Thursday, July 30, 2009

Number-Cruncher Nabbed in Sex Sting

This was the headline to a brief article, buried deep in the folds of today's Daily News. I haven't read the article; I just saw the headline as I peeked over the shoulder of my neighbor on the Q train, on my way home from work. I was outraged.

This encroachment into our private lives has gone too far, I thought. What a man does with numbers is his own business. Now I happen to have a math phobia, so personally I find the idea of number-crunching repulsive, but who am I to judge? Let he who is without arcane pecadillos cast the first stone.

Number-crunching seems to me a relatively benign fetish. After all, no humans or animals are hurt in the act. It's certainly more wholesome than bug stomping.

If number-crunchers are targets now, who's next? Proofreaders?

Chop Suey! Chop Suey! Read All About It!

I got an email from Andrew Coe last week. Andy is an old acquaintance I hadn't seen in years, a friend of friends. In fact, I had last seen him in 1992 at the Hong Kong office of one of our mutual friends, a publisher of guidebooks. Andy wrote to tell me that he'd just published a history of Chinese food in the United States, and that while he had been doing his research he kept stumbling on this blog. Did I want his publicist to send me a copy? I bit without hesitation.

Chop Suey is quite a fun and informative read, especially for anyone with an interest in Chinese cuisine in particular or foodways in general. It is a bit slow out of the starting gate, however, as the first two chapters deal with the early history of Americans in China and their encounters with both the food and the culture in perhaps too much detail for most readers. These two chapters account for about a quarter of the book and should probably have been condensed into one. The third chapter gives a nice overview of the history and principles of Chinese cuisine, providing background for the meat of the book, his tale of how Chinese food in the U.S. morphed into a Chinese-American hybrid from the late 19th century through the mid-20th.

I learned, among other things, that chop suey, the archetypal Chinese-American dish, started out as a stir-fry including organ meats that originated in Toishan (or Toisan), in southern China, not far from Canton but with a dialect and cuisine all its own. (Coe should probably have discussed in more detail the distinction between Toisan and Cantonese Chinese ((often lumped together)), and their relative influences on Chinese food in the U.S.) Over time, chop suey morphed into the standardized bland stir-fry of meat and vegetables that was more suited to American tastes.

Coe quotes copiously from primary sources, and this gives the book a lot of flavor. It's interesting how many early commentators on Chinese food described stir-frys of chopped ingredients as akin to "hash."

Though the first Chinese restaurants sprung up in the west, during the gold rush, Chinese chefs were more often serving American food to Americans. Anti-Chinese sentiment (and legislation), however, eventually made the American west an inhospitable place for Chinese-Americans. It was in New York's Chinatown, toward the end of the 19th century, with the aid of thrill-seeking bohemians, that Chinese food would become popularized--and, eventually, standardized and Americanized.

Using chop suey as a leitmotif, Coe tells the story of the development in the 20th century of the southern-Chinese-based restaurant cuisine that dominated American dining-out culture for so many years. I do wish he had spent more time discussing other common Chinese restaurant dishes and their provenance, such as moo goo gai pan, wor shew opp, and my beloved butterfly shrimp.

The last chapter deals with post-Cantonese developments in Chinese food in the U.S., using Nixon's China trip as a pivotal moment (though already some Mandarin and regional restaurants had been introduced in the preceding decade). And once again, as the subtle and delicate food of southern China had formed the basis of a dumbed-down Chinese-American cuisine for so many years, a fascination with the spicy cuisines of Hunan and Sichuan (relatively authentically represented when first introduced in the U.S.) quickly led to a seismic shift in Chinese restaurant cuisine. Now, instead of fake southern Chinese food, everybody in America was eating fake northern and western Chinese food.

Last night I attended the publication party at Andy's home. Among the food on hand was some chicken chop suey, from Hop Kee, one of Chinatown's oldest restaurants. It was as bad as I had remembered, astoundingly bland, and below is probably the most unappetizing food photo I've ever posted on this blog (Lupa's turd of pork notwithstanding).

Monday, July 27, 2009

Last Night at Joe's

I had a blast last night singing two of our collaborations from the eighties with Lee Feldman at his Be Lee Festival at Joe's Pub. It was also great to share the stage with a whole mess of fabulous musicians and singer-songwriters, all doing their takes on Lee's music.

I'm generally not happy with photos of myself, but my friend Fred Kendrick did a great job catching us in action.

