Thursday, April 28, 2005

Moto Photos

Warm Date Cake (oh so good).

Moto Photos

Clockwise from top left: The bicycle hanging outside Moto; Hewes stop on the J M Z line; Moto, below the tracks; Brooklyn night.

Just Desserts 1: Moto

LOCATION: 394 Broadway Brooklyn
DATE: April 26, 2005
DESSERT: Warm Date Cake with fresh whipped cream
PRICE: $6.00

I first became aware of Moto after watching “Eat This New York,” a documentary account of the opening of the restaurant located above the J M Z tracks in Brooklyn. Watching the trials and tribulations of two Minnesota restaurateurs in their attempt to get Moto from dream stage to reality was an eye-opening experience on just how cutthroat the restaurant industry can be. Luckily, Moto finally opened (quite a few months behind schedule) and the result is a place with a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere and excellent, simply done bistro style food.

Exiting the subway at the Hewes Street stop, you’re bound to think you too a wrong turn somewhere. How could this be the location of a restaurant? But above jail-like barred windows hangs a bicycle – and this is Moto. After managing with the massive iron door, you find a candle lit interior of dark, somber hues. The lax vibe immediately penetrates and mellows. On my visit late Tuesday night, I was even fortunate to hear a Klemzer triplet strumming out some Yiddish tunes, begging the question, why would you want to live anywhere but New York, eclectic capital of the world?

Danny and I had come once before during the afternoon to have a drink at the bar (wine and beer only) and split an order of the grilled donuts. This time, however, we had a mission. Rumors of the taste orgy available in the form of Moto’s warm date cake had been spreading like wild fire and we needed first hand verification. All I can say is, even if Moto were in the ass-crack of New Jersey, it’d be worth traveling to for this cake.

The cake is a rich purplish brown, the color of gingerbread and molasses. It comes surrounded by a moat of toffee sauce which should be available at every ice cream parlor nationwide. Real whipped cream (Danny commented on how aerosol cans and Cool Whip can make you forget how delicious real whipped cream can be) floats in the toffee sea as airy as a Shakespearean sonnet. But the cake itself is the masterpiece. Dates are usually regulated to a second-tier flavor in foods, co-mingled of with an overabundance of nuts. But Moto’s cake proves the date is no Scottie Pippen, riding on the coattails of Michael Jordan walnuts. It can carry a dessert all on its own (there are no nuts in Moto’s cake. Coincidence? I think not).

The cake’s flavor is a mix between an English pudding and coffee cake with the texture of Red Velvet cake. The sauce and cake are like twins separated at birth, reunited in dessert bliss. Every bite is consistent and luxuriously smooth. It was extremely difficult to not order a second piece.

My second dessert-only visit confirmed that I need to go to Moto for a full meal. The inexpensive menu offers up Panini (which looked especially good), salads, and even a few entrees. So the next time I’m possessed by an urge to lose a few hours in a chill, European revelry, Moto will be my first stop. Maybe I’ll even ride a bike there (but most likely not). Regardless, the cake is worth the trip alone.

RATING: 8.4/10

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Mercadito Photos

Clockwise from top left: Tres Citricos Margarita; Ceviche de Pulpo; Tacos de Camaron; Arroz y Frijoles.

Restaurant 11: Mercadito

LOCATION: 179 Avenue B
DATE: April 27, 2005
FOOD: Tacos De Camaron with Avocado and Roasted Garlic Chili Chipotle Mojo; Arroz y Frijoles; Ceviche de Pulpo (Octopus, White Sweet Potato, Jicama, Pico de Gallo, Lemon-Chile Gualijo Broth); Side of Chorizo; a few Fried Plantains
DRINK: Margarita de Tres Citricos (Torado, Orange, Grapefuit, Lemon, Habanero)
PRICE: $37.00

Of the few words I still remember from the four years of high school Spanish I so poorly mumbled my way through, is a comprehensive vocabulary of Mexican food. Mercadito’s menu doesn’t really require a knowledge of Spanish, but if you speak it as awfully as I do, you can at least amuse the waitress with your hacked pronunciations when you order. Even with my linguistic limitations, I can describe the food at Mercadito accurately: muy bien y excellente (I apologize to all those who speak the language of Borges, Marquez and Shakira for this pitiful butchering).

Mercadito is a crawl space of a restaurant, tucked away in the inaccessible by subway twilight zone that is Alphabet City. But it’s worth the journey, as the kitchen creates outstanding Mexican tapas. They also make some of the best margaritas in the city, which is how I began the evening. The “Tres Citricos” margaritas, like all the other blended drinks on the menu, is made entirely with mashed fruit and liquor – no genetically modified corn syrup in these cocktails. But the best aspect of the “Tres Citricos” margarita wasn’t even the fruit or the tequila. It was the habanero. I had certainly never had a drink mixed with a hot pepper, but the combination was sublime. The habanero buzzes the lips, pushing against the typical sweetness of the fruit. Taking sips at various points in the meal, I would get random hits of heat, which only added to the spices of the food.

Mercadito and Taco Bell are both Mexican food in the same way as Nabakov and Mary Higgins Clark are both mystery writers. Mercadito is Mexican food done right. Everything at the restaurant focuses on bold dishes prepared with an eye on aesthetic presentation, bringing in bright, equatorial colors. Alex and I started by splitting the octopus ceviche. This was my first ceviche, which might not have been a wise idea. For this was an amazing mix of chewy octopus, white sweet potato, and citrus flavors mimicking my margarita and will be hard for other contenders to measure up to. Scooped onto flatbread, one bite brought a myriad of ingredients into seamless integration, a symbiotic relationship to make the animal kingdom jealous. Nothing overwhelmed anything else and the dish was refreshing in the way lemonade cools during a blazing summer afternoon. Garfield, a native of the Caribbean, and no newcomer to ceviches, found this opening as pleasing as Alex and I did.

Fish tacos are one of the world’s best foods when they’re done right. It should almost go without saying that Mercadito manipulates fish wrapped in tortillas like Bill Frist and Tom Delay manipulate the Christian right wing for votes – very successfully. While I would have tried any of the tacos on the menu, Alex and I went with the house specialty, the shrimp and avocado. The shrimp came covered in a brick red chipotle garlic sauce, a not overly spicy smattering that soaked into the tortilla delightfully. The bite-size shrimp was tender and cooked perfectly. Mercadito even did the afterthoughts well, the rice and beans surprisingly better than most Mexican restaurant offerings. The fried plantains that Garfield and Eddie ordered were also delicious. I would recommend avoiding the chorizo, which was served like ground beef and was incredibly greasy, leaving a large pool of oil on the plate. But this was the only thing we had that wasn’t exceptional.

Our waitress had enough cheer to cause even Bukowski to smile. But she couldn’t cover up for a kitchen that seemed to forget our order, as we had to wait nearly forty minutes for even the first courses. Mercadito is a tiny restaurant, so I can see how this can happen, but it’s not the customer’s fault if the chef’s are besieged. This would be my main criticism of a restaurant that otherwise was wonderful, amber lighting creating a peaceful interior fit for the fine cuisine.

Food brings people together. So it’s nice to see that Mexican has gone the way of small plates, the better to sample with a group of friends. And at a place like Mercadito, where there are so many intriguing and unique flavors to taste, there’s no reason not to share.

RATING: 8.0/10

Nonna Photos

Clockwise from top left: Nonna, on the upper west side; Arancini; Zeppolis; Seafood Linguini.

Restaurant 10: Nonna

LOCATION: 520 Columbus Ave
DATE: April 24, 2005
FOOD: Sunday Night Feast (6 Course Prix Fixe) – Arancini (Rice Balls); Caesar Salad; Ricotta Stuffed Baked Eggplant; Linguini & Clams; Zeppolis with Honey.
BEVERAGE: Half a bottle Agricole Vallone Puglia 2000; Decaf Cappucino
PRICE: $45.00

Compliments are tricky beasts. They seem to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity in and of themselves. No better example is the distinctly New York slightly backhanded praise of modification which runs, “It’s good…for the upper west side.” As I learned at Nonna, good for the upper west side is the culinary equivalent of “Stephen King is great…if you like horror novels.” I think Stephen King is a mediocre writer (The Shining yes, The Green Mile, good God no). So too was Nonna.

New York Metro, my favorite New York food information source, had recommended Nonna’s Sunday Feast in their Best of New York guide
. Nonna, then, marks the first time I’ve disagreed with the magazine’s food section. Nonna was certainly not horrendous. In fact, I doubt you could have a bad meal at Nonna. But I also doubt that you could have a truly great one either.

