Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Ice Cream Jottings

Until recently I never gave that much thought to ice cream, at least as an adult, except when I was traveling and wanted to try the local versions. Of course I've always liked ice cream, who doesn’t, but it and sweets in general were never my weakness. Last summer, however, I started thinking more about ice cream. It started with a specific craving. For some reason, one hot day, I developed a craving for mocha chip ice cream from the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. At first the craving was so specific that I was not tempted to substitute another kind of ice cream. I was working in midtown at the time, nowhere near the shop. The craving persisted for multiple days. I considered taking the subway downtown at lunchtime to satisfy it, but I never got around to it.

Then, one day, I decided to go for a compromise. I knew of a candy and ice cream shop on West 55th Street that carries Sedutto ice cream. Sedutto is good stuff, albeit almost pathologically rich. I headed over, hoping they had mocha chip. But on the way I was waylaid. In front of the high-end Italian restaurant Osteria del Circo was a gelato stand, which the restaurant brings out every summer. I remembered from prior summers that it was excellent gelato, and among the flavors available on this particular day was caffe latte. So I got a cup with two flavors, caffe latte and gianduja, which is based on a famous chocolate-hazelnut candy (I’m not quite sure what the difference between gianduja and bacio are). The caffe latte was good, but the gianduja was amazing. It was possibly the best gelato I’ve had outside of Italy or the Ticino. The consistency was perfect, the flavors intense and vibrant. I was hooked, and I kept going back. They rotated their flavors, and I tried a bunch. While most were very good, the only one that really rivaled the gianduja was the caramello, which had a nice burnt-milk boldness without the bitterness I’ve found in Mario Batali’s version at Otto. The cart, which is only open for two or three months each year, is reasonably priced, considering the quality of the product. Cups go for $3, $4 and $5, much less than a dish in the restaurant. The sorbetti looked beautiful too, but I just couldn’t move past the gelati.

* * *

In September I changed jobs and started working downtown, near Park Row. I started going to Chinatown for lunch a couple of times a week and stopped by the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory on several occasions. For years that has been one of the few ice cream places in the city that could always tempt me. Their product is a full American-style ice cream, smooth and creamy, but not as dense and unctuous as Haagen-Dazs and their ilk. They feature both western and Asian flavors. On their menu the Asian flavors are called "Regular Flavors" and the western ones are called "Exotic Flavors." I have favorites from both sides. In the Asian department my picks are lychee, ginger and almond cookie (though the latter would probably sit as comfortably among the western flavors). Among the western flavors my favorites are cherry-pistachio and, of course, mocha chip. The mocha chip is, without a doubt, the best version of this flavor I’ve ever tasted. The cherry-pistachio is pistachio ice cream with added cherries. I love pistachio ice cream, and the cherries are a perfect addition. Occasionally, when I think I should be on a diet, I have their wonderfully refreshing lychee sorbet.

* * *

Traditional Persian ice cream is flavored with saffron and rose water. It’s exotic and delicious, but I haven’t had any since the demise of the Persian restaurant Chelo Kebabi Nader, in Mahhattan. Ahmadinejad probably eats saffron-rosewater ice cream. Ayatollah Khomeini probably did too, not to mention the shah.

* * *

Pistachio is one of the ubiquitous ice cream flavors in India, though it’s known there as pista. India is one of the world’s great ice cream countries. Dairy products are incredibly popular among Indians. They may not kill or eat cows, but milk is central to the culinary culture. Indian ice cream tends to have a rustic freshness and a rich creaminess, like one might imagine ice cream in America to have been like in “the old days.” In addition to ice cream, Indians have another frozen dessert, kulfi, which is made from condensed milk and is, of course, extremely dense. I’m not a kulfi fan, but I love Indian ice cream. Indians also make ice cream with saffron (kesar). One of the most amazing triple-threat flavors is kesar pista badam (saffron pistachio almond). I’ve actually had a good version in San Francisco, at Bombay Bazaar (it's made by Real Ice Cream, of Santa Clara).

