Monday, March 29, 2010

Green Curry Miso Ramen, an Idea Whose Time Should Never Have Come

I had read about ZuZu Ramen shortly after it opened a year ago, on the cusp of Park Slope, Boerum Hill and Gowanus, not far from where I live, but I didn't make it there until earlier this month. It had opened to rave reviews from New York Magazine, Time Out and The Village Voice. Park Slope's got a ramen shop, hurrah, hurrah, they hailed. Either all those reviewers were on crack or I caught ZuZu Ramen on a really bad day. My guess is they all fell for the restaurant's own hype.

Much was made of the executive chef's pedigree: he had worked in the kitchens at Lespinasse and Jean Georges after having apprenticed at his father's noodle shop in Nagoya. They all talked about how Akihiro Moroto was taking bold liberties with ramen tradition. All the reviews highlighted the green curry miso ramen, chef Moroto's own creation. I was skeptical, but I figured if the place was going for audacity I'd meet it on its own terms.

What I ended up with was one of the foulest, most ridiculous things I've been served in a restaurant in quite some time. First of all, the mixture of green curry paste and miso is a salty-spicy train wreck. It reminded me of something, but I couldn't quite place it. Then it came to me: this is what Comet cleanser would probably taste like.

As for the noodles, the "ramen," these were more like thin Cantonese yellow noodles, cooked too long, pasty and clumped up into little balls. This monstrous culinary blasphemy wasn't helped in the least by the big hunks of dry, stringy, flavorless pork shoulder.

At lunch, they also offer complimentary dumplings, pork or vegetable. I had the pork ones, which were more like Korean mandoo than Japanese gyoza. They were incredibly greasy, and the oil tasted rather "off."

The hurrahs will have to wait. Park Slope is still waiting for a proper ramen shop.

ZuZu Ramen
173 Fourth Avenue (corner of Degraw)

Toby's Dangerously Delicious Dessert Calzone

I've already written about Toby's brilliant brunch pizza. And Adam Kuban has recently written a nice piece on Slice about their dinner pizzas (including the excellent pancetta model, which I had). So this time I'm just gonna talk about dessert.

They say it's for two, but don't believe them. It'll serve four and you still don't want to know the calories per serving. It's the dessert calzone ($13), made with ricotta impastata (a very smooth, creamy ricotta) and Nutella. If you have food guilt issues you might want to stay away from this.

Nutella, just in case you don't know, is a hazelnut-chocolate spread that was developed in Italy in the 1940s and is incredibly popular in Europe. While it's readily available in the U.S., I've mostly eaten it at hotels in Italy and Switzerland, where it's commonly served as a breakfast spread.

Just imagine, if you will, hot, creamy ricotta consorting with Nutella, oozing out of a chewy wood fired calzone crust dusted with powdered sugar. Imagine a forkful of this wondrous creation, both comforting and vaguely disconcerting (in the best of ways, of course). Then quit imagining. Go.

This is a destination dessert.

TOBY'S PUBLIC HOUSE. 686 6th Avenue (at 21st Street), Brooklyn, NY 11215 718.788.1186

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Cambodge et la Cuisine Francaise

If you're spending more than a few days in Cambodia you probably won't want to be eating Khmer cuisine all the time. While I did discover some restaurants that do fantastic things with the traditional cuisine of Cambodia, there's much less variety than in, say, Vietnam or Thailand. Siem Reap is such a tourist hub for Angkor and surrounding temples that Western restaurants abound, but I wouldn't think of trying any of the Mexican or Italian places. French is another matter, as I'd heard that one could get some truly excellent French food in town. It makes sense. Not only is there the colonial legacy, but there are so many French expats working on restoration and development projects. Khmer cuisine itself doesn't bear the French influence to any real extent, by the way, as Vietnamese does.

