Friday, March 31, 2006

Wu Liang Ye and the Missing Baguette

I’ll confess up front that the title is somewhat misleading, but then I’ve never had any moral qualms about misleading my readers, for a short while, at least. Have no fear, it’ll all get straightened out in the end. I must say, I do like the ring of the title. I love a good mystery, but I’m incapable of writing one. The best I can come up with is a somewhat misleading blog entry title.

I took a group of seven out to Wu Liang Ye, on 48th Street*, last Friday night. I’ve been arranging Chinese dinners for medium-to-large groups for about 25 years. It’s what I do for dinner parties, especially since I pretty much gave up serious cooking in the late ‘80s. I try to get an interesting, compatible group together, always making sure there are some at the table who are strangers to each other. This time the guest list had a theme, as there were a number of writers and publishing people I wanted to bring together.

Wu Liang Ye is, as far as I’m concerned, the nonpareil top Sichuan restaurant in New York today. I owe my discovery of the restaurant to Jeffrey Steingarten, who kvelled about it in one of his pieces. The food is authentic Sichuan cuisine.

Quasi-Sichuan cuisine, or quasi-Szechuan cuisine if you’re a diehard Wade-Gilesian, has become standard U.S. Chinese restaurant fare in the last thirty years. Somehow, in the 1970s, Sichuan and Hunan restaurants became all the rage in the U.S., their spicy fare replacing the Americanized Cantonese cuisine that had dominated Chinese restaurant menus for so long before. I remember that at the beginning there were some excellent Sichuan places in New York’s Chinatown, such as Hwa Yuan Szechuan Inn and Szechuan Taste, and especially Ting Fu Garden, but over time they all fell by the wayside. What was left throughout the city, but generally not in Chinatown, were the multitudes of Empire Szechuans and various mom & pop places with Szechuan or Hunan in their names serving dishes that are best described as gooey muck. Some make better gooey muck than others, but it’s still gooey muck, and gooey muck is not the name of a Chinese dish. These places are our modern chop suey joints.

In the ‘90s authentic Sichuan food returned to New York, most prominently at the Grand Sichuan restaurants. I’ve had excellent meals at the Grand Sichuan branches in Chelsea & Clinton (the neighborhood formerly known as Hell’s Kitchen), but Wu Liang Ye is in a league of its own.

I usually do my Chinese dinner parties in Chinatown, but this time I decided to go for something different than the Cantonese seafood places I usually choose. As I explained to one of the guests, who is French, Sichuan and Cantonese are both Chinese food in the same way that Alsatian and Provençal are both French food.

I do all the ordering at these dinners. It’s a rule. Take it or leave it. The only way to compose a Chinese menu that makes any sense is to have a single organizing intelligence at the helm. I do entertain requests and suggestions, and sometimes I take them. When I go back to a restaurant I’m familiar with I’ll usually order a number of dishes I know to be winners from experience, as well as new items to audition for the repertoire.

Our menu was as follows:

Ox tongue and tripe with roasted chili peanut vinaigrette. This was a cold dish and was requested by two of the guests, unbeknownst to each other. I was glad to oblige. It was a real winner, the peppery, tangy sauce a perfect accompaniment to the two meats. Cold tripe in Sichuan dishes has a dense, slightly rubbery consistency, more like that of stewed squid compared to the spongy texture of hot tripe.

Dan Dan noodles. Wu Liang Ye is famous for this dish, a Sichuan standard, also with a chili vinaigrette, along with minced pork. This is the apotheosis of spicy noodles.

Baby shrimp with scallion pesto. Another cold dish, and a disappointment. Rather low on flavor.

Pan seared dumplings (or pot stickers, or jiao zi). These need no explanation except that, as far as I’m concerned, Wu Liang Ye makes the best in New York.

Ma po tofu. Called bean curd Szechuan-style on many menus, this preparation of soft tofu with minced pork and plenty of chili and Sichuan peppercorn may well be the signature dish of Sichuan province. The authentic version, as I learned in China, can be quite oily, and at Wu Liang Ye the dish is authentically oily. Most run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurants will make a pallid, gummy version of the dish, usually without any noticeable trace of Sichuan peppercorns. I haven’t been to Chengdu, but the only places I’ve had ma po tofu in New York that compared to the dish as prepared at Sichuan restaurants in Hong Kong and Beijing have been Grand Sichuan and Wu Liang Ye.

Wok-roasted sea scallops with pepper-spiced salt. I don’t know if it’s a Sichuan dish, as it’s very similar to Cantonese spicy salt & pepper seafood dishes, though the breading is a bit crispier. The scallops are wonderfully fresh and perfectly moist within the coating. I know one couple who keep going back to satisfy cravings for this dish after having tried it at one of my dinners.

Braised fish filets and Napa cabbage with roasted chili. The fish filets are tilapia, and they are served breaded in a hearty, spicy red sauce–there was something just a bit reminiscent of pescado à la Veracruzana about it.

