Monday, April 26, 2010

I Like Plum Wine

I confess: I like plum wine. Sure it's the Manischewitz of Japan, pure confection, but I enjoy it after a Japanese meal. And it's cheap--about five bucks a glass at most Japanese restaurants. One doesn't speak of plum wine vintage. The brand is apparently of no consequence, as most restaurant menus just list plum wine, period. There's no such thing as "a very good year" for plum wine. Sauternes it ain't, by a country mile, or Moscato by a longshot, but I like it.

One Japanese restaurant I used to frequent served plum wine sorbet in the summer. The menu said "adults only."

My grandmother always ate stewed prunes, for regularity. Whenever I used to visit her, as a kid, I ate some of her stewed prunes. I loved my grandmother and I loved her stewed prunes.

Maybe that's why I like plum wine.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Korean Chinese

There's no real Chinatown in Seoul proper, as far as I know, but there's a cluster of Chinese restaurants near the Chinese Embassy in Myeong-Dong, not far from where I was staying. I went out one sub-freezing evening in search of some Korean Chinese food and went into the restaurant that was the most crowded.

Korean Chinese food is a distinct cuisine. While many dishes are based on Northern Chinese food, they've been modified significantly. One of the most famous noodle dishes is jjajiang myun, a variant on chachiang mein, which on English-language menus is also known as noodles in hot brown meat sauce, or noodles with meat sauce Peking style. But the Korean version has a thicker, sweeter sauce, and usually seafood instead of meat. I find the Korean Chinese version too heavy in general.

Another noodle dish, which seems to have been invented by Chinese in Korea, is jjam ppong. It's a very spicy seafood noodle soup (shown at top) that could be mistaken by the casual observer for linguine with mussels--but that ain't no tomato sauce, that's a broth full of crushed red chili peppers. The version I had at this place was the best I've ever tasted, though I prefer my noodles chewier than they served them.

I also ordered the ma po tofu over rice. It was fairly close to a true Chinese version, except that the spice was purely from red chilies, not Sichuan peppercorns, so there was no tongue tingle. It was certainly better than those cornstarch-thickened brown monstrosities that American Chinese restaurants call bean curd Szechuan style.

I can't tell you the name of the restaurant because the only English on the sign said "Chinese Restaurant." The Chinese owner or manager knew enough English to warn, "Both dishes very spicy!"

"That's OK," I said, figuring "Bring it on!" might not be as easily understood.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Two Collaborations with Don Skiles

Last summer Don and I published the first of our collaborations. Two more have just gone online this month.

The latest issue of Snow Monkey features a piece where I cut up, shuffled and abbreviated an already abstract piece of Don's and then added a few strokes here and there. It's called "Days Lost to History with No Eyewitness."

"Mercy, Mercy,Mercy," which appears in Eclectica, is much more narrative. It's actually based on two different unfinished/abandoned pieces of Don's.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Lower East Side of France

It's fitting that Antibes Bistro, a Southern French-Mediterranean restaurant, is on the Lower East Side. After all, the Cote d'Azure is geographically the lower east side of France, right? All right, it's a stretch.

I was alerted to the place thanks to a Chowhound who responded to my request for leads on new, moderately priced downtown restuarants. I had specifically asked about restaurants in the East Village or Lower East Side that opened within the past two years and featured entrees under $20. When I saw the Antibes Bistro menu I was determined to try it soon.

With its mix of French, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors, the menu reminds me a bit of an old favorite, now gone, Le Tableau. In fact, the menu features several items familiar from Le Tableau (e.g., chicken under brick and salmon with phyllo pastry), which makes me wonder whether the owner or chef were ever connected with that establishment. Either way, Antibes Bistro is a delight, and a great bargain to boot.

An appetizer of lamb boulettes ($9) with eggplant, pine nuts, tahini and harissa oil was certainly more Middle Eastern than French, and certainly delicious.

For my main course I chose the pan seared tuna ($16). It was served atop a saffron parsnip puree with caramelized leeks and greens. It was a generous portion, and my only complaint was that it came medium rather than my requested medium-rare.

