Thursday, March 27, 2008

Vegetarian Chinese Without Regrets

China has a venerable Buddhist vegetarian tradition. In China there are many vegetarian restaurants that make creative use of meat substitutes such as soy products, wheat gluten and taro. I ate at an excellent vegetarian restaurant in Guangzhou. There are several Chinese vegetarian restaurants in New York, but the best of them is, at best, acceptable. A much better idea, if you're looking for a vegetarian Chinese meal, is to dine at a Shanghai restaurant. Of all the major Chinese cuisines, Shanghai seems to me to have the greatest variety of excellent vegetarian offerings.

I recently arranged a meal for some visiting vegetarian (not "health vegetarian") friends at John's Shanghai, on West 46th Street. Three of the eight in our party were vegetarians, but I ordered strictly vegetarian for the whole table. I set out to prove that one could have a thoroughly satisfying, substantial, interesting, delicious, balanced vegetarian meal at a Shanghai restaurant.

We started out with steamed vegetable dumplings and scallion pancakes. The scallion pancakes were served with a nice plum dipping sauce. The dumplings were stuffed with greens that the waiter claimed was spinach, though we all agreed it was something else, a little more bitter tasting (in a good way), along with chopped water chestnuts and glass noodles. Vegetable dumpling fillings seem to differ from restaurant to restaurant. Many have a greater proportion of glass noodles, along with dried tofu and chopped black mushroom.

From there we moved on to the cold dishes, which are a major component of Shanghai cuisine. There was a spicy (only slightly, actually) bok choi salad, cucumbers with garlic, kau fu, and vegetable duck. Kau fu is made from wheat gluten puffs, usually with tree-ear mushrooms. The version at John's also had lotus root. I'm not sure what the seasonings are, but this Kau Fu was particularly good.

The vegetable duck was perhaps the most visually ducklike of any I've had in New York. Vegetable duck is made from bean curd skins and black mushrooms. It's a great source of protein, and the only officially "mock" dish we had.

We had a vegetarian version of Shanghai fried rice cakes (nian gow), which was a special request. This was a big hit with the diners who had never tried these addictive, chewy treats before. We got more protein from another famous Shanghai vegetarian dish, bean curd skins with preserved vegetable and soybeans (which I wrote about in another recent post on Shanghai cuisine).

In the green vegetable department, we had cabbage hearts (actually Shanghai bok choi) with black mushrooms, and sauteed snow pea leaves, wonderful (and relatively expensive) greens that are like a sweeter version of spinach.

Most of these dishes can be ordered at any of New York's Shanghai-style restaurants. Midtown options, in addition to John's, include Evergreen and Our Place. Two of the best in Chinatown are Shanghai Cafe and New Green Bo.

Friday, March 21, 2008

New York Yakiniku

Gyu-Kaku, a chain of yakiniku, or table-grill barbecue, restaurants with hundreds of outlets in Japan, has established a U.S. presence with a number of locations in California, one in Hawaii, and two in New York. I was recently taken to the midtown Manhattan branch, at Third Avenue and 50th Street, during their first-anniversary week, when they were offering all beef items (except Kobe) at half price. Though they do offer seafood, poultry and pork, as well as vegetables, for grilling, beef is the real focus. One orders various small portions of different cuts with a choice of marinades (the servers will help you match marinades, such as yuzu, shio, ponzu or spicy miso, to your selections). Selections range from about $6 on up (considerably up for Kobe beef), and you'll need about three per person, in addition to any appetizers or side dishes, not to mention drinks (they do a shochu version of the mojito, by the way), so your tab can add up quickly (especially if you go for the $40 Kobe filet).

Charcoal grills are built into the table, and cuts are very thin and cook quickly. The quality of the meat is really first-rate, and while I don't normally love cook-it-yourself restaurants, the results are so good as to win me over. We tried a number of items, including a couple of vegetables (corn and eggplant) and pork sausage. The plain, dry eggplant was a disappointment, but the corn, cut into sub-cobs, is a good side bet (though you have to pay attention and keep turning it). The sausages were smoky, looked like Vienna sausage, and tasted like upscale hot dogs, which isn't a bad thing.

