Saturday, February 27, 2010

West 39th Street is Now Little Chengdu

Who'd have imagined 15 years ago, when you'd have been hard-pressed to find a real Sichuan restaurant in New York, that a single block of W. 39th St., between 5th & 6th Avenues, would be host to two of the best and most authentic Sichuan restaurants in all of New York City?

It started 2004, when Szechuan Gourmet, a Flushing restaurant, opened a Manhattan outpost on the block. I first tried it in 2006. True Sichuan cooking had returned to Manhattan in the '90s, with the Grand Sichuan and Wu Liang Ye mini-chains. While I found some dishes at Grand Sichuan to be excellent, Wu Liang Ye always seemed to be a notch or two up. Then Szechuan Gourmet came along, and it was clearly in the same league as Wu Liang Ye.

Lan Sheng, at 60 W. 39th, opened late last year on the same block as Szechuan Gourmet. It's possible that this was deliberate. Szechuan Gourmet had become extremely popular after a Frank Bruni two-star review in the Times in 2008 (no doubt following the leads of enthusiastic foodies on sites like Chowhound). Szechuan Gourmet is always crowded at lunch and often at dinner, so perhaps the Lan Sheng owners hoped to attract diners who weren't up for a long wait. In any case, with the opening of Lan Sheng, which I'd say is in the same class as the best of Manhattan's Sichuan restaurants (granted, based on one meal, but with a large-enough sampling), let me be the first to give the block the honorary name "Little Chengdu."

I think when dealing with the top echelon of restaurants in any regional Chinese cuisine the question isn't which is the best but rather which dishes are best at which place. And in many cases it boils down to a matter of preference among two good but different versions of the same dish. For me Lan Sheng seemed to shine especially in the seafood department.

One of our favorite dishes was the sea scallops with yibin yacai spice (photo at top). On the menu the dish features prawns, but we were told they were all out of prawns (very odd at 7PM on a weeknight, I must say). But the scallops were absolutely fresh, plump and delicious. Yibin yacai is a kind of pickled vegetable mixed with minced pork that is stir fried with shrimp or string beans usually, and is a specialty of Yibin city in Sichuan province.

Perhaps even better were the fish cubes with pickled chilies. This may be a Hunan rather than a Sichuan dish (I don't normally see pickled chilies on Sichuan menus, but they were all over the menu at Flushing's Hunan House). Abundant cubes of tilapia filet were served in a sauce that had a complex flavor, hard to pin down completely, of which the pickled chilies were but one component. The dish is very, but not overwhelmingly, spicy. I don't believe it features Sichuan peppercorns, so it doesn't have that mentholated tingle of some of the other dishes, and therefore provides a nice flavor balance to a meal.

Gui Zhou chicken is a spicy dish I know from the Grand Sichuan restaurants, where the chicken chunks are served on the bone. At Lan Sheng it's boneless and somewhat less spicy. Very good in its way, but this is one dish that I think is the real star at Grand Sichuan.

Lan Sheng's camphor tea smoked duck was outstanding, just a cut below the version at Wu Liang Ye, which I consider the gold standard. The skin was crispy, and the meat was sweet and tender with most excess fat cooked out. I prefer this to the fattier, less crispy version across the street at Szechuan Gourmet.

But the lamb with cumin, served here with a moist, spicy cumin paste, was no match for Szechuan Gourmet's dry, crispy version.

Though most Sichuan restaurants serve cold dishes with chili vinaigrette, I don't believe I've seen it with scungilli elsewhere. Ultimately, I think this preparation fares better with meat, especially ox tongue and tripe, a common Sichuan menu item.

Lan Sheng's version of dan dan noodles is a bit unorthodox. I don't think I've ever had the dish with crushed peanuts before, and the sauce was thicker and sweeter than most, with less of a Sichuan peppercorn kick. I wasn't thrilled.

