Monday, February 26, 2007

Three Squares in San Francisco


Blueberry French toast with sweet cream cheese at Canteen

Canteen is a serious "new Californian" restaurant masquerading as a greasy spoon. Chef Dennis Leary left the upscale and trendy Rubicon a couple of years ago to open this cozy hole-in-the wall with a counter and just four booths. Garnering rave reviews and seating only 20, dinner reservations are hard to come by. For an early Saturday breakfast I just walked in and mosied up to a stool at the counter.

The breakfast menu was small, but everything sounded good. I threw a mental dart and went for the French toast. It was wading in a delicious, not-too-sweet warm blueberry sauce and topped with a dollop of whipped sweet cream cheese. It was exquisite, and the coffee was perfect too.

Leary seems to change his opening hours fairly frequently. For now breakfast is served on weekends only.

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Banh khot at Ngoc Mai

Ngoc Mai is a Hue-style Vietnamese restuarant in the Tenderloin, a portion of which is also known as Little Saigon because of the large Vietnamese population. Though most San Francisco Vietnamese restaurants serve Saigon-style cuisine, a few serve regional cuisines I can't find in New York. I had written previously about a Hanoi-style place called Bodega Bistro.

At Ngoc Mai, which is a lunch-only place, I had the banh khot, which are crispy rice flour mini-crepes with shrimp. Shaped like little cups, with a thin eggy inner layer, they cradled a shrimp each and had a nice toasty, nutty taste.

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Antica Trattoria

Antica Trattoria is aptly named. Inside this cozy neighborhood Northern Italian restaurant one feels as if one were in a venerable neighborhood trattoria in Italy. The decor is sedate and traditional, the menu authentic but inventive. Chef-owner Ruggero Gadaldi, who hails from a small town near Bergamo, opened the restaurant in 1996 and has since opened two other restaurants, the nearby Pesce, a fabulous Venetian cicchetteria (tapas bar), and most recently The Last Supper Club, an odd name for a place serving Southern Italian food. Though I haven't been to the latter, the other two restaurants are great value considering the quality of the food. Indeed, for maintaining such quality and affordability at two very different types of Italian restaurant, Gadaldi earns my undying respect.

I had been to Pesce on three occasions, but this was my first visit to Antica Trattoria. I went with my high school chum Harry, from the old neighborhood, and his wife Mary Ann. For them this was a return to an old neighborhood, as they lived in Russian Hill in the '80s, before it became the trendy enclave it is today.

We shared two appetizers, the cotechino, a Northern Italian garlic sausage served with lentils, and the calamari sauteed with white wine, garbanzos and olives. Both were excellent. My main course was the braised duck with porcini, served in a hearty broth with julienned vegetables; delicious, copious, and a steal at $17.

Of our two desserts, the panna cotta with huckleberry sauce, while tasty, was unexceptional. The bignole (cream puffs with zabaglione), on the other hand, were spectacular.

Cin-cin, Ruggero Gadaldi.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Sunday Morning Dream

This dream is hot off the unconscious.

I was out for a walk on a Sunday morning. I noticed two lines of people, side by side, facing in opposite directions, waiting to get into two different places. The shorter line, on the inside, was for a bagel shop. The much longer line, on the outside, was for a church. I was upset.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

One-Stop Blog Review Shopping

A young man named Doug Cress has come up with a pretty neat idea. His website, BlogSoop, is a searchable database of restaurant reviews by food bloggers. New York is the pilot city, but Doug plans to add other cities, with San Francisco coming next. In additon to the review leads, with links to the full reviews on the originating blogs, there's a talk forum. I think this is a useful tool, and I wish Doug the best of luck with his venture.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Liaoning in Flushing

"Liaoning cuisine," according to the Chinese Ministry of Culture, "originated from Shenyang City and developed on the basis of Shandong cuisine, and was later strongly influenced by the Manchu cooking style and foreign dishes, especially Japanese food, Korean food and Russian food." Having recently tried Liaoning cuisine for the first time, at Waterfront International Enterprises, in Flushing, I'd say that description makes perfect sense.

Frankly, I'd never heard of the Chinese province of Liaoning until several months ago, when I first read about Waterfront International, even though I had visited nearby Beijing and Shandong Province in 1994. Liaoning is northeast of Beijing and borders North Korea. Kim chee is one of the province's Korean borrowings. The waitresses at Waterfront International bring kim chee and peanuts to each table as a pre-meal snack.

