Monday, June 29, 2009

Finding Fentimans

It's not quite like hauling coals to Newcastle, but I didn't actually have to go to London to find Fentimans sodas, since they were right under my nose in Park Slope, for some time already, both at my favorite food shop, D'Vine Taste, and the stellar beer emporium Bierkraft. Still, I was unaware of Fentimans sodas until the day I went ogling my way through the food halls of Harrod's without intending to buy anything, a foodie equivalent, I think, of wandering the alleys of Amsterdam's red light district just for a look-see. But I was thirsty, so I took a look at the soft drink offerings and noticed Fentimans botanically brewed beverages. What struck me was that some of them were made with juniper berries and an herb I'd never heard of called speedwell. Having gone to the trouble of devising my own non-alcoholic gin substitute, any drink containing juniper would catch my interest. I purchased the Mandarin & Seville Orange Jigger, which is made with 30% Mandarin juice, Seville orange essence, carbonated water, ginger, and the aforementioned botanicals. It was delicious--tangy, with a definite but not-too-strong juniper presence, and not too sweet (though I might have preferred it even less sweet). I think this would be a good soft drink for gin lovers on the wagon.

Upon returning to New York I tried two other flavors, also containing juniper and speedwell. The dandelion and burdock was simply not my cup of soda. It had too much of a gumball kind of taste--it might appeal to people with a fondness for birch beer and sarsaparilla. The Victorian Lemonade was more to my taste, quite tart, but with less of a juniper presence than the Orange Jigger.

Fentimans sodas seem to be available at a number of shops in the New York area, including small gourmet shops, Fairway, and Dean & DeLuca.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A One-of-a-Kind Pide

There are plenty of Turkish restaurants in London these days, but I don't know how many make pides.  Even though I've never been to Turkey, the Turkish pide is one of my favorite food categories in the world.  When I learned that Tas, a group of Turkish restaurants around London has one branch that specializes in pides I decided I had to check it out.

Tas Pide is on London's South Bank, near London Bridge, which is holding up quite well, and just steps away from the reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe.  Their menu includes seven kinds of pide, and about half of them are the restaurant's own creations, while the rest are of a more traditional bent.  I was tempted by several of the Tas originals, and was ultimately seduced by the Sardalyali: Fresh sardines, vine leaves, red onion, green olives, and lemon rind.  I love fresh sardines, and the combination sounded great.  It easily met my expectations.  The ingredients got along quite well together, and the crust was excellent--somewhat lighter and less chewy than other pides I've eaten.

Tas Pide is a good lunch or dinner bet if you'll be visiting the Globe or the Tate Modern, and it's also close to the Borough Market, a not-to-be-missed food market.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Week in London and a Confluence of Futures Past

I didn't go to London for the food, though these days there's plenty of food to go for, and when I got there I went for it, and I'll write about it, don't you worry. What I did go for was music and theatre and art and film. Actually, I went for the music and the rest fell into place.

I was in London for a week, from June 14-20. I had planned the trip in April, after the lineup for the Meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre was announced. The festival, founded in 1993, has always included an eclectic mix of music programmed by a guest curator. This year's curator was the groundbreaking jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. A maverick and an somewhat of an outcast early in his career, Coleman is now an elder statesman (79 years' worth), an eminence grise and a national treasure, garnering laurels ranging from the merely honorary to the financially humongous (NEA Jazz Master, Pulitzer Prize, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, MacArthur "genius" Fellowship, etc.). This year is the 50th anniversary of Coleman's classic albums "The Shape of Jazz to Come" and "This is Our Music," both primary influnces on the "free jazz" movement.

When I saw the schedule for Meltdown what struck me immediately was that Ornette would be joined by the Master Musicians of Jajouka. These Sufi trance musicians from Morocco were first brought to western ears by Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, who produced an album for them in the sixties. Coleman met and recorded with them in the seventies. For thirty-plus years I've been telling people that one of my musical dreams was to see Ornette perform with the Master Musicians of Jajouka. What could stop me now, besides the expense of getting to London? The expense, it turns out, was a trifle, because I got such a deal: airfare and 7 nights in a Holiday Inn Express for $925 all-inclusive. How could I resist?

Once I made my travel plans I started learning of all sorts of events happening around town while I'd be there. The Tate Modern had a major Futurism exhibit opening on June 12, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Marinetti's first Futurist manifesto.