Nonna’s Sunday dinner is six courses (sauce and pasta counting as separate courses). Arancini arrived first, fried rice balls filled with cheese. The dish had no integration, as each ingredient could be tasted separately, but failed to combine in a unified whole. It also lacked any discernable spices. Homemade Caesar salad came next, again without enough pizzazz to really warrant attention, a hospital cafeteria plate of lettuce. We were then served the stuffed eggplant, which was actually quite excellent, crispy eggplant, parmagiana style, stuffed with a mound of slightly melted ricotta cheese. The eggplant showed the kitchen has potential, as did the linguine with clams, shrimp and mussels that was the main course. The broth had a light finesse, no goopy puddles of oil or butter anywhere to be seen. The pasta was also loaded with seafood, a surprise for a fixed menu meal that costs only $19. The noodles were slightly overcooked, but overall, this was the second strong course in a row. Dessert, zeppolis with honey, were very average, and I longed for the delectable sfogliatelle of Veniero’s even as I plumbed Nonna’s Italian donuts.

Our waiter was congenial and he had no problem substituting the linguini for the beef dominated meat course. Overall though, the meal felt very rushed. The dishes all arrived one on top of another, especially at the beginning of the meal. This meant that by the time I finished the Caesar salad and rice balls, I only was able to have one bite of the eggplant before it became lukewarm. I associate Sunday night dinners with a casual ease, an unhurried dining to savor the last few moments of weekend freedom before the work week starts up again. Nonna’s service didn’t allow for such pacing.

I also had heard that reservations were a must. They weren’t. We arrived twenty minutes later than our reservation, but the restaurant was only half full. Now, in this type of scenario, I’m always willing to assume blame for being tardy and allow a crowded restaurant to seat other patrons in front of me. But if the restaurant isn’t full, I see no reason why showing up late should matter. When we arrived at Nonna, the hostess commented on our delay, even as my eyes scanned over numerous empty tables. I failed to see what had merited such an attitude. Perhaps she’s only working as a hostess to support her soon to be realized dreams of actress stardom. Right.

Perhaps Nonna was a fitting way to end the day of the Godfather. I had refused to watch the final installment in the trilogy because it’s such an awful movie, and though I admire her skills as a director, Sophie Coppola as an actress is unwatchable. The final Godfather can’t live up to its predecessors. The same is true of Nonna. In a city with Italian wunderkind like Mario Batali and L’Impero’s Scott Conant, and restaurants like Otto, Babbo, Cacio e Pepe (I could go on), Nonna fails by comparison. Once you know how well Italian can be done, it’s very hard (and counterintuitive) to go back to middling variations…even if you are on the upper west side.

RATING: 6.0/10

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Otto Photos

Clockwise from top left: Gelato so good it has to be pictured twice; Pane Frattau pizza; Funghi and Taleggio pizza.

Otto Photos

Clockwise from top left: Otto on Fifth Avenue; Quartino of blush wine; Butternut Squash Penne; Calamari.

Restaurant 9: Otto

LOCATION: 1 Fifth Avenue
DATE: April 24, 2005
FOOD: Split the following - Calamari, Potatoes, Chili Antipasti; Penne con Noci e Zucca (Hazelnuts, Butternut Squash, Smoked Ricotta with Penne Pasta); Funghi & Taleggio Otto Pizza; Pane Frattau Otto Pizza (Tomato, Pecorino, Egg); 3 Gelato Combination: Rose-Rosemary, Olive Oil, Goat’s Milk Ricotta.
BEVERAGE: Quartino of Rose House Wine; Decaf Café Americano
PRICE: $55.00

I credit Mario Batali with reawakening the love of Italian food that grew latent in my culinary habits during the red sauce landfill that was/is Charlottesville. I first went to Otto on my birthday and was so enlivened by the savory sparks there displayed, I followed with visits to Lupa and the unforgettable Babbo. Nietzsche writes of the law of eternal return and anyone that’s visited one of Batali’s restaurants knows exactly what the crazy German philosopher was talking about. The big difference between ol’ Freaky Friedy and Mario though, is I doubt a Batali eternal return will end with you gushing your soul's secrets to the neighbor’s Mr. Ed (but you never know). Giving Batali the nickname of Zarathustra does seem more and more appropriate. He’s at least speaking to me from the mountaintop (Italian Alps?).

I hadn’t originally even intended on going to Otto. Danny had never seen any of the Godfather Trilogy so I planned a day around this deficiency, with the intention of beginning at the widely praised Una Pizza Napoletana. Unfortunately, the restaurant’s owner, Anthony Mangieri, had once again changed the hours, opening only at 5:30 and completely removing the possibility of a Sunday lunch. So instead, we opted for Otto’s controversial cracker-thin pizza. If only all fall-backs were so magnificent.

The layout alone of Otto is wonderful. From the wine bar at the entrance, to the European inspired alley outside the restaurant’s window, it’s easy to forget you’re still in GW’s America after walking in the doors. Our waiter was exceptionally gracious in helping me select a wine and I picked a Rose, though I typically stay away from blush wines. It was pleasantly fruity, the slightly sweet taste fitting in well with the feathery hours of lunch.

On my last visit, I had sampled widely on the antipasti menu, so this time I decided to focus on the pizza. However, this didn’t preempt my love of calamari and an order of this Pesce appetizer. Olive-oil chili pesto painted the octopus like a Botticelli canvas. The boiled potato pieces were a nice textural contrast to the calamari, while the zesty spice of the chili really made the dish come alive. The squash penne came next and was outstanding, the squash firm without being hard and the hazelnut providing a welcome crunch of sweetness. It was a simple dish that spoke wonders of Batali’s talent, as pumpkin would have been too bitter, sweet potato too sugary, but the butternut squash the proverbial Goldilocks vegetable of the dish – just right.

But onwards to the reason for the visit – the aforementioned pizza. Apparently, this is a controversy inducing pie, food boards abounding with competing opinions as to whether the crust is too thin. In my mind there’s no argument. Both pizzas we tried were delicious. Starting with the drunk delicious Gus Burger in college (back when I still trusted cow meat), I discovered that a runny egg yoke adds flavor to just about anything. The Pane Frattau pizza used this knowledge excellently, starting with a simple sauce and pecorino base as the launching board for an almost Tomato Eggs Benedict (in honor of the new pope?) of a pizza. I also liked the funghi and taleggio pizza, though I was surprised at just how pungent a cheese taleggio is. Fortunately, the cheese wasn’t overdone, and the focal emphasis was on the well-seasoned mushrooms.

Of course, no meal at Otto is complete without gelato and so gelato we had. There are more traditional flavors on the menu, but I like novelty and the just plain weird. The olive oil came drizzled with oil, producing an amazing dessert that is like nothing else – not too salty but at the same time, creamy and sugary enough to qualify as a true dessert (this wasn’t WD-50’s edamame ice cream to be sure). The ricotta gelato was like a light cheesecake, while the rose-rosemary was throw your spoon-down-never-need-to-try-any-other-gelato-in-your-life-again great. Mixing the airiness of rose water with the rustic strength of rosemary produced a luminary gelato I’ve been dreaming about ever since.

So Zarathustra struck again. If Nietzche was right, and power is a subjective force, malleable to he who can create the most convincing interpretation of the world which leads the masses to follow on the Superman’s will to dominance, then we all better watch out for a Batali empire, because his interpretation of Italian is downright mesmerizing.

RATING: 8.1/10

Monday, April 25, 2005

Dumpling World Tour Photos

Row 1: Mandoo Bar on W. 32nd St, cabbage complimentary appetizers at Mandoo, Seafood Mandoo. Row 2: Bruno's (Awful) Ravioli, Teresa's Pierogies, Teresa's on 1st Ave. Row 3: Random time machine van seen during Dumpling World Tour while in East Village, Tasty Dumpling at 54 Mulberry, Tasty's Dumplings.

Tour 1: Dumpling World Tour

TOUR: Dumpling World Tour
DATE: April 23, 2005
RESTAURANTS: Mandoo Bar, Bruno Ravioli, Teresa’s, Tasty Dumpling

If Adam and Eve were a food, what would they be? Not the proverbial apple, that’s long since been beaten into the ground. What about the dumpling? Few other foods show our (as in the entire worlds) common cultural heritage better than a pocket sized piece of dough filled with fish, meat, cheese or vegetables. Could we all have sprung from loins served either steamed or fried? In fact, I’d even go so far as to argue that dumplings are symbolically relevant – what other food better illustrates that it’s what’s on the inside that counts?

