Monday, June 29, 2009

Fried Rice Queen

I know many New York sinophiles in constant pursuit of China’s finest, but to find the best of the best, put down that vodka soda and march out of The Web. While I feel fairly confident in my restaurant-hunting skills, I decided I might need a bit of help in these uncharted waters. Luckily, as of this publications date, I happened to be seeing a dashing Chinese man who told me where his parents like to dine when visiting New York. Now I’m on to something…just like my mother can discern which brand of chopped liver sits in front of her with a mere whiff, parents born in Hong Kong must know what’s what when it comes to NYC’s Chinese culinary scene.

I was skeptical of this midtown recommendation, feeling fairly certain that the best Chinese meals lived south of Canal Street, but the restaurant’s alternate Chinatown location and the window full of magazine clippings allayed my fears. We walked past the glimmering Buddha, faux marble paneling and went straight upstairs. I took the Hello Kitty-inspired décor as a good sign. As we sat, our waiter ask if we were ready to order, and again every 5 minutes until I satiated him by ordering a Tsingtao (imported Chinese beer) and an order of their famous pork soup dumplings to start. We then proceeded to cross-reference the menu with my manfriend’s e-mail describing what and how to order. I may or may not have had to call him to review my Chinese pronunciation…

When the moment of truth arrived, I went down the list of items with menu in hand, pointing my way through the order. Then, however, I hit a snag. One dish that “is amazing,” wasn’t on the menu. Not only was this vegetable a special order, but I was only instructed how to say it in Cantonese. I took a deep breath and with beads of sweat dripping down my forehead, I tried to sound as nonchalant as possible and said, “Oh, and an order of oong choy.” To my shock and delight, the waiter barely flinched and just kept writer on his pad, whew.

By the time I was done hyperventilating from the ordering ordeal, our pork soup dumplings arrived in a large bamboo steamer. What makes these dumplings standout from the typical American-Chinese variety is the tablespoon or two of rich pork broth that accompanies the pork ball inside each little noodle pod. We stared, unapologetically, as the next table over went through the fragile dumpling-popping process. We were far less successful in executing the dumpling dance, but here’s how it should go: place one dumpling in a large soup spoon and top with a soy sauce and fermented ginger concoction. Delicately either use your chopsticks or your teeth to puncture a small hole in the noodle. Sip the soup as it fills the spoon and eat the deflated remains.

It was easy to see why Joe’s Shanghai is famous for these dumplings, not only were they fun, but delicious as well. The pork was tender and flavorful and the noodle was light and just gummy enough. Not long after, our main courses arrived. The young chow fried rice was a fairly traditional version, made with pan-fried white rice, chicken, pork and shrimp – not that brownish stuff you get at your local Quan’s Kitchen. The beef with green beans was good, but not particularly notable. And then came the infamous oong choy, which reminded me of broccoli rabe with hollow shafts (cue giggle) and no florets. The spears were crunchy, refreshing and salty; an illusion of health veiled in oil. After some online snooping, it turns out that oong choy is water spinach: a semi-aquatic tropical plant grown as a leaf vegetable, yum.

Dinner was going so well that when the dessert menu’s arrived, I decided we shouldn’t push our luck and just asked for the check. I’m not an Asian expert, but I’m pretty sure the flan isn’t indigenous. Instead, we finally succumb to the pressure of being a New York City tourist and sat down to our Carnegie Deli cheesecake.

24 W 56 Street
New York, New York 10019
(between 5 and 6 Avenue)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Balancing Brunch

Taking my parents to a hip New York City hot spot is about as stressful as watching Frank Bruni’s face as he takes the first bite of your new restaurant’s Risotto Milanese. My parents are the kind of people that aren’t blinded by the pomp, posh panache that often threaten to fog my oversized Pradas, so when we go out together the food must speak for itself. On our continuing culinary journey over Father’s Day weekend, we went to the much lauded brunch at Jane.