My six friends and I started with a couple of cold appetizers. Green bean sheet jelly with mixed vegetables also had some baby shrimp and shredded meat (vegetarians beware). The bean sheets were a translucent pale green, shaped like wide, flat noodles, at once firm and gelatinous. After checking on how spicy we wanted it, the waitress added some mustard oil and mixed it up. Here is where the Japanese influence is pretty clear. The flavor of the dish, the mustard oil mixed with vinegar and soy, along with the cucumber and other shredded vegetables, reminded me very much of the Japanese noodle dish hiyashi chuka, except that the noodles were replaced by bean sheets. But hiyashi chuka literally means "cold Chinese," so influence is a chicken and egg question after all. Our other cold dish was described on the menu as "shredded photo." I didn't think they ate photographic prints in Liaoning Province, shredded, diced or sliced, so I asked my companions what they thought it might be. One smart cookie said "potato," and the waitress confirmed it. Potato in Chinese cuisine is often served lightly cooked and crunchy. This dish had a pleasing crunch and a fresh, aromatic flavor of cilantro and an herb or two I couldn't place.

Green bean sheet jelly (potatoes in the background)

The boiled leek dumplings were quite tasty, but once again this is not a dish for vegetarians as the filling is actually a pork meatball with leeks. The noodles with brown meat sauce, a dish common to Beijing cuisine (cha chiang mein), while good, was not one of the best renditions I've had. The dried tofu with fresh hot peppers, a light, fairly simple dish made with thin, noodle-like shredded tofu sheets, was a hit with most of the table. I liked it well enough, but I wasn't bowled over. Dried tofu sheets were also served as wrappers for the shredded pork with bean paste (I believe the menu said black bean, but it may have been brown bean or soybean), which had a mildly sweet and savory flavor, somewhat miso-like, that I found very appealing.

The biggest hit overall was the crispy lamb with chili. Though flecked with red chili flakes, the dish wasn't particularly hot; spicy Northern Chinese dishes are, in general, not incendiary like some Sichuan or Hunan dishes. Bolder than the chili were the cumin seeds, unidentified on the menu. In retrospect I have trouble believing that seven of us made do with one dish of it, as the tender little lamb slices are pretty addictive. Our leafy greens quota was satisfied with ong choi (Chinese watercress on the menu), sauteed with fresh garlic, well executed, though not a northern specialty.

Crispy lamb

Though we ordered it with the rest of the meal, the last thing we were brought was the "mixed sweet dish." This may have been a deliberate accomodation to what they considered western tastes, as in China this kind of dish is eaten along with the spicy and savory courses. The dish consisted of chunks of potato, sweet potato, taro, apple and banana, covered in a hot, gooey sugar syrup. The chunks are dunked in a bowl of cold water, and the coating becomes firm and crunchy. It's not uncommon to see apples or bananas prepared this way as a dessert in Chinese or Southeast Asian restaurants, but in Shandong Province I had candied potatoes as a main course. The preparation works surprisingly well with tubers as well as fruit.

Mixed sweet dish

What really stands out about the food at Waterfront International is the variety of flavors and textures, and the subtlety of almost everything. The price is right too: with beer our check for seven diners came out to about $110 before tip.

Waterfront International Enterprises is at 40-09 Prince Street (near Roosevelt Avenue), Flushing.

Friday, February 16, 2007


Today marks the first anniversary of Word of Mouth. What started as an iffy proposition has turned into a year-old iffy proposition. I confess I’ve enjoyed writing this blog, much more so than I had imagined; I’m sure that’s apparent to my regular readers. At the beginning I told myself I’d give it two years and then take stock. I’m sticking to that commitment. So there’s at least one more year of Word of Mouth to come.

This platform has given me the opportunity to write things I might not have attempted for traditional publication, but I’ve also tried to stick to a standard of publishable quality. I’m not interested in writing (or reading) journal entries or random tossed-off notes. I remain committed to a food focus, but I think it’s clear that this blog isn’t only about food. Since I don’t maintain a web page for my other literary activities I’ve posted news in that arena. I’ll also continue to post the occasional off-topic musing.

Ultimately, I’m interested in the blog as a chameleon-like literary form. For me, my food obsessions and travel experiences are excuses to indulge my mania for making sentences, so my ideal reader is somebody who is at least as interested in style as content. Still, I’m fascinated by the mechanisms of the internet and its ability to bring seekers of specific content to my writing. When I started this blog I never imagined I’d become a foremost authority on Almondina, Wu Liang Ye, or Indian food in New York, but Google searches bring hundreds of readers interested in those topics to Word of Mouth. On the web any text is a reference source, for better or worse. I'm especially pleased when somebody who wants to know how many calories are in a particular food is directed to the piece where I rail against people who obsess about calories. I’m happy to have total control over content and schedule as both writer and publisher, but I also remain committed to posting at least once a week. I like the idea that there is a core group of loyal readers who follow my meanderings and I think I owe them a steady stream of content.

