Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Bites, May 2006 - Part I

The only jazz club I look forward to eating at is the Jazz Standard, which shares a kitchen with Blue Smoke, Danny Meyer’s barbecue joint. When Blue Smoke first opened it got mixed reviews. To Meyer’s credit, he took the smarter criticisms seriously and made some modifications to the food and the menu. The restaurant came out much stronger and more well respected. It’s one of the best places for pork ribs in the city.

I’ve never eaten at Blue Smoke proper, but I go to the Jazz Standard often to hear music. The Standard had a smaller menu, but the full Blue Smoke menu is available on request. Great food aside, an anomaly at music venues, it also happens to be one of the more comfortable, hospitable jazz clubs in town.

I had two visits planned within a week of each other, both times to see remarkable singers–Andy Bey and Nancy King. It’s hard to resist ribs when I go, especially the sticky, spicy, tangy Kansas City spare ribs, but since I had two visits planned so close to each other I decided to try something else. Now I’m not really a burger guy; for me hamburgers are like Ethiopian food–I have nothing against them, but one every couple of years is more than enough to satisfy me. It had probably been two years since my last burger, and I think it was at another jazz club, Iridium. I had heard that Blue Smoke made particularly good burgers, so I decided to try one after I learned that their barbecue version of the Cuban sandwich, the Cue-Bano, was only available at lunch. Well, it was a good burger as far as burgers go, but as I ate it I was reminded that I’m not really a burger guy. The next time I ordered the K.C. ribs.

On a tip from a vegetarian friend I started getting takeout lunch from Sukhadia's, a multi-regional Indian vegetarian buffet on 45th Street just west of 5th Avenue. The food is generally well prepared and less oily than most Indian food in New York. Dishes, which vary day by day, range from good to spectacular, with standouts being Thursday’s spicy Hyderabadi baigan (eggplant), some of the best channa masala I've had in NYC, khaman dhokla (those wonderfully spongy, yellow Gujarati cakes made from steamed chick pea flour), and excellent chaat (cold crisps with yogurt & tamarind sauce). The bhindi (okra) and saag paneer are pretty good too. One of the more interesting things, which I haven't tried elsewhere is patra (taro leaves stuffed with channa flour & spices). For takeout they charge $4.95 per pound; the eat-in buffet is $10.95. After four visits, I’d say that the best combination of dishes is offered on Thursdays.

I had several unavailable-dish disappointments this month. On two occasions I stopped into the Olive Tree, the venerable Israeli place on MacDougal Street, after films at the Film Forum (where I've been eating up the B Noir series), to inquire whether shawarma was available. The Olive Tree has decent versions of the Middle eastern classics, but it's for the shawarma, the best I’ve ever had in New York, that I make it a destination. One can find various types of shawarma in town, including some that are made with spiced, chopped meat like Greek gyros, some that are made with sliced beef or lamb, or a combination of the two, and some made from turkey. Olive Tree’s is all lamb, a layered sculpture of sliced meat that cooks on the rotating spit. Parts of it are crispy, as there is skin in the mix, and parts are almost butter-soft. It’s all perfectly seasoned with herbs and garlic. The problem is timing. The shawarma is very popular, and once one is finished it’s hours until the next one is ready. So it’s always a gamble, which is why I always get a shawarma status before being seated; if none is available I go elsewhere. I was out of luck both times. On one occasion it would be a 45-minute wait, and the other time it was going to be hours.

The other disappointment (though bittersweet rather than bitter) was at New York Noodletown. For years I had heard that they make the best soft shell crabs in Chinatown, but because it’s a tiny, hectic place devoid of atmosphere I never arranged group dinners there. This year, after learning that the soft shell season had begun (earlier every year, it seems, just like puberty), I assembled a group of five for a crabcentric dinner. After we were seated (at a communal table) we saw signs on the walls announcing salt-baked soft shell crab, but when I ordered I was informed that they didn’t have any available that night. The news was like a punch in the gut, but I recovered quickly enough and ordered the next best thing, the salt-baked seafood combo, which would at least give me an idea of what I might expect from the crabs. As my friends in the U.K. might say, the dish was brilliant. Despite the name, salt-baked seafood is usually lightly breaded and fried. The breading at Noodletown was feather-light and remarkably non-greasy, the seafood (squid, scallops and shrimp) amazingly fresh and tender. More than anything else I was reminded of the way fried seafood is done in Andalucia. Most of the other dishes we ordered had a similar simple, light touch. The baby bok choi and snow pea shoots were especially good. I am determined to score some Noodletown crabs before the season is over.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Choosing a Guidebook