With these overly grandiose accolades in mind, Danny and I began Dumpling World Tour 2005 last Saturday ready for the emblematic and delicious alike. Mandoo Bar, located at 2 West 32nd Street, was our first stop. After watching employees roll the dumplings on our way in, we ordered the Seafood Mandoo (Korean dumplings). These rose bud pockets were brimming with minced shrimp, squid and vegetables and tons of flavor. Served ten to an order, there were plenty to split between two and dip in the soy sauce, vinegar and spicy red pepper sauce that reside as tableside compliments. What was impressive with the Mandoo was that like a good sandwich there was an abundance of the filling. The shrimp was especially prevalent and it’s nice when the meat in a dumpling filling comes in large enough pieces to be recognizable.
PRICE: $5.00 for a 10 dumpling order
RATING: 7.4/10

Next in our tour was Italy and Bruno Ravioli. Let me just preface what follows by saying that the Bruno Ravioli Café on 8th Avenue we had intended to go to was closed, so instead we had to go the chain’s take-out only place on Second Ave. So perhaps we didn’t get Bruno’s best so to speak. But what we got were some limpid excuses for pasta that have provided me with my first entirely negative review. These raviolis wouldn’t have passed in my elementary school cafeteria, as even the fat woman in the hair-net (needed more for the sprouts emanating from each of her repulsive witch moles) would’ve decided to serve better. This is the type of crap that gives American-Italian food a bad name and keeps Olive Garden in business. We ordered the goat cheese and spinach, though I can only assume these were the ingredients in the ravioli, as I tasted neither. The sauce added unmixed oil and little else. All in all, the $5.25 we spent on this crappy Italian counterfeit seemed an ultimate jib, and suggested that Bruno isn’t quite fit for his title.
PRICE: $5.25 for a 10 ravioli order
RATING: 3.0/10

But onwards and upwards. Well eastwards, rather, as the tour pushed on to Poland and the ever gut pleasing taste of pierogi’s, sautéed onions, and applesauce. Since moving to New York, pierogies have become my dumpling of choice, the East Village the de-facto Warsaw for my cravings. Grass’s Oskar carried a drum, but he might have been less cantankerous (and certainly less tiny) if he pounded his stomach with these hearty puffs instead. While Little Poland and Polania both have excellent pierogies, prior to visiting Teresa’s (located on 1st Ave. between 6th and 7th) I preferred Veselka’s mix and match combinations above all else. Teresa’s surprised me however, and made up for Bruno’s failings. We ordered four potato and three mushroom and sauerkraut and while the potato were excellent, especially with applesauce, the mushroom and sauerkraut were just amazing. Eating these dumplings was like reading Theodore Dreiser – nothing overly innovative or flashy, but excellence in the traditional. The pierogies were also huge and I can’t wait to go back to Teresa’s, possibly while inebriated and feast again in the manner of my Eastern European forebears.
PRICE: $4.95 for a 7 pierogi order
RATING: 7.7/10

The final stop on Dumpling World Tour 2005 brought us all the way to Asia and to the now ubiquitous Chinese dumpling and Tasty Dumpling (54 Mulberry St.). An article on the restaurant’s wall points out that for you could eat at Tasty 66 times for the price of eating at Jean-George’s 66 once, and this is probably an underestimation. An order of five dumplings is a dollar, though they could certainly charge much more. My theory is that Tasty Dumpling is secretly owned by some holdovers from the Great Society program, who realizing that the governmental urge to help the less fortunate died sometime around Reagan’s second day in office, have attempted to address the expanding socio-economical divide by offering ridiculously cheap and outstanding food. Common man that he claims to be, our illustrious President would feel out of place here, as I doubt any of his corporate executive pals would be willing to even venture into Chinatown in the first place. Lucky for the rest of us. Tasty’s pork and chive dumplings are masterful, best when fried and covered in the soy and hot sauces on each table. Though the pork can’t be healthy, there wasn’t a fatty taste to the meat and the dumplings hadn’t been bathed in a McDonald’s-esque deep fry, the browned undersides much closer to a pan seared crust. The only problem with the prices, is that there’s no deterrent to gorging yourself.
PRICE: $2.00 for a 10 dumpling order
RATING: 7.4/10

What was most interesting about this gastronomical tour, was the near music like variations on a common theme that the dumplings presents. Where mandoo are light and buoyant, pierogies would steal even the thinnest against a tundra winter. The Chinese dumplings and Italian ravioli must be bastard cousins and are strong support for regional evolution if I’ve ever seen it.

Three out of four ain’t bad and Dumpling World Tour 2005 should certainly be considered a success. It was nice to end on the positive notes of Teresa’s and Tasty Dumpling and Danny and I both looked at it as a trial run for the five borough pizza world tour we have coming in May. The lessons of the dumpling still persist even though the tour has ended. An inexpensive, satisfying food common to multiple cultures, dumplings have gained their universality for a variety of reasons, none more important then the simple fact that they taste pretty damn good.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Rose Water Photos

Clockwise from top left: Salt Cod, Meze Plate, Rhubarb Crisp, Pan Roasted Pollock

Restaurant 8: Rose Water

LOCATION: 787 Union St. Park Slope/Prospect Heights, Brooklyn
DATE: April 20, 2005
FOOD: Meze Plate: Romesco Dip (Red Pepper Dip), Italian Hummus, Garlic White Bean Dip, Mediterranean Olives, Housemade Grilled Pita; Restaurant Week Menu: Salt Cod Cake with Pea Shoots and Charmoula; Pan Roasted Pollock with Braised Yukon Gold, Sauteed Asaparagus and Marjoram Puree; Rhubarb Crisp
PRICE: $33.00

There’s something magical about a warm spring evening in Brooklyn, a vacation (if only temporarily) of sorts from the crowded chaos of Manhattan. Traveling to Park Slope for the final night of Brooklyn Restaurant Week, I was surrounded by blossoming foliage and vibrant breezes. Such beach inspired weather seemed appropriate for Rose Water, which combines Mediterranean and eclectic American influences to produce a cuisine worthy of any culture.

It’s always a good sign when a restaurant doesn’t offer a contrived, parsed down menu for a restaurant week. The idea behind such promotions is to bring in customers, not drive them away. For many like myself, a restaurant probably only has one chance to impress. Rose Water did so.

Everything tasted incredibly fresh. I split an order of the Meze plate (its composition changes nightly) to begin the meal. The three dips on the plate were familiar but far from the Greek restaurant standard hummus. Rose Water mixes flavors from Italy, Greece, America, even northern Africa and the Mid-East. The Romesco dip tasted like a recently picked red pepper, sweet and mild, with a hint of black pepper spiciness. The Italian hummus and garlic white bean dips had similar appearances but entirely distinct flavors. The garlic was especially delightful, bold and strong, fearless of being too garlicky. Grilled pitas accompanied the meze and the fact that these were homemade, shows Rose Water knows what they’re doing.

The Restaurant Week menu presented three selections for each course and the variety was wonderful. Danny opted for the cold asparagus soup to start, while I went with the salt cod cake. This dish was much saltier than a crab cake, but gave a similar type of wholesome satisfaction. The fresh pea shoots inflected the flavor of the cod in the way crackers enhance clam chowder. Following the cod was my entrée, the pan-roasted pollock, an adeptly seasoned piece of white fish that would have fit a seaside café’s menu. I loved the braised Yukon gold, a big block of a potato soufflé, which came lightly dusted in chives and avoided the au-gratin over creaminess of so many potato dishes. And any dish with asparagus makes me smile, especially when the chef doesn’t mask the flavor of the vegetable, instead letting it speak for itself.

Finally, the rhubarb crisp. If my mom taught me nothing else, it is to love rhubarb and strawberry desserts and to tell anyone who will listen why “Friends” is one of the worst pop phenomenon of all time. Couple this with my lifelong courtship of anything cobbler and you can see why Rose Water’s granola covered strawberry-rhubarb cup was such a tremendous find in a city of overly chocolate sweets. For me, ice cream melting atop a delicious cobbler will always be one of life’s enticements. An idea: What about a wedding cobbler? Or is that just the bride’s father?

Rose Water serves the type of food you wish your mom could make, the type that makes you feel better just to look at. Balanced, unostentatious entrée plates are served using local organic produce and meat whenever possible. The menu offers a limited, but enticing selection of savory fair. The exposed brick walls, dim lighting, bookcases filled with books and wine bottles, combine to form a relaxed dining atmosphere, almost like the kitchen of someone’s home. The staff’s politeness only adds to the charm of Rose Water, a restaurant perfect for a mid-week Mediterranean holiday.

