Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Musical Bridges II: Cuban

I had the opportunity to visit Havana, legally, in May of 2001. My friends Howard and Pat were going on a cultural exchange visa, as members of the Riverdale Choral Society, for an international choral festival. They were allowed to invite friends and family to come along on the trip as associate members of the chorus. I jumped at the chance to spend four nights in Havana. I called up my travel buddy Harold in Minneapolis and asked him if he wanted to be my roomie in Cuba. He said, "Yes!" before I even finished the question.

Our Hotel

Havana was great. It's a beautiful city and people were incredibly friendly. The greatest fringe benefit, from my perspective as a lover of Cuban music, was that the very time frame of the choral festival was also the time of the Cubadisco music expo, a combination industry fair and Cuban Grammys. So, in addition to the usual music to be heard all over this very musical city, there were numerous concerts by some of the country's top performers. I actually skipped the shows by the artists associated with Buena Vista Social Club and other well known artists like Chucho Valdes and Los Van Van, since I'd seen them all in North America. Harold and I went to four different concerts, and in addition we went to a jazz club with some members of the chorus.

We didn't really spend too much time with the chorus. While they were at rehearsals, receptions and concerts, Harold and I were seeing the city by day and concerts at night. The one performance we did attend by the Riverdale Choral Society was the one they gave at a synagogue. It was an orthodox congregation, with women seated separately from the men. There was no full-time rabbi, so the service was conducted by one of the men from the congregation. We were told that there was a circuit-riding rabbi in Cuba who would visit Jewish congregations around the country, and, I assume, officiate at events like bar mitzvahs and weddings. The chorus sang a range of music, including a Sephardic song in Ladino. After the service we had a chicken dinner in the community room. The bland chicken reminded me of the kind my grandmother used to make. Then a bunch of us went to the Jazz Café, one of Havana's top jazz clubs. After a set by a Latin jazz combo a salsa band took over for late-night dancing.

The first night, Harold and I saw an outdoor concert that presented a wide range of artists, young and old, including Cuban rap, reggae, timba, and the current version of the great Conjunto Chapotin, a classic combo from the '50s, now led by Chapotin's grandson. Another outdoor concert at the Casa de EGREM (EGREM is the national record label), in the garden of a beautiful state-appropriated mansion in the once-wealthy Miramar district, featured mostly older styles of music, including the classic son ensemble Septeto Nacional.

Our last night in Havana, an early-evening concert by nueva trova singer Sara Gonzalez also featured the tres virtuoso Pancho Amat. The nueva trova movement (along with nueva cancion in other parts of Latin America) has been compared to American folk music of the 'sixties. If singers Silvio Rodriguez or Pablo Milanes may be compared to Dylan, then in a sense you could call Sara Gonzalez the Joan Baez of Cuba, but that would be a great insult to Sara Gonzalez, as it would be to just about any singer. Later that same evening we saw the gala concert at the Teatro Nacional. The concert featured both Cuban and Brazilian musicians, Brazil being the "guest of honor" at the expo. Brazilian sambista Nei Lopes was featured with his own group as well as jamming with some Cuban musicians. The highlight for me was an all-star, multi-generational charanga. Also featured was the great flautist & bandleader Orlando "Maraca" Valle's salsa group.

Food in Havana was generally pretty bad, with the exception of one meal at a paladar, a small, private restaurant in a family's apartment, with limited license from the government to serve small groups of diners. Harold and I did go to the legendary bar-restaurant La Bodeguita del Medio, where Hemingway went for his mojitos and where, in the '50s, the trio of Carlos Puebla, later the voice of the revolution, used to perform. At La Bodeguita in 2001 a son trio performed many of those same songs by great soneros like Miguel Matamoros and Nico Saquito. They did some of the classics of the repertoire, like "Son de la Loma" and "Lagrimas Negras," which we had probably heard done by a dozen little combos around town just in our peregrinations. They also took requests. One young couple requested the bolero "Cuando Calienta el Sol," which you probably know as "Love Me with All Your Heart." Then I requested "Cuidadito Compay Gallo," a Nico Saquito composition. The band members were surprised that I knew the tune, but I happen to be very familiar with Cuban music. They asked me where I was from and I told them New York. While they sang the song the leader improvised a lyric about "nuestros amigos de Nueva York." Later I made another request, "Pare Cochero," made famous by Orquesta Aragon. The leader sternly said, "No!" I realized immediately that I had made a faux pas. I had asked a trio to do a tune from the charanga repertoire!