Choosing a guidebook for a trip is always a difficult proposition. Scope is a primary consideration, of course. If you’re just going to Paris you certainly don’t need a guidebook for all of France. There are size considerations: you don’t want to lug around a doorstop, but sometimes the more compact guides are just too short on valuable information. Ultimately, once the physical considerations are taken care of, the crux of the matter is to find a guide that both fits your travel style and is user-friendly. It’s not always so simple to find the Platonic guide for your trip, and sometimes you might have to go for multiple sources. Luckily numerous internet resources, often from the major travel guide publishers, are available; they can be great for filling in the gaps left by your primary guidebook.

I’d call myself a middle-budget traveler (though by American standards perhaps the low end of middle). I want a comfortable room, but I don’t need luxury. Two-star hotels are usually more than adequate. I used to always save money by going for shared-bathrooms, but by the time I hit 40 I started going for the private facilities more frequently (no pun intended), and by 45 my transformation into an ensuite guy was complete. In cities, I generally like hotels to be centrally located, and I’ll either go for a simpler place or pay a bit more for location. When it comes to food, I go for a wide range in price, from street snacks to places in an upper-moderate price range. Rarely do I go to really high-end places, though I’ve made exceptions, such as the quite amazing San Domenico in Imola, Italy, near Bologna. My philosophy is that one’s food for the day should always cost more than one’s accommodation. I mention all this to give you some of the criteria by which I choose a guidebook.

Two of the most venerable American guidebook series, Fodor’s and Frommer’s, are virtually useless in most cases. Fodor’s especially is oriented toward unadventurous, prissy American tourists with money to burn, and the books are a graphic disaster when it comes to gleaning useful information. Frommer’s is not that much different, even if they did start out with a budget travel focus, i.e. the X Dollars a Day format. Their guides are definitely more user-friendly than Fodor’s, and they do tend to have a greater range of accommodation listed. I have used Frommer’s guides when they happened to be the best (or most compact) available option for specific cities I have visited. On my bookshelf I see their San Antonio & Austin and Nashville & Memphis guides. The latter was money well spent since I visited those cities on two separate trips. I am happy to use the free internet content of these companies to supplement my other information. This is especially useful when choosing a budget hotel. If a more downscale guide recommends a cheap hotel, a listing in Frommer’s means that it won’t freak out those prissy American tourists we all hate so much.

In the ultra-budget category there are the Let’s Go! guides. These are researched and written by Harvard students, and are aimed at youthful, shoestring travelers. I can’t imagine why anybody over 25 would ever use one, unless they were traveling due to homelessness. Thinking about Let's Go! reminds me of some of the frugal backpackers I’ve met while traveling–they were trying to see how long they could travel and how much of the world they could see on a very limited budget. They saw a lot of the world, but I’m not sure that many of them had too much fun.

And while we’re on the subject of useless, let’s talk about Rick Steves. You might have seen this nerdy nincompoop with a backpack on TV, on one of his “through the back door” programs. The Steves formula is very odd. His guides seem to be aimed at people who want to think they’re adventurous, independent travelers while being told exactly where to go. If you have 14 days to spend in a country, Steves can tell you where to go, where to stay, and how to account for every minute of your time. He doesn’t bother with superfluous information about cities or hotels that are not on his very short list of picks. I find this approach anathema, since for me a good deal of the fun of travel is the research. A Steves recommendation can be a gold mine for a good, small hotel. Forget about trying to get a reservation at the excellent Hotel Castex in the 4th arrondissement of Paris; it’s always booked up months in advance by Steves followers (and I think this has driven the prices up). I secretly suspect Steves’ popularity has something to do with a strange fetish–that there’s an entire class of people who get off on being told where to go by a nerdy white guy.

