Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Has Blogging Finally Paid Off?

I'm not in this for the money, which is a good thing because I don't make any money from this. I decided from the start not to have ads on this blog. I thought they would interfere with the design and the reading experience, and would hardly be worth the pennies I'd end up reaping.

I'm not in this for fortune and I'm not in this for fame, though I do enjoy the positive feedback I get and the links to the blog or to select posts from other blogs like Eater and Slice and Cookthink as well as several restaurant websites.

And I'm not in this for freebies or perks, though sometimes offers come my way. I've been offered a number of product samples for review, probably a result of my pieces about products like Almondina and Ak-Mak. I always ignore those emails. Once or twice I've gotten invitations for free meals at restaurants looking for reviews. No thanks.

What I do get out of this is the opportunity to write nonfiction about the things I love on my own terms, on my own schedule, without having to bend to editorial constraints of traditional publications. I like the opportunity to experiment with different approaches to writing about food and travel, and I love the immediacy of the blog form.

Last night, however, I just might have reaped some tangible rewards from this endeavor, though I can't be sure. I was dining at Devi, my favorite upscale Indian restaurant in New York, for the Restaurant Week special. I've written about Restaurant Week at Devi before, and how they were a class-enough act to keep many of their best premium menu items on the reduced-price menu. I also wrote a piece about Devi's co-chef Suvir Saran's presentation at the N.Y. Times Travel Show (Saran's partner, Hemant Mathur, is the tandoori specialist). I'm wondering whether those two positive pieces account for the extras we were lavished with last night.

Once again, the Restaurant Week menu barred no significant holds from the regular tasting menus. Two of us shared appetizers and mains. Now some Indian food purists might find Devi's menu too "nouvelle" or "fusiony," but I find that most of the innovations work and that the food remains Indian at the core. In addition to the two appetizers we ordered, the waiter brought us an additional appetizer "compliments of the chef." I didn't give it much thought. One of our appetizers was the Goan shrimp balchao bruschetta--fresh, tender medium-large shrimp served on toast with a savory onion and tomato-based sauce that, though not specified on the menu, is flavored with a bit of shrimp paste. Balchao is a Portuguese colonial specialty sauce that is also popular in Malaysian cuisine as belacan. The other appetizer we chose was grilled scallops with roasted red pepper chutney, Manchurian cauliflower, and spicy bitter-orange marmalade. Two perfectly cooked jumbo sea scallops sat atop the pepper chutney which was actually more a coulis. On one side of the plate was the marmalade, and on the other a small amount of the Manchurian cauliflower, or gobi Manchurian, crispy cauliflower with a mildly spicy, sweet and sour tomato glaze, a dish borrowed from Indian-Chinese cuisine. Our bonus appetizer was a full order of the gobi Manchurian, one of the restaurant's more popular vegetable dishes.

One of the main courses was a no-brainer, Hemant Mathur's amazing tandoor-grilled lamb chops coated with a complex spice paste, and served with two wonderful sides: sweet and sour pear chutney and a spiced potato preparation that is potato heaven. Our other entree was the masala fried quail. This is one of Suvir Saran's specialties. A similar fried chicken recipe is in his American Masala book. The poultry is breaded with a buttermilk batter with Indian spices. The result is a marriage of North India and the American South, dare I say a Mississippi Masala? Thankfully, it's not saccharine like Mira Nair's films. The quail's accompaniments of a warm mustard-oil potato salad and a spicy slaw with peanuts that reminded me of something Thai were fabulous. In addition to these two entrees we were comped with an excellent vegetable side dish, crispy okra salad. The fried slivers of okra lose all of the okra sliminess that turns many people off to that vegetable. Breads are not included in the prix-fixe, so we ordered the garlic naan. But when the bread arrived we were also presented with an additional basket of bread, one of the restaurant's signature creations, goat cheese & spinach kulcha served with a yogurt sauce, also "compliments of the chef." My dessert, a mango kulfi, was good if unspectacular, but pleasantly lighter than most kulfis, like a cross between a kulfi and a sorbet. As for the extras, I did the math. The three complimentary items add up to $31 on the menu. The tables around us didn't seem to be getting the same treatment.

Surely a total of three reservations in two years didn't get me into a frequent diner loyalty program. So I'm figuring all those perks may well have been related to the good press I've given Devi and Suvir Saran, though nothing of the sort was communicated to me. I do know that well-run high-end restaurants track their diners' preferences. And computerization has made this all easier. So perhaps there's a Peter Cherches record in some Devi database that has me flagged for special treatment, and it makes a match with my reservation. I know that many restaurants follow blogs and message boards. I've gotten several nice notes from restaurant owners and PR people about pieces I've written.