Samot is a small restaurant in the crowded, touristy Pub Street area of Siem Reap specializing in French-inspired seafood dishes. Though the menu doesn't state it specifically, it's a small plates restaurant, so 2-3 dishes per person would be in order. I tried two dishes. The jumbo prawns flambe in a whiskey sauce with Kampot peppercorns (fabulously aromatic peppercorns from the Kampot highlands of Cambodia) were brilliant, and I soaked up every last bit of peppercorn-laden sauce with the restaurant's excellent bread. Not nearly as stunning, but still good, were the baked red snapper filets, served over green beans in what I took to be a meuniere sauce. According to the menu the dish was to be served with eggplant caviar, but it appeared that wild mushrooms were a replacement that evening. Samot is a small, comfortable, casual place. It's a gem in a thicket of mediocre, tourist-oriented restaurants. It's in the passage between the Old Market and Pub Street. I refuse to link to the website, as it commits all the crimes endemic to bad restaurant websites.

I had a chance to meet the charming chef/owner Patrick Guerry on my way out. According to his CV, he's been around the block, or at least the world, with stints in St. Bart's, the Maldives, and a Florida-based cruise line before arriving in Cambodia to head the kitchen at the Sofitel Angkor. After that he set out on his own, and opened Samot a couple of years ago. When I told Guerry I wrote about food he suggested I try another French restaurant in town, Abacus.

Abacus is a bit more of a formal restaurant, with a larger menu and full-size main courses. It is now in its second location, which conveniently was right across the road from my hotel. The owner is from the South of France, and that's reflected in the menu, which is done on a blackboard, as it changes weekly. So much of the menu was tempting, but I wasn't ravenous that evening, so I only went for a main course, leg of lamb, which was wonderful, in a very complementary black olive sauce and cooked perfectly medium-rare per my request. One can choose two sides from a generous list. I chose the ratatouille (good but not really special) and black rice. The owner told me that their lamb is sourced from Australia (leg and shank) and New Zealand (chops). The serving was enormous, and I just couldn't handle the prospect of dessert, which is a shame, because the warm apple tart with Kampot peppercorns and soy ice cream seemed so intriguing.

I didn't drink wine with my meals, as I wasn't really in a drinking mood. I'd say for food alone, expect to pay $15-25 per person at either restaurant. Expensive by Cambodia standards but a steal for French food of this quality.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Best Damn Deli Sandwich in Brooklyn

And it took a homesick Montrealer to bring it to us. Mile End, which opened a couple of months ago in Boerum Hill, is named for a Montreal neighborhood that has been home to numerous European immigrant groups over the years. It's a Montreal-style deli-cafe that offers a number of that city's specialties, including smoked meat, poutine, and Montreal bagels imported from St. Viateur.

Not so long ago I researched the current Brooklyn Jewish deli sandwich scene. One of the places I visited, Jay and Lloyd's, had a formidable pastrami but a piss-poor corned beef.

Mile End's house-cured smoked meat is better than any pastrami or corned beef in Brooklyn, certainly up to a contest with any in Manhattan, and even better than lots of smoked meat in Montreal. The Montreal smoked meat process involves both smoking and slow steaming, which gives it a pastrami-like flavor with more of a corned-beef consistency, the best of two worlds. But even in Montreal you'll find that the texture varies from place to place. Indeed, most Montreal smoked meats I've tried (e.g., Reuben's and the now-defunct Ben's) had a rather smooth, slippery surface to the sliced meat. Not until I tried Schwartz's, with the craggy texture of a good old New York corned beef, did I find a smoked meat I could truly love. Well, Mile End's smoked meat is clearly modeled on the Schwartz's style.

The meat is hand-sliced, but Mile End slices theirs much thicker than any I've had in Montreal--a tad too thick, I'd say. It is wonderfully moist, with a good fat to lean ratio. My only real complaint is the overabundance of black peppercorns, which threatens to overpower the other flavors. The sandwiches, at $8, might be smaller than the humongous New York deli sandwiches of today, but they're quite ample, and ounce for ounce I'd say more bang for the buck. The meat tends to act a bit unruly and tumble out of the bread, partly due to the thickness of the slices.

A little more slicing finesse and a little less black pepper and this smoked meat could be a contender for the best damn deli sandwich in all New York.

