Saturday, March 31, 2007

Cooking Fish

I love fish, but I don't like to cook it at home because you can never get rid of the smell. So last night, having a craving for fish, I decided to imagine a fish dinner, Spanish mackerel. I imagined cooking it for a while, and then I imagined tasting it, but it wasn't quite ready, so I put it back in my imagination. A couple of minutes later I imagined tasting it again, but it was still a bit too rare. Back in the imagination it went. And then my phone rang. It was a long distance call from an old friend. We spoke for a while, and by the time I was off the phone I had totally forgotten about the fish. I read for a while, then I went to sleep.

I was awakened in the middle of the night by an awful smell in the back of my mind.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Happy Hour with Pig

The food at Yuca Bar, at the corner of Avenue A and East 7th Street, is OK. Not bad, not memorable, just OK. I wouldn't recommend the place based on food alone, but Yuca Bar has other plusses that make it worth consideration, not the least of which is the extended happy hour, where Mojitos, Caipirinhas and Margaritas are $5 until 8 PM, both at the bar and at the tables. And these drinks are full force, nothing watered-down about them. I had a Mojito and a Caipirinha. They tasted good. They felt good.

The dinner, a couple of weeks ago, was one in my extended series of annual birthday celebrations. This one was on Janice. Janice and I often end up at Latin American places for birthday dinners, for the drinks as well as the usually festive atmosphere (which Yuca Bar does have).

The Yuca Bar dinner menu is split into tapas and entrees. We decided to go for three tapas and one main which, porkaholic that I am, was the Cuban roast pork with sweet plaintain mash and onion-garlic-oregano mojo. It was a humongous hunk of pork shoulder, with crispy skin, on the bone. The meat was moist and very flavorful.

The three tapas were disappointing. Crabmeat crepes were rather bland, the crepes themselves rubbery. The coconut-crusted baby shrimp, while eminently edible, seemed like chain-restaurant refugees; we ordered them out of nostalgia for the killer coconut shrimp at the long-gone East Village eatery Sugar Reef. Perhaps the best of the three was a sweet corn arepa topped with shredded beef, but it too was very shy when it came to seasoning.

The dessert we split, a bread pudding with dulce de leche ice cream, was quite good, though.

I did mention there were other plusses. Prices are reasonable. The room has a comfortable, casual vibe. The staff are both friendly and adept. And, though it's often difficult to hear it over the ambient conversation, they play a great mix of Latin music. Any restaurant that plays Jorge Ben's "Chove Chuva" scores some points with me. If you do go, just think of the food as something to eat.

Overall, I will say that for a similar mix of great drinks, great staff, great vibe and great music (sometimes live), you'd do better at nearby Esperanto, at Avenue C and East 9th, where I can recommend the food unequivocally. Some day I'll do a proper review of Esperanto.

Yuca Bar on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 23, 2007

Suckling Pig and Zocor

I ordered suckling pig last night, in honor of my improved cholesterol numbers. I might have gone for it in any case, but this time I did so without the usual twinge of apprehension and sense of foreboding. The dish in question was consumed at Assenzio, the East Village Sardinian wine bar and restaurant that has been on my A-list for about five years. I'd had better there in the past; last night's pig was a bit on the dry side and a bit too salty. When it's "on" though, Assenzio's suckling pig, cooked with aromatic sprigs of myrtle, is among the best I've had in New York. Assenzio offers a nice combination of casual atmosphere, moderate prices, and a good wine list (though scant in the below-$30 category). Last night we started with the gnochetti with wild boar ragu, wild boar being a house specialty. It's always surprisingly and pleasantly light, considering it's a plate of pasta dumplings with a hearty game sauce. I had a very enjoyable pear tart with vanilla gelato for dessert. I've probably been to Assenzio about ten times, and there have only been a few serious misses. Once the polenta with artichoke and truffle oil was pathologically salty; once the suckling pig was tragically dry; once the swordfish carpaccio was half frozen and I had to send it back. Usually, however, the food is delicious and the portions generous.