RATING: 8.1/10

Book 4: Life On The Mississippi, by Mark Twain

Included in the Library of America volume of Mark Twain’s Mississippi writings I have been working my way through on the subway, was his “autobiographical” (for there's no telling how much he exaggerates) Life On the Mississippi. The work, similar to both Huck and Tom, follows a young man (in this case the author) through various escapades along the Mississippi river in the pre-Civil War south. Twain recounts (rather laboriously and in tedious, fine I’ll say it, boring, detail) his work as a steamboat driver for the majority of the book’s first section. While some of his anecdotes were amusing and his characterization of an American institution now lost and gone is historically valuable, to my modern eyes, it was difficult not to skim through these pages. With a limited amount of brain space, I’m not sure I need to know the proper names of a steamboat’s architecture, nor every bend and cranny of the river. While it’s clear Twain loves his subject, it was like listening to a computer geek drone on about server IPs and web hosting. Suitable for certain audiences, sure, but the intricacies would be lost on most people.

Better was Twain’s unabashed scalding of Sir Walter Scott, which was both hilarious and sociological eye opening. Twain lays the blame for much of the south’s misaligned feelings of nobility and tarnished pride at the feet of Scott, the author of such fantastical romances as Ivanhoe. Twain attributes the revival of a skewed Southern chivalry to the influence of Scott’s novels and believes southern writers were set back generations by too closely aligning themselves with Scott’s nauseating sentimentalism. There is a certain amount of truth in these jabs and it’s not for nothing that Twain is known for his satirical voice.

It was also intriguing to see Twain return to the his younger stomping grounds after a twenty year absence that bridged the Civil War. The railroad had replaced the steamboat, previous hamlets, such as St. Paul, Minnesota, had become thriving cities, and some of the river villages of his youth had even been swept under by storms and the river’s unpredictability. Twain's eye for the comical ridiculousness of human beings was frequently delightful. Reading him is like listening to a partially demented grandparent speak about their youth, in which truth, fiction, memories personal and projected, combine to form enjoyable yarns of yore. As a grand survey of an American caught amidst dramatic change, Life On the Mississippi, will always be worth the read.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Modern Photos

Clockwise from top left: Cheese plates, Modern's cheese cart, petit fours, Chocolate Souffle.

The Modern Photos

Row 1: First Amuse, Second Amuse, Foie Gras; Row 2: Brioche, Tuna and Scallops, Lobster; Row 3: Cod, The Bathroom, Interior of the Modern

Restaurant 5: The Modern (Infinite Feast XVI)

LOCATION: 9 W. 53rd St. (part of the Museum of Modern Art)
DATE: April 16, 2005
FOOD: Amuse trio: Trout Caviar Puff Pastry, Mackerel in a Sweet Pea Puree, Quiche (complimentary); Second Amuse Trio: Mushroom in Frisee Salad, Marinated Mackerel in Spicy Yogurt and Melon Gazpacho
Chef’s Tasting Menu:
Foie Gras Terrine; Tartare of Yellow Fin Tuna and Diver Scallop; Roasted Maine Lobster in a “Folly of Herbs”; Chorizo-Crusted Chatham Cod; Buffalo Tenderloin Poached in Spiced Cabernet; Chocolate Souffle, Vanilla and Pistachio Ice Cream;
Cheese tasting with Figs, Kumquats, and Cranberry Walnut Bread; Petit Fours (complimentary).
BEVERAGE: Broadway Boogie Woogie; Wine Pairings; Decaf Coffee
PRICE: $270.00

In the days since my dinner at The Modern, I’ve found it difficult to write about what was the single greatest meal I’ve ever had. Bashing a restaurant with icy vindictiveness is much easier than trying to compose the right description of a culinary experience unlike none other. Though Danny Meyer’s legend in New York is nearing the level of Derek Jeter sanctity, I still never expected the pyrotechnic display which I received at The Modern. This was a meal for the ages.

Let me first comment on the architecture. Sleek metal panels line the walls and pair well with the aesthetic skeletons of the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden, visible through a huge glass barrier. The room has the feel of Kubrick’s 2001, highly contemporary but acknowledging modernist influences, a design to make sci-fi fanatics and NASA scientists squeal with delight. But this night was less focused on Frank Lloyd Wright than on Julie Childs. So, let the (you knew it was coming) food odyssey commence.

First, the bread. Bread is usually an afterthought at restaurants, a cheap way to fill up patrons so that they don’t complain about skimpy portion sizes. Not so, at the Modern. The bread in and of itself was something to admire and behold. Not only were French rolls and olive bread offered throughout the meal, but in addition, two of the courses during our meal had their own bread pairing, a restaurant first in my dining experience. By far the most delicious was the toasted brioche which accompanied the foie gras terrine. Crisp and warm, the slice caused the foie gras to melt in a buttery smoothness. This “sandwich” like taste was mind blowing, hints of tomato bolstering the boldness of the foie gras. This first course alone was so satisfying, I would have left happy right then and there. Fortunately though, there was more to come. The two course amuse had prepared us for greatness (especially with the red pepper flakes swimming in the melon gazpacho), but the foie gras, in the words of the irritating Emeril, took things up a notch.

Following the foie gras was a tartare of yellow fine tuna and diver scallop. The presentation of this course was stunning and is perhaps the culinary version of a Murikami novel, enveloping many cultures, but still remaining at core, Japanese. The raw scallop and tuna formed a checkerboard of maroon and cream coloring. Cucumber slivers completed this weightless dish, the closest fish can come to the palate cleansing of a sorbet. Perhaps I even detected a bit of Zen in the seasoning of this dish.

Relegated to the status of pie filling, granny smith apples seldom make an appearance on menus, especially those of gourmet restaurants. But great chefs and food not only use off the wall ingredients, but also re-imagine ways to use the common for the production of the transcendent. Such was the case of the melon ball shaped granny smiths donning the bowl containing the lobster in a “folly of herbs”. Danny placed this dish as the best of the night and if not for the cod, I would have agreed. Fragrant sprigs of fresh herbs topped a generous portion of lobster, asparagus and the aforementioned apples. The integration of these ingredients was as seamless as one of Rick Moody’s bruised sentences. The lobster was perfectly prepared, reminiscent of Pearl Oyster’s lobster roll. Never a lobster devotee, this dish may cause me to convert.

Our fourth course of the evening was my favorite. The chorizo-crusted Chatham Cod ranks only behind Babbo’s Black Spaghetti as the best dishes I’ve had in New York. This dish made me completely rethink the aversion to white fish I developed as a child. The fish stayed whole and didn’t splinter when forked, moist and meaty in its texture. Razor thin chorizo topped the cod. The inventive idea of encrusting one meat with another, especially meats of such dramatically different families, deserves commendation. The sausage’s saltiness fit superbly with the white bean ragout and altogether, I really can’t overstate the balanced perfection of this dish. In my mind, cod has reached its apex.

Then came the buffalo tenderloin. There is a reason no pictures of this dish are posted on the site. Danny and I were both so anxious to dive in and taste the buffalo that we forgot to photograph the tenderloin. Sadly, when we realized our mistake, there was nothing left to capture. The flesh was succulent, expertly cooked to a tender reddish-pink, and accented by the cabernet sauce and both green and white asparagus.

And of course, cheese and chocolate. We each ordered a supplemental cheese course and were fortunate enough to be able to select four cheeses a piece. The brie was extraordinary. So too the goat cheese. Again the bread came into play, as we were served a cranberry walnut bread, whose fruit gracefully added to the cheese. Figs and a more untraditional kumquat enhanced the cheeses as well. I ended with chocolate, in the form of The Modern’s volcano of a soufflé. The trio of ice creams blended with a liquid chocolate gushing from the souffle’s interior to form a heaven of a dessert. Molten chocolate has become as ubiquitous as Lindsey Lohan and yet The Modern’s tasted entirely new.

Meyer’s restaurants are well known for the incredible service and personal attention that every customer receives upon walking in the door. The Modern continues this tradition. Not only was the wait staff incredibly amiable, offering menu suggestions and allowing our meal to progress at an unhurried pace (our reservation was for 8:30, we left the restaurant at 1:15), they went above and beyond in their consideration. Water glasses were filled unnoticeably. Fresh bread, still warm, was constantly brought to the table. Napkins folded and replaced as if by magic. No detail was too minor to merit The Modern staff’s caretaking gaze. My only complaint of the entire meal was that by the time the petit fours were served, I was too hungry to enjoy the samplings of raspberry laced brownie, cookies and French chocolates. This was a shame. Maybe next time I’ll ask for a doggie bag.

The biggest difference between this and the other outstanding New York meals I’ve had (like at Danube) was that at the The Modern, every dish was unforgettable and could stand completely on its own. There was no mediocrity, no good but not greats. Each course had a unique flavor all its own, food at once both delicious and transporting. What is even more astounding, is that looking over the menu before I ordered, there were hordes of other dishes I wanted to order. I guess this is yet another sign of what I already knew – I have to find a way to go back.