I'm happy to be the recipient of Devi's hospitality and largesse, but I wonder if I should be concerned about privacy issues in this culture of surveillance. After all, there may be records on me in restaurant databases all over New York. What if my culinary pecadillos were to be leaked? What if, all of a sudden, cardiologists began to publicly decry my unsafe eating habits? Could I suffer the fate of Eliot Spitzer?

I doubt it.

* * *

Note: Devi regularly offers several tasting menus similar to the Restaurant Week menu: a $45 3-course dinner and a $40 early-bird that includes a glass of wine or beer.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Musical Bridges I: African

A recent concert I attended by the sublime Malian singer Salif Keita reminded me of a number of incidents where my love and knowledge of music from around the world has provided opportunities for connections with strangers. People love to talk about their countries and cultures, especially when they're far from home, and they really appreciate Americans who know something about their homeland, especially since so many of us are culturally myopic at best, arrogant at worst. I'd like to share some of those musical connections over the next couple of months, starting with African music.

* * *

Taxi rides often provide opportunities to talk with people from other countries, as so many taxi drivers are immigrants. While the largest nationality represented in the New York cabbie community is Pakistani, there are a number of West African drivers. The Pakistanis are usually talking to each other on the phone, but the Africans are often listening to music. One night I was in a cab and there was some fabulous music playing. It sounded like Malian music, so I asked the cabbie, "Is this Malian music?"

The cabbie seemed surprised. "You know Malian music?"

"Yes," I said, "I love Ali Farka Toure, Habib Koite, Oumou Sangare, and especially Salif Keita."

"Salif Keita! I knew him in Mali. I knew him before he was anything!"

* * *

I had an Algerian cabbie on my way home from the airport after a trip to London in March of 2000. I had gone for an African music festival at the Barbican. One show featured Malian artists Ali Farka Toure, Afel Bocum and Habib Koite. The concert the following day was called "The Roots of Rai," rai being Algeria's pop-dance music. It featured the virtuosic Moroccan-Israeli singer Emil Zrihan as well as several older Algerian musicians, including Lili Boniche, Maurice El Medioni, and Cheikha Rimitti, the "grandmother of rai," who began her career in 1936.

When my cabbie told me he was from Algeria I told him about the concert. "Cheikha Rimitti!" he said, startled. "She's still alive?"

* * *

My knowledge of Malian music once gave me the opportunity to be a Good Samaritan. It happened on a train from Montreal to New York. I was coming home from the jazz festival. At one point in the ride I overheard the conductor talking to a man who didn't understand much English. There was a mix-up about luggage and connections. There was also some confusion about the names on the tickets for the man and his wife. It was in that context that I overheard the man's name: Diabate (pronounced Ja-BA-te). I was familiar with the name as it's common among the griot class in Mali and Guinea, and a number of Malian musicians are named Diabate. It was clear that the man was confused and distressed because he couldn't understand what the conductor was explaining. I decided to help after the conductor left. My French is not very good, but it'll do in a pinch. I explained that he had to pick up his luggage and change trains in New York before continuing on to Philadelphia. He was very thankful. It was then that I asked him if he was from Mali.

"Oui," he replied, and asked me how I knew. I told him that I guessed by his name, and that I loved Malian music. I then went back to my seat several rows back and picked up the book I was reading at the time, to show him. It was In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali, by Banning Eyre, co-producer of the Afropop Worldwide radio program. On the cover was a photo of Banning's teacher, the great guitarist Djelimady Tounkara of Le Super Rail Band de Bamako, the band that jump-started the careers of both Salif Keita and the Guinean singer Mory Kante. I told M. Diabate that this was the guitarist of The Rail Band. He nodded and smiled. "Ah, Oui, Le Rail Band!"

