Saturday, January 26, 2008

Caribbean Indian Summer

Hindu Temple on Liberty Avenue

Tuesday, January 8, 2008. It was an unusually warm and sunny winter's day in New York, the thermometer climbing to 64 degrees. I had time on my hands, so I figured this was as good a day as any to make my first trip out to Richmond Hill, the Queens neighborhood that is home to a large community of Indians from Guyana and Trinidad. Richmond Hill is the end of the line on the A train (Lefferts branch). The main drag of Liberty Avenue is a stretch of Caribbean businesses and eateries for well over a mile.

My pre-trip research revealed that while there are many roti shops in the neighborhood, Singh's, which I believe is Trinidadian, appears to be the most highly esteemed. Singh's has, I believe, three branches in Richmond Hill, the largest being at Liberty and 132nd Street, which was my ultimate destination, about fourteen blocks from the subway. When I exited the Lefferts subway station, however, I noticed one of the sattelite Singh's nearby, so I decided to stop in for a first bite. I ordered two items, a "doubles" and an order of phulories. Phulories are little fried balls made from split-pea flour that reminded me a bit of hush puppies. Rather bland, they're served with a tamarind sauce. An order of ten goes for $1 at Singh's. I ate two; I didn't want to stuff myself on Caribbean Indian hush puppies when I had plenty of other snacks on my agenda. The doubles--that's the singular form--I don't know whether one asks for two doubleses--is Trinidad's most popular street food. A doubles is made with bara, a fried, slightly puffy, slightly chewy bread (I'd call the consistency somewhat crullerlike), stuffed with channa (chick pea) curry. The name refers to the two pieces of bara bread used for the sandwich, though Singh's uses one longer piece folded over, as is now common practice. This was delicious, one of the best bangs for my single buck I've had in ages.

A Doubles

Two dollars down, I headed up Liberty Avenue to take in the sites and the menus. Many places looked interesting, but I decided to stick with my original plan of a roti at the main Singh's branch. At Singh's the rotis are served with the bread on the side and your curry on a plate, which is actually a good idea. I remember the first time I had tried a Jamaican roti and discovered that this "sandwich" (actually a wrap, but nobody used the term back then) was full of bones. The bread for a roti is called dal puri, a flaky, thin wheat bread augmented with ground dal (yellow split peas). I ordered a goat roti, but decided not to eat the whole thing, as I still had one other snack on my short-list agenda. So I ate the meat, nibbled at the potatoes, and dipped just a little of the dal puri in the curry sauce. It was very good, and had I eaten it all I would have been stuffed by this point. But I figured if I played my cards right and paced myself I might be able to try some Guyanese Chinese food.

There are a number of Guyanese Chinese restaurants on Liberty Avenue. Chinese people flocked to the Caribbean in the 19th century, as merchants and laborers, and over time Chinese cuisine in the islands became creolized. I'm always interested in the ways Asian cuisines have morphed in the new world. Guyanese Chinese menus are especially heavy on fried rice and lo mein, but at these places you can get those dishes with jerk chicken. I figured that was the way to go. I picked a place that had a $4.50 lunch special, Good Hope (121-15 Liberty Avenue), and ordered the jerk chicken fried rice. The rice was slightly spicy, and I only ate a few forkfuls, since I wasn't really hungry any more. The chicken, served on the bone and atop the rice, was hardly spicy at all, only having a hint of jerk seasoning (I don't know if this is common in Guyanese Chinese versions), but much to my surprise it was fabulous nonetheless. The meat was amazingly plump, juicy, tender and flavorful. I don't know how they did it, but this was some of the best chicken I've tasted in a long time.

Jerk Chicken Fried Rice

Given the long subway ride, I don't expect to become a Richmond Hill regular, but as I write this I find myself craving some Chinese jerk chicken and a doubles.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Come On-a Our Place

A while back I wrote a post claiming that, in general, midtown Manhattan was happier hunting grounds for good Chinese restaurants than Manhattan's Chinatown. Though I've recently had excellent meals in Chinatown at Amazing 66 and Shanghai Cafe, I stick by that claim. And now I have another fabulous restaurant to add to my list of midtown winners: Our Place Shanghai Tea Garden, at 141 East 55th Street. I had passed by the restaurant several weeks ago and seen a number of positive reviews posted in the window. My concern was that in addition to Shanghai cuisine they serve a large number of dishes from other regions of China. I'm suspect of restaurants that try to be all things to all diners. Still, I arranged a dinner with a group of friends and was more than pleased by the Shanghai specialties as well as a couple of non-Shanghai dishes.

