Saturday, December 29, 2007
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Pete '07: The Year in Food
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.
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 opentable.com 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.
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.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Hallaca time comes but once a year.
In 1989 I spent the Christmas holidays in Caracas, dividing my time between the city and the beach. I went on a lark because flights were cheap (about $300 r/t from New York) and costs were low. Venezuela was in the midst of a long recession, following the oil boom of the '70s. I was able to find simple but decent hotels for under $20 a night, and food was incredibly cheap.
In Caracas I had the opportunity to try the traditional Venezuelan Christmas dish, hallaca. Hallacas are labor-intensive, and are generally only made around Christmas time, the preparation of them being a communal family activity. Hallacas are similar to tamales, but they are steamed in banana leaves instead of corn husks. The white corn masa is colored yellow with annato. The stuffing consists of a stew of three meats (pork, beef and chicken) with olives and raisins. The hallaca represents Venezuela's mestizo heritage. Cooking in a banana leaf was a techinque brought by African slaves. The corn masa is native Amerindian, and the stuffing reflects Spanish preparation and ingredients. The hallaca I had in Caracas was delicious.
I was excited to learn that Caracas Arepa Bar, which I've written about before, serves hallacas in December. At Caracas Arepa Bar the hallaca is served with another traditional Venezuelan Christmas specialty, pan de jamon, a bread wrapped around cooked ham, olives and raisins (I tasted cheese too, though it wasn't mentioned on the menu). On the special Christmas plate these items are accompanied by a potato and carrot salad. Unfortunately, the only thing on the plate I really liked was the potato salad. The hallaca stuffing was dry and bland, the corn masa dry and heavy. If there were olives and raisins in them I couldn't taste either. The pan de jamon was served cold and was fairly bland too. Even if it all were good, the $18 price tag is rather steep. I can still recommend the place wholeheartedly for arepas, but steer clear of the hallacas.
I found a fun site about hallaca preparation, where you can make a virtual hallaca. It's in Spanish, and the navigation is a bit clunky, but it's worth a visit if you want to see how hallacas are made.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Nightmare in Karnataka
Shortly before this trip I had gone through a hellish six-month battle with insomnia. My doctor, a very thorough and cautious guy, sent me to all sorts of specialists to try to pin down the problem. After all physical causes had been ruled out he said, "I'd like you to see a psychiatrist." I was skeptical, but my doctor wasn't ready to prescribe medication, so I went to the psychiatrist.
The shrink, it turned out, much to my horror, was a classic Freudian with an inscrutable manner. His office had an analyst's couch. I explained my problem, and he proceeded to get my medical and family history. When I told him my father had died young he perked up. "How old was he?" the shrink asked.
"I think he was about forty-two," I said.
He didn't actually say, "Aha!," but I know he was thinking it. "Your father died at forty-two, and you're forty-two. Do you think that could have something to do with your insomnia?" he asked. He seemed thrilled by the prospect of a classic Freudian solution.
"Absolutely not," I said. "I don't remember him, I don't ever think about death, and I'm not particularly scared of it."
To make a long story short, I rebuffed his attempts to draw me into analysis and continued seeing him for prescriptions and followups only. For some reason he was reluctant to try Ambien, so he gave me a series of prescriptions for drugs that were originally developed for other conditions, mostly antidepressants. One of them, Elavil, an old-school antidepressant that had been superseded for its original purpose by newer drugs, seemed to help. I was using Elavil as a sleep aid when I went to India with Harold.
Harold and I flew into Mumbai, then caught a domestic flight to Bangalore the following day. We were going to take the train to Mysore, which would be the beginning of a road trip that would conclude in Hyderabad (in the state of Andhra Pradesh).
At the Bangalore railway station we experienced a classic example of Indian bureaucracy. When we tried to buy train tickets to Mysore, about a half hour before it was set to depart, we were told that the train was all sold out. There was, however, a special tourist quota. A certain number of seats were set aside for foreigners. We had to go to the tourist quota office to see if we could get tickets. Otherwise we'd have to wait at least three hours for the next train.
Well, the office we needed to go to wasn't in the station. Of course not. It was in a shed about a quarter of a mile away, by the side of the tracks. We rushed over and entered an office full of female workers at desks and a single man up front at a bigger desk. Nobody said anything. Nobody said, "Can I help you." I figured the man was the manager, so I went up to him and said, "Excuse me, we're here about the tourist quota for the Mysore train."
"I'm sorry," he said. "We can't do anything now. We are all at lunch."
