Sunday, July 29, 2007

Salmon "Macchiato" at Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park is one of the jewels in restaurateur Danny Meyer's crown. It's a place that's normally way out of my price league, so I was happy to score a restaurant week lunch reservation, where I could enjoy three courses for $24.07 (normally it would be hard to get away for twice that). Booking through OpenTable 27 days in advance (the earliest one could book the restaurant), the best I could do was an 11:45 reservation. So I skipped breakfast.

I'm generally skeptical about restaurant week. Too many restaurants only pay lip service to the concept, often serving substandard fare. And in some places ordering from the restaurant week menu immediately makes you a second-class citizen.

But Danny Meyer is a class act, and he does it right. His restaurants offer impressive menus during restaurant week, and this time at Eleven Madison Park the restaurant week menu was the only choice at lunch, making all diners equal.

The menu offered three choices for each course. For my appetizer I chose the big-eye tuna with white asparagus and Montegottero pistachio oil. The sashimi-grade raw tuna was chopped and formed into little ovals, and it was delightful. I don't know if I got a smaller portion than the a la carte version, which normally goes for 18 smackeroos. My dessert was the apricot clafouti with almond-honey ice cream. Though I generally prefer less sweet desserts, this too was excellent.

My main course was a delicious piece of Scottish salmon, which the restaurant serves mi-cuit, literally "half-cooked." This is really the perfect preparation for a good piece of salmon. With all the farmed salmon foisted on us, usually overcooked, we sometimes forget how good wild salmon can be.

My inner jury is out on the presentation, though. The salmon was served in a foamy broth that made it look like a coffee drink with fish. There were traces of minced vegetables under the piece of salmon. I can't remember the menu description, but it wasn't called "salmon macchiato," which would have been an apt name, macchiato referring to an espresso with milk froth on top. I'm assuming it was milk froth in the dish, but I suppose it could have been egg white. Either way, it looked pretty weird, and it took a little while for me to get used to the idea. I contemplated the bowl for some time before taking my first bite. Ultimately, I quite enjoyed it, but I don't think the foamy gambit was an especially good presentation concept.*

*Though it does look better than Lupa's "turd on a plate" pork shoulder.
[where: 11 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10010]

Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 27, 2007

A "Word of Mouth" Dream

Last night I had my first dream that made reference to this blog.

I was in a library, and I needed some information. I went up to the librarian, a young Chinese-American woman, and asked my question. For some reason, before she could answer my question she needed to see some ID. So I showed her my driver's license. She looked at it and said, "Oh, Peter Cherches! I've been reading your blog. Could you tell me one thing? How come you never write about cheese?"

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Biblical Knowledge

Two unwed vegetarians were knowing each other in the biblical sense when a rabbi, a priest, and a butcher entered the bedroom. The vegetarians, who were at the time inextricably engaged in the tossed salad position, were taken aback, but not enough to call the whole thing off. As the woman belonged to his congregation, the rabbi spoke first. "This hanky panky is not kosher," he announced.

As the man was a member of his church, the priest saw fit to speak next. "As you children are not wedded in the eyes of the Lord, it is not right that you should be making this salad, but rather you should be dressing."

For his part the butcher remained silent, all eyes, lamenting the lost business, but reveling in the carnality.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Cantonese Lollapalooza

Regular readers of this blog are well aware that I have a major crush on Chinese food. I don't know if I can commit to a favorite regional cuisine, but for dinner with a large group there's nothing better than a Cantonese seafood restaurant. In the past several years I've found the offerings in Manhattan's Chinatown lacking. Ping's, which began its life in Flushing before opening on Mott Street, was for a while my favorite Chinese restaurant of the new millennium, but it started slipping about a year ago. My current favorite Manhattan Cantonese is Phoenix Garden, on East 40th Street. But I now a have a new favorite Cantonese place in New York City, and it's in Flushing, Queens.

I brought a group of eight on a Thursday night to Imperial Palace, at 136-13 37th Avenue, just off Main Street. It's a popular place in what is now New York's largest Chinatown, and they were doing a brisk midweek business. As is the custom at such affairs, my dining companions put themselves in my able ordering hands. I ordered a mix of house specialties and Cantonese standbys that are among my benchmark dishes.

We ended up with what was easily the best Cantonese meal I've eaten in the past couple of years. Indeed, I'd be hard-pressed to remember another Chinese meal in New York where the restaurant batted 1000. Eight dishes and every one a winner. Nothing was too salty, too greasy or too heavy.