The blog, or any personal nonfiction for that matter, is rather vulnerable to narcissistic indulgences. I will continue to face the challenge of writing nonfiction prose that asserts personality without descending to narcissism. I might not always succeed, but in the process I may at least be able to impart some useful and interesting information. I can't think of a better anniversary present than this post at the blog Cookthink.

Thanks to all of you for reading.

A Day Late, a Reading Short

Well, I missed my reading at City Lights. Due to weather conditions my flight on Wednesday was cancelled, and my rescheduled Thursday morning flight left over 9 hours late. Editor Brandon Stosuy couldn't get out at all, and Eileen Myles and Robert Gluck had to cancel earlier. Brandon had gotten Bay Area writer Kevin Killian to replace Gluck, a great choice. Otherwise, Susan Daitch was the only writer of the five originally announced who made it, but not without her own travel nightmares, including 6 hours on the tarmac on a Jet Blue flight to nowhere, and a total travel time from NYC to Oakland of 25 hours. Happily, Susan tells me, the event went well and there was a great turnout. I'll let y'all know if I reschedule an appearance in the Bay Area.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

In an Unfamiliar Restaurant

I find myself in an unfamiliar restaurant, its cuisine an uncomfortable pastiche of Croatian, Burmese, Jamaican and leftovers of long ago Sunday dinners in a small New England town. I am crippled by the anxiety of what to order.

Another worry springs to mind: will I have to pay for the floor show? I don't want to be entertained, but this, it appears, is my fate:

A chorus line of griffins and sphinxes, accompanied by the odors of eighteen dead musicians, the house band from a Havana night club, circa 1933, conjuring the essence of an off-key rendition of "The Peanut Vendor."

And then my date arrives, fifty years late, a withered hag with a lame excuse. Gentleman that I am I don't take her to task, but rather ask, "Shall we dance?"

Dance we do, quickly progressing from tango to tragedy as she crumbles in my arms.

"Dust!" they shriek, the waiters, castrati to a man. "Dust!"

Alone again, at my table, I am crippled by the same old dilemma: what to order?

"Has the gentleman made up his mind?" asks my chubby little waiter, a dead ringer for the latter-day Peter Lorre.

Paralyzed with fear I can barely get the word out. "No!"

The waiter, thilled by my reply, makes a suggestion, which circumstances force me to accept, and several hours later he returns with my meal. Cackling like a madman, he puts the plate in front of me and announces, "Tonight's special!"

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Di Fara on YouTube

A proper video about Dom DeMarco making pizza would last about an hour, like the wait for a slice at Di Fara. In the meantime, there are at least four short videos of Dom at work on YouTube. Three of them give a good picture of Dom's M.O., as well as good pictures of the pizza itself.

This one has Dom making a round pie.

The next one has Dom making one of the square pies I kvelled about, as well as a nice pan at the end to the patient, attentive crowd.

And this one has been edited to collapse the whole process, start to finish, into just over two minutes. It features some sexy closeups of the finished product. It's the Di Fara equivalent of a Reader's Digest Condensed Book.

Another video, which consists of 44 seconds of Dom's back, was shot by a guy who gave up and left hungry after 45 minutes.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Brooklyn Bukharian

In prior posts I wrote about Taam Tov, a diamond district kosher Uzbek (or Bukharian) restaurant, as well as Cafe Kashkar, the Brighton Beach Uighur restaurant whose cuisine has many similarities with Uzbek. I still haven't been to any of the restaurants in Rego Park, home of the area's largest Bukharian Jewish émigré community, but I'm happy to announce that I now know of an excellent place much closer to home.

I was introduced to Vostok, in Boro Park on the cusp of Dyker Heights (or vice versa), by my friend Igor, who grew up in Tajikistan and was familiar with this cuisine before any of it was available in New York. Vostok, Igor tells me, is Russian for "east." I believe Uzbek restaurants, like Georgian ones, are popular with New York Russians who are not necessarily from those areas since these were were common and popular "ethnic" cuisines in the old country.
Though the restaurant is not new (Igor tells me he first ate there three years ago), it is seemingly unknown to foodies of the internet, as I could find only one Citysearch user review and no mention on Chowhound. I'm happy to remedy that situation, as this restaurant is worth knowing about. Vostok is, in general, somewhat better than Taam Tov, which I liked, and much better than Kashkar, which I didn't. As with all restaurants of its ilk, Vostok is quite reasonably priced. Igor and I ordered enough food for three, and the check came out to $42 (without drinks).

The samsa, baked meat pies, were excellent, with a fresh-tasting, flaky pastry. The manty, steamed dumplings, had a similar filling to the samsa, as is generally the case. Though perhaps the filling could have used a bit more seasoning, I think Vostok's were the best I've had so far, with skins that had an appealing body and chewiness, more substantial than the ones I've tried at other restaurants.