We tried a number of cuts of beef, including the standard and premium versions of kalbi (short rib) and rosu (rib eye). The more expensive premium cuts (almost double for some) were noticeably better, but if you want to keep costs down the standard cuts are just fine. The skirt steak (harami) was also very good, but I don't think the brisket (yaki shabu) really holds up on the grill. One thing you must order is the tongue (gyu-tan, shown in the photo). Even if you think you don't like tongue, you'll love this. The thin slices are exquisite the recommended way, with a squeeze of fresh lemon and some salt. On every table are three dipping sauces for the cooked meat--soy, citrus, and spicy.

Yakiniku is influenced by Korean barbecue, and there are also Korean dishes on the menu like bibim bap, which could be shared as a side. The staff at Gyu-Kaku are professional and ready to inform, and the midtown restaurant is refreshingly spacious in an age of claustrophobic rooms.

Gyu-Kaku on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Great Staten Island Pizzeria Crawl

One of the great social benefits of the age of blogging and online discussion forums is the chance to hook up with others of similar obsessions for mutual obsessive behavior. For instance, for over ten years I've attended jazz concerts and festivals the world over with more than fifty flesh-and-blood friends I originally met in cyberspace. My participation in the online foodie community is more recent, but in the past couple of years I've broken bread with at least a dozen erstwhile strangers, many of whose mania for things comestible makes me feel like a rank amateur.

I recently joined three other foodies, one indefatigable blogger and two active posters on bulletin boards like Chowhound and Mouthfuls, for a tour of Staten Island's legendary pizzerias. I believe this outing was in the works for close to a year, with a couple of the participants doing exhaustive research and map annotation. I went along for the ride.

I know very little about Bronx dining options, but I'm certain that of all the boroughs Staten Island is the culinary bottom of the barrel. Only the recent influx of Sri Lankan immigrants and attendant restaurants has put Staten Island on my eating radar. I hadn't really given any thought to other food options in this twilight zone between New York and New Jersey until I was invited on this ambitious pizza expedition.

It makes sense that if it had anything to offer the foodie, this largely Italian-American borough would be a destination for New York-style pizza. Indeed, most of the places we hit have long histories. We originally had three pizzerias on the itinerary, but left open the possibility of adding another one. Man does not live by pizza alone, of course, so we had a few other stops planned: a legendary old soda fountain, someplace for a beer or two, and an ice cream parlor.

We left midtown Manhattan by car on a Sunday morning at about 10:45. Two of our three must-try pizzerias opened before noon, so we headed off for breakfast at Nunzio's, our first stop. At about 11:30 we were the first customers.

At Nunzio's, which has been around since 1942, we ordered a small pie with sausage. I was happy to limit myself to one slice, two others split a second, and the biggest fresser in the crowd, our sainted driver, had two whole slices (over the course of the day he would put away eight slices to my four and change).

Nunzio's Pie

Among the four of us, I was the least thrilled with Nunzio's pizza. It had a decent, thinnish crust, but not an awe-inspiring one. I think the biggest problem was that the sauce was rather bland, resulting in an overall flavor that lacked dimensionality. A good sauce is essential for providing a flavor foundation in any red pizza.

From Nunzio's we moved on to our next destination, the Bay Street Luncheonette, a fabulous old place frozen in time, for their quintessential egg cream. I grew up with egg creams, but they're not something I have cravings for, and this was probably my first in over 25 years. When I was a kid we had seltzer delivered in those spritzer bottles, along with Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup, and my brothers and I made egg creams at home, with milk from Elmhurst Dairy, in those old wax covered cartons with the flip-top lids. And may I digress to say that the milk-carton paper that replaced the wax-covered cartons of old was one of the great leaps forward in American packaging technology. Oh how I hated those little flecks of wax that would sometimes find their way into a glass of milk or Tropicana orange juice.

Anyway, the Bay Street Luncheonette is no self-consciously retro spot catering to hipsters and poseurs, it's an endangered species--a true, old-fashioned New York soda fountain and luncheonette that has lovingly been preserved and kept going by its current owner, the exceedingly personable Vinnie. It's the kind of place that was ubiquitous when I was a kid. We called them candy stores, and there were three in my immediate neighborhood: Gus's, Janoff's, and our favorite hangout, Fred & Rudy's. Now this is what I'd call a destination. Be advised that hours are short: Mondays-Saturdays they close at 3 PM, Sundays at 1. As we were leaving, Vinnie said, "Next time you have to try my cherry-lime rickey."