You can hear scratchy old recordings (not really scratchy) of the two songs we did, "When the Carlsons Become the McBrides" and "Everything Reminds Me of You," at my Soundclick page.

It Ain't Just Ham

Jamon Iberico is undoubtedly the world's most prized ham, the caviar or truffle of hams, and it's only been available in the U.S. for about 18 months. It's probably been available in the U.K. somewhat longer, and it was during my recent trip to London that I first sampled it.

Also known as "Pata Negra," Jamon Iberico comes from a black pig of Spain that is allowed to roam free for much of its time on earth and feed on acorns (the different grades of the ham depend on the length of the free roaming and pure acorn-feeding periods). For more specific details on grades of the ham as well as its history, follow the links in the first paragraph.

At El Pirata de Tapas, in the Bayswater section of London, an order of the Gran Reserva (the top-of-the-line acorn-fed "Iberico de Bellota") goes for 17 pounds (about $28 at the current exchange rate). I'd guess a full order is no more than an eighth of a pound. Luckily for me, since I was eating alone and did want to try a few other things, they were happy to make me a half order (see photo at top). It was rich, surrounded by and veined with fat, giving it an overall sheen, a little chewy, with a nutty, profound aged flavor. As good as Jamon Serrano (the Spanish ham that's similar to prosciutto, only better) is, this is a different animal, literally and figuratively. A little goes a long way. One savors it, one doesn't scarf Jamon Iberico.

But there's more to El Pirata de Tapas than just Pata Negra. I ordered two additional tapas. One was the Spanish national snack, the tortilla Espanola, the potato egg omelette/pie. Most tapas bars in Spain and the U.S. serve you a slice of a larger tortilla, but El Pirata makes an individual "runny egg" version.

To tell the truth, though I appreciate the care with which it was prepared, I actually prefer the firmer, more common form of tortilla (which is generally served warm, not hot, as it isn't cooked to order). The El Pirata tortilla was rather bland and required the addition of salt and pepper.

But the sublime seared sea scallops more than made up for any fault in the tortilla.

They were served with a delicious puree of artichoke hearts, augmented by Iberian pancetta, and garnished with artichoke stems (which are quite delicious themselves). This dish would surely make my tapas top ten. I had been waffling between the scallops and the pork cheeks, and maybe I should have pushed the limits of my hunger and gone for both. As I was paying my bill I told the waiter how fabulous the scallops were, and asked him if he'd tried them. "Yes," he said, "I've tried everything." I asked him what his favorites were. "The Pata Negra, of course, and the pork cheeks."

El Pirata de Tapas has a fabulous deal at lunch: two tapas and a glass of wine for only 9 pounds. But you won't find any scallops or pork cheeks on that menu. And you certainly won't find any Jamon Iberico.

If you find yourself in London and you're looking to pick up some Jamon Iberico for a lavish picnic, you'll want to stop by the Brindisa stand at the Borough Market, where the knowledgeable staff on hand can explain everything and give you a little taste. They carry a range of Spanish products and charcuterie. Just outside the market is their restaurant, Tapas Brindisa (they have other locations in London too), where you can have a sit-down lunch, or if you're there before 11 on a Friday through Sunday you can have a nice Spanish breakfast. When I went for breakfast I had the Joselito shoulder and eggs.

Joselito is one of the most renowned producers of Jamon Iberico, and the shoulder cut is less pricey than the ham (by about a third). The plate came with a generous serving, and along with the eggs provided proper fortification for an arduous session of food ogling (and sampling) at the market.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bread? For a Sandwich? You Must Be Kidding

Earlier this week, in the Times, my friend and fellow blogger Dave Cook published a piece in $25 and Under about his discovery, way uptown in Inwood, of a truck that sells the patacón, a Venezuelan sandwich that uses plantains in place of bread. It's well worth a look, and maybe even a subway ride.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Michael Jackson's Tortoise-Shell Hat

This was a dream, and it obviously has something to do with the fact that I work as a proofreader for advertising and catalogs in the retail/fashion industry.

The latest trend in men's headwear, it turns out, is tortoise shells. Not hats, caps, or helmets made from tortoise shell, I mean full, large tortoise shells. And Michael Jackson is going to come back from the dead to do a photo shoot for us wearing a tortoise shell on his head.