* * *

When I was in Lisbon one of my missions was to find recordings of Lusophone (i.e., Portuguese-language) African music, as I'd loved much of the music I'd heard from Cabo Verde, Mozambique, and especially Angola. At a CD shop in Lisbon I was thrilled to find a CD of a 'seventies album by Ruy Mingas, one of Angola's greatest songwriters as well as a diplomat. But when I took a day trip to the nearby beach resort of Estoril I really struck gold. I found a little shack by the beach where a Portuguese guy was selling cassettes of music from all over Lusophone Africa. I had asked if he had any music by Filipe Mukenga or Carlos Burity, both Angolan artists. He didn't have anything by either of them, but he was amazed that I knew the names. This guy was extremely knowledgeable about the music, and he played me a bunch of samples. I bought about twelve tapes from him. He was really animated when he talked about African music. "I was born in Angola," he told me at one point. "I really miss it," he said, with more than a touch of nostalgia, or saudade, that particularly Portuguese blend of memory, longing and sadness. "I'm European," he said, "but I'm African too."

* * *
For a good general introduction to Malian music, I'd recommend the compilation CD Mali Lolo! Stars of Mali, on the Smithsonian Folkways label. For Portuguese African music the best compilation is Afropea 3: Telling Stories to the Sea, on David Byrne's Luaka Bop label; it's out of print, but fairly easy to find.

* * *

Youtube Jukebox

(I'd love to hear your thoughts on the music. Please drop a comment.)

Salif Keita - Mandjou. From the Africa Live: Roll Back Malaria concert.

Salif Keita - Folon. A beautiful solo acoustic performance, from Martin Scorsese's "The Blues" series.

Super Rail Band - Mansa
. An audience-shot video, but with very good sound.

Boubacar Traore with Ali Farka Toure - Diarabi. Two of Mali's greatest musicians, filmed on location. In the 'sixties, Traore was one of the pioneers of a Malian pop music that didn't rely on Latin American influences (which dominated African music at the time).

Habib Koite and Bamada - Wassiye. In addition to Koite on guitar and vocals, the band features master musician Keletigui Diabate on both violin and balafon (his main instrument, a kind of marimba).

Tinariwen. How about some Tuareg trance-blues-rap from the deserts of northern Mali?

Oumou Sangare - Wayeina
. Mali's most celebrated female vocalist, she performs music of the country's southwestern Wassalou region.

Cheikha Rimitti - Saida
. A 1994 performance by the grandmother of rai. She died in 2006.

Maurice El Medioni & Lili Boniche. This meeting of the two elder Jewish Algerian musicians might be from the concert I attended.

Emil Zrihan
. Zrihan, originally from Morocco and now a cantor in Israel, keeps Judeo-Andalusian musical traditions alive.

Ruy Mingas - Quem Ta Gemendo. This is audio from an LP or a single, along with still images.

Bonga - Mona Ki Ngi Xica. This great Angolan singer will give you goosebumps.

Waldemar Bastos - Muxima
. This Angolan artist gained worldwide exposure through David Byrne's Luaka Bop label.

Djavan - Humbiumbi
. The Brazilian singer performs a lovely song by the Angolan singer Filipe Mukenga.

Salif Keita & Cesaria Evora - Yamore. Well, to wrap it all up here's where Mali meets Portuguese Africa as the "barefoot diva" of Cabo Verde joins Keita on his song from the album "Moffou."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Réunionnais, S'il Vous Plaît

Shark Curry at Le Piton de la Fournaise

Creole cuisines are delightful meetings of culinary influences from diverse parts of the world, often the result of not-so-delightful conquest and colonization, slavery and indentured servitude, as well as the strategic locations of certain places on major trade routes. The Creole cuisine we're most familiar with in the U.S. is New Orleans-style, mixing French and African methods and flavors with local ingredients. An intriguing Creole cuisine you won't find in the U.S., as far as I know, is that of the Indian Ocean islands Réunion and Mauritius. You'll find them in France, yes. You may not find them easily in Canada, but you'll find them. I've had Mauritian food in both Toronto and Montreal. I wasn't thrilled with Toronto's Mauritian restaurant, Blue Bay Café. Montreal's La Ravane was quite good, but unfortunately it closed within the last two years. There is, I've learned, another Mauritian restaurant in the Verdun section of Montreal, but I haven't tried it. I did, however, try the more centrally located Le Piton de la Fournaise, a Réunionnais restaurant named for a volcano on the island. Le Piton is on Duluth Street (835 Rue Duluth E.), northeast of downtown, along a stretch of generally undistinguished B.Y.O.B. restaurants. The owner is a Montreal native who I suppose either lived or has spent quality time on Réunion.