Before I get around to the next pizza stop, let me tell you a little more about the egg cream. In my lifetime there has never been any egg in an egg cream, and there's no consensus as to whether there ever has been. One theory has it that the frothy head looks as if it contains egg white. There also has never been cream in an egg cream, but "egg milk" just wouldn't sound right. There's only one kind of chocolate syrup for a proper egg cream, Fox's U-Bet. Sometimes, when there wasn't any U-Bet in the house, we'd make them with Bosco or Cocoa Marsh, but they weren't true egg creams. We didn't know enough to call them ersatz creams, however. Not too many places make egg creams these days, but you can still get them at the East Village legend Gem Spa, on 2nd Avenue and St. Mark's place. I'm waiting for the Indians who work at Gem Spa to introduce the masala egg cream.

From Bay Street we moved on to Joe & Pat's, founded in 1960. This was the consensus favorite pizzeria of the day, and the only one I'd anoint a true destination spot. Joe & Pat's crust is pretty thin--but not quite Roman. The crust had a nice char, and a wheat nuttiness that was missing from the Nunzio's crust. The other factor that made the pizza a winner was the bold, tangy sauce. We had a pie with scungilli, wonderfully fresh, on half of it. Apparently Emeril Lagasse will be featuring Joe & Pat's on an upcoming program. It's worthy of such exposure, regardless of how you feel about Emeril.

Joe and Pat's Pie

Denino's is the most famous and oldest (since 1937) Staten Island pizzeria. We all found the "special" pie with mushroom and sausage a major disappointment. The first problem was the canned mushrooms. The crust, which was thicker than at the previous two stops, was somewhat leaden, and neither the sauce or cheese had any character. The sausages were the highlight of this pizza. I'm convinced that Denino's is coasting on reputation.

Denino's Pie

I was ready to call it a pizza day, but a woman who worked at Bay Street Luncheonette had recommended another pizzeria, Brother's. It was near Denino's, and the two most obsessive of the quartet insisted on stopping in. Since it was a "by-the-slice" place we didn't have to order a whole pie. We all ordered "grandma" slices, an item that has been showing up at New York pizzerias of late, but which I had never heard of as a kid in Brooklyn. A grandma pie is a homestyle, thin-crust square pizza with fresh mozzarella. We didn't know whether this was a specialty of the place, but my logic in ordering a grandma slice was that it was the smallest slice available. It wasn't especially good, and I ate only half of it.

One problem, perhaps, is that the pizzas are precooked, and slices are reheated when you order. This, unfortunately, is the norm at most New York pizzerias. When I was a kid this was not the case. Pizzas were never made in advance and left out to slowly rot as they are today. If a slice was available when you ordered it, you could be sure it was hot. Otherwise you'd have to wait for a fresh pie to come out of the oven. I think it was sometime in the 'seventies, when all sorts of things started going downhill, that most pizzerias started using inferior ingredients and reheating slices from cold pies cooked hours earlier.

As we left Brother's we started discussing our next stop. Earlier we had decided that at some point we'd hit Egger's, a famous ice cream parlor, and that we'd also go for some beers. I argued that we should go for beer first, then ice cream. It seemed obvious to me that you don't follow ice cream with beer, but this wasn't a given as far as everybody else was concerned. Still, since I had the more strongly held belief, the beer before ice cream approach prevailed. Now there were two bar options: the Nurnberger Bierhaus and Lee's Tavern. The attraction of Lee's to some was that they also served pizza. The attraction of Nurnberger Bierhaus to me was that they didn't serve pizza. We ended up at Nurnberger Bierhaus, and I'm glad we did. It was a very comfortable place, with a nice selection of German beers on tap at $4 a pint and a really friendly bartender and waitresses. They also serve German food, and yes, those same incorrigible two insisted that, at the very least, we had to share an appetizer. So we ordered a sausage plate, with three slim bratwursts and some warm German potato salad. It would be nice to go back in warm weather to check out their outdoor beer garden.

