Sunday, April 27, 2008

Japanese Pub Fare

Ariyoshi, at 226 E. 53rd St., is an izakaya, a traditional Japanese drinking establishment with small plates to accompany your sake or shochu or beer. It's a tiny, casual place, and I'm told very much similar in feel to izakayas in Japan. An izakaya is pretty much the Japanese equivalent of a tapas bar. At Ariyoshi a wide variety of items, generally in the $5-8 dollar range, is available, including stewed, grilled, or fried meat and seafood dishes, sushi and sashimi, and salads.

I dined at Ariyoshi with a couple of friends, including Masa, who is Japanese; he was able to confirm the authenticity of the place as well as help with the ordering. Three of us shared about a dozen items.

The quality of the food ranged from decent to very good. Among my favorite dishes were the stewed pork belly (the staff recommended this over the grilled belly), fried chicken chunks in a vinegar sauce, and tempura smelts. Also excellent was a negi-hama roll (yellowtail and scallion) from the sushi bar. In the next tier were marinated fluke fin (raw, with a crunchy consistency), tsukune (chicken meatballs), and grilled squid legs. In general, the cold vegetable items--a seaweed salad and spinach with tiny fish--were bland and disappointing. Also disappointing were the grilled beef tongue, which looked great but was rather tough, and some limp gyoza.

squid legs


pork belly

fluke fin

The food at Ariyoshi is generally simple, homey fare. Nothing fancy. In other words, Ariyoshi's a pleasant place to chow down on some tasty food, have a couple of drinks, and feel like you're doing it all in Japan, but otherwise expectations shouldn't be too high.

Ariyoshi on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 21, 2008


There once was a man who was afraid of bananas. There are common and uncommon phobias, and while bananaphobia may be an uncommon one, it's a phobia nonetheless. You might find the idea of a fear of bananas funny, but to this man it was no laughing matter. He was more afraid of bananas than he was of snakes, heights, or even death itself. Any time he saw a banana the man would scream, "Eek! A banana!"--and run away.

This man had many enemies, and when they found out about his phobia they began to taunt him with bananas. But it wasn't only his enemies who taunted him with bananas. Sometimes his enemies would hire banana hit men to taunt him. Everywhere this man would go, he'd see strangers walking around with bananas. Sometimes they'd be eating them, and sometimes they would just carry them around, menacingly. And if that weren't enough, he noticed that many new fruit stands were opening near his home and place of work, all prominently displaying their bananas, clearly in order to make his life a living hell.

It's not as if the man lacked perspective, though. I'm just afraid of bananas, he thought. There are plenty of real nuts out there.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It's Cretan to Me

"Would you like me to take a picture of all of you?" the waiter asked, after watching me shoot photos of all the dishes we ordered--and there were quite a few, as I ordered solely from the extensive appetizers menu for the five of us.

"No thanks," I said, "I only do food."

"You only do food!" he repeated, amused.

The waiter and the owners at S'Agapo were impressed by the quantity of the food we ordered as well as by our particular choices. And I was impressed by the quality of just about everything we ordered, as was everyone else in the party, including one Greek-American, if that counts for anything.

S'Agapo is a laid back, friendly, family-run Cretan restaurant in Astoria, Queens (where you'll find New York's largest concentration of Greek restaurants). It's somewhat more upscale than most of the local competition, but a steal compared to high-end Manhattan Greek eateries like Molyvos or Periyali for food that's of near or equal quality, and, I think, with more character.

While the many of the dishes served at S'Agapo can be found at other Greek restaurants, there are noticeable differences, perhaps due in part to geography, Crete being, I believe, the southernmost part of Greece. A mixed dips plate featured some of the usual suspects like tzatziki (yogurt/cucumber) and taramasalata (carp roe spread), some Cretan specialties like parsley, red pepper, and grape leaf dips, an olive tapenade, and hummus, which I don't usually associate with Greek menus. The freshness and variety of flavors was breathtaking, but my favorite spread was one we ordered separately, made from fava beans with wonderfully aromatic olive oil. I found the gigantes (large white beans) and the dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), common on most Greek menus, much less exciting, though only in relation to the stars of the meal.