At the photo shoot the undead Michael Jackson, with an enormous tortoise shell on his head, looks ghastly, but no more so than in real life.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I'm Built for Comfort; I Ain't Built for Speed

When Howlin' Wolf sang that he was talking about the relationship between girth and copulation. Not the girth of his virile member (a term I've always been, dare I say, tickled by), but rather his own massive size and weight, the whole Wolf, as it were. When I say it I'm talking about neither sex nor size of any kind.

I'm talking about my morning commute.

Shortly after I started working in the East 50s, frustrated for several months by overcrowded subway cars during my morning commute, I discovered the slow and easy way. It happened on primary day, when I first voted for Obama (Kucinich, who had gotten my primary vote four years earlier, had already withdrawn). My polling place is close to the Union Street R train station in Park Slope, and after I voted I went to that station instead of the 7th Avenue B & Q station. I was thrilled to discover that I could get a seat on the R, at the height of rush hour. As someone who is moderately claustrophobic and has chronic moderate back pain, that seat means a lot to me. It took me about fifteen minutes longer to get to work than by my prior route, but it was well worth the extra time. I was comfortable and relaxed, and by the end of the ride I wasn't a tense, stiff wreck.

In the last couple of weeks I've added an additional component to my commute: my morning cup of Joe. Right by the station the little coffee shop at the Brooklyn Lyceum sells a reasonable brew. So this morning I settled into a seat, pulled out the latest issue of Wired, and read it while I sipped my coffee and listened to some Brazilian music on my MP3 player. A thoroughly civilized commute.

Sometimes I get a less-than-ideal seat the first time around, like in the middle between two people who are really built for comfort, but there's so much turnover on the local that within a couple of stops I get a better seat. The commute also seems to be more predictable. For some reason the sick passenger prefers the express.

It's amazing how much the quality of one's commute affects one's overall attitude. I'm feeling pretty good right now. And I feel sorry for those poor sardines who had to stand all the way on the express.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

You Should Definately Check Out This Kewl Website

Monday, July 20, 2009

Getting My Keralan Fix in London

I got my Keralan fix in London--meals at three different Keralan restaurants. As I've mentioned before, Kerala is my favorite part of India, Keralan is possibly my favorite Indian regional cuisine, and the only Keralan restaurant in the New York area isn't very good. But London has Keralan choices in all price ranges, in the center and in far-flung neighborhoods. In fact, it was Keralan food that brought me to parts of London I'd otherwise never have visited. My going to Stoke Newington and East Ham would be like a Londoner in New York for a week heading out to Flushing or Sunset Park.

I'd eaten Keralan food in London before, about ten or so years ago, at Malabar Junction, near the British Museum. While it was good, it wouldn't be one's first choice for Keralan in London, unless you were looking for a place near the museum.

Keralan food has gained a much higher profile in London in recent years since the advent of cookbook-writing Das Sreedharan's Rasa chain, which includes a seafood restaurant, a black pepper-themed restaurant, and a restaurant serving the Syrian-Christian specialties of Kerala. But the original, all-vegetarian Rasa in Stoke Newington has the best reputation of the group, so I decided to eat at that one. Stoke Newington, in North London, is a pleasant multi-ethnic residential neighborhood. Actually, I don't think it has an especially large Indian or Pakistani population; you're more likely to see Turks or Satmar Hasidim.

At Rasa I ordered the Kerala feast, an enormous multi-course meal that goes for 16 pounds. First I was brought out a basket of crisps and an array of chutneys and pickles. I made sure not to eat it all, since I knew it was only the tip of the iceberg, but I'd say that the amazingly diverse and complex flavors of those condiments may have been the highlight of the meal.

A flower shaped snack made of rice flour and coconut, black sesame seeds and cumin seeds. This snack began life in the Christian homes of Travancore and is now eaten all over Southern India.

Pappadoms dipped in a light batter of rice flour, cumin and sesame seeds and fried to give them extra “crunch and crackle” - these are Pappadoms with a difference.

Plain crispy snack made of black gram lentils and rice.

Banana Chips
Crispy banana chips

Crunchy sticks made from roasted rice flour, black sesame seeds and cumin seeds.

That was followed by a plate of three different kinds of fritter (eggplant kathrikka, potato bonda and banana boli) served with a tomato-coconut chutney. They were all good of their kind, though I don't get especially excited by fried Indian appetizers.

I was then served two main courses, a mixed vegetable curry (rasa kayi) and an eggplant dish in a yogurt sauce (which I found too rich), a shredded Savoy cabbage "thoran," tomato rice (a rather tame, and not very memorable version), and a Keralan paratha, which is more like a flaky, multilayer Malaysian pancake than the North Indian flatbread of the same name.