RATING: 10+/10

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Book 3: Purple America, by Rick Moody (Infinite Feast XVI)

The past election seemed to make everything in this country binary: conservative or liberal; good or evil; red and blue. Simplified reality for our 24 hour headline attention spans. Reading the newspapers on certain days, one would think that the United States had never heard of Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty or that other Kramer haired scientist’s idea of a relativistic universe. At least to certain segments of the population, complexity and depth were concepts to be feared, better ignored or shouted down, then dealt with in a reasoned way. Fortunately, great art refuses such limitations.

Rick Moody’s moving and elegant novel Purple America, tries to depict the mess that the contemporary world really is. But what makes Moody’s portrayal so tragically insightful and poetically true, is the author’s refusal to dwell in a nostalgic American utopia. This novel is less a criticism of modern America and more an all-encompassing debunking of many false, yet widely believed American myths. Bravely, he tackles the gods of the “Greatest Generation” and shows that true history isn’t always the story line we’ve come to accept. The greatest generation created the nuclear bomb and many of the problems the world faces today. They solved the crisis of Hitler, while creating a new one with the Cold War.

Drawing heavily on traditions of both modernism and post-modernism, Moody follows a drunken, broken man named Hex who has to attend to his dying mother (Billie), when her second husband (Lou) abandons her after 15 years of tiring caretaking in a wealthy Connecticut suburb. Hex is afflicted with a stutter and his mother is losing the ability to speak, and this allows Moody to play with language, bringing in the time leveling of Woolf and Joyce and the societal genocide of White Noise. For the most part, these are welcome influences that add to the story and help Moody to place this narrative in the grander context of 20th century literature. The specter of nuclear holocausts darkens the skies of the novel, as Lou works at the local nuclear power plant and Billie’s first husband Allen, worked on the Manhattan project. The radiation poisoning that literally afflicts many of the novel’s characters is an apt metaphor for the more spiritual demise of the America Moody is illustrating. The characters are sick, but so too is the world they inhabit: an environment amidst annihilation, rapid alcoholism, disconnected sex, personal histories of abuse, sorrow and loss. Love comes to the fore as a redeemer, but even it seems unable to counter the weight of purple catastrophes.

Moody wrote this novel in 1997, before red and blue states dominated the cable news scream fests, and this seeming predilection on his part, contributes another rich layer to the themes of this socially invested book. Flashbacks to the tumultuous 1960s highlight the long history of America’s dilemmas with drugs and social inequality. Everyone and no one bear the guilt.

Purple America has it faults, just like the characters that fill its pages. Moody has a tendency to overwrite, creating strings of redundant sentences. Instead of sticking to a single powerful metaphor, he detrimentally goes for two or three, lessening the effect of the original comparison. Moody’s modernistic influences also cause him to constantly shift narrative voices, usually with great skill. But in a few cases these Babel tongues become overbearing and didactic, outright criticism of suburban lifestyles, mini-malls, and fast food diets reading more like a sociological lecture than DeLillo’s more eloquently distanced and subtlety suggestive imagery. Like a jockey, Moody would be better served tightening the reins of his language. The shifting voices can also be frustrating, as when Lou’s views of society appear a bit too sophisticated for his character or when Hex’s drunkenness doesn’t cause his perspective to be as confused as it should be. At these moments, the reader feels like Moody isn’t in complete control of his creation, that he’s a pitcher who is throwing a 100 mile per hour fastball but isn’t quite sure where it’s going to go.

However, Purple America is a novel about broken people and human fallibility, and in the end, Moody’s deftness for tunneling to the essence of his characters is unassailable. Billie, Hex, Lou, and Jane have never been high enough in life to be considered fallen angels. These are regular people, spotted with a leprosy of errors and failures, unsure of the future and how to survive in the nuclear purple sky present. They live from one moment to the next and most of the time, even this is too much for these characters to handle. As Hex must decide whether or not to accede to his mother’s demands for assisted suicide, black and white zeros and ones are left behind for a dirty puddle of lavender complications. There are no villains in this book, but nor are there heroes – just normal people, desperately trying to find coherence in a world that offers nothing but riddles, mocking indifference, and way too many things to fear.

Zabb Photos

Clockwise from top left: Moo Dad; Thai Sausage; Chicken Labb; Chicken Drunken Noodles.

Restaurant 7: Zabb Thai


LOCATION: 7218 Roosevelt Ave. Jackson Heights, NY 11372

DATE: April 17, 2005

FOOD: Moo Dad (fried marinated pork with spicy sauce); Thai Sausage; Chicken Labb Spicy Salad; Seafood Green Curry; Drunken Noodles with Chicken

BEVERAGE: Longan Juice (Asian Fruit Juice)

PRICE: $23.00

It seems like every time I take the 7 train it’s for Thai food. In January, the last time I was on the Queens bound subway, it was for Sripraphai and what became the greatest Thai cuisine I’ve ever enjoyed. This time, the weather was a lot nicer, but the expectations were just as high. Zabb, the only Thai restaurant in the city to serve Esan cuisine, had a lot to live up to.

I’m happy to say, that for the most part it did. While the food failed to reach the breathtaking heights of Sripraphai, Zabb offered up uniquely tasty and incredibly spicy dishes. Not surprisingly, the restaurant especially excelled at the authentic Esan combinations of ground pork and chicken and tongue burning herbs. In the end, I’d recommend focusing on the Esan options exclusively, as these are really the feature acts of the menu.
The Moo Dad was the best dish of the entire evening. Thin strips of pork, fried crisp and slightly chewy, packed a flavor punch, especially when we added the spicy sauce accompaniment. This was almost Thai Tapas or Asian bar food, the perfect thing to munch on before a night of heavy drinking (or even afterwards). Though fried, the dish was far from oily, and light enough to eat on a warm day. The longan juice, an overly sweet asian fruit concoction, helped to put out the fire. The Thai sausage, deceptively spicy with a cuttingly hot aftertaste, seemed to be the second cousin of eastern European kielbasa. It was also an ideal snack, served with red onions, beautifully fresh ginger slices, cilantro, and roasted peanuts. This mix would have gone great while watching a Redskins victory or more appropriately, a Mets loss to the Nationals at Shea.

Prior to the dinner, I was most excited about trying the Labb. This is one of many of the fiery meat salads common in Esan food. Though served on a large leaf of Romaine lettuce, the Labb was as much a “salad” in the conventional American sense as Brando and Aston Kutcher and both actors. The emphasis was on the minced chicken, not vegetables. Unlike the sausage, there was nothing subtle about the degree of heat in the Labb. Teary eyes, cleared nasal passages, and glasses if not gallons of water would be expecting while eating this dish. But the taste was wonderful and surprising, even if a bit overwhelming. The seafood green curry, the mildest of Zabb’s curries, was still a blaze. It didn’t do much for me however, with too many flavors competing for attention.

Zabb’s drunken noodles were Robin to Sripraphai’s Batman version of the dish. Like Robin, they were good without being special, most likely incapable of even a successful “Joey”-like spin-off unless frequent celebrity guest were used to boost ratings, better in conjunction with the entire meal than on their own. In Zabb’s rendition, the flavoring wasn’t evenly distributed throughout the noodles, meaning some bites had too much basil, while in others I could barely taste the herb. The dish had a good level of spiciness, but again, the levels varied inconsistently with each bite. The dish has always been a favorite of mine because it shows the similarity and links between Asian noodles and Italian. But in Zabb’s dish, the tomato wasn’t emphasized enough. Certain bites were wonderful and I’d probably have loved the dish if I had never had drunken noodles before. But a Chinese version at New Green Bo and Sriphraphi’s memorable preparation of the flat noodles ran circles around Zabb’s.

I credit Zabb for a host of reasons, and not just for its food. I appreciated that this was authentic Thai, mouth burning heat included, and not some dumbed down American bastardization. It’s also commendable that Zabb has fearlessly brought Esan to an already overcrowded New York Thai scene. And Zabb shouldn’t be faulted because of Sriphraphi’s brilliance. Steinbeck is still a great read even after you’ve discovered Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s genius. So Zabb is definitely worth the trip on the 7. Just make sure you ask for plenty of water.

RATING: 7.1/10

Clinton St. Baking Co. Photos

Clockwise from top left: Clinton St. Baking Co. at 4 Clinton; Iced Peppermint Cocoa; Scrambled Eggs; Banana Walnut Pancakes with Maple Butter

Restaurant 6: Clinton St. Baking Co.

RESTAURANT: Clinton St. Baking Company

LOCATION: 4 Clinton St.