Mile End
97A Hoyt Street
Brooklyn, New York 11217


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Five-Star Indian, I've Been Waiting for You

It's here! The Keralan restaurant of my dreams. I've been waiting close to 20 years for a great Keralan restaurant to open in the New York area, since my first visit to Kerala at the end of 1990. Five Star Indian Cuisine, in New Hyde Park, is authentically Keralan, and it delivers big time.

I've already written an encomium to Kerala and its cuisine. I've also written about three Keralan restaurants in London. Now, when I want a Keralan food fix I don't have to travel to India or the U.K. anymore, I just have to go to Long Island (the restaurant is about a 15-minute walk from the LIRR).

Five-Star has been in its current location (247 Jericho Turnpike, New Hyde Park) for just about three months. Previously it was a catering and take-out business in the back of a Floral Park candy store (and before that, in Philadelphia). It's a family business, with Mom doing the cooking. The family are Christians, as are, I believe, most Keralans in the area, and the menu reflects the Syrian-Christian cuisine of Kerala. The menu, left over from the previous location, lists the name as "5 Star Tattukada." Tattukadas (or thattukadas) are simple roadside eateries, found all over Kerala, that serve up local specialties.

Because much of Kerala is Christian, and because it's a coastal state, both meat and fish figure heavily in the cuisine (both Hindu and Christian styles), unlike the largely vegetarian Tamil cuisine. South Indian non-vegetarian cooking (Chettinad as well as Keralan) differs significantly from North Indian in many ways. Tandoori cooking is not common, the spices used tend to be fresh herbs rather than milled spice mixtures, and coconut figures prominently in the cooking.

Several of the dishes were outstanding. I think my favorite was the shrimp fry (top), baby shrimp with a spice coating that reminded me of the dish called deviled shrimp on Sri Lankan menus. Or was my favorite the mutton biryani? It was a wonderful, multifaceted, mildly spicy biryani that featured cashews along with tender, flavorful goat meat (the word "mutton" usually means goat, not sheep, on Indian menus, and this goat was just a kid, the waiter told us).

The thoran was quite remarkable too--chopped cabbage and carrots with coconut, mustard seeds, and other spices. But a thoran is a style of dish, and ingredients may vary; Five-Star also makes a version with plantains and a dish called fish thoran.

Mathi fry (sardines), sold by the piece (a buck each), are enjoyable tidbits. Other dark, oily fish feature on the menu, including kingfish and mackerel, as well as butterfish on the lighter side.

The chilly chicken, while also enjoyable, didn't reach the heights of the other dishes. Perhaps our least favorite dish was the duck roast, a cornerstone of Keralan Christian cooking, but one I had never tried before. The duck pieces were coated with a dark brown masala, but the meat tended to be dry and there was a low meat-to-bone ration.

Not to be missed at a Keralan restaurant is the parotha, different from a North Indian paratha, and actually closer to a Malaysian roti--multilayered and flaky.

Prices are quite reasonable, befitting a Jericho Turnpike thattukada, and on weekends they have a $9.95 buffet. We were told that Sundays were the most elaborate, with twenty dishes, but we were warned to get there early (they open at 11)--because after church lets out all hell breaks loose.

Five Star Indian Cuisine
247 Jericho Turnpike
New Hyde Park, NY 11040

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dim Sum: Keep It Simple

I was on my own at Jade Asian (136-28 39th Ave., Flushing).  It was an early Sunday morning dim sum stop before a day of serious eating (with a serious eating confederate) was to commence in earnest.  I passed over the dim sum standards, like har gow, siu mai, chee cheong fun, turnip cakes, sticky rice.  I wanted to see what specialties they had, stuff you don't see everywhere. And these babies caught my eye.  There were pieces of crabmeat hanging out of these rice flour dumpling cups, and inside there was a mixture of minced mixed seafood and vegetables, an awful lot going on inside a dumpling.  Too much, actually.  It was then that I had my dim sum epiphany.  After years of looking for places with the unique creations, the out of the ordinary, it struck me that none of these specialties ever satisfy me as much as a simple dim sum item done well. Can you really beat a har gow (rice flour shrimp dumpling) that has fresh, flavorful shrimp and a thin, light wrapper that holds its own without falling to pieces?  That's really the apotheosis of dim sum, not a prima donna dumpling.