If you've been to Szechuan Gourmet before, give Lan Sheng a try. If you haven't been to either, I'd say Szechuan Gourment gets the edge, unless you're more inclined toward seafood than meat dishes.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Korean Cornbread and Other Street Snacks

The blustery cold, about 15 degrees fahrenheit that night, didn't stymie the street food vendors or the steady stream of customers on a bustling pedestrian-only street across the road from the big Lotte department store in Seoul. That night I dined on snacks.

My favorite was the hot cornbread with a hard-boiled egg in the middle (above).

Skewers of mixed sausage were sold by several vendors. The sausages were on the sweet side, and some consisted of sausage casing with a bit of meat wrapped around a chewy rice cake, sort of a Korean reverse pig in the blanket.

The longest line was for the grilled chicken skewers. I joined the line and had me a Korean kebab.

As I was walking around I kept seeing these tables with dried octopus tentacles and other dried seafood. Finally I picked up one of those paper cups full of dried octopus slices. A woman took it from me and heated the pieces up, I think on a charcoal grill, and returned them to me, warm and smoky. Octopus chips.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Chowing Down in Coyoacan

Coyoacan, in the southern part of Mexico City, used to be a town unto itself until it was incorporated into the metropolis. A subway ride of 30-40 minutes from the center of Mexico City takes you to what indeed feels like a different place. It's a quiet, peaceful oasis with beautiful colonial buildings, public squares and cafe culture. Mexicans and foreigners alike flock to the neighborhood on weekends, and then one can add lively to the adjectives quiet and peaceful. I think Coyoacan is my favorite part of Mexico City, and I wish I'd had more time to spend there. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera spent many years there, and you can visit their house and studio, the Casa Azul. I did, though I didn't get to Trotsky's house.

There are lots of eating options in Coyoacan, but I had two particular items on my agenda: a bowl of pozole and an octopus ceviche.

I had my octopus at El Jardin del Pulpo (sing it, Ringo!), at the mercado. Overlooking the street, at the edge of the market, it has long tables, and specializes in ceviches and cocktails as well as some hot dishes. My octopus and shrimp ceviche was fabulous.

At a little indoor cluster of food stalls right by the main plaza is a vendor reputed to have the best pozole in Mexico City. Pozole is a soup whose main ingredient is hominy; it can be served with various meats and is often garnished with sliced radishes and shredded lettuce. One seasons to taste with ground red chile, oregano and lime.

This particular pozole place is so popular that I got the last seat a few minutes before 2 PM, when they start serving. The other big item in the market is deep-fried quesadillas, a Coyoacan specialty, but I was trying to save myself for dinner. In fact, I even had my pozole sin carne ($4, $6 with meat), because I didn't want to stuff myself.

It was definitely the best pozole I've ever had, with a delicious broth made better by my additional seasoning.

If you find yourself in Mexico City, a visit to Coyoacan is absolutely essential. Meat in your pozole is optional.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Spanish Nightmare (with Jazz)

It didn't start out as a nightmare.  It started out as a quite pleasant dream.  I was in Spain, on vacation, I think Madrid.  I was looking for a cafe to take breakfast at and I passed by one place with a sign that said, in English, "Jazz Session."  So, being a jazz fan, I went in, though it seemed odd that they were featuring jazz in the morning.  It was a fairly typical Spanish cafe, with a bar and some tables, but I didn't see a bandstand.  Then I noticed a staircase with a sign that said "Jazz," and a red arrow pointing downward.  

I walked down to the cellar and opened the door.  It was a large room.  The music sounded great. Better than  I was expecting.  Rather than a small combo playing standards, it was a group playing fairly complex arrangements.  But the place was noisy with conversation.  There were people in armchairs and on sofas conversing loudly.  I hate it when people don't pay attention to the music, especially when it's so good.  So I decided to get closer to the musicians. It turned out that they were all seated around a big banquet table.  I took a seat at the table.  I recognized several of the musicians.  They were major European jazz figures, mostly Italian. They finished the number they were playing and took a break.