We topped off the day with some utterly underwhelming ice cream at Egger's. It was somewhat gummy, and really had nothing to recommend it. I ordered two scoops, cappuccino chip, which was serviceable, and pistachio, which wasn't. There was not a nut to be found in it, and the flavor and coloring may well have been derived from a three-dollar bill. I left most of the pistachio. The real Staten Island ice cream legend is Sedutto's, though it's no longer made on Staten Island.

Overall, though there were some decided disappointments, I'd say the outing was a rousing success for the quality of the pizza at Joe and Pat's, for the Smithsonian-quality interior of Bay Street Luncheonette, and for the beer and cheer at Nurnberger Bierhaus.

Nunzio's, 2155 Hylan Blvd.
Joe and Pat's, 1758 Victory Blvd.
Denino's, 524 Port Richmond Ave.
Brother's, 750 Port Richmond Ave.
Bay Street Luncheonette, 1189 Bay St.
Nurnberger Bierhaus, 817 Castleton Ave.
Egger's, 1194 Forest Ave.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Prominent Food Blogger Linked to Raw-Milk Cheese Ring

L'affaire Spitzer, while compelling in its own right, raises for me a semantic question regarding the initial newspaper headlines for the story. "Spitzer is Linked to Prostitution Ring," the New York Times announced. It was the "linked" part that got me. To me, the word "linked" implied that he was somehow involved in the business end of things, not that he was merely a customer, a client, a John, what have you. I also wondered whether there's a difference between a "prostitution ring" and a "call girl service," but that's another matter.

I was talking to my friend Donna about the Spitzer scandal, and I expressed my feeling that the word "linked" seemed imprecise or inappropriate. "If I buy a quart of milk," I asked her, "would it be correct to say 'Pete Cherches Linked to Dairy Distributors'?"

"That's not a good analogy," Donna said. "Milk isn't illegal. Now if it were unpasteurized cheese, that would be a different story."

"You're right," I said. "How's this for a headline: 'Prominent Food Blogger Linked to Raw-Milk Cheese Ring'?"

"Just as long as you're not linked to cheese logs of any kind," she replied.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Birthday Oyster Casserole at Phoenix Garden

I sprung forward yesterday, ahead of the clocks. To celebrate, I went with a handful of close friends to Phoenix Garden, easily the best Manhattan Cantonese restaurant outside of Chinatown. For many years there was a notable restaurant of the same name in Chinatown, but according to the staff this restaurant is no relation. Surprisingly for its midtown-east location, prices are no higher than at similar Chinatown restaurants. While most dishes at Phoenix Garden are quite good, one holds a special place in my heart, the oyster casserole with bean curd and roast pig. The clay pot is filled to the brim with those humongous oysters that I've only seen in Chinese restaurants, rectangles of fried bean curd, small chunks of roast pig with crispy skin, and a few vegetables for good measure in an amber-brown sauce. The dish is rich and wonderful, and is best shared by four or more diners. Other places make good oyster casseroles, usually with ginger and scallion, but the version with pig and tofu isn't so easy to find. In fact, before trying this dish at Phoenix Garden a couple of years ago I last had it in the 'nineties, at a now-defunct Chinatown gem called Tindo.

The other dishes we had to celebrate my big five-two were clams with lettuce (you roll up the clams in an iceberg lettuce cup and add a bit of hoisin sauce--it's more common to find this set-up with squab or chicken); salt and pepper shrimp; pan-fried noodles with eight precious (see this post for a discussion of eight precious); prawns and sea scallops in a taro basket (with chinese greens); snow pea leaves with crab meat sauce; and an excellent rendition of Peking pork chops, a Cantonese standby despite the name.

This is the third or fourth time I've had the oyster casserole at Phoenix Garden. On my prior visit it was unavailable for some reason, and a dish of sizziling oysters with black pepper sauce was so good I was glad to have been forced into trying an alternative. Also on the menu are salt and pepper fried oysters, and last night they were offering steamed oysters in the shell with black bean sauce. I think I need to plan an oyster-themed dinner at Phoenix Garden.

Phoenix Garden
242 E. 40th St., between 2nd & 3rd Ave.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A Tropical Illusion

A couple of years ago, when this blog was young, I received a comment on a piece I wrote about a favorite Latin American restaurant. I could have written the comment off as spam, as it was essentially a plug for Bogota Latin Bistro, but instead I decided to give the restaurant a try. I stopped by for appetizers and met the young man who had left the comment, Farid Ali, half-owner and half-Colombian, who turned out to be an extremely charming, savvy restaurateur. The food was good, and the place had an upbeat party atmosphere, with great Latin music playing, but I wasn't ready to write about it at the time. Somehow it's taken me close to two years to get back. A recent Sunday brunch turned out to be a pleasure on several counts.