lau sa bao, before

In addition to the prima donna seafood dumpling I had one other item, lau sa bao ("flowing sand buns").  They're steamed buns, unassuming on the outside, stuffed with a sweetened and salted duck egg yolk.  Though some descriptions call it a custard, it doesn't really have a custard consistency, it's more, er, flowing.  And the sand part of the name might refer to the color or to a slightly gritty texture to the filling.  I went to Jade Asian on the recommendation of a Chinese-American coworker whose parents swear by their lau sa bao.  These were my first, so I have no comparison.  While I enjoyed them, I'm much more fond of egg custard.  Perhaps the best egg custard dim sum I've had was at Ton Kiang, in San Francisco.  On weekends they have a chef who specializes in rice flour items, and one of them is a steamed dumpling stuffed with warm egg custard, amazingly delicious and sensual.  

lau sa bao, after

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Flushing with Dave

Henan bread soup

I started day two of my Flushing binge solo, with a spot of dim sum at 9:30 as I awaited the arrival of my partner in culinary exploration. Ah, the joys of a holiday in Flushing, to roll out of bed into a dim sum palace before the hordes arrive. But I'll talk about the dim sum another time.

Dave Cook, who blogs at Eating in Translation (where he has already covered most of the dishes we sampled), had arranged to join me for a half day of meganoshing. He rang my cell phone at about 10:20 to announce that he'd be getting to Flushing in about twenty minutes. We had decided to meet at a Malaysian restaurant, Curry Leaves (135-31 40th Rd.), to start the day with rich, condensed milk-sweetened Malaysian coffee and some kueh (Malaysian sweets). There I chose a combination container with two different types of kueh, one made, I believe, from mung bean and coconut and another from tapioca starch and coconut milk with pandan for a bit of flavor and a neon-green color. But I also couldn't resist the pandan chiffon cake, which looked like a St. Patty's Day pound cake. And it was pretty much a pound cake, with just a touch of aromatic pandan flavor. It was a happy complement to the coffee.

Our bloodstreams tweaked by caffeine and sugar, we set out in earnest in search of savory delectables. At the top of my agenda was a visit to the Golden Mall (41-28 Main St.), a ragtag aggregation of food stalls from far-flung regions of China, the source, I'd heard, for some of the best and cheapest Chinese food in the city.

Unlike Flushing Mall, which is a shopping mall with a food court and a common seating area, Golden Mall is mostly about food, and each vendor has their own limited seating. One of the most esteemed vendors at both malls is Xian Famous Foods, which serves specialties of Shaanxi province in central China (Xian is the home of the famous terracotta warriors). But since they've recently opened a branch in Manhattan's Chinatown I decided I wouldn't populate valuable gastrointestinal real estate with their delights this particular time. Instead we started at another acclaimed Golden Mall stalwart, Chengdu Heaven (stall 31).

fish filet with tofu at Chengdu Heaven

We shared an order of the fish filet with tofu, which combined wonderfully sensual silken tofu and lightly battered fish filets (alas, the ubiquitous farmed tilapia, now the generic "fish" of choice in Asian restaurants). In a sauce liberally flavored with Sichuan peppercorns and chilies, it's kind of a cousin to ma po tofu. The dish was garnished with what looked at first to be peanuts, but turned out to be crispy fried soybeans. The dish was excellent, and it makes me want to work my way through their entire menu of Sichuan specialties, which happens to be quite extensive for such a little stall.

dried bean curd with chili (cold)

From there we moved on to a stall that had mostly northeastern Chinese cold dishes on display (including head cheese and a sausage that's a dead-ringer for kielbasa). There we chose the dried bean curd dressed with chilies and a mix of other spices (probably ginger among them). This dish cried out for beer. (Stall 38, House of Xie. The owners are from Tianjin in Shandong province.)