But enough of Assenzio and on to Zocor. My cholesterol had been borderline high for about ten years, generally in the 210-230 range. In addition, my HDL was pretty low, rarely breaking 40. My doctor was always trying to get me to go on statins, but I resisted, fearful of side effects and not overly concerned with those numbers. I always felt the cholesterol risk was overstated and that doctors were too quick to prescribe potentially dangerous drugs as a panacea. Recently, however, my numbers started creeping up, and I suppose the "research" I do for this blog may be part of the problem, along with my quintogenarian status. Last March I was at 250, and in December at a whopping 289. I finally gave in and agreed to try Zocor. Though Lipitor is more widely prescribed, and is somewhat more effective, Zocor had gone generic and was therefore much cheaper. I took Zocor for three months, without any noticeable side effects, and had my blood tested last week. I called the doctor the other day and he told me that my total cholesterol was down to 159, with an HDL of 54; my liver function was normal. "You've added twenty years to your life," my doctor said. A rather hyperbolic pronouncement, I thought. I don't think there's been enough time or evidence to determine how effective statins are in the long run, and I'm still skeptical about how close the relationship between cholesterol and heart disease may really be. But considering the good results I've had, and the lack of side effects, I figure I might as well continue taking Zocor. It may have absolutely no bearing on my life expectancy or future health, but I've come to think of it as a milder, atheist-friendly form of Pascal's Wager.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The White Man's Dosa

"Did you hear about the white man who makes dosa?" asked my Indian coworker. This was not the beginning of a bad joke. He had heard about Hampton Chutney from another Indian coworker (this was an IT department, after all). Neither of them had actually been to the place, but they were curious. So was I, especially since it had garnered many rave reviews.

Traditionally, dosas, South Indian rice and lentil flour crepes, are eaten either plain (especially for breakfast), or with a potato masala filling. Certainly, the classic dosa is always a vegetarian item. Recently, a number of New York Indian restaurants, Cafe Spice among them, have added non-traditional fillings, including meat and seafood. Hampton Chutney takes this trend a step or two further, marrying the extended dosa concept with the accursed wrap phenomenon, serving, for example, dosas with "Smoked Turkey, Spinach, Jack Cheese & Balsamic Roasted Onions" or "Grilled Portobello Mushroom, Spinach & Roasted Onions with Goat Cheese." There's no reason in principle that these shouldn't be good, and I'm not a dosa fundamentalist, but the bottom line is that, despite the rave reviews, Hampton Chutney's dosas suck.

Hampton Chutney has three locations, the original being in Amagansset, where the owners sold chutneys before branching out to dosas, hence the name. The newest branch is on the Upper West Side. I went to the perplexingly popular SoHo branch. It's a cramped space, actually a fast food joint with inflated SoHo prices. I wouldn't have minded the prices so much if the food was any good, but ten bucks for a substandard dosa served on a plastic try with plastic utensils is unacceptable. My friend and I shared two dosas. I figured one of them should be as un-Indian as possible, to test the concept, so I chose the one with grilled chicken, roasted peppers, roasted onions and arugula. It came with a scant filling that had a few scattered chunklets of chicken along with the vegetables. Perhaps a SoHo anorectic might consider this a worthy lunch, but not me. And let me tell you, as much as I love arugula, it doesn't belong in a dosa. Our other choice was the "Masala Deluxe," which had potatoes, spinach, Jack cheese and roasted tomato. "Masala" technically means a spice mix, but I don't think the proprietors understand that, considering how bland it was. And Jack cheese? Puhleeze! Then there's the question of the dosas themselves, the crepes. A good dosa should be light, crisp, and fresh tasting. Can you say "cardboard"? Each dosa comes with your choice of one of their "famous" chutneys. We tried the pumpkin and the tomato. Fame, as we all know, has nothing to do with quality.

The meal was especially infuriating since I'd had fabulous South Indian food the night before, at Saravanaas, probably the best of breed in the city. So how the hell did Hampton Chutney get all those rave reviews? Maybe they're all from writers who've trolled the SoHo beat too long and have never experienced a good dosa. Or maybe I'm dead wrong and they're all right.