I ate a lot of pistachio ice cream on my last trip to India, in 2000. You’d think I would have been sated, but when I returned I had an insatiable craving for pistachio ice cream (as well as Indian food). So my first afternoon back, completely jet-lagged, I set out in search of pistachio ice cream in Park Slope. First I went to the Haagen-Dazs shop. They had all sorts of flavors, but no pistachio. I found that unacceptable, and in my altered state I went on a tirade. To the shocked counter girl I ranted, “No pistachio! I can’t believe this. When I was a kid pistachio was one of the standard flavors. There was always chocolate and vanilla and strawberry. Sometimes mint chip. Sometimes chocolate chip. Sometimes chocolate fudge. Sometimes butter pecan. But always pistachio! What’s this world coming to? No pistachio? You have dulce de leche, but no pistachio?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the girl replied.

So I went to my corner Korean bodega. Tai stocked a very large selection of ice cream, including about twenty flavors of Ben and Jerry in addition to Haagen-Dazs and other brands. I looked through all the ice creams and out of more than fifty flavors I couldn’t find pistachio. I felt as if there were a conspiracy. They had Chunky Monkey. They had Chubby Hubby. But no pistachio!

* * *

A wonderful ice cream flavor that might seem odd to Americans is corn. I first had it in Malaysia. Think about it. Imagine the flavor. It works, right?

I also had corn (elote) ice cream in Oaxaca. Also available in Oaxaca was avocado ice cream. For some reason I didn’t find the idea of it tempting, so I never ordered it. Another flavor I saw at one stand was tuna. At first I was taken aback. Then I remembered that the Spanish word for the fish is “atun.” I looked up “tuna” in my dictionary and learned that it was prickly pear cactus. I decided to try some. It turned out to be ices, not ice cream, and it was nothing special.

I recently tried the corn gelato at Cones, on Bleecker Street. It was good, but I wasn't blown away. It couldn’t hold a candle to the Malaysian version (not that you’d want to hold a candle to ice cream). I also wasn’t too impressed by any of the other flavors at Cones, and they’re quite expensive. I find the place incredibly overrated.

* * *

The ice cream in Russia was great, but when I was there in the waning days of the Soviet Union the only flavor I could find was vanilla. I eventually figured it was the state flavor. All the ice cream parlors had vanilla ice cream and several toppings and sauces.

One day I stopped into an ice cream parlor in Leningrad. The only other customer was a young man, a student. He asked me where I was from, in Russian, and I told him “Ameriki.” We tried to strike up a conversation, but he didn’t spoke any English and I didn’t speak Russian beyond a few phrases. I spoke a little Spanish and French, but the only foreign language he spoke was German, which I didn’t speak at all. So we shrugged our shoulders, smiled, and ate our ice cream.

* * *

When I was last in Paris my Anonymous friends from New York happened to be staying in town at the same time, renting an apartment in the Marais. One late afternoon we were all heading back to the apartment after spending some time in the Tuilleries. The Anonymous kids were clamoring for ice cream, so we stopped by their Parisian obsession, Berthillon. Berthillon is one of the world's most famous ice cream shops, and rightly so. Their product is fantastic, and they have a wonderful array of flavors. We waited for about ten minutes in the perennially long line out the door until we were able to enter the small shop. I wasn't especially hungry, so I had only one scoop, orange-gianduja, a marvelous flavor combination. It turned out that the scoops there are rather small, maybe half the size of an American scoop, so I could have eaten more. I must say I do like the small scoop concept. For one thing, it's a great way to have just a little ice cream if you're not too hungry. For another thing, it makes it possible to try more flavors. I don't think it would ever catch on in the American culture of excessive consumption, however.

* * *

I’ve had great gelato all over Italy, but perhaps the best I’ve ever had was in Locarno, Switzerland. One of the main reasons I went to Locarno a second time, on a day trip from Lugano, was for the gelato, it was that good. Otherwise, Locarno is nothing special.