We left Golden Mall and walked down Main St. Dave wanted to point out a storefront (41-40 Main St.) that featured three or four individual vendors and tables that served for all. At the back was a northern Chinese Muslim vendor, which Dave has identified as Sheng Jian Muslim Little Kitchen. We just had a pastry filled with fruit paste and nuts, but the various buns, big scallion pancakes and savory dishes were filed away in my culinary wish list. I was thrilled to learn of this place, having enjoyed the hearty cuisine of the Muslim Chinese in Beijing and San Francisco, but never New York.

Chinese Muslim pastry

We walked further down Main Street to try a Qingdao-style place that Dave had noticed on a prior Flushing visit (Lu Xiang Yuan or Hong Shun, depending on whether you believe the menu or the sign). Qingdao is a coastal city in Shandong province that is the home to Tsing Tao beer (Tsing Tao is the same city in the old Wade-Gilles Romanization). I expect to write more about Qingdao cuisine at a later date, after a visit to a different, well-received Qingdao restaurant. All I'll say now is that this lesser-known Qingdao eatery ranks as one of the worst Chinese restaurant experiences of my life.

We couldn't end the day on such a sour note, so I suggested we return to the Golden Mall. There we struck gold at a stall we had seen earlier in the day, a joint venture between a Taiwanese shaved ice vendor and a woman who cooks hot food from Henan province (not to be confused with Hunan).

There was a photo menu on the wall, and the most interesting-looking dish was a soup that was shown with some kind of bread or pancake at the side. The woman from Henan didn't speak any English, but the Taiwanese ice lady told us we could get it with either chicken or beef. Since I'm always wary about what cuts or quality of beef we might get, I suggested we go with the chicken. "It comes with these?" I asked, pointing at the bread in the picture. "Inside soup," the woman said.

Heavens to Betsy, this was wonderful, delicious, complex. The broth was spicy and flavored liberally with numbing Sichuan peppercorn as well as an herbal flavor we couldn't identify. There were cubes of the dense bread along with fried tofu cut to about the same size, dark meat chicken, mushrooms, and three kinds of noodles, intertwined: clear bean threads, green bean threads, and bean curd sheets cut into vermicelli strips. This was quite possibly my favorite dish of the entire weekend.

Then Dave and I split up. I went to the Louis Armstrong house in Corona and Dave stayed in Flushing to troll the local fish markets, attempting to solve a nagging sea creature mystery.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Does Le Whif Pass the Sniff Test?

I rarely go to media events for restaurants or food products, but I was intrigued enough by the PR for Le Whif "breathable food" to stop by their U.S. launch meet-and-greet at Dylan's Candy Bar this afternoon.  After all, I lost over thirty pounds on the sniffing diet.

Le Whif was invented by David Edwards, a Harvard professor of biochemical engineering who has worked extensively on the intersection of the arts and science.  Edwards has even published a novel titled Whiff that grew out of the Le Whif project.  Along the way, he also developed a breathable delivery system for insulin.  Edwards is charming, erudite and engaging, but what about Le Whif?

Le Whif comes in a lipstickian plastic container.  One pulls it open, takes a whiff into the mouth, and particles of chocolate or a dried coffee mixture too large to be inhaled are targeted to the taste buds.  I tested the pure chocolate and coffee versions.  The flavors were certainly there, but was the experience satisfying?  Not for me.  Granted, chocolate isn't my weakness, but still I can't help but see the product as a novelty whose appeal will wear off quickly.  I don't think this is the next big thing.  I understand that chocolate lovers might welcome a virtually non-caloric version of their favorite treat (and it has been developed in concert with renowned chef Thierry Marx, who Patricia Wells called "an inspired chef who shocks and satisfies").  But the decision to develop a coffee version as their next product baffles me.  The appeal of coffee is much more than the flavor or the buzz.  There's the ritual, whether it's making it, buying it, or drinking it.  There's the pleasure of sipping a steaming hot cup of coffee.  I'll be surprised if Le Whif chocolate has a future, but even more so if the coffee does.

