Monday, June 30, 2008

The National Dish of Bhutan

Now I can say it. I've tried the national dish of Bhutan, ema datsi. When I ate it I was unaware that Ruth Reichl had declared that Bhutanese cooking was "well known to be the world's worst cuisine." I'm sure there are other contenders, but based on my experience of the "national dish" I can safely say it's clearly not one of the world's best. Of course, not having tried it on its home turf, I probably had an adulterated version of the national dish, for better or worse.

My opportunity to try ema datsi occurred Saturday afternoon at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a free, annual event on Washington, D.C.'s mall, where Bhutan's culture, in addition to that of Texas, is being featured this year. The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is one of the world's most isolated countries. Tourism to this small nation of 650,000 is strictly limited, and to high-end tour groups only, an effort to protect the country's fragile, traditional culture and "gross national happiness" from the tourist hordes. The Folklife Festival, which continues this Wednesday through Sunday, gives Americans a rare opportunity to witness the music, dance and artisanal traditions of Bhutan.

I'm reasonably certain that there are no Bhutanese restaurants in the U.S., so the honor of preparing the country's national dish for the festival went to a D.C.-area Indian restaurant called Indique Heights. Based on descriptions I've read of the dish, they seem to have modified it for American spice tolerance. The main components of ema datsi are cheese and chiles, augmented by potatoes and onions (in addition I detected a slight cilantro accent). Apparently the true Bhutanese version is extremely spicy. The festival version prepared by Indique Heights was rather mild. Also, in Bhutan the dish is made with yak cheese, but I believe a substitute cheese had to be used here. Ultimately, what you get is a watery, yellow cheesy sauce with peppers, onions and potatoes that seems hardly Himalayan at all. If anything, it resembles a sauce for mac and cheese or a topping for nachos. It wasn't especially bad, it wasn't especially good, but now I (along with thousands of other festivalgoers) have bragging rights to say that I've tried the Bhutanese national dish. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof. For what it's worth.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Just a Slice

By my reckoning the 1970s was the last decade when you could count on finding a decent slice of pizza in New York without trying too hard or going too far out of your way. Of course, there's been something of a pizza revival in New York of late, but most of the newer places that get serious attention are sit-down, brick-oven, whole-pie places. I'm talking about your basic, humble, gas-oven, stand-up New York slice joint. By the 'eighties the pizza landscape was in sorry shape, due to a combination of inferior ingredients and the now standard practice of pre-cooking all pies and reheating slices on demand.

The now legendary Di Fara was, in my childhood and adolescence, a basic, solid pizzeria. That was before Dom DeMarco became an "artisan." Just a few blocks down Avenue J was Pizza Center, equally good in those days. Anybody over fifty who grew up in New York can tell you about the great neighborhood pizzerias of yore. Other favorites of my Brooklyn youth included Armando's on King's Highway, which made a square that eclipsed any on Avenue J. Another great one was Bay Pizza, in Sheepshead Bay, which I first learned about from a poet who has since become a chiropractor. De Sica's, on Newkirk Plaza, close to my grade school, P.S. 217, couldn't compare to those others, but by today's standards I'd say it was pretty good, if memory serves. What I do remember for certain is that I went there several times with classmate Warren Plitt. Warren Plitt is the kind of name you remember.

When I moved to the East Village, in 1979, Stromboli, at St. Mark's and First Avenue, had quite a following. Their signature attribute was a very sweet tomato sauce that I found cloying, and pizza that was very heavy on the cheese. The guys at Stromboli claimed the sweetness was from sweet basil, but I'd lay odds the culprit was corn syrup. Freakishly cheesy, mediocre pizza seems to have become the norm in the 'eighties, due to the influence of the various, competing, unrelated "Original" and/or "Famous" Ray's. What's the plural of Ray's, by the way, Ray'ses?

There are still a few places where you can get a decent, old-style, stand-up slice, but they're few and far between. The other day I decided to try Vinci's, in the East 60s, on a tip from a coworker. I'd read in several places that the "grandma" slices were supposed to be particularly good. Well, I was unimpressed. The cheese wasn't fresh mozzarella, and I found the crust too chewy. In addition, I ordered a regular slice, a benchmark item, as it were. I'd say it was a respectable slice, better than most, but ultimately it was far too oily and the crust was too limp.

Until I discover otherwise, I'd say the prize for the classic old-style, stand-up slice goes to Joe's in the West Village. For many years, Joe's occupied the corner of Bleecker and Carmine. Now it's confined to a smaller space at 7 Carmine Street, a few doors down. At Joe's, the crust is thin and crisp, and the cheese and sauce balance quite nicely. There's a lot of turnover and there's even a chance you'll get a hot slice from a fresh pie. Once I was there a bit before noon. It was pretty quiet until a tour group entered. A woman was leading one of those New York nosh tours, and Joe's was chosen as the place for a quintessential slice. She told them, "In New York you never ask for a slice of pizza--just a slice."

