Monday, November 26, 2007

Quail Day

I can't remember the last time I had turkey on Thanksgiving. For years I've been having Thanksgiving dinners at restaurants, mostly in Chinatown, with groups of friends, friends who don't have family in New York and those who don't have family in New York they'd care to spend Thanksgiving with. This year there were just four of us, and we tried Amazing 66, a Chinatown Cantonese restaurant that opened a little over a year ago.

Of late I had been disappointed by the state of the Chinatown restaurant scene, and worried that there was no longer any really good Cantonese seafood place I could take large groups to. Ping's, a favorite of mine for several years, had gone way downhill, two recent dinners at the formerly excellent Congee Village were mediocre, and a first visit to Fuleen, which has a very good reputation, was rather underwhelming. Amazing 66 gives me new hope for Chinatown.

We started the dinner with our Thanksgiving bird. Who needs a humongous, ungainly turkey when you can nibble on lean, mean, minuscule quail? I can't remember ever having tried quail on the bone before, though I think I've had the meat minced in a Moroccan bastilla. Well, Amazing 66's honey-roasted quail has made me a head-over-heels quail lover. The dark, sweet meat reminded me of duck, which was a surprise, except that the little birds are much less fatty.

Our next appetizer was baked scallops in the shell. On the menu, they offer clams or scallops "carina," but their takeout menu says "casino," and indeed the preparation is rich, creamy, and cheesy, with bacon in the mix, perhaps too rich for my taste, and, if Chinese at all, best described as "new Chinese."

The pan fried butterfish with soy sauce were wonderful. Sweet and delicate, the flesh falls off the bone.

I was less taken with the sizzling oysters in black pepper sauce than were my dinner companions. The large oysters were excellent, but besides the fact that they weren't served sizzling after all, the sauce was rather bland and gummy; Phoenix Garden, in midtown, does a much better version of the dish. Our vegetable dish was king's mushroom with snow pea "sprouts." Actually, they're not sprouts, but rather shoots or leaves, and are one of the most delicious (and expensive) of Chinese green vegetables. The wonderfully aromatic mushrooms may be a variety of what I'm more familiar with as oyster mushrooms.

Our most expensive selection, at $25, was the jumbo prawns over twin rice. Served in a wooden box, the twin rice is a mixture of black and glutinous rice with a nutty flavor, with vegetables on top and minced scallops and mushrooms mixed in. The fresh, flavorful jumbo prawns were served in the shell, but sliced into several pieces each, which made for easy eating.

There are many tempting items on Amazing 66's extensive menu, and I look forward to trying many more of them. You can be sure, however, that the next time I go I'll be ordering the quail again.

Amazing 66 on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Truffle Pig

Here's another story from Between a Dream and a Cup of Coffee. Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone.

My friends Alain and Danielle had invited me to dinner. Danielle, who grew up in Nice, is a phenomenal cook, and her dinners are always memorable. Whenever they have me to dinner I am the model guest, which insures repeated invitations.

They both greeted me at the door.

"It is so nice to see you," Danielle said.

"Yes, it is so nice to see you," Alain said.

"And it's always nice to see both of you," I said.

I noticed something new in the corner of the living room. It was a big, grotesque, twisted, gray, headless carcass. But it wasn't a carcass. It moved. It shifted around a bit from time to time.

"What's that?" I asked, pointing to the thing in the corner.

"Oh, that is a truffle pig," Danielle said. "You know what that is, a truffle pig?" she asked.

"A pig that ferrets out truffles?"

"I see you know a bit about truffle pigs," she said. "My mother, she shipped this one from home; she knows how much I love truffle pigs, and Alain and I had been wanting a pet for some time."

"But why doesn't it have a head?" I asked.

"You know, speaking of heads," Danielle said, "a truffle pig buries his head in the dirt and goes sniffing for truffles. When he finds one he brings it up and you have to get it away from him very quickly, because a truffle pig loves truffles very much. That is why truffles are so very expensive--they are rare to begin with, and the truffle pig eats many of them, so the ones that are left, they are very expensive."

"Yes, but why doesn't this one have a head?" I asked them.

"Oh, it just came off one day," Alain said. "We keep the head elsewhere."

"Let's go to the dining room," Danielle said. "We will show you the truffle pig's head."

We went to the dining room and sat down at the table. On the table was a glass beaker that contained a small head, floating in a clear liquid. It was a very small head, in no way proportionate to the truffle pig body in the other room. In fact, it looked nothing like a pig's head. If anything, it looked like the head of a human fetus.

"And this is our little pig's head," Alain said.

"It is very cute, don't you think?" Danielle asked.

"Uh, yeah," I said, though actually I found the thing pretty repulsive.