Réunion and Mauritius are very close to each other, and I suspect the differences in the cuisines are minor, as the islands have a similar history and ethnic mix. Réunion is an overseas département of France, and its people are French citizens. It's a popular destination for French tourists. Mauritius is an independent nation which had been ceded by the French to the British in 1810, but which retained the French language and legal system. While English is now the official language of Mauritius, most people there speak a French Creole. The predominant culinary elements of Indian Ocean cuisine are French and Indian, along with African and Chinese influences. The islands were uninhabited when the Europeans arrived in the 16th century. Africans were brought as slaves and Indians came in droves as indentured servants after slavery was abolished. The Chinese came as workers and merchants.

Among the dishes of both cuisines are rougailles (dishes with a tomato-based sauce), curries and civets (French stews). Meals are served with a number of condiments. At Le Piton they included a lemon pickle that was less "pickley" than Indian ones, an eggplant sauce that tasted like a spiced-up babaghanoush, a spicy fresh tomato relish that the owner referred to as rougaille, and a green chile sauce.

My friend and I each ordered the menu dégustation. It's not a tasting menu in the sense of a chef's daily choice of many courses, but rather a four-course dinner where you choose the courses. The two starter courses had two choices each, so we got one of each. For the first course we had a watercress soup that reminded me of a Portuguese green soup, and a chayote salad that was nothing special (chayote is a kind of squash). The next course consisted of avocado crab, basically an avocado shell stuffed with an avocado, crab and mayo mix, also nothing special, and the much more interesting petite assiette Creole, which included a fish samosa and what could be best described as an Indian-spiced falafel.

Then came our two main courses. I was interested in the civet zouritte (octopus stew, zouritte, I believe, being a term specific to the islands), but it wasn't available. So we ended up with a shark curry and a duck civet with a red wine sauce. Both were served with vegetables, rice and legumes. The duck included large white fava or lima beans similar to Greek gigantes, and the shark plate had black beans. The lemon pickle went especially well with the shark. The yellow curry was only mildly spicy, so I also used some of the pepper sauce. The rougaille, on the other hand, seemed to marry very nicely with the duck civet. For dessert the rich, creamy coconut flan was much better than the kiwi-raspberry frozen pie. Le Piton de la Fournaise is well worth a visit for a pretty good rendition of a particularly exotic cuisine.

I say "a pretty good rendition" because I've also eaten at a Réunionnais restaurant in Strasbourg that was so good I went twice (on two separate visits to that beautiful city). The restaurant is called La Case de L'Ile Bourbon (Ile Bourbon, Island of the Bourbons, was a former name of Réunion). The flavors were so vibrant, and much of the food reminded me of Keralan cuisine, which makes sense since that part of India is closest to the Indian Ocean islands. I fondly remember a masale zouritte (octopus masala). The second time I went I heard the owner complaining to another customer that business wasn't too good. "All the tourists want is choucroute," she lamented.

The owner of Le Piton de la Fournaise was a very nice guy and I wish him luck. I hope the day doesn't come when he complains, "All the tourists want is poutine."

Restaurant Le Piton de la Fournaise on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 21, 2008

Cherches On Style

My latest six-sentence prose piece has been published on, of all places, Six Sentences.

Florence Is Gone, For the Time Being, At Least

I was just catching up on the last month of posts from Dave Cook's blog Eating in Translation and learned that Florence's, the excellent Ghanaian/Ivorian restaurant on 8th Ave. & 113th that I've championed here, is gone from that location. According to Dave:

(This venue is closed. A gentleman standing in front of the closed security gates said that the premises are for rent but that another restaurant, under the same ownership but likely a different name, is (or will soon be) open at 135th and Frederick Douglas.)

If I track down and try the new venue, I'll let you know.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Attieke to Write Home About

Attieke is a staple starch of Ivorian cuisine (i.e., food of the Ivory Coast). I first had attieke at Florence's, the Ghanaian/Ivorian restaurant in Harlem to which I wrote a paean a couple of years ago. It's a couscous-like grain made from grated, fermented cassava, and is often eaten with fish, either braised or fried. I liked the attieke at Florence's, but it was somewhat dry and plain. The attieke I had for lunch today at Mariam's (where it's spelled acheke), a fairly new West African restaurant in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, was something else altogether. This attieke was moist and flavorful, apparently cooked in some kind of broth. While Florence's attieke was most definitely a side, this attieke could stand on its own merits, even if there weren't a formidable fried fish to accompany it. Also accompanying the fish and attieke were onions in an excellent mustard sauce.