Shanghai cuisine is fairly easy to find in New York these days. When I first tasted Shanghai food in the 1970s there were only a few restaurants in Chinatown serving the cuisine, most notably Say Eng Lok (4-5-6) and Little Shanghai, both long gone. In addition to Shanghai Cafe, which is a descendent of Little Shanghai, there are now a handful of good Shanghai restaurants in Chinatown, including New Green Bo, which I haven't reviewed yet, and Joe's Shanghai, which doesn't really live up to its hype and probably isn't worth the inevitable long wait. Joe's has a midtown branch too; it's much easier to get a table there, but they're quite overpriced. I'm more partial to Evergreen. Now, however, I'm almost ready to declare Our Place the best Shanghai restaurant in Manhattan. It'll take one more visit to seal the deal though.

My group of six tried only a couple of appetizers, deciding to focus on main courses. The scallion pancake was respectable and not at all greasy; more interesting were the flaky turnip pastries. Cold appetizers are a cornerstone of Shanghai cuisine, but Our Place doesn't have a large or interesting selection. I do want to try their dumplings, both the jiaozi (fried dumplings or pot stickers) and the xiaolongbao (soup dumplings), when I return.

All of our main courses were prepared with finesse. Nothing was greasy, heavy or overly salty. Perhaps the least exciting dish was the fresh squid with salt and pepper (lightly battered, a preparation common to Shanghai and Cantonese cuisines). It was actually beyond reproach, but I've had better versions at a number of other restaurants. My favorite dish of the evening was the lion's head, large pork meatballs seasoned with star anise among other spices, topped with an amber gravy and served with cabbage hearts. It's a famous Shanghai dish. I'm not sure where the name comes from, and I'm skeptical of the Wikipedia explanation: "The name derives from the shape of the cabbage, which together with the meatball and a bit of imagination, resembles a lion's head." Still, you gotta love an encyclopedia that has an entry on Shanghai meatballs.

Also excellent were the Shanghai flat noodles with eight precious ingredients, doughy, hearty wheat noodles with mixed stuff (meat, baby shrimp, vegetables). "Eight precious" (sometimes "eight treasures") is a common name in Chinese cuisine, but the particular eight can vary depending on the dish. Eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture, but the name appears to refer specifically to the "pa pao," the eight precious objects of Buddhism (and there are apparently multiple groups of pa pao). Our other Shanghai dish was lima beans with bean curd skins and preserved vegetables. This dish is usually made with soybeans, and sometimes with shredded pork added. The thin bean curd skins are cut into noodle-like strips.

We ordered two dishes from the non-Shanghai specials menu, called "New Yorker's Favorites." I was seduced by the description of the Rack of Lamb Our Style: "Hearty portions of lamb chops grilled, then sautéed in our spicy garlic sauce, finished in Chinese sherry wine." The dish was wonderful, though I'd hardly call four baby lamb chops "hearty portions."

Chef Peng's Beancurd is described as "Creation of a legendary master chef. Beancurd in spicy sauce with shredded pork, hot pepper, and garlic." They forgot to mention the black beans. It is apparently their version of bean curd home style, a Hunan dish that has become a staple of Chinese-American restaurants. Moderately spicy, it was an excellent rendition of the dish.

There is also a "general menu," which has many other multi-regional offerings. I'm more inclined to try some of these dishes now that the kitchen has proven itself.

Service at Our Place was efficient, perhaps too efficient. All six of our main courses came out at about the same time, which made the table rather crowded. When the dishes arrived the waiter asked, "family style?" I guess the kitchen plans accordingly for the dreaded "I don't share" types. Our Place isn't a budget restaurant, but a meal there won't break the bank. Depending on drinks, I'd say dinner with tip should run between $30 and $45 per person.

Our Place Shanghai Tea Garden on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Fish Dinner, Guangzhou, 1992

"What's the best seafood restaurant in Guangzhou?" I asked the desk clerk at my hotel.