I couldn't believe it. The entire office had stopped working at the same time, and this guy wasn't going to help us make our train. I explained that this relatively simple favor would save us the trouble of waiting hours for another train, and reason eventually prevailed. We rushed back to the station with our permit and just barely made the train.
Mysore, which I had also visited on my first trip to India, is a charming city. We spent a couple of days there and arranged for a car and driver at a travel agency.
That was one advantage to traveling with a friend. We could share the cost of a car and not have to deal with getting around the state by public transportation, which can be slow and uncomfortable. Our itinerary would have taken us about twice as long by public transportation. Shared by two people, the cost of a car and driver is quite reasonable. I believe we had the driver with us for eight days and covered a lot of territory. If I remember correctly the whole thing, with a generous tip, cost us under $400.
Karnataka is a fascinating part of India, with many architectural and archaeological wonders. Because the various sites are spread all over the state, however, it doesn't get much foreign tourism outside of Mysore and Bangalore.
In many of those off-the-beaten-path towns the best hotel is relatively humble. I can't remember the town this happened in, but our room had a lock that wasn't working, so the manager gave us a padlock and chain. I think Harold was still experiencing culture shock, something I had gotten over years before, and neither of us were thrilled with the lock situation.
We always shared rooms with twin beds. Invariably, the beds were right next to each other. In each hotel room Harold and I would move the beds as far apart as possible.
I took an Elavil and went to sleep.
At some point in the middle of the night I heard startled yells from Harold. "Huh?! Wha?!"
And then I realized that I had woken up screaming. I'd had a screaming nightmare.
"What happened?" Harold asked.
"I had a nightmare. I'll bet it had something to do with the drug."
"That wasn't just a scream, you know," Harold said. "It was a blood-curdling, other-worldly shriek."
I knew what he meant. I could feel the tightness in my throat. It's probably not easy to scream in your sleep, so the scream starts in the gut and works its way up, trying to force its way out, resulting in a harrowing banshee cry.
I promised poor Harold that I wouldn't take any more Elavil on the trip and hoped I wouldn't have another nightmare that night.
It was crude, primitive dream. My dreams are usually vivid and complex. This one was simple, but utterly frightening. I was an adult, wandering through the apartment of my childhood. Everything was in shadow. I couldn't see much. Nobody else was there. It was very quiet. I wandered from room to room, the air thick with foreboding. Then I entered the kitchen. All of a sudden an Indian with a turban lunged at me from behind the refrigerator, a meat cleaver in his hand. That's when I woke up screaming.
When I got home to the states I did some research and learned that screaming nightmares are a rare but reported side effect of Elavil.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
The Ice Cream and Mortadella Diet
I saw my doctor yesterday morning for a periodic blood test, a flu shot, and a weigh-in. I weighed exactly twenty pounds less than at my prior visit in August (I started dieting on September 22). Weeks ago I promised myself ice cream as a post-weigh-in treat. I'd only had one real dessert since I started my diet, at Tanoreen a few weeks ago. I had a specific craving for Almond Joy ice cream from Emack & Bolio's, a place that I may have discovered after I wrote my ode to ice cream. I'd only been to Emack & Bolio's, a Boston chain that has three Manhattan outlets, once before and I fell in love with their Almond Joy flavor. The ice cream itself is creamy enough without being unctuous, and very fresh and clean tasting. Almond Joy is coconut ice cream with almonds and chocolate flakes. Much to my disappointment, the branch on Houston and West Broadway wasn't serving Almond Joy yesterday. They rotate their flavors. Still, to deprive me of the flavor I'd been craving on the day of my weigh-in was rather cruel, don't you think? I had to come up with some alternates (I was going for two scoops this time). I perused the list and went with white pistachio and caramel moose prints. The white pistachio was wonderful: intensely pistachio-flavored without any of that extract overkill, if you know what I mean. The caramel moose prints, on the other hand, was disappointing for its cloying sweetness; it's described as caramel ice cream with a caramel swirl and chocolate peanut butter cups mixed in. Based on the Almond Joy and the white pistachio, though, I think E&B may be second only to Chinatown Ice Cream Factory for Manhattan ice cream in the non-gelato division.