Braised shitake with baby bok choi. Frankly, vegetables are not the restaurant’s strong suit.

Camphor tea-smoked duck. This is another one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, and it’s my personal favorite. The duck is perfectly moist, the skin crisp and just slightly salty. For me this dish is a championship contender in both the duck and the smoked meat divisions.

Stir-fried bacon with spicy capsicum. This was the last of our dishes to arrive. The same two who had lobbied for the tongue and tripe were hot to try this one. I had enjoyed the smoky beef with spicy capsicum before, but the bacon left it in the dust. It was pretty much just thin slices of bacon, not crisp at all but sufficiently meaty, along with slivers of spicy green peppers, and it blew me away. But as I ate it something kept gnawing at me. As great as the dish was, something seemed to be missing, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.

Several days later it came to me, a revelation. The bacon was crying out to be made into a sandwich! The missing link was bread. It would be so perfect, I decided, this fantastic, spicy bacon on a world-class baguette. I imagined the experience of biting through the crust, through the dough, arriving at the bacon, chewing off a chunk and having the bread and the meat marry in my mouth as I blissfully chewed away. Yes, definitely.

As I thought about it a little more I also decided I wouldn’t kick a couple of fried eggs out of the sandwich.

* I've only been to the one on W. 48th Street. There are two other branches, Murray Hill and Upper East Side.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Horrifying Boasts Department, #1

The restaurant on the northeast corner of 7th Avenue & 50th Street in Manhattan proudly proclaims itself "America's Largest Friday's."

Friday, March 24, 2006

East Village Indo-Fusion Falls Short, or Raga Sucks

One of the reasons I never wanted to be a restaurant reviewer is because you can’t just come right out and say a place sucks. You have to euphemize: it falls short, it misses the mark, it disappoints. At first I was disappointed by my meal at Raga, but as I thought about it over several days I realized it sucked.

I do a lot of serious restauranting this time of the year, since my birthday is in March. I have an ongoing pact with friends–we don’t trade birthday gifts, we take each other out to dinner. So in March and April I get taken out a bunch of times, and over the course of the year I reciprocate. The restaurants are sometimes old favorites, and sometimes new places or places we’ve been meaning to try but never got around to. Raga was one of the latter. I had been both interested and wary since it first opened about eight years ago. The menu is basically French or new American with an Indian spin. It made a bit of a splash for being a moderately upscale restaurant borrowing inspiration from India just a block east of all the abominable curry holes of 6th street. It garnered enthusiastic reviews both from the media and front-line users like the Zagat’s brigade. Its current reality is so forgettable that I wondered whether something had changed drastically, or if the good reviews all came from a bunch of ninnies who are easily impressed by seemingly daring hybrids, regardless of whether or not they actually work. A little research reveals that at some point along the way the original chef, Geetika Khanna, an Indian who had studied at the French Culinary Institute, went into private catering and was replaced by Lee Farrington, who also studied at the French Culinary Institute. By the time I dined there, however, Farrington too was gone.*

Granted, I was a tough sell. I feel about “fusion cuisine” roughly the way Goering felt about “culture,” except that I don’t own a revolver. Eurasian fusion restaurants became fashionable maybe twenty or so years ago, and what should have been a passing fad refuses to die. I think fusion restaurants are really more about fashion than food, aimed at trendies looking for the newest thing to eat while being seen eating the newest thing, outlets for “artistically inclined” chefs and restaurateurs more interested in making a “bold statement” than good food. The result is usually a mediocre freak cuisine, neither good European nor good Asian food. Among the most forgettable meals of my life were one at Jean-Georges’ Vong, a fusion of French and Thai, and another at an upscale midtown Indo-European place whose name I can’t remember and which boasted Ismail Merchant as a “design consultant.”

On the other hand, I must admit that some of the world’s great cuisines are fusion cuisines. They’re what I’d call “naturally occurring” fusions–though you could argue that the colonialism that is responsible for much of the world’s most interesting food shouldn’t be called “natural.” One of the great fusion cuisines is Macanese–the baseline Chinese ingredients of Macau’s natives augmented by influences and dishes from throughout the Portuguese colonial world. I have never seen a Macanese restaurant outside of Macau, and as I write this I’m getting a craving for African chicken. Malaysian is another great fusion cuisine, mixing native Malay dishes and ingredients with contributions from Chinese and Indian immigrants as well as influences from Thailand to the north. Stay tuned for a piece on Malaysian cuisine.

