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.