We had ended up at Mariam's by chance. Our original plan was to try Joloff, a Senegalese restaurant across the street. I was with some vegetarian friends from out of town, and we had just checked out the Fort Greene flea market. When we were about a block away from Joloff I had a premonition and said, "I hope the restaurant is open." I've found that with West African and Caribbean restaurants there's no counting on the official hours, especially on the early end. Well, Joloff wasn't open, but I noticed a place across the street called Mariam's. I figured it too might be West African, as I'm familiar with a Malian singing duo, Amadou & Mariam.

This Mariam is from Guinea, but there's a lot of overlap in the cuisines of West Africa, so there were dishes familiar from Senegalese as well as Sierra Leonean menus. I didn't get to sample too much as the vegetarian options were pretty much limited to two preparations of okra, a vegetable that I only like two ways: Indian dry sauteed and cajun fried. But based on my attieke experience, the menu is definitely worth exploring further.

975 Fulton Street (Between Washington & St. James)
Brooklyn, NY
(718) 398-3930

Thursday, July 17, 2008


When I was a kid, in Brooklyn, in the 'sixties, we always pronounced the common word for a prostitute as two syllables: who-er. I had no idea how it was spelled, having never seen the word in print before my teens, as far as I can remember, but I assumed it was either whoer or hooer.

If you wanted to insult another kid you'd say, "Your mother's a whoer."

There was a transient hotel in the old neighborhood, the Hotel Oak. Everybody said it was a whoer house.

Some of the older guys in the neighborhood would talk about going to Pacific Street, in now-gentrified Boerum Hill, to pick up whoers. I have no idea where they went once they picked them up, but I do know that several of them picked up the clap.

There was a knock-knock joke that went around P.S. 217 that depended on the two-syllable pronunciation. A boy would say to a girl, "Knock-a knock-a." If the girl replied, "Who's there?" the boy would say, "No, you have to do it with an Italian accent: who's-a there-a." So the girl would say, "OK, who's-a there-a?" And the boy would say, "Me-a." And the girl would say, "Me-a who-a?" And the boy would laugh and point at the girl and say, "Ha ha, you're a whoer!"

When I finally saw the word "whore" in print I was confused. I was able to figure out from the context that it was the same word, but it seemed like a strange way to spell whoer. I wondered if it was a typo.

Since I left the old neighborhood, in 1978, first for Park Slope, then the East Village, then back to Park Slope, a snob-appeal neighborhood that's nothing like the Brooklyn of my youth, I've hardly ever heard the two-syllable pronunciation of whore. But recently, as I was walking in Bensonhurst, on my way to lunch at Tanoreen, I overheard two Brooklyn boys, maybe ten or eleven years old, talking, and one of them said, "Yeah, she's a real whoer." It was strangely comforting.

* * *

Note: Just after I posted this I decided to Google whoer and hooer. Whoer, I learned, is a term for fans of the TV show "Dr. Who," so some of those whoers may find thir way to this post. More importantly, I learned that "hooer" is common
Irish slang for a prostitute, though often used as a term of endearment, a way it was never used in Brooklyn. I guess it's something like "How are you, you old bastard." Anyway, I suspect the Brooklyn pronunciation may have come from the large number of Irish in the borough.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Biryani Specialist

In April New York Magazine kvelled about Sangam, a new West Village Indian hole-in-the-wall that offered only two main courses: chicken biryani and vegetable biryani. The article rightly claimed that a good biryani, the classic Indian all-in-one rice dish, is hard to find in New York (indeed, in many places it's little more than fried rice with some Indian spices), and implied that a biryani mecca had finally arrived. Another positive review came from the Daily News. Naturally, I was intrigued.

Sangam's owner, Ishrat Ansari, has run Caffe Vivaldi on Jones Street for many years. Caffe Vivaldi features live music of various sorts, with an emphasis on singer/songwriters (a moribund Greenwich Village tradition). One night several years ago, Ansari told us, they featured Indian classical music, and Ansari's wife prepared her family's biryani recipe as a special for the event. The dish was a big hit, and by popular demand it was added to the cafe's regular, otherwise non-Indian menu. Ultimately the couple had the idea to open a biryani specialty restaurant, for eat-in, take-out and delivery.

When I traveled in India I had the fortune of eating a Hyderabadi biryani in Hyderabad. Biryani is originally a Muslim dish, and it is especially popular and famous in traditionally Muslim areas of India, as well as, of course, Pakistan. Hyderabad is one of the rare cities of South India that has a Muslim history and character, and the spicy Hyderabadi biryani is one of the most famous versions of the dish. Having tried it once in its natural habit, it is the standard by which I judge all other biryanis.