For dinner I made myself a mortadella sandwich. I'd been eating so much lean turkey breast during my diet that I wanted to celebrate with a cold cut where the fat flaunts itself. Mortadella is one of the world's great cold cuts, one of the culinary jewels of Bologna, and it's unfortunate that it was the inspiration for that abominable thing called baloney. In addition to the splotches of angelic white fat, this mortadella had proscuitto, pistachios and black peppercorns mixed in. I bought it at my favorite Park Slope food shop, D'Vine Taste, which is run by a charming, cosmopolitan, and culinarily erudite Lebanese Christian family. I made a sandwich on a baguette with some Delouis Fils green peppercorn Dijon mustard. I also treated myself to a little piece of baguette with some James Keiller & Sons Dundee orange marmalade, a jar of which had been lying neglected in my fridge since I started the diet. I love orange marmalade (it's my topping of choice on waffles), and Keiller's, which claims to be the original marmalade (commercially marketed since 1797), is perhaps the best (though you really must try St. Dalfour's kumquat preserves if you like marmalade).
That was celebration day. My diet's not over, though. My new goal, modest and easily attainable, is another five pounds by my birthday on March 8th. My original goal was fifteen pounds by Christmas, and I've already lost twenty, two weeks early. My secret new goal is another ten pounds by my birthday.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Downtown Music, 1971-1987
Thanks to the music bloggers who have already spread the word:
Steve Smith at Time Out New York and Night After Night
Derek Taylor at Bagatellen
Kyle Gann at PostClassic
Sunday, December 09, 2007
Nepal, January 1991
The Hindu kingdom of Nepal* borders India, but it's a very different place. The cities are much smaller, for one thing, and there's a much more laid back atmosphere in general. Nepali architecture is quite exotic, Kathmandu itself being a happy enough blend of old and new.
In addition to Kathmandu I visited the neighboring historic cities of Patan and Bhaktapur, the enormous Buddhist stupa at Bodnath, and the vast Hindu temple complex at Pashupatinath (where several cremations were going on). The architectural style of the Kathmandu valley, a blend of Hindu and Buddhist elements, is wonderful and magical, real storybook stuff.
In Kathmandu people are always trying to sell you something, but with less subterfuge than in North India. And if there is occasionally a similar tenacity, they do eventually take no for an answer. The people's faces, Newari, Sherpa and Tibetan, are themselves a feast for the eyes. I found people to be generally friendly and loquacious, often wanting to talk about their country's political past, present and future.
In Kathmandu I discovered a marvelous restaurant, Sunkosi, which features Nepali and Tibetan food--and they have separate chefs for each cuisine. One of their desserts, a sweet yogurt concoction with nuts and fruit called sikarni, was featured in Gourmet magazine. The name sounds like it might be a variant on the Indian shrikhand, sometimes appearing on menus as shrikhund, which always conjures up an image of a mad German dog.
Perhaps because of Nepal's popularity with European tourists the Nepalese even manage to do reasonable western food, including croissants (the Indian ones are crescent-shaped bricks).
Kathmandu is a shopper's paradise, especially if you're looking for sweaters. Heavy, colorful yak's wool sweaters go for about $11-13. I spent one day walking around Kathmandu, looking, shopping and relaxing. The relaxing part is impossible in North India. At one point a guy roped me into his shop. I bought a sweater, a wool cap and a scarf. He also had a jacket I was interested in, but he didn't have a combination of size and color I liked. "We'll go to other shop, very close," he said, and he guided me through the narrow streets to the other place. There, a young woman helped me find what I was looking for. When she left the room the guy said to me, "You like this girl? I can arrange for you," and then added, "Typical Nepali girl," in much the same way he had described a sweater: "Typical Nepali design." I decided to stick with clothes.
The following day I went to Dhulikhel, a village in the hills, where I spent two peaceful days. From Dhulikhel you get a good view of a stretch of the Himalayas, and the peaks have an odd effect like a white projection onto the sky. The air was crisp and clean, the landscape beautiful, and the hotel served very good food.
My second morning at Dhulikhel I woke up at 6 A.M. so I could see sunrise over the Himalayas. Kumar, a teenager who works at the hotel, escorted the guests up to the top of a hill, where you get the best views (the hill is also used by the villagers for animal sacrifices). Later I went for a walk around the mountain villages with Kumar as my guide. Along the way we met a bright little kid who asked where I was from. When I told him New York he replied, "Oh yes, we learned in my school about New York, and also Washington, which I believe is the seat of your kingdom."
* In 2006 Nepal was declared a secular state.
Thursday, December 06, 2007
Downtown Music and the Question of Genre: A Panel Discussion
Earlier this year, however, I wrote a research guide to downtown New York music of the '70s and '80s for NYU's Fales Library. This Monday, December 10, I'm moderating a panel of musicians on the subject. The press release is below. When the research guide goes online, I'll let you know about that too.