Dessert was an excellent payasam, a warm vermicelli milk pudding.

The Keralan feast is an excellent deal at about half of what you'd pay for all that food a la carte, and it was certainly enough for two people (though the 16 pounds is a per-person charge, and I'm sure they'd frown on two trying to eat as cheaply as one). As far as the quality of the food is concerned, it was a mixed bag. Outside of the condiments, nothing really blew me away, though the rasa kayi was quite nice. Part of the problem was that some of the items that came with the meal were just not to my taste. I think you can make requests with the feast, but I put myself in the hands of the chef.

While Stoke Newington may not be an especially Indian neighborhood, East Ham most definitely is. The neighborhood is in the eastern part of the city (as is West Ham), considerably east of the East End (which is just east of the City of London). East Ham is a South Indian enclave, and the array of restaurants out there made me want to extend my trip by at least a week. There are a number of Tamil Sri Lankan, Tamil vegetarian, Chettinad (a Tamil non-vegetarian cuisine), Hyderabadi and Keralan restaurants in East Ham. I went for lunch at Thattukada, a small, simple restaurant that many (including my waiter at Rasa) consider to have the best Keralan food in London. Since I was on my own and wanted variety, I decided to go with the lunch special, the Keralan "meal." In South India, "meals" restaurants charge a fixed fee for all you can eat of a number of dishes, breads and rice, usually served on a banana leaf. This meal wasn't all you can eat, but it was all I could eat, and it was amazingly cheap (3 pounds 80). A meal is more informal than a thali, but the concept is similar. I ordered the fish curry meal. I got an enormous plate of rice with a pappadam, little bowls of fish curry, warm raita and dal, and a plate of side vegetables. The curry was excellent, with a robust flavor that brought my taste buds back to Kerala. It should be noted that South Indian curries are very different from North Indian ones. In South India, a curry denotes a dish made with fresh herbs and spices rather than a ground spice mixture (those dishes are called masalas in the south). Keralan curries tend to be tomato and onion-based.

The plate of vegetables included a mixed-vegetable curry similar to the one at Rasa (and just as good), some black-eyed peas, pickle, and most interesting of all a delicious mashed cassava dish I'd never seen before.

The meal at Rasa was good, the one at Thattukada was very good, but my meal at Quilon was one for the ages.

Quilon is a high-end Indian restaurant run by the Taj Group, the Indian luxury hotel chain, specializing in traditional and inventive Keralan cuisine. It's named for a town in Kerala that actually has little reason to recommend it except as a jumping off point for a backwater boat trip to Alleppy. But the restaurant named Quilon has plenty to recommend; my lunch there was easily in the top five Indian meals I've ever experienced.

By Buckingham Gate, in the heart of royal London, Quilon is a wallet buster for dinner, but one can eat like a king for 22 (it just went up from 20) pounds at their fixed-price lunch. Not cheap, at roughly $35 at the current exchange rate, but well worth it, and a real deal by London standards.

I had the "Catamaran lunch (non-vegetarian £2.75 supplement): a combination of traditional vegetarian/non-vegetarian delicacies, a menu which includes fish and chicken, two vegetables, sambhar, served with rice, appams and parathas." They didn't charge me the supplement, perhaps because I was talking about Kerala with the staff, perhaps because I was taking pictures and looked like a potential reviewer, or perhaps because they forgot.

The meal opened with some pappadams (which are somewhat lighter than the flat northern ones, and without the addition of black pepper or cumin), punctuated by crispy lotus stems and accompanied by coconut and tomato chutneys, along with a rasam (a spicy coriander-scented broth) served warm in a wine glass. The sipping rasam was an interesting touch, and it was absolutely delicious, spicy and complex, reminding me of a Virgin Mary worthy of veneration.

The paratha was perfectly flaky and chewy, and not at all greasy, much better than the one at Rasa. The appam (not shown), a bowl-shaped rice-flour pancake also known as a hopper, was amazingly light, like angel's food; it was made by a woman at an appam station in the center of the room. The fish on banana leaf was topped with a moderately spicy, thick, tangy tomato-based sauce. I believe the chicken dish is the one described on the menu as Goan chicken, as it had a resemblance to vindaloo. The vegetable dishes were an avial (mixed vegetables in a yogurt-coconut sauce), perhaps the most famous Keralan vegetable dish; a thoran (another famous Keralan dish, served dry with shredded or chopped vegetables and coconut) made with tindori, a kind of baby cucumber; and a sambar (a spicy lentil soup/sauce with a touch of tamarind). All of the vegetable dishes were exquisite, and the tart lemon rice was a wonderful accompaniment. The slightly sweet, fruity raita was icing on the cake, but it wasn't dessert.