* * *

Youtube Jukebox

(Tell me what you think.)

Trio Matamoros. Several tunes performed live by the quintessential Cuban son trio.

Septeto Nacional - Suavecito. With Septeto Nacional, Ignacio Pineiro added a lead trumpet to the son sexteto (which had augmented the guitar, claves and maracas instrumentation of the original trios with tres, string bass and bongos). Out of this grew the conjunto, which added the piano as well as additional horns and percussion and became the basis for salsa. Pineiro's composition "Echale Salsita" is often credited as the inspiration for the use of the word "salsa" to describe a musical style.

Conjunto Chapotin - Canallon. Featuring Miguelito Cuni on vocals. Chapotin is the trumpeter.

Conjunto Hatuey - Cuidadito Compay Gallo. From a 1938 film. The song I requested at La Bodeguita del Medio. The band includes Compay Segundo a mere 58 years before his appearance on Buena Vista Social Club.

Carlos Puebla - Hasta Siempre. His most famous song of the revolution.

Charanga Habana All Stars - Pare Cochero. The song is a cha cha cha. I think this is the group I saw in Havana. Among the musicians are Pancho Amat and the great percussionist Tata Guines, who died earlier this year. Piano player Guillermo Rubalcaba is the father of jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. The distinguishing instrumental features of the charanga are violins and flute, which grew out of the instrumentation of the Danzón orchestra.

Silvio Rodriguez & Sara Gonzalez - De una Vez. Two of the leading lights of nueva trova.

Trio Irakitan - Cuando Calienta el Sol. I'm not familiar with this group. Apparently they're Brazilian. The song is Mexican, but it's known throughout Latin America, and any Cuban trio can likely do it on request. Love me with all your heart.

Bebo & Cigala - Lagrimas Negras. I just had to share this version of one of the most famous Cuban songs, a Miguel Matamoros composition. It features the Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes (father of Chucho) and the Spanish flamenco singer Diego el Cigala. Filmmaker Fernando Trueba (Calle 54) had the brilliant idea to bring these two together to do classics of the Cuban repertoire. The results are exquisite.

Orishas - 537 Cuba. Buena Vista Social Club reintroduced the world to classic Cuban son, but there's much more to Cuban music these days than old men finally getting their just recognition. There's a vibrant contemporary Cuban music scene, and Orishas, though based in Europe, is one of the most popular bands, blending hip-hop and Afrocuban rhythms. This song incorporates Compay Segundo's tune "Chan Chan," which appeared on the original Buena Vista Social Club album.

Los Van Van - Tim-Pop con Birdland. Los Van Van is the most popular Cuban band of the past thirty years and a favorite of Fidel's. They play timba, which is a style related to salsa, but with a more aggressive sound. This tune incorporates Joe Zawinul's "Birdland," from the Weather Report repertoire.

Los Zafiros - Y Sabes Bien. Back to the 'sixties for a little Cuban doo-wop.

Note: My apologies for the lack of accents throughout. Too much trouble with a U.S. keyboard.

Bruno is Retiring!

Bruno Viscovi, the San Francisco restaurateur whose charm and food set me on the Road to Istria (Part I Part II), has decided to call it a day. He's surely earned a relaxing retirement, but without Bruno's gift of gab, no matter how good the kitchen and management, a visit to Albona will never be the same.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Berber Shows and Chickie Grills

When I was in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, in the mid-nineties, I hired a cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) driver on retainer. I paid him the princely sum, for cyclo drivers, of about $7 a day, to be at my beck and call 16 hours a day. He got me from place to place and took me on tours of the city. He was a poor, young guy from a village several hours away. He'd come into Saigon for days at a time to earn money to bring back to his mother in the village; he'd sleep outdoors, by his cyclo, near my hotel.

In most South Asian and Southeast Asian cities there are a range of private transportation options at descending cost levels: taxis, motor rickshaws (like the Thai tuk-tuks), and cycle rickshaws. In a few places there are even old-style rickshaws pulled by walking "drivers." I could never bring myself to engage one of those.