* * *
The 1970s and 1980s were a remarkable period of musical ferment in downtown Manhattan: the emergence of punk rock at CBGB, new developments in jazz at a number of artist-run lofts, the flowering of minimalism and related trends in new music at The Kitchen. Around 1979, with the East Village as the center of activity, all these strains - jazz/improvisation, rock, and new music - began to come together in compelling ways. With so much overlap of genres downtown, by the early 1980s to categorize a musician as rock, jazz, improv, or classical often required a coin toss.
On Monday, December 10, at 6:30 p.m., New York University’s Fales Library will host a panel discussion on “Downtown Music and the Question of Genre.” The event, which is free and open to the public, takes place at Fales, on the third floor of the NYU Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South (at LaGuardia Place). For further information and to make a reservation, call 212.992.9018.
A panel of musicians who were key players in the downtown music scene will discuss the social history of downtown music with an emphasis on the genre-hopping 1980s. The panel is moderated by Peter Cherches, the author of Fales Library’s new online research guide to downtown music (1971-1987). As a writer, performance artist, and singer, he was active on the downtown scene in the ’80s.
- Don Christensen, who since the 1970s has been equally at home in the downtown alternative rock and new music worlds. As a drummer with The Contortions, James White and the Blacks, and the Bush Tetras, he was an important player in the no-wave and punk-funk scenes. He was a founding member of the surf-influenced instrumental band The Raybeats.
- Jon Gibson, a composer, multi-wind instrumentalist, and visual artist who took part in numerous landmark musical events over the past four decades, performing in the early works of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and Philip Glass.
- Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris, one of the leading innovators in the confluence of jazz, new music, improvisation, and contemporary classical music. His work redefines the roles of composer, conductor, arranger, and performer. As a composer, he is widely known for his notated compositions and has been especially acclaimed for pioneering and developing the art of Conduction®.
- Elliott Sharp, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and improviser. He is known for his turbulent style of guitar playing and mathematically structured compositions. In the 1980s Sharp became a major figure on the downtown New York experimental music scene, collaborating with many of its most prominent players, including John Zorn, Wayne Horvitz, and Bobby Previte. Currently he leads the groups Orchestra Carbon, Tectonics, and Terraplane.
Monday, December 03, 2007
Not Your Everyday Middle Eastern Restaurant
New York has a number of good Middle Eastern restaurants, but there's a sameness to many of them, regardless of whether the owners are Lebanese, Egyptian, Yemeni, or whatever. It's a standard Middle Eastern restaurant cuisine. Not so with Tanoreen. The flavors of Rawia Bishara's food exhibit a sensitivity and flair unparalleled at other local Middle Eastern places. Standard menu items like hummus, kibbie and kafta exist on a higher plane. And there are many specialties you won't see on every Middle Eastern menu, some on Tanoreen's regular menu and others on the daily specials.
Tanoreen is a small place in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge, a neighborhood originally settled by Scandinavians, then Italians, and now home to many Arab-American families. I rustled up a party of eight for a blowout meal. We ordered enough for twelve and ate it all, and there were so many more items on the extensive menu that we'd have liked to have tried.
Our congenial waiter put together a fabulous meze of most, if not all, of the restaurant's cold appetizers, apportioning it to two plates. Everything was fabulous, but one of the most interesting items was the cauliflower salad with pomegranate syrup.
Musakhan, an appetizer that often appears on the daily specials menu, is a kind of chicken pizza, with caramelized onions, sumac, pine nuts, and lots of olive oil. It's a Palestinian specialty.
Among the main courses, most of which were lamb dishes (the restaurant's strong suit), the absolute favorite at our table were the humongous, melt-in-your-mouth lamb shanks, which had a hearty but delicately complex brown sauce. One member of our party was inspired to clean the bones with canine gusto and eat the marrow out of two large shanks.
A special of tiny whole-wheat dumplings with chicken was excellent, as were the kibbie and kafta. A side of tangy, lemony string beans was especially satisfying. The only real dud was a lackluster spinach stew with lamb chunks. A large, whole fried snapper, a day's special that the waiter had heartily recommended, was wonderfully seasoned, but it was a bit too dry from overcooking.
Among the deserts we tried the best was a semolina cake that was not as cloyingly sweet as the versions I've tried at other establishments.
Throughout the evening, Ms. Bishara took the occasional break from the kitchen to schmooze with the customers. The restaurant was pretty much full during our two and a half hours there on a midweek evening. Prices are reasonable, and reservations are accepted for parties of four or more. Because we ordered so much, and had premium items like the whole fish and the lamb shank, our tab came to $40 per person with tip (and no alcohol is served). I should think that for normal diners it would surely come out to less than $30.