I'm glad as hell I took the waiter's recommendation for dessert. It may have been Goan instead of Keralan, but who am I to demand regional purity?

Here's the restaurant's description:

Bibinca and Dodhol

Bibinca and Dodhol are desserts which are Portuguese in origin and are very popular in Goa. Bibinca is made out of coconut cream, egg yolk, nutmeg, flour and sugar. It is prepared with a special cooking technique – baking one layer at a time, whilst applying a little butter and pouring the ingredients. It is cooked twice. Bibinca has around 5-6 layers. At Quilon, we make it more interesting by adding chocolate sauce in the layers.

Dodhol is a pudding made with palm jaggery, cashewnuts, rice flour and butter. The palm jaggery gives the dish a caramelised nutty flavour and is imported by Quilon from India. Bibinca and dodhol is served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

As good as that sounds, it was even better than that, and the homemade ice cream was fantastic, as was the rich South Indian coffee (also included in the lunch), served brewed with milk, but with sugar on the side, I'm happy to say (in India the sugar--and plenty of it--is usually already mixed in).

I went to Quilon on my second day in London, and every day I was tempted to go back for lunch, but as the saying goes, so many restaurants, so little time.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Be All the Lee that You Can Be

Next Sunday, July 26, I'll be joining singer-songwriter Lee Feldman at Joe's Pub to perform two of the songs we wrote together in the '80s. Lee and I worked together for about five years, performing both songs and our patented "movies for the ears." I'm pleased to be part of this Leestravaganza. See the press release, below.

* * *

In an identity-obsessed and money-driven world, songwriter Lee Feldman's "Be Lee Franchise" hits a nerve and runs with it. Lee invites you to cast off the stress of your own daily concerns and discard your fears of identity theft by becoming Lee Feldman.

How can you do this? Visit Lee's website and watch the Infomercial! ( Make a donation and you can actually become Lee. You'll get a nice certificate, a copy of Lee's latest album I've Forgotten Everything, and you will be encouraged to perform a song of Lee's and post it online. It's quick, it's easy, and most important of all . . . it's safe.

On Sunday July 26th, artists from New York and beyond will celebrate this revolutionary way to take an "identity vacation" by becoming Lee on stage at Joe's Pub. Since many of Lee's songs can be classified as public acts of introspection, they will have plenty of material to work with, including tunes like "Lee Feldman" (which features Lee's Social Security Number), "If I Were You" and "Mr. Feldman," a fantasy as told by a nursing home resident. (See the listing below for a complete roster of guest artists.)

For more than 25 years, people have been beguiled, amused, provoked, and moved by Lee Feldman's songs, which he typically delivers himself from the piano bench. His sincere and unadorned vocal style has a great foil in his expressive, sometimes-meaty, sometimes-delicate playing. He rolls songs out, as one friend put it, like a "demented jingle mill," capturing the details of life and the dilemmas of existence in 3-minute songs that can include stride piano, waltzes, pop, rock, jazz and free improvisation.

With influences including Bartok and the Beatles, Miles, Monk and Morton Feldman (not related), Lee himself has inspired many artists. The BE * LEE * FESTIVAL presents some of these amazing musicians who love Lee and his work; they are all listed below.

A lifelong New Yorker, Lee has lived in Brooklyn for the past 22 years, and has released three albums: Living It All Wrong (Pure/Mercury); The Man in a Jupiter Hat (Mercury/Bonafide); and I've Forgotten Everything (Urban Myth), as well as a 30-minute animated musical STARBOY ( A short documentary about Lee, called "Lee Feldman, Lee Feldman" can be viewed at Vimeo. Academy Award nominated director Bennett Miller ("Capote") says, "If you like Lee Feldman, you'll love 'Lee Feldman, Lee Feldman'."

Artists performing at the Be Lee Festival:

Jim Allen, Amy Allison, Alice Bierhorst, Dan Bryk, Peter Cherches, Kevin Corrigan, Dennis Cronin, David Feldman, Lee Feldman, Pete Galub, Greta Gertler, Henry Hample, Carol Lipnik, Chris Moore, Alon Nechushtan, Steve Swartz, Bob Windbiel.