The lagman, noodles and meat in a tangy soup, accented with star anise, was much better than the bland, greasy version I had at a post-review visit to Taam Tov. The plov, or pilaf, was also quite good. It had a bit of a nutty flavor and was considerably less greasy, and somewhat less sweet, than the Taam Tov version. The only real dud was the mixed pickles plate. Igor, who ordered that one, agreed.



The meal was capped by two kinds of kebabs: lyulya, made from spiced chopped meat, and lamb chops, which were translated on the menu, I believe, as "lamb rib steak." The lamb chops were the highlight of the dinner, though Igor tells me they've had a bolder seasoning in the past. They were plump and tender, and at $5 for a skewer of two chops a steal.

Vostok is a fairly simple, no-frills place, but like many of Brooklyn's Russian restaurants it has a stage for live music and a dance floor. Toward the end of our weeknight dinner a Russian lounge singer/keyboardist had replaced the recorded Uzbek music. I assume there's a full band on weekends.

I don't know how Vostok compares to the Rego Park Bukharian restaurants, but it's good, it's cheap, and, only steps away from the D train, at 5507 13th Avenue (at 55th Street), it's convenient.

Vostok on Urbanspoon

I'm reading in San Francisco on February 15

If you're in the Bay Area, come to City Lights Books and see me read some new work about death and food. The event is on Thursday, February 15 at 7 PM. It's another event for Up Is Up, But So Is Down. Reading with me will be Susan Daitch and Eileen Myles. Editor Brandon Stosuy will introduce the event and Robert Gluck will host a Q&A about the heyday of the downtown scene.

In related news, Will Fabro, in a recent review of the anthology in the New York Press, praised the "dysfunctional beauty" of my "Bagatelles" excerpt. I embrace that pithy description wholeheartedly.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Passing Through Wilson, N.C., on Amtrak

On the Palmetto, train number 90,
Heading north from Charleston,
Heading home to New York City,
I hear the conductor announce:

"Station stop Wilson, North Carolina."

Whole Hog Cooker for the World
(Piggies with Big Shoulders),
They tell me your barbecue is wicked, and I believe them.

Home of Eddie Mitchell, Maestro of the Pit,
And Parker's, legendary too,
And I'm just passing through.

"Station stop Wilson, North Carolina."

And I'm heading home,
Heading home to New York City,
And I can't alight to taste the pig.
O conductor! O tormentor! Call me Tantalus.

Note: After writing this I did a little research and learned that Mitchell's has been closed since 2005 due to a foreclosure on the property, but that it will be reopening shortly. I've tasted Mitchell's sublime pig at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in Madison Square Park.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

George Washington Really Slept Here

For lovers of colonial and antebellum American architecture, Charleston is a treasure trove. The compact historic district features scores of homes built before the Civil War, and many before the Revolutionary War.

One of those pre-revolutionary homes is known as the Heyward-Washington House. It was built in 1772 by planter Daniel Heyward for his son Thomas, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. One of their descendents, DuBose Heyward, used the surrounding neighborhood as the setting for his novel Porgy, upon which "Porgy & Bess" was based. George Washington stayed in the house for a week, in 1791, while the Heywards were out of town (in order to avoid showing preference to any of the local aristocracy, the town fathers made sure to find a vacant residence for Washington). It is now called the Heyward-Washington house in honor of that visit.

The first two floors of the home are open to the public, as are the garden and kitchen building. The rooms are furnished with period pieces from the collection of the Charleston Museum, which maintains the house.

Being in a place where George Washington actually did sleep reminded me of a piece I wrote many years ago, ca. 1975.

How to Prove to Your Friends That George Washington Slept in Your Bed

First make your bed, then lie in it. Don't go to sleep, just pretend. When George Washington arrives, do not stir–he'll hop in, lie down next to you. Be patient. When George falls asleep, carefully slip out of bed. Quickly get your Polaroid and snap his picture. Show it to your friends.

* * *

As interesting as the Heyward-Washington House is, the most fascinating house one can visit in Charleston is the Aiken-Rhett House. This large 1818 "urban plantation" lies north of downtown and was spared bombardment by Union troops. It remained in the Aiken family into the 1970s, though over its history various rooms were closed off for years at a time. Here one can visit the slave quarters, the stable and carriage house as well as the family's rooms. While the house features many original furnishings, one of its most interesting aspects is the fact that it has not undergone comprehensive restoration to give it a pristine look. In the rooms one can see, as a palimpsest, the various layers of history. In some of the rooms the down-at-the-heels look of the interior makes one feel as if there are ghosts about. It put me in mind of "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte."