan Yak in Jackson Heights. I think I need to try each of those again. I was pleased that Steve Smith and Lara Pellegrinelli were inspired to hold their wedding rehearsal dinner at Malagueta after our visit earlier in the year. In November we did Brooklyn instead of Queens, pigging out at the fabulous Palestinian restaurant Tanoreen, in Bay Ridge. For Gerald Howard it was a return to the old neighborhood.

Combination Plate at Himalayan Yak

I had several excellent Northern Italian meals. Now that regional Italian restaurants are as easy to find as plain old Italian restaurants, one can enjoy the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, one of Italy's most noted culinary regions (it includes Bologna), at several reasonably priced Manhattan eateries. I returned to Via Emilia and especially enjoyed the appetizers. And I had three wonderful meals at the amazingly affordable Bianca. The brodetto (seafood stew) that I had on a post-blog visit was especially memorable, chock full of shellfish and salmon for $15.

Highlights on the Japanese front included meals at Yakitori Totto and Aburiya Kinnosuke, two traditional specialty restaurants run by the same group, as well as the inventive and visually impressive creations of Siggy Nakanhishi at Aki on West 4th.

After I'd nearly given up hope on finding a really good new Cantonese restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown, Amazing 66 came along. I have Chowhound poster Brian S. to thank for the heads up on this. Brian is one of the few people whose Chinese food recommendations I trust as much as my own. I went to Amazing 66 for the traditional Thanksgiving quail.

A trip out to Floral Park for Keralan food prompted me to reminisce about my favorite part of India and its cuisine. Unfortunately, Kerala Kitchen was a major disappointment.

I wrote twice about Caracas Arepa Bar in the East Village, the first time about their wonderful arepas, and recently about their disappointing Christmas hallaca.

I did the hour-long walk from Park Slope to Sunset Park at least twice a week most weeks, usually for Asian food in Brooklyn's largest Chinese neighborhood, centered around 8th Avenue, but occasionally for Mexican or Ecuadorian food on 5th Avenue.

The weak dollar kept me from traveling too far afield. I visited Charleston, S.C. in January, never imagining that my piece about shrimp and grits would become my top Google hit. I'm about ready for another shrimp and grits expedition. I got to San Francisco twice, the first time, unfortunately, unable to make my first reading at City Lights bookstore due to weather delays. In San Francisco I especially enjoyed the Northern Italian Antica Trattoria, the Sardinian La Ciccia, and the garlic roasted Dungeness crabs at PPQ Dungeness Island. In Montreal I caught up on local Jewish specialties as well as Uighur and Syrian-Armenian food. In Baltimore I visited the restaurant run by Hamid Karzai's brother, and in Washington D.C. I had amazing Sierra Leonean food served in styrofoam containers.

In December I had first meals at two excellent downtown Manhattan restaurants.

Necessity, as we all know, is sometimes the mother of restaurant discovery. Some friends and I needed to find a moderately priced East Village spot that would be open on Christmas Eve. A search on yielded Zerza. I'd been meaning to try Zerza for a while, so this was serendipity. Zerza is a cute, cozy, two-level Moroccan place that serves excellent renditions of traditional Mahgrebi specialties. I enjoyed the two appetizers we ordered: merguez (spicy lamb sausage) , which was served with poached egg, and spicy prawns with chermoula sauce. Zerza's tagines (stews cooked in an eponymous terracotta pot) are especially good. I had the lamb Tfaya (shank with caramelized onions, raisins and chickpeas), which was sweet without being cloying (and a little spicy harissa blended quite well with it). I also tasted the chicken tagine with preserved lemon and olives, which I can recommend as well. Next week I'll post about my other December discovery, Kampuchea, Ratha Chau's homage to Cambodian street food.

Spicy Prawns at Zerza

I post negative restaurant reviews only rarely, saving my bile for places that are overhyped or just plain ridiculous. This year my wrath was aimed at Mario Batali's Lupa for the turdish (a neologism, but I like it) presentation of a hunk of pork shoulder with an incongruous rose-petal glassato, the overhyped and overpriced Momofuku, and the laughable dosas of Hampton Chutney.

Among my major accomplishments of the year were the downtown music research guide I wrote for NYU and the twenty pounds I lost in less than three months.

Well, that's about it, folks.

Oh, I almost forgot. I also raised $443 in the Dyspepsia Walkathon.

Happy New Year, everyone.


Blogger John said...

Watch out about dogging Mario Batali - he whines when food bloggers don't heap ridiculous praise on him :)

I'm coming to New York for an overnight at the end of the month. You have given me a few handfuls of good idea for where to eat. Thanks!

7:12 PM  

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