According to the Hampton Chutney website, the owners, Gary and Isabel MacGurn, met at the Siddha Yoga Meditation ashram in Ganeshpuri, India. Perhaps instead of searching for spiritual enlightenment they should have been searching for a good dosa recipe.

Maybe my Indian coworker's question was the beginning of a bad joke after all.

Hampton Chutney Co. on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

I'm a Chickarina Recidivist

I generally eat canned soup only when I have a cold. And when I do heat up a can of soup to feed my cold it's often Progresso's Chickarina. This was a favorite soup of my childhood, and for some reason I keep going back to it as my sick-bed comfort food. I'm not sure when the product was introduced, but I think it was new when I started seeing the commercial, when I was five or six, in the early '60s, the one with the little boy singing, "Chick-Chick-Chickarina soup, Chick-Chick-Chickarina soup, it's got chicken so nutritious, and meatballs so delicious." Or did the meatballs precede the chicken in the lyric? I made my mother buy a can the next time she went shopping, at the local Key Food, which she called Seymour's, after the man who ran the store. If I remember correctly Seymour always had a big, fat cigar in his mouth, which is neither here nor there. I believe the consistency of the Chickarina meatballs changed somewhere along the line. They're softer now; they used to have more bounce. I'm nostalgic for the firmer meatballs of my youth.

Years later a similar soup started showing up at soup joints, corporate cafeterias, and cans by Campbell's, called Italian wedding soup. Apparently a traditional soup for Italian weddings was the inspiration for Chickarina. For some reason it took over thirty years for chicken soup with meatballs to become popular in the U.S. outside the confines of a Progresso can. I wonder who was responsible.

* * *

Do I believe chicken soup helps one fight a cold? Well, Marvin Sackner told me it does. Dr. Sackner, a pulmonary specialist, conducted the pioneering study in 1978, which he published in the journal Chest (which is not shelved next to Juggs). It suggested that chicken soup was more effective than other hot liquids for alleviating congestion. I got it straight from the Doc's mouth maybe ten years later, when fiction writer Richard Grayson and I visited Marvin and his wife Ruth in their South Florida home to see their amazing collection of art and books, The Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. With over 45,000 items (including several by yours truly), the Sackners' collection is surely the largest archive devoted specifically to creative work that integrates text and image (and it has grown well beyond its original concrete poetry focus). There's even a film about the archive. Marvin's work on chicken soup was later amplified by the research of Doctors Ziment and Rennard, but I'll bet their art collections and personal libraries aren't nearly as interesting.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Found Spam Poem

Which as populist
in michigan in shafer
As a mitochondria
Be a esther
Not do preachy
An minsky no weyerhauser
do propylene it sensate
Of saunders as marlboro
A as westchester
Not shank on desperado
I be radiochemical

My so prep
Are a intended
structural or do well
on timber
And unilateral my nomogram
Which conformal my capacitate
of citizen
allocation as
Of in library

But go prevalent
it so promethean

* * *

This represents a snapshot of the subject headers in my bulk mail box, in sequential order. The only editing on my part was to add the stanza breaks.

I just don't get it. At least 90% of my junk emails have these weird asyntactical subject headers. Most of them are promoting junk stocks. I hardly ever get spam for "Generic V18gra" any more. What's the deal? Who would open them in the first place (besides a blogger who needs to know what's inside his found poem fodder)? And once opened what kind of idiot would buy the penny stock being pushed?

By the way:

Get it before the RUSH!!!

Word of Mouth

Target sym: WOFM
Price (current): $0.15
5 Day Target price: $0.75
Action: Strong Buy/Hold..

All signs show that this one is going to Explode..

I'll stake my reputation on this one!

* * *
Believe it or not, there is actually a fantasy blog stock market website out there, Word of Mouth, it appears, has one shareholder.