Sicily is perhaps the most gelato-crazed part of Italy. In Sicily, people eat gelato for breakfast. Gelaterias make a sandwich, on a brioche, and you see people eating these things first thing in the morning. I just couldn’t do it. I tried to make myself do it, but I couldn’t do it.

When I was in Perugia, for the jazz festival, I met a couple from the Bay Area who were traveling with their adolescent daughter. We went to a café to drink and chat. Somehow we got on the subject of ice cream, and I mentioned that every time I go to San Francisco I try to have an It’s-It. It’s-It is an old San Francisco specialty, an ice cream sandwich made with oatmeal cookies, covered in chocolate. The daughter enthused about how much she loved It’s-It.

As we were sitting there, I noticed that somebody at a nearby table was getting gelato on a brioche. I told them about the breakfast tradition in Sicily, and that I hadn’t ever noticed the brioche thing elsewhere in Italy. The girl decided to try an Italian ice cream sandwich.

As she was eating it, we asked her how she liked it. “It’s good,” she said, “but it’s no It’s-It.”

Thursday, May 24, 2007

An Arepa to Remember

I fell in love with arepas in Caracas, in 1989. Venezuelan arepas are like little buns made of cornmeal, and in Caracas they're ubiquitous. Little joints all over the city serve arepas stuffed with all sorts of things. The arepa is the sandwich bread of choice.

Traditionally skillet-cooked, arepas are now often cooked in a special device that's sort of like a waffle iron. A ball of cornmeal is placed in one of the slots, and a perfectly shaped arepa is cooked on both sides. The arepa is a wonder of taste and texture. A crunchy exterior encases the soft, moist, deliciously corny interior, which is the perfect vehicle for hot or cold stuffings.

Getting a world-class arepa in Manhattan is as easy as pie. The Caracas Arepa Bar, on East 7th Street, just east of First Avenue, has 14 kinds on the menu, and on weekends there are additional specials. It was a special that made my day last Sunday, the arepa de estofado llanero. According to the menu, "Estofado" (stew) is a dish that was brought to Venezuela by the Spanish colonizers but it disappeared by the end of the 19th Century. Our arepa version is made with oxtail that was cooked for hours with cloves, ginger & molasses for the aroma as well as tomatoes and red wine to concentrate the flavors. It comes with a layer of sweet plantains... It is one of a kind special..." Llanero, I learned, literally means "plainsman," and it is the name for cowboys in Venezuela and Colombia. My cowboy stew was absolutely delicious, with a complexity of flavor and an earthiness that married so well with its arepa shell. Indeed, the stew had a veritable communion with the cornmeal center. You can keep posted on the next appearance of estofado llanero, as Caracas Arepa Bar lists the weekend specials on their website.

The other thing I fell in love with in Caracas was queso Guayanes, a mild white cheese that's soft, moist, creamy and slightly salty. I could say it's like a cross between farmer cheese and mozzarella, but that doesn't do it justice; it's more complex than that. Despite the name, it seems to be a Venezuelan specialty, and I haven't found out whether it really is Guyanese in origin*. Queso Guayanes is a common arepa filling in Venezuela, and Caracas Arepa Bar uses it as an ingredient in several variations. This time I tried the "del gato," which has fried plantains and avocado as well as queso Guayanes. The owner told me once that they get their cheese from a supplier in Miami.

Caracas Arepa Bar also makes empanadas. The Venezuelan empanada is also cornmeal-based, and it's deep fried. The empanada de cazon (shark) is especially good. A couple of arepas or an arepa and an empanada is usually sufficient for a meal.

* Note: Thanks to a reader (see comment), the origin of queso Guayanes has been clarified. The name comes from a region in southeastern Venezuela.