But wait, there's more. I also learned that a West End production of Waiting for Godot was going on (concurrently with a Broadway production). Though the Parisian premiere of the play took place in 1953, Beckett completed the play in 1949, so that makes this the play's 60th anniversary. The London production features Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as Vladimir and Estragon. The two of them first appeared together more than 30 years ago in a Tom Stoppard play, but much more recently they shared the screen in the X-Men trilogy.

A revolutionary jazz musician, a major avant garde art movement and a play that changed world theater forever. And one more thing. I also learned that there would be a retrospective of short films, for one night only, by and about B.S. Johnson at the British Film Institute. B.S. who? Johnson was a quirky, eccentric novelist and poet (somewhat a literary child of Beckett, actually) who committed suicide in 1973 (so perhaps more depressed than Beckett). I was unaware that he had made films, but I was thrilled for the fortuitous opportunity to see them.

Working backward, which is actually working forward, because I listed these events in the reverse order of having seen them, there's the Johnson films, which I caught last Tuesday. Like his written works, they represented an extremely eclectic mix of styles, from a minimalist, Beckettian monologue in an imaginary tongue to Johnson's own extremely engaging, Montaignesque musings and ramblings on his own writing, on a place in Wales where he came of age, and on his namesake Dr. Johnson, perhaps the most charming of the films.

The Godot production was a delight, and one could really feel the camaraderie between the two actors, which was perfect for the portrayal of the relationship between the two desperately hopeful, hopefully desperate characters. At least one review complained that the production was played too much for laughs. But to say that is to miss the point of Beckett. Beckett is perhaps the funniest writer of the twentieth century. All the greatest comedy is grounded in misery, and Beckett just took it to a higher plane. When Herbert Berghof directed the Broadway debut in 1956 he knew enough to cast the great comedian Bert Lahr as Estragon.

The Futurist exhibition focused on the years 1909-15 and also put the movement in the context of contemporaneous avant garde movements. While there are some iconic works of Italian Futurism, and undoubtedly the artists influenced many of their contemporaries, I can't help feeling that they were a bunch of blowhards, historically important collectively but ultimately of limited significance as individual artists for the most part.

The Ornette Coleman concert was pure joy. In addition to his current working group (two bassists and his son Denardo on drums), he was joined for most of the show by guitarist Bill Frisell, who blended in with the group as if this were more than a one-off. The evening included several tunes from "The Shape of Jazz to Come," as had been advertised. A fun surprise came when Patti Smith (the previous night's Meltdown feature) came onstage to intone a praise poem to Ornette as the band played behind her. And then, toward the end of the show, the master musicians of Jajouka (who had opened the evening) joined the band for the moment (about ten minutes' worth) that I'd been waiting over thirty years for. Ten sublime, beautiful, intense minutes.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Hitting the Gelato Jackpot in London

I've kvelled about Capogiro's in Philadelphia, which does fabulous, inventive gelati. I've raved about the Osteria del Circo gelato cart in Manhattan, which I claimed serves the best traditional gelato I've had outside of Italy or Locarno, Switzerland (a semi-secret gelato mecca). Well, Oddono's, in the South Kensington section of London, has bumped Osteria del Circo to second place in the non-Italy/non-Locarno traditional gelato division. Their gelati, which I tried this past Saturday, have the perfect, smooth, light consistency of the best Northern Italian gelati and a remarkable freshness and vibrancy of flavor. I had two of my benchmark varieties, caffe and bacio. The caffe had a rich coffee intensity, perfectly balanced in flavor, with some dark-roasted beans in the mix. The bacio too had the perfect balance of chocolate and hazelnut flavors, neither overtaking the other, with the bonus of some truly fine chocolate chunks mixed in. If you live in London you probably already know Oddono's. If you're visiting London, you'll want to know it.

14 Bute St.
London SW7

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tuscan Lunch on the Cheap

Wild Boar Meatloaf

I've already written about the panini at Cippola Rossa. I'm giving them another plug because since my panini post they've instituted a lunch special, and it's such a deal. For $10.95 you get an appetizer (from a choice of four), any pasta on the menu, and coffee or tea. An extra $4 scores you any entree on the menu. These are not scaled-down, lunch-size portions; they're full dinner portions. And we're talking good, authentic Tuscan food.

Of course there are some misses, but in general the food ranges from good to very good. The only real crime against food was the painfully oversalted broccoli rabe served with one of my main courses. You'd think the natural bitterness of the green would mitigate the need for very much salt at all; in fact, lemon juice is probably a better idea.