Jane puts the “Ho” in “SoHo,” sitting on West Houston Street, atop the ever-so-hip NYC neighborhood. The high ceilings, clean lines and warm neutral tones give Jane a sleek feel without cold minimalist sterility. We arrived for our 10:30 reservation and the three of us were jammed into a two-person corner banquet inches away from a table of fellow brunchers. Not a group known for biting our tongues, we spoke up and were moved in minutes. Although our waiter undoubtedly lost a chance for a table of four at our new location, he made us feel welcome, noting how much easier it would be to serve us there. After seeing hundreds of sneers when I say, “Oh, tap water will be fine,” it was refreshing to have a server show a little class.

While perusing the menu, we ordered juice in lieu of the complimentary cocktails that accompany brunch after noontime. Damn, no wonder I was able to get this reservation at 10:30; at least the grapefruit juice tasted freshly squeezed. Without any traditional typical standbys, my parents were a bit skeptical, but we all found something and hoped for the best.

My dad ordered the Farm House Scramble - smoked ham, gruyere, and caramelized onions. This amped-up version of a ham and cheese omelette was excellent. It was moist without being runny and flavorful without being salty. The key to a successful omelette is the perfect balance with a seemingly effortless finesse. My mother went the lunch route, which is always a hotly debated issue at any brunch table. She had the BLT & E – a sunny up egg, crisp bacon, bibb lettuce, tomato, and lemon aioli an brioche with rosemary fries. Her plate had me wishing I too opted for the –unch part of brunch. The sandwich was a delightful play on the classic. Nothing too over-the-top to take away from the sense that you’re having a BLT, but the sweet brioche foiled the salty bacon and the lemon aioli cut through the fat making this dish another triumph of balance.

After two well-executed balancing acts, it was surprising that the only issue I had with my dish was the balance. I had the Benedict Johnny -poached eggs, maple chicken sausage, corn pancakes, and roasted tomato hollandaise. Each element was delicious and my dad even noted how expertly the eggs were poached. It all just fell a bit short of coming together. The sweet corn pancakes stood out. Although they were good, they overshadowed the equally well-crafted sausage and delicate egg orbs.

All in all the food was quality and the service good, a rare find that pleased both my parents and me. Next time, however, I’ll be making my reservation when the booze are flowing.

100 West Houston Street, New York City

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sticky Fingers

Father’s Day is a pretty easy holiday for most sons, pick a place that is fatty, greasy, has a flat screen and you’re good to go. Unfortunately, some of us have an aversion to dining in restaurants where our shoes stick to the floor. Luckily this Father’s Day, I had a divine apparition and came up with the perfect place to keep both of us smiling. Blue Smoke is a self-proclaimed “urban barbecue.” It’s the kind of place that is sure to have visiting Texans scoffing at its highfalutin attitude – with hoity toity things like micro brewed beers, infused salts, and napkins – while the promise of authentic regional barbecue has New York crowds cringe at the thought of getting their fingers sticky.

While Blue Smoke has guests skeptical from every angle, this metrocue somehow manages to pull off a successful brand. I think the first reason why Blue Smoke works is a subtle distinction; it is trendy because it’s authentic. Too many New York restaurants end up feeling like an over-polished Disney caricature of a region or cuisine (think Havana Central or anything on Mulberry Street). Blue Smoke’s food is clean, simple and easy to understand – like any good brand.

After arriving early for our reservation, my parents and I were shocked to find that the restaurant was running a 45 minute wait at 6 p.m. on a Saturday. Luckily, they were able to squeeze us in and we sat right away. I kicked things off with an old fashion Old Fashioned (Maker’s Mark Bourbon, bitters, sugar, muddled cherry and orange), definitely a drink that’ll put hair on your chest – which I will later have waxed off. My dad opted for the aforementioned microbrew, Blue Smoke Original Ale, which was a really nice amber ale that could hold its own against the other beers on the menu.