"I don't know the name in English," she replied. "I'll write the name in Chinese. It's very far. You need to take a taxi."

So, paper in hand, I hailed a cab. I showed the driver the sheet of paper and he nodded his head and drove off. It was a long ride. About twenty minutes.

When the driver pulled over, a dwarf in a tuxedo came over to the cab and opened the door for me. I stepped outside. I didn't notice a restaurant. I was confused. I showed the dwarf, who bore a slight resemblance to Herve Villechaize in "Fantasy Island," the piece of paper. "Is this the right place?" I asked.

"Yes. Follow me," he said.

We walked several yards until we came to an archway to a garden. We walked through the garden, past a big fountain, until we came to a large double door attended by a very tall Indian wearing a turban.

Was I dreaming this?

"Welcome," the Indian said and opened the door.

Inside, I was greeted by a stunningly beautiful hostess in a tight, sexy black uniform. She was unusually buxom for a Chinese woman. In fact, all of the hostesses and waitresses were beautiful and buxom. "Do you have a reservation?" the woman asked.

"No," I replied.

"No problem. Please wait here."

The waiting room was very classy and low key. There was none of the chrome, fluorescence and glitz I was used to at the top Cantonese seafood restaurants in New York. This place was done up in wood.

The hostess showed me to a table. The dining room was large and busy. I didn't see another westerner. It seemed that somebody was speaking on a cell phone at every table. Hong Kong businessmen, I assumed.

A waiter brought me a very small cup of extremely strong black tea and a menu. The name of the restaurant, I learned from the menu, was South Sea Fishing Village.

The menu explained the various ways the fish could be prepared, but it did not list any fish or any prices.

A waitress came to my table. "Please follow me," she said.

What the hell. I followed her.

We went out the doors, past the Indian, through the garden and the archway. We were back on the street. What's going on? I wondered.

We walked a few yards and entered an aquarium. I mean an aquarium. There were at least twenty large tanks, each with a different kind of live fish or shellfish. "You choose your fish," the waitress told me.

Aha! So it was a live seafood restaurant, where you choose your own fish and they charge by type and weight. At first I was overwhelmed by the choices, but I quickly realized that if I wanted a whole fish there were very few that were small enough for a single person. I settled on a catfish.

Back to the restaurant, back to my table. The waitress asked me how I'd like my fish prepared. I perused the menu and chose a simple preparation, steamed with soy, ginger, scallion and garlic. I noticed that every table had large, beautiful scallion pancakes, so I ordered one of those. And I ordered a plate of sauteed choi sum. And a beer.

It turned out to be quite a lot of food for one person. It also turned out to be one of the most spectacular Chinese meals I'd ever eaten. The vegetable and the scallion pancake were delicious, and the fish was absolutely perfectly prepared: juicy, bursting with flavor, and given just enough of a seasoning by the light sauce. It was a great culinary triumph of simplicity.

When I got the check I calculated the exchange into U.S. dollars. The whole shebang came out to about $25.

I couldn't have dreamed it, could I?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Kampuchea: Yes, But Is It Authentic?

The issue of authenticity often comes up when discussing Asian restaurants. Is a particular restaurant "authentic," and if not is that a mark against it? The question is particularly germane to the recent trend of New York restaurants serving gussied-up Asian street foods. In general, I'm opposed to paying premium prices for versions of dishes I can get for a fraction of the cost in Chinatowns and other Asian-American neighborhoods. I don't need the scene or hype that comes with these places. Still, occasionally a restaurant will come along that manages to get through my prejudices with such panache as to score a goal. Kampuchea (formerly Kampuchea Noodle Bar) is one of those places.

I think it all boils down to a skillful and sensitive executive chef who really knows the real thing, and knows how to up the ante without disrespecting the original. Irene Khin Wong did that with Burmese food at Road to Mandalay some years ago. Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur do it for Indian home cooking at Devi. And Ratha Chau now does it at Kampuchea.