Famous Joe's Pizza on UrbanspoonVinci's Brothers Pizza Corp on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Surprise Me

I love variety in a meal. That's why I like assembling large groups at Asian restaurants and ordering a varied, interesting menu for the table. And that's why I like going to tapas bars, Venetian cicchetterias, and dim sum parlors, where one can compose a meal from a number of small plates. But I also appreciate the kind of variety that's the result of the chef's choice, be it a tasting menu or a daily combination special.

Japanese cuisine lends itself to variety of both the small plates and chef's choice kinds. I've written about Sugiyama, the stellar Japanese kaiseki restaurant, where the courses always follow a pattern, with the specifics varying day by day. I've written about the gender-bending ladies' set at Ise. And I've written about Ariyoshi, where I recently shared a bunch of small plates with friends.

I went to Ariyoshi for lunch today and ordered the special lunch set. For this meal you choose a main course from a list of about 15 items, and it's accompanied by the side dishes of the day. My main course was sautéed pork with Japanese eggplant. It was good, but I was even more pleased by the selection of daily dishes. There was a tako sunomono (vinegared octopus), one of my favorite Japanese cold items, three small slices of excellent salmon sashimi, a little bowl of green beans with miso and sesame seeds, a square of fresh, soft tofu, and some pickled radish. The meal also comes with salad and miso soup, all for $12. Lunch inspired me to write about the element of surprise.

At Korean restaurants the surprises come with the banchan, the array of side dishes that are served with every meal. There's always kim chee, and usually spicy daikon chunks, but after that the choices (usually a total of 6-8) vary by restaurant and/or day. You may get a few vegetables, like spinach, watercress, bean sprouts or potato salad (with mayo). Perhaps some cooked mackerel, or fish cake, dried fish jerky, dried tiny fish, or, if you're lucky, marinated spicy raw baby crabs. Maybe some cold shredded beef, or some indeterminate innards. Some restaurants serve more elaborate banchan than others, but it's always fun to see what I get, even if I only really like about half of the items most of the time.

Of course, the pot-luck party is another way to mix variety and serendipity. Rather than one person ordering for a table, rather than all diners agreeing on what to share, rather than the chef composing a menu, the variety is the result of disparate guests' choices and talents. Nothing's worse than a pot-luck event where most of the guests are culinary losers, but when someone like my friend Robert in Berkeley arranges one of his holiday pot-lucks, where most of the guests are serious foodies, not to mention engaging conversationalists, then we're really cooking.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

When Really Good Isn't Good Enough

Finding a great restaurant is one of life's supreme triumphs. Still, to every good thing in life there are downsides. Once you do find that superlative eatery the bar is set higher for all others in the same category. It then becomes harder to enjoy a merely really good restaurant, because it doesn't meet the standard set by the truly great restaurant.

This has been my Cantonese problem of late. Ever since a spectacular meal at Flushing's Imperial Palace, with nary a dud among large array of dishes, Cantonese restaurants that should be cause for at least moderate jubilation now invite disappointed comparison. My friends who joined me at Imperial Palace have been victims of the same syndrome. Excellent meals at Amazing 66, in Chinatown, and Phoenix Garden in midtown have failed to wow the Imperial Palace veterans at the table. The diners who hadn't been to Imperial Palace were much happier with those meals.

Of course, food connoisseurship is based, in large part, on wide exposure, taste memory, and sensitivity to culinary relativity. A good Cantonese meal may seem great until you've experienced a great Cantonese meal. That same meal that once seemed pretty damn good will disappoint once you know better (unless you have a tin palate). A wide range of experience within a cuisine gives you a better sense of the possibilities and the pitfalls.

Several times in the past I've taken friends to once favorite Chinese restaurants that had slipped since previous visits. I expressed my disappointment to my dinner companions on these occasions. In general, only the ones who had been there before the slippage had any complaints. Those who had never been there before thought the food was great.

A recent addition to my list of really good Cantonese restaurants is Lucky Eight, in Brooklyn's Sunset Park. I learned about it originally when New York Magazine's Adam Platt kvelled about a crispy chicken with garlic dish. I also discovered that the Times' Peter Meehan had given Lucky Eight a rave review. I was looking for a good Cantonese dinner spot in Sunset Park, after disappointing dinners at Pacificana and 8th Avenue Seafood Restaurant (fabulous for dim sum, though).