The bicycle rickshaw drivers are generally dirt poor and work for pennies. Rarely do they speak any English. It's a tough life. My $7 stipend to the guy in Vietnam was the equivalent of several days' earnings for scattered short hauls for locals. I remember once in Jaipur, India, I had asked a bicycle rickshaw driver the rate for a trip. "Chaa rupee," he said (six rupees in Hindi, pronounced like Che), about fifteen cents. He was amazed and effusively thankful when I gave him seven rupees. These guys don't usually get tips.

My Saigon driver did speak a little English, which is why I agreed to hire him for three days, though his accent was quite thick and he was very hard to understand. He was good-spirited and eager to please. As we were riding about town he'd point out things of interest, or presumed interest, to me. Since I was a guy traveling alone these often had a sexual angle, though it often took me a while to figure that out.

At one point he pointed at a shop and said what sounded like, "Berber show! Berber show! Masa! Masa!" I had no idea what he was saying. Surely there weren't any Berbers in Vietnam, so what kind of show was he talking about? And what about Masa? I have a Japanese friend named Masa, and masa is the cornmeal base for tortillas and tamales, but he couldn't have been talking about Japanese men or Mexican food. It finally sunk in: he was saying, "Barber shop! Barber shop! Massage! Massage!" I had heard about these special "barber shops" in Asia. A guy sits in the barber's chair and gets serviced by the female "barber." Any hair that gets cut in the process is, I assume, only incidental.

Another time we passed a large public square. "Here, every night, chickie grill," I thought he said. I tried to make sense of this one. I had recently read about a street in Yogyakarta, Indonesia where at night hawkers sell fried chicken, so maybe he was talking about something like that. "Grilled chicken?" I asked. "To eat?"

He cracked up. "Chickie grill to eat! No, no, no!" Somehow he conveyed to me that he was talking about prostitutes.

Chicken girl, I learned, is a term in Vietnam (and, indeed, much of Asia) for a prostitute.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Farewell George Deem

George Deem, "Words by Ronald Vance"

I learned last night that painter George Deem died on August 11, quietly, at home, after a brief illness.

George was a friend for close to thirty years, a casual friend, the kind of friend you see maybe once every six or seven years, and know you'll see again, until they're gone.

I met George in the late-seventies or early-eighties, when I published some of his work in Zone magazine. I believe the first piece was "Mona Lisa Washington," which had a drawing and text by George. The drawing was a composite of Mona Lisa and one of Gilbert Stuart's portraits of George Washington. It was accompanied by a wacky but slightly disturbing poem. A year or two later I published a collaborative text by George and his longtime partner, writer Ronald Vance.

After the Zone years I saw George mainly at big, round tables in Chinatown. For years I've arranged dinner parties of eight to ten diners at Chinese restaurants on a regular basis. I do all the ordering. I always invite people who don't know each other, composing the guest list for an interesting balance of "flavors" as I would with the menu. George was a great mixer who made an impression on everybody he met. He was outgoing in a quiet way, an understated raconteur, with great stories and enthusiasms. I might go five, or six, or seven years without seeing George, then give him a call about a Chinese dinner and he'd show up. But the last time I saw George was in October of 2005, when he and Ronald showed up in the audience at a reading I did at Bowery Poetry Club.

The work that George was best known for played with the images of the old masters, especially Vermeer. One of George's fixations, for a while, was Mayakovsky. His painting "Hands of Mayakovsky" finds the poet sitting in the room where Vermeer's maid is pouring milk. As a reviewer put it in 2000, "Postmodern before the term was invented, for the past 35 years George Deem has made art that involves the quotation of art-historical masterpieces. His is an art of wit and quiet virtuosity, presenting us with the familiar in an unfamiliar context." Wit and quiet virtuosity indeed.

Goodbye, George.

A gallery of George's work can be found HERE.

Here is the Artnet obituary for George:

GEORGE DEEM, 1932-2008
George Deem, 76, New York artist known for "conceptual realist" paintings that drew on images of Old and Modern Masters, died after a brief illness on Aug. 11, 2008. Born in Vincennes, Ind., Deem exhibited regularly at Allan Stone Gallery in New York from 1962-1977, developing a painting style that employed virtuosic skill to revise classical paintings, with a particular affection for Vermeer. His work was widely exhibited and is held in many collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In 2004, a book of his work, How to Paint A Vermeer: A Painter’s History of Art, featured an essay by Robert Rosemblum, while a collection of his own writings, Let George Do It, is scheduled for publication later this year. He is currently represented by Pavel Zoubok Gallery, which plans an exhibition of Deem paintings concurrent with a retrospective at Allan Stone in January 2009.

Update: NY Times Obituary

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Windows of My Childhood

I was back in the old neighborhood today, to meet a friend for lunch. Returning to the scene of my childhood is always a bittersweet experience, mostly bitter. I had my camera with me, and I shot the above photo of the windows of the apartment I lived in for the first twenty-one years of my life. The second window from the right was my bedroom window. The one major advantage to living on the first floor was that when Dave, the Good Humor man, drove down the block and rang his bells I could open up the window and yell out, "Dave! A toasted almond," or, starting in 1965, when "Super Humors" were introduced, "Dave! A chocolate chip candy," and Dave would deliver to my window.

What Is There to Say About Sripraphai?

I've been trying to figure how to write about what is almost universally acclaimed as the best, most authentic Thai restaurant in New York, a place that has been widely reviewed, not to mention discussed to death on foodie chat boards. I really have nothing of substance to add. What would be the point of trying to write about Sripraphai?

So should I instead talk about what I had for lunch on the day of my second dinner at Sripraphai? I had a falafel and tabouleh sandwich at Marrakesh, at 235 E. 53rd Street, one of my regular lunch places in my new work neighborhood. The food is good, the prices are reasonable, the staff are all very friendly, and one of the waitresses is stunningly beautiful.

Perhaps I should talk about what I had for breakfast as long as I'm beating around the bush. I had a bowl of Kashi Heart to Heart, which tastes like a grown-up version of Cheerios, with some almonds and raisins. I eat it because it tastes good, not because of the health claims.

I don't know. What can I say about Sripraphai?

I paid my first visit to Sripraphai about two years ago. It was the inaugural dinner of my monthly outer-boroughs dining club. Everybody was bowled over by the food, but I couldn't figure out how to write about it. After all, it had already been written about extensively. I couldn't come up with an angle. So I kept quiet. Mum was the word.

Well, what is there to say, now that I've gone back? At least I have an angle, if only the difficulty of writing about Sripraphai.

I could talk about the state of Thai food in America, or about the history of Thai food in New York, the little I know of either, that is.

Over the past twenty or so years Thai restaurants have become almost as common across America as Chinese restaurants, and most are as bad as most Chinese restaurants. I'm not sure how Thai food caught on so quickly and in such a big way. I suppose to some degree it has to do with American palates becoming more open to spicy food in recent years. But just as most Chinese restaurants that claim to be "Szechuan" serve mediocre, Americanized versions of Sichuan cuisine, most Thai restaurants take the major dishes of Thai cuisine and adapt them to what the restaurateurs consider to be American tastes. That's the generous interpretation of why most Thai food is so mediocre. Another reason may well be that people who have no business cooking except that cooking is their business are opening Thai restaurants to capitalize on the popularity of the cuisine. Many Thai restaurants, like many Japanese restaurants, have Chinese owners and chefs who don't really know the cuisine first-hand, though, to be fair, many are probably run by ethnic Chinese from Thailand. Thai food in America is often greasy, gloppy, and underspiced. For some reason there's also a sweetness to many dishes that you wouldn't find in the true Thai versions. But bad Thai food happens to be very popular. Indeed, one of the most popular chains of Thai restaurants in the city is Lemongrass Grill, a poster child for everything that's wrong with Thai food in America. The original Lemongrass Grill, in my neighborhood, Park Slope, is always crowded.

I've been to Thailand, and there the spicy dishes have a real bite without masking the complexity of flavors. Some of the best food I've eaten Thailand was at night markets, where the food was dirt-cheap. I think there's only a handful of Thai restaurants in the U.S. that prepare Thai food as it's prepared in Thailand. Sripraphai is one of them; Thai House Express, in San Francisco, is another.

I think I first tried Thai food in the 1970s. Back then it appeared that all the Thai restaurants in New York were in Hell's Kitchen, in the mid-50s around 8th and 9th Avenues. I have no idea whether there was ever a Thai community in that neighborhood. Now, of course, just about every neighborhood has a Thai restaurant.

There are supposedly a few excellent, authentic Thai restaurants in Queens in addition to Sripraphai. The New York Thai community is, I believe, centered in Elmhurst, which is not far from Woodside, where Sripraphai is located. I really do need to try some other Thai restaurants in Queens.

But what can I say about Sripraphai? I can tell you what we ate, I guess.

There were four of us, and we all loved everything we ordered. One of the frustrations at Sripraphai is choosing from the extensive menu, augmented by a copious list of specials. Soft shell crabs with basil and chili, from the specials menu, were fabulous. Also from the specials menu was a noodle dish served with a northern Thai curry with spare ribs. There were little webs of rice noodle accompanied by a spicy curry that was pretty much a "jungle curry," one of the few Thai curries without coconut milk. A grilled catfish salad was spicy, sharp and pungent, similar to, if not precisely, a larb. The green curry with duck reveled in its own lemongrass flavor. The one non-spicy dish we ordered, a repeat from our first dinner there, was the pork leg with mustard greens, flavored with star anise and other herbs.

That's about it.

I don't think this is a very good blog post.

What can I say?

Sripraphai on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Tail End of a Dream

I was at a bar, and I ordered a "schlager," but I woke up before it arrived. Upon awakening I wondered whether, had the dream continued, I'd have been served a beer with whipped cream.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What, No Pide? What a Pity!

Ali Baba Terrace, at Second Avenue and 46th Street, opened this week. I've been waiting for months for the debut of this new location, fairly close to my office, of my favorite New York Turkish restaurant. I was sure it would become part of my regular lunch rotation. I'm wild about the pides at the original 34th street branch, and they have great lunch specials too, at $10.95 for a kebab plate and an appetizer.

My bubble was burst at lunch today. Not only doesn't the new location make pides, they don't even bake their own bread. Instead they serve little rolls that are no more Turkish than I am. Even for dips, there's no kind of pita available. No lunch specials either, just the dinner menu. And the dinner entrees are all about $2 0r $3 more expensive than the same items at 34th street. I guess they're trying to milk the U.N. crowd.

Four of us shared five appetizers for lunch. Everything was good, sure, but it was hard to enjoy the food, so great was our disappointment.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

If It's Tuesday It Must Be Short

I think I'm finally cured of my print bias.

When I started this blog I wrote, "Maybe it's a generational thing (I'm certainly no technophobe), but I still have a bias toward print. I've never submitted any of my work to webzines; I still can't think of it as real publication. Of course I'm wrong, but just try to convince me."

All that has changed. I recently took the plunge and started submitting my "creative" work to online publications. The first was Six Sentences, which has published two of my pieces.

I think seeing my work at a third-party site was what changed my mind. I realized that not only would I get an audience for those pieces with the readers of Six Sentences, but I could also link to them here. And they'd show up in searches for my work. On top of everything else, I wouldn't have more copies of little magazines (the usual payment) collecting dust on my shelves.

When I started publishing fiction and other short prose in the late '70s it was the tail end of one of the most fruitful periods in American literary magazine publishing. My work appeared in quite a number of sympathetic journals, from the humble Street Bagel to the formidable Transatlantic Review. Then, starting in the mid-eighties, I published my work regularly in magazines associated with the downtown literary and performance scene. By the 'nineties I was pretty much clueless about the literary magazine terrain, and generally submitted work only upon invitation. And I got busy with other things, like working on a Ph.D.

For about five years, starting in 1977, I published a literary magazine, Zone. It was an expensive proposition, and would have impossible without grant money. Distribution was a bitch. I'm sure now that if I were to try to launch a magazine today it would be on the web. It's a no-brainer. The potential readership is much greater, the cost so much lower, and published work can be archived indefinitely. So I finally got the message and started researching and reading online literary magazines. I discovered that there are quite a number that publish short-short prose, my metier, some exclusively. It makes sense. The medium invites brevity. Many sites will not consider fiction over 1000, 1200 or 1500 words. I think this, after all, is my natural habitat.