The meat of choice for biryanis in many parts of India is mutton, so I was surprised that Sangam didn't feature lamb biryani on its regular menu. Well, they now have it as a special, and I suspect it'll become a staple. We tried both the lamb ($9) and the vegetarian ($6) biryanis. Though quite good, I must say they just didn't live up to the hype. The lamb biryani was rather stingy with the meat. And while there was a noticeable freshness and complexity to the spicing, it really needed to be more hot-spicy. The spiciness of a biryani may vary from region to region, but I suspect they're toning down the recipe at Sangam for local palates. Still, it's better than the bland, one-dimensional excuses for biryani served at most Indian restaurants in town (other than a few Pakistani cabbie joints, where the spice packs a sufficient wallop). I'm hoping that an entreaty to make it Indian spicy will have some effect when I visit Sangam again. All the biryanis are served with raita (yogurt with cucumber), which one mixes with the rice. The raita is supposed to mellow the heat, but the heat just wasn't there.

Another special, grilled chicken ($9), was a major disappointment. It was a very dry version of chicken tikka, served with very dry, tasteless, almost cardboard naan, indeed the worst naan I've had in quite some time. I wonder whether they have a proper tandoor. The vegetable samosas ($2 each) were good if unexceptional. There are a few other snack items on the menu, but the biryani's the thing. Just be sure to tell them to make it spicy, and let me know how you make out.

190 Bleecker St. (Near MacDougal)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Montreal Notes 2008

I'm a frequent visitor to Montreal, often going in July for the Jazz Festival. I've written about Montreal a couple of times before. Here's an update. This time I revisited some old favorites and discovered a couple of new interesting places.

As I've done several times in the past, I headed up from Burlington with my friend David Mindich, who had accompanied me to the Pinnacle ice cidery a couple of years ago. I had a food circuit worked out for before we ditched David's car at the hotel. We started at Byblos, where we'd had an excellent brunch in '06. It's an Iranian restaurant on Laurier Street, on the east side of town, in a now youthful, trendy neighborhood. The big draw for us at Byblos is their breakfast combos, offered until 2 PM, which feature a basket of excellent sweet breads and your choice of jam from an intriguing list (this time I had orange flower). They also offer many tasty, fresh juice blends, and I chose grape-mango. Their espresso was faultless.

Next on the itinerary was a visit to Havre aux Glaces, at the Jean Talon market (one of Montreal's great European-style markets), which I had visited before. I had been wowed by their gelati, but I had subsequently read on Chowhound that their sorbets were all the rage among Montreal foodies. I had a medium cup with two flavors: pineapple-passion fruit and pear-cider. Both were indeed spectacular, quite possibly the best sorbets I've ever tried (though Philadelphia's Capogiro gives them a run for their money). The secret to the sorbet a Havre aux Glaces is the unusually high fruit to ice ratio, giving you a simultaneous experience of sorbet and fresh fruit that you can sink your teeth into. They capture the essence of the fruits, almost unadulterated. The pear-cider sang loudly and proudly of pear.

From there it was off to the original St. Viateur Bagel shop, in a largely orthodox Jewish neighborhood. On a previous visit I'd been to their sit-down cafe, but this time we went straight to the source for some fresh, hot, malty Montreal bagels. Though we'd just had brunch and dessert, we had to share a hot sesame bagel. The remainder of our purchase was for breakfast the following morning. As I believe I've mentioned before, it's much easier to find a great Montreal bagel in Montreal than it is to find a great New York bagel in New York.

Later that evening we dined at North America's only Reunionnais restaurant, serving the cuisine of the French Indian Ocean island, Réunion. That will be the subject of another post.

David and I lunched the following day, before his return to Burlington, at Chez L'Epicier, in Old Montreal. With chef Laurent Godbout at the helm, Chez L'Epicier is a combination "new Canadian" restaurant (with Asian accents) and gourmet food shop. The room has an open, airy feel, and it wouldn't seem out of place in Napa Valley. While a high-ticket restaurant for dinner, lunch is a bargain, with most main courses at under $20, along with a complimentary appetizer and coffee. The menu changes frequently. For my starter I had the eggplant caviar with balsamic caramel, small shoot panache and escargot "tempura." The quotes are mine, as the breading was definitely not a tempura batter. The serving was small, but nicely presented.