The appetizer choices are Caesar salad, eggplant Tuscan-style, grilled calamari, or a half panino of your choice. My first time at the lunch special I tried the calamari, and it was fabulous. Fresh, flavorful and perfectly cooked, with garlic and olive oil, served over a bed of wilted arugala.

My main course was the pappardelle al cinghiale (pappardelle with wild boar ragu). The fresh pasta was cooked to a perfect chewiness (I've suffered through many overcooked pappardelles and tagilatelles) and the thick ragu was studded with the juniper berries traditional to the Tuscan wild boar ragu. Unfortunately, I don't think the flavors had properly married, so something was missing flavorwise. The "American coffee" that comes with the special was a pleasant surprise. Served in a Lavazza cup that's small by U.S. standards, but common in Italy, it seemed to be a true Italian "Americano"--good espresso with hot water added.

My next time at Cippola Rossa I was joined by fellow blogger Dave Cook. I was so enamored of the calamari that I ordered it again, and Dave ordered the so-called half panino of wild boar sausage, broccoli rabe and pecorino that seemed like a full-size panino to me. This time I decided to go for the splurge and ordered an entree instead of a pasta, the polpettone di cinghiale (wild boar meatloaf). I'd been interested in this dish since I had started lunching there. It was hearty with an interesting sweetness to it, and served with a side of mashed potatoes. Game is central to Tuscan cuisine, and Cippola Rossa's predecessor at this location, Cantina Toscana, specialized in it. The photos Dave and I were taking aroused the interest of our waiter, who it turns out was also the chef, and had been the chef at the decidedly more upscale Cantina Toscana. I had a taste of lasagna-lover Dave's "La Vera" Lasagna, a version with a red meat sauce and bechamel, and a good rendition.

For my third lunch special I resisted the calamari as I wanted to experience more of the menu. This time I tried the eggplant, which the lunch menu describes as eggplant Parmigiana, but turned out not to be the dish we normally associate with the name. This eggplant had a sprinkling of Parmigiano on top, and if breaded it was only lightly so. Like the ragu, something seemed to be missing in the flavor department, and it was a bit of a disappointment. I did like the cute sandwich shape of the thing, though.

My main course was accompanied by the aforementioned too-salty broccoli rabe (incidentally, the Italian name is broccoli di rape, and "rabe" was adopted by American greengrocers to mitigate the consumer's discomfort at seeing the word "rape" attached to a vegetable--much as rapeseed oil was renamed canola). Happily, the pork shank (stinco di maiale) offered no cause for complaint. Served with a light brown sauce, it was a humongous, rich, moist, delicious hunk of meat.

So there are a few things about Cippola Rossa that could bear improvement, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a better lunch deal if you find yourself on the lower Upper East Side. Just make sure you have plenty of time, as service can be slow, as in Italy slow.

Cippola Rossa
1109 1st Ave
(Between 60th & 61st St)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Friend" Is the New "Acquaintance"

I joined Facebook last weekend, after resisting for quite some time, mainly to re-establish contact with people I'd lost touch with, something it's very effective for. But that's it. One-to-one interpersonal communication. I won't be updating my "wall" with the minutia of my daily existence.

Perhaps I'm blowing this out of proportion, but one of my biggest concerns about sites like Facebook and MySpace is the devaluation of the concept of friendship. Why did they have to use that word? Wouldn't "contacts" be more appropriate? Of course, there's nothing about having 500 contacts that will make you feel good about yourself. But 500 friends and all of a sudden you're popular. Except that "friend" now encompasses real friends, casual acquaintances, business contacts, friends of friends, frenemies (a term that's gained traction these days, and which I believe was coined by Jessica Mitford), the kid who teased you in sixth grade, and total strangers.

I let Facebook scan my email address book for matches and added a few of my "real" friends at first. Actually, I don't know why I did. We obviously know how to get in touch with each other. So be it. Then I went looking for a few people I had lost touch with. Some I had lost touch with in recent years due to email changes and others I hadn't been in touch with for over thirty years, like schoolmates. I haven't looked for any girls I had undeclared or unrequited crushes on. But I did contact one guy mainly to tell him how much I envied him for having grown up in a leftist intellectual household. And another classmate who I probably haven't seen in about 40 years I contacted because of our shared grade-school admiration for the radio broadcasts and writings of Jean Shepherd. I really have no reason to be in touch with this guy, though I'm sure he's still a very nice guy, but there's a certain poignancy to that early bond over a racconteur who, I now realize, was a formative influence on me as a writer and storyteller.

