Friday, October 29, 2010

A Sicilian Double-Header

gelato on a brioche

We started at Joe's of Avenue U, in Gravesend, one of those old Brooklyn Italian neighborhoods that are now largely Asian and Russian neighborhoods. In fact, though they still serve traditional Sicilian specialties, I've heard that Joe's is actually owned by Russians.

We had a Sicilian starchfest: pasta con le sarde (bucatini with fresh sardines), rice balls, potato croquettes, seafood salad, and panelle (chickpea fritters). I used to eat this kind of food at La Focacceria in the East Village before proprietor Vinnie Bondi had the audacity to retire. Now Joe's is the best place I know of in the city for traditional Sicilian fare (though Ferdinando's, in Carroll Gardens has the better atmosphere, like an old Palermo joint).


After lunch we headed over to Bensonhurst, another old Brooklyn Italian neighborhood (Saturday Night Feversville) that is now largely Asian. Happily, Villabate, a Sicilian pasticceria/gelateria/cafe, is a survivor of the old guard.

Villabate has a wonderfully gaudy interior, with wonderfully gaudy cakes on display, miscellaneous tchotchkes and pictures of Jesus and his mishpoche. In addition to pastries, you can get nice Italian breads and snacks like sfingioni (pizzettes with bread crumbs, onions and anchovies).

But for me the draw is the amazing home-made gelato, among the best in New York. And this is one of the few places where you can get gelato on a brioche, which, believe it or not, is a popular breakfast in Sicily. When I was in Sicily I couldn't bring myself to have gelato first thing in the morning, but in Brooklyn gelato on a brioche makes a fine dessert. Interestingly, the Italians use the French spelling and pronunciation of brioche (Italian pronunciation would be something like brie-okay). These brioches are not shaped like the French ones, however, but rather like a hamburger bun, more appropriate for an ice cream sandwich. I find that the "lighter" flavors, like torrone, tiramisu, and especially cassata Siciliana (ricotta with dried fruit) work better on a brioche than any of the variants on chocolate. Gelato on a brioche is one of the world's great ice cream experiences, and you don't have to travel to Palermo to try it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Alambres in the Garden of Eden

There's a Mexican restaurant in Sunset Park called Gan Eden, Hebrew for Garden of Eden. I figured the previous occupant of the storefront must have been some kind of kosher restaurant, and that the Mexican restaurant just decided to keep the name. But my lunch companion, Dave Cook, asked the waitress about the curious name. "The owner's Jewish," she replied.

"Mexican or American?" I asked.

"Jewish," she replied.

"But from Mexico or the U.S.?" I asked.

"That's his daughter behind the register," she said. "I'll ask her."

The owner's daughter said, "He was born in Hawaii, but we grew up in Israel."

That explained the name, I guess, though not how a Jew from Hawaii and Israel ended up opening a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn.

The thing that brought me to Gan Eden was the fact that I had seen alambres on the menu last time I was in the neighborhood. I'd been searching for this dish ever since I first had it in Mexico City a year ago. It's a griddle-cooked mix of meat (usually several choices), onions, peppers, bacon and white cheese. Alambres are served with tortillas for wrapping (see photo at top).

Apparently the word "alambre," which may be Arabic in origin, can refer to either skewered meat or the griddle-cooked dish shown above. The onions and peppers suggest that the griddled version my have evolved from the kebab. To further confuse matters, "alambre" means "wire" in Spanish. Whatever its origins, it's an addictive dish, and Gan Eden does it justice. They offer a choice of chicken, beef or mixed. We had the mix. In Mexico it's common for the meat to be al pastor (pinapple juice-marinated pork cooked on a rotating spit like shawarma), which itself was inspired by Middle Eastern cooking (pork notwithstanding).

Also quite good at Gan Eden were the chilaquiles with eggs. Chilaquiles is a popular Mexican breakfast dish, with fried tortillas (traditionally it's a way to salvage day-old tortillas), cheese, sour cream and spicy red or green sauce. It's often served with eggs and/or steak.