SUNDAY, JULY 26th, 2009 at 6:30 p.m.
Joe's Pub
425 Lafayette Place, NYC

Tickets: 212-967-7555 or

"Lee Feldman uses a Tin Pan Alley bounce to make twisted or troubled situations sound like parlor songs." - The New York Times

"Reviving a bit of Brill Building artistry, this New York piano man makes you think and swoon and hum all at once." - Village Voice

"Lee Feldman plays the piano in just the dry, subtle, understated manner that his dry, subtle, understatedly hilarious songs call for." - Atlantic Monthly

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

If Only the Crust Were Better

It could have been a great pizza.

I had been meaning to try Peperoncino, a Neapolitan restaurant/pizzeria at the north end of Park Slope for some time.  The restaurant and its pizze had received excellent reviews from Time Out, The Village Voice and New York Magazine.  The toppings on my pizza, the Pulcinella, were a winning blend of mozzarella, fontina, mushrooms and speck (the juniper-cured cousin of prosciutto from the Tyrolean Alto-Adige region of Northern Italy).

But the crust, though receiving accolades from some reviewers, just didn't cut it with me.  I found it both too dry and too heavy.

The disappointing crust was more than compensated for by the opportunity to reconnect with my old college buddy, master luthier Steve Uhrik, after a caesura of thirty years.

72 Fifth Avenue (corner of St. Mark's)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Speaking of Chinese Sandwiches

And I was speaking about them, here, just last week.

Another style of Chinese sandwich is the mantou, a northern-style stuffed steamed bun.  The word mantou itself has spread and been transformed through trade and conquest all over the Far and Near East, referring to both breads and dumplings.  There are types of dumplings known as mandoo in Korean, manti in Turkish (but it's that little, alternative i in Turkish Romanization, and the word is pronounced "mantuh"), manty in Uighur, monti in Armenian and mantu in Afghan.  In fact, though the word originated in China it has come to mean dumplings rather than bread just about everywhere else.

For several years there was a place in Tribeca, just west of Chinatown, specializing in mantou sandwiches (Province), which closed a while back.  They have now resurfaced in Midtown East (only yesterday), at 235 E 53rd (between 2nd & 3rd Ave.) as Mantao, with pretty much the same menu. Sandwiches, which are small, go for $3.95-4.50.  Among the stuffings are pork with pickled vegetables, short rib and kimchi, spicy pork, and, for the vegetarians in the crowd, shiitake & portobello.  You'll definitely need two of them to make a meal, but even better, have one sandwich and one of their pancake rolls ($5.95 for either shredded beef or curry chicken), meat rolled up in a chewy fried pancake.  Also available are salads and dumplings.

Incidentally, I also learned that you can get a lamb version of Xian jia mo, the sandwiches I wrote about last week, at a stall at the Golden Mall in Flushing.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Twitter and Facebook Could Be Good News for Blogs

I've railed about Facebook and especially Twitter as media that are too often used for dashed-off, narcissistic little messages of little consequence.  Granted Twitter can be a powerful tool for political organization, hence the blocking of the site by repressive regimes, and Facebook is great for finding long-lost friends and joining interest groups, but most tweets and Facebook wall posts baffle me.  Once again I ask, why should your every thought and activity be of interest to anybody?

When I started blogging, before Twitter existed or Facebook really took off, lots of people were using blogs for the same sloppy, narcissistic minutia.  But there's hope for the blogosphere.  In an interview in the July issue of Wired, Scott Rosenberg of, who has recently published a book about the history and practice of blogging, says, "There have always been two types of blog posts: brief incidental blurts--really short one-line things, quick links--and more substantial statements.  Twitter has taken that brief, blurting blogging and put it to rest.  That pushes blogs toward a tradition of real writing."

Excellent.  Now that dashed-off narcissism has been relegated to Twitter, we can only hope that a greater number of personal bloggers can be counted on to rise to the challenge of "real writing" and provide readers with the kind of finely honed narcissism that I practice here.

Cheapskates Rejoice! $2.95 Korean Lunch Special

I couldn't believe my ears.

I went out for Korean lunch today, at Choong Moo Ro, one of the many Korean restaurants on 32nd Street.  I ordered the dduk mandoo kuk (rice cake & beef dumpling soup), which is usually $9.95 for lunch.  But the waitress asked me if I wanted the regular size or the $2.95 lunch special. "What's that?" I asked. She told me it was a smaller bowl of the soup.  I figured I'd give it a try.  I wasn't that hungry anyway.