DATE: April 17, 2005

FOOD: Half of both the Wild Maine Blueberry Pancakes and the Banana Walnut Pancakes, each with warm Maple Butter; side order of two Scrambled Eggs

BEVERAGE: Iced Peppermint Cocoa (Sunday brunch special)

PRICE: $21.00

Every Tom, Dick, and IHOP that opens a breakfast restaurant thinks they can make pancakes. Their attempts usually end in one of two extremes: a stale, overcooked, cardboard oval requiring pools of imitation maple syrup to reach even a mild level of edibility; or the opposite extreme of an undercooked wart of a breakfast, oozing puss-like batter from the first fork full. Being a devoted pancake lover, these extremes distress me and often cause me to order an omelet to avoid any chance of flapjack freakishness. But good God, when pancakes are done right, they’re the breakfast equivalent of a full-body massage. Clinton Street’s pancakes give just such a rub down.
First of all, there’s the appearance. These are griddled works of art. Chestnut brown or golden, the choice of adjective is less important than the overall attractiveness of the dish. Danny and I split orders of Clinton’s St.’s two types of pancakes, the Wild Main Blueberry and the Banana Walnut and each were amazing to look at. Layers of thinly sliced bananas and whole walnuts crown the pancakes. Powdered sugar adds a layer of sweet powdery snow to both varieties. But, these pancakes really get beautiful once they’re cut into. As we discovered, they were practically bursting with the fruit and nut fillings. These weren’t afterthought ingredients, thrown on top at the very end without any integration into the batter. Clinton St.’s pancakes bled fresh blueberries; layers of bananas provided a thick bite with the crunchy walnuts. These were how pancakes are supposed to be made. The actual pancake had the texture of a cloud, a fluffiness created by the beaten egg whites mixed into the batter right before they’re grilled. The exterior has enough darkness to provide resistance so that the pancake doesn’t crumble upon being cut. Clinton St. wasn’t messing around.
But it just got better. The pancakes were served with warm maple butter instead of the more conventional maple syrup (or corn syrup imposter thereof). Whatever culinary imaginary came up with this dip of the gods should be honored and adorned with flowers and gold. Though it resembled honey in color, the consistency was just as its name suggests, butter and syrup harmoniously brought together. The maple butter softened the pancakes without making them soggy, enhanced rather than masked the flavor with modest syrup sweetening. We were both astonished at how good this accessory tasted.
My scrambled eggs were also excellent, on the creamy side, just as I like them. A few strands of parsley added some spring green to the top and were a welcome partner for the pancakes. The iced peppermint cocoa, a Sunday brunch drink special, was fantastic on its own, but too much like a dessert to drink during the meal. Which was fine, as I had nearly finished the beverage with a series of rapid, delicious gulps by the time our pancakes arrived. As a warning, Clinton St. does have tremendous waits, especially on Sundays. We waited for nearly an hour and half and when we were finally seated, I was ready to be critical. But the pancakes deflated my pessimism before it had a change to emerge. It was nice to leave the restaurant secure in the knowledge that at least one place in the world, pancakes were in the hands of trained professionals.

RATING: 8.7/10

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Shimizu Photos

Clockwise from top left: Shimizu on W. 51st in the Washington Jefferson Hotel; the Chef's Seasonal Tasting; Close-up of plate; Close-up of shrimp head.

Restaurant 4: Shimizu

LOCATION: 318 W. 51st Street
DATE: April 13, 2005
FOOD: Miso Soup; Seasonal Chef’s Omakase Menu: 1 maki – Negitoro (Fatty Tuna with Scallion Roll); 9 pieces sushi – Sea Eel with sudachi shavings, Sea Urchin, Giant Clam, Kanpachi, Sweet Shrimp, Chu-Toro, Red Snapper, King Salmon, Jack Mackerel, Fried Shrimp Head; Otoro Sushi (a la carte)
BEVERAGE: Glass of Tokushima Shochu (citrus & barley, 20% alcohol); Hot Tea (complimentary)
PRICE: $65.00

At the risk of being overly self-indulgent (I have a blog devoted to MY eating and reading habits, I think we’ve gone well beyond that point already), I have a confession to make. As a kid, it wasn’t the boogeyman or snakes keeping me up most nights (though spiders are another story). Rather, it was sushi, or really, raw meats in general that made me break out in cold sweats. Being the son of a Wisconsin (pronounced Viss-caun-saun, like the mom on "Bobby’s World") dairy farmer, I heard enough horror stories about the handling of slaughtered raw animals to keep multiple psychologists in business for the better part of my life. Cooking as a teenager involved ornate rituals of hand washing and counter de-cleansing to ensure the demonic unseen wouldn’t infect my unsuspecting body. And so while other people spent their college years pursuing sexual and pharmaceutical experimentation, mine involved novel experiences of another kind. Namely, popping my sushi cherry.

I’ve come a long way since then, and while I still can’t convince my parents to eat sushi (though this probably isn’t the place, it really bothers me that most people refer to maki (rolls) as sushi, when it’s not. Call it what it is. Only societal outcasts would refer to a hamburger as a sandwich. Okay, diatribe over), I now love it, my raw meat nightmares replaced by insatiable night time cravings for spicy tuna rolls and yellowtail.

Enter Shimizu and my first virgin Omakase (yes, I realize it’s taken me to the third paragraph to mention the restaurant of this restaurant review, refer to paragraph one to view the acknowledgment of my self-indulgence). Recently opened in the Washington Jefferson Hotel, it’d be easy to walk by this serene island of authentic Japanese cuisine without noticing it, an inauspicious blue-neon sign, being the only indication of the place’s existence. But that would be a shame, because everything about Shimizu works, from the simple interior, to the welcoming staff, to the high-grade quality of fish served. I was astonished that Shimizu was nearly empty during my entire meal. Hopefully, for the sake (get it? it’s spelled the same as Sake, last bad pun, sexual or otherwise, I promise) of New York Japanese food, this will soon change.

Novelty appeals to me and so I avoided the more traditional sake and opted instead for Shochu. According to the menu, Shochu is made from a variety of ingredients, most typically barley and potatoes, depending on which island creates the beverage. Our waitress steered us to the Tokushima Shochu. It proved mild and refreshing, but as the ice in the glass melted, I tasted too little alcohol and too much water. Danny ordered a brown sugar based Shochu later in the meal, and it’s much more pungent flavor appealed to me more than my original order.

But the Shochu was a sideshow. The fish was the reason we came. We ordered the Seasonal Chef’s Menu, consisting of 1 maki and 9 pieces of sushi. In addition, we also got the Otoro Sushi. This fish proved worth the extra attention. The tuna was so fatty and meaty, it didn’t really require chewing. It matched wonderfully with the fatty tuna and scallion maki, which followed in the theme of the meal (simple offerings expertly prepared) to produce a beautiful and subtle savor of tastes.

The sweet shrimp seemed to stick out its tongue and spit at all the other shrimp sushi I’ve had in my life, allowed a mocking laugh, secure in its gastronomical supremacy. The shrimp’s head was fried and served atop a lemon, providing an aesthetic centerpiece to the presentation. Crunchy and entirely edible, I never knew crustacean eyeballs and brain matter could be so delectable. The King Salmon was also remarkable, as was the nearly translucent red snapper, each allowed to have its unique flavor shine unadorned.

Novelty again played a part with the sea urchin, a new fish (mollusk?) for my palate. The creaminess of the golden sushi, wrapped in nori and topped with a hint of wasabi, left me speechless. How had I never had this before? My mind immediately went to Italy’s polenta or America’s grits, cheesy grain porridges being the only thing I could compare to the buttery texture. I found the giant clam tough, but interesting; the mackerel delicious; the sea eel possessed an enjoyable chewiness, the hints of sadachi shaved on top of the fish, making a strong pairing.

We ate at the bar, which I highly recommend, as you get to watch the chef prepare the fish, and his wizardly knife handling. Our meal ended with hot towels and steaming green tea. Like good wine, the tea seemed to facilitate conversation as we watched Shimizu-san slice through tuna and mackerel. Shimizu offers a lot of the standard American bastardizations, such as California and Boston rolls, even a Mexican roll with jalapenos. But I think the best way to benefit from the restaurant’s tranquility is to dine with authenticity. I guarantee that the fish, and your tongue, will thank you.

RATING: 8.0/10

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Blue Bird Cafe Photos

Clockwise from top left: Blue Bird Martini, THE SOUP! (taken mid-way through eating, as the taste trumped its lackluster appearance), Smores, Crab Cakes with mashed potatoes.

Restaurant 3: Blue Bird Cafe

RESTAURANT: Blue Bird Café
LOCATION: 625 W Main St, Charlottesville, VA
DATE: April 9, 2005
FOOD: Vegetable Potstickers with Peanut Dipping Sauce; Fried Mozzarella Sticks; Sweet Potato and Apple Soup; House Salad; Crab Cakes with homemade tartar sauce, mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables; some of Libby’s Fettuccine with Shrimp, Feta cheese and Pea Pods; Make Your Own Smores
BEVERAGE: Blue Bird Martini; Three glasses Pinot Grigio; Shot of vodka; Decaf coffee
PRICE: $63.00

When I was in college, Blue Bird Café was the place I would always go with my parents when they came to Charlottesville. It’s nice without being pretentious or stuffy and the staff is welcoming and engaging without being overbearing. And as for the food, I’ve never been disappointed. The cuisine is standard American, with a few innovations popping up here and there, usually as specials.