Very quickly I started getting requests to add people as friends. I declined several because I figured our current communication links were quite sufficient. A few I declined because our only connection was our shared participation in a public bulletin board, and often our interactions on that board were far from friendly. Still, they wanted to be my friends in Facebook land. And then there were the total strangers.

So-and-so has added you as a friend on Facebook, the subject line of the email read. Who was this person? The name did not ring a bell. I looked at his profile and discovered that he was Facebook friends with two guys I had gone to high school with, and that he attended the same school at the same time. But I didn't remember the name. We couldn't have been friends then, so why should we, all of a sudden, be friends now? To tell the truth, I'm trying to divest myself of friends. What I mean is, by this point in my life I know where the true bonds lie, what the important interpersonal relationships are. I know quite a lot of people, I'm far from shy, and I'm fortunate to have known many fascinating, wonderful people over my fifty-plus years, but I also value my privacy and solitude. I only have quality time for the people who are as important to me as my privacy is.

So here I am, not looking to make new friends, and Facebook keeps suggesting names of people who ought to be my friends. It's like those product recommendations I get from Amazon based on the purchases of others who bought what I just bought. Customers who bought Peter Cherches also bought Elliott Sharp. It's the commodification of friendship. And many people, it seems, are more than happy to collect them all.

A while back I wrote a piece about Twitter, and how I feared its overuse and its length limitations had the potential to further erode the quality of public discourse. Rather than deciding what's worth saying, and thinking about how to say it, thousands and thousands of people are just saying it, in short spurts. Mind you, I have nothing against short spurts; my entire literary career had been devoted to the short spurt. But there's short and there's short. And there's spurt and there's spurt. Anyway, while I was working on my anti-Twitter rant I signed up for an account, so I could test it out. I guess I never deactivated the account, because every once in a while I get an email telling me that somebody wants to be my "follower" on Twitter. If there's anything I need less than more friends it's any followers.

From what I've seen, people tend to use their Facebook walls very much like they way they use Twitter. So now I can see what people I haven't seen in 30 years are doing at this very moment, or what they just finished doing. The kind of little, insignificant things that have significance within the greater context of close personal relationships and private discussions--because two people (or a small group) really care enough about each other to listen to the minutia of each other's lives--are now matters of public record.

Back in the paranoid, science fiction cold war sixties some people feared that our enemies, or our own government, were developing technologies that one day might be able to read our minds. If Twitter tweets and Facebook walls are any indication, we had nothing to fear. It turns out there's precious little on our minds worth reading.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Three's a Community

A few years ago I started working on a series of minimalist plays for three characters called "Trio Bagatelles." I'm still working on it. The title comes from an early prose series of mine, "Bagatelles," which I consider a breakthrough in my writing. "Bagatelles" was a minimalist prose series dealing with the dynamics and absurdities of communication in a relationship. About seven years later I wrote a piece called "Dirty Windows," in a similar mode, but in the third person instead of the first. Somehow when I added a third character, about twenty years later, I went from prose to play. If the first two pieces were about a relationship, I suppose "Trio Bagatelles" is about a micro-community, which is also a kind of relationship.

I hadn't actually been thinking about the community angle, but when Mark Givens told me recently that he was working on a "Community" issue of Mung Being it clicked.

Read Excerpts from "Trio Bagatelles" in Mung Being.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Celiac-Friendly New York, Without Compromise

I recently learned that a coworker has celiac disease. Celiac disease, also known as celiac sprue, is a digestive system disorder; the gluten in wheat and a number of other grains damages the small intestine and prevents the absorption of nutrients, with pretty severe consequences. It's not a "wheat allergy," but rather an autoimmune disease. The University of Maryland's Center for Celiac Research estimates that "nearly 1 out of every 133 Americans suffer from celiac disease." I told my coworker I'd give her a list of my favorite celiac-friendly dishes at New York restaurants. After I said that I immediately realized there was a blog post in it.

I've been aware of celiac disease for over fifteen years, because Michael, one of my closest friends, is a sufferer, and finding interesting restaurant items that can fill in his starch gaps when he visits New York is a challenge I have embraced. Michael discovered that he had the condition between fifteen and twenty years ago, but it was not an easy discovery. Celiac awareness then was not what it is today, and only after extensive testing did a doctor find the root of Michael's problems. It was adult-onset celiac sprue. At first the doctor wasn't sure if it was tropical sprue or celiac, the hereditary version of the disease. Tropical sprue was a candidate because Michael had traveled extensively in the third world when he was younger.