I ordered two vegetable dishes: ong choi (Chinese water spinach) with preserved bean curd sauce and snow pea leaves with crab meat sauce. These are two of my favorite Chinese green vegetables. Imperial Palace made exemplary versions of both. Snow pea leaves (sometimes called pea shoots), which are sort of like a sweeter version of spinach, are served with crab meat sauce at many restaurants. This preparation wasn't on the menu, but they accommodated my request with what was perhaps the best rendition of the dish I've had, the wonderfully delicate egg sauce populated with sizable chunks of delicious fresh crabmeat.

Crispy noodles (chow mein) with mixed seafood was similarly a Platonic version of the dish. I can say the same for the Peking pork chops, which despite the name is a staple of Cantonese menus. The sauce for this dish can sometimes teeter into the too sweet or the too sour, but not at Imperial Palace. The only dish I had a minor complaint about was the salt and pepper squid, but that's a matter of personal preference as I prefer a lighter breading.

The restaurant shone on those five Cantonese standards, but the house specialties were the estimable icing on the cake. One dish we couldn't miss was the Dungeness crab with glutenous rice. A whole crab (two sizes, $21 or $25) is served in a bamboo steamer with a heap of sticky rice that picks up the crab juices and seasoning. I don't know what goes into the preparation, but there's an enchanting and subtle mix of spices, and I think I detected a bit of rice wine. As with everything at the restaurant, subtlety reigns supreme.

Some of the specials have photos on the menu, so we saw that the dish that's called "fried lamb" was actually lamb chops. An order normally comes with six pieces, so I asked the waiter to extend it to eight and charge accordingly. They were mildly cumin-spiced rib chops, another gem of a dish.

Another item on the menu that has only recently started appearing at Chinese restaurants was sable (black cod). We had the luxuriantly rich fish on a sizzling platter with black pepper sauce. This wasn't officially a "special;" it was listed in the general fish section of the menu. Given the current market prices for sable, this ample serving was a steal at $16.95.

The whole meal was, in fact, a steal. With a bunch of beers the check totaled $181. That's under $23 per person before tip.

The subway ride from Manhattan that night was a pain, as the 7 train was terribly crowed with hordes for the night's Mets game, and the already long ride to Flushing took longer than usual due to the extra time at each stop as more people tried to pile on beyond capacity. Some of us were a bit testy, but the meal cured everything. Still, I think I'll consult the Mets' schedule before I plan another outing on the 7 line.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

What's Wrong with this Website?

All right, I've made my thoughts on restaurant website crimes pretty clear by now. If you haven't read those thoughts, they can be found here and here.

This is a quiz. Now it's your turn to go ballistic. And make sure your sound is on.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Do Pigeons Grieve?

I've had an ongoing pigeon problem, ever since I moved into my current apartment. They're always hanging around my air conditioner, making annoying noises: cooing, gurgling, rustling, banging, landing with a thump, fluttering their wings against the window, you name it. Sometimes they're on top of the air conditioner, and sometimes they nestle under the unit on the window ledge. Sometimes they try to build a nest, and the twigs get inside the air conditioner.

I shoo them, but they always come back. I have a small window on a diagonal from the air conditioner window, and this is my vantage point for shooing. For a while I'd threaten them with a broomstick. Then I bought a water gun, which I figured would be a benign way to get rid of them, and would be more fun for me. So I'd shoot them, and they'd fly away, but minutes later they'd return. Nobody ever talks about Pavlov's pigeons, but after a while it got to the point where if they'd hear the window open they'd fly away. Fat lot of good it did me. They'd still return minutes later. Pigeons either have short memories or they're not very good at putting two and two together.

I once complained to my friend Joanna about my recalcitrant pigeons. "They just don't get it," I said. "No matter how many times I shoo them away, they come back, and I have to go through the same routine minutes later."

"Of course they don't get it," Joanna said. "They're birdbrains."

This morning I heard the pigeons. I opened the window and they flew away. I saw that there was a fairly large nest atop the air conditioner, and in the middle was a little white egg. I got a broomstick and knocked the whole thing down, egg and all, three stories to the ground.

A few minutes later I noticed that one of the pigeons was back atop the air conditioner, but in a different position than usual. It was sitting motionless against the window–slumped, if one could say that of a pigeon. I figured it was the mother, grieving for her lost egg. I shooed her away, but she kept coming back, returning to the same position.

Should I care? I had given her ample warning, hadn't I? Is it my fault she's a pigeon?

Still, it saddened me.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Battle of the Istrian Sports Clubs

As I wrote earlier, I became familiar with Istrian food in the 'eighties at the San Francisco restaurant Albona, and visited the Istrian peninsula several years later. Istrian food has been on my mind lately, so I decided to check out several of the Istrian restaurants in Astoria, Queens.