I posed several questions to Edwards.  Why coffee?  I asked.  He responded with figures about coffee consumption that didn't really address my skepticism about this particular product.  I asked him if any studies had been done on the relationship of the product to cravings--does it satisfy them or does it create the desire to eat whatever is being whiffed.  I described my own experience with the sniffing diet, how I would eat steamed vegetables for lunch and skulk around sausage stands.  Some people wondered how I could resist temptation. For me the olfactory pleasure, combined with willpower, provided satisfaction, but surely it would have pushed many over the sausage edge.  Edwards responded that the products really aren't being marketed as diet aids, and that the effect of Le Whif vis a vis food cravings would probably differ from person to person.  I got the impression that it's not a question he or his partners had really thought about, which further convinced me that what we're really dealing with is a toy.  In the scheme of Edwards' career of interesting and valuable research, I think this will be remembered as a blip.

That didn't stop me from suggesting that his next project should be breathable bbq ribs.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Fruits of Cambodia

sliced dragon fruit (with bananas and pineapple)

One of the treats of any trip to Southeast Asia is the variety of delicious tropical fruits. I've found that hotels usually offer a number of fruits with breakfast, and markets are great for discovering new fruits and revisiting old favorites.

Dragon fruit is especially abundant in Cambodia. I don't think I'd ever had it before. In the photo immediately above it's the large reddish fruit with the skin that has what look like flower petals. The fruit inside is white speckeled with black seeds (see top), and has a watermelon-like texture.

The brown fruits in the front of the photo above may be rare outside of Cambodia, as they're known as Kampuchea Gam (or Mkam, depending on who you ask how it should be spelled). It has a very spiky shell and a fruit inside that's medium-sweet but not too juicy--more of a chestnut-like consistency.



More familiar to me from prior visits to the region are the rambutan and the mangosteen. Rambutans have a spiky red exterior that one peels off to reveal a juicy, aromatic white fruit that is very similar to a lychee.

The mangosteen is one of the great fruits of Southeast Asia. From the outside it doesn't look like much. It's a roundish thing, the size of a small apple, with a brown/eggplant-colored coating, and directly inside there's an inedible red cork-like layer protecting the prize in the center, a white fruit in sections that has a wonderfully sensual consistency when you suck it out of its vessel, and a delightful sweet-tart flavor balance.

Pineapples, papayas, mangos, bananas, lychees and longans are abundant too, as is passion fruit, the latter usually served as a juice. I can think of no better way to use passion fruit juice than in a passion fruit & mint caipiroska as served at the bar of the FCC (Foreign Correspondents' Club) in Phnom Penh.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Let Us Go Into the House of Pops

Louis Armstrong House, Corona, Queens

My Flushing holiday wasn't all about food.  There were the cultural attractions too.  Recently in The New Yorker, Patricia Marx discussed the chauvinism of Brooklynites.  And we do have plenty to be chauvinistic about, living in the greatest borough, but that doesn't blind us to the lures of outer boroughs like Manhattan and Queens.

On Saturday I saw a Chinese music meets jazz concert at Flushing Town Hall and on Sunday I took the subway two stops back toward Manhattan to Corona, for a visit to the long-time home of Louis Armstrong.  It shouldn't have taken this long for a jazz fanatic like me to make the pilgrimage (the house opened to the public in 2003), but after all, a subway ride to Corona is a commitment.

Armstrong and his wife Lucille lived together in the house in this modest middle income neighborhood (now mostly Latino) from 1943 until his death in 1971. Lucille lived on into the early eighties and left the house and its effects to the city as a cultural landmark.  Soon a new visitors and study center will be built across the street to house the Armstrong archives, currently at Queens College.  The 40-minute docent-led house tour includes neighborhood history, biographical detail (most of which I was familiar with), and description of the house's furnishings, more luxurious and elaborate, for sure, than the otherwise similar houses on the block.  In all those years Louis spent maybe fifty days a year in the house, living the life of a jazzman on the road, while Lucille kept the home fires burning.  An extra treat of my visit was the opportunity to chat with Selma, the Armstrongs' neighbor all those years and my mother's contemporary, decked out in her Sunday best.