In general there are three publishers whose guides tend to fit my travel style: Lonely Planet, Moon’s Handbook series, and the Rough Guides, which really aren’t that rough at all. All three started out marketing guidebooks for backpackers and intrepid travelers, but over the years they started reaching out to a wider audience by listing a broader range of hotel and restaurant options. All three publishers are pretty much similar in the way they organize information. All cover the off-the-beaten-path destinations as well as the major tourist magnets. All are loaded with solid, practical information. It’s often a matter of choosing one or the other based on an assessment of their geographical strengths. I’ve used Lonely Planet for many trips, including India and China, and I’d say they’re still the best bet for those two countries. Almost every western traveler in India who is not on a package tour seems to have grown a Lonely Planet guide as an additional appendage. My biggest complaint about Lonely Planet is that they haven’t mitigated the orthodox shoestring mentality as much as the others, so one often needs to consult secondary sources for hotel recommendations (and always for restaurant recommendations). Moon is especially good for Indonesia (the original Moon Handbook), and I like their Colonial Mexico and Havana guides very much too. Rough Guides, as I implied above, are probably the least rough of the three–perhaps somewhere between Frommer’s and Lonely Planet. They do a nice, compact cities series, and I’ve used their Madrid and Lisbon when I did single-city trips to those places. If I remember correctly, they did a dedicated South India guide before any of the others, so I’ve used that one too. Much of Rough Guide’s content is also available online, at no cost.

I have occasionally used the guidebooks published by Cadogan. They’ve come in handy for travel in regions, such as Venetia and the Dolomites, that were not available in single volumes from other publishers. I’d say their focus is a bit more upscale than Rough Guides, and they wouldn’t be a first choice when other options were available.

Sometimes you might want a guidebook that covers cultural attractions in greater depth than a more general guide. The Blue Guides, translations of the French Guides Bleues, are quite exhaustive and comprehensive, though they are stiff and pedantic in a way that can be rather comical. I have used Blue Guides as supplements in South India and Sicily. They are not much use in the hotel and restaurant departments, however, giving only cursory and poorly annotated listings.

Without a doubt the best designed and most user-friendly guidebooks are the Access guides. The Access series was the brainchild of Richard Saul Wurman, a design visionary. Wurman’s life’s work has involved making complex information easy to understand. With Access guides he combined his design and information organization skills with his love for travel. The original Access guides were all researched and written by Wurman himself. They generally covered a single city, cities that Wurman loved. He ultimately sold the concept and the imprint to Harper Collins. The original titles still list Wurman as author, and all Access guides still follow his design concept, but new titles by other authors have been added. The Wurman approach is to divide a city into neighborhoods that are logical units from a traveler’s perspective. A master map at the front of the book shows the breakdown, then each section gets its own detailed map. Within the chapter for a neighborhood, hotels, restaurants, attractions, etc. are organized by proximity rather than category, and are color-coded to represent the type of place that is being described. These are all numbered and keyed to the map. So if you're leaving the British Museum and you want to find a nearby place for lunch, you can get a quick, visual sense of the options. The fact that Wurman has impeccable taste in restaurants make the editions that he wrote especially desirable.

Throughout my travels I've learned an important lesson: the writer who can recommend a good hotel and successfully research and describe local attractions is not necessarily the person you should trust to choose your restaurants. This is perfectly logical. Those of us who care about food know that we need our recommendations from people who really care about food. So finding restaurants requires research above and beyond the restaurant section of your guidebook. While in Vietnam, however, I stumbled on a happy shortcut. There were many French travelers in Vietnam, some of whom I ended up hanging out with, and many of them carried the Guide Routard, a French backpacker's guidebook series. Unlike the Let's Go! and Lonely Planet authors, however, the French backpackers who write these books really know how to pick a good restaurant that won't break the bank. I ate at several excellent places in Vietnam that weren't listed in any of the English-language guides. In Florence I stopped into a restaurant, Croce al Trebbio, because they displayed the Guide Routard recommendation in the window. It was an excellent, reasonably priced, traditional Tuscan place on the wonderfully named Via Delle Belle Donne. Now when I travel in Europe I always keep my eyes peeled for Guide Routard reviews in the windows of restaurants. If I'm not mistaken, Routard has even reviewed El Gran Castillo de Jagua in the outer boroughs section of their New York guide.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

General Grant's Chinese Banquet

I found this remarkable culinary laundry list about 12 years ago, while I was compiling an annotated bibliography of published accounts of Americans’ visits to China before 1900. The author, John Russell Young of the New York Herald, accompanied General Grant on a two-year trip around the world in the late 1870s, publishing dispatches in the Herald and later collecting them in a book (an edited version of which was reprinted in 2002). Constantly busy with social obligations, Grant actually saw very little of China during his visit, but it appears that he ate well.