A plate of chicken, beef, bacon, cheese and vegetables, the quintessence of treyf, is the last thing I'd have expected to find in a restaurant called Gan Eden. I guess the moral is we all make our own Eden.

Gan Eden
4620 5th Avenue
(718) 439-3399

Rotisserie Dogs

I came across a fun bit of culinary trivia in the book Jefferson and Monticello, by Jack McLaughlin. In a discussion of cooking arrangements at Monticello, Mclaughlin writes (p. 231), "Before the invention of mechanical spit-turners, meat was often turned by a small 'turnspit dog.' The dog was trained to walk on a treadwheel which turned the spit."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Karnataka (in New Jersey and India)

New Jersey

I first read about Hoysala, an Indian restaurant in Somerset, NJ specializing in the cuisine of the southern state of Karnataka, on a website called NJIndia. I'm guessing that all the restaurant reviews on the site are written by one very eccentric and opinionated guy, despite the use of the royal we. Most of the reviews are scathingly negative. One of the more recent pieces opens as follows: "All ye schmucks can say what you will but when it comes to dishing out the worst possible food, you just can’t beat these New Jersey shitholes masquerading as Indian restaurants. Completely clueless in the kitchen, utterly hopeless in the service department and totally remorseless in their overall attitude, most Indian restaurants in New Jersey are absolutely worthless pieces of shit unfit for even cattle."

So when I read a review of a restaurant that serves the well-nigh impossible to find cuisine of Karnataka titled "Manna from Heaven in New Jersey," I pricked up my eyes. Having found a great place on Long Island for the hard to find cuisine of Kerala, I was thrilled about the prospect of a place that serves the even more elusive cuisine of Karnataka.

Indian cuisine is incredibly diverse, which is why I'm always pissed off when ignorant yahoos respond to my recommendation of an Indian restaurant with comments like, "I don't like curry" (the Japanese restaurant ignorant yahoo response is "I don't eat raw fish"). The menu at Hoysala features quite a number of dishes I was completely unfamiliar with.

I hooked up with a bunch of friends and went out for a weekend lunch. For lunch they do a buffet, and I believe for dinner you have a choice of buffet or a la carte. The buffet featured quite a number of Karnatakan specialties, but I was disappointed that we couldn't order the pineapple gojju (pineapple and bell pepper cooked with onion, red chillies, menthe seeds and spices) that the NJIndia writer unabashedly kvelled about.

Still, there was an embarrassment of riches. The buffet included both vegetarian and meat dishes. There were a number of appetizers and salads, idlis, vadas, dosas and pappadums. Main courses included a revelatory egg masala, black pepper chicken, Malnad chicken and goat, spinach lentil thouve, alasande saaru (a black-eyed peas and potato dish), mixed vegetable saagu, Andhra chicken biryani, and shavige bhath (sort of a cross between idiappam and uppma (you can look 'em up)). For descriptions of the dishes, see the restaurant's menu. The food was, in general, moderately spicy, with a wide palette of flavors, and with but a few exceptions memorably delicious. The price for this cornucopia is $12.95.


I spent close to two weeks in the state of Karnataka on my third trip to India, in 1999, after I had wrapped up work on a Y2K IT project. The first two times in India I was on my own, but this time I had a travel companion, which made it financially feasible to hire a car and driver for 8 days. The sights of Karnataka are manifold, but scattered all over the state, and doing the itinerary by public transportation would have been rather rough and taken twice as long.

The restaurant Hoysala is named for the empire that ruled Karnataka from the 10th through 14th centuries. The stunning Hoysala temple architecture at Somnathpur, Belur and Halebid, built between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, are, as far as South Indian stone carving is concerned, rivaled in beauty and delicacy of execution only by the Chola architecture of Tamil Nadu.

My friend and I flew to Bangalore, the modern, high-tech center with a thriving English pub culture, and took the train to the delightfully charming but fast-growing city of Mysore. Mysore, the model for Malgudi, the setting for the novels of R.K. Narayan, is much more traditional in feel than Bangalore. Mysore is famous for its sandalwood and is home to a rather garish royal palace and great, rich coffee. In Mysore we hired our driver for our trip through Karnataka, ending in Hyderabad, in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh.