But back to Raga. I haven’t described the food yet. The first thing we were served was something they called naan, but is best described as dry, tasteless, cardboard-like strips reminiscent of overly toasted packaged pita bread. Bad bread is a bad sign. There were three of us, and we shared two appetizers. One of them was probably the best thing we tried, though it was nothing to turn cartwheels over. It was a pan-seared sea scallop dish, served over what they called “blinis.” As with all the food, the menu’s description made it sound more interesting than it was. I’m especially pissed off about the blini thing. There were pancakes of some sort at the bottom, and they weren’t bad, but they sure as hell weren’t blinis. A blini is a particular thing, and you can’t go calling any pancake a blini just because it sounds good on a menu. This happens a lot–trendy restaurant menus use traditional food terms to describe components of their dishes that bear only the most distant resemblance to those traditional food items. Who do they think they’re fooling? Beneath the scallops were dense little pancakes that had little to do with the thin, light Russian pancake whose name they appropriated. Our other appetizer was crab cakes. Once again, I can’t remember the description that made them appear to be crab cakes with a difference. I’m sure they mentioned a bunch of spices, but the one I noticed most was salt. I’ll trust them that there was crab in the crab cakes, but I couldn’t taste it. They were dry, salty lumps that in a blind taste test might barely beat out Mrs. Paul’s fish cakes. True to form for this kind of place, though, the crab cakes were surrounded by "artistic" swirls of sauce (avocado, if I remember correctly) and spice accents that were most likely described on the menu. To add insult to injury, the offending crab cakes had to be endured by a native of Baltimore, one of my dinner companions.

the offending crab cake

Main courses were par for the course. I had considered ordering the most out-on-a-limb entree, the wild boar rendang, but I had just eaten an authentic Malay beef rendang for lunch the day before. Instead I had the breast of duck, which was served sliced, in the French style, with a forgettable balsamic sauce–but I can’t remember if the menu specified the balsamic sauce since it surprised me. The menu did, however, specify Sichuan peppercorns, but like many other promised flavors they were nowhere to be found. Accompaniments were salad greens and triangles of overly salty grilled polenta. One friend’s salmon skewers would have been just fine if we were in a Greek diner. My other dining associate ordered the “vegetarian delight,” which was essentially a second-rate south Indian curry, but nonetheless the best (and cheapest) of the three entrees. For dessert we shared an overly sweet fruit cobbler with pedestrian vanilla ice cream. I didn’t order the dessert. If I had, I might have gone for the lemongrass creme brulee, if only to find out whether it tastes as silly as it sounds.

This meal at Raga was, in its way, more offensive than a swillfest at one of the nearby Indian places. Dropping fifteen bucks on a bad Bangladeshi meal seems rather benign compared to paying three or four times that for such undistinguished, pretentious food.

Still, I learned recently that you can’t dismiss all fusion cuisine out of hand, as I was quite pleased by the food at Saffron, in Baltimore. I had scoped out Saffron on a menu-browsing walk during a prior trip to Baltimore, but my time was limited and I already had a dinner date with a bevy of crabs and a mallet. The next time I got to Baltimore I made sure to give Saffron a try. The restaurant is on a tony strip of North Charles Street. Its menu is so audacious that I figured the food would be either really good or really bad. I feared really bad, but I was intrigued enough to hope for really good. It was very good. Granted the menu is more than a bit precious, with sections titled “Liquid Spice” (soups), “Green Dreams” (salads), “Wings” (poultry), etc. The descriptions of the dishes are pretty wild: Curried Spinach Gratin, Roasted Garlic and Pickled Lotus Root; Foie Gras and Brown Lentils, Cardamom Truffle Confit; Sandalwood Smoked Quails Moroccan Saffron Flavored Couscous; Stuffed Acorn Squash with Beef Cubes, Indian Cheese and Olives in Riesling Almond Sauce. I ordered the Crab Triangle Pastry with Cumin Scented Tomato Coulis for a starter because a New Yorker in Baltimore for a day must eat crab. It was pretty good, but my main course was spectacular: Tandoor Smoked Baby Lamb Racks - Spiced Blackberry, Ginger. Baby rack of lamb is way at the top of my meat pantheon. These had a sticky blackberry-ginger glaze which along with the smokiness gave it some of the earthiness of bbq ribs without sacrificing the essential lamb flavor. In short, it worked. The owners and staff at Saffron are all Indian, and I believe it grew out of a more traditional Indian restaurant. As over-the-top as some of the dishes are, they seem to be grounded in Indian cuisine, and maybe for me that’s a better recipe than adding Indian accoutrements to European cuisine.

* Postscript: I don't know who was responsible for the kitchen when I visited Raga, but it was apparently on its last legs, as the restaurant closed several months later.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Roof of the Hôtel-Dieu

Actually, I really don't have too much to say about Dijon or Burgundy. Dijon is a pleasant enough little city for a stroll. The old architecture is a delight, but there's not much going on in town. Outside of the foire I didn't eat anything that knocked my socks off. Traditional Burgundian cuisine is rather rich and heavy. The veal kidneys with a three-mustard cream sauce I had at one place is, I think, pretty typical.