Which brings me to Tuesday Shorts, a bi-weekly online 'zine that only publishes short prose of 100 words or less. My piece "A Conspiracy of Address Book Salesmen" appears in the current edition.

I've added an Online Publications section of links to my work on the sidebar.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Smoked Turbot - The Poor Man's Sable

I discovered smoked turbot in Brighton Beach yesterday. I was in M&I International Foods, the Russian gourmet megastore. I went up to the smoked fish counter. "Pazhalsta," the woman behind the counter said. Because my pure Russian-Jewish ancestry is reflected in my looks, it's always assumed I'm a Russian speaker when I go into shops and restaurants in Brighton Beach. I usually get a surprised look when I start to speak in unaccented English. "Do you have sable?" I asked. I hadn't seen any in the case. "No," the woman replied. So I looked at the other wares. I considered picking up some sturgeon, at $16 a pound, but then I noticed some oily, rich-looking white fish slices and a sign that said "Turbot, $10 lb." The flesh looked a lot like sable (black cod), but it was much cheaper, probably half as much as sable would cost, as it has now become more expensive than sturgeon, due largely to demand in Japan. So I decided to go for it. I asked her for four slices, which worked out to a quarter of a pound.

I made a sandwich this morning. It was indeed very similar to sable, with a buttery consistency. I was happy to have found a relatively inexpensive substitute.

Turbot is known as paltus in Russian. I've never seen smoked turbot elsewhere, and a web search shows that it's mainly available from Russian food purveyors. Turbot is a flatfish from deep, cold waters, and is also known as Greenland halibut or Atlantic halibut. Turbot is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. If you don't live near a Russian neighborhood, smoked paltus can be ordered online.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Nathan's and Ralph's

It struck me, all of a sudden, that I hadn't seen the Atlantic Ocean in a while, so I took a trip out to Brighton Beach and Coney Island this afternoon. Besides strolling the boardwalk and gazing at the ocean, I snuck in a couple of snacks.

When I got to the Coney Island end of the boardwalk it struck me that I hadn't had French fries from the original Nathan's in about ten years. Sure there are other Nathan's outlets, but they're sanitized franchises, not the real deal. For the true Nathan's fries experience you've got to go to the original.

The fat, crinkle-cut Nathan's fries are an American classic, as classic as their hot dogs, as far as I'm concerned. It's been a long-popular urban legend that the fries at the Coney Island Nathan's are so good because they haven't changed the oil in years. Some versions had it that they hadn't changed the oil since they opened in 1916, others that they hadn't changed the oil in fifty years. I heard the fifty years figure for at least thirty years.

I don't remember what a small order of fries cost when I last had them, but I do know that the calories weren't listed back then. Well, now the calories are listed, unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your perspective. A small order of fries is 680 calories. I ate half and threw the rest away. If I hadn't seen the number I probably would have eaten them all. So I guess the labeling is serving its intended purpose.

The fries were still excellent, still classic, but (and this could be my imagination) they seemed just slightly less flavorful than I had remembered. I think they may have finally changed the oil.

Back on the boardwalk I couldn't resist the Ralph's Ices cart. I've never been to a full-fledged Ralph's Ices outlet, but I've had their product from several pizzerias in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and several years ago from the cart on the boardwalk.

Ralph's is almost as old as Nathan's, having been established in 1928. Ralph's is based in Staten Island, but they also have quite a number of locations in Long Island and New Jersey, and several in Queens and Brooklyn. Ralph's makes true Italian Ices, both water ices and cream ices. Cream ices, as the name implies, have some cream in them, but they're not a cream and milk product like ice cream or gelato. Cream ices are prepared much like water ices, but with ice-cream-like flavors rather than fruit. A little cream is added in the process, but cream ices are much lighter than ice cream. Ralph's shines in both departments. The fruit flavors are fresh and vibrant. But I'm especially fond of their cream ices. For a long time my favorite flavor had been cremolata, a vanilla-almond ice with pieces of crushed almond mixed in. It has a golden color, and I'm not sure what other ingredients it includes. Cremolata is also a component of their tri-color spumoni ices (along with pistachio and chocolate, both excellent too). This time I got a combination of cremolata and cappucinno. Well, I think the cappuccino has dethroned cremolata as my favorite Ralph's flavor. It had such a deep, smooth, well-rounded coffee flavor, with just the right touch of creaminess.