A few minutes after our drinks arrived, we got a few starters (no chichi hors d'oeuvres here) that came highly recommended. Warm barbecued potato chips with blue cheese dip were surprisingly reminiscent of the Lays classic, but the high octane version. The chips were fresh, light and crispy. Alone they were pleasant, but the over-the-top blue cheese dip with chunks of bacon, made the dish really stand out. Our other app was the winner of the night for me. We had chipotle chicken wings with blue cheese dip. The wings were a tangy crossbreed of buffalo wings and barbecue wings. This blue cheese dipping sauce was different, considerably lighter and almost like a ranch dressing.

In preparation for our main course, I ordered another classic cocktail. The Sazerac (Old Overholt Rye, Pernod and Peychaud’s Bitters) was sweeter and considerably easier to sip. Then, in the name of research, the waiter looked at me and said something I never thought I’d hear a man say to me, “Sir, here is your rib sampler.” Two Memphis Baby Backs, two Kansas City Spareribs and one Texas Beef Rib slowly descended on to the table as I made a feeble attempt to save face and said, “Oh, there must have been some mistake. I ordered the salmon, but don’t bother taking them back now.” My dad’s Sliced Texas Beef Brisket came in the same generous portion, but without the side of guilt.

On the whole, my ribs were a bit of a disappointment. They came room temperature and could have used more sauce; however, the salt and pepper crusted beef rib itself was outstanding. It was rich and flavorful without being overpowered by its crust. In any subsequent stops to Blue Smoke, I’d simply get a half rack of these gigantic ribs and avoid the others. My dad’s brisket was simple and delicious. Both my mom’s order of ribs and my own came unaccompanied, so we also ordered a few sides for the table. The macaroni and cheese was decadent and a too heavy to finish and the cornbread was a bit dry and a bit bland.

Blue Smoke certainly had some misses, but the successes were so good, I’d go back as an “educated diner” and just order strategically. I give the restaurant credit for its unpretentious attitude and superior service. If you’re a fabulous fashionista that is a closet spit-roasted, flame-broiled, slow-smoked junkie then don your fake mustache and outrageous alias (Anastasia Beaverhausen?) and head into Blue Smoke.

Blue Smoke
116 East 27th Street
Between Park and Lex
(212) 576 – 2232

Friday, June 19, 2009

Coquette’s Cocotte

In New York City, brunch is so rarely about food; it’s about big sunglasses, big mimosas, and big gossip. I just had one of these big brunches in a small restaurant with an even smaller friend. This fabulous fashionista (check out her and I both barely break 5 feet and 110 pounds, so we are always “such an adorable couple,” to which I say “seriously?” as a purse falls out of my mouth. For this particularly huge bit of gossip, we decided to tuck ourselves away in the back garden of August on the designer dominate west half of Bleeker Street (disclosure: the staff of Ralph Lauren Kids and Little Marc Jacobs may or may not know me by name).

August’s small front entrance leads to a charming and warm dining room flanked by a wood-burning stove in the back. On a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, however, we walked right past the tables, oven and freshly made array of baked goods, into their equally delightful back garden. The garden has a glass ceiling, which gives the illusion of being outside; however, a well-placed air conditioner makes the experience much more pleasant – this is how I envision gay camping.

August’s cuisine is artisanal and pan-European. While the menu is certainly eclectic, the tone of the entire restaurant is decidedly Provencal. The aforementioned wood oven isn’t only adorable, but also put to good use. Many of the brunch items, from the cast-iron German pancake to the baked eggs en cocotte, are all oven baked. We both chose different versions of the latter. Cocotte is French for casserole and eggs en cocotte traditionally means they have been baked in a casserole dish individually with either cream or butter (is butter a carb?). August does their cocotte in small cast-iron pans.