The Jain pilgrimage site of Shravanabelagola, not far from Mysore, has the largest monolithic statue in the world, the 10th-century Bahubali monument. My friend Claudio, who I met in Karnataka in 1990, said that for an Italian Shravanabelagola is a funny name--it's like saying "Shravana beautiful throat."

After Shravanabelagola and the Hoysala sites at Belur and Halebid, we visited the fabulous ghost city of Hampi, the seat of the Vijayanagara empire from the 14th through 16th centuries, and then moved on to Badami, with its rock-cut Hindu and Jain cave temples.

Further north in the state we encountered Muslim architecture, like the 15th-century fort at Bidar; Bijapur, home to the Gol Gumbaz, a building that feature's a dome second only in size to that of St. Peter's in The Vatican; and Gulbarga, with a ruined fort that features a mosque modeled after the one in Cordoba, Spain.

Karnataka is one of the Indian states richest in attractions, yet due to the difficulty of travel and the greater fame of Northern sights, few travelers get beyond Bangalore and Mysore, which is a shame.

Karnataka Photo Gallery

And now, back to New Jersey for dessert...

2 JFK Boulevard
Somerset, NJ 08873
(732) 247-4300

Friday, October 15, 2010

Weekend in Rockport

I was looking for an easy summer weekend getaway, to someplace I'd never been before, and I decided on Cape Ann, on the north shore of Massachusetts. I booked a whale-watching cruise out of Gloucester and had planned to stay in that town, at The Crow's Nest, rooms above the bar that figures prominently in the book and film The Perfect Storm. Then I watched the movie. Within minutes into the film there was a scene in the bar where the local fishermen are celebrating very loudly, so enthusiastically that the ceiling lamps were shaking. Hmm, rooms above the bar, I thought. I put the film on pause and called The Crow's Nest to cancel my reservation.

Instead I booked a room at a motel in nearby Rockport, and I was glad I did. Rockport is very compact, very walkable, and very charming. Gloucester is much larger, and is a largely working class town, more "real," for sure, than cutesy little Rockport, and also a place where a car would do one well.

I enjoyed wandering around Rockport, breathing the sea air and eating seafood. There was a torrential rain for a couple of hours my first afternoon, which I watched from the porch at my motel. After the rain the air was amazingly fresh and bracing, some of the best air I've ever had.

Just before the rain had started I went over to The Fish Shack for lunch, where I had a plate of the wonderfully sweet fried belly clams, a local specialty. I returned the following evening for dinner and had a spectacular 2-1/2 lb. lobster.

Helmut's Strudel, on Bearskin Neck, is a legendary local bakery-cafe, and their strudel is perfectly crispy, perfectly balanced. It being summer, I went for the cherry strudel. Bearskin Neck, which juts out into the ocean, has a dense concentration of shops and restaurants.

The Rockport Chamber Music Festival premiered its new concert hall this summer, a spectacular space with an ocean view as the backdrop. The concerts were sold out by the time I got there, but they did offer a tour of the hall.

I may have missed the chamber music festival, but I did catch some live music, a bit of Americana, a band concert in a gazebo just across the road from the beach.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Oldest Italian Restaurant in America

The current owner of Fior d'Italia and the waitress who served me were so nice that I wish I could say something nice about the food. Granted, I only went for brunch, and perhaps that's not the best barometer of a restaurant's quality. Still, the over-salted baked polenta I had was served with a tomato sauce that tasted like it came from a can, not a good sign for a "red sauce" Italian restaurant serving what the owner describes as Italian comfort food. And the Italian sausages were eminently forgettable too.