So Blue Bird was the logical choice for Libby and me in our attempt to surprise her sister Bennett on her 21st birthday. And while our surprise went off about as well as Joe Lieberman at an Eminem concert, we had a great meal all the same.

We started, as all 21st birthdays should, with cocktails. I figured I’d order my usual Martini, but after perusing the special cocktail list, I decided on the most manly (or should I say least feminine) drink on the menu, the Blue Bird Martini. I ended up with a bright blue mix of Absolut and Curacao glowing with gender ambiguity, but tasty all the same. Libby and Bennett both opted for spiked lemonades which were deceptively smooth. We followed drinks with a horde of appetizers, including some rather unremarkable mozzarella sticks and vegetable potstickers accompanied by a peanut dipping sauce that wasn’t as much a dip as just straight chunky peanut butter.

But while the meal began with average fair, it improved dramatically with the arrival of the sweet potato and apple soup. I had ordered the soup (listed as a special) almost as an afterthought, following mild prodding from Libby. However, one bite confirmed that I had found the star of the evening. Pureed to a perfect consistency, the soup hovered in that middle utopia of cream based soups in which both oatmeal thickness and watery thinness are avoided. Shavings of apples added the right amount of crunchiness to the mildly sweet liquid velvet that was warmly satisfying in a way few things outside of hot chocolate can be. When both Libby and Bennett tried it, their faces lit up and then melted into “oh god this good” expressions of happiness. It was truly the type of dish that one craves for weeks (if not months) afterwards.

Entrees followed, as Libby and I then split some meaty crab cakes with the essential home-style “Blue Bird” mashed potatoes (which I get every time I go), and an order of the shrimp fettuccine, which was excellent, coated nicely in salty feta cheese. To end the evening, we ordered the “make your own smores” and I have to admit, there’s a certain satisfaction in not just constructing your own food at a restaurant, but also getting to light it on fire. All in all we celebrated in style.

Blue Bird Café is the type of place where you can feel comfortable with anyone, no matter their food preferences. It’s the type of place where no one looks at you funny when you use mashed potatoes to support candles for a rendition of happy birthday or when you order vodka shots as the companion beverage for graham crackers and marshmallows. It’s the type of place that’s well worth going to and I’ve never been sorry when I have.

I just wish I could get some more of that soup.

RATING: 7.0/10

Tia Pol Photos

Clockwise from top left: Chorizo with chocolate, chorizo with cherry and patatas bravas, lamb skewers, fried chickpeas.

Restaurant 2: Tia Pol

LOCATION: 205 10th Ave., Chelsea
DATE: April 3, 2005
FOOD: Two orders of patatas bravas, fried chickpeas, tortilla Española, lamb skewers, ham croquettes, chorizo with chocolate, chorizo in sherry, calimocho, hazelnut cake
BEVERAGE: Half pitcher of Sangria
PRICE: $43.00

“This is incredible!”

I think that was my exact quote as we ordered our second round of patatas bravas at Tia Pol, the unassuming tapas restaurant which has received so much press lately. In the lag time between our first and second rounds of exquisite Spanish food, I was already planning my return visit.

Tapas, in my experience, is typically mediocre. Mas, the lone tapas place in Charlottesville where I attended college, was always good, never great. The mojitos outshined the food and the bread was better than the dips you placed on it. And then there was the debacle that was my tapas experience in London. A word of advice, if your eating companions think you’re taking them to a strip club when you suggest a Spanish restaurant, run, make haste to the nearest Starbucks or McDonald’s and drop them off. Otherwise, the meal is ruined before it even begins.

So, Tia Pol, can be viewed as my tapas redemption. Low lights and close seating provide an ideal atmosphere for two-person sharing. The reputation of the fried chickpeas had preceeded them, and they lived up to the high praise. As light as popcorn but with the crunch and color of caramel corn, the chickpeas burst in your mouth with a salty flavor all their own. They went nicely with the tortilla Espanola, which had perhaps too many potatoes, but was a solid retake on a classic Spanish staple all the same. But where Tia Pol excels is in its uncommon offerings. An example is the chorizo with chocolate. The sausage is sliced thin as paper and served atop a baguette. Between meat and bread is a layer of chocolate (Danny guessed Nutella) that created a unique and wonderful merging of tastes, reminding me of my night before at WD-50. Less inventive, while equally as amazing, was the chorizo in sherry. The wine was used to highlight, instead of mask the flavor of the pork, and produced a wonderful glaze over the dish. The lamb skewers caused my mouth to drop, the meat being so tender you could recommend it to your grandpa, telling him to forget the Fixadent, as the lamb practically dissolved with first bite. And then there were the ham croquettes, a more perfect Hot Pocket, lightly fried and oozing cheese. Ordered as an afterthought, the ham croquettes would have been my favorite plate of the evening if the patatas bravas weren’t on the menu.

I don’t deny that I’m a potato fanatic. Okay, maybe even freak. But in my defense, I think this makes me more, rather than less critical of the spuds I decide to put in my body. Too often restaurants put no effort into their potatoes and we all suffer from their obliviousness. During my time in New York, the best roast potatoes I’ve had have been at Italian restaurants, namely Babbo and Cacio e Pepe. The patatas bravas blew them both away. Containing the perfect (I realize I’m using this word a lot, but it’s really the only one that fits) contrast of exterior crispness and interior softness, these potatoes deserved to be ordered twice. It was hard not to just grab the dish from Danny, forsaking the original intention of tapas, and hoard the plate for myself. Like all good potatoes, these had plenty of salt, ideally washed down by the house Sangria. Drizzled on top was a cheese sauce that I can only compare to Velveeta on steroids. When I say I could have eaten these every night of my life, even a week later, I think I just might be serious.

Tia Pol then has made me an ardent believer in tapas once again. As I left the restaurant, belly full, grinning like an idiot, I was surprised to be walking back out onto 10th Avenue and not onto an arcaded side-street somewhere in the heat of Barcelona.

Rating: 9.2/10

WD-50 Photos

Clockwise from top left: Foie gras, mackerel and banana, carrot-lime ravioli, the incredible edible egg,

Bathroom wall tile. Posted by Hello

Restaurant 1: WD-50 (Infinite Feast XV)

LOCATION: 50 Clinton St., Lower East Side
DATE: April 2, 2005
FOOD AND BEVERAGE: Tasting Menu with Wine Pairings - Hamachi, freeze-dried corn, marjoram (paired with Cava Brut, Avinyo, Non-Vintage (Spain)); Foie gras, grapefruit-basil crumble, nori caramel (paired with same Cava Brut); Rainbow trout, pork belly, cider meringue, miso paper (paired with Sauvignon Blanc, Groom 2004 (South Australia, Australia)); Venison Tartare, Edamame Ice Cream, Pear (paired with same Sauvignon Blanc); Mackerel, smoked banana, parsley, juniper (paired with Semillon, Sileni Estates 2000 (Hawkes Bay, New Zealand)); Slow poached egg, parmesan broth, tomato (paired with Langhe 'Verbeia' Gatti Piero 2001 (Piedmont, Italy); Lamb belly, green daikon, black bean, chocolate powder (paired with same Langhe); Duck breast, pickled leg, parsnip pudding, rye berry (paired with Garnacha, Artazuri 2003 (Navarra, Spain); Grapefruit in grapefruit; Carrot-lime ravioli, coconut tapioca (paired with Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, Domaine de Fenouillet 2003 (Rhone, France)); French toast with brown butter ice cream (Commanderia St. John NV (Lemesos, Cyprus)); Royal Blush (vodka, Cava Brut, lime juice, cherry puree)
PRICE: $202.00

A quick SAT review question:

John Barth : LITERATURE :: ________ : FOOD

The answer: Wyle Dufresne.

How do you match a cuisine to the avant-garde experimentalism of John Barth’s literary genius? WD-50, that’s how. One look at the WD-50 online menu, and you quickly realize, you ain’t going to be getting hamburgers and French fries. Pumpernickel cocoa, fried mayonnaise, smoked yogurt: this is laboratory food, the culinary quixotic, the gourmet equivalent of a science experiment. And as such, sometimes the results are amazing in their challenging innovations, while at other times, as the Levitra ads say, individual results may vary.