On the same block I noticed a Latin American restaurant and almost felt compelled to buy an empanada de yuca, so official did the sign look, a dare to ignore.  But stuffed from my Chinese binging of the weekend, I went ahead and broke the law of Mama Dolores.

It's nice that they have that neon Corona beer sign right in the heart of Corona, though.

After my house tour I decided to walk down 37th Avenue toward Jackson Heights, to check out some of the Latin American restaurants along the stretch.  I noted several places that certainly warrant a visit with an emptier stomach.  And I was also thrilled to see an old Buster Brown shoes sign above a shop whose awning says "La Casa de Buster Brown."

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Holiday in Flushing

Flushing Town Hall

Word of Mouth comes to you from Flushing, Queens this weekend, where I'm taking a mini-vacation. A vacation in Flushing? you ask.

Flushing is New York City's largest Chinese neighborhood, with an amazing array of eateries from formal restaurants to little stalls in rabbit-warren food courts. And the regional varieties just keep expanding. But Flushing is also a pain to get to from Brooklyn without a car, especially on the weekends, when the 7 train runs local only. It can take about 90 minutes each way from Park Slope, a major commitment.

Flushing has a number of chain hotels: Sheraton, Best Western, Howard Johnson, Comfort Inn. The neighborhood is pretty close to La Guardia airport, and some of the hotels have shuttles. I'm guessing they cater to both airport transients and Asian visitors. For some time I've thought about booking a night or two at a hotel in Flushing, to maximize my eating time in the neighborhood without all those annoying subway rides. Well, last weekend I decided that a weekend in Flushing would be my birthday present to myself (my birthday's Monday the 8th). I checked hotel rates and decided on the Comfort Inn, right at the edge of the main Chinese restaurant drag, at $85 for the night. I'm writing now from the Comfort Inn.

I sent out an email to all my foodie friends announcing that I'd be available for meals in Flushing this weekend. Several friends are coming by for dinner in about a half hour. This morning I came with a couple of friends with that rarest of commodities in New York, a car.

We started at Nan Xiang Xiaolongbao (38-12 Prince Street), a Shanghai place with a specialty in soup dumplings. The dumplings had received rave reviews on Chowhound, and I'm a sucker for soup dumplings, literally as well as figuratively. The ones at Nan Xiang were indeed most distinguished, with the cleanest, freshest tasting, most ample soup filling I've tasted in New York, skins that aren't too stiff or doughy (as many are), and an excellent pork and crabmeat filling. Equally memorable was the scallion pancake stuffed with beef. The pancake was admirably non-greasy, and the stuffing included a perfect amount of hoisin sauce (I've had the same item with hoisin overkill).

scallion pancake with beef
From there we moved to brunch phase 2, grazing at stalls at the Flushing Mall (133-31 39th Ave.), one of several food courts in Flushing. From a place at one end of the wall of stalls (Temple, a Taiwanese vendor) we had gua baos, Taiwanese belly pork buns. A hunk of the fatty pork is served on a split steamed bun and garnished with crushed peanuts, cilantro and scallions.

gua bao
And from Chengdu Snacks, at the other end, we had an unremarkable plate of dan dan noodles that was more than made up for by the other dish I ordered, steamed spare ribs with spicy rice powder. This is a dish that I first discovered over 30 years ago, at the now defunct Ting Fu Garden in Chinatown. In recent years I've tried this dish and variations on it at any Sichuan restaurant that lists it on their menu, usually with disappointment. Sometimes it's too sweet, sometimes too pasty, sometimes to dry, and sometimes the meat is pure fat. Here the little chunks of pork rib on the bone were sufficiently meaty, and the mound of spiced rice powder that covered them was the answer to an atheist's prayers. It was all the things those other versions weren't--moist, fluffy, moderately spiced, with just a hint of sweetness, and the soft carrot chunks scattered throughout were a perfect complement.

steamed spare ribs with spicy rice powder

After our two (or three) brunches, my friends dropped me off at Flushing Town Hall, where I enjoyed an afternoon concert by Chinese pipa virtuoso Min Xiao Fen, who played some traditional pieces solo and then did a set with her jazz trio.