Caracas Arepa Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Virtual Breakfast

I was served the idea of porridge. The idea of porridge and the concept of toast. The concept of toast and a discourse on butter. A discourse on butter and an argument for ham. An argument for ham and an apologia for eggs. An apologia for eggs and an exegesis of bacon. An exegesis of bacon and the parameters of juice. The parameters of juice and a survey of milk. A survey of milk and an encomium to cheese. An encomium to cheese and the anticipation of coffee. The anticipation of coffee and a preview of lunch.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Lukewarm on Lupa

I was taken to lunch at Lupa the other day. I never turn down an invitation to a Batali restaurant when someone else is footing the bill. I've been to Babbo once, in its first year, and I've had five meals at Otto (Batali for the masses, but always quite impressive), but I'd never been to Lupa before. I had a fine lunch, but it really was nothing memorable.

The antipasti were quite good. Two of us shared three items: broccoli rabe with pepperoncini, tongue (thinly sliced with a bit of a fruity sweetness), and sardines with fennel and saffron. The sardines also had pine nuts and raisins, so I'd say it's a take on the Venetian sarde in saor. I didn't taste any saffron.

My main course was the pork shoulder with rose petal glassato. I don't know why they use the word "glassato" in an otherwise English description, but it wasn't rocket science to figure out it means glaze. The meat was moist and soft, and I suspect it had been braised and oven-finished. I wasn't thrilled with the sweetness of the glassato.

One thing is certain about the pork shoulder: they really need to work on the visual presentation. I'm sure it doesn't have to look like a lump of shit on a plate.

Lupa on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Crazy for Calzagatti

Via Emilia, at 47 E. 21st St., serves the cuisine of Modena, the city that gave us balsamic vinegar, tortellini, and its big brother tortelloni. Modena is in the province of Emilia-Romagna, not far from Bologna. Much of the cuisine is similar to Bolognese, but there are a number of Modenese local specialties that are not easy to come by in restaurants in the U.S. Via Emilia is known for their pastas, but for me it's the antipasti that make it a destination.

I had heard that they make a great lasagne, in the true Emilia-Romagna style, with green pasta and bechamel, so I ordered it for my main course. It was good, but it couldn't hold a candle to the two versions I had in Bologna. There was something a bit two-dimensional about the meat sauce, and the pasta was too soft for my taste.

Desserts were excellent, especially the traditional Modenese warm amaretto cookies with Zabaglione gelato.

I'm talking out of sequence, I know, but I'm saving the best for last, the antipasti. Gnocco frito is a specialty of Modena, a fried dough that reminds me of both Indian poori and New Mexican sopapillas. It's served with a plate of excellent assorted salumi. One can order it with only prosciutto di Parma, but I can't imagine foregoing all the other goodies, especially the mortadella.

Another Modenese specialty is calzagatti, and for me that's Via Emilia's superstar offering. It's a fried cake made of polenta, beans, tomato and pancetta, served at Via Emilia with sweet gorgonzola and coppa (a cold cut that falls somewhere between capicolla and prosciutto). I'm wild about polenta, and the combination of polenta and beans is magical. In fact, after sharing this appetizer twice, I'm going to have a whole order to myself next time.

I haven't been bowled over by the pastas (I had the chicken tortelloni with truffle oil the first time), so next time I think I'll make a meal of antipasti. There are a number of other enticing starters on the menu.

Via Emilia keeps their prices reasonable by not taking reservations or credit cards. The no reservation policy is less of a problem in their new, larger quarters (the building that housed the old restaurant was torn down about a year ago). The new room has a sleek, contemporary look, a change from the small, nondescript predecessor. It's also much less noisy. My meal at the original Via Emilia was marred by the din.

* * *

Speaking of appetizers, I recently stumbled upon a nice encomium to the first course on a blog from the U.K., Gastro Paradiso. What I really like about this blog is the quality of the writing: engaging, witty and charming.

Via Emilia on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 11, 2007

Chicken in Totto: It Takes All Parts

Yakitori translates as "grilled bird." Lots of grilled, skewered, unbirdlike things have come to be known as yakitori, but orthodox, fundamentalist yakitori is chicken, all parts of the chicken. Well, maybe not all parts. At Yakitori Totto, an authentic yakitori bar in New York, I didn't see chicken brains on the menu (does anybody eat birdbrains?), nor did I see chicken feet. Perhaps it would be too torturous to skewer a chicken foot. I figure maybe they chop off the feet and send them en masse to dim sum houses.