The dinner began with sweatmeats [sic] of mountain-cake and fruit rolls. Apricot kernels and melon-seeds were served in small dishes. Then came eight courses, each served separately as follows: Ham with bamboo sprouts, smoked duck with cucumbers, pickled chicken and beans, red shrimps with leeks, spiced sausage with celery, fried fish with flour sauce, chops with vegetables, and fish with fir-tree cones and sweet pickle. This course of meat was followed by one of peaches preserved in honey, after which there were fresh fruits, pears, pomegranates, coolie oranges, and mandarin oranges. Then came fruits dried in honey, chestnuts, oranges and crab-apples, with honey gold-cake. There were side dishes of water chestnuts and thorn-apples, when the dinner took a serious turn, and we had bird's-nest soup and roast duck. This was followed by mushrooms and pigeons' eggs, after which we had sharks' fins and sea-crabs. Then, in order as I write them, the following dishes were served: Steamed cakes, ham pie, vermicelli, stewed sharks' fins, baked white pigeons, stewed chicken, lotus seeds, pea soup, ham in honey, radish-cakes, date-cakes, a sucking pig served whole, a fat duck, ham, perch, meat pies, confectionery, the bellies of fat fish, roast mutton, pears in honey, soles of pigeons' feet, wild ducks, thorn-apple jelly, egg-balls, steamed white rolls, lotus seed soup, fruit with vegetables, roast chicken, Mongolian mushrooms, sliced flag bulbs, fried egg-plant, salted shrimps, orange tarts, crystal-cakes, prune juice, biche de mer [sea cucumber], fresh ham with white sauce, ham with squash, and almonds with bean curd. In all there were seventy courses.

Young, John Russell. Around the World With General Grant. New York: The American News Company, 1879, v. 2, 338-9.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Pide Party

My mission was to choose a restaurant for ten diners, three of whom are vegetarians. The occasion was Michael Kasper’s book party for the release of his translation of Saint Ghetto of the Loans, a lettrist document by Gabriel Pomerand. The book event was at Printed Matter, in Chelsea, but I could not think of a nearby place for dinner afterwards that met all the necessary criteria: great food, reasonably priced, comfortable for a large group, and equally carnivore- and vegetarian-friendly. So I made a reservation at Ali Baba, across town in the east 30s (check out the website; I love the intro). It’s a Turkish place, and the fact that Michael had spent a significant amount of time in Turkey with the Peace Corps made it an especially apt choice*.

Ali Baba does many things well, but for me the really strong suit is their pides (which are not available at all Turkish restaurants in New York). Pide (pronounced “PEA-day) is the Turkish word for flat bread, related etymologically to the Greek “pita.” More importantly, for our purposes, it also refers to the same kind of dough topped with chesses and/or meats, and usually cooked in a wood-fired oven, a Turkish version of the pizza (which also shares the same etymology). A good pide is one of the world’s great pizza-like items, and any pizza lover who hasn’t tried one should remedy the situation ASAP.

Pides and their cousins go way back. According to Andrew Dalby, “..there is no earlier evidence than third-century Madedonia for the use of a flat loaf of bread as a plate for meat, a function which bread continued to perform in the pide of Turkey, the pita of Greece and Bulgaria, the pizza of southern Italy and the trencher of medieval Europe.” (Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece, [Routledge:London] 1999 (p. 157)). Mr. Dalby should add tarte flambée, the amazing Alsatian pizza, to his list.

I first had pides in the eighties at a little place in Montreal called Vieux Istanbul, now unfortunately closed. I stopped in every time I went to Montreal, which was usually annually for the jazz festival. I discovered Ali Baba one day about eight years ago while walking down 34th street. At the time it was a hole-in-the wall that looked like a pizzeria–actually, it was a pizzeria. They had a pizza oven and a counter up front and a small back room with just a few tables. At the time they sold slices of pizza as well as Turkish food. I stopped in for lunch and discovered that they made sublime pides. Eric Asimov reviewed Ali Baba in the Times in 1999, and after that the place became wildly popular. Eventually they moved to bigger, less humble digs several doors away. More than three times larger than the original location, they are now crowded all the time. They no longer sell slices of pizza.