I took a day trip to Beaune, a very touristy Burgundian town, though sleepy in the off-season. It's one of those cute places that make the itinerary because I don't want to miss something the books tell me I shouldn't miss, slave to conventional wisdom that I am. Ultimately, though, I don't have too much use for them. These "living museum" types of places (Bruges and Toledo are other, more famous ones) have their share of interest, but one misses the authentic life of a vibrant city, especially in the summer when the streets of those cute little day trip towns are swarming with tourists all vying for the same attractions at the same time. So you visit for four or five hours, then you get back to wherever it is you're staying, unless you happen to be staying wherever it is you happen to be. But what am I complaining about? I was in Beaune in November and it was hardly crowded.

Many people visit Beaune for tastings at the wine caves. But I'm not much of a wine drinker. You may have noticed that at the foire I only drank whites. That's because I get splitting headaches from red wines. The culprit is probably histamines or tannins from the grape skins. I'm fine with whites, so it's not sulfites. Jeffrey Steingarten would probably say it's a baseless food phobia (you followed that link to "The Omnivore," right?).

The highlight of a visit to Beaune is its most famous attraction, the Hôtel-Dieu and the spectacular Burgundian tile work of its roof. The Hôtel-Dieu was built in the fifteenth century and served as a hospice for the town's sick and needy. Its founder and benefactor, Nicolas Rolin, envisioned it as a palace for the poor, and among the treasures he furnished it with is a polyptich attributed to Rogier van der Weyden. Remarkably, the Hôtel served its function as General Hospital through the 1960s. It is now a museum, and one can walk through the former wards and get a feel for a hospital of old (aided by mannequins of nuns and patients), as well as enjoy the art and artifacts in its galleries. If you'd like more information, guidebooks do a much better job than I can. I'll just leave you with a few more photos of the Hôtel.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Dijon Foire Gastronomique, 2005

You can cut me some slack for posting this four months after the fact since this blog didn't exist when I attended the Foire Gastronomique in Dijon last November. I had known about this venerable food expo (this was the 75th edition) for several years; M.F.K. Fisher writes about it in her memoir of Dijon. I had considered going in 2004, but one of the special features each year is a foreign guest of honor, and in 2004 it was Mexico. Sorry, but no way was I going to France for Mexican food. I did, however, go for Chinese food. When the guest of honor for 2005 was announced as China, I dipped into my vast stockpile of frequent flyer miles and booked a ticket to France post haste. I figured that at a renowned food fair like this I was bound to find regional Chinese cuisine that is otherwise difficult to come by outside of China. Eventually the guest of honor was honed down to Yunnan province, indeed a region whose food is hard to find in the west.

The fair is enormous, one of the largest annual expositions in France, and takes place in a convention center, though originally it happened in tents like fairs of old. Food and wine merchants and restaurants from all over France, as well as other mostly European countries, are represented. One can actually get stuffed on free samples for the 5 Euro price of admission, though there are a quite a few restaurants set up on the premises where one can order a sit-down meal.

I spent a full day at the fair, arriving at noon and calling it a day at 10 PM. My first order of business was to head for the restaurant at the Yunnan pavillion. I quickly--no, slowly--learned that they did not have their act together. It took forever to get service and longer to get food. They had lavishly produced menus, full of photographs and descriptions of the foods of Yunnan, but I discovered that about 80% of the menu was not available. The Yunnan delegation hadn't done proper research, and it turned out that they could not get many of the necessary ingredients. I ended up ordering several appetizers: dumplings which were shaped like Shanghai shao lon bao, but were pan fried and stuffed with a pork and vegetable mixture with plenty of ginger, fried fish filet with a spiced breading, and a chicken soup with Chinese herbs that was served in a cute little ceramic bowl (lead-free, I hope). The food, though good, was a disappointment. My raison d'etre for attending that particular year turned out to be far from the high point of my visit.

Wandering around, I noshed on free samples. How can you not love a place where you are continually being offered tastes of foie gras? Over the course of the day I got smashed on tastes of various wines and aperitifs, some free, some for a modest fee. Among the liquids I consumed, in no particular order, were Alsatian Tokai, grand cru Chablis, grand cru Sauternes, Austrian eiswein, Breton hard cider, a wonderful eau de vie of mirabelle (a French sour plum that is only available one month of the year), and various other wines that are slipping my mind.

I'd say my most treasured discovery of the day was the cannelé, in particular the cannelés of M. Doucet. The cannelé is a traditional Bordelaise pastry, actually a cross between a custard and a pastry, with a moist, fluffy, eggy center and a crisp, caramelized outer crust, the two textures comprising an incredibly sensual gestalt. The pastry is baked in a small mold that gives it the appearance of a mini-bundt cake. As for the flavor, I am at a loss for words, as the taste is sublimely simple and indivisible from the texture. M. Doucet is actually from Normandy, not Bordeaux, and his pastries are probably easier to find in Japan than in France, as he is a partner in chain of successful Tokyo patisseries. While the traditional cannelé is vanilla-flavored, Doucet has added several other varieties, including chocolate, Calvados (in honor of his native region), and green tea (in honor of his cash cow). Doucet's masterpieces were so captivating that when I returned to New York I found myself with an insatiable craving for a canne, knowing that if I did find one it would surely be a shadow of Doucet's. Research revealed that three restaurant-affiliated cafes or bakeries offered them: Petrossian, Balthazar and Bouley. The ones at Balthazar were overly sweet and mushy. The ones at Petrossian were quite good, though not in Doucet's league, and their relatively small size made for a less satisfying balance of outer crust and inner bounce. I've yet to try Bouley's.