A waitress came around during the break to take orders.  I said, "Un cafe con leche, y..."  I couldn't think of the name of the pastry I wanted, a little tart with almonds. "Y-y-y-y-y," I continued, stalling.  I figured even if I didn't know the exact name of the item I could ask for a pastry "con almendras."  But I couldn't even think of the Spanish word for pastry.  I was about to say "pasticcia," but that's an Italian word (and, as it turns out, a conjugation of the verb meaning "to make a mess").  I thought the word might be "torta," but in Mexico, at least, that's a sandwich. I didn't want to be laughed at for asking for a sandwich with almonds.  The waitress was staring at me impatiently.  I didn't know what to do.  I wanted a pastry with my coffee, but I couldn't come up with the name. In one last-ditch effort to stall her, I said, "Y tambien..." When I said nothing more she announced that if there were no more orders she was leaving.

I was doomed to having my coffee without pastry.  And I was pretty hungry, too.

Note: the most famous Spanish almond cake is the torta de Santiago, but that's not what I was thinking of.  In fact, I might have been trying to order an imaginary pastry, though I'm sure something like it must exist somewhere in Spain.  I was imagining a small pastry with a cupcake/muffin shape, but denser, with almond-flavored flour (not an almond paste filling) and sliced almonds on top.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Author of Liberty

We all mishear lyrics when we're children. When I first learned the patriotic song "My Country 'Tis of Thee," in kindergarten, we sang one of the later stanzas, and I thought the opening line went "Our father's gone to the author of liberty, to thee we sing," not "Our fathers' god to thee, author of liberty, to thee we sing." Maybe I had the kernel of atheism in me even at that young age, though I didn't fully embrace it until I was in the midst of my bar mitzvah lessons. Anyway, it started me thinking. Was the author of liberty someone you went to visit when you died? My father died when I was two years old. Did he go to the author of liberty?

I asked my mother. At first she didn't know what I was talking about, so I told her about the song. I'm pretty sure she changed the subject.

Perhaps death is indeed the author of liberty, but I'll take the bondage of life for as long as possible.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Quotations from Chairman Pete

Well, I've been writing this blog for four years now.  I was reluctant to start it, and I never imagined it would last more than a year, but here I am, here we are.  So, as long I've been indulging in the narcissism of "personal nonfiction" all this time, I figure I might as well bring together some of my personal favorite quotes from my own posts (with links to their source), my little red book you might say.  Here goes:

Sometimes a stranger is as good as a friend.

He looked closely, but the name Peter Cherches was nowhere to be found on the little porker’s skin.

I secretly suspect [Rick] Steves’ popularity has something to do with a strange fetish–that there’s an entire class of people who get off on being told where to go by a nerdy white guy.

Despite the sweet dessert the dinner left a sour taste in my mouth, and to the owners of i Trulli I say fuck you and your codfish and fishbait shrimp.

Fish and chickens may not be smart, but they’re not vegetables.

Of course I want to enter the site, dammit. That's why I typed the url or followed a search-engine link. I thought I was turning the key to the door, or at least knocking, but I'm left standing in the cold. Knock, knock, please let me in.

Our silver-haired waitress was a sweetheart. Attentive and chatty, she was like the "nice" Jewish mother I never had.

It’s amazing how many idiots are out there. All right, it’s not amazing.

The restaurant we mostly patronized was Joy Fong, on Avenue J, a now-defunct place that retains an almost holy status in the memories of Brooklyn Jews of a certain age. I wouldn’t be surprised if people visit the site of the former restaurant and wail against the wall.

"Did you hear about the white man who makes dosa?" asked my Indian coworker. This was not the beginning of a bad joke.