At our Ali Baba dinner party I was given the task of ordering appetizers for the table. Pides work as appetizers or main courses, so I rattled off a list of pides and other appetizers to the waiter. After my litany, almost everybody at the table figured there was no point in ordering anything else. There wasn’t.

I ordered three different kinds of pide: potato, kashkaval (feta cheese) and special. These were all new to me, as I usually get the mixed (karisik) pide when I’m on my own. Most of the pides have a medium-thin crust and a submarine-like shape. The special pide at Ali Baba is round and with a slightly thicker crust. It includes egg as well as the same ingredients as the mixed pide: kashar cheese (similar to mozzarella, but a bit more savory), sucuk (spiced sausage), ground meat, and pastirma (the dried, cured beef that is the etymological papa of pastrami). I was less taken with the special pide than with the equally special mixed pide.

The potato pide had a smooth mashed potato filling with a perfectly balanced spice mixture and a bit of kashar cheese. The kashkaval pide had a creamy, absolutely delicious feta topping. These three pides provided great flavor variety.

In addition, I ordered some small lahmacuns, which despite the name are really pides too. These have a round, thin crust and a chopped lamb topping with tomato, onion and spices. A Middle-Eastern version is known as lahmbajin (Turkish cuisine has a long, symbiotic history of cross-influences with the cuisines of the Middle East, the rest of the Mediterranean and Central Asia, and even East Asia).

Everybody loved the pides as well as the other appetizers: a mixed appetizer plate, exquisite grilled calamari, and an octopus salad. We also ordered several desserts to share around the table, and the standout was a surprising burnt-top rice pudding, which was not advertised as rice pudding brûlée.

With a couple of bottles of wine and some beers we got away for $25 per person. Not bad, eh?

Another good place for pides is Taci’s Beyti, in Brooklyn, but I prefer Ali Baba. I’ve never been to Turkey, but I am assuming that one can get pides that are at least as good as the ones at Ali Baba. As I assume, I salivate.

* Speaking of Michael and Turkey, M. Kasper's artist's book, Iconoclasm in Pontus, is available for sale as well as a free PDF download.

Ali Baba on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 12, 2006

Wu Liang Ye II: Hounded

After I wrote about my visit to Wu Liang Ye on 48th Street, I posted an abridged version of my report on Chowhound. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Chowhound, it’s the preeminent restaurant message board on the internet. Chowhound regulars tend to be extremely knowledgeable, enthusiastic and opinionated; more than just food-obsessed, many of them are clearly food-possessed. At its best the Chowhound community is an international restaurant espionage network, an amazing source of intelligence, and one that is unlikely to land me in a quagmire. At its worst there can be a pack mentality among posters at times, and woe betide he who strays from the accepted Chowhound wisdom.

My comment that Wu Liang Ye is “the nonpareil top Sichuan restaurant in New York today" elicited a response from no less than the top dog himself (though he calls himself the Alpha Hound), Jim Leff, Chowhound’s founder. “Please try the branch on 86th street, and see if you still feel that way,” he wrote. “As far as I'm concerned, the latter is one of the greatest restaurants in NYC. I've been tracking the chef for many years, and am completely mesmerized by his cooking.”

“Tracking the chef”! This guy means business. He tracks chefs and restaurants the way a Wall Street analyst tracks stocks or a racing enthusiast tracks horses and jockeys. I pricked up my taste buds. This was a challenge that had to be met.

I arranged a meal for five at the 86th Street branch. I was the first to arrive, and I started chatting with the waiter. “I’ve been to the restaurant on 48th Street a bunch of times, but this is my first time here,” I told him.

“Same food here. Same chef,” he replied.

“I heard from somebody that the food here is even better, and that the chef is different” I said.

“Ah. General chef work out of 48th street. General chef brother work here.” I didn’t tell him that brother and brother were about to go mano a mano.

I also found out the meaning of Wu Liang Ye. I already knew that the restaurant was named for a famous Chinese liquor, but I didn’t know what the words meant. Now I know. Wu Liang Ye means five-grain liquor.

My guests arrived and I explained that they were all part of the Wu Liang Ye challenge. For the most part I ordered some of the dishes I love most at 48th street, as a benchmark.

The excellent pan-seared dumplings were indistinguishable from the excellent ones at 48th Street. The dan dan noodles, which easily make the short list of New York noodle immortals, were spectacular, but not noticeably different from those at 48th Street. Incidentally, I misleadingly referred to this as a cold noodle dish in my prior piece. It's actually served warm at Wu Liang Ye.