Surely people have better things to do with their time.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Michael Feinstein Dissed My Family

Some of you may have seen the PBS documentary on "Soundies," those 1940s precursors to the music videos of today. Hosted by Michael Feinstein, the program, which aired this week, was loads of fun, but there was a serious, if not fatal, omission. My distant relatives, The Three Suns, who made a number of soundies, were nowhere to be found in the program. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted, appalled, pissed off. I considered this omission a personal affront. Liberace made the cut. Lawrence Welk made the cut. But no Three Suns.

Happily, Michael Toth's Three Suns Universe site features clips from three of the Suns' soundies. You can watch them here.

A Tale of Two Rice Balls (and a Bowl of Pho)

A while back I mentioned a Sicilian focacceria within a Mexican restaurant in the East Village. Unfortunately, Rancho El Girasol has closed, and Vinnie Bondi's Palermitano treats are gone with it. The traditional Sicilian focacceria is a dying phenomenon in New York, so I decided I'd better seek out several of Brooklyn's survivors before it's too late.

I started at Ferdinando's, in Carroll Gardens. Ferdinando's opened in 1904, and atmosphere is one of the place's greatest strengths. Outside you're on the less gentrified side of Union Street, just west of the expressway, but inside you're transported to a typical neighborhood joint in Palermo. If only the food had the same charm. Granted I only tried two things, the Sicilian focacceria staples arancine (rice balls) and panelle (chickpea fritters). Both were disappointing. The rice balls were overly mushy, and the traditional chopped beef and peas stuffing was lacking in flavor. The pannelle were limp, mushy and tasteless, and I suspect they had been microwaved instead of freshly fried. Still, because it's within walking distance of my apartment and because I did love the interior, I'll probably pay Ferdinando's another visit.

The following week I went out to Gravesend, another traditionally Italian Brooklyn neighborhood, to try the same two items at Joe's of Avenue U. Overall, I think Joe's has the better reputation of the two places. The pannelle were quite different from those at Ferdinando's. These had a slightly crisp, thin outer coating and a silky-smooth interior. I do remember, however, that the pannelle I had in Palermo were more boldly spiced. The arancina was quite good, with a moist, flavorful filling. One could taste the slight saffron accent in the rice that was not apparent in the rice ball at Ferdinando's. The atomosphere at Joe's, however, can't compare with Ferdinando's, as it is basically a diner. The menu, on the paper placemats, has the names of the items in English and Sicilian dialect (breaded chicken cutlet, for instance, is Cutuletti ri Pullu nPanati). Much of the menu (and the food on display at the front of the restaurant) is quite appealing, and prices are extremely reasonable (a premium item like swordfish goes for $14). I'd have liked to have tried more than a rice ball and some pannelle, but I had just eaten some Vietnamese food a half hour earlier.

I was trying to maximize my visit to this part of "deep Brooklyn." I had heard that one of the city's better Vietnamese places, Pho Tay Ho, was in Bath Beach. Bath Beach, near Gravesend, is another traditionally Italian neighborhood. But all these adjoining neighborhoods−Gravesend, Bath Beach and Bensonhurst−have become particularly multiethnic of late. Asian and Russian businesses are especially prominent throughout the area.

At Pho Tay Ho I of course ate Pho. This beef and rice-noodle soup is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine, and it is commonly eaten for breakfast. Beef is used widely in Vietnamese cuisine, but when I traveled in Vietnam I learned early on that the beef there is generally of poor quaility, and ended up sticking mainly to seafood. In any Vietnamese restaurant the pho would be a benchmark dish, just as rice balls are in Sicilian focaccerias.