Small fried cheese pies, described as raviolis on the menu (I forget the Greek name), were served with honey, apparently another Cretan tradition.

The menu includes several varieties of saganaki (melted sharp (and usually, I believe, sheep) cheese), and we had a version with portabella mushroom. We accepted a recommendation for an off-menu special of flat green beans with potatoes, which were delightfully seasoned with a dill-leaning herb mix.

My favorite among the meat items we ordered was leg of lamb chunks cooked with white wine. We also had some excellent loukaniko (sausage) and keftedes (officially meatballs, but actually grilled patties at S'Agapo). The grilled octopus was quite good too. The quail were somewhat disappointing, though, not nearly at the level of the quail I fell for at Amazing 66 in Chinatown, and arranged helter skelter on the plate.

We certainly could have done without dessert, but that didn't stop us from ordering the cream cake (the waiter's recommendation) and a galaktoboureko (custard pie, and a particular favorite of mine). On top of those, we were comped with a plate of cookies.

I mentioned Periyali and Molyvos above. I've been to Periyali once and found it rather disappointing. I've been to Molyvos once and found the food fabulous and the service impeccable, but to be honest I prefer the homey atmosphere of S'Agapo. And, as I also mentioned above, it's plenty more affordable.

34-21 34th Ave
Astoria, NY

S'Agapo on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

I Was Culinarily Transgendered

A month or two ago I went to lunch at Ise, a popular Japanese restaurant on East 49th Street. There are a number of Japanese restaurants called Ise around town, but, just as with Grand Sichuan or Ray's Pizza, it's not clear whether or how they're all related.

Anyway, this midtown east branch fills up by about 12:15 every weekday. They offer a long list of copious, great-value lunch specials. The one that looked most interesting to me was called the "Ladies' Set." But could I bring myself to ask the waiter for a Ladies' Set? The answer is yes indeedy--enticing menu items will trump gender identity every time. I decided I was indeed confident enough in my own masculinity to order the Ladies' Set.

That day the Ladies' Set opened with a bowl of miso soup and continued with a box consisting of five more items: an ample serving of tekka don (tuna sashimi over sushi rice); chawan mushi (egg custard) with mushrooms and seafood; soba noodles in a seaweed broth; a salad with fried tiny fish; and a dessert consisting of green tea tofu pudding with berries and cream. All this for $12. I'm not sure what those little fish on the salad are called, but I've also had them over rice at Yakitori Totto. The quality of the tuna in the tekka don was quite impressive considering the quantity and the low price. And the dessert was a delightful finale. Here's to the temporary, honorary ladies who lunch!

I didn't have my camera with me that day, but I had quickly come up with the title for this piece. I decided that I owed my readers a photo of the Ladies' Set if I were going to write about it, so I went back recently, figuring I had given my hormone levels time enough to return to normal from any changes the first Ladies' Set may have engendered.

The Ladies' Set

This time the Ladies' Set followed the same basic contours, with some modifications. The tekka don was still the same; the noodle soup was now an udon with shrimp tempura--I preferred this to the soba; the chawan mushi had chicken and shrimp; the salad featured soft tofu (I much prefer the tiny fish); and the dessert still had green tea pudding, this time with sweet beans and a little fruit, but no cream. Overall, I think I enjoyed the first Ladies' Set a bit more. Perhaps it was the food, or perhaps I had become blasé about the transgressive nature of cross-dining.

The second time around I went with a bona fide lady. Since she didn't want to order the same thing as me, she went with the much more macho "Lunch Box," which consisted of gyoza in soup, fried chicken, grilled mackerel, and rib-eye with ponzu sauce. Truth be told, my masculine side coveted her lunch.