The ox tongue and tripe with roasted chili-peanut vinaigrette was a big hit with this group as it was with the prior one, but I found the 86th Street version a bit spicier and less multi-dimensionally flavored than the one at the sister branch, perhaps a bit short on the vinegar.

The camphor tea smoked duck was incredibly moist and delicious, though a bit fattier and less crisp-skinned than the 48th Street version (which might have given the meat itself the edge).

I found no noticeable difference between the two versions of ma po tofu. Either one would qualify as the best in the city.

The two biggest disappointments were the sauteed spinach with garlic and the prawns wah bah (a/k/a wor bar), with toasted rice cakes on a sizzling platter. I had mentioned in the previous report that vegetables are not Wu Liang Ye’s strong suit, but I always like to have at least one green vegetable at a Chinese meal. The spinach, unfortunately was over-salted. The prawns wah bah was a misstep on my part since it’s not a Sichuan dish, but I hadn’t tried one in years, and there was, coincidentally, a recent Chowhound discussion about the dish, which had put a bee in my bonnet. The prawns themselves were huge, fresh and excellent, but the sauce was heavy and lackluster.

So, overall, I was unable to find any real differences that would recommend one branch of Wu Liang Ye over the other. I wondered what I was missing that Jim Leff finds so clearly superior about 86th Street. I questioned my perceptions. Is my palate less sophisticated than that of the Alpha Hound? Is Jim capable of distinguishing subtle gradations that are lost on me?

Ultimately, regaining my self-esteem, I decided there were two possible explanations: either the 86th Street branch was having an off night, which led it to be merely excellent rather than transcendent, or Jim has had less experience with the 48th Street branch and was not giving it the credit it deserved. I’ve only been dining at Wu Liang Ye for about two years, so there may have been improvements at the midtown branch that have not made Jim’s radar.

Whatever the explanation, there are other reasons to recommend the 86th Street branch. It’s less hectic than midtown, and the staff is friendlier. In addition, the prices are a bit cheaper. It is not, however, three blocks from my office.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Bites, April 2006 - Part II

The undisputed culinary highlight of last month was my second visit to Sugiyama, the transcendent Japanese kaiseki restaurant on West 55th Street. The modern kaiseki that chef Nao Sugiyama serves grew out of a Zen Buddhist tea ceremony, where the emphasis is on fresh seasonal ingredients. Visual beauty was always an important component of the kaiseki, and it is an essential part of the Sugiyama experience. The 8-course modern kaiseki (actually nine with dessert) at Sugiyama is probably the most popular dinner choice on the menu. It consists of small, leisurely paced courses of beautifully prepared seasonal delicacies, all of which are explained in detail by the server. The meal unfolds over an approximately two-and-a-half-hour period, and at $68 a head it qualifies as a bargain among splurges. On my two visits, some of the items were identical, but there were variants in most of the courses. The starter was monkfish liver (known as the foie gras of Japan) blended into a custardy fresh tofu. A mixed appetizer course is a veritable sculpture garden, and usually includes Nao's signature Japanese bayberry in a tiny cube of clear wine gelatin along with a baby crab that one eats with the shell on. A sashimi course included a spectacular Japanese oyster and tuna garnished with edible gold foil; the sashimi is served with real wasabi, which is noticably far superior to the mock wasabi made of mustard and horseradish powder that one is usually served at sushi bars in North America. On this evening one of the later courses was oden, several boiled items served in broth, including an absolutely stunning tofu puff stuffed with lobster meat, whitefish and shiitake mushrooms. The only part of the meal the diner chooses is whether to have seafood or beef tenderloin cooked at the table over a hot stone. The dessert, which happily never changes, is an amazingly refreshing grapefruit wine jelly (which encompasses the very essence of grapefruitness), topped with fresh cream. I had brought my camera along to photograph the meal, but when I reviewed the photos on a large screen I discovered that they were all somewhat out of focus. It turns out that one of the selectors on my infrequently used camera was set to landscape mode, and I was shooting closeups. I considered lying and saying I was aiming for an arty soft-focus effect, but instead I've decided to come clean. Photos don't do the food justice anyway.

Take a look at Ruth Reichl's three-star New York Times Review of Sugiyama (it might require registration).