Astoria has a large Croatian community, many of them from Istria. A number of New York's top Italian restaurants are run by Istrians. Lidia Bastianich (Felidia) was born in Istria, and her son Joe is Mario Batali's business partner. Piccola Venezia, an excellent northern Italian restaurant in Astoria, is also Istrian-run.

Aside from the Italian restaurants, there are also a few Istrian-run places in Astoria that serve the typical home cooking of the region. Interestingly, these restaurants were afterthoughts at community sports and social clubs, places where folks could get a social taste, and later a gustatory one, of the old country. I got my Queens restaurant posse together on two occasions to try the food at the Istria Sport Club and the Rudar Soccer Club. Both clubs sponsor teams and provide a bar/hangout for the Istrian community to socialize, play cards, and watch games on TV. From the outside, you wouldn't know there were public restaurants at these places. The clientele for the restaurants are almost completely local Croatians.

Istria Sport Club was the first we visited. The staff were charming and gracious but, unfortunately, the food was awful. My impression was that it was food worthy, at best, of a Croatian high school cafeteria. The most typical Istrian pasta dish is fuzi (noodles) or njoki (gnocchi) served with a stewed veal sauce. We were served a dish which featured both types of pasta, and both had the consistency of wallpaper paste. The veal sauce was pallid and tasted as if the flavor had been sucked out by a vampire. The grilled squid I had for a main course was overcooked, rubbery and fishy. It was smothered in an overabundance of garlic. A friend's mixed grill was mediocre at best.

The online menu of Rudar Soccer club looked much more varied and promising, but when we arrived on a midweek night we received a menu that was fairly similar to that at Istria Sport Club. We were told that many more specials are available on weekends, and that Friday was seafood night. This time we decided to order family-style.

Rudar S.C. creamed Istria S.C. The food at Rudar was wonderful, everything fresh and flavorful. We started with a plate of prsut & sir (prosciutto & sheep's milk cheese). The prosciutto was OK, but I don't believe it was prosciutto di Parma; the cheese was fairly mild. Things picked up from there. We had the njoki with veal sauce, and it was remarkably different from the version at Istria Sport Club. The sauce had a deep, rich flavor, the meat seemed to be of higher quality, and the gnocchi had the perfect bouncy consistency.

The grilled squid was another benchmark of the difference between the two places. Rudar's was perfectly prepared, fresh and with just the right amount of garlic. The mixed grill, which included a pork chop, sausages, raznici (pork kebab), and cevapcici (spiced ground meat kebab), was much better than the one at Istria Sport Club.

Also excellent was the grilled branzino (Mediterranean sea bass), veal Istriana (thin cutlets in a savory light brown sauce), and a side of Swiss chard and potatoes.

We don't intend to return to Istria Sport Club. We're already planning a Friday night visit to Rudar Soccer Club.

Njoki & Fuzi at Istria Sport Club

Njoki at Rudar Soccer Club

Squid at Istria Sport Club

Squid at Rudar Soccer Club

Istria Sport Club on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Taste of Sierra Leone (in Washington, D.C.)

I don't have vast experience with West African cuisine. I'd say I've been to fewer than ten West African restaurants, in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Paris. The owners have been from Senegal, Ghana, Togo, Cameroon, and now Sierra Leone. While the restaurants have varied in quality, there is much overlap among the cuisines of these nations, including the staple starches and sauce preparations. While Sumah's, in Washington, D.C., is probably the most humble of these places, the food is quite possibly the best West African cuisine I've experienced.

Sumah is the name of the man who runs the place, a friendly, low-key guy from Sierra Leone. The shop, near Howard University, also sells CDs and DVDs. There are four or five tables, but it seems to be geared to take-out business. Indeed, when eating in you're served from takeout containers.

There were a few items I hadn't seen on other African menus, including potato leaves and cassava leaves. When I asked Sumah about the different dishes, he said, "I'll make you a plate and you can taste a little of everything." This was a free plate, mind you, and the menu does say "With an open mind we let you sample all of your dishes the first time you visit us." The plate he brought us didn't have everything on the menu, but I suspected it was everything he had that day. It consisted of jollof rice, okra, spinach, potato leaf, cassava leaf, peanut sauce, and tomato sauce. Any of the sauces can be ordered with beef, chicken, or fish. My friend and I tasted the various sauces and pretty much agreed that the cassava leaf and tomato sauce had the best combination of deliciousness and uniqueness. We ordered the cassava leaf with chicken and the tomato sauce with fish. The tomato stew was served over jollof rice and the cassava leaf was served over white rice. The menu was a little confusing, and it wasn't until after we ate that I realized that one could also order any of these stews with alternate starches, like couscous, fufu, or attieke (Ivorian grated cassava).