It was about half the size of a full order, with 2 or 3 mandoo (dumplings), a bunch of sliced rice cake, some slices of beef and clear noodles.  I was also served some banchan (side dishes), but only 3 instead of the usual 5 or 6: the obligatory kimchee, string beans, and spicy eggplant.  I also got dessert, a cold, sweet soup.  All for $2.95 plus tax.

At that price I certainly couldn't leave a 20% tip.  I don't believe in tipping less than a dollar. And even a dollar didn't seem right.  After all, the staff were doing the same work as if I had ordered the $9.95 version.  So I figured an even fiver would be appropriate.

In addition to the soup I had, they also offer several kinds of spicy ramyeon (ramen) for $2.95. I'll have to go back to try one of those.

As I was walking back to the subway I noticed that another restaurant on the block, Shilla, was offering a daily cut-rate lunch special in addition to their regular lunch menu.  Each day a different dish is featured at $5.95.  For instance, on Tuesday you can get sul long tang (ox bone broth with beef and noodles), and on Thursday they offer soon dooboo chigae (spicy soft tofu soup).

Choong Moo Ro
10 W. 32nd St.

37 W. 32nd St.

Tapping My Inner Johnson

Robert Johnson, that is.

The other night, at dinner, I uttered something that caught me unawares. Usually your brain is one step ahead of your mouth and you know what you're going to say.  But this time something weird happened.  I said something that, as far as I can tell, was totally spontaneous.  I was discussing obstacles set by others and complained that certain people were putting "stones in my pathway."  I had never used that phrase before.  I immediately realized that I was quoting a blues by Robert Johnson, though his song was called "Stones in My Passway."  Merriam-Webster doesn't have an entry for passway, so I'm assuming a passway is a pathway.  It rattled me a bit.  I said to my friends, "I think that's the first time I've quoted Robert Johnson."

As I thought about the incident I started to worry.  Perhaps I was developing a rare form of Tourette's Syndrome that causes one to blurt out blues lyrics without self-control.  If this were to develop it could become a source of great embarrassment.  I imagined a few possible scenarios.

I eat out a lot.  What if one day I falsely accused a waitress of trying to poison me by complaining to the manager, "I asked her for water but she brought me gasoline"?  I travel a lot.  What if one day, as I was taking a walk in a foreign land, I just froze up and screamed out, "Ain't goin' down that big road by myself"?

And what if one evening, in a bar, upon seeing an attractive woman, my Big Joe Turner cortex was stimulated and I blurted out, "Baby you so beautiful but you gonna die someday; all I want's a little lovin' before you pass away"?  It could cause untold embarrassment for the both of us.

On the other hand, it just might work.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

An Extravagant Pleasure Palace and Chicken Liver for Dessert

'The Banqueting Room' from Views of the Royal Pavilion, by John Nash, 1826.

I took a day trip to Brighton.  I went to Brighton to see the sea, and what did I see?  Besides the sea, I saw the Royal Pavilion, an extravagant palace of ostentatious Orientalism built by George IV when he was Prince Regent, surrogate ruler for his mad dad.  It's over-the-top Orientalism, the Orientalism of the 19th century English imagination, a hodgepodge of fanciful renderings of many corners of the mysterious East.  A stroll through the pavilion is a trip, in the true sixties sense of the word.

I took a stroll by the seaside and visited Brighton Pier, which is mostly occupied by a tacky amusement arcade.

And I lunched at Due South, by the beach.  Due South may be Brighton's only destination restaurant, having been dubbed the best seaside restaurant in Britain by the Observer Food Monthly.  The kitchen works mainly with locally sourced ingredients.  I decided to make a meal of starters, as the most interesting items are often found at the tops of menus.  

The fish soup was a bit of a disappointment.  The broth itself was fine, but for some reason the langoustine, fish filet, cockles and mussels were surprisingly lacking in flavor.  

I enjoyed the grilled Sussex mackerel on soda bread toast with horseradish sauce--the mackerel from those waters being somewhat sweeter and less oily than what we're used to in the U.S.

But the dish that made the meal truly memorable was the chicken liver parfait with gooseberry chutney.  Now when I hear the word parfait I think of a dessert, and in particular a layered one.  But chicken liver parfait seems to be common parlance in the U.K. for what I'd be inclined to call a mousse.  Most of the recipes I've found are made with brandy or Madeira or port or all three, butter, cream, shallots and black pepper.  Due South's parfait was incredibly rich and slightly sweet, with a seductive consistency that bordered on the forbidden.  This wasn't chopped liver.