Food! Culture! Flushing! And no jet lag!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Korean Karma's Gonna Get You

As I headed back north on the train from Gyeongju to Seoul I noticed snow falling as I gazed out the window. I arrived at Seoul Station to a major snowstorm, the biggest in years I was told. There was a long queue at the taxi stand in front of the station, and cabs were few and far between. A few people ran from the taxi pickup point to the parallel taxi drop-off point. I wasn't sure if it was kosher for cabs to take passengers who were essentially trying to beat the system, but it seemed to work. A kid, maybe about fourteen years old, who spoke some English came up to me and said, "It may be better to wait there," pointing to the drop-off point. Why not, I figured, I'm a New Yorker. But no cabs were coming. A few cabs started coming to the pickup point. Then the kid came back to where I was waiting. "Maybe it's not so good an idea," he said. "You can get in line in front of us." He and his family were now at the front of the queue. I was touched by their generosity and hospitality. On the one hand I'd be taking advantage, but I also believe that one should never refuse a kindness unless it is beyond what the person offering can reasonably afford. People normally don't (or at least shouldn't) make offers they don't expect or hope to be taken up on.

So I got into a cab and told the driver, "Ibis Myeong-Dong Hotel." I pronounced it Eebis, as the Koreans do, not Eyebis. I quickly realized the driver wasn't sure where he was going. He was talking to me in Korean, as if I understood. "I don't understand Korean," I said about five times. The snow added to the difficulty. It was tough to navigate the streets. He made it to the Myeong-Dong district, but then seemed to be going in circles, aimlessly. I got out the map I had with the hotel circled. Somehow that didn't seem to help. It may not be the Lotte (Seoul's biggest hotel), but I think cabbies should know it, especially if shown a map. Finally he asked a guy for directions. That didn't seem to help too much. Obviously Seoul hasn't adopted London's approach to hack licensing. Familiarity with a fairly well-known hotel or the ability to read a map don't seem to be prerequisites.

Eventually he got there. I couldn't see the meter, but I knew it would be much more than the fare should be. When I had taken a cab to the station a couple of days earlier the fare was 3,000 Won (under $3). I got out 3,000 Won and tried to hand it to him. He started yelling and pointing at the meter: 8,600 Won. "Hotel to station, 3,000 Won." I said. He started yelling again and pointing to the meter. I pointed to the hotel. "Come inside." I said. I thought maybe I could get the guy at the desk to translate our altercation. He just kept yelling. I added another 1,000 Won to the kitty. "4,000 Won. That's it!" I said. He yelled some more, then accepted the 4,000. As I was getting out of the cab my inner ugly American surfaced and I said, "Let me teach you some English: 'fuck you!'"

I had accepted the kindness of strangers and got the worst cabbie in Seoul. But I also saved those nice people from the worst cabbie in Seoul.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

I've been hearing the song for over forty years, first in the hit version by the Platters, from the fifties, though the song's somewhat older than that. My brother was a big Platters fan and owned their Greatest Hits album (which also included "Twilight Time," co-written by our distant relative Al Nevins). I've heard many versions of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" over the years, both instrumental and vocal, but I never thought too much about the lyrics, even though I could recite them by heart. I never thought too much about them until this morning, that is.

On the subway I was listening to an exquisite rendition by Clifford Brown. It was an instrumental version, but the lyrics, second nature after all these years, played out in my head. And all of a sudden, toward the end of the chorus, one particular line struck me as rather bizarre, or at least troubling: "Now laughing friends deride tears I cannot hide..."

Whoa, Nellie. What kind of friends would laugh at you and deride tears you cannot hide?

Those are no friends.

Fuck 'em.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Ringo Starr Goes on Record, in My Dream

In my dream, Ringo was being interviewed. He said, "In the old days, when we acted like kids, people said, 'Isn't that great--they're acting like kids!' Now, when people act like kids, people say, 'They're acting like kids.'"