For a late afternoon snack, at about 4 PM, which, truth be told, I didn't need, I took advantage of a Burgundian sampler, which offered a plate of local specialties and a glass of wine for 6 Euros. The plate consisted of jambon persillé (ham & parsley in aspic), escargots, three cheeses, and something simply called "tapa."

I took a well deserved break from eating and drinking by catching a film at 6 PM. The fair featured an international culinary film festival, and that day there was an English-language film, Peter Greenaway's "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover." I had seen it when it first came out, in 1990, but I had forgotten how pretentious, vapid and nihilistic it was. Surely a film that celebrates boorishness and cannibalism isn't the best choice for an event that encourages consumption. Still, it was good to take a load off my dogs.

At nineish I wrapped up the day with a meal from one of the restaurant concessions, which served specialties of Aubrac, a farming area in southern France. The specialty of Aubrac is aligot, which is a wonderfully heimish mashed potato and cheese concoction made with the tangy, local white tome cheese. On your plate it looks pretty much like mashed potatoes, but it has a dense, delightfully rubbery texture from the cheese, and it's very tasty. It's unclear whether aligot is the side dish or the main course, as it is so central to Aubrac cuisine. Either way, a couple of delicious duck's breast sausages kept my aligot company. This is real country cookin', as stick-to-your-ribs as it gets.

More on Dijon & Burgundy to come.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

I love Jeffrey Steingarten

Steingarten is the most enjoyable food writer writing today. He’s an extremely knowledgeable curmudgeon who writes witty, engaging prose that can claim Waverly Root and A.J. Liebling as stylistic forebears, and he's funnier than Trillin. His writing is not just great food writing, it’s just great writing. Somehow, he plies his trade at Vogue, but luckily for the rest of us he has published two books of his columns, The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must Have Been Something I Ate.

It was mainly Steingarten’s presence, along with that of Madhur Jaffrey whom I mentioned recently in my Indian food piece, that drew me to a panel discussion called “Food Writers of Greenwich Village,” at NYU’s Fales Library last Friday. Also on the panel were Mimi Sheraton, food historian Betty Fussell, and a young man who shall, for his own sake, remain nameless, as he was clearly out of his element and apparently felt that the most important thing he had to communicate was the fact that he’s gay.

I’m not familiar with Fussell’s work, and I have no use for Mimi Sheraton, doyenne status notwithstanding, after having pursued several bum steer Chinese restaurant tips when she was at the Times. The woman, I determined, was clearly clueless when it came to Chinese cuisine, and for me that called her entire career into question.

The panel, it turned out, was a light snack rather than a meal. The panelists for the most part reminisced perfunctorily and desultorily about the life of the palate in Greenwich Village. Betty Fussell waxed elegiac about how on her block of 13th Street alone there were French, Spanish, Vietnamese, Italian and American restaurants. As she mentioned the names of the 13th Street restaurants, past and present, I realized that few if any were worth mentioning. Mimi Sheraton waxed nostalgic about the wonderful old Village Italian restaurants like Rocco’s that have long since been replaced by trendy places that could pay the exorbitant rents.

When it came Steingarten’s turn to speak he rambled, but the meanderings were often, and not surprisingly, funny. I particularly appreciated his responses to Fussell and Sheraton. “Betty mentioned all those restaurants on her block,” he said, “but she forgot to mention that they’re all bad.” As for Mimi’s beloved Italian restaurants of yesteryear, he said, “Those were the kinds of places where they brought you a lasagna that was stacked so high it would tip over as soon as you looked at it. And when they delivered your food the waiters would say, ‘Mangia!’”

Like I said, I love Jeffrey Steingarten.

* * *

Read Steingarten's "The Omnivore."

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Chinese tortilla thing

I promised I’d talk about the Chinese tortilla phenomenon. I think it’s mostly a New York thing, but I believe it has spread to other east coast cities. I’m pretty sure I saw one the last time I was in Philly.

The original one was Fresco Tortilla, the one on Lexington, just south of the stretch of Indian restaurants, I think. Then they branched out and became a chain. Copycat chains followed, with names like Fresh Tortillas and Fresh Taco Express. All staffed and owned by Chinese Americans. All serving fake Mexican food–most of it bad, some of it surprisingly decent.

If I remember correctly the original Fresco Tortilla owners had arrived in Texas, or some other place that wasn’t New York, as immigrants and worked in the kitchen of a Tex-Mex restaurant that had this fresh tortilla machine. You throw in a ball of dough, and out pops a perfectly formed little tortilla, which then gets heated on a griddle. When this enterprising couple moved to New York they bought one of those machines and opened up a little taqueria that looks like a dumpy Chinese takeout.