For some with celiac disease even small amounts of gluten can have very dire effects, and we often don't know exactly what is in restaurant-prepared food. There are a number of substitute breads and pastas, cookies, pie shells, waffles, etc., readily available in health food stores, that don't contain the offending glutens. They're made with such celiac-safe ingredients as cornmeal, rice flour, potato starch, buckwheat, nuts and legumes. While the number of people with celiac disease is relatively small, when you add the number of people with non-celiac wheat allergies or sensitivities, and on top of that the large number people who think they have wheat allergies, there's a fair market for these products.

Much more interesting than substitutes, which can never match the real thing, are starch-based foods that are central to certain cuisines and also happen to be celiac-friendly. I think with the right planning celiac sufferers can enjoy great meals at many New York restaurants without feeling "cheated," and their friends and family needn't be hamstrung by their dietary restrictions.

Risottos are a natural for people with the disease, and Risotteria, in Greenwich Village, bills itself as a celiac-friendly restaurant, making a number of gluten-free dishes in addition to risottos (or is that risotti?). I've never been to Risotteria, but Roberto Passon, one of my favorite Northern Italian restuarants, often has a fantastic wild mushroom risotto as a special.

Asian cuisines, being largely rice-based, are also obvious choices (though there is the pitfall of wheat-based soy sauces). All rice all the time can get tedious (granted, billions of people on subsistence diets around the world don't have the luxury of contemplating culinary tedium), but there are a number of rice flour-based items in all Asian cuisines that can add some variety to the menu. Rice noodles are found in almost all Asian cuisines, be it Chinese chow fun and mei fun, Vietnamese bun (similar to mei fun) and pho noodles, Malaysian char kuey teow, or pad Thai and pad kee mao (wide rice noodles with basil and chili) at Thai restaurants, to name just a few. And I'm particularly fond of chewy rice cakes, nian gow in Chinese (found in Shanghai-style restaurants) and dduk kuk in Korean. Another Shanghai dish that's not a noodle at all, but seems like one, is made of bean curd sheets with soybeans and preserved vegetables. There are a number of Korean noodles that are gluten-free. Traditional Japanese soba is made from a mix of buckwheat and wheat flours, so it wouldn't be a safe bet in a restaurant, but if you want to make it at home Eden makes a 100% buckwheat version.

Nian Gow (Shanghai-Style Rice Cake or New Year's Cake)

Bean Curd Sheets

While North Indian breads are out of the question, there are a number of great celiac-friendly items in South Indian cuisine. South Indian staples such as the dosa, the great crepe of the south (but not rava dosas, which are made with semolina) and uttapam, a flat, fluffy pancake, are made from rice and lentil flours, as are the spongy steamed iddlys and the fried vadas (often described as lentil donuts). On some South Indian menus, and all Sri Lankan ones, you'll also find the rice-flour based appams (bowl-shaped pancakes also called hoppers) and idiappams (meshes of rice noodle, also known as string hoppers).


Have a French crepe craving? Head over to Bar Breton for one of their buckwheat galettes.

Galette at Bar Breton

I love cornmeal based foods. With any corn-based product it's essential, however, to make sure that no wheat flour is used in addition to the cornmeal. Latin American cuisines are your best bet for dishes made with cornmeal. One of my absolute favorite dishes in the entire city is the huitlacoche corn souffle cake (made with blue corn) at Itzocan Cafe, a fabulous Mexican-French fusion restaurant. Tamales are your friend at a traditional Mexican restaurant, but you'll be hard-pressed to find any in Manhattan that are as light and fluffy as the ones you can take out from Lopez Bakery in Brooklyn. And, of course, tacos made with corn tortillas are also just fine. Pupusas are the Salvadoran pancakes that are made from a corn masa and are pan fried. They're usually stuffed with either cheese, beans or chicharon (pork skin, chopped), or a combination, and served with a spicy pickled cabbage salad. I love the texture of pupusas--a bit crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. And then there's the arepa. The Venezuelan arepa might be my pick for the absolute best celiac-friendly sandwich vessel. Venezuelan arepas are thick enough to be sliced and stuffed (similar in size and shape to an English muffin), and areperas (arepa places) in Caracas as well as the Caracas Arepa Bar in the East Village offer a wide variety of fillings. The Colombian arepa is more of a flat pancake. The arepa de choclo is a sweet version made with a mix of cornmeal and mashed corn kernels, usually served topped with melted white cheese; I've fallen in love with the ones at the Juan Valdez Cafe.