For my main course I chose the pan-seared west rosefish, a mild white fish I was hitherto unfamiliar with (though it appears to be related to perch and redfish), served on a mushroom risotto in a shellfish bisque with carrots and green beans ($16.95). The combination was tasteful and tasty.

But the real hit of the meal was the dessert we chose, the quartet of crèmes brûlées: vanilla, cinnamon, coffee and pineapple, each topped with a different type of biscuit, each representing its flavor with great aplomb, especially the coffee and the pineapple.

On my own I returned to a couple of Chinatown restaurants I'd been to before. I think I first read about Niu Kee on Chowhound. It's an excellent, authentic Sichuan restaurant, and because it's not in the heart of Chinatown it gets a largely Chinese clientele, along with the Franco and Anglo cognoscenti. It's quite possibly Montreal's best Chinese restaurant, at least in Chinatown. Servings at Niu Kee are enormous and cheap. I tried the pork "familial" style, which we can safely assume is better translated as family style. It was a mix of lean and fatty sliced pork, fresh and preserved vegetables, a little preserved black bean, and large quantities of cloud ear fungus. A modified version of this preparation may be familiar, though not familial, to you as "bean curd home style" on many Chinese-American menus.

Another Chinatown restaurant I returned to was Pho Bang New York. It's actually been years since I've been to any of the New York branches of Pho Bang, but the Montreal branch is easily the best Vietnamese restaurant in their Chinatown. The reason I keep going back is for their weekend-only bun bo Hue, Hue-style spicy rice noodle soup. It's not the most authentic version of bun bo Hue, as theirs doesn't have any mysterious innards, congealed pig's blood or pig's foot (the last being a component of almost all versions of the soup). The version at Montreal's Pho Bang has a Platonic balance of lemongrass and chili flavor. Meatwise it's one of the more genteel versions of the soup: there were slices of beef and pork and a piece of oxtail. It's exquisite.

An old favorite I've now crossed off my list is Basha, on Sainte-Catherine and Drummond. Once a reliable place for Middle Eastern sandwiches and platters, their beef shawarma this time was dry and over-salty, a total dud.

On the other hand, my smoked meat sandwich as Schwartz's was perfect. Smoked meat is the Montreal Jewish deli specialty, a first-cousin to corned beef. This time I actually went to Schwartz's for breakfast, at 10 AM, to beat the inevitable hordes. Why not? There's no law I know of in Canada or the U.S. that says you can't eat a deli sandwich for breakfast. At the risk of starting a deli war between Montreal and New York, I'd have to proclaim that a medium-fat smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz's is the ne plus ultra of Jewish deli sandwiches. And at $5.2o it's an amazing bargain (you can buy a whole pound of hot smoked meat for $11.95).

Having been to the Jean Talon market, on the northeast side of the city, several times, I decided to visit another market, Atwater, in the southwest part of the city. The two markets have different characters. Jean Talon is all outdoors and fringed by shops. Atwater has both an indoor market, with butchers, cheese shops, and various specialty shops, as well as an outdoor area with greengrocers and plenty of florists. At the boulangerie/patisserie La Premiere Moisson (which has multiple locations in Montreal) I had a fabulous croissant aux amandes. The filling was fluffy and not cloyingly sweet, unlike many almond croissants that seem to be stuffed with a cyanide-marzipan mixture. Just outside the market is another branch of Havre aux Glaces, but with a smaller selection than the Jean Talon branch. I couldn't leave without trying another couple of sorbet flavors. The pineapple was perfect, but the raspberry was overly sweet, the only misstep I've experienced at Havre aux Glaces.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Criminy! The Osteria del Circo Gelato Cart May Be History

In my magnum ice cream opus I had proclaimed that the gelato sold during the summer months from a cart in front of the restaurant Osteria del Circo, on West 55th St., was perhaps the best, most authentic traditional gelato I'd had outside of Italy. They normally brought the cart out from June through early-September. As summer approached this year my mouth started watering with Pavlovian gelato memories. I pass Osteria del Circo just about every night after six, as I walk from my office on East 55th street to the subway at 7th Avenue and 57th. I started looking for the gelato cart just after Memorial Day. No cart. I checked every night in June. No cart. Maybe I had misremembered, I thought. Maybe they don't start until July. So last night I walked by the restaurant and there was still no cart. I buttonholed the waiter who was serving the outdoor tables. "Is there going to be a gelato cart this summer?" I asked.