"Pick it up and take a closer look," Alain said, "but be careful not to tip the beaker. Our little pig head is very mischievous--he likes to get out and crawl around the apartment sniffing for truffles, even though we all know there are no truffles here in New York."

I reluctantly picked up the beaker, not wanting to offend my friends. I could have sworn the head gave me a dirty look. I put it down.

Alain served the wine, a very nice Chardonnay, and we updated each other on our work--his painting, my writing. Then Danielle brought the appetizer, leeks vinaigrette. The beaker with the head was still on the table. It was making me a bit queasy, but I didn't complain.

Everything Danielle served was delicious, as usual. The main course consisted of fruits de mer, sauteed and served in pastry shells, steamed green beans, and baked new potatoes (I have always admired the simplicity of her vegetables). For dessert she served fresh raspberries and cream. And I was the model guest, as always. I must admit, however, that I was rather uncomfortable this time, and in spite of Danielle's wonderful cooking, my appetite was not as hearty as usual, what with that thing staring at me throughout the meal, making all sorts of faces.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Richard Grayson Rides the Bus

Richard Grayson, a wonderful fiction writer whom I've known for over thirty years, has recently been writing a series for Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn about bus rides that take him through a great deal of his and my native borough of Brooklyn.

So far he's covered the B68, B24, and B35 routes for the blog. In addition, he's posted his B100 report on Myspace.

Soak up the local color with Richard.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Eudora Welty at the Supreme Court

I was reminded of this recently as I was reading Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, the beautifully written autobiography of her formative years that brims with the writer's voice and personality.

I believe it was in 1989 that I visited the Supreme Court, spending a day watching oral arguments. I hadn't been to Washington, D.C. since I was a child. This time I spent a week breathing in American history and institutions. I visited both chambers of Congress and a bunch of Smithsonian museums, but the most moving experiences were a visit to the National Archives, a tour of the Library of Congress, and my day in court.

I had been fascinated by the Supreme Court for some time, especially from the perspective of its fragile role as protector of democracy. My interest had been further piqued during the Bork hearings, and I started reading books about the history of the court as well as biographies of individual justices and Woodward and Armstrong's The Brethren.

When the court hears oral arguments, there are two ways that John Q. Public can observe the proceedings. There is an express line, where visitors are shuttled in to a special section for ten-minute tastes. Those who want to stay for an entire session wait in a different line, and can remain for a full morning or afternoon session. One ought to line up about an hour in advance to guarantee a place, so I got there at 8 AM. The line itself was fascinating. Some, like me, had a general interest in the court. But others had particular interests in some of the cases being argued (two in each half-day session), and they illuminated the issues for the rest of us. It made the experience of watching the arguments much richer.

This was a time when giants like Blackmun, Brennan and Marshall still sat on the bench. Antonin Scalia was already on the court, and if I remember correctly Scalia was by far the most vocal and inquisitive of the justices that day, with Sandra Day O'Connor a close second.

During the morning's second case, I started looking around the gallery and noticed a face several rows behind me that was gnawingly familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on who it was. The face belonged to a little old lady. I kept looking back until I had an epiphany. It came in the form of a mental image of a TV screen with Eudora Welty sitting next to Dick Cavett, a scene I remembered from my own formative years as a writer. Yes, it was definitely Eudora Welty.

I love Eudora Welty's writing. Her sentences are musical, quirky and funny, and her writer's voice is unmistakable. Also unmistakable was her speaking voice, with its warm Southern drawl. In fact, when I was teaching creative writing I often used recordings of her reading her stories "Powerhouse" and "Petrified Man" to demonstrate the voice-page connection.

As we were leaving the court for the mid-day break I made sure I positioned myself to catch Welty. She was accompanied by a very tall, middle-aged woman, a striking counterpoint to this small, somewhat hunched eighty-year-old lady. As they made their way from their seats to the aisle I asked, "Excuse me, are you Eudora Welty?"

"Yes, Ah ay-um," she replied.

I told her how much I enjoyed her work, and that I had played those wonderful recordings of her reading her stories for my students. She was very gracious. She asked my name and wanted to know what kind of work I did and where I lived. We chatted briefly, and then I asked her what had brought her to the Supreme Court that day. Did she have an interest in a particular case?

"No," she replied, "I'm just here to watch our democracy in action."

Eudora Welty, in the flesh, was exactly as one might have expected.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Another Chinese Restaurant Dream

If you're one of those people who hates reading or hearing about dreams, skip this post. But if you enjoyed my prior Chinese restaurant dream, or my Japanese restaurant dream, read on.