First of all, we were seated in the heated sun deck out back. It was a clear, sunny day, and despite the mid-thirties temperature outdoors it was like brunching al fresco in summer, a tropical illusion. The brunch menu featured both breakfast and lunch items. Dishes ranged from $10-15, with a complimentary drink. I ordered a passion fruit mimosa and the enormous, delicious bandeja paisa.

Bandeja paisa, sometimes called bandeja campesina, is a hearty country plate that might be considered the Colombian national dish. It's one of those copious rustic plates that prepares you for a day in the fields. I fear that tackling the Sunday Times was not quite adequate for working off many of the calories.

The plate included skirt steak, chicharrón (pork rind), fried egg, rice, beans, fried sweet plantains, avocado, red cabbage salad, and an arepa. In Colombia, but not at Bogota Latin Bistro, the plate also typically includes a chorizo. I was given a choice of rice and beans and chose yellow and black. The traditional Colombian combo would be white and red. Colombian arepas are flat, white corn pancakes, very much like tortillas, which pale by comparison to the plump Venezuelan arepas.

Bogota Latin Bistro's menu is pan-Latino, but with a Colombian focus. The staff were friendly and adept, and Farid's sunny smile greeted us and saw us out.

Bogota Latin Bistro
141 5th Ave. (at St. John's Place)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Overheard in my dream last night

Friend: I didn't figure him for a cream puff kind of guy.

Me: Yeah, whatever happened to men who drank chocolate chips straight out of the bottle?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Chefs Charm at Times Travel Show

I spent about five hours on Saturday at the New York Times Travel Show. I went mainly because I was interested in the Taste of the World stage, where I watched three hour-long presentations.

A talk called "Discover the Belly of Paris" was delivered by a food historian and an art historian who give cultural walking tours in Paris. Inspired by a Zola novel that is centered around the life and characters of Les Halles, Paris's central food market (until not too long ago), the talk combined Parisian culinary history with insights into the realist and impressionist artists who often trolled the market for inspiration. It was informative, in an academic way, but much more rewarding were the presentations by two charismatic chefs.

Rick Bayless, of Chicago's renowned Frontera Grill, talked about Mexican regional cuisines and his own passion for cooking, then prepared a shrimp pipian (pumpkin seed mole). The most endearing part of his talk was his tale of how, as a fourteen-year-old Oklahoma boy with dreams of far off places and an already developed culinary sense, he conceived, planned and booked a family trip to Mexico, their first trip to a foreign country. Rick's family owned a modest barbecue restaurant in Oklahoma City, so he grew up in the kitchen. Because of the restaurant schedule, vacations were usually short and within driving distance--places like Dallas and Kansas City. Rick finally convinced his folks to let him handle the arrangements for a trip to Mexico, and the teenager pulled it off. He fell in love with the country and the food, and subsequently devoted his culinary career to authentic Mexican regional food. I've never seen his TV program, Mexico--One Plate at a Time, but in person he's eminently likeable. The pipian, which audience members got to taste, was excellent, though to my taste it could have used some more chiles.

Suvir Saran is the co-owner of Devi, probably New York's top Indian restaurant, which I've written about before, as well as a successful writer of cookbooks. Flamboyant and somewhat egotistical, his childlike enthusiasm is infectious. He's an evangelist for the greatness of Indian cuisine, and an enemy of all those who have foisted heavy, greasy drek upon Americans in countless Indian restaurants. He talked about the different regions of India as well as his own adaptations of non-Indian dishes to Indian cooking styles and seasoning. Then he prepared a Goan shrimp curry that was absolutely fabulous. He explained, while making the dish, that if decent fresh tomatoes are unavailable one can use canned or packaged ones, but only tomatoes without additives--"make sure it doesn't have anything that George Bush can't read."

Bayless, the easygoing Okie mensch, and Saran, the theatrical Indian divo, were both a pleasure to watch in action. These are two men who clearly love their jobs and the cuisines they've chosen to champion.