Not that I'm an expert on authenticity in Cambodian food anyway. In New York such expertise would be hard to come by, since I don't think we've had more that a single Cambodian restaurant at any particular time (until recently a good but unspectacular place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn held that honor). I know what Thai food tastes like in Thailand, and Vietnamese food in Vietnam, but I've never been to Cambodia. Still, it's clear from the offerings at Kampuchea (take the savory crepe with shitake mushrooms, soybeans and butternut squash, for instance) that Chau is taking certain liberties. Chau was born in Cambodia, but in New York he previously managed the upscale French restaurant Fleur de Sel and the midtown Italian restaurant Ribot. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I was both skeptical and curious about Kampuchea. The opportunity to try it came when I recently got together for dinner with David Mindich, a friend and a respected media scholar. I asked David, who was visiting from Vermont, if there was anything in particular he was interested in trying. He answered by asking me the same thing. That was when I remembered Kampuchea, which I believe opened in 2006.

Kampuchea's menu is broken into five sections: cold & warm small plates, hot small plates, sandwiches (num pang), savory crepes, and noodles. We shared four items, though I think three would have been sufficient. What struck me most about the food was the obvious care and thought put into the flavor combinations. The tastes and seasonings all married well yet retained their individuality in the mix. Is there a culinary term that's the equivalent of "polyphony"?

The sandwiches are similar to Vietnamese bahn mi. They're served garnished with pickled vegetables, cilantro, and chili mayo. The bread is buttered (perhaps garlic butter) and toasted. We had the Berkshire pork, garlic glazed with honey-dried chili. The bread, which had a slight sweetness, was excellent, and the whole ensemble made for a memorable sandwich.

The catfish crepe, with ground peppercorn, honey soy and sesame seeds was also a delight. As with the Vietnamese banh xeo, the crepes are served with lettuce for wrapping and a sauce for dipping.

The lemongrass smoked duck breast was served rare and sliced, French-style, in a warm broth that reminded me of a lemongrass infused version of a lighter, milder Thai red curry, though according to the menu it's a pumpkin puree (is this authentic?). If the duck was indeed smoked it was only mildly so.

Perhaps the least successful of our dishes was the chilled flat noodles, which I figured might be easier to share than a noodle soup. It had excellent plump prawns and crispy pork belly, but I think the hoisin-based dressing was too sweet and heavy.

The service was friendly and efficient. The food is visually inviting without being prissy or artsy. I was not so thrilled, however, with the long communal tables and backless stools. For me separate tables and comfortable chairs are much more amenable to a leisurely dining experience. This setup does, however, make the most out of a small space.

Prices are high if you're thinking in terms of Asian street food, but I think reasonable taking into account the quality of Chau's ingredients and preparation. Be warned that noodle dishes start at $15. There is a sandwich sampler where one can try three different fillings for $17. I may stop in sooner than later for one of those.

78 Rivington St. (at Allen)

Kampuchea Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

New Year's Cakes (Nian Gow) at Shanghai Cafe

Many cultures have "good luck" dishes for the new year. In the American South it's traditional to eat Hoppin' John (black-eyed peas and rice) on New Year's day. In Italy the preferred New Year's food is lentils, often served with a sausage known as cotechino. In much of East Asia the New Year's items of choice are glutinous rice cakes of various sorts. The Japanese eat mochi, Koreans eat dduk, and Chinese people eat nian gow, literally "New Year's cake." Though there are Chinese sweet cakes known as nian gow, the kind I enjoyed this New Year's day are the chewy dumpling-like rice cakes, served sauteed or in soups, that are common in Shanghai cuisine, and which are basically the same as the Korean dduk. The glutinous rice flour is made into a cylinder and usually sliced into little ovals. I love the chewy consistency of Shanghai nian gow, and Shanghai Cafe, at 100 Mott Street in Chinatown, is one of the best places for them. It's run by a woman whose restaurant experience goes back to the legendary, now defunct Little Shanghai, which was perhaps Chinatown's first great Shanghai restaurant. The Shanghai rice cakes, as they're called on the menu, are sauteed with mixed meat and baby shrimp; one can also get rice cakes with mushrooms, single meats, or seafood. Shanghai Cafe is also as good a place as any in Manhattan for another Shanghai specialty, xiaolongbao (soup dumplings). A good place to sample Korean rice cakes is N.Y. Kom Tang Soot Bul House, at 32 E. 32nd Street, where every New Year's day they serve dduk kuk (rice cake soup) for free, a gesture which is intended to bring mutual good luck to proprietor and customer alike.

The proprietor of Word of Mouth wishes all his readers good luck for the new year.

Shanghai Café on Urbanspoon