Huitlacoche Corn Souffle Cake at Itzocan Cafe

Arepa de Choclo at Juan Valdez Cafe (right)

Venezuelan Arepa at Caracas Arepa Bar

And while we're on the subject of corn, don't forget about polenta dishes at Northern Italian restaurants. A more obscure entry on the corn front is the Punjabi makki ki roti, a griddle-cooked flat cornbread that's like a cross between a tortilla and a polenta cake. It's traditionally served with sarson ka saag, spiced mustard greens. It's available on Tuesdays at Minar, my favorite Indian fast food place in the city. You can also find it, refrigerated or frozen, at Indian grocery stores. I recently bought some at Patel Brothers, in Queens, where you can find most of the Indian items I mentioned, and discovered that makki ki roti makes a great breakfast topped with some jam, an off-label prescription I'm sure.

All of the foods I've just described are cornerstones of their respective cuisines, and are pretty easily found in New York City. Surely there are many other candidates; I've merely scratched the surface. These are all dishes that I, as a non-celiac person, enjoy regularly. No need to accept substitutes.

* * *

Where can one find these celiac-friendly dishes?

This is a selected list of restaurants that serve the dishes I've mentioned above. It is by no means exhaustive, but unless marked with an asterisk they're all places I've tried and enjoyed. I've linked to relevant blog posts where available. Since this guide is sure to be of use to visitors to New York I've focused mainly on Manhattan venues, with a smattering from the outer boroughs. While I'm reasonably certain that the dishes I've mentioned are usually prepared solely from celiac-friendly ingredients, every celiac sufferer knows that it's essential to ask.


Risottos and polenta can be found at many Northern Italian restaurants, but you might want to call to make sure, as specials come and go, and some items are more likely to be found seasonally. Le Zie (172 7th Ave., between 20th & 21st St.), an excellent, affordable Venetian place, is sure to have polenta at all times. Though it's not on the printed menu, Roberto Passon (741 9th Ave. at 50th St.) has had a wild mushroom risotto available every time I've eaten there, and it was wonderful. Park Slope's Al Di La (248 5th Ave. at Carrol St., Brooklyn), one of the best Italian restaurants in any of the boroughs, features black risotto with squid ink as well as polenta on its menu. With advance notice, I suspect that some restuarants that make polenta might be able to improvise a dish with one of their pasta sauces, though not all would mesh well. As I mentioned, I haven't been to Risotteria* (270 Bleecker St., at Jones), but they do seem to specialize in celiac-friendly Italian dishes, including gluten-free pizzas, pastas and panini. They even have gluten-free pasta night every Tuesday. Several people have suggested, on a Chowhound thread about gluten-free dining, that Pala* makes excellent gluten-free pizzas.

Bar Breton (254 5th Ave., between 28th & 29th St.), run by Cyril Renaud of the upscale Fleur de Sel, himself a Breton, specializes in the gluten-free, all-buckwheat galettes of Brittany.

East and Southeast Asian

Pho, beef soup with rice noodles, is a cornerstone of Vietnamese cuisine, and every Vietnamese restaurant should have it. Unfortunately, New York is not the best hunting ground for great Vietnamese food (not enough of a Viet immigrant community here, I suppose). So far the best Pho I've found has been in Brooklyn, at Pho Tay Ho (2351 86th St., in Bath Beach, formerly a solidly Italian neighborhood, now largely Russian and Asian). In Manhattan, my current favorite Vietnamese restaurant is Pho Tu Do, at the north end of Chinatown (102 Bowery, between Grand & Hester).

Thai food in Manhattan is generally disappointing (you need to go to Queens for great Thai, e.g. Sripriaphai or Zabb), but Wondee will do in a pinch. I prefer Wondee Siam II (813 9th Ave., between 53rd & 54th St.) over the original Wondee a few blocks south, as it's larger and more comfortable with a more pleasant decor (frankly, I found the original Wondee dank and depressing). I can't vouch for Wondee II's pad thai, as I haven't yet tried it, but the pad kee mao is quite good.

For Korean rice cakes (dduk kuk) or gluten-free noodles, the go-to neighborhood is the lower 30s, east of 6th Avenue, Manhattan's Koreatown or Little Korea (though it's not a Korean residential neighborhood). All the places in this area, and there are many, seem to have their ups and downs, but one of the most reliable is Kum Gang San (49 W. 32nd St.), a large place with a kitschy waterfall and an elevated white baby grand piano (I've never seen it played).