The dishes came in styrofoam takeout containers and were served with plastic forks. When we asked for spoons and knives, those items were metal. I think Sumah should consider investing in some plates and forks.

The cassava leaf was a puree and was mildly spicy. I'm not sure how to describe the taste. It wasn't quite a bitterness, more a mellow richness that went quite well with the chicken. It was mildly reminiscent of Indian chicken saag. The tomato sauce was also wonderful, a perfect match for the croaker fish (caveat: it's served with skin and bones). There was also a small amount of stewed beef along with the fish, so if you don't eat meat be sure to specify in advance. I can't put my finger on the spicing, but there was a liveliness of flavor to everything. The tomato stew was served with spinach on the side, a bonus I hadn't counted on. Another bonus was the order of fried sweet plantains that were either on the house or a side with something we ordered. Sumah's homemade ginger beer is an excellent beverage to accompany his food.

The food at Sumah's really is wonderful. An enormous portion of any sauce with your choice of meat over rice is $12. You can get a medium size for $10.50, but why bother for the small difference? If you live in D.C. it's probably a better bet to do takeout, but if you're visiting don't let the limitations in atmosphere put you off. Sumah's food has earned a permanent place in my taste memory.

cassava leaves with chicken

fish stewed with tomato sauce

Sumah's in Washington

Sunday, July 08, 2007

My Karzai Bathroom Confusion

While I was staying in D.C. recently I drove up to Baltimore with some friends for a concert and dinner. We dined at The Helmand, an Afghan restaurant in the beautiful Mount Vernon cultural district. The restaurant is owned by Quayum Karzai, brother of Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Other members of the Karzai family run branches of The Helmand in San Francisco and Cambridge. Brother Hamid was extended an invitation at one point, some years ago, to join the family restaurant business, but he had bigger fish to fry.

The connection to a world leader hasn't hurt The Helmand in the P.R. department, but it can stand on its own. The restaurant has a subtly elegant room and good food at very reasonable prices.

We started with two appetizers. The first, kaddo borawani, is described as "pan fried and baked baby pumpkin seasoned with sugar and served on yogurt garlic sauce." To be honest, I'm not a big pumpkin fan, but this is one dish that gets featured in all the reviews. I think it would be a great dessert after a turkey dinner, but I'm not sure about starting a meal with it.

Kaddo Borawani

Our other appetizer was aushak, a kind of Afghan ravioli stuffed with leeks (or sometimes chives) and topped with yogurt and meat sauce. The Helmand's sauce was meatier and richer, with more tomato, than other versions of the dish that I've tried, and the combination of the meat sauce and the creamy yogurt atop a pasta thing gave it an uncanny resemblance to a Bolognese lasagna.


I was a bit disappointed by my main course, lamb lawand. It's a stew with a tangy tomato sauce and mushrooms, topped with yogurt (like many of the dishes). It was served with spinach and chalow (basmati rice with cumin) on the side. The lawand sauce was excellent; the problem was the lamb, which was rather dry. My friend fared better with the chicken version, and they also do a vegetarian lawand.

The highlight of the meal for me was dessert, the "traditional" Afghan ice cream, cardamom-spiced vanilla with figs, dates and fresh mango. This was really spectacular, with a gelato-like consistency.

At a certain point during the meal I had to use the bathroom. The waitress pointed the way to the restrooms, but when I saw the two doors I was confused. There weren't signs for Men and Women, or Ladies and Gents. There were oriental prints of birds on each door. It was apparent that they weren't unisex bathrooms, but I couldn't decode the birds. One of the prints was a peacock, but the other was a more austere bird I didn't recognize. I stood there for a few moments, trying to decide what to do. I have a confession to make: I'm ornithologically challenged. I took a look at the peacock. I figured it must be the women's room. After all, I don't strut my feathers. I figured the plain bird was more macho, so I went in. Since they were single-occupancy bathrooms, I had no idea whether I had made the right choice.

When I got back to the table I explained my dilemma to my companions. It was then that I learned the facts of life. I probably knew that among birds it's the male that's more flamboyant, but I had forgotten. I had never previously considered the gender of peacocks, though the name should have been a clue. For all I knew there were male and female peacocks. And who the hell ever heard of a peahen, which was the bird on the women's room? The waitress overheard our discussion and said, "You're talking about the bathrooms? That drives everybody crazy. We keep telling the owner to change it."