I've been to Lucky Eight twice. The first time I went with a group of intrepid foodies who were happy to order some of the more "extreme" dishes. One thing we liked about the Lucky Eight menu was that many dishes were listed in English that I had never seen before, probably because items of their type only get listed in Chinese at many restaurants. Another thing I appreciated was that the waiter didn't try to dissuade us with the usual "Americans don't like" or "Have you tried this before?" caveats. The only warning we did get was that the fish neck was very bony. He was right about that.

It was an interesting dish, the fish neck, and we all went into the dinner with the attitude that an interesting-sounding dish has its own experiential rewards even if the ultimate verdict is to never order it again. The fish neck, which I think was carp, was served in a broth with preserved Chinese olives. The olives had a bean-like consistency and a fairly strong, slightly bitter, slightly sweet olive flavor.

The pig's maw (stomach) with hot peppers had a rubbery, squid-like consistency. Once again, it was more interesting than good. I remember that hog maw was a favorite of Jethro on the Beverly Hillbillies.

Two cold appetizers were real winners. The delicious Chinese salami looked like head cheese and had a wonderful black pepper accent; it was topped with crunchy jellyfish shreds. I also loved the subtle flavor of the baby octopus over seaweed salad.

We ordered a dish called Pride of Lucky Eight, which had elicited this ecstatic encomium from the Times' Peter Meehan:

Pride of Lucky Eight, a $14.95 stir-fry, is the signature dish. It comes to the table, sumptuously oily, in a heaping green tangle: some kind of reedy, oniony chives shot through with the white, the green and the bulb end of scallions all separate. Perfectly julienned stalks of Chinese celery add crunch. Rehydrated shiitake mushrooms add a meaty sweetness, slices of meaty abalone a little chew. Bits of baby squid create textural intrigue, and shreds of dried scallop add a depth that's hard to pinpoint but easy to appreciate. It looks as if each element in the dish was individually browned, then thrown together to mask the kitchen's precision.

It is, without question, the finest stir-fried dish I've encountered, and the kind of thing about which I may find myself asking, years down the line: "You had lunch in Brooklyn Chinatown? Do they still serve the Pride of Lucky Eight down there?"

Yes the dish was very good, and he was right about the satisfying mix of textures and flavors, but no, it could not live up to Meehan's hyperbole.

A Hakka-style stewed bean curd casserole was one of the big hits of the meal. I was less thrilled by one of the house specialties, spare ribs with Zhenjiang vinegar sauce. The ribs were short on meat, and the tart vinegar flavor didn't really work for me. The bamboo pith with snow pea leaves was another interesting disappointment. Bamboo pith is a kind of fungus, an odd, crunchy, condom-shaped mesh without much flavor to speak of, outside of a mild muskiness.

We also ordered what we thought was the dish that Adam Platt had singled out. I asked for the crispy chicken and what we got was your basic Cantonese fried half chicken, simple and good, but no garlic in sight or taste.

We all agreed that the quality of the food, and the interesting, wide-ranging menu made for an overall pleasant experience.

I went back about a month later with some friends with whom I dine more frequently, two of whom had been to Imperial Palace with me. We ordered the salami and the octopus appetizers. And this time we got the "right" chicken dish, called something like "house fried chicken with garlic." I liked this very much.

Another Adam Platt recommendation was the Hong Kong Bay lobster. We decided to go for the Dungeness crab in the same style. I found the preparation a bit strange-the hard shells were breaded and the crabs were fried, so one eats the breading off a claw and then cracks away at the shell to get at the meat.

They were out of snow pea leaves, our first choice of green vegetable, so we got ong choi (hollow-stem Chinese water spinach). Overall, the meal was quite good. There was nothing to complain about really, yet we found ourselves complaining that the meal didn't hold a candle to Imperial Palace.

Damn those great restaurants.

Lucky Eight
5204 8th Avenue (at 52nd Street)
Brooklyn, NY

Imperial Palace
136-13 37th Avenue
Flushing (Queens), NY

Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday the Thirteenth

On Friday, November 13, 1953, the great jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk recorded three new tunes at a recording session for Prestige records. The tunes were given off-the-cuff titles: "Think Of One," "Let's Call This," and "Friday the Thirteenth."

Between 1985 and 1987 I wrote lyrics for about twenty of Monk's compositions and performed them at several venues with some of the top musicians from New York's then-flourishing downtown jazz scene: Phillip Johnston, Wayne Horvitz, Bobby Previte, Dave Hofstra, Joel Forrester and Doug Wieselman. "Friday the Thirteenth" is one of my personal favorites. The melody is a short, asymmetrical, two-part phrase, repeated multiple times. It inspired a quirky little two-line poetic form, a kind of Monkish nonsense pseudo-haiku, if you will.