Every Shanghai-style restaurant should have rice cakes (nian gow), and most should also have dishes made with bean curd sheets, both vegetarian and with meat. In Chinatown, my favorite is Shanghai Cafe (100 Mott St., north of Canal); the owner is a veteran of Little Shanghai, where I first discovered Shanghai cuisine in the '70s and '80s. In Midtown, the upscale choice is Our Place Shanghai Tea Garden (141 E. 55th Street, between 3rd and Lexington). Also excellent, and less expensive, is Evergreen (10 E. 38th St., between 5th & Madision Ave.).

The best place to sample char kuey teow, the spicy rice noodle dish of Singapore and Malaysia, is at Nyonya (194 Grand St., between Mott & Mulberry, Chinatown).

Indian and Sri Lankan

There are a number of South Indian restaurants in the East 20s, in a restaurant enclave known as "Curry Hill" (how convenient that Curry rhymes with Murray). My favorite is Saravanaas (81 Lexington Ave. at 26th St.), and they serve all of the standard Udupi-style treats such as dosas, uttapams, iddlies and vadas as well as great thalis. In the East Village, Madras Cafe is a good bet (79 2nd Ave. between 4th & 5th St.). But avoid, by all means, the laughable Hampton Chutney.

I believe Minar serves makki ki roti with sarson ka saag every Tuesday at both of their branches (138 W. 46th St., between 6th & 7th Ave.; 5 W. 31st St., just west of 5th Ave.). I think the 46th St. branch is somewhat better, and both are best bets for lunch only (they close at 7:30).

As far as I know, Sigiri is currently the only Sri Lankan restaurant in Manhattan, but I can't recommend it. It's a bad Sri Lankan restaurant near the multitude of bad 6th Street Indian restaurants. Staten Island is the borough to go to for Sri Lankan food, though I haven't yet checked out any of the restaurants. Fellow blogger Dave Cook, of Eating in Translation, recommends San Rasa* (formerly Lakruwana), at 226 Bay Street, only a short walk from the ferry. There you can try hoppers and string hoppers.

Latin American

Twenty years ago you'd have been hard-pressed to find a good, authentic Mexican restaurant in New York, but due to recent immigration, mostly from Puebla state, there are now plenty of choices, especially in Brooklyn & Queens. My favorite taqueria in Brooklyn's Sunset Park is Piaxtla es Mexico (505 51st St., off 5th Ave.), known to many as "Ricos Tacos" because of the big descriptive sign (no, it's not run by a guy named Rico), especially for the fabulous carnitas (fried pork chunks). In Manhattan your best bet would be Tulcingo del Valle (665 10th Ave., just south of 47th St.). Also good, in the East Village, is the Downtown Bakery (69 1st Ave., between 4th & 5th St.), which despite the name is a taqueria. And I'm just wild for the tamales at Lopez Bakery (645 5th Ave., between 18th & 19th St., Brooklyn), which is a bakery.

The chef-owners of Itzocan Cafe (438 E. 9th St., between First and A) are also from Puebla, and after working for a while in the kitchens of Manhattan French restaurants they decided to open their own place that mixes French techniques with Mexican ingredients. The results are fantastic, and nothing they do is more fantastic than the huitlacoche corn souffle cake. They also have an uptown branch, Itzocan Bistro* (1575 Lexington Ave. between 100th & 101st St.), but I haven't been there yet.

Any Salvadoran restaurant will have pupusas, as well as tamales. I'm not too familiar with New York's Salvadoran restaurants (having eaten the food mainly in San Francisco), but there are a number of places spread throughout the boroughs. The one I do frequent, El Continental (672 5th Ave. at 20th St., Brooklyn), makes great pupusas.

The sweet arepas at Juan Valdez Cafe (3 locations in Manhattan) are fantastic, as is the coffee. For stuffed Venezuelan arepas look no further than the Caracas Arepa Bar (93 1/2 E. 7th St., between First & A).

Bon appetit!

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Beijing, 1994

I'm finally starting to digitize my old travel snapshots. I don't have a scanner, and scanning is pretty time consuming, so I was thrilled when I saw, about a week ago, that was selling a Hammacher Schlemmer digital photo converter for $50 (all gone now), half of what H. S. is currently charging. Rather than scanning, the little unit actually takes a digital photo of your original photo in a flash, and the software converts it to jpeg. It feels kind of flimsy, and the user manual is a nightmare, but it seems to do a reasonable enough job within its limitations (3 standard print sizes up to 5x7), and I'm glad I snagged it at that price. It looks like the exact same unit as the VuPoint model that Amazon is selling for $89, with mostly negative reviews on the site, so caveat emptor. (The same unit, it seems, is also branded by Brookstone.)