I also got to a couple of 9th Avenue places last month that had been on “the list.” An Italian dinner at Roberto Passon preceded a concert by my favorite Brazilian singer-songwriter, Joao Bosco, at Birdland. Passon is a rising-star chef who provides excellent food at real people’s prices. He was involved in several other restaurants before opening the eponymous one, and he still has a hand in a couple of other Hell’s Kitchen eateries. Passon is Venetian, and the menu is influenced, but far from controlled, by the northeast. The restaurant has one of those menus that invite indecision, as just about everything looks interesting. That combined with good food is a pretty good way to encourage return visits. The two of us shared two appetizers. The crab cake in warm shiitake salad and spicy red pepper sauce is clearly not traditional Italian, but it’s very good indeed. The skewered jumbo shrimp on rosemary cannellini beans was somewhat less successful, as the shrimp were a tad overcooked and dry, though the sauce, which seemed to be balsamic-based, was tasty enough. My main course, slow braised rabbit with peppers, kalamata olives, tomato with grilled white polenta was both enormous and delicious, a steal at $16. Also quite delightful was a glass of Arneis, a Piemontese white wine that I had never heard of before. This place is definitely a keeper. A 6:30 reservation, however, was not optimal, as the place does a bustling pre-theater crowd, and it was very noisy. By 7:30 things had quieted down considerably. Passon’s restaurant has one of those really infuriating Flash-based websites with annoying music and a totally stupid user interface. Check it out!

Another Hell’s Kitchen spot that somehow evaded my radar until my old friend Holly Anderson mentioned it recently is Pam Real Thai, on W. 49th, which also has a completely ridiculous website (this one holds your mouse prisoner). Holly’s raves and the ones I subsequently found online made me plan a lunch for four post haste. The place has become so popular that they have recently added an “Encore” branch two blocks south of the original, and that’s where we went to avoid a long wait. The “Real” in the name refers to the fact that while there are many Thai restaurants in New York, few are authentic (and I believe most are run by Chinese, not Thai, people). The food at Pam is indeed better than most Thai food in Manhattan (not a difficult feat, unfortunately), and not unlike the Thai food I ate when in Bangkok. For appetizers we had hae guen (crabmeat wrapped in bean curd sheets and fried), delicious with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce, and some excellent steamed chicken dumplings. The shrimp pad key mao, a flat rice noodle dish with basil and chili that is also known as drunken noodles on some menus, was the best I’ve had in New York; like all the food at Pam it retained a complexity of flavor in spite of hot spice, and was lighter and less greasy than most versions of the dish I’ve tried. Chicken laab (or larb), a very typical Thai salad of minced meat with fish sauce, lime juice and herbs, served warm over greens, was also more subtle than others I’ve had in New York, but it wasn’t a big hit with the rest of the table. A pork Panang curry was good, with a nice lemongrass finish, but I felt it could have been spicier; I’ll probably try the green curry next time. They have a full list of crispy duck dishes, and we tried the prik khing, a dry saute with curry paste, long beans, lime leaves and basil. This Thai chicharon de pato was heavenly.

I closed out the month with a reunion dinner with those three evil proofreaders who got me into this blasted blogging in the first place. The occasion was a return visit from our kiwi cohort David, who for some reason gave up his plum job as a freelance proofreader in New York to move to Tortola, in the Virgin Islands, where he has a shitty job as a yacht captain and editor of a yachting magazine. Go figure. We finally were able to make our long-standing wish-list date to see the wonderful Django Reinhardt-influenced guitarist Stephane Wrembel at Barbès, Park Slope's best French watering hole and eclectic music venue. Before the show we dined at Belleville, a decent if unexceptional French bistro in the neighborhood, sister restaurant to the very similar Casimir in the East Village. Getting together with those three is always a blast, even if they have caused me to waste countless hours scribbling at this ridiculous hobby horse.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Bites, April 2006 – Part I

Since I started this blog I’ve been trying to figure out what to do about all those restaurants I visit. I probably dine out as much as anybody who doesn’t get paid for it, but I’m not interested in making this primarily a restaurant review site. When I have written about a particular restaurant it was because I had found a spin that I thought would make for interesting reading. I don’t want to post cursory, random commentary. I retain my healthy fear of narcissism, and dare not think anybody is particularly interested in what I ate last night. I do hope some of you are finding my writing tasty, though.