When I was just seventeen
It was a very terrible year and so I joined the Marines.

I opened up my valise
And was surprised to find a bowl of macaroni and cheese.

I have a social disease
That I contracted from the woman on the flying trapeze.

I fell in love with a girl;
Her name was Ruby Sapphire Diamond and her mother was Pearl.

The mailman paid me a call;
He caught me off guard and sold me two tickets to the fireman's ball.

I got a job with the feds
And was instructed to make politics of strange fellows' beds.

I bought a bottle of beer,
A quart of Schaefer 1986--a very good year.

I placed a bet on a horse;
The horse's name was Viking Warrior--I guess he was Norse.

I sang in front of the Queen,
But when I used a few obscenities she made quite a scene.

I took a trip on a boat;
But they overbooked so I shared a cabin with a pig and a goat.

I went to Harvard for law;
I failed the bar and so I opened up a lingerie store.

I gave a dime to a bum
Who told me that he needed change to buy some sugarless gum.

I saw a man on the train;
He had a very tiny head--it was too small for his brain.

I lived on Mockingbird Lane,
But all the mockingbirds kept mocking me till I went insane.

I had the craziest dream;
I dreamed that I was making love inside a washing machine.

I took a swim in a pool
And almost drowned because the pool was filled with pasta fazool.

I was a ward of the state,
But I was pardoned by the governor to go on a date.

I have a Japanese car,
But since I don't know how to drive I never get very far.

I went to visit my aunt,
The one who claims to be descended from Immanuel Kant.

I had the shock of my life
When I woke up to find myself inside my bed with my wife.

I thought that life was a bore
Until I died and went to heaven and was bored even more.

A recording of my version of "Friday the Thirteenth" can be downloaded for a limited time by right-clicking THIS LINK. It was recorded in 1987 and features Phillip Johnston on alto sax, Wayne Horvitz on piano, Dave Hofstra on bass, and Bob DeMeo on drums.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Invention of Catch

The other day I paid a visit to one of my favorite paintings, Miró's "Person Throwing a Stone at a Bird," at MoMA. I get a kick out of it every time I look at it. It's currently displayed in a corner of a gallery next to a couple of paintings by another of my favorite painters, another master of profound whimsy, Paul Klee.

Some years ago the Miró painting inspired me to write the following poem.

Joan Miró. Person Throwing a Stone at a Bird. 1926

The Invention of Catch (after Joan Miró)

A man threw a stone at a bird
And the bird threw it back
And the man threw it back at the bird
And the bird threw it back at the man
And the man once again threw the stone at the bird
And the the bird once again threw the stone at the man
And the man threw it back
And the bird threw it back
And the man and the bird threw the stone back and forth.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Okinawan Bitter, Okinawan Sweet

Suibi, at 232 E. 53rd St., supposedly does excellent standard Japanese fare, but the real reason to pay a visit is for the rare opportunity to try Okinawan cuisine. It's the only restaurant in New York I know of that serves Okinawan dishes. At lunch the other day I tried an Okinawan lunch special combo that included the most famous Okinawan specialty, goya champura. Goya champura is a dish made of bitter melon with egg and tofu, topped with shaved bonito and sometimes, as my version was, with pork added. According to the menu there was also spam in the dish (popular in Okinawa as in Hawaii), but I couldn't really find any.

Bitter melon, I must say, would probably never make my list of favorite vegetables (or fruits, which I guess it really is), or even my list of favorite gourds. I've most often encountered it in Chinese food and never much cared for it. The bitter melon preparation I was most impressed by was a dry sautéed, spicy Indian version at Minar, prepared similarly to the way okra is often prepared in Indian cuisine.

Still, goya champura being the classic Okinawan dish, I felt compelled to try it. I was pleasantly surprised. The mixture had an eggy richness, and a smokiness that may have been endemic to the bitter melon or may have come from another flavoring.

My lunch combo also included two thick slices of belly pork, some pickles, and an excellent seaweed dish. The thin strands of purplish-brown seaweed were served cold in an amber yuzu (Japanese citrus) broth. The sweet-tart flavor of this dish was a nice complement to the bitter-smoky goya champura and the rich, sweet pork belly.

There are several other Okinawan specialties on the menu, including Okinawan soba, which is actually a kind of udon. My lunch partner tried a combo built around the soba soup, along with sides of bitter melon tempura and belly pork.

For an even fuller Okinawan experience you might want to visit Suibi when they feature Okinawan traditional music (often on Saturday nights).