Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Very Short Play for Three Voices

I started writing a new series this weekend. I'm tentatively calling it "Very Short Plays for Three Voices." The individual "plays" don't have titles. They'll probably get numbers. This one's about food, so here goes.

Voice 1: I have a craving for New England clam chowder.

Voice 2: I have a craving for Manhattan clam chowder.

Voice 3: That’s funny, so do I.

Voice 1: Have you ever noticed that neither of you ever shares my cravings?

Voice 2: What do you mean? We both crave clam chowder, don’t we?

Voice 1: Sure. Manhattan. I crave New England.

Voice 3: You’re blowing this all out of proportion. Manhattan, New England, what’s the difference?

Voice 1: Cream, for one thing. Tomatoes for another.

Voice 3: Small details. You should focus on our areas of agreement.

Voice 1: What would those be?

Voices 2 & 3: Clams and potatoes!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Little Pepper: The Ears Have It

What's the best Sichuan restaurant in New York? Wu Liang Ye? Szechuan Gourmet? Spicy & Tasty? Little Pepper? In a restaurant mecca like New York, where there's so much quality and diversity, we don't have to choose (my own coronation of Wu Liang Ye notwithstanding). Every good restaurant has its particular strengths and specialties, so it's really more fruitful to determine which among the top tier has one's favorite version of a particular dish, or a most satisfying array of winners. All the restaurants mentioned above are in the top tier. I recently paid my first visit to Little Pepper, in Flushing (133-43 Roosevelt Avenue), and I can proclaim that they make my favorite version of pig's ear.

Actually, I can't remember the last time I had pig's ear in a Chinese restaurant (I may have had it in a Brazilian feijoada more recently). It doesn't appear on the regular menus of Wu Liang Ye or Szechuan Gourmet. This cold dish of spiced, sliced ear was a favorite of mine during New York's first Szechuan wave of the 'seventies and 'eighties. I believe Hwa Yuan Szechuan Inn had it listed at "pig's head," and Ting Fu Garden baked it into wonderful sesame flat breads. At Little Pepper it has a complex peppery spice that marries wonderfully with the slightly bacony flavor and the textural sensuality of crunchy cartilage strips surrounded by gelatinous meat. For me it was the highlight of a generally excellent meal.

Cold dishes of cucumber and kelp, both with smashed garlic, were tasty and refreshing, especially the cucumbers. A cold tea-smoked duck appetizer was less satisfying than freshly roasted hot versions of the dish I've had. Little Pepper's variant on dan dan noodles with beef (for some reason the pork version was unavailable) was pretty good, but I'll need to try the standard minced pork version of the dish to make a comparison with other restaurants. So far Wu Liang Ye is the champ in the dan dan division. Little Pepper's execution of ma po tofu (it's called something different on the menu) ranks with the best, and is properly oily. This classic Sichuan dish, when prepared authentically, wades in a pool of bright red oil. That's the way it is, and if you don't like it you can go to your local fake Szechuan restaurant and get a mediocre "bean curd Szechuan-style" with a thick, gloppy brown sauce. Several in my party did notice, however, that in general the dishes were lighter and less oily than at other authentic Sichuan restaurants. My biggest disappointment was the dish I had the highest expectations for, the spicy lamb with cumin. Holly Anderson had bent my ear with an orgasmic kvell about this dish, but to my taste it was too spicy and too heavy on the cumin, robbing it of all subtlety. I much prefer the crispy lamb (also with cumin) at Szechuan Gourmet (a signature dish there). We finished with a soup of pork meatballs and pea shoots that was pleasant enough, but not especially memorable.

One thing the Queens Sichuan restaurants have over the Manhattan ones is value. Not that Wu Liang Ye and Szechuan Gourmet are expensive, but at Little Pepper a large meal for five was $79 before tip. If you've never tried pig's ear before, carpe diem and hightail it over to Little Pepper.