We had a range of chicken parts at Totto, and not a turkey in the bunch. The liver was exquisite, rich and silky, a poor man's foie gras. Peppers stuffed with chicken meatballs were delicious. I think the "tail" was really the Pope's nose, or as my grandfather would say, the tuchus ("Save me the tuchus, Mama," he always told my grandmother on chicken nights). The soft knee bone (you heard me) was real fun food, with a nice cartilage crunch to go with the chickeny goodness. And then there was thigh with scallion, breast with wasabi, and heart. You gotta have heart!

"The knee bone's connected to the skew-er..."

We did have a couple of non-chicken items: grilled rice ball and tofu with miso (too sweet for me). After eating a bunch of skewers, with beer or whatever, it's customary to end with a starch. I had fried tiny fish over rice.

I'm glad we left a little room for dessert. The desserts at Totto were fabulous. Two of us shared the green tea pudding (intense in flavor as well as color) and the apricot kernel tofu. The fresh, aromatic, and sensually creamy tofu dessert may well have been the highlight of the meal for me.

Yakitori Totto, 251 W. 55th St., between Broadway & 8th Avenue

Yakitori Totto on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Local Color

Tikka Vendor, Mysore, India

Posters, Shanghai, China

Cao Dai Temple, Tay Ninh, Vietnam

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Small World Stories

It may be a cliché, but it really is a small world (after all). Startlingly so, surprisingly so, or so it seemed, at times, since I started traveling extensively, about twenty years ago. Here are a couple of small world stories.

* * *

I was in Bali in June of 1994, around the time of the World Cup and the O.J. slo-mo car chase. One day I took a day tour of some of the most scenic spots of the island. It was, I must say, one of the most visually sensual days of my life. Bali is certainly a top contender for Paradise on Earth.

On the tour I met a fascinating guy named Rudi Corens. Rudi is a Belgian theatrical director who has been living and teaching in Asia for a number of years, first Sri Lanka, then Yogyakarta, on Java. Rudi was ebullient and exuberant, a pure delight to be around. Before his Asian period he had worked around Europe, including running an experimental theater troupe in Venice in the 'sixties. "But I was drawn to Asia," he said. "There's something about it. It's in my blood."

In addition to his place in Yogyakarta, Rudi had a home in Ubud, the artistic heart of Bali. When he heard I was from New York, Rudi said to me, "I have a friend in New York, he owns a place here in Ubud, I wonder if you know him." How many times have people asked you that ridiculous question? Ah, New York! Do you know so and so? "His name is Valery Oisteanu," Rudi continued.

I did know Valery. Not well, but we had met, originally at the mail art banquet that Carlo Pittore had arranged, in 1982, at Lanza's, an Italian restaurant in the East Village that was usually deserted, for good reason. I saw Valery a couple of years ago at an event celebrating Carlo and his work, at the Bowery Poetry Club. I mentioned having met Rudi in '94 and that I wondered what he was up to. "I've lost touch with him," Valery told me. "After the terrorist attacks in Bali I sold my place."

I felt sad when I heard that. The terrorists had chased Valery out of a true Paradise.

* * *

I met Claudio Chianura on a bus in South India, in 1991. Claudio and his traveling companions were the only other westerners on that bus, and we struck up a conversation during a rest stop. It turned out that Claudio was the publisher of a journal devoted to improvised music, and that he knew, or had covered, a number of the downtown New York musicians I knew. We ended up traveling a bit together and formed a lasting friendship. A couple of years later I was visiting Milan. Claudio and his wife Elena didn't have the space to put me up, but a friend and associate had a spare room. What did I see when I settled into my room? On the wall was a poster for a performance in Milan by my erstwhile collaborator Elliott Sharp. But that's not the small world story.

