Saturday, May 29, 2010

An End of Diet Dream

Yesterday I came off a 4-week diet. Since the beginning of the month I'd been on my usual periodic modified eating plan: a bowl of cereal in the morning (my main source of complex carbohydrates), all the fruit I want, lean meat and seafood (mostly grilled), salads. I avoid most starches (no bread, rice or pasta), fried foods, and desserts. I keep it interesting by finding appropriate dishes I like at the types of restaurants that tend to use lighter cooking styles: Middle Eastern (e.g., chicken kebabs), Japanese (grilled fish, sashimi, hijiki), Thai (larb, squid salad), Vietnamese (hot and sour fish soup, shrimp salad). For a mid-afternoon snack (especially since I eat lighter lunches) I'll often have a Kashi TLC bar; they're satisfying, calorie-efficient, and help curb cravings for more dangerous sweets.

Anyway, Thursday was my last diet day, and I'd had a Thai seafood salad for dinner. In the middle of the night I had a dream.

It was still Thursday evening and I had a powerful desire to break my diet. I tried to reason with myself that it was the final day, and the next day I could have anything I wanted. Keeping to my decided-upon diet dates is a point of honor with me. But in the dream the devil got me. I desperately wanted something fried and starchy. So I started wandering around looking for a restaurant. Though I was going to break my own rules, my conscience nonetheless kept me away from really bad stuff, like fried chicken. I finally decided on a South Indian restaurant. I walked in and looked at the menu. I'd already had dinner, albeit a light one, and I decided that an appetizer should be enough to satisfy my craving.

I ordered medhu vada, a fried snack often described as "lentil donuts." Almost immediately, the waiter brought the plate of vada, but he didn't bring any condiments. South Indian snacks are ususally served with coconut chutney and sambar. Then two filthy little ragamuffins appeared at my table, one carrying sambar and one with coconut chutney. The kid with the chutney was Indian, but the one with the sambar was blond and blue-eyed. After they placed the condiments in front of me they both held out the palms of their hands, clearly asking for money. I knew from traveling in India that saying "no" or "go away" to street urchins has no effect. But I also learned that a shooing-away gesture works like a charm, and it did this time too.

As I was about to dig into my snack, I saw two other children, both Indian, both perfectly neat and clean, and dressed in black waiter jackets. One boy said to the other, regarding what had just transpired at my table, "What were they doing?"

"Asking for baksheesh, of course," the other said.

"I could never do that," the first boy replied.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Elliott Sharp, The Movie

It's been a while since I've seen my old friend and past collaborator Elliott Sharp, so I've only just become aware of a documentary film about him that was completed a couple of summers ago. Here's the trailer from Elliott Sharp: Doing the don't.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

South Florida Redeemed Again, This Time by Dinner

A while back I wrote about how a brunch at The Blue Moon Fish Company, in Coral Springs, Florida, rescued me from the culinary wasteland that is South Florida. Of course, I don't go to South Florida in search of great food, but if I'm going to visit my mother I always hope there's someplace decent we can go to. On my most recent visit we decided to try Blue Moon again, this time for dinner.

It was a Sunday night and we lucked out pricewise because they've just introduced a three-course dinner special (every night except Saturday), and you don't even have to be an early-bird. Blue Moon is a relatively upscale restaurant for the area, with most entrees in the $20-30 range. For the dinner special they offer a generous subset of the menu with a varied choice of appetizers and desserts free on top of the entree price.

I started with the tuna poki, marinated sashimi tuna served in a martini glass, accompanied by sushi rice and julienned vegetables. My main course was a really nice, plump piece of sweet-potato crusted corvina (Pacific sea bass, popular in Latin America--I had corvina in Peru), served with spinach, basmati rice and a Grand Marnier butter ($22 for the three-courses; my mother's rib eye was $28). The only misstep was a Jamaican rum and coconut creme brulee that wasn't a creme at all, but rather a runny liquid. Clearly something had gone wrong in the kitchen, since they served a perfectly decent creme brulee at brunch.

Blue Moon Fish Co.
10317 Royal Palm Boulevard
Coral Springs, Florida 33065

(954) 755-0002

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Dinner for One Please, James

If you're a lonely, friendless wretch like me you often find yourself dining alone in restaurants. And if you like variety in a meal, that puts you at a decided disadvantage, especially if you prefer Asian food, best eaten family-style. So what's a miserable wretch to do? There are buffets of course, but outside of a few Indian lunch buffets most are subpar. For me, Asian combination rice plates represent one solution. At Malaysian restaurants there's nasi lemak, a plate consisting of coconut rice, chicken curry, dried tiny fish (ikan bilis), achat (pickled vegetables), hard boiled egg, peanuts and cucumber. And at Indonesian restaurants there's nasi rames or nasi campur. I'm not sure what the difference, if any, between the two terms is. Nasi campur literally means "mixed rice." The Padang-style restaurants in Queens usually have nasi rames on their menu. At Mie Jakarta, which I guess is Javanese-style, they serve nasi campur, and oh boy is it good.