I ordered pho tai gau, the last two words referring to cuts of beef. Tai gau is generally my favorite way to eat pho. Tai is fresh eye of round. The thinly sliced raw meat cooks in the soup. Gau is brisket. The secret to pho, as with any soup, really, is the broth, and it's not easy to find a great pho in New York. Tay Ho's is indeed one of the better ones. The broth is rich and flavorful, slightly sweet with a noticable hint of star anise. It has much more character than the watery stock at many local Pho places. The meats were excellent. It is common to dip the slices of beef in a small dish of hoisin sauce on the side, and this I how I like it (I don't pour the sauce directly in the soup). It's important to eat the eye of round first, so it doesn't overcook. I have generally found the tai to be of similar quality at most NY pho restaurants. The brisket, however, shone at Tay Ho. The slices were robust without being overly fatty, and the meat must have been precooked in some way that made it much more flavorful than most gau I've encountered.

I also had a couple of cha gio, Vietnamese spring rolls. These were rather disappointing. The meat stuffing had a rubbery consistency and a slightly fishy taste, which leads me to think there might have been some fish in the mixture. I much prefer the cha gio at Pho Viet Huong in Chinatown and Gia Lam in Sunset Park.

The quality of the pho at Tay Ho bodes well, and I hope to return with a group to sample the rest of the menu.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Vietnamese Garlic Roasted Crab, the San Francisco Treat

When I travel I always seek out local specialties, be it sopapillas in Santa Fe or shrimp and grits in Charleston. Often these are traditional dishes that have been associated with a city or region for ages. My favorite San Francisco specialty, however, has only been a local phenomenon since the '70s. Garlic roasted Dungeness crab was introduced by the An family, first at their Vietnamese restaurant Thanh Long, then at their more upscale fusion seafood venue Crustacean. I haven't been to any of the Ans' restaurants, but I've had roasted crab at several other Vietnamese eateries.

I was introduced to this dish by my friends Don Skiles and Marian Schell (one should always eat crabs with someone named Schell). We went several times to the excellent but now defunct Jasmine House. On my recent visit we dined at PPQ Dungeness Island, on the busy Chinese New Year's Eve. The Dungeness crab is certainly a contender for the king of crustaceans. I'm not sure I'd agree with Marian that "lobster is overrated" (a statement I chalk up to the lapsed Pennsylvanian's zealous west coast chauvinism), but Dungeness crab gives lobster a run for the money at the very least.

Roast crab as prepared at Vietnamese restaurants in San Francisco is cooked with butter, garlic, black pepper and spices. The crabs are traditionally eaten with garlic noodles, a simple bowl of noodles and minced garlic upon which one spoons the garlic butter that has married with the crab juices. Armed with a nutcracker and shielded by a bib, one goes to work on the crabs. This is my kind of work. The flavor of the garlic butter and seafood juices over noodles is somewhat reminiscent of several Italian dishes: "shrimp scampi" (I use that horrid American redundancy for simplicity's sake) and lingine alle vongole, or linguine with clams, or linguine with white clam sauce if you prefer.

In addition to the garlic roasted crab, PPQ offers crab cooked several other ways, including peppercorn crab, drunken crab and curry crab. I'd like to give some of these a try, though it would be hard to pass up the garlic and butter version.

The three of us ordered the special dinner for two, which includes a roasted crab, garlic noodles, imperial rolls (cha gio, known as spring rolls on New York Vietnamese menus), chicken salad, and fried banana with ice cream. We augmented this with a second crab and a green papaya and shrimp salad. I'd have to say that one is probably better off sticking with just the crabs and noodles, as the other items were unexciting. The imperial rolls were OK, but I've had many better ones. The salads were quite ho hum.

Yes, stick with the crabs. Just thinking about them gives me goose bumps. I can't contain myself. I WANT SOME NOW!

PPQ Dungeness Island on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 02, 2007

A Deep-End Hot Pot Video

I've mentioned Eddie Lin's Deep End Dining blog before. Eddie is the adventurous eater par excellence. In a recent blog post Eddie presents a ten-minute video of a hot pot meal in Shanghai that includes not one but a number of extreme items, among them racoon, pork throat, crocodile, beef penis, and rooster testicles. Eddie was surprised by how large the cock's balls were, and he described the experience of eating one as "kind of like biting into a dense balloon." Dig in.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Thali and a Meze

Variety is the spice of life, right? I love meals where I can taste a lot of different things. Small plates venues, such as Spanish tapas bars, Venetian cicchetterias and Hong Kong dim sum parlors are among my favorite types of restaurants. I also love combination meals and mixed appetizer plates. During my recent visit to the Bay Area I had an excellent South Indian thali and a world-class Turkish meze.