These wheat flour tortillas are nothing like any Mexican tortilla I’ve ever had, but they’re actually quite nice in their way. They’re soft, flaky, and a bit chewy, more like a thin Greek pita with a buttermilk biscuit complex. The trick is getting something decent stuffed into one of them.

Most of my recent experience with these Chinese tortilla joints has been at one in my Brooklyn neighborhood–I’m not sure if it’s Fresco or Fresh or something else–not that it matters. Regardless of the chain, the menu and the preparation is pretty much the same in every one of these places. Most of it is a bland, failed approximation of Mexican food that wouldn’t be out of place in a coach-class meal on a bankrupt airline. The beans are mushy and tasteless, the guacamole watery and tasteless. The “Tex-Mex chili” pales by comparison to the cans of the now defunct Broadcast chili that I devoured as a child. The Mexican rice has an odd texture suggestive of an orphaned component of a long-forgotten TV dinner . Come to think of it, much of the food is unintentionally retro, a new Chinese immigrant version of early-sixties quasi-Mexican food.

I’ve assiduously avoided the tofu tacos, but I have tried the sauteed mixed vegetable, which is basically subpar Chinese takeout vegetables served in a tortilla. The shrimp filling is also reminiscent of bottom-rung Chinese food. The difference between ordering a "tortilla" and a soft taco at these places is that the taco is served with iceberg lettuce shreds and tasteless cheddar shreds. I’ve never tried a burrito, having already nixed the rice and beans, and I wouldn’t go anywhere near the nachos, especially since I wouldn’t go anywhere near any nachos anywhere.

So how come I eat at these places on a fairly regular basis? The answer is: the fajitas and the prices. The chicken fajita, served with onions and peppers, is rather tasty, and most importantly it marries very nicely with the tortilla. The al carbon, which I guess is skirt steak, is also pretty good. It actually helps that I’m not really a “beef man”; since I rarely go out for a good steak, much preferring lamb and pork, there isn’t a looming high standard ready to browbeat my taste buds when I do eat plebeian beef.

The food is very fast and very cheap. A chicken fajita tortilla generally goes for $1.69, an al carbon for $1.89 (all beef–with onions & peppers it's called steak fajita). I usually make a meal of two of them, three if I’m really hungry. Or sometimes I’ll get a quesadilla sincronizada (asynchronous is not an option)–chicken fajita ($2.99) or al carbon ($3.89) with melted Monterey Jack cheese between two tortillas. Because of the longer time on the griddle to melt the cheese the outsides of the tortillas get somewhat crisper. I can’t place what the quesadillas remind me of, but there’s a weird, primal comfort food effect when I dig into one of them. It’s like eating an imaginary childhood breakfast dish from a parallel universe.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Is the ranting waiter legit?

I've included a link to the site Waiter Rant under food links because I really like the way this anonymous New York waiter tells a story. He's a social historian of small things. The site has become quite popular, and he was recently profiled (while retaining his anonymity) in the paper New York Metro. This waiter claims to work in a moderate-upscale New York Italian restaurant, also anonymous, of course.

Waiter's most recent post has caused a mini-crisis of credibility. In his tale of a horny couple rushing off to consummate their just dessert, the waiter crows about getting a $30 tip on a $70 check. This led to one reader questioning the probability of a dinner for two with a bottle of wine, a tiramisu and an espresso at a moderate-upscale New York restaurant costing only $70. I admit that's a stretch. But the waiter writes with great verisimilitude, and if he's not really reporting on a recent shift (the posts do have an up-to-the-minute quality), I suspect the stories at least come from true restaurant experience.

Anyway, fact, fiction, what's the difference?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Eating Indian in New York

I discovered Indian food about thirty years ago. I’m not sure who introduced me to subcontinental cuisine, but I started frequenting several East Village Indian restaurants with my co-editors of Zone magazine after editorial meetings. In retrospect, I can state with reasonable certainty that they were not very good Indian restaurants, but at the time I thought they were excellent, and Indian fast became one of my favorite cuisines, joining Chinese.

Of course there’s really no such thing as Indian food any more than there is Chinese, French or American food. That is, there are very important regional differences among Indian cuisines that are often as significant as the overlap. I was, however, completely unaware of this when I started eating Indian food in the East Village in the seventies.

The first Indian restaurants I frequented, on 2nd Avenue, were prototypes for what soon became the notorious 6th Street restaurant–a Bengali rendition of standard, Mughlai-style north Indian restaurant cooking. Our first favorite was called Oriental, then we moved on to Modern, both long gone. Modern Indian was run by a nice, if somewhat overbearing, man who bore a striking resemblance to Gomez Addams. Twenty-five years later I can tell you that most of the food was brown and greasy, most dishes variants of a baseline curry, with spicing “to taste” added as an afterthought, the spices clearly not freshly ground. At the time we thought Modern was better than some of the other cheap Indian places we tried, and it might have been, as the differences among bad to mediocre restaurants would have been more noticeable at the time. Once familiar with a greater range, both of quality and style, within a type of cuisine the differences at the bottom become less distinguishable.