Throughout our nine-course tasting, Danny and I saw Dufresne frequently, standing outside of his kitchen, surveying his restaurant. His attention to detail is just as evident in the food. Surprisingly, the most brilliant courses of the evening were the non-entrees. I ate in awe of Dufresne’s genius as I sliced into foie gras from which a unique nori caramel erupted, pooling on the plate like a Rorschach blot (though I’m still guessing as to what I was supposed to see). The grapefruit-basil crumble accompaniment made the dish damn near perfect, a spectrum of tastes best when eaten together. The venison tartare with edamame(!) ice cream was just as distinctly memorable, the saltiness of the raw meat blending into the smooth and not overly sweet ice cream to create a sensation on my tongue that I had never experienced. At this point and others in the meal, I felt more like I was in an art museum than at a restaurant, my food biases and mind being engaged just as much as my palate.

Dufresne also made paper flavorable and the combination of mackerel and smoked banana in a later course, was tremendous. However, the imagination of these beginning courses, led to a let down during the entrée courses. Both Danny and I felt the entrees were too conventional for WD-50’s reputation. While the lamb belly and the duck certainly weren’t bad, they were disappointing, not demanding nearly as much as the rest of the menu. And the grapefruit and grapefruit, a grapefruit puree surrounded by a grapefruit sorbet, was my least favorite dish of the night. It was something I could have had anywhere. Perhaps it was unfair to expect every course to flaunt convention and maybe Dufresne should be allowed to cook “normal” things every now and again. But, to stay in line with the Barth focus of the book club, to have had those first courses before the entrees is like letting someone read Barth and then telling them they must go back to Hemingway.

But Wyle made it up to me, as my favorite two dishes of the night came later. The first, a soft-boiled egg, which a sous chef informed us had been cooked at exactly 147 degrees for over an hour, came in a parmesan broth and was transcendent. Having an egg at a nice restaurant was strange enough, but the runniness of the yolk, the cheese and a small pile of Indian noodles formed such an astounding combination. Once I punctured the egg, the dish became more like a thick soup, with each ingredient losing it’s identity for the greater good. The lime-carrot ravioli with coconut tapioca followed and was probably the only dish that could have lived up to its predecessor. Again, Dufresne brought seemingly disparate items together in a creamy utopia.

In addition to the food, the staff was courteous and had no problem meeting two substitutions requests I made – the venison instead of the beef tongue (I generally don’t eat beef), French toast for the chocolate dessert. I also loved the bathroom, which ranks right behind Schiller’s as the best I’ve seen in the city. The wine pairings were excellent, though Danny’s suggestion that WD-50 should perhaps do something more innovative with beverages was dead on. But by the end of the meal, I knew I had found the perfect culinary companion to Barth’s prose. This food made me think and like Lost in the Funhouse, certainly isn’t for everyone. The portions are small and Dufresne’s experiments aren’t successful 100% of the time. But food can be art and great art pushes boundaries and attacks assumptions. WD-50 does all this and still manages to find a way to taste pretty damn good.

RATING: 8.5/10

Friday, April 08, 2005

Book 2: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain

To be fair, I don’t think anyone, Mark Twain included, has ever claimed Tom Sawyer is as great a piece of literature as Huck Finn. I’m sure if I had read the book as a child I would have marveled at Tom’s impish adventures and treacherous searches for lost treasure. But, reading it now, as a (semi) adult, I can’t help but focus on the blatant and rather revolting racism and class divisions spattered throughout the work. Characters make comments on the savagery of Injun Joe and the status of African American slaves in Tom that are rather revolting. Clemens, like William Faulkner, has always walked a fine line with racism throughout the historical course of the literary criticism regarding their fiction. There’s no debating racism stalks the pages of Clemens’ novels. The question is whether Clemens’ was merely documenting the South during the mid-to-late 19th century, or if his own bigoted opinions were slipping into the stories. My opinion is he’s somewhere in-between. Afterall, he was a southern white man living through slavery and segregration, but the satirical manner in which he looks at the institutions around him highlight how he was aware of the injustices surrounding him. I recognize I’m reading his work with 21st century eyes and I’ve never been a fan of destroying a book’s aesthetic quality by forcing a cultural context reading. However, jaded liberal that I am, I reacted to the biased language despite myself.

This isn’t to say that Tom Sawyer is worthless. Not by any means. It made enjoyable subway reading on my workday commute and Clemens certainly captures his subject well. But, in comparison to his later work, it comes up well short. Even if you were forced to read Huck Finn by a matronly 9th grade English teacher, with a nose for convention, a bulbous pouch for an abdomen, and a knack for killing all pleasure in reading, it would be hard to dispute the later novel’s merits. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I liked Tom much less for what it is and much more for what it shows a writer can become.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Book 1: Lost in the Funhouse, by John Barth (Infinite Feast XV)

When I chose Lost in the Funhouse for the latest installment of "Infinite Feast", I had no illusions about what I was getting myself into. My first introduction to John Barth's seemingly boundless imagination was The Floating Opera and I've been an avid fan and admirer of the Maryland-born author ever since. Like other so-called "post-modern" authors (Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster Wallace), Barth's work both refutes and embodies the nearly indefinable label. Lost in the Funhouse was his first venture into an organized collection of short fiction and owes a tremendous debt to Borges' Ficciones and labrynth metaphors. As in all of Barth's work, the stories contained in Lost in the Funhouse are unconvential and push the limits of form, content, and style in literature.

Danny and I both agreed that the title story was our favorite. In the introduction Barth cites the story as being minimally autobiographical, but to call the story a memoir would be like saying Gravity's Rainbow is a war novel. At some points in the piece, I'd have a hard time stating "Lost in the Funhouse" was a short story at all. Barth follows a young man along with his parents, older brother, and the brother's girlfriend on a trip to Ocean City, Marlyand during World War II. The spectre of the war floats over the story and yet is central to the plot (it reminded me of World War I and To The Lighthouse). In the same way that, the author floats over Barth's characters, constantly reminding both reader and characters that this is indeed a work of fiction. Barth's characters are frequently aware of their status as figments of another's imagination and yet, at the same time, realize their relative freedom. The metaphor to humanity can be drawn: our lives are both determined and free, restricted and limitless. In this story, Barth draws out that comparison beautifully. Especially appealing was the way Barth would point out how his story failed to follow the course of other fictions, or how the plot wasn't progressing. This would be a theme throughout all the stories, as through the fictionalized writers of the stories, Barth questions his own (and perhaps all experimental writers) ability to create. At question here is not just writing, but the entire creative process.

Barth asks a lot of his readers and sometimes his mind proved too much for me to handle. This was especially true in the book's final two Greek myth-based stories, "Menelaiad" and "Anonymiad", where a conflux of narrative voices combine to the point where it is near impossible to know who is speaking at any given time. But, with both stories, though I'm sure a lot went over my head, I was still left with something great to take away. In "Menelaiad", the idea that love defies explanation and yet remains essential, emerges from the deconstructed retelling of Helen and Menelaus. In the introduction, Barth advices that some of the stories are best when read aloud or heard on tape. Perhaps this is the only way to decipher the multi-layered complexities of some of these stories. Barth's prose is highly allusive and reading him is like having a conversation with Stephen Hawking about space - you're constantly reminded of your own lack of knowledge.

While each story is its own distinct work, it feeds into the larger themes of the work. Across stories, Barth questions the writer's role in the world, if he even still has a place now that the novel has been officially declared dead. The idea that everything has already been said or written seems to haunt his characters. The ideas lingered in my mind for days afterward. In "Night-Sea Journey", Barth uses sperm (sorry to ruin the surprise, but as Barth says in the afterward, the main character is not a fish and leaves the rest for the reader to figure out. I solved the riddle only after prodding from Danny) for his characters, bringing out their short lifespans and the unknown purpose of their lives as being eerily akin to all of humankinds, even paralleling the terminus of fertilization with heaven. It's a marvelous and innovative choice on Barth's part, something only he could pull-off (no pun intended).

I could go on ad infinitum, but I know I'd still leave something unsaid (looking back over this, I realize I already have, having completely ignored the ever-present topic of sexuality present in this and all Barth's work). Barth has that effect on the reader. At the end of our discussion, Danny and I had reached the same conclusion. Barth is not for everybody. Perhaps he is only for college level English classes, literature professors, and readers that are willing to explore difficult, experimental fiction. However, maybe the limited appeal isn't such a bad thing. The world needs writers like John Barth. He's a voice willing to be different, willing to challenge the reader's assumptions, willing to do what other writer's would find too risky or just plain weird. Some of the pieces succeed more than others. But his failures are well worth the read. By the end of the book, I had a smile on my face. I still hadn't found my way out of the funhouse, but I had come to like the place so much, I didn't really care if I had to stay forever.