A couple of days later I called my friend Donna and told her about my bathroom confusion and my avian ignorance. "That's OK, Pete," she said. "You know a lot of things; you're allowed a few lapses."

Donna called me back a few minutes later with an afterthought. "It's not just birds, you know," she said. "Think about lions."

I did think about lions. There's nothing in the least bit feminine about male lions. But peacocks? A peacock has no business on a men's room door.

Here's a blog post from another confused Helmand diner.

Helmand on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Pakistani Painted Truck, A Legacy of the 2002 Festival

Last weekend I attended the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for the fourth time since 2002. It's a great free festival, held annually on the mall in Washington, D.C., for two long weekends surrounding the Fourth of July. The festival picks up again tomorrow and runs through Sunday the 8th.

When I've told friends and colleagues about the festival most hadn't heard of it. That's a shame, because it's a great reason to visit the nation's capital, especially if you have a voracious appetite for music and performance traditions of the world. Each year they salute three geographical areas, one U.S. region or state, a foreign country or region, and a third drawn from one or the other. For my money (my tax money that is, which supports the festival), the 2002 and 2003 festivals have to have been among the cream of the crop. In 2002 they departed from the three area format and featured arts of the silk road solely, a tie-in with Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Project. It included a remarkable range of performers and craftspeople from that vast trade route. In 2003 they featured Mali, Appalachia, and Scotland. The geographical trio made sense, since the cultures of Africa and the Scots-Irish are at the core of Appalachian culture. The Appalachian theme was to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Ralph Peer recording sessions that preserved the music of American musical treasures like Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. I was especially thrilled by the Mali focus, as I'm wild about Malian music. Among the performers that year were the Malian superstars Oumou Sangare, Salif Keita, and Ali Farka Toure, as well as balafon master Neba Solo and the Touareg ensemble Tartit. There are cooking and crafts demonstrations in addition to the music, but I go solely for the music.

This year's features are the Mekong River, Virginia, and Northern Ireland. The Mekong River portion of the festival features artists from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Yunnan, China. Southeast Asian music is not especially accessible to western ears, but the festival provides a great way to get tastes of a number of performance traditions from the region. My favorite Mekong River performers were a blind Cambodian troubadour who looked like Ray Charles and had the gut-wrenching soul of a delta bluesman, and a Northeastern Thai Ensemble whose hypnotic music was reminiscent of the early minimalist compositions of Steve Reich and Terry Riley (only better). Two of the musicians played bamboo pipes that sounded like organs. Overall, however, my favorite performance came from Piedmont blues masters Cephas & Wiggins at one of the Virginia stages.

Though food concessions keep with the themes, they are run by local D.C. eateries and are generally forgettable. This time, however, I did have a pretty good larb gai (warm ground chicken salad) from the Thai stand.

The curators of the festival do an admirable job of putting together fun and comprehensive introductions to many foreign and domestic cultural traditions. You really should pay a visit some time.

Themes for the year are usually announced in the early spring.

Cephas & Wiggins

Northeastern Thai Ensemble

Khmer Troubadour

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Herb Edelman Was My Samuel Beckett

No doubt you're asking, what's it all about, Cherches? What do Herb Edelman and Samuel Beckett have to do with each other? Some of you may even be asking, who is Herb Edelman, anyway?

It's like this. I recently became cognizant of the trivia tidbit that Samuel Beckett, one of my literary heroes, used to drive a neighbor's child to school. The child, Andre Rene Roussimov, suffered from a condition known as acromegaly and later gained fame as the wrestler Andre the Giant.

Well, Herb Edelman used to drive me to school. So Herb Edelman was to Pete Cherches as Samuel Beckett was to Andre the Giant. Herb was the uncle of a kid on my block. There was a car pool where a different parent or relative would drive three or four kids to and from kindergarten at P.S. 217 each day. Herb Edelman was the designated driver for one of the kids since, as an actor, he had a fairly flexible schedule.

Herb Edelman was an affable character actor who appeared on many television shows, but I remember him best as Murray the cop in the film version of "The Odd Couple." When he drove us to school he was a struggling thirtyish actor, and I remember him as an easygoing, likable guy. But why do I mention this on a food blog? Well, for one thing you've probably figured out by now that this blog is as much about me as it is about food. I could make a case for relevance by pointing out that one of Edelman's few starring roles was as the owner of a diner on the short-lived TV sitcom "The Good Guys." So there's your food connection. But the real reason for this entry is that writing about the inconsequential is my forte, and I like to keep in practice.