Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tastes of the Lower East Side and Chinatown, NYC

One of the best ways to enjoy the pleasures of NYC is to stop for a bite to eat here and there, rather than sitting for a filling meal. On one day, I focused my walking, exploring and eating on the Lower East Side, which, conveniently, borders Chinatown. Here is a sampler of what I enjoyed:

Pork and Peanut Dumplings at 88 Palace, 88 East Broadway, NYC, NYC
I went here for one thing only: the pork dumplings. You enter this cavernous place that is hidden above a mini-mall. And there must be almost 100 choices for dim sum. But I chose these delicious bites. Each crystal clear wrapper enclosed a moist, tender filling. It includes crisp slivers of carrots, celery, little dried shrimp and bits of pork. But the secret: the peanuts! It is worth a trip.
Banh Mi Saigon 138 Mott, for under $4.00 you get a Vietnamese sandwich that is a wonderful filing meal: cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrot, jicama and sliced chilis, along with either pate, pork or chicken in a French roll. The sandwich is served in a paper bag to catch the shards of bread and juice that drip down.
Little Giant, 85 Orchard Street, Although I had wanted to eat my way through Chinatown, I couldn't resist a stop here when I heard about their biscuits. And these biscuits are as good as they get, and about the size of a plate. The best part? They are served with a decadent honey butter-creamy and sweet and perfect for a flaky biscuit.

For the next time I would love to try:

Shanghai Cuisine for their soup dumplings
Food Shing 2 for their Beef Soup with Hand-pulled Noodles
Grand Sichuan for Szechuan specialities
Hand Pulled Noodles for their homeade knife cut noodles

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cookbooks and Carnitas: Two Great Sites on the Upper East Side

For years I visited the Upper East Side of New York to enter a fantasy world otherwise known as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But eventually, of course, I got hungry. And there were relatively few places to get decent and inexpensive food amongst the swanky restaurants. So, I on a recent trip, I was thrilled to discover Cascabel Taqueria. I was even happier to find out that it was just a few blocks from Kitchen Arts and Letters, a wonderful cookbook store (in addition to the glorious Rabelais in Portland, Maine.)
At Cascabel I had the carnitas taco, filled with slow roasted Berkshire pork butt, pickled red onion and roasted chili de arbol. It was topped with puffed rice, of all things. The meat was a bit dry for my taste and benefited from some of the house made salsa. I also tried the Elote Asado or grilled corn with Mexican aioli, cascabel chili and queso cotija. (Both are photographed at the top of this post.) They were decent enough and satisfying. I finished with a shaved ice with a bit of vanilla syrup. It was good, though the ice bits were as chunky as I remembered from my Snoopy snow cone days.
Even more satisfying was my visit to Kitchen Arts and Letters. Packed with cookbooks from all over the world, the owner spent a long time with me, taking the time to guide me through the expanse of food writing and to share his personal recommendations. I left with a bag packed full of books that I am still enjoying.

Cascabel Taqueria, 1538 Second Ave, Between 80th and 81st, NYC, NY
Kitchen Arts and Letters, 1435 Lexington Ave, NYC, NY

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Oh, So This is Tofu: Cho Dang Gol, NYC

Once you eat homemade tofu, you can't go back. It is as different from the bland supermarket products as boxed mac and cheese is from its wonderful creamy baked cousin. Knowing this, I tried to make it at home...and a splattered kitchen and multiple dirty dishes later, my tofu was inedible! With optimism, then, I headed to Cho Dang Gol in the Koreatown section of New York City, known for their homemade tofu. Many courses later, I was a fan.
We began with complimentary and traditional Korean appetizers, known as ban chan. What arrived was wonderful panfried tofu, sweet, subtle with a side of soy sauce. Next, some kimchi, tofu with spinach, and fermented fresh greens.
We overordered clearly when our first "official" appetizer arrived: Tofu Trio: handmade tofu slices, served with steamed pork belly and fresh Kimchi. The pork pate was rough and meaty. I could pass in the future. We also barely touched the whole croaker fish that arrived unexpectedly as part of our meal. However, I couldn't get enough of the piece de resistance: homemade tofu served in a warm broth. It was tender, flavorful and comfort food at its best. Just as wonderful was damchang, a warming stew with zucchini and potato.
The most unique dish we had was one of their specialities: Mineral Stone Rice Bowl. What arrived was rice cooked with mineral water and served in a stone bowl with nuts, ginseng, pine nuts and chestnuts. Again, it was nutty, soothing and wonderful.
Finally, for dessert after we devoured our rice, hot broth was poured back into the stone pot, created a warm elixir, filled with the crisp rice from the bottom.

Until I can make homemade tofu on my own, or I find a restaurant that does so in Boston, I may have to trek back soon.