Being truly pan-European, August offers these baked eggs in several preparations named for the region from which they hail. My friend had the “Roman,” with tomato and mozzarella. I decided to channel my Eastern European roots and chose the “Bavarian,” dressed with Riesling-braised cabbage and smoked ham. One bite of the Bavarian and I was ready to don a pair of lederhosen (again). The dish had an outstanding balance of savory and sweet with perfectly cooked eggs that aptly broke and flooded my pan with yoke. What I found perhaps most surprising was the dish’s uncanny ability to be incredibly rich and yet somehow leave me feeling satisfied without feeling overstuffed.

Our gossip covered and our stomach’s full, we did what any two young recessionista’s would do, shop.

359 Bleecker Street
(between Charles & West 10th)
New York, NY 10014
(212) 929-8727

Friday, June 12, 2009

Home Is Where the Hearth Is

I’m the first to admit that enough pomp and circumstance, pretense, or glitter, mask mediocre menus from Brooklyn to the Bronx. And, I’m also the first to admit that, at times, that’s okay. A Grecian waiter, celebrity sighting, or finger bowl, can have the bitterest of queens singing a second chorus of Cabaret (that being said, so can a bottle of pinot grigio and an Adderall). Because of New York’s propensity for flair, I’m always a bit thrown when a restaurant’s excellence is based on its food, not its flash, hm, what a novel idea.

A few weeks ago, I ventured to the Far East, 1st Avenue, for another meal with my Papa Bears (disclosure: they are neither papas, nor bears).They took me to another of their regular haunts, so once again, my assessment of service may be a bit skewed. This time they even sweetened the pot by bringing some fresh kumquats, limes and calamondin (a cross between a tangerine and a kumquat) for the kitchen.

From the team that brought quality Italian food to midtown with Insieme, Hearth centers on modern American food with an Italian sensibility. The décor is warm and homey with a feel that somehow pulls off sleek contemporary colonial American. I was a bit unnerved to find an empty restaurant at 7 p.m. on a Sunday, but in true New York fashion, 7 is just too early for dinner on any night and the place was packed by the time we hit our second course.

As I perused the menu, I sipped on a Kettle One dirty martini, which made the rest of the meal warm, fuzzy, and hard to remember. I began with roasted frog legs with spring garlic, parsley and garlic confit. The legs were, much like my own, heavenly. They were crispy and tender and covered in an incredible garlic flavor that wasn’t too over powering. Both spring garlic and garlic confit have a mellower flavor than the pure stuff. Before our entrees arrived, we were surprised with the first of our gratis extras – the perks of dining with a “regular.” They served a wild mushroom tagliatelle with red wine, rosemary and parmesan. This was a showstopper of a dish – tender al dente pasta with a deep, rich sauce and sharp salty parmesan (my mouth is watering as I type).

As I lapped up the last dregs of my red wine reduction, another dirty martini appeared and I cleansed my palate for the entrée. With several choices that were equally tantalizing, it was difficult to zero in on a main course, but I finally chose a braised veal breast with sweetbreads, morel mushrooms, and spring onions. This dish was both dynamic and harmonious. Like any great dish, each element held it’s own, but also enhanced the others. The breast was tender and succulent, surrounded by al dente morels and decadent sweetbread nuggets with a lightly fried crispy exterior encrusting a creamy center. Our main courses were supplemented with a complimentary plate of gnocchi. The gnocchi was light, fluffy and delicious, prepared simply with butter, salt, pepper and some parmesan cheese. This second pasta success made me begin to understand the Italian heritage that Hearth promotes.

Before our dessert arrived, Hearth decided to show off and delivered our kumquats in a muddled concoction with soda and bourbon. Not only was the cocktail delicious, but also a testament to Hearth’s creativity and improvisational skill. A few sips in, my dessert arrived – a rhubarb crumb cake with poached rhubarb and brown butter ice cream. The cake was moist and the rhubarb tangy, but the highlight was the brown butter ice cream, evoking memories of shoofly pie.