The restaurant claims to be the oldest Italian restaurant in America, and I have no reason to doubt the claim. They first opened in 1886 (the year both of my maternal grandparents were born) and have had a number of locations over the years, all in or around North Beach, San Francisco's Little Italy as well as ground zero for the beat poets (can one still use "ground zero" in a non-9/11 context?). They're currently at the San Remo Hotel, a charming European-style hotel with shared bathrooms that I stayed at a number of times in the 'eighties until I graduated to private bathrooms.

San Francisco has quite a few truly excellent Italian restaurants, so unless you're writing a blog series about vintage San Francisco eateries I'd recommend you eat at one of those others.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Cape Verdean in Boston


I spent an evening in Boston this summer before heading up to the north shore. With time for one dinner in town, I decided that I really wanted to try a cuisine that's unavailable in New York, Cape Verdean. Southern New England is the epicenter of the Portuguese-speaking diaspora in the U.S., especially around Cape Cod, New Bedford, Providence and eastern Connecticut (remember Julia Roberts in
Mystic Pizza?). Not only are there plenty of Portuguese and Brazilians in that neck of the coast, there are also immigrants from Portugal's former African colonies: Cape Verde, certainly, and I think, to some degree at least, Angola, Mozambique and Sao Tome e Principe. The islands of Cabo Verde, or Cape Verde, lie in the Atlantic about 350 miles off the west coast of Africa. They were uninhabited when discovered by the Portuguese, and most of the inhabitants now are creoles of mixed Portuguese and African ancestry. The country's most famous export is the singer Cesaria Evora, the barefoot diva.

I don't know if the restaurant Cesaria's, in Boston's Dorchester section, is named for its owner or in tribute to the singer. I also can't be sure it's still open, as the restaurant's website has been offline the last few times I checked. I do hope they're still in business, as the food was excellent, the prices low and the staff warm and cordial.

Cape Verdean cuisine draws largely from Portuguese cooking, with some African elements. The national dish is cachupa, a stew of beans and hominy with pork, sort of like a cassoulet, but also reminiscent of something one might find in the American south (like hoppin' John). Cesaria's cachupa was delicious, the flavors well-married by slow cooking. I can understand why this is the Cape Verdean comfort food.

We had started with two appetizers. The fried quail was wonderfully flavorful, with prominent but not overpowering notes of wine and garlic. The octopus was grilled to perfection with an enticing char.

fried quail

grilled octopus

Camarao Mocambique, or shrimp Mozambique-style, is a dish that has found its way into Portuguese as well as Cape Verdean cuisine by way of the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique. It's a spicy dish, seasoned with Malagueta peppers.

camarao Mocambique

Many of the dishes at Cesaria's can be found in Portuguese restaurants, but the quintessentially Cape Verdean cachupa is not to be missed.

Restaurante Cesaria
266 Bowdoin St.
Dorchester, MA
(617) 282-1998

Monday, October 04, 2010

Doin' the Tadich

The Tadich Grill is undoubtedly California's oldest restaurant, having been established as a coffee stand in 1849 and later expanded to a full-service eatery. A visit to the Tadich was, of course, an essential stop on my historic restaurant itinerary. Before I left New York I called several friends. "Have you ever been to the Tadich Grill?" I asked.

"No, but I'd love to try it," was the response I got from several long-time Bay Area residents.

In response, I chided, "The restaurant's been around for over 150 years. You've been in the Bay Area for over thirty years. And it takes a visit from a New Yorker to finally get you there? Shame on you!"

I was joined by four shamed Bay Area residents.

I decided to go vintage all the way. I walked to California and Van Ness from the Majestic Hotel, the oldest in San Francisco, and hopped on the California Street cable car, which goes direct to the Tadich. This was only the second time I've taken a cable car, mostly a tourist attraction and at $5 more than twice the cost of a bus, but for my purposes this mode of transportation was de rigeur.

Before dinner I stopped off at another historic San Francisco locale, Schroeder's, just around the corner from the Tadich. This German restaurant and beer hall, the oldest on the west coast, opened in 1893 (though it's only been at its present location since 1959). They often have live polka bands, whether you like it or not.