By the early 80s all the cheap Indian restaurant action was on 6th Street. Over a relatively short period of time, from the mid-70s through the mid-80s, a single block between First and Second Avenue became the home of about eighteen Indian restaurants (I believe I counted once), with spillover onto the avenues. There were rumors that most of the restaurants were run by the same family, and that they shared a single, communal kitchen. Apocryphal I’m sure, but the similarity and low quality of the food inspired such urban legends. Eventually the block became one of those awful tourist restaurant enclaves one finds all around the world–touts in front of the doorways trying to lure visitors who have come for the block rather than for any particular restaurant. Thankfully, in the past several years a number of the Indian (or, more precisely, Bangladeshi) restaurants on the block have finally given up the ghost, to be replaced by an eclectic mix.

For a while I was a denizen of 6th street, but I eventually learned how good and varied Indian cooking could be. Traveling to India three times helped.

My first great Indian meal was probably at Madhur Jaffrey’s Dawat, in the early eighties. The food was spectacular, but it was also four times as expensive as any of the places I was used to, and at the time this was a major splurge.

One of the best things ever to happen to my taste buds as well as my wallet was my discovery of Minar, in 1987, I believe. Minar is a cafeteria-style place that serves both north and south Indian food. I believe the owners are from Delhi. The south Indian items like dosas and utthapams are decent, but the northern items shine. The best deals at Minar are the combination plates. For $7.25 one can choose two meat and one vegetable item, $6.25 for all veg., with a choice of rice or bread (I highly recommend the naan). In addition to dishes made to order, there are at least 12 items available in the steam tables each day for combinations. The place is so popular that they’re always fresh. Some of the selections, among them lamb curry and chicken tikka masala, as well as some of the best aloo gobi (potatoes & cauliflower) and saag paneer (spinach & Indian cheese) I’ve ever tasted, are available all the time. In addition there are daily specials, one of the most notable being Tuesday’s sarson ka saag (spicy, pureed bitter greens), a Punjabi specialty traditionally served with a griddle-cooked cornbread called makki di roti, which I’d describe as something between a thick tortilla and a dense polenta. The only items to avoid are the kebabs and tandoori chicken, as they’re precooked and reheated. Minar is basically a lunch place, though they are open until 7:30 PM. There are two locations, one on 31st St. just west of Fifth Avenue, and one on 46th St. between 6th & 7th.

I also discovered south Indian cuisine in the 80s. There are multiple cuisines of the south, but the most common in restaurants is the all-vegetarian Udupi (or Udipi, depending on who you ask) cuisine, named for the town in coastal Karnataka where the dosa & utthapam was born. Udupi restaurant staples, many based in rice and lentil flour, are actually breakfast and snack foods in southern India. A dish I’m especially fond of, since first tasting it in Kerala during my first trip to India in 1991, is uppma, usually described as Indian cream of wheat, a couscous-like hot cereal with cashews and spices. Dosa Hut, at Lexington & 27th, makes the best uppma I’ve had anywhere, India included. Overall the best south Indian meal I’ve had in New York was at the fairly new Saravanaas, nearby at 81 Lexington. I’m somewhat perplexed about the names of these two places, though, as one of Dosa Hut’s signs lists an alternate name of Saravana Bhavan, while Saravanaas, which is apparently a branch of a Madras hotel & restaurant chain called Saravana Bhavan, does not acknowledge Dosa Hut as a sibling. If that’s confusing, it’s nothing compared to India. Another outstanding south Indian place is Madras Café, on Second Avenue between 4th & 5th streets. The owner, who worked in the kitchen of several top New York continental restaurants before returning to his roots, is a mensch. Before any of these places had opened my top south Indian place was the now-defunct Mavalli Palace, run by a man with the delightfully symmetrical name of Varghese K. Varghese. It is very important, I learned, to pronounce Mavalli with the stress on the first syllable. Mr. Varghese once overheard me referring to his restaurant with the stress on the second syllable, and he made sure to correct me. “Ma-VAL-li is a street fight,” he said, “but MA-val-li is a godess!”

I was very sorry to learn of the recent demise of the short-lived Asaivam, also in Curry Hill, as the stretch of restaurants on Lexington in the twenties is known. Though the kitchen was uneven, it was the only New York restaurant I ever knew of to serve a full menu of Chettinad cuisine (though several restaurants do offer chicken Chettinad). This is the non-vegetarian cuisine of the Chettiars, a Hindu merchant class of the Chettinad area of Tamil Nadu. The Chettiars, being merchants, traveled and settled widely, especially in Southeast Asia, and they are responsible for much of the Indian influence on Indonesian and Malay cuisine–this I learned from a waiter at the Raintree Chettinad restaurant in Madras after commenting that the chicken Chettinad reminded me of the Malaysian dry curry dish known as rendang.

