Sunday, February 27, 2011

Danny Meyer is a Solid Bloke

Coppa Croccante al Maialino

But this isn't really a piece about Danny Meyer, it's about my Restaurant Week lunch at Maialino, his Roman-style Italian restaurant in the Grammercy Park Hotel. And Restaurant Week, for me, is a great way of testing a restaurateur's morals. Will the special menu be two or three choices in each category from the bottom of the barrel, as is the case at too many restaurants (i Trulli, for instance)? Not at Meyer's properties. At Maialino there was a choice of 8 appetizers, 9 main courses and 6 desserts, most of them quite tempting.

This is characteristic of Meyer's approach to Restaurant Week. While I've never been lucky enough to score a RW reservation at Grammercy Tavern or Union Square Cafe, the menus always look fabulous. The restaurant week lunch I had at 11 Madison Park a while back was a winner.

My lunchmate and I shared all three courses.

For appetizers we had the smoked swordfish, a tiny portion but quite good (I'm guessing it was a half portion of the $15 menu item). More substantial, and maybe more interesting, was the artichoke mousse on toast. The base for the mousse tasted like it was something of a Hollandaise.

We decided one of our mains should be a pasta and chose the paccheri all'amatriciana, a classic Roman dish of fat, wide macaroni and a spicy tomato sauce with guanciale (pork cheeks). The pasta was perfectly cooked and the sauce delicious; once again my only complaint was the rather small size of the serving.

Out other main course, however was quite ample, interesting and wonderful. Called coppa croccante al Maialino (shown at top), it's described as a crispy suckling pig terrine with lentils and poached egg.

Both desserts were more than satisfying, though I give the slight edge to the olive oil cake with vanilla bean mascarpone over the torta della nonna (lemon tart with pine nuts and caramel).

This was one of the better Restaurant Week meals I've had, and I would recommend Maialino without hesitation. However, the disparity in portion sizes could be problematic. If I weren't sharing and only had the smoked swordfish and the pasta (with either dessert) I might have gone away a little hungry.

2 Lexington Avenue

Monday, February 21, 2011

4 5 6: The Next Generation

Back in the 1970s I used to go to a Chinatown restaurant called 4 5 6, on Chatham Square. It was one of the first Shanghai-style restaurants in Chinatown, and I went sometimes with my older brothers, sometimes with friends. The restaurant closed sometime in the late-70s, I'd guess. For some reason the restaurant name was also given in Romanized Cantonese on their sign: Say Eng Lok.

Not too long ago I saw a new restaurant on Mott Street called 4 5 6. I wondered if it had anything to do with the Chinatown original. I decided I'd plan my next Chinatown group dinner there. There were seven of us, enough to get a good sense of the menu.

I learned from one of the waiters at the new 4 5 6 that the chef/owner is the grandson of the original owner. I guess the 4 5 6 gene skips a generation.

As I usually do at Shanghainese restaurants, I ordered a mix of dumplings and appetizers, cold dishes, something noodly, and hot main courses.

I don't remember having xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) at the original 4 5 6--I think the first place I tried them was at Little Shanghai, on East Broadway. The ones at the new 4 5 6 (we had the pork and crabmeat version) were very good, though I found them rather short on the soup. Nonetheless, Bob H. declared them better than those at the much vaunted Joe's Shanghai.

I do remember the fried dumplings (pot stickers) at the original 4 5 6. They were big and hearty, with a somewhat thick skin. The grandson's dumplings are much smaller, lighter and more delicate, closer to Japanese gyoza (which get their name from the Chinese jiaozi, by the way).

The beef pancake with egg met with approval from most of the crowd, but I found it disappointing. It was rather bland and dry, and could have been improved by a thin layer of hoisin sauce that some places use in the preparation. The turnip pastries, little pies with shredded turnip, met with universal approval.

Our two cold dishes were both good, though I can't say I've ever had a bad rendition of either. The kau fu (gluten puffs with black mushroom) was a little less sweet, a little less aromatic than many. This version included peanuts, which I don't believe are standard issue.

The seaweed salad was refreshing and well-balanced (some versions have an overwhelming garlic presence).

Main courses included Ning Bo fried two delights (shown at top), which consisted of yellow fish prepared two ways: wrapped in bean curd skin, and in a breading with seaweed. Everybody agreed that the ones in bean curd skin were wonderful, but that the breaded version was too heavy and greasy.

Though in the heavy department it's hard to beat the pork shoulder in honey sauce, and I mean that in a good way. It's a big hunk of boned shoulder meat with a fatty layer of skin sitting on top. Peter W., who loves pork as only a Jew can, said it reminded him of the German dish eisbein (though that is made with pickled hocks). Though called a honey sauce, it wasn't overly sweet. This is the kind of dish that you need a large group for, it's so rich.