I can get pretty good Italian ices at several Uncle Louie G's locations in Park Slope, but their flavors are rather uneven (the passion fruit, I'll grant, is fabulous). I'd much rather there were a Ralph's in the neighborhood. The upstart Uncle Louie G has nothing on Ralph's.

Nathan's Famous on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Gin Loomi

I grew up in a drinking culture. It was the 'sixties and cocktails were chic, glorified in films and television. There was rarely beer in my household, and if there was wine it was Ruffino Chianti in the little straw-covered bottles. But my folks had just about every kind of spirit and mixer imaginable, often multiple brands. My stepfather always had a couple of Beefeater martinis (with a twist) before dinner. When there was a party the drinks flowed freely, and the volume always rose as the evening wore on.

I've been a writer ever since I learned to put pen to paper. Maybe even before. And I responded to my environment. We had several mixology guides on our bookshelves, and when I was seven or eight I decided to write Peter Cherches's Bartender's Guide, with the hope that some of my inventions would be adopted for my parents' parties. I came up with fanciful names for mixed drinks and made up recipes off the top of my head, with no idea what they would taste like. But I knew the names of all the ingredients. I can't remember any of the more elaborate drinks I invented, but the one I'll never forget was the Gin Rummy: "Mix equal parts of gin and rum." When I showed the book to my mother she said, "You can't mix gin and rum. You'd throw up!"

I have a better sense now of what works in a mixed drink. For the past several years I've been enjoying a soft drink called loomi at Olive Vine, a casual Middle-Eastern restaurant in Park Slope. It's made from a citrus fruit also known as loomi, or black lemon (though it's actually a kind of lime). The limes are boiled and then sun dried. The final product has an aromatic bitter-tart flavor. Its most common use is apparently as a flavoring in Persian cuisine. It's also popular in the kitchens of Iraq and Kuwait. And it makes a really refreshing summer drink. Every time I've had a loomi at Olive Vine I've thought it would go great with gin. It's a natural, with a taste somewhat like tonic water or bitter lemon. So last night I picked up a loomi to go, and mixed in some gin when I got home. It worked like a charm. As I sipped my loomi with gin, I tried to think of a name for my new cocktail. Since loomi is popular in Iraq, and since my drink is made with gin, I thought of calling it a Bombay-Baghdad. Eventually I decided to keep it simple and just call it a gin loomi.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

News Flash: Gelato Cart at Nino's Positano

I was on a reconnaissance mission to the northeast corner of Second Avenue and 46th Street, to see if the new branch of Ali Baba, the Turkish restaurant to whose pides I written an encomium, had opened yet. I'm on the edge of my proverbial seat waiting for them to launch, as this location is fairly close to my office. They're not quite there yet, but it looks like construction is finished, and through the windows I saw the owner chatting at a table with several other guys. Any day now, I hope.

What I am happy to report is the discovery I made a block and a half up Second Avenue, in front of Nino's Positano, an Italian restaurant I've never tried, but which seems to be fairly popular and well regarded. They had a gelato cart out front. Here I was, still in mourning for the Osteria del Circo cart, and I had found a new gelato cart fairly close to my office. They had about 8-10 flavors of gelati and sorbetti, available in two sizes of cup, at $4 and $6. I had a $4 cup with pistachio and cappuccino crunch. The consistency was perfectly light-creamy true-Italian gelato, and the flavors were fresh-tasting, though they could perhaps have been more vibrant. It's not in the same league as the gelato from Osteria del Circo, but it'll have to do for the time being. I'm hoping they rotate flavors, as I didn't see some of my favorites, like bacio, gianduja, or caramello.

UPDATE 8/11/08 - Ali Baba Terrace, @ 2nd Ave. & 46th St. is now open for business.