I felt like a wuss ordering a short glass of bock beer when the standard glass in the joint is a 19-ounce "pint," liter mugs are not uncommon, and two-liter boots are available. But I didn't want to ruin my appetite for food or wine at the Tadich. Accordingly, I also skipped the complimentary happy hour meatballs.

The Tadich really is one of those classic old American restaurants, all done up in dark wood, waiters done up in white jackets. A good deal of the restaurant is taken up by counter/bar space, and I wonder if that's a remnant from a time when men of affairs were more likely to dine alone. At any rate, that aspect would make it a comfortable spot for solo diners today. Medium-size groups are seated at tables in semi-private partitioned quarters, another blast from the past, I guess, that you rarely find at restaurants that aren't Japanese or Korean.

As long as I was doing the tradition thing, I decided to go with several San Francisco classic dishes. I started with their house special salad, with crab meat and bay shrimp, topped with Louie dressing. Crab Louie is the classic San Francisco crab salad, served all over town, especially at Fisherman's Wharf. The dressing is a mayo-based cousin of Russian or Thousand Island, with a touch of chili.

Cioppino is another classic San Francisco specialty, an Italian-style fish stew reminiscent of a bouillabaisse. I had never tried the dish before, even though I've visited the city on countless occasions. While I have nothing to compare the Tadich version to, I enjoyed it greatly.

Another famous San Francisco eatery that had a life almost as long as the Tadich was Jack's, in the same downtown neighborhood. It had a 136-year run, ending in 2000. Shortly thereafter it became the S.F. outpost of Bistro Jeanty, a Wine Country favorite, as Jeanty at Jack's. I ate there several years ago in that incarnation (now gone too), and the well-preserved classic interior, full of little rooms, was a pure delight.

During my four days in San Francisco I ate at several other restaurants with long San Francisco histories, but I regret that I found out too late about several other important blasts from the past. Sam's Grill, also in the financial district, has been around since 1867. And John's Grill, opened in 1908, was a favorite haunt of Dashiell Hammett's and appears as a setting in The Maltese Falcon. It seems my dance card is already filling up for my next visit to San Francisco.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

A Time to Give, a Time to Kvetch

To everything there's a season, and early autumn is a time to start thinking about providing Thanksgiving meals to the hungry of our nation. As I've stated before, I believe those of us who revel in culinary joys should be especially mindful of the simple joy of a decent, balanced meal for someone who might otherwise go without. The organizations that provide meals to the needy are doing their Thanksgiving drives now, and you should consider helping them out.

Feeding America (formerly America's Second Harvest)
Food Bank for New York City
Find a food bank in your town with the Food Bank Locator

Now for the kvetch. The other day I got my mail solicitation from Citymeals-on-Wheels, an organization that delivers meals to the homebound elderly of New York City. I was about to fill out the form and make a donation when I discovered that there was no place for credit card information. The form assumed one was sending a check. But how many people write checks any more? Almost every charity I give to has a form that includes space for credit card information. How could Citymeals have made such a stupid omission? I was about to give up, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. Then I found another form online that had a section for credit cards. So what gives with the direct mail reply form? Don't they realize that any impediment is a potential loss of donations? I'd bet that by leaving the credit card section off the reply form they've easily lost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in support. And on top of that, the reply envelope was not postage-paid. Now I don't mind putting a stamp on, but what if I didn't have one handy? That might have been another reason for a contribution not made. What kind of idiots designed the solicitation campaign? Clearly the organization accepts credit cards, so why didn't the form say so? People who design mail solicitations should be as mindful of usability as web designers. Poor design = lost business or support. I needed to make my donation by mail, because I have to include a corporate matching gift form. I finally did so, but it was touch and go. If the folks from Citymeals-on-Wheels are reading this, wake up. And if they're not reading this, maybe they're reading the form I returned with my donation, upon which I scribbled: "Why no place for credit card info? You almost lost a donation. And you should supply postage-paid envelopes." But most likely a volunteer will see it and toss it in the trash before processing my check and my matching form. Let's see what I get next year.