Just as April was coming to a close, I came up with a compromise solution. I’ve decided to post a monthly roundup of dining highlights (and low points) of the prior month. This way I can share some scattered thoughts about various restaurants without trying to force full-blown reviews. I’m calling this monthly collection of odds and ends “Bites,” and will be posting one toward the beginning of every month, in one or two parts, depending on how much I have to say. This time it's two parts. Welcome to the first Bite, part one.


On April 8, I went to a gospel concert at City College with a couple of old friends. We decided to go out for soul food before the show, so I picked Copeland’s, on West 145th Street, as it was convenient and something of a Harlem legend. I had heard over the years that it was good, and not a tourist trap like Sylvia’s. Well, it wasn’t a tourist trap, but it also wasn’t good. Luckily we had given ourselves plenty of time for dinner, because we waited a full hour before our appetizer arrived. The pathologically tardy appetizer was an order of not bad crab cakes, accompanied by some pretty tasty snow crab claws. My main course was the barbecue combo platter, and it was dreadful–pedestrian ribs, dry, overcooked chicken and rubbery shrimp swimming in gallons of overly sweet barbecue sauce. Happily, the concert was much better than the meal. The Birmingham Sunlights, a classic a capella “quartet” (even with six members they’re called a quartet, based on the traditional harmonies), opened the show. Three or four of the singers shared lead duties, which gave the set some nice variety. They were great showmen, and the ensemble singing was so beautiful that they can be forgiven for having the poor taste to appear on “A Prairie Home Companion” from time to time. The other act was Harlem’s own McCollough Sons of Thunder, a trombone shout band out of the United House of Prayer church. They play high-energy, raucous brass-band gospel, and the “joyful noise” really rattles one’s bones. This type of instrumental music does, however, tend to be monotonous. It’s great for twenty minutes, less great for forty.

I had much better restaurant luck the following day. This time the dinner was post-concert. It had inadvertently turned into a gospel weekend, as I had tickets for the Soweto Gospel Choir in Newark. The group was very young, and totally delightful. A fringe benefit was the excellent acoustics at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which puts most Manhattan concert venues to shame. Afterwards, my companion and I walked up to the Ironbound district for some Spanish food. Though the area is primarily Portuguese, the restaurant with the best overall reputation is the Spanish Casa Vasca. It’s off the main drag of Ferry Street, which is full of enormous, touristy “Iberian” restaurants. Casa Vasca is smaller and more sedate. The food was damn good, and I have every intention of going back. The clams in green sauce we shared as an appetizer were excellent. Each main course came with a complimentary soup of the day, which happily was caldo Gallego, and one of the best I’ve tasted. For one of the main courses we shared the pulpo a la Gallega–Galician-style octopus which is boiled, sprinkled with smoked paprika, and served in olive oil. It was incredibly tasty and tender, and I’d say it eclipsed any version of the dish I’ve ever had before, here or in Spain. We also had the grilled pork chops, a compromise selection after we learned that the three daily specials we coveted–roast veal, suckling pig, and goat–were all gone. The chops were quite good, as were the fried potatoes that accompanied them. One quality that everything shared was a lack of the over-saltiness that characterizes too much Iberian food. The only negatives were a persnickety waiter and bus boys who kept trying to remove plates that still had plenty of food on them.

How about a Sicilian/Mexican restaurant? Here’s the story. One of my old favorite East Village cheap eats places, La Focacceria, closed last year due to an untenable rent increase, and Vinnie, its proprietor, retired (he deserves it). Thanks to Janet, a poster on the Chowhound message board, I recently learned that the food that Vinnie had served for ages is now available in a space that was previously, and remains, Rancho El Girasol, an East Village Mexican restaurant. So one could conceivably mix and match enchiladas and rice balls. The proprietress of the reincarnated focacceria is Michelle, a Latina who had long worked as a waitress at Vinnie’s restaurant. With Vinnie’s approval she set out to make his authentic Sicilian recipes once again available. When I arrived at the restaurant with the East Village friends I’d visited La Focacceria with many times, Michelle gave us a warm welcome. The food has not changed, and most of the classic focacceria items are still available, including vasteddis (I believe the word in Sicilian is guasteddi), sandwiches made of thinly sliced beef spleen, bathed in lard, and served with a Sicilian cream cheese and a sharp, hard cheese. It is infinitely better, though not better for you, than it sounds. Head over to 221 First Avenue and try one.