If I had known the pork shoulder came with bai choi (aka Shanghai bok choy), I might have ordered a vegetable dish other than the black mushroom with bai choi; still it was a hit at the table.

I found the seafood rice cakes (nian gow) a bit disappointing: softer and less bouncy than I prefer, and wetter than I like, with a bit of a white sauce. But nian gow, like jiaozi, is a lucky New Year's dish, and we went in the middle of the Chinese New Year period, so wish me luck.

4 5 6
69 Mott Street (between Bayard and Canal)
Chinatown, NYC

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Chichicastenango and Lake Atitlan

Chichicastenango (Chichi for short) is a K'iche' Mayan town in Guatemala's western highlands with a bustling native market on Thursdays and Sundays, the main reason it gets significant tourist traffic. Befitting a market that serves both locals and tourists, the items on sale range from the quotidian to the comestible, to covetable crafts and clothing. At the church of Santo Tomas and the smaller El Calvario church, the local people practice a syncretic mix of Catholicism and pre-Columbian religion.

Chichi is about 2.5 hours from Antigua, and on market days collectivo vans leave the city at 7AM and return at 2PM. For my taste that gives one more time in town than one really needs, unless you're a market fanatic.

I didn't really have time to spend at Lake Atitlan, having decided to visit Copan, in Honduras, instead, but when I was planning my trip to Chichi I discovered that I could at least get a gander at this volcano-fringed lake that Aldous Huxley kvelled about (or was it a kvell?--he called it "too much of a good thing"). Vans also go to Panajachel, the transit hub and major lakeside "resort" of Atitlan, at 2PM, and the trip takes a little over an hour; vans then leave Panajachel at 4PM for the return to Antigua (another 2.5 hour ride). I really only had about a half hour or so to stroll around the lake. Huxley's encomium is often twisted in the tourist literature to claim that he declared it "the most beautiful lake in the world." Is it? Granted I only had a limited perspective, and granted the lake did suffer a setback in the last several years (an onset of bacterial sludge, greatly alleviated by now through government efforts to save this cash cow tourist attraction--I didn't notice any foul odor), but having seen the lakes of Northern Italy and Switzerland, the lochs of Scotland, Lake Bled in Slovenia, and Lake Batur on Bali, I'd have to say no way.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Eating in Antigua (Guatemala)

Sambuca shrimp at Como Como

I always try to eat local specialties when I travel, but I gotta tell you, comida tipica in Guatemala and Honduras gets pretty tired pretty quickly. In general, a meal consists of a plate with your choice of meat, along with rice or French fries, beans (usually a black bean puree), maybe some fried sweet plantains, and a half an avocado, accompanied by tortillas that are smaller and thicker than Mexican ones and generally dry and bland from lack of salt. From what I can tell there's just not the rich culinary tradition you find in Mexico, nor a significant range of regional specialties. In Honduras, but not Guatemala, you'll find pupusas, the stuffed corn masa pancakes that I know from Salvadorean restaurants in New York and San Francisco.

I did get to try a bunch of Guatemalan specialties my first day in the country, as Kacao, a tourist-friendly place in Guatemala City, has a copious Sunday lunch buffet (around $18) featuring a wide range of soups, appetizers, stews, grilled meats, salads and desserts. The stews (e.g. pepian, jocon, subanik and cack-ik) are perhaps the most specifically Guatemalan of the dishes. Maybe it was the preparation at Kacao, but I just didn't find any of them particularly flavorful. For me the grilled steak was highlight of the meal. Guatemala City, being a sprawling, populous capital, no doubt has a variety of good restaurants, but Kacao was my only meal in town other than a hotel breakfast.

In Flores (the town near Tikal) and in Copan Ruinas, Honduras I ate mostly local cuisine.

By the time I got to Antigua, I was happy for the great selection of international restaurants. In fact, it's probably easier to find a French restaurant in town than a Guatemalan one. If you do want typical Guatemalan food in Antigua your best bet is in the area near the outdoor market and the crafts market.

Most of the restaurants I visited in Antigua were somewhat upscale, but I'd say for the quality of food, service and decor, prices are about half of what they'd be at similar places in the states. There are so many appealing restaurants for such a small place that it would probably take weeks if not months to try them all.

Saberico, a very pleasant garden restaurant, does have Guatemalan dishes on their menu, but I opted for a spicy lamb stew with couscous for my lunch and it was delicious.

The first hotel I stayed at in Antigua may have been a dump, but there was an excellent restaurant across the street, La Pena de Sol Latino. I enjoyed their specialty, grouper filet with macadamia nuts over cubed vegetables. The restaurant features live music by band that plays Andean pan flute music, one of my least favorite of Latin American traditional musics, I guess the concept being "Inca, Maya, what's the difference?"

At Frida's, a Mexican restaurant with pictures of Frida Kahlo all over the joint, I had a very pleasant lunch of huitlacoche crepes with grilled vegetables.