Little Pepper on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Road to Istria, Part II

Piran, in Slovenian Istria, where I stayed, is a charming little town. The architecture is almost purely Venetian, fifteenth- through nineteenth-century. The town itself is a small, hilly promontory jutting out from the northwestern coast of the Istrian peninsula. No part of the town is far from the water, so it has a small island feel. The narrow, winding streets, leading to many small, enclosed squares, are a delight to walk through. When I was there in 1990 it was still part of Yugoslavia, but Tito was already gone, and you could tell that change was immanent. On the town hall the word for "Socialist" in "Socialist Republic of Slovenia" had been painted over.

The nearby beach and casino resort of Portoroz, several kilometers away, was considerably less charming, though it does have a wonderful fin de siecle hotel called, I believe, The Palace, which reminds one of something out of "Death in Venice."

Further south, the old town of Porec, in Croatia, has become the center of a commercialized resort area especially popular with British package tours. The streets of Porec were clogged with old English couples–Margaret Rutherford lookalikes with reluctant husbands in tow. In front of all the restaurants were touts shouting, "English menu! Fish and chips! Roast beef!" Porec does boast a marvelous sixth-century Byzantine basilica with spectacular mosaics.

I did not get to Labin/Albona, and the food in Istria (outside of some spectacular fresh grilled scampi, simply prepared) in no way rivaled that of Bruno's restaurant in San Francisco or the place I dined at in Trieste, but I was glad I got there. A year or so later Yugoslavia was falling apart, and there was trouble in Istria.

The first time I went back to Albona, after visiting Istria, Bruno was not there. I was told that he had gone back to Croatia, for a visit. The next time I dined at Albona, the following year, I did see Bruno. He told me that he had been unable to get to his home town of Labin because of the fighting, but that things had eventually quieted down, and he planned to give it another try soon (I believe he eventually succeeded). I mentioned that I had been to Istria since I had last seen him, thanks to his inspiration, and that I had found it very beautiful. But the food, I told him, was rather disappointing. "Yes, I'm sure it was," he said. "But I'm so glad you got to see Istria."

A couple of years later we were having the windows replaced in my co-op. The workers were clearly Eastern European. I always like to chat up people doing work in my apartment, so I asked the man who was removing my old windows where he was from. "Yugoslavia," he said.

"Which part?" I asked. "Which republic?"

"Montenegro. Albanian!" he replied.

I was a little confused. "Are you originally from Montenegro or Albania?" I asked.

"Montenegro. Albanian! Sorry, not speak English."

I learned later, from one of the workers who did speak English, that they were all brothers and cousins from an area of Montenegro that had been annexed from Albania by Yugoslavia. They were Albanians, and did not recognize the sovereignty of Yugoslavia.

In spite of the language barrier, I had the urge to communicate. It's a thing with me, communication. I remembered that I had a Berlitz pocket guide to Istria, and that there was a section of Serbo-Croatian phrases in the back. I found the book, turned to the phrases, went over to the window man, and pointed at the Serbo-Croatian for "How long will it take?"

The man looked at the phrase, smiled broadly, and said, "About one hour." Then he turned to the front of the book.

"Ah, Istra!" he said.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Road to Istria, Part I

It started in San Francisco, sometime in the 'eighties. I was staying at my favorite European-style budget hotel, the San Remo, in North Beach. One day, as I was wandering around the neighborhood I came upon a restaurant. The sign said: Albona, Ristorante Istriano. In the window was a menu and a review from San Francisco Focus. The review explained that Albona served the cuisine of Istria, a place I had never heard of before. Istria (known in antiquity as Histria and by the Slavs as Istra) is a peninsula in the Adriatic, across the Gulf from Venice, that had at times been part of the various Roman Empires, the Venetian Republic, the Illyrian Provinces of Napoleon's Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, modern Italy, Yugoslavia, and now the independent Republics of Croatia and Slovenia. The cuisine, the article explained (and the menu attested to), represented the cultural cross-fertilization that characterized the area. The menu featured an intriguing mix of Northern Italian and Central European dishes. There were pastas, polenta, gnocchi, and risotto, as well as sauerkraut and loin of pork, with dessert choices that included gelato and strudel. Always on the lookout for new cuisines, I decided to go there with some Bay Area friends.