Though Mie means noodles, I've yet to try any of the noodle dishes at Mie Jakarta, but I've had the nasi campur twice. It's an amazingly good meal for $6.50 (more with whole fish). You get your choice of main course from a list of about six, and then you get everything else: a mild but fabulously flavorful vegetable coconut curry (with kale, jackfruit and bamboo shoots), fried tempeh with a chiplike crispness, cucumbers, excellent shrimp chips (kroepoek), and a hard-boiled egg covered in the sauce of your main course. The first time around I had the ayam goreng rica, fried chicken with topped with a red chile sambal (very similar to the ayam balado served at Padang restaurants). I got a delicious plump, moist breast with a wickedly spicy chile paste. The next time I got the nasi campur rendang (shown above). Daging rendang (dry curry beef) is served in Malaysian as well as Indonesian restaurants. Most of the Indonesian versions I've had are truly a dry curry: sold by the piece, the beef, somewhere between stewed meat and jerky in consistency, is coated with a mix of curry spices, but there's no sauce to speak of. I usually prefer the Malaysian version, which is chunks of beef in a thick, spicy coconut-based curry sauce. Well, the rendang at Mie Jakarta is closer to what I know from Malaysian restaurants than Indonesian ones, but it's possibly the best I've had. There's a wonderful complexity to the spice mix, and the sauce has a consistency not unlike a Mexican mole.

A plate like this can almost make a man glad to be alone.

(Don't ask me what that photo accompanying the song is all about.)

Mie Jakarta
86-20 Whitney Avenue

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Barry Marx Toupee Story

Barry Marx has been gone for about thirteen years now. He died at 41, way too young, in the middle of a phone call, of a freak heart attack due to a congenital defect he never knew he had. He was in L.A., living his dream, writing for television, something he had wanted to do for years.

I met Barry in 1978 when we were both students in the graduate creative writing program at Columbia, but I left after a year due to the stifling conservatism of the place. Barry was one of a handful of friends I retained from that year. We were both in the fiction writing program, but Barry's real aspiration was to write for film or television. He got his wish in 1996 or '97. For a few years prior to that he had been writing scripts for a video game company. It was when he worked as writer/producer of "Smoke and Mirrors," a Penn and Teller game, that he became buddies with Penn Jillette. I believe it was Penn who got him the gig writing for "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." Penn also delivered the eulogy at Barry's funeral.

Barry went to movies all the time, a lot more than I did, and when I saw him it was often to catch a film. This particular incident happened in the mid-eighties, but I can't remember what film we saw that day. We had gotten to the theater at least ten or fifteen minutes early and were chatting. At one point I told him about a guy I had seen earlier that day who had the most dreadful toupee. It was precariously perched atop his head, and though it was probably meant to be dirty blonde it was so dirty it was practically snot green.

"All toupees are lousy," Barry said. "There's no such thing as a good toupee. They all look phony."

"How can you be sure?" I asked. "A good toupee wouldn't look like a toupee, so you'd never notice it."

"No way," he said. "I'm sure there's no such thing as a good toupee."

We split hairs about toupees a little while longer and then moved on to other topics. Then the lights dimmed and the previews started. I don't think they showed as many previews back then as they do now, and pretty soon the film began. Shortly after the opening credits had run, only a couple of minutes into the film, four people from the row in front of us, two couples, began filing out. We both wondered what was going on. Had they decided so soon that they didn't like the film? Or had they already seen most of it and just wanted to catch the opening credits? We found out what was up soon enough. One of the guys leaned over to Barry, and in an incensed, menacing tone said, "Next time you feel like talking about toupees you're going to have to get yourself a set of false teeth!"

I could tell that Barry was shaken. "I had no idea there was a guy with a toupee in front of us," he said.

"You see," I said, "he had one of the good ones!"

Monday, May 03, 2010

Weird Candy: Lamb Curry Caramel

I have Donna and Masa to thank for this gift from Japan, much easier to share with my coworkers than their previous gift from Japan, paper underwear from a vending machine. The underpants were supposed to be large, but they were closer to my shoe or glove size than my underwear size, Japanese large. "Didn't they have sumo-size," I asked.

These Genghis Khan caramels from Hokkaido were, I was told, lamb curry flavored. And, indeed, they had a pronounced curry flavor mixed with a caramel sweetness, a hint of onion and the slight taste of a meat bullion. It was a novelty, and it was far from foul, but it didn't really speak to me. So I brought them to my office. Few took me up on the offer. "Two weird," more than one said. A couple who did try them said things to the effect of "odd, but not bad." One person, however, bit in and exclaimed, "This is awesome!" He got seconds.