* * *

Indian cuisine, like Chinese, has a vast range of regional variations, and Americans only know the tip of the iceberg. I was excited to read, several months ago, about a South Indian restaurant in the Bay Area serving Andhra-style cuisine, which I have not seen in New York. Tirupathi Bhimas is a vegetarian restaurant that features Andhra, Tamil and Udipi (or Udupi) dishes in Milpitas, near San Jose. The South Bay area is a treasure trove of Asian cuisines. It's almost excuse enough to find my way to San Jose for a week.

President's Day weekend found the Bay Area enjoying an amazing Indian summer. It was 77 and sunny when we got to Milpitas. I made the trip down with my old friend Robert Lauriston, who happens to be an excellent food writer. The lunch was also an opportunity to meet Bay Area food blogger Sam Breach of Becks and Posh and her sidekick Fred.

Though thalis were the order of the day, we also split some other dishes. The onion-chili uthappam (a rice-flour pancake) was good if unexceptional. We found the rasa vada (lentil donuts in pepper soup) too soggy. Pesarattu was a new one on me, and I've been to South India three times. It's a mung bean (moong dal) crepe, similar to a dosa, that is eaten in Andhra Pradesh. We had ours stuffed with uppuma (or upma), a South Indian spiced cream of wheat that's similar to couscous. I'm wild for upma, but this one was rather bland, and I found the pesarattu less satisfying than the more common dosa.

The spicy Andhra thali, however, was quite good. A thali is usually served on a round metal tray on which little metal bowls filled with a variety of dishes are placed. The word thali can also refer to the serving ware itself. In South India one can get similar dishes at informal "meals" joints, where the food (all you can eat) is ladled onto a banana leaf, which serves as a disposable plate.

Andhra cuisine is considered one of the spiciest of Indian cuisines, but I've had vegetarian food in Rajahstan that is equally incendiary. While the majority of the items in the Tirupathi Bhimas thali were indeed spicy, they were definitely milder than one might get in India, even though almost all the customers were Indian. The different dishes all had distinctive flavors and textures, which made for a satisfying meal.

* * *

San Francisco has many fewer Turkish restaurants than New York, but A La Turca, in the traditionally seedy Tenderloin, serves pides, and pidephile that I am, I decided it deserved a visit. The pide was actually disappointing, but the meze more than made up for it.

Mezes are combination plates of appetizers that one finds across the Mediterranean and Middle East, the dishes varying by region. On menus in the U.S. one will often see them listed as "mixed appetizers" or "combo platter" (as it's called at A La Turca). The A La Turca version consisted of nine items, all vegetarian cold appetizers. There wasn't a loser in the bunch, but several really stood out. Our favorite was the mercimek koftesi, a vegetarian "meatball" (see the etymology of kofte) made of bulgur wheat, red lentils, onions, parsley, tomato paste, spices, lemon juice and olive oil (it's the football-shaped thing in the rear of the plate). The ezme, a spicy red pepper salad was also a standout. The stuffed grape leaves were a cut above the average, and appeared to have been made with basmati rice.

The rest of the meal was a letdown. We had a chicken and mushroom pide, which I hadn't come across on any New York Turkish menus. It was tame in flavor and the dough was a bit underbaked. The spinach and cheese gozleme was a bigger disappointment. Gozleme was described as "flat bread served with veggies or meat." It turned to be what I'd call a turkish quesadilla. The very sharp feta cheese completely overwhelmed the poor defenseless spinach.

Based on the quality of the meze I would certainly return to A La Turca and try other dishes: grilled meat, I guess, because surprisingly there is no seafood on the menu.

Tirupathi Bhimas on UrbanspoonA la Turca on Urbanspoon