To the shocked counter girl I ranted, “No pistachio! I can’t believe this. When I was a kid pistachio was one of the standard flavors. There was always chocolate and vanilla and strawberry. Sometimes mint chip. Sometimes chocolate chip. Sometimes chocolate fudge. Sometimes butter pecan. But always pistachio! What’s this world coming to? No pistachio? You have dulce de leche, but no pistachio?”

One thing is certain about the pork shoulder: they really need to work on the visual presentation. I'm sure it doesn't have to look like a lump of shit on a plate.

On the menu they list their meat suppliers, but also the designer of their stools. They were nice enough stools, I guess, as far as backless stools go, but give me a break.

I think I'll consult the Mets' schedule before I plan another outing on the 7 line.

My impression was that it was food worthy, at best, of a Croatian high school cafeteria.

A peacock has no business on a men's room door.

If the large servings of excellent, dirt-cheap food weren't enough, our waiter and George, the owner, were extremely friendly. Who do they think they are?

My fellow passengers must have thought I was nuts when I started laughing out loud, but I could have sworn she said, "Your seat cushion may be used as a flirtation device."

The diet was tough going, but I discovered a survival mechanism that worked for me: sniffing.

"That wasn't just a scream, you know," Harold said. "It was a blood-curdling, other-worldly shriek."

When the driver pulled over, a dwarf in a tuxedo came over to the cab and opened the door for me. I stepped outside. I didn't notice a restaurant. I was confused. I showed the dwarf, who bore a slight resemblance to Herve Villechaize in "Fantasy Island," the piece of paper. "Is this the right place?" I asked.

Was Milan trying to kill us?

Here's to the temporary, honorary ladies who lunch!

I know nothing about makeup, but I'm guessing that at the very least we're talking about foundation, blush, powder, eyeliner, mascara and lipstick. Have I left anything out and have they no shame?

It was during my bar mitzvah lessons with Mrs. Goldstein, the gonzo haftorah coach, that I realized that all that bible and god stuff was a load of hooey, but I went through the motions nonetheless, in my rented tuxedo from Zeller's Formals, a black brocaded number reminiscent of tacky wallpaper.

He writes like Bozo the Clown on nitrous oxide chanelling the likes of Tristan Tzara, Luis Bunuel, Steven Wright, and a mischievous eight-year-old with ADD.

There was a time in New York when the mention of a rolled beef sandwich would not elicit a blank stare.

The sheer luxuriance of these beauteous bivalves, along with the supporting flavors, sent most of my fellow diners into paroxysms of ecstasy.

I think the Una Pizza Napoletana phenomenon is similar to
the Momofuku phenomenon: the chef a darling of the press who can do no wrong and the clientele a flock of trendy sheep who delight in being fleeced.

"It is? Then I'm not eating it!" she said, adamantly. My conservationist friend had obviously taken my words literally and assumed that the butterfly shrimp was an exotic sea creature facing imminent extinction.

Shmendrik, unlike schmuck, schmeckle and schlong, has no penile connotations.

Back in the 'seventies, when Ford was telling New York to drop dead, thousands of sad, quiet old men and rowdy young men, and more than a few women too, were tanking up at these establishments on cheap beer and booze, and occasionally supplementing those drinks with solid, cheap eats.

If some of the quotes look like they're in a different font or a different size, your eyes aren't fooling you.  Going back and forth on a Mac and a PC, with Firefox and Safari, seems to be the source of the problem, and I can't figure out how to fix it without laboriously tweaking the HTML.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Seize the Open Jaw

I've traveled widely for many years, throughout four continents and one subcontinent, and have learned a lot about travel logistics and planning; as a result friends are always coming me for travel advice. One tip I always give is to arrange an open jaw on your flight if you plan on visiting multiple cities. More often than not my mention of the term "open jaw" invites a blank stare. Most people, it seems, are unaware of this option in air travel.

An open jaw, simply, is a ticket that allows you to fly into one city and return from another. You can book an open jaw for domestic or international travel. The basic restriction is that the distance between the the two cities on the open jaw has to be less than the distance between either one of those destinations and your home airport. From there the pricing is like this: for each city on your itinerary you'll be charged half the prevailing round-trip fare, resulting in a composite fare. For example, say you want to fly into San Francisco, then head down the coast by car or train and end up in San Diego. There's no point in backtracking to San Francisco for your return flight if you can arrange an open jaw. If the roundtrip fare from JFK to San Francisco is $400 and the fare to San Diego is $450, you'd end up paying $425 for your open jaw ticket, saving you the better part of a day traveling back to San Francisco, travel expenses between the two cities, and possibly an extra night in a hotel. Unfortunately, too many of my friends ask me for advice after they've purchased their plane tickets.

I use open jaws all the time, on paid travel as well as award tickets. For frequent flyer international travel it gets even better. Most carriers allow a stopover in the connecting city as well as an open jaw. For instance, my recent trip to Asia was on an award ticket, using Delta miles. The partner airline that flies to Cambodia is Korean Air, which meant that I was allowed a free stopover in Seoul. Though I wouldn't have specifically planned a trip to South Korea in the winter, here was my chance to visit another country for no extra travel cost. Then, in Cambodia I used an open jaw. I flew into Phnom Penh from Seoul, made my way to Siem Reap on my own, and flew back to New York from Siem Reap via Seoul.

On one of my trips to India I had an open jaw between Mumbai and Delhi with a stopover in London. I've visited Japan as a stopover on an award ticket to China--an open jaw again, into Shanghai, out of Beijing. I could go on and on.

The open jaw is one of the most useful strategies for the traveler. It shouldn't be such a mystery.

Monday, February 08, 2010

I'll Let You In on a Little Secret

The Secrets issue of Mung Being just went online.  In it you can read my story "The Music Critic and the Soprano."

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Stupid Chicken, Stop Pickin' on Me

You gotta love a Chinese dish whose name translates as "Stupid Chicken with Wild Mushrooms." The dish is served at Northeast Taste, a Dong Bei (Northeastern) Chinese restaurant at the south end of Flushing's Main Street.

Northeast Taste serves the cuisine of Liaoning Province, which I wrote about a couple of years ago when I reviewed Waterfront International (now called Fu Run). As is customary in Dong Bei restaurants, our meal started with a complimentary cabbage salad that is very similar to the kim chee of neighboring Korea. Northeast Taste's version was actually one of the highlights of our meal.

I'm not sure what makes the chicken stupid, though it was, truth be told, all skin and bones. But the dish is not, as it turns out, about the chicken, but really all about everything else. It has a wonderfully aromatic, deep brown broth flavored with star anise and other Chinese herbs (in fact, it reminded me a bit of the Chinese-Malaysian bah kut teh, or "Chinese medicine soup," though it really doesn't have a medicinal taste). And there are the chewy, translucent flat noodles probably made from mung bean flour. But the real star of the show are the amazingly flavorful dark little wild mushrooms (the soup's swimming with them) that are perfectly complemented by the flavors of the broth. I suspect the brilliance of this dish would be lost on you if you're not a mushroom lover.

The other highlight of the meal was the crispy fish filet with chili and cumin. It was perhaps the Platonic ideal of this dish, the freshest-tasting fish, perfectly moist and crispy, with just the right balance of hot pepper and cumin--neither wimpy nor overwhelming.

Other dishes ranged from pretty good to very good. A custardy dish called "sauteed egg with egg" was mostly about the texture. A pork rib with potato (and squash) soup could easily have been something made by a Polish grandmother; Dong Bei cuisine features wintry dishes you'd never see on either Cantonese or Sichuan menus. I was quite fond of the enormous leek pancakes (actually the "leeks" are more a kind of chive). A dish called "stuffed minced mutton in fish" didn't really wow us. It was a whole fish in a brown sauce surrounded by pieces of mutton innards, mostly. We were disappointed that a bone marrow dish on the specials menu was not available.