Cho Dang Gol Korean Restaurant, 55 West 35 Street, NYC, NY, 212-695-8222

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tastes of Greenwich Village, NYC

Four fabulous things I ate as I meandered around Greenwich Village:
At Abraco Espresso Bar: Standing while drinking a perfect espresso and lavender shortbread cookie at Abraco, a coffee stand, of sorts. Upon returning home I purchased lavender to recreate these herbal cookies.
Ippudo Ramen: For lunch: a bowl of ramen that I could eat each day. I ordered the Tonkotsu Soup Noodle. What arrived was a broth was almost creamy with a havenly spell. It was an elixer, most likely made with gently simmered pork bones. Sitting in the broth: homemade noodles, pork belly, wisps of fresh cabbage, scallions and a fragrant garlic oil.
Otafuku: Sweet and Savory treats from Otafuku. Walking by Otafuku I suddenly was transported back to Kyoto, Japan. But instead, Otafuku is located right in the East Village.
You can have the savory: Takoyaki are creamy fritters either filled with octopus (traditional) or cheese. Or you can eat Okonomiyaki, a Japanese cross between a latke, pancake and omlette.
Finally, for the end: taiyaki: a waffle sandwich (in the shape of a fish of all things!) filled with sweet bean paste.
Otto Pizzeria and Enoteca: Save room, though, for the best of sundaes. At Otto I had an "Olive Oil Coppetta." The olive oil ice cream was fruity and creamy. What made the sundae, though, were the other elements: a sour passion fruit granita at the base with sweet/bitter kumquats on top. And gracing the top of the ice cream? Fresh strawberries and a basil syrup. And then, the one twist: sea salt on top. It had every element of a perfect dessert. And the good news if you are lucky enough to live nearby? They have other versions of their sundaes, such as one with sweet corn gelato and blackberry compote.

Tonkastu Soup Noodle, Ippudo Ramen
Espresso and cookies, Abraco, 86 East 7th Street
Treats, Otafuku, 236 E. 9th Street, NYC
Otto Pizzeria and Enoteca, 1 5th Avenue, NYC

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Still Thinkin' After All This Time: Alta, NYC

Since eating at Alta in NYC, I have tried to recreate one of their dishes no less than half a dozen times. Listed on the menu as brussel sprouts with Granny Smith apples, pistachios and creme fraiche, it epitomizes the food I ate there.
What arrived was a heavenly combination: roasted sprouts topped with an apple cider and vinegar reduction, the tart apples, earthy pistachios and dollops of cream. Each dish there replicated this experience: a seemingly simple sounding dish that I wanted to order over and over again.
The balls of fried goat cheese with lavender infused honey were precisely that addictive sweet and salty treat that are such a treat at a restaurant.
The same was true of the decadent chunks of seared fois gras that were paired beautifully with buttery tastes of brioche, mango ginger chutney, pistachios and bee pollen.
The housemade grilled merguez, toasted falafel, red wine pudding, and lebne goat cheese sauce was a meaty compliment to the other dishes.

Our waitress steered us towards the "Enormous Whole Shrimp." The giant gambas were simultaneously succulent and smoky. Desserts were just as delicious.
We began with a sweet and sour play on french toast: Marcona almond croquant, with marscapone gelato, pineapple "air" and pomegranate sauce.

The finale: warm and crispy ricotta churros with 2 delicious sauces: an apple lemon thyme and a blood orange Compari. We dipped the crisp curls again and again until we had nearly licked the plates.

There is no equivalent of Alta in Boston. Perhaps that is for the best: With over 45 dishes on their menu, I am not sure I would ever go anywhere else! But for now I can dream of going back, and struggling with ordering something new or just repeating the delights that I had the first time.

Alta, 64 West 10th, NYC, New York

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Tracing the Book: Momofuku Ssam Bar, NYC

It is always a risk to go to a restaurant with high expectations. And I had wanted to go to the Momofuku Ssam Bar for over a year. I had read up on the genius of Chef David Chang. I had obsessed over his different restaurants. I had even been sent a copy of his Momofuku Cookbook by the publisher and had started cooking through the book. (You can read about my escapades here and here and here.) So, needless to say, by the time I got to the restaurant, I expected perfection. The truth: my meal there was fine. Adequate. But, alas, far from what I had hoped. And it cost some money as even these little dishes added up.
We began with their infamous steamed buns served with rich, unctuous pork belly, hoisin, cucumber and scallions. Of course these were better than the ones we had made, but not as delicious as those that I ate in Boston at Myers and Chang. The bun itself was mastery. However, I was shocked that I didn't love them. The pork wasn't as flavorful or crisp as I had hoped. They were good, but they didn't leave me starry-eyed.Next: Buttermilk Panna Cotta, served with a salty Fuji Apple Dashi, herbs, and pine nuts. This was a beautiful dish. But the tastes were just a bit off: too sour, too salty. It never came together, despite the look.

My favorite was the Beets Served 3 Ways (and is pictured at the top of the post). The dish included a beet-rhubarb, sorbet, poached, and crisped as a meringue. It was served with labne and was a wonderful play on borscht-cool and sweet.The weakest dish was Chili Soft Shell Crabs served with green plum, asparagus and lemon confit. It simply tasted fried, the heaviness of the coating masking the delicacy of the crab.

Friends of mine have raved about Momofuku Ssam and the Noodle Bar before and after my visit. So, for now, I am wondering if my experience wasn't reflective of the quality and creativity that is possible there. If that means another visit, I am certainly game!

Momofuku Ssam Bar, 207 2nd Ave, NYC