Sides, though by no means necessary considering the accompaniments included with main courses, are very reasonably priced, and the rich Parmesan risotto ($5) can easily be shared by two or even three. The haricots verts ($3) were over-salted, unfortunately.

Up to this point dinner was excellent, enough to ensure a return visit, but I had no idea that the dessert would be such a blockbuster that it would overshadow everything else.

It's not especially photogenic, but the halvah kattaifi ($6) is a dessert to remember. This is another nod to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Kattaifi (0r katayifi, kataifi, kadayif) is a shredded wheat pastry found in Turkey, Greece and the Middle East, often served with honey, sometimes with cream. The Antibes Bistro creation takes the kattaifi, layers it with Mascarpone blended with espresso, tops it with sesame halvah threads that mirror the wheat shreds, and throws in a bit of pomegranate molasses.

I shared the appetizer, dessert and sides with a friend, but on average three full courses should average about $30 (the most expensive entree is the $18 steak). That's cheaper than a Restaurant Week dinner, and better than many.

Antibes Bistro is a welcome addition to the Lower East Side restaurant scene. And if you do dine there, you have to get the kattaifi. In fact, there should be a law.

Antibes Bistro
112 Suffolk St. (Between Rivington and Delancey)
(212) 533-6088

Monday, April 05, 2010

My Ellingtonia

The latest Mung Being, the Tribute issue, includes my piece "Mood Indigo," which is, of course, a tribute to Duke Ellington.

I wrote the piece while listening to the original Ellington recording of the tune, trying to capture the mood of "Mood Indigo" in prose.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Howard and the Jewish Mother Theory of Korean Cuisine

I was trying for anything but a Jewish mother culinary experience, actually. It was my intention, for my last meal in Seoul, to eat bossam--pork belly. A reader and fellow chowhound had commented on my mandoo post that he had a suggestion for pork belly restaurants. There are a bunch of these places in the Dongdaemun area that serve the fatty pork with sauces and leaves for rolling. He suggested I take the subway to the Dongdaemun Stadium station, get out at a particular exit and "follow your nose." Well, as far as following my nose, when it's 18 degrees outside, there ain't much for your nose to follow. I wandered around a bit, but no places seemed to be candidates. I stopped into one restaurant. "Bossam?" I asked the waitress. No luck, and when she asked some patrons if they knew of bossam places they drew blanks. I wandered in a few different directions, stopping into shops. "Bossam restaurant?" I'd ask. One guy pointed down a long street and implied there might be one down that way, if I turned the corner. Well, I couldn't find anything that looked like a likely suspect, and I was getting a lot further away from the area my correspondent had recommended. Besides, I was pressed for time, as I had to catch a bus to the airport for my flight to Phnom Penh. I decided to cut my losses and head back toward my hotel.

Near the hotel I found a little place in an alley that had pictures of their dishes outside. One of them was samgyetang, ginseng chicken soup, which I'd been meaning to try. I went in and ordered by pointing to the pictures on the wall. I ordered the samgyetang and a shake that was like a cross between a lassi and a Latin American batida. I don't know what the fruit was, or if the tartness was from the fruit or yogurt.

Samgyetang is a young chicken stuffed with rice and cooked in a broth with ginseng, herbs and some dried fruit (I found a cherry). I was thinking it was sort of like Jewish-style chicken in the pot, and probably equally good as a palliative for the common cold.

I was reminded of all the times my friend Howard has marveled at the similarities to of certain Korean dishes to traditional old-world Jewish cookery. Howard works in the West 30s, so we often meet for lunch in Manhattan's "Koreatown." Howard had a Jewish mother from the old country who could guilt you with the best of them, but she tempered the guilt with good chow. I think his first epiphany of the Korean-Jewish culinary connection was when eating dduk mandoo kuk, dumpling and rice cake soup. "These are kreplach!" he declared. Of the boiled beef in some Korean soups he said, "Flanken!" I think he has a point. There's something very haimish about many Korean dishes. Just don't try to sell your Jewish mother any pork bellies.