The Manlier Meal

Ise Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

New (Old) Deli

According to the New York Times, the 2nd Avenue Deli had been gone for about two years before reopening at a new location recently, but I thought it was longer than that. For some reason I thought the deli, at Second Avenue and 10th Street, had closed only a couple of years after the 1996 murder (during a robbery) of owner Abe Lebewohl, an East Village legend. Perhaps the fact that I've been gone from the East Village since 1987 accounts for my skewed sense of deli time.

For me, the 2nd Avenue Deli was the best of the surviving New York kosher delis, a dying breed. The grunge of Katz's never appealed to me, nor did I find their sandwiches up to Lebewohl's standards. I have no problem with "kosher-style" delis in principle, being a radical atheist who scoffs at all dietary laws and superstitions, but the two most famous of them, Carnegie and Stage, are mediocre, overpriced tourist traps.

When I was a kid, in Brooklyn, in the 'sixties, good kosher delis were still a dime a dozen, just like decent by-the-slice pizzerias, both now, for the most part, distant memories. I think I must have eaten deli, whether corned beef, or pastrami, or tongue, or "rolled beef" (virtually extinct, but available at 2nd Avenue Deli and Sarge's), or just a couple of franks with mustard and sauerkraut, at least once a week. We took good deli for granted.

So what happened? New York is still full of Jews, and most of the non-Jews I know, after years in New York, are certifiably "Jewish-style." Were the delis done in by those awful health-conscious years? Or perhaps by the death and/or assimilation of all those Jews with recent Eastern-European roots? Places like the Stage and Carnegie Delis are New York institutions, still on the inevitable tourist itinerary (once, at the Carnegie, I heard a hyper-goyish, Midwestern woman ask the waiter if they had "chocolate phosphates"). Everybody I know laments the loss of deli ubiquity, so what gives?

Whatever, the good news is that the 2nd Avenue Deli is back, though no longer on Second Avenue or in the East Village, but on 33rd Street between Third and Lexington. The prices, on the other hand, aren't the greatest news, but no worse than at the tourist traps that can't hold a candle.

For the first weeks at the new location there were constant lines out the door. I figured I'd let the idiots who couldn't wait wait, and I'd go when things quieted down. What's with people who absolutely have to go to some new hot spot pronto? As far as I'm concerned, it displays the same lack of proportion that prevents people from successfully dieting, i.e., from realizing there's always tomorrow for whatever you crave today. If the restaurant is any good it'll survive, for a while at least. If you'd prefer to wait in line with the rest of the sheep, be my guest; I'll see you inside in a couple of months.

Some of the early reports about the new 2nd Avenue Deli gave me and my dining companions some mild pre-meal jitters. There were reports of surly service and food that didn't live up to the deli of yesteryear. Perhaps the problems were due to improper preparation for the onslaught of humanity, but I can assure you now that, at least as far as the meat sandwiches are concerned, there's nothing to be concerned about. Corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, both on rye, had a platonic fat-to-lean ratio and flavor to spare, especially the pastrami, which in my recent deli experience has been eclipsed only by the transcendent smoked meat of Schwartz's in Montreal.

Two of the 2nd Avenue Deli's signature items, which I didn't try this time, are matzoh ball soup and the "whole hog" of chicken soups, chicken in a pot, boiled chicken with matzoh balls and vegetables. Both are still available, but do be warned that the latter is twenty-three bucks, so you'd better have a pretty bad cold.

One disappointment was that knoblewurst (garlic sausage), which used to be sold as a side, is now only available on a sandwich, so I didn't get to try any. I also seem to remember baked meat knishes at the old deli, though I might be mistaken. Anyway, what they have now is a fried meat and potato knish, mediocre and seriously overpriced at $7.95. The biggest disappointment, however, was the gummy, flavorless, and underheated stuffed derma.

Stick with a pastrami sandwich. And maybe a bowl of matzoh ball soup. If there are two of you, split the sandwich. They're enormous, and maybe you shouldn't eat a whole one until world hunger is solved.

Second Avenue Deli on Urbanspoon