Albona was delightful, in ambiance as well as food. A cozy room with maybe ten tables, the restaurant is owned and attended to by Bruno Viscovi, who hails from a town in Croatian Istria now known as Labin, but whose Italian name was Albona. Bruno, who circulates and chats with the customers throughout the evening, provides a warm, homey atmosphere. First-timers at Albona, when presented the menu by Bruno, are fed the following admonition: "Before you think about food, catch up on two thousand years of history." On the back of the menu is a capsule history of Istria. After you have caught up on your history, Bruno will proceed to describe the evening's specials. "If you would like the free-range chicken, speak up now, so we can start plucking."

I must have dined at Albona at least ten times over the years. The food has always been excellent, the total experience a pleasure. There's one dish that has become a requisite of every meal, shared as an appetizer, as its richness makes solo consumption hard to imagine. The item, called Craffi Albonesi, is a half-moon-shaped ravioli with three cheeses, raisins and pine nuts served with a sirloin tip sauce flavored with cumin. My only disappointments at Albona have been on the occasions when Bruno, a kibitzer par excellence, was absent. The food, the breathtaking pictures of Istria adorning the walls, and Bruno's enthusiasm, made me want to visit Istria.

In 1990, I did it. I had learned that courier flights from New York to Milan were plentiful, at $200 for a one-week stay. Looking at a map I discovered that Istria would be a relatively easy trip from Milan. So in April of 1990 I flew to Milan and from there I took the five-hour train ride to Trieste, the gateway to Istria. I had planned to stay overnight in Trieste, so I went to the hotel-booking desk at the railway station to book a room. Now, Trieste is a sleepy place, though once a principal European seaport. Few tourists go there now, and some simply want to follow in the footsteps of James Joyce, who lived there for a time. I hadn't figured I'd have trouble finding a hotel room, but the woman at the booking desk told me that she couldn't reserve me a room because there was a big convention in town. Just my luck–I show up in Trieste the one time in fifty years it's crowded. Luckily I succeeded in getting a room at a not unacceptable two-star hotel near the station which the woman had recommended I try.

I had dinner at a restaurant called Antico Buffet Benedetto, a place that, according to my guidebook, had the right combination of excellent food and moderate prices. The food was indeed good. I had a spectacular Tagliatelle Bolognese and a hearty veal stew.

The next day I did my obligatory sightseeing in Trieste, before my late-afternoon bus to the town of Piran, in Istria. Trieste is a pleasant enough, though hardly spectacular, small city. It has become a favorite retirement city for Italians, and it also has a university, so there is an odd mix of young and old people with very few in-between, as there has been little industry since the decline of shipping. By the time I got up to the principal landmark of Trieste, the medieval fortress Castello San Giusto, a torrential thunderstorm had broken out. I ducked into the coffee concession to get out of the rain. I ordered an espresso and lit up a small cigar, a Panter, made in Holland of Sumatra tobacco. Standing next to me was a fat, wet man in a gray suit. He too was lighting up a small cigar, a Dannemann, made in Germany of Sumatra tobacco. I decided to strike up a conversation with a fellow Sumatra cigar smoker. "Do you speak English," I asked.

"Yes," he replied.

"Do you buy Dannemanns in Italy?" I asked.

"I think you can," he said, "but I buy mine in Germany. I am from Germany. I am here for the convention. Are you here for the convention?"

"No," I said, "I don't even know what kind of convention it is, though I had the hardest time finding a hotel room because of it."