Even among the best meals throughout my journeys, it’s pretty rare to have a meal without a single misstep. Hearth’s food is not only complex and well-executed, but also warming and welcoming, something that has become increasingly rare on New York’s culinary scene.

403 East 12th Street
New York, NY
(646) 602-1300

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Pig Play: My Foray into Offal

There are certain words that can make a person tingle, for air-headed fashionistas, it’s “couture,” for pig-headed frat boys it’s “double fisting,” and for boy-headed pigs it’s, well, also “double fisting.” And for adventurous foodie’s it’s “offal.” Offal is an umbrella term referring to all of the gross bits of an animal - entrails and internal organs. Yum! Inspired by great culinary explorers like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, I’ve decided to move past any of my food fears and try anything and everything at least twice (one of Zummern’s steadfast rules). I got my chance about a week ago when I suggested Craft’s “Damon Frugal Fridays” for a date I had.

This was a second date, so naturally things were getting pretty serious and I wanted something fun and impressive that wouldn’t break the bank. I thought Craft’s FF would be perfect for this fellow foodie and me. Craft is the flagship restaurant of celebrity chef Tom Colicchio (head judge: Top Chef, owner: Craft, Craftsteak, Craftbar, ‘wichcraft). Colicchio’s FF is a cost-effective tapas-style recession special that takes place in the private dining room of Craft every night except Tuesday (I guess “Frugal Every-Night-Except-Tuesday-Nights” didn’t have the same ring to it). While many celebrity chefs have let me down, I have been consistently blown away by Colicchio’s food in the past and decided that anything Craft-ed was a safe bet.

FF doesn’t take reservations, but we arrived around 8 p.m. on a Friday night and were seated right away. It was pretty busy and I think we nabbed one of the last open tables for two. The décor is notably more casual than the adjacent Craft proper – waiters in jeans with teal t-shirts – but an air of relaxed elegance still prevails. We kicked things off with the 19th Street Headache ($4), a perfect pre-meal cocktail of Aperol (an Italian aperitif similar to Campari) and champagne. As we sipped our Headaches, our waiter came over and we start listing anything that sounded good. When we finally paused to take a breath, he jumped in and suggested that we “start with that and see if we’re still hungry.” I guess we were a bit over zealous.

The parade of food began to arrive and we dug in, judging as we went. The overall lineup was a hit, with a few misses here and there. One of the first to arrive was a delightful starter, from the “Food in a Jar” section of the menu. The Elysian Fields Farms lamb rillettes was light and pleasant on thin, salty baguette toast points. A rillette is extremely similar to a pâté except the meat is shredded as opposed to smooth or chunky. Other successes included pork belly lettuce cups & hibiscus, raw Spanish mackerel with furikake (a dry Japanese condiment) & ramps, and fried quail with rhubarb chutney & roasted garlic puree.

From the offal section, we had two dishes of the four choices. The first was salt-baked bone marrow with a stew of mushrooms and tail. Bone marrow isn’t technically offal, but I guess the tail in the stew keeps this dish on the list. The marrow was savory and buttery and the stew was fantastic. My only possible critique of this dish was that the stew might have overshadowed the marrow itself. The other offal unfortunately forced me to crack some very lame jokes about “awful offal.” We had crispy pigs’ ears with deviled egg salad and celery. If you’ve ever fed your dog a pig’s ear, then you know the consistency of this dish. The ears were flavorless and rock hard (making for some very embarrassing crunching on my date). The egg salad was fine, but boring and barely worth mentioning. This dish was a particular disappointment because it’s a clear publicity stunt without any culinary backing. As a publicist, Lord knows I endorse these kinds of stunts, but any good publicist knows that a gimmick won’t take you very far unless it also is worthwhile.

Despite my ear drama, I still think that Tom Colicchio is a master chef, and I believe in his brand. The Craft Empire is one of few that deserves it place among New York’s restaurant elite.

43 East 19th Street
New York, NY