The specials menu featured many of the most remarkable typos and fanciful translations, and the staff, though extremely friendly, couldn't help us navigate it due to limited English. You'd do well to visit Northeast Taste with someone who can read Chinese characters or speak a little Mandarin.

There were many more dishes that sounded well worth trying, but the one that, for some reason, none of us took the bait for, though several commented on, was translated as "crispy colorectal."

Northeast Taste
43-18 Main Street

Viroth's Restaurant, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Viroth's (246 Wat Bo Street, Siem Reap) receives recommendations from numerous print and online sources as a place that takes Khmer cuisine up a notch from the usual Cambodian restaurant. As it's not in the crowded "Pub Street" tourist hub, it's a destination. The outdoor, semi-covered space is sleek and modern.

I started my dinner with a green papaya salad with pork, peanuts and local herbs. It was excellent, with a porky flavor imbuing the salad that reminded me of tonkotsu, Japanese pork bone broth. When I asked about the preparation, the waiter said the pork was boiled--was the broth also used? I wondered. Atop the pork notes it had a slightly sweet, peanuty flavor, with a thicker dressing than Thai or Viet style papaya salads.

I followed the salad with shrimp & squid yahorn. A yahorn is a kind of Cambodian curry, somewhat like a Thai curry, with coconut milk, not especially spicy, but with a more subtle mix of herbal flavors. Very fresh seafood flavors could be tasted through the entire dish.

This was one of the better meals I had in Cambodia. The cost for two dishes, plus rice and beer was $12.25.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Romdeng and Friends

What may well be the best Khmer food served in Phnom Penh comes courtesy of an NGO devoted to bettering the lives of street children and their families. Mith Samian ("friends") has run a restaurant for called Friends for several years, right near the National Museum, staffed by street kids. Friends serves a mix of western and Asian cuisine, and the restaurant trains the youths for jobs in Cambodia's burgeoning tourism industry. The newer Romdeng (the Khmer word for the herb galangal) is devoted to fine Khmer cuisine, in an elegantly converted colonial home.

I was truly wowed by my dinner at Romdeng. I couldn't resist starting with the crispy fried tarantulas, which I've posted about previously.

But it was my main course that really bowled me over, a banana flower salad with Cambodian bacon. The pork was uncured and not very fatty, and the salad had a wonderfully complex yet subtle mix of herbal flavors, with just a hint of fruitiness.

I didn't need to eat more, but I had to try more, so I ordered the pork and taro spring rolls. These too were excellent, sort of a cross between a Vietnamese spring roll (cha gio, sometimes called imperial rolls) and a Chinese mashed taro cake.

I didn't need dessert, but that didn't stop me. I ordered the rice flour and turmeric crepes with caramelized bananas and coconut gelato. I was curious about the turmeric component, which seemed ultimately to give the crepes color but no real flavor. The warm crepes had a wonderfully chewy consistency, and the banana stuffing was delightful. The ice cream was the icing on the crepes.

The servers, mostly teens, were poised and professional, with excellent English skills. The pleasure of watching these wonderfully charming kids who've led such hard lives do an exemplary job only adds to the dining experience.

I was so impressed that the next day, my second and final day in Phnom Penh, I lunched at Friends before visiting the museum. The digs are humbler and the menu is more varied, including sandwiches and European dishes, but I stuck with the Cambodian flavors.

The young watermelon soup with prawns was fantastic, equal in quality to anything at Romdeng. The young melon itself had a flavor like okra, sans okra ickyness, the prawns were fresh and flavorful, and the broth had a bit of a hot spice kick and yet another great herbal marriage.

Not reaching the same heights but still memorable was the fish filet cooked in banana leaves with a Khmer spice paste. I don't know the totality of the spice mixture, but turmeric, lemongrass and galangal were certainly components.

A great meal and a chance to help out industrious street kids in a beautiful developing nation that has gone through horrors we privileged westerners can never truly fathom: what could be better than that?