"Yes, it is a very big convention," he said. "The International Vacuum Tube Congress. We have people from all over the world. What is your business?"

"I'm a computer programmer," I told him.

"Ah, computer programmer. So you understand the importance of vacuum tubes!"

"I suppose,” I said. “I'm only in Trieste for a day and the weather is so awful. I don't think I'll get to see too much of the city."

"You know," he replied, "it used to be Italy always had the best weather. But now Germany has the best weather!"

[To be continued]

Albona Ristorante Istriano on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Guy Kibbee Eggs

When I was a kid my mother made a breakfast dish she called "Guy Kibbee eggs." The name referred to the fact that actor Guy Kibbee made this dish in a film that she saw in her own childhood, in the 1930s. It consisted of fried bread with unbeaten eggs, cooked together. My mother would cut a round hole, the size of a yolk, in the center of a slice of white bread. The bread was first placed in a frying pan with hot butter and then the egg was poured on top of the bread, with the yolk guided into the hole. After the first side was cooked and the egg white settled into the bread she flipped it to finish the process. The final product had the yolk peeking through the hole in the bread, with the white on the bottom. I guess you could call it a variation on French toast. I don't know what film Guy Kibbee made this in. I found several online recipes for this dish as "egg in the hole," but none of them mention Guy Kibbee.

Another egg dish of her childhood that remained in her motherly breakfast repertoire was Force and eggs. Force was the name of a wheat flakes cereal when she was a child. My mother's 1960s version used Kellogg's corn flakes. She would pour the corn flakes in a bowl, then pour some melted butter over them, then add a soft-boiled egg, then mix it all together until it became a mass that was at once both mushy and slightly crunchy. My aunt also made this dish for her children. I don't know whether this was something my grandmother cooked up, or whether it was a popular preparation of the 'thirties. I think I liked it as a kid, but in retrospect it sounds pretty disgusting.

I wouldn't mind some Guy Kibbee eggs, though.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Jerk and Confusion

Lunch today at The Islands, with The Stinky Cheese Man. We had both been meaning to try this Jamaican place, near the Brooklyn Museum, a short walk from Park Slope, where we both live. It's a small, two-level shop. The cramped ground floor houses a counter and the kitchen. Up a steep flight of stairs is a small dining room with four tables.

Jon had heard that the macaroni and cheese was reputed to be excellent, so we decided to split a side. I was interested in the jerk leg of lamb, but I wondered whether the lamb would be ready at the beginning of the day. I asked the waiter if lamb was available. He said he'd check. I told him to bring me jerk chicken if there was no lamb. Jon ordered the oxtail. Jamaican sodas are about the only pop I drink, and I was torn between ginger beer and Ting. I settled on Ting, the grapefruit soda that is much more sassy than Wink ever was.

I did get my lamb, but Jon didn't get his oxtail. Somehow my alternate selection ended up as his main course, so he got the jerk chicken, which would have been his second choice anyway. The macaroni and cheese never arrived, which is just as well, because there was too much food. Just like at Mike's International Restaurant, another excellent Brooklyn Jamaican restaurant, they offer small and large orders. The small orders are enormous. I can't imagine how anybody could finish a large one.

The lamb was a little too dry, but the jerk sauce was excellent–seriously spicy but yielding a complexity of flavor. The plate featured rice and peas, which is Caribbean for rice and beans, mixed vegetables, which in Jamaican restaurants is dominated by cabbage, and a salad that gave me a pleasant surprise. Often Caribbean restaurants will serve iceberg lettuce with Kraft dressing. The plate at Islands featured mesclun greens with a nice, fruity vinaigrette.

We went downstairs to pay the bill. I told the woman to check the check, because we didn't get exactly what we ordered. "The macaroni and cheese never came," I said. "Oh, you should have yelled down," she replied. She started tallying. "Two sodas, jerk lamb, jerk chicken–did you have oxtail too?"

When we left Jon said, "I think she was eating my oxtail."