"I don't know what's happening," he replied. "I think they had to apply for a permit. I don't know." I guess he didn't know, but it's not looking good.

I'm jonesing for that gelato. Mike Bloomberg, I think you've been doing a pretty good job as mayor (despite the fact that just about anybody would look good after Giuliani and Koch), but I'd unequivocally declare you a great mayor, one of the greatest mayors in the history of New York City, if you'd drop everything and push through that gelato permit for Osteria del Circo. Thanks.

Monday, July 07, 2008

José Andrés Bats .500

On my recent trip to Washington, D.C. I decided to try two of the restaurants in celebrity chef José Andrés' empire. I'm not necessarily impressed by chefs with cookbooks, PBS TV programs, James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef of the Year nominations and Top Chef guest appearances (all of which Andrés can claim), but I'd heard such raves about his tapas restaurant, Jaleo, that it made the top of my Washington wish list. I also decided to do brunch at his Mediterranean meze restaurant, Zaytinya. I enlisted two D.C. confederates for both meals. While my meal at Zaytinya was pure pleasure, Jaleo was more than a disappointment: it was a dog.

Zaytinya occupies an airy, bright, sleek space at 701 9th Street, NW (corner of G). It features a menu of small plates (meze) that are variations on traditional dishes of Turkey, Greece and Lebanon. Just about all the items we tried had plenty of pizaz and panache.

Perhaps the two least exciting, but still quite good, dishes were the brunch-only items that we ordered. The tiganites were described as Greek pancakes and were served with dried berries, Greek yogurt and honey. These were pretty much like American pancakes, though less fluffy. My own post-meal research reveals that true Greek tiganites are more like fritters. Patata harra consisted of diced potatoes mixed with chopped loucaniko sausage, topped with a fried egg.

Havuç köftesi (carrot-apricot fritters with pine nuts and a pistachio sauce) sounded interesting on paper, but I think they were even better on a plate. They were sweet but not cloying, perfect for a little taste among other items. The ground lamb and egg pide had a delicious filling, though I'd have preferred a more crisp and substantial crust. The house-made lamb and beef sausages (mahanek) were fabulous, lean with a bold yet fresh flavor. Garides saganaki, the Greek melted cheese with shrimp dish, was one of the best versions I've tasted. This was the kind of meal that makes you want to go back and try everything on the menu.

Jaleo (480 7th Street, NW, at E Street) has been around much longer than Zaytinya, and if it was ever in the same class it appears to be now coasting on reputation. I love tapas, and I was expecting one of America's premier tapas restaurants. What I got was pure mediocrity. If just about everything at Zaytinya was memorable, everything at Jaleo was forgettable. The food couldn't hold a candle to two of my favorite, and very different from each other, New York tapas bars: the resolutely traditional El Cid and the modern, inventive Las Ramblas.

Of the nine tapas we ordered, two were what I'd consider tapas bar benchmarks, items available on just about any tapas menu. The pulpo a la Gallega (Gallician-style octopus) was possibly the worst I've ever had. It was painfully salty, and otherwise flavorless--the smoked paprika seems to have been defused. The patatas bravas were also abominable, with a virtually flavorless aioli (where's the garlic?) and tomato sauce. The truly unforgivable sin of the patatas was that they were those thinly sliced, round chip-style Spanish fried potatoes, while the dish really needs to be made with hearty chunks of fried potato.

The wild mushroom rice with creamy Idiazabal cheese (I'd fallen love with a similar dish at El Farol in Santa Fe) was flat and uninspired. The seared monkfish over eggplant puree was tasteless. Sea scallops were fresh, but their mojo picon (spicy pepper sauce from the Canary Islands) was neither particularly spicy nor anything else. Chicken with a garlic green sauce was pedestrian. The two best items were chorizos with garlic potatoes and a tortilla (omelet) with artichokes and garrotxa cheese (a Catalan goat cheese). Those two items excepted, just about every dish seemed tired--could it be from the weight of reputation?

Zaytinya on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Six Sentences

My friend Arthur Chertowsky told me about a literary blog that's perfect for my minimalist style. It's called Six Sentences, and the premise is that all pieces published on the site are exactly six sentences long and in prose. It's a great concept, and the constraint brings out some wondrous submissions from well published writers as well as other talented players of the six sentences game. My first Six Sentences submission, "The Man Who Couldn't Tie His Shoes," was just published on Friday. Check it out.