Anyway, it'll give me the opportunity to use old photos in posts, and maybe it'll inspire me to write more about trips past. For the time being, I'll just share my first three converted snaps, from a trip I made to China in 1994 (I'm pretty sure that was the year). I started in Shanghai and ended in Beijing, with stops at Suzhou and Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius.

The Forbidden Men's Room

They should have called it Ray's

Goodness gracious, great walls of Pete!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

It's Back! The Osteria del Circo Gelato Cart

I played subway roulette again yesterday.  This time the E came up, again.  I decided to take it to the 7th Avenue Station (53rd St.).  I had recently noticed that there was a new Thai place on the corner of 8th Avenue and 55th, the storefront that for many years was a Chinese noodle shop.  It's now a branch of Chai, an apparently popular and well-regarded Williamsburg Thai restaurant, and I had been meaning to try it.  I ordered the tom yum shrimp noodle soup, which turned out to be one of the worst things I've eaten in days. The broth was totally clear, with a bit of sweetness, a bit (just a bit) of spice that cohabited but didn't marry with the sweetness, and only the slightest hint of the tang one expects from a tom yum.  It looked and tasted nothing even vaguely like any tom yum I've ever had.  The soup had five rubbery, tasteless shrimp swimming in it, along with the rice noodles and some bean sprouts.  I was hoping the waiter would ask me how it was, so I could go on a tirade, but, alas, the fateful question was not posed.  I'm not sure one should damn a restaurant based on one bad dish, but this one was so bad, and so central to the cuisine.  Could I have gotten a bad dish at an otherwise good second branch of a good Brooklyn restaurant?  Could this have been a bad dish at a bad second branch of a good Brooklyn restaurant?  Or could it have been a bad dish at a bad second branch of an undeservedly well-regarded, equally bad Brooklyn restaurant?  I'm afraid I'll never find out, as the dish was so bad that I'm neither inspired to return to the Manhattan branch nor try the Brooklyn one.

Happy I was not.  We're only granted a certain number of lunches in this life, and large though that number may be, any bad lunch diminishes me.  I had enough time to walk back to the office on the East Side, so I headed down 55th Street.  As I walked down the block between Sixth and Seventh I saw it.  It was back!  The Osteria del Circo gelato cart, whose demise I had reported here last year.  All of a sudden a bad outing had turned into a red letter day.

Osteria del Circo is run by the same family that brought you Le Cirque.  It's a pricey Italian restaurant, and from what I can tell not especially esteemed by those in the know.  But boy is their gelato good.  As I've said before, it's probably the best gelato I've had outside of Italy or Switzerland.  Switzerland, you ask?  Yes.  Though I've had great gelati in Rome, Florence, Verona, Milan, and in Palermo, where it's commonly eaten for breakfast, as a sandwich on a brioche, the absolute best gelato I've ever had was in Locarno, Switzerland. Granted, it's Italian Switzerland, the Ticino, sharing Lago Maggiore with parts of Piemonte and Lombardia in Italy.  I've been to Locarno twice.  My first time there I was traveling through Switzerland on a rail pass.  It's a pretty lakeside holiday town with a famous film festival.  I had gelati from several places while I was there, but by far the best was at a stand at an indoor market with a quite a range of flavors, among the most I've ever seen in one place.  A few years later, when I was staying in Lugano, also a lake town, also extremely beautiful, perhaps more so to my taste, and more of a real city, I took a day trip to Ascona,  which I hadn't seen before, and made a stop at nearby Locarno, more for the gelato than anything else, it was that good.

Osteria del Circo's gelato may not reach the same exalted heights, but it's damn good.  Whatever license problems they had last year have obviously been solved, and were I a wagering man I'd say, "Hallelujah!"  But my name's not Pascal, so I'll just thank the gelato fairy.

They've kept their prices at the amazingly reasonable $3-5 a cup.  As always, I got a small cup with two flavors.  This time I tried the baci (usually called bacio, the singular form, meaning kiss) and the caffe latte.  The caffe latte was good, but maybe too much latte and too little caffe for me.  In the past they've done a cappucino gelato that had more of a coffee kick.  But the caffe latte did have the nice touch of a few roasted coffee beans mixed in.  I think I've had the baci before but I'm not sure, because they also do gianduja sometimes, and both are based on chocolate-hazelnut candies.  Anyway, the baci was fabulous, and it had some hazelnuts and little pieces of chocolate mixed in, which studded the top of the supply in the cart.

Welcome back, cart.