Ten years after meeting Claudio I was in Memphis for the Beale Street Music Festival. While I was there I booked a blues-oriented day tour of the Mississippi Delta with Tad Pierson's American Dream Safari. It was expensive, but it was worth every cent. Tad runs his tours in a '55 Cadillac. He's extremely knowledgeable about blues history, and he's an excellent storyteller. Tad has always been an itinerant spirit, and before starting his tour business he taught English in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. He got the idea for American Dream Safari from a European couple he met while teaching overseas. They told him that their dream vacation would be to tour the American west in a 'fifties Cadillac. Tad was about ready to return to the states, and that idea captured his imagination. He bought his first 'fifties Caddy (he's since collected several more) and settled in the Southwest, I believe New Mexico, where he initially set up his tour business. After a while he decided to find a new home that would be congenial to his business. Being an aficionado of black American music, Memphis seemed like the perfect spot.

Our tour included a stop at Stovall's Plantation, where Muddy Waters was a sharecropper. "Muddy's shack's no longer here," he told me. "It was sold to House of Blues." We parked by the former site of Muddy's shack and listened to part of the interview that Alan Lomax conducted there with Muddy in the early 'forties, for the Library of Congress. A little later we visited the Delta Blues Museum, which occupies a former railroad depot in Clarksdale, Mississippi. When we returned to the car we saw a couple of guys admiring it. We struck up a conversation. They were Italian, a journalist, whose name I didn't get, and photographer Pino Ninfa, whose jazz photography, it turned out, I was familiar with. They were driving from New Orleans to New York, working on an article and exhibition, sponsored by Porsche, "Come un Racconto Chiamato Jazz" (Like a Tale Called Jazz). Pino told me that he lived in Milan, so I asked him if he knew Claudio Chianura. Indeed he did. When I got home to New York I shot Claudio an email. "It's a small world," I said. "I met an acquaintance of yours from Milan in Clarksdale, Mississippi."

"Yes," Claudio replied. "It's a very small world."

* * *

But is it really such a small world? Actually, it's a very big world, but within it there's a relatively small number of places likely to attract travelers, a small world, if you will, within the larger one. In perspective, encounters like these, though fascinating, are somewhat less mind-boggling, especially when common interests are a common denominator.

Andrew Wengraf, an old boss of mine, had a saying: "The deserts are vast, the oases few."

Thanks to Mr. & Mrs. Fairfield for the photo scans.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Another Very Short Play for Three Voices

Voice 1: I’m starving.

Voice 2: Literally starving?

Voice 3: Wasting away to nothing?

Voice 2: On death’s doorstep?

Voice 1: No, I’m just very hungry. I haven’t eaten a thing since this morning. And all I had then was a single Weetabix.

Voice 2: You shouldn’t say “starving,” then. It minimizes the true suffering of the millions of people who around the world who really are starving.

Voice 1: Give me a break! It’s a figure of speech. Everybody uses it.

Voice 3: Well, maybe it’s time to change that.

Voice 2: Yeah, can’t you just say, “I’m hungry.”

Voice 1: “Hungry” doesn’t really convey the intensity. “Hungry” is subject to interpretation. Just how hungry? “Starving” forcefully and colorfully communicates the message that I’m really dying to eat, and pronto.

Voice 3: You’re not really “dying” to eat, you know. If you were literally dying to eat you’d be literally starving. Anyway, “starving” is subject to interpretation just as much as “hungry,” don’t you think?

Voice 2: When you say “I’m starving” you scare us. How do we know your life isn’t in imminent danger?

Voice 1: Tone of voice. Facial expression. There are all sorts of clues. Why are you giving me such a hard time? I just want something to eat. Can I please get out of here?

Voice 3: All right, but just one more thing.

Voice 1: What’s that?

Voice 3: Did you say you ate a Weetabix this morning?

Voice 1: Yes.

Voice 2: With milk?

Voice 1: Yes.

Voices 2 & 3: Yuck!

Voice 3: I’d rather starve!