Actually, before I get to the main dream I'd like to open with a short dream that preceded the Chinese restaurant dream I had last Friday night. The dream was related to my current diet. I dreamed that I had woken up in the morning and gone to look at myself in the mirror. I was horrified to discover that my belly was sticking way out, like that of a pregnant woman, or perhaps more like the distended belly of a malnourished third-world child. I was horrified. The day before I had noticed how well I was doing on my diet, and how loose my pants had become. What was going on? Was it something I had eaten? Then I noticed that my face was especially gaunt, and that my legs were spindly. So I had been losing weight after all, but it was not happening proportionately. Somehow the weight I had already lost had shifted or something. I thought to myself, I've heard that belly fat is harder to get rid of once you get older, but I had no idea it was this bad.

Yes, my dreams often have punch lines.

And now for our feature dream.

I was going to a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown for Thanksgiving dinner (as I will be doing in real life). Though it was a new Cantonese seafood restaurant, in the dream it was called Little Shanghai (a now-defunct, wonderful hole-in-the-wall of yore). The restaurant in the dream was on Bowery/Chatham Square, either at the end of Mott or the end of East Broadway (it changed over the course of the dream). When I got to where the restaurant was supposed to be, I saw a church that looked like one of those 17th-century Portuguese churches I've seen in various parts of Asia. There was a sign hanging on the outside of the church that said Little Shanghai, but I figured the restaurant wasn't in the main part of the church. I couldn't find the entrance to the restaurant, so I walked up the stairs to the main church entrance. A Chinese teenager was coming out through the big wooden door and he held it for me. Inside, the nave was painted pastel blue and white. It reminded me (in the dream, at least) of a church I had seen in Kerala, or Macau, or Goa. I went back out and kept looking for the restaurant. Finally I saw a glass door around the corner, at the side of the church building. I walked in and found myself in a big, glitzy Cantonese restaurant.

My friends were all already at a large round table. It turned out that I was very late. My friends were all hungry. I was going to do the ordering, and I had pretty much planned out the meal by studying the menu in advance. Much to my surprise and horror, however, the menu was completely different than the one I had studied. No dish was the same. In fact, I was unfamiliar with all the dishes, though many sounded interesting. That was part of the problem, actually. Too many of them sounded interesting, and I had to order a nicely balanced meal for eight. I kept studying the menu, and I couldn't decide what to order. I was filled with anxiety. I could see that my friends were getting hungry. Then I noticed that Fan, a waiter I knew from Ping's and previously Sun Golden Island, was working there. That's good, I thought, he can help me with the menu. But he wasn't coming by our table, and I couldn't get any of the staff's attention. I also noticed at this time that there was a basket full of western-style dinner rolls on the table. A friend was reaching for one. "Don't eat it," I said. "You'll ruin your appetite." He looked disappointed (and hungry). Finally after about an hour of perusing the menu I decided what to order. But I couldn't get the attention of any of the wait staff. I decided to go in search of Fan.

I walked into another room that turned out to be a bar filled with hard-drinking Chinese men smoking cigarettes. I thought I heard Fan's voice, but I couldn't find him. I walked into another room that turned out to be a Chinese bakery. All the clientele and staff were women and they looked at me oddly, like I didn't belong there. The next thing I knew I was out on the street, and I couldn't find the entrance to the restaurant. I went back to the side of the church where the entrance had been, but it was no longer there. I went into a nearby shop to see if anybody could help me. The proprietors, a man and a woman, looked Goan (there's a particular mix of Portuguese and Indian features I can recognize). I asked them if they had any idea where the entrance to Little Shanghai was. The man and the woman spoke to each other in a language I couldn't understand. Then the man said to me, "That's in the Goan church, right?"

"I suppose it's Goan," I said.

He gave me directions to the church, but didn't say anything about how I'd get into the restaurant. It also turned out that the shop was further away from the church than I had thought, about three blocks. I walked in the direction of the church, and I saw it ahead of me, but now it was on a big hill, surrounded by other ancient buildings. It reminded me of the Amber Fort in Jaipur. And there was a beautiful crepuscular light about the complex. This is wonderful, I thought to myself, to see something like this in New York makes up for all my troubles. But my pleasure was short-lived. When I got back to the church I still couldn't find the entrance to Little Shanghai. I did see a Chinese bakery, though. I figured I could enter through the bakery and find my way back into the restaurant. But this was a different bakery with no passageway. I felt terrible about holding up my friends' dinner.

The next thing I knew I was back home watching TV. A woman who was hopelessly late for a meeting with her girlfriend had brought an award to present to the friend, the "Patient, Loyal Friend Award." This show is a parable for my situation, I thought. The woman was anxious as to whether the friend would accept the award, and I empathized. Then the announcer said, "After this commercial break, find out whether the friend accepts the award or kicks her out." I was on the edge of my seat. After the commercial the woman presented the award to her friend. The friend disdainfully handed it back to her and said, "Enjoy your friendship."