Nino's Positano is at 890 Second Avenue.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

It's Halo Halo Time

I first became aware of halo halo last summer. I had lunch at Bayan, a Filipino steam table place on East 45th, with Brian, who is Filipino by marriage. On the way out there was a sign on the wall that said "Special: Halo Halo." Halo halo, I learned from Brian, is the Filipino take on ice drinks with multiple ingredients that are popular throughout Southeast Asia. I love Southeast Asian ice drinks, especially on a hot summer day. However, I was too full to try one that day. I didn't get back to Bayan until this summer, also with Brian. This time I ate very little rice with my meal (a combo of pork adobo and dinuguan (a stew of pork and innards in a pig's blood sauce)) in order to leave room for the halo halo.

I think the first of the Southeast Asian ice drinks I really became familiar with was che ba mau, or Vietnamese rainbow ice, at Vietnamese restaurants in New York and San Francisco. The name translates literally as "three-color pudding." Che is a word for a hot pudding in Vietnam as well as the ice drinks. The three colors are red from azuki beans, yellow from mung beans, and green from a gelatin that I believe is made from agar agar. Sometimes other ingredients, like tapioca or crushed peanuts are added. They're layered in a glass with crushed or shaved ice and coconut milk. You mix it up and drink some of it through a straw and eat the rest with a spoon. It's usually available in any Vietnamese restaurant.

My favorite of the ice drinks is ais (or es) cendol (pronounced chendol), an Indonesian and Malaysian specialty. I discovered this on a typical sweltering, muggy day in Penang. I stopped in a coffee shop and ordered one and it was just the perfect thing to cool me down. I became addicted, and consumed them for the rest of my time in Malaysia. Actually, cendol originated on Java, where it's served in a glass, but I prefer the Malaysian version, which is served in a bowl. Cendol is a kind of sweet, chewy noodle made from green pea flour, made greener by coloring from pandan leaves. A bowl of Malaysian ais cendol is made from shaved ice with coconut milk and palm sugar syrup (which has a wonderful creme caramel type of taste) into which is added the cendol, and often other ingredients, like red beans and dark-purple grass jelly (a plant gelatin). It's amazingly refreshing, and while I haven't found a cendol in the U.S. that compares to any I've had in Malaysia (though Nyonya in Brooklyn does a respectable job) it always transports me back to Penang, one of the world's great food cities. Another popular ice drink in Singapore and Malaysia is known either as ais kacang or ABC ("air batu campur," or mixed ice). Ais kacang is made with evaporated milk instead of coconut milk and a sweet red rose syrup. It can have many things mixed in, almost always beans and some kind of gelatin, sometimes corn kernels and palm seeds. I had one ais kacang in Malaysia that also had a scoop of fabulous sweet corn ice cream included.

The thing that most interested me about halo halo was that flan was one of the ingredients, part of the Spanish legacy in Filipino cuisine. Ice cream is also included sometimes, though not in the version at Bayan. Halo halo is pronounced "hollow hollow" and translates as "mix mix." I think it has the most amazing variety of stuff stuffed into a glass of any of the Southeast Asian ice drinks. In the one I had at Bayan there was a base of crushed (not shaved) ice and milk with a bunch of ingredients at the bottom and some squares of flan, some shreds of langka (jackfruit), and a lump of ube (purple yam) paste on top. I'm probably missing some of the ingredients, but there were definitely red beans, some kind of gelatin, cubes of caramelized plantain, sweet potato and chick peas (!). It was excellent, and the flan was definitely the crowning glory, but it hasn't quite dethroned cendol in my ice drink pantheon.

* * *

Bayan is at 212 E. 45th, between 2nd & 3rd Avenuues. I think they only serve halo halo in the summer.

Che ba mau is easy to find at Vietnamese restaurants in New York's various Chinese neighborhoods (most Vietnamese restaurants in NYC are run by ethnic Chinese), but I think the best I've had recently was in Bay Ridge, at Pho Hoai, at 4th Avenue and 86th Street, right next to the R train.

A good place to try cendol is Nyonya. They have three branches: in Sunset Park (my favorite), at 5323 8th Avenue (@ 54th Street), in Bensonhurst, at 2322 86th Street, and in Chinatown at 194 Grand Street (between Mott & Mulberry). They also serve ABC.

Bayan Cafe on Urbanspoon