I haven’t been to Dawat in years, but Madhur Jaffrey is also a consultant to another favorite of mine, Café Spice, which its owners describe as an Indian bistro. Its locations are characterized by sleek, modern design and a mostly non-Indian wait staff. The menu is multiregional, and they’ll occasionally devote a month to specialties from a particular area. Pricewise it’s mid-range, foodwise it’s high-end. The dinner platters come with a main course, side vegetable of the day, legume of the day, rice and particularly good naan, so at roughly $16-21 per dish it’s quite reasonable. I discovered early on that ordering appetizers was overkill. Seafood dishes, such as Goan shrimp curry and Malabar fish curry (a Keralan specialty) are standouts. Their one weakness is in the boneless chicken dishes, which tend to be on the dry side. They have a fast food outlet in the food court at Grand Central Station, yet somehow their food doesn’t hold up in the steam table as well as Minar’s. I’d recommend sticking with the Village (72 University Place) or Midtown (54 W. 55th) locations.

The best way to sample the upscale Midtown Indian restaurants is at the affordable lunch buffets, usually around $14. The lunch buffet, by the way, is also a tradition at the top restaurants in mother India. One of the best in New York was Shaan, by Rockefeller Center, but they have recently closed. Bay Leaf, at 49 W. 56th, is in the same league. The menu is multiregional, and the buffet always features a wide-ranging selection.

Though I’m not a big fan of Gujurati cuisine, Vatan is worth mentioning, as much for the total experience as the food. The restaurant serves a prix-fixe thali only, as is traditional in Gujarati restaurants throughout India. It’s an all vegetarian cuisine that is quite different from southern or other northern vegetarian cuisines. There’s a certain sweetness to the flavoring of the food (all Gujarati food, not Vatan’s in particular), which is one reason it doesn’t really bowl me over. Still, it’s worth going for the traditional Gujarati atmosphere, the beautiful traditional costume of the wait staff, and the traditional floor seating to go with the traditional thali. And I am a sucker for khaman, a steamed lentil flour cake that is reminiscent in texture to cornbread.

A friend of mine recently reported having sighted another friend of mine leaving a 6th Street Indian restaurant. When I asked this other friend if the scandalous accusation was indeed true, she sheepishly admitted it. I told her I'd let her off with a slap on the wrist this time, but that I will shortly be starting a hall of shame on this blog.

Blog on Blog

Many thanks to Steve Smith, of Time Out New York, who goes on record as the first blogger to notice Word of Mouth. Steve is a man of exquisite and eclectic musical taste, and his blog about his Night After Night performance attendance can be exhilaratingly exhausting.

In his plug, Steve writes:

"While their respective styles are completely different, listening to Pete talk about food can be like reading Vilaine Fille's prose on the voice -- their qualities of perception and description bring their subjects to life in all their sensual glory. Yum! Dig in."

Now I have to find out about this Vilaine Fille.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Rethinking the Cuban Sandwich

The last time I ate at El Gran Castillo de Jagua I pondered Cuban sandwich redesign. Not that there's anything wrong with the traditional Cubano, and El Gran Castillo makes one of the best, but still, I think there's room for improvement.

Good pernil, succulent roast pork shoulder with crisp skin and lots of garlic, is the heart of the Cuban sandwich, and I wouldn't think of cutting its heart out, but surely we can do better in the ham department. I think every Cuban sandwich I've ever tasted was made with some pretty basic boiled ham, maybe Armour, or something cheaper. The ultimate Cuban sandwich deserves world-class ham, and for me Spanish jamón serrano is as good as it gets, prosciutto di Parma notwithstanding. And as long as we're in Spain, Manchego would certainly be a great improvement over the standard Cuban sandwich Swiss cheese--granted, I'm partial to sheep's milk cheeses.

Good, we've taken care of the meat and cheese, and we now have a Cuban sandwich that pays hommage to its colonial past.

Time to move on to the pickles. A Cuban sandwich wouldn't be a Cuban sandwich without sliced pickles. They add a crunch and flavor that goes very nicely indeed with the pork, ham and cheese. When I think of a great sandwich with pickles, however, the ne plus ultra is the Vietnamese bánh mì. So for the traditional pickles I'd substituteVietnamese-style julienned pickled daikon & carrots. And since we've entered bánh mì territory, let's not spare the aioli. Hell, no.

Sounds good, huh? Pernil, jamón serrano, Manchego cheese, Vietnamese pickled vegetables & aioli.

But what are we going to put it all on? Forget about the usual bland, bleached white flour French bread. Not after we've gone to all this trouble, certainly not. A nice, hearty, nutty Tuscan bread is more like it.

And, of course, we heat it in a press, like any Cuban sandwich (or bánh mì, for that matter) worth its salt.

The amazing thing is, though there's only one element left from the original recipe, you'll agree, I'm sure, that this potential sandwich is still, unmistakably, unquestionably, a Cuban sandwich.