Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Pete '08: The Year in Food

It's that time again. As the new year approaches we all must reflect on the restaurant meals we've enjoyed (or didn't) over the past year. At least I was informed last year that I had to reflect, so I started my series of year-end roundups. Of course, there's more to life than food, and this was a particularly interesting year to be living in America, so much so that the momentous election of Barack Obama almost overshadowed my finding a great vindaloo.

My discovery of the fabulous vindaloo at Tadka may have been the most striking culinary event of the year for me. Until you've had a true vindaloo in India, you don't really know how bad (and inauthentic) most U.S. Indian restaurant versions of the dish are.

In other news from the Indian front, reports of a great, authentic biryani at Sangam, in The Village, only led to disappointment. Happily, Devi reopened this year, after closing due to a rift with a former business partner, the owner of the mediocre Baluchi's chain, who was apparently skimming tips. I had another excellent restaurant week meal there, and I also got to see Devi's master chef Suvir Saran perform at the Times Travel Show earlier in the year. A trip to Richmond Hill, way out in Queens, gave me the opportunity to sample some Indo-Caribbean snacks.

I seem to have written a fair amount about Japanese food this year. In recent years New York has become a mecca for all sorts of regional and specialty Japanese restaurants. So while in much of America Japanese food pretty much means sushi and teriyaki, I was able to enjoy and write about yakiniku (table grilling) at Gyu-Kaku, Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen at Ippudo (where I nearly became drunk on their "liquid pork"), and an izakaya (Japanese eating pub) experience at Ariyoshi. I also got to try the traditional Okinawan dish of bitter melon, eggs and tofu at Suibi (now closed, alas), and my masculinity survived a couple of "ladies' sets" at Ise.

Those who know me, or who have been regular readers of this blog, know that perhaps my greatest culinary love is the cuisines of China. I kicked off the eating year with a visit to Shanghai Cafe, where I had the traditional New Year's rice cakes, nian gow. A second visit to Imperial Palace in Flushing convinced me that it is the best Cantonese restaurant we have in New York at the moment. Lucky Eight, in Sunset Park, a favorite of New York Magazine's Adam Platt, couldn't hold a candle to Imperial Palace. I was happy to find a couple of good bets for Chinatown-style roast meats near my midtown east office. Also near my office is Our Place Shanghai Tea Garden, where I had one memorable dinner. A visit from some vegetarian friends provided the opportunity to compose a purely vegetarian menu at John's Shanghai, Shanghai-style being perhaps the most vegetarian-friendly of Chinese regional cuisines. I traversed this great nation in search of Yunnan cuisine, and I struck gold in Chicago. In Riverdale I took a culinary time capsule back to the Chinese-American food of my youth at Golden Gate.

Though Florence's, the Ghanaian restaurant in Harlem that I raved about a while back, closed this year, I found excellent West African food closer to home at two Brooklyn establishments, Meytex and Mariam's.

I hit a number of interesting places with my monthly outer boroughs entourage. We were almost killed with calories at Milan's, a Slovak restaurant in Brooklyn. We had excellent, refined mezedes at S'Agapo, a Cretan restaurant in Astoria. In Elmhurst we visited Upi Jaya, for Padang-style Indonesian food. I finally wrote, with some difficulty, about Sripraphai, perhaps the city's most highly regarded Thai restaurant, and we tried a different side of Thai, Isaan food, at Zabb.

A smorgasbord lunch at the Norwegian Seamen's Church led to memories of my tacky bar mitzvah. A few forays into New York Jewish deli culture brought further Proustian childhood memories. The new Second Avenue Deli's pastrami didn't disappoint, and at Sarge's I had a rolled beef sandwich for the first time in years, leading me to wax elegiac about this endangered deli meat.

A hot summer day brought me to Coney Island for a final visit to the original Nathan's Famous, now history, I'm sad to say, where I was shocked to learn how many calories there are in an order of French fries. Yeah, shocked like Claude Rains in "Casablanca." Another hot day found me trying halo halo, the Philippines' great kitchen-sink ice drink.

In the mixology department, I decided that the Middle Eastern bitter citrus drink, Loomi, would go great with gin, and for those times when alcohol is out of the question I experimented with recipes for non-alcoholic gin. This blog gets several hits a day from people who are looking for a non-alcoholic gin recipe, so I'm not alone in my quest.

As always, travel always provides interesting eating opportunities. At the Smithsonian Folklife Festival I tried the national dish of Bhutan, albeit in a version that made concessions to locally available ingredients. It wasn't good, but still I relished the opportunity to try it. While in D.C. I visited two of noted chef José Andrés' restaurants; the pan-Mediterranean Zaytinya bowled me over while Jaleo, his tapas restaurant, left me totally cold. While in Montreal for the jazz festival I ate at a restaurant serving the cuisine of the French Indian Ocean island La Reunion. While in Chicago for the jazz festival, besides eating fabulous Yunnan food at Spring World, I ate Armenian meatballs with wacky poet Bradley Lastname, reveled in the deliciousness of Chicago hot dogs, and decided once and for all that Chicago deep dish pizza is the real dog.

I'm not normally a big pizza eater, but I was one Sunday in March when four of us went to Staten Island to try four pizzerias, a soda fountain, an ice cream parlor and a German bar. Denino's, probably Staten Island's most famous pizzeria, was a big disappointment, but the pizza at Joe and Pat's was fantastic.

Good but far from fantastic was the wildly overpriced $21 12'' personal pizza at Una Pizza Napoletana (above), in the East Village. The audacity of price inspired one of my more vitriolic rants, though perhaps not as vitriolic as the post about people who behave in subway cars as if they were in their own bathroom.

And what better way to end the year than with links to a couple of vitriolic rants?


Anonymous Al said...

Whew, you had me going there for a couple of minutes. But it appears that the original Nathan's is indeed still open. So my summer caloric intake is safe - for now.

I may just have to run over and grab me a Ladies' Set though. Looks good...

10:55 AM  

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