When the waiter asked me whether I wanted any dessert I told him the chicken liver parfait was my dessert.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Jia Mo and Other Chinese Snacks (in London and Montreal)

Ba Shan, on Romilly Street in Soho, just the other side of Shaftesbury Avenue from London's Chinatown, specializes in Northern Chinese snack items from a number of different provinces, but which are popular all over China. I focused on the dishes that aren't readily available at New York's Chinese restaurants, so I passed on dishes like the Sichuan dumplings in hot sauce (chao shou) and Beijing zhajiang mian (noodles with spicy meat sauce).

Two items I tried, both from Shaanxi province, were little sandwiches. The jia mo were served on slightly dry but puffy and springy buns. These I had with stewed pork. The cumin beef filling for the lotus leaf buns (similar to jia mo, but green with a leaf imprint) was excellent, but I found the bun much too dry and dense.

The chicken guo tie, pan fried dumplings from Xian, were fabulous, with a light, crispy skin. There was something familiar about the texture of the thin, crisp skins, and when the waiter told me they were made with rice flour I realized they reminded me of South Indian dosas, even though they look completely different. And they look marvelous--a group of five is served as a single sheet, to be broken up into individual dumplings.

The menu features two kinds of Beijing bing, stuffed pancakes, and I was disappointed that the egg and scallion (jian bing) was not available. But the beef and coriander version did not disappoint.

Exactly two weeks after my dinner at Ba Shan I had another jia mo, this time in Montreal's second Chinatown.  Old Chinatowns in many cities are centrally located and not especially conducive to expansion, so new Chinatowns spring up in neighborhoods that attract new immigrants.  In Montreal the second Chinatown is still pretty close to downtown, near the Guy-Concordia metro station.  There are a number of places out there that look promising, but I only had time to stop in for a snack at La Maison du Nord (on St.-Mathieu near Lincoln).  La Maison du Nord specializes in noodles and jia mo from Shaanxi and Beijing-style dumplings.  This jia mo, with wonderfully unctuous chopped pork, was much larger than the genteel tea sandwiches at Ba Shan.  It consisted of a dense, flaky, fried pancake-like bread stuffed with what I assumed to be pork shoulder, skin and all.

Mass Murderer Dies Quiet Death

Thursday, July 02, 2009

St. Pancras and the Poet

I don't think I'd ever heard the name St. Pancras outside the context of the London railway station. And hearing it would always make me think of the pancreas. St. Pancreas. And damn it, pancreas would always make me think of that icky scene in Love Story where Ryan O'Neal says, "I'm a liver," and Ali McGraw replies, "I'm a pancreas." So I always hated to think of St. Pancras Station because it reminded me of icky Ali McGraw in Love Story. And there I was in London and I still didn't know who the hell St. Pancras was, and why he had a railway station named for him. Could he have been from the Islets of Langerhans, the patron saint of diabetics?

I found myself at St. Pancreas Station, thinking about Ali McGraw and insulin, because I was going to visit the British Library, right by the station. I stopped off at the station to take a look at the statue of John Betjeman, one-time British poet laureate. I don't know his poetry at all, but he's memorialized at the station because he was instrumental in preventing its demolition in the 1960s. It's quite a charming statue.

I hadn't been to the British Library since they moved to the St. Pancras area in the late '90s. I went to take a look at the exhibit of treasures of the library's collection, which includes some truly awe-inspiring items. I'd seen many of these items before, at the old library near the British Museum, but the new addition to the collection that had especial relevance to me was a simple typed manuscript page, with written emendations, the opening of Pinter's The Homecoming, one of my favorite plays by one of my most revered literary forebears. The library had acquired the author's papers after his death. Pinter brilliantly peopled the territory that lay between the kitchen sink of Osborne and Wesker and the abyss of Beckett. "What have you done with the scissors?"

But I needed to put a real saint to the Pancras name. I couldn't keep thinking of the pancreas and Ali McGraw, no, that just wouldn't do, so when I got back to New York I googled our saint. It turns out he was just a kid. Beheaded at age 14, in Rome, during the reign of Diocletian. An obscure saint who, for some reason, is venerated by the English. If not for the London railway station and the aid of poet John Betjeman, he'd probably be completely forgotten by now, just another beheaded 14-year-old Roman boy.