Como Como is a charming Belgian restaurant where they play Django Reinhardt records. There was only one main course on the menu that really appealed to me (because I wasn't in a meat mood nor did I want the ubiquitous farmed tilapia), filet of dorado wrapped in serrano ham with tapenade and sun dried tomatoes, but alas, they were all out of dorado. So instead I ordered three appetizers, and ended up with one of the richest meals I've had in ages, all dishes heavy on the dairy. The shrimp in a Sambuca cream sauce is shown at the top. Then there were the 5-cheese croquettes and the escargots in a bleu cheese and pecan sauce.

Meson Panza Verde is a decidedly upscale, romantic place with a number of rooms, a mostly French-influenced menu, and live music nightly. There I tried the robalo panza verde. Robalo (snook in English) is a meaty, mild white fish common to the region. It was cooked in foil with white wine and tomatoes. Because I hadn't made a reservation I couldn't get a dinner table in La Cueva, the room with the live music, so I went to the bar after I ate and listened to pianist/singer Nelson Lunding (originally from Yonkers, and later New Orleans and the Bay Area, before relocating to Antigua), who plays New Orleans-style R&B and blues.

Without a doubt the best meal I had in Guatemala, and my best meal of the year so far, was at Nokiate. They describe themselves variously as Japanese-Peruvian and Asian fusion. They have a large sushi menu, other traditional Japanese items, ceviches, and a number of dishes on the Asian fusion portion of the menu. From the sushi menu I ordered a dragon roll, which was quite good, but the highlights were the two hot dishes from the fusion side. The fried dumplings (and they called them dumplings, not gyoza) were amazing, among the best I've ever had. The skin was on the thick side, but perfectly browned with a filling of minced (not ground) pork and herbs that was absolutely fabulous. Even better, one of those dishes for the taste memory, was the Pulpo Don Robbin, octopus sauteed with capers, garlic, amazingly aromatic black peppercorns and lime juice. For "dessert" I tried the Ron Zacapa Centenario, considered one of the world's great rums, but to my taste it was much too sweet.

The Italian-style gelato at Cafe Gelato, on the west side of the Parque Central was great,

much better than the somewhat watery ice cream at Helados Marco Polo, about a block further north.

But the best sweet thing I had during the entire trip was a slice of pie at a bakery and cafe called Panaderia y Pastelaria Dona Luisa Xicotencatl, down the block from Hotel Aurora. American-style pies aren't that common in Latin America, but they seem to be so in Guatemala. In fact they've borrowed the word from English, changing the spelling to "pay." I had a piece of the pay de miel con pasas (honey pie with raisins) my first morning in Antigua, but I had left my camera at the hotel, so I went back a couple of days later for another piece, for purely journalistic purposes, of course. Though it was called a honey pie it was pretty much a custard pie, and a fantastic one at that.

Monday, February 07, 2011

When Life Was Wild

I have a piece in the latest Mung Being, the "Wildlife" issue. Click to read my story, "Olga's Party."

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Antigua Guatemala

Imagine a trip to Europe for half the cost and without the jet lag. Then throw in the charming (albeit somewhat shy and reticent) Guatemalan people (Indian, Mestizo and European), proximity to bustling Indian markets (Chichicastenango is 2.5 hours away) and spectacular Mayan ruins (Copan, in Honduras, is 6 hours away), boutiques full of local crafts, jewlery and clothing, and top it off with a surprisingly vast selection of world-class restaurants of all sorts at relatively rock-bottom prices.

Antigua Guatemala, once the epicenter of Spanish colonial Central America, is a treasure trove of colonial architecture, both ruined and restored. After a series of earthquakes in the late 18th century the city was pretty much abandoned and the capital moved to Guatemala City, about an hour east of Antigua. But the town was never completely abandoned, and it began to experience a revival starting about a century ago. More recently it has become a major tourism magnet, and has also attracted expats from around the globe. For its wealth of colonial architecture it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. I'd say it compares favorably with Toledo, Spain, and the weather's a lot better in the winter. It's a compact, completely walkable town, a joy to wander around. The city is laid out on a grid, so even though street signs are somewhat intermittent, it's hard to get lost in Antigua (in the bad sense of lost in Antigua, that is).

I'm almost ashamed to admit that before researching my trip to Guatemala about a year ago I hadn't even heard of Antigua Guatemala. But now I'm happy to share the joy. It's a great place to hang out for a few days, or a week, or maybe longer to study Spanish at one of the town's many language schools.

The new cathedral...

...was built in front of the ruins of the original cathedral,

on the east side of the Parque Central, the hub of activity in most Latin American towns (I don't believe they use the term "Zocalo," as in Mexico).

Los Arcos:

Church ruins and architectural detail:

La Merced:

Indian women selling their wares:

Steakhouse touts:

The streets of San Francisco (church):